Waiting Beyond Death

During this Season of Hope, we are studying texts related to the Advent, or coming of the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Messiah. Just like ancient Israel had to wait for his coming, we too wait for his second coming.

Isaiah 40 makes reference to this time of waiting.

6 A voice says, “Cry out.” 
And I said, “What shall I cry?” 
“All people are like grass, 
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them. 
Surely the people are grass. 
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
but the word of our God endures forever.”

Isaiah 40:6–8 NIV

In these verses we have a heavenly voice (the speaker is unclear, perhaps Yahweh, an angel, or some other heavenly being) telling Isaiah that humans are like grass and their works like flowers. What the voice is reminding us is that grass and flowers are only around for a season before they wither and fade away. They do not last forever. But the word of God does indeed last forever.

Let’s put this in the context of Israel coming out of exile. They have been away from their homes for a generation, and there is this promise of return. God will make the path easy, he will restore Jerusalem, he will keep his promises. His word will not fail! But humans don’t live forever. We all die. God’s promises, however, do not die.

Isaiah is trying to remind us that we may wait for God to fulfill his promises, and they may not be fully fulfilled in our lifetime before we “wither.” Isaiah wants us to remember that our waiting does not negate God’s promises. Even if we never see them fulfilled, we can rest assured that they will be fulfilled because God’s word endures forever.

Centuries after this text was written, one would come as “a voice of one calling: In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD.” (Isa. 40:3, Mark 1:3). Mark, as well as the other Gospel writers, want us to realize that God kept this promise fully in the ministry of John the Baptist, “and the glory of the LORD” was revealed in the Advent of Jesus (Isa. 40:5).

Though Isaiah’s words to exiled Israel were not fully realized in their lifetime, God fulfilled his promise through the Advent of Jesus. And though God’s kingdom has not fully come, we can rest assured that God will fulfill his promises through the Advent of Jesus.

Sermon text for 12/8/19: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-4 

Josiah’s Passover & The Lord’s Supper

This week we wrap up our series Great Is Thy Faithfulness. We’ve taken an overview of the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of God’s faithfulness. We’ve discovered that Yahweh keeps his promises regardless of what we humans do. We also discovered that our actions affect the way God’s faithfulness impacts us. When we live the life he calls us to then his faithfulness is a blessing. When we live contrary to his faithfulness, our sinful actions have painful consequences. This is what we saw the last two weeks as we looked to the 8th century BC in the prophecies of Hosea and Isaiah. The sin of Israel and Judah will bring painful consequences to the people, but God will remain faithful to heal and to save when they repent.

This week we turn to 2 Kings 22 and look at the story of Josiah. About 100 years after Hosea and Isaiah the 8 year old Josiah became king. Following the wicked reigns of his father and grandfather, Josiah chose not follow in their footsteps. We read that he was much like King David, and today is recognized as the 2nd greatest Davidic king.

All of Jerusalem had forgotten Yahweh. His temple had fallen into disrepair and had become the site of worship for Baal, Asherah, and star worship. Josiah ordered to restore the temple of Yahweh, and during that restoration a copy of the Torah was found (presumably Deuteronomy). Nobody knew about God’s word, or what to do with it. When Josiah heard the Torah read, he ripped his robes and sent his advisors to the prophet Huldah to confirm if what they were reading was true. 

The female prophet told these men that indeed the word of Yahweh was true and the punishment foretold in the Torah was coming. But she also had a word of peace for Josiah because of God’s appreciation for his heart. This destruction would come upon Jerusalem, but because of Josiah’s repentant heart, it would not happen during his lifetime.

Josiah calls all the people of Judah and reads aloud the Torah (as prescribed in Deuteronomy). When the people heard the words of Yahweh, they all pledged themselves to keeping the covenant. All of the idols and instruments of pagan worship were destroyed and removed and Josiah issued this decree:

“Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” – 2 Kings 23:21 NIV

In celebration of the renewed hearts and renewed commitment to Yahweh, the people eat the Passover.

