We Want To Look Normal

In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel sin against the Lord by demanding that God give them a king. Before this time, the people had covenanted with God to be under his personal rule and protection. But as time passed, the nation began to desire a human ruler.

Samuel even warns the people that having a king will be to the people’s harm, not to their good. The king will require servants, taxes, and a military. The king will cost the people a great deal without bringing them benefits.

But here is how the people respond.

1 Samuel 8:19-20 – 19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

The people demand a king, even when they know that they are violating the will of God and are asking for something that will hurt them. Why? What motivates them? They want to be like all the other nations around them.

Now, without over-interpreting this, let’s simply ask ourselves if we are susceptible to that temptation? Just watch the modern church. Isn’t it obvious? How often will modern Christians turn away from the word of God and choose a thing that God says is not his will simply so that they can be like all the people around them? How often will we do what hurts us spiritually simply to look normal to society? How often will we embrace sin, violations of Scripture, in order to have others who hate God approve of us?

Dear believers in Christ, may we learn from the mistakes of others here. May we repent and love the word of God. And may we throw off the desire to be just like all the peoples around us. Instead, may we desire nothing more than to be pleasing to our Lord, regardless of how strange that looks to the world.

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Everything Stinks or Fret Not

Have you ever felt the need to take a break from social media and national news? I think many of us know what that feels like. We read enough snarky comments, we see enough bad news, we digest enough nastiness that we just want to turn it all off. Too much focus on the news of things we feel powerless to change can drive us to distraction or even despair.

It is nice to see that God’s word has a reminder for us when we begin to worry because of wickedness.

Proverbs 24:19–20

19 Fret not yourself because of evildoers,
and be not envious of the wicked,
20 for the evil man has no future;
the lamp of the wicked will be put out.

Fret not. That is a good little sentence right there. Do not let yourself become fretful, worried, overwhelmed because of evil doers.

For some reason, I am here reminded of a silly movie that was, in one scene, presenting a spoof of a conservative news talk show called “Everything Stinks.” When we spend too much of our time digesting news of politics and national scandal, it is possible for us to feel like we belong as a host of “Everything Stinks.” But to do that eventually takes us to a place of despairing over the evil acts of evil people.

Verse 20 of the proverb reminds us that the evil person has no future. In the long run, whether in this life or in the age to come, the wicked person’s lamp will be put out by the judgment of God. God will deal with those who would mislead the church into heresy. And knowing that we serve an all-powerful God who is holy and just gives us hope. God will deal with those who would divide the nation based on skin color. God will deal with those who delight in the murder of the unborn. God will deal with those who hate his design. God is not going to be beaten.

Surely do not misunderstand me here. I do not propose that Christians ignore what is going on in the world abroad whether in the church or in politics. But we must not become so focused on those issues that we fret because of evil doers. WE must have appropriate checks that prevent us from allowing our souls to despair.

One such check is the one here in the Proverbs. Keep yourself from despair by remembering the sovereignty and justice of God. Those who hate the Lord and his ways have his judgment to face. God is not going to lose this battle. The Lord will be glorified. The name of the Lord will be praised from the rising of the sun to its setting. There is no corner of the globe over which the Lord will not rule. Set your hope and your mind there.

Another check that I will offer is to open your eyes to what the Lord is doing, not on the national political scene, but right in your own church and in your own family. We do not do one another good if all we do is share the latest Facebook post of all the horrors of Washington. Yes, we need to be informed. But we need even more to be informed about the way a friend’s child has learned to follow the word of God. We need to know about a sister in Christ who has a new job possibility. We need to know about a brother in Christ who is preparing to teach his first Sunday School class or preach is first sermon. We need to know about a couple that needs comfort because of a loss or another couple who is planning to get married. We need to let our minds and our hearts be filled with what the Lord is doing in the local body of Christ and not simply in the political swamps of DC.

