Thursday, June 26, 2014

On Being a Fool

PRINCIPLE: “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.”

As he sat down in my church office he said, “I was just looking at our steeple with its lightning rod on top.” Wow! What an image; the cross is a lightning rod. It has always been so. In ancient times it was the instrument through which the vilest offenders were punished by a slow, excruciating death. It was viewed as the place where God's lightning of judgment struck evil with full force. The cross was meant to repulse those thinking of committing evil acts. Some, no doubt, thought death on the cross repulsive in and of itself.

Today society views such punishment as barbaric – the cross, and other such forms of capital punishment, draw passionate reaction and rebellion. It is a lightning rod of controversy. But it's not just the cross as a symbol of death that draws the ire of people – the cross as a symbol of Christianity has become a lightning rod as well. Since Christians see Jesus' crucifixion on the cross as God's lightning rod of judgment on sin, and therefore the instrument of salvation, many are repulsed by the cross. So the cross is still a lightning rod of controversy. I remember attending a school board meeting where a controversial proposal had drawn a large crowd. The very first person to speak during the public forum time said, “You Christians on the Board leave your Christianity at the door and be responsible and do what's right.” The cross is a lightning rod. A cross sits atop a hill on city property – a court case determines whether or not it is legal. The cross is a lightning rod. A manger scene in a public park draws controversy. The cross is a lightning rod. White crosses on the roadside, marking sites of fatal accidents, are challenged. The cross is a lightning rod. Employees are forbidden to say “Merry Christmas.” The cross is a lightning rod. A youth pastor, serving as a lunch hour volunteer in the local high school, is ordered to stop doing so – it's ruled a church-state conflict. The cross is a lightning rod. Prayer at City Council meetings are ruled 'offensive.' The cross is a lightning rod. A pastor applies the Bible to political and social issues during a sermon and is taken to court. The cross is a lightning rod. An elementary student is threatened with punishment because before eating her lunch, she silently prays. The cross is a lightning rod.

Such conflict should not be surprising. Centuries ago Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:18-25 NLT): The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent. “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish.
Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles,Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.” (1 Cor. 4:10) “We are fools for Christ...” “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.”


So what do we do: when the cross is deemed foolish, challenged, or mocked? “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.” When we are told to leave our religion 'out of politics' - “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.” When we are told our 'position' is offensive and hate-filled - “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.” When our preaching and witnessing are threatened - “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.” When we're told we're 'on the wrong side of history - “When the lightning strikes, be foolish.” When we think about those who oppose us and want to strike back, - “When the lightning strikes, be foolish” - we can pray for them. When we're face to face with an unbeliever - “When the lightning strikes, be foolish” - we can witness. Let's be fools for Christ.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Seeds for Thought

PRINCIPLE: “When the seed dies, look for life.”

In thinking further about all those maple seeds, I realized that many of them will die only to eventually become majestic trees. My mind turned to John 12:24 – “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” There is life through death. If the kernel remained a kernel there would be no plant. Think about buying a package of seeds. What good would it do to simply put them on the shelf and admire them? Seeds have but one purpose and that is to be buried, cease life as a seed, and give birth to greater life in the form of a plant. Only through the death of the seed will there be plant life; it’s a principle of nature. “When the seed dies, look for life.”

Jesus’ application followed immediately (verse 25): “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Through Jesus’ death new life has gone forth to millions. If He had not died, we would not share His life. But by His death His Spirit was sent forth into His people throughout the world. In a short space of time after Jesus’ death, the number of His disciples did not merely increase, but multiplied. The fruit born on the day of Pentecost was the first fruit of a rich, abundant harvest – not only in the Jewish world, but among the Gentiles also. The Romans had put Him to death; but in a few generations the Roman Empire acknowledged His supremacy. The world had cast Him out; but the world was saved by Him. “When the seed dies, look for life.”

That’s why John wrote that life is in Jesus. So Jesus produced, through His death, a whole race of people. True life comes only through the death of Jesus Christ. As John said in the beginning of his gospel, “In Him was life.” His death on the cross provides life for all who believe in him.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

But Jesus continued: “…if it dies it produces many seeds.” The seed that seems to be dead, has lodged within it the possibility of an ever-expanding life. Imagine one of those ‘helicopter seeds’ – what can come from it? A maple tree, a ship, a navy fleet. The seed has a life-germ that is capable of increase and multiplication. Or imagine a handful of seed-corn – we can see a package carried to a distant country, producing a nation’s food. Jesus said that we, too, must die (verse 25): “The man who loves his life will lose it…” The problem is that we possess a basic instinct for self-preservation.  So Jesus pointed to a higher principle: “The man who loves his life will lose it…while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Through death there is life. Hate your life and save your life – not quite the formula we expect, is it? We are bent on self-preservation but we need to live beyond ourselves to live. “When the seed dies, look for life.”


So what does it mean to hate your life? Jesus died long before He was crucified. He first died to – hated – Himself. He often said that He had come not to do His own will, but the will of His Father. In Gethsemane, as He wrestled with His impending crucifixion, He promised His Father, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” “When the seed dies, look for life.” So we are to hate our lives – we are to die to ourselves. We are to love God first and then our neighbors.. It’s not that we neglect ourselves – it’s that our concern for ourselves must stand beneath a higher concern. And when we die, there will be life. “When the seed dies, look for life.” What would dying to yourself look like? What will it take to produce life in your neighbor? What will happen to and in them when they see you die? “When the seed dies, look for life.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Seeds

PRINCIPLE: “When the seeds are plentiful, sow plentifully.”

