Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When was the last time you pulled a Daniel?

Photo courtesy of Rassing
Gabriel, who I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering. Daniel 9:21b.

The book of Daniel has to be one of the most fascinating in the entire Bible. Not only does it contain some of the most memorable stories (Shadrack, Meshack and Abed-nego; Daniel in the lion's den) but it also holds some of the most spellbinding visions and mind-blowing prophecies. I can't remember if it was a commentary, study note or a Bible study, but someone pointed out to me that Daniel is one of the few people (if not the only person) about whom nothing negative is said in the Bible. We all know that King David was hailed as "a man after God's own heart," but then there was that thing with Bathsheba. Moses was perhaps the greatest leader that Israel ever knew, but he also second guessed God from time to time. Peter was called the rock and is credited with some of the greatest statements in the Gospels, but he also denied Jesus three times. Daniel on the other hand seems to have no Achilles heel. Yet, in spite of his exemplary character, he is also a man of extreme humility before God.

Daniel chapter 9 contains the text of one of the prophets most incredible prayers for God's people. I believe that this prayer is a wonderful model for a prayer that God honors and also a beautiful prayer that must precede true, authentic revival. Now, more than ever, we need this kind of prayer in our nation. Here it is in it's entirety from the New American Standard Bible (accessed from www.biblegateway.com).

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments,we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances. Moreover, we have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land.
Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day—to the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, those who are nearby and those who are far away in all the countries to which You have driven them, because of their unfaithful deeds which they have committed against You. Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; 10 nor have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets. 11 Indeed all Israel has transgressed Your law and turned aside, not obeying Your voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him. 12 Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Your truth. 14 Therefore the Lord has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice.
15 “And now, O Lord our God, who have brought Your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and have made a name for Yourself, as it is this day—we have sinned, we have been wicked.16 O Lord, in accordance with all Your righteous acts, let now Your anger and Your wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people have become a reproach to all those around us. 17 So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Your servant and to his supplications, and for Your sake, O Lord, let Your face shine on Your desolate sanctuary. 18 O my God, incline Your ear and hear! Open Your eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Your name; for we are not presenting our supplications before You on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Your great compassion. 19 O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Your own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name.

There is so much going on in this prayer that I could, and indeed might, spend several posts "unpacking" it. However, after reading through that prayer the narrative shifts and Daniel is visited by the angel Gabriel. He has some very important material to cover with Daniel but what struck me was the phrase noted at the beginning of this post, "in my extreme weariness..." Daniel tells us that this weariness hits him at the time of the evening sacrifice which would have been about 3 pm. Now, I have to admit that 3 pm is smack dab in the middle of prime afternoon nap time but I think Daniel's weariness comes from a different source. I think Daniel is weary because he has been praying his heart out. That brought a question to my mind, one that I think is worth sharing;

When was the last time you prayed to the point of weariness? 

Prayer is one of the central spiritual disciplines throughout God's Word and Christian history. If you look in the book of Acts it seems that everything the disciples did was only done after some considerable prayer time. Even Jesus Himself, the God-Man, spent a huge amount of time in prayer. If we read the story of the Garden of Gethsemane it is clear that Jesus prayed not only to the point of weariness, but to the point of physical distress. I don't know about you, but my casual time spent at the Throne is looking less and less significant in light of these examples.

I wonder if our concept of prayer has not been polluted over the centuries of easy spiritual living in America. No longer is time spent on our knees seen as doing battle with the principalities and forces of darkness, or pleading for the life of God's people, or humbly admitting our wrongdoing and seeking the forgiveness and lovingkindness of a powerful yet compassionate God. Rather it is a cute way in which we try to get things that we want from a God who can give them, or a way in which was check a spiritual "box" a few times a week (sort of like going to church). 

Make no mistake about it, I am not pointing a finger at anyone that I am not pointing at myself on this issue. However, I think it is time we truly begin to pray. I mean, really PRAY. Pray to the point of exhaustion and then when we think we can't do it any more, pray some more and then collapse at the foot of the Throne casting ourselves on the mercy and power of God Almighty. It is interesting to note that the order was given to Gabriel to go to Daniel as soon as he began to pray. Why the delay then? Why did Gabriel, at God's command, wait until Daniel was exhausted? I admit that I don't have a solid answer for that, but what if there was something for Daniel to get out of the extended prayer time? What if there is more for us to learn during the process of prayer that would not be immediately evident should the answer be given right when we start? Maybe, just maybe, God wants us to spend time on our knees in the "prayer closet." What are those lessons? That is between you and God and they're certainly not going to come from reading one blog post, but can only be discerned through the act and discipline of prayer. So, let us weary ourselves with prayer and see just what God has for us during the journey.