Yes, know what is going on. Yes, be active. Yes, be sure that people know of the horrors of abortion and racism and abuse and all the rest. But play your role in the local church. Take part in investing in the lives of the people around you. And fret not because of evil doers, because the Lord will use his people to accomplish his will for his glory.

Why So Weird?

I had a conversation recently that brought up the question of why some believers are so very weird. I’m not talking here about why believers are weird to the world. The lost world will never understand why we follow the ways of the Lord regarding all sorts of issues related to worship and even basic morality. But that does not answer why some believers can get so very strange, slipping way out into left field in their doctrine and practice.

Proverbs 18:1-2

1 Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment.
2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.

These two verses at the beginning of Proverbs 18 do a great job of showing us what is a danger that some believers face. Isolation is deadly. Cloistering together with only a few believers can often produce an echo chamber leading to very dangerous thinking. Believers need other Bible-believing believers to help them to examine their thoughts and their doctrine to be sure that nobody is driving the car off a cliff.

Of course I do not assume that there is no danger in following the crowd. In America, the modern church produces a whole lot of bad doctrine and bad thinking. I’m surely not suggesting that believers need to be influenced by prosperity preachers or megachurch strategies. We need to be sure that our influence is genuinely biblical.

What I am saying, however, is that we need to be careful that we are in contact with other believers who love the word and who have the right and the ability to challenge our thinking when we suddenly develop a “new” way to understand something. If the only voice you hear is your own when you propose a new way to keep the Sabbath, to think about roles in marriage, to discuss the standards for baptism, or something similar, you are likely to walk into some strange territory. We need to hear the voices of believers from the past who helped develop solid confessions of the faith. We also need to hear the voices of trustworthy believers in the present, especially if they see us wandering off into weirdness for weirdness’ sake. And even our local churches need interaction with other local churches to make sure that we, as a group, have not gone somewhere novel.

This is true in big doctrines, and it is true in day-to-day living. Isolation is deadly for the believer. God designed us to be united together in a community, a family, a body called the local church. You need to be thinking and praying and living alongside other believers. You need to see people who hurt in different ways than you do so that you can learn compassion. You need to be around people who are smarter than you, or who are smart in a different way from you, so that you can learn from their experience and study. You need to hear solid arguments and not merely your own voice.

Determining What Is Gain

Christian friend, how do you make big decisions? You will probably tell me that you pray about them. You may tell me that you seek out counsel. But I have two questions.

First, do you? Do you really go to the Lord with your cares and desires, asking him to reshape your mind to match is desires? Do you actually lay what you want down before the Lord and ask if what you want fits best his plan and his kingdom? Do you speak with other believers, wise believers, godly believers, and ask them to help you to know if what you want is best? Do you go to the word and ask if the desire of your heart violates the commands of Scripture or the principles of Scripture?

And secondly, how big, in the light of your decisions, is the church of the Lord Jesus? When you consider something like moving to a new city, taking a new job, building a new house, going on an extended vacation, investing in the future, getting married, or any other such thing, does the church figure in your mind at all? No, I’m not suggesting that you seek your pastor’s permission to take a trip out of town. But, when you make a plan, especially a big plan, does the good of the local body with which you have covenanted even begin to niggle at the back of your brain?

What I fear is often the case in our world today is that many believers assume that all of our decisions are our own. WE think that we have every right to go where we want, do what we want, change how we want, and no person has a real right to speak into us. We think that we are to consider our own wellbeing, that of our family, that of our portfolio, and those things make us let go of any local church body without much by way of concern for the people we will leave behind. Sure, we may miss some old friends, sure, THERE may be no solid church where we will move, but this or that reason makes our move the best idea for us.

Many of these thoughts came to the surface for me while reading a new printing of an older D. A. Carson book. Carson takes us to Philippians 1, and he points out how Paul considered the good of the local church above his own personal desires.

Philippians 1:19–26 – 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Paul knew that it would be for the good of the church that his deepest desire not be met, at least not yet. Paul wanted to depart and be with Christ. He had served many painful years. He had been through more than many of us will ever dream of. And, with all that said, Paul knew that his life was for the good of other believers and not merely for himself. And convinced of that, Paul knew that the right thing was that God use him for the good of the church first.

