Thursday, August 11, 2016

You and I are very different!

I was reading some of Old Testament books written by minor prophets, and I was struck by a fundamental truth that has been both very challenging and very freeing for me:

YOU AND I ARE VERY DIFFERENT. And it's okay!

The Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra (two prophets) tell the story of the return of a remnant of Jews to the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild the walls around the city and safeguard the Temple. After the wall is successfully rebuilt, the books detail some of the challenges that this remnant of Jews was facing. One of them was intermarriage with the other (non-Hebrew) people living in the land. Such intermarriage was always considered a no-no among the Jews, as it resulted in a dilution of Jewish teaching, faith and culture.

Ezra 9 tells the story of how the prophet discovers the disgraceful practices being employed by the returnee Jews. "When I heard this," verse 3 says, "I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice."

Chapter 10 continues: "While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly." And it goes on to share how the Israelites who were practicing these things repented and changed their ways.

Nehemiah tells much of the same story, but the approach of this prophet is clearly very different than that of Ezra. In chapter 13 it is revealed how the Israelites are comingling with Ammonites and Moabites, which is expressly forbidden by Scripture due to the role these peoples had played earlier in antagonizing Israel. Starting in verse 23, Nehemiah says: "Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair."

These two prophets had very different styles. It strikes me that Ezra pulled out his own hair in grief and repentance over the sins of the Israelites. Nehemiah, on the other hand, beat and pulled the hair of the guilty parties!

Both shared the same godly concerns, but what they did about it was expressed in very different ways.

Another interesting example of this phenomenon exists when you compare the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both are written after the renovation of the Temple stalls, due to external threats and internal dissent among the remnant. Like Nehemiah, Haggai is very brief and to-the-point. His exhortation is fundamentally a kick in the pants. Chapter 1 reports: "Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways."

The entire book of Haggai is only 2 chapters, 36 short verses.

But Zechariah (one of my personal favorites) is VERY different. He goes on at great length. He has mystical visions and peers through the telescope of time. His exhortation is very inspirational, a pat on the back rather than a kick on the pants. (Yay for we longwinded, poetic, people-pleaser types!)

But his message to the Jews who had stalled is fundamentally the same: God is coming! Let's prepare the way for Him and get His house in order!

All these men were effective, in their different ways. And this leads me to ask: Why does God create (and use) people who are so different from one another?

I think part of the answer is found in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul reveals that although we are one body in Christ, that body is made up of many very different members. He likens our situation to a physical body when he says:
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Cor. 12:15-20)
We do have a tendency to think everyone should be just like us, don't we? But when you realize that God created us very different, and the reason he did so, aren't you glad? Would life be a total unmitigated disaster if everyone was just like you, or exactly like me?

God has created each of us with different functions, gifts, talents, skills, passions, personalities, working styles. This is how the Body of Christ was designed to get things done ... God things, the task that He has set out before us to accomplish!

And when you realize this, and how desperately we need each other, you also must realize how God expects us to respect (and work with) one another. Especially if we are different!

Yes, you and I are VERY different. Aren't you glad?


Monday, August 08, 2016

Here comes the worm, and there goes the shade tree

A few weeks ago, Pulse (our young adults group) was studying the book of Jonah. Most people focus on the part of the story where the reluctant prophet gets swallowed by a whale; but I felt particularly drawn to the fourth and final chapter in the story.

And as usual, God gave me a poignant, real-life illustration of the principles in His Word.

The fourth chapter finds Jonah, having (finally) fulfilled God's command by walking back and forth among the streets of the ancient world's largest city, Nineveh, proclaiming:

"Forty more days Nineveh will be overthrown."

It was a very simple message God had given him to deliver. God had said in chapter 1, "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." And in chapter 3, after Jonah got barfed up on the beach facing Nineveh, He added: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” So that's what Jonah did. And of course the amazing thing that happened as a result was nothing short of the greatest revival in history. Tens of thousands of Ninevites repented of their sin, "from the least to the greatest." Even the king got into sackcloth and ashes. And God in His compassion and mercy decided to spare Nineveh from the promised calamity.

