Saturday, December 27, 2014

He can, even if He doesn't

Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  It’s true, that humanly-speaking nothing else ultimately is inevitable.  That means that often things go neither as we expect, nor as we desire.  To take Franklin’s point to perhaps its logical next step, outside this world, there perhaps is something else that is in fact certain.   That would be God’s ability to do all things.  Keep your finger on that point for a second and we’ll come back to it.

This week my reading will bring me to the completion of my annual reading plan through the Old Testament, as well as the beginning of my reading plan for next year, which is to read through the New Testament.  For the purpose of this week’s message, I’m only including the Old Testament element of the reading.

As I read through Isaiah 56 – 62 and Daniel 2 – 8 this week, a passage struck a chord that conjured the thinking I noted above.  It’s found in a familiar passage in Daniel, chapter 3 verses 16 – 18.  To set the stage a little, the situation occurs at a time the Babylonians had taken over rule of Judah and the Babylonian king was Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar had issued a decree that whenever the people in his kingdom hear the playing of certain musical instruments, the people were to bow down and worship a statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were three Jews who … along with Daniel … had demonstrated unwavering faith to God and yet were highly regarded by the powers that be in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom.  When it was reported to the king that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow to the statue, it was not a good potential situation for them …

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty.  But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

The penalty that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego faced for not bowing down to the image that was created for Nebuchadnezzar was to be placed in a blazing hot furnace, which was so hot by the time they were thrown in there that the guards that placed them in the furnace burned up just by opening the door to throw them in.  Nonetheless, they were unmoved in their faith in God.

There are a few different insights to pull from this that I think are hugely instructive to us.  Note that when they were confronted with the potential penalty for their refusal they said “the God whom we serve is able to save us.”  It’s often important focus on word choice in Scripture, so let’s note that they say God is able to save them.  They didn’t say “our God will save us.”  That’s not because God couldn’t.  It’s not even necessarily because they felt that God wouldn’t.  In this instance, I think the takeaway has less to do with God than with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego … and by implication, us.

They had the attitude that God could save them, but even if He didn’t, they decided to be faithful, to be willing to take on whatever might come about.  They were unwavering.  The reason … well, it comes back to my earlier point, that God’s ability to do all things is a certainty.  Whether He does or not is within the governance of His providence, and that’s where faith came in.

My sense in reading about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is that they had chosen at some point before this to live by faith in God.  No matter what.  So, in this instance, if God elected to show up and save them (spoiler alert … He ultimately did) they were going to choose to follow Him by faith.  If He elected not to show up, they were going to choose to follow Him by faith.  Even if it meant getting burned up in a fiery furnace.  Even if God didn’t show up in the way they hoped, expected, and / or thought was “right.”  Even if He, in human terms, disappointed them.

So, they stood their ground.  They did what was right, no matter the ramifications.

What about us?  How often do we recognize that our God is able to do anything?  Do we really believe that in our heart of hearts?  Think about what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had to decide in this case.  They were facing a very literal and likely very painful death.  Imminently.  The fact that they were willing to stand up to their beliefs in the face of that death says definitively that their belief in God’s ability was real and complete.  Otherwise, with impending death we can reasonably conclude that at least one of them would have capitulated … like, “Hey, you know what, I’m all for God and everything, but that furnace is HOT and dying wasn’t on the to-do list today.  Where’s that statue?”  To stand up for our principles when they’re most challenged is demonstrative of the degree to which those principles are preeminent in our lives.

Another question for us is will we still follow if there’s a chance He won’t do something?  This speaks not only to our belief in God’s ability, but our belief in His providence.  That is, that He knows better than we do about the right outcome to a situation, that He loves us way more than we love us, that He loves others way more than we do, that He’s got a bigger-picture plan that extends beyond our perceptibility.  Will we take a step not knowing what that step might lead to … or knowing that it might lead to nothing?  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego took that step … not knowing whether they were about to fry, or whether God would show up or not.  In the end, He did indeed show up, personally.