Do we think like this? Do we make decisions like this? I truly wonder.

See how Carson writes about this topic, and ask the Lord to help you think in a godly way. Ask if God will help you to, as a Christian, value the local church to the glory of God even above the typical factors in your major decision-making process.

***

What is striking about Paul’s evaluation is how deeply it is tied to the well-being of other believers, rather than to his own. Even in this respect, Paul is imitating his Master. "Convinced of this"—convinced that my remaining alive will be best for you—"I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith . . (1:25). Or better translated, "I know that I expect to remain and expect to continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith." And even this progress in the faith that Paul covets for the Philippians, he construes as a cause for their joy: "so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me" (1:26).

The lesson to be learned is startlingly clear: put the converts of the gospel at the center of your principled self-denial. Paul’s deepest hopes for his own immediate future turn neither on the bliss of immediately gaining heaven’s portals nor

on returning to a fulfilling ministry and escaping the pangs of death, but on what is best for his converts. Often we are tempted to evaluate alternatives by thinking through what seems best for us. How often do we raise as a first principle what is best for the church? When faced with, say, a job offer that would take us to another city or with mortal illness that calls forth our diligent intercession, how quickly do we employ Paul’s criterion here established: What would be best for the church? What would be best for my brothers and sisters in Christ?

There is a kind of asceticism that is frankly idolatrous. Some people gain a kind of spiritual "high" out of self-denial. But the self-denial that is motivated by the spiritual good of others is unqualifiedly godly. That is what Paul displays.*

*D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 35-36.

A House of Prayer for All Nations-Not a Divided Body

How concerned should a Christian be with his or her particular people group? Is it required that we look deeply into who are our ancestors? Is the color of our skin or the sins of our long-dead forefathers important to who we are in the church today? Is there a call for the church to divide people based on past wrongs or perceived social advantages in the present?

I wish such questions were merely theoretical, but if you pay attention to the things being said in the church in America today, you will see that the move toward an embrace of social justice causes has begun to bring about division in the body. People are now beginning to put descriptor words in front of the word Christian to say what they are. There is a focus, on the part of some, on identifying as white Christians, black Christians, Hispanic Christians, etc. We would love to think that the church would remember that ethnic divisions and social stigmas have no place in the church, but such is not the case today.

Surprisingly, I thought of this issue in my read through Isaiah, a place I was not expecting to bring it to mind.

Isaiah 56:3-8

3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
8 The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”

Do you recall when Jesus cleansed the temple by turning over the tables of the money-changers? The Savior quoted from this passage of Isaiah. He reminded the religious leadership that his Father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations. People from all people groups were to be able to come to that place and find a pure experience of the worship of God. And the religious leaders were causing divisions, erecting barricades. When the Jews charged exorbitant amounts for people to exchange their currency for temple currency, were they not discriminating against the foreigner even more than the Israelite? Jesus saw that the religious leaders were doing things, not to unite a people of God, but to heighten animosity between people groups.

Interestingly, in the context of the passage that Jesus quoted as he drove out the animal-sellers, the Lord says that the foreigner is not to say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people.” Even during the days of national Israel, where there was a difference between Jew and gentile, God made it plain that there will not ultimately be a separation. The foreigner who comes to the Lord in faithful worship is not to feel separated. The foreigner is to stop identifying as foreign, outcast, different and simply identify as a worshipper of God. As we see in verses 7-8, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

If the Lord tells the foreigner not to think of himself as foreign anymore, if the Lord says that his house is a house of prayer for all peoples, are we not undermining the very fabric of the grace of God when we strive to reintroduce to the people of God division based on ethnicity? Of course we want to be honest about our past and admit that true evil has been done in the sin of racism. However, to then move forward and call upon people to continually walk in shame based on their ancestors’ sins or to tell another group they should separate and seek out theology only from those whose skin color matches their own, that is exactly the opposite of what this passage is about. The word of God points to a people of God, a single people of God, a people who are not defined as foreigners and insiders. We are just one people.

