WHAT REASON? (Part 1)

If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 18:5 (NLT)]

Ten COmmandments windowThe Ten Commandments are the foundation of both Jewish and Christian principles, conduct, and accountability, but they are just ten of the 613 mitzvot or commandments given to the Jewish people. In light of the big ten, many of those commands, such as using accurate scales and weights and fulfilling our promises make perfect sense as do prohibitions about speaking derogatorily of others or standing idly by if another person’s life is in danger. Moreover, laws regarding boundary markers, evidence, assessing property damages, and not perverting justice or accepting bribes certainly were necessary in a new nation. Some laws, like the ones regarding latrine placement, covering excrement, and making a guard rail around a flat roof seem reasonable from a health and safety viewpoint. Other laws may have served as a way to separate the Jews from their pagan neighbors. Perhaps it was because the Hittites, Elamites, and Sumerians were clean-shaven and the Egyptians often were clean shaven or had shaped goatees that Jewish men were not to trim the hair on their temples or shape their beards. Many laws, such as the intricate laws of sacrifice, the blue tassels on hems, reciting the Shema twice a day, and saying a blessing after meals, were related to worship and God.

Many of those laws, however, seem inexplicable. What, for example, makes land animals that don’t chew the cud and have completely split hooves (like the pig) unacceptable food? Why eat only fish with fins and scales but no shellfish or mollusks? If locusts can be eaten, why not ants? Why can’t linen be woven with wool? Why can’t a Nazarite eat grapes or raisins or cut his hair and why did every sacrifice require salt?

As I looked through these ancient laws and tried to understand God’s reasoning behind them, I missed the point. The first rule God made was the simple one he gave to Adam and Eve: don’t eat from that tree. Although He warned that death would be the result of disobedience, God didn’t explain His reasons for the prohibition because obedience to God isn’t supposed depend upon human reasoning. If we have to understand before we obey, rather than obedience, it becomes agreement and dependent on us! God, however, doesn’t require our understanding or agreement; He requires our obedience.

Abraham didn’t know where he was going when he packed up his family nor did he question God’s reasoning when he placed his son on a sacrificial altar. Building an enormous ark on dry land probably made no sense to Noah, wearing out his troops by marching around Jericho for a week seemed a questionable battle plan to Joshua, and Mary didn’t understand God’s reasoning behind her pregnancy; nevertheless, they all obeyed without understanding.

Obedience shows reliance and trust—an acceptance that God knows more than we can ever know or understand—that God is God and we are not! I don’t know God’s reasoning behind those mitzvot nor do I need to. It’s enough that God made them and expected the Israelites to abide by them. The only thing we must understand about God’s commands is that they are divinely decreed and, as such, are to be unquestionably obeyed. Rather than leading us away from God’s blessings, obedience will lead us to them.

Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. [1 John 5:3 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.  Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

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WHEN FACED WITH A CHOICE (LIES – Part 3)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)]

coreopsisWhile writing about lies these last few days, I recalled Mark Twain’s Was it Heaven? or Hell?, a short story in which the principle of absolute truth is challenged by that of Christian love. The widowed Margaret and her 16-year old daughter Helen live with their two elderly maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester. The aunts are uncompromisingly strict in their moral code and any sort of lie is inexcusable. When Helen admits having told a small and harmless lie, the aunts demand that she confess to her mother who is ill in bed.

It is only after the doctor visits that the sisters learn that both Margaret and Helen have typhoid fever. When the doctor asks the sisters if any situation could be a valid reason for a lie, they maintain they’d never lie to shield a person from injury or shame—not even to save someone from pain or grief. Positive that any lie would cost them their souls, they vow never to tell a lie of any kind, not even one of courtesy, kindness or compassion.

