Monday, February 24, 2014

Yes, I Have a List for That!!

At any given time, my desk is littered with a dozen or more slips of paper filled with tiny, cramped writing--all different lists to help me organize my chaotic life. 

Taped to the monitor are lists for those books I want to read, movies to rent for date night with the husband, and publication dates to remind me when my favorite authors' newest books will be available.  Beneath my keyboard & on the wall cork-board are the lists of potential Christmas/birthday gifts for my family, party ideas for the kids' annual festivals, ideas for blog articles, and songs I might sing in worship one day.  Then, front and center are the typical long-range and weekly "to do" weekly lists.

Yes, there's simply something satisfying about drawing a line through a completed task, even if it's something as mundane as 'write letter to brother.'

The problem comes in those areas of my life that aren't conducive to list-making...or that shouldn't be reduced to a mere checklist to be crossed off. 

One such area is my relationship with God.

In Isaiah, the Lord criticizes the nation of Israel for completing their checklist of what they were outwardly supposed to do.

In Leviticus, God had instructed Israel in the offering of sacrifices to Him.  He had also commanded  a series of holy feasts and festivals (Lev. 23). 

Yet, here in Isaiah, God says, "'What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?' Says the LORD.  'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.  When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me.  New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies--I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.  I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.  So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen'" (Is. 1:11-15).

In the four verses above, we see the children of Israel (1) making sacrifices to the Lord, (2) going to the temple, (3) tithing, (4) celebrating the appointed feasts, and (4) praying to the Lord.

These were all actions God's child was supposed to do and yet God was condemning them for the very things He commanded.  The modern-day question we must then ask is 'Does that mean we can be attending church each Sunday, spending time in prayer every day, and even tithing but still not be pleasing to the Lord in our obedience?'

The answer is yes.  It all has to do with our hearts. 

All the above actions in Isaiah were done out of rote obedience.  Over time, the people's repeated obedience had turned into a cold religiosity that did not impact their hearts, which, in turn, did not impact their daily behavior.

In the very next verses, the Lord says, "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow" (v. 16-17).

Although this people had completed their religious checklist, their daily behavior included ruthlessness, unjust treatment of others, and turning a blind eye to the orphan and widow.  This treatment of others showed more about their relationship with God than did their religious actions.

In the New Testament, James warns against this dead religiosity: "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself" (Jas. 2:15-17).

Ultimately, a relationship with God that doesn't encompass our entire heart, soul, and mind--a relationship that doesn't extend a helping hand to those in need--is not the kind of relationship God wants with us.  If we can go through the motions and submit a completed checklist to the Lord at the end of each month but our hearts and daily actions remain unchanged, then we have a problem.

No, there is nothing inherently wrong with scheduling time for prayer, Bible study, or various ministry activities.  In all honesty, if I didn't include those items in my busy schedule, I would forget about them. 

Yet, in the scheduling of our time with God, we must be careful that we're not acting out of mere routine while leaving our heart and soul out of the equation.  Loving the Lord must be more than a mere going through the motions.  It must encompass our everything and reach beyond ourselves.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Is Anybody Listening?

Every now and again, I get that feeling that I'm wasting my time.

These blog articles?  Few people ever post or email me comments.  As far as I know, no one has ever accepted Christ as his or her Savior based on my presentation of the Word in this space. 

The folded tracts I leave on door after door every Thursday morning?  Few people ever come to our church and mention those orange, Scripture-filled papers.  And again, I know of no one who has been saved by my labors.

The ESL students I teach once a week?  Last week, we got hung up on the word dessert.  With such a language barrier, how can I ever successfully communicate the gospel to these people?

In these areas of my life, I feel like I'm shouting with my everything; yet, all around me, everyone is tuned out, quite literally.  In the parking lot, on the street, in the elevator, in the mall--a sea of ears plugged with headphones successfully seal out the world, incubating these individual islands from contact and relationship.

This past week, I was brought back to the prophet Isaiah's calling.

In his infamous vision of God enthroned, Isaiah heard the Lord ask, "'Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?'" (Is. 6:8).  Here, the "Us" demonstrates that whoever answered this call to be sent would do so on behalf of the triune God--the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Isaiah chose to respond to this call, at which time the Lord described his calling further: "Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull,And their eyes dim" (Is. 6:9-10).

