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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Rejoice, the Lord is King Psalm 99


Rejoice, the Lord is King
Psalm 99
 
Psalm 99 starts right out with these words: “The Lord Reigns!”  This declaration is central to all of the Bible and to our Christian faith.  “The Lord reigns” and the words that follow call His children to stand in awe before Him and worship Him.  Let’s read this short Psalm.
 
Psalm 99:   (1)“The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble: He sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. (2) Great is the Lord.  In Zion, He is exalted over all the nations.  (3) Let us praise your great and awesome Name.  He is holy.”
 
(4) “The King is mighty, He loves justice.  You have established fairness.  In Jacob, You have done what is just and right.  (5) Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His footstool.  He is holy!”
 
(6) “Moses and Aaron were among His priests, Samuel was among those who called on His Name.  They called on the Lord and He answered them.  (7) He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud. They kept His statutes and the decrees He gave them. (8) O Lord our God, You answered them. You were to Israel a forgiving God, though You punished their misdeeds.  (9) Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy!” 
 
We notice in this Psalm that each paragraph ends with the words, “He is holy!” or “the Lord our God is holy!”  His holiness is only one of many marks of His kingship. Our God is a many splendored King.  His holiness and His righteousness, His goodness, forgiveness, and His abundant love are all important marks of His divine kingship! 
 
God is the all-powerful Creator of the universe, which is another mark of His kingship. And He is the One who rules over chaos.  For ancient people, chaos among the nations or people was symbolized by the unruly waves of the sea.  Much of God’s work in creation dealt with calming or taming of the seas.  The Lord rules over the chaotic waters!  Jesus can calm the storms. (Matthew 8:23-27) His power and control are more marks of His divine kingship! 
 
The image of God as king also supports His image as a Protector, Shepherd and Warrior. Throughout the Bible God is referred to as a “Warrior” because He fights against evil and because He protects His people against their enemies.  (Revelations 17:14, Ephesians 6:11-17, 1 Timothy 1:18, 2 Timothy 2:3-4, James 4:1-2, Exodus 15:3)
 
The second part of Psalm 99 (verses 4-5) declares that the Lord “loves justice”.  Scripture declares that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.” (Psalm 97:2b) Other Psalms, (Psalm 96:13 and 98:9) speak about God’s judgment over the whole world.  Psalm 99 describes God as the ruler over all the nations” (verse 2)
 
All through the Bible, God is spoken of as our Judge. This is another mark of His kingship.  As Judge, final judgment and punishment and the structure of the universe are left to God.  Because we humans are sinful and often unable to judge with fairness, it is good news that our Judge and King who is in charge of judgment will be merciful, loving, forgiving (Psalm 99:8) and fair.  If we are followers of Christ we will be covered with His righteousness and we will inherit eternal life. (John 3:16)
 
We humans will always be ruled by something.  As Christians, we believe, as Psalm 99 declares, that God is our ruler and king as well as our heavenly Father.  But if we do not believe in God as our ruler and king then we may allow the values of the culture or the delusions about our human wisdom to rule us instead.  If we do not accept God as our ruler, then we will be ruled by something else! And it won’t be good. Scripture says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
 
Some folks will argue that if the kingdom of God exists and if God is king, then we wouldn’t be having wars, shootings, terrorist attacks, sickness, child abuse, etc.  There are times when the presence of the kingdom of God is hard to discern in this troubled world. In the Bible, the kingdom of God is compared to the tiny mustard seed. (Mark 4:31) And to yeast hidden in dough. (Matthew 13:33) And to buried treasure in a field. ((Matthew 13:44)
 
Not all of the kingdom of God has yet been revealed.  Some parts are “now” and others are “not yet.”  Scripture says: “We see through a glass darkly, but then face to face, now we know in part but then we shall know even as we are known. “ (1 Corinthians 13:12)  The kingdom in part is our present reality.  But the kingdom complete will be our future reality.
 
The problems and tragedies of today are not the last word.   We humans are still in charge of much that happens in our world.  Scripture says that God gave Adam and Eve (mankind) dominion (We can rule) over the earth.  (Genesis 1:26-29, and Chapter 2) But the Day will come when Christ returns and the world will be ruled by God!  One verse of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” is taken from Revelation 11:15 and declares: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.”. 
 
We Christians believe that the kingdom of God will come. Scripture says: “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, and the rough places plain.”  (Isaiah 40:4) The belief in heaven where God rules and we are in Christ, gives us blessed hope and that belief changes and purifies us according to Scripture.  (1 John 3:2-3) We are delving into mysteries we don’t understand here. Our faith is a holy mystery.  
 
