1228) God Wants Us to Be Good– For Our Own Sake

     God wants us to be good.  When we obey his commands, life is better for ourselves and those around us.  That is why God gives the commandments in the first place.  

     In the Bible, as in the home, there are a variety of motivators described to encourage our obedience.  There are threats and promises, there are blessings given and blessings denied, and there are punishments and rewards.  But most of all, there is Jesus, who has come down from heaven to be with us in this life.  In getting to know Jesus not only as our God, but also as our friend, we can begin to trust that his commands for us are good.

     In the book of Acts there is a miraculous healing of a man who had been crippled from birth.  Peter and John healed this man in the name of Jesus, but that healing came by way of a command.  Peter said to the man, “I do not have any money to give you, but I’ll give you what I have; I tell you, in the name of Jesus Christ, walk.”  That was a command, and it is commands that we often do not like.  We don’t like to be told what to do, and that lame man could have just said, “No, I won’t,” or he could have complained and said, “Do I have to?” or, he could have sarcastically said, “What do mean walk, are you blind; can’t you see that my legs are no good?”  Obedience was just one of several responses that man could have made.  But the man chose to obey, and verse seven says “Instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” and he stood up.  Soon, the man was not only standing, but he was walking and even jumping around.  But first, he had to obey the command.  The healing came by faith that in the name of Jesus he could be healed, and then by obedience to the command.

     Jesus gave a command to the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning.  He said, “Go and tell my disciples what you have seen, and tell them that I will meet all of you in Galilee.”  There again is a command– two commands in fact.  Go and tell the disciples, and then, all of you meet me in Galilee.  Do you think there were any objections, any discussions about whether or not to obey this command, whether or not they had to do that?  Of course not.  Any opportunity to see Jesus, who they saw dead and now was alive, would be a blessing, even if commanded.  

     There have always been debates about how much we have to do to be saved, and what sins God will and will not forgive, and how much preachers should emphasize the Law and God’s commands, and how much they should emphasize God’s love and freely given grace.  But it is only because of our sinful blindness that we imagine a conflict between God’s love and God’s commands.  Throughout the Bible there is such a blending of the two that one can hardly tell the difference.  Even the punishments, when given, are not merely because commands were broken, but because the people were turning away from God’s love and bringing upon themselves all sorts of miseries.

     So for all those reasons, God wants us to be good– for our own sake. 

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Deuteronomy 28:1a…2a  —  If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today… all these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…

Deuteronomy 28:15  —  However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you…

I John 2:5  —  If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.  This is how we know we are in him.

Acts 3:6  —  Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

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O Lord, let my life by useful, and my death be happy; let me live according to thy laws, and die with confidence in thy mercy.  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

1227) Caiaphas

tissot-annas-and-caiaphas

Caiaphas, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

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     The Episcopal church is in trouble these days.  Most Episcopalians are on the liberal end of the theological spectrum, and many Episcopalians have gone so far to the left of traditional Christianity that they can hardly be considered Christian anymore.  An Episcopal bishop can deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, publicly ridicule the authority of the Bible, question the existence of God, or marry another man– and still remain a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal church.  One might well wonder what is left of Christianity if not even those basic doctrines and ethical standards are upheld.

     But there is, in fact, something left in this Episcopal church, something on which they are strong and solid and firm and uncompromising.  This is the church power structure which has shown its willingness to spend millions of dollars, given in the offerings of faithful parishioners, for legal expenses to flex its muscles and rule over local congregations and pastors.

     Why is all that money needed for legal expenses?  There are still many good, solid, Bible-believing, Episcopal pastors, lay people, and congregations, but they do not know what to do.  They feel their national church, and in many cases their own bishops, have abandoned them, and they cannot live in a church that has gone so far from the truth.  So they have sought leadership and fellowship elsewhere, usually in Africa.  The Episcopal church is the Anglican church in America, and the Anglican church in Africa is very different.  It still has a strong and solid Biblical foundation, and it is to those bishops that many American congregations want to transfer their membership, allegiance, and mission offerings.  But the American powers that be tell them they cannot do that, because it is against their Anglican traditions.

     Imagine that.  The same bishops who have abandoned and even ridicule every Biblical truth and tradition, now, in the name of church tradition, will remove pastors from their pulpits, take congregations to court, and even seek to confiscate a congregation’s hard earned property and assets.

