Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Certified Forgiveness, Part 1: Extreme Measures

Whatever your philosophy or faith tradition may be, every human alive has to answer this question, "How do I handle my own guilt?  When I know I have done evil, what do I do with these guilty feelings I have?"  While there are dozens and even scores of common methods to deal with guilt, they fall under a handful of categories.  Let's look at one of them:

Method #1: Even out the scales by a deed or deeds I commit.  This is often expressed in terms like, "try to make sure your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds".  In Islam, we find passages in the Koran/Quran (I'm using Sahih International) that some Muslims believe justify the actions of the few who choose to become suicide bombers according to their understanding of what pleases Allah.  One of the less inflammatory passages that is sometimes used to support that idea is found in the following verses or ayat as the most clear rendering of that perspective from chapter or Sura 61:10-13:

"O you who have believed shall I guide you to a transaction that will save you from a painful punishment?  [It is that] you believe in Allah and His Messenger and strive in the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives.  That is best for you if you should know.  He will forgive you your sins and admit you to gardens beneath which rivers flow and pleasant dwellings in gardens of perpetual residence.  And [you will obtain] another [favor] that you love- victory for Allah and an imminent conquest; and give good tidings to the believers."

Note the word "transaction" in ayat 10.  In trade and financial terms, a transaction implies an exchange that is agreed to between two parties because the value appears comparable and favorable to both sides.  So here, I don't mean to highlight suicide bombings so much as I mean to discuss the concept of "works righteousness".  For the Christian who is faithful to biblical teaching, the idea that a mere human could do enough things to earn a status of righteousness in God's eyes is repulsive.  But consider this: if a man believed he had no assurance of forgiveness apart from dying in a struggle on behalf of his god, is it really extreme for him to do just that?  Or, is it the logical conclusion once one has considered the current temporary life and the eternal state to come?  If by cutting in half your 70 year life expectancy to 35, you could guarantee the eternal rewards of your god... what would you do?


Here's the main point to consider: the so-called suicide bomber goes to extreme lengths to secure forgiveness believing that he has power to please his god by what he does.  But the gospel of Jesus Christ teachings something even more radical:  It is not man, but God Himself Who takes on flesh and human nature to die on behalf of believers.  God is the extremist: extremely holy, extremely just, and extremely gracious.  He takes extreme action because no mere human can, by their own ability, be counted holy enough or righteous enough in the sight of a perfect and transcendent God.  So in doing this, Jesus, the Perfect Man fulfills the unyielding demands of the only True God.  Not only that, the same Jesus absorbs the wrath of God against sin.  In this way, God and God alone is glorified for there is no boasting of our works before Him for it is written,

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law, rather through the law, we become conscious of sin.  But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known to which the Law and Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through  the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood....
Romans 3:20-25

Monday, March 25, 2013

Love, Dying, and Life

(I'm grateful to Melissa Fredericks and Marie-Marthe Samuels whose FaceBook statuses alerted me to the existence of this video, and of course, to Todd Friel and the good people over at Wretched TV)

Did you watch the video?  It's a very touching depiction of a husband's undying devotion to his wife.  If you watched just the first 40 seconds of it, you already know what you need to grasp what I'm trying to say in this post.  What struck me was that this man didn't simply deny any burden associated with the care of his wife.  He went on to positively describe the daily, meticulous caring for every need of his wife as "a great privilege".   I'm thinking, "sacred duty"--yes... "because I love her"-- yes... but privilege?  Great privilege?  Well, I guess that's the difference between a man going on 5 years of marriage and a man going on 50, huh?  I have hope that, because of the Lord's mercy, I'll get there.

Once I saw the video, my first thought was to my church's Young Adult Bible Study page on Facebook.  My purpose was to encourage the group to consider the reality of grueling love, consistent self-sacrifice, and perfecting patience that marriage calls for in the long run.  I was also trying to make a statement that this kind of love is not likely to be found in some night club or other places/crowds where the aforementioned character traits are not exalted and openly praised.

But then I thought about this video again and I began to wonder just how much this man really loved his wife.  I mean, she has Alzheimer's and is apparently at a stage where she doesn't know or can't perform normal functions for self-care.  That's tough, but she seemed pretty agreeable and appreciative towards her husband.  I guess that doesn't really minimize his efforts for and love towards her, but it does help when your spouse is at least happy about their treatment.

What if, however, she was not pleasant?  What if she wasn't thankful?  What if she didn't cooperate with him when he's bathing her?  What if she spit out half of the food that he fed her?  What if, despite her weakened condition, expressed disdain and attempted to refuse his choice of clothing and efforts to dress her?  Again, I don't want to take anything away from this man, but I wonder how he would handle a wife whose attitude was totally contrary to the way his is portrayed in the video.

"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
-Romans 5:6-8

This is Holy Week, also referred to as Passion Week.  It is a sacred time in the life of the Church when we recall the depth of Christ's devotion to do God's will and redeem His own from their enslavement to sin.  And while we can and ought to affirm this husband's love for his wife, we must recognize that even this great human expression of love is impoverished and impotent by comparison with the love of Christ, the True Husband.  We are supernaturally blessed to have such a Spouse considering we were utterly contentious and at enmity with Him at first and even now we are often faithless despite His faithfulness.

