Terrifying and Welcoming

How do we know what God is like? We do not know from our personal experience and observation, at least not infallibly. Your experiences and mine are all questionable. We miss things and misinterpret things. But God has revealed himself perfectly in Scripture. And, of course, God revealed himself through the incarnation, life, and teaching of the Lord Jesus. This may well be one reason why Jesus is known as the “word” who is with God and who is God in John 1:1.

When you think of Jesus, what do you think of? In general, we immediately go to the gracious scenes. We think of children flocking to the Savior to sit on his knee and hug his neck. We think of Jesus smiling and turning water to wine to save a wedding from disaster. We think of Jesus walking on the sea and beckoning Peter to join him. We think of the disciples sharing a meal, reclining at table near to one another in fellowship. We think of Jesus healing and feeding and doing kindness.

And all of these are right thoughts about Jesus. All of these are right thoughts about who God is. God is love and loving. God is gracious and compassionate. God is faithful. God invites his people to come to him for soul satisfaction.

But let us not only see one part of the revelation of who God is.

Revelation 4:5a – From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…

In Revelation 4, John gets a glimpse of God the Father on the throne of the universe, and that vision is literally awesome. He sees colors and beauty of such brilliance he can only describe the scene as similar to the beauty of the most precious stones he knew. He sees a scene of such authority that crowned elders fall on their faces as angels declare God to be “Holy, holy, holy.” And he sees a throne that sends forth thunder and lightning.

Just think of the lightning and rumblings of the throne in Revelation 4:5. What do they tell us? They show us that God is mighty. They show us that God’s power and judgments are terrifying. They show us that God is one we approach with caution.

The beauty is, the Father on the throne and the Son holding children are the same God. When Phillip asked Jesus to show the disciples the Father, Jesus’ response was, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). The same Jesus who gently healed the sick and who had dinner with sinners is also the same Jesus whose eyes flashed with lightning as he stormed through the temple courts, overturning tables and driving out criminals.

As we think about the birth of the Savior and the celebration of Christmas, I think it would be wise for us to try to remember all that God is, as that will help us to be faithful as we celebrate the Savior. Jesus is loving and gentle. Jesus is holy and awesome. Jesus is one we can approach in humble surrender and know he will receive us by grace through faith. Jesus is the God whose throne flashes lightning and rumblings and peals of thunder. The one who became flesh is still the God who created the universe. So let us rejoice in him. Let us feel that warm joy of Christmas. And let us bow down and cry, “Holy!”

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.

Something We Believe But We Do Not Believe

Just for fun, let me share with you a familiar Bible verse. You know this one if you have been in church for any time at all. You probably can quote it. And of course you believe it—except maybe you don’t.

Isaiah 55:8-9

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What did God just say? He says that he does not think like we think. His thoughts and ways are above ours. How much above ours? God’s thoughts are infinitely above ours. How far up is up? How far is it to the end of the universe? That is an illustration of how much greater are God’s thoughts than ours.

We believe this. Really we do. WE know that God is infinitely above us. We know that his ways are not our ways. We know that he can see things we cannot see. We know that he knows the past, the present, and the future in ways that we cannot imagine.

But, then again, we do not believe this verse. We really don’t. How can I say that? Just consider when you come across a biblical concept that you struggle to understand. Especially consider when you come across a biblical concept that does not appeal to you. It might be hell. It might be theodicy. It might be election. It might be end times doctrine. What do you do when you struggle to understand something or understand the why behind something? Do you not assume that things are impossible if you cannot understand them?

How about when you face personal suffering? Do you demand an explanation from God? That is what Job did. Job thought he should be able to understand God’s reasoning. And when the Lord met with Job, the Lord made it clear that God’s thoughts are infinitely higher than Job’s thoughts. And then, at the end of it all, God never explained to Job his motivation. God simply helped Job to come to a place of accepting that God is big, Job is small, and that is OK.

We believe that God’s ways are higher than ours and his thoughts higher than ours. We know that God is infinitely above and beyond us in his wisdom. And then again we do not believe these things when we struggle to understand. May we become a people who rest in the truth that God’s ways are not ours. God does not think like us. God does not work like us. God’s knowledge is not limited like ours. God’s motives are not polluted with sin like ours. God is God and we are not.