     There are similarities between the present conflict in the Episcopal church and the conflict that sent Jesus to the cross.  In both, we see an entrenched religious institutional authority trying to hang on to power.  In both, there are religious leaders who will use any and all legal power to get their way.  The presiding American Episcopal bishop took congregations to court to confiscate their property, thus preventing them from getting out from under their authority.  Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest at the time of Jesus, wanted to get rid of Jesus in order to maintain his established authority.  Caiaphas, therefore, forced Pilate’s hand and sought to influence the crowd to get an order of execution.  In both is a challenge to that earthly church authority and power by appealing to an even higher authority.  Biblical Episcopalians are appealing to the clear testimony of the Bible.  Jesus appealed to his heavenly Father and his own claim to be the promised Messiah, the truth of which was made evident to many people by his powerful words and miraculous deeds.  Both conflicts resulted in deep divisions.

     Caiaphas saw himself in the role of the protector of the old-time religion.  That was made particularly difficult with pagan Romans all over the place, desecrating the whole country, including the temple itself.  I am big on protecting the old-time religion myself, so I would be with him on that.  But for Caiaphas and the religious establishment of Jesus day, the protections around that old-time religion had grown into an endless list of laws and rules and obligations that was not protecting, but stifling the life, spirit, and truth of the old time religion.  Therefore, some of Jesus’ harshest words were directed at these chief priest and other religious leaders.

     The central hope of the old-time religion was that someday God would send a Messiah to save the people from their sins.  Many people believed that Jesus was the one that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries.  But Caiaphas would not even consider the possibility.  Not even after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead would Caiaphas open his heart and mind to the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah.

     Caiaphas’s goal was to have Jesus killed in order to protect the religious establishment.  Matthew 26:3 makes it clear that this was their intention:  “Then the chief priest and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”  Of the many people that played a part in the last week of Jesus’ life, it is only Caiaphas’s agenda that is completely followed.

      In God’s almighty providence, it turned out that Caiaphas’s agenda also accomplished God’s agenda.  In John 11, right after the report reached Caiaphas that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd, several of the chief priests asked:  “What shall we do?  If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away our nation.”  Romans or no Romans, it was indeed God’s intention that everyone believe in Jesus.  Caiaphas then said, “You know nothing at all.  Don’t you realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish?”  And that’s just what God had in mind– that one man should die for all the people.

     Peter, who loved Jesus as much as anyone, wanted to protect him.  But Peter had to have his will opposed in order for Jesus to accomplish God’s will.  But Caiaphas, the most wicked of all Jesus opponents, and the one most responsible for his death (humanly speaking), got just what he wanted.  As a result of the wicked scheming of Caiaphas, God’s most perfect plan reached its fulfillment.  This proves how difficult it is for us to know what is really best.  I wonder how God is working in our churches and our world today.

     One last thing.  There is a caution here for the current members of the religious establishment– and that includes me, and perhaps you also.  There is nothing wrong with being part of the religious establishment.  Right after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples and their followers began organizing themselves into communities that could worship and serve together.  This organized and established church has accomplished great things over the centuries.  But it has also taken some wrong turns and done some very bad things.  Therefore, we should look at Caiaphas not with disdain and arrogance, but with humility and caution.  We must not make the mistake he made, and let our church institution kill and bury the truth and spirit of its Lord and Savior.

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Matthew 23:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

John 11:47-53  —  Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked.  “Here is this man performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.  So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

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Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud, English bishop  (1573-1645)

1226) The First Saint Nick (b)

photograph of a stained glass window of Saint Nicodemus learning from Jesus, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author, summer 2003

Saint Nicodemus, with Jesus

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     (…continued)  John records no further questions or comments by Nicodemus in this conversation, but I think we can safely assume that Nicodemus liked what he heard from Jesus.  His name appears two more times in the Gospel of John.  In chapter seven, the Jewish ruling council wants to arrest Jesus, and only Nicodemus speaks up in his favor, saying, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”  Then, in John 19, after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus, along Joseph of Arimathea, arrange for the burial of Jesus.  The Bible says Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices for the burial.  That, according to scholars, is far more than the normal amount.  It is what would be used for the burial of a king– which is an indication of what Nicodemus thought of Jesus.  Nicodemus, despite the way Jesus confronted him at first, did apparently become a friend of and believer in Jesus.

