HEEDING THE SIGNS

sandhill cranesSo you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. [Matthew 24: 42 (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about the migratory birds’ staging area near our northern home, I remembered the year they weren’t in a rush to depart. Autumn that year had been unseasonably mild with temperatures hovering in the 60s and we’d returned north in November to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. The day we headed out to the park, however, the weather had taken a sharp turn toward winter. The day’s high of 37° occurred before sunrise and the season’s first snowfall was expected that night. While walking through the park that cold fall day, we were surprised to see hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese still in the marsh. Apparently, the mild fall weather and still plentiful food caused them to recklessly delay their departure south. The marsh soon would freeze and food would be scarce, not just in the park, but all along their migration route. Seemingly oblivious to the danger, the birds were like the people of Noah’s day or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—having a rollicking good time right up until disaster rained down on them. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late! I hoped it wouldn’t be that way with the birds.

Looking at the upheaval of the last two years, many are reaching for their Bibles and wondering if we’re seeing signs of the apocalypse. We read of death by “the sword and famine and disease and wild animals,” in Revelation 6:8. Luke 21:9-10 records Jesus speaking of wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “terrifying things.” As much as that sounds like today, it probably sounds a great deal like much of mankind’s troubled history. Our century is not the only one troubled by pandemics, conflict, catastrophe, natural disasters, violence, scarcity, and loss. Jesus, however, said that no one (not even He) knows the day or hour of His return. Nevertheless, just as the sudden drop in temperature and wintery wind warned those birds of winter’s approach, these could be warning signs of things to come and the Bible tells us to be vigilant.

As with the flood and Sodom’s destruction, swift and sudden judgment will accompany Jesus’ return. Jesus compared His second coming to the surprise arrival of a thief in the night and both believers and unbelievers won’t know when that thief will appear. While unbelievers have good reason to fear that day, Christians don’t. To carry the thief metaphor further, we aren’t afraid of the thief because we’re well insured. Our acceptance of Jesus gives us assurance of salvation; our sins are mercifully forgiven and we have everlasting life. We’ve read the book and know how the story ends!

When we returned to the park two days later, the marsh was frozen but the birds were gone. They’d seen the signs and made the right decision; unbelievers should do the same.

Live as if Christ is coming in the next 10 minutes. Plan as if He is not coming for 1,000 years. [Roger Barrier]

Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. [2 Peter 3:11-14 (NLT)]

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STATS

Does this sound as if I am trying to win human approval? No indeed! What I want is God’s approval! Am I trying to be popular with people? If I were still trying to do so, I would not be a servant of Christ. [Galatians 1:10 (GNT)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesA pastor friend who’s led dozens of mission trips used to evaluate his mission’s success by the number of new believers gained during the trip. If the latest mission’s altar call stats did not exceed the previous mission’s numbers, he felt it was a failure. Like him, we tend to be number people who measure our success or failure quantitatively. Business success is gauged by the balance sheet, bottom line, and price-earnings ratio; financial success by income, the value of our investment portfolio, and the size of our house or the price of our car. Regardless of the sport, with their assorted BAs, RBIs, Yds, Gs, PPRs, FT%s, and GOAT points, stats seem to evaluate every athlete’s success. Social success is assessed by the number of holiday cards we send or receive, how many “friends” we have on social media, and how many “likes” we got on our latest post. Intellectual success is measured by IQ, SAT, ACT and GPA numbers. A pastor assesses his success by Sunday’s attendance (or the offering), the teacher by the standardized test results of her students, and the author by his book’s ranking on the best seller list. I’m no different; I often check my website’s stats to see the number of followers, visitors, and views.

When we quantitatively assess our lives, it’s way too easy to find people with better numbers than ours. Moreover, when the numbers aren’t stellar, we often think we’re failures. God, however, isn’t an accountant or statistician. He measures success by standards completely different than those of the world. His standards are qualitative—the quality of our obedience, faith, and love.

