Posts filed under ‘Devotional Thoughts’

Put Down Your Sword

When I was in seminary, I took a road trip with some buddies to the tiny west Texas town of Marfa, famed for its “mystery lights.” These lights appear regularly at dusk and before dawn on Mitchell Flat, just east of Marfa. Strange orbs hover in the night sky – joining with and separating from each other, appearing and disappearing, and changing colors. For decades, researchers, scientists, and curious onlookers have tried to figure out the mystery of the lights. Some say they’re a mirage caused by sharp temperature gradients between cold and warm layers of air. Others say they’re headlights from nearby U.S. Highway 67. Others have paranormal explanations.

The night I and my buddies saw the lights, we made it our mission to solve the mystery once and for all. We took my friend’s Camaro off-roading across the plain to catch the lights. Shockingly enough, we did not. We did, however, raise the hackles of some very annoyed locals who did not like us leaving tire tracks across their land. They let us know in no uncertain terms that the plain was off-limits and it was time for us to leave.

When Adam and Eve stray from God’s command to not eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and go off-roading into evil, God lets them know in no uncertain terms that the idyllic Garden of Eden in which He has placed them is now off-limits and that it is time for them to leave. In fact, just to ensure they never enter the Garden again, He installs what is quite literally a “flashy” security system:

He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)

Adam and Eve were able to eat from the tree of life before their fall into sin because they were designed to live eternally. But now, that tree and God’s garden is blocked by a sword that will bring about their death if they try to breach it.

The night before Jesus goes to the cross, He, like Adam and Eve, finds Himself in a garden – the Garden of Gethsemane. After He spends some agonizing moments in prayer about His impending torture and death, a coterie of Jesus’ enemies comes to arrest Him and drag Him away to a series of show trials to try to convict Him of heresy against Jewish theological teaching and treason against the Roman government. Peter, who is with Jesus, boldly brandishes his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, who is part of the seditious mob. But Jesus, instead of thanking Peter for his loyalty, rebukes him:

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

It was a sword that once guarded Adam and Eve from a garden. But Jesus will not allow a sword to guard Him in a garden.

Jesus, it turns out, has come to cast out the sword from the garden. As He makes His way to the cross, He is systematically disarming the curse of sin that blocks us from eternal life and threatens our eternal death. The sword is disarmed. The garden is open. As Charles Wesley says in his great Easter hymn:

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!

Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!

Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!

Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

The paradise that was once closed by a curse to Adam and Eve has been opened to us by a cross. That most certainly deserves our hearty, “Alleluia!”

April 12, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why We Need Easter

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In an article for The Washington Post, Emma Pattee writes about how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us face-to-face with the reality of our mortality:

You probably remember where you were that day in March when you first realized that the novel coronavirus was something …

I remember where I was: driving to the gym for a Mommy & Me boot camp.

I pulled up to a red light and locked eyes with my 6-month-old baby in the rearview mirror. I felt unsettled and scared. I had an inexplicable urge to go home, and also to call everyone I knew and check on them. Yet nothing had happened. I was safe, healthy and employed. At that point, in mid-March, I was more likely to die of a car accident than of contracting covid-19 …

That eerie uncomfortable feeling has been described as grief. As fear. Or anxiety. But Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist and professor at Skidmore College, has a more robust explanation: It is the existential anxiety caused by reminders of our own mortality.

Simply put, to function as a conscious being, it’s imperative that you be in denial about your impending death. How else would you go about the mundane aspects of your daily life – cleaning the gutters, paying the bills, sitting in traffic – if you were constantly aware of the inevitability of your own death?

Ms. Pattee goes on to cite studies that have found that we seem to be hardwired to fear death and to avoid thinking about it:

neurological study was published in 2019 about a mechanism in the brain that avoids awareness of a person’s own mortality and that categorizes death as something unfortunate that happens to other people. …

An Israeli study showed some participants a flier about death anxiety and others one about back pain. When subjects were then offered an alcoholic beverage, one-third of the death flier group bought alcohol vs. one-tenth of the back-pain group.

