Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I Am Gabriel!

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Luke 1:18-20 NIV

I may just be warped, but I always find this passage to be amusing.  Gabriel appears to be on of the big dogs among the angels, and he shows up with good news for Zechariah.  Zechariah responds with what seems some skepticism to Gabriel's news.  And I love Gabriel's response.  A very liberal interpretation of Gabriels response to Zechariah might be something like the following"
"How dare you doubt me.  I am Gabriel, not some run of the mill angel.  God himself sent me to deliver this message to you, and now your doubt is gonna cost you."
I know that is not exactly what he said, but it is oftentimes how it comes across to me, warped as I am.  And then I wonder, would I react any differently?  It is hard to imagine that I would not have doubt if he was to deliver the same message to me today.  Knowing what I know about us, it is hard to picture having child #3.

But it's not just about having kids.  How many messages does God have delivered to me that I choose to ignore or doubt?  Does it make any difference if he delivers it via a powerful angel, the words of scripture, or a message from the pulpit?  Why should I expect that he would continue to try and communicate with me if I am responding that way.  How much better to respond like Mary with "I'm yours.  Do with me what you will."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Laodicea: The Lukewarm Church

In the second and third chapters of Revelation are letters from Jesus to seven of the first century churches in what is today Turkey. While I believe these letters were addressed to real churches of that day, I also believe they have great application to our churches today. The last of these was to the church of Laodicea.
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.  I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.  Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.  Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Revelation 3:14-22 NIV
Of the seven churches addressed in these two chapters, two of them are commended without reservation while four of them have issues that need to be addressed, although Jesus does have some positive things to say about them.  But when we come to the seventh church, Laodicea, we find one with no redeeming virtue.  How sad that Jesus would look at a church and see nothing of any value to him.

It seems that Jesus had two complaints against Laodicea.  The first is that in their deeds they were neither hot nor cold.  If they had been cold, then he might have been able to convict them of their need to repent.  To be hot, on fire for Him, would be to be in a good place.  But they were neither; they were lukewarm.  What does it mean to be lukewarm, neither hot nor cold?  It is hard to define cold, hot and lukewarm churches with any level of precision, but ...

  • A cold church is one that has lost its connection with its head, with Jesus.  There is no thought given as to what he might want them to be doing.  Tradition is all that keeps them going.  Their meetings are likely pretty formal and sterile.
  • A hot church is one that has a vital connection with their head.  Whenever they meet together, Jesus is a part of all they do.  They are in love with him.  It is likely that there is a lot of spontaneity and excitement in their time together. 
  • The lukewarm church talks about Jesus, but seldom encounters him.  They sing about Jesus, but mostly because they like the songs.  They will be friendly and inviting, but are not particularly interested in change, even though growth requires change.  They are generally happy with where they are and who they are.  Even if there is a sense that all is not as it should be, the problem will likely be blamed on the pastor, worship leader, or some other responsible person.
The lukewarm church is doing little more than playing a game.  They are just another social organization, but one that meets in a church building and whose activities satisfy their need to acknowledge God.  They are satisfied with who they are.  But they leave such a bad taste in Jesus mouth that he is tempted to spit them out.

The second issue was that this church thought they were well off, when in reality they were spiritually bankrupt.  While they talked with pride about their fancy building and state of the art sound system, Jesus looked at the emptiness of their hearts and advised them to come to him for true riches and for healing.

Jesus does have one comforting thing to say to them though.  That he rebukes those he loves indicates that he loves even this church.  It was not to late for them to repent and to return to him.  He is standing at the front door knocking.  If they will open the door, he will come in and have fellowship with them.

Too many of our churches today are dangerously close to being lukewarm, if not already there.  Jesus is trying to get in to rekindle a passion within them.  Will we respond and let him in?  Or will we ignore his knock and find ourselves spewed out of his mouth.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Mark of a Real Disciple of Jesus?

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matthew 7:21-23 NIV
There are many people in the world today who call Jesus 'Lord', and many of them are active within the church or in other 'Christian' ways.  I count myself among them, claiming Jesus as Lord as well as teaching and leading both in the local church as well as locally in the denomination.  But how does Jesus feel about me?

The passage quoted above makes it clear that saying the right things, and even doing the right things, is not enough to gain Jesus approval.  He makes clear that many who claim he is Lord, and who are actively involved within their local church (performing miracles, driving out demons and prophesying), are only fooling themselves.  While they may claim Jesus, he is unwilling to claim them, or even to know them.

So what is it that Jesus is looking for in his disciples?  He is looking for those that are doing what God wants them to do.  If Jesus really is my Lord, them I am going to follow his direction, and go where he goes.  If I don't, but instead go where I want, and do what I think is best, then it really does not matter what I call him; he is not my Lord.