That pastor friend eventually came to understand that God looks at a mission’s success far differently than man. Regardless of the number of new believers gained, when the pastor obediently follows God’s direction to lead a mission—to spread God’s word and share His love—he has been a good and faithful servant. When we hear God’s call and whole-heartedly respond to the best of our ability, regardless of the statistics, we have not failed. Success is when we go where He sends us and do what He tells us to do.

Let’s stop playing the numbers game and judging ourselves quantitatively by the world’s standards. Rather than comparing our scores to those of other people, there is only one person to whom we should compare ourselves and that is Christ. He sets the standard for our behavior and, while that standard is observable, it is not measurable. We’re successful if the fruit of His Spirit is visible in our lives—if we demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. In God’s book, we’re successful when we become the sort of people Jesus wants us to be.

We should do what we do in order to gain God’s approval instead of prestige and approval from other human beings. … Are we motivated by the approval of people or the applause of God? [Phil Harper]

You should each judge your own conduct. If it is good, then you can be proud of what you yourself have done, without having to compare it with what someone else has done. For each of you have to carry your own load. [Galatians 6:4-5 (GNT)]

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THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN

So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come. [Matthew 12:31-32 (NLT)]

blue jayWhen speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus delivers what could be called the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that, no matter how evil, vicious or long-lasting the sin, any sin (even blasphemy) is forgivable. The good news, however, comes with a “but” when Jesus says blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven.

Reading Jesus’ words—words said by the One whose blood was shed so our sins would be forgiven—is perplexing. If Jesus could forgive the many unnamed sins of those he healed, the soldiers who gambled for his clothing at the foot of the cross, and Peter’s three denials, what sin is so great that even His blood would not cover it? What exactly is blasphemy against the Spirit and how does it differ from speaking against the “Son of Man” (who we know to be Jesus)?

This good news/bad news scenario was delivered right after Jesus made it clear that there was no neutral ground when it came to Him—either people were with Jesus on God’s side or without Him on Satan’s side. He was directly speaking to Pharisees—people clearly not on Jesus’s side! They hated Him, were plotting His death, and just had denied proof of Christ’s divinity by attributing His healing miracles to Satan. Theirs wasn’t an act so horrendous that Jesus could not forgive them. Rather, their sin was one of attitude. What was unforgivable was their continual rejection of Jesus and their deliberate choice of Satan over Him.

As shocking as it seems, Jesus even says that blasphemy against Him can be forgiven. The Apostle Paul, for example, freely admitted to blaspheming the name of Christ while persecuting Christians. Yet, he experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness because he did so in ignorance and unbelief. If, however, after encountering the living Jesus on the road to Damascus, being supernaturally blinded, meeting Ananias, and having the scales fall from his eyes so that he knew the truth, Paul had never repented and come to believe in Christ, like the Pharisees, he would have committed the unforgivable sin. It would have become unpardonable blasphemy against the Spirit only if, after seeing the Truth incarnate, Paul continued to disparage, attack, and reject Jesus. Fortunately for us, after seeing the truth, Paul did repent and his “blasphemy” was forgiven.

Even scholars and theologians disagree on the exact meaning of this difficult text and I am neither scholar nor theologian. Nevertheless, the unpardonable sin appears to be what those Pharisees exhibited: a deliberate. obstinate, resolute, and tenacious resistance to the Spirit’s pursuit and voice. Even the demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God but the religious leaders, people who knew the prophecies and witnessed His miracles first-hand, blatantly refused to acknowledge Him. They didn’t even bother to dispute the miracles; they chose instead to dispute the source of Jesus’ power by attributing the works of God to Satan. That was unforgivable.

Some theologians think this warning applies only to those people of the 1st century who, like the Pharisees, actually witnessed the irrefutable proof that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit and then denied the overwhelming evidence of His divinity. Only God knows for sure. The important thing for us to understand is that, like the unbelieving Pharisees, people freely choose how they will spend eternity and, like Paul, no matter how shameful the sin, when we sincerely seek God’s forgiveness through Christ, we can be certain that He will forgive us.

