Saturday, January 30, 2016

Teetering on the Brink

Abstain from all appearances of evil, is how some Bible versions translate this verse, while others translate it as, abstain from all forms of evil. 

The original Greek word is the exact same one that is translated as sight in 2 Corinthians 5:7 when it says, “You shall live by faith and not by sight.” Interesting, isn’t it? It makes sense that God is saying, stay away from even what looks like evil – even what takes on some form of evil appearance. In other words, just run from it, and if you have to go overboard, do it. Don’t allow yourself to be teetering on the edge of sinfulness, or even an appearance of it that could cause others to fall.

So then, you may ask, why did Jesus eat and drink with prostitutes and thieves, and get heavily criticized for it? It seems like the Pharisees were better at abstaining from the appearance of evil, because they were so picky about obeying the tiniest minutiae of the law that they even tithed their herb gardens. They were all about appearances, and were criticized by Jesus for it.  (Luke 11:42)

If we are to follow Jesus, we are bound to be criticized and persecuted by false (or small-minded) Christians, who are stuck on tradition and threatened by intelligent, thinking faith. A Christian who plays it safe, is not really living out their faith. If Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons, we can’t shrink back from standing up for Him, even at the risk of being accused of the most horrendous things. So what does it mean then, to abstain from the appearance of evil in light of all of that?

The criticisms leveled against Jesus, the disciples and the first century Church, were due to the way they lived out their faith evangelistically, radically, unapologetically, passionately desiring to save souls. They were unconcerned about the approval of this world and were in submission to and in love with the Kingdom of God. If you are being criticized for doing what is evil when your actions and motives are based on that level of love, then you’re doing just fine! But how many Christians today even remotely fit that category? Hardly any. What most Christians fall under is the category that Paul is warning us about in 1 Thessalonians 5. 

Doug testified that he was set free from alcohol and drugs, and wanted to save all his old buddies who he used to hang out with. He was surprised at how quickly they found ways to avoid him once they knew he had given his life to God. After a few enthusiastic months of giving his testimony, praising God for his new life and helping with evangelism at church, he decided that the only way to reach those old friends was to go back into the bar and find them. “Don’t worry Pastor, I’m gonna bring them to Jesus!” No amount of warning could persuade him to wait and grow in his faith first before worrying about them, and Doug’s appearances at church started to dwindle. There was a lot more going on in Doug’s head than just a desire to save his pals. He didn’t want to admit it, but the urge to drink again was getting strong, missing the camaraderie of those late night binges was unbearable. He thought he loved God, but he really did miss that dirty old life… it felt like home, and he was sucked right back into it.

Think carefully about where you’ve come from and where you are now. Maybe things aren’t as great as you want them to be, not all your prayers have been answered, you’re a little confused and frustrated with your faith. But look back and see where you’ve come from. Do you really want to go back there? Do you feel the lure of hanging out with those old friends who used to make you laugh so much, hear that old music that reminds you of those crazy old days? Satan knows just how to present the perfect rationale to dip your toes back into those waters, because it feels so good, and he promises you all the fun without the sin, or so he says.    

Many confused Christians are right on the brink, and many have already fallen over into the devil’s domain without any sense of remorse or repentance. I’ve known many who even accuse God of pushing them over the edge because He didn’t make it easier for them to obey. This is the saddest experience for me as a pastor, to see those who could be free, who willingly allow themselves to be drawn right back into the pit. Don’t teeter on the brink, run from sin today – even the appearance of it.

Abstain from all appearances of evil.  May the very God of peace sanctify you completely. And I pray to God that your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, who also will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:22-24 MEV)

As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.  (Proverbs 26:11 MEV)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dull or Dazzling?

Yesterday we talked about quenching the Spirit, shrugging off His urgings and His correction as if they were just our own rambling thoughts. We need to realize that a lot of times the Holy Spirit speaks in a way that seems very ordinary, very unglamorous and even unappealing.  It’s the devil who loves to be flashy and slick in the way he presents his ideas. He’s the master illusionist, and his images feel so convincing and enticing, which is why the road to hell is broad and wide and many are traveling that road right now.  