     In many ways, Jesus challenged and contradicted the understanding of grace and faith that Nicodemus had been taught, but Nicodemus saw in Jesus something special, something true and good and miraculous.  Despite the difficulties in understanding and following Jesus, Nicodemus hung in there, stayed in touch, and kept looking to Jesus.  These three references in John are the only times we read of Nicodemus in the Bible.  There is some evidence in other early sources that Nicodemus joined the early church, and was then executed for his faith in Jesus in the early Roman persecution of the Christians.  The Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church list Nicodemus among their saints.

     Nicodemus perhaps saw in Jesus a word of God’s grace that was lacking in his Pharisaic beliefs.  Their brand of Judaism had expanded the simple and direct Ten Commandments into 613 rules.  Perfectionists that they were, they wanted to make sure everything was covered.  For example, “Remember the Sabbath Day” was a commandment, and the Bible said you were not to do any work on the Sabbath.  But what exactly did that mean?  They wanted to know.  You had to eat, didn’t you?  Could you prepare food?  So they made this rule:  you may warm up food, but you shall not prepare it on the Sabbath Day.  Do the preparation on the day before so all you have to do on the Sabbath is put it in the microwave.  There was a rule about having to give thanks before a meal, but that led to more rules.  What constituted a meal?  If you have a donut with your coffee break do you have to say a prayer of thanks for that?  The rule they came up with was if what you eat is bigger than an olive, then yes, you have to say a prayer before you eat it.  One more example.  Is it walking considered working, and if so, how far can you walk on the Sabbath day?  Well, there was a rule on precisely how many steps you could take.  Therefore, if you wanted to go somewhere on the Sabbath, you needed to step it off ahead of time to make sure you were not going too far.  This went on and on.  

     We might be tempted to look down on these Pharisees for this foolish legalism, but they would look down on us for our far too careless and indifferent approach to God’s law.  They most certainly went overboard, and Jesus told them so on more than one occasion.  He criticized them for their hypocrisy, lack of love and mercy, self-righteous pride, spiritual blindness, and so many other things that they had wrong.  But Jesus never criticized them for their obedience.  Jesus did say one time that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (though not all the additional laws the Pharisees had invented).

     The Pharisees had many things wrong, but they were faithful about saying their prayers, every day and at every meal.  How about you?  Do you see every bit of food as a gift of God and give thanks at every meal?  The Pharisees were faithful about obeying God’s command to worship each and every week.  How about you?  And they were faithful about obeying God’s command to rest one day a week.  Are you?  Or is your Sabbath Day just as hectic as the work week?  The Pharisees thought only about obedience, all the time, and had no time to remember God’s grace.  They went overboard one way.  But to never consider God and his commands for us in our decisions and our daily life is certainly to go overboard the other way.

     As a young monk, Martin Luther saw only the judging and condemning face of God, much like the Pharisees.  Then one night as Luther was digging into the Scriptures, he noticed something in Romans chapter four. He saw there that the blessings of God come not from obeying the Law, but that ‘the promise comes by faith.’  But even though Luther was led to a renewed understanding of grace, he also continued to teach that our response to such grace must always be diligent and faithful obedience.

     We must not, like the Pharisees, see only the commanding and judging side of God.  But neither should we forget about that.  We should, like Nicodemus, keep our hearts and minds open to all that the Bible says about God– His promises for us and His expectations of us.

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John 7:50-51  —  Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked (the ruling council), “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

Matthew 5:17  —  (Jesus said),  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Romans 4:14-15a…16a  —  For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath…  Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.

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 O Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech thee to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that through thy most mighty protection, both here and forever, we may be preserved in body and soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

1225) The First Saint Nick (a)

nicodemus

Nicodemus Came to Jesus by Night…

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     When I was a child I watched a lot of cowboys and Indians movies, and it was the same thing every time.  The cowboys were always the good guys and the Indians were always the bad guys. Simple.  Then there was a change of mood in Hollywood, and for a while the good guys were always the Indians and the bad guys were always the cowboys (or the soldiers or whoever was against the Indians).  Again, simple.  But in both types of movies it was too simple.  Reality is seldom like that, and the best movies show more of life’s complexities.  There might still be those characters who are mostly good or mostly bad, but in those better movies we are shown the motivations, confusions, and failings, along with the goodness and humanity of those on both side of a conflict.

