Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Out of the Foxhole


Great crowds follow Jesus early in His ministry. Opposition has not begun in earnest, so there are many would-be disciples who want to follow Him. Yet, Jesus wants to escape from the growing crowds to spend some time alone and with His Father. This decision results in a separation of His true followers from less committed supporters (Matthew 8:18ff). The two individuals who come to Him here are not of importance to the story as much as they provide an opportunity for Jesus to make an important point. The first person…a scribe…addresses Jesus as “Teacher” -- a term used only by outsiders in Matthew. He seems to believe that discipleship, or following Jesus, is more like volunteering to follow the local Rabbi as a pupil. His statement that “he will follow Jesus wherever He goes,” is probably not much more than accompanying Him across the lake. It is certainly not that he has thoughtfully considered this “following” to be a lifetime commitment…and so we have Jesus’ response. Jesus’ reply reveals that He is not your typical rabbi, and that following Him is no simple matter. His chosen lifestyle is one of homelessness -- foxes have holes, birds have nests, but Jesus has no “home.” He is lacking the securities of this world, and His disciples are called to share in this same type of life.

The next individual is called “a disciple.” Note his use of the term “Lord,” which is ironic, given the situation. What comes into question is not his overall commitment, but to what degree is he committed. Jesus’ response is probably not what many would expect. He is not disrespecting the disciple’s father, as some might be inclined to think. With many of Jesus’ statements we need to dig deeper in order to get to the meaning that can elude us. His point is likely, “Let the spiritually dead take care of their own business…but not so with you!” If his father is indeed already gone, his request would be a natural one…even essential. The dead, according to Jewish customs, must be buried within 24 hours, and the duty fell to the Son. It is most probable that the father is still living, and the verse should be translated, “what if my father should die?” The disciple is truly putting “commitment” to the test. This disciple’s request meets with a firm refusal. Jesus sees through the disciple’s request to the heart of the matter. The point is -- following Jesus takes precedence over family or other obligations. And the bottom line is – disciples of Jesus must have the right priorities in life…it is better to preach the gospel and give life to the spiritually dead than to wait for death of a family member in order to bury them.

Ed Skidmore shares, When Joseph Ton was a pastor in Romania some years ago, he was arrested by the secret police for publishing a sermon calling for the churches to refuse to submit to the Communist government’s demand for control over their ministries. When an official told him he must renounce his sermon, he replied, "No, sir! I won’t do that!" The official, surprised that anyone would respond so forcefully to the secret police, said, "Aren’t you aware that I can use force against you?" "Sir, let me explain that to you," Ton said. "You see, your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. You know that my sermons are spread all over the country. When you kill me, I only sprinkle them with my blood. They will speak 10 times louder after that, because everybody will say, ’That preacher meant it because he sealed it with his blood.’ So go on, sir, kill me. When you kill me, I win the supreme victory." The secret police released him, knowing his martyrdom would be far more of a problem than his sermon. Ton is living testimony to the truth of Paul’s words, written from prison. “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel (Philippians 1:12-16, NIV).

