COME IN AT THE GATE

Such people claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good. [Titus 1:16 (NLT)]

enter by the gateI’ve been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I vaguely remember reading some of this 1678 allegory in senior English class but that time it was in the original Middle English (the language of the King James Bible) and difficult to read. Although I thought myself a Christian, I was unfamiliar with most of the biblical references and concepts. In reality, all I wanted to do was to get through it (along with Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses). With less pressure, more biblical knowledge, and an annotated modern version, I’m actually enjoying the tale of Christian: a man who leaves his home in the City of Destruction in search of the Celestial City.

Even without footnotes, I recognized the gate when Christian arrived there and understood Goodwill’s welcoming words: “In spite of everything people have done before they come here, we make no objections against anyone. No one will ever be driven away.” After warning him about other paths that are wide and crooked, Christian is told he can distinguish the right path because it is straight and narrow.

While on the path, Christian encounters two men who have climbed over the wall. Named Hypocrisy and Formality, they think they’ve found a short-cut to the Way. Hypocrisy, of course, is someone who puts on a mask and pretends to be what he is not. He acts the Christian in public but is an entirely different person in private. He may bring food to the needy on Sunday but beat his wife on Monday. Formality is the man whose religion is based on ritual and rests on outer form. Although he faithfully attends church, fasts, kneels, tithes, takes communion, and wears a cross, He’s only going through the motions. Neither man has a spirit of godliness or a relationship with Christ. With no true faith or repentance, they have built their lives on pride and pomp, appearances and rituals. Coming from the land of Boasting (Vain-Glory in the original), their religion is empty. Thinking that God is as impressed by external appearances as are they, the proud men are going to Mount Zion for praise: not to praise God but rather to be praised!

Satisfied with the appearance of godliness and unwilling to pay the cost of repentance, the two have taken the easy way by climbing over the wall. When Christian tells them that entering that way means the Lord of the Way will consider them thieves, they tell him to mind his own business; no one likes being confronted about their superficial professions of faith. When the men come to the hill called Difficulty, the narrow path leads straight up the hill. Seeing how steep it is, Formality and Hypocrisy choose the easy paths that seem to go around the hill while Christian climbs it. Having chosen the paths of Danger and Destruction, unlike Christian, those two will not reach the Celestial City.

This part of Bunyan’s tale hit home because we just finished a sermon series about the “cultural” Christian or what Craig Groeschel calls the “Christian atheist.” Like Hypocrisy and Formality, the cultural Christian believes in God but doesn’t know Him, lives as if He doesn’t exist, won’t recognize his deceptive and shallow faith, and follows laws and ordinances without following the Way. Bunyan’s is a cautionary tale as are Jesus’s words about the gate and narrow path. There are no shortcuts to salvation and the narrow road is not one of ease; nevertheless, the journey is worth it!

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. [Matthew 7:13-14 (NLT)]

I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! … Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. [John 10:1,9-10 (NLT)]

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LET ME BE YOUR SERVANT

And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. [John 13:14 (NLT)]

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. [Mark 10:43-44 (NLT)]

crab appleAs she sang, “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too,” I reached over to take my husband’s hand. I contemplated the road we’ve traveled together for over half a century as the soloist continued: “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road; We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” As I listened to the rest of Richard Guillard’s beautiful song, I thought it was the perfect choice for a wedding.

I will hold the Christ light for you, In the night time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping. When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow, Till we’ve seen this journey through.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

During last week’s worship, however, I realized Guillard’s song applies to Christian fellowship as much as it does to marriage. His words describe the church or, at least, what the church is supposed to be. We comfort and support, encourage and enlighten, pray for and serve one another. We share good times and bad, walk together, go the extra mile, and help carry one another’s burdens.

“Will you let me be your servant?” That’s what Jesus was asking when he stripped off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. That servant, on his hands and knees and holding a wash rag, was God! When Jesus came to Peter, the man protested and only relented when told, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Whether Jesus meant that Peter’s sins had to be washed away by the cross or that Peter needed to humbly submit to Jesus, I’m not sure. Either way, Jesus taught a valuable lesson both about servanthood and accepting God’s grace.

It’s important to serve but equally important to graciously accept the gift of service that comes with Christian love. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet but He also allowed a woman to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Servanthood in Christ’s church involves both the giving and accepting of grace but, for many of us, giving comes far easier than accepting.

How can we wash one another’s feet if we won’t take off our shoes because someone might know we have athlete’s foot or see the ugly bunion, corn, bruised toe, or blister? Let’s not be afraid to share our vulnerability, expose our failings, acknowledge our doubts, admit our fear, or disclose our needs. Let us love and serve one another as did Christ and let us accept that love and kindness as did His disciples.

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. … When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. … Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. [Romans 12:9-10,13,15 (NLT)]

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NINE MONTHS

Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. [Luke 1:46-48 (NLT)]

campionWe know that within a few days of the angel’s visit that Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, but what of those first few days after the annunciation? Did Mary tell anyone or did she wait until she’d seen proof of Elizabeth’s pregnancy before she truly believed that she, too, was with child? Did she tell Joseph immediately or wait until she returned to Nazareth three months later?