Monday, May 20, 2013

The Incredible Power of Redemption

Photo courtesy of liesmich
As for you, you meant evil against me, but god meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. Genesis 50:20

I don't think I would be telling you anything new if I were to say that we live in a world that is increasingly dark, dangerous and evil. Despite the claims of some that say we, as a human race, are evolving into a better and better race, the evidence to the contrary seems to be overwhelming. Though some say that humans have been around for several hundred thousand years we are still dealing with the same vices and social misconduct that has been occurring since the beginning of recorded history. Each and every day the drama of Cain and Abel is played out on the news right before our very eyes. One thing is very clear to me, and that is the truth of an elderly King Solomon's words that there is "nothing new under the sun."

For many of us tragedy and heartache does not come in forms that are "newsworthy" by the world's standards. Most of us, if we have traveled around the sun more than two or three times, have experienced disappointment on one level or another and have come face to face with the darkness that this world has to offer. A large number of men and women have experienced, firsthand, the vileness of war and the killing fields of Europe, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other unnamed theaters of combat. Nearly everyone has been touched by the awful  disease of cancer. Most have lost loved ones, and if we haven't, we surely will someday. It is no wonder that many...too many... people decide that the difficulties of this life are not worth the effort and choose death as a viable alternative.

My dear readers, how ever many or few you may be, I want you to rest assured today that God's Word is clear that as long as humanity survives in this world there will be sadness, heartache, death and tragedy. Unfortunately, this is the result of the choice we have made to follow our own selfish desires instead of God's commands. Human suffering in this life is a result of our own choices and the activity of evil forces lead by Satan.

Now, having painted a rather grim picture I want to offer you the beautiful "other side of the coin." After God placed humanity on this earth and we subsequently rejected His will and ways, He could have done what most of us would have done...given up on us. Thank goodness He didn't. Despite our rejection and arrogant demands that we do things our way, God has not given up on us. You see, one of the most powerful truths of Scripture is that God can redeem any situation for His purposes. There is nothing, or no one, beyond His expansive reach of grace and mercy.

In the passage exemplified by the verse above, Joseph acknowledges that his brothers sought to do something evil to him. That is, they were jealous of his favored position in the family so they sold him into slavery and told his father, Jacob, that he was dead. The only shred of compassion that we see in the brothers comes from Judah who suggested they make a profit off of their brother and sell him rather than kill him. Their act of jealousy was purely evil. However, God was not satisfied to stand by and allow their evil intentions to go unchecked. Instead, God used their evil act to do something great for His people, namely situate Joseph in a position that would lead to the provision of His people in their time of great need. What they meant for evil, God intended to use for good. He redeemed a bad situation.

This is still one of the most glorious ways in which God acts in this world. In spite of so much evil and darkness we can still, if we are willing to look hard enough and long enough, see God's hand at work. The most amazing example of this truth is seen in God's plan for the redemption of mankind from our sins. What happened to Christ on the cross was an unadulterated act of evil. Up to that point man's evil actions were typically directed towards other men and God's messengers (think about the prophets). That day, from the Garden of Gethsemane to the hill of Golgotha, man's evil was directed at God Himself and His one and only Son. Then, just as man and Satan thought they had achieved a measure of victory over this pesky God, Christ lifted His eyes to the heavens and proclaimed, "It is finished." Three days later, just in case there was any doubt about the real victor in this situation, Christ arose victoriously from the grave defeating even death. God Almighty had redeemed the human race by redeeming an awful means of torture and execution. Today when we see the cross we are far more likely to associate it with the salvation that God offers us than with a cruel instrument of death. From that day forward the cross would never be the same and neither would humanity.

While we should never loose sight of the gruesome beauty of the cross we must also understand that God is still doing the same thing today. His ultimate work of redemption may have reached it's zenith on Calvary but He didn't just quit. Evil men and evil forces of Satan may have evil intentions but God can still turn them on their heads and use them for good. It is as if God looks down and says, "You think you are going to win. You think you're going to thwart my work in this world but watch this!" The grave mistake that many people make is that they believe that God and Satan are co-equal but opposite forces. This could not be further from the truth. There is no yin and yang. The power of God is not subject to the laws of physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. God is so vastly superior to Satan that the two should not even be thought of as similar in any form or fashion.

