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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SHARPENING and SPURRING

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. [Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)]

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, [Hebrews 10:24 (NIV)]

plumariaIn ancient times, when an iron tool became dull, another iron implement was used to give it a finer polish and sharper edge. It’s not just tools that can become dulled—so can minds and spirits. Good Christian friends who act as whetstones can make us accountable, keener, stronger, and more enthusiastic and valuable. Rather than allowing us to grow dull and settled in our comfort zones, they sharpen us with challenges that make us better disciples for Christ.

The Greek word translated as spur in Hebrews 10:24 was paroksysmós. Often translated as motivate or stimulate, the NIV’s use of spur seems most accurate. Paroksysmós was a noun meaning a provocation which literally jabbed into someone so sharply they had to respond (as a spur does to a horse). As with a stubborn mule, sometimes we need to apply the spurs to get someone moving and, sometimes, we’re the stubborn ones who need that extra encouragement or motivation!

Whenever I read Proverbs 17:17 or Hebrews 10:24, I think of a special friend who both sharpened and spurred me! One of a small group receiving daily email devotions from me in 2014, she doggedly insisted that I have a devotional website. I didn’t claim to be the least qualified and from the weakest clan as did Gideon, but I came close by pointing out my lack of computer skills and religious training. Like Moses, I protested and offered several reasons why I wasn’t the woman for the job but she had an answer for every one of my objections! Then, instead of giving me Aaron as God did for Moses, she gave me her technical skill, designed the site, loaded several older devotions, and patiently walked me through the steps required to prepare photos, post devotions, and maintain the site. She sharpened and spurred me as a good Christian friend should!

Today marks my 2,073rd post on “Devotions of the Heart.” Staring with about 20 followers from my email group, I now have 576 followers. The site has been viewed over 48,500 times by over 28,700 people from 162 countries. That’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to celebrity influencers whose followers and views number in the millions but these devotions aren’t about numbers, fame, product endorsements, or me. They’re simply about sharing the Word of God and the only thing I endorse is Jesus! All the glory belongs to God but the thanks go to my iron-sharpening friend who wasn’t afraid to apply the spurs! Without her, you wouldn’t be reading this!

Friendship isn’t about what we get from it; it’s about how we serve God through it. My friend did what we all should do for our Christian brothers and sisters—she sharpened and spurred me by challenging, motivating, inspiring, helping, and encouraging me to become a better disciple for Christ. When iron is used to sharpen iron, both pieces improve and, by sharpening me, my friend sharpened herself, as well! Discipleship is not about maintaining the status quo—it’s about moving forward. Let us sharpen and spur on one another in Christian love.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)]

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)]

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CONCEIT AND COMPARISON (Galatians 6:2-5 – Part 3)

Carry each other’s burdens; that’s the way to fulfill the Messiah’s law. If you think you’re something when you are not, you deceive yourself. Every one of you should test your own work, and then you will have a reason to boast of yourself, not of somebody else. Each of you, you see, will have to carry your own load. [Galatians 6:2-5 (NTE)]

sled dogs mushingThese last few days, I’ve been discussing Paul’s instructions both to carry one another’s burdens and to carry our own loads. In between those two directives, we find a warning about the things that can prevent us from doing that: conceit and comparison.

Conceit is thinking we’re better than we are. In carrying another person’s burden, we must never think ourselves too good to help nor should we think ourselves morally or spiritually superior to someone in their weakness and need. Comparison can lead to competition as we try to determine who is the better Christian by carrying his load better! The Lord has given each of us a task and equipped us with a specific set of skills and spiritual gifts to achieve it. The load given us is our responsibility just as the tasks and talents given to others are theirs. Moreover, we must never compare our virtues with other’s imperfections (leading to pride) or our flaws with others’ accomplishments (leading to jealousy). If we’re going to compare ourselves to anyone, it should be to Jesus!