     Sometimes the Bible is read with a simplistic good guy-bad guy approach.  In the Gospels, for example, Jesus and his disciples are the good guys, and the Romans and the Pharisees are the bad guys.  Simple.  But a closer reading of the Bible shows it to be more complex than that.

     The Pharisees are often opposed to Jesus, so a casual reader could get the impression that they are his enemies, and therefore, the bad guys.  However, the Pharisees usually call Jesus ‘Rabbi’ which is a sign of respect and honor.  They engage him in conversation, sometimes to trap him, but usually just to learn from him.  And there were times when a Pharisee even invited Jesus into his home for a meal.  Pharisees were serious about their faith, and they wanted to understand this brilliant and popular new teacher.

     The Pharisees were the most meticulous of all Jews about obeying the Law.  This oftentimes made them unbearably self-righteous.  If you made even the smallest mistake, they were the first to judge you and look down on you.  But they were determined to obey God, and were therefore honest and upright and loyal and generous.  They were good citizens and neighbors.  You could trust them.  They paid their bills.  If they borrowed your lawn mower, they’d return it, in good working order and full of gas.  That’s the kind of people they were.  They were perfectionists, with all the blessings and annoyances that come with being perfect.  They’d be the type who would drive you crazy if you had to work with them on anything, but you could trust them to get a job done and done right.

     The third chapter of John tells the story of when a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus.  Nicodemus was also a member of the Jewish ruling council, Jesus’ worst enemies.  It was this ruling council that condemned Jesus to death.  But this was early in Jesus’ ministry, and Nicodemus wanted to get to know him better.  So he came to Jesus for a personal conversation, apart from the crowd.  But he did come at night, indicating that the tension was building and it was no longer prudent for a Pharisee to be seen having a friendly chat with Jesus.

     Nicodemus, therefore, was an honest seeker after truth, and he wanted to know the truth about Jesus.  He began with a simple statement, one that pays Jesus the highest respect.  “Rabbi,” Nicodemus said respectfully, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you are doing if God were not with him.”

     His words were a simple observation about what he had observed about Jesus.  But Jesus responded with a rather difficult statement:  “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus clearly did not understand what Jesus meant, and the conversation seemed to go downhill for a while.  One would think Jesus would be happy with a friendly visit from one of the opposition, but Jesus made it difficult for Nicodemus.

     I don’t know why Jesus responded with such confusing language.  I am sure he had a good reason.  I do know from talking to people who might be trying to understand who Jesus is, that the search for religious truth can be difficult and confusing.  You will probably not comprehend it all in just one sitting.

     Nicodemus, despite his confusion, kept listening for the rest of what Jesus had to say.  His patience was rewarded.  After several perplexing statements about being ‘born again’ and ‘spirit giving birth to spirit’ and ‘the spirit blowing like the wind,’ Jesus did get around to some of the simplest, most basic, and best loved words in the whole Bible.  Jesus said to Nicodemus those wonderful words we know as John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  

     In this conversation, as in many of Jesus teachings, he went back and forth between tough and tender, and between judgment and grace.  He could challenge even the most brilliant scholars, and then, speak in words so simple even a child could understand.  (continued…)

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John 3:1-4  —  Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked.  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

John 3:16-17  —  (Jesus said), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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Merciful God, whose servant Nicodemus was a secret disciple of Christ, meeting him by night to avoid the wrath of the other members of the Sanhedrin, and eventually spoke out to that body to remind them that Jesus had a right to a hearing:  Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (source unknown)

1224) The Greater the Persecution, the Greater the Revival

By Eric Metaxas, at http://www.breakpoint.org, August 15, 2016.

The greater the persecution, the greater the revival.  It’s a phrase Chinese Christians are using these days, and with good reason.

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     You’ve probably heard a lot about China in the news lately:  How it’s threatening peace in the Pacific by building military bases on artificial islands.  You’ve heard presidential candidates warn that China may soon overtake the U. S. as the leading global economic power.  But what you probably didn’t realize is that China is ready to overtake the U. S. in another area:  the size of its Christian population!

     You see, despite years of often savage oppression, the church in China is growing by leaps and bounds.

