Sunday, October 25, 2009

Renewed by Mercy Alone

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. (Titus 3:1-8, NKJV)
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I love to show pictures of our kitchen to people, especially when they are standing in it. I have one in particular I like to pull up on the computer screen, ask my friends to step back, and then have them look into the kitchen. The reactions are pretty predictable. It really looks like a different kitchen because my wife and I, before we moved into our house, remodeled it completely. It took a great deal of work on our part (we did most of the labor) but the results are very much worth it. And each onlooker can agree, we should feel proud of what we have done and the change that was made.
Sadly, many of us as Christians have a very similar approach to our lives. Yes, we’ve been saved by grace, but after that we like to show the evidence of some very hard, diligent work on our own part. We’ve been faithful in prayer and giving, church attendance and devotions, and the list goes on. We are far different people than who we once were, and we are proud of the change. Paul says to Titus that people like that have forgotten where they came from and who got them there.
Mercy and grace seem to be tricky things for us. We acknowledge their part, and yet we still seem to work so hard to fulfill them. Something within us wants to feel good about what we’ve done, to feel like we’ve earned our position with God or at least a little higher position. It just doesn’t sit well with us that the God of the Universe has given us everything as a free and unearned gift. It all just seems too easy (at least most of the time) and we respond by trying to work it out. And in doing so, we forget who we were and where we came from.
God has provided everything … period. There is nothing to add to His “kindness and love” shown to us through Jesus. We have nothing on the non-Christian, be he good or bad morally, but our participation with God through Jesus as our Savior. We brought nothing to the transaction and can add nothing to it. Any “good deeds” we do now come as a response to the incredible love God displayed to us and serve as acts of worship, not merit. And most of us, in our heads, know this is true. Which leads to the real question … why do we keep living as if our actions determined our position with God?
And this cuts both ways, because while we go on living like we can earn some standing with Him, we look down on the rest of the world and smugly say “They are getting exactly what they deserve.” Therein lies the heart of what Paul writes to Titus. Complacent Christians casting stones at everybody else instead of reaching out in love and reflecting the Kingdom.
As we travel our Crooked Path, God will continually put people in our way who need Him and we can demonstrate that by understanding how they need us as well. It isn’t some socialized version of the Gospel, but a practical outgrowth of our faith and a clear representation that demonstrates we know who we were and the One who has saved us. In reaching out to them with kindness and good works, we reflect God’s mercy and give entry for Him to show His Son so they might be washed and renewed just as we are. After all, it isn’t about us, it’s about grace.

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  1. Are you now or have you ever gone through a “smug Christianity” period in your walk of faith? Can you see how wrong that is? Have you forgotten where you came from?
  2. What would it take to remind you of the renewal and regeneration that comes only from God and His work?
  3. Have you shied away from “good works” because you think they look too much like a socialized version of the Gospel? If we don’t feed and clothe those in need, how else do you expect them to understand the love God has in store and to see Jesus in us?

NKJV - Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grousing About Grace

"God's kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work. "Later, about nine o'clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went. "He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, 'Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?' "They said, 'Because no one hired us.' "He told them to go to work in his vineyard. "When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, 'Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.' "Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, 'These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.' "He replied to the one speaking for the rest, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn't we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can't I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?' "Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first." (Matthew 20:1-16, The Message)
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The Pharisee within me completely understands the response of the 6:00 AM workers. If you are honest, the Pharisee within you does as well. Many of us have been raised in Christian homes under Biblical teaching and discipline since we were very young. The core of that teaching was grace, to be sure, but all too often there were additions made that sounded good, but they aren’t part of our “deal”.

Once you are saved, if you work hard for God, your rewards in Heaven will be great … greater than those who didn’t work hard during their Christian life. That’s what we were told so many times and in so many ways. It was never overtly a works theology, but it certainly played out as one. We were told clearly and plainly that God blesses the life lived for Him. And I have no debate against that at its purest core. God does want us to live a life that pleases Him and works for His kingdom. The key here lies with the idea of “extra blessings” that are granted or even guaranteed.

