RENDER UNTO GOD (PART 2)

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (ESV)]

Yesterday was tax day: the day we rendered unto Washington what is theirs. In case we weren’t sure how much that was, we had 1099s, W-2s, 1040s, TurboTax, various receipts, H & R Block, and accountants to help us figure it out. Since Jesus told us to give God what is His, how much is that? God doesn’t send out W-2s listing our year’s many blessings, supply us with 1040s to fill out, or give us deductions for medical expenses, charitable donations, mortgage interest, property taxes, or gambling losses. Rather than a CPA or the IRS, we need to consult our Bibles for the answer to that question.

“Tithe” is an Old Testament term for the 10% gifts the Israelites were required to pay to support the Levites, provide for the Temple, and relieve the poor. A series of complicated rules regarding which tithes were made in what year and the amount tithed ended up making the tithe more like 23.3%. Although the New Testament never commands (or even recommends) a tithing system, Christians often refer to a tithe (or 10% of one’s earnings) as being the right donation to the church. In reality, for some, 10% would be unwise and for others, 10% is hardly enough!

Rather than a fixed percentage, the New Testament calls us to give regularly, according to our means, generously and joyously (even sacrificially at times), and out of love for God and others. While this requirement is vague about the actual amount, it actually is stricter than a fixed 10% because it is a matter of obedience and trust. What we give is a matter of prayer. It is an issue between God and us and we must be willing to give whatever it is He asks—be it time, talents, or finances—in the amount he desires.

Because Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to him. Let’s not forget that we are made in God’s image and it is His face that is stamped upon us. We belong to Him and whatever we give to God already is His. We simply are returning it to the rightful owner. Moreover, the list of what we should render unto God goes far beyond money. We should give Him our worship, service, obedience, praise, love, respect, gratitude, and fidelity. In short, we owe Him everything and not just on Sundays—we owe Him everything all of the time.

As John Wesley said, the question isn’t “how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?” Although there is no need to worry about a letter from God questioning our deductions or demanding an audit, we must remember that one day we will be called in for an accounting of how we used His gifts.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. [Matthew 25:34-36 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12: 2 (ESV)]

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WHEN GOD MOVES A STONE (Easter – part 1)

On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. [Mark 16:3-4 (NLT)]

Easter tombAlthough Jesus repeatedly predicted that He’d rise from the dead, the women didn’t bring clean clothes for a living man that Sunday morning when they went to the tomb. Instead, they brought burial spices of their own with which to anoint His dead body. Because of the Sabbath, Jesus’ burial was rushed and His body laid in a borrowed tomb. Although Joseph and Nicodemus had anointed Him, perhaps the women were concerned that, in the men’s haste to finish before sunset, they hadn’t done a proper job of preparing the body. The spices they brought would conceal the stench of decay and, out of love for Jesus, they wanted to complete the burial rites properly.

Not knowing about the guards Pilate had posted at the tomb, the women wondered how they would manage entry into it. Many Judean tombs were caves. The opening was covered by a large disc-shaped stone set into a groove cut in the bedrock. Getting the stone in place was fairly easy as it was rolled down a slight incline to cover the tomb’s opening. Several men, however, would be needed to roll it up the incline. “Who will roll the stone away?” they asked. Even though the women didn’t know how it would be done, they trusted that it could be done and proceeded in faith.

For a moment, consider that heavy stone at the cave’s opening. It was impossible to remove from within the tomb but it wasn’t removed so Jesus could exit the tomb. The Messiah who raised the dead, walked on water, and healed the sick certainly didn’t need anyone to move the stone for Him. Regardless of size, no boulder could block the way of the one whose resurrection meant that death had been conquered. That stone wasn’t moved so He could get out; it was moved so that His followers could get in, find the tomb empty, and share the good news!

The women didn’t let their reservations about moving the stone stop them from going to the burial site and serving their Lord. What about us? When we are called to serve Him, do we worry about the stones that might block our way and allow them to stop us? Let the Easter story remind us that, just as that stone was removed for the women so they could tell the good news, God will remove the barriers blocking our way from sharing the resurrected Christ!

Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.” [Matthew 28:5-7 (NLT)]

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THE KINGDOM

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” Luke 17:20-21

holy name cathedralDepending on your Bible translation, the Kingdom of God is mentioned at least 68 times in the New Testament. Rather than “Kingdom of God,” Matthew usually used “Kingdom of Heaven.” All four gospels, however, are speaking of the same place. Matthew was a Jew and primarily writing for a Jewish audience. While we tend to interpret the third commandment about not misusing the Lord’s name to mean not using it irreverently, Jews have a much stricter interpretation. Believing God’s name too sacred to say aloud, by the 1st century, His name wasn’t even written or spoken in anything but prayer. Even today, many observant Jews substitute “G-d” rather than write the full name.