     Yu Jie, a writer and dissident from China, tells the story powerfully in the August issue of First Things magazine.  Yu reports that since 1949, when the communists took over and Christian missionaries were expelled, the number of Christians in China has multiplied from half a million to more than 60 million today.  If current growth rates continue, “by 2030, Christians in China will exceed 200 million . . . making China the country with the largest Christian population in the world.”

     And Yu, who became disillusioned with communism after the Tiananmen Square massacre, might very well be a little bit cautious in his estimates.  The respected Operation World prayer guide counts not 60 million but 105 million Christians of all kinds in the country, far outstripping the 70 million or so members of the Communist Party!

     Either way, it’s easy to see that the Chinese Church has been unbroken by decades of communist opposition.  These days few Chinese outside the Party believe in communism, and the Church has begun to fill the resulting spiritual and worldview vacuums.

     “Groups of young, well-educated, active professionals have gathered in urban churches,” Yu says, “smashing the stereotype in many Chinese people’s minds of Christians as elderly, infirm, sick, or disabled.  These churches … are a first step toward Christians assuming leadership in the development of a Chinese civil society independent of government control.”

     Perhaps that’s why the regime has begun cracking down on Christians of late.  According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state’s supremacy and maintenance of a socialist society.  Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down.”  Yet as Yu reports, “Chinese Christians have refused to give in.”  In fact, Yu says, “One of the phrases I have heard most often among them is:  ‘The greater the persecution, the greater the revival.’”

     I am thrilled to tell you that many Christians in China are finding inspiration from one of my personal heroes— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who stood against and was executed by the Nazis.  Yu says, “Chinese Christians also see in Bonhoeffer a man who dared wage war as an ant on an elephant.  He found wisdom and courage in Jesus, knowing that Jesus exists for others, and those who follow him should do the same.”

     And that’s what Chinese Christians, unbroken by this latest round of persecution, are doing— living for others, no matter what.   The churches have a large and growing presence in serving their non-Christian neighbors in the name of Christ, Operation World reports.  They’re also active in evangelism, both at home and abroad.

     And folks, they deserve our prayers.

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SEE ALSO:

China’s Christian Future
Yu Jie | First Things | August 2016

God Is Moving in China: Filling a Peoples’ Spiritual Void
Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint.org | June 11, 2015

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Matthew 5:10-12  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

John 15:19-21  —  (Jesus said), “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you:  ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name,for they do not know the one who sent me.

I Corinthians 4:12b-13a  —  When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted,we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.

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Almighty God, you have taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that those who follow Him may be persecuted.  Strengthen, comfort, and encourage all those who suffer harassment, violence, imprisonment, and even death for being followers of Jesus.  We pray also for those who persecute your people.  May their hearts be turned towards you through the faithful witness of those they persecute.  Protect members of the families and church communities of those who are persecuted, and bless the work and ministry of the organizations that support them.  We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

1223) If God Could…

By Dallas Willard in The Allure of Gentleness

     The classical argument from antiquity is, “If God could and is good, he would” prevent the death of this child (or whatever situation is at hand).  This is the only argument of status against the existence of the Christian God.  As with pain, many insist that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he would not permit the evil things that do happen to occur at all.  In the face of this problem, one is prone to think the deadliest of thoughts, namely, that God is not good or that he is not able.  But if moral evil exists, aren’t we forced to let go of one or the other?

     To deal with this effectively, we need to understand the level of God’s daily interaction in the realm of human affairs.  Does God do everything there?  Did He butter your toast this morning, drive your kids to school, write checks to pay your bills?  No.  Of course not!  Human beings act too, and nature moves along in some degree on its own.  All of this must be taken into consideration.  So what we must look at is the question:  Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil?

     Can we agree that many things ought not to be, without holding that the general framework that permits them to exist was a mistake on God’s part?  This returns us to our discussion of God’s purpose within human history, which is to create for himself a living abode— a community of free, conscious, living beings.  Could God have done this in a better way?

     The world that contains the possibility of evil is the one that also contains the greatest possibility of good.  And the question of why God allows evil to happen has to be put against the question of what a world where evil could not happen would be like.  It’s by working on those questions that people can come to some resolution in their minds about the reality of evil and what it means.

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Isaiah 29:16  —  You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay.  Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”?  Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?

Ezekiel 18:25  —   (God says)  “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’  Hear, you Israelites: Is my way unjust?  Is it not your ways that are unjust?”

