Wednesday, August 29, 2007

When Bad News is Good News

August 29, 2007

The Book of Acts, up through the seventh chapter is teaming with Good News. The Holy Spirit comes. Good news. Many new believers join the church. Good News. Peter and the Apostles are arrested, and miraculously released from jail. Good News. And then, it seems as if all the Good News runs out.

In chapter seven, Stephen is arrested and brought before the council. After an impassioned speech, Stephen is stoned to death. Bad News. And, in chapter eight, we read this, “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem and all the believers except the apostles fled into Judea and Samaria. Saul was going everywhere to devastate the church… dragging out both men and women and throwing them into jail.” Very Bad News.

Or is it?

I’m writing a Bible Study on the book of Jeremiah. Yesterday, I ended my work with commentary about Jeremiah’s arrest. In Jeremiah you read that Zedekiah threw Jeremiah in jail where he was given a loaf of bread every day “for as long as there was bread left in the city.”

Most of us would call incarceration bad news – especially if we’d done nothing to deserve it. But when I think about it, Jeremiah was living through a siege. Nebuchadnezzar had surrounded the city. They had no food coming in. There was a drought, and water was scarce. We know from Lamentations that women were eating their own children as they fell to starvation. But Jeremiah had bread, as long as there was bread in the city.

So, when is bad news good news? Often bad news is simply Grace in disguise. Jeremiah’s arrest put him in the unique position of being completely cared for by the king of Judah. The persecution of the church forced these believers out into the world. Sure, it was comfortable hanging out with the church. Eating together. Praying together. Sharing all things. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Like having full-time church!

But Grace wanted the believers to share what they had. Grace wanted to send the salt into the earth. To let the light out. To spread itself around so that all the world – you and me, my friend – could come to know the Good News, the VERY BEST NEWS, that has ever been told.

Think about it. Most of the time, we only see bad news as good news when we have the added benefit of hindsight. What about you? Have you seen Grace come disguised as Bad News?

I'm on vacation -- sort of. Our boat has had trouble, and we are now living in a boat yard in BC. It wouldn't be my plan for vacation. But I wonder. Is this Grace Disguised?


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Acts Begins

As I write, I'm deep in the heart of Desolation Sound, British Columbia -- so deep in fact, that I couldn't find my way home without a GPS and a chart plotter. But even on vacation, I take my Bible. I've started the book of ACTS, and since it's one of my favorite books, and since I'm sitting on a dock that has WY FY, here I am!

First, observe that the book is written to a Gentile (we guess from his name), who must have become a believer. The author, who is Dr. Luke says in the book of Luke, that he has gathered the accounts of the stories related to what Theophilus "has been taught." Seems that Theophilus is a new believer -- not himself a witness of Jesus death and resurrection, but a reciever of the stories. The other interesting thing is that in Luke, the text begins, "most excellent Theophilus." It seems a formal greeting, one given to someone of stature, or rank, perhaps even royalty. But, the book of Acts begins very differently. It says, "My dear Theophilus."

Luke has made Theophilus a friend. I like that.

One thing I love to do with Acts is to just keep notes. So many folks use ACTS as a platform to declare their own understanding of Spiritual things. I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to observe. Hopefully, I will honor the Spirit who inspired the text in the first place -- not by bringing my own vain imagination to the book, but by seeking his truth. We'll see, won't we?

Acts begins with a host of guys who are too excited for words. The one who died is now alive. Hope has risen. But their hope is for Jesus to accomplish their own agenda -- to free Israel from Roman rule. But the whole book of Acts is about these guys learning to abandon their own agenda for God's agenda. Isn' t that what life is about for us too?

The big event in Acts 2 is the day of Pentecost. Jesus friends are praying in the upstairs room of the house where they were staying, when something amazing happened. The passage says there was a sound "LIKE" a mighty rushing wind. And there were flames of fire above the heads of those who were there. And then, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in OTHER LANGUAGES.

