Christian Truisms

A Litany

I am deeply connected with all of humanity,
and with every person in particular.

So long as anyone remains unloved,
I am lonely.
So long as anyone remains hungry,
I am not satisfied.
So long as anyone remains in need,
I am poor.
So long as anyone remains imprisoned,
I am not free.
So long as anyone remains in danger,
I am not safe.
So long as anyone suffers from illness,
I am not well.

Continue reading “Christian Truisms”

Biblical Examples of Godly Character: Nehemiah

(By Robert Njue — copied with permission)

Biblical Examples of Godly Character: Nehemiah

What does it mean to be servant of the Most High?

(Faith, Work, Guidance, Providence, Purpose)

O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Now I was cupbearer to the king.

Nehemiah 1:11

The book of Nehemiah is the true story of how Jerusalem was rebuilt after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity. It’s about leadership, hard work and organization. It shows a servant who understood his own role, and would not allow himself to be discouraged or distracted from his mission.

Direction for the Discouraged

Critics of the rebuilding project made many attempts to discourage Nehemiah from the work. One accusation was that Nehemiah’s true mission was a rebellion against King Artaxerxes. If they could make Persia’s leadership believe that, all would be lost. Nehemiah wrote, “…they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.’” Nehemiah confronted them in his answer, but addressed his main attention to the Lord: “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.” (Nehemiah 6:9)

Direction for the Doubting

Nehemiah talks about the mockery, the criticisms and challenges he encounters. He writes his prayers with his own comments. Here is one: “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads…” (Nehemiah 4:4)

But so that we do not get the impression it was an easy victory or that his people had unshakable faith, he admits: “In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’” (Nehemiah 4:10) Nehemiah also reports the strategy he and the people used for safety. We must not assume their success was due to a clever method either. Nehemiah points out that it was God who frustrated the plans of their enemies: “When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.” (Nehemiah 4:15)

Direction for the Distracted

Nehemiah dealt with a striking variety of side-issues. In addition to the enemies’ taunts, accusations and threats, he had to correct or manage:

An indifferent nobility (Nehemiah 3:5),

Oppression of the poor by the wealthy (Nehemiah 5:1-13),

Concerns of genealogy and inheritance (Nehemiah 7:5-65),

A lottery to solve the overpopulation within the city walls (Nehemiah 11:1-2),

The eviction of an enemy from quarters provided for him in the temple (Nehemiah 13:4-9),

The people withholding wages from the Levites (Nehemiah 13:10-14),

The people profaning the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22), and

Intermarriage with pagan people (Nehemiah 13:23-28).

Nehemiah’s attitude toward distractions from his calling can be summed up in his response to initial attempts to divert his attention: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3) As a result, the wall was finished quickly: “So the wall was finished… in fifty-two days.” (Nehemiah 6:15) This was a great victory. It was also an important defense from the enemies outside the gates.

Even so, Nehemiah’s concern to straighten out these internal problems shows that he knew his people’s biggest threat was inside those gates. It had been disregard for God’s rule which brought about Jerusalem’s destruction and captivity to Babylon. Nehemiah’s people needed to be reminded that this kind of indifference is more than a distraction. It’s actually rebellion against God’s rule. He told them that God had “…dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them.” (Nehemiah 9:33-34)

Think about what Nehemiah’s people accomplished under his leadership. Is it surprising that a domestic servant became such a decisive leader? It had been his job to wait on the king, serving and tasting his drinks. How, then, did Nehemiah manage to cultivate such authority, sharp thinking and initiative? Nehemiah may have been a servant. But he was the servant of a king of kings: Artaxerxes I, ruler of the Persian world empire, which encompassed the kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and much of Asia Minor. The first chapter closes with the note that he is cupbearer to the king, but when he prays, it is not as a servant of Artaxerxes, but servant of God.

“O Lord… give success to your servant today” (Nehemiah 1:11)

A study of Nehemiah’s brief prayers throughout his book would be helpful to any believer looking for direction and wisdom from God. He was a leader who never forgot that God was the source of his authority and success. This reminds me of Matthew 8:9, in which a Roman Centurion made a similar statement to Jesus Himself. He was a man “under authority” but he had authority of his own because of that. If you are willing to humble yourself enough to adopt the identity of a servant of God, like Nehemiah, you will see the great dignity which goes along with being servant of the King of Kings. May it give you Nehemiah’s confidence that God will enable you to do everything He calls you to do!

Pray this week:

Father, I humble myself before you. Your mission is what matters. Show me how to please you.

