From Desolation to Restoration: Opposition

Every good story needs an antagonist. What would Obiwan Kenobi be without Darth Vader? Or Batman without the Joker? Or David without Goliath? Or Nehemiah without Sanballat?

We could read Nehemiah 3 and assume everything went smoothly with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, but that's not the case. They faced tremendous opposition from three main antagonists: Sanballat (the Horonite Babylonian official from Syria), Tobiah (the Ammonite), and Geshen (from Arabia). These guys were total pains in Nehemiah's...

They taunted and harassed Nehemiah, bullied and intimidated him -- even threatening his life. I can't imagine the pressure he must have been under from the 'trinity of opposition'. I admit I don't do well with people who are trying to cut me off at the knees, but I've come to realize opposition is a normal part of life.

[Read Nehemiah 4]

Here's what we can learn from Nehemiah and the opposition he faced:

1] If you live in the will of God, you will be opposed. People will despise you for it. You will be judged, insulted, intimidated, and even hurt by those closest to you. Jesus recognized the Christian life is a conflict ("I did not come to bring peace but a sword"). He didn't mean a literal sword, but he acknowledges the conflict between good and evil and light and darkness. He reminds us that even our closest family members may resent us for our faith. 

Nehemiah faced it all from his antagonists: raging anger, insults and humiliation, intimidation and threats, and schemes and plots to destroy him. On top of all that, his own people complained against him and tried to go over his head. 

So how do we respond to opposition? 

2] Always respond to opposition with prayer, determination, and faithfulness. That's what Nehemiah did. He prayed. He pressed on. He remained faithful to what God called him to do. And he remained alert. That's good advice for all of us. 

One more thing...

3] Don't confuse ordinary every day conflict for opposition. They are not the same. We don't need to be looking for an antagonist or adversary around every corner. Instead, we need to make room for mercy, grace, and forgiveness in our lives -- to 'be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.' We should ask God to teach us how to respond to others who are difficult for us to deal with.

My wife and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary. As usual, I went to the shop to buy flowers for her, but what happened next was very unusual. While I was entering my pin to complete my purchase, the man in line behind me began chewing me out for destroying nature by buying flowers. He didn't strike me as the typical eco-warrior (the 6 Snicker bars on the belt gave me my clue), and I was caught off guard by his verbal assault. 

What I wanted to do and what I did were two different things. So I simply took my receipt, thanked the clerk, and walked out the door with my wife's dastardly flowers. 

Not everyone has to be an adversary. Sometimes they are just hurting people.

Like Nehemiah, we can probably name those people who have been the major antagonists in our lives. The thing is, a lot of those who have been our antagonists probably thought they were being the protagonist. We must remember Jesus never said we won't have antagonists in our lives (he calls them enemies), but he does say we should love our antagonists -- and then carry on with the good work Jesus has called us to. 

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem -- the trinity of opposition -- could not stop what God was doing. Keep that in perspective when the heat is on. 

From Desolation to Restoration: All In

You've heard of 'fly-over states', right? Those parts of the country that people who live along the coasts pass over to get to where they are going. Well, Nehemiah chapter 3 is a fly-over chapter for some people who get hung up on all the hard-to-pronounce Hebrew names.

But there is a lot of good stuff in this chapter we don't want to miss. Take these observations, for example:

1] There were a lot of people involved in rebuilding Jerusalem's walls and gates. Among them were priests, goldsmiths, mayors, perfume makers, daughters, merchants, and a security guard. Particularly interesting to me was a guy named Eliashib. He was the High Priest of the Temple who also served as a stand-in civil leader since the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Eliashib was a big shot, but not too big to lend a hand.

And then there were the daughters of Shallum we read about in 3:12. We might pass right over this one without giving it much thought, but women simply did not do this kind of work. They were some tough ladies who helped rebuild the city walls. My point is, no one could benefit from the protection of the city walls without lending a hand to rebuild them. Each of them did their part.

2] The job was too large for one person or even a team. There was a lot to rebuild and reinforce, but the large-looming task was totally doable when everyone did their small part. Jerusalem's walls and gates didn't get rebuilt by Nehemiah. It got rebuilt because everyone did their part. 

3] They were not building for themselves. True, you'll notice a lot of people took responsibility to rebuild the gate closest to where they lived or worked, and logistically, that makes the most sense. But what use would a strong Sheep Gate be if the Fountain Gate or Dung Gate was still hanging wide open? They were rebuilding for the entire community.

They were also rebuilding for future generations who would also depend on those walls, generations that would not remember their faces. I wonder if the crippled man healed by Jesus at the Pool of Siloam ever even heard of Shallum or his daughters who rebuilt the walls around the pool where he took refuge?

This fly-over chapter in Nehemiah's story reminds each of us that we have a role in building the Kingdom of God, a task too big for one person or even a team. It reminds us we cannot serve the Lord effectively on our own and that we belong to each other as we continue the work of Jesus. This chapter also is a great reminder that we are not building for ourselves. Our names and faces will one day fade from living memory, so we don't build to be remembered but so the Kingdom of God would flourish here. 

 

Risk Hope (PNW District Conference)

[Full Text]

2 Corinthians 4:1-18

"Since through God's mercy, we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."

