EXCUSES – Matthew 15:14-30 (Part 1)

Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.” For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve. … People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy. [Proverbs 24:12, 28:13 (NLT)]

Excuses—we all make them but I don’t think God much likes them.

giant swallowtail butterflyIn 1 Samuel 15, after Samuel confronts Saul for disobeying God’s clear commands regarding the Amalekites, Saul makes excuses—first by denying his sin, then by justifying his disobedience, and finally by blaming others. It is only after Samuel tells him the consequences of his sin—the loss of his kingship—that Saul reluctantly admits the truth. In contrast, we have Nathan confronting David regarding his sinful behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah. Immediately after the rebuke, David confesses. It would have been easy for David to blame Bathsheba for seducing him, Uriah for hampering his cover-up scheme, or Joab for his part in Uriah’s death, but he didn’t. Acknowledging his guilt, the repentant David confessed.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (told in Matthew 15:14-30), the master entrusts each servant with a share of his wealth proportionate to their abilities. When the master returns, he asks them for an accounting. In my NLT Bible, the reports from the two servants who faithfully fulfilled their responsibilities take only sixteen words each. The third servant, the one who buried his master’s money, uses forty words to make excuses for his failings. In fact, by calling his master a harsh man, the servant tries to cast some of the blame back on him. Nothing in the parable, however, leads us to think the master was overly demanding, hard to please, or cruel. The negligent servant was just making excuses. I wonder what would have happened if he’d simply echoed David’s words to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” [2 Samuel 13:13]

One of the hardest things for us to do is admit our sins without making any excuses. We frequently deny, minimize, refuse responsibility, cast blame, defend our motives, justify our actions, or even rationalize that it couldn’t be wrong since everyone else does the same thing. Whether we call it a momentary lapse or an error of judgment, wrong is wrong and a sin is still a sin. A sincere confession takes only six words but most excuses take forty or more! Remember—when we honestly confess, it’s not as if we’re telling God anything He doesn’t know. We confess so that we know! It’s only when we honestly acknowledge our sins as sins that we can repent of them and get right with God.

In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from you. [Augustine]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 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. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [I John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

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IT’S TERMINAL

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart. … A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. [Ecclesiastes 7:2,4 (NLT)]

ghost bikeIt’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. This maxim traces its beginnings back to 1914 and World War 1 when an English newspaper quoted a chaplain at a memorial service for a fallen soldier: “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.” When we joined our northern church, it was during the Viet Nam War. I remember a young man in our new member class who’d drawn a low number in the draft lottery. Expecting to be in combat within the year, he confessed wanting to “get right” with God before that time came. Apparently, even the threat of a foxhole is enough to cause some people to rethink their relationship with the Almighty.

Whenever we pass a roadside memorial or ghost bike like the one in today’s picture, I’m reminded of the precariousness of life. There’s a memorial at a corner near us for a young man who died there several years ago. Decorated seasonally by family and friends, it’s a poignant reminder of how unexpectedly a life can be extinguished and how much he is missed. Unlike the fellow in our church class, that young man, the victim of a drunk driver who ran a red light, didn’t have a low lottery number to warn him how near to death he was.

“A funeral provides an indispensable perspective on the universally terminal condition,” said the Reformation Study Bible notes for today’s verses from Ecclesiastes 7. Indeed, everyone is born with the incurable disease of death. I’m of an age where the many notes of condolence I’ve written these last few months make me think I should buy sympathy cards in bulk. These are dark thoughts for an early spring day, yet far too many of us choose to ignore our inevitable fate. Death is the one appointment that none of us will miss. While we have little control over the when of that day, we do have control over how we choose to prepare for the inevitable.

In both this world and the next, what happens after we die depends entirely on what we do now. Once laid out in the mortuary, it’s too late to write a will or accept Jesus. When we’re placed in a casket, we won’t be able to mend fences or make amends and we’ll have missed the opportunity to get right with God. By the time we’re on the other side of the sod or turned to ash in a crematorium, we can’t express our love and forgiveness or decide to accept God’s saving grace.

