1603) Being Afraid of That For Which You Were Made

By Randy Alcorn at:

http://www.epm.org

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     You may have seen the “otter video” that’s gotten a lot of traction on Facebook.  There’s a spiritual lesson here, I think.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s this four-month-old pet otter who (for some reason) is being introduced to water for the first time.  Please don’t get caught up in speculation about why someone has a pet otter and why the otter has never before been around water— maybe the otter was rescued and there were problems we don’t know about.

     So laying aside speculationslook at the video.  Despite all the TLC from the owner, the otter is terrified at the sight of the water.  Yes, terrified of the very thing he was made to enjoy and thrive in!

(If video is not shown, go to: http://www.viewpure.com/VQZD2BKiiug?start=0&end=0  )

     Since a friend sent it to me a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about how sometimes we shriek at some of the very things God calls us to.  Being baptized?  Giving?  Bible study?  Praying?  Church membership?  Sharing our faith?  Opening our homes?  Mission trips?  SHRIEK!!!  And then we actually do them, and we realize, like the otter, THIS IS WHAT WE WERE MADE FOR!

     So, sometimes we need to just get our shrieks out of the way as God lowers us toward the water, finally just jump in that water, and discover the wonderful things God has for us.

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Proverbs 3:5-6  —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight.

Joshua 1:9  —  (Joshua said), “Haven’t I commanded you: be strong and courageous?  Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Psalm 20:7  —  Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Matthew 14:27  —  Jesus said to them, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”

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When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you, God, whose word I praise.  In you, Lord, I will trust and not be afraid.  For you have delivered me from death, and kept my feet from stumbling, so that I may walk before you in the light of life.

–Psalm 56:3-4a…13

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1602) Who Was/Is Jesus? (c)

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Sermon on the Mount, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

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     (…continued)  The third choice is that Jesus is mostly a LEGEND.  In response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” many people would say that the real Jesus (somewhere back there in history) was probably a good man, but all those stories about miracles and claiming to be God and rising from the dead were legends that arose as time went on.  This is a common opinion.  But the huge problem with this idea is that almost all of the New Testament was written within 35 years of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Not only that, but these stories were never told like legends as in a Walt Disney movie, but as a truth worth dying for– and people were giving their lives to proclaim it.

     Besides that, a mere 35 years is not nearly enough time for legends to be proclaimed as convincing truth.  Thirty-five years ago right now, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States.  There are many people still living who knew him personally, and millions who remember him as president.  Who would believe any legends about Ronald Reagan walking on water, healing the sick, or raising the dead?  First of all, one would wonder why we never heard any of that back in the 1980’s.  And secondly, if anyone now tried to stretch the truth about Ronald Reagan even a little bit, there are still be plenty of people around to set the record straight.

     Yet, within months of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were Christian congregations in the city where he was executed and in the towns where he ministered, proclaiming the stories of who Jesus was and what he did and that he was risen from the dead.  If not true, those stories, from the beginning, would have been refuted by eyewitnesses, and the church of Jesus Christ would never have gotten off the ground.  But there was a whole nation of eyewitnesses who confirmed the stories of Jesus, who had followed Jesus, heard his words, saw the miracles; and then saw Jesus dead on the cross, and then, risen from the dead.  People don’t give up their lives for legends.  People don’t believe in false stories that can be readily disproven by eyewitnesses.  But the books of the New Testament were written, circulated, and believed within the lifetimes of those who knew and saw Jesus.

     This is all just a very brief look at a much longer argument that answers the question of who Jesus was.  ‘Who do you say that I am?’ he asks each of you.  He is not a Liar, he is not a Lunatic, and he is not a Legend.

     Only one choice remains.  Jesus is the LORD, the Son of the Living God.

     Believe in him and follow him and you shall be saved.

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Luke 1:1-4  —  Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I Corinthians 15:1-8a  —  Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved,if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.  Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.

II Peter 1:16  —  We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

–Ancient Jesus prayer

1601) Who Was/Is Jesus? (b)

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Rembrandt’s Faces of Jesus

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            (…continued)  In Matthew 16:15 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Isn’t it interesting that today, 2,000 years later, this is still an important question?  If Jesus is who he said he is, this is the most important question in all of life, and what you say you believe about Jesus is the only thing that will matter for you in a hundred years from now.  So imagine Jesus asking you, “What about you; who do you say that I am?” 

