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Archive for the ‘Biblical Texts’ Category

An Iraqi friend that Becky and I see often sent me an interesting email a few days ago.  The gist of his email was that he could no longer shake Becky’s hand when he greets her.  Before you jump to conclusions, dear reader, I should say that the reason for this no-handshake rule is not that Becky has angered our friend or that she has a communicable disease or that our friend is simply unfriendly.  He is very polite and friendly and we love to be with him and his family.  It is that someone told our friend that since he is a Shia Muslim he is not permitted to shake hands with or touch a woman who is not his wife.

Now, that interested me.  So, I replied to his email.  After assuring my friend that Becky would not be offended by this change, I asked him why he was not permitted to shake a woman’s hand.  Was that a rule in his holy book that he believed came from God?  Or, was it a rule that his people and culture had fashioned?  I wrote that I was wondering by whose or by what authority he was not permitted to shake a woman’s hand.

He replied that it was not a rule that their Iraqi culture had made, but was a religious rule that came from their prophet.  He wants to please God and remain pure in his thoughts, he intimated.  Of course, while this is not a rule that I feel the need to practice, I respect my friend’s right to live by his beliefs, and I admire his motivation for doing so.

Still, I think my question is a legitimate one for my friend and for all of us.  It’s a question our Lord once asked of the religious leaders of his day.  “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mk. 11:29).  Are the rules we try to live by of human origin or did heaven authorize them?  I think that is a significant question.

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With his arrest, trial, and crucifixion just days away, Jesus uttered this brief but telling prayer to his Father: “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name” (Jn. 12:27,28).

This prayer tells us something of Jesus’ mental state in “this hour.”  Namely, that he was fully human.  He was troubled.  Perhaps the thought of his impending death brought before him its approaching horrors and pains.  Or, perhaps he was anxious about the effect his suffering and death would have upon his disciples.  Whatever the reason, “this hour” drove Jesus to reach out to his Father.

This prayer tells us that Jesus weighed his options.  “What should I say?” is an honest question, and Jesus does not mind his Father knowing that he is pondering it.  “Should I ask for the Father to save me from this hour?” Jesus wonders.  Notice that this is an option Jesus weighs – yes, he contemplates it – then moves away from it.

Amazingly, Jesus understood that “this hour” had its own special purpose.  He knew there was a reason he had come to this hour.  We know, of course, that the events of “this hour” made possible our salvation!

Finally, we learn the astonishing request Jesus made in that prayer: “Father, glorify your name.”  Isn’t this magnificent!  When Jesus’ hour comes he doesn’t pray, “Save me from this hour,” but “Glorify yourself through this hour.”

Our Lord can teach us a lot about how to face dark days of the soul.  When we come to distressing moments in our lives, we can reach out to God for his help.  We can bare our hearts to him in complete honesty.  We can view the hours we would want to be saved from as carrying a meaning and a purpose.  And, when we must endure dark days we can seek, not the avoidance of personal pain and suffering, but that our heavenly Father is glorified in the experience.  Lord, help us to respond as you did when comes our hour of grief and pain!

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There is a funny line in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker 1998 movie, Rush Hour, which has become part of our family history.  Tucker is welcoming Chan to Los Angeles, but Chan is silent and acting like he doesn’t understand a single word Tucker is speaking.   Raising his voice, Tucker asks, “Do you speaka any English?  Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”  I have modified that question over the years and tend to use it when I think Becky or my children are not listening to me.  I’ll ask, “Do you not hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?”

Well, they usually hear me.  They just don’t always listen.  Hearing and listening are two different things.  When you hear something, it can go in one ear and out the other.  My kids would attest to that!  But listening requires thought.  To listen to someone is to give one’s attention to what that person says, even to take notice of and act on what that person says.

This helps me to understand what Jesus once said: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mt. 13:9).  In the past I wondered, “We all have ears, don’t we?  How could we not hear?”  Perhaps Jesus is saying, “Let the one who hears, listen!”  Our Lord invites and commands his followers to listen to what he has to say.  To pay attention to it.  To act on it.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” Scripture teaches (Jas. 1:22).  How would we who hear God’s word deceive ourselves?  By thinking that hearing is the same as listening or doing.  It isn’t.  James is saying that there is little value – dare I say, no value – in hearing God’s word if there is not the attendant intention to practice it.  When God speaks, we should do more than hear.  We should listen!

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A Friend of Sinners

Jesus’ critics said of him, “He is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Lk. 7:34).  Now there is absolutely no evidence that our Lord was a glutton or a drunkard.  My guess is that Jesus hung out with people the religious leaders would never touch with a ten-foot pole, that he ate and drank with them, and that the religious leaders greatly exaggerated this story intending to undermine Jesus’ popularity with the crowds.  Jesus was gregarious.  He enjoyed people and had good times in their company.  But, an overeating boozer?  No way!

