LOST AND FOUND

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. [Luke 15:4-6a (NIV)]

dahlia“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures [mankind] to persevere. …this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” So writes the demon Screwtape to his nephew, an apprentice devil trying to win a young man’s soul, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

A woman recently shared her story of Satan’s campaign of attrition. Since childhood, she dutifully attended church every Sunday and, once she had children, insisted that the family worship together. She’d taught Sunday school, volunteered for service projects, and attended churchwomen’s programs. Nevertheless, after her youngest left for college, she woke up one Sunday morning and, for no particular reason, decided to stay home. She skipped church the following week and the weeks after that. Before long, she returned the Bible on her bedside table to the bookcase and never picked it up again (not that she’d picked it up much before then). When she stopped praying, I’m sure Satan thought he’d won his campaign. None of this was because she was plagued with doubts or had experienced something that shook her faith. She just gradually stopped caring and, starved of fellowship, God’s word and prayer, her faith had withered away.

Fortunately, we have a loving Shepherd and, when one of his lambs goes missing, He will go in search of it, which is what the Holy Spirit did one Sunday several years later. The woman awoke that morning and, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to go to church. Once there, she learned of a church-wide challenge to read the Bible and committed to doing it. Realizing her need for a study group once she dug into her newly purchased large-print Bible, she joined one. Her faith again became active and alive; the good Shepherd had brought her home!

At one time or another, many of us have experienced similar experiences of having our faith grow dim and dusty; if you haven’t, chances are that you will. The enemy doesn’t quit when we accept Christ; he just changes his tactics. We must be alert to his methods and persevere in our faith as he tries to destroy our relationship with Jesus by making us complacent, neglectful, or simply bored. He nibbles away at things like church attendance, Christian fellowship, Bible study, and prayer so that, instead of growing spiritually, we begin to atrophy. When we take our eyes off the Shepherd, like the lost lamb, we wander into the wilderness.

Fortunately, we are never so lost that we can’t be found. Even when we think we’re finished with God, He’s never finished with us. God certainly wasn’t done with that woman. Shortly after her return to the church, she entered seminary at the age of 52! Now ordained, she is the pastor who teaches my Tuesday Bible study!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. …You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  [Hebrews 10:23-25,36 (NIV)]

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TAKING DELIGHT

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. [Psalm 37:4 (NLT)]

jump for joyGreedy creatures that we are, when reading today’s verse, we tend to focus on the promise that God will give us our heart’s desires rather than the qualification: taking delight in the Lord. I usually think of a parent delighting in a child rather than a child of God delighting in his or her Heavenly Father. What does it mean to delight in God and how do we find our delight in Him?

When pondering delight, I thought of a recent weekend when six of the family met New York City (where my eldest grand attends university) to celebrate my son’s birthday. While I enjoyed the city sights, the high point wasn’t the Statue of Liberty or strolling through Central Park. My delight was in my family’s company. It wouldn’t have mattered where we’d met; that we had gathered together was all that counted! Every moment spent with them was precious and our joy in one another was unmistakable; we genuinely delighted in one another. When we delight in people, we’re no longer preoccupied with ourselves and our desires; instead, we concentrate on them and how to please them. We treasure them and their company and, because we value their presence, we make room in our busy lives to maintain our relationship. In short, we find joy in being with them.

Taking delight in the Lord is much the same thing: finding joy in His presence. We delight in Him: in His great love for us and in His power, goodness, wisdom, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, faithfulness, and grace. When the Psalmist tells us to delight in the Lord, He’s telling us to find our joy in God and to guard our time so that we spend it with Him.

Today’s verse isn’t about gratifying our desires. Although true delight brings contentment, it’s not in things; it’s contentment in the object of delight. This verse isn’t about getting what we want from God in return for lip service in prayers or praise. It’s about delighting in God so much that He becomes our greatest desire. Instead of expecting God to please us, we want to please Him and truly pleasing God means that our desires will conform to His will. When that happens, we will, indeed, get our heart’s desire!

The desires of God, and the desires of the righteous, agree in one; they are of one mind in their desires. [John Bunyan]

The one thing I ask of the Lord— the thing I seek most— is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord’s perfections and meditating in his Temple. [Psalm 27:4 (NLT)]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

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JUST SORRY OR REPENTANT?

