One Word and It’s Over

The Game Is Hopeless

It’s football season in America, and I’d like you to imagine a game for me. The two teams take the field and it soon becomes apparent they are decidedly mismatched. While one team is running up the score, the other is barely able to move the ball even a few yards toward the goal line before giving up possession.

The team that’s winning isn’t just better. It is merciless. There is no play they won’t try, no trick they won’t pull, and no rule they won’t break. And when it comes to breaking rules, there’s no penalty the officials won’t overlook. For the winning team, that is. The losing squad is being called for penalties every other play. Even worse, with every dirty play the poor team is losing players to injuries.

By the closing minutes of the fourth quarter the losers have only eleven players left, forcing them to be on the field for both offense and defense. One more injury and they forfeit. As the two minute warning comes and goes the only thing they can hope for is a swift clock to run out.

But before the brutes on the other team can launch what looks to be their final play, a miracle happens. The president of the football league comes down from the booth overlooking the stadium, walks onto the grass, takes the whistle from the referee and blows the play dead. Walking to the center of the field, in a voice loud enough for all in the stands and beyond to hear, the league’s leader says:

“The game is over, and I declare the team that never scored the winner. Let everyone congratulate their triumph!”

The Game Isn’t Hopeless

That game is not a fantasy, although when it happens it won’t be between two teams on a football field. It’s what Daniel saw in his vision two and a half millennia ago.

The Ancient of Days. 14th century fresco from Ubisi, Georgia. (Wikipedia)

The Ancient of Days. 14th C. fresco from Ubisi, Georgia.
(Wikipedia)

As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom. (Daniel 7:21-22.)

The horn in that passage is a great power, both worldly and spiritual, which will fight and – according to Daniel’s prophecy – defeat God’s people. We will not prevail against that power by earthly methods, nor even by spiritual means. The only way to win is for us to wait for God to put a stop to the battle and declare us the victors, to pronounce judgment in our favor.

This is the same victory John saw and recorded in his Revelation.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. (Revelation 19:11, 15.)

This is Jesus, the Word of God from eternity past. He strikes down any opposition with what comes from his mouth, the word of God which we are told has spiritual power beyond our imagining:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13.)

It is this ability to judge rightly because he sees everything without cover or obscurity that gives confidence in God’s judgment. The football game analogy isn’t perfect, but there is something to say for a higher authority – who has seen a team get away with one dirty play after another without penalty – stepping in to set things right for that week’s game.

When Jesus steps in and utters the word of triumph it will be for eternity.

There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4.)

There was a time when I didn’t understand the line in A Mighty Fortress Is Our God which says “one little word shall fell him.” But it turns out Martin Luther really did know what he was talking about when he wrote:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing; …

The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

It is God’s word of judgment that defeats Satan and declares us the victors, all because of the work of Jesus for us. The odds may appear to be stacked against you, the game may seem rigged, the officials who are supposed to be calling penalties fairly may turn a blind eye, but in the end you already know the outcome.

You win because Jesus has won.

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Bovine Social Media

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Fine/Not Fine

grace-doesnt-tell-you-youre-fine

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8.)

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Experiencing Advent with Those Who Were There

[For Advent: updated from the archives.]

Anticipation

Christmas carols. They’re all over. From the radio to shopping malls and even in churches. Yes, I said even in churches. We sing about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, angels proclaiming and shepherds watching and a manger holding the God of Creation in its straw; we celebrate our Savior’s birth, the miracle of God with us, what theologians call the incarnation. But I like to look on this time of year – the weeks leading up to Christmas Day – as a time to anticipate his coming, not yet celebrating it as happening. So when it comes to songs of the season, one that helps me live in that anticipation is Charles Wesley’s Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Release from our fears and sins, finding our rest in him, dear desire, and the joy of longing hearts. Those who know Jesus know what it means to wait for and want these things. But even before his birth there were those who lived in the anticipation of his coming, people who knew prophecies such as this:

“I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:7, one of the bases for Wesley’s hymn.)

Here are a few people from Scripture that I’d like to focus on: one not yet aware that she will be giving birth, one not yet born, and a pair of people whose years had been dedicated to nothing less than looking forward to the fulfillment of their hearts’ desires.

Mary

The angel tells Mary, who’s under contract to marry Joseph, that she’s going to have a baby. Not just any baby, but the Messiah who will fulfill all prophecies, the “Son of the Most High” who will “sit on the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:32.) Mary explains that she’s never had sex (as if God didn’t know!). The angel announces that God will take care of it. Mary responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38.)

