CAGE FIGHTING

It is true that I am an ordinary, weak human being, but I don’t use human plans and methods to win my battles. I use God’s mighty weapons, not those made by men, to knock down the devil’s strongholds. These weapons can break down every proud argument against God and every wall that can be built to keep men from finding him. [2 Corinthians 10:3-5a (TLB)]

great blue heronIn his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blessed the meek, so I doubt He would have been a fan of mixed martial arts. Nevertheless, several years ago, our mountain church did a sermon series titled “Cage Fighting” and a large cage of chain-link fencing was placed in the front of the church to represent Satan’s strongholds. Instead of allowing Satan to keep us locked in his cage, the sermon series was about fighting our way out of it. Thinking about the viciousness and brutality of cage fighting, I recalled C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the second book in his space trilogy—a book in which good and evil actually come to blows as brutal as those in a cage fight.

In Lewis’ book, the young planet of Perelandra has been untouched by sin and death, just as our world once was. When Ransom arrives there, he meets the innocent Tinidril, the Eve figure of her world. Having no knowledge of good or evil because everything on Perelandra is good, she enjoys a friendly relationship with Maleldil (God) as did Adam and Eve before the fall. Rather than a serpent, it is the demonic Professor Weston who tries to tempt the ingenuous Tinidril into defying Maleldil’s one prohibition. Weston uses all sorts of brilliant yet convoluted arguments to seduce the innocent woman into disobedience. He even suggests that her rebellion actually would please God by demonstrating her strength and independence. Out-argued and out-maneuvered by the devious Weston, Ransom despairs of preserving the innocence of the planet. He knows that Weston’s success would mean a tragic end to the Eden of Perelandra.

When Maleldil tells Ransom to physically fight Weston, the man spends the night in debate before reluctantly attacking the enemy bare-handed. A fight without referee, rounds, time limit, or rules, this is a no-holds-barred battle to the bitter end. Although Ransom eventually succeeds, Lewis’ next book in the trilogy reminds us that evil never stops trying to overpower good.

When I read Paul’s words to the Ephesians, I remember Lewis’ story along with that cage in the middle of our church. They remind me that Satan doesn’t abide by the Marquess of Queensberry boxing rules. Like Weston, he fights dirty and takes unfair advantage when his opponent is unprotected or exhausted (as he did when Jesus was in the wilderness). A blatant but skillful liar, our devious enemy often adds a bit of truth to his lies and then twists it to his advantage. Moreover, Satan, like any accomplished fighter, tries to trick us into making foolish mistakes or underestimating him. He lulls us into lowering our guard or taking the easy punch so he can knock us down with a left jab we don’t see coming.

The apostle Paul tells us to wear the armor of God when battling Satan. Truth, righteousness, the peace of God, faith, and salvation are the defensive weapons that help block Satan’s jabs of temptation, sin, shame, guilt, doubt, fear, anger, and unforgiveness. But, as Ransom learned in his battle against evil, the best defense is an offense. Fighting the powers of Satan is like hand-to-hand combat but, rather than fists, we use a sword: the word of God! Unlike Ransom, we must never hesitate to do battle with the forces of evil. With the power of His Holy Spirit and wielding the sword of His Word, we can fight our way out of the enemy’s stronghold.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Ephesians 6:13-17 (NLT)]

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THE PRINCE’S PSALM

swamp lilyI will be careful to live a blameless life—when will you come to help me? I will lead a life of integrity in my own home. … I will reject perverse ideas and stay away from every evil. [Psalm 101:2,4 (NLT)]

Starting with Solomon, Psalm 101 was sung at the kings’ coronations. Believed to have been written by David, the psalm has several “I will” statements in which the king resolves to reign righteously, sing of God’s mercy and justice, and live a blameless life in his home. Pledging to refuse to have anything to do with wickedness, he promises not to tolerate crooked dealings or evil and to be so careful about the character of his associates that only those above reproach would serve him. He vows to be intolerant of slander, conceit, arrogance, deceit, and falsehoods and he pledges that his daily task will be to search out the wicked to free the city from all evil.

Perhaps because the psalm describes the proper conduct for a Christian king, it was known as the “prince’s psalm” in Europe. Ernest I (1601 –1675), the Duke of Saxe-Gotha (and known as “Ernest the Pious”) is said to have sent an unfaithful minister a copy of the psalm as a subtle way of voicing his reproach. It soon became a popular saying that whenever an official did something wrong, he would receive a copy of the “prince’s psalm” to read! With his deep concern about civil government, Martin Luther wrote an 80-page discussion of the psalm in which he expounded on the qualities of a Christian prince or magistrate. Those leadership qualities haven’t gone out of style and 21st century Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe suggests we simply call the psalm “Leadership 101.” Indeed, the psalm is an excellent plan both for virtuous living and good governance.

