September 30, 2014

Strengths and Weaknesses

It has been said that sometimes our greatest strengths are also our biggest weaknesses. Life experiences – both our own, and those of others – seem to confirm that this is true. The person who thrives on pressure may eventually be broken by it. The creative genius may be so imaginative that he has trouble with the nitty-gritty realities of daily life. The trusting, generous friend can become a gullible enabler. And the detail-oriented type-A can drive himself mad with obsessive, compulsive behaviors.

Guess where I got that last example? From my own experience, I know that strengths can also be weaknesses! Because we are fallen, fragile, sinful human beings. We are not what we are created to be. We all have creases in our armor – often at precisely the places where we thought we were most stout. And so we mustn’t be overconfident. We mustn’t begin to think that our strengths are full-proof. The devil knows otherwise. And we are well if we do too!

Our greatest strengths are often also our biggest weaknesses.

And yet, the Bible also teaches that, for the Christian, the reverse is true!  Our biggest weaknesses can also, by God’s grace, become our greatest points of strength! For, as the Lord said to Paul concerning his “thorn in the flesh”: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12.9, KJV). God’s strength was made perfect in weakness – namely, in Paul’s weakness! And thus, Paul can say in the next verse: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.10).

Isn’t that something? “When I am weak, then I am strong”? Really? Yes! Because, when I am weak, God gives me His strength! When I am weak, I have to rely upon His grace, instead of on my own abilities. And God loves to come through when we are in that frame of mind! He loves to grant us His supernatural strength when we are – and realize that we are – most weak!

It is often precisely when we are fragile and distressed that many of us most clearly understand how much we need God’s grace, is it not? Yes, when things are going well, and we seem to have it all together, our prayer lives and spiritual disciplines may sometimes be more consistent and ‘proper.’ But when we are coming apart at the seams, they are more desperate! And desperate is not a bad place to be; weak is not a bad place to be … if it drives us to rely upon God’s strength.

So yes, where I am strong, I am often also quite weak. But it is also true that “when I am weak” – and especially when I realize that I am weak, and call upon the Lord, asking for His strength – “then I am strong.”

September 16, 2014

A Study in Contrasts

The latter part of Luke chapter 10 presents us with an interesting study in contrasts. First of all, Jesus tells His famous story of the good Samaritan, which includes two different religious workers who couldn’t be bothered to stop and help a beaten and bleeding man, laying “half dead” on the road. And then, in the latter part of the chapter, we are given the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha – one of whom sat at Jesus’ feet, hanging on His every word, while the other was oh, so busy in the kitchen.

So what is the contrast? Well, these two sections demonstrate to us two dangers in the Christian life.

First you have the priest and the Levite of Jesus’ celebrated story. These were the sort of men who were used to religious activity. Perhaps they’d have been as comfortable and interested as Mary was, later in the chapter, to sit at the feet of a learned Rabbi (though perhaps not Mary’s Rabbi!). They were religious men, and could probably move about comfortably in that world. But when it came time to put hands and feet to their faith; when it came time to stoop down and serve people … well, that was another story. Both of them “passed by on the other side” of the road. They were religious, but without love, or compassion, or a desire to serve others.

Contrast that with Martha. Far be it from her to keep her fingernails clean, or to leave those in need unserved. No, no! When Jesus came into her house, she was quite busy “with all her preparations.” So busy, in fact, that Luke calls her “distracted.” Distracted enough, in fact, that she could not bring herself to simply sit down and listen to the voice of the Master!

And in these final verses of Luke chapter 10, we have two portraits of two different dangers in the religious world.

There are some of us who love to come to meeting, and to hear the word, and to soak up the religious atmosphere and services. And that is wonderful, and vital!  But when it comes to putting our religion into practice by serving other people, we pull back (out of callousness, or disgust with others who seem ‘beneath’ us, or even because – as Spurgeon suggested re: the priest and the Levite – because we are simply in too big of a hurry). And we must repent ... and beware a faith that is big on religious services, but light on true Christian service.