Accepting Christ–Repenting and Believing

When I was growing up, I heard one word over and over again in discussions about how to be saved. People who taught me and shared the gospel with me encouraged me to “accept” Christ as my Lord and Savior. The funny thing was, as a child and even as a young man, I really barely understood what they meant.

I’m grateful to God for those who shared Christ with me. I’m grateful for those who called me to be saved. I want to be clear that God used those preachers and friends to bring me to himself. But I have to say that I do not think that the word “accept” was the most helpful word, the most biblical word, they could have used.

With the word “accept,” those who taught me were, I believe, trying to communicate to me a couple of significant concepts. Sadly, that word, left to itself, is too small and too unspecific. They wanted to tell me to accept, in the world of faith, that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he did. But also, in the hearts of the more faithful, the word accept had to also be including the concept of my yielding to Jesus’ lordship, his mastery and authority over my life. Thus, in that word, my dear pastors and friends were calling me to faith and repentance.

Isaiah 55:6-7

6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

When Isaiah called on the nation to return to the Lord, note his language. There was an urgency, as the time for salvation was limited. The people could miss it. This fits the urgency of any evangelism. People need to come to Jesus before they face the judgment of God.

Look then at verse 7. We see the concepts needed for salvation. One includes the wicked forsaking his way. A person who is to be forgiven by God must forsake his or her wickedness. That does not mean that the person cleans himself or herself up before bowing to the Lord and seeking salvation. But it is understood that a choice to follow God by definition includes a choice to no longer follow one’s own sinful desires.

Perhaps I can illustrate that with marriage. To choose one person as a spouse is to, by definition, forsake all others. Similarly, to come to God as Savior demands a turning away from choices of rebellion against God. To come to Christ to be saved is to say that you will no longer be the lord and master of your own life. It is repentance, or as my dear former pastors and deacons called accepting Jesus as your Lord.

But next, God talks about the person returning to the Lord who will have compassion and who will pardon. that is more than just turning from sin. This concept is one of believing something. In Isaiah it is believing that God will have that compassion. In the New Testament, it is better defined. To come to the Lord is to have genuine faith in Jesus. It is to believe that Jesus is who the Bible declares him to be and did what the Bible says he did. Jesus is God the Son who became a man, lived a perfect life, died to pay the price for our sins, and rose from the grave to live eternally. Thus, accepting Christ is also to believe in him, accepting the truth of what the Bible says about him.

Honestly, I would not use the term “accept” Christ as the best term for what it means to be saved. I think we communicate more clearly when we use the Bible’s language of repenting of sin and believing in Jesus for salvation. But, I am grateful to God that men of God, men who did not pretend to be scholars, used the best word they knew to help me to see the truth that I needed to accept Jesus, believing in him and his finished work even as I bow to him as my Master.

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?

A Single Day of Change

How long does it take for the Lord to make a major change? We need to stop and consider that question from time to time. After all, we look at our world, and we are not always hopeful. We see the oncoming persecution and rejection we face, and we think there is just no way that things are going to get better.

While it is true that the Lord does not promise us anything like an easy life in the here and now, we also should not forget the fact that the Lord can accomplish world-changing moves in a single moment. The Lord can bring about great salvation and sudden destruction in a single day.

I thought of this concept when reading through Zechariah 3. Most Christians know this chapter of Zechariah because of its depiction of Joshua the high priest who stands accused by the devil. Joshua is given clean clothes and a clean turban by the Lord. And this reminds us of the work of Jesus to cleanse us before the Lord and to come to our defense against the devil who accuses us.

After Joshua gets his clean clothes and is clearly under the protection of the Lord, we read something else that is lovely to see.

Zechariah 3:8-10 – 8 Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. 9 For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. 10 In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”

I see three things that I love to see this morning. There is a servant, the branch, who will come. He will remove iniquity in a single day. And the result of his coming will be life and joy.

The servant or the branch is a reference to the Messiah. While Zechariah presents something here that is pretty complicated with images, one thing is for sure: Jesus is coming. God’s servant, the branch of God, is going to arrive. As we find ourselves at the beginning of the advent season, we should remember how great was the longing and the hope of godly people that the Messiah would come. And we look forward to the second coming of Messiah as well.