And Jonah was not a happy camper. Chapter 4 details his expression of anger against God for being so gracious to Israel's enemies. Remaining convinced that surely God was mistaken and the repentance was false, he sat up on a hillside above Nineveh to watch and see what would happen.

What happens next in chapter 4 is fascinating, and the point of this blog. Verses 6 through 8 report:

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Why would our gracious and loving God both provide great comfort to make Jonah happy ... then take it away to make him miserable? What was the point?

It's easy to conclude from reading this passage that God is more interested in developing our character than He is in our comfort and happiness. Note that "God provided" both the blessing (the shade tree) and the curse (the worm that chewed it). He used Jonah's resulting discomfort and frustration as an object lesson both on how "the Lord gives and the Lord taketh away" and why compassion is such a key part of God's character (and should be a key part of ours as well).

My Shade Tree

Right before leading this Bible study, I was called to a meeting in our human resources department and informed I was being laid off. For nearly 23 years, God had provided me with a marvelous shade tree, my job at World Vision. I loved it, I was good at it, it brought me great joy and satisfaction, not to mention a decent living. I had planned to retire in about three years or so, after I had accomplished a few more milestones. All was good.

But then, bam, God sent a worm to chew on my shade tree!

So, after studying Jonah 4 I've been asking myself, "What is it in my character that God is seeking to work on through this event?" I'm grateful to God for the many years of beautiful shade. I must be grateful as well for the worm. For both come from His hand.

I've blogged before about how the Hebrew word translated "worm" in chapter 4 is "Tolah," the crimson worm which throughout Scripture is used to represent the Messiah. (For instance, see the Messianic Psalm 22.) Jesus was in some manner in Jonah's worm, which reminds us that He gave up the comforts of heaven to be born as a human baby, to struggle with all the things we struggle with, and ultimately to give up His life on the Cross for our sins.

I'm grateful that God is present in both blessing and comfort, as well as in adversity. Thank you for your prayers as we seek to discern His will in this next phase of our lives together.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Anger

We're living in a day and age where an outflowing of national anger and disillusionment with broken government promises, increasing bureaucracy and taxation is having a significant impact upon presidential politics. Whether that impact will be negative or positive for our country is hotly debated, and beyond the scope of this Last Word.

What I am concerned about here is the impact that anger has on us personally. And I speak from that of which I know. I was raised by Christian parents, but the general mood in our household was often very angry. My parents fought a lot. Usually they were angry with each other, for a variety of reasons; and sometimes they were angry with us kids. I remember once my mom was very angry with my brother and I about something (I don't remember why; I'm sure we deserved it). She went for the belt to administer a whipping, which she rarely did. As the oldest, I was unfortunately first in line. And she was so angry she didn't realize she was holding the wrong end of the belt when she hit my backside with it. The first (and as it turned out, only) blow landed with the metal buckle coming in contact with the target.

And my mother was instantly horrified when she realized what she had done in anger; she burst into tears and ran off sobbing. It was the last time she ever took a belt to any of us five kids, as far as I know.

The fortunate part of the story for me is that my mom wasn't very strong, and even in her anger the metal belt buckle, while it stung a bit, didn't do much damage!

Some of this anger transferred to me. I had a hard time as a young father not being goaded to anger by my kids, particularly my son, who was very good at doing that. By the time he was 17, he knew exactly what buttons to push to get me pretty much out of control. Once he sent me into a blind rage, and I was so angry I grabbed a telephone (the cordless kind) and launched it at him with all my might. Fortunately he had good reflexes and ducked the missile, which punched a hole right through the drywall of our staircase.

He grabbed some things out of his room and left the house, announcing that he was going to report me to CPS. I probably would have deserved that. I was appalled and dismayed and spent three days just pleading with the Lord to help me get my anger under control. At the end of that time, realizing that through the Lord's empowerment I indeed did have control, if I only had the discipline to exercise it, I vowed I would never be goaded into that kind of anger again. And I have kept that vow to this day, some 15 years later. As a result, my relationship with my son has vastly improved. (Not that he hasn't occasionally tested those limits!)