Oddly, this reminds me again of the Alaskan huskies I wrote about on Monday. Like us, each dog on the team has his own strengths (and weaknesses) and is assigned a position and a specific task that fit his attributes. Because they must follow the musher’s commands, set the pace, and keep the gangline taut, the lead dogs are the most intelligent on the team. No less important, however, are the swing dogs behind them. After the lead dogs make a turn, their critical task is to pull the sled in an arc that keeps the other dogs on the trail. They’re responsible for getting the musher and sled safely around curves and corners. Next are the team dogs—the brawn of the team who pull the sled and maintain the speed. Last, but hardly least, are the wheel dogs. Often the largest members of the team, as the first to take on the sled’s weight when starting out or going uphill, they play a crucial role in pulling and steering the sled.

Like us, each dog has a different skill set and position. Nevertheless, regardless of their position, no dog is more important than another and each is essential to the team. Just as the dogs’ responsibility is to the musher, ours is to God. The Apostle Paul tells us to examine ourselves (not others) to make sure we’re doing the work given to us by God. Like the sled dogs, we must be committed to doing our task well without conceit or comparison, Let us faithfully carry our own phortions and always be willing to carry one another’s baros.

Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think. Rather, think soberly, in line with faith, the true standard which God has marked out for each of you. As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, and all the parts have different functions, so we, many as we are, are one body in the Messiah, and individually we belong to one another. [Romans 12:3-5 (NTE)]

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PURIM – A Time to Celebrate

These days would be remembered and kept from generation to generation and celebrated by every family throughout the provinces and cities of the empire. This Festival of Purim would never cease to be celebrated among the Jews, nor would the memory of what happened ever die out among their descendants. [Esther 9:28 (NLT)]

snowy egretToday is the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar when the two day celebration of Purim begins. I first learned about this holiday in college when my Jewish roommate received boxes of delicious hamantaschen cookies she graciously shared with me. Hidden inside the sweet flaky triangular-shaped pastries was a sweet filling of either poppy seeds, prunes or apricots. My roomie said the cookies represented Haman’s three-cornered hat but other sources say they represent his ears or the villian’s pockets filled with money. But, I’m getting ahead of myself without telling you the whole megillah.

“The whole megillah” is an idiom taken from Yiddish that means a long convoluted story but the Megillah (with a capital M) is a scroll of the book of Esther (which truly is a complicated story filled with plot twists). This year, Purim occurs on the Sabbath so there will be some variations in its observance but, typically, the Megillah is read during a synagogue service on the eve of Purim and again the following day. Rather than the solemnity you’d expect in a place of worship on a holy day, it’s read very dramatically. Each of the 54 times the evil Haman’s name is mentioned, the congregation raucously stomp their feet, boo, hiss, and swing greggers (ratchet noisemakers).

The mitzvoth (religious duties) of Purim are outlined in Esther 9, the first of which is the reading of the Megillah. Because this holiday commemorates a time the Jewish people were saved from extermination during their exile in Persia, the second duty is that of celebration. Families and friends feast on hamantashen and kreplach. Children (and sometimes adults) dress in costume as silly characters, Esther, or Mordecai. Emphasizing the importance of friendship and community, the third mitzvah is to send food to friends (which explains the hamantaschen sent to my roommate). The final mitzvah is that of giving gifts to the poor. To ensure that all Jews can experience the joy of Purim, every Jew is supposed to give money or food to at least two needy people.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the story of Esther, I urge you to read it this weekend. Unique about this short book is that God’s name is never mentioned. Nevertheless, His divine attention, direction, and power are evident on every page. His fingerprints are all over every coincidence in the story—from Mordecai overhearing a plot against the king and saving the king’s life to the king’s sleepless night that caused him to learn of Mordecai’s part in his rescue, from Queen Vashti’s banishment to Esther being drafted into the king’s harem, from Esther finding favor with the harem eunuch and being chosen queen to the date Haman selected for the massacre of the Jews—a date which gave Mordecai and Esther time to foil his plot. Since Haman had thrown lots to determine when he would carry out his diabolical scheme, Purim (which means “lots” in ancient Persian) is the name of this joyous holiday.

