On Sunday Morning

JFK

Nearly a decade before I was born, President John Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address: My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

In America, this attitude has become a platitude. Kennedy’s words are long forgotten as people routinely fight each other to get more rather than to consider what they may freely contribute.

Sadly, this same mentality pervades the church set. We ask: What can I get by going to church? What will God, or the church, or the pastor, or the musicians, or the people there give to me today?

People attend church for the social experience. They seek a smiling face, friendship or a handout. They want heart-stirring music, an emotional charge, or a platform for income equality and gender-fluid politics. Others make it a cover of godliness to hide a lust for material possessions or a place to lurk after vulnerable, hurting people.

The Bible portrays the Church as a spiritual organism in a material world. It pictures the Son of God coming to Earth to reveal the Father and be the redemption for man’s sin. Christ’s mission wasn’t social engineering or political revolution, but ending sin and death. Jesus is eternal life rather than health or wealth here and now.

Few ever arrive Sunday morning and ask, “What will God receive from me here today?

The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him (Habakkuk 2:20).

 

The Vasa

where living begins

On August 10, 1628, after two years of work, the pride of the Swedish navy slid from its berth in Stockholm into the harbor. Dignitaries and royalty aboard the Vasa were impressed as the sails caught wind and billowed. Less than 400 feet from the shoreline, a strong gust of wind caught the ship causing it to roll over. Water rushed into the open gun ports, and the Vasa sank to the bottom of the harbor.

King Gustavus Adolphus was eager to show off the pride of Sweden and its growing military power. The Vasa was covered with intricately carved figurines, and a massive, ornate stern. The 5-deck ship, however, wasn’t fitted with ballast to keep it balanced in the water.

Sweden was so ashamed of its folly, that the ship wasn’t spoken of again. It remained at the bottom of the harbor until 1961. Today the Vasa sits in a museum in the Swedish capital.

The story of the Vasa is the story of you and me. God knows our every frailty and failure, despite the grand appearance we make to the world. We may impress others and even our self, but God knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust despite our pretensions (Psalm 103:14).

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the plunder with the proud (Proverbs 16:18, 19).

Nosegay

A 1560 painting of a boy holding a nosegay in his hand.

After the Russian ambassador met King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), he wrote, His Majesty stunk like a wild animal. King Louis bragged at the fact of only bathing twice in his entire lifetime because it was commonly believed that bathing caused illness.

For more than 500 years, Europeans ignorantly believed that washing the hands, face, and body was the source of illness and death. Superstition advised against bathing – especially in warm or hot water – because it allowed diseases to enter the body through the pores in the skin.

Instead of washing dirt, grime, filth, and disease from the body, wealthy Europeans turned to nosegay, meaning happiness for the nose. The nosegay was a small sachet of flowers and herbs, or cloth dipped in perfume, stuffed in the shirt sleeve or cleavage and sniffed when body odor became overwhelming. Rather than remove the cause of the odor, Europeans tried to cover their own stench.

In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to frequently wash themselves; their hands, faces, feet, and bodies. Washing the dirt, grime, and stink from the body not only prevented the transfer of disease, but was symbolic of God’s forgiveness of sin (Numbers 8:7; Psalm 51:7).

Regular washing with water and soap is necessary for bodily health, but it’s powerless to purge the soul of sin. Christians can’t ignore the moral filth of daily sin, nor attempt to mask the stench with our own works. Instead, we regularly confess our sins to the ever-forgiving God and receive His gracious cleansing.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Hyphenated Christians

Hyphenated Christians

Until recently, America has largely avoided violent internal strife because as a nation, we’ve lived simply as “Americans.” Wherever we came from, old labels were left behind and American became our identity. We even fought a great war to put an end to rising tribalism and bind ourselves together as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. 

Since the radical 1960s however, we are less and less “American” and a nation of tribes. “Mexican-Americans”, “Gay-Americans”, “African-Americans”, “Evangelical Americans” and the list goes on. Sometimes our tribalism is about where our ancestors came from, but more often it’s a celebration of our divisions.