I realize now (and I probably realized then, to some extent, at least) that my anger was holding me back from becoming the kind of father, and the kind of disciple, God wanted me to become. I am so grateful to be able to look back and see how God has helped me get some victory over this particular broken and sinful aspect of my life. I am hoping that it has not only made me a better dad, but also a better husband, employee, brother in Christ, and citizen. (Now, on to the next big project!)

A Prophet With a Problem

At worship on Sunday I mentioned what I am learning from the book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet who had a problem with anger. And the Ninevites deserved his anger! They were among the most brutal people ever to inhabit the planet.The records of their horrific brutality, if you read about them in the history books, make you feel ill even now, thousands of years later. I won't go there; I'll just assure you that whatever your imagination can conjure up, what they did to their enemies was worse.

And they didn't like the Hebrews. And the Hebrews didn't like them. Which is why many people think Jonah ran the opposite direction when God told him to go and deliver His message to Nineveh. Wa-a-a-ay in the opposite direction.

But the real reason Jonah ran is revealed in chapter 4:1-4:
But it [God's mercy on the Ninevites after they repented] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
The answer to the Lord's question was, of course, "No." But instead of answering, Jonah just sulked. He went and staked out a position on the hillside overlooking the huge city of Nineveh, hoping against hope to see God rain down fire and brimstone on it while he ate popcorn.

It's amazing, when you think about it, that the reason for Jonah's anger was the kindness, grace and mercy of our steadfastly-loving God! In his anger against the Ninevites, Jonah wanted vengeance. He was only all-too-happy to preach God's simple message: "40 days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!" No love lost there, as far as he was concerned.

So Jonah set himself up on the hill, and verse 6 says "the Lord God appointed a plant" that provided shade over Jonah and gave him relief from the heat. And Jonah was glad for the plant. (He'd apparently had enough of discomfort after spending three days and nights in the gastrointestinal tract of a large fish!)

But then our merciful, gracious, and loving God did something very interesting. Verse 7 says that at dawn of the next day, God "appointed a worm" that attacked the plant so that it withered, and Jonah lost his comfy shade. (For the fascinating biblical story behind the worm, check out this blog post.) After the sun rose, "God appointed a scorching east wind" to make Jonah really uncomfortable. And once again, Jonah was angry and "asked that he might die" (You can almost hear him thinking, "I'll show God! We'll see how he feels after His prophet has died of heat stroke.")

The discomfort was of course intended by God as an object lesson for Jonah. "Do you do well to be angry about the plant?" God asked him in verse 8. And Jonah replied, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

I hope Jonah saw the divine humor in this. God was under no illusions that the Ninevites were model citizens. His view of them was that they did "not know their right hand from their left." Not very flattering, eh? And to drive his point home, God adds: "And also much cattle." Come on, Jonah, at least feel for the cows!

(Something about this reminds me of that strangely hilarious scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou?: "Oh, George! Not the livestock!")

I continue to be blown away by a recognition which I probably share with Jonah that God is so good at love, and I am so bad at it. He is indeed "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Thank God He often (probably more often than we know) "relents from disaster," even though we certainly deserve it!

What to do if you struggle with anger?

Do you struggle with anger? Be honest. I don't think I'm alone in this one. We know there is a "righteous anger," an anger at sin and its effects on innocent people, and injustice, and man's inhumanity to man, and so much else that has resulted from the Fall. But how often can our anger truly be counted in this category? Or how often is our anger instead a result of the fact that we haven't gotten what we want or think we are owed? Our anger blinds us. We think we are concerned about a mote in someone else's eye, when our anger has blinded us to the log in our own.

And our anger separates us from the blessings God wants to bestow on us, and through us, to others. My advice is: Deal with it! Lay it before the Cross. Recognize how the blood of Christ absorbed the righteous anger of God, anger at the sin we so willingly partake in. If you need help, get it. Ask brothers and sisters around you to pray for you and hold you accountable. Get professional help if you need it. Please don't wait for God to give you a loving sunburn to drive His point home, as He did with Jonah!

