Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 29 August 2017

Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.  Hebrews 11, verses 35-38.

Read through these verses again and you get a, well, Biblical feeling about them (pun intended).   Then read through them again and consider that, somewhere in the world today, there are people who are being mistreated, persecuted, and tortured for believing in Jesus just like these church forebears thousands of years ago.

You and I read about that on the Internet, but it’s true.   In Sudan, people are tortured for being Christian, for denying anyone but Allah.   In Iran, you can be executed for being a Christian.   Ditto in North Korea (or any communist country for all that matter).   In Cuba you can still be thrown in prison for saying you believe in Jesus (but, then again, Cuba is still a communist dictatorship).   Same in the People’s Republic of China (also still a communist dictatorship).   In Saudi Arabia, if you’re a Christian (or any non-Muslim for all that matter), you can be punished with instant death for trying to enter the holy mosque near the Kaaba.

Being tortured and dying for what you believe goes a long way back.   But look at the benefits.   Indeed, consider ONLY the benefits of believing.  Jesus or the world?   Jesus wins.

Only Jesus can bring you back from death because only He has done that.   Only Jesus can give you true peace inside, true calmness of your Spirit.  That’s here and not, not just some day.  Only Jesus can steel your spine to face down agonizing death because only in Jesus can you have full assurance that physical death is only a tiny passage into eternal life.

That’s not to say that living your faith is rosy or even easy.  I wonder if that’s not a disappointment for many folks who say they believe.   They are looking for something that takes away the hurt, the difficulty, even the pain of things that happen in life and when Christianity doesn’t instantly do that, they walk away disappointed.  Who knows when we got away from the idea that following Jesus could be tough?  Somewhere along the way, (especially) we in America began to serve up a Christianity that was light and easy, an egg-white omelette of faith if you will.

That isn’t the faith Jesus advertised.   He said that, if we wanted to follow Him, we would have to take up our cross and walk with Him daily.   That means we would, every day of our lives, have to stand against the world, against our nature, against even those who love us but don’t love Him.   That means we would have to carry our instrument of death with us everywhere we go until, at the end of all things, we are nailed to it.    When Jesus taught from the Scriptures, he taught from the accounts of the Old Testament heroes who died for their faith but died IN their faith.  For them, there was no death at all, but only that passage to something far better in paradise.  Death in the service of the Lord was an honor, maybe even a duty, but not a burden.

They understood that the God of their fathers was loving, just and true.   That He kept His promises.   That He was all He said He was.   They understood that, even in a century-long life, time here on earth is short.   The men and women of ancient days who died for Christ in their faith seemed to know something we have misplaced.

Here’s the hard part:  what are you willing to do to get it back?

For further reading:  1 Kings 17:22-23, 2 Kings:4:36-37, Jeremiah 20:2, genesis 39:20, 1 Kings 19:10, Jeremiah 26:23, 1 Kings 1:8, 1 Kings 18:4, Luke 9:23.

My Lord, forgive me when I fail You.  Thank You for the blessings of enduring hardship in service to You, in faith in You.   Let my sufferings be a good witness to others and strengthen them.

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Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 7 October 2016

Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.  Hebrews 2, verse 11.

Think about this one.   I mean really, truly, slowly contemplate the idea being stated by this Bible verse.

You’re like Jesus.

Jesus is like you.

You and Jesus, the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-everything creator of the universe, are family.   You’re in His.

You aren’t part of Allah’s family.   In fact, nothing you can do could ever get you close to Allah; you’ll never be good enough.   You aren’t on the same level as the Buddha.   He reached nirvana first and, well, we just aren’t that cool.   Your ancestors did it better than you.  The earth and Mother Gaia are so much bigger than you.   Name one other faith on this planet and, chances are, you and I just don’t measure up.   This isn’t Rag On Other Religions Day:   it’s simply the way things are.

Not so with Jesus.   With Jesus, you’re family.   We’re family.   You and I, we are adopted children.   It’s as if He showed up at court and did everything necessary to fully, freely, finally adopt us as His own children.   Even more, He doesn’t just think of us as children:   He looks at us as brothers and sisters.   Equals, peers, siblings, friends:   we aren’t just family.   We’re on the same level.

Now, let’s keep it real.   Us, we aren’t God.  We aren’t supernatural and we aren’t the Triune God the way Jesus is.   But He asks us to put off thinking like that and reminds us that He came here as Himself, as fully man while being fully God.   We don’t have to understand that mystery.   In fact, we don’t get to.   It’s simply a fact we get to accept.   Yet fact it is.  We can’t do what He does in the supernatural realm and we never will.   We are the created, not the Creator.

But as men, we get to relate to Jesus man to man because that’s how He relates to us.   He reminds us that He lived a full life among us.   He ate, drank, slept, laughed, cried.   Jesus did the same things you and I do except sin.   He lived the kind of life we were designed to live to teach us that it could be done.   He lived the life we could live, that, post-death, we will one day get to live.   And He did it out of love to set things right.

