Friday, December 27, 2019

Our Matchless Singer

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been listening to Christmas music for quite awhile now; I even snuck some in before Thanksgiving! We rightly turn our thoughts and voices heavenward when we reflect on what the Lord has done in sending us our Redeemer, worshipping him in our songs especially. But you may not realize that there is another Singer involved in this wonderful story. 

Zephaniah 3:17 reads, The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
The context of this verse is one of deliverance after rebellion, oppression, and humiliation. The Lord is the greatest Singer of all, and if you are his redeemed one, he is singing over you!

Think about Isaiah's prophecy concerning Immanuel, God with Us:
 - Our Wonderful Counselor is among us to comfort and guide;
 - Our Mighty God is not only able to save, he also actually does it;
 - Our Everlasting Father gladly receives us, the prodigals, back into his arms;
 - Our Prince of Peace lovingly leads us by still waters and restores our souls.

We have so much to sing about! But the greatest of our songs cannot begin to communicate the unfathomable joy that our Lord has in our reclamation. Heaven will be filled not only with our songs of joy, but even more so, his song of joyful triumphant, satisfaction, and victory. He is now, and will for eternity future celebrate the fulfillment of all his plans of renewal secured by our blessed Savior, Jesus Christ. You may remember Christ weeping over Jerusalem, weeping over Lazarus, burdened for the lost, blind, wicked stupidity of those who should have been crying out his praises in humble joy. When you are redeemed, not only are your tears dried, but so are his. Is it a marvel to you that the Lord sings for joy to celebrate your redemption? There’s a wonderful line in an old American revival hymn that runs:

1.       O Thou in whose presence my soul takes delight, On whom in affliction I call;
       My comfort by day and my song in the night, My hope, my salvation, my all.

2.       Where dost Thou, dear Shepherd, resort with Thy sheep To feed them in pastures of love?
       Say, why in the valley of death should I weep, Or alone in this wilderness rove?

3.       He looks, and ten thousand of angels rejoice, And myriads now wait for His word;
       He speaks, and eternity, filled with His voice, Re-echoes the praise of the Lord.

4.       Dear Shepherd, I hear, and will follow Thy call, I know the sweet sound of Thy voice;
       Protect and defend me, for Thou art my all, And in Thee I will ever rejoice. 
Joseph Swain, 1791

Our Lord’s joyful song transcends all of our worship and puts it all in perspective…we love him, because he first loved us. Be filled with delight this Christmas, and in the days and months to come, in the sure and certain knowledge that the one in whom you delight, our matchless Singer, truly and surely delights in you, his child, most of all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Rejecting a "Designer God"

A few years ago I spent a week in training for our region's Crisis Intervention Team, focusing upon dealing with people who because of mental illness or disability are unable to respond rationally and calmly to the demands of life. The special emphasis was upon these situations from the perspective of law enforcement. How can you de-escalate a person who is out of control so that they can be either taken into custody or safely transported to a hospital or simply grounded once again in reality?

Along the way during the training, there was much practical and helpful information given: stay calm and alert, quiet firmness in the voice, angles of approach, techniques for verbally bringing a person back in touch with reality, legal requirements, and so on. There was also a bit of arrogant nonsense from one of the psychiatric "experts" that I'd like to share with you, since this kind of nonsense is sadly a part of many church and missionary efforts these days.

The particular course was all about the various kinds of drugs that are prescribed for different categories of mental illness. The presenter was a well-known psychiatrist in our region. Her class was essentially a lesson in pharmacology, which most of us thought was a complete waste of time. After all, it serves no practical use on the field when you are facing an out of control individual who is off his meds, waving a weapon around and threatening to harm either himself or others. You just want him to be brought under control. Anyway, that objection aside, it was her blissful self-assurance that was so irritating. In describing drug after drug, the long list of harmful side effects was trotted out, yet with the strangely irrational assertion that side effects are neither good nor bad, they just are, and the [all-wise] practitioner can prescribe just what you need to help you feel and be however you want to feel and be. It was a sales pitch for the drug candy counter, because after all, "we can fix you." In response to my question about the relation of diet to mental health, she assured me that there was no connection whatsoever. I was greatly relieved, because I was attributing my agitation during the class to the excessive amounts of chocolate I was consuming, and was therefore able to continue to gratify my sweet tooth in the comfortable knowledge that it really was just the presenter who was driving me crazy.

The capstone of this mind-numbing presentation was the description of one particular drug (I don't remember what it was) which had pretty much the sole side effect of high likelihood of death. She declared, all in one sentence, that this drug was extremely dangerous, that it could kill you, that extreme caution had to be observed, and that it was "the safest drug out there, because we control it." She did not even take a breath between the two parts of this sentence. I'm not making this up.

