Thursday, August 27, 2009

Walking Where You Live

I recently completed an online survey which claims to find the perfect city to match your lifestyle. I was somewhat surprised by the results (which I won't share here), but I understand how the website calculated the results. Based on a series of questions about your personality and preferences, the program is able to generate a response with some degree of accuracy. For example, people who enjoy mountain climbing are less likely to be a perfect fit for a beachfront condo. Likewise, those who love watersports probably wouldn't pick the Great Plains as their ideal dwelling place. So what does any of this have to do with theology you ask?

I mentioned in my last blog that we're studying the book of Colossians. I thought it would be proper to pick up where we left off last week. The Colossians were given a nice theology lesson about the supremacy of Christ (and consequently the futility of angelic worship and asceticism). Now, as is often the case, Paul shifts from the doctrinal to the ethical. That's not to say there is a huge dichotomy between the two- really there isn't. What you believe will determine how you behave. Now that the Colossians are fully versed in Christology, they will also be introduced into the ethical demands of that theology. Again, doctrine and praxis are closely linked in the bible. Paul will go on to use a clothing metaphor to describe the contrast between the old man and the new man. Hence, he says there are things we must "put off", and subsequently things we must "put on".

But today, I want to draw your attention to a phrase found in the 7th verse of the 3rd chapter:

Col 3:7 In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.

Paul has just described some things which are incompatible with new life in Christ ; sexual immorality, lust, covetousness (which is linked with idolatry). And lest we think God winks at those things, Paul reminds us that they bring about the wrath of God (Col 3:6). Now before we start pointing fingers and constructing soapboxes, let's not forget that Paul says that's the way we used to be. The major difference is that we no longer "live" there anymore. One of the reasons people find it so difficult to live the ethical demands of the bible is because they don't "live" there. And we are going to "walk" where we "live". Let me further illustrate:

Gal 5:25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

In Galatians chapter 5, Paul contrasts the "works of the flesh" with the "fruit of the Spirit". Admittedly, the fruit of the Spirit listed there, sets the bar pretty high. And the only way we can "walk in the Spirit" is if we "live" in the Spirit. It's about having a new nature-not one that is incapable of sinning or falling short of the mark- but one that has been radically transformed from above. I'm convinced we have many people who come to our churches week after week, and seemingly never are able to "walk" straight. Instead, their walk is a continual reflection of the works of the flesh. It could be (and I'm speculating here) that they are simply walking where they live.

It would be natural to see a man or woman with a surfboard at the beach. But a man with ice skates on at the beach would likely be laughed to scorn. Romans 7 is a depiction of what life is like without the Spirit. And sadly, this is the place so many are at; trying desperately to live a life of victory, but feeling hopeless. But the clouds part in chapter 8, and Paul describes life in the Spirit. He begins with these words:

Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

So how then, do these individuals walk after the Spirit? It is precisely because they "live" in the Spirit.

Rom 8:8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Rom 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (ESV)

So I want to ask you this question today: where do you live? Because where you live, will determine where (and how) you walk. Maybe next time we'll get more into the clothing metaphor of Colossians 3. But this is enough for me to chew on for now. In case you haven't figured this out yet- this blog is less about me pontificating from a soapbox, and more about allowing you to read over my shoulder as I ponder the truths of scripture. I hope that you're blessed along the way.

Until next time....

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Touch Not, Taste Not, Handle Not"

Col 2:21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;) (KJV)

We're studying the book of Colossians at LWC. This book reminds us that we are complete in Christ. He is all we really need, and the source of all wisdom. Apparently some false teachers had gained some traction in the church there, and were introducing some erroneous ideas. And it appears one of their mantras was "touch not, taste not, handle not". They had a unique brand of asceticism that they wanted everyone else to adopt in order to be a "real" disciple. Asceticism (in case you are not familiar with this term), is basically defined as rigorous self-denial or abstinence from certain things. In a theological sense, it usually carries with it the idea that a person can become a "better" Christian by adopting these disciplines.

It is important that we have balance in our theology. We have a tendency to polarize certain issues that we are passionate about. When we use or hear the phrase "doctrines of devils"- we typically think of doctrines of excessive indulgence and liberty. To that end, Jude warns that we must not "change the grace of God into a license for immorality"(Jude 4 NKJV). And Paul also was quick to point out that the appearance of grace didn't mean the end of holy living:

Rom 6:15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. (KJV)

However, when the bible speaks of doctrines of devils, it can also refer to doctrines of abstinence. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he warned him about these dangerous teachings that would infiltrate the church, and attempt to take the focus off of Christ, and put it on rules of rigid abstinence that God didn't command.