Like the children masquerading as different characters, the miracles in this story were disguised as natural events and, like the sweet filling in the hamantaschen cookies and the savory ground beef or chicken inside the kreplach, God’s intervention was hidden. While God’s name isn’t found in Esther, His activity is as He overruled history, overturned the plans of the wicked, and saved His people. Not every miracle involves something as dramatic as the parting of the sea; as seen in the story of Esther, sometimes God’s miracles can be found in the page of a king’s history book or in the roll of the dice!

Although Christians don’t observe Purim, perhaps we should. Let us never forget that Haman’s decree of death to the Jews extended to all Jews in the Persian empire, which would have included those Jews who had begun returning to Judah. Had Haman succeeded in his genocide, the Davidic line would have ended and disrupted God’s plan to send His son to be born a Jew in Bethlehem. The message we find in Esther is a simple one: God’s plans cannot be thwarted.

“For the time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. And this will be his name:  ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’ In that day Judah will be saved, and Israel will live in safety.” [Jeremiah 23:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord of Heaven’s Armies has spoken—who can change his plans? When his hand is raised, who can stop him? [Isaiah 14:27 (NLT)]

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THE HOLY TEMPLE (Cornerstone – part 3)

Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken. [Isaiah 28:16 (NLT)]

Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit. [Ephesians 2:20-22 (NLT)]

church of st. columba The cornerstone metaphor continues into the New Testament with both Paul and Peter referring to Jesus as the cornerstone of our faith. Nowadays, cornerstones are structurally unneeded and a growing number of commercial buildings no longer have them. Symbolic rather than functional, many serve as time capsules holding material relevant to the building and the year it was built. Because commercial buildings so frequently change hands, even the custom of inscribing the building’s name on a cornerstone is disappearing. The latest practice is a freestanding cornerstone/time capsule resting on a pedestal placed in a prominent part of the building. That way, a new stone can replace the old one every time the building’s owner changes.

While cornerstones may be superfluous to a modern structure, there is nothing superfluous about Jesus as our cornerstone. Moreover, He can’t be exchanged for a newer version or sold to the highest bidder. While buildings may change owners, our owner remains God and we are both His children and His servants. Our cornerstone does not serve as a time capsule of 1st century Judah; Jesus is our living stone and as relevant today as He was 2,000 years ago.

Both Paul and Peter carry the building metaphor further by calling us the stones in God’s temple. Unlike the temple in Jerusalem, this isn’t an earthly building with walls and a roof. Nevertheless, it has a cornerstone in Jesus. Since a cornerstone connects two different walls, the metaphor illustrates how Jesus connected both Gentiles and Jews into one cohesive church.

Peter likens us to living stones and Paul says we are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Let that image sink in for a moment and consider those foundation stones: people like John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, and John. Others in that foundation are less famous but no less essential: people like Lydia, the cloth merchant who housed Paul; Tabitha (Dorcas), the generous seamstress who came back from the dead; the eloquent Apollos, one of the first Christian apologists; the devoted Mary Magdalene; Aquila and Priscilla, the tentmakers who opened their home to Paul; the generous Phoebe, a deacon at the church in Cenchreae; Silas, who sang with Paul when they were prisoners; and Paul’s fellow missionary, Barnabas. Through the centuries, others were added to the structure: defender of the Trinity, Athanasius; Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation; theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo; the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett; Bible translators John Wycliffe and Martin Tyndale; Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan; reformer John Calvin; founder of Methodism, John Wesley; and the “Saint of Auschwitz,” Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe. Set beside these well-known Christians are people whose names we wouldn’t recognize; nevertheless, they too are the stones of the church. Think about it—people just like us are being set into this same edifice with the likes of apologist C.S. Lewis, humanitarian Mother Teresa, Olympian Eric Liddell, evangelist Billy Graham, and the “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon! We are living stones being mortared into place, shoulder to shoulder, with the apostles and prophets who went before us! We are the temple of God and its cornerstone is Jesus Christ!

You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God. As the Scriptures say, “I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem, chosen for great honor, and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” [1 Peter 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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