I hope, dear Reader, that this woman's complete lack of sound logic is obvious to you. Further, I do hope that you are utterly repelled by it. And yet, I want to bring this into the realm of the Church for a few moments. As believers in the midst of a dark and sinful world, we have no problem seeing this kind of error among those who serve the Adversary. Our evangelistic efforts aim to counter the world's entirely unjustified confidence that it can fix itself. None of the world's remedies can do anything more than mask or minimize symptoms. Their remedies can at best provide a brief respite from suffering, but all the drugs, pleasures, mind reprogramming, relationships, therapies, and whatever else combined cannot address the real problem in the human heart: the corruptions that come with the fallen condition. That's not to say that there isn't a place for some of the behavioral aids available to us from time to time. But depending upon them to "fix" us is vain. Even when it comes to trying to help those who have genuine brain damage or developmental disabilities, therapies and medications still don't fix anything. They only help people cope with a condition that may never go away in this life. The world acknowledges this fact if it's honest, and yet still refuses to look any further than its own strength and wisdom for the solution to man's ultimate need. We get that, or at least I sure hope we do. We therefore address the whole man, including his soul, and present Christ as the ultimate source of hope and healing, and rightly so, even while dealing with the changes in behavior and thinking that are so necessary to properly dealing with life.

And so I come to the more difficult, spiritual application of these thoughts. Whether we are seeking to establish new churches or edify existing ones, we have to remember what we are here on this earth to be and do. Christ did not institute the Church to be place where the designer "drugs" of moral renewal, improved relationships, behavioral change, emotional excitement, or worldly pleasures are applied by "experts" so that people will feel better or behave better. None of that "fixes" the heart problems that people are dying from. It's not hard to find the stats gleaned from national surveys on the spiritual health of the nation, and they all are dismal. People want a designer god, and too many churches are all too happy to give one to them. I'm not talking about our evangelism programs here: I'm talking about the failure of the Church to preach the whole counsel of God in the beauty of holiness, devoting its energies instead to clever marketing and anemic, elementary teaching that never really challenges God's people to leave the world behind in their pursuit of the God they say they believe in. It's the same error expounded by the self-confident psychiatrist, and it's just as deadly. May God preserve us from such error!

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Problem with Nutshells

Most everyone is familiar with the figure of speech “in a nutshell.” I suppose the phrase, which usually refers to someone’s explanation of a concept in a short and simple way, was coined as a colorful way to describe something so short that if written down it could be contained in, yes, a nutshell. I’ve never learned what particular nut might have been in the mind of the coiner, but personally suspect peanut shells. Why? You ask – well, they’re easy to crack open but hard to clean up, look great on the outside but often conceal shriveled up insides that are inedible, and definitely need to be roasted and seasoned with salt to give them some interest. And some people are deadly allergic to them. Don’t get me wrong: I love peanuts and have spent many happy hours devouring them, especially at baseball games, when you can blithely toss them on the ground with reckless abandon. Of course, that also produces a slipping hazard. *sigh*

Anyway, all of these things lead me to the problem with “nutshell” definitions of important truths. They might be easy to carry around and share, but are often less than satisfying, and can even be downright dangerous. A prime example is the way folks understand and talk about the Bible’s teaching concerning God’s grace. Oh sure, the nutshell definition “undeserved favor” has its usefulness, and it is true enough. But that definition just doesn’t go either deep or broad enough. We’re usually willing to acknowledge that we have received Christ’s favor without any merit on our part, but then inexplicably live as if our happiness and freedom from shame are dependent upon our performance. If we really serve enough, if we really suffer enough, if we really prove somehow that we’ve really gotten the message, then we’ll feel good about that grace. But that attitude betrays that we actually don’t understand what grace is, and what it implies. At our fallen core we still want to be the hero that saves ourselves, all the while nobly nodding in God's direction with appreciation that he has given us a break. Fooling ourselves with this nutshell version only enslaves our hearts to our weakness, rather than providing the freedom we have been promised through the power of Christ.

What does living with a true understanding a grace look like? I can think of no better example than King David. Here you have a man who had God's Spirit poured into him, a man set in high places, gifted, clever, capable, even handsome. It’s easy for such a person to understand grace as just those blessings that he was enjoying. But David's understanding of grace is shown to be much deeper when he sins, and sins badly (2 Samuel 11, 12; Psalm 51). Upon repentance, he was forgiven. Disciplined, he was not crushed. Experiencing the consequences that inevitably accompanied his sinful acts, he nonetheless managed to live in freedom and joy, as if the sin had never happened (at least, as far as it affected his relationship with God is concerned). His psalms overflow with that joy and confidence. 