This type of devotion…the type of devotion that marked Joseph Ton’s life and ministry…is mostly foreign to us, as we typically do not have to face this type of challenge when it comes to our faith. I recognize that this is a message difficult to discern and understand. I turn to some thoughts from a fellow preacher-man to offer some appropriate follow-up. Steve Pankey shares this – Concerning stories like this, and the one concerning the Rich, Young Ruler, he says (a bit tongue-in-cheek), “Oh, Jesus wasn’t talking universally, but rather giving very specific directions to just one would-be disciple who had a bit too much pride and a whole lot of money.” This is the easiest and best way to preach that story. It is a nice, safe interpretation because it doesn’t demand anything of us except to shake our heads and say, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not like that guy.” Preaching devotion to Jesus in this way has become something of the American Way as Christianity continues a three decades’ long shrinking process and the Church tries its best to “sell” discipleship as easy, fun, and a free eternal life insurance policy. The lie is…that faith in Jesus is easy. Worse yet, when we water “the faith” down enough, the Church has nothing to say when the going gets tough…You can’t be a disciple if you don’t give up everything you’ve got. Maybe he is talking about stuff. Maybe Jesus actually means we should live in communes and share everything. Or maybe, and quite frankly…hopefully…it means that we shouldn’t be tied to all of our stuff. Maybe as long as we are chasing bigger houses, better cars, or the latest Apple release, we can’t really be focused on Christ…maybe as long as are paying attention to what the Jones’ are up to, we can’t be paying attention to what God is wanting to do in and through and for us. Maybe discipleship really means hating everything of this world and living a single-minded life of devotion to the one who came to save us from our distractions, who set us free from sin and death, and who calls us to follow him…through the good and bad, and even through the valley of the shadow of death. If it sounds difficult, it is. If it sounds foolish, it is, but…each of us has a choice. We can take up our cross and follow Jesus toward life, or we can turn around and walk away unhappy.” I will say this -- if what outsiders see in us Christians today is primarily “affluence” from the world and little “influence” for the Lord, then why would they look any further? Yet, it is not supposed to be simple…it is not supposed to be easy. Jesus had no foxhole…He had no place of refuge. He relied on His faith and trust in His father. This is all that He needed. Truthfully, it is all that we need.

Blessings, Don

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Best "Present"


Josh Hunt offers this -- A man wanders into a small antique shop in San Francisco. Mostly it's cluttered with knickknacks and junk. On the floor, however, he notices what looks like an ancient Chinese vase. On closer inspection it turns out to be a priceless relic from the Ming dynasty whose value is beyond calculating. It is worth everything else in the store put together. The owner clearly has no idea about the value of this possession, because it's filled with milk and the cat's drinking out of it. The man sees an opportunity for the deal of a lifetime. He cleverly plans a strategy to obtain the vase for a fraction of its worth. "That's an extraordinary cat you have," he says to the owner. "How much would you sell her for?" "Oh, the cat's not really for sale," said the owner. "She keeps the store free of mice." "I really must have her," the man countered. "Tell you what--I'll give you a hundred dollars for her." "She's not really worth it," laughed the owner, "but if you want her that badly, she's yours." "I need something to feed her from as well," continued the man. "Let me throw in another ten dollars for that saucer she's drinking out of." "Oh, I could never do that. That saucer is actually an ancient Chinese vase from the Ming dynasty. It is my prized possession, whose worth is beyond calculation. Funny thing, though; since we've had it, I've sold seventeen cats."

Perspective. What we have in the message of God found in the Word of God is as priceless as the vase, but often times, it is treated more like a cat’s saucer. We have a great responsibility to truly know the message of Jesus Christ…the item of great value that is found in God’s Word…and make it our own, and yet, it is often the last thing that we want to do. This is what Paul shares with Timothy, his child in the faith – the Word of God should be our rule for life and godliness! (2 Timothy 2:14-16)

“Present yourself to God…” This is the best “present” that we could ever receive…and in this case, it is one that we give. It is a humbling challenging statement, but it is one that we must take seriously. Paul describes how this is supposed to take place. Just as a good carpenter approaches a building project by carefully laying out plans in order to do good work…so, Paul challenges God’s people to lay to plans for their spiritual lives. The Lord wants His people to carefully consider His instruction manual for life in order to do good work and find fulfillment. If a carpenter is careful and resourceful, he can make a good house that is square and on a firm foundation. If we who are in Christ stand squarely on the Word of God, seeking His will, then our lives likewise will make sense. So, it is with this in mind that we come to understand that some people in Ephesus, where Timothy is located, would appear to be struggling with these concepts. We learn from Jesus in John’s Revelation that Ephesus is a church that has its priorities out of order – they have forgotten their “first love” (Revelation 2:4-5). Some of them are arguing about words, which is a waste of time and in which there is no profit. Paul tells them (and is something that we can learn from) that quarreling leads to the ruin of hearers, particularly visitors and new believers – it is very damaging. These believers are being distracted from spending time doing those things that really mattered...honestly studying God’s Word and sharing it with others.