Even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:13-16 (NLT)]

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GOD IDEAS

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)]

Every Friday, I’m emailed a “weekly wisdom” consisting of two pithy sayings like, “Don’t just trust God for things; trust Him in things,” or “You can’t enjoy today if you’re worrying about the past or the future.” Last week’s wisdom really hit home with, “Not every good idea is a God idea!” More than once, I’ve looked back with regret while saying, “It seemed like such a good idea at the time!”

When she did it, eating that forbidden fruit probably seemed like a good idea to Eve just as moving to the beautiful grazing land near Sodom seemed a good idea to Lot. David’s ideas about taking a census to know the strength of his troops and transporting the Ark on a cart might have seemed good ones at the time but he lived to regret them. Fresh from his victory over Edom, King Amaziah may have thought it good strategy to challenge King Jehoash of Israel and, anxious for a child, Sarah probably thought it a good plan to give Hagar to Abraham. Saul’s idea to make sacrifices without waiting for Samuel, Rebekah’s scheme to deceive Isaac, and Hezekiah showing off his riches to envoys from Babylon may have seemed like good ideas at the time but, like those others, they weren’t! They may have looked like good ideas but none were God’s idea and all ended badly.

What those words of wisdom should have added, however, is that not every God idea seems like a good one. In fact, many make no sense to our mortal reasoning. Even though it was God’s idea to lead the people back toward Egypt and camp facing Pharaoh’s army with their backs to the Red Sea, it probably didn’t seem like a good idea to Moses and the Israelites. Joshua probably had reservations about exhausting his troops by marching them around Jericho for seven days and Gideon must have wondered at the wisdom of reducing his army of 32,000 to 300. Being told by God to deliberately marry a promiscuous woman who would betray him probably made no more sense to Hosea than buying land occupied by the Babylonians did to Jeremiah or building an enormous boat with no water nearby did to Noah. Nevertheless, as unreasonable as God’s ideas might have seemed to them, they faithfully obeyed. Regardless of appearances, they knew that God’s ideas are good ones!

We tend to think that the ideas we like are good ones (and God’s) and the ideas we don’t like couldn’t possibly come from Him which makes it difficult to discern the difference between God’s ideas and ours. The more we know of Him and His word, however, the easier it will be to determine if our good ideas and God’s ideas are the same. Even when God’s idea doesn’t seem like a good one, rest assured that, when God tells us to do (or not to do) something, we can know that His idea is far better than any we might have!

God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of God. [Oswald Chambers]

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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THE OTHER LAZARUS

But Abraham said to him, “Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.” [Luke 16:25-26 (NLT)]

Shortly after accusing the Pharisees of being more concerned with appearing righteous than being righteous and warning them that God knew what was in their hearts, Jesus told them a story about a rich man (who probably appeared quite righteous) and a beggar named Lazarus. The leprous and destitute Lazarus sat by the rich man’s gate and begged for scraps from the man’s table while mangy dogs licked at his wounds. The rich man ignored the beggar; to him, Lazarus probably was a little more than a piece of trash to step over before entering his home. When Lazarus died, he was carried by angels to a heavenly banquet and seated in a place of honor beside Abraham. When the rich man died, however, he ended up in Hades or Sheol, the realm of the dead. The mention of “torment” and “flames” there indicates that the rich man was in what Jewish tradition called Gehinnom (a place of fire and anguish).

Upon seeing Lazarus in the distance, the rich man asked Abraham to send the beggar over with some water to ease his agony. After Abraham explained that the chasm between them couldn’t be crossed, the rich man asked him to send Lazarus back to warn the wealthy man’s brothers about his fate in the place of torment. Abraham reminded him that the warning already was in Scripture and, since his brothers had ignored Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t be persuaded by someone who returned from the dead.

Although Jesus spoke of sons, fathers, laborers, and land owners in his other parables, this is the only parable in which He used a proper name. Because Jesus seemed to use his words purposefully, I don’t think the beggar was named Lazarus by accident. It is only later, when Jesus raises Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead, that we understand why this is the only parable in which a character is given a name and why that specific name was chosen. Just as Jesus predicted, even when a man named Lazarus did return from the dead, the Pharisees weren’t persuaded by him. Instead, they decided to kill him!