Jesus Christ bore the shame of our sin, paid our debt, and told us that in him we are "free indeed" (John 8:36). And when we sin again and again, he points to that payment again and again, and restores us to full fellowship immediately with no reservations: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Even when appropriate discipline and consequences follow that are hard to walk through, there is still freedom and joy in our relationship with him as we see those difficulties as simply tools in the loving hand of our Savior to further refine us. He doesn't put us on the rack, so to speak, just to make sure we get the message after we're forgiven so we can do something else that really satisfies our holy God. The debt is satisfied by him. THAT is what grace is all about, and that is truly liberating. Not only is it liberating to our souls, it also means that God continues to bless us in our lives, too, and bring glory to himself in spite of our sins. I would hasten to add that I am not condoning sinning “that grace may abound!” (Romans 6:1) I am urging simply that we rest in his grace and not pretend that somehow we’ll be happier if we just continue to wallow in a false self-abasement that insults Christ’ finished work of redemption upon the cross. This understanding of grace just doesn't fit into a nutshell.

Grasping the enormous truth of God's grace, however, goes beyond what God exercises towards us. We get some hints that more is involved in the concept in such passages as Christ’s instructions about prayer when he tells us to pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Do we really comprehend what we’re praying for with that request? I wonder sometimes what would happen to us if the Lord’s grace went down to the standard of our grace toward others. The thought is not comforting.

When asked by the disciples how many times they should forgive those who wronged them, Jesus’ answer shocked them, “I say not seven times, but countless (literally, seventy seven) times” (Matthew 18:22). This was in contrast to the Jewish limitation of seven times, reflecting the attitude that at that some point we should say, “Enough already!” and refuse to show grace and mercy to others who harm us. Jesus’ grace is better, don’t you think?

Consider Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 concerning the disciplined sinner in their midst. He writes, "Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you." No question about it, sin hurts the entire body, and that particular man's sin was disgusting and perverse. But note what follows: "For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him." Paul goes on to say that this is a matter of obedience to thwart Satan's devices aimed at destroying souls. Yet in spite of a passage like this one that is so clear that no explanation is really necessary, talking about discipline in most American evangelical churches these days will usually get you a shudder, or a horror story about how someone was run out on a rail rather than shown true godly grace and restored to full, unconditional fellowship. No wonder so many churches just don't discipline anymore. The damage to the Church and its testimony is incalculable, in part because we've been content with a nutshell definition of grace.

So let’s not slip and fall on nutshells. Even in this fairly long post, I’ve really just found a bigger nutshell to put these thoughts in, I realize! This is just a beginning. Let’s pursue and embrace the full definition, rejoicing in the grace that God has shown to us and its freedom, and demonstrating that grace to one another with love, humility, and patience. It won't fit in a nutshell, but it will sure be satisfying.

Friday, March 1, 2019

What a Candy Bar can Teach You about Magnifying Christ

OK, I admit it. I love chocolate, just about any way that it comes: bars, drops, kisses, chips, syrup, you name it. It can be milk, white, or dark; with raspberry or orange it's even better. It's great in a mug (with or without coffee). If it's wrapped around some filling or fruit, or some coating is wrapped around it, it doesn't matter. Belgian, Swiss, Hershey, Cadbury, Dove, whatever. Just keep it coming.
I do have some favorites, though. For instance, in the candy bar category dark chocolate Three Musketeers bars rank high on my list, and so do Snickers bars. I have noticed, however, that it takes quite a few 3M's to satisfy me (and then I have a roaring sugar buzz to work through). A Snickers bar, on the other hand, "really satisfies you." With all those peanuts in there, I'm generally good with one.
So what does all of this have to do with magnifying Christ? I'm thinking of the Apostle Paul's words to the Philippian church (1:20) when he declares, "so may also Christ be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death." That word magnify is the key. It means to make heavy, or to show worth. Paul is saying the objective of his existence is to exalt the weight or worth of Christ to all around him; to demonstrate by his life the reality and substance of the Savior. Paul speaks at length of that substance in his epistle to the Colossian church as he insists in chapter one that Christ is preeminent in all things (verses 15-29).
You see, Three Musketeers bars are tasty and sweet, no doubt. They're also mostly air. Not much substance there at all. It takes a lot of them to sort of fill you up, and to obtain that goal will cost you. In the end, though they promise a satisfying experience, they can't do it because they have no substance, no weight, no real worth. And while I readily acknowledge that Snickers bars hardly qualify for health food status, they at least have weight, and some protein, and they do fill you up without the buzz. They have solid content through and through, which is the point of the analogy.
Too many believers want to focus on the "light" version of the Lord Jesus Christ: His sweetness, His love, His kindness, His innocence as a baby, and so on. There are lots of worship songs out there that elevate those things exclusively, and for many this is the only Christ they know. Thinking they are praising Him as He desires, they really are trying to fill up on a partial understanding of Who He really is. It's no wonder that the largest number of converts to cult religions come from evangelical Protestants who are basically “Three Musketeer bar” Christians who don't really know the substantial, weighty Christ. They are defenseless against the subtle deceits of the Adversary.
Christ is "sweet," no doubt, full of love, kindness, and tenderness. But He also is just, holy, a righteous Judge, infinite, eternal, one with the Father, full of grace and truth. He is first in all things, and will not tolerate being one idol among many in our hearts. He is solid through and through, of worth and deserving of our highest praise, our earnest seeking out of every facet of His character, of our declaration of Him to the world in fullness (not just the parts we're most comfortable with). To magnify Him means that we make it our burning desire to help others to see Him as He reveals Himself in the Word. Toward the end of his letter to the Colossian church, Paul commends his fellow laborer, Epaphras, as one who manifests this attitude: "Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis" (4:12, 13; compare with 1:29). Epaphras was a “Snickers bar” Christian. He wanted others to have the same genuine satisfaction in Christ that he himself had experienced, whatever it cost him. So may it be with us.
And now, for some reason, I feel strangely hungry. Time to go raid the snack drawer....