Isaiah 45:9…11b-12  —  (This is what the Lord says), “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground.  Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’  Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?…  Do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands?  It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it.  My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts.

Jeremiah 18:1-6  —  This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel.  But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.  Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord.

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You, Lord, are our Father.
    We are the clay, you are the potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.

–Isaiah 64:8

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Gracious God, I know that you are my potter.  You made me.  You redeemed me…   I thank you, dear Lord, for not giving up on me when I’m less than you intend.  Thank you for your patience and mercy.  Thank you for continuing to shape me even when I resist you and your work.  Help me to live each moment of each day for you and your purposes.  May I acknowledge you as my potter, not only through my words, but also through my works…  All praise be to you, O God, Sovereign Lord, my potter.  Amen. 

–Mark D. Roberts

1222) Which Way?

   

Many people have chosen the following poem (or a variation of it) for the epitaph on their gravestone.  

This one was found in a cemetery in Waynesville, North Carolina:

Effie Jean Robinson  1897-1922

Behold and see, as you pass by ,

And on these lines do cast an eye.

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so must you be;

Prepare for death and follow me.

Underneath, someone added:

To follow you;

I am not content,

Unless I know

Which way you went.

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James 4:13-15  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Joshua 24:14-15  —  (Joshua said to the people), “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Philippians 3:10-14  —  I want to know Christ– yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

 Hebrews 9:27-28  —  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed; and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  –Book of Common Prayer

1221) “It’s Not So Bad” (b)

Watch the Bible story scene at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLhFeELnGZE

(NOTE:  In the previous meditation I told the story from memory.  Then I found this and saw I did not retell the conversation precisely, though the gist of it is the same.)

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     (…continued)  This scene from Amistad illustrates several important Biblical truths.  Though that scene is fictional, the historical truth is that kind of thing happened all over the South to a majority of the slaves.  The two captured Africans in the movie saw in the Bible pictures a story that brought hope, even in the face of injustice, oppression, and possible death; and a high percentage of the real African-American slaves saw in the Gospel a story that gave them hope in the face of their oppression and hopeless lives.  When given the opportunity, the slaves in this country turned to Jesus Christ by the millions.  To this day, the church remains a powerful presence and force in the Black community.  In that fictional scene, the movie accurately portrayed a powerful movement in American history.  The slaves heard, believed, and took comfort in the message of Jesus Christ, and the hope of a better life beyond this one.  They sensed a truth and a power in the Gospel that transcended the ways individual believers, such as their owners, had perverted that truth; and the slaves believed it and took hold of it.

     The two Africans saw very early in the Bible story pictures that something went wrong.  They could see the effects of that, but the pictures could not tell them what it was that caused the trouble.  But by reading the whole story, we learn that the problem was that the people God created and loved began to turn away and disobey and ignore God.  The pages of the Old Testament are filled with expressions of God’s anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, and bewilderment at such a response from those he created and to whom he gave everything.  It was when they turn away that the trouble and the sadness begins for them, and that is what the slaves saw in the pictures.

     I am reminded of another time of great suffering in another part of the world.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a Russian writer and historian.  He wrote tens of thousands of pages telling the sad story of the 20th century in Russia; the story of the Communist revolution, the violence, the wars, the famines caused by the many crop failures, and the purges in which the Communists killed tens of millions of their own people.  Solzhenitsyn was the primary historian of that story.  As an old man he looked over this tragedy that brought such destruction to his homeland and said, “I asked myself over and over again, why this all has happened to my people?  And over and over again, I return to the same answer.  It is the answer that my old grandmother gave 70 years ago when the sufferings were just beginning.  She said, ‘All this has happened because we have forgotten God.’”

     That is what happened in the Old Testament and in Russia.  The Old Testament prophet Hosea, in a similar brief and powerful summary of his nation’s troubles said, “Return O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sins have been your downfall.”

     That is what happened in this country when people believed they could capture and enslave fellow human begins.  That is what can happen to any people at any time.  We must not forget God.  We must not fail to give God our attention and our devotion and our thanksgiving.  When Jesus himself first gave to the disciples the Sacrament of Holy Communion, he commanded them to repeat what he said and did, saying, “This do in remembrance of me.”

