Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hope, Joy & Obedience

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials...Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” - 1 Peter 1:3,6,13-15

Jesus once told a parable about a farmer who sowed good seed upon various kinds of ground. The seed represented the word of God and the ground represented the various kinds of hearts which receive the word. One particular type of ground which I find personally convicting is the weedy ground. Jesus paints the picture of good seed falling on soil which is filled with weeds which sprout and literally choke the life out of the young plant trying to spring up. He goes on to say these “weeds” represent the life’s “worries, riches & pleasures”. The end result is the God’s word goes not grow up to bear any fruit in the life of that “weedy believer”.

The question that I want to pose this morning is, “What is it that we are setting our hope in today? What makes us excited? What is pushing us on to trod through the daily grind?” Too often, I am looking forward to the weekend, or coming home to watch some TV with my wife. I live for the pleasure of reading a book or playing some xbox. These are the “pleasures” of life. They are not necessarily bad. In fact, they are God’s blessing. But they cannot become my self-awarded reward for doing God’s work.

The problem is that when the trials of life come, these pleasures are simply not enough to keep me in the game. Peter tells us that it is normal for hard times to fall upon Christians (unlike the teaching of some “so called” preachers). When these difficulties arise, if all of our motivation is wrapped up in a vacation, or weekend, or new toy, or whatever, we will lose heart. Yes, we ought to be grateful for God’s blessings, such as food, shelter, clothing and pleasure. However, when we cannot define God’s love for us or our joy in the Christian life by those things. Why? Because at one time or another, those things will either be taken away for a season, or those pleasures will not be strong enough to counteract the pain we experience when life knocks us a good one.

That’s why Peter, very carefully, outlines for us a proper motivation, emotion, and response. Peter tells us that our hope, our motivation for living the Christian life, is not the blessings God gives us along the way, but the inheritance waiting for us when Jesus returns to set the world right again. The Jewish prophets painted a beautiful picture of a fairytale-like ending to our planet when the Messiah comes. Because we belong to the Messiah, Jesus, we will have a front row seat in that kingdom. We must always remember that is our true motivation. Our reward is in the next life.

Next, Peter tells us that motivation or hope inspires the emotion of joy in us. Yes, life can be brutal, but our current circumstances will not change the reality that we have a better day coming. No matter how hard it gets, it WILL get better. In fact, it will get GREAT! That’s enough to put a smile on our face and encourage us to press on. That emotion of joy gives us the strength to respond in obedience to Jesus. Hebrews 12 tells us that is was because of the joy set before Jesus which caused Him to endure the cross. He obeyed because He saw the end picture. He saw us with Him living happily ever after.

So enjoy life, but don’t set your joy upon this life. Our hope is still out there. It’s coming. And while it’s coming, we need to being getting ready for it. We do that by striving to become holy, just as He is holy.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Take Words With You

Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount warhorses. We will never again say 'Our gods' to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion." – Hosea 14:3-4

In our society, we tend to value spontaneity over structure. We view anything planned as being inauthentic. In church life, I have seen people who think that the Spirit resides better in unplanned services which are free to move as God directs. I knew a preacher in seminary who literally waited for God to give him a message each week, even if it was not until Saturday night. We often shy away from tradition or liturgy, because it gives us a stodgy feeling of forced worship. Reading a prayer to God is looked upon with distain – especially if we didn’t write it. We have turned worship into a pursuit of spontaneous emotion. This is not necessarily bad, but it ignores the deep, thought-filled aspect of loving God with our minds.

“Take words with you”. Literally, Hosea was telling the people to return to Jerusalem, to the temple, the place where God dwelt. “Take a trip and while you are going, plan out what you are going to say”. Hosea even goes on to give them an outline for what their prayer ought to look like. He is telling them to plan their worship. I think this has two implications for us: One, planning our interactions with God is not necessarily inauthentic. Two, verbalizing is more important than feeling.

I love the story in the New Testament which describes a blind man crying out to Jesus to have mercy on Him. Ironically, Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” I can imagine his disciples awkwardly trying to point out the obvious, “Uh, Jesus, you’re the miracle worker and this man is blind. I don’t think he’s asking for money.” Yet Jesus doesn’t assume, He asks. He wants the man to verbalize His need. Jesus also taught us that God knows what we need even before we ask the Father, yet He still urges us to verbalize those needs in prayer.