We Michiganders have had quite a spring. It was somewhat late in coming after a hard, long winter and it took a while to settle in once it came. And, at least along Lake Michigan, it's cooler than usual because of the extraordinary amount of ice on the lake throughout the winter. But even beyond all that, it's the seeds. For whatever reason, there was an abundance of Maple seeds last fall (those little helicopter seeds as we called them when we were children.) They fell to the ground in droves and before most of us could rake them up the snow fell – and the rest is history. So this Spring little Maple trees keep popping up everywhere – infiltrating gardens, taking over lawns, shooting up through mulch, plugging up gutters - you name it. Mother nature just sowed way too many seeds; why didn't she save a few for next year? No matter how many times we mow, or how long we spend plucking them out of the gardens and other places, we'll never get them all. Of course, some will simply die off. But some will continue to grow and and replenish our yards and forests for years to come. Perhaps its all nature's way of balancing out her world. Only those future years will tell us.

But it has made me reflect upon Jesus' familiar Parable of the Sower, recorded in Matthew 13. Jesus said the sower's seeds fell in four different places, in different types of 'soiI' if you will. Only one soil – the good soil – produced anything lasting. I used to think the point of the parable was to remind us to be good soil, receptive to the Word. But at some point I realized that there was perhaps an even more important message. The sower scattered the seed, knowing that not all of it would fall on good soil. Since we have God's Word, we have rich and abundant seeds to sow. And sow we must. We cannot spend time worrying about where the seeds land. Some will never take root, some will grow only for a while – but some will land in good soil and produce heartily and replenish the Kingdom. God knows we can never sow enough so, through the parable, He reminds us that we are to keep sowing – and know that the seeds that do take root in good soil will produce a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. Why? Because those in whom the seed grows bountifully will sow more seeds, some of which will produce a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

Now I get it. “When the seeds are plentiful, sow plentifully.” We have the richest, most abundant of seeds; but there's no need to save some for next year. We can never sow too much. There is good soil all around us – some of which we may never recognize – or at least not until, somewhere down the road, we see the growth. Like many farmers, we sow as much for the future as we do for today.

As a preacher I need to remember this. God has given me rich, abundant seed. It's highly possible that a majority of the seeds I've sown fell on unproductive ground. That's humbling, to say the least. But I take heart that some has taken hold and is producing a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. That, too, is humbling. All I can do is, “When the seeds are plentiful, sow plentifully.” After all, it was God who said, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Is. 55:10-11)


But God doesn't hold His seed in reserve for preachers. He gives His seed to you as well. You have the Word of God – probably in several editions and translations. How much of the seed have you stored up for later, for another season? How much have you sown? Even more importantly, from here on, how much will you sow? “When the seeds are plentiful, sow plentifully.” Some will land in good soil, produce heartily, and replenish the Kingdom - even up to a hundred fold. Take that you Maple seeds!  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sorry!

PRINCIPLE: “When you're sorry, be sorry.”

“I'm sorry.” Two simple words. Two difficult words. Simple to say but difficult to mean. Just observe children. They are punished in some fashion and are told they can resume normal activities when they say they 'Sorry.' Eventually – sometimes after a lengthy period – they mutter 'Sorry.' They may not mean it, they may be cute when they say it – but they may not really mean it. Or they mean it not because of what they said or did, but only because of the discomfort of the punishment they endured. A heartfelt 'sorry' is difficult for them.

I have a hunch, however, that such feeble 'sorrys' are not limited to children. There have many times in my adult life when I have said 'Sorry' only because I knew it was the only way to end a painful  experience or avoid further discomfort, or I was sorry for the pain it caused me and not so much because of what I said or did. How about you?

There are several reasons it's hard to say a heartfelt 'Sorry' - but that's for another note at another time. Today I'm thinking of the fact that if it's so hard to say 'Sorry' to another person, it's even harder to say it to God. Paul addressed this in his second letter to the Corinthians (7:8-10 NLT): I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.”  “When you're sorry, be sorry.”

The Psalmist knew the connection between sin and being sorry. (32:3-5) “When I did not confess my sins,was worn out from crying all day long. Day and night you punished me, Lord; my strength was completely drained, as moisture is dried up by the summer heat. Then I confessed my sins to you;I did not conceal my wrongdoings. I decided to confess them to you, and you forgave all my sins.” David initially became sorry because of the punishment he was enduring – but that led him to say he was truly sorry.  “I decided to confess them to you...”  He was learning that “When you're sorry, be sorry.” And learn it he did. Notice the difference in Ps. 51:1-4: “Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love. Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins! Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin! recognize my faults; I am always conscious of my sins. I have sinned against you—only against you—and done what you consider evil. So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me.”  His “I'm sorry” arose not out of his suffering but out of his knowledge that he truly offended God. “When you're sorry, be sorry.”


How is it when you confess your sin to God? Are you saying 'Sorry' because of your suffering and punishment, or because you know you've offended God, that against him you have sinned? Are you like the Publican (Lk. 18:9-14) who prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”? “When you're sorry, be sorry.” Perhaps we'd be more sincere in telling God we're sorry if we looked up from our sin and looked at Jesus – at His nail-pierced hands and feet, and then into his loving, grace-filled eyes. In that moment we will see the reality that our sin was against His love, a rejection of His grace He purchased for us on the cross. I have a hunch we would then be truly sorry and say, “Jesus, I'm sorry.  have sinned against you—only against you—and done what you consider evil. So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me. Have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Then we will find Paul's words to be true: “For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow.”  So from the depths of your sin, look to Jesus – and you'll be sorry. And  “When you're sorry, be sorry.” And you'll have no regrets.