Without trying to touch the imagery of the stone, we can still see the declaration of the Lord. In a single day, he will remove the iniquity of the land. In one day, the Lord will fix what generations of humanity could not get right. In a single hour, the Lord will set right what kings and priests could not do on their own. Yes, we saw in the Old Testament that the high priest would make atonement for the sin of the land on one special day of the year. But here, It looks like a greater, a more forever, atonement is being made. IN a moment, the world is changed. In a single act of grace, God is doing what man cannot do.

And the result in verse 10 is that those who are atoned for will have life and joy. These men sitting under their own vine and inviting others to come are people who have been blessed by God so that they can share that blessing with others.

This is our great hope. Jesus came. Jesus is the Messiah and the branch. Jesus, on a single day, made one and only one offering for sin. Jesus laid down his life to substitute for us in the judgment we should receive. Jesus took our place, bearing the wrath of God on our behalf, so that we could be forgiven. IN his perfect blood and imputed righteousness, Jesus cleanses us as we see symbolized in Joshua and his clean clothes.

In a single moment, Jesus changed the world. In a single hour, the one God had promised would come crushed the head of the serpent. In a single moment, Jesus took the wrath of God for us and bought for us eternal life. In a day, he took our iniquity.

And in that act, Jesus grants us the blessing of God. We are promised life. We are promised the rewards that God has for his children. We are promised adoption into God’s family. We are promised heaven. We are promised fellowship with God. We have greater than a vine to sit under with our neighbors; we are promised membership in the family of God and his holy church.

The Christian should see this passage represents God’s past faithfulness, as the Lord really did take away our iniquity in a single day in Christ. It represents God’s future faithfulness, as we look forward to the return of Christ when he will reign with his people forever. And it reminds us that God can change the world. It reminds us that God can do the impossible. In a single day, the Lord takes away sin, sets up reward, and shows us his glory. Let us find life and hope in this glorious word.

To Be Like Jesus is Painful

Christian, do you want to be like Jesus? Does your church want to be a representation of the body of Christ in your community? Do you want to live out the word, Christian, which means a little imitation of Christ? If so, it will hurt.

John 7:7 – The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.

Jesus, speaking to his half-brothers, makes a very simple, very telling statement. The world will not hate those men, as they are just like the world. But the world will hate Jesus. Why will the world hate Jesus? Jesus testifies that the deeds of the world are evil in the sight of God. And that testimony garners the hatred of the world.

So, do you really want to be like Jesus? If so, the world will hate you too. We can’t tone that down and tell the truth. Social popularity is not our destination until the Lord returns and all is made right under the rule of Christ.

Now, a quick disclaimer: This does not mean that you should go out and do hateful things. Nor does this mean that you should be a mean-spirited person. Jesus never did such things. Jesus did not walk around with a chip on his shoulder just trying to find a way to offend the world. He came expressing the love of God even as he upheld God’s standards in all things. Jesus was pro marriage. Jesus was anti sexual immorality. Jesus was anti drunkenness. Jesus was not open to a variety of world religions. Jesus taught that there is only one way to God, through him. Jesus was clear that faith and repentance are how we get under his grace.

Jesus was never mean, but he was hated. His message, the word of God, is hated by a world that will not surrender to that word. The world around us does not want the God of the Bible. The world around us does not wish to be bound by the morality defined by the Creator. And so the world around us will hate what speaks of their deeds as evil in the sight of God.

We need to be a kind and gracious people. But we need to not be so deluded as to think that the world is going to think we are just a great part of their society. Yes, the world will receive charity from the church. They will generally like it when we build hospitals, feed the homeless, and help clean up the park. But, understand, they will love us until, and only until, we speak the true message of the Lord. The moment that our message and the morality of the Lord goes up against the new morality of this culture, they will turn on the people they smiled at when we did our random acts of kindness.

Am I saying not to be kind or not to engage the community? No. But I am saying not to be deceived. In the end, the word of God is divisive. In the end, Jesus is exclusive. In the end, the message of Christ will offend our world just like it did when the world shouted, “Hosanna!” on Sunday and, “Crucify him!” on Friday.