If you think that I've turned an "inspirational" story into one that robs you of your self-esteem or fails to affirm you, I'm not apologizing.  But consider this: a high view of what Christ did on Good Friday depends on a low view of man.  If you think too highly of yourself, you will inevitably think too lowly of the awesome love of God the Father, in Christ, for those who trust in Him by the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration.    

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Missing The Moment

(The following is a piece I wrote for Palm Sunday in 2010)

“The people wanted Jesus to be a revolutionary. He was-- but not to overthrow the Roman government. Jesus was to overthrow the kingdom of darkness!”
-Pastor Patrick J. Walker

Every now and then, we experience moments of clarity. Sometimes those moments explain new things to us, revealing knowledge that had been previously hidden. At other times, a moment of clarity sheds new light on an old topic. The quote above, taken from today's sermon entitled “When Stones Speak” helped me appreciate something I already knew but in a concise and crisp statement with penetrating power. I was inspired to re-examine the events of the Triumphal Entry.

Putting on a historian's hat, we will discover that there was not one, but two “triumphal” processions on the same day. The Roman governor, Pontiffs Pilate, had his official residence in Caesarea which was about a day's journey north of Jerusalem. Knowing that the nationalistic pride of the Jews would be a fever-pitch during the Passover Feast, Pilate knew he had to make the presence of Rome felt that week. Scholars such as Mark Borg and John D. Crossan have put together a very strong case that Pilate would have come riding into Jerusalem from the West at the Gennat Gate.

Given the purpose of his arrival, it's not hard to imagine what that entrance looked like. Nothing was more important to the Romans than displaying their empire's glory. No doubt, Pilate was elevated on some sort of platform above the heads of all that would have seen him. The horses were elegant, the soldiers were fierce with their shields gleaming in the sun. They most likely made their way to the Antonia Fortress with all the pomp and circumstance, pride and power that would rival any military parade of our modern era.

Think of the contrasts. Jesus made His entrance from Bethany in the east via the Golden Gate. Instead of a horse, our King rides on donkey- a borrowed one. No leather for a saddle, He rides on the robes of His disciples. Not elevated above those who sang songs for His sake, He is eye to eye with them. No armor, shields, or swords in the hands of His followers- only palm branches waving wildly.

The crowds sang their songs and laid down their cloaks... but they missed the moment. The revolutionary they wanted did not exist. But the revolutionary they NEEDED was in their midst. He was not aiming at Pilate's seat or the throne of Emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome at that time. No, these men were under no threat from Jesus for in fact, He came to save men like them from a tyranny greater than any Caesar: the tyranny of the Kingdom of Darkness! Hundreds of millions waved palm branches today- but how many truly know Christ and have their sins forgiven, are born from above and walking in the newness of life? If you don't know Him, you too, have missed the moment.

At His entry, armed only with justice and dripping with mercy, the humble Son of God was redefining what it meant to rule and what a kingdom really was. Jesus had set His face to Jerusalem so that even when the crowds disowned Him, He fought on to Friday. His final triumph was at the intersection of Holiness and Grace. That intersection is the cross itself for where man lacked the holiness required to please Him, God gave grace.

Jesus left Jerusalem the way He came in: completely confounding the ways of this world and forever challenging our views of winning and losing. His death redefined victory, not as something where one takes all but where one gives all. For the Christian, the Triumphal Entry of Christ illustrates how radically different our lives ought to look when compared with the world around us. What a challenge- what a moment! 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bigger Than Worship

Seriously?  What could possibly be bigger than worship?  The eternal activity of angels is worship.  The never-ending energy of the redeemed will be devoted to worship.  The book ends of time, eternity, and all points in between whisper, speak, call, and shout the priority of worship.  In Psalm 150 when the psalmist had run through all the known instruments of his day, he finally concluded, "Let everything that has breath, praise the LORD."  Is there a higher priority than worship?

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
Matthew 5:23-24 (NIV)

The above passage is offered as the conclusion to Jesus' teaching on the connection between murder and the sin of hatred/wrathful anger.  Our Lord's warning is that persons are not innocent of murder simply because they haven't carried it out physically.  If we are found with the loose disregard for a human being, who, although they are made in God's image, we dare to call them a "fool" or "good for nothing" (raca), then we are worthy of judgment and even the fires of hell.

So, in verses 23 and 24, Jesus explains that if we are in such a position where the sin of anger resides between ourselves and another, then we ought to postpone everything- even worship- in an effort to make things right.  But how many of us do that?  And exactly why should such a resolution among men trump worship towards God?  I wondered about this for a while and here's what I came up with:

Reconciliation trumps worship because true reconciliation precedes and is logically prior to true worship.  Unless a one is reconciled to God, there is no worship that they can offer that is acceptable to Him.  Only those who live according to the Spirit and have their minds set on the things of God are able to worship because we acknowledge that those controlled by the flesh and sinful nature are unable to please God.  If it is the case that worship pleases God, then it follows that in order to worship God, we must first be reconciled to Him (see Romans 8:5-8).