This trend exists in churches today as it plagued the ancient church in Corinth two-thousand years ago.

There are no hyphenated believers in the family of God. We are not Paul-Christians or Apollos-Christians or Peter-Christians. We are either followers of Jesus, born again by the grace of God alone through faith in Christ alone, or we are not Christians. Our only foundation for truth, faith, and practice is the Bible or we follow a religion other than Christianity. Other divisions are phony and prideful externals, both immature and sinful (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).

There is great gain in knowing the past; celebrating the best of the past and repenting of the worst, but when that past creates ungodly division among brothers, it must be put away.

For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ … there is one body (1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 4:4).

Polishing the Brass

titanicIt was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship in the world. Late in the evening of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg only 375 miles from the shore of Newfoundland, Canada. In less than 3 hours, 1,517 of the 2,224 crew and passengers were drowned.

The crew ignored warnings of icebergs in the area because they believed the advertisement that the ship was “unsinkable.” One passenger boarding the ship, Mrs Sylvia Caldwell, proclaimed that God Himself could not sink this ship. 

As the unsinkable Titanic sank, passengers still believed the ship could not go under the icy Atlantic Ocean. Some began playing a game of soccer with chunks of ice on the deck. The ship’s orchestra continued to play as people around them panicked. Millionaire businessman Benjamin Guggenheim took off his life vest and donned his black tie, tails, and top hat while walking the deck saying he would go down with the ship as a gentleman. Hundreds stood around a priest praying that God and Mary would save them yet did nothing to save themselves.

One thing no one did, however, was polish the brass on the sinking ship.

We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day … for the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (Second Corinthians 4:16, 18).

 

Jerusalem

jerusalemJerusalem which now is, is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:25, 26).

David’s first act as king over Israel was to establish a new capital city. David chose the centralized city of Jerusalem, a stronghold of a people known as Jebusites (Second Samuel 5:6-9).

Earlier called Salem, meaning peace (Genesis 14:18), Jerusalem sat on a narrow finger-shaped hill with steep cliffs on 3 sides. The highest point of the city was Mount Zion. The Jebusites thought their city was impregnable so that even the blind and lame could protect it; but David knew God had given Israel all the land. He conquered the city and became great, and the Lord God of hosts was with him (Second Samuel 5:10).

Since the time of David, Jerusalem has been the capital of God’s earthly people Israel. It’s had a turbulent history and is today a politically and religiously divided city.

As Christians, we support the people of Israel and their right to their God-given homeland, but the Bible reminds us that we desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:16). A New Jerusalem is the capital of God’s heavenly people, the Church. It is from this heavenly capital that the Prince of Peace rules and reigns and we will one day live (Revelation 21:2 – 22:5).

While the earthly Jerusalem is a symbol of man’s bondage to the sin of this world; the heavenly New Jerusalem is symbolic of God’s grace and freedom from sin (Galatians 4:25-26).

Room Enough for All

oregon-plateHere in the United States, each of our 50 states has different automobile license plates. My state of Oregon offers 34 different looking license plates for passenger cars alone, each an advertisement for our state.

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of license plates from other states. I suspected that people were moving here to Oregon. My suspicion was right. The State of Oregon has the 6th-fastest growing population in America. People from all over the country are moving here in vast numbers.

All these new Oregonians are causing more traffic congestion. They demands schools for their children, new shopping malls, and more houses. What we native Oregonians see as an already overcrowded place is getting even more crowded.

In 1971, Oregon Governor Tom McCall said of visitors to our state, “Come visit; don’t stay. … I urge them to come and come many, many times to enjoy the beauty of Oregon. But I also ask them, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.

Heaven has no overcrowding.

Jesus said in His Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:2). He went back to Heaven to prepare a place for each of those God predestined to be His children (Ephesians 1:4-5). There’s no overcrowding and no shortage of space. There’s room enough for all whom He has invited into His house.

Jesus says, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6).

God Did Not Forget

god-did-not-forgetSo Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:26).

Joseph, the son of Jacob, was both a righteous man before God and a mighty leader before men.

