Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Deal or No Deal


A humanitarian group in Africa, noticing the filthy water, sewage, and disease in one particular place, built a clean water and sewage system for a village. Months later, they visited the village…but it was back to square one with filthy water, sewage and disease. The chief told the humanitarian workers: "And what did you expect? These people had been many years without clean water. Then you gave it to them for free in abundance. They took all they could use and more. The people did not work for those water stations. They do not own them, and they could not be persuaded to maintain them." The humanitarians were silent. The chief had spoken truth. The great gift alone had not been enough and the reasons could be clearly observed. Perhaps it is human nature to abuse a gift.  The humanitarians returned to their camp and thought long and hard about how they could help the villagers.  The next day the humanitarians returned, determined to rebuild the water and sanitation systems with the following conditions -- the villagers would have to pay for water and sanitation. Not more than they could afford, but there would be no gift giving this time. A group of villagers would work with the contractors to build the system and would be taught how to repair every aspect of it.  These villagers would, in turn, train others so the system would never fall into disrepair.  With the new conditions in place, the water and sanitation systems were restored. This time the people had respect for the systems because they owned them.  This time they were able to repair the system when it broke down. To this day the villagers have plenty of clean water and live free of filth and disease.  This story could have some elements changed, be moved to America, and have the same issues with regard to a lack of respect, responsibility.  But, there could and should be the same resultant changes, as well.  God, through Moses deals with some of these issues of stewardship with the people of Israel…and once again, even though the situations may have changed, the principles remain the same.

There are certain responsibilities that we have as God’s stewards. We have the choice as to whether we will deal with our responsibilities or not deal with them…but there is truly only one choice.  In Leviticus 25, the focus is on “Israel in their land.”  If Israel was going to possess and enjoy their land, they would have to recognize and respect some basic facts…the first of which was that “God owned the land” (vv.2, 23, 38).  God also owned “the people of Israel” – He redeemed them from Egyptian bondage.  The Jews were expected to work in their fields, but it was “God who gave the increase” (v.21).  God was their “Land Lord” in more ways than one.  In chapter 23, we came to understand that the Jewish calendar was based on a series of “sevens.”  The “seventh day” was to be a Sabbath rest where the Jewish people would not labor.  Here, we learn that the seventh year is to be a year of rest for the land, the people and their animals.  During the Sabbath year, the people were not to work the fields or have organized harvests.  Also during this time, some debts were forgiven and indentured servants were set free.  The Sabbath year was the occasion for a “Bible conference” when the priests read and explained the Book of Deuteronomy to the people.  See…you all have it easy. J The nation learned the meaning of “give us this day our daily bread,” as God promised to provide for them and protect them throughout the year…if only they would trust and obey (vv.18-22).

The other aspect of all of this is -- at the end of seven sevens of years…or the 50th year…there was to be Jubilee.  It would require a great deal of faith for the people to recognize a Jubliee year, because the previous year (the 49th), the Jews would have had a Sabbath year.  So, they were to recognize two years of rest back to back.  What elements were to be involved in the Jubilee year?  There was to be repentance (v.9) and release (of the servants, once again so that they might return to their own lands, families, vv.10-13).  Also, there was to be rest (vv.11-12) and restoration (vv.13-17).  The land sold since the last Jubilee would revert back to the original owner.  The Lord wanted them to have a sense of proprietorship in having it restored to them.  In the New Testament, Jubilee is likened to the Good News that is shared with the poor…which would include all people.  This is because people’s debts have been paid and completely forgiven in Jesus Christ (as seen in the stories of Luke 7:36-50, and in many other places).

As we know, God certainly wouldn’t fail the people of Israel, but their faith might fail. Unfortunately, there is no Biblical evidence that the Jews ever celebrated a Sabbath year or a year of Jubilee.  In fact, the Bible indicates that they did not do so (2 Chronicles 36:21).  God ultimately sent Israel into Babylonian captivity for seventy years…in part to give the land the rest it needed.  By disobeying the law of the Sabbath year, the Jews robbed themselves, not only of spiritual blessings, but also the strength of the land and of their servants and animals…a costly mistake.  We have been released for a purpose.  We have an added responsibility as believers in Christ.  We have the whole story, the whole knowledge…and complete forgiveness.  We really have no excuse.  We are going to make mistakes, but we must live as the blameless, accountable people of God…this is our responsibility.