 Not to believe or have the hope of this future kingdom of heaven leads us to despair and hopelessness.  We Christians wait for the fullness of God’s kingdom.  Scripture says “He (Christ) must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:25-26) We Christians can join with the writer of Psalm 99 and many other Psalms and shout triumphantly, “The Lord Reigns”. 
 
Many of the ideas in this blog were taken from Jerome F.D. Creech’s booklet “Psalms” Interpretation Bible Studies.
 
 
 
 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Prayer that Does Not Quit


 Prayer that Does Not Quit
 
The Bible tells us that when we wait a long time for our prayers to be answered we should not become discouraged.  We should not give up but keep on waiting and praying and believing for God to answer.  God hears us the first time we ask. But perhaps our faith is developed more during those times when we must wait for the answer.  Our timing isn’t always God’s timing. And sometimes we are called to wait for a very long time!
 
God loves to answer our prayers and give us good things.  Scripture says: “Ask and it will be given to you: Seek, and you will find: Knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)  Our prayers are very important because we need to ask in order to receive. Many of our prayers are answered quickly.  But some are not. 
 
Jesus tells a parable meant to encourage us to keep on praying and waiting for God’s answer. His parable is about the widow who wouldn’t quit asking.  (Luke 18:1-6) Jesus begins his story by telling of a judge who didn’t fear God or respect people.  And of a widow who needed protection from an enemy who was harming her. This widow with the problem came to the difficult judge asking for help.  But the judge refused to hear her case.  Jesus continues his story saying that the widow did not’ lose heart when the judge didn’t answer her.  She just kept coming back to the judge asking again and again for him to help her. Tiring him out with her pleas and bothering him with her begging. Finally, the judge was so worn down by this persistent widow that he gave her what she asked for – just to get her off his back.
 
 Jesus’ story teaches us not to give up when our prayers are not answered quickly. To keep on asking and believing. Jesus’ point is that if an unjust judge can be worn down, how much more will a just and loving God do for us when we keep coming to Him with our requests? Jesus said: “Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off?  I tell you He will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18:7-8)
 
Another story in the Bible tells of how God values a person who follows after Him and won’t give up or take “no” for an answer. This mysterious story takes place at night in the wilderness.  Jacob will meet his brother, Esau the next day and he is afraid of his brother.  Esau had threatened to kill Joseph years before and now Esau is coming to see Jacob with an army of fighting men.  Jacob leaves his large family and his flocks of sheep and goats and goes off alone to be with God.  This is how the story is told in Scripture.
 
“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him all night until daybreak.  When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip, so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.  Then the man said to Jacob, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’.  But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’.  The man asked Jacob, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob’, he answered.
 
Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but your name will be Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.’  Jacob said, ’Please tell me your name.’ The man replied, ’Why do you ask me my name?’  The he blessed Jacob there.”.  (Genesis 32:24-29) 
 
The name “Israel” means “He who struggles with God.”  This was to be Jacob’s new name.  God was very pleased with Jacob because he held on and wouldn’t give up. And the Lord will be pleased with us if we hold on and refuse to stop believing. Jacob wrestled with the angel of God all night and he would not let him go until he would give him a blessing.  Sometimes we must be like Jacob and fight all through our earthly night, holding on to the Lord and telling Him, “I will not let you go until You bless me.”
 
We are told in Hosea 12:4 that when Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, he wept and asked for a blessing and prayed. These were his weapons. Jacob had many faults and weaknesses, but God seemed to be pleased with him perhaps because he held on to God and would not let Him go. Scripture says that Jacob was “A Prince of God”.  And he was also one of the Patriarchs of Israel.
 
We don’t believe that Jacob wrestled in his own strength but in the strength given to him from God.  We cannot prevail with God without the strength He gives us to prevail.  Prayer requires a commitment. But it is work in the Spirit that accomplishes great things here on earth. And sometimes we, like Jacob, may also need to struggle with God for the blessings He wants to give us.  And God does want to bless us and answer our prayers. 
 
We sometimes think that we won’t have serious troubles in our lives if God is there blessing us.  But God blessed Jacob and he still had his share of troubles. Shortly after that night when he struggled with the Angel of God and received God’s blessing, Jacobs’ wife, Rachel, died in childbirth, breaking his heart.  His favorite son, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his own brothers, (Jacob’s other children) and for many years poor Jacob mourned and grieved believing that his son Joseph was dead.  Jacobs other sons lied to their father and covered up the fact that they had sold their brother Joseph into slavery.
 
