Other Gods

I was invited to be pulpit fill for a Pierpont Presbyterian, a nice rural Ohio congregation.  We talked about the problem of “Other Gods“.   See if any of the “Other Gods” identified surprise you, or make you think.

(link should start at 36:00 in the service, where the sermon begins.  Sermon is 18 minutes.  For context, responsive reading starts at 33:50 )

Good without God?

On Sunday I heard Chad Lewis of Lincoln Square Presbyterian in Chicago.  As he was nearly concluding a quick study of Ecclesiastes, I heard him speak a truth that is worth contemplating – and this is a paraphrase: “When we detach the good things of life from God, they become meaningless.”

And the more I thought of it, the more it rang true. Why else do men who have the money to access all the good things in life often feel empty? Without God in their life, money is meaningless. Look at the young singer who has been phenomenally successful on stage and is now doing things that make people shake their heads. Or those who have been told all their lives that they are an accident of nature, and so believed that their lives were meaningless, so they kill themselves and perhaps others with them. And think of many examples of how characteristics of God become ludicrous in our culture when separated from God. For instance: stewardship of our earth so that all people can enjoy what God has given being turned into an empty environmentalism where we rue the very breath (CO2, specifically) of the men and animals God meant to enjoy his world. And so on.

The good things of life are gifts from God. When we take the gift and ignore the giver, we are not cheating God so much as ourselves. For it is He who gives the gift its value. Consider the parable of God as the potter – who can take worthless clay and transform it into a thing of beauty. It is He who is of value, for He alone makes us valuable, and He alone makes other things, like family, houses, travel, food and such meaningful for us. We may find temporary satisfaction, but the “God-shaped hole” in each of us will never be satisfied with what He gives us. We need Him to make sense of it all. When we detach the good things of life from God, they become meaningless.

I think the Westminster Shorter Catechism nails it: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And if you are such a person: Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.(Ecclesiastes 9:7)

Do Miracles Happen?

One night, when I was about five years old, my parents were out at bedtime, so the babysitter put us to bed. Once she had said good night, she pulled the string attached to the overhead light, but it did not go out. She tried again several times, then I tried it as well, but to no avail. She said I would have to try to sleep with the light on, and then left the room. Imagine a 5 year old trying to go to sleep, looking up into a two-bulb fluorescent light. I decided to pray to God about it, too young to think that it might be too small a thing to bother God with. After praying, I got out of bed and pulled the string once. The light went off.

Why did it not go off for twenty-some previous tries? Why did it only go off after my prayer? Was it 1) a specific act of God, or was it 2) entirely a mechanical happenstance?

Your answer reflects merely your presuppositions and worldview. None of us know the condition of that switch before or after the incident. We can only speculate on whether there was a natural cause to obtain the effect of the light going out.

Your answer to this question also informs you on how close-minded you are: If you immediately ruled out either choice, then you are close-minded, and there is not much point in you continuing to read this article. In fact, if you chose answer #2 it is especially silly of you to read an article entitled “Do Miracles Happen?” because you have already chosen to ignore any information or argument that could be given.

Albert Einstein, I’m told said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The sitter and I were not insane, having finally given up after many attempts, all variations on the theme. Pulling faster, slower, in rapid succession, at angles. All physical changes relying on the natural world, to no avail. But then a child made a simple-minded appeal to the supernatural and something changed.

Thankfully we are not born close-minded. Children are open-minded and we only grow close-minded as we get older. As I got older, as a mechanically-inclined thinker, I certainly considered the possibility that there was merely some mechanical reason why the light switch behaved that way. And I certainly at times was more inclined to believe that than to think that some supernatural force came to bear. Why would a huge God bother to do something so trivial? But what I find is that the more I discover about this God, the more I realize that it is the fact that He is infinitely huge that enables Him to take great interest in all the details of His creation and His created beings. I wish I could say that I totally believed in God from that day on – I’m sure my life would have been more powerful if I had. But I do believe God is there, He answers prayer, and I can know Him by following what I read in the Bible.

Does a light switch going on constitute a miracle? Perhaps not in the larger, Biblical sense of the word. But it certainly can be a supernatural event. If you have not closed your mind, and you take the time to observe, and you don’t demand your own way, you will see God supernaturally at work in the small things of life.

be·com·ing [bih-kuhm-ing]

(As defined at dictionary.com)

adjective

1. that suits or gives a pleasing effect or attractive appearance, as to a person or thing: a becoming dress; a becoming hairdo.

(Herein I will be using this word poetically, not always in a grammatically correct way, so please excuse me. But this word speaks beauty to me, and beauty is inherently poetic).

What gives you an attractive appearance? Paul reminds us in Romans 10:15 “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Are you one of those who bring to others the good news of Jesus? Then you are a becoming person. But this English word is used in other ways too:

2. suitable; appropriate; proper: a becoming sentiment.