            What are the choices? 

            There are four possibilities, and C. S. Lewis pointed out that they all begin with the letter ‘L.’  The first ‘possibility’ is that perhaps Jesus was a LIAR.  There are many people who say that Jesus was not really the Son of the Living God, but they would grant that he was a great moral teacher and example; like Buddha, Confucius, or the Dalai Lama.  This is the preferred choice for many, because it cannot be denied that Jesus has had a significant impact on human history.  By allowing that he was simply one of several great moral teachers, someone can acknowledge Jesus’ influence without getting into anything spiritual.  If one does not believe Jesus was anything more than a man, one does not have to make any kind of religious commitment. 

            But Jesus did not leave that option open to us.  He was indeed a teacher of morals.  He did say we should love each other, be kind to one another, and forgive our enemies.  But talking about being nice isn’t what got him killed.  Nobody would have objected to that.  Rather, what got Jesus in trouble with both the Jews and the Romans was that he claimed to be much more than a great teacher.  He claimed to be God.  To the Jews, this was blasphemy, which was punishable by death.  To the Romans, this was also treason because Caesar was Lord, not Jesus.  The Roman punishment for treason was also execution.  This is why the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities conspired to have Jesus killed.  The evidence was clear.  This was an unmistakable part of who Jesus said he was. 

            So if Jesus wasn’t God, then he was a liar and a deceiver, and therefore, not such a great moral example after all.  Even in the Gospels, there stories of how some people accused Jesus of being a deceiver, and intentionally misleading the people. 

            So the first possibility is that Jesus was a liar, trying to deceive everyone about this ‘Son of the Living God’ business.  But the problem with that choice is that people will tell lies for dishonest gain, or, to get out of trouble.  But a sane person will not tell a lie to get into trouble.  Jesus was already a popular teacher.  If he was not the Son of God, that deception gained him nothing but a torturous death on a cross.  It is, therefore, not reasonable think Jesus was a liar.  But the very idea does point out the fallacy of the notion that Jesus was only a great moral teacher.

            As pointed out, a sane person will not lie to get into trouble.  This leads to a second possible choice, and that is perhaps Jesus was insane, or, to use a second word beginning with ‘L,’ a LUNATIC.  What would you think if the person in line behind you at the grocery store tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Believe in me and you will have eternal life, for I am the Son of the Living God?”  Would you say, “Wow, that’s wonderful, I will follow you;” or, would you think he was crazy, turn around, ignore him, avoid any more eye contact, and get away as fast as you could?  Of course, you would want to get away.  You would not want to get involved with such a person.  Jesus also faced that response.  The Gospels record the reactions of some people who thought he was out of his mind, and some who thought he was demon possessed. That is what you think when someone starts talking like they are God, or Caesar, or Napoleon, or Elvis.  There are such people in the world, and they are avoided. 

            But the interesting thing about Jesus is that even though he talked that way, most people did not avoid him, but followed him wherever he went.  Many times in the Gospels we read about Jesus was being followed by large crowds.  His many miracles and profound teachings aroused interest, so people did not automatically dismiss his talk about being divine.  They kept listening and kept following.  Even when Jesus tried to avoid the crowds and get some rest, they would find him, and gather around.   This is not how people react to a person who is insane, so the ‘lunatic’ option doesn’t work either.  (continued…)

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John 7:12  —  Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him (Jesus).  Some said, “He is a good man.”  Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.”

John 10:19-21  —  The Jews who heard these words (of Jesus) were again divided.  Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad.  Why listen to him?”  But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon.  Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

Matthew 4:23-25  —  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.  News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.  Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

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Lord, I believe.  Help me in my unbelief.

