Monday, October 24, 2016

Jonah's repentance

When we think of saints who failed, we often think of David's adultery. Or Peter's denial of Christ.

But we might not remember Jonah.

Jonah took disobedience to a radical level. He didn't just err in a moment of weakness. He was given a clear command--to preach to the inhabitants of Nineveh--and he chose to take a ship and travel in the opposite direction. There was simply no way he was going to preach to Israel's enemies, the Assyrians.

God was threatening destruction to this evil city. But Jonah knew that if he preached there, they might repent, and he knew God well enough to know that He would spare them if they did (check out Jonah 4:2). We might not think of loving our enemies as an Old Testament truth, but God never changes, nor His truth. And that's what Jonah was being called upon to do.

So instead of traveling about five hundred miles northeast, he takes a ship that would take him five times that distance to the west. However, the Lord sends a storm.

A really bad storm. The sailors were terrified, threw stuff overboard in an effort to save the ship, and cried out to their gods (Jonah 1:4-5). The captain finds Jonah fast asleep in the hold and urged him to pray to his god. But it's impossible to pray when you have no intention of obeying. We find no record of Jonah interceding.

But something really interesting does happen. The sailors cast lots, and decide that Jonah is the one responsible for this crisis--which is indeed the case. Jonah is brought to a stand. He realizes that he can't run and hide anymore.

He reveals everything. He describes his God, "who made the sea and the dry land." To pagan minds, this was significant. He is telling them that God has power over this storm. He tells them about his flight from the Lord. He concludes by saying that if they throw him into the sea, that it would become calm.

I suppose that if Jonah were merely depressed in a sort of selfish, self-absorbed way, he wouldn't have said all of this. But we can see his thinking shift. He is no longer sleeping away his rebellious depression. Instead, he has decided to save the lives of the others. Maybe it's not so heroic on his part. If he didn't direct them to throw him overboard, they would all die, himself included.

It's a small step, but an important one. He's telling the truth. About God. About himself. The word "repentance" is a translation of the Greek word "metanoia"--a change of mind.

And a core ingredient of godly repentance is recognizing the truth about God and about yourself. A person might "repent" in a superficial way, by recognizing that a certain behavior is destructive, and deciding to give it up. True repentance includes those outward things, but the outward is not the first step.

The first step is telling the truth. Owning the truth. Confessing it to others. And allowing it to make a difference in your decisions. We see all of this in Jonah.

You may remember the rest of the story. Jonah doesn't drown, but is swallowed by a huge fish or whale. In its belly he utters a wonderful prayer, recorded in Jonah 2:2-9. He's not just pouring out a lament. He's worshipping God in that awful darkness. It's a prayer of faith.

He ends up obeying God. He preaches to the folks in Nineveh, who repent. As expected they are spared, to Jonah's chagrin. He grumbles. He's human, after all. Even then, God gently corrects him.

Jonah repents, believes, and obeys. Salvation is of the Lord.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Remember Lot's wife

Remember Lot's wife.  Luke 17:32

I used to think that Lot's wife was stupid.  Judgment was coming, and the angels were saving them, but no, she had to look back.  She turned into a pillar of salt.  What was so great about Sodom?

This succinct command of the Lord Jesus to remember Lot's wife is found in a discussion of the day of the Son of Man.  He is warning all who will listen about the coming final judgment.  He compares it to past judgments: the days of Noah, the days of Lot.  He explains that everyone went about their business, occupied by the world and worldly pleasures, when suddenly judgment fell.

I have posted about Lot, Abraham's nephew, before.  He was a righteous man who got caught up in the world.  He pitched his tent near Sodom and eventually moved into the city proper.  This area was known for wickedness, especially homosexual sin.  In the scriptures the word Sodom is used elsewhere figuratively to indicate moral wickedness--and we get our English word "sodomy" from it as well.

But the Bible has a bit more to say about Sodom than that one particular sin.

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy.  Ezek. 16:49 ESV

Granted, the term Sodom is used figuratively here, but it does give us a bigger picture of the literal place.  Remember, the reason Lot moved there was because the whole Jordan River valley was lush and well-watered--a great place if you were raising livestock.  Undoubtedly the other inhabitants prospered too, with the result that they became rich.

