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Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Because I Love, You Shall Live Also" John 14:19

“Because I Live, You Shall Live Also” John 14:19

We celebrate Easter because Jesus rose from the dead and because He conquered death. But Jesus didn’t just conquer death for Himself, He conquered death for us. He did it for you and me! He tells us, “Because I live you will live also.” We receive new life that lasts forever from Him. What a gift!

Our new eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it begins when we first believe. Christ gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to every person who believes in Him. Scripture says that the Holy Spirit seals us into eternal life and is our guarantee and our ‘down payment’ on this new life. “Now it is God who makes us to stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, sets His seal of ownership on us, and puts His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)

So you see, through Jesus so much has already been done for us. Scripture says that this eternal life is given as a free gift to each person who believes in Christ. But we do have choices to make in what we do with our gift. We can either learn to live in this amazing new life, or we can continue in our old life habits of sin. The Lord will call us to change through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, but He will never force us to change. Since we have free will, it’s our choice.

When we believe in Christ and receive new life, we are instructed to “put to death” our old sinful ways. “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, …not on earthly things…Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:1a,2,5) “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed…” (Colossians 2:8-10)

A friend of mine, who is a Christian, had a problem with these scriptures telling her to “put off” anger and un-loving feelings. She wanted to obey the Lord but her feelings of anger kept hanging around. As a child she had enjoyed a close loving relationship with her mother. But since she had become an adult, her mother had continually criticized her and put her down. Her mother did not seem to like the person that she had become as an adult. She twisted and turned in the wind trying to please her mother and regain her mother’s love, but her mother continued lashing out at her with unkind remarks and encouraging her grown son to do the same.

“How can I “put off” my feelings of anger toward my mother?” she asked the Lord. “Help me feel the way You want me to feel Lord. Give me the ability to love my mother and not always be so frustrated and angry with her.” She prayed. And then the Lord who promises always to be near and help us in our troubles spoke to my friend in that still small voice.

She tells us that first the Lord asked her to give her relationship with her mother to Him and to stop worrying about it. So she stopped and with tears let go of her troubled relationship with her mother and gave it to God. Then the Lord seemed to show her that her mother was not capable of being the loving mother that she wanted: that her mother had problems of her own that kept her from having a close relationship with her. God spoke to her heart and assured her that He would be a “Mother” to her and give her what her mother was unable to give. And then the Lord impressed on her heart that she should love her mother for the good things in the relationship that she still enjoyed and not take the many criticisms to heart.

My friend insists that her prayers were answered and that she was able to “put off” her anger toward her mother even though the criticisms continued. “God gave me the strength and power to not be angry,” she reported joyfully. “I quit counting on my mother to be what I had wanted her to be to me. I gave that up to the Lord. And God gave me the strength to love her and not let her criticisms upset me. God gave me that freedom. I could have never done that in my own strength,” she reported with a smile.

After we have been commanded to “put to death” the sinful desires in our lives and “take off” our old selves, then we are instructed to “clothe ourselves” with or “put on” our new selves. Here is what God asks us to “clothe ourselves” with or “put on”. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all of these virtues put on love…Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful and let the word of Christ dwell in you richly …” (Colossians 3:12-14b,15-16a)

Jesus has given us eternal life and He leaves instructions along with His gift. We are instructed to take off pride and put on humility, take off anger and malice and put on love and forgiveness, take off greed and selfishness and put on compassion and generosity. That’s a lot of “taking off” and “putting on” He is asking of us. But the good news is that we don’t have to do all of that by ourselves. God through the Holy Spirit will give us the power to “put on” the new life and “take off” the old one. (John 14:26, John 1:12, John 16:13 and 1 Cor. 2:10) All we have to do is be willing to follow!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Findinf God Is Like Falling In Love, Lessons from Song of Solomon

Finding God Is Like Falling In Love

Lessons from the Song of Solomon

We were having lunch with a Religious Studies professor from a local Christian college and for twenty minutes the professor had been discussing the importance of keeping our Christian doctrines pure. We Christians are proud of our moral code and of our belief system, he declared. We find God through the traditions and doctrines of the church that have been carefully passed down from generation to generation, he insisted. We must guard against any departures from the correct interpretations and we must continue to honor our rich heritage.