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Bleeding

First posted on Facebook on Wednesday, August 16 2017

Let me say a couple of things. I’m groping in the dark for the right words.

I majored in history. In general I want to see historical artifacts preserved. I also know that some of what history calls “great men” are often people with great flaws. Humans are complex creatures, not easily divided into good guys and bad guys. Unlike in old Western movies, we can’t tell them apart by the color of their hat — much less the color of their skin.

Fact is, most of us are both. The one person many of us would agree is an exception said, “why do you call me good? There is only one who is good, that is, God.”

So it’s no surprise that some people think of Robert E. Lee as a good guy, others more as a bad guy. He was the first person Lincoln wanted to appoint as head of the Union army. (Good guy?) He chose instead to fight for Virginia. (good guy? Bad guy?)

In those days, with brother fighting brother in the bloodiest conflict this continent has ever seen, it’s hard to say there were any good guys. My great-great-grandfather left a wife and two sons in Massachusetts to join the Union army in 1861, and was buried in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1863. Was he a bad guy, or a good guy?

I don’t know who killed him, or whether that was a good guy or a bad guy either. So far as I know there is no monument to either of them. Should there be?

Do we have monuments to slaves, in city parks? Should we?

I think reminders of history are important. But what kind of reminders do we need?

Many of our founders were slave-owning freedom fighters. Good guys or bad guys? They wrote eloquent tracts on the equality of all men, while writing a constitution that defined some men as 3/5 of a man. Oh, and women? Not even mentioned.

Good guys, or bad guys?

As I said, I am generally in favor of reminders of history. But sometimes new things have to happen, to bring us to healing.

Know what I think? I think our country is still bleeding from the war that left my grandpa’s dad an orphan.

I live in the county that John Wilkes Booth escaped to. This history is very much alive.

It was also an important waystation for the Underground Railroad. That history also lives.

The wounds we still bleed from aren’t all the same. But we all bleed.

There is another historical reminder that hangs on the wall of many churches. It commemorates the way a certain person was executed as a criminal, long long ago. That same person who refused to be called good. We call it the Cross.

It reminds us of someone who chose to suffer rather than inflict suffering; to embrace death rather than impose it.

It points to our path out of this wilderness:

“But I say unto you who hear: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. …. do to others as you would have them do to you.”

That man practiced what he preached, and those who followed him called it victory. It’s the only way we can win.

Verse of the Month — August 2017

Weakness

Likewise the Spirit also helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

Romans 8:26

Verse of the Month — June 2017

Truth

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.
John 16:13a

The Coming King

Found this in the archive: a sermon I didn’t get to preach.  How about a little Christmas in May?

Sunday 12-8-2013,  2nd Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 —  The Coming King
This message was planned for Sunday, December 12, 2013 and was not delivered because our morning worship was cut short due to inclement weather. 

 
The Text:  Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. 
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  
 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 
 
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The Coming King Foretold 

“a shoot from the stump of Jesse”  Jesse of course is the father of David the king, so this refers to the birth of someone in the royal line.  It is a “stump” because for hundreds of years there were no Davidic kings in Israel, the last of them having gone into exile in Babylon.  Still the roots remained, as the family continued to exist, so the prophet says a “branch” would come out from those roots.  There is also a suggestion here of how the kingdom of God works:  When God intends to do something big, he starts our with something small.  A shoot growing from a stump seems insignificant, but it contains the life of the tree, and thus the promise of more life and growth in the future.

The Background:  Exile to Assyria 

Isaiah prophesied during the time when the great world power of the day, Assyria, was overwhelming the entire Middle East with its military might.  During Isaiah’s lifetime this juggernaut overcame the resistance of the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and took ten tribes into exile.  The Assyrian army then proceeded to besiege Jerusalem, threatening the existence of the remaining tribes (Judah and Benjamin). Only through miraculous intervention did the attacking army withdraw.  Under these dark circumstances, when it looked like the life of the nation may soon be snuffed out permanently, this promise of a coming king comes as a surprisingly (and no doubt unlikely) word of hope.

A different kind of King 

This King will be known, not by the trappings of power, but by the presence of God in his life.  What is described here is a matter of character: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord, delight.  These seven characteristics are associated with godliness.  “He shall not judge by what  his eyes see,” etc., is reminiscent of the words of Samuel to Jesse on the day David was revealed as God’s anointed king:  “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  Similarly, God says elsewhere through Isaiah:  “For my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.”  The opposite of appearance here is contrasted with righteousness, defined as equity or fairness, such that the poor and the meek are treated equally with the powerful.  This is such an unusual thing in this world that it is said that he judges “for” the meek; the ones whom Jesus, in one of his Beatitudes, will call blessed.