Remembering that this is a parable rather than a literal description of the next life, there is no reason to think that those in heaven or hell can see or converse with one another. Nevertheless, there are some clear theological implications to the story. The word translated as chasm was chasma. Used just this one time in the New Testament, it means gaping hole, vacancy, or impassable interval. The next word is stérizó, meaning firmly established or solidly planted. Without a doubt, that gaping hole is an unbridgeable space and, as Abraham explained, there can be no passage between them. This parable illustrates a clear and serious reality: the coming judgment depends on the choices made in this life and it is permanent and irreversible. While we have countless opportunities to get it right while we’re on this side of the grass, let us remember that there are no second chances after death!

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NLT)]

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GOING “ALL-IN”

My dear family, I don’t reckon that I have yet overtaken it. But this is my one aim: to forget everything that’s behind, and to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. I mean to chase on towards the finishing post, where the prize waiting for me is the upward call of God in King Jesus. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NTE)]

dolphinJeopardy contestant James Holzhauer became known for his 32-game winning streak, massive winnings, and his “all-in” hand gesture while putting all of his winnings on the line when answering a Daily Double. A new champion is in the making with Ph.D. student Matt Amodio. Like Holzhauer, he plays an aggressive game and is not timid when it comes to the Daily Double. Last Wednesday, after saying “all-in,” he wagered his entire holdings of $8,000 and lost it all; undeterred by the previous night’s Daily Double loss, he again went “all-in” with a $10,400 wager the next day. His willingness to go “all-in” has paid off handsomely and, by the end of the week, he’d won 28 games and amassed $1,004,001.

Seeing both Holzhauer and Amodio fearlessly go “all-in” when it comes to game show winnings, I wondered if we’re as fearless when it comes to going “all-in” when it comes to God. Showing tremendous confidence in their intelligence and knowledge of trivia, neither contestant allowed previous set-backs to keep them from their purpose. Granted, their goal was to amass as much money as possible yet I question whether we’re as confident in God and as determined in our purpose to serve him faithfully. Are we “all-in” when it comes to following Jesus?

Scripture’s heroes are people who went “all-in” – not with their money but with their lives. Noah was “all-in” when he built the ark on dry land, Jochebed was all-in when she placed the infant Moses in a basket and placed him on the bank of the Nile, and Abraham went “all-in” when he left his homeland, packed up his possessions, and set off to parts unknown. The unmarried Mary wasn’t so naïve that she didn’t know the risks of her choice, but she went “all-in” when she chose to become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Think of John and James who went “all-in” when they left their father and fishing boat or Matthew who left his lucrative tax collector job. Peter went “all-in” when he stepped out of the boat to walk on water, the woman with the bleeding disorder was “all-in” when she ventured into the crowd to touch Jesus, and the unnamed woman was “all-in” when she anointed Jesus’ feet and hair with her tears and costly jar of fragrant oil. The poor widow was “all-in” when she dropped two small coins in the collection box, Stephen was “all-in” when he continued to preach the gospel as stones rained down on him, Barnabas went “all-in” when he sold his land and gave the proceeds to the church, and Peter and John were “all-in” when they defied the authorities and continued to boldly proclaim the gospel. Like Holzhauer and Amodio, they took risks with no guarantee of success but, unlike those game show contestants, they didn’t do it for themselves; they did it for God. It wasn’t an earthly prize they sought; it was a heavenly one!

Think of the rich young ruler who, although he wanted to know Jesus, was reluctant to surrender to Him. Unwilling to go “all-in,” he walked away from the Lord and missed an eternal relationship with God! What about us? Are we “all-in” when it comes to Jesus? With His words that we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind,” Jesus is telling us that we are to go “all-in” all of the time. Do we?

He then spoke to them all. “If any of you want to come after me,” he said, “you must say No to yourselves, and pick up your cross every day, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me, you’ll save it. What good will it do you if you win the entire world, but lose or forfeit your own self? … “Nobody,” replied Jesus, “who begins to plough and then looks over his shoulder is fit for God’s kingdom.”  [Luke 9:23-25,62 (NTE)]

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