I might think that having a bunch of jobs in the church, tithing, reading my Bible every day and going to prayer meeting would be enough to make Jesus like me.  But it is not.  I don't believe there is anything wrong with any of that.  But they are no substitute for a real relationship with Jesus.  He wants your heart, not your resume.

Don't just call Jesus Lord.  Let him be Lord.  Learn to listen to him, and be responsive to his direction.  Don't make the mistake of replacing real discipleship with religious activity.  The consequences are dire.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Joshua Tree National Park

After my trip on the Pacific Crest Trail ended early this spring, Sue and I decided to do a little sightseeing before the flight home.  The first place we went was to the Joshua Tree National Park.  I have no memory of ever having been to this park, and had actually heard little about it.  I could not even remember seeing a Joshua Tree until just a couple of days before we decided to go.  But we had a week to fill and it was convenient, so off we went.

I was initially pretty bummed about missing a week on the trail, as well as hobbled and unable to walk much.  But I did enjoy the visit to this park.  It has a stark beauty that slowly grew on me.  The pictures don't really do it justice, at least not the pictures from my little point and shoot camera.  The rock formations were fascinating and the flowers were always unexpected.  It is a desert, and there is no water in the park, not even piped into the campgrounds.  And yet there were flowers everywhere, along with quite a number of birds and rodents.  There are also bigger animals, but they stayed hidden from us.

When we came into the park there was a water station where I filled our 5 gallon jug for a quarter.  From there we drove about 20 miles to the first campsite and setup for the night.  There were a series of sites in this campground tucked in around a large outcropping of rock.  While you could see the one on either side of you, the rest were hidden from our view.  We did some exploring that night and the next morning, driving most of the parks paved roads, as well as a few dirt  roads.  Unfortunately I wasn't up to making any of the day hikes that were available; I think I would have enjoyed that a lot.

I suspect that this park would become unbearable in the summertime, especially for those of us most accustomed to a cooler damper climate.  But it was wonderful in the spring, and I would not be adverse to making a trip back someday.

Joshua Trees are a bizarre form of Yucca, and many of them look like something from the fertile imagination of Dr Seuss.  I wonder if I could string a hammock between these two?

There were some places where the ground was carpeted with flowers.  Growing in sand, and with little moisture during the year, and yet they grow in abundance.

The sandstone rocks in the park have been carved into a myriad of unusual shapes.  It is amazing what wind and rain can do given enough time.

This is from on of the lookout points, Keys View I think, that looks out over the San Andreas fault to the San Jacinto mountains in the background.  The smog from the coastal cities was thick that day.

Like every place we went in Southern California, the cactus were in full bloom.  Not sure I would want to try and pick a bouquet though.

The occupant of the next campsite over for a while.  He bopped around for a bit, sampling the vegetation before eventually wandering off.

While I was taking a picture of the rabbit in the frame above, this guy decided he would try out my dinner.  After I chased him off he hung around close in the hopes that I would get distracted again.

Most of the Yuccas had finished blooming, but this one was a bit behind the curve.

This is the rocky outcropping where we camped; our tent is a little bit behind the car.  After we got set up we walked halfway around and then back through a low spot in the rocks.  A little bit of rock hopping was required, but no serious climbing.

Evening Primroses.  As we were leaving in the morning we found these all over the place.  But don't remember seeing them the day before.  Apparently you have to be there early before they close up.

In some places the Joshua Trees looked like they were in an orchard.  Lots of trees that sometimes lined up in rows.

This was a common shrub in the area. Mixed in with the blossoms are little purple bubbles, which I assume are the fruit it produces.  Fascinating!

Can you see the elephant?

How about the skull?  Looks like giants once roamed here.

As the rocks fracture, erosion begins to do its thing, and you might end up with what you see above.

Or with something like this.  Looks like a helmet for the giant who left the skull a couple of pictures up.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How to be Effective and Productive in Christ

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
2 Peter 1:5-9 NIV
This is an intriguing passage from 2 Peter.  Peter gives a list of virtues that most believers would concede are appropriate for a Christian.  But most who are honest would admit that they fall short in many of these areas.  The problem with that is not that we fall short, but that we seem to accept that that condition is acceptable.  I am the way that I am, and to change would just be too hard.

But Peter has a couple of interesting things to say about that.  First of all he tells us to have these qualities in increasing measure, and to make every effort to do so.  Do you struggle with perseverance?  Don't give up and  accept defeat in this area.  Instead make every effort to develop it in your life.  Do you feel like you do OK with perseverance?  Good!  Now seek to do even better.  No matter how poorly or well you are doing with any of these, there is always room from growth.  Make every effort to increase in each of them.