Have you ever wondered how that conversation went and about Joseph’s initial reaction to her unbelievable news? The couple’s betrothal was far more involved and serious than today’s engagements. In those days, betrothal wasn’t just an agreement between two people; it was an arrangement and commitment connecting two families. Joseph would have presented a ketubah, or marriage contract, to Mary and her father and paid a bride price, called a mohar, to compensate her father for the cost of raising the young woman. He then would have returned home to prepare a place for her and their engagement may have lasted as long as a year. Although the couple didn’t live together and certainly didn’t have sex, they were bound to one another as if married.

Though unconsummated, their betrothal was binding and could only be undone by a divorce with just cause (such as Mary not being a virgin). Knowing he wasn’t the father of her child, Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he considered quietly divorcing her until he was visited by an angel who explained how the baby was conceived. But what of Mary’s parents? Worse, what about the reaction of Joseph’s family? How did Mary and Joseph explain this miraculous conception? Who would believe them? For that matter, what about the gossips of Nazareth? Mary had gone to visit her cousin and returned pregnant so it couldn’t be Joseph’s! There probably were whispers of scandal surrounding Mary all of her days.

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive without virtue of a husband, he left. We can only hope that when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the Most High overshadowed her that Mary was given more than a baby—that she was given wisdom and strength beyond her years. I suppose any doubts Joseph had about the baby boy eventually were allayed by the unprecedented visits of shepherds and angels at the nativity, their encounters with Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the visit of the Magi with their extravagant gifts. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that the angel who visited him also gave him wisdom and strength for the challenges ahead.

The Christmas story actually begins nine months before that extraordinary night in Bethlehem. In celebration of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, many churches celebrate the feast or festival of the annunciation on March 25 but it’s easily overlooked by many of us. Today, as I set out the figures for the nativity scene, I thought about Mary and Joseph and couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the nine months between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,  which means “God is with us.” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

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BUT HOW?

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” … Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”  [Luke 1:34,38 (NLT)]

queen butterfly Angels taking on bodily form and appearing to people certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence so it’s understandable that Mary was troubled and perplexed by Gabriel’s presence when he showed up in Nazareth. After telling her not to be afraid, the angel gave her the startling news that she would conceive and give birth. Mary may have been a virgin but she knew that babies weren’t brought by the stork or found in a cabbage patch. “But how?” was her first response.

“But how?” Isn’t that our typical response when God calls us to His work? Abraham couldn’t see how his people would possess Canaan, Sarah couldn’t see how God could give her a child when her child-bearing days were over, Moses wanted to know how he could convince both the Israelites and Pharaoh, Gideon asked how he could rescue Israel, Samuel asked how he could anoint a new king without being killed by Saul, and Zechariah asked how his wife could possibly become pregnant. Given their situations, “But how?” certainly seems understandable.

The angel’s answer that the Holy Spirit would come upon her still didn’t tell Mary exactly how her pregnancy would come about. Had that been me, I would have wanted a better explanation and then followed with a series of “whys” and “what abouts.” While being told that her barren cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant may have reassured Mary that what seems impossible can actually happen, Elizabeth was married and Mary was not! “But how?” probably was just one of many questions circling in Mary’s head.

Unlike Moses, Mary didn’t try to squirm out of the task with excuses; unlike Sarah, she didn’t laugh in unbelief; unlike Gideon, she didn’t ask for a series of signs; unlike Samuel, she didn’t point out the problems she was sure to face with her pregnancy; and, unlike Zechariah, she believed the angel. After asking him, “But, how?” Mary accepted the simple explanation that nothing is impossible with God and humbly submitted.

Do we forget that God doesn’t have the limitations we have? He can make manna appear, feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, part the sea, walk on water, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Nevertheless, we often ask, “But how?” when called by God to serve and then allow the logistics of His task keep us from doing His work. Could we be missing God’s blessings because we’re too busy asking, “But how?” instead of responding in faith? Let us never forget that God will work out the how; we just need to submit as readily as did Mary.

You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said. [Luke 1:45 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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THE PUPPET KING (Part 2)

Joash did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight throughout the lifetime of Jehoiada the priest. … But after Jehoiada’s death, the leaders of Judah came and bowed before King Joash and persuaded him to listen to their advice. [2 Chronicles 24: 2,17 (NLT)]

b;ue flag irisYesterday, I wrote of the Levites’ failure to protect Judah from idolatry but one Levite stands out in his loyalty to God and commitment to the temple: Jehoiada the priest. At the time, Queen Athaliah, thinking she’d massacred all of the rightful heirs to the throne, ruled Judah. The daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, she was as evil as her parents. Unknown to her, however, one heir, a baby boy named Joash, survived. Having been hidden by his aunt, he was raised by the high priest Jehoiada. Keeping the boy’s existence secret, the priest plotted to put Joash on the throne. When the boy was seven, Jehoiada made a pact with five army commanders. They secretly travelled throughout Judah and summoned Judah’s Levites and leaders to a meeting at the temple. Declaring that the king’s son should reign, the priest introduced Joash and the men made a plan to depose his wicked grandmother. The armed men protected the boy as they anointed him, placed the crown on his head, presented him with a copy of the law, and proclaimed him king. Athaliah was slain, the temple of Baal demolished, and its pagan priests killed.