My eyes glazed over. The good professor lectured on but I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. Of course we shouldn’t allow heresies to creep into our faith. But it seemed to me that he was describing our living faith as a dry academic dogma! I sensed that he was comparing finding God to finding the correct answer to a problem? And all the time I felt like finding God was more like falling in love!

And I’m not the only one to wonder if perhaps the believer’s mysterious relationship with God is more like falling in love! Scripture tells us that believers are the bride and the body of Christ. (2 Corinthians 1-2) (1 Corinthians 10:16) And we read in the Bible about God’s great love for us and about the Holy Spirit wooing and drawing us to Him. (John 3:8and 16 and Acts 5:14) That sounds a bit like romance now doesn’t it? And when we turn to the Song of Solomon the whole book from beginning to end is about two lovers in love. Jewish scholars have long believed the Song of Solomon to be an allegory expressing the love relationship between God and His chosen people. And for centuries the Christian Church saw the book as reflecting the love between Christ and the Church.

The Song of Solomon begins with: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is better than wine. Because of the fragrance of your good ointments, Your name is an ointment poured forth: …”(Song of Solomon 1:2-3) And the rest of the book continues with the bride praising and romancing her bridegroom and the bridegroom praising and romancing his bride. The young couple is so deeply in love.

The bride proclaims: “…I sat down in his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting table and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with cakes or raisins; Refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.” And “I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me.” (Song of Solomon 2:3b-5 and Song of Solomon 7:10))

And the bridegroom answers: “You are all fair, my love, and there is no spot in you.” And “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse: You have ravished my heart with one look of your eyes, with one link of your necklace. How fair is your love, my sister, my spouse. How much better than wine is your love…. “ A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed….” (Song of Solomon 4:7, 9,10,12)

Since the bride is represented here in this love song as her bridegroom’s garden she exclaims: “”Awake. O north wind, and come, O south! Blow upon my garden that its spices may flow out. Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its pleasant fruits.” (Song of Solomon 4: 16) If the bride here is an allegory for the Church or the believer, could this verse represent the believer praying that the Holy Spirit (represented in Scripture as wind) blow into her life or give her power to bear the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc? Isn’t it true that the Holy Spirit lives in the believer and continually enables the believer to bear fruit? Fruit that will please our Lord.

The bridegroom answers: “I have come to my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey: I have drunk my wine with my milk.” And: “O my love, you are as beautiful as Tirzah. Lovely as Jerusalem. Awesome as an army with banners! Turn your eyes away from me, for they have overcome me.” (Song of Solomon 5:1a and 6:4-5a)

If the bridegroom here is an allegory for Christ and the bride represents the Church, or if it is God and His people, then these verses are telling us that somehow we matter deeply to our Lord, that He is in love with us and we are attractive to Him. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to take it all in.

If nothing else, the Song of Solomon teaches us that we don’t have all the answers when it comes to our relationship with the Lord. In the third chapter of Song of Solomon the bride is walking the streets at night looking for her bridegroom. She has lost him and is asking the watchmen of the city to help her find him. Like this anxious bride searching for her bridegroom, we too are not in control of our relationship with God! Sometimes He is elusive and seems to hide and there is no three step program to hurry Him back. Our spiritual life is a mystery. There is no easy formula to follow in being a Christian other than believing and obeying and listening for the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. We can’t put God in a box.

But God holds us and keeps us through the Holy Spirit in this sacred relationship, mysterious as it may be. When we have once found the Lord there is no where else to go. His love is the best and somehow we know it. The Song of Solomon tells of a night when the bride was looking for her bridegroom and the daughters of Jerusalem asked her why he was so special to her. “My beloved is handsome and ruddy, Chief among ten thousand,” she replies. (Song of Solomon 5:10) And soon after that she found her bridegroom and she exclaimed: “Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves. I held him and would not let him go…” (Song of Solomon 4:3)

The bride tells it like it is. There is no other. Her bridegroom is the best. She held him and would not let him go. And that is the way it is when we have a relationship with the Lord. There is an ecstasy in the relationship that is beyond compare. Finding God is like falling in love.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dem bones, Dem bones, Dem Dry Bones: Can These Bones Live?

Dem Bones, Dem bones, Dem Dry Bones:

Can These Bones Live?