The Power of Truth (v 4):  John 14:6 

It is through truth-telling that the world is judged. “the rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips” refer to the power of the spoken word.  At the beginning this power is what called the universe into being.  In the New Testament the word of God is referred to repeatedly as a sword, and in Revelation it is portrayed as proceeding out of the mouth of the Messiah.  So Jesus also says of his detractors:  “The word that I have spoken will be their judge in the last day.”

The Peaceful Kingdom (6-9)

Isaiah’s vision of God’s ultimate blessing on Israel, and through Israel, the world, is the reason he also called them to such a high standard.   The images here are of predator and prey, powerful and weak, living together in beautiful harmony.  This can only happen if the nature of these creatures, and the nature of their habitual relationship, changes radically.  One might be able to expect a vision where the lamb and the kid and the little child — the vulnerable and the victims — are protected from the lion and the leopard and the snake, where those predatory creatures are destroyed or at least separated from those they would naturally be expected to prey upon; but this vision is much more radical than that. Dare we hope that this biblical vision can be ours?

 
In God’s coming kingdom, enemies are not destroyed, but enmity is. The thing that will bring this about is “the knowledge of the LORD”.  This is not intellectual or informational knowledge, but intimate, personal, relational knowledge that affects the character of the persons involved.  And the best here is saved for last:  the good news is not that the nations, exemplified in the first instance by the Assyrians, will be eliminated, destroyed, or defeated, but that they shall be attracted to “the root of Jesse.”  This is Christ who said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” 
 
And that points to why, at Christmas, we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her king.”  We do not sing “Joy to the Christians.”  If it were only “Joy to the Christians” we would have a diminished Christ, and a diminished vision of what God intends to do, even of what God is able to do.  Thank God for the vision!  

“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples…”

….if
…. If what?

…. What do you want to be known for?

To be able to name the sins of others?
To stand against what all your friends agree is wrong?
That you take the right side on every issue?
Go the right places?
Hang with the right people?
Have the best music?
Worship in the best church?

No….

… Have love for one another!
Radical love
Public love
Overcoming love
Love in the face of betrayal
Disagreement
Difference

Love that reconciles
That doesn’t give up
That touches the outcast
That celebrates with sinners
That lifts up the fallen
That restores with gentleness
That puts up with failure, and tries again
And again

By this shall all men know who you are learning from;
Who your teacher is.

Verse of the Month — April 2017

Raised

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Colossians 3:1 nrsv

Speaking the Truth in Love 

“Speaking the truth in love” is one of the most powerful concepts in the Bible.

 In our natural lives, truth and love hardly seem to have room for each other. This is especially true in and near the centers of political power. 

There are people raising their voices for truth in a way that stirs up hatred, and that happens from every political angle. And there are people who in the name of love would rather not face up to what is right in front of them. 

But the gospel brings us a way of loving that embraces truth, and a way of being truthful that engages love. 

Love can hold a wrongdoer to account without forsaking the possibility of redemption. It can denounce an action while still seeking the wellbeing of the actor. 

If Christianity is to be more than just another self-serving political faction, we must pursue this kind of love, whose model is Christ at the cross forgiving his enemies, or Stephen the first martyr saying “lord lay not this sin to their charge.” It is the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Those troublesome protesters…

I remember reading about one. He had a real reputation as a rabble rouser, had a crowd following him everywhere he went. Seems his big draw was the prospect of health care, personally administered by himself and his hand-picked cronies. 

Imagine his nerve, coming from out of town to the capital city, just in time for a big annual festival. Of course he disrupted it with an unscheduled parade, all these people shouting and cheering like he was some kind of king. Dangerous!
Then the next day really took the cake. Backed up by his crowd he went into a place of worship, destroyed property and disrupted business, and gave an angry speech accusing the business owners of being thieves! 

Fortunately, within a week one of his lackeys did the right thing and let the police know where he could be arrested without that big crowd around. It was a little unusual to have his trial that same night, but extreme times call for extreme measures. The governor needed a little persuasion to approve the execution, but right-thinking people were able to pull together enough supporters to impress him there would be popular support for that action, and consequences for being too lenient. 

Too bad they didn’t round up the whole gang that night. I hear they are still making trouble. 
(Disclaimer: any resemblance of people or events to actual, contemporary or historical realities is most likely coincidental, and most probably intentional for purposes of satire. He who has ears, let him hear.)