With this successful rebellion, Jehoiada led the people and the new king in rededicating themselves to the Lord. The temple was restored, the priests and Levites again followed David’s instructions, and gatekeepers returned to the temple. Unfortunately, after Jehoiada’s death, Joash made the same mistake his ancestor Rhehoboam did: he listened to the wrong people and followed bad advice. The nation returned to idolatry, the temple fell into disrepair, and the temple’s treasures were used to pay tribute to the King of Aram. As the Chronicler wrote: “Because of this sin, divine anger fell on Judah and Jerusalem.” [24:18] The Lord’s judgment took the form of an invasion by the Arameans.

Sadly, the Judeans cleaned the temple of idols but they never scoured the idolatry from their hearts and the story only gets worse. The Lord sent prophets advising Judah to repent but they wouldn’t listen. Then, when Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, prophesized that they were headed for destruction, Joash had him stoned to death in the temple courtyard, adding murder and desecration of the temple to his sins.

Joash was a puppet king and only as good as his advisors. He may have held the Book of Law in his hands but he never placed it in his heart. As a result, Joash was dependent on man’s word rather than God’s. Let us learn from this story and take our advice from God rather than man.

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. [Psalm 1:1-3 (NLT)]

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. [James 3:17 (NLT)]

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DEFILED (Part 1)

Santa Rose de Lima - Abiquiu NM“The people of Judah have sinned before my very eyes,” says the Lord. “They have set up their abominable idols right in the Temple that bears my name, defiling it. [Jeremiah 7:30 (NLT)]

King David assigned temple duties to the 38,000 Levites: 24,000 oversaw the work in the temple; 6,000 acted as officials and judges; 4,000 were temple gatekeepers; and 4,000 became musicians. Rather than owning land themselves, Levites were scattered throughout Israel so they could instruct the people, guard the worship of the Lord, and prevent idolatry. These were not meek men. It was Levi and his brother Simeon who killed all the men of Shechem in retaliation for the rape of their sister. After the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, Moses said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” The Levites gathered at his side and then, at his command, slaughtered 3,000 of their fellow Israelites for their idolatry. [Exodus 32:26,28] Hardly what we’d think of as typical church workers, the Levites were a tribe of warriors.

Responsible for the temple’s treasury, furnishings, and articles used in worship, the Levite gatekeepers were to protect the temple from theft and desecration. No one, not even the king, was allowed to defile the temple. Yet, during Rheoboam’s reign, King Shishak of Egypt carried off the temple’s treasures; later King Asa sent what was left of its riches to the King of Aram as tribute. During Queen Athaliah’s reign, the temple was ransacked by her followers and parts of it used to build a temple to Baal. King Ahaz presented temple treasures to the king of Assyria, moved the original bronze altar, replaced it with a replica of an Assyrian altar, and made offerings to the gods of Damascus. He removed the Sabbath canopy and several ornaments from the temple, shut the temple doors, and set up altars for the worship of pagan gods.

By the time of King Hezekiah, people were worshipping the bronze serpent made by Moses. Although Hezekiah destroyed it and had the Levites purify the temple, his son, King Manasseh, again desecrated the temple by erecting an Asherah pole and altars for star worship. By the time of King Josiah, the temple had fallen into disrepair, the Ark had been removed from the temple, the book of the law had been misplaced, and Baal and Asherah were worshipped there. Josiah again cleansed the temple but his reforms did not last and both the temple and nation were defiled by sin.

I wonder what those warrior priests, the Levites, were doing during all of this temple sacrilege. While a few prophets spoke in condemnation of the various abominations, other than the rebellion led by Jehoiada, the Levites’ silence and apparent compliance throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles is reprehensible.

Today’s temple of God is Christ’s church and, sadly, His temple continues to be violated. Rather than Asherah poles and images of Baal, today’s defilement is far more subtle. It includes things like sexual exploitation, abuse of power, cover-ups, misuse of funds, false doctrine, being a place of gossip or conflict, hypocrisy, ignoring sin, putting numbers before discipleship or entertainment before worship, seeking financial gain rather than the glory of God, neglecting the call to service, replacing the gospel with pop psychology and feel good messages, overlooking malicious behavior, following personality rather than Christ, neglecting the sacraments, and allowing prayer or Bible study to be an afterthought.

For the most part, the Levites silently stood by as they saw God’s temple being defiled. Let us never make the same mistake.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. [1 Corinthians 3:16-18 (NLT)]

And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” [Mark 7:20-23 (NLT)]

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