The psalm’s lofty goals, however, were written by a man who didn’t live up to them and sung for other kings who couldn’t either. I’m sure David had every intention of walking in a way that pleased God. He never envisioned raping Bathsheba, committing adultery, plotting with Joab to murder Uriah, having to deal with Amnon’s rape of Tamar, nor the family and political intrigue that comes with at least eight wives and nineteen sons. When sung at Solomon’s coronation, the new king probably was filled with good intentions, as well. He never pictured having a harem of 1,000, building pagan shrines for Chemosh or Molech, or worshipping those foreign gods. Like David and Solomon, we usually start out with good intentions but seem to lose our way when it comes to achieving them. Even the Apostle Paul admitted difficulty in putting his good intentions into practice when he said, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” [Romans 7:18-19]

In spite of our high ideals and lofty goals, sin loves to rear its ugly head. If people like David, Solomon and Paul couldn’t live up to their good intentions, what chance is there for us? Not much if we hope to do it on our own, but the good news is we’re not alone! “Thank God!” said Paul, “The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 7:25] The rest of the answer is found in Romans 8. Today, don’t just read a portion of this beautiful chapter—please read it all.

And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. …Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. …The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. [Romans 8:2,5,11-12] (NLT)] 

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THE SHIPWRECK 

The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the Lord has told you, “You must never return to Egypt.” The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the Lord. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself. [Deuteronomy 17:16-17 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronThese words were among those the kings of Israel were to copy, keep on their person at all times, and read every day of their lives. Solomon was Israel’s third king and, while we can’t know about Saul or David, it certainly seems that by Solomon’s reign, the words of Deuteronomy had been forgotten or ignored.

Along with his 1,400 chariots, Solomon had 12,000 horses imported from Egypt and Cilicia. Those many horses were a sign a sign of Israel’s military might but they also were a direct violation of the Lord’s command. Worse, Solomon didn’t just return to Egypt to purchase horses; he went there for a queen—Pharaoh’s daughter! Although God had clearly instructed the Israelites not to marry foreigners, along with Pharaoh’s daughter, Solomon married Hittites, and women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Sidon. Apparently, foreign alliances took precedence over God’s commands. Even though the king wasn’t to take many wives, Solomon accumulated 700 of them (along with another 300 concubines).

As for God’s command not to amass large amounts of silver and gold, every year Solomon received 25 tons of gold as well as tax revenues from traders, merchants, and assorted kings and governors. Added to that was all the silver, gold, and precious gems brought to him as gifts by his many guests, like the 9,000 pounds of gold brought to him by the Queen of Sheba! Granted everyone probably has a slightly different opinion of what constitutes “large,” but I think we’d all agree that Solomon went over the top when it came to horses, wives, and wealth!

Solomon was the man who asked God for wisdom and often is called the wisest man who ever lived; yet, Alexander Whyte’s Dictionary of Bible Characters describes him as a “shipwreck” and “the most terrible tragedy in all the world.” Whyte continues, “If ever ship set sail on a sunny morning, but all that was left of her was a board or two on the shore that night, that ship was Solomon. A board or two of rare and precious wood, indeed; and some of them richly worked and overlaid with silver and gold—it was Solomon with his sermons, and his prayers, and his proverbs, and his songs, and his temple.”

During Solomon’s reign, the king wrote 1,005 songs and 3,000 proverbs, a magnificent Temple was built, and an undivided Israel experienced the peak of its power, prestige, and grandeur. These accomplishments are the “rare and precious wood” of which Whyte spoke. Nevertheless, in spite of Solomon’s stellar beginnings, the shipwreck began when ambition, wealth, pride, and lust took over his life. Along with disobeying God by amassing horses, wealth and wives, he built pagan shrines, worshipped pagan gods, worked and taxed his people excessively, and even failed to prepare Rehoboam for the throne. Solomon’s kingdom could have been blessed for all time but it was torn away because of his disobedience; by the end of his son’s reign, the kingdom was divided. I think of Alan Lerner’s words in Camelot: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.” For one brief moment, Israel shone as well!