     The focus of the story that the slaves see pictured in the Bible is Jesus Christ.  Seeing who Jesus was and what he did gave them hope.  Earlier in the movie, an old and experienced lawyer gives some good advice to the team that is defending the slaves and arguing for their return to their homes in Africa.  The old lawyer says, “When you are in court, remember that the one who tells the best story will win.”  In the movie that had to do with the telling of the slaves tragic story– being taken from their homes, mistreated, and brought here to be bought and sold like animals.  Tell that story in a way that makes them look like humans and not animals, said the old lawyer, and you will move people’s hearts and you will win.

     For me, that line hinted at a deeper meaning, one found in another story.  It is almost immediately following that old lawyer’s remark that the scene shifts to the prison and the two slaves looking at the pictures in the Bible.  That truly is the best story that has ever been told, and it has been winning the hearts and minds of people all over the world for the last two thousand years.  “The one who tells the best story wins,” said the old lawyer.  The Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is God’s own story, and the only story that goes on into all eternity, and therefore is indeed the very best story of all.

      The most important thing in life is to hear and believe and remember that story.

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Hosea 14:1  —  Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.  Your sins have been your downfall.

Jeremiah 13:24-25  —  “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind.  This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” declares the Lord“because you have forgotten me and trusted in false gods.

Luke 22:19  —  (Jesus) took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

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Father in heaven, you have first loved us, help us never to forget that love.  May the sure conviction that love triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the restlessness of our spirit, over our anxiety for the future, over our guilt about our past, and over the distress of the present moment.  Grant also that this conviction may discipline our soul, so that our hearts may remain faithful in the sincere remembrance of your love for us, and your command that we love others as ourselves.  Amen.

–Soren Kierkegaard  (1813-1855)

1220) “It’s Not So Bad” (a)

Scene from Amistad, 1997

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     The 1997 movie Amistad presents the most powerful portrayal of the Christian message I have ever seen in a movie.  The movie is based on an event that happened in Connecticut in the mid-1800’s.  The Amistad was a ship that transported captured Africans to be sold as slaves in the American South.  The human ‘cargo’ on the Amistad managed to overthrow the crew and take over the ship.  They left two of the Spanish crew-members alive in order to turn the ship around and take them back to Africa.  But the two Spaniards tricked the Africans and brought them to America.  Unfortunately for the crew, they landed in a northern city where slavery was not allowed, and, where a large part of the population was very much against slavery.

     The result was a complicated court battle to determine what to do with the Africans.  To whom did they ‘belong,’ or, should they be taken back to Africa?  The trial eventually involved the President of the United States (Martin Van Buren), a former President (John Quincy Adams) who helped argued the case on the Africans’ behalf, the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Queen of Spain.  The part of the film I want to describe is a scene that takes place inside a prison where the Africans are being held while the trial takes place.

     One day a sympathetic person from the crowd gave one of the Africans a Bible as they were on the way out of court.  Later on in prison the man was paging through the Bible with keen interest, obviously deep in thought.  One of the other Africans said to him, “You are not fooling anyone; we all know that you can not read that.”

     The African with the Bible responded, “I know I can’t read, but there are pictures, and I think I am beginning to understand it.”  He then brought the Bible to the other man, sat down with him, and began to show him the pictures.  He tells his friend the story and explains what he thinks it means.  The movie brilliantly portrays this illiterate man coming to some understanding of the Gospel, and how the story he sees in the Bible pictures speaks to them in their own predicament.  Along with that, his narrative becomes a wonderful summary of the old, old story as heard and understood by someone for the first time.

     “Look,” he says, pointing to a picture of the garden of Eden, “the story starts out very nice, in a beautiful place where everyone is happy.”  The men remember their own beautiful home from which they had been taken, the place where their story had begun.

     Then he turns the page to another picture, a picture of fighting and killing, perhaps an illustration of some Old Testament war.  “Then something goes wrong,” he says, “and they all start fighting.  There is much suffering and everyone is sad.”  By now the second African is paying close attention.  Something has gone very wrong for them, too.

     “But then something happens.  A baby is born,” the first man explains, pointing to a drawing of the scene in the stable the night of Jesus birth.

     “Who is that?” asks the intrigued listener.

     “I don’t know, but he must be important, because the sun follows him wherever he goes,” says the first man, pointing to the halo of light that is always around Jesus’ head in old books and paintings.