We don’t like death. And the day we celebrated yesterday – Easter – gives us an answer as to why.

Scripture’s story is that we were created not to die, but to live. But when our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell into sin, they reaped the wage of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). But this wage disordered the way creation was designed to be. It was designed to be filled with life – not marred by death.

Our dislike and fear of death, then, can be rightly said to be a yearning for the way we know things “should be.” We should not have to mourn the loss of our loved ones. We should not have to struggle and suffer through a pandemic. We should not have to endure horrific acts of violence that lead to death like wars and mass shootings. We should not have to deal with death. We can sense that dealing with death is, in some way, profoundly unnatural.

This is why we need Easter. Easter is the beginning of a return to the way they were always supposed to be. As Timothy Keller puts it in his book Hope in Times of Fear:

The resurrection was indeed a miraculous display of God’s power, but we should not see it as a suspension of the natural order of the world. Rather it was the beginning of the restoration of the natural order of the world, the world as God intended it to be.

In other words, death is wrong. Resurrection is right. Life is what the world was designed for, which is why it’s what we yearn for. And our yearnings will be fulfilled.

Christ’s resurrection is not only a feat against death, but a forecast that death will not have the last word. Christ’s resurrection, the apostle Paul says, is a “firstfruits” of our own resurrections (1 Corinthians 15:20). As Christ is risen, we will rise. And death will die. This is the message and the promise of Easter.

I hope you celebrated Easter well yesterday. And I hope you’ll hold on to all that Easter is today – and every day.

April 5, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Fig Tree Undone

Yesterday began Holy Week, which commemorates the final days of Jesus’ life along with His crucifixion and resurrection. On the Monday of Holy Week, Jesus performs one of His most puzzling acts:

Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to find out if it had any fruit. When He reached it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then He said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And His disciples heard Him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree You cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)

What an odd episode. Jesus fierily curses a fig tree for no apparent reason. What is going on?

When Adam and Eve fall into sin after disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Genesis records:

The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

An old Jewish tradition claims that the forbidden fruit itself was figs, with a Talmudic rabbi writing:

That which caused their downfall was then used to rectify them.

In other words, Adam and Eve tried to use the fruit with which they sinned to cover their sin.

But Adam and Eve’s pitiful fig leaf getups prove useless. They cannot hide their sin from God. God confronts them in their sin, curses them because of their sin, but then blesses them despite their sin:

The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

God sacrifices and skins an animal to make a garment far better than anything they can make for themselves.

Jesus’ strange fig tree curse hearkens back to Adam and Eve’s fig leaf failure. Our pathetic attempts to hide our sin never work. So, on His way to the cross, Jesus graphically condemns every human attempt to fix ourselves in our sin when He curses a fig tree and its leaves. But in its place, God sacrifices His Son and gives us a garment infinitely better than anything we can come up with by ourselves – “a robe of His righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10)

Jesus’ curse on the fig tree undoes the curse of our sin and reminds us that there is a better tree – not a fig tree that brings death, but a cruciform tree that grants life.

March 29, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Shadow-Side of Freedom

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Last week, the latch on our backdoor handle got stuck. After working it loose, I discovered that the whole handle was worn out and needed to be replaced. I groaned inwardly because I am not known for being handy. To put it mildly, I am “home improvement compromised.” But, after trudging to Lowe’s to purchase a new handle, I scoured YouTube and found a guy with a thick southern accent who walked me through the process of replacing a door handle step-by-step. Everything was replaced, rekeyed, and ready to go within a few minutes. And I was more than a little thankful for the YouTube handyman who was wiser to the ways of door handles than I was.

In a famous 1946 lecture, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre quipped:

Man cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

Sartre argues that when it comes to living, you just have to “figure it out.” He goes on to tell the story of a young man, who was once a student of his, who struggled to decide whether to stay and care for his mother in Paris or join the Free French Forces and fight the Nazis. Sartre asks of this young man’s moral dilemma:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.

According to Sartre, this young man was just going to have to “figure it out.”

Sartre concludes his lecture:

Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.