Several of Jacob’s sons ran through a neighboring village killing all of the men and stealing their women and animals.  Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, had sex with Jacob’s concubine.  You get the picture that Jacob, a man blessed by God, had troubles in his family life.
God’s blessing to Jacob did not keep him from normal human problems. But God can even take the bad things that come into our lives and work them out for good.  Years after Jacob’s beloved son, Joseph was sold into slavery, a terrible famine occurred all over the land.
 
By then, Joseph was no longer a slave but he had become a ruler in Egypt and he was able to save his father, Jacob and all of his brothers and their families from starvation during this famine by bringing them to Egypt and feeding them from the stockpiles of food that he had stored for Egypt.  Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery.  He told his brothers that the evil that they had done to him was turned around for good by God.  Since his brothers sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, with God’s help, Joseph was able many years later to become a ruler in Egypt and to be in a position to save his whole family from starvation during the famine.     
 
I believe that Jacob’s blessing was spiritual. God made a covenant or a promise to be with Jacob (Israel) and with his children (the Israelites) as long as they tried to obey His laws. If they worshipped other gods or seriously broke God’s commands then God did not promise to bless them.  God promises to be with us and bless us if we believe in Christ as Savior and try to follow His laws.  
 
Scripture says: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  (Psalm 37:4) If we delight ourselves in the Lord then we will desire what He wants.  So when we pray according to His will we can know that He will answer that prayer.  We have His Word.
 
Even if the answer takes longer to come than we may hope. We can still have peace while we are waiting because we know that the answer is on the way. And we can picture our answer and thank God that it is ours, even though we can’t see it yet. And keep on believing and keep on thanking God.  Until that day when our miracle arrives and our faith finally becomes sight!im

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Put off Your Old Self and Put on Your New Self


Put off Your Old Self and Put on Your New Self
How Christ’s followers are called to live
 
As a person takes off dirty clothes and puts on new clean ones, so we Christian are called upon to renounce our sins and to try to live according to Gods’ laws. Scripture says: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.  And to be made new in the attitude of your minds: and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”  (Ephesians 4:22-24) 
 
“When we believe in Christ as Savior and Lord and want to follow Him, the Bible proclaims that a miracle happens and we become a “new creation”.  Scripture says: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are gone and the new things have come.!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17)  
 
Scripture also says: “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you (your old self) has died, and your life is now hidden in Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life appears, you will also appear with Him in glory. Therefore, put to death whatever belongs to your old earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”  (Colossians 3:1-5)
 
What a mystery!  Our lives have been raised with Christ and hidden in Him!  We will appear with Him in glory!  (Colossians 3:1-5) We can only imagine what all of this means! These glimpses behind the curtain between here and eternity are all so glorious.  It is more than we can understand!  But since we believers have been given a new life in Christ and such a high honor by our heavenly Father- the honor of being “raised with Christ”, we are asked to do our small part.  To take off the old and put on what is new. 
 
We are asked to do some housecleaning.  To leave behind old sins: any sexual immorality or greed or lust. The list goes on.  Scripture continues saying: “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 one another as you have taken off your old self.”  (Colossians 3:8-9)
 
Paul, inspired by God, writes: “You must no longer live as the Gentiles (non-believers) live in the futility of their thinking.  They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.  Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity with a continual lust for even more. You did not come to know Christ this way.” (Ephesians 4:17-20) 
 
The list of sins goes on.  “In your anger do not sin.  Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.  He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up…and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you are sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:26-31)
 
New believers in Christ are given more rules too.  Christians are commanded to forgive those who sin against them. The Ten Commandments are also meant for God’s people to follow.  You can find them in Exodus 20:3-17 Briefly they command us to: (1) Put God first and love Him most.  (2) Do not make any graven images (idols) and worship them. (3)  Do not take the Name of the Lord in vain.  (4) Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Rest on the Sabbath and worship God. (5)  Honor your fathers and mothers. (6)   Do not kill. (7) Do not commit adultery. (8) Do not steal. (9) Do not give false testimony against your neighbor. And (10) Do not covet what others have.  Covet means “lust after”.  When a person becomes a Christian he or she is called on to follow Christ and to turn away from sin and try to keep God’s laws. 
 
And after we have taken off our old dirty clothes we can put on our robes of righteousness. (Matthew 22:1-14) (Jesus is our righteousness) (Isaiah 61:10) Scripture says: “Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with one another 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, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:12-14) 
 
The instructions concerning our new clean clothing continues: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, such as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ live in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”  (Colossians 3:15-17)   All through Scripture Jesus promises us that He will give us His peace.  But we need to be willing to clean out our junk and make room in our lives to receive Jesus’ promised special peace. 
 