Respect for the authority of the Word of God is the foundation for all that we believe and do. Whether we take this seriously, or not, greatly impacts our relationship with the Lord and His people. To understand this principle, is not as easy as it might seem. Jesus, Paul and others dealt with many people in their day who would claim to know God, believe in God and be experts in the Word of God…above all else. But, it is not so much our knowledge, as it is how we learn from and apply that knowledge – this becomes wisdom for us. Paul wants Timothy to understand that Christianity is about genuinely seeking God…drawing near to Him in order for us to grow in wisdom and understanding. It is not about seeking my parents’ or friends’ ideas about God, not even being captivated by my own presuppositions or thoughts about God, but personally pursuing a relationship with Him from day to day.

We need to be willing to diligently study God’s Word regularly. This is more than a simple reading of the Word, but we must be willing to “dig in” to understand contexts, purposes and make appropriate applications. The Word is not just some dead letter or history book, it is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). I can’t fully explain the spiritual impact of reading and studying the Word, but I know that it certainly does impact us. What I do know is that if we submit to God’s Spirit to help us in our understanding of the Word of God, we will not be puffed up or self-righteous, but we will experience Christian unity, spiritual growth (Ephesians 6:17). There is no substitute for diligence. This requires that we do some good, honest work studying the Word…being good students.

George Muller from A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings says this -- it is a common temptation of Satan to make us give up the reading of the Word and prayer when our enjoyment is gone; as if it were of no use to read the Scriptures when we do not enjoy them, and as if it were no use to pray when we have no spirit of prayer. The truth is that…in order to enjoy the Word, we ought to continue to read it, and the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying…

Our commitment to the Word of God is directly reflected, not only in our commitment to the Lord, but also His body, the church! And this is precisely why we must be diligent, why we must commit ourselves to the Word, and to the will of God. Remember, the Word of God is “living and active”…it is a spiritual teacher and trainer. Like the priceless vase, we do not want to be ignorant of owning such a precious thing as the message of God and be paying little attention to it. We will grow stale if we are not “continually being renewed day by day!” We need to be continually transformed by the Spirit through the Word!

Writing about God's sure guidance, British pastor Frank W. Boreham recounted a time when a minister visited his home in New Zealand. Being young and inexperienced, Boreham sought the counsel of his guest. He said that one morning they were sitting, looking out over the golden plains to the purple sunlit mountains. He asked the minister, "Can a man be sure that in the hour of perplexity he will be rightly led by God? Can he feel secure against making a false step?" "I am certain of it," exclaimed the minister, "if he will but give God time! As long as you live, remember that. Give God time!" From Tim LaHaye, How to Study the Bible for Yourself, Harvest House, pp. 95-96.

Blessings, Don

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Faith to Overcome Our Fears


Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was arrested by the Nazis in World War II and put in Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, he was stripped of everything: property, family, possessions, and a manuscript he had spent years researching and writing on finding meaning in life. The manuscript had been sewn into the lining of his coat. "Now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own," Frankl wrote. "I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning." A few days later, the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up what little clothing they still wore. "I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber," said Frankl. "Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the Jewish prayer 'Shema Yisrael' (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.) "How should I have interpreted such a 'coincidence' other than as a challenge to 'live' my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?" Frankl later reflected on his ordeal in Man's Search for Meaning, saying, "There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is meaning in one's life.... He who has a 'why' to live for can bear almost any 'how.' " [Based on Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning]

Frankl was faced with the most difficult of circumstances. We humans come to face to face with such situations from time to time. We come back to the next chapter in Elijah’s life and ministry (1 Kings 18:1ff)and we see that he is finally going to confront King Ahab concerning all of the evil he has done. God commands that this event take place, and along with this, the Lord will end the drought that has punished the land and the people for over three years. Now, a person named Obadiah arrives on the scene. He is a high royal official and steward of the king of Israel. But, he is also a courageous servant of the Lord. One would have to be exceedingly faithful…or crazy…in order to serve in such a place with such a wicked man. But, much like with Esther, the Lord has put Obadiah in the palace to use His God-given authority to do God’s will. And he has already proved his loyalty to the Lord by risking his life to save a hundred prophets of the Lord when Queen Jezebel was on the extermination trail.

