Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lay Down Your Anger

Jonah 4:4  "But the LORD replied, 'Is it right for you to be angry?'"

I love the Book of Jonah.  How many stories in the history of literature can say so much about the human condition in a mere two pages the way that Jonah does?  In Jonah we meet ourselves.  No matter where we are in our relationship with God, if we reflect closely we will find shades of who we are in this short tale.  Maybe we are haughty and feel superior to others.  Maybe we are full of pride.  Maybe we question God.  Maybe we are running away from God.

And maybe we are angry.

One of the first sermons I ever wrote, back when I was 24 or so, was on Jonah.  I spoke about how pride was the central issue of the book.  But looking at it again, I think pride shares the spotlight here with anger.  They feed off each other.  Jonah is told to preach to the Ninevites, whom he hates, and so in his anger at them he flees, thinking God has made a mistake.  When his experience at sea frightens [not "humbles"] him into submission, he comes back and does as God has told him.  But then he sits down in anger, as he knows God is forgiving his enemies.  His anger has transferred from the Ninevites to God himself.

And so God asks him, "Have you any right to be angry?"  Then he gives Jonah shade from a vine to comfort him, and almost as quickly allows the vine to die, angering Jonah even more.  "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" God asks.  "I do," Jonah answers.  "I am angry enough to die."

I think Jonah's answer is one of the saddest moments in all of scripture.  Jonah represents us all, and how we are able to let anger overwhelm us to such a degree that it blinds us to God's ability to love and to forgive.  It points to perhaps the worst aspect of our fallen nature, and to the chief means by which the enemy uses us as pawns in his game.  Anger can overwhelm us, disfigure us, and ultimately destroy us.  If we cannot identify and understand our anger, and ultimately let it go, then we are living our lives at great risk.

Yes, there's no getting around anger.  And it has its place.  Perhaps the most overly prooftexted passages of the New Testament are those regarding Jesus's cleansing of the Temple, which occurs in all four Gospels (a rarity in and of itself).  Seeing the money-changers in the Temple, "Zeal for his house consumed him," and Jesus began turning the tables, literally.  Of course, even the Book of Jonah shows us God's anger.  The entire tale only takes place because Ninevah's wickedness had caused God to act.  God was angry.  We, too, are prone to anger and sometimes it is justified and even necessary.  A person who could not feel anger would not be a super-saint, but instead a mere automaton.

But what Jonah knows about God is this: "You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love."  Jonah knows this, but he doesn't realize he should learn from God's example.  Neither do we, most of the time.  When we allow our anger to live in us, to fester, and to grow, we lose sight of God.  In time we worship our anger instead of God.  It becomes our motivation, it robs us of our judgement, and it poisons everything we touch.

If you've ever lived with anger, or, if you've ever lived with someone who lives with anger, you know how divisive and destructive it can be.  When Saul first became jealous of David, and then angry with him, he did not have the good sense, nor the spiritual maturity, to leave that anger behind.  Instead, he let it grow until it consumed him.  In 1 Samuel 24, when David has the chance to kill Saul in a cave, he instead lets him go, and only begs that he wake up to the truth. For a moment, Saul realized that David was right.  But his anger came back, and in the end it left him dead on the battlefield, by his very own hand.

Hosea says of such people, "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." (8:7)  Unchecked anger destroys not only the life of the one carrying the anger, it destroys entire families as well. 

Yet it doesn't have to be.  We know that God tells us to lay down our sins, our troubles, and our burdens.  But we are also called to lay down our anger.  It is a stunningly heavy weight, and it is also more personal and more attached to us than any bad habit or mark from a sinful past that we may bear.  Yet we are called to lay it down.  It may not seem easy, or even possible, but remember, with God's help anything can happen.  Think of what anger does and how it controls us.  Think of how it divides us from others and from God himself.  Think of how it torments us, warps us, and even owns us.  If you recognize these things, remember it doesn't have to be this way.  Let it go, let your anger go at last.  Lay it down and walk away. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Submit to Serve

Ephesians 5:21  "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."

People talk about the "hard words of Jesus," but there are even harder words from Paul.  Without a doubt among the most difficult selections from Paul's letters for the modern reader is the set of verses from Ephesians 5 and 6 that begin with this innocuous sentence.  Why?  Because following these words, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands.  He tells children to obey their parents.  And he tells slaves to obey their masters.  He says a lot of other things here, too, but without a doubt much of his teaching in this passage is difficult for the modern Western reader to accept.

What does it mean to submit?  According to one source, our English word comes from  the Latin verb, submittere, "to yield, lower, let down, put under, reduce."  And that word in turn comes from sub, meaning "under," together with mittere, meaning "let go, send" (think of "mission").  Of course, Paul was not using the Latin word in writing his letter, but since it is the source of our own word, it is important to know where the English word "submit" comes from.