The Cleansing Blood

Posted on August 2, 2005 by Bob Buehler
in http://www.seethekingdom.net/stk/2005/08/the-cleansing-blood/

1 John 1:7 But if we live in the light in the same way that God is in the light, we have a relationship with each other. And the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from every sin.

What is this about the blood of Jesus cleansing? I wanted to take a second look at this, because it seems to me that many people are in the category of not quite getting the significance of those passages that deal with this subject. Many sing songs such as The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power, Power In the Blood, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?, Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, etc. Even more go through the service of the Lord’s Supper, in which the words of institution, This cup is the New Testament in my blood are repeated; but how many have any idea what this is about? There is some discussion of the matter, chiefly in the epistle to the Hebrews, which sets this whole business of the blood in the context of the ancient practice of animal sacrifice; mostly as a way of showing that that whole system has been superseded, was ineffective anyway, and is now replaced by something better. For many, this does not really solve the issue, and it seems significant that no similarly detailed explanation seems to have been addressed to the emerging Gentile church.
So let’s back into the Hebrew scriptures, with a few other questions in mind.

In the Old Testament, there are basically three common substances that are used in religious ritual, as a way of symbolizing and/or representing the spiritual relationship between humans and God. A fourth, holy anointing oil, is in a category by itself and should be treated separately. Suffice here to say that the anointing oil was specially formulated, prepared and kept, and used for very specific purposes. Otherwise, however, I find three things that are used for ritual cleansing:

Water
Fire
Blood

Let’s take a look at each of these. What I want to show is that in each of the first two cases, there is a very natural image of the function of the particular substance, which is easily carried over by analogy into the spiritual realm; so that the application of each helps any observer to understand the spiritual transaction taking place. That being the case, I will then ask if we can find a way to understand the third substance similarly.

Water is easy. It is used for washing, for getting dirt off, and is certainly used in ritual to indicate the removal of uncleanness from a person, or sacrifice, as a matter of simply hygiene. This ritual washing carries forward quite easily to baptism, where the washing away of one’s sins is symbolized by the application of water. When John came baptizing in the Jordan river, the running water symbolically carried the penitent’s sins away. With the uncleanness of sin removed, the person had an opportunity to live unburdened by a sinful past. Submitting to this process indicated repentance, a willingness to take a new view of one’s role in life.

John predicted, of course, that the one coming after him would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Fire is used throughout scripture to show purity, or purification. Isaiah, in his encounter in the Temple with a holy God and his angels, is not washed with water; instead, his lips are touched with a burning coal: Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged. This after Isaiah bemoaned the uncleanness of his lips, and the lips of his people. But as water symbolically removes the outer stains of sin from a person’s life, fire purifies the substance: so there is talk of people being refined as gold or silver is refined.

Water cleanses. Fire purifies. What does blood do? It does both of these, and also heals.

As the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews so eloquently points out, the external application of blood really has no good effect: for it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But if we think for a moment or two about how blood functions in the natural world, we find it has a beneficial effect really only under certain very specific conditions.

Blood cleanses, when it flows through or out through a wound sustained by a living organism. When you cut your finger, the best way to prevent an infection, before washing the wound with water or cauterizing it with heat (fire) is to let the blood flow through it. Blood nourishes and feeds the body, providing life-giving nutrients and oxygen, removing dangerous toxins from tissues. In the natural realm, it gives and sustains life.

So how does the blood of Christ wash away our sins? When it gets at us from the inside. When Christ’s life becomes our life. This happens when we exchange our own life for his, thus gaining the benefit of his having exchanged his life four ours, in a divine transaction that is the central mystery of the Christian faith. Leviticus 17:11 says, The life [soul] of the flesh is in the blood; therefore I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives [souls]. If we understand that Christ poured out his life for us so that he could pour out his life into us, then we can see both the power of the blood and the power of the resurrection, that they are one and the same; but neither power is of any effect from a distance, but only as we take upon ourselves an intimate fellowship with the living Christ; therefore the text we began with makes some sense:

1 John 1:7 But if we live in the light in the same way that God is in the light, we have a relationship with each other. And the blood [=soul, life] of his Son Jesus cleanses us from every sin.

Since each of us shares intimately in the life of God which gives Jesus the power to overcome death, we cannot avoid having a relationship (fellowship) with one another; and that life, which is here also called light, enters into us so fully that the healing, restoring power that characterized the earthly ministry of Jesus is at work in us continually, removing from us the spiritual toxins that would make for death, bringing us into a powerful relationship with God and all his works.

The blood cleanses us from within.