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, 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 Hebrews, 8 September 2016

For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Hebrews 1, verses 5-6

There is comfort in knowing some of the intricacies of faith that contribute to its rich history.

These first two verses do some heavy hitting in the early church.   The Gospels tie Jesus and His lineage to the Jewish Patriarchs (Luke takes it all the way back to God Himself through Adam), but these verses in Hebrews tie Jesus directly to God the Father through the Psalms.   That matters.

According to the NIV, Psalm 2 is heavily messianic; I encourage you to read it.   In it, the Lord speaks to His people in song saying both “you are my Son” and “you are my son in the line of King David.”   Remember that Jewish men were instructed in the synagogues on the Torah and the Psalms.   The Psalms were hymns they sung, poetic verses they memorized and carried all their lives. Psalm 2 is traditionally credited to King David as the writer.   Thus, a tie to Psalm 2 is one that early churchgoers would have easily understood and absorbed, especially since the author then ties it to (what were at the time) contemporary eyewitness accounts from Matthew and John, as well as the (then) contemporary writings of Paul to the church in Colosse.

As if that wasn’t enough, the reference from 2 Samuel (which is the story of King David), then also ties Jesus directly to King David.   Of David, the book said “you will be my son” who would be punished on behalf of the people for wrongdoings.   As Jesus was a direct descendant from David – something that may not have been fully understood at the time Hebrews was written – the author is, thus, tying the Son of God to the revered royal lineage of Israel’s most famous warrior king.

Pretty heavy indeed.   Here’s a bit more heaviness for you:   so what?

I mean, so what?   What does this matter to us today?   Jesus and David have been dead for thousands of years, many centuries.   Why does that matter?

Really.

It’s been over 200 years yet people are still quoting Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.   It has been decades and we’re still quoting John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan.   If for only historic reasons, it matters that, centuries ago, ancient writers used (already) ancient texts to tie Jesus of Nazareth – someone of their own time and day – to Jewish tradition and royal lineage.   Doing so helps us today understand the religious, social and even political impacts that the new Christian faith was having on the world at the time.   That helps us to better understand how things came to be.

Yet move beyond that to matters of your own heart in the here and now.   Your faith is a supernatural thing.   Having faith in this Jesus is highly illogical, something that the world dismisses because it requires putting trust in something you can neither see nor feel.   Yet you can sense it.   You can sense the very real peace and clarity that come from expressing faith in Jesus Christ.   You can’t touch it, but you can know it’s real.

Even though this is so, you and I still experience moments of questioning.   It’s natural; it isn’t abnormal; it isn’t even condemned by Jesus, who restored Thomas’ faith after logical doubts threatened to cloud his continued belief.  Having occasional questions or doubt doesn’t make you un-Christian:   it makes you a normal person. It is growing that doubt into dereliction of faith, rejecting God, that is a sin, not occasionally questioning or doubting His purpose or movement in our lives.   Even Jesus doubted, screaming “My God why have You forsaken me” as He was dying on the cross. In moments of question and doubt, it helps to know there are corroborating proofs, independent evidence, supporting what you believe.   It helps to know there were other people who did the same, men like King David and the author of Hebrews, who sang both praises and mourning through the Psalms, as expressions of the faith they had in God.

For more reading:   Psalm 2:7, Matthew 3:17, 2 Samuel 7:14, John 3:16, Colossians 1:18, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 97:7.

My God, thank You for weaving these intricate histories into my faith in You.   Thank You for the deep proofs, then subtle meanings, that come with believing in You as my only Savior.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 23 March 2016

They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. Mark 15, verses 27-32.

This past Sunday, on Palm Sunday, Fox TV broadcast “The Passion:”   a live-action Tyler Perry musical drama about the last days of Jesus.   It was told by modern actors, set in modern-day New Orleans, to the tune of modern pop music with very few lyrics modified. One scene acted out one of the verses above.   In it, Jesus has been apprehended and is being hauled away in a police wagon.   He wears an orange jumpsuit, like other common criminals, and is in the vehicle with 2 other men.   One hurls insults at Him; the other defends Him. Later in the show, a crowd is shown screaming for Jesus’ crucifixion, the release of Barabbas, and Mary’s anguish. The drama didn’t show the actual crucifixion, though it was alluded to by a group of pallbearers carrying a lighted cross through downtown New Orleans.

What struck me about the whole TV show was that it was contemporary and believable.   Yes, there was some ‘mushy theology’ involved, some misquoting of Scripture, and some things that were done out of line in how they actually appeared in the account of Holy Week.   Big freaking deal.   We shouldn’t get wrapped around the axle of details when we can consider what was being done.   I’m told that the Monday morning ratings and reviews for the show weren’t good.   They don’t matter.

Someone used their position to share the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a way that was modern, understandable, and plausible. But it begs the thought:   would we as so-called modern people do the same things that the people of Jerusalem did 2000 years ago?   Would we heap scorn and murder on the Son of God if He showed up here today?   Would we ridicule Him? Would we demand His death?   Would we nail him up with thieves and criminals?   Would we insult Him while He was dying?

Consider the brutality that is reported regularly in our news these days.   ISIS murders thousands of people – Christian and Muslim alike – in the name of their pagan religion. In Chicago, there are a dozen or more murders every weekend, sometimes every day.   Our presidential candidates are conducting their campaigns by appealing to the most base emotions and experiences of a largely uninformed voting public. Leaders in politics, entertainment and business scorn the public, relying on spin and deception to advance their various agendas while getting richer by the minute.