Submitting is not something we find easy to do.  Indeed, it goes against our very instincts to submit.  But then again, the Christian faith has little to do with following your natural instincts -- it involves transcending them.  Last night in the church Bible study I lead we came across this set of verses and had some very good discussion about it.  As for the specifics of what Paul discussed -- regarding such controversial things as men and women, slaves and masters -- it is important to point out the realities of his era, and to realize that Paul was drawing Christian ethics into deeply embedded aspects of the wider culture of his time.  One point that Paul really doesn't address though, but which we have to address today, is what does one do when a spouse, a parent, or, let's say, an employer, isn't Godly.  How does one submit in such circumstances?  Should we even do so?

Perhaps to answer that question, we need to remember the overarching statement: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."  I believe the tacit meaning here is that we are to submit to one another as Christ submitted himself to others and to the Father.  Jesus is the truest example of submission in the Bible.  Despite being within the Godhead, Jesus submitted to the will of the Father and to our need by being made "a little lower than the angels" for our sakes:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)
This is the manner of submission we are called to -- not merely doing what we are told or blindly obeying, but instead living a life of loving, caring servanthood, whereby we truly do put others above ourselves as Christ did for us. 

The seventeenth century monk known to us as Brother Lawrence exemplified this sense of submission.  He spent his years in the monastery as a kitchen attendant, and saw it not as a chore but as a wonderful means by which he could serve others and serve God.  How many of us could say, as Brother Lawrence said:
It is not necessary to have great things to do.  I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, Who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king.  When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God. (The Practice of the Presence of God)
Though his tasks were menial, brother Lawrence's lived-out expression of the Gospel, through true and unselfish submission, made him great in the eyes of those who knew him, and his witness remains for us today.

And so we are called to submit to one another, in Christian love.  And yet again, what if those closest to us are not receptive of our submission?  What if they only want to take advantage of it?  We discussed what Paul does not address -- those living in abusive homes, those living with enemies of the faith. What about such circumstances?  If there is an answer, I believe it is this:  We are always to be silent witnesses, in all circumstances, but, we are called to serve God above our service and submission to anyone else.  When we realize that a human relationship obstructs our service of God, then the time has come to leave the relationship behind.

May we have the blessing of good relationships, lived out in peace.  But may we also have the wisdom to know that submission to God comes before submission to man, no matter what.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Looking God in the Eye

Luke 22:61a  "The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter."

The song says:
I can only imagine
what my eyes will see
when Your Face is before me!
Well, what do we imagine when we picture seeing Jesus face-to-face?  There are a few very prevalent paintings that we see in images on e-mail forwards and other such places, showing Jesus embracing a newcomer to Heaven, warmly and intimately, with a radiant smile.  I always wonder, perhaps, if these sort of images over-simplify the experience we will have when we do indeed see Jesus face-to-face.  Remember, the Jesus we read about in Revelation is a far more complex and, indeed, glorious character.  He appears as a slain and risen lamb (with seven horns and seven eyes, no less), or, far more dazzlingly, as this:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.  The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.  Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.  He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.  On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:  KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Rev. 19:11-16)
I think we can be sure that John of Patmos did not step up and embrace this manifestation of Jesus Christ.

Don't get me wrong, Jesus is an intimate friend and he is approachable and he is an all-loving being.  But it is important for us to remember in these modern times that Jesus Christ is also God.  He is not just a nice guy but he is a majestic, holy, and perfect being who deserves and demands our utmost respect and reverence.  For much of Christian history Jesus was not pictured as an intimate friend but as the God-man that he is. 

One of the earliest extant images of Christ, and still one of the most magnificent, is the Christ Pantocrator [meaning Christ Almighty or Omnipotent] of Sinai, which has survived for as much as 15 centuries.  In this icon we see an asymmetrical face of Christ: one side is placid and well-lit, signifying Christ's humanity, love, and forgiveness; the other side is darker, foreboding, and serious, signifying deity, judgement, and mystery.  In this early image we see a true and full understanding of the person of Christ as a majestic and holy figure.

I pity any actor who has ever had to play the role of Jesus in a film.  What an impossible challenge it must be?  How does one strike a balance between being the man whom children would flock to, and the man who could calm a storm with a single rebuke, or drive out demons in the same way?  What was it like -- imagine this -- what was it like to see the face of Jesus?  In Luke's Passion narrative, as Peter denies Christ a third time and the rooster crows, reminding Peter of his failing -- and not just a failing, but of the lowest, most wretched moment he would ever know -- Jesus turns and looks at Peter.  It is easy to focus on the proverbial rooster crow in this scene, but truly, the drama is in this glance from Jesus, whereby Peter knows full well that Jesus, the man Peter himself had declared the Christ of God, is aware of his denial.