Sartre’s lecture, at first glance, carries with a lucrative offer of freedom. There is no higher authority of power, he argues, to which you can appeal to make life’s decisions than yourself. You can choose for yourself by looking to yourself. But, as my door handle experience reminded me, there are times where looking to yourself is not freeing, but frightening. Sartre admits as much when he says:

Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

Too much freedom, it turns out, can feel like condemnation because, as initially nice as it may be to jettison a higher authority who looks over your shoulder and tells you what to do, you are still not truly free in one very important way – you are not free not to choose. You must choose something and then live with the consequences of your choice, no matter how awful. Everything rests on you, and you just have to “figure it out.”

The promise of Christianity is not that it removes or avoids all human responsibility and choice. There are plenty of calls in the pages of Scripture for humans to live morally and to choose wisely. But all of this human responsibility is placed inside a larger story of divine sovereignty. God is ultimately in control, offering guidance so that we may make righteous decisions and offering forgiveness for all the times we do not. We are not left merely to our own devices to “figure it out.”

One of the implicit criticisms Sartre levels against Christianity is in the story of his young student who is trying to decide between remaining in Paris to take care of his mother or joining the Free French Forces to fight the Nazis. Sartre explains that divine guidance will do this man no good because there is no divine guidance to tell this man what to do:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

But Sartre misses something in his characterization of God’s guidance. The young man in Sartre’s story faces two choices that could be considered moral. But just because there is no divine command that will make this young man’s particular decision for him does not mean that there is no sovereign help.

The Psalmist says:

The LORD is with me; He is my helper. (Psalm 118:7)

A lack of specific guidance from God about a specific decision does not mean that there is a lack of the presence of God through every decision. God will be with us – in our best decisions and our worst – with a freedom that removes burdens instead of one that creates them. For even when we don’t know what to do, He will help us through, and He will work things out, even when things – or when we – go astray. We don’t just have to “figure it out.” Instead, we can trust in Him.

March 8, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Jesus’ Love For Children Lost

Jesus Christ, Statue, Children, Catholic, Virginia
Credit: Pixabay

One of the most moving moments of being a pastor is sitting with a family who has just lost a child. Perhaps they had a miscarriage. Perhaps their baby never made it out of the NICU. Perhaps their child lost their life in a tragic accident. There are many questions that a family asks at a moment like this:

How could God allow this to happen?

Did this happen because we did something wrong?

But there is one question I want to focus on in this blog:

Is my child in heaven with Jesus?

This is a weighty question because it reaches beyond a parent’s present pain and cries out desperately for an eternal hope. It deserves our serious consideration.

There is a famous episode in Mark 10 that gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with children:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

There is an interesting debate over Jesus’ words in verse 14 when He says, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” What is the referent of “such as these”? Some say the referent is found at the beginning of verse 14 in “the little children.” This means that Jesus is not only welcoming a particular group of little children into His arms at this moment, but making a broader declaration about how the kingdom of God belongs to many other little children who are like these but who are also beyond these. The phrase “such as these,” then, reminds us that “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world.”

There are others, however, who argue that the phrase “such as these” is better informed by the word “anyone” in the next verse. In this interpretation, Jesus is not declaring that little children can enter His kingdom. Instead, He is only calling people in general to have a childlike faith. Though Jesus is certainly calling people to have a childlike faith in verse 15, syntactically, the specific referent of “such as these” is quite clear. In Greek, the word for the phrase “such as these” is tointoun, which is neuter. The word for the children who come to Jesus is paidia, which is also neuter. The word for “anyone” in verse 15 is hos, which is masculine. It is important to note that the genders of each of these words are incidental features of Greek syntax and not determinative of which genders of human beings can and cannot enter God’s kingdom. Syntactically, however, Greek pronouns and nouns do need to generally match in their genders. Thus, the first interpretation of which referent is the appropriate one for the phrase “such as these” is correct: it is children like the ones who are coming to Jesus in Mark 10 who can enter God’s kingdom. Age is no barrier to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Of course, I would not walk a grieving family who has just lost a child through the technicalities of the Greek syntax in Mark 10 like I did in this blog. But a careful consideration of the syntax is important for my pastoral ministry because it allows me to confidently proclaim:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

Just because a baby cannot intellectually assent to the great truths of the Christian faith does not mean they are barred from eternal life. Indeed, one of the reasons that adults can have a faith like a child is because there is such a thing as a faith of a child (cf. Matthew 18:6). Children – and even babies – can sing babbling praises to the Lord (Matthew 21:15-16). Babies – and even infants in the womb – can respond to God’s good news of a Messiah (Luke 1:41-42). A child lost to a parent does not mean a child lost to the Lord.