Did you catch that? Mary says she now desires the fulfillment of God’s word, even if it means being pregnant, a pregnancy that could very well lead to divorce, shame, becoming an outcast among her people. She looked forward to God’s fulfillment of his promise, the Messiah, despite these possibilities. She knows that God will take care of everything, even though she may not understand how, and she looks forward to the fulfillment of his promise to her and to his people. She anticipates his goodness being fulfilled.

I want to live in constant anticipation of God’s goodness being fulfilled.

John

Mary hurried to her older cousin, Elizabeth, to tell her the news. The interesting thing is that before Mary had a chance to explain anything, Elizabeth already knew something was up.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:41-45.)

John (the Baptizer, not the Apostle) leaped for joy. In the womb! Now that’s anticipation.

I wonder sometimes why I do not have that same sense of urgent anticipation about Jesus.

Simeon

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25-26.)

Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple and God brings Simeon to the young family. Simeon is almost overcome with the fulfillment of his heart’s desire:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32.)

This is serious anticipation: “waiting for the consolation of Israel”, “would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”, “you may now dismiss your servant in peace”.

I want to know that type of satisfaction that comes from faithfully waiting for my Savior.

Anna

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38.)

Anna had been waiting a long time, wanting nothing more than to be in God’s temple as she waited for the Messiah. Do you see what she did? She gave thanks to God, which is something we could have guessed would happen. But Anna knew there were others like her, other people who had been waiting and wanting, and she let them in on the good news, speaking “about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She was eighty-four years old and still active in her ministry as God’s prophet.

Will I spend the rest of my days, even if they are long and I live to eighty-four or beyond, telling people that God’s redemption is at hand? That is anticipation worth living out.

Song of Anticipation

So here’s a song I don’t mind singing in the weeks approaching Christmas:

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

Most people sing it as a Christmas carol of Jesus’ coming, but I sing it as a reminder that we also still await our Savior. After all, this song was written not about the Messiah’s birth but about his return as prophesied in Psalm 98. I like to sing it at Christmas because it reminds me as we celebrate our Savior’s birth – the miracle of incarnation, God with us in the flesh – that we still wait and want, that we still anticipate his return, and when he does return all heaven and nature will “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” (Psalm 98:1.)

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What does Advent mean for you?

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Knowing When To Do Right Is As Important As Doing Right 

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Despair in a Gospel Song

Driving along I heard the best song the Eagles ever created: Desperado. For some reason, though, the lyrics hit me differently this time. The despair of the title character (who’s called Desperado for a reason) reminded me of the gospel.

The lostness of sin

In the opening verse, the singer warns:

These things that are pleasin’ you
Can hurt you somehow …

Everyone who’s ever sinned – so that would be everyone – knows that it can come back to bite you. Whether you ascribe to the philosophy “what goes around comes around” or a pop definition of karma, bad things have a way of coming back at you. Not always, but often enough for the phrase “coming home to roost” to have taken on significance for a lot of people who thought they’d gotten away with something.

This is the despair the Bible speaks of for people who are so far gone in their sin that they cannot see that the things they find pleasing are really hurting them:

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (Romans 8:28.)

If a person insists on pursuing depravity, God allows them that choice. This is cause for despair for many.

Rejecting the riches

The singer next makes an interesting observation:

Now, it seems to me some fine things
Have been laid upon your table,
But you only want the ones that you can’t get …

Your desire for the things you can’t get can get in the way of recognizing the riches God has placed before you.

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4.)

God’s kindness, patience and forbearance have a goal and it is for your benefit, your richness. As Jesus said:

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10.)

Despair can come easily to those who do not recognize the richness of life in Christ.

Yearning for more

Everyone feels trapped some time, literally or figuratively, and a yearning to break free can be all consuming. The ultimate prison is the eternal one of being separated from God forever. The song hints at this in these lines:

And freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’
Your prison is walking through this world all alone …

But there is freedom promised by the One who wants to walk with you forever.

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-19.)

There is a prison of your own making in trying to get through life alone, without Jesus. He has come to free you from that captivity.

prison-of-your-own-makingRainbows and Promises

The song closes with:

It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late

Rainbows are a reminder of God’s promise to preserve and not destroy. (Genesis 9.) And in Jesus you not only have this promise but also an invitation to be with him.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28.)