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

So Close

Recently, we replaced an older refrigerator in our home. No one was sorry to see it go, and as we wheeled it out of the kitchen to make room for the new one, we made a discovery. All the jostling shook loose onto the floor a dry, shriveled carcass of a mouse. From the look of things, it had been there awhile. 

I am no fan of mice, especially in the house, so its condition caused me no distress whatsoever. But I was struck with the irony of the beast’s ignominious demise in the bowels of our refrigerator. Here it was, within inches of a veritable cornucopia beyond the wildest imaginations of any mouse you care to mention, trapped and starving to death with no way to access the feast inside. So close, and yet so far!
How similar is this situation to the condition of men and women when they strive after satisfaction in life but cannot access the true source of that satisfaction. Scriptural statements such as “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and “without God and without hope in the world” come to mind, with a host of others. Indeed, every idol man has ever devised out of his own imagination is really nothing more than an attempt to access the riches of the Eternal through other doors than those appointed by the Creator of all.

Think about that poor deluded mouse. No doubt the heat under the fridge was comforting and appealing. Occasionally there would be crumbs dropped and kicked underneath to nibble upon. The space underneath would seem to be a safe haven away from pets and people. And its size would ensure that it would not be going anywhere. An outwardly impressive residence for any self-respecting mouse, to be sure. But there was no access to the life-giving food inside from where the mouse was living. Furthermore, even if the mouse could identify the right door to open, it had no ability to do so whatsoever. The fridge was ultimately a death trap.
Now consider the plight of those that hover close to the Church, or simply religion in general. There is a certain degree of comfort in the proximity of the Church: fellowship, mutual help, nostalgic or emotional services, warm music, meaningful liturgies, and social interactions are all wonderful things. And if one happens to glean some useful tidbits for getting along in life every so often, so much the better. One can escape within the four walls of the Church from the daily stresses of life in the pursuit of finding something more satisfying than the chaos of life as usual. Solemnity, learning, companionship, and emotion all combine to give one the impression that this place is going to last, and that what it offers is enough. But if that impression is all that you have, it is an illusion…you are missing the real food that gives and sustains life. “There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) So close, and yet so far!

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus said in John’s Gospel (14:6). He is the only true door. Knowing that is crucial, but so is realizing that you can’t open it. He has to do so. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9) So humble yourself before him, repent of your sins and cry out to Him for mercy, and believe that He saves to the uttermost those that trust in Him. Only then can you enjoy the life your Lord created you to know.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Notes on the Magnificat: Luke 1:46-55

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Very probably Mary pondered on the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:11; 2:1-10) as she traveled along the road to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. Certainly, there are similarities in the songs. But Mary’s song has a different ring – not so much a shout of triumph over her enemies as an exultation in the power and faithfulness of God. The word magnify comes from the Greek to make large or great, to praise. The marvelous truth that God is not merely a distant god who makes promises but doesn’t keep them (like pagan gods), but is preeminently the Redeemer and Savior of his people (including herself) is just too marvelous to keep in. Realizing that she is to bear the Messiah, Mary is so moved by the declarations of God, the Lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song. She is young, probably about fifteen years old. While it may seem to be a rather deep expression of faith for a teenager (as we tend to judge by the abilities of many young people that we see today), we may be confident that these words were Mary’s and no one else’s for the following reasons:

1.       Luke carefully researched his gospel from the original sources – the eyewitnesses themselves, of whom Mary was one. It is not remarkable at all that anyone of that day should remember words spoken in years past (especially in such a vivid circumstance). The art of memory was far more developed then than now. It is beyond our imagination, actually.

