PRESENCE OR PRESENTS?

“I’m telling you the solemn truth,” he said. “You aren’t looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate as much bread as you could. You shouldn’t be working for perishable food, but for food that will last to the life of God’s coming age – the food which the son of man will give you, the person whom God the father has stamped with the seal of his approval.” [John 6:26-27 (NTE)]

white peacock butterfly

As a result of Jesus miraculously providing food for a multitude with a boy’s lunch, the people wanted to make Him king. Rather than Caesar, they desired a ruler who would provide them with food and security. Realizing this, Jesus slipped away from the crowd. He and the disciples crossed over to the lake to Capernaum but the crowds followed Him there. Selfishly, they were looking to Jesus as if He were some sort of miracle-working vending machine—just pop in a material need and out would come a healing, feast, or wine enough for a week! Since they were seeking perishable bread rather than the enduring bread of everlasting life, Jesus confronted the crowd about their motivation. Like them, do we ever find ourselves seeking God’s hand rather than His face?

Most of the invitations we receive are for celebrations of retirement, landmark birthdays, or special anniversaries. They usually include something like, “Your presence would be the best present you could give us,” or “Your presence is present enough.” I wonder, are we are as willing to invite God into our lives with the same kind of wording? Or, like small children who greedily tear into all of their birthday gifts, are His presents more important than His presence?

Sometimes, when looking at my prayer list, I wonder if, like those people who followed Jesus looking for gifts, I might be more interested in Jesus satisfying my earthly wants rather than His filling my spiritual needs. Rather than abiding in meditative prayer, delighting in His presence, and getting to know Him, I often rush through a laundry list of requests. Rather than praying that He align my prayers with His will, I want Him to match His will with my desires. I often seem more interested in what He can give me than how I can best serve Him. I seem to forget that, when I invited Jesus to my party, it wasn’t for His presents; it was for Him!

In spite of those words requesting no presents on party invitations, there usually is a table laden with a variety of gifts and cards because people naturally want to give presents to the ones they love. God, like our friends, will also bring presents along with His presence when we invite Him into our lives. Because He loves us, He will lavish us with both His presence and the best presents possible: peace, love, forgiveness, guidance, faith, joy, wisdom, hope, and salvation.

God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. [2 Peter 1:3 (NTE)]

Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over your hearts and minds in King Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NTE)]

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TRYING TO SERVE TWO (Part 3)

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. [Deuteronomy 5:7-9a (NLT)]

campionAlthough Elisha once worked his land with a plow and oxen, after he accepted Elijah’s cloak, he burnt his plow and oxen, left home, and joined Elijah as an itinerant prophet who depended on others for food and shelter. We know that every time Elisha passed through Shunem, he was fed and sheltered by a family there and Scripture tells us that pious Israelites commonly brought gifts to the prophets they consulted. So why wouldn’t Elisha accept any of Naaman’s generous gifts?

As a pagan Aramean who was ignorant of Jehovah, Naaman was used to priests and prophets who greedily demanded rewards for their services. As a servant of God, however, Elisha knew it was wrong to accept payment for Naaman’s healing. After all, he’d done nothing but tell the man to wash himself in the Jordan seven times. Elisha’s refusal of payment made it clear to Naaman that Israel’s powerful God alone had done the healing and God’s grace and miracles are not for sale. When Jehovah made Himself known to the pagan warrior, Naaman realized that, rather than being one of many gods, the God of Israel was the only God. Saying, “There is no God in all the world except in Israel,” the Aramean vowed never again to worship another god.

Naaman then made a rather strange request—that he be allowed to load two mules with some of Israel’s dirt to take back home. While that seems a bizarre sort of souvenir to us, it made perfect sense to Elisha. The pagan people of the ancient Near East believed that gods were tied to the lands they ruled and that a deity only could be worshiped on the soil of the nation to which he was bound. If Naaman wanted to worship Israel’s God, he thought it necessary to use some of Israel’s dirt to make a brick altar on which to make sacrifices. The man who once undervalued and scorned Israel’s Jordan River now overvalued its dirt and wanted to take some back to Damascus! The pagan didn’t understand that all of earth’s soil is God’s!

Having converted to the God of Israel, Naaman made one more request of Elisha. Even though his heart was committed to Jehovah, Naaman knew there would be occasions when he would be required to enter the pagan temple with his master the king. The warrior requested Elisha’s permission and God’s forgiveness when he bowed to the Aramean god Rimmon. Although we’d expect Elisha to respond with the first commandment, the prophet didn’t address Naaman’s dilemma. He simply encouraged the man’s desire to be faithful to God while serving a pagan king with these words, “Go in peace.”