Not knowing that her daughter is sick in bed, Margaret assumes Helen’s absence from her side is to prevent her from getting typhoid. When Margaret asks about the girl’s well-being, Aunt Hester hesitantly replies that Helen is well when, in fact, her health is rapidly failing. Learning of Hester’s deceit, Hannah reprimands her sister for lying but, the following day, when Margaret asks Hannah about the youngster, she also lies that Helen is well. Not wanting to give Margaret the cruel truth that her daughter is dying, the sisters regularly reassure her that Helen is happy and healthy. As the girl’s health further deteriorates, the aunts even forge cheery notes to reassure her sick mother. When Helen dies, the aunts continue to bring her mother news of the girl’s well-being and, to explain the noise during her wake, they even tell Margaret they’re having a party. When Margaret dies, Hannah and Hester agree that she was blessed never to have known of her daughter’s death.

At midnight, an angel of the Lord appears and says, “For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!” The women fall to their knees but, rather than repent, they say they’d tell the same lies again. The last words of the story ask this simple question, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”

Mark Twain was not a Christian so he can be excused for not understanding that the sins of a Christian already are forgiven. Nevertheless, the underlying question remains—is every lie, no matter its reason or purpose, a sin? Were the sisters’ lies a sin or did their act of love trump the sin of a lie? After three days of writing about deception, I still don’t know the answer. While we have a God of truth, truth is not god! The Apostle Paul asked, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” adding, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Galatians 1:10] If we come to a time when we have to choose between truth and deception, perhaps we should ask whose approval we are seeking and who we would be serving with our actions.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”… The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:13-14,22-23 (ESV)]

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ACT YOUR WAY INTO IT

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. [John 13:34 (NTE)]

As the thunder echoed across the lake, my mother-in-law and I looked out the window and watched the lightning flash, the wind rage at the trees, and the rain pour down. Summer thunderstorms at the lake were an impressive sight and, while viewing it from the safety of the cottage, my mother-in-law confided that she used to be terrified of thunderstorms. She told of the panic she experienced as a child whenever the thunder boomed, lightening flashed, and rain pelted the roof and windows of her house. Even as an adult, she’d flinch at every crack of thunder and cower in a corner during storms. Once she became a mother, however, her behavior changed when she saw that her fear was infectious. Not wanting her boys to catch her unfounded terror, she decided to put on a brave face for the youngsters and soon discovered that, by acting unafraid, she’d actually become unafraid. Instead of feeling her way into a behavior, she’d behaved her way into a feeling!

Jesus told us we are to love one another but, let’s face it, there are an awful lot of people out there who are unlovable—people we don’t even like so we really don’t want to love them. We certainly don’t feel like forgiving them, bearing their burdens or praying for them. Given a choice, we’ll even go out of the way to avoid them. Jesus, however, didn’t make an exception for the disagreeable difficult ones and certainly not for the ones who don’t look, talk, think, or act like us! With the story of the Good Samaritan, He made it clear that everyone—even our sworn enemy—is our neighbor and someone we must love!

Although that storm and our conversation took place many years ago, whenever I question how I can possibly love certain people, I remember it—how by acting brave, my mother-in-law worked her way into feeling brave. If she’d waited until she felt brave before acting fearless, she would have been afraid of storms until her dying day. She couldn’t force her feelings, but she could force her actions!

Is it hypocritical to act with love when we don’t feel love for the person? Acting with kindness and consideration, however, is not comparable to toadying up to someone or fawning over and flattering someone falsely. When we act with love, we’re not trying to curry someone’s favor; we’re obeying the Lord. When we act with love toward our neighbor, we are doing it for God. We can’t always muster up affection for someone but Christian love isn’t a feeling of affection; it is merely a wish for the other person’s good.

As followers of Christ, even when we don’t feel love, we can act with love because we love God! The Apostle John tells us that “anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister,” and they’re all our brothers and sisters! Love for God and love for our brothers and sisters are inseparable—we truly can’t love the One without loving all the others!