Because Jesus continually preached the Kingdom of God (or Heaven), the Pharisees asked Him when it would come. Like the rest of Judah, they were thinking of a materialistic kingdom—one with boundaries and a Jewish ruler—so they missed what was happening in front of them. Looking for a political rather than a spiritual fix, they couldn’t understand that the Kingdom had arrived and God was busy restoring it.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees sounds like He’s saying the Kingdom is present and yet He also told His disciples to pray for its coming. Rather than an involved theological explanation to explain a kingdom that was both here and pending, Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed that was planted in a field but hadn’t matured into its future glory. The Kingdom was “already” because believers were taking part in building it but it also was “not yet” because it wouldn’t reach its full expression until the future. To further explain the Kingdom, Jesus used a number of metaphors: a farmer scattering seed, yeast in dough, a fishing net, a merchant in search of fine pearls, treasure in a field, a king settling his accounts, a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard, a king’s wedding feast for his son, ten bridesmaids meeting the bridegroom, and a landowner with tenant farmers. Even then, His own disciples were still thinking of an earthly kingdom when they asked the resurrected Jesus, “has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” [Acts 1:6]

The Kingdom of God is not about going to heaven when we die; it’s about bringing God’s kingdom to earth. We pray, “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” [Matthew 6:10] God is king of everything and everyone and, when He reigns in our hearts and minds, His Kingdom is already here. At the same time, His Kingdom is not yet here until its full realization when paradise is re-created in the New Jerusalem.

The Messiah has accomplished the work of redemption, the Spirit has been poured out, yet evil has not been eradicated, the general resurrection is still future, and the final state of God’s kingdom has not been established. In other words, the new era has begun–has been inaugurated–but it has not yet replaced the old era. [Dr. Peter Cockrell]

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36 (NLT)]

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HE WEPT – PALM SUNDAY

The next day, the news that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem swept through the city. A large crowd of Passover visitors took palm branches and went down the road to meet him. They shouted, “Praise God!  Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hail to the King of Israel!” [John 12:12-13 (NLT)]

All glory, laud, and honor to you, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.
You are the King of Israel and David’s royal Son,
now in the Lord’s name coming, the King and Blessed One.
[Theodulph of Orleans (820)]

palm - ncp7943awWe are people of physical signs and symbols and rituals help us connect with events. As a little girl, I loved Palm Sunday and not just because it meant my Lenten fasting would soon end and jelly beans would be in my Easter basket the following week. I loved the way our liturgical church observed it. The hymns of the day were filled with hosannas (a welcome relief from the more somber hymns of the Lenten season). Typically, the opening hymn was “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and we children would follow the choir into the church while waving our palm branches. Even as a small child, I knew this day commemorated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Like the people of Jerusalem, I was filled with joy on this day. Having sung that “the wee little” Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see the Lord, I pictured people lining the streets and jostling one another for the best view as they might for a parade. I wondered if little children sat on their parents’ shoulders so they could see Jesus. Between the palms I waved and the day’s joyful music, I felt like I was there in Jerusalem and watching the promised Messiah approach on his donkey.

Today, in preparation for Palm Sunday, rather that thinking about those joyful cries of “Hosanna!” and the royal welcome given to our Lord, I thought about Jesus and what He must have been thinking. As Jesus neared the city, Luke tells us that He wept. Jesus, however, wasn’t just a little teary-eyed. Luke used the word eklausen which meant to sob or wail loudly, as one who mourns the dead! As He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, Jesus was in tears!

Having already told his disciples He would suffer and die, we know Jesus saw what lay at the end of the parade and it’s easy to think His tears were because of the horror awaiting Him. Those sobs, however, weren’t for Him—they were for His people and the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus knew that, in spite of their hosannas, He would be rejected. The people didn’t want their Messiah to be a Prince of Peace—they wanted him to be a conquering king. As He rode into town, Jesus pronounced judgment on the city that was blind to the true nature of God’s kingdom and prophesized its siege and destruction. Thirty-seven years later, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, the city was burned, the Temple destroyed, and over one million Jews were slaughtered. While palms waved and people cheered, the grief-stricken Jesus saw Jerusalem’s future and sobbed. It would be nearly 19 centuries before the Jews again had a homeland.

On that Sunday so long ago, the Prince of Peace arrived in the city whose name meant peace. The first part of Jerusalem’s name is yiroo, meaning “they will see” or “they will feel awe,” and core of the word is shalem, meaning completeness and wholeness. Shalem is the root of the Hebrew word for peace—shalom. Jerusalem’s name literally meant, “They will see wholeness” or “They will feel the awe of completeness.” That day they saw the wholeness of God but, sadly, they didn’t understand!

But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.” [Luke 19:41-44 (NLT)]

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WHAT ARE THE ODDS? (Part 3)

He [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. “Today,” he began, “this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.” [Luke 4:20-21 (NTE)]

evening primroseIn writing about Blaise Pascal yesterday, I mentioned that he, along with Pierre de Fermat, laid the groundwork for probability theory back in 1654. I remember a school friend writing her term paper on probabilities who began by testing what’s called the “birthday paradox:” in a room of 23 people, there is a 50% chance that two people will have the same birthday and, out of 75 people, there is a 99.9% chance of two people’s birth dates matching. Imagine her surprise when the first two people she asked had the same birth date! That, of course was sheer coincidence but, if the next 30 people she asked also had the same birth date, another explanation would have been necessary.