Can it ever be too late, as the song suggests? Why would anyone want to wait and find out? Take advantage of what God is offering now.

The Lord … is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.
(2 Peter 3:9, 15.)

Repentance and salvation, both are found in the God’s patience. He wants you with him for eternity.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. (Psalm 23:6.)

Look back on Desperado, the song and the person. This is where the singer is heading, whether he knew it or not. There is a rainbow above because there is a Person above who wants to love you before it’s too late.

Don’t despair, Desperado. Jesus loves you and wants to be with you forever.

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Wine, Whiskey and Faith – cures for what ails you

[An archived post apropos to cold and flu season.]

Alcohol has been used for medicinal purposes for millennia, even finding it’s way into the Bible when an older Christian advised a young friend:

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. (1 Timothy 5:23.)

I don’t think Paul knew of Quinine Whiskey, though.

If he had, his letter to Timothy might have read like this:

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and [quinine whiskey for] your frequent illnesses [like grippe, colds and malaria]. (1 Timothy 5:23, my revised version.)

Of course, there is such a thing as having too much to drink, as I’ve learned first-hand. The Bible says that’s bad. (E.g., Ecclesiastes 10:17.) But it also says drinking watered-down cheap stuff isn’t so good either.

Your silver has become dross,
    your choice wine is diluted with water.
(Isaiah 1:22.)

What’s the lesson there? Don’t dilute the good stuff.

Diluted Faith

A few years before I became a Christian I had a chance to sit in on a class at a Bible college. (It’s a long story, but the thing to keep in mind is that I was not a believer in Jesus.)

The class was on hermeneutics, a subject I not only didn’t know about but one I’d never even heard of before. It turned out to be a class where students learn how to study the Bible. The lecture that day focused on John 2, where Jesus turned water into wine when the wedding he was attending in Cana had run out of drink for the guests.

 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” (John 2:7-10.)

After reading the passage, the professor asked the students, “When you see the word ‘wine’ in that passage, what do you think it means?”

The students – most of whom I gathered were from strict conservative backgrounds when it came to their understanding of all things Christian – gave a couple different answers, ranging from “Back then they drank really strong grape juice and called it wine” to “It was wine but a lot more watered down than what people drink today.”

It looks like quite a party: Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos (Wikimedia)

It looks like quite a party: Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos
(Wikimedia)

The professor surprised them when he said, “Actually, it was wine. It was real wine, it was really good wine, and Jesus made it for everyone to drink.”

I think most of those college kids had never heard someone teach that Jesus actually drank alcohol, let alone that he made a boatload of the good stuff for everyone to drink up at a party.

The students looked at that passage through their own cultural lens, one developed over the years by people who continuously told them that alcohol is evil and if they drink they are in danger of being in league with the devil. It’s the mindset behind phrases like

“Lips that touch wine will never touch mine”

or as one of my old pastors put it when describing the mindset

“Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do.”

The problem with this way of thinking about wine or other alcoholic drinks is that the rules people put on them are legalistic tools that take the place of Spirit-led decision-making.

The rules also end up preventing Christians like the students at that Bible college from being able to see the real purpose of the passages they read; as soon as they see the word “wine” they read the passage based on their assumption that it is evil.

They dilute Scripture’s text and in turn dilute their own faith.

Wine for God’s Glory

Running out of wine at that wedding would have been embarrassing, but it turns out Jesus did not create more wine from plain water just to save the host from humiliation in front of his friends. There was a much higher purpose in view, revealing the glory of Jesus the Messiah:

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11.)

The wine led people not to the devils’ doorstep but to the throne of God.

People do trade their silver for dross – the waste left over when refining precious metal like silver and gold. They are offered a relationship with God, but choose something weak and watered down instead. That is the point of Isaiah 1:22.

Your silver has become dross,
    your choice wine is diluted with water.

Isaiah wrote that prophecy about trading a relationship with God for lesser things hundreds of years before Jesus turned the water into wine, but when Jesus  created that wine and everyone tasted how good it was I wonder if some guests might have remembered Isaiah’s words about not diluting the choice wine. Did they remember that this was not really about wine, but about God?

Because when it comes to God and all he offers his people, let’s not water down the good stuff.

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God Hasn’t Given Up On You

Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep. (Luke 15:6.)

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Tithes and Chariots are Both Outdated

Cars aren’t chariots

“Your chariot awaits, my lady.”

As awkward as I was in High School, I never uttered those words. Of course, the reason it was easy for me to avoid such cheesy lines probably had more to do with the lack of dates than with actually thinking about not saying cheesy lines had I been on a date.