1 John 1:9 tells us that if we confess our sin (verbalize – systematically agree with God that what we did was wrong and why it was wrong), then God will forgive it. Paul tells us in Romans 10:9 that if we confess “with our mouths” that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that He arose, we will be saved. For Paul, belief was not enough, it must be verbalized publically.

I believe that having an emotional response to the presence of God is not enough. Yes we can and should love God with our emotion, but emotions are not all that we are (or necessarily more authentic), God also made our minds. That’s why it’s important that we put into words our praises and open our mouths to declare it in song. It’s important to plan ahead for our times of worship and even our sermons. It’s simply not good enough for you to sit or stand there and let everyone else around you sing, you must join in. Don’t just assume that God knows your need and will take care of it, He wants you to verbalize your requests. It’s okay to write out a prayer, to be very specific in what we are asking. Maybe the problem with our generation is that God answers our general prayers generally. Maybe we should endeavor to be more specific, more thought out.

That’s what Hosea tells Israel. “Go to God, and while you are going, plan out what you are going to say. It should look something like this, ‘God we have sinned against you and we ask you to forgive us and restore us. We will never again put our trust in what we can conjure up by our own cunning, instead we trust in you. Without you, we are like orphans, but we come to you because we know you are the father to the fatherless.”

That’s deep worship. That’s thought-out worship. It’s a way to let God know we are not approaching Him casually.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thy Will Be Done

"But I have been the LORD your God ever since you came out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me. I cared for you in the wilderness, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me. So I will be like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk by the path. Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open; like a lion I will devour them— a wild animal will tear them apart. ‘You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.’” – Hosea 13:4-9

C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in this passage. God is depicted, not as a tyrant, not as come sadistic deity whom hates his creation, but as a loving helper who longs for nothing but the best for His people.

Sadly, Israel has rejected the One who is all-good. They are “against me, against you helper.” They have abandoned the one who saw their desperate situation in the land of Egypt. In Egypt, they were slaves - forced to hopeless lives of harsh labor under the whim of the Pharaoh. It was in Egypt that they cried out under the yoke of oppression and it was Yahweh who came to their rescue.

He sent Moses to lead them out. With a mighty hand and outstretched arm, Yahweh worked victory for His people. He led them through the barren desert and yet took care of their every need. He fed them and clothed them. Yet what was Israel’s response this outpouring of love and affection? They arrived at the promised land and demanded a king rather than God to rule over them. Those kings continually led them into idol worship, involving gross sexual conduct and child sacrifice.

There comes a point when judgment can no longer be withheld. God cannot maintain justice by simply giving them more time. God is slow to anger, but He does get angry. God’s lack of enthusiasm to deal out punishment is due to His longing for His people to come to a place of repentance. In fact, the second epistle of Peter tells us that the reason why Jesus waits to return to earth is because He is not willing that any should perish. When Jesus comes, it will be a joyous time for His people as He remakes our world into the paradise it was intended to be. However, it will also be a time of horrific judgment for everyone else. Jesus don’t long to deal out punishment, so he waits. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”

Make no mistake. There comes a time when God will judge. God’s wrath is awesome and terrible. He doesn’t long to show it, but He will. When we give Him no other choice, He will say, “Thy will be done.” And like a ferocious lion, He will empty the full cup of His wrath against His enemies. God will devour them.

There is a healthy thing known as the fear of the LORD. We would do well to not take God lightly.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Control Freaks

“But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.” – Hosea 12:6

How often do we manipulate the people or circumstances around us to keep control on our lives? It is human nature to desire security. We spend most of our day doing things to maintain the status quo of our existence or further advance our ambitions. We run around in effect saying, “What shall we eat, what shall we drink, what shall we wear?” Instead of trusting God for His provision, we act as if we are masters of our fate. It’s up to us.