Paul's words really resonate with me. Like him, I too, find myself losing heart and struggling with my own fragile nature and this priceless Gospel he has implanted within us. I think a lot of us at one point or another have been on the edge of giving up. We face mounting discouragement and constant battles -- perhaps it would be easier to give up. But then I think about what Paul was facing, and my life looks mildly inconvenienced compared to what he dealt with:

A church that was tearing itself apart through elitism, pride, sexual sin, pluralism, denial of the resurrection (and even vegetarianism!).

A culture that rejected him and was opposed to the Gospel (his own people were hounding him from city to city).

A government that persecuted him and wanted him dead.

If anyone had the right to use words like "hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down", it was Paul.

He had every reason to lose heart -- except one. What refocused Paul over and over again was coming back to Jesus and the message of the Gospel. He was determined to remain faithful to that message, so he had no interest in deceiving people or distorting the Gospel message. He wanted to plainly speak the Truth. 

I think we can stand to learn a lot from Paul in what he had to say in 2 Corinthians 4:5. He wasn't interested in preaching his own agenda, and I think we're guilty of this too often. We do this when we preach our politics or our personal ideology or our feelings, and I think we do this when we preach our own conscience. Jesus doesn't call us to be faithful to our own conscience; he calls us to be faithful to himself. Personal conscience doesn't override the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ and the New Testament. When our conscience does override it, we judge the word of God as being inadequate in the same way the serpent judged what God had said to Adam and Eve to be inadequate (is that what God really said?).

We don't preach ourselves. We work for the mind of Christ.

We have a diverse little church here in Covington (politically, theologically, socially, culturally). We like to say we're an 'eclectic bunch of fixer-uppers who are trying to follow Jesus'. We are a mixed bag of scoundrels, common folks, and high-tech rednecks. I love the diversity of this place -- but that diversity can be hard work (especially in such divided times). 

I also have my opinions on a whole range of controversial issues, and it's a real struggle at times to keep those opinions to myself. There are only a small number of people that know how I vote, and one of them is my wife (and she ain't talking). I work hard to keep it that way. Why do I feel the necessity to bridle my tongue and refrain from posting divisive political content?

I'll tell you why. 1) Because I love you (and believe I am supposed to prefer you out of love). 2) Because it could be a huge distraction to the Gospel (which is what I'm called to preach while here). "For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (4:5). 

Paul -- though he had hot rhetoric at times -- struggled with his own inadequacy in his ministry. He was curious why God chose to place the treasure of the Gospel into fragile clay jars like himself, people who were susceptible to fracture and brokenness. I respect pastors and others in the church who feel inadequate for what God has called them to do. The opposite is also true: I fear what pastors can do when they operate out of ego and self-confidence. 

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the story of two very different people who were praying in the temple. He tells this story to point out the arrogance of the Pharisee who believed in his own superiority over others, particularly the sinner who couldn't even bring himself to look to heaven. "Thank God I am not like them!" Yet how many times have I heard Christians utter this same phrase about other Christians with whom they disagree? In the Body of Christ, there is no us vs. them. It is only Christ. We are us (unless we have already decided we are no longer us). We must be very careful about falling into the trap of elitism, because like the Pharisee, we will really just end up judging ourselves. 

Paul knew that when we hope in ourselves, we lose. When we hope in our strategies and political maneuvering, we lose. When we hope in governments, we lose. When we hope in our own cleverness, we lose. When we hope in our own skewed self-importance, we lose. And when we hope in ourselves, then everyone who stands in the way of me becomes my enemy (and this is not the Way of Jesus). We cannot be full of self when we seek Jesus. 

The theme of our conference weekend is "Risk Hope", so that's where I'm headed. At the end of our scripture we read earlier, Paul tells us what he is willing to risk it all for: the Lord Jesus Christ. He was willing to risk flogging for that. He was willing to risk homelessness and hunger for that. He was willing to risk drowning in the sea for that. He was willing to risk being hated for that. He was willing to risk death for that. 

But here's the thing... in Christ, that's no risk at all. It's a guarantee! "To live is Christ; to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). It's a win-win.

There once was a time when I thought I was taking a risk only to find out it was a guarantee. I spent a lot of time planning a creative proposal on a San Diego beach complete with a gorgeous sunset and a basket of fruit and chocolate. I loved this girl and wanted to spend my life with her, so I decided it was time to take the risk in order to have her as my wife. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating...

But I rocked it like a stud, and she said 'yes'. 

And then she proceeded to tell me moments later how she had already bought her wedding dress months before because she was determined to marry me. I thought I was taking a huge risk; I didn't realize it was already a guarantee.

Paul says it's the same with Jesus. His hope was in Jesus Christ alone, so he said "I will not lose heart, even though I feel like I am wasting away."

We have no hope apart from Jesus. We have no hope in other gods. We have no hope in human potential or systems or the query process. We have no hope in human governments. We have no hope in our own cleverness, craftiness, or convincing arguments. 

Our hope is in Jesus. And in Jesus alone.

That's what we risk for...but it's really no risk at all.

It's a guarantee.

 

From Desolation to Restoration: Inspection

When Nehemiah showed up in Jerusalem, he found the place was a mess, but he did nothing for three days. He didn't show up with fanfare, and he kept quiet about his intentions to rebuild the city. Someone once told me that the ability to speak several languages is an asset, but the ability to keep your mouth shut in any language is priceless. For whatever the reason, Nehemiah kept mum on what he came to Jerusalem to do. 