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. [C.S. Lewis]

We love, because he first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates their brother or sister, that person is a liar. Someone who doesn’t love a brother or sister whom they have seen, how can they love God, whom they haven’t seen? This is the command we have from him: anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister too. [1 John 4:19-21 (NTE)]

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WASHING THE FEET – MAUNDY THURSDAY

If any of you wants to be great, he must be your servant. If any of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. That’s how it is with the son of man: he didn’t come to have servants obey him, but to be a servant – and to give his life as “a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:26b-28 (NTE)]

tri-colored heronWhile the accounts of the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8 are similar, they are different events and different people were involved. Luke tells of an unnamed woman and John tells of Mary of Bethany. Although both women wiped Jesus’ feet with their hair, the unnamed woman, a notorious sinner, was an uninvited and unwelcome guest in the Pharisee’s home. Mary was a well-respected and devout friend of Jesus and welcome in her sister’s house. Pharisees were present at one and Christ’s disciples at the other. Where the Pharisees saw a sinful woman’s bad character, Jesus only saw a repentant sinner. Where the disciples saw an extravagant waste of money, Jesus saw a woman who offered a gift of love. He defended one woman’s actions by pointing out that she’d done what His host had failed to do. He defended the other woman’s extravagance by reminding his disciples that she was preparing Him for burial.

They were different times and different places but both women humbled themselves at Jesus’ feet. Both women took on a job that belonged to servants and, while most people chased after Jesus because they wanted something from him, neither woman asked anything of Him. Instead, they offered all they had. One woman’s old life died as she washed His feet and the other woman’s brother, who died, now lived. Their generous acts declared the women’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah. We may come to Jesus as a repentant sinner or we may come to him with praise and thanksgiving but, like both of these women, we must always come with a humble heart that is ready to serve.

The most radical act of humility and service, however, occurred shortly after the disciples argued over who among them was the greatest. That night, in the room where they’d gathered for their Passover meal, Jesus (the greatest of them all) knelt at the feet of His disciples. Knowing full well that soon one of them would betray Him, another would deny him, and all would desert him, Jesus humbly washed their feet. That was God incarnate kneeling in front of them and washing their feet but we don’t read of any of the disciples offering to wash His!

Today is Maundy Thursday and several Christian denominations will have communion services in remembrance of that last supper. As a visual reminder that loving Christ means service and there is dignity in serving others, some churches also will observe a religious rite called Washing of the Feet. As members of the Body of Christ, we are to follow His example by serving one another in humility and love. Like the unnamed woman, Mary of Bethany, and Jesus, we must have the heart of a servant.

One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

“Do you know what I’ve done to you?” he asked. “You call me ‘teacher,’ and ‘master,’ and you’re right. That’s what I am. Well, then: if I, as your master and teacher, washed your feet just now, you should wash each other’s feet. I’ve given you a pattern, so that you can do things in the same way that I did to you.” [John 13:12-15 (NTE)]

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BUT THERE’S A DRESS CODE! (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 2)

And he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honor. Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. [Matthew 22:8-10 (NLT)]

mute swanIn Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Dinner, after the initial guests refused to come, the king’s servants invited everyone they could find. Since it was a royal wedding, you’d expect the new guests to be dignitaries but everyone was to be called—regardless of social standing, race, nationality, wealth, or even moral character.

What seems like a beautiful example of God’s grace takes a turn when we learn that the king seems to have set a condition—a wedding garment must be worn. When I’m going to a wedding, it takes days (and probably a shopping trip or two) to put together the proper apparel and this was a royal wedding! People came from all walks of life and, with little time to prepare or purchase fancy clothing, we’re surprised when the king notices a man not wearing wedding clothes. Confronting the guest, the king asks how he could be there without proper attire. When the man has no reply, the king has him bound and cast into “the outer darkness.”

It’s easy to think the host’s problem is that the man is poor and has only rags to wear but the host’s anger seems so unlike Jesus that I was troubled by this part of His story. Scripture, however, never says the man was poor or dressed in tattered clothing and the speechless man, by never explaining himself or even asking how to get such a garment, seems to know he doesn’t belong at the feast.