I don't want the immensity of this truth to escape you. Every murder that is committed, God can redeem somehow. Every diagnosis of disease, God can redeem. Every broken relationship, God can redeem. Every war, tragedy, and evil action, God can redeem! Let me offer an example. When I was very young my parents separated and ultimately divorced. This was a horrible blow to our family as it would be to any family. However, despite that tragic situation God still worked among the members of my family and redeemed it for His purposes and glory. Because of that divorce I have been blessed with three step-sisters, two additional parents and three additional grandparents. That is not to mention the opportunities that I have had as a result of the break and re-formation of what I now call my family. My suspicion is that each of us can find similar examples in our own lives and this is one of the most breath-taking parts of God's work in our world. There is no evil or tragedy that God cannot overcome and use, none, period, end of story.

As rough as our world is and as much suffering as we encounter it will never be enough to overshadow the limitless power of God to work things out for the good of those who love Him. That is the power of the Gospel that we can see, very vividly, in this life. Take heart, because the talking-heads on the news may not know what we know. Shoot! They may not know who we know. Those who say we have no hope are countered by the Living Hope that we have in a resurrected, glorified and active Savior.


Monday, May 13, 2013

How is Value Determined?

Value is something that we are intimately familiar with. Now, I'm not talking about value in the sense of the "values" that you hold, as in moral framework. I'm talking about what something is worth to you. Nearly every day we are faced with the question of what something is worth. For many of us, the value of motorized transportation is greater than the price of a gallon of gas. That is, we want to get somewhere bad enough that we will pay whatever the going rate is for fuel (I hesitate to put a dollar amount on it as it fluctuates on a daily basis). This concept is most obvious in our monetary transactions but it can be seen in other areas as well. How we spend our time is another way we can understand what we value in this life. Do we choose to spend time with family when we have the chance, or would we rather do something that only we are interested in, never-mind the rest of the family?

This brings up the question of how we determine value. Economically speaking the answer is fairly straight-forward. It either has to do with what people are willing to pay for an item/ service, or how saturated the market is with said item/service. Usually, if the demand is high and the supply is low then the price will be high. Diamonds, for example, have been given a high intrinsic value because they are hard to come by and people are willing to pay high prices for them. Since I am no economist, I'm going to leave this as it is for now before I make some grand error in judgment.

As you may have suspected, my point has little to do with economics and supply and demand. If so, you are correct. The other evening my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending the annual banquet for our local pregnancy resource center, the PRC of Stanly County. This is a ministry that we believe in and choose to support in whatever way we can because it deals with the foundational issue of life. This year the speaker for the banquet was Shawn Carney of the "Forty Days for Life" Campaign. While his entire presentation was powerful and moving he did make one statement that was more thought-provoking than the rest for me. In, perhaps a terrible paraphrase, he said  this:

We have a problem when our will determines the value of human life.

He preceded this comment with a tragic story of a young couple who was trying to have children and found out they had been successful in conceiving. They were elated and soon discovered that they would not be having one child, but two. As they continued to make preparations for their new arrivals they were told that one of the children would be born with Down's Syndrome. The decision was made to abort the Down's baby. Much to their horror, and the horror of the doctor, the wrong child was aborted. In their grief they elected to go ahead and abort the other one as well. This sent the doctor into a state of mental breakdown which lead to his residency at a mental institution. Why? We were told that his explanation was that "I killed a wanted child."

There are many, many things in this life that we get to determine the value of. We get to decide if going somewhere is worth the price of gas. We get to decide if buying the 2 carat diamond ring is worth the thousands of dollars that we will spend on it. This past Easter my wife was going to buy an Easter outfit and asked if I would like one too. I told her, "No, I have plenty of clothes and there are other things I would rather have than a new tie." I have every earthly and heavenly right to make that value call. However, there are some things, the things that are ultimately precious, that we have no right to determine the value of. The foremost of which is life.

God alone, being the Author and Giver of life, has the right to determine how valuable one is. Let's look at some of His own words on the matter.

Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. Luke 12:7

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness...God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them...God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good." Genesis 1:26a,27,31a.

You'll probably recognize this one.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

God thinks that humans are valuable enough to create us in His image, number our hairs, care for us more than any other created thing and, most stunningly, send His Son to die for us. This is the worth that God has placed on human beings and He is the only One who has the right to do so. You see, as we have discussed, value is determined by an agreement between the seller and the buyer. Think of cars, the dealership puts a price on the vehicle and the prospective buyer comes in and makes a counteroffer. This goes on until both parties reach an agreement. Here is what we need to understand about life. God is both the "seller" and the "buyer." Like General Motors or Ford does for cars, God carries the sole responsibility for the creation of life. Look at what the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139:13-14;

For you formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.