No one would want to go on a date in a chariot in my home town anyway. Pacifica is cold and foggy most of the year, and riding around in an open chariot would be no one’s idea of comfort.

Then again, if arrows are involved perhaps it would have been fun. (Source)

Chariots are biblical, though, so maybe kids in a youth group could get away with the whole “Your chariot awaits” shtick.What could be wrong with calling a car a chariot if chariots are mentioned 154 times in Scripture?

Nothing, actually. Unless the youth group kids start insisting that cars have to be called chariots because that’s the word the Bible uses for vehicles that carry people from one place to another.

Gifts aren’t tithes

Like chariots, tithing is discussed in the Bible. And like chariots, it is mentioned mostly in the Old Testament writings. The tithe was a requirement for the Israelites to bring 10% of their agricultural produce – crops or herds – to the temple. (Leviticus 27:30-32.) It didn’t matter if there was a bumper crop or a near famine. The tithe was required every single harvest, every single birthing season.

Some churches today call the weekly gathering of gifts to the church their tithes. It’s an odd way to label the weekly offering of gifts since no church is recorded in the New Testament as collecting tithes at all. How could they? The local congregations knew they were not the temple in Jerusalem, and to collect tithes on a local level would have been arrogant, perhaps even blasphemous.

What type of giving did Christians participate in? Joyful and extravagant giving, under no requirements or compulsion.

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7.)

This is markedly different from Old Testament tithing. If an Israelite felt reluctant to tithe, they still had to tithe. Tithing was not optional or subject to one’s own feelings. They were compelled to bring 10% to the temple even if  they thought they wouldn’t have enough left for themselves or their family. Tithing was the law for all Israelites far and near.

Some pastors today tell their churches’ members that tithing is still mandatory, and if a member fails to tithe 10% of their income they are in violation of God’s law. Don’t listen to those pastors. Giving under God’s New Covenant has nothing to do with percentages or compulsion.

This doesn’t mean there should be no giving to the church or the work of God’s people at all. Rather, it’s that giving should come from a cheerful heart and love of others, gifts such as support those who are working to bring the gospel of Christ to others (Philippians 4:18) and to help those in need (Acts 11:27-30). Notice what Paul calls such giving:

They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18.)

Paul calls them”offerings”, reminiscent of the voluntary giving found in the freewill offerings of ancient Israel.

I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
    I will praise your name, Lord, for it is good. (Psalm 54:6.)

Giving your money to support God’s work and to help those in need is to come from a cheerful heart that recognizes how good God is. Nothing in the New Testament writings ever suggests it is to be compulsory like the tithe.

Extravagant giving

This doesn’t mean. though, that you should try to get away with giving a pittance. You should give what you have decided in your heart to give, and do it cheerfully, but if you find yourself holding back money so you can have more while you see others in need you might have to rethink how you give and how much you give.

And, in rethinking this, it might mean you find yourself giving away a lot more than 10% of your income. As Jesus told his friends:

Freely you have received; freely give. (Matthew 10:8.)

  • Freely giving means giving without counting percentages, without stopping when you hit ten.You might give away 15%, 20%, 50%. Or you might give 1%, 2% or 5%. No one is keeping track.
  • Freely giving means giving more than your money. It means giving of your time and talents and belongings as you decide in your heart to give.
  • Freely giving means recognizing all God has done for you and desiring to love others and give to them in the same way, even if it means you are sacrificing what you would otherwise be keeping to satisfy your own wants and desires.

The type of free and cheerful giving found in the New Testament, you see, is far different from tithing. So don’t let any pastor try to coerce you into  turning over 10% of your income to the pastor’s church as if it were the replacement of the temple in Jerusalem.

Instead of tithing, give. Freely and cheerfully, give.

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Afterword: I once attended a conference where a speaker was telling church leaders how to teach tithing to their members. He said he’d met a lot of grace givers (meaning people who give as I’ve described in this post) and for all their talk of generous giving not one had ever given 10%. I introduced myself to him later and told him my wife and I practice grace giving and regularly give over 10% of our income. I smiled and said, “You can’t say now that you’ve never met a grace giver whose giving doesn’t reach 10%.” He looked at me as if he didn’t know what to do with what I’d just told him. I hope he stopped implying in his talks that grace givers are stingy.

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Abusing God’s Sovereignty – evil is always evil

Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20.)

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