It’s a lot like the ancient tabernacle that was covered in animal hides, brown and plain in the middle of a sandy brown desert. It didn’t look like much, but once you were inside, it was dazzling to the eyes. Rich tapestries and coverings of scarlet, purple, blues and gold, bronze altars, silver utensils, golden menorahs and the brilliant gold of the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies. It was a hidden treasure, much like the guidance and correction of the Holy Spirit. We have to look beyond the ordinary and know that there is a priceless treasure waiting for us if we just obey.

Naaman was the captain of the armies of Aram, a seasoned warrior, and accustomed to giving orders and receiving honor. But when he was infected with the deadly disease of leprosy, he was ready to do whatever it took to find healing, even if it meant traveling to see the prophet Elisha to ask for help. It was humbling enough to take the word of his young Israeli servant girl to seek out Elisha, to gather an entourage to travel with him, to prepare a hefty payment of 6000 shekels of gold, plus silver, plus ten sets of fine clothing in exchange for Elisha’s prayers of faith. He was a reasonable man, and was ready to do business with the prophet. He had no idea how much more he would need to sacrifice in order to find his healing.

First of all, Elisha didn’t even come out of his house to meet the grand procession of Naaman’s soldiers and servants when they showed up outside his door. He sent out his servant to give Naaman the instructions of what to do. Elisha wasn’t being rude or disrespectful – he was obeying the Holy Spirit’s leading. God wanted Naaman to be healed, but healed from the inside first. Naaman was furious to be treated like a common beggar, insulted that he had to take instructions from a servant, and on top of that, was told to dip himself in what he considered the muddy, dirty Jordan River in front of everyone! He was so angry that he was ready to go home in a huff, but one of his servants helped to calm his emotions, and look at things rationally. If a fearless warrior would have gladly gone out to accomplish some dangerous quest, why couldn’t he do the simplest thing of taking seven dips in the Jordan River? It wasn’t glamorous, it didn’t highlight his amazing skills, it didn’t seem honorable, but it was doable… So Naaman broke his pride, humbled himself, acted in faith, submitted to the words of both Elisha’s servant and his own servant, and was healed on the seventh dip. Not only did his skin become new like a little boy’s but his heart was made new as well.

All of us make the same mistake of Naaman from time to time. We shrug off the Holy Spirit, even feeling offended that He would ask us to do something so embarrassing, awkward, unpleasant, out of character, or just plain insulting. How in the world we come to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit has to fit into our personal style, just proves how effective the devil’s illusions are on our very thick brains. We have to look beyond the dull, drab outer appearance of God’s urgings, and trust that once we enter into obedience, He will be dazzlingly powerful in our lives.     

Try it this week. Listen closely to what He urges you to do, and when resistance comes in the form of embarrassment or a thought to just shrug it off as worthless, do it anyway. Obey in faith, and see what God opens up for you as you plug yourself into the light of his Spirit.

But Naaman became angry and went away and said to himself, “Surely he could have come out, and stood and called on the name of the Lord his God, and waved his hand over the infected area, and taken away the leprosy.  Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and spoke to him, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more when he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh returned like the flesh of a little boy, and he was clean.  (2 Kings 5:11-14 MEV)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Quenching or Fanning the Flame

The Holy Spirit came as flames of fire on Pentecost. But God appeared in fire as well from the time of the Old Testament, at the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, the pillar of fire in the desert, the fire that fell on Elijah’s offering in front of the evil prophets of Baal – God’s fire burns with great force and accomplishes all it’s meant to do.  But interestingly enough, we have the capacity to put out that fire inside our own lives.

In 1 Thessalonians, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, gives some short and quick commands that all interlock as one great command. DO NOT QUENCH HIS SPIRIT. Don’t despise prophecies. When God speaks, urges, rebukes, comforts, encourages, that’s His burning flame at work in you. How many times do we just shrug those things off as mere ramblings of our minds, when they were the actual thoughts of God Himself? The more we shrug off God, the more we quench that flame, throwing cold water on our only source of warmth, light and protection.  

He also says DO NOT DESPISE PROPHECIES, to not reject the teaching of the Word of God. Through your pastor, a spiritual mentor, reading His word – God can speak specific guidance to you that you don’t like or that you feel uncomfortable with. You decide to “pray about it,” which really means you shelve it, forget about it, ignore it. In God’s eyes, you’re despising His word for you, and in turn are quenching His Spirit.