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. [Psalm 51:16-17 (NLT)]

The fellow looked at me and apologized: “I’m sorry; I know I can be a real #@!%* at times!” I debated as to my response. While the polite thing would have been, “It’s OK, I understand,” that wouldn’t have been honest. His behavior wasn’t OK. We’re told in Proverbs 27:6 that wounds from a friend are better than an enemy’s kisses and, since he’d left the door wide open, I agreed with him. “I know you are. But you don’t have to be,” I gently added. “It’s your choice!” Apparently preferring an enemy’s kisses to my honest assessment, he shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

Although “sorry” and “repentant” often are used synonymously, they are not the same thing. My friend’s regret may have been heartfelt but repentance requires a change of heart. While sorry, he wasn’t ready to change his heart or his petulant behavior.

In John 8, we read about a woman caught in adultery. Facing a crowd ready to stone her to death, she surely regretted her behavior. After Jesus’s words caused the crowd to disperse, our Lord didn’t condemn her but He didn’t send her back to her paramour either. Clearly expecting repentance, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” [8:11] Whether or not she repented, we don’t know, but Jesus’s actions and words that day make two things clear. First, rather than wanting sinners to die, God wants them to repent and live! Second, forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerance.

Repentance has two requirements: turning from evil and turning to good. When we repent, we turn from sin to obedience, evil to good, selfishness to selflessness, deception to truth, vulgarity to civility, meanness to kindness, animosity to goodwill, dysfunction to function, and childishness to maturity. As Christians, we don’t repent because we’re afraid of fire and brimstone or that God will strike us dead. Out of our love for God, we consciously decide to become better by moving away from anything that offends Him toward something that pleases Him. The power to do that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Let us never confuse an apology, regret or even confession with repentance. It’s not enough to say, “I have sinned;” we must commit to making a change and not sinning again!

To do so no more is the truest repentance. [Martin Luther]

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. [2 Corinthians 7: 10 (NLT)]

Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. [Matthew 3:8 (NLT)]

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ACT ON IT

Grand Canyon - Bright Angel PointAs Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]

In Arizona, sightseers can walk out on the Skywalk, a transparent horseshoe-shaped cantilevered bridge that juts out 70 feet and stands 4,000 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon. In Illinois, visitors to the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago can step off the Skydeck onto The Ledge, a glass box that extends out more than four feet and is suspended 1,353 feet (103 stories) above the city streets. Two miles away, in the John Hancock building, visitors to the Windy City can get another unique cityscape as eight visitors at a time hang out on the TILT from the Hancock’s 94th floor. Called a thrill ride, riders stand on a glass platform 1,030 feet over the city that that tips down over the edge of the building at a 30-degree angle.

The Skywalk is bolted to the canyon’s rim and can support seventy 747-passenger jets. The Willis Tower Ledge is made of three layers of half-inch glass and topped by another quarter-inch protective layer. Designed to hold five tons, over six million people have safely ventured out on it. Like it, the TILT is constructed of precision fabricated steel and several layers of reinforced glass and over one million riders have safely dangled 94 stories above the street on it. Although I believe all of these viewing platforms are well supported, regularly inspected, and considered safe, I will never set foot on any of them. I will never experience the thrill or enjoy the stunning views they offer simply because believing these structures are safe isn’t enough to make me commit to stepping out onto any of them. Intellectually believing something is true doesn’t necessarily mean we will act on that thought.

While I’ll miss seeing the Grand Canyon from the Skywalk, viewing fifty miles across four states from The Ledge, and hanging over Michigan Avenue on the TILT because of my lack of faith, there is one experience I don’t want to miss because of a lack of faith: a relationship with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Let us never make the mistake of intellectually believing in Jesus, that he actually existed and even rose from the dead, and then not believing deeply enough to take the necessary steps to actually follow wherever He may lead us! We’ve got to step out in faith to walk with Him. The view from Heaven is one experience I don’t want to miss. How about you?

We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true. [Dallas Willard]

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. [Colossians 2:6 (NLT)]

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TWO IN ONE

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. [Colossians 2:9 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

white ibisThe early church encountered difficulty in trying to reconcile the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In the 5th century, one group, from Alexandria, referred to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God, while the group from Antioch insisted that she was merely Anthropotokos, the one who gave birth to the human nature. Trying to bring about a compromise but pleasing no one, the bishop Nestorius suggested that the term Christotokos, the one who gave birth to Christ. The controversy, however, wasn’t about Mary; it was about the nature of Jesus. Did Mary give birth to a man who also was God or did Mary give birth to a man who later became God? The debate continued until 451 when the Chalcedonian Creed was adopted which confirmed the two natures of Christ (human and divine) in one person.