Because we believers receive the Holy Spirit into our lives, we can also receive what the Holy Spirit wants to give us. And Scripture says the Holy Spirit has nine “fruits” and He wants to give us these “fruits” or gifts when He comes into our lives.  But of course, we can reject these fruits the Spirit has for us. We always have free will.  Scripture says: “The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. “ (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
Scripture goes on to say: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25)   How does a person “keep step with the Spirit”? I have known Christians who don’t show much love or joy or peace.  They don’t seem to have grown much in the faith or be “keeping step with the Spirit.”  And I have known many other Christians that radiate Christ’s love. Their faces are changed. They show Christ’s peace and joy and they live good and faithful lives. How does a Christian “keep step with the Spirit”? Or put on their “new self”?
 
Scripture answers this question with these words: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24) To “crucify our sinful nature” that sounds pretty radical, doesn’t it?   We must kill it – not feed it – resist it, not play its game. It isn’t always easy to take off our old dirty clothes.  The Holy Spirit will give us the strength to turn from our sin, but we have to be willing to let it go.  It’s an on-going battle.  But Scripture says that in the end we will be victorious in Christ.      
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Magnificent Tree with Birds Nesting in its Branches


A Magnificent Tree With Birds Nesting in Its Branches
 
When Jesus wasn’t loving and healing people, He was telling stories.  And many of His stories were about seeds and plants. One of His shortest stories or parables was the parable of a little seed growing up into a very big tree.  Here from Scripture is Jesus’ parable of the seed becoming a tree: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it becomes a large tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”  (Matthew 13:31-32) 
 
Jesus’ told His parables to teach lessons, and I believe this little parable teaches us that this small seed planted in the ground doesn’t look like much in the beginning!  At first this seed, the body of Christ, the gospel, His Church, would start out small.  But then it would take root and spread and grow and multiply and spread love and life. And the gates of hell could not prevail against it.
 
The follower of Christ, the farmer, dutifully spreads his gospel seeds around as he has been commissioned to do. (Matthew 28:19-20 and Matthew 13:1-23) The heat and the mosquitos, the snakes and bugs and wild animals, the bad weather, diseases and robbers all can come against him as he goes about his holy work. He plants the seeds in tears but later he will reap the harvest with joy! He will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. Scripture says: “He who goes out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:5-6) To be given the privilege of spreading these magical seeds and then watching for the spiritual harvest of souls is indeed a joy beyond description! 
 
The mighty Wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing these mystical seeds where it wishes.  And we can-not tell where it is coming from or where it is going. (John 3:8) Gospel seeds blowing in the Wind, alive and powerful! Spreading love and peace and joy and mercy and salvation as they blow around the world turning darkness into Light wherever they go.
 
You plant a tiny seed and you get a huge tree! When the Church grows into full maturity it is like a great tree where the birds of the air nest in its branches.  People all over the world come to this mystery tree for food and rest, shade and shelter, love and mercy and new life!  It’s over the top! And Jesus is the trunk of the mystical tree.  The trunk brings nourishment and life to the branches and connects them to one another. And His people are the branches. This majestic tree will eventually spread throughout the whole world!  The Bible tells us that this is what the kingdom of God is like! 
 
Right after Jesus tells this little parable He tells another one that teaches the same lesson.  The lesson that Gods’ Word, His kingdom, will spread throughout the world.  The seeds will take root and grow.  Here is Jesus’ second parable with a similar meaning as the first one.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all the way through the dough.”  (Matthew 13:33) 
 
In the Bible, yeast usually symbolizes that which is evil or unclean. (Mark 8:15) But here, it is a symbol of growth.  As yeast permeates a batch of dough, so the kingdom of heaven spreads through a person’s life and through the world. The followers of Christ by their preaching have hidden a handful of leaven in the great mass of mankind, and it has had a wonderful effect. it puts the world into a ferment, and in a sense turns it upside down. (Acts 17:6) 
 
The Holy Spirit works a change – a universal change.  It diffuses itself into all the powers and faculties of the soul.  The world doesn’t understand because the kingdom of God is a mystery that only those who follow the Lord can view through a glass darkly sometimes. Only those who ask and believe can see glimmers of this holy mystery.
 
We plant the seeds of God’s Word and we reap a bountiful harvest! The Bible says that “God’s Word will not return to Him empty.”  (Isaiah 55:11)   The powerful seeds of the gospel are alive.  Alive in our life and alive in the world! The yeast of the gospel will spread through the whole loaf of life and change it forever.
 