After three days, he started inspecting the city (after dark and in secret). What a sneaky dude, Nehemiah was (wise, actually). 

When he finally pulled the priests and leaders together, he said to them, "You see the trouble we're in." And the people were ready to jump in and rebuild.

You can read this part of the story in Nehemiah 2:11-20.

There are a few things about this story that stood out to me:

1] Nehemiah sat in Jerusalem's desolation for three days. If we pay attention to it, we can see Jesus all through scripture. Just like Jesus, Nehemiah sat in Jerusalem's desolation for three days, marinating in the devastation brought by the people's unfaithfulness to God. Just like Jesus who following his crucifixion went to the place of death and decay for three days, Nehemiah stewed in Jerusalem's destruction and smelled the stench of death. He felt the sting of Jerusalem's demise.

And we know what happened after three days, right? Resurrection!

As a pastor I sit with a lot of individuals who are at rock bottom. I get immersed in their stories and often feel their grief and loss. I sit with people in their pain in order to help turn their hearts toward restoration. It seems to me like Nehemiah was doing the same thing with the city he loved. 

2] Nehemiah took a long, hard look at reality. He spent time personally inspecting the damage done to Jerusalem to see what kind of hand he'd been dealt. God knows it's hard for us to take a deep look inside when life is crumbling. That searching process can be painful. But I also think we're most willing to look deep inside when we've hit rock bottom. 

When my wife and I moved back to the US from Ireland, I was heart-broken (and financially broken). For three years I took a deep look inside at my disappointment, anger, and brokenness. Was serving the church really what I wanted to do with my life? And for three years, I checked out as I wrestled with the calling of God on my life. 

So when I read words like "Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me" (Psalm 139:23), I feel it deeply. When I read the story of the prodigal who had to take a long hard look within, I can relate. The journey to restoration begins with taking a deep look inside to see how far we've fallen -- to get a realistic picture of what's going on. "You see the trouble we're in," said Nehemiah. That was the beginning of a brand-new day for Jerusalem.

3] Nehemiah enlisted the commitment of the people. We'll go into this further in the weeks ahead, but Nehemiah didn't do this on his own. He asked what they were going to do, and the people said 'let's do this!' And that didn't come without opposition. We will have those who oppose us as we move from desolation to restoration. I'll get to Sanballat and Tobiah soon, but Nehemiah put them in their place and reminded them they could not have what belonged to God. 

We may have spent years in devastating times, but it is not God's will for us to stay there. Take a deeper look inside, confess what needs to be confessed, take stock of where you're at, and return to God with trust there is a new day coming. 

From Desolation to Restoration: Called

In the summer of 2000, I was preparing to move to Northern Ireland and begin a new ministry there. It was a busy summer for me with my final weeks of youth ministry in Indiana, planning an auction to sell my possessions, and doing my farewell tour to family and friends. So when I was asked to consider speaking at a youth conference in Colorado the week before I moved to Ireland, I hesitated. I almost didn't go.

But I did.

And while there, I met this beautiful blonde woman. I married her three years later. 

Some would say I was at the right place at the right time. I'd like to believe our meeting was more than coincidental; it was orchestrated! 

Random or orchestrated? These two world views are deeply opposed to one another. Is the universe random, or is it orchestrated? Is everything just a string of coincidences, or is there some planning and order to life?

For the Christian, we see God as the Orchestrator of the Universe, the One who directs our path. So I wonder, was it just lucky Nehemiah was a Jew in exile who just happened to be cupbearer to King Artaxerxes? Or was Nehemiah called by God for such a time? 

Nehemiah was God's guy who would secure safe passage to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its walls. And God's guy was not a builder or architect. He served wine to the king. I've often found myself serving in places I had no business being: living in Ireland as an American, Hoosier boy who gets the California girl, country boy teaching inner city high school without a teaching license, pastoring a church in the PNW with no experience in building projects. How did I get there?

Just like Nehemiah, I've often found myself positioned in places and wondered how I got there. Why was he going to rebuild Jerusalem? Nehemiah 2:1-10 helps us get some answers to that question.

1] Nehemiah's character was good. He had already earned the trust of the Babylonian king. You had to be trustworthy to serve as a cupbearer. After all, there were plenty of people who wanted the king dead. Death by poisoning was always an option, so the cupbearer had to be part of the king's circle of trust. Artaxerxes trusted Nehemiah, and that trust was earned by his character.

2] Nehemiah trusted God. He was terrified of Artaxerxes. He knew anyone who served the king was disposable, so it was his duty to put on his happy face and please the king at all times. Despite his fear, he trusted God and took a risk to give the king an honest answer to his question (2:2-4). Nehemiah put his life in God's hands at that moment, and God gave him the faith to move Nehemiah past his fears. If there's any journey with God worth traveling, it will require faith in God!

3] Nehemiah acted faithfully. He developed a strategy, set a timeline, planned ahead, secured permissions and protections, and went to Jerusalem. He did what he needed to do in order to be faithful to what God had called him to. If our faith doesn't move us into action, it is not faith we have but wishful thinking! Nehemiah wasn't a man of ideas but a man of action who took risks because he trusted God. 

When I was in high school and was wrestling with this "calling" from God to pastor and preach, I masterfully disqualified myself. [I am still a master self-disqualifier and have to yield that to God's Spirit continually.] I remember hearing this quote which helped to reshape my understanding of "calling": 'God does not call the qualified; he qualifies the called."