     “This man can do anything,” he says, continuing his explanation and turning to show his friend more pages and more pictures.  “He heals people, he takes care of little children, he stops the wind, he can even walk on water.  But wherever he goes, he is helping people, and there are always big crowds around him, and they all seem to love him.”

     But then they come to another disturbing picture.  The first man says, “But then some bad people come and put this man in chains and make him bleed and are very mean to him.”  He points to a picture of Jesus being pushed and mocked by the soldiers.

     The second man responds gruffly, “But he must have done something bad!”

     The first man then gently reminds him of their own chains and suffering and asks, “What have we done wrong?”  

     They then look at a picture of Jesus nailed to the cross, and they wonder if that is what the white people are planning to do to them.

     “But it doesn’t matter,” says the first man with excitement, turning some more pages and adding, “because even though this man dies, he comes to life again.  Then he takes his friends to a wonderful place where there is no more trouble.  So that must be where we will go from here when they kill us.  It’s not so bad.”  They continue to look at more pictures of the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples, and then all of them together in heaven.  Both men stare at that last picture of heaven, deep in thought.  (continued…)

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Acts 11:4  —  Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story.

Psalm 107:1-3  —  Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.  Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story— those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.

Revelation 21:3-5a  —  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Philippians 1:21  —  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

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O Lord, the hard-won miles

Have worn my stumbling feet:

Oh, soothe me with thy smiles,

And make my life complete.

The thorns were thick and keen

Where’er I trembling trod;

The way was long between

My wounded feet and God.

Where healing waters flow

Do thou my footsteps lead.

My heart is aching so;

Thy gracious balm I need.

–Paul Dunbar  (1872-1906), Son of ex-slaves, first African-American to gain widespread fame as a poet

1219) Physical Training Has Some Value, But…

Michael Phelps carries the American flag at the Olympic Opening Ceremony, August 5, 2016

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By  Veronica Neffinger, August 8, 2016, at:  www.christianheadlines.com

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     Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time.  He recently won his nineteenth Olympic gold medal at the Rio Games.  His fiance, Nicole Johnson, recently gave birth to their son, Boomer Robert Phelps.
 
     It seems that everything is going well in Phelps’s life, but despite his fame and achievements, that wasn’t always the case.
   
     After the London Games in 2012, Phelps was not in a good place.  He thought he was done with swimming and instead took to living his life recklessly.  He got caught smoking marijuana and drunk driving.
 
     The old issues he had struggled with all his life after his parents divorced and he became estranged from his father began to resurface.  Phelps became so depressed that he contemplated taking his own life.
 
     It was then that his NFL friend Ray Lewis, an outspoken Christian, stepped in.  “This is when we fight.  This is when real character shows up.  Don’t shut down.  If you shut down we all lose,” Lewis told Phelps.  Lewis also convinced Phelps to go to rehab which Phelps reluctantly agreed to do.
     While he was in rehab, however, Phelps not only gained some needed perspective on his life, but his life was changed forever when he read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life which Lewis had given him.  Phelps said that the book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”
 
     The video link below tells the story of not only Phelps’s career, but of the new person he became after attending rehab, reconnecting with his father, and putting his trust in God.
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 “Michael Phelps’ testimony illustrates the salvation and peace that can only be found in Jesus Christ.  When the devil tried to detour Phelps’ Olympic dreams with substance abuse and family problems, God sent him a miracle in the form of a Christian book given to him by his brother in Christ.  Phelps’ restored Christian faith empowered him to persevere and reach heights most athletes will never see.”  –Qpolitical
 
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“Michael Phelps’ story is a reminder that no matter how big a mess your life may be, and no matter how dim the last embers of hope may glow, God is still there.  It’s also a reminder of the role that God’s people are called to play as bringers of hope and agents of restoration.  The results may not be as dramatic as Phelps’ story but they will matter every bit as much.”   –Eric Metaxas

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I Timothy 4:7b-9  —  Train yourself to be godly.  For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.  This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.

II Corinthians 5:17-18  —  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

Philippians 2:12-13  —  Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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Take, Lord, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will.  You have given me all that I have, all that I am; and I surrender all to your divine will.  Give me only your love and your grace.  With this I am rich enough, and I have no more to ask.  Amen.

–St. Ignatius Loyola  (1491-1556)