Malachi 3:18 tells us: And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. Since we are chosen by God and have ourselves chosen Jesus as our Lord, we are appropriate and suitable to God and his purposes.

Except that we are not always appropriate and proper in our behavior. So are we really becoming? Let’s look at the next definition given

noun

3. any process of change.

Then we are changing, we are becoming something else, being transformed. But is changing always attractive? No, when the prince becomes a toad, or when Adam choses to sin, those transformations are ugly. But since Jesus died to rescue us from our sin, when we take hold of Him, then we move on, we change, but more like the final definition given:

4. Aristotelianism. any change involving realization of potentialities, as a movement from the lower level of potentiality to the higher level of actuality.

So through our faith in Jesus, the Savior, we are changing for the better. We are moving from frog to prince, from ugly to beautiful. But note that this is an active and ongoing process: daily we become more attractive. The great thing about this kind of beauty is that it is impossible to get tired of it. One can begin to take for granted a mere unchanging loveliness; but if the beauty is ever increasing, then becoming is becoming! The transformation is the attraction.

Paul puts it this way in second Corinthians 3:18: And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Ever-increasing glory! Becoming. As we are becoming more like Christ, we are beautiful. Our beauty and suitability to God are not dependent on who we are at any given point in time, but instead on the fact that we are still changing, still beuatifying, still becoming. Let us throw away the notion that we will at some point become as becoming as possible: God is infinite, Christ is infinite, and if his beauty is infinite than we can look forward to an eternity of becoming more becoming!

When Ministry Gets Messy

When it is time to do something in ministry and there is a disagreement on what to do or how to do it, how do we work through it? If we are really allowing the spirit to guide us, will we all be happy or at least at peace with the decision, with the outcome?

Acts 15:36-40

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.

Two men who worked together well for many years here have a dispute over the reliability and value to the ministry of a third man. Perhaps Mark was prone to homesickness. Or fear. Or he simply was not as committed as he should be. In any case Paul felt he would be detrimental, an unnecessary drag on the mission. Barnabas, on the other hand, felt that it was important to enable, encourage and disciple Mark by taking him back to the mission field. Who was right about what was best for the mission?

Repent

The great commission in Matthew tells us to make disciples and teach them to obey Jesus’ words. But perhaps we need to understand a bit more of what that involves. So let’s see what light Luke can shed. Here is what we read in Luke 24: 46-48:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Is it possible to preach the good news without preaching repentance? That seems to be the style these days. But that is not how the early church was built. Listen to the words of Peter in Acts 2, through which 3000 were added to the church:

you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross…”Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

 

And shortly thereafter the number of men in the church increased to 5000 when Peter addressed the crowd in Acts 3:

You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this… Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord

Pretty confrontational. American culture is not big on confrontation, but I believe we need to be more willing to call sin sin, and help people understand that cold reality, in order for them to understand fully their need to repent. Only if we do so will they be able to fully grasp the magnitude of God’s grace and love. Let’s take the whole message to the world, as Peter did – so that no one will miss it.

Defending God

You are having a great conversation with a non-believer about God. Then they ask a question about one of those uncomfortable passages in Scripture, for instance perhaps one of these:

Timothy 2:11 “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”

Matthew 5:40 “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

Ephesians 6:9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. (OK to have slaves?)Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yoursis in heaven, and there is no favoritismwith him.

 

You feel like they have put God on the spot. After all, that is what the Bible says, but you don’t want to lose the chance to win them over. So you perhaps try to soften the meaning of the words.

 

Do we have to defend God? Do we have to make up excuses, or to try to explain things away that are embarrassing, or that we don’t quite get ourselves? In the end, when we downplay or amplify anything that God has said, we risk causing damage much worse than if we merely let His words stand unexplained.

 

I think of the very first example of this in the Bible: God had said: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The serpent purposely misconstrues those words when he says “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

In defense of God, Eve then says “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “.

 

Why are we not content to let God defend himself? We see that Eve chose to step in, to defend God’s honor, and in the process she tries to make God’s words closer to what she feels this other wants to hear. Don’t we do the same thing, albeit perhaps in the opposite direction, when we perceive that the other that we are talking to wants a softer, more comfortable God? Once Eve had let herself stretch the truth just a bit, there was an opening for greater damage.

 

Maybe we need to be willing to trust God to defend himself, and instead focus on the need of the person at hand. I think of how Jesus handled the woman at the well, as also he did others, in each case addressing their need, but not equivocating on the reality of their sin. I can’t help but think that Eve would have been much more able to resist the serpent’s follow-up temptation if she had stood simply on God’s Word as it was spoken, neither weakened or amplified. And perhaps if we trust God’s difficult to swallow words enough to let them stand unaltered, then perhaps we can trust his words of grace to stand unaltered as well. And we can share that good news with more passion – and compassion.

When you get your big break…

What is the first thing you choose to do when God bountifully blesses you in your business or job?  Suppose you got a big promotion –  or landed the deal of the century.  What would you do?