Lot was "vexed" by the wickedness of the inhabitants, but he must have had a reason for eventually moving into the city of Sodom.  It may have been a city of commerce.  In fact, it probably had the bustle and bustle and general allure that many cities have today.  Lot's wife must have enjoyed her house in the city.  She undoubtedly had friends.  They must have gone shopping or visiting.  Since the prophet Ezekiel describes it as a place of much food and "ease," I suspect there may have been entertainments.  Imagine any modern American city, with food available everywhere and a cinema down the street.

Then imagine your husband pulling you out of your house and wanting to flee into the hills.  Seriously?  The message of judgment must have registered at some level, but surely it couldn't happen to Sodom.  After all, even if a few houses burned down, the city was wealthy and everything would quickly be back to normal.

Lot's wife had no clue.  She had no clue as to the power of God or the true enormity of Sodom's sin.  The sexual sin was only a part.  In fact, I suppose you could say that folks don't have as much time or opportunity for gross immorality if they are too busy working to feed themselves.  And I don't think her heart was enamored by the moral wickedness of the place.  She may have excused it in some way.  But her longing for Sodom was an attachment to these other things--the wealth, the food, the company, the entertainment.  And I doubt if her house looked like a shack.  After all, Lot sat in the "gate," which meant that he was a community leader of some kind.

Jesus said as much in our passage.  Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built--Luke 17:28

Lot's wife had a nice life, and she didn't want to lose it.

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.  Luke 17:33

This is the very next verse after the instruction to remember Lot's wife.  It is Jesus' own commentary on the subject.  The heart of this woman was in the world.

No, she wasn't "stupid," the way we all think of the word.  She had a nice life, and valued it more than Jehovah God. How applicable, especially for those of us who are rich.  The Bible speaks of riches as anything more than food and clothing (I Tim 6:8).

In Western countries, especially, we have everything Sodom did--and more.  Our food is of every kind.  We have cable TV, movies with CGI graphics, and every convenience conceivable.  We have leisure time with which to enjoy these things, and vacation destinations that are especially crafted as a fantasy land.  For those of a more studious bent, we have every book and website available at the touch of a button.  If you're an American, you have the added benefit of being a great industrial and military superpower.  Plenty of scope for pride.

We prefer to think highly of the U.S.--but in reality, it's Sodom.  In a sense, every earthly kingdom possesses some of its traits.  In The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan described Christian's trip through "Vanity Fair." A beautiful place, with plenty of shopping and entertainment.  But a very, very dangerous for pilgrims.

Remember Lot's wife.  Don't be like her.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Watching the Road

And he arose and came to his father.  But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.   --Luke 15:20

In the story of the prodigal son, we find a dissolute young man who comes to his senses and returns home.  He isn't expecting any favors.  He knows he doesn't deserve any.  He's spent his half of his father's inheritance, and he comes back hoping to be taken on as a servant.  At least then he'll be fed.

The wonder of his father's forgiveness opens a window into the heart of God for penitent sinners.  But there are at least two other truths I can see here.  One, that the entire property was now the inheritance of the other brother.  The prodigal would not receive any more--in other words, actions have consequences, though the guilt of sin may be forgiven.

Second, the father did not travel to the far country and drag his rebellious son home.  He waited.

When we think of family members and others dear to our hearts who have gone to that far country, we may be tempted to run after them.  Certainly in some cases there is a mandate for an "intervention," especially in the case of a child or other person living in the home.

I can imagine this father of Luke 15 pleading with his grown son not to leave.  Undoubtedly, he had received good instruction in his formative years.  But when all entreaty failed, the father let him go.  By demanding his inheritance, the son was cutting all ties.  There was nothing more to be said.

What must this father have felt?  I can imagine his heart yearning after his son, as David's did over Absalom.  He must have visited a spot on the road time after time, peering down its length, hoping against hope that one day his son would return.  He had no guarantees.  I wonder if he stood there, in the hot sun or in a chill wind, composing a message to send, or planning a possible trip--how could he convince his son of his foolishness?  In the end, he simply watched and waited.  And prayed.