2.       The event was not a secret. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was there and it is likely that Mary shared the account of the all that occurred surrounding the nativity with others in the church as time went on. Mary was a prominent member of the church in Jerusalem, and all would know her history.

3.       It is significant to note that Mary’s song contains quotes or allusions to passages from 1 Samuel, the Psalms, Isaiah, Genesis, and Malachi. In others words, she knew her Bible from “cover to cover.” Most are from the Psalms. John MacArthur comments on this fact as follows: “Aside from the pure profundity of Mary’s praise, the most outstanding thing about the Magnificat is that it is filled with echoes of Scripture. It reveals that Mary’s heart and mind were saturated with the Word of God. Her familiarity with the Old Testament is immediately apparent. … Mary had heard, read, memorized, and meditated on sacred Scripture, and when her heart poured forth praise, that praise was in the language of Scripture. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34) – so this tells us much about Mary’s heart. It is evident that Mary had long known the God of Israel in a deeply personal way; she knew His Word well; she studied and laid hold of the promises; and those promises filled her thoughts and her heart.”

The song may be divided into three sections. The first, in verses 46-50, concerns what God had done for Mary, and her response to Him. The lowliness of her condition is the backdrop of the incredible mercy and faithfulness of God. The joy in her heart in her condition was obvious to others, and would be through all time thereafter. She calls herself a slave girl (for that is what maidservant means). The blessedness that others recognize in Mary is that of abiding joy as she realizes that the blessings upon her are only because of God’s mercy. Blessed refers to a deep abiding happiness. Mary also recognizes her weakness in contrast to the great things that God has done for her. This mighty God (v. 49) is described by the Greek word from which we get the English word dynamite. His power is irresistible, far greater than any power of man in prevent or inhibit. She also observes that as God’s people faithfully reverence His holy name, He demonstrates His mercy to them. These are the wonderful works of God towards Mary (and all of God’s people) to which she responds with joy.

The second section, verses 51-53, Mary recounts what God has done in the world at large. In His strength God scatters, or puts to flight, His enemies. These enemies are described as the proud who imagine they understand and can therefore limit God to the sphere of their own choosing. This is battlefield terminology, and the battlefield here is the imagination or mind of men. Man cannot imagine how God operates, and the incarnation just baffles the foolishly wise of this world. God also puts down the authorities of this world. He does not do so capriciously just to show who is the Boss; all the world is still subject to Him and responsible for obeying His command and suffers the consequences when they do not obey His established law. Furthermore, He impoverishes the rich of this world at will. Truly, those who trust and worship their riches are empty, even with all their wealth. While he leaves the idolaters empty, he exalts the lowly and fills the hungry. This last work is in contrast to emptying the rich, which is the Greek wording behind the English word impoverish. All of these works are seen in light of the promise of the coming of the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to mankind.

The third and final section, verses 54 and 55, declares how God helps His servant Israel. The word helped means that God took the part of Israel, or devoted Himself to Israel. The form of the verb suggests that this happened in due time. The manner of His helping is the first aspect that Mary declares. The Greek construction helps us to understand what Mary is getting at. After the initial opening phrase, Mary uses an infinitive form of the verb remember. Infinitives are often used in this way to show the manner in which an action was carried out. In this case, the manner of God’s helping is to remember His mercy, just as He gave His word to the fathers and to Abraham and his seed. Christ’s coming is part of God’s covenant faithfulness to His own.  Mary also thinks of the scope of God’s help. These verses are the specific application of the general statements that Mary has made previously. The blessings and favor of God are not only directed toward her as the bearer of the Christ, but toward the whole nation as God grants the salvation that He had formerly promised. She does not think of her exaltation as the goal of God’s activities, but as only a part of His fulfillment of His promises to His people.

In summary, Mary rejoices that God has come in the flesh, thereby showing His tender care for His people. He exercises absolute mastery over the affairs of Men; and He is faithful to His promises. He reveals His providence, power, and faithfulness by giving us His Son, and demonstrates that He has taken our part and devoted Himself to our deliverance. Believing this it is no wonder Mary sang for joy to magnify her magnificent Savior and Lord! Should not we all do the same?