Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chritophanies and Advent Season

Have you ever gotten a reference to something and said to yourself, "I wonder if anyone else caught that...?" One of my favorite television shows is Bones. For those of you not familiar with it, it's a crime drama in which the main character and forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and her FBI Agent partner Seeley Booth join forces and expertises to solve murders. The writers on that show exhibit their brilliance on a weekly basis by letting the audience catch on to small subtle jokes.

I was treated to TWO cool moments this week! One: the murdered character of the week (there's pretty much one of those every episode) went to Penn State, which I found neat (and a little sad :-( poor dead fictional Penn Stater). Two: she was a spy named Harriet... aka Harriet the Spy! Quickly wondering if anyone else caught that, I pulled up my Twitter client and searched for "Harriet Spy Bones" and sure enough, other people were having the same kind of "HEY! HARRIET THE SPY! I see what you did there writers!" moment that I was having.

I think God does this as well.

Someone (Bret Koontz? Kevin Brungard?) who was a leader in my church camp when I was a kid pointed out what he called "Jesus cameos" in the Old Testament. These "Jesus cameos" were little parts in the Old Testament where it seems that Jesus pops in for a bit. For example, check out the "Fiery Furnace" scene in Daniel 3. For those of you who may be a little fuzzy on the details to the story, I'll sum it up for you.

Basically, there was this jerk king named Nebuchadnezzar. He had a bright idea to make a statue of himself out of gold and get everyone in his kingdom to bow before it. If anyone refused, they'dget tossed into a furnace. Reasonable, right?

Anyway, there are three guys (friends of Daniel) who are faithful to Daniel. We know them as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (aka Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah). They talk amongst themselves and agree they're not going to bow to this image of the king, because they know the second of the Ten Commandments says they shouldn't. In fact they're so emboldened, they give this response to Nebuchadnezzar: "“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."”

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I'm pretty sure there was a little of this going on:

But I digress. I love their actual, Biblically recorded response just as it is, their faith, and their total dependence on God. It's for this attitude, I believe, that God uses them to demonstrate His awesome power. Nebuchadnezzar, being royally (get it?) ticked off, declared that the furnace should be heated SEVEN times hotter than normal. It was *so* hot that the guards who took the three men to be tossed in the furnace DIED from the heat. But not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

"Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”

They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”

Many Bible commentators believe that this fourth man was not a "son of the gods" but The Son of God, Jesus Christ. This kind of appearance is called a Christophany, and I honestly believe that one of the reasons God chooses to do this is to allow us to say, "Huh... that's kinda cool." It also generally means that people should pay attention... Nebuchadnezzar certainly learned his lesson (until the end of that chapter of the Bible anyway). Daniel 3:28

"Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God."

This kind of thing pops up all over literature as well (Hagrid mentioning Sirius Black in the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book, for example). Maybe I'm weird, but it always gives me a little bit of joy and pleasure when I find these things.

I think my favorite of all time, though, is that Jesus Christ is mentioned in the THIRD chapter of the Bible. Now to put that in perspective, it takes LESS than 0.336417157% of the Bible to get to a mention of Jesus.

Genesis 3:14-15: (emphasis mine)

So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

From the very beginning of time, even before the beginning of time, God had a redemption plan in place, and Jesus keeps checking in periodically. We can see Him throughout the Old Testament, and of course in the New Testament. One thing always remains the same--when Jesus shows up, people pay attention. We're getting into the time of the year where we think about His arrival on this planet. Jesus showed up... pay attention. Keep that in mind as you delve into all your Christmas shopping.

Happy Advent Season everyone!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Q & A: The Essentials- Sin

I'm without a computer still (FedEx's fault) and I'm travelling, so this will be a pretty quick post today. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone from me to you.

I heard from several people about my post from two weeks ago, the one about the two men who decided to continue to serve in ministry even though they no longer believe in Christ. Many people told me something to the effect of, "Of course they're sinning, you didn't need to tell me that," but I feel that many people (especially those outside the church) would not recognize their sin. My friend Emily took that a step further and commented on my post. Here was her question:

Since the economy is so bad and it sounds like these men haven't really held a lot of other jobs, where could they go if they don't continue to preach? Do you give them any credit at all for at least attempting to stick to the parts of the Bible that they believe in and preaching about being a good person, instead of preaching things that they straight out don't believe?

