Grace in Place of Hypocrisy 

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”                                                                                                                                                           Matthew 23:1-4

In this passage, Jesus said something very interesting to his followers. He told his listeners to “obey everything they (teachers and Pharisees) tell you to do, but do not do as they do”. This was both an indictment of the Pharisees, and also a warning that just because the Pharisees were hypocrites, it did not give permission to the people to disobey the law or not seek after God.

We see so many people today who are looking for an excuse to not follow the hard road that Jesus set out before us. People will point out the flaws of a pastor, the wrong behavior of “church people”, or some other perceived hypocrisy (and indeed, there is plenty of hypocrisy present) in order to justify their own failed walk with Jesus.

Teachers have a high calling, and all of us have the responsibility to care for our fellow travelers on this earth. Unfortunately, there are times that all of us fail, to some degree or another, in this calling. I note in verse 4 of this passage, Jesus says, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”                                                                                                                                                            This means to me that the Pharisees were quite ready and able to point out the heavy burdens of the law and the times when people failed to conform. They also failed, however, to give people practical tools to help in the journey, and they showed no grace when people failed. The essence of Christ’s message is grace.

Yes, we will fail to live up to even our own standards, let alone God’s standards; yet God loves us and forgives us as we are willing to come to Him to ask for forgiveness. Our job is to be examples of grace and vessels of it as we minister to other people.

Prayer: Lord, we all have the tendency to miss the mark, just like the Pharisees, and we thank you for your sublime grace. Help us to extend it to others today, Amen.

Hearing, Believing and Doing

Whoever has ears, let them hear…                                                                                    Matthew 11:15

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.                                                                                James 2:14-19

I am reading a book titled Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. In this book, the author is trying to get the reader in mind of how Jesus taught and thought, and how those who heard him may have received his teachings.  

One of the explanations the author used was that of the Hebrew language. It had a vocabulary of about 80,000 words. Compare that to the English language which has perhaps 400,000 words. Hebrews were used to having a rich and elaborate meaning to their words since they did not parse them out as freely as English speaking people might. There may be several different associated concepts with one word in the Hebrew language.

When Jesus, for example, used the word “hear”, that meant that the hearer would not only hear the word, but believe it as well. Further, if one believed a concept, they were expected to act upon it as truth. In other words, hearing, believing, and doing were all tied together. If you hear your master tell you something, and believe it, the expectation is that one would act upon that belief.

I find it interesting in Western Christianity, we have somehow been able to separate belief from actions. Somehow, just holding onto a belief can be divorced from actions, causing some to fail to truly live out their faith. For them, holding a belief in the mind becomes paramount over acting out that faith for others to see.

James talked about the kind of faith that works- that is, the kind that other people can see and experience.

Prayer: Lord, help us to be doers of the word, not just hearers, Amen

Christmas Star

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. At about that time some astrologers from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in far-off eastern lands and have come to worship him.”                             Matthew 2:1-2

I have been looking at the clear night sky lately, and the stars and planets have been especially brilliant. The one advantage of winter is the clarity of the sky due to the cold temperatures and relative lack of clouds and haze. I was really taken aback the other evening with the brightness of Jupiter.

Then I happened to hear a podcast which discussed a possible explanation of the Christmas star. That same star the Magi were tracking when they sought the newborn ruler whom they believe the star portended.

The theory put forth by this scholar was that on the morning of April 17, in 6 B.C. an unusual alignment of the planet Jupiter, rising early in the morning, before sunrise in the eastern sky, caused the Magi to follow this omen. Since it arose in the astrological house of Aries, it caused them to believe that this omen meant that a significant king would be born in Judea. Judea evidently was associated with the astrological house of Aries.

It is interesting to note that these Magi were astrologers from perhaps Mesopotamia or Babylonia. They were skilled in the arts of astrology, and when they determined that this new king would be born in Judea, they headed to Jerusalem to inquire of the current king about this amazing birth.

Jews were prohibited from practicing the astrological arts, so Herod, and the other Jewish inhabitants were unaware of the significance that the pagan world associated with this sign. Of course, Herod wanted to hear about a king who might supplant him. Herod wanted names and addresses so that he could destroy this usurper king!

The mind-blower for me was that on December 19 of that year, Jupiter seemed to stand still in the sky. It shone brightly because of a confluence with the moon, and it seemed to just stand still. There is a technological reason for this phenomenon- Jupiter did not stand still. However, it appeared to stand still relative to the position of the earth in its course around the sun relative to Jupiter at that point.

Now this theory is just that- a theory. However, it does have some scientific backing and it could have been an explanation of the Christmas star followed by those wise men from the east.

Whether this theory flies or not, there are some interesting aspects to it. The Judeans would have been clueless about the astrological significance of this momentous event, but the rest of the world may have seen something that the Jews of the time did not.

A new King was being born.