Other religions around the world worship God but they all follow the teachings of their various leaders who are all dead now: Mohammed/Islam, Buddha/Buddhist, the sages who wrote the Vedas/Hinduism, and others. Followers of these religions follow teachings of dead men from long ago. The Christian religion is the only faith that follows the teachings of a living Lord and Son of God, Jesus Christ.
 
The Spirit of Christ (Holy Spirit) is in each of His followers alive and growing and guiding our lives, like seeds sprouting into living trees. All of the other religions of the world teach their followers that their good works will earn them a place in heaven or paradise or Nirvana. Only the Christian faith offers salvation as a free gift to be received by faith in Christ.
 
We serve a risen Savior who promises to be with us and guide us in our journey through life. God’s kingdom has nothing to do with common sense, but it is extraordinary, miraculous, unexpected! Surprising! Over the top!  
 
A magnificent tree whose branches spread across the whole world where the birds of the air nest in its branches.  People all around the world come to this mystical tree for food and rest, shade and shelter, mercy and new life. And we are part of this glorious tree. Jesus tells us that this is what the kingdom of God is like!
 
 
 



 
 

 
 
 
 




Saturday, July 22, 2017

How Many Times Should We Forgive?


How Many Times Should We Forgive?
 
“How many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” Peter asked Jesus.  “Should I forgive him up to seven times?”  And Jesus answered Peter with these words: “I tell you, not seven times, but seven times seventy.”  (Matthew 18: 21-22) I think that was Jesus’ way of saying that we should just always keep on forgiving and not keep records of how many times we forgive.
 
God, who gave his Son for us, reveals Himself as merciful.  Like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, God our heavenly Father is always ready to welcome any of his wayward children when they take a step that leads towards home.  To follow the way of the Lord, Christians are called on to pour their mercy over all of those who recognize themselves as sinners, and who feel the need for forgiveness. 
 
Scripture says: “For God did not send His Son (Jesus) into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”  (John 2:17) And we Christians are to follow His example. In his book about mercy Pope Francis writes:” The Church does not exist to condemn people but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.”  He goes on to say that “…the Church’s deeply maternal and merciful side, is a Church that goes forth toward those who are “wounded”, who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness, and love.” 
 
Someone asked Pope Francis if God can forgive and extend mercy to a person who is not sorry for his or her sins. Here is part of his answer.  Pope Francis answers that mercy is there, but if a person doesn’t want to receive it, doesn’t recognize himself or herself as a sinner, it means that he doesn’t feel the need for it. The Pope believes that there is a narcissistic illness that makes people bitter. That there is pleasure in feeling bitter. The person may rationalize why they sinned, or not believe that there is anything wrong with their sin in the first place.  They can even be proud of their sin. 
 
The Pope answers that it is easier for us to want God’s forgiveness and be sorry for our sins when we are humble.  When we remember where we come from.  That we come from dust.  He insists that it is important that we not think of ourselves as self-sufficient.  For Scripture says: “In Him (God) we live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28) Without God we would be nothing!
 
Pope Francis speaks out against religious leaders who are scholars of the law but forget to be the shepherds of God’s people.  These scholars of the law who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love: people who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries.  He rails out against proud judgmental people who formally adhere to rules and to mental schemes.  
 
 He believes that some very religious people feel that they own the doctrine and the power of their faith and they close themselves off from God’s surprises.  He warns us to always leave an open door for the sinner. He adds that “a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners and thus meet Jesus.”   
 
The Pope goes on to explain the importance of repentance.  The necessity for all of us humans to acknowledge our sins.  He says that God forgives anyone who is repentant and He showers His mercy on everyone who asks for it.  We humans are often the ones who do not know how to forgive. 
 
Pope Francis says that there is a difference between a regular sinner and a corrupt person.  He goes on to say that the sinner who sins again and again and keeps coming back to ask for forgiveness, is forgiven and accepted by God.  But the corrupt person is the one who does not repent and who believes that he or she is just fine sinning and doing things his own way.  The corrupt person is not humble and he does not believe that he needs God’s help. 
 
Pope Francis warns against the evils of corruption and says these words: “We must not accept the state of corruption as if it were just another sin, even though corruption is often identified with sin. In fact, they are two distinct realities.” He continues with these words: “Corruption is not an act but a condition, a personal and social state in which we become accustomed to living.  The corrupt person is so closed off and contented in the complacency of his self-sufficiency that he does not allow himself to be called into question by anything or anyone.” But the pope insists: “God can find His way into the hearts of the corrupt and grant them the grace of shame, the grace to recognize themselves as sinners in need of His forgiveness. “
 
We live in a society that teaches us that we should be self- sufficient and proud of ourselves.  But as followers of Christ we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. And now we march to a different drummer and follow a different logic. As Christians we are in the world but not of it (John 17:16)   Scripture also says: “If anyone is in Christ he/she is a new creation; the old has gone, and the new has come!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17) The rules of the kingdom of heaven are often backwards from our worldly rules. But we believers in Christ are given the Holy Spirit to guide us in the ways of this new logic. God’s logic of love.
 