And this is exactly what the New Testament is telling us. When we see that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek (cf. Gal. 3:28; , Col. 3:11), we see that God has no interest in our bringing about any sort of division in the church based on skin color, national history, birthplace, language, social class, advantage or disadvantage, or anything else. . One beauty of the gospel is that God brings together for himself a multitude from every nation. And when that multitude is together, we have no hint in Scripture that the church is to take time to ask people to apologize for their nation of origin. The New Testament does not include stories of Romans apologizing to Jews for the cruelty of the emperors. The New Testament does not include stories of men apologizing to women in the church for the way that the society at large has treated them. Instead, the New Testament is clear that, once we are gathered together into the body of Christ, our divisions are taken off and we look at one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity is not national anymore. Our identity is not our past. Our identity is the name of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, the imputed righteousness of Jesus.

Dear church, may we fulfill the word of God. We are being built together—all people, all colors, all pasts, all languages—to be a temple of God. We are one house. And may we be a house of prayer for all nations. May we never try to tell people that they, because of their skin color, must take a lower or seek a higher place. May we never lift anybody up or put anybody down because of the history of their forefathers. May we only see the people of God as one church, one body, one family of God.

Giving God Our Leftovers

We just rounded the corner of the Thanksgiving holiday. So many feasted. So many fixed the big turkey and dressing, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and all the rest. So many talked about loving the leftovers, those turkey sandwiches and reheated sides. And for us, in this setting, leftovers are good.

But, leftovers are not what you serve when your guest is somebody special. You could not imagine having an honored guest over to your home and telling him or her, “Just scrounge in the fridge; we’ve got leftovers.” If you were meeting your favorite athlete, actor, or musician, your favorite preacher or author, you would not tell them to just slap a sandwich together with whatever they can find. When you are wanting to do something special for a guest, you try in general to give them your best. And giving your best is not usually giving them leftovers.

As a side note, I think we would be a better people if we became a little more comfortable not being fancy in our fellowship. Maybe we should be a bit more comfortable with leftovers. We would do well to learn to serve simple soup and bread, sandwiches and sides, instead of trying to impress each other. The church should be a family, a close and familiar group, who is comfortable being simple with each other. If we were more simple, we would host more people, be in each other’s lives better, and enjoy more of the fellowship God wants us to enjoy.

But with that aside, we all know that, when we are wanting to give a guest something special, we make sure things are right. We prepare our best dishes. WE serve on the pretty plates. We pick up the toys off the floor. We treat our guests like they are important.

How sad, then, that people who are supposed to be the people of God do not give their Lord the same consideration. Take a look at these words from Malachi 1, and imagine the audacity of Judah in the fifth century BC regarding the things of God.

Malachi 1:6-8

6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.

After the return of Judah from the Babylonian captivity, the people still had a long road to get back to worship in the temple. The rebuilding of the temple took time and effort. The rebuilding of Jerusalem took time and effort. The return to the word of God and right rituals took time and effort. Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi all had major roles to play in calling the people to do what was simply right before the Lord.

But by the time Malachi is preaching to the people of God, the people had begun to give God only their leftovers. They were bringing second-best or even tenth-best to worship. Instead of offering the spotless animals required by the Lord, the people were offering what they could spare, the ugly animals, the blind and lame animals, the ones they did not want reproducing in their flocks. And the Lord is not pleased.

In the text, the Lord says that these people have despised his name. They have not honored him like a father or a master. They have not given him the same level of respect they would give their governor. And the Lord was not going to allow that to stand.

While we could stay here and talk about what was wrong with the people of Judah, we need to think about ourselves. It is not so important what they were failing to do. Instead, it is far more important that we figure out if we are doing the same.