–Mark 9:24

1600) Who Was/Is Jesus? (a)

Matthew 16:13-17 —  When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”                 

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

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            In my opinion, the second greatest, and, second most interesting person in all of history was Abraham Lincoln.  In so many ways, the man was simply amazing.  He was an intensely private man, and was often depressed.  Yet, he could be the most gregarious of men, and was certainly one of our funniest presidents.  He would light up even the most somber situations with his hilarious jokes and his stories from the frontier.  His humble beginnings are well-known, and he remained a humble, self-deprecating man.  One time someone in a crowd yelled out that Lincoln was nothing but a ‘two-faced politician.’  Lincoln calmly replied, “Friends, I have also been accused of being ugly, so really, if I had two faces, do you think I would choose to wear this one?”  He never considered himself above anyone else, and treated even servants, runaway slaves, and wounded Confederate soldiers with respect and kindness.  Yet, he was very capable to take control of, and master, even his most powerful opponents.  His logical mind could fully grasp all sides of a complex issue, and his brilliant eloquence would often persuade even his bitterest enemies.  He pursued victory in the Civil War in order to preserve the Union, even though it was at a brutal and heartbreaking cost.  He was a skilled politician in a time when it took almost superhuman skill to lead a divided Congress to amend the Constitution and end slavery in all the states.  He was able to persevere in all his public duties while enduring great pain in his private life, with the death of two young sons and the burden of an emotionally unstable wife, who would, in time be committed to a hospital for the mentally ill.  He was a formidable opponent, but was gracious and forgiving of personal enemies, and, of the defeated Confederacy. 

           I could easily spend years reading and rereading everything by and about this fascinating man.

            But, I am not going to do that because remember, Abraham Lincoln was, in my view, the second greatest and second most interesting person in history.  I want to keep reading about and learning more about the most interesting person in history– Jesus Christ.  Of course, Jesus is more than a person; but he was a person, who lived a human life, in history.  But who really was Jesus, or, we might ask who Jesus is?  Even the way we ask the question reveals something about what we believe. 

            When I was referring to Abraham Lincoln, I used the word ‘was’—Lincoln was a great leader, Lincoln was a brilliant politician, and he was a great man.  Abraham Lincoln has been dead for 152 years, so everything about him is in the past.  When Lincoln died the morning after being shot in the head, Secretary of War Edward Stanton said “Now he belongs to the ages.”  He was great.  We use the past tense when we are talking about someone who has died.

            Christians don’t talk about Jesus in the past tense, but in the present tense, which is used when speaking about someone still alive.  Jesus IS Risen, Jesus IS my Lord and Savior, and ‘what a friend we HAVE in Jesus’– not HAD.

            I think it would be fascinating to have a conversation with Abraham Lincoln, but needless to say, that isn’t going to happen.  But I do believe Jesus does hear me when I pray. 

            The above story took place when Jesus was well into his ministry.  Everyone had been talking about him, and earlier in the Gospels, people were always asking, “Who is this man?”  Ten different times in the Gospels we see this question.  Who is this man, that even the wind and the waves obey him?  Who is this man that can give sight to the blind?  Who is this man that can make the lame walk?  Who is this man that thinks he can forgive sins, for only God has the authority to do that?  And who is this man that says ‘I and the Father are One,’ as if he were God himself?

            Finally, with all those questions swirling around, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And the disciples responded with some of the guesses they had been hearing: John the Baptist or Jeremiah, back from the dead; Elijah, on a visit from heaven; or perhaps some new prophet.  And then Jesus asked, “What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”  Peter responded with what scholars call the turning point of the Gospels.  Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And Jesus said, “Blessed are you.” (continued…)

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Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

–Luke 23:42

1599) William Wilberforce

Image result for william wilberforce images

By Eric Metaxas and Stan Guthrie, http://www.breakpoint.org, August 24, 2017

     English parliamentarian William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a true giant of the faith.  After his dramatic conversion to Jesus in 1785, Wilberforce made three consequential decisions that changed the world: first, to stay in politics, at a time when the conventional wisdom held that politics was too dirty a business for Christians; second, to work for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain; and third, to work for what he called “the reformation of manners” in a society that was scraping bottom morally.

     So, how bad was it?  Well, besides the dehumanizing brutality of the slave trade, British society in the late 1700s and early 1800s was reeling from rampant alcoholism, horrible child labor abuses, prostitution, and even mistreatment of animals through “pastimes” such as bear-baiting.  If you think today’s American degradation sets some kind of record, look at the pre-Victorian era in England.