The problem with foxhole conversions, of course, is that once out of the trenches, they rarely last. Moreover, if we don’t make it out alive, by waiting until the very end to accept Jesus, we’ve missed out on the abundant Kingdom life He offers that begins while we’re here. Getting right with God long before we enter either foxhole or hospice care seems to be the wiser choice. The good news for the saved is that dying doesn’t mean departing from the land of the living. For those who know Jesus, death means departing from the land of the dying for the land of the living.

Depend upon it, your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death. It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall go no more down forever! [Charles Spurgeon]

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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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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YOKE OR EASY BUTTON?

yoke - easy button

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  [Matthew 11:28-30 (NLT)]

Several years ago, an office supply company featured an “easy” button in its advertisements and you still can purchase one for less than $9. “Don’t stress it; press it,” their web site suggests. Apparently, when placed on your desk, you can show others how easy it is to find solutions to their problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was push a button to make things easy (or at least easier)?

Rather than a button, however, Jesus offers us a yoke: a wooden frame used as a sort of harness to join two draft animals so they can work together. Among assorted farm implements that once decorated our mountain home, we had the yoke pictured above. It hung upside down but that heavy wooden beam actually rested on the animals’ necks. Without any padding, it doesn’t look that easy to bear! If it is all the same to God, I’d much rather push an easy button than take on anything like a yoke! Fortunately, Jesus was speaking figuratively.

The heavy burden to which Jesus was referring was that of the Pharisees and their legalistic law-keeping that went far beyond God’s demands. For example, there were 39 major categories with hundreds of subcategories defining what constituted work on the Sabbath. While the Jewish way offered the yoke of the law without the power to be obedient, Jesus offered a yoke of faith empowered by the Holy Spirit!

Nevertheless, this passage also can be interpreted as Jesus being our burden sharer. While many things are too heavy for us to bear alone, nothing is too great for Him. By taking His yoke, we give up trying to do life on our own; instead of finding rest in a method, we find rest in a person: Jesus! His yoke is better than an easy button because it actually works! When yoked to Him our burdens are no longer our own!

Can you think of any kinder words than Jesus asking us to come to Him to find rest? Life isn’t easy but God never promised that it would be. Rather than an easy button, we have Jesus and His promise that life is doable with Him. Unlike the yoke that hung on our wall, His yoke is easy to bear and the burden is light. We never have to carry the heavy load of life on our own because He will share it with us. Better yet, since He is so much stronger, most of the weight will be on His heavenly shoulders.

Today, as I take on Jesus’ yoke and share life’s weight with Him, I recall the old Swedish proverb that says, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”  Wearing His yoke will make my life much brighter and my burdens much lighter.

Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:22 (NLT)]

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)]

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JOB’S LAMENT (Part 2)

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest. [Psalm 22:1-2 (RSV)]

taos NMYesterday, I wrote about Job’s lamentation. 19th century bible scholar George Granville Bradley said this about Job 3: “Where in the world will you find a sadder strain of more hopeless, uncontrolled, and unbroken lamentation and mourning? … Filled to the brim, they run over with pain.” I have to agree.

Nevertheless, as sad as that chapter is, there is beauty in its words. Job’s anguished speech lets us know that it’s okay to express our emotions. It tells us that God doesn’t expect us to stoically maintain silence in the face of tragedy and pain. Job’s words, like those in the many psalms of lament, are the anguished cries of a faithful believer—someone who can uninhibitedly express his pain and grief to God.

Job’s lament, however, is not a laundry list of grievances. He’s not complaining about his sudden poverty, that no one will carry on his name, his loss of status, or going into gory detail about his physical maladies and grumbling that scraping his skin with potsherds brings no relief. Rather than an account of his misery, grief, and misfortune, his is simply a cry to escape his suffering. When God finally speaks to Job, He doesn’t take the man to task for his honesty in pouring out his deepest emotions; it is for accusing God of acting unjustly and questioning His wisdom.

Faith in God and despair in our situation are not incompatible. Out of the 150 psalms, one third are considered psalms of lament. Considered a man after God’s heart, David is credited with writing 73 psalms and many of those are laments. Clearly, ours is a God who allows us to be brutally honest with Him as we voice our anger, distress, fear, anguish, frustration, doubt, shame, heartache, and disappointment.