Would we insult the Messiah as He hung there dying?   You bet we would.

Good ratings or not, God bless Tyler Perry for what he did. Thank You Jesus.

Thank You Jesus, my Lord, for inspiring people to tell Your story, to share the precious sacrifice You made for us.

Read Mark 15, verses 16-47.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 14 December 2015

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. Mark 13, verses 12-13.

The verses are talking about how things will be at the end of time; this is common knowledge.   Have you considered, though, that they apply to more than just end times prophecy?

You see, all those things described in verses 12 and 13 are happening now.   You know as well as I do that they’ve been happening all throughout history.   The first murder was brother betraying brother. If you don’t believe that people will hate you because of Jesus, then you need to consider the fate this year, here and now, of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq; they survived Mubarek and Saddam Hussein but ISIS has exterminated them.   Children rebelling against their parents and having them put to death?   Check Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, even today south of the border in Mexico thanks to the drug cartels.

If you stand up for Jesus, you’re a target. You always have been.   You will be.

Consider the fate of the 12 Apostles.   At the time Jesus spoke these words, they didn’t know it but they were only days away from being hunted fugitives, and Judas Iscariot had only hours left to live. Eleven of the twelve men would die gruesome deaths; only John would live until old age but even he would be tortured numerous times.

Consider these things and then maybe consider that Jesus wasn’t just telling us how things would end for the world:   He was telling us how things could end every single day.   Yes, the price of following Christ would be high.   Could it be any other way when we set ourselves against the world?   If you think of it that way, we are bringing the ‘old Adam’ to his end every day we profess to believe in Jesus, and the old Adam doesn’t die easily.   He’s thick with sin and doesn’t want to let go.   He’s us.   We made him and he doesn’t want to go.

I don’t want to die a painful death.   I don’t want to be tortured or crucified or anything like that.   I want to die like my mom did last year: surrounded by family and in my sleep.   Yet if God wills that I must die for Him in some grotesque or exquisitely painful way then bring it baby.   It’s not false bravado talking:   it’s faith in Jesus.   I love, respect and fear the one who could destroy my soul even as he lets my human life expire.   I know He loved me enough to live and die and live for me. Because of that faith in Him, I know that I won’t die at all.   That while my life here will end, I will only pass into the next life and that it will be so much better than anything I could ever imagine here.

Still, I won’t go easily. There is much living left to do, many things I would like to finish that are now, as yet, undone.   But when the battle comes, I have my sword, I have my armor, and I have my faith.   I have my Lord.   I need nothing more.

Lord, let me live well for You in the remaining time You give me.

Read Mark 13, verses 1-31.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 3 June 2015

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Mark 8, verse 34.

I hate guilt trips so let’s not take one, ok?   But let’s also keep it real and acknowledge a few things.   Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t have it as tough as taking up his cross and following Jesus to death. I don’t have it as tough as taking up my cross and following Jesus to death (and neither do you).   The orphan child living in a broken crack house with criminal addicts for parents who has witnessed murder and overdosing doesn’t have it as tough as taking up his cross and following Jesus to death.   You get the picture.

Does that seem harsh?   I mean, some folks have it bad, really bad.   There are folks within earshot of where I’m sitting here in Bloomington, Minnesota who are living much tougher lives than I’ll ever know.   Despair, suicide, unending physical abuse, mental torture:   there are friends and family in our midst, in our circles, who are going through things like these through no fault of their own.   Those are terrible, awful things that I’ve never had to endure and it’s terrible and awful that they have to endure it.   And it isn’t as hard as what Jesus is saying, what He is commanding us to do. You may not like hearing that (reading it actually) but it’s still the truth.

Jesus promises us more torture, more pain, more suffering, more unending unquestioned agony than anything we’ve ever known as just the first steps on a faith journey with Him.   Verse 34 guarantees that.   Contemplate that phrase “take up their cross.” It is a promise of that torture, pain and suffering in pursuit of Jesus and His ideal. It’s also a command for us to put to death all the things in this world that hold us back from pursuing Him.   Things like guilt, our past, sexual temptations, anger, lust, greed, ungodly work, selfishness:   Jesus is telling us to put them to death on that cross, then follow Him. Give them up, execute them, then turn in a radically different direction.

Keep in mind that He said these things just after Peter had selfishly insisted that Jesus was lying to him about being harassed and murdered by the Jewish priests in the time (that was then) to come.   Jesus sharply rebuked His best friend about this, then speaks the words in this verse to the Disciples and others around them.   In order to stand in the presence of God with Jesus by their side, these people would have to be willing to endure the most painful, shameful agony known to man and do so willingly.

Can you imagine that?   What are you prepared to do about what He’s already done for us?

I’m not making light of the terrible plight some of our fellow men endure in this world.   Christians savagely beheaded by ISIS, victims tortured by kidnappers, anyone being raped or mutilated, Holocaust survivors, and a hundred other examples:   these are terrible things.   As we contemplate the touchy-feely Jesus of contemporary Christian worship and the saccharin faith of contemporary Christian music, let’s keep it real.   Remember that following Jesus might be the hardest thing we could ever imagine doing. The payoff is so worthwhile but make no mistake about the path to get to that payoff.

Lord Jesus, I need Your help to carry my cross.   Encourage me to follow only You.

Read Mark 8, verses 34-38.