Prayer: Lord, you give us wonderful gifts that we sometimes fail to see, Amen

Peter

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”  He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep……

Then He said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”)  When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”  Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”  Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” John 21: 17-23

In this passage, a few things stand out to me. So many issues come up here: Peter’s loyalty to Jesus; the question of the depth of Peter’s love for Jesus; and the issue of what will happen to those who follow Jesus after He is gone.

We see in this passage Jesus reaching out to Peter who had betrayed Jesus very recently. We also saw that Peter was the one who leaped from the boat to get to Jesus – he couldn’t wait to see Him.  Peter’s impulsivity was the thing that both endeared him to people and also got him into trouble. Jesus was asking Peter if he was really in for the long haul. In other words, He was saying, “Peter, can I count on you to care for my people, no matter what?” Jesus made Peter really think about this by asking it three times.

I find it interesting that the essence and test of devotion to Jesus is the willingness to “Care for His sheep”. Jesus is in the business of restoration, and He, in this very interchange, was restoring Peter to service. In so doing, He was modeling to Peter that He wanted Peter to become a restorer of others. Once again, we see that broken people can use their broken areas to help restore others.

Peter’s last response was one I often find in myself. Peter said basically, “Lord, you know my heart and mind better than I; what do you think?” I know that I can’t fool Jesus –He is the creator and Master, and He knows me better than I do. I find that my answer to “Do you love me?” is, “I really hope so, do I?” You see, I don’t know my own heart as well as Jesus does, but I trust that He will take care of it and love me even when I don’t know what to say or think.

I also found it fascinating that Peter asked about John’s future. Jesus pretty clearly said, “Peter, don’t worry about what will become of John — that’s my business. You work out your own relationship with me.” I wondered if Peter was feeling that if he had to die a martyr’s death, would John also have to endure that, or would John “get away” with not having to give his life. Just my speculation here, but it once again shows that Jesus has a way of getting to the heart of the truth with us.

Prayer: Father, I thank you for sending your son to die for our sins, but also to restore us to service, and to bind up the broken areas of our life. Thanks for your plans, which are so far above our own! Amen

God Heals the Brokenhearted

The righteous call out and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles. Psalm 34:17

This passage deals with our troubles and how we handle them. Many of the Psalms indicate God’s desire to heal us from broken hearts. So, what causes a broken heart? In our human experience, there are many, many things which can break our hearts. The question for us is “What breaks God’s heart?”

We know that illness, losses of any type, disappointments, etc., can all break our hearts. That is natural, and because we have emotions, those types of issues have the capacity to break our hearts. In Psalm 30 we see that God has anger when we fail to give Him the respect and place in our world that He deserves. What makes God angry is when we believe that we can survive without Him and His care for us. In Psalm 34 David said, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him…” David was not poor in resources or money. However, when he recognized his poverty of ability to save himself, that is when God heard his prayer, and His anger lifted.

When we believe that we do not need God, God can turn His face from us for a season in order to show us our poverty. When God turns His face from us, His heart is broken. That should break our heart. When it does, we are restored to fellowship with Him, and His grace and healing overwhelm us. When we call upon God, He is faithful to restore us. He brings us from the pit of despair into the recognition that He is in control when we are not, and that is the security that causes us to rejoice.

The Lord is always available to lift us up and heal our broken hearts. He restores us as a loving father restores his child, because that is the desire of the father’s heart.

Prayer: Father, you restore us as soon as we ask for restoration, and you heal us in your time and your ways. Thank you for loving us when we least deserve it and for the healing that is available in you, Amen.   

Wisdom

“I was there when he established the heavens and formed the great springs in the depths of the oceans. I was there when he set the limits of the seas and gave them his instructions not to spread beyond their boundaries. I was there when he made the blueprint for the earth and oceans.  I was the craftsman at his side. I was his constant delight, rejoicing always in his presence.                                                                 Proverbs 8:27-30

“Lady Wisdom”, the personification of truth about how the world operates, is the speaker in this excerpt from Proverbs 8. The truth spoken here is that God created the universe, but before he did that, he created Wisdom. Why did he do that? Because without a knowledge of God, there is no need of a universe. Seeing the world through God’s eyes is the definition of wisdom. Having a universe without a knowledge of its creator leads to a sense of meaninglessness. If we don’t know why we are here, we flounder. Sadly, so many people struggle with the sense of lack of purpose.

So, God created wisdom, so that we could have an understanding of his creation, and of him. If we do not understand all the intricacies of how the universe works (spoiler alert- we never will), that does not preclude us from having wisdom. Knowledge is fascinating, but wisdom is the ultimate attainment, that is- knowing the God who created that universe.

Wisdom is seeing the world through God’s eyes. That is what Lady Wisdom tells us in Proverbs.

Prayer: Lord, we seek wisdom about you. Help us to see you more clearly, Amen

Mind Candy

I’ll refresh tired bodies; I’ll restore tired souls                                                      Jeremiah 31:25 (The Message)

Republishing an old blog today as I digest Thanksgiving dinner. Enjoy!