Every Sunday at our gathering, we renew our hearts, we renew our commitment to Yahweh, and we eat the Lord’s Supper, a reapplication of the Passover by Jesus on the night he was betrayed (Mk. 14:16ff).

This week as we gather to worship, let us recommit to the mission and the covenant that Yahweh has made with us. And then let us eat the Passover of Jesus.

Sermon Text for 11/24/19 – 2 Kings 22:1-23:23; Mark 14:16-25

Are You Bearing Fruit?

Great Is Thy Faithfulness continues this week as we look to Isaiah’s Vineyard Song in Isaiah 5. God uses the imagery of the nation of Israel and the people of Judah as a vineyard that God himself had planted. He did everything to make sure that it flourished, but no good grapes were found. Then through Isaiah’s prophecy, God tells the listeners what will happen.

“Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Isaiah 5:5-7 NIV

Isaiah’s prophecy did come to pass. The people were carried off into captivity. Their cities, including Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed as well. But God did promise to restore his people and to do so by sending the Messiah (Isa. 11).

Now fast forward about 700 years. Jesus is born and begins his ministry. He goes around teaching people about God’s kingdom, healing people doing the things that only the Messiah could do. When the religious leaders question his authority, Jesus references John the Baptist, but then goes into a parable to explain what his ministry is about (Mk. 12).

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.

Mark 12:1-2 NIV

Jesus uses the exact same language of Isaiah 5, but places himself into the story. Jesus says the vineyard owner sends his son (Jesus) to those who rented the vineyard after they had beaten and killed many other representatives. Instead of responding to the son, they kill him and throw him out of the vineyard.

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

Mark 12:9 NIV

Mark tells us that the religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus because they knew he was speaking against them. In these two texts we discover that twice God has planted a vineyard, and twice the vineyard and its caretakers have been destroyed and removed because they failed to manage the vineyard for God. How are we doing?

Now go read John 15. Jesus is the true vine and we are the branches, but we can only bear fruit if we remain in him. Think about your life for a moment. Think about the ministry that God has called you to. Are you bearing fruit? If not, perhaps you need to consider the words of Jesus:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

John 15:5 NIV

The Problem With the Ten Commandments

The Decalogue, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments, have impacted the world in ways that very few things have. They are the basis for many legal systems, they are foundational to our understanding of God, and unfortunately they are the source of much controversy in our day and time. They are a small portion of the sum of God’s Word given to Moses, and yet everyone seems to know (or know about) them. 

And still I think they are greatly misunderstood. The Decalogue is referenced throughout Scripture, and is present in its entirety in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. And yet even in these two passages there are differences between the two lists. They are ten “words” to be literal with the Hebrew language, and even what exactly those ten are is debated. Jewish readers will tell you the first command is:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Deuteronomy 5:6 NIV

If one counts this as a command rather than an introduction, then you wind up with 11. Various groups have debated on how to settle that discrepancy, some by uniting 2 & 3 (Dt. 5:8 & 11), while other groups combine 1-3 as one command and divide up the last command into two parts (Dt. 5:21).

In reality, determining the exact grouping is not as important as the text itself. But even the text is problematic when removed from the context of the Torah…after all the Decalogue isn’t independent of the rest of Torah, and really serves as more of a summary, or a statement of understanding before we get into the more technical parts of the law. What kind of killing is defined as murder? That detail is not in the Decalogue. We need the rest of the Torah for that.

Many government buildings have had statues, or monuments removed because the Decalogue was printed upon them. And while I can understand the Christian’s desire to see these monuments remain, I’m also puzzled. If we want God’s Word present at these government buildings, then why not seek to have the Sermon on the Mount put on a monument instead of the Decalogue? Or better yet, why not the Greatest Commands?

When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was he gave two, not one. They are connected and inseparable. I would suggest you cannot fully keep one without the other. Fully loving God requires loving your neighbor, and truly loving your neighbor requires you know and love God. 