What did Peter see in Jesus' face at that moment? What did it do to him?  Set aside the paintings and movie images in your mind and imagine the face of the God-man as he looks at Peter in pain, pity, love, and judgement, all tied together.  It is a powerful thought, a searing image.  What is more searing is to imagine that same man, facing his last day, his greatest trial, staring straight at us as we deny him.  Surely the look is the same, for it is the same Christ, and we are no better or worse than Peter, and no less a child of God.  Do we realize that Christ is indeed watching us daily, even more closely, it could be said, than he watched the apostles during his earthly life?  And in knowing this, do we imagine catching a glance of Jesus' face in our daily lives?  What look is on his face as he sees us?  Close your eyes and look into his.  And then decide what it is you plan to do about it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

God's Secrets

Deuteronomy 29:29  "'The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.'"

I've heard it said that God doesn't keep secrets.  In some degree that's true.  God is not secretive, as we can be.  He doesn't keep secrets in order to further his own agenda, or to be spiteful, or even just for fun.  He also doesn't keep anything secret from us that we really need to know.  There are no secrets when it comes to personal salvation or to treating others as we should.  Instead, God is very forthright about such things.  We may complicate these issues on our own and we may not want to hear the messages themselves, but that is our problem; God is not being secretive.

Nevertheless, God does have secrets, I believe.  Or perhaps the better word may be mysteries.  Either way, God knows things we don't know, and never will know, and probably never could know.  We have to get used to that fact.

That's not easy for people, or course.  We like to find things out, we like to learn, and we love to uncover secrets.  Even the most well-meaning, faith-driven people in the world can become obsessed with God's secrets.  Take for instance the ever-popular topic of the End Times.  The Bible gives us just enough hints about this subject to truly whet our appetite for discovery.  People have been trying for centuries to reveal the mystery, to second-guess God and to be the one who figures out when Jesus is returning (and beyond that, exactly what is going to unfold and what the divine agenda will look like).  I wonder at times if anything in the past two thousand years has so thoroughly managed to sidetrack the Christian faith and its work in this world as has our obsession with the End Times -- the Second Coming -- Judgement Day -- the Eschaton.  (And if you didn't recognize that last word, don't worry, you really don't need to.) 

Movements, denominations, sects, and splinter groups have all been created over disputes arising from this one great topic which, from what I can tell, is best left a mystery.  For all the high-minded reasoning people can have for wanting to concentrate on End Times theology and an End Times mindset, this fascination often drives us from God's mandate.  In my opinion, 90 percent of all the speculation that has gone on regarding the end of time has its root in human pride.  We want to know what will happen and when because it gives us a smug superiority over those who are going blindly from day to day without such knowledge.  Really, think about it, if you're hit by a bus tomorrow then bam, that was your last chance, right?  It doesn't matter if Jesus returns in two weeks or in two thousand years -- you're still dead and the judgement will still await you.  So why do people pretend that they are trying to "read the signs of the times" so as to help convince people to turn to God, when in reality those same people need direction no matter when the Second Coming is scheduled, as their lives -- all our lives -- are on a very short thread?  God is not secretive, but he has secrets.  It's a sign of our weakness that we can't just live with that.

But the End Times are only one example of our strivings to understand God's mysteries.  Bookstores are lines with volumes tackling topics of what the Bible really means, who Jesus really was, and whether God even really exists.  The human race has an insatiable appetite for unravelling the mysteries for which there are no earthly answers, and which therefore we cannot answer in this life.  Yet we keep on trying.  Why?  Perhaps it is that remnant of our souls that recognizes what we lost through disobedience against God, and all through our lives some part of us wants to have that familiarity back, that experience in the Garden when God's secrets were no more than the fruit of a forbidden tree.  Yet that same part of us that ate from the tree still yearns today to know what God knows, even though we don't deserve it.

Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 tells us:
When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
We have to accept that God is bigger than us, greater than us, and that he is creator, we, his creation. Nowhere in the Bible is God more clear about this than in the Book of Job.  After Job's calamities, he defends himself to his friends and demands an answer from God himself.  Job is not alone in his demand.  Most people, perhaps, have demanded an answer in some time of weakness and despair.  But unlike most of us Job received an answer, in full Biblical splendor:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)
And God's haranguing goes on and on, putting Job in his place.  "Have you commanded the morning since your days began?"  "Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?"  "Do you give the horse his might?"  "Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?"  Job is left humbled, as are we.  The speech is clear: God's ways, God's powers, are beyond us.  We have a gift of intellect, and indeed we must use it.  God even says in Isaiah 1, "Come now, let us reason together."  God wants us to use our reason, our intellect, our mind.  But he also wants us to use that other gift he gives us -- our faith.  For we can do a great deal through intelligence, but we can do far more through faith.  Through intelligence we tap into our own power; through faith we tap into God's power.  It is in faith that we realize God's mysteries are great, but his revelation is even greater.