As citizens of the heavenly kingdom we are to live in the presence of God, turn the other cheek, and imitate God’s mercy.  We are born again into this heavenly kingdom and Jesus has given us new ways of living.  “Give to the one who asks and do not turn your back on the one who wants to borrow.” (Matthew 5:42) and “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Gods’ logic is different from the world’s logic.  His logic is an over-abundance of mercy and love. 
 
Jesus does not send us out as His disciples to be holders of power or judgmental law givers.  His kingdom is not political but spiritual! We cannot serve God and money both. (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13) Jesus sends us out into the world to live in the logic of love and selflessness.  We are to pass on the message of Christ by embracing the outcast and the sinners and the marginalized.  The serve the lost and the least.
 
The world’s logic is money, sex and power. But God’s logic is the over-abundance of mercy and love.  We can’t serve both the world’s logic and God’s.  We have to make a choice.  God calls us to  get involved and open our hearts.  The world will know we are Christians by our love.  (John 13:35) “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” (words of Saint John of the Cross)
 
This blog was taken from Pope Francis’s book “The name of God is Mercy”
 
 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What Place Does Mercy Have in Your Life?


What Place Does Mercy Have in Your Life?
 
I read Pope Francis’ book “The Name of God is Mercy” and I was blessed by this book.  So I would like to share some of his deep thoughts concerning mercy with you. The Pope starts out by saying that mercy is God’s identity because He gives Himself to us, accepts us and promises to forgive if we repent.  Since mercy is part of who God is, He remains faithful to us even when we are very unfaithful because God cannot deny himself.  We are to be children of our merciful Father and follow in His forgiving footsteps.  
 
When Pope Francis was asked what mercy means for himself personally, he answered that when he is having trouble forgiving a person’s sins he remembers his own sins. The text from Ezekiel  16 teaches us to feel shame, he says. And we learn to confess our sins when we are ashamed. He believes that the tragedy of our age is that it has lost its sense of sin and shame. 
 
Pope Francis talks about the gift of confession.  1 John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Pope Francis states: “Sin is a wound: it needs to be treated, healed.”  If we are not ashamed of our sins, we will not confess them to God and receive this gift of cleansing and healing.  So that is why the gift of shame is so valuable to us.   Scripture does not teach us that God extends His mercy when we are not sorry for our sin!
 
The Pope says that there were times in the past when he as a priest would be listening to the confessions of members of his church, and he would worry that he could not offer God’s forgiveness.  A priest cannot forgive the sins of the one who is confessing unless that one says that he or she is sorry for their sin. The Pope said: “As a confessor, even when I found myself before a locked door (someone who may not be sorry for their sin)  I have always tried to find a crack, just a tiny opening so that I can pry open that door and grant forgiveness and mercy.”  The Pope adds: “When in doubt, decisions should be made in favor of the person being judged.”
 
Then the Pope tells the story of a priest who was listening to the confession of a young German soldier who was about to be sentenced to death by the French partisans.  The soldier confesses his love of women and the many amorous adventures he had had.  The young priest explains that he has to repent to obtain forgiveness and absolution.  The soldier answers, “How can I repent?  It was something that I enjoyed, and if I had the chance I would do it again, even now.  How can I repent? 
 
The priest who wants to absolve the soldier has a stroke of inspiration and asks, “But are you sorry that you are not sorry?”  The young man answers impulsively, “Yes, I am sorry that I am not sorry.”  In other words, he apologizes for not repenting.  The door was opened just a crack, allowing absolution to come in… “ 
 
Then Pope Francis adds: “That story is a good example of the lengths to which God goes to enter the heart of man, to find that small opening that will permit him to grant grace.  God does not want anyone to be lost.  His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins, his medicine is infinitely stronger than our illnesses that He has to heal.”   
 
Pope Francis talks about Peter and how he denies knowing his Lord Jesus three times the night when Jesus was taken prisoner before He was crucified. The next morning Peter weeps bitterly and feels terribly ashamed for denying his Lord. And yet, despite Peter’s sin, Jesus forgives and still asks Peter to “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16) Even though Peter betrayed Jesus, he was chosen.  That example is encouraging for those who serve God and tend His sheep even though they are reclaimed sinners. It shows us God’s mercy for us since He forgives and chooses us to serve even after we have sinned.  Can we not follow His example and extend mercy when people sin against us?
 