God equips us for what he calls us to.

God does this.

So here's where I want to go with this great encounter Nehemiah had with Artaxerxes:

God is positioning you. You can't see that if you believe life is random. But if you believe God orchestrates and if you are following Jesus, then you must (MUST) believe that where God has planted you, God intends to use you. This fundamentally changes your life as you begin to see each day infused with God's purpose. I guarantee, the Holy Spirit is positioning you to carry out some aspect of the on-going work of Jesus. You are being called out of meaningless, purposeless meandering to purposeful living in Christ!

Even if all you know to do is serve drinks. 

 

From Desolation to Restoration

"Forrest Gump" is the fictional tale of a remarkable man from Greenbow, Alabama and his extraordinary and unexpected life experiences. But there was a second narrative running parallel to Forrest's in the movie. Remember Jenny? Er, I mean Jen-nay. The movie followed the highs and lows of her life as her tragic choices led her away from Forrest and back again. She was determined to go her own way, but Forrest was always there for her when she came home. 

We've all had seasons in our life where in one moment all is going well and in the next we're living in some sort of desolation. Just three weeks ago, life was going swimmingly for residents of the Texas coast. Sometimes desolation comes because of circumstances beyond our control.

Sometimes the devastation comes because we've made devastating choices. 

That was Israel's history. Read the Old Testament, and you'll recognize the patterns of decline, desolation and death due to their rebellion followed by renewal and restoration due to their return to God. 

Rebellion = devastation.

Repentance = restoration.

On Sunday, we began a new series on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah and the beginning of the upswing for Jerusalem following the destruction of Solomon's Temple and the Babylonian exile of God's people. Nehemiah was a second-generation exile Jew living in Babylon whose job was to pour the king's wine. How do you get a job like that?

Pouring Artaxerxes wine put him very close to the king's ear, and eventually, Nehemiah won the king over. In 445 BC, Nehemiah was allowed to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the ancient city of God's promise. Jenny was headed back to Greenbow, Alabama. 

The book of Nehemiah begins with Nehemiah's prayer to God. It was a prayer of confession, the beginning of Israel's hope. Honest, gut-wrenching ownership of what he and his people did wrong was the starting point for Jerusalem's recovery. Every prodigal's journey home begins with confessions like his. He confessed who God is ("...the great and awesome God...") and who he was (someone who had "acted very wickedly toward you"). 

He remembered what God had said: "If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them and bring them home." He knew return was possible. 

The good news is that we can come back from whatever desolation we find ourselves in. God's creative order of the world is designed to come back. The earth comes back after ice ages and warming periods. Nature springs back after devastating volcanic eruptions and ravaging wildfires. Nations recover after war. And in Christ, we can also be renewed and reborn. If you've found yourself personally devastated by your own choices in which you have walked away from God, you get to come back.

God wants to restore you. He wants to restore a decimated church. He wants to restore decimated families. He wants to restore a decimated earth (and One Day will do just that). He wants to restore you.

Confession and remembrance starts the journey home. 

You Asked for It, part 3

Another question was recently posed to me that goes something like this: "All of us know wonderful, loving, giving people who are not Christian. Can you tell us that all of them are going to hell?" If this question were an Oreo, it would be double-stuffed. It's loaded! I want to do my best to honor the heart behind the question and answer it as faithfully as I can. But I suppose I should start with the number 1 rule we learn in preacher school: "There is a God, and I am not Him."

I have a lot of respect for God's Word, and I do not want to ever usurp God's authority. I know I am accountable to God for what I teach and how I conduct myself, and I hold a deep personal conviction that matters of eternal judgment are left only to God! So I will not make the judgment call whether or not someone is going to hell. All I can do is faithfully explain what the scriptures teach on the subject.

First, though, I want to commend a few things about this person's question: 1] They are asking the question from a heart of compassion. They don't want people to perish (and neither does Jesus, by the way -- 2 Peter 3:9). So 'bravo' on the side of compassion. 2] Their question acknowledges the reality of hell. In our pluralistic society, people try to diminish hell as taught by Jesus to nothing more than mere metaphor. 

I could write one doozy of a post about what hell looks like, but for the sake of this conversation, let me say this: I believe hell is a place of such weighty significance that the only one qualified to assign someone there is God alone. We would send people to hell all the time for minor offenses, so I'm relieved actually that such weighty judgment is God's alone. 

And about God's judgment, we should remember this: it is perfect! [Read Job 12:22 & Deuteronomy 32:4] God is the only one who can judge perfectly, because he is the only one whose standards and insight are perfect. Mine are certainly not. Speaking for myself, I know my standards are ALWAYS better than my behavior. God sees things differently.

So here's what scripture has to say on the matter:

1] Salvation comes by trusting in what God has done for us (faith in God's work -- in Jesus). [Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:9]. We get hung up on this idea that it is possible to get to God on our own and through our own goodness. It's a lie as old as humanity. If our own ascent to God were possible, the cross of Jesus would not have been necessary. Salvation is about God's goodness, not ours!

2] People are not condemned on the basis of ignorance. Let's not confuse ignorance (not knowing any better) from innocence (guiltless). We're all guilty. [Romans 3:10 & 23]. Just because someone is ignorant, we assume they are innocent. We also assume that because someone is nice (according to our standards of nice-ness) they are somehow innocent. Again, that's the misplaced belief that we think it's possible to get to God on our own. No one is guiltless, and that's why we come to Jesus squirming.