Abraham prayed too.  In his case, he had a nephew who was making poor choices.  Lot was a believer in Jehovah God--according to Peter, writing in the New Testament, a "righteous" man (2 Pet 2:7).  But this righteous man had stumbled--or at the very least, acted shortsightedly.

You see, when the flocks and herds of these men increased, Abraham and Lot needed to part ways.  They simply needed more space.  Lot chose to go into the (then) well-watered plains of the Jordan River.  Abraham stayed in the higher country.

The land of Palestine was already inhabited by various groups.  Sodom and Gomorrah were the main cities near the Jordan, and they had a reputation in the worst possible sense.  Undoubtedly Lot understood all this.  In any case, he was a herder, not a city dweller.  What would it matter that he lived nearby?

Later we learn that he actually moved into Sodom.  He saw the depravity that went on there and Peter records that his soul was "vexed" by it (2 Pet 2:7).  It wasn't as though he approved.  But it was a bad decision.

Abraham must have seen all this as it happened.  I wonder what he was thinking.  I wonder if he said anything to Lot.  Maybe he did--maybe he sent a message to Lot telling him that living in Sodom was a bad idea.  I can imagine his wife laughing.  "Your stuffy uncle! Why is he so judgmental?"  We know from her later behavior that her heart was affected.

Finally, when the Lord came to Abraham, telling him that these cities were slated for destruction (Gen 18:17-33), the patriarch pleads with God.  "Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it?" (Gen 18:24)

Carefully and movingly he frames his argument.  Abraham keeps subtracting the number of necessary men needed for God to spare the city.  He stops at ten--the Lord promised that if there were ten righteous in the city, He would spare it for their sake.

In Gen 19:29 we read that "God remembered Abraham."   He did destroy the city, but not before he had extracted Lot.  He knew the intent of Abraham's prayer and answered accordingly.  However, Lot lost everything but his life.

He lost his wife (Gen 19:26).  He dwelt in a cave with his two daughters, who thought that the entire world was destroyed.  They made their father drunk, lay with him, and bore children.  Lot himself drops from the pages of history, known only in the misbegotten and ill-favored tribes descended from his daughters, Moab and Ammon.

Righteous Lot has a place around the Throne with Abraham and all the children of faith.  But sin has consequences.  I am sure Abraham never shut his door to his nephew, but he never ran after him either.  He did, however, run after him in prayer.

Many of us see loved ones hurting themselves, and we don't know the end of the story.  As we stand in the gap, watching and waiting, let us not be overcome by anxiety, but in faith let our requests be made known to God, "and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."  Phil 4:7

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Last Enemy

Death.  It is our last enemy.

We don't like to think about it.  Our culture has sanitized it, locked it away, or just ignored it.  We might see a gruesome fake corpse in a movie, but it's all pretend.  It isn't real until you are in that ICU, hearing the words that nothing can be done.  Or maybe it's a phone call.  There's been an accident.  I'm so sorry.

I was there.  It was time to take away Mom's life support, and the hospital staff were trying to be helpful.  They said we could have music or whatever we would like.  To make it more pleasant.  I wasn't quite sure what to make of this offer of amenities.  In the end, we asked for nothing special, and it was just as well.  She didn't last more than a couple of minutes.

Watching my mother die was one of the hardest things I think I've ever done.  She hadn't been conscious for some time, so in one sense it was like passing away in her sleep, but the body struggles to live, and that last gasp was really that.  The last effort of her body to breathe.  And then she was gone.

It was then that I concluded that death is ugly.

In my Bible I read that death is the result of the Fall.  Our first parents rejected God and in turn were cursed with something new called "death."

. . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you shall eat of it you shall surely die.--  Gen 2:17

God had given one proscription, one simple command.  They broke it, and the penalty was death.  The original Hebrew implies continuous action: they immediately entered into a state of dying.  They became mortal.  In the New Testament we receive further light on what "death" means:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins . . .  Eph 2:1

There is clearly a spiritual death, or separation, taught in the Scriptures.  The separation is between us and our Creator.  The cause is our sin.

