Obedience is Better than Sacrifice

This often quoted and more often misused passage is from 1 Samuel 15:22. I’ve heard it for most of my church life. It’s never been my favorite, but until recently I’ve never given much thought to why. But the recent sting of its use, led me to consider my feelings. I realize now that it’s not the passage I don’t like, it’s how it’s being used. In fact, now that I’ve looked at it in it’s historical context, I find it’s use more disturbing.

Actually, I love the way the prophet Samual uses it historically. Israel’s failing first King, Saul, has been given very specific instructions ahead of battle with Amalek. He is told not to spare anyone or anything. Yet the passage makes clear that Saul was unwilling to destroy the best of the livestock. When confronted by Samuel, he blames the people, and insists that they only spared the best in order to sacrifice to the Lord. That’s when Samuel utters the famous phrase. He uses the statement to expose the folly of Saul’s excuse. We use it to try to get disobedient people to obey, but Samuel used it to get the disobedient King to realize or admit the folly of his disobedience.

Within the redemptive story of God’s grace the answer to man’s disobedience is not to get a disobedient mankind to be obedient. The great struggle is to get the disobedient to realize they are disobedient. And yet, the brokenness of that realization leads us to the mercy seat of God. And in His great mercy we find a better sacrifice; better than the best of Amalek. We find the lamb of God who dies once for all time.

Yes, there was a time when to be obedient was better than repetitive sacrifices. For it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. But now, by one offering, Jesus has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. So let’s not encourage the disobedient in their feeble attempts at obedience. Samuel was talking about the blood of bulls and goats. But the blood of Christ is better, and we are all disobedient.

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Not in the Box

My walk with Christ has left me feeling a bit odd, even amongst a peculiar people. It’s as if the body of Christ is swaying joyfully to the music and I’m unrhythmically searching for the beat. So many of my brother’s in the ministry get in and quickly find a groove. After 10 years, mine still eludes me. My convictions keep me in the body but out pof the flow.

I think others notice too. I hear them struggling to find the words to describe me. Though I’m really not trying to be, I hear repeatedly that my preaching is “deep.” I don’t think it’s always intended to be a complement and I don’t find it flattering.

What confuses me is that few in the body tell me that I’m wrong. In fact, most agree and even encourage me. They simply don’t join me. Although they don’t often say it aloud, they don’t think what I believe works. Its not in rhythm.

What are these things that keep me out of rhythm. Well, here is a short list.

1. I believe that people should be equipped on Sunday mornings through the regular preaching of the word. Sunday morning preaching should be weighty enough to equip.

2. I believe the essential task of preaching is to communicate the author’s intended meaning. To do this, his subject must be my subject. And what he says about it I must also say.

3. A steady dose of topical preaching will not provide a foundation upon which to build an understanding of the faith. The great story of God redeeming all creation for His glory is reduced to our individual struggles and triumphs.

4. We do not trust God enough to teach the righteousness of God is by faith apart from the works of the law. It sounds to much to us like encouraging lawlessness. So, whom the Son has set free is not free indeed.

5. Jesus became a curse for us so that we can never be cursed with a curse, even if we do not tithe. The Church must live by faith too. This we may fear the most.

6. The greatest witness to the power of the Gospel in this culture is an intentionally multiethnic church where people love each other. In this culture, we do most everything together, except worship, and it undermines the truth of the Gospel. But homogeneous church is just easier.

7. Because there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one body of Christ, our faith must be historic and not personal. My relationship with the Lord can be intimate but it cannot be Him and me alone. When I became a believer, I became a member of the body.

You may see now why many don’t believe these things will work. The failure of my church plant is further prove that they may be right. So I continued to struggle with my oddness. But to just sway along would be to do harm to my conscience. Today, however, I believe I have clarity about where I stand. I still feel I’m an oddity, but I understand better. It hit me like a thunderbolt, when I heard it said that to invoke real change you have to think outside the box. That’s when it dawned on me.