If you are reading this and you have lost a child, this I want you to know:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

You can have hope.

If you are reading this and you have a child or are expecting one, share with them God’s Word, even from the womb. Allow them to hear the voice of their Savior calling them. It’s never too early to teach the faith because it’s never too early for someone to have faith. And it is by faith that we live – and live eternally.

March 1, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Unleavened Living

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While writing to the church at Galatia, Paul issues the Christians there a warning in metaphor:

A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)

Though this may sound strange to us, it would have been powerful to its first-century readers.

Yeast plays a prominent role in a seminal event in Israel’s history – the Passover. When God is preparing to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt, He gives them some instructions on a meal they are to prepare:

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD – a lasting ordinance. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. (Exodus 12:3, 6-8, 10, 14, 17)

On the night of the Passover, God promises to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt. Before their rescue, God calls upon them to prepare a meal. But it has to be prepared and eaten “in haste.” Thus, rather than preparing leavened bread and having to wait for the yeast to rise, they bake and eat unleavened bread.

When the Israelites slipped out from their surly bonds of Egyptian slavery, they did not have time to do much of anything – even bake properly leavened bread. But that’s okay – because God did everything. He was the One who rescued them. He was the One who redeemed them. He was the One who saved them.

When Paul writes to the Galatians, he writes to a group of Christians who have been infiltrated by some false teachers who argue that, in order to be saved, even Gentile converts must be circumcised according to Jewish Old Testament law. Paul is forceful in his denunciation of their position:

I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:3-4)

Paul argues that to follow one part of the law in order to somehow add to your salvation means you must follow the whole of the Old Testament law, which negates the need for Christ. After all, if you can follow the Old Testament law perfectly, then you are perfect and do not need a Savior. Paul follows this assertion up with his metaphor:

A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)

In other words, even a bit of self-salvation like, let’s say, adding a requirement of circumcision to what Christ has done won’t stop there. More and more laws will be added. These laws will work their way through the whole batch of your life. And the harder you work to follow these rules, the more puffed with pride you will become – just like yeast puffs up dough. But you will only be fooling yourself, for even your best efforts will be revealed plainly to be pitiful when measured against God’s perfection.

Paul’s invitation, then, is this: live unleavened. Don’t live puffed up. Just as God did all the work to save the Israelites on that Passover night, God has done all the work to save you on the cross. You do not need the yeast of self-righteousness and your works, but the bread of life, who is Jesus Christ, and His work.

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:6-7)

February 15, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Cain, Kenites, and Relationships

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 31. Cain and Abel make an offering. Genesis cap 4 vv 3-7. De Vos.jpg
Cain and Abel make offerings / Credit: Phillip Mendhurst / Wikimedia Commons

Right now, at the church where I serve, we are in a series on relationships. One of the points we made this past weekend is that no relationship is perfect. Even those who are very close to each other and have a deep love for each other can offend and hurt each other – often unintentionally. If such offenses and hurts are not confessed and addressed, envy, bitterness, and resentment will take root and the relationship will fracture.

The problems of envy, bitterness, and resentment in relationships, of course, are nothing new. Near the beginning of history, we read of a relationship that not only fractures; it is violently ended:

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering – fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:2-8)

The story of Cain and Abel is tragic. But perhaps what makes it most jarring is that it is not particularly unique. Countless relationships throughout history have ended in terrible violence due to envy, bitterness, and resentment.

