Monday, January 31, 2011

The Fly Over

As we enter into this 31-week study through the Bible I'm confident of many benefits we'll experience individually and as a congregation, but the one that comes to mind on the cusp of this voyage is the opportunity to get a panoramic look at God's relationship with us humans. It'll be a fly-over of sorts as we start at square one, creation, and end up with a glimpse of the consummation of God's plan, heaven.

There are a lot of people, Christians included, who have trouble understanding God. They'll say, "How could God do this or that?" or "If God really loved us He wouldn't act that way!" Granted, there are many God-denying events recorded in the Bible (as well as other records of human history) that seem to indicate that God can't exist, at least the God we hear about in Bible Classes. Many of these atheistic or agnostic conclusions are based on individual events or statements, not on His total body of work. How would you liked be judged based on one particular day or period of your life?

Years ago my niece who lived just across the street from us brought a friend by our house to swim in our pool. I was out working in the yard and was frustrated at something, can't remember just what. But apparently I didn’t make a great first impression on this stranger as I overheard her say to my niece, "Boy, you've got a grumpy uncle!" I was offended. "You don't even know me," I wanted to shout. My character was being judged on the basis of one passing encounter! Too many people do the same with God.

Many people don’t judge God -- they judge some being they think is God. They don't know Him well enough to make a clear-headed judgment on his character. They don't know the plan, and when you don't know the plan individual steps along the way may seem contradictory.

Have you ever printed out a map to a destination east of you and were taken aback when you have to take a highway that goes west? On the basis of that one step on a long journey it appears that the direction giver is insane, wicked, or just plan uninformed! But sometimes God takes us on what appears to us to be the wrong direction to get us on the right direction.

God can't be judged on individual events. We need to know The Story.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

As you read this Sunday morning Texas Stadium will have been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Growing up in New England in the 1970’s as a National Football League fan there was no sight quite like the aerial view of Texas Stadium – especially on Monday Night Football! To a pre-teen Yankee, Texas seemed so far away, the Cowboys were football royalty, and Texas Stadium was the royal residence. I remember being told that the hole in the roof was there so God could watch his favorite team!

Years later I walked into the legendary stadium to see Denison’s high school football team vie for a state championship. Walking into Texas Stadium was like living a childhood dream - - here I was in the very place that I so admired as a child. I could almost hear the voices of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and Howard Cossell announce my arrival. Just two years ago my daughters actually stepped foot on the hallowed turf as one cheered on the Yellowjackets and another marched with the band as once again Denison’s local 11 made a run at the state championship.

The venerable stadium is now just a pile of rubble. Replaced by a newer, fancier, billion-dollar structure Taxes Stadium has been reduced to being the eyesore of Irving – just a heap of stone alongside Loop 12.

And so is the future of every stadium, every structure, every accomplishment of man.

It’s been a lesson that God has been trying to teach us from nearly the very beginning. “Build the best and most beautiful that you can,” God challenges us, “And I will remind you that buildings, stadiums, palaces will never get you to where you want to go.” The Tower of Babel was man’s first attempt to find immortality in buildings and we all know how that worked out. The path that leads to God is not one constructed by humans, yet we continue to believe that buildings, things, possessions can ultimately lead us to the eternal.

A theme of Scripture is that man was never meant to create the eternal; we were made to pursue It.

Jesus reminded us of this when he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Turn your sights from human accomplishments toward the divine accomplishment,” he instructs us. “You’ll never find security, lasting peace in those things that eventually crumble, whether it be by carefully placed explosives or something as commonplace as rust and moths.” What a futile quest we find ourselves in when we look for lasting value in transitory things.

Texas Stadium, the awesome structure that inspired and awed me as a youth, is now just a pile of rubble – the common fate of everything in this world.