I’m just not in the box.

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He Walked Here

Mark 6:48 (NAS): about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.

I remember preaching this passage in bible college. A young man just learning to preach. I still remember my points. First, “He sees your struggle.” This was because the passage said that during the darkest watch of the night Jesus, who is still on the mountain, sees the disciples, who are in the middle of the lake, struggling to get to the other side. Second, “He can reach you no matter where you are.” This because the sea did not stop Jesus from coming to them. He walked on the very thing that was causing their struggle. That point went over very well. And third, “Whatever you are going through He intends for you to make it through.” This because the passage said that Jesus intended to pass them by. He only stopped because they saw Him and cried out in fear. That point was also well received. It appealed to our deepest need in difficulty; assurance. It would have been a great sermon, if it had only been right.

By right I mean, true to the intending meaning of the text. All three of the points I believe are true. They simply don’t come from the meaning of the passage. The biggest problem with the sermon was that, in an effort to be relevant, I minimized the most important point. He walked on the sea. How did I miss that? Who walks on water? I had reduced it to a metaphor. If you were on a cruise ship in the Caribbean during a storm, and a man approaches the ship walking on the sea, is the message you share when you get home, “he can reach you no matter where you are?” I don’t think so. The clear message is, “this is someone you must know.” The clear purpose of this passage is to get the reader to consider deeply who this Jesus is. Who is this who can see in darkness and who dares step out on the sea; and walk. What manner of man is He? The answer to that question may save your life.

As I said earlier, I was young and learning to preach. And that was partly the problem. I was learning to preach before I had learned how to get meaning. I was learning the act, without knowing how to get the content. If that isn’t the proverbial cart before the horse. Just as Paul urged young Timothy, we are called to preach the word. But the emphasis in that passage is on the content and not the act.

You may be wondering what harm was there in preaching my three points, if they were true. The answer is easy. It’s not the meaning of the passage. And because it’s not the meaning, my audience did not heard what the Lord wanted them to hear, when He moved the author to pen these particular words. They heard from me, but they didn’t hear from Him. And in that, there is much harm.

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Though He Slay Me

Job 13:15 (NAS): 15 “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”

I’ve just experienced the darkest days of my life. I have had difficult times before, but none like this. I have, for as far back as I can remember, believed deeply that no matter how hard life became, things would be alright. This was not mere optimism. It was conviction, and it had never been shaken, until now. These dark days were different both in intensity and in duration.guillaume-de-germain-92869-unsplash

It began when doors that had long stood open began to close. It was not uncommon for the Lord to close doors, but when doors closed, others opened. But not this time. My prayers were not only going unanswered, but I was starting to sense a deliberate silence. I wasn’t being to, “no.” I was being ignored.

Ministry has always been hard for me, I had come to expect it. But now it was becoming unnecessarily difficult. I was used to the improbable and difficult circumstances somehow coming together for my good, but now unlikely things were coming apart, and the timing felt providential. Things were going wrong at just the right time to make things harder.

I could feel the stress beginning to affect my health. I began to have headaches. When I tried to sleep, I would have, what felt like, panic attacks. My heart would race and palpitate, as I thought about what would go wrong next. As the fear mounted and the distress set in, I developed and involuntary groan. It was as if I had been unconsciously holding my breath and had to audibly exhale. For some time they were my only prayers.

At one of the darkest moments the passage above came to mind. It did not come as encouragement, but as an answer for what I was going through. The passage resonated with me because it felt like the Lord had abandoned me. If the Lord were slaying me, then to whom could I turn for help? I was afraid that my experiences would prove my theology about the grace of God wrong by a preponderance of evidence. I was afraid the sins of my youth had matured into the debt that was now due. And I knew the wages of sin.