Elisha’s words were ones of grace acknowledging that the world is filled with difficult decisions for people of faith. Unlike Naaman, we may not be expected to bow down to an idol to please the king, but we regularly face both big and small moral dilemmas when we’re asked to bow to the idols of position, appearance, popularity, success, status, fashion, fame, wealth, reputation, or sex. We must ask ourselves who is our master and to what will we bow.

We don’t know what happened to Naaman but I wonder how serving two masters worked for him! I suspect one of them was not pleased.

So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. [Joshua 24:14 (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” [Luke 4:8 (NLT)]

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THE MONEY TREE (Part 1)

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. [Matthew 6:24 (RSV)]

money tree - pachira acquaticaWhile walking through the botanic garden recently, I looked up to see the showy flowers of the Money Tree (Pachira aquatica). Although the tree is said to bring good fortune and prosperity, no money was hanging from its branches. Nevertheless, its name reminded me of my father’s frequent caution that money didn’t grow on trees! Perhaps it’s because money doesn’t grow on trees that we frequently seem so obsessed by it.

I’ve read claims that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. His mention of money, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that was His topic. Although the parable’s good Samaritan gave the innkeeper two coins and promised to pay the injured man’s debt, the parable isn’t about money any more than the Hidden Treasure parable is about investing in real estate or the parable of the Loaned Money about loan sharking! Even though Jesus may have mentioned money when speaking, it seems that He was far more interested in the topics of God’s Kingdom, faith, salvation, and forgiveness than money.

Jesus, however, did tell us that we can’t serve two masters—we can’t serve both God and wealth. The word translated as serve was douleuō, which meant to serve as a slave or one in bondage, and the word translated as master was kuriois, which meant one who possesses uncontested power and absolute ownership and authority over another. In Jesus’ world, the slave had no rights and the master had complete control over him. The master owned both the slave and all of the slave’s possessions including every minute of his time!

Because Jesus’ words make it clear He was speaking of servitude, we mustn’t make the mistake of substituting “work” for douleuō or “employer” for kuriois. For example, as a consultant, my daughter works for several employers at once. Unlike a slave, however, she is free to pick and choose for whom she works and how she divides her time between them. One who serves a master, however, has no such choice because a master demands total commitment and allegiance.

The two masters of which Jesus was speaking are God and mammon (often translated as money or wealth). Nowadays, mammon has the negative connotation of filthy riches or ill-gotten gains but, to Jesus’ listeners, it didn’t. The word used was mamōna, a neutral word encompassing money, possessions, property, earnings, and riches of all kinds. The rabbis even had a saying, “Let the mammon of thy neighbor be as dear to thee as thine own,” which meant we should care for others’ possessions as carefully as our own. Like many things in life, mammon is neither inherently good or bad; how it is regarded and used is what makes it good or bad. Rather than saying wealth is inherently evil, Jesus is telling us that we can’t serve both wealth and God; at some point, the two masters’ interests will diverge.

There is nothing wrong with having a home, car, job, business, fine jewelry, or investment accounts—what is wrong is allowing any of those things (or the desire for them) to own us! We can enjoy them as long as we understand that God alone is our master and all of our possessions and time belong to Him. Although He’s loaned them to us for the time being, we are to serve God with them. When we set our hearts on money or things, however, we’re serving another master. We must never crave wealth more than we desire God, put our trust in money rather Him, love possessions more than we love Him, or choose to serve mammon rather than serve God. We cannot claim Jesus as Lord if our allegiance is to anything or anyone other than Him. He, alone, is our master and He is the one we serve!

Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Matthew 6:19-21 (RSV)]

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IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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JUST DO IT (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 2)

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (RSV)]

brown pelicanWhen writing about the Good Samaritan yesterday, I recalled being asked who represents Jesus in the parable. The most obvious answer appears to be the Samaritan. After all, love that unlimited and sacrificial had to have been supernatural. The parallels are somewhat obvious—both men were merciful, compassionate, paid another man’s debt, promised to return, and were despised and rejected by the Jews. In fact, early commentators like Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and Origen found all sorts of allegorical meaning in the story with the injured man representing Adam, the bandits Satan, the loss of clothing as man’s loss of innocence, the wine given the man as Christ’s atoning blood, the inn as the Church, the innkeeper as Paul (or the Pope), and the two coins given to the innkeeper as the Law and the Prophets or the two testaments. While some of Jesus’ parables (like the Sower and the Soils, the Wheat and the Weeds, and the Evil Tenants) clearly are allegories, other are not.