So the temptation is to cheat. We cut corners on our family relationships so we can put in more hours at the job so we can get that promotion. We make ourselves too busy to be about God’s business because we are too busy on facebook. Why? Because our self-worth is directly correlated to what our “friends” think about us. We deal only in cash so we don’t have to pay taxes to the government so we can buy more toys for ourselves – all the while ignoring the cry of the poor. We lie about something we’ve done in order to save face rather than transparently and humbly admit the truth.
In this passage, God is reprimanding Israel for being just like their forefather, Jacob. Jacob was a cheat. A manipulator. Jacob was always trying to work an angle in order to get what he wanted. It’s interesting that God had to take Jacob through a school of hard knocks in order to get Him to realize that He should have looked to God for His welfare rather than His own conniving efforts.
In Hosea’s day, the people had abandoned their faith in God and instead were cutting deals with Egypt and Assyria to protect them from their enemies. The same national manipulative spirit worked itself out in their private lives as well. It was common practice for the rich in Israel to cheat the poor at the market place. By an elaborate system of deceit, buyers always walked away the losers in any transaction. Using their wealth, they were able to buy off any judge if they happened to be accused by one they had cheated.
God gives three solutions to this outrage: return, maintain, and wait.
First, they were to return to God. Abandon their idols and their ways of trickery. Give up their “control freak” attitudes and recognize that only God holds power over their destiny. Only God has the right to define right and wrong in their life.
Second, they were to maintain love and justice. This pointed them back to the Mosaic law in which they were to deal fairly with their neighbors and treat the poor with kindness – even to the point of loaning money at no interest. Throughout the entire Bible, God displays a heart for those who are downtrodden and needy. One of the marks of genuine Christianity is mercy toward those who are unable to help themselves. Jesus told us to be generous to the poor. He modeled for us a life of servanthood - where we willing give up our comfort to bring comfort to others, both spiritually and physically.
Third, Israel was to wait on God. This is the natural outflow of the first command. Waiting equals trusting. Waiting equals resting and pausing. Waiting on God means placing our dilemma at His feet and asking Him to take care of it. It means seeing what He wants to do about it before we try to solve it ourselves. This means taking our eyes off us and lifting them in faith to the one who is all-wise. Often God will give us something to do, but it will be His ways with His motives and His attitude. Our action then doesn’t become manipulation but a trusting obedience to God.
So, in application, let’s stop assuming control of our life and yield that to God. Recognize Him as the sovereign king who holds our lives in His hands. Let’s repent of doing things our way and do things God’s way. Let’s take time to sit at His feet listen to His voice. Allow our God to fight for us. Give Him room to be God.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A God Who is Torn?

"How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” – Hosea 11:8

Does God struggle? Does God have conflict within Himself? Is He ever torn between two options? We tend to say no. We want a God who is always calm, always level-headed. The rock we can fly to when our lives hit a crisis. In this passage, we see God experiencing a crisis of His own. We see God expressing incredible emotion towards His people. He is so overwhelmed by love for His wayward people, He chooses against His wrath. He is changed in Himself. There is a question for you: If God is perfect, how can He change? Doesn’t change mean moving from a less perfect action to a more perfect action? (or vice versa?) Wouldn’t that imply that God become perfect or left perfection in some way?

Some would say God is simply expressing Himself in these terms to communicate the incredible reality of His love. They would argue that God doesn’t really change, but simply that God communicates Himself in that way to make a point. But wouldn’t that be another form a lying? Presenting yourself as one thing yet truly being another? Besides, if this struggle really wasn’t a genuine struggle, doesn’t it negate the whole message being communicated? I don’t really have the answer, but I am moved by the emotion displayed.
Throughout the passage, God reminds the people of His continual love towards them all throughout their ancestral history. In spite of His overtures, they consistently reject Him in favor of powerless gods. Worse, they attribute to these idols the blessings that only God could give them. How would you feel if one you loved attributed to someone else a gift you gave? They have offended God. Because rejection of God is rejection of all life, love and peace, God must discipline them.
The passage climaxes in verse eight with God crying out. You can almost hear the desperation of the judgment he is about to bring on them. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim?” Admah and Zeboyim were cities near Sodom and Gomorrah which God had utterly destroyed because of their wickedness. Get this: though Israel deserves to be obliterated in a similar manner, God cannot bring Himself to do it. He can’t. He won’t. (There’s another theological problem: Here is something God cannot do)
This clash of emotion breaks out into a glorious chorus recounting God’s plan B. He chooses against annihilation and chooses restoration. “I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man — the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities. They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves. I will settle them in their homes," declares the LORD.” (Hosea 11:9-11)
What results from this “experience” is God’s proclamation of future hope for His people. Judgment is not the end for them. He is going to bring them back from exile. He is not a man who holds onto grudges forever. He is the Holy One. He will not be boxed in by any situation. He can and will forgive and restore. Like a triumphant lion, He will roar and they will come home. When they come, they will not be the brazen idolaters they were when they left, they will come trembling at the voice of the Most High.
Today, take some time to reflect upon the utter beauty of a God who cannot bring Himself to cast His people away. Because of His love, He will not let judgment be the final word. He will not allow Satan to triumph over His creation. His purposes of a new creation free from evil, pain and death will not be thwarted. He will have a people who call Him “daddy”. He will lift them to His cheek and bend down to feed them from His hand (Hosea 11:4). He loves that – it’s who He is.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Doing Christianity