Creed or not, two natures in one being is a difficult concept to grasp. Infinite, God always has been and always will be, but the man Jesus had a beginning in Bethlehem and an end in Jerusalem. God is omnipresent but, when the boy Jesus was at the Temple, He couldn’t also be with his family on the way back to Nazareth, let alone everywhere at once. God is omnipotent but Jesus wasn’t all-powerful. He grew tired, thirsty and hungry, had to walk from village to village, and was cruelly crucified. God is immutable, meaning He never changes, but Jesus started as an embryo and matured into a grown man. He went from babbling to talking and from crawling to walking. His features changed as He lost his baby teeth and got molars and His voice deepened during adolescence. Self-sufficient, God has no needs but we know that baby Jesus needed to be fed, bathed, rocked and dressed. God never sleeps but we know Jesus did. God is omniscient; He sees and knows all but Jesus didn’t know the date of the End Times and, when the woman with the blood disorder touched his robe, He had to ask who touched him. Surely, as a little boy He asked Mary, “Why?”

Nevertheless, Jesus wasn’t two people; from the moment of His conception, He had two distinct natures perfectly united into one being. Inseparable, neither nature was diluted by the other. Jesus was fully man and, at the same time, fully God. Because our thinking is limited by the rules of this world as we know them, we can’t truly comprehend how He could be neither one nor the other but fully both in one body. How can finite man ever understand an infinite God? Nevertheless, we’re called to believe what we can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Can you conceive of anything more awesome than a God who chose to become man, who combined His divinity with our humanity, who connected with man by becoming one of us and yet remained God, who loved us so much that He took on our nature and died for our salvation? Thank you, Jesus!

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood;… [Chalcedonian Creed]

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NO SCISSORS ALLOWED

And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book. [Revelation 22:18-19 (NLT)]

lilyThere is much in Scripture, such as the subjugation of women, that I find troubling and would just as soon skip reading . For example, there’s no mention of their handmaid slaves’ consent when Sarah, Rachel or Leah offer them as surrogates to their husbands! Scripture may call them righteous because of their faith but Lot readily offered up his virgin daughters to a crowd of lustful men and Abraham twice gave Sarah to another man to save his own skin and benefitted financially both times he did it! There’s a word for a man who does that and it isn’t usually righteous. Then there was the Levite who pushed his concubine out the door to be raped by a gang of men. Many would consider David’s tryst with Bathsheba to be rape and even he tolerated the rape of his own daughter!

The amount of blood shed throughout the Old Testament is disturbing as well; picture the Levites killing 3,000 of their fellow Israelites at God’s command or Simeon and Levi killing all the men in Shechem because of one man’s crime and then plundering the city and taking the women and children captives. It’s difficult to read about Israelites killing everyone in Jabesh-gilead (except for 400 virgins) just to provide wives for the tribe of Benjamin or of the wholesale slaughter of people in places like Jericho and Amalek. Nevertheless, as much as I’d like to skip over these and other troubling passages, they are part of Jewish history and our faith’s roots.

Apparently, one of our nation’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, found parts of the New Testament equally disconcerting. Instead of struggling to understand and praying to believe, he simply eliminated anything he found “contrary to reason.” Believing the gospels’ authors to be untrustworthy reporters, Jefferson wrote his own gospel by taking a penknife to his Bible, cutting up passages, and then pasting them together with other ones on a blank piece of paper. Leaving behind the parts he didn’t believe or like in mutilated Bibles, Jefferson created his own version of Christ’s life and philosophy. By including Christ’s death and burial but omitting His resurrection, rather than the Son of God, Jesus became little more than an altruistic philosopher. Titling it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson believed his version of the New Testament collected “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Boston University professor Stephen Prothero has a more accurate description of Jefferson’s Bible: “scripture by subtraction.”

Unlike Jefferson, we must never make the mistake of subtracting those parts of Scripture we don’t like and yet nearly all of us do. We tend to read only those parts we find comforting, believable, or easy to understand. I certainly prefer reading Psalms or John to the carnage of Judges or deciphering the cryptic visions in books like Revelation, Ezekiel, and Daniel. While we don’t take a scissors and glue to our Bibles, we do read selectively which, in actuality, is not much different than what Thomas Jefferson did with his penknife and paste.

Echoing the warning found in Deuteronomy, the book of Revelation has some pretty stern words about adding to or subtracting from Scripture’s words. Every word in the Bible is there for a purpose: to explain, convict, correct, and train. Let’s treat them all with the respect they deserve and never use either literal or figurative scissors on God’s holy word.

We must not select a few favorite Bible passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. [A. W. Tozer]

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

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