Sometimes a parable is just a parable and The Good Samaritan meets the traditional definition of a parable: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Rather than preaching about Himself, Jesus was giving a straightforward answer to the question of who is our neighbor and He did it in an easily remembered story that makes its point in a striking way. While the parallels between the Good Samaritan’s compassionate acts and Jesus’ sacrificial love for us are remarkable, we should be cautious of complicating the parable or adding extra meaning where there is none. After all, unlike many of his parables, Jesus didn’t seem to think this one required additional explanation. He simply said, “Go and do likewise!”

If, however, we went looking for a Jesus figure in this parable, perhaps we should consider the Samaritan as an ordinary person and the injured man as Jesus. He was beaten, stripped, abandoned, and left to die, as was our Lord and, like Jesus, after being ignored by the pious Jews, He was accepted by the outcast Gentiles. In this light, perhaps, in a roundabout way, Jesus did answer the lawyer’s question about attaining eternal life. Eternal life isn’t defined by good works—although we can try, none of us can love as lavishly and perfectly as did the Samaritan. But, just as the Samaritan responded to the injured Jew, we can respond to Jesus. And, when we do, we will be given divine empowerment to love God and others.

Reverend Amy Reumann tells of a sermon her grandfather preached to his small congregation; at a mere ten words, it might be the shortest sermon known! After reading Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as his sermon’s text, her grandfather said, “We all know what this means. Just go do it.” With those ten words, the sermon was over and the pastor sat down. Perhaps we try to complicate this simple parable because we know exactly what it means and we don’t want to do it! Preferring not to get involved, interrupted, or inconvenienced, we don’t want the obligation of addressing the pain, poverty, hunger, hurt, injustice, oppression, loss, affliction, and abuse found in this broken world. Although we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone, let us always remember the Apostle James’ words that faith without works is dead!

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [James 2:14-17 (RSV)]

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INCLUSIVE IN AN EXCLUSIVE WAY

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

Since no man is excluded from calling upon God the gate of salvation is open to all. There is nothing else to hinder us from entering, but our own unbelief. [John Calvin]

hibiscusGod’s plan for salvation was all inclusive; He made that clear in Genesis when He said that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. In announcing Jesus’ birth, the angels said it was good news for all nations. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, it became clear that He came not just for the Jews but for all people. Jesus invited all who were weary and heavy-laden, not just a select few. He healed the Roman centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter and ministered in Samaria and the Gentile city of Gerasenes. In what is called the “great commission,” Jesus instructed his disciples to spread the good news to all the nations. The Gospel’s message of salvation is offered to both Gentile and Jew, women and men, slave and slave holder, the destitute and rich, the merchant and beggar, the tradesperson and day laborer, the able and infirm, the demon-possessed and rational, and both the upright and those with sullied pasts. No one is turned away when they repent and come to Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Indeed, the Christian church is all-inclusive in its love for mankind and its invitation to all the people of the world.

We are, indeed, an eclectic group of people of different backgrounds, races, traditions, languages, and politics but, as inclusive as we are in our love and message, the followers of Christ have a shared creed that unites us into an exclusive group. Christians are diverse and inclusive but Christianity is not.

While we may find wisdom and inspiration in Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha’s words in the Dhammapada, the Chinese philosophy of the Tao Te-Ching, and even in the rabbis’ discourse in the Talmud, we know those texts are not sacred and the words in them are man’s, not God’s. Christianity doesn’t allow for a mingling of faith in other philosophies or gods.

We don’t get to pick and choose from a variety of beliefs as if we were at a smorgasbord. We can’t start with Jesus and add a bit of reincarnation, dollop on some karma, sprinkle on one’s own spiritual authority, ladle on a bit of astrology, add a side of Zen, and then top it off with some channeling. If it’s not in the Bible, it doesn’t get put on our plates! Our God is a jealous God and he won’t share His position or Word with anything or anyone. Jesus made it clear that he was not one of the ways but, rather, the only way to salvation.

It’s been said that all roads lead to Rome, meaning that there are many different ways to accomplish the same goal. While that may be true when it comes to such things as cooking, painting, gardening, and possibly even getting to Rome, it’s not true with salvation. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that all roads lead to heaven!

Jesus is not one of many ways to approach God, nor is he the best of several ways; he is the only way. [A.W. Tozer]

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6 (NLT)]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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