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Wanderlust

"Wanderlust" is one of those words I have very mixed emotions about. On the plus side (I think!), I am one of those people who feels drawn to the idea of exploration and road trips and hikes in the wilderness and camping and all those sorts of things. There is a sort of romantic, gypsy feel to the lifestyle of a wanderer. As the popular saying goes, "All who wander are not lost."

On the other hand, half of the word "wanderlust" is not so nice. We usually don't give a positive connotation to the word "lust," do we? (Although I readily admit I unashamedly lust over chocolate!)

One of the young men in Pulse is a young professional with a serious case of wanderlust. Oftentimes he just launches out in his car, driving he knows not where. He usually ends up in another state .. the coast or forests of Oregon, the mountains of Idaho or Montana, or sometimes even further. He just loves to wander. He says it helps him process life. (And eventually, thankfully, he comes back!)

During Jed's maiden voyage to Lake Chelan.
​I've confessed to several people that I'm getting to the point in my professional career where I can see a light at the end of the workaday tunnel ... that light which is sometimes called "retirement."

One of the recent symptoms of pre-retirement, for me, is wanderlust. I spent several months researching and then purchasing a nice motorhome (a Jayco Melbourne, built on the popular Mercedes Benz "Sprinter" chassis), and I've been getting it equipped to take on the road. Its maiden voyage was mushroom-hunting in Eastern Washington with my son Nathan, then my wife and I took it to an RV resort in Ocean Shores. For our third trip we visited Gordy and Linda McCoy at lovely Taidnapam (on Riffe Lake), where they serve as camp hosts. They made us breakfast, and we plan to return the favor by going back there tonight and making them dinner.

But I have dreams of going much further. Ultimately we'd like to make our way lazily over to Pennsylvania, for a month or two at a time, where our daughter Mandy, her husband Mike, and our granddaughter Annabelle live. Pennsylvania in the fall is beautiful (full of mushrooms), and there is plenty of space for Jedediah (that's what we named our new motorhome, after the explorer Jedediah Smith) on their small farm there.

From there, we could even explore the eastern coast of the U.S., or divert up into Canada on our way home ... or maybe Iceland ...

Mandy inherited my sense of wanderlust. She and I spent a good portion of the summer of 2006 exploring several nations in Southern Africa, including the Congo. We had a blast, and she went on after that to wander through India and Nepal with a friend. She and Mike also frequently hike places like the Appalachian Trail, and when they visit here later this summer they want to hike a part of the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. (As do I!)

Where am I going with this meandering word? Well, I've felt vaguely guilty at times about my wanderlust. I know God calls us to be content with where He has placed us, and I love our home, our family, and our friends. I hate missing Elim, even one weekend service. So I've wondered whether my wanderlust may be a sign of ungodly discontentment?

But then I look at my model of godliness, Pastor Martin. There's a guy with some serious wanderlust. He thinks nothing about jumping on his manly motorbike and heading out into the open highway, bugs splattering thickly across his grinning teeth.

If Pastor Martin has wanderlust, it seriously can't be wrong, can it?

Pulse is currently studying the book of Jonah, which I'm enjoying very much. Jonah had a serious case of wanderlust. God said, "Go to Nineveh!" The great city was due northeast of where Jonah lived. So he headed out ... due west, to Joppa. There he boarded a ship for Tarshish, which was WAY west, actually out in Spain on the westernmost edge of the known world!

Jonah was fleeing God, which he discovered (while soaking in bile in the belly of a big fish, buried deep in the Mediterranean Sea) is actually not possible. As David says in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
In Jonah 2, the reluctant prophet says: "From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry."

If the belly of a big stinky fish in a storm in the ocean isn't "the realm of the dead," I'm not sure what is! Once the fish barfed Jonah out upon the beach, pointed toward Nineveh, he thankfully started heading in the right direction. (There's nothing like a little fresh air to clear your thoughts after three days and nights in the realm of the dead!)

