WHERE WAS HE? (Daniel – part 3)

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Frabel - Naples Botanic GardenSomeone was missing from yesterday’s story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace: their good friend Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar’s giant statue was erected on the plain of Dura, word was sent to all of his officials to assemble there for the statue’s dedication. We know Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were there because Daniel reported that they got tossed in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an idol. But what of Daniel? He’s the one who chronicled the event: the one who wrote that all of the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and provincial officials were present. Daniel gives no explanation for his absence at the dedication of the king’s golden statue.

We’d like to think that Daniel remained back in Babylon for some important task at the palace, was elsewhere on a vital mission, or even sick in bed. We want to think Daniel wasn’t there because, if he’d been in Dura that day, he should have joined his friends in the furnace. Four men would have been sent to certain death unless, unlike his friends, Daniel had bowed to the idol! Daniel, however, is our hero: the wise prophet who later braved a king’s wrath to pray and survived being thrown into a den of lions. We never want to think that our heroes are real people, with feet of clay, just like us. When we look at the Bible’s heroes, however, they really are every bit as flawed as are we! Among others, we have drunken Noah, lying Abraham, impatient Sarah, deceitful Jacob, thieving Rachel, temperamental Moses, jealous Miriam, weak Aaron, immoral Rahab, psychotic Saul, adulterous David, sex-addicted Solomon, bad dads Eli and Samuel, the thieving publican Matthew, and Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus. They all disappointed God and sinned at one time or another.

We’ll never know if Daniel was in that fiery furnace with his friends, far from Dura that day, or if he bowed to the idol. Oddly, the remote possibility that he might have bowed his head to an idol doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t disturb me because we have a great God of second (third, fourth, and more) chances. If Daniel sinned that day, along with prophecy and history, his story is one of forgiveness and redemption.

What we do know is that that God continued to give Daniel wisdom and revelations during the more than seventy years he served the four rulers of Babylon. We know that, when another opportunity arose to honor his God by rejecting idolatry, Daniel did the right thing. Perhaps he was inspired by his friends’ faith. In spite of knowing that he’d face certain death in a lions’ den, Daniel remained faithful and continued to openly pray to God rather than to the king. “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully rescue you,” said the king, and God did. Daniel, at the end of his story, was as faithful to God as were his three friends that day on the plain of Dura.

For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. He rescues and saves his people; he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions. [Daniel 6: 26-27 (NLT)]

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MISTAKES HAPPEN

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:9 (NLT)]

golden mantled ground squirrel - YellowstoneIt was late Saturday night when one of our pastors glanced at the next day’s church program and saw that Sunday’s sermon was titled “Epithet.” Since he wasn’t speaking about insults on social media but about the way we’ll be remembered when we’re gone, it should have read “Epitaph.” After spending the next hour trying to figure out a way to tie epithets into epitaphs, he realized it made more sense to own up to his spelling error, which he did at all three services.

Life gives us an abundance of opportunities to make mistakes and, sometimes, it seems as if we never miss one! We mishear, misinterpret, misjudge, misread, misspeak, misspell, misunderstand and, yes, we sin. We take wrong turns, say the wrong things, and believe the wrong person. Sometimes, that wrong person is an over-confident self. Overly confident, the pastor didn’t proofread, the builders of the Titanic didn’t provide enough life boats, and Napoleon thought he could successfully invade Russia in the winter.

Like the pastor, as much as we hate to do it, we need to own our mistakes and admit our responsibility for them. Sometimes, we can make the best of them, in which case they cease being mistakes. For example, while 3M’s Patty Sherman was trying to develop a rubber that wouldn’t deteriorate when exposed to jet fuel fumes, she made a mistake and spilled a few drops of one failed test batch on her shoe. Later, seeing that those spots were clean while the rest of her shoe had gotten stained and dirty, she made the most of that mistake with a product we call Scotchguard!