Perhaps you grew up in a household where envy, bitterness, and resentment were common. Perhaps these sinful roots resulted even in physical violence. Or perhaps these roots resulted in anger, mistrust, verbal altercations, or divorce. No matter what you have come from, for you, things can be different. In your relationships, things can be better.

Later in Scripture, we read of a people called the Kenites, which, in Hebrew, means “of Cain.” There is some debate over whether these people were actual descendants of Cain or whether they simply shared a name with Cain. I tend to favor the latter view, but regardless of where one stands on the debate, this much is clear – they chose a different relational path than their namesake Cain did. Moses’ father-in-law was a Kenite and his descendants lived among the tribe of Judah:

The descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, the Kenite, went up from the City of Palms with the people of Judah to live among the inhabitants of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad. (Judges 1:16)

The ancient envy, bitterness, and resentment that was so apparent in Cain and separated him from his brother gave way to a desire in the Kenites to be brotherly to the Judahites. And this brotherhood ran quite deep. Just a few chapters later, in Judges 4, Jabin, the king of the Canaanites, and Sisera his general, are oppressing the Israelites. The leader of Israel at this time, Deborah, leads a campaign against the Canaanites that is broadly successful, but Sisera manages to escape – that is, until he flees to the tent of a Kenite named Heber. Heber’s wife, Jael, invites Sisera into the tent only to seal the Israelites’ victory in battle by driving a tent peg into his head while he is sleeping. Yes, it is a gruesome episode, but it is also revealing. The Kenites, it turns out, were fully vested in and fully loyal to their brotherhood with the Israelites.

So, what does this mean for us? Like the Kenites with Cain, we can do relationships differently than those who have gone before us. We can form relationships that are stronger. And we don’t even need a tent peg to do so. The Israelites were commanded by God to fight their enemies, the Canaanites:

The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.” (Judges 4:6-7)

We are commanded by God through Christ to love our enemies:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43)

Jael drove a tent peg into Sisera in judgment of his sin and proved himself a brother to the Israelites. God drove nails into the hands of His Son because of our sin and made Him a brother to us:

Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:11)

Jesus’ relationship with us as our brother is the inspiration and foundation for our relationships with others. Envy, bitterness, and resentment really can give way to brotherhood.

February 8, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Perfect and Imperfect People

In Leviticus 22, we read about the kind of sacrifices that are acceptable to God:

When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the Lord to fulfill a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable. (Leviticus 22:21)

What the ancient Israelites offered to God was the be the best of the best. What is often overlooked, however, is that Leviticus speaks not only to what could be offered to God, but to who could offer it:

No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. (Leviticus 21:18-20)

These restrictions concerning who may bring an offering to the Lord may seem eyebrow-raisingly blunt to us, but their core implication is inescapably clear:

Only perfect people are allowed before God.

Not only did the sacrifices to God have to be perfect; the people who made them had to be perfect, too.

This requirement for perfection is one of the reasons Jesus’ ministry so scandalized the religious professionals of His day. Jesus gladly interacted with precisely the kinds of people Leviticus 21 barred from service to God. Jesus healed the blind, made the lame walk, and even reconstructed a man’s deformed hand. These were not just healings; they were testimonies to a new day and a new way. Under the Levitical covenant, to which the religious professionals of Jesus’ day subscribed, only perfect people could approach God. But now, Christ, in word and in deed, was announcing that God was approaching imperfect people.

Jesus addresses the scandalized religious professionals’ concerns by summarizing His ministry like this:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:17)

Jesus takes the core of Leviticus 21 and turns it on its head. With these words, He announces:

Only imperfect people are allowed through Christ.

Only imperfect people are allowed because, if we are honest with ourselves, we have nothing perfect to offer to God in the form of either ourselves or a sacrifice. This is why the preacher of Hebrews writes:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:11)

These sacrifices never took away sins because they never met the demands of Leviticus 21 and 22. They simply were not perfect enough. But Jesus was. And Jesus is. This is why God offers Jesus as a sacrifice for us.