In Proverbs, we find the wise Solomon talking about discipline, good judgment, and the dangers of lust and greed. We read Wisdom’s warning that the simple, “must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes.” Unfortunately, Solomon seemed better able to give advice than heed it and, in Ecclesiastes, we find him eating that “bitter fruit” with his words of remorse, dissatisfaction, and even self-contempt. They are the words of a man who, in spite of all his possessions and achievement, found no satisfaction in life.

Solomon’s downfall tells us that all the wisdom and wealth in the world mean nothing without the strength of character and discipline that come from God and obedience to His word. I wonder about those words from Deuteronomy that all of Israel’s kings were to copy, read daily, and apply to their reign—words that were to keep them from becoming proud and turning away from God. What, do you suppose, would have happened had Solomon actually done that?

If ever a blazing lighthouse was set up in the sea of life to warn every man and to teach every man, it was Solomon. [Alexander Whyte]

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. [1 Kings 11:9-11 (NLT)]

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LEARN AND APPLY

When he [the king] sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. [Deuteronomy 17:18-19 (NLT)]

butterfly weedWhen I was in elementary school, the homeroom teacher would give us a list of spelling words to learn by Friday. Along with the week’s words, there usually was a spelling rule to learn which would help us spell them. Surely you remember the old maxim, “It’s i before e, except after c, or when sounded as a as in neighbor and weigh!” Applying that rule helped us know how to spell words like siege, yield, ceiling and rein.

Our spelling homework included writing the week’s words at least ten times. Just writing the words, however, was not enough to learn them so, in preparation for Friday’s spelling test, my mother made me spell them for her every night. This was long before spell-check and auto-correct, so spelling was important and we were expected to remember how to spell those words forever (or at least until the end of the year).

The book of Deuteronomy was written to remind the Israelites of what God had done in the past and to guide them in their future conduct once they reached the Promised Land. Although we know from 1 Samuel that God did not want the people to have an earthly king, in His omniscience, God knew they eventually would insist on having one. As a result, in Deuteronomy 17, we find instructions for any future kings of Israel. As part of their training, each new king was to write a copy of the law on a scroll. Whether this was to be the entire book of Deuteronomy or only the principles for godly living found in Moses’ second address (Deuteronomy 5 through 29), we don’t know. Either way, without scanner or copier, this was a tedious task; the king had to do it himself and in the presence of the priests.

Just as writing spelling words was to fix them in my mind, copying the law was to imprint its message on the king’s mind. Simply copying the words, however, was not enough. In the same way I continued to study those words after copying them, the king was to keep his copy of the law with him at all times and to read the words he’d written daily. Then, just as I was supposed to apply spelling principles to any new words I encountered, the kings were expected to apply God’s word to the way they ruled the kingdom. All that copying and reading were worthless if God’s regulations didn’t guide every decision they made.

Write it, read it, and practice it in life! That’s what children are supposed to do in spelling class and what the kings were supposed to do in Canaan. They may have written and read the law but, as the rest of the Old Testament aptly illustrates, they certainly didn’t do a good job of applying it. Let’s learn from their mistakes. Study God’s word but remember that it does no good to be able to recite every chapter and verse if we fail to apply its truth to our lives!

The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. [Søren Kierkegaard]

This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel. [Deuteronomy 17:20 (NLT)]

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THE APPLE OF HIS EYE – Part 2

Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who do me violence, my deadly enemies who surround me. [Psalm 17:8-9 (ESV)]

appleWhen my father called me the apple of his eye, while I knew that meant he cherished me, I didn’t know the idiom originated in the Bible. The Hebrew expression used was ‘iyshown ‘ayin which literally means “little man of the eye.” The ancient metaphor most likely refers to the eye’s pupil—the opening through which light enters the eye. Because our eyes are both necessary and vulnerable, God provided us with reflexes that automatically shut them, turn our heads, or shield them with our hands as a means of protection. Throughout Scripture, the apple of the eye metaphor is used to mean something as precious as the pupil of the eye. With this in mind, the psalmist may be asking God to protect him as if he were the pupil of God’s eye. Supporting that interpretation, the psalmist switches metaphors by asking God for protection by hiding the man in the shadow of His wings. In line with this interpretation, the NLT and other thought-for-thought Bibles translate the above verse as, “Guard me as you would guard your own eyes.”

If we simply replace “apple of your eye” with “pupil” or “eyeball,” however, we’d miss the nuance of the idiom. Although the psalmist is asking God to hide and protect him as God would his own eyes, he is asking more—that God keep His eyes focused on him. When someone looks directly at us, it is in the pupil, the central and darkest part of the eye, where our miniature reflection can be seen. We literally have become the little man or woman in the other person’s eyes. Of course, for us to become that little person in another’s eyes, he or she must be looking directly at us! Since we can’t be the apples in God’s eyes unless He is gazing at us, the psalmist is asking God to keep His eyes focused on him. Fortunately, God never takes His eyes off any of His beloved children and each one of us is the “little man” (or woman) in His eyes!