Sometimes, we can fix our mistakes. When KFC discovered their motto “Finger-lickin’ good!” became “Eat your fingers off!” in Chinese, they quickly corrected their clumsy translation. Sometimes, though, we just plow on ahead in the face of our errors. The Leaning Tower of Pisa started to lean five years after construction began but, rather than admit and correct the problem, building continued for another for 192 years. They kept compensating by making the uphill side shorter but, because mistakes don’t correct themselves, the tower kept leaning.

Like that learning tower, many of our mistakes are ones with which we must live. Hopefully, we learn from our errors as I imagine NASA did when they accidentally taped over their video of the moon landing. Rather than dwelling on our mistakes, we have to move out of the land of “what if” into the land of “what is.” This, however, is where we encounter the hardest part of making a mistake: forgiving ourselves.

Consider the mistakes of Judas and Peter: Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and Peter denied Him three times. Realizing Jesus would die for his betrayal, could Judas have been trying to undo his mistake by giving back the blood money? Filled with remorse and unable to change what had been done, he killed himself. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if only Judas had waited three days. I know Jesus would have forgiven Him. Think of the testimony Judas could have given if he’d forgiven himself and waited as did Peter. Like Judas, Peter betrayed Jesus but, unlike him, he forgave himself, lived with his mistake, and was in the room when Jesus appeared! Think of the powerful testimony Peter did give!

We have a choice about even our most grievous mistakes. Like Peter, we can live with them, forgive ourselves, accept God’s forgiveness, and move on with our lives in service to Him. Or, like Judas, we can hold on to them and refuse to forgive ourselves. Our guilt may not take our lives but it will take our peace, joy, self-confidence, hope, and even our faith in a forgiving God. We’re told we must forgive to be forgiven; it would seem that command means forgiving ourselves as much as it means forgiving others. Let our guilt be washed away!

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. [Psalm 32:5 (NLT)]

And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. [Hebrews 10:21-22 (NLT)]

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TOSS ‘EM OUT – It’s a New Year

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. [Hebrews 4: 13 (NLT)]

Snow in SteamboatExplaining her years of addiction, Alice said, “It’s all because my parents moved from Illinois to Texas while I was in high school.” Was the move a contributing factor to Alice’s drug use? Maybe, but that was more than twenty-five years ago and has nothing to do with her failure to deal with her behavior today. Since high school, she’s abandoned a child, served time in prison, been in and out of a well-known residential rehab so often that she should have her own room, and is still lying, stealing, and using. Like many of us, Alice is simply blame shifting.

Yes, our experiences influence us but, as Christians, our past determines neither our present nor our future. By blaming our genes, nationality, appearance, or our over-indulgent or too strict parents, we abandon ownership of our failures and sins. We say we had too little or were given too much, that the spouse was inattentive, the judge was prejudiced, the teacher was inept, or we shouldn’t have moved. I’ve heard people blame their rudeness, stinginess, drinking, and tempers on their upbringing when they alone are responsible for their conduct today. Blaming other people or things implies that we aren’t accountable for our actions and leads us to think we aren’t responsible for changing that behavior.

Contributing factors, extenuating circumstances, and difficult childhoods may be of interest to a therapist but not to God. We may be able to deceive ourselves and others, but our excuses will never deceive Him! There will come a day when each one of us will be held responsible for our thoughts, words, and deeds and any excuses we use to justify our sins will disappear.

For both the non-believer and believer, there is judgment. No matter what the excuse, the person who has rejected Christ is doomed. When Alice meets God face to face, He will see into her and hold her accountable for her sins: the way she denied Him and wasted the precious life he gave her. While believers are saved by faith alone, they too will be judged. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, they’ll be asked to give an accounting of their lives in service to Him. When Alice’s parents (both believers) stand before God, He won’t hold them accountable for their move to Texas but He may well hold them accountable for the way they continually enabled their daughter to squander her life.

Excuses may not be outright lies but they keep us from facing the truth and, without facing the truth about ourselves, we won’t change. Our goal in life is to become more like Christ and we can’t do that by rationalizing our failings. This is a new year and a perfect time to do some serious self-examination. Are we victims of circumstance or victors in Christ? Are there any excuses we should toss out with the holiday trash?