It is a basic principle of life – whatever we keep from God we can never truly enjoy ourselves.  One preacher has shared that in his ministry, he has met a number of people who claim that they “withhold their offerings”…only to end up paying extra money for medical bills or auto repairs.  In fact, one member brought a budget book to his office just to show him how God had begun to bless him when he stopped keeping from God of what was really His.  This isn’t necessarily a message about “contribution”, but the illustration does fit the concept of stewardship that we have been discussing.  Everything that we have really belongs to God…it is not ours…we are caretakers.  It is incumbent for us to take care of these things…whether it is our contribution of money, our contribution of possessions or our contribution of time.  We are to have an important stewardship in these things.  We also have a stewardship to ministry.  If God has put it on one of us a responsibility to minister in His church and in the community, then we should take our responsibilities seriously, as we will be accountable to Him as to whether we are or are not doing so.  We need to take care of what God has given us…this is our stewardship.  We do not need to be careless, but use care and concern…whether it is dealing with property, or people.  We have a stewardship to love one another as Jesus has loved us…we need to take this very seriously as well.  We have every opportunity to be a blessing and to be blessed if we take seriously our responsibilities.  It is “deal or no deal.”  God has laid it out to us, as He did to the Israelites...and there is really only one correct answer.  And you may not win a million dollars, but I guarantee that you will store up treasure in heaven. 

Blessings, Don

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Genuine Bible Code


A little over thirteen years ago, the calendar was about to turn over to the year 2000.  Of course, there were some “doomsayers” then, just as there were a few weeks ago.  One of the fellows I knew back then was trying to convince me that the Bible spoke about the destruction of the world that was going to take place in the year 2000.  He spent some trying to convince me that a Bible Code from Genesis and other places was predicting such an event.  Of course me…being the reasonable guy that I am…didn’t believe a word of it.  This doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to what he was sharing, because I was willing to do so. There are still some proponents of the Bible Code.  What is it, exactly?  Though Bible codes have been postulated and studied for centuries, the subject was popularized by Michael Drosnin's book the Bible Code a couple of decades ago.  The code, as reenergized by Drosnin, stipulates that there is a set of secret messages encoded within the Hebrew text of the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy.  This hidden code has been described as a method by which specific letters from the text can be selected to reveal an otherwise obscured message.  One cited example is that by taking every 50th letter of the Book of Genesis, starting with the first “taw,” the Hebrew word “torah” is spelled out. The same happens in Exodus and so on.  Modern computers have been used to search for similar patterns and more complex variants.  My opinion?  Baloney.  Stick to crossword puzzles…they make more sense.  However, Paul does reveal to us a code, or a mystery, in the third chapter of Ephesians…and this code makes a lot of sense…it is a message we can trust.

Paul speaks about being a prisoner of the Lord.  He was the Lord’s bond-servant, commissioned to take the message of the gospel to all mankind.  As he shares in Ephesians 3:1ff, Paul believes in God’s new program of uniting believing Jews, Gentiles into one body…the church.  There is one small problem – the Jews don’t like the Gentiles.  They want nothing to do with them (or the Samaritans for that matter).  Paul courageously defends the grace of God and the unity of the church in Acts 15, Galatians 2:1-10 (and the message in those places is that…the Gentiles did not have to become Jewish in order to become Christians).  Paul follows his calling by taking the gospel to the Gentiles, even though he is accused of prejudice by the Jews.  Paul is no longer a prisoner of the law…he has been released.  He wants to free both Jews and Gentiles from bondage to law and bring them to genuine life in Christ.  For Paul, it isn’t enough simply to win Gentiles to Christ and form them into local assemblies.  He is also able to teach them about the wonderful position that they have in the body of Christ…one that is equal to the Jews.  Paul ministers this critically important mystery that had not been revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures. It is revealed in the New Testament to the apostles by the Holy Spirit.  The Gentiles, even though they were outside of the covenant just a few years before, are to experience this new relationship with God through Jesus Christ that they were never able to experience before.  The mystery shows that new power is available to them through the Holy Spirit.  They can witness and minister concerning this message concerning Christ and this new power that is available to them and to others. 