So goodbye and thanks for the memories. But more importantly, thanks for the reminder.
You’ve probably seen the replay by now of what happened in Arlington during last Sunday’s Ranger game. A 28-year-old man dived over a row of seats in pursuit of a foul ball. In his way was a four-year-old fan who was pushed aside and bumped. The man returned to his seat a row behind and victoriously held up the ball as other fans began chanting, “Give him the ball!” He didn’t and that overaggressive act set off a wave of response.

Word of the injustice got back to the dugouts, and before the game was over Ranger and Cardinal players gave the four-year-old two bats and four baseballs, one signed by Nolan Ryan! Later in the week, the family was invited to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America and more good fortune came his way – he was given New York Met souvenirs and tickets to the Mets game.

Turns out, not getting that ball was one of the best things that ever happened!

We all get jostled now and then by overaggressive people. At our feet we find treasures snatched away by someone stronger than us. We get cheated, lose rewards, and sit quietly while others exult in their conquest.

This is particularly the case for Christians who play by the rules, who live unselfishly, who are willing to turn the other cheek. Always has been - always will be! We live as helpless four-year-olds in a world of powerful adults!

But we live this way knowing that there are greater rewards than baseballs out there. We know that the guy sitting behind us won’t have the last word. We know that word of the injustice gets back to the Father. And we know that one day it will be the four-year-old’s day to exult.

It will even turn out that not getting that ball will be one of the best things that ever happened to us.

After receiving his gifts from Good Morning America host Charles Gibson, the four-year-old simply responded, “Wow!” One day, we will do the same!
Over the last couple of months I’ve tuned into Extreme Makeover – Home Edition on Sunday evenings. The stories I’ve seen are heart-wrenching. A family whose mother has died gets a new home with specially designed rooms for each kid and the widower. A family with a child beset with autism and numerous other health setbacks get a new home specifically designed to nurture the autistic child. The family has been away one week while a top-notch crew renovates the home with a seemingly unlimited budget.

After the week is up the family returns and gets a room-by-room tour of their new home - jaws drop at the transformation, smiles erupt with each opened door, tears of appreciation flow.

The end of the show leaves me in tears. I don’t even know these people yet I feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of joy that they now have such a beautiful place to live. Yet, I also feel a twinge of jealousy – wouldn’t it be so awesome to be one of those families? To have a home specially designed for me, one that would buckle my knees in delight and appreciation.

Last week it dawned on me that one day I will. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says. In the book of Revelation John describes heaven in jaw-dropping terms. After our week is over we will be given a room-by-room tour of our new home – one that will give new meaning to the term Extreme Makeover. I must admit I’m tiring of all the reality shows on television, but there is one I’m excited about: Extreme Makeover – Heaven Edition.
Ran across an article today - Doctors Often Prescribe Placebo Treatments. I know I had placebo as vocabulary word in High School, but just to refresh myself I looked it up in the dictionary. Placebo—A substance containing no medication and prescribed or given to reinforce a patient's expectation to get well. The article defines the placebo effect as a benefit produced by assuring someone that whatever is being given will benefit whatever the problem happens to be. Apparently this sometimes actually works! I find it amazing that our minds can have so much control! What we think can actually affect how we feel.

Now I’m not here to debate the ethics of this type of treatment or to defend or refute any medical practice, but I do see a spiritual parallel here. What we think about can determine our spiritual health. If you think spiritually unhealthy thoughts, you will feel spiritually unhealthy. If you think spiritually healthy thoughts, you will feel spiritually healthy.

Last week in our small group this passage was brought up—Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8).

Are you feeling a little spiritually weak? Coming down with a little spiritual bug? You may not need anything more than a change of thinking. Think about good things, dwell on God’s love, find something to be thankful for. Change your thinking and you just may end up changing your life!
Disturbing news for anyone who has ever been or ever plans to go to a zoo – on Christmas day a seemingly innocent visit to the San Francisco Zoo turned tragic. A Siberian Tiger escaped from her enclosure killing a young man and mauling two others. Couldn’t help but think of the warning from the apostle Peter - “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

How and why the attack occurred is under investigation, but one thing is sure -- whatever fence, barrier, or barricade that separated the helpless guests from the ferocious beasts was inadequate. If you’re going to get close to danger you’d better be sure you’re protected. The same is true is a spiritual sense.