Christ's substitutionary death opened the door for spiritual--and ultimately physical--restoration from the Curse of the Fall.  Eternal life is that renewed fellowship with God, which was purchased at so high a price.

And one day, physical death will be conquered too.  But like Christ, we must first pass through death's door to finally experience bodily resurrection and the restoration of all things.

So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."

"O Death, where is your sting?  O Hades, where is your victory"  I Cor 15:54-55

Today, we see death in all its ugliness.  But as believers we have hope, and when we see another believer fall asleep in death, we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.  We feel grief.  We feel sorrow and loss.  But underneath are the everlasting arms.

Christ is our Redeemer.  Christ is our conquering Captain.

For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.  The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.  I Cor 15:25-26

Monday, October 12, 2015

Guarding my House

Words shift their meanings over time.  Sometime the meaning remains but it's just kind of buried.

Like the word "keep."  When we define it in English, we quickly realize that it has a range of meanings--just check out Webster's if you doubt me.  A farmer keeps sheep.  I have kept my promise.  A woman keeps house.  She is a "housekeeper."

The Scriptures exhort us to be "keepers at home." (Titus 2:5)  A number of things may come to mind hearing this phrase.  When we think of a "housekeeper" we typically think of a married woman who spends her time cooking, cleaning, and caring for children.  She doesn't work outside the home.  This is our modern, cultural, English definition.

But let's take a closer look at the Greek.  Behind this phrase is a single compound word: "house" and "keep" put together.  It can mean "housekeeper" in the sense of someone who performs domestic duties.  But it has a broader meaning.  I think we can understand this better if we look at other passages of Scripture.

Proverbs 14:1 states that a wise woman builds her "house."  Well, I must say that I don't think this indicates that women were engaged in construction in Bible days.  Instead we see the word "house" as it was commonly used in the Old Testament: a household, a family.  We could say the wise or godly woman "builds" her family.  Caring for her husband and children isn't on some "to-do" list--it's at the center of her being.

The woman described in Proverbs 31 is an example of this.  The heart of her husband "trusts" in her--he knows she's not going to speak ill of him to her neighbors, or run up a big balance on the credit card buying shoes.  No, instead she does things that help out the economic situation of the family, and though not much is said about her children, we discover at the end of the passage that they esteem her highly.  She does things outside the home and even engages in trade--but she's not trying to escape her family.  She's actively "building" it, no matter where she is.

The second part of the word in Titus is "keep."  In the Greek it carries with it the idea of guarding.  We see this in English as well: the farmer keeps sheep.  He manages them, feeds them, and protects them.  Likewise, we are to guard our family.

Husbands do this too, although their role in building and protecting looks different.  Ours is often behind the scenes but just as important.  We protect our children from illness by using good hygiene and cooking healthy meals.  Along with our husbands, we teach them the Scriptures, and do our best to protect them from destructive influences in the world.  We pray for them.  We encourage our husbands and children, enabling them to do right.

Ever see a cute dishtowel in the store, and purchase it because it coordinates with your kitchen colors?  Even cleaning and decorating our homes are part of the family safeguard.  Keeping our tongues--watching what we say--is even more important.  Physically and emotionally, we want our homes to be places of rest.  You can help guard your husband from temptation by creating a welcome environment at home.

But most of all, we want our own hearts to be guarded with gospel armor. (Eph 6:10-18)  Don't let the cart get before the horse.  The better we understand the gospel of grace, the better able we will be to serve the Lord as a "family guardian."

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

#IAmAChristian

"Are you a Christian?"

This was the question asked by a young man armed with several weapons, standing in the doorway of a classroom located on a small Oregon college campus.   He asked the instructor first.  When she responded affirmatively, he fired a fatal shot.  Some of the students also confessed Christ and died almost instantly.  Others who did not profess faith received flesh wounds.

In the end, nine were dead and a number of others wounded, some critically.

Almost immediately the story of their courage went viral on social media.  A presidential candidate was seen holding a sign in support reading "I am a Christian."  T-shirts were made with #IAmAChristian emblazoned on the front, in an attempt to identify with the slain and remember them.

It's not the only time I have thought about my own mortality.