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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THE BLAME GAME

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. [Matthew 7:1-2 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew sanctuaryThere’s a classic Peanuts comic (drawn by Charles Schulz) that shows meek Linus questioning Lucy, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” His bossy big sister answers: “I just think I have a knack for seeing other peoples’ faults.” Dropping his blanket, Linus asks, “What about your own faults?” to which Lucy replies, “I have a knack for overlooking them.” Among other things, Lucy has what psychologists call “fundamental attribution error.”

Fundamental attribution error is the tendency to judge other people differently than how we judge ourselves. We attribute other peoples’ flawed behavior to shortcomings in their character (dispositional attribution) and ours to the challenges of our situation (situational attribution). For example, when someone else spills his coffee, it’s because he was careless but, when we do, it’s because the barista didn’t put the lid on tight. When a car speeds past us in traffic, the driver is a jerk but, when we exceed the speed limit, it’s because we’re late for an important appointment. Our neighbor’s angry outburst is evidence of a character flaw but our temper tantrum is because of the extreme pressure at work. Unfortunately, we often attribute other people’s actions to their disposition (they’re irresponsible, inconsiderate, or foolish) rather than consider that their behavior, just like ours, could also be linked to their circumstances. Although we know our story, we don’t know the stories of others. Perhaps the person who spilled the coffee has Parkinson’s, the speeder was on his way to the hospital, or the neighbor’s spouse just filed for divorce.

Without reading further than Jesus’s first words in Matthew 7, people often misinterpret the passage. “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged,” Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge. He doesn’t want us to suspend our critical thinking or be so open-minded that our brains fall out! Wanting us to use discernment in our dealings with people, He tells us that the same standard we use in judging others will be applied to us. The literal translation for this verse is: “for in what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and in what measure ye measure, it shall be measured to you.” If I measure you in fractions of an inch, I can’t measure myself in yards! If I judge your actions by your nature, I must judge mine the same way. If I explain or justify my actions by my circumstances, I must consider that circumstances may also explain or justify yours.

Even if you didn’t hurry home after school to watch Dark Shadows, you probably know that vampires can’t see their reflections in the mirror. While we may not sleep in coffins during the day, there’s a little bit of vampire in us when it comes to seeing ourselves in a mirror. Like Lucy, we often judge other people harshly but rationalize our own behavior to make it excusable. Jesus, however, tells us to take a good hard look at ourselves and deal with our own faults before we start judging other people.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Deal with the faults of others as gently as your own.” While that’s good advice, Jesus tells us to deal with our own faults before we begin to deal with anyone else’s.

It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own. You can‘t clear your own fields while you’re counting the rocks on your neighbor’s farm. [Cicero]

And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. [Matthew 7:3-5 (NLT)]

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THE OLIVE BRANCH

Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. [Leviticus 19:18 (NCV)]

Humility has such power. Apologies can disarm arguments. Contrition can defuse rage. Olive branches do more good than battle axes ever will. [Max Lucado]

mourning doveIn a “Baby Blues” comic strip, Zoe, the big sister approaches her brother and tells him, “About that fight we had a while ago…I would like to extend an olive branch.” With a panicked look on his face, the little brother screams, “MOM!!! Zoe’s threatening me with a stick!” Having had an older brother who delighted in tormenting me, I completely sympathized with the little boy. There were times when my brother just had to come near me and I would frantically call out, “Mom, Steve’s hitting me again!” I wanted to avoid another painful punch but, who knows, maybe one of those times he, like Zoe, was just offering an olive branch.

Long before the ancient Greeks and Romans used the olive branch as a symbol for victory and peace, the story of Noah recorded that a dove brought an olive branch back to the ark which meant the end of the flood and the earth’s rebirth. Symbolizing peace and reconciliation, the olive branch requires two things: someone to extend it and someone else to accept it. An apology and its acceptance are two sides of the same coin, as are the asking of forgiveness and the granting of it. Both are necessary for peace in our lives.