“Sow rightousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you.” – Hosea 10:12

I grew up in a protestant culture which scorned the idea of our human effort being of any spiritual value. Out eternal destiny (and thus value before God) was determined solely upon the work of Christ on the cross. In the words of the famous hymn, “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling”. Those who belong in the reformed camp go even farther by saying that even our choice to “believe” is something that God determines, taking all practical responsibility for our eternity out of our hands completely.
Yet the OT and NT scriptures alike paint a picture portraying humanity having a dynamic interaction in our relationship with God. More often than not, God says that the ball is in our court. We lack because of our inaction, not God’s. What we do matters. As I said in a post a couple of days ago, only those who “hear and DO” Jesus’ commands will enter His kingdom. (See Dissonance)

In this passage, God recounts Israel’s responsibility to obey Him. The words: righteousness and unfailing love are legal words which would remind any Jew of the covenant God made with them in Deuteronomy. In that covenant, God outlined His expectations for how they were to live – and they had gravely transgressed. God says it’s time for Israel to seek Him. Seeking Him involves action. In context, it involves sowing and breaking up ground. These are agricultural metaphors for a farmer preparing their fields. The implication is obvious. If you want God’s blessing, you MUST put yourself in a position to receive it. Getting into that position is not easy, it involves repentance, it involves a change of lifestyle.
Paul said something similar in Galatians 6:7-8, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Could it be that we have presented a version of Christianity depicted as solely a free gift with no strings attached other than to receive it when the Bible presents it as a free transfer of citizenship but one which requires you come in line with the laws of your new country? In chapter five of Galatians, Paul gives us two lists as an example of what living after the flesh looks like and what living after the Spirit looks like. I invite to you spend some time meditating on those lists. Use then as a grid through which you run each life choice to determine God’s will.

Now before I go further, let me clarify two things: I am not saying that if we do enough good works, we can earn a place in God’s kingdom. Like the thief on the cross, Jesus’ blood is enough to save at the end of an evil life if one is truly repentant (see the story of Manasseh in 2 Chron 33 and Jesus’ parable in matt 20). What I am saying is that genuine repentance looks a certain way, it involves us living as Jesus lived. If we aren’t on the journey of pursuing righteousness, then we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we are saved.
Also, I am also not saying that we have the ability to do those good works in our own power. An early church heretic named Pelagius was condemned for that kind of theology. Paul makes that clear that we are sowing to “the Spirit”. At the point of repentance and regeneration, we receive the indwelling of the Spirit. Yes, we work, but we work according to the power and desire the Spirit provides. It’s not either/or (our work or God’s work), it our work AND God’s work. “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.” (Phil 2:12-13)

Our Spirit empowered works are important of confirming whether or not we have truly received eternal life. If you have lived a life refusing to allow God to be master over your life, then no amount of “clinging to the cross” in some past emotional moment will save you. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21)

So do. Sow righteousness. Ask God to break up areas of your life which have remained untouched by the scriptures. Surrender yourself to the control of the Holy Spirit. The result is we will reap a harvest of eternal life when Christ’s kingdom comes in its fullness.