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2014 and prepare for 2015, if you’re not sure about how you stand relative to the abovementioned questions, allow me to challenge you a bit.  Two habits can help you fortify your sense of strength around the questions of God’s ability and God’s providence.  While I’m not a big proponent of New Year’s resolutions (they rarely stick, and when they do it’s often because the bar’s so low as to not make much of a difference), perhaps that approach might help.  First, read God’s word every single day in 2015.  Set that goal and stick with it.  The amount of reading is inconsequential, but perhaps start at Matthew chapter 1 and read one chapter a day.  We’re talking 15 minutes a day, max.  I don’t know a single person’s schedule, no matter how insane, that couldn’t allow for that commitment.  Second, before you read, say a brief, quick prayer … the words don’t totally matter, but something like, “God, speak to me through your word.”  He’ll do the rest.

For my part, I’ll be doing the same as I read through the New Testament this year.  I’ll add one thing to my list though … I’ll be praying for God’s revelation to you (in addition to me) during the course of this.  Seriously … try it … just one chapter a day, every day in 2015.  You’ll be amazed what He can do and what He will do!  It’ll truly be a Happy New Year!

Because He can, even if He doesn’t,


Monday, December 22, 2014

I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas ...

Merry CHRISTmas!  I offer up that greeting out of a heartfelt love for God who gave us that special day, and certainly out of the same love for those who read this (and even those who don’t … haha).

But … these days it seems some take offense when we say “Merry Christmas.”

When exactly did “Merry Christmas” become an offensive greeting?  When did we all collectively need to be careful to avoid saying “Merry Christmas” so as not to hurt someone’s feelings?  A Gallup / USA Today poll in 2010 found that 95% of Americans celebrate Christmas, including 80% of non-Christians.

So why is it that people seem to go out of their way to say “happy holidays” as if that is the preferred way to express the sentiment properly?   Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that there are multiple holidays during this time, all of which matter deeply to their adherents.  I honor that, sincerely. 

I also recognize that while we celebrate CHRISTmas this time of year in honor of the birth of Jesus, it’s highly unlikely that December 25 was His actual birthday.  Instead, His actual birthday is thought by some to be sometime in late September.  Of course, we can’t know this with certainty, but there are plenty of historical and cultural clues that can be drawn.  Of course, if He was indeed born in late September that could lay the groundwork for Him to have been conceived by the Holy Spirit (incarnated) in late December.  That’s a discussion for another time perhaps.

Back to my point, which emanated from my Old Testament reading (Isaiah 49 – 55, Ezekiel 43 – 48, and Daniel 1) in a particularly familiar passage; it’s a passage that talks about the coming sacrifice of Jesus, the price He would pay, the gift that He would give us through His birthday … which we commonly refer to as CHRISTmas.  In Isaiah 53:4-9a we read …

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down.  And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!  But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.  He was beaten so we could be whole.  He was whipped so we could be healed.  All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.  We have left God’s paths to follow our own.  Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.  He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word.  He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.  And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.  Unjustly condemned, he was led away.  No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream.  But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people.  He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone.

There are a few points to note from this before I tie it in to the principal topic … first, one of the most amazing aspects of this prophetic passage is that it was written about 700 years before Jesus’s birth.  It’s crazy enough to realize that all that was noted in this passage (as with ALL prophesy in the Bible) came to pass exactly as it was written.  But what always amazes me is that it was written a full seven centuries in advance.

It’s also clear from the passage that Jesus took the scourging and mistreatment that we (the collective “we” … humanity) deserve as a consequence of our sinful nature and behaviors.  He has NO such sinfulness, either in nature or deed.  It’s also clear from this passage and elsewhere in scripture that Jesus was NOT killed (though He absolutely did die), but that He gave His life willingly, sacrificially.

Okay, now … let’s pull this together a little.