An old Negro Spiritual, “Dem Bones” picks up on a really wild story in the Bible about a valley full of dry human bones scattered everywhere. The prophet Ezekiel is writing the story and he tells us that God carries him off and puts him down in the middle of a valley of bones. And as he is standing there looking over the piles of scattered bones, God asks him if he thinks the old bones could come to life! Ezekiel doesn’t know, he doesn’t have a clue. So God tells him to prophesy over the dry bones. Ezekiel prophesies and amazingly the bones rattle and rustle around and come back together into skeletons. Then flesh and muscles grows over the skeletons and dead people appear lying all around the valley where all the dry bones had been.

Then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again and ask breath to breathe into the dead people so that they might live. So Ezekiel obeys and prophesies again as God commanded him and the dead bodies come to life and stand up and become a large army of people. I told you it was a really wild story.

The story is from Ezekiel 37 and reads: “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ I said, ‘Oh Sovereign Lord, You alone know.’

Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath to enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin: I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath: prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath entered them: they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.

Then He said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone: we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Oh My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them. I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people will know that I am the Lord,…” (Ezekiel 37:1-13a)

The ten “lost” tribes of Israel were carried off into captivity by the Assyrians 2,700 years ago. Over the centuries they intermarried and lost their Jewish identity and were scattered throughout the world. Only the two tribes of Judah remained. No person in their right mind could believe that after nearly three millenniums those lost tribes from antiquity could be found and be put back together again! But in this story where old scattered bones are brought back together and breathed upon so that they become living people, God is proclaiming that He can and will do just that. With God nothing is impossible.

After Ezekiel finishes his story about the bones coming to life God gives him another picture lesson that says the same thing. – that none of the tribes of Israel will be lost forever. God has Ezekiel take two sticks and write the names of the two tribes of Judah on one stick and the names of the ten lost tribes of Israel on the other. Then God instructs Ezekiel to join the two sticks and hold them together in one hand as one and prophesy over them that they will all be one nation together again in their own land and they will give up their sins and serve God. (Ezekiel 37:15-27) Of course this perfect vision may not happen until Jesus comes again. But according to Gods’ Word it will happen!

The miracle of the bones coming to life is a promise made by God just for Israel isn’t it? Don’t some of the rest of us need a miracle from God too? We have children who have gone wrong or health issues that drag us down. Money problems that never stop or betrayals that we never expected. We’ve waited a long time for answers and finally all our dreams have dried up and scattered and all our hope is dead. We have our own personal valley of dry bones!

But God has made us some promises too! He has promised to breathe new life into the dry bones and valleys of our lives. Let’s listen to just a few of His many promises to us. “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.” (Psalm 145:18) “And all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer believing, you shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22) “Whatever you ask in My Name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13) “Exceeding great and precious promises have been given to us that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) and “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be My witness…” (Acts 1:8)

God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy over the dry bones first before He brought them back to life. And God tells us to pray in faith over our problems and then He will answer. Isn’t it amazing that we are privileged to be co-workers with God. Our prayers and our faith are important to God. He has chosen to use them in His work.

Scripture says that whatever we ask in prayer believing we will receive. That’s a pretty heavy promise. But sometimes we keep praying and believing and praying and believing and nothing seems to happen. Years pass by and still the answer doesn’t come. The dry bones in our valleys are still scattered and dead.

Let’s keep praying and believing. Let’s remember that the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley aren’t living yet, even though Ezekiel saw the miracle ahead of time. That promise to Israel may not be fulfilled until the end of the age. That may be a long time to wait. And some of our prayers may not be answered until after we die. We may have a long time to wait too. But our prayers will be answered. God will breathe new life into our dry bones. We need to keep the faith.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Year of Jubilee

The Year of Jubilee

When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, He also gave him commands as to how the Israelites were to manage their farms and vineyards, their businesses and their real estate. If God gave these commands to us today we would have to forget everything we know about business, farming and real estate and start all over again! What God commanded His people to do is mind blowing!

First of all God promised to generously and continually give material blessings to His people if they would try to obey His commands. All He asked them in return was to trust Him with all of their needs and to follow His example and give generously to the needy in their midst. God’s generosity to His people would set them free to pass on that generosity to everybody around them and especially to those in need.