3] People are condemned for rejecting God. When we choose to live our life apart from God -- having nothing to do with him -- then he simply honors our choice after death. [Romans 1:18; John 12:48]. In Revelation 20, we are given insight into the Great Throne Room of Jesus and get a glimpse of what happens to those who lived opposed to God.

4] Those who haven't heard the Gospel are judged according to the information they possess. And God judges perfectly [Romans 1:20; 2:15]. Scripture talks about how the order of the universe testifies to a Creator and Sustainer and Law-giver and that within us is something we cannot fully understand that is calling us to God. We call this the 'general revelation' (Jesus is God's 'specific revelation'). Since God judges perfectly, he does not falsely accuse anyone. He judges according to the light they have received. I cannot measure this; only God can!

5] Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13)! This is a consistent Old Testament and New Testament truth, and it is also the teaching of Jesus (Mark 16:16). 

Thanks for that amazing question! 

Let me end with this: I believe there is a God, and I believe he is good (and perfect and able). And I believe I am not God, so I will trust in him -- even with all my questions -- for he is good and his love endures forever in the lives of those who trust him!

 

You Asked for It, part 2

Since moving to the northwest, I have been asked the following question in various ways on many occasions: "Why was God the Father so cruel to subject his Son, Jesus, to the brutality of the cross?"

Let me start by saying that I think it is really good the cross makes us squirm. The cross was costly in terms of both the physical suffering he endured and the weight of humanity's sin. It is not pretty.

But I think we may misunderstand something of the nature of the Godhead (the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) when we see them somehow operating independently of one another in a competing narrative. It is hard for us to handle the idea that a loving Father would inflict such cruelty upon his beloved Son (or allow others to do it).

But let's take a step back. The crucifixion wasn't an act that caught Jesus off guard. The cross didn't happen because someone (or Someone) else chose it for Jesus. No. The cross happened because Jesus chose it for Himself.

In John 17 (and other places), we read about the unity of the Trinity and how Jesus and the Father are One. When looking at the cross, we have to consider the unity of God. This isn't about what God the Father did to Jesus; the cross was the will of Jesus, too.  I wonder if this changes our narrative of a cruel father when we realize Jesus chose this for himself?

Read Mark 10:45

Jesus also said, "There is no greater love than laying down your own life for your friends." This was clearly in the heart of Christ!

Jesus gave us what we cannot give ourselves: the clear pathway to salvation through God's own self-giving love at his own expense.

He laid down his own life.

No greater love...

 

You Asked for It (part 1)

Here's the first question I received for our "You Asked for It" series: "Why did Jesus's death save us from sin?" The email went on to read: "I probably will never understand why God's beloved son had to die in the manner he did, unduly cruel."

An honest confession.

So why couldn't God just snap his finger and forgive humanity in a sweeping, forever gesture? Why the cross? Why the violence? Why this way?

If you were to come into my home and smash all my electronics, I can certainly choose to forgive it and not hold it against you. But even though I've forgiven it, someone will still have to pay for the cost of the damage. There is always a cost paid by someone for forgiveness. Justice demands a cost be paid.

If I sue you or press you for compensation, I am expecting you to pay the cost. However, if I forgive it, I am choosing to pay the cost of forgiving you. In other words, I'm the one who will have to clean it up, pay to recycle, and replace the electronics.

Well, that's what God has done.

Mercy is getting what we don't deserve. If I'm guilty of a crime but the judge sets me free, I didn't get what I deserve. Mercy is always demonstrated at the price of justice.

If I were to ask you to fill in this blank, what would you say? God is ___________. Most of us would probably say 'love'. But scripture also says God is just and righteous, that He is true and wise, etc. There are many attributes of God's nature, including love and justice. When we pick our favorite attribute and say God is ONLY __________, we are assuming God is looking at any given situation the way we would.

The cross holds a couple of attributes of God together: justice (which demands that sin and rebellion be dealt with) and mercy (which gives us what we don't deserve). Whenever there is true forgiveness, someone has to pay the price.

God paid it. His justice demands payment and his mercy paid it.

The Old Testament contains both stories of great faith and great failure (and the horrible consequences of sin and rebellion toward God). The sacrificial system was established to remind God's people of the horrific nature of sin and the devastation caused by it. Sacrificial acts at the temple were continually pointing the people toward the great mercy of God who could save them from their costly sin and rebellion. The death of the innocent was leading people to life. Sacrifice was an ugly reminder of the consequences of sin, but it was pointing us to Jesus all along.

Before you judge this as primitive thought, I should remind you that we live every day of our life because something died to make it possible (the animal and plant you eat, those who gave their life for our protection, martyrs of the faith who died to leave us a vibrant faith, and even the costly price paid by our parents and previous generations who made our life possible). It is the way of the world -- a world in rebellion against God (and He will make it right again One Day).

God answered this curse with Himself by stepping into our mess and paying the price His own justice demanded.

Remember the story when Abraham took his son Isaac on what was supposed to be a one-way hike up the mountain? As Abraham's knife came down, God intervened and said, "I will provide." And He did in Jesus.