Even if we set aside all else about the life and ministry and significance of Jesus, and focus only on the fact of His act of propitiation on the cross of Calvary as described in this passage in Isaiah 53, the meaning of CHRISTmas is intensely profound.  His was a life lived wholly for others … first to set an example of how a life dedicated to God the Father should be carried out, and secondly to be lain down for the benefit of a creation that deserved nothing close.  It’s love and sacrifice, which cannot exist apart from one another.

This is the spirit of CHRISTmas.  It’s the spirit with which I extend a heartfelt sentiment when I share a “Merry Christmas” with someone.  The greeting arises from a spirit of love … of realizing the immensity of the gift of Christ we’ve received, and being willing to express it to others in that light.  While I recognize that the offensive aspect of the Christian message is said to be its claims of exclusivity, one need read no further than John 3:16 (and elsewhere) to realize that the Christian message is of all things inclusive.  But it IS conditionally predicated on accepting the gift from the One who possesses and offers it.

I happen to celebrate CHRISTmas and I understand some others (though not many, at least here in the US) do not.   When I express my “Merry Christmas” to someone, I am inherently sharing a bit of myself, perhaps the most important part.  I am saying to someone, “the love I have received from my Savior, I wish for you to have as well.”   I am not saying to someone, “you must celebrate as I do, believe as I do, or do anything as I do.”  Of course, it’s my fervent belief that if you don’t receive Christ as your Savior you have no chance of having eternal life.  So on the one hand, it’s my hope that all would have it.  On the other, I cannot force anyone to choose in such a manner.

Universally, it seems we can all agree that Someone choosing to lay down their life to take the penalty that should be ours is the epitome of grace and love.  Celebrating such a life, such a sacrifice, such a love, is my choice.  I believe it’s a rational choice … the only logical choice in the circumstance.

So, when I wish someone a “Merry Christmas” it is not coming from a spirit desiring to hurt them any more than wishing them a “good morning” or “good evening” is meant to be hurtful.  The main difference is that I’m inherently wishing them an infinite number of good mornings and good evenings.  I’m expressing to them a wish that they would know the Hope of the One who can turn bad mornings or bad evenings into good ones.  Forever.

When I wish someone a “Merry Christmas,” I’m not denigrating their holiday or beliefs, I’m sharing with them the love, joy, peace, and sacrifice of mine.

Is that so offensive, really?

I wish you a Merry CHRISTmas!


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Well what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."

The day before yesterday (December 13) marked the 15th anniversary of the night that Helen and I walked down an aisle at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and accepted Christ as our Savior.  It marked a night when we both decided that it was time to stop fooling ourselves thinking that we were being successful trying to be the boss of our own lives.  That might sound a bit weird, since for the most part, both of us even at that time were doing well enough in life.  We’d done well in school and professionally, and we had (and still have, thank the Lord) a thriving and flourishing marriage and family. 

But there was more to it than just that, more to the decision than just turning over control … more to it than just hoping that God handled our details way better than we did or would.

It was definitely about recognizing God’s immense love for us, the love that led to Him sending His one and only Son Jesus to be born (for which of course we celebrate CHRISTmas in a couple weeks – despite what some elements of our society want us to think about the meaning of CHRISTmas).  It was definitely about the forgiveness of our sins, which Jesus openly and sacrificially provided to us through His death on the cross of Calvary.  There was an additional significance for us, an additional meaning, an additional purpose …

A particular passage from my reading this week (Proverbs 26 – 31, Isaiah 42 – 48, and Ezekiel 36 – 42) might help convey some of the thinking … a short passage that jolted me in Proverbs 27:1 and in a way (indirectly, unbeknownst to us) jolted Helen and me a decade and a half ago.

Don’t brag about tomorrow, since you don’t know what the day will bring.