I think it’s worth noting that neither of the commandments Jesus gave came from the Decalogue. Rather they come from the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) as well as the eighteenth verse of the various laws found in Leviticus 19.

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 

Mark 12:28-31 NIV

Jesus said all the laws and prophets hang on these two commands (Mt. 22:40). Even the Decalogue falls short when compared to the Greatest Commands. Love God with all of your everything. Love your neighbor as yourself. “There is no commandment greater than these.” 

The real problem with any commandment from God is that if they simply exist in writing, they are useless. These monuments with the Ten Commandments inscribed have done little to prevent our culture from turning further and further from God.

Perhaps our world would be better served by Jesus’ followers living out the Greatest Commands instead of relying on words carved in stone. 

(Sermon text for 10/6: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-31)

“Can God Hear the Prayers of Sinners?”

“We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will.”

John 9:31 NIV

Upon first glance that seems like a pretty definite statement doesn’t it? “We know that God does not listen to sinners.”

I have read an article floating around Facebook recently that asserts basically the same thing. It cites many verses indicating that God hears the prayers of the righteous (and he does.) It gives examples of God’s promises to look out for the righteous (and he does.) And the article gives the impression that if one is “unrighteous” or a “sinner” that God doesn’t/can’t hear those prayers. In fairness to the context of the article, it seems the reason for its writing was to refute the idea that all you have to do to be pleasing to God is say a prayer. I would agree with that last statement, but let’s not argue an accurate point by stating an inaccurate point.

Context matters. The verse quoted above from John’s Gospel is not stated by Jesus or his apostles. It is an assumption on the part of the blind man that Jesus healed Jesus, and he uses that assumption to back his claim that Jesus is working through the power and will of God (which he was.) But that leaves the question, does God hear the prayers of sinners? Let’s look at a few passages.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians…”

Exodus 3:7-8 NIV

The question is “were the Israelites unrighteous/sinners when God heard them?” That’s a good question. Context seems to indicate that they did not know Yahweh at this point in history because Moses would need to introduce them to their God (Ex. 3:13-15). Also note that the text does not say that Israel cried out to Yahweh, simply that they cried out and Yahweh heard them. What is clear is that God did hear their cries, and it had nothing to do with their righteousness, but rather the mistreatment they were receiving a the hands of the Egyptians.

One day at about three in the afternoon [Cornelius] had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” 

Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. 

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.”

Acts 10:3-4 NIV

The timeline in the story of Cornelius is very clear. Cornelius worshipped God and prayed to God under what he knew through the Jewish worship practices. It seems clear that Peter’s presentation of the Gospel is the first time Cornelius and his family have heard this (Acts 10:47-48; 15:7-11). Cornelius was not saved by the blood of Jesus because he didn’t know about the blood of Jesus, yet God heard his prayers.

I share these two examples with you so that you think about the question a little, and maybe ask a better question. The Bible nowhere limits what our God can do. He is not limited to work in a certain way, and he is not bound by any rules we place upon him. So to ask the question if God can hear the prayers of sinners is shortsighted. Let’s stick with the question that one of the heavenly visitors asks Abraham:

“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

Genesis 18:14 NRSV

Our God is the God of the impossible. He’s the one that brings 90 year old women and 100 year old men supernaturally born children. He’s the God that sends an 80 year old man with a stick to free his people from Egypt. He’s the God that parts the Red Sea. He’s the God that raises the dead. He’s the God that poured out his Spirit at Pentecost. He’s the God that appears to unsaved gentiles and then pours out his Spirit on them too. He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and nothing is too wonderful for the LORD!

Of course he can hear the prayers of anyone who cries out to him! And making that statement does not negate what the Scriptures teach about salvation.