We wrapped up this message on Sunday with communion, and I invited the people to "come squirming", to be uncomfortable with our costly sin. We may come to Jesus squirming, but we will leave satisfied and grateful.

[part 2 coming soon]

Questions

I am spending the first two weeks of August answering some nagging questions some of our folks have had about the Christian faith. For some, there are things about the Bible or the crucifixion of Jesus they have a hard time wrapping their mind around. And that's OK. Often throughout scripture, we see God's people wrestling between belief and unbelief, certainty and doubt.

In Mark 9, we read a story about a father who brought his son afflicted with violent seizures caused by an evil spirit to Jesus for healing. The disciples got to the boy first, but nothing really changed, so Jesus met with the man and his son. The dad told Jesus his boy had been having these seizures since he was very young, often falling into water or into fires. Jesus looked at him and said, "If you can believe, all things are possible." Here was the dad's response:

"Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief."

I believe this was an honest man's confession. His heart believed (and wanted to believe), but there were perhaps parts of him that were slow to catch up. So he confessed it and asked Jesus to give him faith for the unbelief he struggled with.

I think we can pray the same prayer when webump up against tough scriptures difficult for us to swallow. "I believe, Lord...but I struggle with this. Help me."

It's more important that we ask for God to help us understand than to try to dismiss the parts of scripture we cannot understand or do not like. At CCC, we try carefully not to make scripture say what it doesn't say (by adding to it) or by making scripture 'un-say' what it does say (taking away from it). So we try to faithfully wrestle with what God has given us.

On Sunday, August 6th and 13th, I'll be answering the following tough questions submitted by some of our people:

  • "Why did Jesus's death save us from sin?" [the writer also wrestles with the undue cruelty of the cross]
  • "All of us know wonderful, loving, giving people who are not Christian. Can you tell us that all of them are going to hell?"

It's nice to know our people are interested in just the light and fluffy stuff! We'll do our best to answer these questions in the next couple of posts.

Baptisms!

The whole church celebrated baptism of two of our church family on Sunday, August 6th at the end of our worship together. Here are a few photos:

We bring the whole church close to observe and participate in baptism. The kids get the front row while the rest of us gather close.

We bring the whole church close to observe and participate in baptism. The kids get the front row while the rest of us gather close.

Phillip just graduated high school and will be leaving soon for university in Montana.

Phillip just graduated high school and will be leaving soon for university in Montana.

We practice "believer's baptism" where the individual makes their own conscious choice for baptism and a commitment to follow Jesus and be part of the church family. Pictured here is Alicia.

We practice "believer's baptism" where the individual makes their own conscious choice for baptism and a commitment to follow Jesus and be part of the church family. Pictured here is Alicia.

Eleven

We spent our spring/summer on the series "Ten", taking a look at what the 10 Commandments tell us about the nature of God. I decided it would be good to end with "Eleven", a summary of the commandments similar to the way Jesus put them all together so beautifully in Matthew 22. So let's fast-forward from Mt. Sinai to Palestine at the time of Jesus...

Everywhere Jesus went, there were a mixed bag of people that gathered around him: some were his disciples, some were just curious, and some were his detractors. We'll divide his detractors into two groups: Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were teachers of the Law who valued not only the written tradition but oral tradition as well. They were conservatives who were committed to God's Word, but they were notorious for adding extra restriction to what God had given. They were messianic (expecting a Messiah sent from God), and they believed in resurrection.

The other guys (Sadducees) were more like political elitists who governed the affairs of the people. They tended to be more concerned with process and governance than anything else. They were non-messianic, and tended to overlook the Law where convenient, and they did not believe in resurrection.

Both of these groups had an interest in bringing Jesus down. The Pharisees wanted to protect the Law and traditions as they saw it, and the Sadducees wanted to protect their political agenda. So in Matthew 22, we find Jesus engaged in conversation with both groups who were trying to trap him. The Pharisees asked him about paying taxes to Caesar, and Jesus gave his "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" response. Then the Sadducees took a shot by asking an obscure, extreme hypothetical question about a widow who had been married to seven husbands who died and quizzed Jesus about who she would be married to in the afterlife (even though they didn't believe in resurrection). And Jesus shut them down.

So the Pharisees took another shot at Jesus while the Sadducees licked their wounds. That's where you can find the story in Matthew 22:34-40. I find it really interesting that when Jesus answered the Pharisee's question, he did so not with new wisdom or new insight. No. He answered their question with ancient wisdom found in the most familiar scripture known to every Jewish man, woman, and child -- the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). It is THIS commandment Jesus calls the "Greatest Commandment" -- to love God with your totality. Jesus did not give them a new morality but reminded them of what has always been true: the foundation for our life begins with a love for God.

And then Jesus gives a part deux to their question by quoting a portion of Leviticus 19:18: "...love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Lord." Jesus put these two commandments together in a beautiful entwining of love for God and love for others, and it remained a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. If you have the eyes to see it, you'll see the pairing everywhere.

Jesus is the True Interpreter of God's Law. He knows the character of God better than anyone since he and the Father are One. And he recites these commandments as the lens through which to understand all the commandments of God: they help us to understand what it means to love God and to love our neighbor.

Jesus reminds us that our love for God is essential to life and that out of our love for God will flow a love for neighbor and a desire to do good to them.

So what does this encounter with the Pharisees and Jesus's summary of the commandments teach us about the nature of God? The Lord is unchanging ("Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever." -- Heb. 13:8). There's nothing new here, folks. Jesus is just helping us to see the way it's always been.