Paul continues to describe the new riches that the Gentiles have available to them.  Paul describes them as being so vast that their end cannot be discovered.  Paul understands all of this and it humbles him.  Some of the Jews might think that they are God’s gift to mankind, but Paul considers himself, “the least of all of the saints.”  Understanding the great mystery of unity that is revealed does not “puff up” people so that they have “a big head”…rather it “humbles” them and brings “a broken and contrite heart.”  When God saved Paul, He gave him the treasures of the gospel truth.  Paul in turn, invests his life in bringing these truths to others.  In doing this, he exhorts them to commit the truths to other people (2 Timothy 2:2).  This is our responsibility.  We cannot simply own this message ourselves, but we must live it, share it with others.  The great truth concerning the church was not some divine afterthought, as if God was piecing together some puzzle haphazardly.  It was all a part of God’s eternal purpose in Christ Jesus.  To understand this truth gives us great hope, confidence in the faith.  And if there is one thing that people in this broken, fallen world need, it is a message of hope, confidence.  The final gift that comes for believers is courage in difficult circumstances.  We know that we can and will be victorious if we persevere.  Any suffering we experience…including that for the cause of Christ…will bring about blessings, glory.

Rodney Buchanan shares concerning the book, “Mystery on the Desert,” in which Maria Reiche describes a series of strange lines made by the ancient Nazea people in the plains of Peru, perhaps as early as 200 years before the time of Christ. The area where the lines are covers over 37 miles. It is impossible to make out what these line drawings are from the ground, and people at one time assumed they were irrigation ditches. No one really knew what they were until 1939 when Dr. Paul Kosok of Long Island University studied them by flying over them in an airplane. There is an assortment of perfectly straight lines, many running parallel, others intersecting, forming a grand geometric form. In and around the lines there are also strange symbols, and pictures of 70 animal and plant figures that include a spider, hummingbird, monkey and a 1,000-foot-long pelican.  One geometric figure goes in a straight line for nine miles across the plain. All of them are etched on a giant scale that can only be appreciated from the sky. When viewed from high in the air, these seemingly random lines form enormous drawings of art. They have meaning. People often assume that since they cannot see the purpose of something from their perspective that there is no purpose — no reason or rhyme to what they are facing…that it is a mystery.  But from God’s perspective it makes perfect sense. There is not only order and design to what he is doing…it is a work of art.  It doesn’t matter if you are too small to see the whole masterpiece, it is still there. And one day, looking from heaven, the mystery of what God has been doing will be clear to us. What looked like a ditch to us will be seen as a part of God’s design that has been stretched out over his universe.

A preacher (not me) was driving to a preaching engagement, trying to follow a map that he had in his car.  He couldn’t locate the highway he needed, so he stopped at a nearby convenience store.  The attendant said, “You’ve got an ancient map there, mister!”  Here is the latest map.  Follow it and you will get to where you are going.  And the attendant was right…the preacher arrived in plenty of time for the meeting.  People who do not understand “God’s mystery” in His church are trying to make progress with the wrong map.  There are no such things as social, race, age or even “religious” distinctions in the family of God.  The church is not ever to be shackled by the physical, by the reasoning of men…because it has been set free by the spiritual, through the blood of Jesus Christ.  God had a “secret”, but it is not a secret any longer.  If you and I understand the wonderful position that we have in Christ, it is going to knock down any barriers to progress.  And, we will be a blessing to and for the kingdom of God.

Blessings, Don

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Staying Connected


We have a pecan tree in our front yard that has a habit of shedding…fruit, leaves, seeds…and if that was not enough, it sheds it share of branches.  It happens with some regularity that I am dragging a branch 5 to 20 feet long around to the side of the house to be chopped up and put in the trash. Yet, what do you think would happen if I took one of these branches out into the yard and planted it in the ground and watered it…would come back to life? No, we understand that this is not how it works, because branches get nutrients that they need to live from the tree. Branches cannot live or grow without the tree. If the branch comes from a fruit tree, there will never be fruit on the branch if it is separated from the tree. I have to wonder if this is what prompts Jesus to break into this discussion concerning the vine and the branches with his disciples on their last night together. In the time of Jesus, a great golden vine hung over the entrance to the Jerusalem temple. Jesus and the disciples would have likely walked by it on their way to the upper room, and it would have been fresh in the minds of all who were present…and thus, it would provide a fitting illustration as to their spiritual reality.  It is also interesting to note that the grapevine symbol was also found in coins, Temple décor, burial places, and art of the period. These examples demonstrate the cultural presence of the vine symbolism for Israel before, during, and after the time of Christ.  The key for Jesus is that He wants His disciples to understand just how important it is that they stay connected to Him and to one another.