The Elephant In The Room

There’s an old story of three blind men who are led to different parts of an elephant. One feels the tail and thinks it’s a paint brush. One feels the leg and thinks it’s a tree. One feels the ear and thinks it is a large leaf. By the information that each person had they made their best judgement. But when they got together and compared information they realized that none of them had the full picture. Then they worked together to find the head which clearly revealed that there was an elephant in the room.

This Sunday we will be exploring 4 difficult texts that address women serving in the church (1 Corinthians 11 & 14, 1 Timothy 2 & 5). Much confusion and hurt has come from attempts to apply these texts in the history of the church. What is ok to do? What is not ok to do? And often we judge people who come to a different understanding that we do. Many times I’ve heard disagreements over Scripture summarized by someone saying, “They just don’t follow the plain reading of Scripture.” But do any of us really do that?

I think the bigger issue is not the texts themselves, but how we read those texts. All of us come to Scripture with existing biases. I read Scripture through the eyes of a white, middle class, married father of three, living in rural West Texas. That is my perspective. Someone who is middle eastern, impoverished, single, living in Europe will naturally see things differently than I do simply because of their background and surroundings. They view the world differently than I do, and that’s a good thing!

Proverbs reminds us that there is wisdom in having “many advisors” when seeking to make decisions. If I am looking at something alone, I only see things from my point of view. But if I talk about it with others who have differing views I can begin to see more of the picture.

Some have suggested that addressing controversial texts does no good. “It means what it says and says what it means, and that settles it!” But it doesn’t settle things, does it? The greatest clarity of Scripture I have ever found has come when discussing the text with people who have differing views. Though I may not agree with everything they see, I always walk away with a greater understanding of their view, my view, and most importantly the text. Just this week a new detail stood out to me in 1 Timothy 2 because I was talking with someone about the text. I’ve been reading 1 Timothy several times a week for nearly a year, and I noticed something I had never considered before because I was willing to sit down and discuss the text with someone.

I have no doubt that Sunday morning God is going to do powerful things for us, and through us as we study his word together. I also believe that all of us will see things that we haven’t seen in these texts before. My prayer is that we all listen to the voices of “many advisors,” reexamine our view in light of others, but most importantly we consider what the Scripture actually says, and grow in the grace and wisdom of the Lord. And when we do this cooperatively in community, maybe then we will better identify the elephant in the room.

See you Sunday!

Daily Psalms – Psalm 73

Daily Psalm Reading – Psalm 71-75

Our reading today concludes Book 2 of Psalms and enters Book 3, of which Psalm 73 is the beginning. Here we focus on the psalms “of Asaph.” Psalm 73 is a wonderful reminder for us today who struggle with the same fault that the psalmist admits: envy over the unrighteous.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For i envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Psalm 73:2-3 NIV

This is a big theme throughout the Proverbs especially, but also in Psalms. “Ill-gotten gain” is condemned repeatedly, and yet we still admire seeing wealth on display, no matter how it’s gotten, for some reason. We are drawn to the illusion of wealth and luxury, that it will somehow fix our problems. In reality, it amplifies our problems.

But back to the main point, we think about money so much, and yet we don’t think about money as much as we should. Dr. Jenn Hale Christy had a very thought provoking podcast on this topic recently where she asked us to consider what we’re actually doing with our money. We blindly throw our money into investment accounts, but do we actually know what we are investing in? Is our retirement savings coming to us through “ill-gotten gains?”

The psalmist talks about all the present-moment advantages that these wicked people seem to have: no struggles, healthy, easy life. But when we renew our focus on God we begin to see things clearly. The illusion of the wicked lifestyle begins to fall.

When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.

Psalm 73:16-17 NIV

This is one of the many reasons why worship is so important. When we worship God it recalibrates our hearts to follow him. In his excellent book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith reminds us that the entire world is a liturgy; everything we do is worship of something, and forms us into the image of that something. Gathering with believers in worship of our God refocuses and reshapes us into who he wants us to be. He is the one who loves. He is the one who guides. He is the one who saves.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:23-26 NIV