If this is the case between God and men, then we understand that God's forgiveness towards us  overflows into love towards our fellow humans.  None of us will ever have to extend mercy and forgiveness at a greater cost than God.  If He, being sinless, could forgive us at the price of Jesus' life, He will most certainly require that we forgive fellow sinners (see Matthew 6:14-15).

At the point that a man refuses to forgive another, he has lost touch with his own fallen condition.  His pride, self-righteousness, and anger are blinding him-- he cannot worship God because he is too full of himself.  Forgiveness requires humility because it means we relinquish our right to be angry and offended.  Certainly, Christ demonstrated that kind of humility on the cross. The call to pick up one's cross and follow after Him necessarily includes a life marked by forgiveness.  One forgiven by God can and will forgive others by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The imagery in the following verses are meant as a warning to all who have not yet "settled matters" with the Judge.  Do whatever it takes to be reconciled to Him.  If not, you will face imprisonment until you have paid the last penny.  Be advised, however, that your sin has incurred a debt to God that you cannot repay; you are facing an eternal punishment. Don't look to yourself and don't think that righteousness comes from your attempts to keep God's law.  Instead, look to Christ Who alone can say with respect to paying sin-debt "it is finished".  


Friday, March 1, 2013

Kumbaya, Off Key and Corrupted

How would you answer that question?  Anyone who's been on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for longer than a day has seen this type of image and message.  No doubt, this image stirs up a sentiment that has some staying power.  The idea could be expressed in a sentence: "Hey, if we're all looking for the same thing, why hasn't anyone found it in an ultimate sense yet?"  It's a powerful question, but one would need to remove the emotional desire for "peace" in order to answer it with some honest clarity.  Let's begin addressing the question starting with the simple fact that...

1.  Religions don't define peace in the same way.  I would say that's a major stumbling block to the idea that "all religions teach peace".  If peace means different things to different religions... and each one has a different way of attaining their understanding of peace, one thing is clear: there's no true sense in which all religions teach peace.  That's like saying all "all animals eat food" without considering that lions don't graze and are strictly meat eaters but cows exclusively eat grass/grains and when they eat meat, we get "mad cow disease".  It's not the word "peace" that matters.  What's crucial is the way peace is described in that faith.

Ask a Muslim how to get peace.  At some point, the idea of submission to Allah comes up and you discover that for the Muslim, the world is divided into the Dar al-Islam (the house of Islam) and Dar al-harb (the house of war)... and the house of Islam is to grow until the house of War is no more.  Well... so much for peace, by peaceful means.  Of course, there are Muslims who will say that the house of Islam grows without necessitating violence.  That may be so, but it is clear that they (Muslims) are not all in agreement.  And besides, that only proves my point to a greater extent: different faiths have different definitions of peace and even within any particular faith, there exists disagreement.

The Wiccan practices intimate interaction with nature but the Buddhist insists on looking within for peace even while both have aspects resembling pantheism.  Hindus promote Karma and reincarnation and while a Buddhist may agree with Karma to some extent, there is radical disagreement because the Buddhist does not subscribe to an eternal soul within a person while Hindus do.  It is true that the great monotheistic religions of the world are primarily concerned with finding "peace with God".  But even that agreement leads us to our next point of unalterable dissimilarity.

2.  Religions don't seek peace in the same way.  This only makes sense.  If I don't agree that water is a liquid, I'll laugh at your crazy notion that I can find it in a river instead of mining for it.  People don't seek for peace in the same way because they disagree on what it is.  If peace comes from earth, why should I seek it in the heavens?  If it comes from within myself, why would I look to find it with you?  If I make peace according to my own wisdom and/or moral goodness, why wouldn't  the gospel be foolishness to me?

The Way, rooted in the teachings from Jesus of Nazareth, true peace is from above because it is said of mankind that "the way of peace they do not know" (Rom. 3:17).  Therefore, it had to be God, through Jesus that was reconciling rebellious humanity to Himself.  I make no pretense here: only the Christian who is living out of gratitude for the fact that Christ died for him or her while they were still sinners and therefore unworthy--only that believer will have a life that expresses the overflow of God's peace and grace toward them.  In other words, we extend the message of reconciliation (the gospel) towards all persons with the same love in which it was extended to us.  We, who were unworthy, were made worthy, not by our own efforts, but by God who is rich in mercy.

Yes, peace comes from God.  And peace comes through faith in Christ as announced in the gospel.  That is the biblical understanding of it.  And I am a Christian because God has so convinced my heart that apart from His Spirit's power to make me faithful to Him, I could not live according to God's law consistently enough to ensure peace with Him.  For the non-Christian reading this, I have a question: do you really believe that you are good enough to earn peace with God and others based on your own efforts?  For the Christian reading this, I have another question: When was the last time you truly reflected on the difference between striving for peace with your own power and receiving peace from God Himself in Christ?