Certainly one way to avoid that danger is to simply stop going to the Zoo. Chances are slim that a Siberian tiger or, for that matter, any dangerous beast will find his way down my street. But in a spiritual sense Peter seems to be saying the Satan prowls down every man’s street. It’s like we’re not at the zoo with protective walls and secure enclosures but at a petting farm where the animals are not harmless sheep and chickens, but Siberian Tigers wanting to tear me limb from limb.

What’s an innocent Christian to do?

Peter’s advice is short and sweet – be self controlled and be alert. Watch your step; be aware that danger is in the air; know that temptation can be around every corner. The apostle Paul gives similar advice - “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22, 22). We must be aware of the spiritual hazards that we face day by day. Sounds pretty bleak, almost like Dorothy and friends in the Wizard of Oz – Lions and tigers and bears – OH MY!!

But there is hope. Nowhere in Scripture are the warnings of a vigilant tempter not countered with the resources of a powerful deliverer. By the power of God’s Spirit we’re reminded that the prowling lion is resistible, beatable, and utterly helpless in the presence of The Lion. Another apostle sets the record straight saying, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

It is a zoo out there, but thanks be to God there’s no enemy that the two of us can’t ward off!
One of my summer memories is sleeping late and waking up to watch Bob Barker host The Price is Right. As a kid I did pretty well – no telling how many dinettes, bedroom suites, and cars I could have won if my name had ever been called to Come on Down! With a different schedule it’s been a while since I’ve watched the Price is Right, but I hear that Bob is stepping down after 30+ years.

One of the premises of the popular game show and the inspiration for the title is determining how much a product is worth. It’s a case of television imitating reality – every day we face the same challenge. Is that car worth the payments; are the clothes worth the price tag; is the house worth the mortgage; is the meal worth the tab? Over and over we make decision whether or not the price is right.

Jesus challenges potential disciples to go through the same process. Before you commit to discipleship you have to realize that discipleship, like everything else, comes with a price. Jesus uses the phrase “count the cost.” He says before someone builds a tower he counts the cost so that he will not be ridiculed if he is unable to finish. Or if a king is going into battle he’ll assess his forces and then decide whether or not to engage in battle. The same is true for would-be disciples – before you commit you better count the cost. And the cost is everything: “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Talk about sticker shock!

So, is it worth it? Is the price right? The cost is everything you have, but the reward is everything you desire! After Jesus reveals the price tag he goes on to tell three stories that illustrate the incomparable value of being a disciple. It’s like finding the coin you’ve been frantically searching for; it’s like finding the treasured sheep that’s gone astray; it’s like coming home to a loving and forgiving father. The only people who fail to make the sacrifice are those who fail to see the benefits!

It was missionary and martyr Jim Elliot who once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." No doubt – the price is right!
While I was out raking some leaves this past fall a strange thought crossed my mind. It seemed as if there were fewer leaves for this time of year and I wondered whether or not the extended daylight savings time had anything to do with it. Then I thought how ridiculous that thought was. Changing our clocks can have no effect on the natural laws God has set into effect. That would be like on a cold day in February turning the calendar to July expecting to get warmer weather. I can say it’s summer till I’m blue in the face, but if it’s winter, it’s winter. God's natural law does not depend on human opinion.

In the same way God’s moral law cannot be altered by human opinion. We can say sin is not sin until we’re blue in the face, but if it’s sin, it’s sin. And if it’s sin there will be some consequences. Calling sin “choice”, “disposition”, “alternative lifestyle”, “preference”, “inclination”, or “the new morality” will never change God's moral law. To do so is as ridiculous as expecting a Texas snow storm in July because you flipped the calendar to January!