     Wilberforce had his work cut out for him—and, work he did.  Tirelessly.  He could not stand idly by and see the image of God in abused in anyone.  His fiercely unpopular crusade against the slave trade ravaged his health and cost him politically.  He endured verbal assaults and was even challenged to a duel by an angry slave-ship captain.

     But Wilberforce didn’t stop there.  He fought for prison reform and founded or supported over 60 charities.  He founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and he championed the British and Foreign Bible Society.

     Western culture needs men and women like William Wilberforce, whose faith was translated into persistent action.  Certainly we need to be reminded that all of us, no matter our race or religion, are equal in dignity, and that racism and other forms of bigotry are an obscenity in God’s world.  Wilberforce never wavered on this point and was a brave and sometimes lonely voice that fought against the spiral of silence in a corrupted culture.

     Yes, Wilberforce was a fighter, but he had the faith to fight differently.  He even treated his enemies with decency and respect.  And he often worked with those who disagreed with him on other issues.  For him, politics wasn’t simply about “winning.”  It was about seeing what others could not see and standing up for the glory of God and the good of his neighbors— even those who were bound in chains and carried away from home in the dank bowels of a slave ship.

     William Wilberforce, though born 258 years ago August 24th, remains a man for our time: a time when racism slithers back into our national discourse, political polarization takes over, and when the culture seems headed for the abyss.  While we can’t bring Wilberforce back, we can celebrate and emulate him.

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I am disturbed when I see the majority of so-called Christians having such little understanding of the real nature of the faith they profess.  Faith is a subject of such importance that we should not ignore it because of the distractions or the hectic pace of our lives.

Life as we know it, with all its ups and downs, will soon be over.  We all will give an accounting to God of how we have lived.

–William Wilberforce

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Romans 12:1-2  —  Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

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Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

–Frances Havergal, 1874

1598) “You Mean I Get Two?”

     G. K. Chesterton wrote an imaginative poem about a man who wakes up to a day in this world.  He is not born into it, so he does not have several years of life and experiences behind him.  He just wakes up, fully grown and fully alive to a day in the midst of life– and everything is new to him.  As I said, it is an imaginative poem.  I could not find the poem, and I do not remember the details, so I will describe the gist of it briefly in my own words.

     The man is first of all filled with awe and joy at seeing the sun rise.  He then has the delicious pleasure of eating a breakfast of bacon and eggs.  He goes for a walk in a park, enjoying immensely the trees, the fragrance of every flower, and the sight of such a wonderful variety of birds and cute little animals along the way.  He meets some people and finds them friendly and pleasant; and they all have such interesting things to tell him.  Then there is more good food, more people to meet, more laughter and joy.  Finally there is the beauty of the sunset.  One of the man’s new companions says to him, “Good-night, my friend, I will see you in the morning.”  And the man is astonished and overjoyed, and he says, “What?  You mean I get two of these days!”  He did not know what we know about average life expectancy, so he was profoundly grateful for the experience of a single day in God’s good world.

     Most of us get thousands, even tens of thousands, such days.

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Psalm 118:24  —  This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 103:2  —  Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

II Corinthians 6:2b  —  Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

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Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.   Amen.

–Traditional children’s prayer

1597) Remember Your Place (b)

     (…continued)  Maybe Jesus is saying “Remember your place,” and maybe he is saying that to you and me.  That might sound stern and ungracious, but the catechism, which we teach to our children, says as much.  For example, in Luther’s explanation to the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer he says, “We neither merit nor deserve those things for which we pray, for we sin daily and deserve nothing but punishment.”  That is a pretty severe definition of our true place before God.  We deserve nothing, and if God chooses to bless another and not us, that is up to him.  So ‘remember your place,’ and in your place, you deserve nothing.  Therefore, if you want to get God’s attention, you should do that with humility, and not with the arrogance that says indignantly, “Why are you doing this to me, Lord?”  Rather, we should approach God with the humility of the woman in the story who finally said to Jesus, “It’s okay if I’m a dog, Lord, but even the dogs get the crumbs off the table.  Toss me a crumb, and heal my daughter.  I know I’m not much, and I don’t care what you call me.  I just want her to be well.”