First of all God commanded His people to rest from all of their work every seventh day. Not only were the Israelites to rest, but their workers and their animals were to have the day off too. Notice how God cared about how they treated the animals too! One of the Ten Commandments reads: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. …” (Exodus 20:8)

In that agrarian society 3,500 years ago, most of the Israelites were farmers. God instructed the Israelites to work on their farms and vineyards for six years and then to take a years’ vacation the seventh year and let the land rest. This is what the Lord ordered. “When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather your crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.” (Leviticus 25:2b-5)

I can just imagine that if God instructed all of our farmers to stop farming one whole year out of every seven we would have a fit. “Surely we won’t have enough to eat,” we would insist. And I think the Israelites wondered if they would have enough to eat if they took the year off work. But God wanted His people to let go and trust Him to provide for their needs. Here is what God told Moses to tell the people: “You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops? I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.” (Leviticus 15: 20-22)

God added: “But during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:11b) God would bless His people so abundantly that they could feed the poor among them and the wild animals. Also God’s people were instructed during harvest time to leave a portion of their crops for the poor and the hungry to take. They were to look after each other, give to anyone who asked for help. They were to have time to rest and recharge, listen to God and enjoy life. No tight penny pinching folks in God’s group!

And if these amazing commands weren’t enough, God commanded His people to proclaim the Year of Jubilee every fifty years. Every fifty years trumpets would sound and liberty would be proclaimed throughout the land. All debt would be canceled and all the slaves would be freed! All land that had been sold would be given back to the original owner. If the Jewish nation obeyed God and observed the Year of Jubilee, the poor would be given a fresh start and those who had been forced to sell their land or their homes would get them back. The rich wouldn’t become richer on the backs of the poor in God’s economy.

And real estate was conducted differently than it is today. God instructed them: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.” (Leviticus 25:23) God’s people were given the use of the land. They were managers of the land but not owners. God was the sole owner and landlord of all the land.

If a Jewish person fell into hard times and had to sell his land, the price would be calculated on how many seasons were left for growing crops until the Year of Jubilee. No real estate sale was ever permanent since Jubilee cancelled all sales. The land would be worth much more if thirty years remained before Jubilee than if just ten years were left. The land was valued by how many years were left to plant and harvest crops before the land would be returned to the original owner!

God continued to remind His people to take care of the poor and sick and disadvantaged in their midst. He warns them that He will not bless them it they forget the poor. “Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 27:19) And God forbids His people from charging interest when they loan money to one another. “Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, …You must not lend money at interest or sell him food at a profit for I am the Lord your God,…” Leviticus 25:36-37)

Life for us today in this global economy is vastly different from what it was for the ancient Israelites of Moses’ day. For one thing ancient Israel was supposed to be a theocracy. All of the Israelites were supposed to worship the one true God, whereas in our democratic society we have freedom of religion and all religions are represented. We are an individualistic society whereas ancient Israel was very communal. God’s instructions for those ancient people would not speak to how we do business today. But what lessons can we take from those ancient commands? And how does God want us to do our business today?

For one thing God wanted justice and equity for ancient Israel and He wants that for us today too. God wanted a kinder and gentler society then and He wants that for us today. We live in a competitive and individualistic culture today where there are winners and losers. Even our games are highly competitive. God never encouraged His people to be competitive or to try to get ahead of the pack. Instead God taught His children to work for the common good, and to take care of one another.

We live in a materialistic culture today where the gross national product is valued above everything else. We will sell our souls for the bottom line. The productivity of the average worker has been pushed to the breaking point so that maximum profits can be earned. Frantic workers are often stressed to the breaking point trying to reach their quotas. Employees work harder and longer with less time off. Cut throat tactics are regularly used in the workplace and loyalty is a thing of the past. Jobs are sent overseas and faithful long term workers are fired and replaced with cheaper labor in order to save a few bucks. And some even dare to call these maneuvers Christian!

So we may feel a tinge of jealousy when we read God’s ancient commands in Scripture calling His beloved children to celebrate the Year of Jubilee! Instead of pushing His people for more production, God instructed them to leave part of their harvest for the poor and the wild animals. Instead of teaching His children how to manipulate the stock market, God commanded them not to charge interest when they made loans and to cancel all debt every fifty years. Instead of working them harder, God told His children to take a year off, celebrate and trust Him to provide for their needs.

Maybe in our rush to get ahead, we have done it all backwards after all. We think we are better off financially but we may have paid a price spiritually. Perhaps we can stop and ask God to lead us back to a kinder and gentler way of living. And perhaps we can learn something after all from those lessons given so long ago concerning the Year of Jubilee.