For the record, Job was being slain, but not by the Lord. But it was real enough to him. Was the Lord slaying me? I can’t be really be certain. Will the Lord slay with the expectation that we yet hope in Him? Absolutely. The question for me is not is He or is He not, it was real enough to me. The question is will I yet hope in Him.  At the time, I didn’t have the answer. Now, the answer is an easy, yes, I will hope in Him. You see, little by little and day by day my circumstances started to change. The darkness began to lift and a new day dawned. I find myself in a better place now, but that’s not the reason the answer is easy. It’s easy now because the peace came first. Before anything changed, before any door opened, while still in the darkness, the peace of God came and guarded my heart and mind. Before He restored my fortunes, He restored my soul. It was by that incomprehensible peace that He promised. It kept me from stumbling in the darkness. And for that, I can say like Job, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”

Be glorified, my Lord!

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The First Stone

John 8:7 (NAS): “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

I love this passage for what it teaches about the amazing grace made known in the gospel. For indeed, the law did say that one caught in adultery should be stoned to death. By the way, the law actually said both the man and the woman, but they only brought the woman. Curious isn’t it?

Wanting to accuse the Lord Jesus of violating the law, the Pharisees bought this woman who had been, “caught in the very act,” of adultery. They said she should be stoned to death. But somehow sensing that Jesus would object, they sat her down in the center of the court where He was teaching. They rehearse the law in the hearing of the others, and asked Jesus what He thought. Having sensed His compassion for sinners, they pit him against the stark contrast of the requirement of the law. Would He continue to show grace, or would He follow the law? Would He condone sin and let her go, or would He stand for righteousness?

Initially, Jesus ignored them completely and stooped to write on the ground. Only after they persist did He engage them. His words, dripping with both grace and truth, acknowledged the law, but required the first stone be thrown by one without sin. The others, anxious to join in the stoning, would get their chance, they just needed a righteous leader to throw the first stone.

John tells us Jesus stooped down again and continues to write on the ground. Unable to throw the first stone in clear conscience, they all, one by one, began to walk away, until only Jesus and the adulteress were left. And in a wonderfully thoughtful question, Jesus asked the woman, “where are they?” Was there not one left to condemn? There was no one who condemned, but there was one who could have thrown the first stone. Jesus could have started the stoning. He was without sin. Yet He chose not to condemn. He simply sent her on her way with the gift of a second chance to sin no more.

Our values would say there is much we are against, as we should be, but Christian values apart from the mission and heart of the Christ, is a distortion of the Christian faith. We cannot be eager to throw stones, when the only one able to throw the first stone chooses instead to write in the sand.

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It’s a Wrap

That’s a wrap people. Let’s pack it up. This one’s over. The people of God have, en masse, bought into pursuing their best life. We have officially moved our hope from the coming of the Lord Jesus and the glory that awaits in His Kingdom, and we have settled for pursuing the best this life can offer.

How ironic it is that the seismic shift has gone unnoticed. The people of God have lost their hope, and we have hardly noticed. The culture probably never knew how much the hope of the people of God undergirded the social structures of the country. We should have known. Our hope for the future became the hope of a nation. But without that hope we have become an insatiable, meaner, less civil people. We used to strive to live up to the high calling of one day living in the kingdom of God. We used to try to love our neighbor and speak the truth in love. Now we callously call it political correctness, and prefer the company of those who tell it like it is, and not those who, in hope, tell it like it can and will be.

You can argue that we are just making the most of our lives. That we are simply trying to make this life the best it can be, until Christ returns. But we don’t live like pilgrims, but like settlers. The sense of urgency and the and white hot pursuit of our “best” life, suggests a hopeless view of the future, when it will be too late. We live in desperation, like we believe we are running out of time. I must eat drink and be merry now, for tomorrow I die. We have apprehended the culture’s hopeless hashtag; #yolo. We have lost our hope that we will live forever, or if we die, that we will live again. It seems it’s a wrap.