Here is what 3 business partners did, in Luke 5:4-11:

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.  Simon answered, “Master,  we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid;  from now on you will catch men.”  So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Really Peter?  The most profitable day of your life, and you just walk away? Immediately?

Clearly, when Jesus healed his mother-in-law, Peter took notice, otherwise Peter would never have gone out after a long fruitless night, when all he really wanted was to get to bed, and let his just-cleaned nets down to be gunked up again.  Perhaps he felt he owed Jesus one,  or at least some respect as a rabbi. I bet he was thinking “Man, I wish he had gotten int James and John’s boat instead”.  I wonder if, when he said “because you say so, I will let down the nets.” his tone of voice said “are you crazy?” or “I’ll humor you” or was really whiny.  And how much muttering under his breath, or in his mind went on before he got out to the deep water?

And then there are the two partners on shore sitting there winking, grinning, and poking each others ribs as they anticipate the jibes they will be able to throw at Pete once the teacher has left, and is out of earshot.

What could cause three normally level-headed businessmen to give up a going concern for a life where you never knew when or where you would get your next meal?  What could cause you to take that kind of risk?  Would you really be willing to drop everything in an instant for His call?

Or would you rationalize that God means for you to just use the bounty he has given you, without making a big change?

Listen to this parody (lyrics here) and see if this is you.

The Whisperer

1 Kings 19:11-12

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord,

but the Lord was not in the wind.  

After the wind there was an earthquake,

but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  

After the earthquake came a fire,

but the Lord was not in the fire.  

And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

So much for Earth, Wind, and Fire.

If you have never seen God work in your life, perhaps it is because you expected an earthquake, and missed the whisper.  My son recently had an essay question something like: “Tell about an event that seemed insignificant at the time, but later you realized had a profound effect on you life or the way you think.”  That is not an easy question to answer if you have not lived long or learned to listen for a whisper.

I feel truly blessed to have been given on a few occasions  insight into the effects of God’s behind-the-scenes whisper.  I am a reasonably successful computer programmer, and about eleven years ago, I received an email  by mistake, out of the blue, from someone  I did not know.  In it they asked  if I (actually if the person they intended the email for) would  come and be the pastor of their church in another state.  I happened to be looking for another programming job at the time so I wrote something to the effect of “My background is entirely in computer programming, are you sure this was intended for me?”  And that was the end of it.

Except that about eight years later I began to consider becoming a pastor, and a few years later have begun planning and training in earnest for it.

I think that God takes great delight in the way that his whispers have shaped and changed our world.   And, because He very much does enjoy it when His people get into the act, He quite often whispers to us something like “Encourage Jim” or “Stop by Tom’s house” or “Ask Elizabeth how you can pray for her.”  And whether we see the results or not, His whispers to and thru us significantly impact individuals and society.   Saturday, Joe, a salesman that I know recounted how eighteen years after last speaking with a belligerent scoffer, he met the man again, now a believer and a pastor who attributed his change to Joe’s testimony!

Even though Elijah heard the words that God whispered that day, he was too caught up in himself and the world to hear what God really had to say.  And he missed an opportunity.  Let us train ourselves to listen for God’s whispers.

God is there, and he is not silent.  But he often only whispers.

No Change in Character

Malachi 3:6  “I the Lord do not change.  So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed”

Have you ever thought how bad it would be for you and I if God did change? If  you work for someone where one day your actions please him, and the next day the same actions don’t, not only would it be frustrating, but also eventually you would be out of a job.  Does that affect your feeling of security?  Now imagine that instead of just being your boss, this person capriciously determines whether and what you eat.  Feeling insecure yet?  Now consider if that person had the power to grant you life or death.  Wouldn’t you feel better in the hands of someone who doesn’t change their mind over time?  As the ultimate person of power over the universe, if God was not unchanging we would be in a precarious position, always uncertain, waiting for the axe to fall as it would inevitably  – only we would have the agony of not knowing when.  But as He tells us in the Bible, He does not change.  And we know that He does not lie: when you are the ultimate power, what would you gain by lying?  Instead you just state the reality and expect everyone else to deal with it.

In Malachi there are plenty of warnings of discipline to a people who were behaving badly.  These people were inconsistent, they did vacillate and change;  and you’d think God would justifiably take their evil as reason to destroy them.  But God does not change.  His behavior is not dependent on ours.  In this verse he tells the people that they will not be destroyed, as they clearly deserved.  An the reason given is simple – “I the Lord do not change.”  In other words He does not go back on His promises, on what He has already decided.

This should give you and I great confidence in our situation.  We can trust God’s promises.   When he says that all we need to do is believe that His son Jesus died and rose from death for us, we can take supreme comfort in knowing that we who believe will likewise rise from the dead to life eternal.

Despite our continuing and sometimes awful failings.   Be glad that God does not change.

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