   There is much in the Bible about being humble before God.  Learning to be humble may not be very high on the to-do list for most people, but it is most certainly an accurate and logical position to take before God.  It was wrong in the Old South for white people to say to black people ‘remember your place,’ because people are children of the same heavenly Father; and it is disturbing to see white supremacists today trying to resurrect that evil.  But it is only right and proper that we should remember our humble place before the presence of the Almighty God of all creation, whom we offend daily by our sin.  And when we see ourselves on the right side of this story, it can become for us a lesson in humility, and not a reason to be embarrassed for Jesus.  Perhaps then for us, like for the woman in the story, we can again see our ‘chosen-ness’ as the undeserved gift and the pleasant surprise that it really is, and not ever take it for granted.

     We will then find that identifying with that desperate woman isn’t so bad after all, because then, you see, the words of Jesus for her at the end are also for us.  Remember, in the end Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith.  Your request is granted.”  God does play hard ball with us, and if we don’t learn that from the Bible, we learn it from life itself.  Things do get rough out there.  But the promise here and throughout the Bible is that if we keep looking to Jesus, we will, in the end, be all right.  God has an eternity to work things out for us.  Keep the faith.

     I will add one more little twist to the story, just for the fun of it.  Mark Twain would have not at all objected to being called a dog.  He loved dogs, and I do too.  Dogs are wonderful, aren’t they?  Mark Twain said that if going to heaven was based on our goodness instead of on God’s undeserved grace, it would be our dogs that would get in, and we would all be left out.

     I’ve gotten to know a few dogs pretty well, and for the most part, dogs are more loyal, forgiving, loving, and pleasant than a lot of people I’ve known.  Dogs can put us to shame when we really look at them, and then at ourselves.

     There are people who if you look at them the wrong way, or forget to endlessly thank them for some small favor, get offended and will be upset with you for days.  And I know that I can sometimes have a short fuse, even with people I love and care about.  But your dog will love you no matter what, and will not bear a grudge.

     For example, you get up in the morning and take your dog for a walk.  The dog loves to be outside and wants to chase and smell everything.  But he can’t, because you are in a hurry and you are constantly yanking on his leash.  Then you get home, and you lock that cheerful little dog in a room for the whole day while you go to work.  Then you finally get home and the dog is overjoyed to see you.  But again you are in a hurry, so you again take the dog out on the leash for a quick walk, and then, it’s back in the house all by himself for the whole evening while you go out.  Then you finally come home, and the dog is again thrilled to see you.  He’s not mad, and you are forgiven for abandoning him.  He is jumping up and down, wagging his tail, and licking your face.

     People aren’t like that.  Most people would not stand for what a dog puts up with.  But dogs love you no matter what.  In many ways, we aren’t as good as our dogs.

     Now I know that is probably not what Jesus had in mind in these verses, but there is a message here about undeserved grace.  Without a doubt, people cause a lot more misery in the world than dogs.  And maybe, being the sinners that we are, God needs to play rough sometimes in order to get through to us—like with the woman in the story.  Who are we to judge God’s methods?

     It is for us to thank God for the grace and mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus.

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Waiting for a Crumb

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II Samuel 9:8  —  Then he bowed himself, and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon such a dead dog as I?”

Psalm 8:4a  —  What is man, that thou art mindful of him? 

Romans 12:3b  —  Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.

Psalm 95:6  —  Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

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 Incline us O God, to think humbly of ourselves, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with the charity which we would desire from them ourselves.  Amen.

–Jane Austen, English novelist  (1775-1817)

1596) Remember Your Place (a)

The Canaanite Woman Asks Christ for a Cure, 1650, Pietro del Po

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Matthew 15:21-28  —  Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!  My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”  Jesus did not answer a word.  So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  The woman came and knelt before him.  “Lord, help me!” she said.  He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said; “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.”  And her daughter was healed at that moment.

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            I have four grandchildren and I love them with my whole heart.  They are doing all right so far, but like everyone else in this world, they have had their ups and downs.  And when I hear that any one of them is sad or discouraged or in trouble or hurting in any way, I hurt with them.  When you have children or grandchildren, their pain becomes your pain, and if there is anything you can do to make it better, you will do it.