Hopefully you’ve been able to see through my satirical tone. I don’t really believe that it’s a wrap. I do believe, however, that to focus so much on living our best life, is to move from the sure place of our hope. Hope in Christ for our best life is not the same as hope in His sure return and the life to come with Him in the Kingdom. I also believe that if we return to the hope of the kingdom and to practicing the values of that coming kingdom, it will have a seismic affect upon an increasingly hopeless culture. We are the salt of the earth. Let’s set the example of lives lived in higher pursuits than the temporary pleasures of this world. Let’s live in pursuit of the Kingdom.

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The Lapse of Worlds

Yesterday would have been my big sister’s 53rd birthday, but she’s been gone now for years. My cousin Kim posted a reminder this week, that one year ago her dad, uncle Harry passed away. The two events caused the return of a familiar thought; my world is surely changing. The world in which I had been reared, nurtured and become comfortable with was passing and a new and unfamiliar world was rising in its place. I try to suppress such thoughts, but I’m regularly reminded. Though I am not alone in this new world, it feels more lonely; a little colder.

As I thought about it, I realized that I prefer the passing world to the new. I don’t look forward to a world without Aunt Juanita, Cheryl, Uncle Harry, Larry, and the many others who won’t be with me any longer. The world was better with them. It was warmer. There was more laughter.

This may be just nostalgia, but it feels like more than that. It’s not just a yearning for simpler times. It’s a sobering realization that so much of what I have identified with as integral to my life has changed and not for the better. This world will go on and so will I, but it will be different, and I guess, so will I.

Just as I was nearly overcome with grief, this wonderful Puritan prayer came to mind, from The Valley of Vision. This time, as a read, it had more meaning.

A mighty God, who amidst the lapse of worlds, and the revolutions of empires,

feels no variableness, but is glorious in immortality.

Though my world has lapsed, my God has not. My world has changed but the Lord has remained, and He is the same. He is my one constant, my source of comfort and stability. I still prefer the old world, the Lord was there too, but as the new and unfamiliar world emerges, it sends me back to the Rock of Ages and the Ancient of Days. Without Him I would lose my way. And as everything changes around me, I get an even clearer picture of the glory of His immortality.

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Immeasurably More

Ephesians 3:20 (NIV84): Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,

For a brief moment, this beautiful passage gave me a twinge of pain and a moment of anguish. There was even an honest moment of resentment. The magnanimous declaration just did not reflected the paucity of my present reality, and the contrast was startling. The struggles I am presently experiencing and have been enduring for so long, caused this passage to ring hollow. How can He be able to do immeasurably more than I can ask or think, and He not have given me, in measure, what I have asked? The question was real and demanded reflection.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize I had made a classic interpretive mistake. You see, the Bible regularly speaks of a distinction in time. It uses many ways and many metaphors to describe this important distinction. It uses words like temporal versus eternal, seen versus unseen, visible versus invisible, the kingdom of this world versus the kingdom of our God. Theses two ages are divided firmly by the return of Christ. And I read the promise of this passage in light of my present realty in this age and not in light of the age to come, of which it is a reflection.

What God has done in Christ Jesus is immeasurably more than I could have conceived. Yet for a moment, I was resentful that He hasn’t given me the paltry sum that would relieve my temporary concerns. My fears about not being able to live up to the standard of health, happiness, and prosperity that I have set for myself, blinded me to the fact that God secured for me an eternal future of all these things and more. I had interpreted eternal promises into a temporal world.

To cram a promise like this into a pay period or a season, is like trying to stuff eternity into time. And to do so is at the expense of the truth. According to the writer of Hebrews, when God promised Abraham a land, Abraham knew in what age the promise would be fulfilled. It says all the patriarchs were looking for a better country, a heavenly one. They were looking for a land whose architect and builder is God. They held this hope while living as sojourners, in a tent, in the land of promise. The only portion of the land Abraham owned was the burial plot for Sarah and he bought that from the Hittites.

So for now, the struggle continues. The anguish remains. But a faith that God is going to prosper us in this life is a faith unlike that of Abraham, the father of the faithful. As I finish reflecting on my initial question, I conclude with one better. Can the Kingdom of God fit within the borders of men? It cannot, for His kingdom is immeasurably more.