I was really excited when I got this, because I figured I'd have way too little time to blog this week and I knew I could answer this with one passage from the Bible! It's not that the question is elementary, but what these men are doing is SO blatantly wrong, it's easy to find things in the Bible to refute them.

Titus 1:6-9
An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless-not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Now, it's important to note that the word "elder" here probably translates better as "pastor" meaning "shepherd." Really anyone who guides and oversees the flock would fall into this category, meaning that these two men do. These men came into this ministry which Paul calls in 1 Timothy 3 a "noble task." That task is not that they're doing their own work, but they're doing God's. Their flock have entrusted their hearts and souls to these men who no longer believe or desire to believe in God. Clearly they have trouble maintaining any of the things that Paul says they must do, but obviously the ones that jump out at me are "not pursuing dishonest gain" and "hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught."

So no, I don't give them any credit at all. I know they no longer submit to the authority of the Scripture, so they probably don't care one lick about what God has said. That makes it a lot easier to do what they're doing, but they should still adhere to the Bible since that's pretty much where their job description lies. In fact, I can think of no other profession where this would be considered fair game, so why should ministry be any different?

I'll leave you all with this. Just because these two men have lost their way, I encourage you to maintain yours. Going into Thanksgiving, I thought Paul's words to the church at Colossae would be appropriate:

Colossians 2:6-7
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him,
rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Essentials- Sin

I stumbled upon an article yesterday that I wish I would have found prior to my sermon on Sunday. It involves two men, one a Southern Baptist minister with over 20 years of ministry experience, and another, a man who calls himself "Adam" who serves on the pastoral staff of a small evangelical church (don't worry-- not me). Both of these men have reached the conclusion through "careful" study of the Bible and arguments both for and against religion that God probably does not exist. They continue to serve in their ministry, mainly because they cannot fathom how they'll make it financially if they leave their positions.
"I want to get out of the position that I'm in as quickly as I can because I try to be a person of integrity and character," Adam said. "With the economy the way it is, with my lack of marketable skills other than a seminary education, it has me in a tough spot."
Now there is an important thing to say here, right off the top: these men are sinning. There is no question about it. I do not know these men at all, so I do not know what's going on in their heads or in their hearts, but I do know what their doing is wrong and is most likely teetering on some dangerous ground for their own spiritual walk (Matt. 12:31, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10, 1 John 5:16). I say this not to judge them, but just to be unequivocal about what I think, and what the Bible says about men like these.

What's worse is that these men are leaders of a flock of believers. They're supposed to be an example of what to do rather than what not to do. But we need to work with what we're given, so let's look at the situation (and speculate a bit).

The Good

These men did at one point have a faith of their own, and were looking to make it real.

The Bad

They fell short of their goal. Challenging one's belief systems can be a good thing. It should make a believer's faith stronger; however, in order to do that, he should make sure that his belief is grounded on the solid truth of the Bible.

"The more I read the Bible, the more questions I had," Jack said. "The more things didn't make sense to me -- what it said -- and the more things didn't add up."

Jack said that 10 years ago, he started to feel his faith slipping away. He grew bothered by inconsistencies regarding the last days of Jesus' life, what he described as the improbability of stories like "Noah's Ark" and by attitudes expressed in the Bible regarding women and their place in the world.

"Reading the Bible is what led me not to believe in God," he said.

The Bible doesn't change. For anything in life, there's usually some kind of manual. One can choose to read than manual and get to know everything there is to know about it, or he can get his information elsewhere (the knowledgeable people on Yahoo! Answers would, I'm sure, love to help anyone out*). If one chooses to work outside the framework of that manual, that person is still responsible for whatever the manual contains, regardless of whether or not he has read it. To serve in ministry, or even call themselves Christians, for any length of time, and then become surprised by things in the Bible, especially such biggies like the Great Flood, is ludicrous. I realize that as one's faith matures, opinions and understandings can change, but this is rather dramatic.