            This story from Matthew 15 is about a desperate mother of a hurting child.  The girl was possessed by a demon, and though we are not told the details of what that all meant, it doesn’t sound good.  The mother told Jesus that her daughter was suffering terribly.  This mother, like any loving parent, will try anything to help her child.  So this anguished woman goes to Jesus and throws herself at the feet of this man who has already healed a multitude of people.  Surely, he will be able and willing to help her daughter. 

            But what does Jesus do?  He refuses her because she is not a Jew, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  What?  Dogs?  That’s a harsh word for a loving mother who just wants a little help for her poor, suffering daughter.

            Some have tried to explain this story by making excuses for Jesus; like, maybe he was just tired and crabby.  He was, after all, fully human, and people get tired.  Well, tired, yes, and there are places in the Gospels where it says Jesus was tired.  But even at those times, when someone came to Jesus for help, he didn’t get crabby, but would help them—whether or not they were Jews.

            It is more likely that Jesus was testing this woman’s faith.  That idea seems to fit better with how the rest of the story goes.  But Matthew gives no reasons for Jesus harsh response, so we don’t know for sure why he was so mean to this woman at first.  What we do know is that things turned out well for the woman and her daughter in the end; and there is comfort in that.  We have all had the experience of seeming to get the silent treatment from God, and being denied even our most fervent prayers.  But there is great comfort in having the promise that God will, in the end, heal and restore all things.

            But let’s just take the text as it is, with all its rough edges and tough words, and let it hit us right between the eyes as it must have hit that woman.  Look again at how Jesus replied to her desperate plea for mercy.  First of all, he ignored her.  Then he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.  And then Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

            Do you know what that sounds like to me?  As I read this text over and over, it began to remind me of books I have read and movies I have seen about the old South.  It reminds me of those times when a downtrodden black man would try to stand up for his rights to a white man, and the white man would say to him, “You watch your mouth, boy; you just better remember your place.”  The setting of this story in Matthew is far different, but the tone sounds similar.  Could we not paraphrase Jesus’ words in this way: “Remember your place, woman; and your place is not as one of the chosen people, and I am here for them, first of all.  So, get to the back of the line; or perhaps, to the back of the bus.”   Now that doesn’t sound at all like the Jesus we know from the rest of the Gospel stories.  But let’s go with that for a bit before explaining it away too quickly.

           Our understanding and application of any Bible story depends greatly on who it is in the story that we identify with.  We like to identify with the good guy, with whoever is on the side of Jesus.  But we need to be honest with ourselves.  For example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, I’ve always liked identifying with the younger son, the poor boy coming home after making all the wrong moves, being welcomed into the forgiving arms of his loving Father.  But a sermon I once heard on this parable nailed me as the less likable older brother.  I am like the older brother in the parable, faults and all.  I am the responsible one, the one always trying to get it right– but also the one prone to self-righteous impatience with others who are not so longsuffering and obedient and responsible as I believe I am.

            Another example is the story of the blind man in John chapter nine.  I might want to identify with the poor, blind beggar who receives the kind, healing touch of Jesus.  But I am probably more like the Pharisees, those of the religious establishment who were theologically sophisticated enough to know that miracles like that don’t happen every day.

          Let’s say someone came into my office and said, “Pastor, I think I have been healed.  I sent a  hundred dollars to Benny Hinn, my favorite TV healing minister, and he sent me a prayer handkerchief that he himself blessed, and ever since I received it, I’ve been feeling better.”  I would probably be nice, but I would want to say, “No, that isn’t wonderful.  I think Benny Hinn is a fake, and I hope you are still seeing your doctor; and are you sure you aren’t just by coincidence having a couple good days?”  I am not in any way comparing Jesus to Benny Hinn.  I am just trying to imagine how the religious leaders saw Jesus.  I am a part of today’s religious establishment, and I can understand at least some of their suspicions and hesitations.  So even though on one level I want to identify with the beggar Jesus helps, I actually look far more like the Pharisees, and should pay attention to what Jesus says to them.