The early workers in the field watched with growing anticipation as the hired labor was paid. The one-hour workers got their dollars and moved on. The six-hour workers got their dollars and moved on. Certainly, they would anticipate getting at least two dollars, or perhaps even more. It didn’t matter what they had agreed on twelve hours ago or even what the going day rate was for manual labor. They saw a ridiculously generous master and they began to salivate for something more. Imagine their shock at receiving exactly what they agreed to.

Or do you even have to imagine it? God, in the part of the radically benevolent landlord has offered the same salvation to everyone on the same terms – believe and repent. Nothing we do can add to that one bit. Paul was clear in Romans about our status apart from grace. And yet, we somehow want to take verses and passages about working for God to mean we are guaranteed something more just because we had the opportunity to find God’s grace in Jesus earlier than others. And in doing so, we actually “devalue” God’s grace in our hearts and minds, which is a very sad thing.

We should daily be falling down on our faces, astounded that God has chosen to give us anything at all. His promise to us is clear – believe and live forever … take up your cross and follow me … drink of this Living Water and never be thirsty again … so many ways of saying the exact same thing. We rebelled and deserve absolutely nothing! God, in his incredible grace, made provision for us to live in His kingdom forever. Like the angels, we should rejoice every time another sinner comes into relationship with Christ. But somehow, we get stuck too often grousing about what we didn’t get versus what somebody else did get.
As we travel the Crooked Path, may our focus be on what God has done for us and what He is willing to do through us. We are members of a redeemed community and our “work” should be to spread the news as far and wide as we possibly can. Anything we do for God is, at best, filthy rags and we all know what those are worth. Instead, we need to glorify God for His provision and reflect His love and ridiculous generosity to a dark and dying world. That is a task worthy of our Master.
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  1. When is the last time you compared yourself to another Christian, specifically so you could feel “good” about what we’ve accomplished?
  2. Do you feel some level of distain that God has provided His grace to so many “unworthy” people out there? Or do you rejoice that one more person is saved from eternal separation from God?
  3. Where is your heart and your focus? Are you expectantly rejoicing in what God has done, or stubbornly grousing about what you think you deserve?

The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Small Understanding, Bigger God

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” "It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him. We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work. But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world.” Then he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud over the blind man’s eyes. He told him, “Go wash yourself in the pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “sent”). So the man went and washed and came back seeing! (John 9:1-7, NLT)
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Eugene Peterson starts Jesus’ response with the mild instructional rebuke “You’re asking the wrong question.” In this brief passage, I believe we get a unique glimpse into the epic story God is unfolding around us and an opportunity to expand our understanding and our field of vision regarding our lives, our world, our place in eternity, and most of all our redemption.

For the longest time, I found myself in the position of believing teaching that spoke of, essentially, a dualistic God. We were told about His “perfect will” and His “permissive will”. As I’ve studied that concept more and embarked on a journey to increase my own understanding of my Creator, I just can’t buy into that line of thinking anymore.

I’m not casting stones here. I know there are many sincere Christians who believe this as a way to explain things in their own lives. And, effectively, that is what it is … a human explanation (or an attempted explanation) of an infinite God. But as I talk with fellow believers and then turn again to a passage such as this one, I’m convinced that isn’t the right explanation.

In my regular men’s group recently, my friend Billy challenged me once again on this subject. I was talking about God’s original creation of a perfect, sinless world and people with the soul imprinted design of the Almighty. Sin comes into the world via the first temptation, mankind falls, and God enacts his plan of redemption.

But, as Billy put it, God knew all along the world He created would be corrupted. He had planned before the beginning of what we call time to create the world and man fully knowing Satan would confound and corrupt the whole thing. Adam and Eve’s action of rebellion didn’t somehow take Him by surprise and leave Him scrambling to formulate a plan. God had intended it all to happen right from the start.

This is where the passage in John really came into focus for me. Our need for redemption is just another way for God to show His glory to everyone. Just like Jesus’ answer to the disciples, it isn’t about some particular identified sin. It is because of SIN … the universal evil product of the first rebellion … that God shows us His glory and power. This isn’t about a single act of redemption or healing. Everything represented in the restoration of the blind man’s sight, my own salvation, or anything else of that nature we witness is because the Creator God of the entire universe is showing us just who He truly is and what He is capable of doing.