Pope Francis believes that God is not only a God of mercy but also a God of justice.  But God’s mercy goes beyond His justice, the Pope proclaims. Because of original sin, our whole humanity is wounded.  But the God of justice, our heavenly Father, didn’t judge us with only the strict rule of justice, He also added mercy to his justice and He went way beyond and sacrificed his Son to redeem us and heal our wound.  The Catholic church celebrates the guilt of our forefathers (that original sin of Adam and Eve) as a “felix culpa”, which translated into English is the “happy fault”.  The fault (our sin) is happy because it deserved such a redemption. 
 
We most likely know the story of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-31) The younger son of two brothers asked his father for his half of the inheritance and then the son left home and went far away to the big city where he wasted all of his father’s money on bad living, liquor and wild women.  Finally, when the younger son had no more money, in order to survive he was forced to take a job feeding hogs and he ate some of the food he fed the hogs.  The young son hit bottom and was ashamed of his reckless living and decided to go back home to his father and ask if he could be one of his father’s servants.  The boy felt that he did not deserve anything better after he had messed up his life and his fathers too.
 
Every day the boy had been gone the father, with a heavy heart, had looked down the long road hoping to see if perhaps his wayward son might be returning.  How the father had missed his boy! And then one day the father saw a person coming down the long road.  Could it be his son?  The father’s heart was pounding! The father started running to the son when he was still a long way off. 
 
The father was crying and breathless when he reached his son and he immediately threw his arms around his son and kissed him.  “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The boy tried to say to his father.  But the father didn’t hear a word.  “Go bring a robe and sandals for my son and put rings on his fingers.” The father shouted to his servants.  “Kill the fatted calf and we will throw a party tonight to celebrate my son’s homecoming!! My son was lost and now he is found! “
 
That night when the older son came home from working all day in his father’s fields, he wondered why he could hear music and partying coming from his father’s house.  He asked one of the servants and learned that his younger no good brother had come home and his father was throwing a big celebration in his honor! The good older son was furious! 
 
This faithful, hardworking older son refused to go in the house and join the party.  He stayed outside fuming.  The father went out and begged him to come in but the older son answered his father,” All these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him.”  
 
The older son is right.  He speaks the truth. But it seems that the truth isn’t enough.  Being right still doesn’t bring the family back together. But at the same time the older son disqualifies himself.  Pope Francis says that the good faithful older son disqualifies himself! Why is that?  How can it be?
 
The older son in our Bible story represents the “law.”  The father by law should have punished the sinful younger son.  But the father’s love for the younger son represents “grace”.  Only grace can bring the family back together.
 
The older son represents “justice.”  The older son was legally right.  His younger brother did not deserve to be received back home with a celebration.  But the father’s love for the younger son represents “mercy”.  Our broken families and our wounded world will not survive if “justice’ is the last word.  But when “mercy” follows justice the miracle occurs!  Mercy will make it happen every time!
 
The ideas and quotes in this blog were taken from Pope Francis’s book, “The Name of God is Mercy”.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

What is True Faith?


What is True Faith?
 
Everywhere in Scriptures we read about how important our faith is to God.  Hebrews 11:6 says: “Without “faith” it is impossible to please God.”  And having a viable faith is important to us too since Scripture says that we live our lives by “faith”. Romans 1:17 says that “The just shall live by faith.”  These are just two passages out of many thousands in the Bible that deal with this all-important thing called “faith”.  But what is “faith”? What does Biblical faith look like?
 
We Western Christians may have a problem understanding all that the Bible means when it speaks of “faith.”   Are we missing something? Our modern day Western society puts a lot of emphasis on the individual doing his or her own individual thing. The Western Christian’s ideas of “faith” is something like a single person intellectually agreeing with a specific set of religious doctrines.  
 
Believing the correct doctrines is certainly important.  But perhaps this view of faith is not enough. Perhaps it is still incomplete. The legalistic Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel who persecuted Jesus, believed all the correct Biblical doctrines. They said long prayers and fasted and went through all of the many religious rituals.  But they didn’t recognize their Messiah when He came to them. The Law without the Spirit is dead. 
 
I am not saying that our Christian doctrines are not vitally important!  They are.  But it is what we do with them that makes the difference. The Word of God is living and powerful.   Believing in Jesus Christ as our personal Savior and Lord has the power to change our lives.  But we have to be willing to let it change our lives. This faith opens the door for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and make us new creatures.  But true Biblical faith is not only an intellectual belief in Christ, but it includes a personal relationship with Christ, and a moral obligation to honor and obey Him.
 