To shield our eyes and protect them from things like dust, sun, bugs, chemicals, infection, and wind, we wear sun glasses with UV protection, safety glasses, face shields, and assorted goggles for things like SCUBA, skiing, swimming, racquetball, and welding. If we’re careful enough to protect the apple of our eye when handling power tools, riding a motorcycle, playing paintball or handling chemicals, why are we so casual about protecting our relationship with God and His word? For that matter, if we are the people reflected in the pupil of God’s eyes, who is reflected in the pupils of our eyes? On who or what do we gaze? It should be God. Is it?

My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you; keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye; [Proverbs 7:1-2 (ESV)]

The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man… Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love. [Psalm 33:13,18 (ESV)]

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TEACH THE CHILDREN (FATHER’S DAY- 2020)

And you must think constantly about these commandments I am giving you today. You must teach them to your children and talk about them when you are at home or out for a walk; at bedtime and the first thing in the morning. Tie them on your finger, wear them on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house! [Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (TLB)]

elkIn 2018, a woman posted a video on Facebook that was shared over 400,000 times in the next six days. It was of a little boy who had a unique way of reciting his ABCs—each letter was followed by a Bible verse that began with it. Rather than “A is for apple,” the youngster started with “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find,” [Matthew 7:7] and finished with “Zion hears and rejoices.” [Psalm 97:8] In spite of the boy’s dark brown hair and East Texas drawl, the woman mistakenly identified him as blond-haired Prince George, third in line to the British throne. Originally posted in October of 2016, the video actually was of  four-year-old Tanner Hemness from Tyler, Texas.

After the youth minister at Tanner’s church challenged the congregation to learn Bible verses for every letter of the alphabet as a family, Tanner’s dad wasn’t sure his then three-and-a-half-year-old could do it; nevertheless, the family gave it a try. Every week they worked on another letter and verse. Seven months later, Tanner was able to recite his ABCs in Bible verses. We had enough trouble convincing our children that they couldn’t use “Jesus wept” as their personal Bible verse at their confirmations and this little guy learned twenty-six far longer verses! Instead of “Jesus wept,” for J, the youngster learned Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Although there were many positive responses to seeing this little boy happily reciting God’s word, there also was criticism. Among other things, Tanner’s father was accused of brainwashing, psychological indoctrination, and child abuse. Yet, if he’d spent seven months successfully teaching his son how to hit a baseball or make a basket, those same people probably would have applauded his dedication to the boy. Tanner’s father did exactly what Scripture told him to do: teach God’s word to his child. After all, the Israelites were told to talk about God’s word from morning to night, tie it on their hands, wear it on their foreheads, and post it on their doorways, so writing a different Bible verse on a chalkboard each week doesn’t sound that extreme! It speaks of a father’s dedication to and love for both his family and the Lord! Sadly, if we don’t teach our children to follow Jesus, the world will teach them not to!

The Bible is the basis for our faith; all of our doctrine and practices are guided by God’s word. Unfortunately, many of us are at a loss when it comes to knowing what the Bible actually says. That four-year old boy is further ahead than many adults I know. Of course, Tanner’s dad knows that many of those verses don’t have the same meaning to a child that they do to an adult. Realizing his work is not done, he and his wife will continue sharing God’s word and the meaning of those verses with their son. “The hard part,” said Tanner’s father in an interview, comes with “being the kind of dad who helps him live these words.” He’s made a great start!

Sunday is Father’s Day but, sadly, not all of us had fathers as dedicated to their families and God as does Tanner Hemness. Unfortunately, it is far easier to father a child than to be a father to a child. Some of us never may have known our fathers, can barely remember them, or would prefer not remembering them, at all. Nevertheless, we probably all had men in our lives who inspired, taught, nurtured, guided, and corrected us. If we can’t honor our fathers this day, let us honor them.

Thank you, God, not just for our fathers but for all of the men in our lives who took the time to share your message and teach us your word. Thank you for the men who have shown us what it means to live in God’s light. Fill them with your Holy Spirit so they may continue in your good works.

Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best. [Bob Talbert]

And now a word to you parents. Don’t keep on scolding and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather, bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice. [Ephesians 6:4 (TLB)]

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