The temptation to point fingers at the defects and blemishes of others can be acute. Those who are different from us can sometimes seem to almost invite criticism by us. But Christians must remember that our mission is not to demand perfection from people, but to point them to the One who already is. May we do so gladly.

January 25, 2021 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Stinky Sacrifices and Sweet Offerings

When God is giving Moses instructions for the tabernacle, one of the things He instructs him to build is an incense altar:

Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. (Exodus 30:1, 7-8)

This incense altar served a couple of different purposes. On the one hand, it was used in worship. When the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, famously receives word from the angel Gabriel that he will soon be a father, even though he is well past his child-rearing years, he is stationed at the altar of incense while “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside” (Luke 1:10). On the other hand, this altar served a much cruder purpose. With all the sacrifices that were made at the tabernacle and later at the temple, the fetor from the dead animals would have been overwhelming. The incense helped cover the stench of death.

The stench of death, as offensive as it may have been, was a reminder to the Israelites that sin came with a cost. As the apostle Paul explains: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The question was: is there anything that can stem the stench of sin and death?

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes about a unique sacrifice:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Sacrifices were stinky! But when Christ gave Himself up as a sacrifice, it was “fragrant.” Why? Because Christ was both an “offering and sacrifice.” He was the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) as well as “an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16). He was slaughtered as a sacrifice and sweet-smelling like incense, all at the same time.

I’ve had more than one person tell me that life stinks right now. Nationally, culturally, and personally, we have our share of struggles thanks to sin. And yet, the fragrance of Christ can still overwhelm and overcome the sin of this world. This is the hope we have. And this is the message we are called to share:

Thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

May we spread Christ’s aroma and make someone’s life sweeter with Him.

January 11, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Practicing Contentment in 2021

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 498. Moses finishes building the tabernacle. Exodus cap 40 v 33. Mortier.jpg
Moses finishes building the tabernacle
Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

As the Israelites wind their way through the wilderness on a trek to the Promised Land, they construct a tent of meeting. This is the place where Moses goes to meet directly with God. The tent is quite elaborate, containing yarns, fine linen, gold, silver, and bronze. Because a project of this magnitude is costly, Moses begins the project with a capital campaign of sorts where:

Everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them came and brought an offering to the LORD for the work on the tent of meeting. (Exodus 35:21)

By all accounts, the capital campaign proves to be wildly successful – so much so that they wind up raising far more than they need for the completion of the tent of meeting. As the workers are assembling the tent from what has been brought, they say to Moses:

“The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the LORD commanded to be done.” Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work. (Exodus 36:5-7)

The workers receive a windfall of gifts for their work on the tent of meeting. But what is really important is this: they recognize the windfall. They know they have more than enough.

It’s hard to recognize a windfall. We are too easily tempted, no matter how much we have, to always want more – and to believe we don’t yet have quite enough.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist preaches about the impending judgment of God. In response, the listening crowd asks:

“What should we do then?”John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:11-14)

To avoid God’s judgment, John calls the people to be content with what they have and not hoard more than they need.

As we head into 2021, a good resolution to make might be this:

I will practice contentment.

After all, as we reflect on 2020, it can be tempting to focus on all the things we didn’t get:

I didn’t get a raise because my company is struggling financially.

I didn’t get to keep my job because I got caught in a round of layoffs.

I didn’t get to spend time with my family over the holidays because of social distancing.

I didn’t get to go out to eat or go much of anywhere at all because so many places were closed.

I didn’t get more time with my loved one because COVID-19 took them.

All these things may be true – and some of them are downright devastating – but they’re still incomplete. Because at the same time there is much we are lacking, there is much we still have:

I still have a job even if I didn’t get the raise.

I still have the wherewithal to look for a job even if I lost my old one.

I still can see my family on Facetime even if I can’t be with them in person.

I still can order food in even if I can’t go out.

I still have loved ones who are with me and God now has a loved one who is with Him.

Statements of loss, with some practice, can turn into reflections of contentment.

No matter what this year may bring, of this much we can be sure: God will provide. And, more than likely, He will provide more than enough. Perhaps we should take some time to recognize that we might just be sitting on a windfall.

January 4, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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