 The word “faith” meant something more than belief in the right doctrines to the Jewish people of antiquity. Their culture and all the cultures of middle eastern peoples back then were different from our Western democratic societies today.  The land of Israel had what some might call an “honor-shame” culture when Jesus lived.  So when God called ancient Israel to have “faith” in Him, the word “faith” meant more than just believing that God existed. (The devil believes that God exists and he trembles)  Having real faith meant that they were to be committed to God to honor, obey and worship Him. 
 
Honor-shame cultures place a high value on members being committed and loyal to the group and to the leader of the group.  Leaders or kings provide safety and protection for their people.  And in return the members of honor-shame cultures reciprocate by honoring their leader.  And by pledging their allegiance and praise and loyalty to their leader.  Life runs on relationships, reciprocity, and honor.  These dynamics of honor and allegiance illuminate many aspects of the Bible.  And they are considered to be part of what God wanted from His people when He asked them to put their “faith” in Him. And He still wants that out of His people.
 
God does not demand that we put our faith in Him.  He asks for it.  The decision is ours.  He offers us eternal life through Christ. A free gift. But in exchange we are expected to follow Him.  That is part of what “faith” looks like.  In honor-shame cultures people perhaps understand this concept better.  A person’s reputation is all important and he or she earns a good reputation (honor) by being trustworthy and loyal.  By being faithful in his or her relationships.  People who flake out on their relationships are shamed. 
 
We visited our daughter and her family in Japan, which is an honor-shame culture. We discovered that the Japanese people do not steal from one another very often if ever.  Our daughter was able to leave her expensive baby stroller un- locked outside her apartment for years without any concern of it being stolen. Expensive bicycles and other strollers and valuables were also left outside in public places in Japan without any concern, and were not stolen.
 
 Japanese owners of small shops would leave their stores open when they were not able to be in the store.  They would leave the merchandise out for customers to take and a basket for them to leave their payment. A Japanese citizen would feel a great deal of shame and lose face if he or she were to steal.  The whole Japanese society seems to “help” their members do what they are supposed to do.
 
In these honor-shame cultures a person’s reputation as a reliable stable person that can be counted on is all important. There is a strong sense of family loyalty where a child’s obedience brings honor to his or her parents. Being reliable in their relationships is a supreme virtue. This sense of loyalty is spoken of as “pistos” in the New Testament, which we translate in English as “faith”.  Servants in Jesus’ parables are called “pistos” which was the word for ‘loyal’, ‘faithful’, or ‘trustworthy’.  (Matthew 24:45: 25:21: 1 Cor. 4:2)
 
This strong relational feeling of group loyalty is part of what Biblical “faith” looks like.  God wants us to belong to Him and He expects our loyalty and obedience and love in return.  We are not to run off to another!  We read the first command of the Ten Commandments which says: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3) Our God is a jealous God so Scripture tells us.  We are never to stray and give our attention to other gods. 
 
When early Christians confessed that “Jesus is Lord” they were declaring Jesus’ sovereign provision and their allegiance to Him.  They are to live for Him and not for themselves. “Jesus is Lord” was not just a statement of their personal devotion but a claim that Jesus is the One Way to the Father.  That He is the King who provides salvation to the whole world.  That we are never to bow to any other! 
 
We Westerners often value our independence and freedom more than we value community since we must give up some of our precious independence and freedom to be part of a community.  When “pistos” or family or group loyalty and respect are missing, the family or group falls apart. One in every four families are missing a father.  Sexual relationships are often casual or recreational and couples fear marriage and commitment. Songs of true love and romance are no longer popular as they were in past generations.
 
 All the rules have changed.  Parents are discarded by some grown children.  And children are abandoned by parents.  Families members sue one another over any misunderstanding, real or imagined! And many of the younger generation today are afraid to marry or become committed to parenthood.   
 
Teachers today often complain that the old relationships between student and teacher are gone.  The teacher or professor is no longer respected.  And the ability of the teacher to control the classroom has been replaced with anarchy.  We wonder why public education is having problems!  Violence on our streets along with the number of suicides have gone up astronomically.
 
There are still many strengths in Western society today, but individualism has replaced community in many areas of our lives leaving lonely desperate people. Is there an answer to all of this? Scripture tells us: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  (Matthew 10:39) We may be trying so hard to compete for our own individual reputation that we find ourselves overwhelmed and unsatisfied with life. But God asks us to put our faith in Him.  To give our allegiance and our lives to Him.  And He will give our lives back to us. And so much more too!
 
Some of the thoughts in this blog were taken from Jayson Georges article, “True Faith”  White Horse Inn