What an amazing thing! They hear a windstorm inside the house. They see fire hanging in the air. And they begin to speak in languages they do not know -- BUT OTHERS DO RECOGNIZE.

As a result of this supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, the Godly Jews who were in Jerusalem heard them speak in languages that they understood, and because they understood, they then heard a sermon which brought them to Christ.

That first Pentecost certainly centered around Evangelism. The languages the men spoke had a dynamic effect in reaching others with the Good News about Jesus. It was clearly the Holy Spirit that Jesus had predicted. It came with POWER, as he said. And that first Pentecost unleashed the beginning of what would be the greatest mission ever undertaken -- to spread the good news of freedom and forgiveness to every corner of the earth.

And the men who took on this task were nothing more than fisherman. Uneducated. Untrained. Unprepared. They had only two things. They had gifts -- specific to the task they were assigned. And they had the Holy Spirit. The unseen, unsung third member of the trinity -- GOD HIMSELF -- living inside them.

With these two things, they were equal to any task. We have these two things as well. What task are you taking on lately?


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Some things never change!

Well, at last I’ve read through Deuteronomy!

It wasn’t easy. In the past week, I’ve written a women’s ministry newsletter, hosted a wedding shower for 35, and gotten two college-aged kids back to school. (Go Cougs!) And in the midst of all this, tried to enjoy a twice-yearly visit from my oldest son.

Exhaustion gives me a new rule with my devotion: Read until something snags you. Whatever it is – the magnificence of God, the faithfulness of a Biblical character, the stupidity of God’s people – once I grab hold of that snag, I look at it closely and let the Holy Spirit use it to shape my life.

That’s the way I’ve been reading this week. It works; try it! I have one more entry from the book of Deuteronomy.

Near the end, we read of some remarkable contrasts. Moses, (clearly the book’s author –consider his use of “I” and “we” in the early chapters) writes an entire chapter about the wonder of God. In one of my Bibles, I have the page folded, indicating that I wanted to memorize the entire passage. (Unfortunately, folded pages indicate intent, not action)

Listen to Moses’ words… “I will proclaim the name of the LORD, how glorious is our God. He is the Rock; his work is perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong. How just and upright he is.”

Amazing words, aren’t they? Especially considering these came from a man who has led a million people for more than forty years, AND YET, because of one “small” mistake, has been denied the honor and satisfaction of leading them into their promised land. (Numbers 20:12 “But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them.”)

Those consequences always seemed harsh to me –like God was having a bad day, or hadn’t had enough sleep. But Moses called him absolutely fair. Interesting?

I think that Moses understood God in a way our culture – even our contemporary Christian culture – has lost. Moses understood God’s HOLINESS. God’s commands are not “suggestions;” his instructions are to be followed exactly as they are given. Moses had not obeyed, and he understood that disobedience came with a price.

This is one of the benefits of reading the Old Testament. God has NOT CHANGED. He is an awesome God, who demands obedience, expects perfection and who punishes fairly. We Christians have become so focused on the Grace of Salvation, that we think God has somehow changed… that he winks at sin, that he doesn’t expect us to keep our commitments, or follow him with our whole heart.

And while Grace enables us to obey, and covers all our sin, God does not change. He insists that we take him seriously. That we respect his instructions. That we obey with our whole heart. Moses’ story tells me there is no room – even under the umbrella of grace – to plan disobedience, expecting God to forgive us after we have enjoyed the pleasure of sin. While grace has purchased our eternal salvation, it does not always prevent us from experiencing the consequences of disobedience.

The Good News? God has not changed. The bad news? God has not changed. Take him seriously. Obey him wholeheartedly. If your heart doesn’t want to obey, ask for a change of heart. Now THAT is a prayer he loves to answer. Bette

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A tree planted by the water.

I have to admit it; we aren't going to get through the Bible in a year. This week, I'm on vacation with my family, attending a Family Bible camp. We're being taught great things by two very gifted speakers. I'm happy to be here.