Then He says EXAMINE ALL THINGS, don’t just take whatever anyone says at face value, check it in the light of the Word of God, see if the Holy Spirit confirms what is being taught. Many who I used to teach have been lured away by promises of an easier way to heaven with minimum effort. Instead of examining the spirit of the televangelist preaching a cheap gospel, they jump at the chance for an excuse not to live sacrificially for God, and totally quench the Spirit of truth.

FIRMLY HOLD ONTO WHAT IS GOOD – that should be a no-brainer, but we are naturally so negative, that we let go of good more than we realize. We hear a message of faith and encouragement, our resolve is buoyed up and we’re bursting with determination to live out God’s Word, and then something goes a little off course, and we drop our faith, douse the flame, and get frustrated with God. We eventually drag ourselves back to God, complain question and doubt, and when His fire is ablaze again, do the same old thing.  

And finally ABSTAIN FROM ALL APPEARANCES OF EVIL. Don’t just abstain from evil, but even from any appearance of evil! If you are the kind of Christian who looks for excuses to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t sin, this verse is talking about you. What exactly is a curse word? Do you find ways to kind of say them without really saying them? What is immoral behavior? Do you like to hang out in places where it goes on, with the excuse that you aren’t doing what everyone else is, so there’s no harm in it? Do you like to dress in a way that sends mixed messages of being fleshly but not really? If you enjoy the appearance of evil, it means that the Holy Spirit is of very little value to you. You are quenching Him.  

The overall command? We need His burning blaze to survive. Don’t treat Him lightly – it’s life or death. He guides us in all truth (1 John 16), which means that we never have to be lost or confused. If we are, there’s a good chance it’s because we’ve been quenching Him and even despising Him. Stay tuned for more posts on how to stay plugged into this blaze, our source of life.  

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Examine all things. Firmly hold onto what is good. Abstain from all appearances of evil.  (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 MEV)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Going back home to the Garden of Eden

What was it like for Adam and Eve, walking together with God every day in the cool of the evening?  They could look straight into His eyes, ask Him whatever they wanted, hear His immediate response, feel His love, His comfort, His creativity, His sense of humor, soak in His wisdom, and just know Him as their most trusted and caring friend. The Garden of Eden was more than just plentiful food and friendly animals – God the Creator was their constant companion.  Can you imagine the intense pain they must have felt, knowing that they could never have the same intimacy with Him again?  Not because God didn’t want it, but because they had chosen the serpent over God.  They had welcomed evil into their lives.  They had become filthy and couldn’t survive being in God’s presence any more. The angel with the flaming sword that stood at the entrance of the Garden wasn’t there to harm them, but to protect them from being consumed by God’s holy light.

How many times have we wished we could look straight into God’s eyes and ask Him all our questions and hear Him answer?  If we were pure enough to look at Him and not be struck dead by His unapproachable light, the answers to all our questions would probably be so obvious we wouldn’t even need to ask.  But that combination of being in the light of His holiness while also being such close friends is the perfection of the Garden of Eden.  That’s what we were made for.  That is home.  No evil, no sadness, no selfishness or ulterior motives – just pure joy.  Heaven is like that, and God has always been trying to bring us back into that closeness from the moment that we lost Eden.  Just look at how God instructed Moses to build the tabernacle, and Solomon to build His temple, and you can see that Eden was the model.

The Garden of Eden was an enclosed area with only one entrance on the east that was guarded by powerful cherubim with flaming swords. The tabernacle was also an enclosed area with only one entrance on the east.  The cherubim in the tabernacle, guarded the presence of God who dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Ark of the Covenant, and by Him stood the lampstand that represents the tree of life.  God dwelt in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve with the tree of life right in the middle.  Right now in heaven, the book of Revelation says that the tree of life stands by the throne of God.  So many symbols of the Garden were carefully crafted to decorate the tabernacle and Temple – pomegranates, almond blossoms, dates, olives, figs, all for a reason.  God wants His people to know that He wants that intimacy that He once had with us in the Garden.  He wants us back, but that can only happen through our faith in the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice — and the sacrifice of our own lives to serve Him by faith.  Sacrifice is the only way to return to Eden.

Every time we go against our flesh and just obey out of love for Him — not out of an attempt to impress anyone or fulfill an obligation — we bring ourselves closer to seeing Him face to face.  We can actually start to experience the comfort, the joy and the friendship that Adam and Eve once knew. We can read His Words, and sense that we’re not just reading, but absorbing wisdom into the depths of our being, living knowledge that transforms into actions and miracles.  