            So who am I in this story?  Well, I am not a Canaanite and I am not a woman; but I am one of the chosen ones Jesus mentioned—not a Jew, of course, but one who believes in Jesus, and thus is a spiritual descendant of Abraham and one of God’s people.  I believe that.  Therefore, from my position of blessing and privilege, I can take my place at the side of Jesus and say to my similarly privileged congregation, “Jesus did not really mean all that about those lowly folks being dogs.  We aim to be a lot nicer than that to those poor unfortunate people who are beneath us, don’t we Jesus, old buddy, old pal?”  I am an educated, well-off, American, Christian minister; how else should I read that text?  I am used to looking at the rest of the world from a privileged position.  Of course I am going to identify with the chosen ones in the text, so all I have to do is find some way to soften up Jesus words a bit so they don’t offend me or anyone else, and then we can all find ourselves safely on the side of Jesus.

            But what if I am identifying with the wrong ones in the story.  What if in this story Jesus is talking to you and me in his ‘harsh’ words?  What if he is saying to us, “Who do you think you are?  Get off your high horse.  My word to this woman is my word to you, and that word is this: ‘Maybe I have someone else in mind for my blessings, someone less filled with pride, and you should take a hint from this woman and humble yourselves before me.’”  (continued…)

1595) God’s Truth in a Divided World (c)

By Scott Allen  (…continued)

Transforming truth No. 3: Gratitude, not resentfulness, leads to life and flourishing

      Gratitude— thankfulness— is a bedrock virtue for a good reason.  It reminds us that we are contingent, dependent creatures.  It diminishes pride, the most deadly of sins.  We are all dependent on God for our very lives, for every breath we take.  We are dependent on one another— on our families, nations, and forebears.  We rightly acknowledge this dependence and express gratitude for all we’ve been given.

      Today, there is a great deal of effort, money, and organization going into activities aimed at stirring up resentment, bitterness, and a sense of victimization among different groups.  Sensitivity to even small slights or “microaggressions” is not only accepted but also encouraged.

     The focus here is never internal— on my own vices and shortcomings, on getting the log out of my own eye.  Rather, the focus is entirely external— on the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of others.  We are increasingly quick to disparage people based on their group identity.  We cast derisive labels their way:  bigot, hater, racist, sexist.  Evil is always over there, not in here.  I’m the victim.  I’m offended.  My feelings are hurt.  I’m mistreated.  It’s all about me.

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     In a fallen world, there is no shortage of injustice and oppression.  It is real, and it must be carefully identified and fought against.  However, to focus only on the bad things, real or perceived, that others do to us— to elevate our sense of victimhood into a kind of perverse virtue— is a move in a very dangerous direction, one that will tear our country apart.

      In a fallen world, there is no shortage of injustice and oppression.

     How ironic that the Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter have many of these things in common.  They both traffic in a racialized ideology.  They both fixate on their status as victims, convinced they are being “targeted for genocide.”  They both foster resentment, bitterness, and hatred toward the other.  They both tacitly endorse violence.  They both see themselves as a vanguard and invite us to follow their lead, but where will they take us?  To a very, very dark place.  Consider South Sudan, the Rwandan genocide, or the Balkans.  That is where this road of bitterness, resentfulness, victimization, and scapegoating leads.  It is a mindset straight from the pit, and those who foster it, intentionally or otherwise, are enemies of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

      No, we must never succumb to such thinking.  We must choose the more excellent way by nurturing hearts of gratitude rooted in humility and awareness of our own sinfulness and dependence on others.  We must first get the log out of our own eye before we attempt to help others deal with their shortcomings.

      These are all transforming truths of the Biblical worldview.  When applied in families, churches, communities, and nations, they lead to joy, freedom, and flourishing.  When we move away from them in any direction, as we are today, we choose division, hatred, and violence.

      We, as followers of Jesus Christ, are ambassadors of His Kingdom.  We are to be salt and light.  We must have the courage to champion these truths now more than ever.  It won’t be easy.  These are increasingly unpopular ideas.  We must be prepared to be misunderstood, mischaracterized, or worse.