As with the Pharisees, God does not approve when we add extra burdens to what God has given. As with the Sadducees, God does not approve when we try to take away what God has given. It's how we read scripture: "We do not make the scriptures say what they do not say, and we do not make them un-say what they do say."

Jesus has a very high view of God's Laws, and he did not come to do away with any of them but to fulfill them and lead us to the Father. His wise simplicity cut through Pharisaical complication and helps us understand the heart of God behind every word He has given us.

Thank you, Jesus, for knowing I would need it this simply.

Ten

I'm pretty sure one of the reasons why I never preached a series on the 10 Commandments before is because #10 kicks me in the pants. I'll let you in on a little pastor secret: We don't like preaching messages that confront our own sin. So we do one of three things with scriptures that do: 1) we avoid it, 2) we come up with a skewed interpretation, or 3) we confess it.

God gets inside my head with "You shall not covet..." No one knows I want what other people have, but I do. God has a way of uncovering the heart in all these commandments (just look at the way Jesus did that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew).

It would be helpful to take a moment to try to explain that word "covet". It's not really a term we use much anymore. We try to substitute it for words like 'jealousy", but that's not a good fit really. Jealousy is defined as being "very watchful or careful in guarding or keeping what is yours", whereas covetousness is a "great desire to possess something that belongs to someone else". There's a big difference. Covetousness (and its derivatives) get a lot of attention in the scriptures [check out Mark 7:22, Ephesians 5:3-5, James 4:2, and Proverbs 15:27], even though we don't talk about it much.

So why is it so problematic?

1] When we compare ourselves to others, we lose. These are always unfair comparisons -- their perceived blessings vs my perceived lack or their perceived security vs my perceived weakness. When we focus on what we don't have, we lose sight of all God has given! It kills gratitude -- and we lose.

2] When we want what others have, it puts us in competition with them to get it. Cain wanted what Abel had, and when he couldn't get it, he killed him. Competition can cause us to use people as a means to get what we want. We begin to see others as an opponent to defeat and an adversary to conquer. It puts strife in relationship when we use others to get what we want from them.

3] Discontentment robs us of peace with God. It's a soul-killer. We have bought into the lie that true contentment is not from God but from the pursuit of stuff and status and success and security.

Let's take a trip back to the Garden...a place designed with everything Adam and Eve needed. And God was walking among them. It was perfect. Then the serpent slithered over with an attractive smile and began whispering discontentment into the ears of Eve.

"This isn't enough. You can have more. God is holding back from you. You can be like God."

And with those seeds of discontentment sewn, all chaos that has ever gripped the story of humanity ensued.

"God is holding back from you. You can have more, more, MORE! You're being robbed. You deserve more. What you have isn't enough. They have it better. You'd be happier if..."

Eve wanted what God had, and it put her in competition with God, and God's nature in her was fractured as a result of her sin. When we pour our lives into pursuit of what we don't have, we miss out on what we do have. And when we do gain, the temporary satisfaction leaves us more empty in the end. The fulfillment fritters away fairly fast.

We were made for God -- and only He satisfies. Central to the Gospel message is this idea of the sufficiency of Christ. God has given us what we cannot obtain ourselves. Jesus is the Bread of Life -- so we will not 'hunger' again. Jesus is the Living Water -- so we will not 'thirst' again. This God who has designed this world, given us life, formed our bodies, and breathed His Spirit into us -- the One who formed our tangible and intangible parts, the One from Whom all life comes -- He is our only sufficiency!

We've been convinced we need more than God, but more than God means less of life designed by God. It's a trap that can cut us off and leave us feeling empty and used. We all know too well the wasted time and effort that has gone into feeding our vacuous appetites.

What does the 10th Commandment tell us about God's nature? He is sufficient.

And He is good.

Nine

We struggle with truth. We struggle to know it, and we struggle to speak it. In an era of "fake news" and social media, the false narratives seem to flow freely, often making it difficult to distinguish between what is true and what isn't. Truth is elusive in our age of subjectivity.

The ninth commandment ("You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.") uses legal language, but it is not limited to just giving false testimony in a court of law (nor is it a commandment just about telling lies). It's about speaking falsely of others.

We have a lying problem. That's why we make people swear to tell the truth in court -- because we know they won't. It's been said only drunk people, children, and yoga pants tell the truth! There is, however, a big difference between lying and false testimony. Lying damages our own reputation; lying about others damages theirs. When we speak falsely of another person, our motives are more sinister as we try to undermine and destroy the other.

The 9th commandment isn't just about saying false things about others; it also addresses, I believe, our desire to believe false things about others. The reason why falsehood flourishes is because we want to believe the worst about people we don't like. When we have our preexisting beliefs and ideas, sometimes we are quick to accept and seek out confirming information while ignoring or discrediting the source of contrary information. In other words, we believe the bad stuff because we want to believe it.  These false narratives are flying at lightning speed through social media, affirmed by our likes and clicks and shares as we give it energy. This commandment exposes our hearts.

If we believe everything we hear about our enemy, we are not loving our enemy.

Truth is harder to discern. If we value truthfulness, here are some things we should consider:

1] Pursuing truthfulness requires us to be impartial (insert belly laugh). We have to be willing to filter through our biases and emotion carefully to lay aside our prejudices.