On the other hand, beware also of a Martha-like over busy-ness. Beware thinking that arduously serving others is the beginning and end of godliness. There is a time, yes, to set down your Bible, and to close up your hymnal, and to get your hands dirty putting the Bible into practice on behalf of other people. But there is also a time to simply sit with Mary at the Savior’s feet, “listening to His word.” And we must learn to differentiate between the two. We mustn’t be so busy with our Christian work that we actually begin to neglect time spent in the word!

In which direction are you most prone to fall off the horse? Religion ... but without works of love and compassion? Or laborious activity ... to the neglect of personal fellowship with Christ? Ask the Lord for balance! And then take advantage of the opportunities He will surely provide to help you bring that balance about!

September 10, 2014

"Do not lean on your own understanding"

One of the memorable features of my boyhood home was that giant set of books, stretched neatly across a book case that seemed tailor-made for its girth, called the World Book Encyclopedia. Enclosed within brown and beige covers, the set must have run to something like 20 volumes. And blessed is the child who grew up with such a resource at his fingertips! For, if fancy or curiosity posed questions about JFK, or the Ming Dynasty, or the North American Moose, one could simply pull down the appropriate alphabetical volume, thumb through the pages, and read a well-written article to slake the thirst.

But the book case, and the earth tone binding, and all those thousands of pages seem a bit superfluous today, don’t they? After all, I have access to far more data, about many more subjects, in the tiny cell phone in my right-side pants pocket! And, should any research be required for an article such as this one, I can simply click over to my internet browser … and voila, my laptop becomes an encyclopedia par excellence!

And again, blessed is the person who has such easy access to learning of all kinds. Wikipedia is one of my go-to browser bookmarks! And, what with Google, and various newsfeeds, and message boards ... one can instantly find out all sorts of information about almost anything! And so you might find me sometimes tossing into the conversation some out-of-nowhere fact about the Prime Minister of Iceland, or the sheep industry in New Zealand. Information is everywhere! And it’s often quite interesting … and occasionally, even helpful!

But having access to so much information comes with an inherent danger. Because, as we have access to more and more understanding, there is a natural tendency to begin to "lean on" that understanding (Proverbs 3.5); to begin to think that knowledge really is power – that if we simply know enough about X, Y, or Z, then we can handle it. And, if you need an example, ask yourself how many times you have noticed some possible little symptom of ill-health (either in yourself, or in a loved one) … and immediately run to the computer to read half-a-dozen articles (and, even worse, message boards) on the subject. As if reading a few pages enables you to accurately diagnose what physicians have spent years studying! And (more to the point of this article) as if understanding your disease will invariably help you better cope with it. Sometimes that may be true (especially when an actual doctor, or maybe a fellow sufferer, helps you understand it). But it seems to me that, when we go a-researching on our own; when we feel this compulsion to find out all the facts about why there might be a lump on the roof of our child’s mouth … we usually end up working ourselves into more and more of a tizzy! Haven’t you found that to be so? And the same is true when we begin researching tax laws, or trying to privately investigate someone online, or even going into all sorts of deep queries about Bible prophecies. When you give yourself over to these things, you can begin, perhaps subtly, to “lean on your own understanding" ... which is a very faulty prop indeed!

Because “your own understanding” cannot rescue you, can it? First of all, as I have already alluded to, “your own understanding” is often woefully limited! Neither Wikipedia nor World Book qualifies you (or me) as an expert on anything! And second, even if you do have a good grasp of some subject, that knowledge alone will not save you, will it? Knowing all about cancer won’t cure it. Being able to chart your own version of the end-times chronology is no guarantee that you’ll actually be safe when Jesus comes! And knowing more about your co-worker’s life by scouring through her Facebook posts will not usually help you love her with the love of Christ.

For all these things, we must ultimately turn to God … not to research! He is the one who cures cancer, and makes us ready for eternity, and places love in our hearts. He knows more about where America is headed than any political prognosticator ever could. He is the one who can give us peace when our country’s convoluted tax laws have us turned inside out with frustration and fear. And so it is to Him, and not to the internet (or the 20-volume encyclopedia), that we must ultimately turn our attention!