As people we live life with an inherent presumption that tomorrow follows today.  By and large it does, in a technical, scientific way.  But in a temporal, personal, individual way that’s not necessarily the case.  That is, as the passage in Proverbs 27 points out, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

On average, about 100 people die every minute globally.  Every minute.  100 people. 

Twenty-six people get diagnosed with cancer every minute globally.  About 60 people will have a heart attack or stroke in the next minute.  Roughly 67 people are injured or disabled in car accidents every minute.

So what assurance do we have that the next minute … let alone the next day … will be just as smooth and wonderful as today.  Statistically speaking, it seems unlikely.

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I came to the ends of ourselves and fell at God’s feet after the confluence of a number of events in life … what I tell people was essentially because of the sum total of everything that happened in my life up to that point.  But for me at least, it was also because I asked myself the pseudo-rhetorical question, “If what the Bible says about heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal separation from God is true, don’t I want to be sure I’m on the right side of the equation?”  In part, carrying out our decision that night was influenced by the uncertainty that we would have the chance or take the chance the following day.

Which one of us knows with 100% certainty that the next minute will be the same as this one?  That the next hour will?  How about the next day?  Bottom line … one person out of one will die in their lifetime.  When you take into consideration other bad things that can happen … and will / do to hundreds of thousands of people around the world every day, it’s a wonder that we live the way we do.  That is, we live as though we haven’t a worry in the world about tomorrow.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m not much for worrying in general, but I do think it’s prudent to be mindful of our tomorrow.  It’s wise to acknowledge that our next breath is in no way guaranteed.  In no way is it guaranteed that our next day will bring the satisfaction, security, health, serenity, fulfillment, stability, etc., that this day did.  It’s not even assured that we’ll remember today tomorrow.  To think any differently is foolish if not deluded.

The point is this, at the risk of being somewhat cliché … if we knew with 100 percent assurance that we were not going to survive longer than the next sixty minutes, how would that change our lives?  If we knew conclusively that tomorrow was going to be fundamentally different than today, but in ways that left us unsure about whether it would be better or worse, what would we do to make this next hour, or the day today last longer, have a bigger impact, stick in our memories or in the memories of others longer?  Who would we call, who would we see, what would we do, who wouldn’t we pass by without notice, who wouldn’t we blow-off, who wouldn’t we yell at or speak disrespectfully to, who would we encourage or forgive?  What quality time would we get with others?  Or with God?  Would we THEN start reading God’s word?   Would we THEN start communicating with God in prayer? Would we choose to follow … to really follow the God of second, third … and last … chances?  Would we choose to give ALL to the One who will give us back all the MORE?

So why aren’t we doing it now?  I’ve said it many times before (so my apologies if you’re hearing me repeat myself) … the fact is, we ALL only have 60 minutes left in life.  The only question is, when does the 60-minute countdown start?  We don’t always know, so it’s at least possible that we’re at minute 49 at this moment.

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray quips, “Well what if there is no tomorrow?  There wasn’t one today.”  (Again, another MUST SEE movie).

We’re only an hour away from the reality of that question folks.

Lord, remind us that our clock countdown might be ticking at this very minute, and help us to live in such a way that is reflective of that realization.  Help us to live every moment of our life as though it’s our last.  Show us the areas in our life that need to be treated as though they are our last such moments in those areas.

Thank you, God, that today is today, and tomorrow is … who knows?



Monday, December 8, 2014

The company we keep

Alright … I have to go classical on you this week.  One of the classic films of all time, winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.


Probably top three among my favorite movies of all time.  I remember in high school getting fired up before football games by watching clips from it and from the sequel, Rocky II.  Doesn’t get any better.

The inspiration for this week’s message from my reading (Proverbs 19 – 25, Isaiah 35 – 41, and Ezekiel 29 – 35) is loosely related to the following quote in the movie …

Y'see, they don't remember you, they remember the rep! Y'understand? Eh, you gotta boyfriend? No, you ain't gotta boyfriend? Y'know why? Why do you think you don't got a boyfriend? Because you hang out with those coconuts on the corner, y'understand? You hang out with coconuts, you get nowhere. They're eleven, eleven. You hang out with nice people, you get nice friends, y'understand? You hang out with smart people, you get smart friends. You hang out with yo-yo people, you get yo-yo friends! Y'see, it's simple mathematics.