Buddha didn’t do that.   Allah can’t do that.   Neither can the Hindus, the Mormons, the atheists, or any other followers of any other faith.   But Jesus did it.

He did it because He sees us as people, as men and women.   He meets us where we are and asks that we meet Him there in return.   He wants to meet us on a human level because He knows that’s what we can understand.   He knows that He can appeal to our understanding, our hearts and minds, because He is the foundation of all understanding.   Faith in God is the beginning of human reason.   Jesus knows this and wants us to know it too so that we can live our lives here in purpose and love with Him as our guide.

Jesus sees you as His brother or sister because He wants you to see Him as your brother.  He wants to be the person with whom you can confide, and trust, and rely on.   Jesus wants us to know Him as family because family sticks together.   Because family is a bond that matters.   Because a family is the primary unit in every society, and because mankind was designed to live in families.

Seriously think about that.   Seriously contemplate that thought.  Jesus brings many sons to glory because He sees those sons, you and I, as brothers whom He loves and adores.   That’s the best news you’.

For more reading:   Hebrews 13:12, Ephesians 5:26, Matthew 28:10.

Lord Jesus, my brother and my Lord, thank You for loving me as your sibling!

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 27 September 2016

how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?  Hebrews 2, verse 3.

Let’s talk about choosing and free will.   A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about a conversation I had with an atheist friend.   One thing that conversation had in common with others like it is that we talked about free will.

Free will is a concept I’m not sure unbelievers really grasp.

It’s not that unbelievers don’t understand what free will is.   Indeed, in my experience, atheists and unbelievers stridently guard the territory of free will and free choice.   They jealously guard their right to refuse to believe in God, Jesus, or anything resembling the Christian faith.   That’s their right as Americans.   As a believer, I look at my unbelieving friends and sometimes think they’re only a small step away from actually embracing Christian faith.   After all, it’s easier for someone who says “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” to come to faith than it is someone who says “I reject that.”   The mind (and heart) is more open to alternatives they might not have otherwise considered.

Yet even knowing that, I’m still left at the point of seeing how free will isn’t really, fully grasped by unbelievers.   They don’t fully see that free will is itself a gift from God and even a fruit of God’s Spirit.  What they purport to reject is the blessed source of their cherished right.

A follower of Jesus sees that it is a blessing that God allows us to choose whether or not to believe in Him, to love Him.   Compulsion isn’t love.   He wants us and He wants us to want Him.  If God were Allah and looking for us to do things to please Him, we’d find we never really can please Him.  Allah would be perfect and we imperfect:   there’s no way for him, or us, to bridge the imperfection gap.   But God did make a bridge:   Himself, in Jesus Christ.   All He asks is that we believe in Him.   We don’t have to ‘do’ anything to please or placate or satisfy Him:   all that needed to be done to satisfy God and His holy requirement for justice was done by Jesus on the Cross.

To believe in Him, God gives us free will.   We can choose to believe in Him or we can choose to not believe in Him.   It’s as simple as that.   He doesn’t ask us to come to Him because we HAVE TO.   He asks us to come to Him because we want to.   And He helps us see that coming to Him is good in itself.   By willingly going to God, we get to share in His love, justice, peace, contentment and sharing heart.  He gives us hints at it in providing for us in every way possible.   God air in your lungs?   It’s because of God.   Got 24 hours in a day?   Because of God.   Got food, friends and folks who love you, a beautiful sunset, anything else?   God.   We can freely choose to believe these are gifts of God or we can freely choose to believe they aren’t.   God allows us either way.   What’s more, He provides for us whether we believe in Him or not.

It’s just that the eventual penalty for rejecting His gift of saving love will be permanent.   The hell God created as the final repository for rebellious angels can be ours for the choosing as well.   Let’s not even discuss how rejecting God and ensuing bad choices can lead to disaster here on the Third Rock.   No, let’s keep our eyes focused on the fact that, after our time here is over, if we’ve spent our choices rejecting God, He’ll let us reap the consequence of it.   That means hell.   Party over, oops, out of time, as Prince might have sung.   I’d rather avoid that.   It’s ok if all that is frightening because there’s a better way.

Mind you, this isn’t judgmental.   I believe in Jesus but I’m no better than anyone else.   My life is made better by believing in Him, following Him, but it doesn’t make me ‘better than’ anyone else.   If I come off as “judgy,” feel free to upbraid me because I deserve it.   These are simply facts and opinions about something that’s really incontrovertible.  We can’t change that God gives us the free will to do as we please.   We can’t change God and we can’t stop Him.   God does as He pleases and, because He’s God and all good, what He pleases to do is right even if we don’t see it as right.