Yes, what a ridiculous tile for a blog. However, it seems to fit the mood of the story. Today I talk about the “little oases” that we look forward to in order to deal with stresses in our life. Everyone has stress, and everyone needs to find those “little oases” to get a drink of “cool water” to refresh the mind, body and soul.

What are those little things that you do for yourself for refreshment?

OK, I’ll start- reading a Grisham novel; managing my fantasy baseball team; yard work; writing; following the Cincinnati Reds and baseball in general; walking while listening to a podcast; reading about history. There are others to be sure, but those come readily to mind for me.

I write this because I think we all need to be open and honest about the need for refreshment in our busy lives. It is not really optional. I also think that actually stating them out in the open somewhat validates them, and helps us to see the things that we really find refreshing- things we look forward to doing. They become a real and important part of our life.

For some very busy people, that list may be short and infrequently visited. Sometimes, of course, that is unavoidable for a season. However, I encourage you to think through your “mind candy” list and see if you are paying attention to it. If we keep ourselves refreshed, it helps body, mind and spirit.

I am hoping that you can make a nice and pleasant list for yourself!   

Prayer: Lord, you have created us to be productive and healthy, and you have also built into us a Sabbath principle. Help us to follow it, Amen

Thanksgiving

Carrying out this social relief work involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone. Meanwhile, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives, they’ll respond by praying for you in passionate intercession for whatever you need. Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!                                                                              II Corinthians 9:12-15 (The Message)

I like this translation of Paul’s message to the church at Corinth. He is commending that group of believers for showing their thanks to God by living it out in charity toward other, poorer believers. He says that the best way to say thanks to God for his blessings is to share those blessings with those around us.

The same is true today. We can love and thank God by loving and thanking other people. Simple message. So, I say to my readers, Happy Thanksgiving, and make sure to share the joy and thankfulness with others.

Prayer: We thank you Lord for the blessings you give us in all things, Amen

Is Old Saul Still Around?

Though I am the least deserving of all God’s people, he graciously gave me the privilege of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ.                                                                                     Ephesians 3:8

This verse has always struck me. Paul a giant of the faith, one who had a deeply moving experience with God on the road to Damascus, calls himself “the least deserving” of all God’s people. Was this false humility? I don’t think so. Paul, who had also said that he had a “thorn in the flesh” from which he had not been delivered, was a man, I believe, deeply beset by a sense of shame.  

I am not a Bible scholar, and this is strictly an amateur opinion of mine. Paul was a man who lived a life deeply committed to Jesus, and was also deeply flawed. Sounds like a guy I would really like and could relate to.

Paul had persecuted Christians, and he had been present at the stoning of Stephen, an early martyr. Stephen’s last words were: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

If you are present, indeed complicit, in the murder of a person who is praying for your soul while you stand by assenting to that death, I have to believe that it leaves a deep impression. Was this really the moment that prepared Saul (before he became Paul) to see that those Christians were a different kind of people?

Maybe Paul, remembering those haunting words, saw himself, even after his redemption, as a man with scars. Maybe those scars were remnants of incomplete self-forgiveness. Who could blame him? Yes, he was forgiven by an amazing grace. Yet, he knew what he did. He knew that old Saul was still part of his story. 

I don’t know. This is complete speculation on my part. But I think there is something to it. We all know what we have done, better than anyone else ever can. Yes, we are forgiven, but maybe there is a part of us that always reminds ourselves of that past, however forgiven it might be.

My point? Don’t be too hard on yourself if you still harbor some lingering elements of self-unforgiveness. You are in good company. But remember also, that God is not the one remembering those faults. His plan is for us to have complete forgiveness, including forgiving ourselves.

 In the words of the old comic strip character Pogo- “we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us”

Prayer: Thank you for the truth that you have forgiven our sins “as far as the east is from the west”, Amen.

Rushing the Season (to be jolly)

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.                                                                 Philippians 2:5-8 (The Message)

Yes, I listened to Christmas music today while on a walk. I suppose I rush the season. My outdoor Christmas lights are up and lit- I might have been the first in the neighborhood to do that. I am wondering if I should feel guilty.

Well, no, I am not feeling too guilty. I love Christmas, and I like all the things that go with it. I know that the culture celebrates a season that worships merchandising and sales, not the reason for the season- the incarnation of God coming to earth bodily in the form of Jesus. So, I join in to the culture’s celebration, but knowing why I do it.

The season allows us a reason to display a spirit of good will toward one another. We have the example of Jesus, who came to earth, giving up untold ecstasy and peace to wander the earth as a human being, with all the suffering that comes with that. He came to lay down his life for us. His example of selfless sacrifice is played out in our tradition of giving Christmas gifts to those we love. It also inspires us to give to people we do not know. It inspires churches to generate giving campaigns to help people in their own community, and around the world. It’s a great season.

So, let the celebration begin!

 Early.

Prayer: Lord, how can we begin to thank you for the gift of your son- the reason for the season of Christmas, Amen