What was true of their accusation is that Jesus was a friend of sinners.  Remember the “sinner” Jesus welcomed who demonstrated her love and appreciation for him when she bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? (Lk. 7)  Remember the tax collector in the tree to whom Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today”? (Lk. 19)  Yes, Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, to the horror of the religious leaders! (Lk. 15:1,2)

Why sinners were attracted to Jesus is food for thought for another day.  For now, I only want to affirm that Jesus was a friend of those who did not appear to be religious.  Let’s think about that.  And, let’s consider how our practice may compare to our Lord’s.  Perhaps we need to become more intentional about developing friendships with people who don’t follow Jesus.

You know, we really shouldn’t spend all of our time with Christians.  We should hang out with people who don’t know the Lord.  We can get involved in adult sports leagues or book clubs.  We can attend our children’s sporting events to meet members of the community.  We can join an art class or get involved in a community project.  It’s time for us to remind ourselves that we are what Jesus said his disciples are: salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16).  It’s time to get out of the saltshaker and let our light shine!

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about our Lord’s parable of The Generous Landowner (Mt. 20: 1-16) in preparation for a presentation I will deliver soon at a Chicagoland assembly.  And, with this parable in mind, I’ve also been thinking about roles and expectations in the Lord’s church.  What does the Lord expect of us?

The main point of this parable is not that God expects those under his rule to work in his cause.  But if parables are multivalent, this is surely one lesson to be found here: God has called us to be more than spectators, but workers in his vineyard. Hence, the rebuke of verse six: “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

I’m wondering if this is a message today’s church needs to hear.  I’m wondering if there is a need for us to change our expectations in the body of Christ to more closely align them with Scripture.  To raise the bar, if you will.

For example, what if our elders said, “We want to embrace our God-given role of shepherding this flock.  So, our primary emphasis will be upon feeding and protecting you.  We will be ‘pastors and teachers’ (Eph. 4:11) and will ‘devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4).  We will oversee this flock, but we refuse to be merely a board of directors.

“Also, we want to challenge our ministers to focus more on evangelism.  For too long we have treated them as if they were the CEOs of the church and the ones hired to develop and implement programs.  Part of their role is to ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry,’ but we are encouraging them to see as primary the task of announcing the good news of Jesus.

“Likewise, we want to change the perception of what it means to be a member of the church.  Following Jesus is more than believing a set of doctrines and practicing certain rituals, and God demands more than pew-sitting and spectating.  We will help you find your niche and train you to fill it.  But if you want to be a member of the body of Christ, you will be expected to actively serve.”

Surely, this would be part of what the Lord expects of each of us since Christianity is not a spectator sport.  At least, it shouldn’t be.

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One of the most fruitful studies in Scripture is the “fear nots” of the Bible.  That phrase is found some seventy times in Scripture.  Just consider some of the many times Jesus promoted fearlessness.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt. 10:28).

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Lk. 5:10).

“Do not fear.  Only believe . . .” (Lk. 8:50).

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the                                       kingdom” (Lk. 12:32).

Consider this.  When Jesus was born, an angel said to shepherds in their fields, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10,11).  Now, stay with me as I try to squeeze something extra out of this text.  I suppose that what struck fear in the shepherds’ hearts were the sudden appearance of the angel and the glory of the Lord shining around them.  They must have been terrified by what they saw.  But, I like the thought that for those shepherds and the rest of us the birth of a baby in Bethlehem sends fear packing.  Since Jesus entered our world, we don’t need to be afraid.  Of anything.

I wonder what life would be like if we lived without the fear, for example, of enemies, or reaching out and becoming vulnerable to others, or rejection, or failure, or suffering, or pain, or death, or the unknown, or taking risks for God.  If “No fear!” was the motto we lived by, we might just learn what the abundant life that Jesus came to provide was all about!  (Jn. 10:10)  Let’s live without fear, for Heaven came down, and we are more than conquerors through him who loved us! (Rom. 8:37)

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Be Strong in the Lord

Having finished a thrilling study of the Gospel of John – high-fives all around! – I began a study of Isaiah November 1.  Let’s see.  If it took me thirteen months to work my way through John’s twenty-one chapters, I may be a tottery old man by the time I work through Isaiah’s sixty-six!  That’s alright.  I’m in no hurry.  My practice is to work my way through a book by writing out the text word for word, paraphrasing it as if I were relating it to someone sitting at our kitchen table, and then applying it to my own life.  Before jumping into the text, though, I like to read an introduction to the book.  So, I am reading John Oswalt, an author recommended by Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.  (If Fee’s book is not in your personal library, I heartily recommend it as it has made me a better Bible reader.)

Oswalt notes that in the first section of Isaiah, Assyria is the dominant world power, who, after squashing Israel, marches south.  To protect herself, Judah turns to Egypt, a choice Isaiah rails against!  “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” (Is. 31:1)

This started me thinking about some of the foolish alliances we make.  Hoping to find strength and security in alliances we hope are strong enough to overcome pennilessness, sickness, failure, or other maladies, we tie our fortunes to the stock market or the family doctor or education or something else just as surely to disappoint in the long run.  Isaiah’s message to us would be: Your strength is in the Lord!  That’s a reminder I need.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:28-31).

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