I’m not sure unbelievers understand the great gift that is free will.   Indeed, I haven’t even done it justice in these few words.  How must it feel for God to see people He loves rejecting Him?   Or for Him to see us say we believe yet keep on sinning (which is still rejection of Him)?  You could spend whole books talking about nothing more than the blessing of being able to choose God’s life and love instead of being compelled to endure it.  What say you?

For more reading:   Hebrews 10:29, Hebrews 12:25, Hebrews 1:2, Luke 1:2.

Lord God, thank You for the blessing of free will, for letting me love You instead of having to love you.   Please continue to bless others and use me as an instrument to help others come to You.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 26 September 2016

For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.  Hebrews 2, verses 2 and 3.

What does that mean?  It sort of seems like two different thoughts ‘smushed’ together.

My NIV concordance says that “the message spoken through angels” references God giving the Commandments to Moses at Sinai.  Some reading from Deuteronomy tells that “myriads of angels” accompanied God in giving Him praise when He revealed His law to Moses (who then shared it with the world).  A little online research corroborates that opinion.  What about the rest of the verses?

Yesterday at church the theme was “good enough.”   Pastor Mark talked about how we, as people, constantly strive to prove we’re good enough.   Every religion on earth is a choice between following Jesus or not.   If you aren’t following Jesus, then you’re doing something, anything, to prove you’re good enough.   Good enough for Allah, good enough to reach nirvana, good enough to prove your worth, good enough to make up for things you’ve done, just good enough:   that’s the point of all faiths other than following Jesus.  You’re either a following Christian or you aren’t.

I don’t say this to denigrate other faiths.   It’s just a fact.   If your faith isn’t put in Jesus, you aren’t putting your faith in the only one who can save you from your sins.  You’re striving to do something, most likely to prove you’re good enough to rise above the wrongs you’ve done.   And be real:   everyone does something wrong.   Wrong equals sin.   We all sin; we’re all thick with sin.  There’s nothing we can do to undo the consequences of those sins, both against other people and, as believers, against the righteous justice of God.   If you aren’t following Jesus, you’re doing something to overcome those sins.  THAT point segues directly into verse 3, where the verse talks about salvation.

Only Jesus has atoned for your sins.   Only Jesus can save me, you, or anyone from the eternal consequences of our sins.  God is perfect and just and righteous and all love.   He made us to love us and for us to live in perfect harmony with that love for all time.   Yet, to maintain that just, righteous, perfect love, God can’t tolerate our sins.   He gave us the free will to follow completely or sin.   Being a loving parent, He allows us to choose what we do, including the consequences.  But to maintain His perfection He can’t allow our constant imperfections to taint Him.   If He did, He wouldn’t be perfect, He wouldn’t be God.  That can’t be allowed, and let’s keep it real:   we wouldn’t really want it.

I am not perfect and I’m not just or righteous on my own.   I can’t atone for myself.  I can make some amends for the wrongs I’ve done to God and other people, but in truth I can’t atone for everything.   As an absolute, if I can’t atone for everything then I really can’t atone for everything.   I’m not God.  Neither are you.  We can’t save ourselves from the punishment we deserve:   damnation and separation from God.

Jesus did.

He did and He did it as fully man and fully God all at the same time.   It’s a mystery, THE mystery of the ages, how Jesus lived, died, and atoned for all sins.   He took on Himself the eternal damnation that even the least of my sins deserves and He made it right.   He made unclean man right and righteous again so that we can again live in the harmony with God that God originally intended.   The truly good news of all history is how He saved us from the eternal consequences our sins deserve.   All of Scripture is God testifying through men how He did this.   Those twelve men who Jesus taught during His ministry here inspired dozens, then hundreds, then millions of others to share this good news with others.   The Bible does this.   Pastors, ministries, whole lifetimes do this.   Even our words here together do this.   It’s all because of what Jesus did those thousands of years ago.   On my own, I’m not good enough.   Jesus is and with Him, He made me good enough.

What do two verses really mean?   As it turns out, quite a lot.

For more reading:   Deuteronomy 33:2, Romans 11:22.

Lord Jesus, I follow You.   Thank You for saving me, for forgiving me, for doing what I can’t.   Help me to live in ways to share this message with the world.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 15 June 2015

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Mark 9, verse 1.

You and me:   we should be dead by now.   You know it as well as I do that, to paraphrase the apostle, we face death all day long.   Every day that we make it to work safely is a miracle.   Ditto waking up, digesting food, staying healthy from disease, nurturing a beating heart, and sleeping through the night.   Some might say those are simply the outcomes of impossible to predict random acts of chance and interaction.   I say they’re mini miracles that testify to the existence of God in the very details of our lives.

So how astounding is it that God Himself would say that some of those to whom He was speaking would soon see an astounding miracle promised for centuries.   That isn’t some miniature detail anyone would overlook.   It was a big deal, yet Jesus threw it down and, in context of what came next, it was prophetic.