1 Tim 4:1-3
1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (KJV)

I think most of us are familiar with the concept that it is dangerous to take away from what God says. But equally dangerous, is the notion that we can add to what God has said, and make rules and regulations where there are none. (Prov 30:5-6, Rev 22:18)

The irony of this discussion, is that this rigid asceticism actually provides no lasting benefits to resisting the urges of the flesh. Look at what Paul says to the Colossians regarding their "touch not, taste not, handle not" approach to denying the flesh:

Col 2:23
23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (NKJ)

There are things the bible says we should abstain from. Abstinence in and of itself is not a bad thing. The error we must guard against however, is the idea that a rigid self-denial can somehow supplement or supplant the sufficiency of Christ (I didn't mean to use such alliteration in that phrase, but it flowed nicely). If we follow Christ and obey the Word of God, we will have enough to keep us busy without having to add anything else. Let me leave you with Paul's statement of Christ's sufficiency.

Col 2:9 For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; 10 and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. (NKJ)

Until next time....

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Gourd of the Lord

Jonah 4:6 And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.

Today, we're going to take a final look at the book of Jonah. We opened this series of blogs by talking about 3 things the Lord did. And guess what.....that's how we're going to end it too! When we last left Jonah, he had preached his message of destruction, and the people of Nineveh responded by turning to God in repentance. Subsequently, God turned from His intentions and pardoned the people of Nineveh. Jonah should be happy now, right? Not exactly.

Jonah 4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. (KJV)

I won't spend much time dealing with Jonah's shallow and selfish response. But I will say this; there are times when our expectations and God's will don't converge. Yes, there are some who say if you simply have enough faith, you can make anything happen by saying the magic words or following the right formula(s). This too, is a shallow expression of faith. From our vantage point, it is often difficult to understand the "big picture". Jonah had just experienced the "altar call" of a lifetime. He saw more converts in one day than many of us will see in a lifetime. But he wasn't happy. He obviously didn't "get it".

At this point, we might expect the ground to open up and swallow Jonah alive. How dare he take such an attitude, after God went to such great lengths to preserve him for this very mission. But, as is always the case- God is much more merciful than we give Him credit for. Even in the midst of Jonah's pity party, God is doing a redemptive work and teaching a lesson. So let's look quickly at 3 things that the Lord did.

#1- God prepared a gourd (4:6)- This gourd provided shade from the intense heat of the day. Psalm 145:9a says "The Lord is good to all". Jesus says that God sends sun and rain on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). God is good to everyone! When we see injustice, we often ask the question "why do bad things happen to good people?". Such questioning ignores the fact that God allows good things to happen to everyone- regardless of whether they deserve it or not.

#2- God prepares a worm (4:7)- The worm reminds us not to hold too tightly to the things of this world. Paul told the Corinthians that all that we see in the material world is temporary (2 Cor 4:18). Life is filled with change and various seasons. Our lives can easily be devoted to the temporal. I recently had a laptop failure which reminded me how quickly years worth of work can be lost forever (here's a friendly reminder to always back up your data!). Ask yourself this question- how much of your time do you devote to issues of no eternal value? Obviously, I'm not suggesting that we spend every waking moment teaching or preaching. It is my opinion that God wants us to enjoy life- not simply endure it. But where are our priorities?

#3- God prepared a wind (4:8)- The wind reminds us that our only defense is faith in God. Our security does not rest in the amount of possessions we can amass in this life. We can do our best to insulate ourselves from disaster, but truly our lives are in God's hands. The gourd of yesterday, can be destroyed by the worm of today- offering no protection from the winds of tomorrow.

All of this makes Jonah wish for death. Again, at this point, we might expect the Lord to simply grant his request. At the very least, we might expect Divine silence. Instead, the Lord engages Jonah in dialogue (4:9). He explains to Jonah that the gourd was an object lesson. Jonah's priorities were totally askew. He had no concern for the thousands of innocent children living in Nineveh. He seemed only concerned about his reputation, the "unfortunate" repentance of the people of Nineveh, and of course- the withering of the gourd.

We are a culture of stress and anxiety. Some of our fears may be legitimate. Some of our anxieties may well be warranted. I would be lying if I said I never experienced either of them, so I don't stand in judgment of you today. But I want us to take an inventory today, and see where our priorities stand. How much of our time is spent in frustration and anger because our expectations and God's will don't seem to be on parallel tracks? Could it be that God is using us in a way that we despise and yet it's for the greater good?

The book of Jonah has always left me a little uneasy because of the ending. We don't end this book with a benediction, a hymn, or an Amen. The book ends with a question. Just as Jonah was left with the question, so are we. In light of God's love for all mankind, what are we going to do about it?

Until next time...