Today, the family took a hike through what looked to be an old growth forest. Turns out, it isn't. But it is a federal reserve which has been set aside since 1952 in the goal that it will eventually regain the appearance of "old growth." It looks old enough to me. We took pictures of ourselves posed in front of trees that dwarfed even the biggest members of our family. I kept thinking, "my hips are 37 inches around. And I take up this tiny bit of the front of this enormous tree... How big around is that trunk?"

Using old math formulas, we came up with diameters nearing twenty feet. Shocking!

And those trees remind me of a little scripture found in Psalm One, "And he will be like a tree planted by the water. His leaves will not wither..."

The trees on our hike were planted in the richest of volcanic soil, with a virtually limitless source of water. They had stood against the winds of endless winter storms. They had resisted drought, insects, forest fires, moss, lichen, and who knows how many other onslaughts. In the face of westerly winds off the Pacific Ocean, they didn't shrink, they grew strong and tall and straight. In fact, Oregon Spruce is prized by instrument makers for its fine, straight grain.

So, who will be like this kind of tree? According to Psalm One, it is he who studies and obeys the Law of the Lord. This is the process we are comitted to -- whether we finish in one year or ten. We are committed to knowing and observing God's Word. When you open your eyes, his illustrations are all around us. I want to be a tree like those giants I saw today. I want to know the Word, and to grow strong and straight -- and to withstand adversity. It was a great hike; wish you were here!


Friday, August 3, 2007

Some things never change!

As I read through the book of Deuteronomy, I am struck by the way some things stay the same. Even though the words here were written by Moses, thousands of years ago, and delivered to the Jewish people as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, they are as fresh today as they were while the ink was still wet. Take a look at these things:

In chapter five, Moses recounts the commands given by God to his people. Today, people joke about them, calling them the "big ten." We know them as the ten commandments. And though they are nearly four thousand years old, they set a standard that has not changed. As I read through them, I am still pricked by their relevance. In the New LIving, one paragraph reads this way, "Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God. The LORD will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name." That one gets me. I have often slipped into the cultural explanation, "Oh my God!" It is a misuse of His powerful name. And I had to repent. To agree with God and turn back from my way!

In chapter six, we read the famous lines, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God wiht all your heart , all your soul and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are gettin up again." This phrase is repeated in the New Testament. It is the committment that we must hold toward the covenant. God initiated a relationship with the Jews. He did so with us, through Jesus. Are you committed to keeping the relationship?

In chapter seven we read, "The LORD did not choose you and lavish his love on you because you were larger or greater than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! It was simply because the LORD loves you..." The same words are true today. God did not choose me because of my talent, or skills, or charm. He chose me because He wanted to. For no other reason have I become the daughter of the God of the universe. He wanted me. That's it. That's all. A very humbling, but truthful position. In that truth, I draw GREAT strength.

Here is another truth. 'Understand, therefore, that the LORD your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God, who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and constantly loves those who love him and obey his commands." We are the blessed recipients of a NEW covenant. No longer do we have to sacrifice animals every day for our unending sin. But the new covenant was sealed in Jesus' blood. It was enough. And that new covenant is so sturdy that we can DEPEND on it to the thousanth generation. God CONSTANTLY loves those who love him and obey him. CONSTANTLY. I like that word.

And One Last Truth. This quote comes as a warning to the Jews. God tells them that success is a dangerous place. In chapter eight, we read, "But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the LORD your God and disobey his commands, regulations and laws. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along wiht everything else, that is the time to be careful. Do not become proud at that time and forget the LORD your God who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness...

Success is no less a temptation today. When our stomach is full, when things are going well, when the books are being published, then we are tempted to depend on ourselves. Worse, we can even begin to believe that our own strength brought us to this place. And that is a VERY dangerous temptation. For our God, the God of Jesus and the New Testament, is the same God of Deuteronomy and the Old Testament. He will NOT share his glory with us.

Be careful, lest in comfort, we become proud.

It's a good word -- even today.