Most of us deal with death by buying life insurance.  We do those things that everybody recommends, not able to deny the event intellectually but maybe, just maybe, not acknowledging it in any real way.

Christians know that this life is temporary, but often we live as though it were not.  I know that is true for me.  The days string along, one after another, and each gray hair or wrinkle just irritates me in a superficial way.  Well, what hair dye shall I buy this month?

But when we read the New Testament we see an entirely different attitude.  For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain, the Apostle Paul wrote.  He knew that death was a positive thing because it meant going home.  Going home to be with Christ.

Jesus spoke of these matters in very real and graphic terms.  He spoke of the the rich man dying and experiencing torments (Luke 16:19-31).  He spoke of the Day of Judgment and the Resurrection.

Peter wrote of the heavens "passing away" (II Peter 3:10) and the world burning up.  His epistles exhort us to live as "sojourners and pilgrims" (I Pet 2:11)--this place is only temporary, and our "real" home--and our real citizenship--is in heaven.

I needed to be reminded that anything less than a genuine longing for the "blessed hope"--the return of Christ--is an indication of worldliness and spiritual sloth on my part.

He may not return in my lifetime, but in a way, that's irrelevant.  I may die today and then I will see Him.  I will see the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  For me.

Those who lay dead in that classroom were ushered into glory.  They are Home.

#IAmAChristian.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Eunice's Victory

As wives and mothers, we like things to be just right.  Floors cleaned. Pantry stocked.  Clothes pressed.  Children obedient.

In our dreams!  In reality, there are spots on the floor, sometimes meals aren't gourmet, laundry piles up, and our children . . . well, raising children is an incredible challenge.  We can feed them right, dress them, even teach them right from wrong, but they still often choose to do wrong.

And then there is the challenge of teaching them the Scriptures.  The most fundamental thing our children need.  The most lasting contribution we can give them.  Sometimes it can feel as if we're spinning our wheels.  Are they really learning?  Will it stick?  And what about the influences of the world, some of which may even be rooted inside the family.  Family members and friends who oppose any efforts at practical godliness.

I want to tell you about a woman named Eunice.  She is referred to three times in the Scriptures (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 3:15).  She was the mother of Timothy, the Apostle Paul's "son" in the faith.

Then he[Paul] came to Derbe and Lystra.  And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek.  Acts 16:1

Lystra was a town in modern-day Turkey.  Jews were living all over the Roman Empire, speaking the Greek language, and interacting with Greek culture.  But they maintained a separate identity and established synagogues for worship.  They had the Scriptures, too, written in Greek, which was what they spoke every day.  But in Lystra, the predominate religion was the worship of Greco-Roman demi-gods.  For devout Jews and later, Christians, there was a tension.  Sometimes even persecution.

This is where Eunice lived.  Her mother was devout and she learned the Scriptures.  But for some reason, she married a Greek.  Now some Greeks, hearing God's Word, became "proselytes."  They chose to identify with the Jews and obey the Law.  But this was not one of them.

We know this because their son Timothy was not circumcised as an infant.  A traditional Jew would be horrified at the thought of omitting this important ritual.  We don't know what Eunice thought about this.  We can guess that she was not pleased.  Or, perhaps, she may have wandered from her mother's instruction for a time.  It would explain the marriage.

Eunice may have understood that circumcision did not make a person right with God.  If not then, she must have learned it eventually, when she heard and embraced the gospel of grace.  Even Abraham was justified--made right with God--by faith even before he was circumcised, as Paul explains in Galatians.

Whatever Eunice's thoughts may have been, she did not give up.  She taught her son the Scriptures, assisted by her mother Lois.  It might have been tough at times.  It is quite possible that Timothy's father educated him in the traditional Greek way.  This would be like having your child attend a public school all day--then you get the "remnants" of your child's time and attention.  But despite these hardships, Paul remembers this mother and grandmother when writing to Timothy:

when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also . . .  2 Tim 1:5

It wasn't the "perfect" Christian family.  Such a thing does not exist.  Eunice faced unique trials.  But she was faithful and is now forever remembered in the annals of Scripture.  Her name, translated from the Greek, means, "good victory."