This relatively throwaway scene was not really … to those simpleminded folks like me.  Rocky was talking to this young 12 year-old about the importance of who she was hanging out with and the taint that would come over her from hanging out with the wrong crowd.

My Bible reading this week brings up a similar subject, which I viewed in an inverted sort of way.  Proverbs 22:24-25 says …

Don’t befriend angry people or associate with hot-tempered people, or you will learn to be like them and endanger your soul.

Probably all of us have heard from our parents the warnings about “the company you keep.”  We’ve been admonished to stay away from the wrong crowd.  The notion is that those negative elements will drag us down, and I believe that’s categorically true.  But I think the converse is true as well … and this is the point on which I want to focus in this message … and the basis for my challenge to you.

You probably recall that I’ve said before (paraphrasing a pastor I once heard on the radio) … “things aren’t true because they’re in the Bible … they’re in the Bible because they’re true.”  No doubt this is the case with our passage this week.  While it narrowly talks about “angry people” or “hot-tempered people,” I think the application is broadly applicable.  If we hang out with (as Rocky puts it) “yo-yo people” we get “yo-yo friends.”  In other words, our nature, attitudes and behaviors will tend to find their equilibrium in the folks we befriend or keep our time with on a usual basis.  I can say without equivocation that I’ve experienced this firsthand, that when in my youth or in my past I’ve spent time with complainers, I become a complainer.  When I’ve spent time with pessimists, I tend to get more pessimistic.  When I’ve hung out with people with foul mouths, I more easily tend to slip into having a foul mouth.  It’s natural, and difficult to avoid … not inexcusable, but understandable.

If this is the case, I think it’s logical that the flipside is also true.  That is, if we want to be pulled into the equilibrium of better influences and deportment, we should spend time with folks of that ilk.  If we want to become more enthusiastic, we should hang out with enthusiastic people.  If we want to be more encouraging, we should spend time with encouraging people.  If we want to become more faithful, our company should be with faithful people.  Professional?   Hard-working?  Health-conscious?  Giving?  Yup … a critical aspect of becoming the person we want to be is to spend time with people who are the way we want to be.  It’s partly what I think is being expressed in Proverbs 27:17, which says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.”  We were created in the image of God … INCLUDING being relational.  God didn’t give us all the same gifts or gifts in the same proportion, but He did give us gifts that can be exchanged and influential / impactful among one another.

Who we spend time with matters, and matters greatly … negatively and positively.  We need to be incredibly careful whom we acquaint ourselves with and who gets our time and attention.  It’s a matter of the allocation of constrained time socially, of course, but it’s also because we’ll be shaped one way or the other as a result. 

Additionally, and perhaps more applicable … not only will we be shaped by those we spend time with, but WE will in turn shape others.  To the extent that others by spending time with us are dragged to a negative equilibrium, I believe God holds us accountable for that.  Are we the type of people who drag others toward the positive side of the spectrum … with encouragement, enthusiasm, faithfulness, etc.?  Or are we the types who drag others in a negative direction?  Not only are we accountable but our effect is a consequence of our choices of relationship.  Hence, the notion of iron sharpening iron … it’s a bilateral thing.

This week, let’s prayerfully ask God to reveal relationships that drag us to the negative side of the spectrum, and to help identify those we can benefit from in a positive way.  Let’s ask Him to equip us … in a gracious and honorable way … to shift our time, focus and energy to the more productive associations.  And … let’s ask Him to reveal to us ways we are having a deleterious impact on those who interact with us. 

Y'see, it's simple mathematics.

Grateful for YOUR impact,