For some unknown reason, David felt that God has abandoned him in Psalm 22 and he echoed Job’s question of “why?” These same words were repeated by Jesus as He hung on the cross and, in His torment, cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Jesus was sinless, which means His anguished words were not sinful; feeling God is absent is not the same as believing it. Like Job and David, Jesus was calling out to God in His misery but their words of lament didn’t mean they’d lost faith in God. They wouldn’t have called out to God in their despair had they not believed their words would reach God’s ears!

As happened with Job, one moment it can seem like God is smiling down at our lives when, suddenly, life goes down the tubes and it seems like God has turned His back on us. Feeling abandoned and alone in our suffering and sorrow, we must never be afraid to express our heartfelt emotions to the God who created us with the ability to have those very emotions! Dark and silent brooding turns us inward and away from God while expressing our shock, grief, and despair turns us outward toward Him!

Let us never be hesitant to approach the Lord in our tears and despondency. A child instinctively calls out to a parent when he’s hurting, sick, frightened, or lost; we should be no different. Rather than a denial of our Father in Heaven, a lament directed toward Him is both a plea for help and an affirmation of His presence and power.

Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. [Psalm 55:22 (RSV)]

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. [1 Peter:5:6-7 (RSV)]

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CURSE THE DAY! (Part 1)

Curse that day for failing to shut my mother’s womb, for letting me be born to see all this trouble. Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? [Job 3:10-11 (NLT)]

baby feetAfter Satan took Job’s loved ones and wealth, the grieving man remained a pillar of patience and faith. Rather than blaming God, the stoic man acknowledged God’s sovereign authority saying, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” [1:21]

Things took a turn for the worse when Satan attacked Job’s body. With boils from head to foot, Job’s body was covered with scabs, pus oozed from his sores, his skin was black and peeling, and maggots fed on him. As if that weren’t enough, the man suffered from insomnia, nightmares, fever, and pain in his bones. His symptoms sound as horrific and deadly as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever.

When Job’s wife told him to curse God and die, the faithful man responded, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” [2:10] Although he seemed resigned to his fate, the despondent Job came dangerously close to falling into Satan’s trap when, in Job 3, he questioned God’s wisdom in giving him life.

I can understand someone like Job, someone suffering terribly who sees no end to the misery, wishing for a quick end to his life and praying for the release offered by death. What I find difficult to understand is Job’s wish that he’d never been born. Cursing the day of his birth and the night of his conception, the despairing man literally wished his life erased from its existence.

Until Satan’s attack, Job’s life appears to have been picture perfect for decades. With his many servants and more than 10,000 head of livestock, he was the richest man around. The father of seven sons and three daughters, he probably had numerous grandchildren. The family regularly gathered together for long feasts so they must have enjoyed each other’s company. A prominent man, well-respected in the community, Job was principled, generous and charitable. In spite of having everything his heart desired, Job’s heart remained set on God and the Lord called him, “the finest man on earth…blameless…a man of complete integrity.” [1:8] Yet, by cursing his very existence, Job wanted to obliterate all the blessings and joy that existed between his birth and his affliction.

In his pain, Job forgot about growing up in a loving home, playing with his brothers and sisters, the bliss of young love, the wonder of touching his wife’s belly and feeling his unborn child move, the delight of holding his children in his arms, the laughter of his family, the satisfaction that came from being able to right a wrong or help the poor, and the joy of bouncing a grandchild on his knee. If he’d never been born, he would have missed sunrises and sunsets, the taste of grapes, the sound of birds’ songs, the pleasure of a kiss, and the joy of praising the Lord. Although Job began his story as a sterling example of accepting of God’s will when disaster strikes, cracks developed in his spirit as his suffering intensified.

Job’s outburst of despair, however, does not mean that Satan won. While Job cursed his day of birth, he never cursed God. Moreover, even though he wondered why people who longed for death continued to live, Job never considered suicide. Because he operated on a false retribution theology, Job believed that God had forsaken him. Rather than losing faith in God, he lost faith in himself.

For many of us, these last several months have challenged our physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial resources and, like Job, we may feel overwhelmed by all that has beset us. Job lost perspective; let us not do the same. God did not forsake Job and He has not forsaken you! We must never forget our past blessings or rue the day of our birth. After all, had we never been given life, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know Jesus, be born again, or enjoy eternal life!

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 43:5 (NLT)]

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