Another thing that's noticeable here is that both of these men have chosen a path of extreme and utter loneliness. My biggest pet peeve in Christianity is that Christianity is NOT meant to be done alone. Jesus surrounded himself with 12 friends, three of which he was closer to than all the rest. Paul complains time and time again about being lonely; he shares in his struggles with sin and perseverance. Why then, do we try to be supermen and superwomen when it comes to struggles in our faith?

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

By trying to challenge an immature faith by themselves, and still serving in ministry, these men have put themselves in a nearly impossible, and lonely, situation. That leads us to:

The Ugly
Matthew 15:13-14
He replied, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.
Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."

The worst part of this whole ordeal is that these men continue to serve in their ministry posts:

He and Jack said that when speaking to parishioners, they tried to stick to the sections of the Bible that they still believed in -- the parts about being a good person.

I wonder if these men ever truly understood what their supposed "calling" was about. Their spiritual immaturity resonates throughout their churches. Who are they accountable to? Hasn't anyone in their church confronted them about preaching the Truth? About their apparent lack of faith? Pray for their congregations, pray for YOUR leaders, and pray that you don't ever fall victim to false teachers such as these.

Matt 7:15, 16

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

Whether they like it or not, or if they even still care, the only example these men have set is precisely what not to do when one finds himself in sin. Rather, look to the Bible for the Truth, and then look to others for help. Challenge each other regularly to inspect your lives and earnestly seek after God's will in order to produce good fruit. Sin is a part of the human condition, but if we have the Spirit within us, we don't have to be slaves to sin (Romans 8). Always look for opportunities to grow, and even challenge your faith, but when doubts begin to creep up, don't feel ashamed, but submit yourselves to those more mature in their faith. Lastly, encourage those who minister to you. Don't allow them to feel like they can't share their troubles.
1 Thessalonians 5:11-13
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
Whew... just had to get that off my chest. Just so you all know, the blog may be a little late next week (maybe non-existent) as I'll be travelling to Hershey, Pennsylvania for the Eastern Christian Convention... maybe I'll see you there! If you're in my congregation, remember the outreach event at Wal-Mart this Saturday! I can't wait to hear about what God does through your service!

*Disclaimer: If any of you actually takes the advice of people on Yahoo! Answers, I assume ZERO responsibility for the horrible, horrible things that will probably happen to you)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thank God for the Bible, literally.

If Election Day 2010 taught me anything, it's that no matter who we vote into office, one of two things is going to happen. Either Americans will vote for someone to affect change, which they will, then we'll vote them out of office in the next election OR Americans will vote for someone to do nothing, which they will, and they'll keep their office for at least 3 terms. I feel that's a pretty fair, unbiased, and nonpartisan assessment of US Politics, so let's not debate that... it was just important for me to make my next point.

Don't get me wrong, I love living in America, and I love the fact that we get choices in our government-- heck, I even love voting! But at a certain point, I realize that my opinions are just those-- opinions. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, and they will always vary. I'm so glad that not everything in my life is based on opinion.

One of the things I love about Jesus is that He *is* Truth. I love democracy (or the democratic-republic of America, as it were) when I have to submit to the authority of fallen men-- but when it comes to my Creator, I have no problem with His monarchical reign. Christianity is not a single-issue system, but it isn't a huge complicated multi-faceted one either. Rather, it's a one-man system and Jesus made it very very simple.

John 14:5-7 (NIV)
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?"
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."

To a lot of people, submitting to Christ may not sound entirely pleasing, and many people find it reprehensible. However, Christ has given us the only true freedom there is in life. If we do not act according to His will, we're slaves to sin. But if we do ground our life in Him, we find our freedom.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

The Bible is where we find that Truth today. It's our guidebook and our path to explore God's Will. In truly discovering what God has done for us, we can learn to put our trust in Him. That way, we can realize that the short-sightedness we display in our earthly elections and other decisions pale in comparison to the full understanding that God has for us.

Psalm 119:105-112
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.
I have suffered much; preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word.
Accept, O Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws.
Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.
The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.
Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

Jeremiah 29:11-13
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

Seek Him and understand. I promise, Jesus will never let you down. I can't say the same for the folks in Washington.