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1, NIV).  This is the seventh and final of the great “I AM” statements that Jesus makes in John’s gospel.  Since the cultivation of vineyards was important to the life and economy of Israel, when Jesus starts using this imagery, it is not something new, but is familiar to every Jew. There are different vines found in the Word of God.  One is old -- the past vine was the nation of Israel.  In an act of grace, God transplanted Israel into Canaan and gave the nation every possible benefit. God asks, “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4)  If ever a nation had everything it needed in order to succeed, it was Israel.  But, the vine produced “wild” grapes.  Instead of practicing justice, it practiced oppression…instead of producing righteousness, it produced unrighteousness. God chastised Israel, but even that was not enough, for when the Son of the Master Gardener came into the vineyard, the tenants killed Him (Matthew 21:33-46).

The other vine is new – it is Jesus Himself.  He is the true or “original” vine.  In Him is genuine life…and the branch that is connected to Him has life. For believers, it is our communion with Christ through the Spirit that makes it possible to bear fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is present in the life of a growing believer…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus says, “You will know them (true disciples) by their fruit" (Matthew 7:20).  A true branch, united with the vine, will always bear fruit.  Not every branch is going to bear a bumper crop, but it will bear fruit…as there is always fruit where there is life. This imagery is similar to what Paul shares concerning the Head and the body.  Christ is the head and the church is the body.  They are inseparably connected…you cannot have one without the other. Many of the images of Christ and the believer given in Scripture (head, body…bride, bridegroom…sheep, Shepherd) emphasize the importance of union and communion…and we can see the connection.

Something else to understand about the vines in the Holy Land…they were very strong, and it was nearly impossible to break off a mature vine without injuring the plant. That being said, a branch disconnected from the vine is weak and useless – branches are good for bearing fruit or for burning. The sooner that we believers discover and understand that we are but branches, the better we can and will relate to the Lord…for we will know our own weakness and confess our need for His strength. I do believe that “self-sufficiency” is the bane and decay of the vineyard today.  When we think we are strong enough and can handle things on our own, in effect, we sever ourselves from the vine.  When we are so busy that we cannot “be Jesus” to one another, then we are too distracted. We need to be strongly connected. The key word in this passage is “abide”…it is used eleven times.  How can we tell when we are “abiding in Christ?”  Is there some special feeling that is associated with it?  No, in fact, most of the time, our feelings will run contrary to this “abiding, connectedness”.  Satan will try to dissuade from being “connected.” There are evidences of “abiding” that are clear.  When you are “abiding” in Christ, you are “producing fruit” (v.2).  Also, you will experience the Master Gardener’s “pruning.”  He will teach, train and discipline us in order that we can grow. The believer who is “abiding” has his or her prayers answered (v.7), experiences a deepening love for Christ and for other believers (vv.9, 12-13), and experiences “joy” (v.11). The abiding relationship is natural to the branch and the vine...but, it must be “cultivated” in the Christian life – it does not happen automatically. Abiding demands worship, meditation on God’s Word, prayer sacrifice and service.  Once we begin to cultivate a deeper communion with Christ, we will have no desire to return to a shallow Christian experience.

In Ontario near an abandoned cemetery, there is this broken dead tree branch, devoid of life, hanging between two trees. At one end, a vine has intertwined itself around the dead branch and the trunk of one of the trees that supported it, giving the appearance that of still being part of the living tree. But in truth, it isn't…it is dead, truly dead, hanging by a thread! Or should I say, hanging by a vine?  If we are not leading a victorious life through the authority Jesus gave us, we are not "remaining in the vine". We may appear alive, but the sap that gives us victory is not coursing through our veins. We have somehow been detached from the source of real living!  "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." (John 15:4 NIV)  Faith stands firm in the face of trial and temptation, believing in God's promises:  Are we grafted in the vine or are we lifelessly hanging between trees?

I believe that many believers are like that branch being held up by the vine…they have the appearance of being alive, but they really are not.  Something we must understand as we come into this New Year -- we are not going to gain by being disconnected from the Jesus and from one another…in fact, we are going to be hurt, spiritually. We need to be committed to Jesus and to the body if we are going to grow and prosper spiritually.  As we have discussed previously, we live in the most technologically connected, but least personally connected society, in the history of mankind. It is good that we can communicate with friends around the world via Facebook, Twitter and the like, but we hardly spend time with one another outside of our regular meeting times. I don’t believe this is where the Lord would have us to be…especially since many of the early believers were meeting day by day in fellowship (but which also would be entirely unrealistic today). If we are separated from Jesus, and from one another, our leaves will wither and die and we will never put forth any fruit.  If we are staying connected, our lives will produce beautiful leaves and delicious fruit.  Since we have so many distractions today to keep us from being connected, what are we going to do to fight the cultural norm and the spiritual battle? This is an important question that each of us has to answer.
Blessings, Don