By eating with sinners, touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, and talking theology with a Samaritan woman, Jesus never seemed overly concerned with propriety or etiquette so it’s hard to think He took much notice of clothing. Some commentators speculate that the king must have furnished all of his guests with suitable apparel and that the man slighted the king by refusing to wear it. While it makes for a convenient explanation, there is no evidence of this being a Jewish custom so I’m not sure Jesus’ listeners would have understood it that way. Then again, perhaps “proper clothes” shouldn’t be taken too literally!

Rather than fabric and jewelry, could the wedding garment be the righteousness of Christ? By accepting the invitation, the evicted guest professed his belief, but the absence of a wedding garment testified to the falseness of his profession. A wedding garment would be the evidence of salvation—a way of life showing rebirth, repentance, and the works of righteousness. If we want to enjoy the feast, lip service is not enough; we must be righteous in character!

Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” [22:14] God will not have an empty banquet hall and His invitation has been extended to all. He will, however, reject those who refuse His offer (as did the first invitees) along with those who are false in their acceptance (as was the man without the wedding garment.)

When sinners come in repentance, trusting in Christ, then He clothes them with the garment of salvation, with the robe of righteousness. This is the wedding garment that makes one presentable at the marriage supper. [Harry Ironside]

Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.  [Matthew 7:21 (NLT)]

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? …  Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. [James 2:14,26 (NLT)]

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SAINT OR SINNER?

Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the Lord will be exalted on that day of judgment. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has a day of reckoning. He will punish the proud and mighty and bring down everything that is exalted. [Isaiah 2:11-12 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJesus’ Parable of Two Men Who Prayed contrasts pride with humility, self-righteousness with repentance, and how not to pray with how to pray. In it, both Pharisee and publican (tax collector) go to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he’s not a sinner like everyone else and then self-righteously singles out the sinful publican. Then, just to make sure God understands how good he really is, the man brags of his tithing; rather than giving a tenth of what he earns, he tithes a tenth of all that he acquires. Even though fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement, Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays as well, so the self-satisfied man finishes his prayer by boasting of his twice weekly fasts.

In stark contrast to the proud Pharisee is the second man: a detested tax collector. Considered traitors and thieves by their fellow Jews, tax collectors paid the Romans for the privilege of collecting taxes and then overcharged their countrymen while lining their pockets with the excess. The despised man stands meekly before God with his head bowed and eyes down. Beating his breast in sorrow, he humbly confesses his sinfulness and begs for God’s mercy.

Although Jesus’ listeners would have anticipated the Pharisee’s commendation and the thieving publican’s condemnation, Jesus turns their expectations upside down when He says it was the publican who was considered righteous by God. He explains: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14] These were the same words Jesus used when, at a dinner party, He took the guests to task for their lack of humility as they jockeyed for the best seats around the table. [Luke 14:7-11]

We’re familiar enough with this parable not to identify with the Pharisee’s ostentatious display of piety but I suspect we’re more like the Pharisee than we care to admit. Although the Pharisee addressed God at the beginning of his prayer, the rest of it was all about him and seems more like a business contract than a prayer. Listing his good works, he seems to expect God’s commendation and favor in return for them. In theory, we know we’re justified by faith not works, that none of us are saved by our own merits, and that no human righteousness is enough for a God who demands perfection. In reality, however, we’re often more self-absorbed than self-examining, more likely to extol our virtues than admit our sins, and more interested in justifying our actions than being justified by God. Like the Pharisee, do we ever commend ourselves or justify our failings by pointing out the sins of others? How often do we actually take an inventory of our failings and honestly and humbly admit them to the Lord?

Sinners all, let us never forget how completely undeserving and unworthy we are of God’s grace.

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. [James 4:7-10 (NLT)]

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