I came back to Billy shortly after our discussion and told him he was absolutely correct. To believe anything else, to even think that God created a plan “on the fly” as a result of something we did or that He is somehow sitting there waiting to act based on what we do or do not choose to do, would mean that God I claim to worship is basically unstable at best and a schizophrenic at worst. I can’t speak for you, but I’m thinking that is not the case.
If I can trust that the Holy and Infinite God of the Universe is absolutely in control and will reveal His own glory and power on His terms and in His timing, it makes my life much easier. The Crooked Path doesn’t seem as tedious, and the “momentary trials” I experience all feel lighter. God is actively, personally interested in me and He is working it all out on a much grander scale. That’s a concept I can grasp and rest on. After all, He is a much bigger God than I can possibly imagine.
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  1. Do you find yourself trying to look for reasons and explanation for everything that happens to and around you? Has your vision and concept of God been narrowed by your own experience or by somebody else trying to “sell you” an explanation?
  2. Can you trust God to be good even when “good” doesn’t look the way you envisioned it?
  3. Is your God one of single-minded purpose … to proclaim His glory, or is He much smaller and sometimes confusing? How would you expect the “bigger God” to act in your life?

NLT – Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

An Earnest Prayer

As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.' They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." (Nehemiah 1:4-11, ESV)
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I’m borrowing liberally from my pastor and my men’s study group again. We’ve been on a series about “normal prayer” for several weeks. At the same time, our men’s study group began studying the life of Nehemiah (we wanted to look at a man who both started and finished strong after our David study). Thinking about the two, Nehemiah’s prayer in the first chapter stands out like a shining beacon.

If normal prayer is after the model Christ gave to the disciples, Nehemiah’s prayer fits it almost to the letter. He starts with a distinct reverence for the One he is approaching, calling out the awesome and steadfast nature of God. He is appropriately contrite and humble, taking ownership on a personal level for the sin of his nation, his family, and himself. And even before that, he prepared himself by fasting and mourning for several days. You might say he took his prayer life very seriously, especially given what he was about to ask.

And God does want us to bring our requests and petitions to Him in prayer. He loves hearing from us. The trouble is, sometimes we seem far too familiar when we approach the Almighty. We have our prayer list that we are checking off as we go (not a bad thing, mind you) and we view what should be an act of worship as just another task to complete. And we expect God to be pleased with our efforts.

God wants us to pray expecting His answer. He wants our worship as part of our prayer and as the framework for our relationship with Him. If we start our prayer by acknowledging his absolute holiness … and then try to really live in that way, it will change our attitude and approach to our conversation with our Maker. One of the most pointed and beautiful illustrations I’ve ever heard regarding prayer came years ago at a home group meeting. Our leader read to us several scenarios of people coming to prayer as if they were approaching God in His office. The working man came in at the appointed time as if it were another meeting to attend, made his requests, and left. The busy woman came in, dusted a few things, flopped down in a chair and sighed, made her requests, and left.

But the child crept in quietly, feeling a sense of awe just to be there. He crawled up in the chair and, when asked what was on his mind, replied, “Is it OK if I just sit here for a while? This is a pretty special place.” And so it is. Friends, we have been granted a one-on-one audience with the Creator of the Universe. We need a little childlike wonder in us to begin to appreciate that. We should, as Nehemiah did, give honor to the One who grants us entrance. It is an absolutely amazing opportunity!
As we travel the Crooked Path, may we stop often and reflect upon who God is and what He is doing in and around us. As we bring our sincere petitions and requests, knowing the outcome is in His most capable hands, may we find rest, reflection, and connection with the God who loved us to such a degree that He crafted a plan of redemption so expensive, He paid for it with the blood of His own Son. Now that’s Somebody worth communicating with.
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  1. When you pray, do you begin by actively recognizing who God is and what He has done, perhaps recite a verse from a Psalm or your favorite worship song?
  2. Have you fallen into the habit of just praying through a list without a thought to your connection to the Creator? How would you pray differently if you considered yourself having the exclusive ear of God when you pray?
  3. Do you feel like God is close and present when you pray, or does He seem distant and aloof? Is that because of who He is or because of how you approach your conversation with Him?

ESV - Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.