     Some will be tempted to filter Scripture, whether knowingly or not, to conform to the toxic, non-Biblical ideologies that are growing stronger in our culture each day.  Perhaps motivated by a desire for cultural relevance, or a need for acceptance by the right people, they fall into the trap of accommodating Christianity to popular cultural trends.  We must never allow the culture to determine what Scripture says, but rather we must allow Scripture to prophetically critique the culture.

      Some will be tempted to keep their heads down, lie low, ignore the problem, or even retreat; but if we want to be obedient to our mandate to love our neighbor and work for the common good, apathy, silence, and retreat aren’t options.

     We are stewards of God’s powerful transforming truths.  God has entrusted us with these truths not for our own benefit, but for the good of our communities and our nation.  If we fail to cherish, embody, and champion these truths, who else will?  This is our time.  Let us not shrink from it.

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I John 1:8-9  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Matthew 7:3-5  —  (Jesus said), “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Psalm 103:2  —  Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Psalm 103:6  —  The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.

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Almighty God, have mercy on all that bear me any evil will, or would want to harm me.  Amend their faults and mine together by such tender and merciful means as your infinite wisdom can best devise.  Make us saved souls in heaven together where we may ever live with you and all your saints.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

–St. Thomas More  (1478-1535)

1594) God’s Truth in a Divided World (b)

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By Scott Allen   (…continued)

Transforming truth No. 2: God cares for us (and judges us) as individuals

     God created us as unique individuals, and He cares about each person individually.  He counts our tears and numbers our hairs.  He also holds us accountable as individuals for the decisions we make and the actions we take.  When we face the final judgment, the book opened will be the book of our lives.  There will be no excusing our sinful behavior because we were a part of an oppressed group, nor will we be judged for the sins of our fathers or grandfathers.  No, we will stand alone before that judgment throne, and all that will matter is what we did, or didn’t do.

      Here’s the bad news:  God will declare each one of us guilty.  Our own words and actions will be revealed and show us to be unrighteous sinners before the glorious brilliance of an altogether holy, just, and righteous God.  We cannot stand in His presence unless our sins are wiped away, and that would require someone to take the punishment we deserve.  Someone would have to pay our debt, exchanging his righteousness for our unrighteousness.  Only God could do such a thing, and that is exactly what He has done in Jesus Christ.  All that remains for us is to open our hearts and our hands and humbly accept this priceless gift, but we must do this individually.  Nobody can do it on our behalf.

     Yes, our families, churches, and ethnic groups are important.  They are God-given and valuable.  These communities shape us in profound ways.  But here’s the powerful thing:  Just as the Bible affirms unity and diversity, it also affirms individuality and community.

     Evil, including racism, isn’t merely a white problem, it is a human problem.

     Today, the emphasis in the culture is on community, but in the form of tribes or identity groups.  Our culture increasingly defines us by skin color or gender— not only that, it draws the line between good and evil among identity groups, rather than through every human heart (as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously put it).  Increasingly, sinfulness and righteousness are functions of group identity, not personal behavior.  For example, it is increasingly common to hear the assertion that only white people can be racists (that is to say, evil).  Therefore, if you are not white, you are good, or at least not evil.  This is a false and dangerous belief.  All of us are more than capable of evil thoughts and evil actions, regardless of our skin color, or our relative power in society.  Evil, including racism, isn’t merely a white problem, it is a human problem.

     We must reject this tribal idolatry.  We must not treat people merely as members of a group, but as unique individuals.  We must never judge others by their skin color or gender, but instead by the totality of their character and behavior.  True justice must always be colorblind.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a world where his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is a profoundly Biblical dream— and a profoundly American dream as well.  After all, our founding creed declares that all men— black, brown, red, yellow, and white— are all created equal, and are all “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  That is why we fought a civil war.  That is what the civil rights movement was ultimately about:  being true to our Declaration of Independence.  Tragically, King’s dream is waning and we are casting aside our founding creed.  If we continue down this road, we will end up in a very dark place indeed.  (continued…)

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Romans 14:10  —  You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister?  Or why do you treat them with contempt?  For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

Ezekiel 18:19-20  —  Yet you ask, “Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?”  Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live.  The one who sins is the one who will die.  The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.  The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

Ecclesiastes 7:20  —  Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.

Psalm 32:1  —  Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

–Ancient Jesus prayer