The second, and more interesting, thing that Peter has to say to me in this passage deals with the consequence of developing in these virtues.  If I possess them in increasing measure, if I am growing in perseverance, in godliness, in love, etc., then they will keep me from being ineffective and unproductive in my knowledge of Christ.  It is not enough to just have these virtues; I need to be growing in each of them.  I need to avoid reaching the place where I am content with who I am; because that is the road that leads to being ineffective and unproductive.

And just in case we didn't get it, Peter charges those who lack these virtues with being nearsighted and blind, and forgetting where they have come from.  I think it is likely that Peter was not just talking about having these virtues, but rather having them in increasing measure.  If we are not growing in faith, goodness, godliness, brotherly kindness, etc., it is an indication that we have lost sight of what God has called us to be and are happy with where we are.  We are just drifting aimlessly along through this life; and of minimal value in the kingdom's work.

Make every effort to grow in your faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love.  Doing so will ensure that you are both effective and productive in your work for the master.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Because of His Mercy

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.
Titus 3:3-5a NIV
It is tempting for those of us who have been believers for a long time to forget where we came from.  Having been following Jesus for over 40 years now, it seems like that is just my natural state, that I was born like this.  But that is far from the case.

Before surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus, I was deceived about who he was and his expectation for me.  I was never an atheist, and always acknowledged that Jesus was the Son of God.  But I did not really think that he had much to do with my daily life, nor do I recall, growing up in the church, that he seemed to make a lot of difference to most of the people that I was acquainted with.  Jesus was more an answer to Sunday school questions than he was a living person that I needed to consider.

My early life was primarily lived for myself, with just enough conformity to social and parental expectations to keep me out of trouble.  While I don't remember holding much malice towards others, or hating too many people, there is no question that my focus in life was on self.  And even now I struggle with self centeredness, having to work at putting others interests ahead of my own.

But God has saved me.  And it was not because I was a good person, or had done all the right things: I was not and had not.  But because of his mercy, he saved me.  I was unworthy, but God brought me into relationship with himself anyway.  And I am eternally grateful for that.

But the challenge in this passage for me now is to recognize that I am not any better than other people around me.  I cannot call myself a child of God because of my own merit; it was an act of God.  And yet it is so easy to play the part of the Pharisee in Jesus parable about the two men going to the temple to pray.  I want to think of myself as somehow more worthy or deserving of God's love than other people are.  Maybe it makes me feel better about myself, or helps me to minimize my own failures when I can point out those of others.  How much better to remember, with the tax collector in the parable, that I am a sinner, saved by God's mercy.

God has not called me to judge other people, nor to look down on them, but to love them.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Philadelphia: The Enduring Church

In the second and third chapters of Revelation are letters from Jesus to seven of the first century churches in what is today Turkey. While I believe these letters were addressed to real churches of that day, I also believe they have great application to our churches today. The sixth of these was to the church of Philadelphia.
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.  I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.  I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.  Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.  The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name.  Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Revelation 3:7-13 NIV
Jesus seems not to be too impressed with many of the things we typically look for in a church.  I want to be a part of a church that provides a good worship experience, where the preaching is challenging, where the teaching is Biblically based and draws me to God.  A church whose facility is clean and in good repair; where the people give enough to comfortably meet the financial needs of the church; and the people themselves are actively involved in the life of the body.  A church where the people are excited about God and what he is doing through them.

Some of the churches Jesus addresses in these letters seem to come close to the above, and Jesus commends them for that.  But those 'comfortable' churches seem to have other problems that are a threat to them.  Instead it is the poor church of Smyrna and the weak church of Philadelphia that Jesus commends without finding fault.  Churches that humanly have little going for them, and yet they appear to be the models that we need to learn from.

Philadelphia was a church with little strength.  You might picture them as meeting in a run down facility, struggling to pay their bills, without trained workers; hard to see how they could make much of a difference in the world around them.  But they were faithful to Jesus, and in His eyes that is worth more than anything else.

Jesus knew their deeds.  They were likely not newsworthy or impressive.  But they were faithfully serving and what they did, they did for Christ.  And because of that, Jesus had opened a door of opportunity for them that they were walking through; a door that this world would be unable to shut.  What was that door; was it the same door as in 3:20, the door that brings us into Jesus presence and fellowship with him?

Philadelphia had little.  But they faithfully endured.  They kept at it with what little they had.  They were not judged by how great the things they had accomplished were, but rather by what they had done with what they had.  And Philadelphia passed the test, and were promised that would be protected from the time of trial that would come on the whole world.

Rather than look at why we can't accomplish something as a church, we would do better to follow the example of Philadelphia and just be faithful in serving Jesus.  Taking advantage of the open doors he provides and giving him our all, regardless of how much or little that might seem to be.