I think the important thing for me (by way of admonition to those who, like me, have a bad case of wanderlust) is this: Are we running TOWARD God, or AWAY FROM Him?

There's nothing wrong with travel. But when we travel, are we making it a priority to connect with other believers in worship? Are we ensuring that our home church has our financial support while we are gone? And are we staying connected with those (at home) we are in community with, through whatever means are at our disposal? (Ahem, social media, cough, cough ...)

And is our motivation for running away, getting away from something that God wants us to deal with? Instead of simply dealing with it?

Christ frequently wandered into the wilderness, even amidst the pressing demands of ministry. But He was running TOWARD the voice of His Father, who was drawing Him to solitude for the sake of their fellowship together. Does our wandering have the same aim?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Three Hands, Three Strands

The associate pastor at our church, Brian Sharpe, has created a booklet called "Three Hands," with the help of some others on our communications team. The artwork on the cover is a bit goofy and I've made fun of it a lot (insert comment about living too close to Hanford Nuclear Reservation here), but the foundational idea, while simple, is incredibly important.

The booklet looks at the lives of some of those who were called, in the first century A.D., to "lean into" the task of taking the life-changing Gospel ("good news") of Jesus outward from their home villages and spreading it so that the world might be changed. This obviously took an incredible amount of passion, and conviction, and selflessness, and courage, all gifts brought from the empowerment of the Holy Spirit who fell upon Christ's disciples in Acts 2. Specifically, it looks at the Apostle Paul, and Timothy, and Barnabus, three men who made an incredible contribution to the spread of the Gospel. And more specifically, it looks at the relationship between them, and draws some simple ideas from what we see there.

Paul's mentoring of Timothy was obviously incredibly important. It was far more than the relationship between student and teacher; it was discipleship. Paul frequently said, even as Jesus did, "Those things you see me do, go and do those things." He modeled what New Testament life was supposed to be about, then encouraged others to follow the model.

And how does Barnabus fit in? One of the key things you see in Acts and beyond is that men like Paul rarely went out "on their own." They partnered with someone who could provide strength and encouragement. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says:
And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.
The truth is, we are too often alone ... and too often, inevitably, overpowered! The Christian life wasn't designed to be lived alone. It was designed to be lived in partnership with brothers and sisters. Too many Christians in this "cowboy" culture we live in here in the U.S. simply blow off "church." They don't need anybody, they can go it alone. But truth be told, our need for others is far more significant than we know. We need that brother and sister who can tell us the truth when we need to hear it, or can give words of encouragement when that is what we need. We need others to "stir us up to love and good works," as Hebrews 10:24 says.

A two-stranded cord is far better than one.

But wait ... that's not what Ecclesiastes says, is it? Oh, of course not! Duh. The third strand represents He who enters into our fellowship, and interweaves His life with ours. The Third Strand alone is unbreakable ... so any rope with it woven firmly into place is a rope that should surely hold under even the greatest pressure!

So, back to the three hands: On that goofy cover I told you about, one hand is reaching downward, one reaching upward, and one to the side. The hand reaching up reminds us that we all need to have a mentor who can disciple us and prepare us for what God has assigned. Even Paul spent something like three years learning from others and getting prepared for his public ministry.

And we should all be willing to pour what we have learned into others, for our faith is just one generation away from extinction and we must not be the ones who fail to pass it down! The hand reaching down reminds us that we should all have "Timothys" in our lives who we are pouring ourselves into. We should be showing (with our lives, not just saying with our lips), and we should be working toward a specific goal (as Paul did), to release those we mentor into ministry once they are ready.

And finally, we all need Barnabuses. (Barnabi?) I have a close friend in California named John whom I met my first year of college. Our friendship has continued to grow since then, and there has been many a time when we have needed and depended on each other. Often he is a Paul, and I a Timothy; and sometimes it may be the other way around. But always, we are Barnabuses, to whatever extent we can be, separated by 1,200 miles!