Like the potential car buyer, God also has paid the price to redeem human life. He was willing to pay the highest price imaginable to heal the wound of sin. That, my friends, is how valuable each and every human life is to God. We run a serious risk when we begin to devalue what God has said is of utmost value. While our personal tastes, dreams and desires are fine ways to determine the value of some things, they are absolutely inappropriate when it comes to determining the worth of a human life. That is God's territory and He has spoken clearly and loudly on the matter. All life is precious because it is a creation of the will of God Almighty. Human life is even more precious because we have been created in His image, fearfully and wonderfully, and we alone can say that the breath of God has given us a soul and spirit.

We must be very careful. The issue of life is foundational and it is clear. If we miss it on this issue there is little hope that we will get it right on any of the other issues. Sadly, the raging debate over life shows the depths to which we have sunk in our society. If we can't figure out that 2 + 2 = 4 we have little chance of grasping the more complicated subjects of algebra and trigonometry. Furthermore, we have just participated in the National Day of Prayer and the bulk of the prayers that were offered revolved around asking God to bless our nation. What right do we have to ask God to bless us if we so wantonly disregard His will and commandments on something as simple as life? We can rest assured that there will come a day when we will be held accountable for the low status that we have given the "least of these" in our society. God will not be mocked and His patience, though long, will not last forever.

Let me close with the theme verse for the PRC banquet this year;

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, be obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him... Deuteronomy 30:19-20a.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Who's that Next to You?

When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. Luke 12:11-12.

What I want to share today is one specific truth that showed up in my sermon yesterday. If my fingers and eyes could handle it I would certainly share the entire sermon but for now let me just focus on one thing. The title of the message was "Fear & Fear Not" and the passage was Luke 12:1-12 where Jesus is preparing His disciples for the opposition and persecution that is to come. What He proceeds to do is offer a series of things that the disciples should not be afraid of and some things that they should be afraid of, not least of which is God Almighty who, as verse 5 tells us, has authority to cast into hell. The really great news is that the same God who has the power and authority to take our lives from us and send our souls to everlasting torment, also cares deeply for us. How deeply? Enough to send His own Son to die on our behalf...that's how deeply.

Now, before I stray too far from the main point let me jump down to verses 11-12. Here Jesus brings the point back around and offers some comfort and confidence to His followers who are sure to face opposition, trials and persecution. In Matthew's version of this same conversation he records that Jesus told the disciples in no uncertain terms that they were in for quite a ride;

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! Matthew 10:24-25

If we look back in Luke 11:15 we find that the Pharisees had already said that Jesus was in league with Satan so He quite simply tells His followers that they should expect no better treatment. The truth of this statement has been seen for the past 2000 years of Christian history. If Church history is marked by one thing, it is persecution. If, or when, this persecution will come to the American Church is not information I am privy to. However, I can say that by looking at our culture and society, if we continue on the road that we are on, the persecution will come in a manner more severe than we have experienced thus far. This is precisely what Jesus is preparing us for in this passage.

No fewer than three times in this passage Jesus has told His followers not to be afraid (or some variant of it). The statement in question today is a clear message of comfort for when opposition shows up. This is not some promise that we can claim so we don't have to spend time studying God's Word, or praying or meditating on His precepts. Preachers don't get to name and claim this verse when they don't want to prepare for the sermon on Sunday. What it is, is a promise that during those spur-of-the-moment trials, those times when we suddenly find ourselves having to give an account for our faith, the Holy Spirit will be there with us.

If we look at Proverbs 3:25-26 we see this point, not only reiterated, but magnified.

Do not be afraid of sudden fear nor of the onslaught of the wicked when it comes; For the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.

Here is the really exciting part. The phrase translated "your confidence" could be translated another way. In all of the English translations that I looked in (NASB, NIV, KJV, ESV) they all said "your confidence" but the literal meaning is this...For the Lord will be at your side. "At your side." This is incredible and I hope it makes you as excited as I am. If we are standing for Christ. If we are standing on His Word and His truth, then no matter who opposes us and thinks they have the deck stacked against us...God will be standing right by our side. To that Paul would ask the question, "If God is for us...who can be against us?" I should say that having God Almighty standing for us should give us an enormous amount of confidence! This, dear friends, is what we can count on when trials and persecution come our way and Jesus has told us we have good reason not to fear because if we confess Christ, He will confess us and if we stand for God, He will stand right by our side in the sudden fear and the storm of the wicked. Praise God! He will not abandon us in the time of our deepest and most urgent need or in the time of our greatest victory. Praise Him!