So, here is the question for us all. Are we giving God our leftovers? Are we giving God only what we determine we can spare? Are we giving the Lord only the time, the energy, the offerings that we generally want rid of anyway?

Ask yourself how easy is it for you to skip time for worship? How easy is it for you to decide that you are too busy, too tired, too in need of a break to simply make it to church. Is that not giving God your leftovers?

How about your participation in the spiritual disciplines? Do you read the word? Do you pray? Do you meet with Christians to talk about the word of God and obedience? Are you giving God your best?

How about relationally in the church? Do you give to the church financially for the support of the work and as an act of worship? Do you work to develop friendships in the body? Do you help others in the body by investing in their spiritual health? Are you open enough with a few others in the body so they can invest in you?

All in all, are you giving the Lord your best as you follow him? Remember, every week, you have the honor of a real meeting, a real audience, with the King over all creation. God allows you to stand in his presence, sing his praise, and hear his proclamation. God allows you to eat and drink to remember the body and blood of his Son who gave his life to save your soul. God gives you the privilege of bowing with fellow believers to seek his favor and present him, the King, with your petitions. And that is just Sunday morning.

During the week, The King of kings has given you a family to reach out to, to care for, to laugh with, to encourage, to counsel. God has given you people to love and so demonstrate to a watching world that we really are his disciples. God has given you people to call you to holiness and for you to call to holiness. God has given you people to help and so show his kindness. God has given you people to unite with as we collectively become the bride of Christ.

Friends, I know this all is piercing, at least it is for me. But my heart here is that we would not only be convicted. My heart is that we would see the great honor and joy that it is to give God our very best. He is worth more than our leftovers. No, our relationship with God is not founded on our ability to give him anything. Our relationship with God is all of Grace, unmerited favor. We all have different capacities to give and to serve as we go through different stages of life; so what you might be able to do has nothing to do with what another can do. But why would we not, in the light of that grace, desire to give our Lord more than and better than simply what we think we can spare?

God’s Priorities or Ours

If you want to know a person, really know them, you must get to know what is important to them. Typically, in friendships and good relationships, we will find that the high priorities of one person will be somehow shared by another. Those things help us get along.

Consider a business. IF one leader in a corporation says that the number one priority he has is creating the highest quality product possible while another says that her top priority is making money, there will be problems in the board meetings. When decisions arise as to whether or not to cut a corner on the product for a higher profit margin, there will be conflict. The two priorities are not the same. Solid businesses know that they must share top priorities in leadership.

But I wonder if many of our churches today share high priorities with the Lord our God. I know, that might sound a little edgy to say, but consider what the verse below says is exalted above all.

Psalm 138:2

I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

What is top priority to God? Many would love to say people. Many would love to say church growth. Many would love to say making an impact on the fallen world. And those things all matter to the Lord.

But the word of God tells us that his top priority is his name and his word. God’s honor, God’s reputation, God’s glory, God’s worship is number one. Right there with it is the word of God, his commands, his Scripture. These are tops. These are the things that his followers must share with him as top values if we are to really please him.

Consider what this must say to us about what we do as churches. First and foremost, honoring his name and lifting high his word is central to all we are. If we decide that we are going to be about something else, we are going to mis worshipping our God in a way that pleases him. There are many things that exalting his name and word will lead us to do. But we cannot be wise and lose sight of the fact that his name and his word are first priorities.

Just think of the worship service here as one example. What is it for? If you think that God’s top priority is the salvation of the lost, you will be tempted to make the service as showy and entertaining as possible. You will change the messages to be things that people who do not know God will still enjoy. You’ll develop a combination concert and Ted Talk. But, if you see that God’s name and God’s word are number one, your music will be first and foremost about speaking the truth about the Lord in a beautiful way. You will see that ceremonies that feel odd to the world around us will be vital. You will see that the direct preaching of the word will be more important than the entertainment value of the message. That is not to say that you will intentionally be dull. Rather, it is to say that your focus will be to achieve the result of exalting God’s name in accord with God’s word.