The king and Obadiah are searching the countryside for any grass or such that could be used to feed the horses and mules used in the army. It is interesting to contrast Ahab’s self-righteousness with David, who repented when there was famine in the land for three years (2 Samuel 21:1). Ahab isn’t particularly concerned about the people of the land…he just wants to be certain that his army is strong enough to repel any invaders. It is amazing that the king is willing to leave the safety and comfort of his palace to scour the land for food for the animals. Furthermore, as a side note, it seems as if Ahab is actually something of a better person when not in the direct presence of his supremely evil wife and queen, Jezebel.

Meanwhile, the Lord leads Elijah down the road that Obadiah is traveling. Obadiah recognizes Elijah, and has such reverence for him that he falls on his face prostrate toward him. Elijah discloses his goal immediately to Obadiah, and it is to find the wicked king, but he isn’t about to go looking for him, so he commissions Obadiah to go and tell the king where he is located. Obadiah is between a rock and a hard place. He has every desire to obey the Lord through Elijah, but he believes going back to the king will be problematic to say the least. If Ahab has proven anything, it is that he is unpredictable and unstable. Ahab has been searching for Elijah for three years, so he is not going to want another false lead. Obadiah fears that he will be punished or killed by the king if something goes wrong…and this includes the fact that the paranoid king might suspect him of being a follower of Elijah’s God. Much like Jonathan who had to navigate the choppy waters between his father, King Saul and his best friend, David, so Obadiah is going to have to face his fear, trust in Elijah. And even more so, trust in the God who has protected him as well as his servant Elijah for three years. Elijah’s assurance that he will remain there and wait for the king has to give him some peace. So, Obadiah goes and delivers the message. We really do not know the “rest of the story”, but I believe it is safe to assume that Obadiah survives his meeting, as most Jewish historians believe that it is this Obadiah who is the author of the Old Testament Book of Obadiah. We can rest assured that if we are faithful like Elijah and Obadiah, there will be times when the Lord will ask to go to difficult places and deal with challenging situations in order to better ourselves and the kingdom of God.

Theologian and popular speaker, Francis Chan, offers this -- The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do. The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be. This often incredibly painful process strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear. For a powerful example of this, read in C. S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader about the boy, Eustace, who becomes a dragon. In order to become a little boy again, he must undergo a tremendous amount of pain as the dragon skin is peeled away and torn from him. Only after he endures this painful process is he truly transformed from a dragon back into a boy. Sometimes the sin we take on becomes such a part of us that it requires this same kind of ripping and tearing to free us. The Holy Spirit does not seek to hurt us, but He does seek to make us Christlike, and this can be painful. (Francis Chan. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (pp. 50-51). Kindle Edition.)

Elijah has been down a challenging road for three plus years, and now, his mission is about to change in a dramatic way, which we will explore next time. In relationship to his plight, and Obadiah’s, we may not always understand why we find ourselves in certain circumstances, but we must know that the Lord has a plan to see us through…and this is in order that we learn and grow to be more like His son. We can choose to respond to challenges with fear, and this happens to us from time to time. But, when we trust in faith, we are able to experience the full benefit of blessing from the Lord. But, one final thought to consider…Bill Hybels shares this – “Every single day we make choices that show whether we are courageous or cowardly. We choose between the right thing and the convenient thing, sticking to a conviction or caving in for the sake of comfort, greed or approval. We choose either to take a carefully thought-out risk or to crawl into a shrinking shell of safety, security and inactivity. We choose either to believe in God and trust him (even when we do not always understand his ways) or we second-guess him and cower in the corners of doubt and fear.” Bill Hybels, Who Are You (When No One’s Looking)

Blessings, Don