Do not misunderstand me. I am not decrying education, or knowledge, or understanding. I wouldn’t have Wikipedia bookmarked if I thought that were the case! And I’m incredibly thankful for doctors, and accountants, and theologians, and engineers, and lawyers who really do understand certain things in ways that are actually helpful! But Solomon is so wise when he urges us to:

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding”
Proverbs 3.5

Understanding is not a bad thing. But leaning on that understanding, instead of on God, is! Trusting in your own understanding is dangerous. And I am simply saying that, the more information we have at our fingertips; and the quicker our knee-jerk reaction to turn to Google when faced with a dilemma, the more prone we are, not simply to understand, but to think that understanding will solve all our problems. But it won’t. In fact, it often just makes us more neurotic! I know from experience!

So the next time you are worried about a lump on your breast, or some snag in your taxes … call your doctor or accountant, yes. But resist the urge to try and be a doctor or accountant yourself. And, above all, resist the idea that the information you might turn up on the search engines and the message boards is the key to calming your heart’s anxieties. Turn, rather, to the book of Psalms, or to the gospels, or the epistles, or any one of the 66 books in which we hear the voice of God. Engage your mind and heart in an attempt to trust Him! “And do not lean on your own understanding.”

September 1, 2014

The Jesus Section

One of the things – probably the thing – I love most about preaching from the Old Testament is discovering how various books and passages point us forward to Jesus (see Luke 24:27). Sometimes the ‘way to Christ’ is more obvious than others – maybe a direct prophecy about Him or His kingdom (like Isaiah 53 or Daniel 7), or a fairly obvious foreshadowing (like the Passover lamb, or the serpent on the pole). But other times, we have to think a little bit harder – not to find hidden meaning (not at all!), but simply to think about all Scripture Christianly. And I enjoy being forced to do this when I preach through the Old Testament. I enjoy having to ask myself: ‘Now how am I going to preach the Messiah from this passage?’ There is always a way! And I very much delight in finding it, and showing it to God’s people week by week. I delight in getting to what you might call ‘the Jesus section’ of each Old Testament sermon!  And, praise God, many who read these lines will have pastors who feel the same!

Have you noticed that there is a ‘Jesus section’ to your pastor's Old Testament sermons? I hope so! Perhaps you’ve even begun to anticipate it, something like the ‘aha moment’ when you are watching a mystery show. Maybe, in our context, I’ve made it too much like that; too predictable: ‘O, here comes the Jesus portion – I could see it coming, couldn’t you?’

But if my sermon crafting does not always have the subtle quality of a master weaver; if I sometimes telegraph the way to Christ like a quarterback who only ever stares at his primary receiver … I hope that even that has been instructive! I hope my hearers have learned, by it, that we are always going to get to Jesus; that He is the ultimate aim of our studies, no matter the passage. I unashamedly love to stare down my favorite receiver! And I hope my people have come to enjoy looking for Him with me! And I hope you have come to love ‘the Jesus section’ of the weekly sermons at your church – not because your pastor is necessarily the most adept at getting there … but simply because you love Jesus; and cannot wait to see His silhouette arise and be praised each Sunday morning!

What a strange thing preaching is – in more ways than one! But in this context I have in mind that it is an odd thing that men and women come back and sit in the same seats, week after week, to continually hear someone give hundreds of speeches about the same historical figure! Strange, if we stand back and think about it from an outsider’s perspective. But completely logical, and normal, and glorious if we know Christ! For, if the living God took on human flesh and human nature, “and dwelt among us”, and loved like no one ever loved, and died for our sins, and rose again, and promised one day to return and make “all things new” … where else could we possibly want our focus to be on a Sunday morning? “He is altogether lovely” (KJV)! ‘So yes … show us Jesus, pastor! Show Him to us from the plain black and white of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Show Him to us in the epistles, and in the Revelation. And, by all means, show Him to us in the sundry ways that He stands forth on the pages of the Old Testament. Preach about Daniel’s resolve, and Hosea’s mercy, and the meaning of all the various furnishings of the tabernacle … but make sure not to leave out the Jesus section!’