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While studying today, I was struck by the presence of a familiar anxiety. As I was reading the scripture and studying it’s flow, I felt myself reaching for something just beyond my grasp. The feelings were familiar, but today was the first time my thoughts turned toward the nature of the longing. What is it I’m so desperate to find?

For much of my ministry-life I have been reaching for something significant. I want to know more. Sometimes what I see does not satisfy. So I look closer. I dig deeper. I study scripture always looking for more. Trying to find what I must be missing. It’s interesting to me that I have unconsciously assumed something was missing. Until now, I have never questioned the desire, neither was I even aware of its hidden drive. But I have been functioning as if something was missing; something significant.

The desire could easily, and often did, slide towards pleasure. Sometimes, deceiving myself, I would look to be entertained to satisfy the deep need. A good movie, a nice dinner, a glass of wine, the good life will make me feel better. But pleasure does not satisfy. I’ve learned that from experience. It has been settled deep within me that the significance is, somehow, in the Lord.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes calls it eternity, and says that the Lord has placed it in the heart of man. Abraham was looking for a better country than the one in which he sojourned. The disciple seemed to be longing for the kingdom. And then, of course, there is heaven. Is it heaven I have been reaching for?

That answer seems too simplistic. It does not satisfy either. It has to be Jesus I’m longing for. As Terence O’Neil said, “heaven ain’t heaven if Jesus is not there.” Yes, it must be Jesus. But even that is not conceivable without context. I don’t believe me and Jesus in a vacuum is what God intended for us.

What God intends for us? Hmmm… I think that’s it. What I have been longing for is existence as God intended. To be fully human as God designed. To live, love, work, in the presence of the Lord and all the glory and well being that comes from His presence. That’s what eternity brings. That’s what the kingdom offers.

As I study, I’m reaching to know and experience that in measure. To settle for the earthly, mundane, and worldly wisdom of men has not been sufficient. Neither has a trite surface reading of scripture, designed to appease me temporarily. It has only left me longing for more. Highlighting how much has been missing.

The closest I can come to that now, however, is meaning found in God’s word. Correction: the closest I can come to that now is worship. But my worship must be true, and the only way I can worship God in spirit and in truth, is by knowing Him as He has made Himself known in His word. And so I must reach for the meaning I find in scripture. I lean in, and grasp for the significance that results in an appropriate response to what I find. Sometimes what I find satisfies. And I worship.

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Home is Never Far Away

You were on the road to intimacy with the Lord, and you were greatly encouraged by the progress. The sense of His presence was unmistakable. You prayed and found your time with Him sweet. His peace was near. You looked forward to being in the congregation of those who love Him too, and the worship and preaching of the word brought you strength and wellness. You’ve been here before, it feels great, but sustaining the effort to remain close always proves too much. The drift is subtle, but because it’s familiar it’s recognizable. Soon you’re not where you used to be, and the the thought of getting back causes the exhaustion to return. It will be a long walk home.

The longer you are away in conscience fellowship with the Lord, the farther you feel from Him. Discouragement settles in because of the perceived distance and the prospect of the long journey back. You are further discouraged by the fear and distrust of yourself to stay the course throughout the return trip. The thought of the exhausting labor and discipline it takes to make up lost ground and lost time, just to get back to where you were, dampens your resolve to get moving. The struggle keeps you feeling isolated and alone, until familiarity finally gives way to comfort in your lostness.

Oh what a graceless picture this is. In Christ there is a better picture. Because of Christ, if you turn there is no journey back to God. There is no lost ground to be made up. The distance is only perceived because we wrongly assume we are pursuing Him. It is He who pursues. If while you were yet a sinner, and God moved toward you to reconcile you to Himself, how much more, having been reconciled, will He remain close. Home is where the Lord is, and the Lord is with you. Just turn and you will find Him there. For the one who promised is faithful.

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