I have been like Zoe, the one extending the olive branch; I admitted my offense, apologized, and asked forgiveness but was rebuffed. Unfortunately, there are people who will never accept an apology, no matter how humbly or amiably it is offered. All we can do is keep the olive branch extended, pray that God will open their hearts, and continue to love.

Like Zoe’s little brother, however, it’s not always easy to accept that olive branch. Wanting to protect ourselves from further hurt or disappointment, we may prefer suspicion, aloofness, hostility, or anger. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to trust people who are untrustworthy or believe those who are dishonest. An act of love, mercy and grace, forgiveness is releasing the offense and offender to God; it is giving up our right to hurt those who’ve hurt us. Being the wronged party never gives us permission to continue the wrong with unforgiveness.

Along with an olive branch, the handshake is a gesture of peace. In ancient Greece, hands were grasped to demonstrate that neither person held a weapon. In Rome, the grasp became more of an arm grab as a way of seeing whether any weapons were hidden in someone’s sleeves. The shaking part is said to come from medieval England when knights would shake hands in an attempt to shake loose any concealed weapons.

Hopefully, we don’t need to worry about lethal weapons hiding in sleeves when we shake hands this holiday season. Nevertheless, we need to put aside the invisible weapons we carry: things like anger, gossip, blame, intolerance, pettiness, jealousy, resentment, and disrespect. Let’s extend any olive branches that need to be extended and accept any that are offered. If there can’t be peace throughout the world this holiday season (and from the news that looks unlikely), let there at least be peace and reconciliation in our homes and families.

To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven. [Charles Spurgeon]

When you are praying, if you are angry with someone, forgive him so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins. But if you don’t forgive other people, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins. [Mark 11:25-26 (NCV)]

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THE SINNER’S PRAYER

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38 (ESV)]

anenome - Canada or meadowIn a book about evangelism I read, the author wrote of bringing a new believer into his office and the two of them saying the Sinner’s Prayer. After the new believer repeated the Pastor’s words, he was pronounced saved. While there is no official version, the prayer probably went something like this: “God, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen.” Since many evangelical Christians speak of saying some sort of prayer like this at the moment of conversion, I wondered if a specific “Sinner’s Prayer” is a requirement for salvation.

If a special prayer is required, we should find it in the Bible yet, while we find lots of prayers, there doesn’t appear to be a prayer prerequisite for salvation. Jesus told the sinful woman who kissed and anointed his feet that her faith had saved her, the woman with the bleeding disorder that her faith made her well, and the blind men that their faith gave them sight. When the 3,000 were converted at Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent of their sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized. After speaking with Ananias, Saul regained his sight and was baptized. While Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they all were baptized. In none of these cases is there mention of a special prayer before conversion, asking for salvation or taking Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. The people believed, repented, and were baptized. If a special prayer is required for Christ’s salvation, I’m pretty sure it would have been included in Scripture and it isn’t.

Nevertheless, it is Biblical to repentantly pray and ask for forgiveness; what’s not Biblical is to say salvation comes because of a prayer. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith. We are justified by faith, not by works and certainly not by words. Even so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with praying some sort of sinner’s prayer at conversion—unless, of course, the person praying isn’t called by the Holy Spirit and genuinely repentant. When empty of faith, that prayer is meaningless and gives the person praying it a false (and dangerous) sense of security. Merely saying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t like purchasing an insurance policy guaranteeing salvation and eternal life. Even repeating dozens of prayers can’t save us. We’re not saved by the words of a prayer but by the genuine repentance and faith behind the prayer. As Christians, we don’t put our trust in words but in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, since we’re all sinners, every prayer we say is a sinner’s prayer. Nevertheless, our faith, hope and assurance should not be in the prayers we say but rather in the God who hears our prayers.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)]

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-10 (ESV)]

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