Brian asks, Who is your Paul? Who is your Timothy? Who is your Barnabus? There are no hard-and-fast rules, and this may be a season when all three relationships are not operating in our lives right now. But we should always be on the lookout for who God might bring our way. And we must never neglect "the assembling of ourselves together" and simply putting ourselves "out there" in places where we can impact (and be impacted by) the lives of others! Are you allowing God to weave that three-stranded cord in your life?

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Lessons From Esther

Elim’s young adult group, Pulse, is nearing the completion of a study of Esther. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in post-exile Persia (formerly Babylon). Freed from captivity, about 60,000 Jews have emigrated back to the Jerusalem area to rebuild the Temple and pick their lives back up as God’s people living in their Land.

Esther denounces Haman, by British painter Ernest Normand.
But what many people don’t realize is that at least 10 times that many Jews willingly chose to stay behind in Persia. Why? After 70 years, it was home. They were used to it. They were rebuilding comfortable lives and businesses. Almost everything was going well.

Almost. There was a strong anti-Jewish sentiment among many of the Persians. The Jews’ “strange” ways, coupled with their business acumen, caused many to look down upon them in envy and disapproval. (Sound familiar?)

One man in particular bore a grudge. His name was Haman, and he was descended from a group of pagans who were almost wiped out more than a century earlier (at God’s command) by Saul. The fact that Saul compromised and didn’t completely obey God resulted in Haman later rising to power as prime minister to the king of Persia, Xerxes (or Ahaseurus), and harboring a secret hatred of the Jewish people who had almost wiped out his forefathers.

In ancient Persia, much as it is today, money translated to political power, and Haman had lots of it. And he used his capital to trick the king into signing a death warrant against all Jews remaining in Persia.

Mordecai and his cousin Esther were two of those Jews. And it just so happened that King Xerxes, after banishing a queen who had disrespected him, fell in love with the beautiful Esther and chose her to be his queen. Xerxes didn’t realize, of course, when he signed Haman’s paperwork, that he was giving Haman permission to put his own wife to death!

The book of Esther never even once mentions God, but it is a book full of “coincidences” that clearly show God’s power to order circumstances (even very difficult circumstances) to bring about His will. And His will was (and is) the protection and salvation of His people.

One such “coincidence” was the elevation of Mordecai to favor with the king, even as his death was being plotted by Haman, because of his role revealing a plot against the king by his bodyguards. Mordecai also revealed the plot against the Jews to Esther, and urged her to plead their case before the king. She knew that to do so was to risk death, for anyone approaching the king without being called would be summarily executed if he didn’t intervene. Mordecai challenges Esther with these famous words: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for just such a time as this?” And Esther’s classic, courageous response: “Tell everyone to fast for me for three days, and on the third day I will approach the king. And if I perish, I perish.”

The king spares Esther’s life, and she definitely gets his attention. Even so, she doesn’t immediately reveal her request; she waits. Why?

God’s timing is perfect! In waiting, Mordecai is elevated to power, and Haman is shown for the schemer he is. Once Esther finally reveals her request (that the king spare her life and the lives of her people), Haman’s plot is undone. He finds himself instead skewered upon the pole which he had planned for Mordecai’s demise. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

There are so many lessons in this book, it’s hard to choose one, but let me list three favorites:
  • When life’s circumstances become difficult, we can trust that God is behind the scenes, working, even if we can’t see Him. He is for us, and Paul's words in Romans 8:28 are true: “We know that in all things God works for the good for those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
  • There is tremendous power in waiting upon the Lord. Esther waited until the moment was right and God said, “Go.” His power is seen in the perfection of His timing.
  • Like the Jews in Persia, in many ways we Christians have become a little too comfortable living in a land that is not our home. In the process, we have in some ways become a stench in the nostrils of the people of this land. There are Hamans here who seek our destruction, but God knows their hearts and will ultimately skewer them upon their own devices.
I am so grateful we have an all-powerful God who is for us, and who is working behind the scenes to secure our salvation from the plots of the enemy! May God help us to learn to wait on Him!