From these three verses, we see Isaiah being required to do two things--go and tell.  Yet, even before Isaiah takes one step or speaks one word in obedience to his calling, God warns him that no one will listen.  And those who do listen will not understand because their hearts are not tender to God.  His efforts will have no success as men understand that term.

Isaiah's response is understandable as he asks, "'Lord, how long?'" (v. 11a).  How long must I speak to these people who do not hear, who do not listen.  How long?

The Lord responds, "Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, Houses are without people And the land is utterly desolate" (v. 11b).

Isaiah was being told to preach until the walls came down, until the cities were no more...until there was no one left to hear his words.  In short, as long as there was one person left in the land, his job wasn't finished.

Compare Isaiah's calling to Christ's commissioning (or "calling") of His disciples at the end of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20).

Just like with Isaiah, the disciples (and, thus, we, as Christ's disciples of today) were called to go and tell, a calling that was empowered after Jesus' death when on the Day of Pentecost He said, "you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).  While Isaiah was merely sent to Israel, Christ opened this calling to all the nations.  Likewise, unlike Isaiah, our calling this side of the cross is a bit different in that it also includes making disciples and baptizing.  Still, though, the essential command is much the same, just a broader target audience.

Here, as well, is mention of the "who" behind our calling--the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We, too, go on behalf of God in all three persons.

And lastly, just as with Isaiah, we are also called to go and tell "to the end of the age"--until the whole world hears.  Until there is not one person left.

What is interesting is that in this calling of His disciples, Jesus doesn't add a "but they won't listen to you" warning as Isaiah received, even though such warnings are found elsewhere in the New Testament.  Still, the two callings are so similar that one cannot help but understand that if the prophet Isaiah preached the Word of God and no one would listen, the same will be true of us as well.

It is discouraging to sow and not reap.  In one way, it keeps us humble and reminds us that we save no one; that is the Spirit's job to convict.  Yet, still, it can be discouraging in our results-driven society.

No matter what, though, we must believe in our calling--to go, to continue to sow the Word of God--even if no one listens--until the cities are devastated and there is no one left. 

This is our responsibility.  This is our calling as children of the Most High God.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Word Play: To Love versus To Despise

In less than a week, American households will overflow with hearts, flowers, stuffed animals, jewelry, and cards with words meant to make us feel loved.

But if you can look past the materialism, the continued existence of this holiday implies that people need a reminder to show and express love to others.  The reason?  

Love doesn’t come naturally.

And a totally selfless love like Jesus showed us on the cross?  Well, that is an impossible love on our own.  As Christians, even with the Holy Spirit residing within us, we struggle against our flesh to love other humans as Christ first loved us--with selfless abandon.

And if we have trouble selflessly loving the talking, walking bodies around us, you can bet it’s even more difficult to love God with our everything when we can’t even picture His actual face or hear His audible voice.

As such, it is difficult to fully obey the command to: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

Loving is difficult.  But despising the Lord?  That’s easier than you might think.

A few years ago, I wrote on King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. David was a man whom God labelled “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22). He was a man who walked with God in such an intimate relationship that the book of Psalms lays bare a level of love for God that I envy.

Yet, in the midst of loving God, David loved his flesh more. He saw, took, and impregnated Bathsheba in an act of adultery. And when his sin was about to be discovered, he sent her husband, Uriah, to the front lines, sealing that man’s death before taking Bathsheba as his wife.

How he thought he’d get away with it is beyond me. And in the depths of his heart, I think he probably didn’t. But outwardly, David was proceeding through life as if nothing had happened, as if he weren’t guilty of adultery and murder. So, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David.

Nathan didn’t pull any punches either: “Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:9-10, my Italics).

Here, God used "despised" twice to describe David's sin, a word that means “to hold in contempt…to hold in disdain, to disrespect”*

God used this same word earlier in Scripture when talking about those who sin “intentionally” or “defiantly.” He said, “the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him" (Num. 15:30-31, my Italics).

To willfully, intentionally sin when knowing it goes against God’s commands—that’s what it means to “despise” God.