The tabernacle is gone, the temple in Jerusalem is now a wall, some stairs and mostly rubble.  Jesus says that our lives are supposed to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit – His unapproachable light is supposed to live inside of us, purifying us and comforting us, revealing truths and empowering us to overcome impossible obstacles.  The Garden of Eden, the Holy of holies, is now supposed to be our own, unworthy lives.  This is why we need the infilling of the Holy Spirit.  Not to prove how holy we are or wear a churchy label, but to finally get back to where we’re supposed to be in the first place.  When His Spirit baptizes you, He’s right there and you can walk with Him in the cool of the evening, the heat of the day, in the valley of the shadow of death – anywhere and any time, and you’ll always be home.  

Listen to Me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord:  Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him, and multiplied him.  For the Lord shall comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found in it, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.  (Isaiah 51:1-3 MEV)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Rising to the occasion in the month of Tevet

For millennia, the people of Israel’s calendar begins the new year on the anniversary of their exodus from slavery in Egypt, which happens around September or October on our calendar.  According to them, today is just another day, as their new year’s day has already come and gone.  Today happens to be Tevet 20, in the year 5776.  This is the month when a young orphan girl named Esther obeyed her uncle’s suggestion to enter the royal contest to see who would be chosen the next queen of Persia.  She was a Jew in a land that had no respect for her God or her people, but through simple faith, obedience, wisdom and sacrificial courage, she single-handedly rescued the people of Israel from total annihilation.  It’s an amazing story you can read about in the book of the Bible named after her.

I don’t know what New Year’s resolutions any of you may be making, but the one thing that God has impressed on me is the statement Esther’s uncle made when he urged her to stand up for God at the risk of her own life.  Mordecai said, “Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”  He loved her like a daughter and knew she could die, but he was sure that God was faithful to His covenants and His promises.  God would rescue His people, if not through his niece Queen Esther, then through someone else.  And though there was no vision from heaven, no thunderous voice from the clouds, no writing on the wall, Mordecai dared to believe that perhaps God had placed Esther in that very position to be used by His powerful hand.  He was right, and God did.

What about you and me?  Is where we are at this point in time just a fluke, or has God placed us here for a purpose?  What if the circumstances that led to you being where you are with the people you work with in the neighborhood where you live, happened because of mistakes, injustice or bad choices?  Does that mean God isn’t choosing to use you now, right where you are?  Does everything have to be perfect first?  Do you need some paranormal experience to know He’s calling you?  

Another question is, what if God is asking you to do something risky and scary?  Are you willing to do it?  Not a whole lot of us are being called to risk our lives for the sake of our faith or to rescue an entire nation like Esther.  But for many of us 21st century Christians who’ve become spiritually flabby after years of comfort and religious freedoms, doing something scary could mean breaking up an unhealthy relationship, or risking your job or reputation by doing the moral, ethical thing.  Mordecai warned his niece that if she wouldn’t face the king, she couldn’t expect to be spared the slaughter just because she was queen.  Our choices before God are no different.  If God has placed us where we are to take a stand for Him, can we expect to be spared the consequences if we shrink back as cowards? 

Thankfully, Esther had that courage to face death for the honor of God and her people.  She answered Mordecai with determination, “If I perish, I perish.”  Why lose the favor and protection of God by running away?  Being a coward wouldn’t save her, and dying in the process of honoring God was not a loss, but a great gain.  This is what God is looking for in all of us – to rise to the occasion, to face our fears and to obey for His sake.  If we die, we die, if we lose our reputation, we lose it, if we are mocked or rejected, so what?  He is faithful and will protect and provide for us when we do what’s right.  Who knows, perhaps you are in this position to do something amazing for God this year, this month, this very day?

Mordecai told the messenger to reply to Esther, “Don’t think that you will escape the fate of all the Jews because you are in the king’s palace.  If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go and assemble all the Jews who can be found in Susa and fast for me. Don’t eat or drink for three days, day or night. I and my female servants will also fast in the same way. After that, I will go to the king even if it is against the law.  If I perish, I perish.” So Mordecai went and did everything Esther had ordered him.  (Esther 4:13-17 HCSB)