Reprinted from Elim EV Free Church's The Last Word leadership blog on March 3, 2016.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On peacemaking and self-defense

Thank you to everyone for the kind words and gracious support of Jason Comerford and I as we co-taught on Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers," last Sunday.

I always feel, after preaching, like way more needed to be said about a specific passage than I actually had time and space to say. And I think I felt this more acutely last Sunday morning than I ever have before.

21 Ethiopian Christians laid down
their lives for Christ and were beheaded
by ISIS in Libya in early 2015.
After the sermon a friend challenged my assertion that "peacemaking sometimes involves the use of force." Now, I believe this is fundamentally true. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an incredibly violent act, but it brought a forceful end to a war that most historians believe would have dragged on for several more years, costing hundreds of thousands more Allied and possibly millions of Japanese lives in the process.

Jesus, the Ultimate Peacemaker, paid the Ultimate Price for peace between us and God. And that price was a violent death on the Cross. The cost of true peace is sometimes very high.

At the very end of our time together, Sebastian asked what Jesus meant by His statement, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). Is this a justification for violence? Are Christians to wage Crusades in order to propagate an enforced peace throughout the world? If the answer to this question is "Yes," then how are we any different than fundamentalist Muslims who believe that Sharia and the Caliphate must be ushered in by acts of terrorist violence?

I think the answer to these difficult questions lies in the Cross, and the example of Christ as He approached it. We must understand that the Cross was an incredibly violent and ultimately unjust act: sinful man crucifying an innocent and sinless God.

After He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeing that Peter had pulled out a sword and was seeking violently to defend His Lord, Jesus said: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)

Jesus said He had the power to call down at least "twelve legions" of angels ... and in terms of the Roman Army, a legion was at least 6,000 soldiers, and often more. So 12 legions of angels would be at least 72,000 angels.

The question is, how powerful is one angel? One clue can be found in Isaiah 37:36 ...
Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!
You heard that right ... one angels singlehandedly defeated 185,000 soldiers in one night. Doing a little math therefore shows you that 72,000 angels should be able to successfully take on an army of at least 13 and a third billion soldiers!

No doubt this gave Christ a comfortable margin of error if He did indeed choose to fight that small handful of Roman soldiers rather than submit to the Cross.

And I think that's the whole point. Even though He had the power to defend Himself, Jesus willingly accepted the violence of the Cross, "for the joy set before Him" and because it was the will of His Father. True peacemaking is willing to pay the price!

Peacemakers don't go out and take up a sword in order to forcefully institute some sort of Kingdom of God on earth. Instead of taking up a sword, they take up a cross. They lay down their lives.

Armed with knives and guns, a group of ISIS terrorists marched a group of 21 Ethiopian Christian men out onto a beach in Libya in early 2015. They forced them to their knees, then beheaded them.

Who were the peacemakers in this scenario? Jesus told Peter, "Those who draw the sword will die by the sword." Those 21 Christian martyrs entrusted their lives to Jesus.

I have a close friend, the husband of a coworker at World Vision, who was kidnapped by Communist rebels in Ethiopia when he was a young man in a Christian high school there. He and 90 other Christian students were lined up along a ditch, their hands tied behind their backs. Terrorists pointed machine guns at them and ordered to recant their faith in Jesus. "Deny the name of Christ, and live," they were told.

Eighty-one of the students recanted. My friend was one of nine who refused to do so.

Thank God it was a false threat. These young people were beaten and tortured, but not killed. Later, the government of Ethiopia, at the urging of the leadership of that Christian school, found and rescued alive those 90 students. Today my friend is an evangelist who preaches Christ to crowds in the tens of thousands in his homeland of Ethiopia. In obedience to the Gospel, he was willing to lay down his life for the name of Christ, and Jesus chose to give it back to him to use as He saw fit.

Blessed are the peacemakers. My friend is one of the most blessed people I know.

How about us? Jesus may give us the power, the capacity, to defend ourselves against evil. Will we use it? Or will we choose to "take up our cross" and trust Him instead? That's what true peacemakers do.