Here’s another throw-down:   it’ll happen to you today as well.

Huh?   First some of that context. Keep in mind where Jesus was. He has just fed four thousand men, healed a blind man, (yet again) confronted the Pharisees, upbraided His friends, predicted His own death, and told people to get on His level regarding what they should expect from their faith in Him. Now He’s saying that not only will people who believe in Him die but that, before they do, they will see God coming in power. As we will see, shortly after this comes the Transfiguration and that display of power Jesus promised.

In my opinion, He also promised a different kind of power to us every day.

Are you thinking about Thor and his hammer?   Or Zeus smiting puny men with thunderbolts from Olympus?   Sauron marching to crush Middle Earth with a million ugly orcs?   Or perhaps a vengeful Allah vanquishing all enemies of Islam with his priestly army of fanatics?   These are the images of god-like beings wielding power that come to mind when we humans are left to our own devices. We think of power as the omnipotent use of force, of the physical being overtaken by the meta-physical, of forces beyond our control or understanding manipulating our lives from a position of strength.

Except that’s not how Jesus worked.   Or works now.   See, He promised the Disciples that He would display His power, and a few days hence He did.   Yet He also promises us the same thing every day.   I believe He delivers on that promise, and I see it in the majesty of sunsets, in the feel of my grandson hugging me around my neck.   I feel it in my beating heart, in the love of my family as we sit at the kitchen table, as I work in my garden where God gives me vocation and food. I see it at work in how He comforts distraught friends, how He turns around destruction to expand His kingdom of goodness, and how He works quietly through we sinful humans by our spreading word about Him.   Do you know Jesus?   Then you know Him in power and miracles.

I think it’s a miracle that we’re still alive to talk about this, given all the ways the world could kill us every day. Turn to Jesus and you see it really is.

Lord, thank You for Your miracles and power in my life.

Read Mark 9, verses 1-13.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 29 January 2015

Jesus said to them, “Do you not understand this parable?   Then how will you understand any of the parables? – Mark 4, verse 13.

Did you notice the subtle tone in which Jesus confronted, corrected, questioned, loved and taught using only a few words?   Do you do that in your regular communication?   I know I don’t.   I’m a project manager, and I prefer that my communications with people be blunt and direct.   One doesn’t have to be a jerk when communicating with others because the goal is to communicate, to convey and gain mutual understanding. That doesn’t happen too often if I’m directive, accusatory, condescending, or, well, ‘jerky.’

If you read it again, you find that Jesus isn’t condemning the people who were questioning Him.  He isn’t beating them down with their ignorance, or talking down to them as if they were stupid.   Instead, Jesus poses rhetorical questions to them, forcing them to spiritually engage with Him and intellectually examine what it is He has to say.   That seems like a lot for a first century rabbi to do, doesn’t it?   We consider the people before us to have been more primitive, yet this is incredibly complex. That makes perfect sense, you see if you consider Jesus to be exactly who He says He is.

It’s actually one of the things I like most about Jesus: that He says so much in what He says, conveying deep and intricate meanings without talking too much. In the Parable of the Sower, He’s teaching God 101.   God offers His salvation to everyone, but not everyone lets it take root.   He does this by using figurative language to paint pictures that are descriptive and appealing as well as provocative and convicting.   I don’t know of too many modern speakers in our time who can do that very well, but the Rabbi from Nazareth does.

He then asks people about what He’s told them.   They offer questions back to Him, and He demonstrates both His loving humility and His endless patience in hearing them out. Rather than smack them down, He continues to teach. It’s as if He’s saying, “ok, are you with me so far?   Listen up now because this is important.” Rabbis teach rhetorically, but Jesus uses that same rhetoric while making it personal to the person.   Allah doesn’t do that, instead decreeing all that we must do to approach the love he only offers conditionally.   Buddha doesn’t do that, instead, sending us off navel-gazing to look for inner peace where there exists only inner turmoil. Scientology, Mormonism, and any other ‘ology’ or ‘ism’ you can think of don’t do that, confusing commitment with real faith and love. But Jesus does it, and He does it without judging or being unloving to Muslims, Buddhists, Scientologists, Mormons or even Baptists:   all of whom He loves and cherishes and wants for eternity just as He does you or me.

I think what strikes me most about this verse is, once again, how Jesus meets us where we are, here in our sins and wallowing in our ignorance.   He doesn’t use those against us but, instead, looks to walk us past them into being who He sees us to be.   He does it through teaching and questioning, urging us to live the life He has in store for us instead of us just settling for what the world has to offer.

Lord, help my unbelief.   Teach me out of my ignorance.   Forgive my thick skin.   Lead me in Your better way.

Read Mark 4, verses 1-20.