Ouch. Our culture doesn’t want to use such harsh words like “despise.” We want to call our sin a “mistake,” a “lack of self control,” or a “lapse in judgment.”  But God doesn’t play the politically-correct-pass-the-buck game. His words are precise and accurate, even if they make us squirm in our seats.

Any time we intentionally go against God’s commands, we are choosing to despise God.

Can you grasp the severity of that?

In Malachi, God asks a question that easily applies to Christians today: “A son honoreth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honor? And if I be a master, where is my fear? Saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name” (1:6).

In Christ, we are a kingdom of priests.  We are those who despise the name of the Lord with our lack of reverence and fear of God the Father.

We must be careful to not let our concept of sin be influenced by the world’s attempt to “rename” sins. It may sound more palatable and less personally convicting to minimize our sins—to call adultery an “indiscretion,” to call homosexuality an “alternative lifestyle,” to call lying “a partial truth,” or to call blasphemy a “slip of the tongue.”

But God calls it sin. God calls it despising Him.

What we call it doesn’t matter.
*The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. AMG Publishers, 2003: 125.

(Posting from the Archives this week, not because I have nothing new to say, but because the new is the old.  My daily Bible study of Scripture in Isaiah has brought me full circle from where I was a year ago as I once again am wrestling with this same topic of what it means to despise the Lord.  Different book of the Bible, but it's the same God breathing the Words onto the pages & convicting my heart with the lack of middle ground--it's either love Him or despise Him.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Knowledge or Application: Approaching Scripture

Higher education is primarily perceived in two different ways--one, as a series of classes to check off in order to achieve the goal of a career and, two, as an institute where learning and knowledge is its own goal.  Both divergent views continually come in conflict with one another, no more so than when fighting over curriculum, over which courses and degrees must be eliminated and which are worthwhile to continue funding.

As an English professor, my career field is ever under attack.  The humanities, which includes literature and philosophy, are seen by many as impractical for those who perceive college as the pursuit of only those things that can be immediately and directly applied in the modern, working world.

Knowledge for knowledge's sake, it seems, is not valued in our present-day, evaluation-prone culture where if it cannot be objectively tested with a series of No.2-filled quantifiable bubbles, then it is not worthwhile.

Yet, I remain an advocate of knowledge that lacks immediate, direct application. Nowhere is learning more important than in my own Christian walk with God.

My pastor has often preached against obtaining knowledge of God without putting it into application, and I wholeheartedly agree that we would do well to heed such a warning.  Reading Scripture but never putting those Words into effect in our own lives is as worthless as reading a CPR manual and then idly watching someone choke to death.

Yet, while this is one incorrect use of Scripture (seeking knowledge yet having no self-application), I would argue there is another incorrect way to approach God's Word--seeking solely after the Word's application to our current circumstances versus seeking knowledge of the One we serve.

In the Lord's rebuke of Israel before they were taken into exile by Assyria, He condemns their lack of knowledge: "They do not pay attention to the deeds of the LORD, Nor do they consider the work of His hands.  Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge" (Is. 5:12-13).

The prophet Hosea reiterates the same concept concerning knowledge: "the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land....My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children" (Hos. 4:1,6).

The Israelites were still sacrificing in the temple, still celebrating the feasts and holy days mandated in Leviticus.  They were still doing these outward displays of obedience to the Lord. Yet, their actions were empty because they lacked knowledge of the One they served.  They had forgotten that God wanted faithfulness.  He wanted their hearts, not merely actions of outward show.

Consider what happens if we take an "it's all about me" approach to Scripture, if we open its pages solely in pursuit of what God can tell ME about MY life.  In essence, we open our Bibles automatically looking for a way to apply those words to our lives, which leads us to skip over and maybe even avoid those passages we deem inapplicable, irrelevant, or simply "not about my current circumstances."

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking God's will for our lives through Scripture, I do believe that if we only encounter Scripture with a "what's in it for me" kind of attitude, then we miss out on so much knowledge of who God is, and first and foremost, that is what Scripture is--a love letter to mankind to teach us quite intimately about this God whom we serve.

As with everything, there must be a balance between knowledge and application.  We cannot merely pursue one or the other or we will be found lacking.

This week, I would challenge you to approach God's Word with the intent purpose of learning about God first and only then seeing how this knowledge can impact your life.

There is great merit in such a pursuit.