2] Pursuing truthfulness requires us to consider the motives of the source. Why is this being told? What does the party passing along the information stand to gain from it?

3] Pursuing truthfulness requires verification. We should verify before accepting, and we have to learn how to fact check the fact checkers. We have to do our research, but we don't do this very often (either because we are lazy or we like what we hear).

4] Pursuing truthfulness requires self-discipline. We don't have to receive the gossip, we don't have to entertain it, we don't have to take the bait.

5] Pursuing truthfulness requires followers of Jesus to filter everything through God's (T)ruth. Truth does not originate in the mind of humanity but in the nature of God. God is Truth, and He has created us to love Truth.

In our series "Ten", we've been looking at how each of the 10 Commandments reveal an important aspect of the nature and character of God. We don't murder because God creates life. We don't commit adultery because God is faithful. We don't steal because God is a giver. And we don't give false testimony because God is Truth.

[Read Deuteronomy 32:4, John 14:6, and John 17:17].

When Jesus was being tried in Pilate's court (and falsely accused, I might add), Jesus spoke these words: "The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). That has serious implications for those of us who may have bought into the enterprise of lies, trading in the commodities of deceit. Slander and falsehood are an injustice, and these things could not be more opposite to the Spirit of Christ.

If we belong to the Truth, we should be people who value what is true...people who speak what is true...people who do the hard work of truth. We were born to testify to the truth -- to point people to Jesus. Jesus is the Truth, and those who follow him love it.

 

Eight

There was only one man I feared in my hometown when I was a boy: John, the owner of the drug store where my mom worked. For a number of reasons, I tried hard to fly under the radar when John was around. He was a good guy, but his intimidation factor was high for this little guy.

When I was 4 or 5, I stole a 3 cent Dum Dum from that man's store. When my mom got in the car, she knew the sucker I was enjoying was not an honest acquisition, and I was busted. Doing what any good mother would do, she marched me into the store and straight back to the man I feared the most in the whole world. It was like I was walking the long, green mile to my executioner. There, at the feet of this towering man, I confessed my larceny and awaited his verdict which would seal the fate of my young life. I don't recall what happened afterward, but I know I never pilfered another Dum Dum in all my life.

Stealing is a big deal -- big enough to make it into the top 10 commandments from God. Stealing is a spiritual problem with tragic outcomes. Why? Because it is so opposite of who God is! Our series "10" has been looking at the 10 Commandments to discover more about the heart and character of God. We don't murder because God is a life-giver. We don't commit adultery because God is faithful. And we don't steal because God is a giver.

When we mirror His image, we also take on the nature of a giver as His Spirit cultivates generosity in the heart of His children who reflect His image. The problem with stealing is it positions us in life to be takers, to get from others what isn't rightfully ours. We begin to utilize others for our own personal gain at any cost. This is opposite of the heart of God.

Our lives should reflect God's generosity. Are our lives being lived in pursuit of what we can get, or are we living in a way that gives richly to others? How is my life a benefit to others? What am I contributing to enhance life and build up others? How am I cultivating generosity in my time, my abundance, my words, and my gifts? Am I hoarding or helping? Am I taking or giving?

The New Testament has a lot to say on the subject [Matthew 6:2-4; Matthew 6:19-24; Ephesians 4:28; Luke 3:11; 2 Corinthians 9:7; Acts 20:35].

God is a giver. He can't help but give, and we don't need to look any further than Jesus.

Let's do the same.

Seven

I recently led a church hike to the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge (which is a wonderful place to take families, by the way). We had a group of kids that went with us, and two of the boys (my young son included) wanted desperately to go to the bookstore to do a little "shopping". They persistently pleaded their case, but I knew we needed to keep the group together and start the 5 mile hike.

So I did what any grown, mature adult would do: I pinky-promised them we would stop by after our hike. As we approached the visitor center on our return, I heard the unmistakable wailing of a disappointed six year old and instantly realized the bookstore had closed a few minutes before we got back.

But I pinky-promised.

The kids got over it (after I took them to a nearby diner for milkshakes all around), but it gave me food for thought as I started thinking about the seventh commandment: Do not commit adultery. We wrongly assume God's laws are about restriction, even going so far to say they are oppressive, but that couldn't be further from the truth. This commandment is all about the faithfulness of God and how he has created us to mirror himself in this world as his image-bearers.

For God, faithfulness is limitless -- God's covenant with us was established by God when he created the universe and made us to be his reflection on the earth, a covenant which was attacked by the Adversary and broken by us time and time again. But this covenant has been forever maintained by God and is fully restored and realized in Jesus (the New Covenant).

God is faithful. We are not.

We tend to treat our promises to God and to each other as though they were pinky promises, something we do at the moment to get what we want at that moment (in the same way I wanted to get the boys to start the hike). We break promises and covenant all the time, and everywhere we look, we see the human agony caused by our shattered covenant with God. So when God said to Israel, "Do not commit adultery", he was saying, "Be faithful, as I am faithful. Reflect who I am to each other."

The good news is we can comeback from our unfaithfulness. In fact, much of scripture's story describes our unfaithfulness, God's faithfulness, and us repenting and returning. We don't have to remain broken.

I feel like the whole history of humanity can be oddly summed up in this one command about fidelity: remain faithful.

Faithfulness is in the heart of God.