The Egyptians of old were keen on lasting monuments: statues, pyramids, temples. To this day you can visit the land where three thousand years ago pharaohs ruled and the reminders of the greatness of Egypt’s past still leave men in awe.

Surely monuments to Joseph adorned the landscape of Egypt during and even after his lifetime. He was the man whose divinely-gifted wisdom and leadership preserved the Egyptian empire during a world-wide famine. Yet an unusual thing happened: Joseph was quickly forgotten.

Exodus begins by explaining that there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). New kings seldom care about old friendships, trusted alliances, or faithful servants. They want to make a name for themselves.

With a new king began a new era. The wisdom and greatness of Joseph were forgotten. His friendship and loyalty to the old pharaoh no longer meant anything. His love and service to the Egyptian people didn’t matter. Nothing about Joseph could prevent his memory from fading from Egypt’s mind and heart.

Not only did Joseph disappear from the national conscience, but the Jewish people were perceived as a threat.

Though Joseph was a nobody to pharaoh, and the Jews were considered pests, God didn’t forget His people. He heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant … and God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them (Exodus 2:24, 25).

This didn’t mean that life went back to the way it was, but that whatever was happening, God knew and was working to provide exactly what His people needed at just the right time.

The Lamb of God

Cold grey mist lingered in the air just above the ground, typical this time of the year. Another spring morning in Bethlehem, and the thin layer of green grass poked through the littering of rock.  Legend is that when God created the world, the angel carrying rocks from Heaven accidentally spilled most of his load all in one place: Israel. Any visitor to Bethlehem might wonder if the legend isn’t true.

Only days before, shepherds began leading their flocks out into the fields to pasture. The weather had been too cold up until then for the ewes and their little lambs to be in the fields all night. Today would be their first to remain outside together. In a few hours the fog would burn away, the sun warming the ground and the sheep’s fine wool.

The morning of anticipation was added to by the arrival of a man and his wife into the cave the sheep called home. There was plenty of room with the flocks leaving for the pasture lands, but many would wonder at the wisdom of these city folk in a sheep pen.

The night grew dark except for the pinpoints of a thousand stars in the sky above. Sheep lay still in the short-walled enclosure while shepherds warmed themselves by the fire, telling tales of mysteries of long, long ago. Without warning the black sky burst with a brilliant light as thousands of tiny stars erupted into glorious figures of heavenly angels singing with choral voices: GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST, AND ON EARTH PEACE, GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN (Luke 2:14)!

The shepherds hurriedly made their way back to Bethlehem and the cave they had abandoned earlier in the day. There, these keepers of sheep and little lambs found a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. This newborn Child, hailed by the host of Heaven and seen by keepers of sheep, was the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

The Controversy

shepherds 1The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10).

The rocky plains around Bethlehem were (and still are) used as grazing land for sheep. Located only a short distance from Jerusalem, Bethlehem was a popular place for raising sheep for the sacrificial slaughter at the Jewish temple.

Shepherding was not a prestigious job in the ancient world. The task was always pawned off on the youngest son (1 Sam 16:10-11) or daughters. Farmers and city dwellers detested shepherds (Gen 46:34), and by the time of the prophets, shepherds were considered fully both second-class and untrustworthy.

Shepherds suffered from cruel stereotypes, and shepherding was even outlawed in Israel except on desert plains. The Jewish Mishnah (commentary on the Law of Moses) refers to shepherds in belittling terms, describes them as “incompetent” and notes that if a shepherd was found hurt or injured, there was no legal or moral responsibility to help him. They were unable to hold public office, forbidden to testify in court, had no civil rights, and were considered worse sinners than tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Yet, strangely, it was to a group of shepherds that the Father chose to announce the Incarnation of His Son.

We are most impressed with the message of someone rich or famous, powerful or successful. They are paraded before crowds at churches and evangelistic events and given time on Christian tv. What fools we are!

When God had chosen His man to be king of Israel, Samuel’s prejudice came out. God had to remind him to be careful in his judgments, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart  (1 Samuel 16:7).  And who did God choose? A young shepherd named David who would later write, The Lord is my Shepherd  (Psalm 23:1).