I know nothing of permutations, exponents, or probability theory, but even I know when coincidence can’t explain the improbable. Consider the improbability of anyone fulfilling the many Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Messiah would come from the seed of a woman (not a man) and be born of a virgin in Bethlehem. He would be from the line of Abraham, a descendant of Isaac and Jacob, of the tribe of Judah, and from the house of David. The Messiah would spend time in Egypt, would be a Nazarene, and a messenger would prepare His way. He would be a light to the Gentiles, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, visit the Temple, and enter Jerusalem as a king on a donkey. The Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, falsely accused, and stand silent before His accusers. He’d be mocked and ridiculed, his hands and feet pierced, dice would be thrown for his clothing, and would die with the wicked but be buried with the rich.

Taking just eight of the some 300 fulfilled Messianic prophecies in Hebrew Scripture, mathematics professor Peter Stoner calculated the odds of one man fulfilling them by coincidence at 1 in 1017 (100,000,000,000,000,000). Putting those many zeros into perspective, Stoner likened it to covering the entire state of Texas with silver dollars piled 2-feet deep, placing one marked silver dollar among them, and expecting a blindfolded person to wander through the state and pick up the marked coin in his first try. Stoner then figured the odds of one man fulfilling 16 of those Messianic prophecies at 1 in 1045 and of fulfilling 48 of those prophecies at 1 in 10157, a truly mind-boggling number. Although the odds against one man fulfilling all those prophecies are astronomical, that’s exactly what Jesus did! Looking at it purely from a mathematical viewpoint, Professor Stoner concluded, “Any man who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.”

While probability theory proves that Jesus is the promised Messiah, intellectual assent is not quite enough when it comes to our salvation because it’s not the same as believing in Jesus. Faith is more than an acceptance of facts; it is a commitment to those facts. A profession of intellectual belief is meaningless until it makes a discernible change in us! Nevertheless, Stoner’s use of probability theory to prove Jesus is the promised Messiah helps bolster our own faith. Moreover, it enables us to defend the validity of Scripture and the truth of Jesus’ identity to those who don’t believe.

And we have the prophetic word made more certain. You will do well to hold on to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star shines in your hearts. You must know this first of all, that no scriptural prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation. No prophecy, you see, ever came by human will. Rather, people were moved by the holy spirit, and spoke from God. [2 Peter 1:19-21 (NTE)]

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TOO DEFINITE FOR LANGUAGE

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. [Galatians 2:16 (ESV)]

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [James 2:24 (ESV)]

Siberian reindeerChristianity seems to be full of paradoxes. We’re saved by faith and not by works but we can’t have faith without works. As for grace and obedience—it’s God’s grace not our obedience that saves us. But, what initially sounds like a free pass isn’t because the saved are expected to have grace-fueled obedience! It’s easy to get confused when we read only isolated verses in Scripture. Rather than inconsistent or even contradictory concepts, however, faith, works, grace and obedience are complementary and interrelated. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from our language rather than our doctrine.

I think back to an exchange between two characters in Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. When the character Ransom is at a loss for words while trying to explain a concept, his companion says, “I realize it’s all too vague for you to put into words.” Looking at his friend sharply, Ransom replies, “On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why it can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” Faith, works, grace, and obedience are so distinct and yet so interconnected in Christian doctrine that it’s a pity we don’t have a wider Christian vocabulary.

According to The Washington Post, there really are at least fifty Inuit words for snow that describe everything from a soft falling snow to a wet snow that will ice a sled’s runners. Along with having a multitude of words related to snow and ice, the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. They have a different word for each year of a male reindeer’s life and I suspect they have one that would perfectly describe the reindeer in today’s picture. It’s done through something linguists call “polysynthesis,” which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information into one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word so that one word can encompass a whole sentence

Language evolves to meet the ideas and needs of the people speaking it. If the Sami people can use a single word like sietnjanjunni to describe a reindeer with the hair nearest to its nostrils having a different color than the one you’d expect from the color of the rest of its hair, we should be able to come up with something for the combined concepts of faith, works, grace, and obedience. Using a little polysynthesis, we could try for the whole shebang and come up with “faithorkobegracience,” but it still wouldn’t capture these concepts because we’re talking of something far greater than reindeer, snow, or ice.

We are finite beings trying to capture an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being with words. No word in any language can come close to the immensity of all that is encompassed in our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith but true faith is obedient and obedient faith leads to works. Simply put, it is our obedience and works that reveal the authenticity of our faith!  We will just have to continue as we have for centuries: by having faith, doing His works, being saved by grace, remaining obedient to His commands and walking the way Jesus walked.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. … By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. [1 John 2:3,5b-6 (ESV)]

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [James 2:18 (ESV)]

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