Saturday, January 25, 2014

Salvation, Consecration, Convocation

I admit it: When I was first "saved" (when I was eight), it was what they call "fire insurance."

The Lord found me behind a bush in my backyard. I was hiding from the Wrath of Mom (having whacked my younger sister and hearing her run bawling into the house) and while I was awaiting (and hoping to avoid) my fate there, I suddenly found myself instead confronted by my "sin problem."

By this time the message reiterated weekly by my Baptist Sunday School teachers had been driven home, loud and clear: "There is none righteous, no not one!" And, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord."

I was a sinner, and I knew it. There was nothing I could do about it ... and it could only grow worse and worse. Unless ...

I didn't want to die! I didn't want to spend eternity, separated from God. I wanted to be saved! So, I took the first step of redemption (not knowing at the time it was just the first step). I "pled the blood" of Jesus. "Lord, I know you love me and died to save me. I want to be saved, forgiven!"

While I know now that God had been speaking into my heart, even before this moment, suddenly the voice became much clearer. Well, it wasn't really a voice ... it was more like a Smile. I suddenly knew (beyond a shadow of a doubt) that God had forgiven me. I was so excited, I forgot about my predicament, sprang forth from behind the bush, and ran toward the house ... almost colliding with Mom as she was running out to find me.

I'm sure she was skeptical about my sudden (and seemingly convenient!) discovery of God's grace, but to her credit, she believed me. She scooped me up in her arms and gave me a huge hug while my sister stood in the doorway and sniffled, perplexed.

Fast-forward another eight years. In the interim (when I was 10) I had gotten baptized, convinced that I needed to express my newfound faith publicly. But not a whole lot else had changed. I was pretty much a kid like any other kid, interested in the things kids were interested in.

Like girls. When I was 16, my family moved to a new town and we started up at a new Baptist church, which I convinced my parents we should try because I saw three very pretty girls walking into the sanctuary. (One of them, the tall blonde in the center, I later married!) About the same time as we began attending, they hired a new youth pastor, a jovial fellow named John. One day soon after we had met, John put his arm around me and said, "Hey, Larry, we're both new here. How would you like to study the Bible together?"

"Sure," I shrugged, thinking that didn't sound like a whole lot of fun, but not quite sure how to say "no" in the face of John's enthusiasm. So, after school we began meeting at the local park, sitting together at a picnic table, reading Scripture and talking about what we'd read.

The last thing I ever expected was that I would begin to get excited about that. But, as I have since discovered, the Word is alive and active and sharper than any two-edged sword ... and that sword cut into my heart! I began to realize the import of what had happened when Christ saved me, eight years earlier. I realized I owed Him my life. And so finally I made the decision to consecrate myself to Him, in response to His gift, and to follow Him wherever He might lead me.

That was the point at which I think my life really began to change. For the next 40 years there would certainly be ups and downs, as consecration and following Him is in reality a daily exercise. But as I look back, I realize now that the redemption process, which began with salvation when I was 8, really got kick-started (with John's help) when we were sitting at that picnic table in Upland, California when I was 16.

The Triune Redemption Process, Illustrated by the Exodus

For the past 12 years Darlene and I have been leading a young adults Bible study at our church. We dig into one book at a time, one chapter at a time, on Friday evenings. Over the past year or so we have been in Genesis, and now are exploring Exodus. Our focus has been "finding Jesus in the pages of the Old Testament." (A lot of the material in my other blog, "The Crimson Worm," has come out of this study.)

Salvation

The last two weeks we've looked at Exodus chapters 12 and 13, following along as the children of Israel, who have been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, are saved from the final plague (the death of the firstborn) by painting the blood of the sacrificial lamb (in the shape of a cross) on the mantels (doorways) of their houses. At midnight, as the angel of death sweeps through Exodus seeking the lives of the firstborn (which, by the way, was actually a divine act of justice and protection for God's people, since Egypt's Pharaoh had already killed most of the Hebrew infants), he "passes over" all houses where he sees the blood of the sacrificial lamb painted on the doorway. Hence the first Passover was celebrated, as the lives of the Hebrews were saved from death by the blood of the sacrificial lamb.

Of course you really can't get a clearer picture of what happened on the Cross than by taking even a casual glance at that event. "Behold," cried John the Baptist on setting eyes upon Jesus, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" Everyone who has taken holy communion has (symbolically) "pled the blood" ... confessing that the blood of Jesus, the son of God, shed for the sins of the whole world, is sufficient to save us from the wrath of God which we deserve because of our sin. We are saved because of His shed blood, applied to the doorposts of our heart.

But, is that the end of the story for the children of Israel? No. Yes, they have been saved from death. But, they are still slaves in Egypt. According to chapters 12 and 13, two more significant things must occur before they have a hope of being freed from their bondage.

Consecration

At the beginning of chapter 13,the Lord said to Moses: “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.” Then Moses said to the people, “Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast ...."

"Consecration" means dedicating the best of what you have (the "firstfruits," or "firstborn") to the Lord. Whatever we give to God is to be right off the top ... the firstfruits of who we are and what we have, whether that's our time, our energy, our talents, or our treasures. We are to sit at God's feet, the best part of our day. We are to give the greatest part of our energy and our talents in service to Him and others. We are to give (cheerfully) the first part of our income (known in the Old Testament as "the tithe"), before we pay any other bills or spend any other money. That's consecration.

Consecration doesn't save us ... we're already saved! But it is the logical response to being saved. It is the first step out of bondage to sin.

Sin? What's the connection between sin ... and consecration? If you look at chapter 13, it becomes obvious. To commemorate God bringing His children out of Egypt, a weeklong event was instituted, called the "Festival of the Unleavened Bread," which culminates in the Passover feast. During the entire festival, only bread without yeast (unleavened bread) is eaten. Yeast is the enemy, and must be purged completely from the Israelites' houses at the beginning of the weeklong festival.

Yeast? The enemy? It suddenly becomes clear, when you realize that in holy Scripture, yeast almost always represents one thing: sin.

While the Passover is celebrated (in commemoration) at the end of the Festival, the Festival occurs because of the Passover. The first Passover meal was eaten on the night the angel of death passed over. The children of Israel then fled Egypt (in a great hurry), and in their hurry had no time to leaven their bread with yeast ... so, at least during the initial week of their journey (which is probably about the length of time it took them to reach the Red Sea), they commemorated their salvation by eating unleavened bread. With every bite, the importance of repudiating their former, sinful, way of life was reinforced.

When you are on an urgent journey toward the Promised Land, fleeing your bondage and heading out into the wilderness toward freedom, you have no time for leaven! It only slows you down, drags you down. The luxury of leaven must stay back in Egypt. Ahead, in the wilderness which represents freedom from bondage, there is no room for it.

Convocation

I debated what to call the third thing that happened, which was critical to freedom for the children of Israel. But "convocation," being called together (as a group) for a purpose, is probably as good a word as any.

The children of Israel would have never found freedom if they hadn't done one very basic thing: Got up off their duffs and followed God out of Egypt, together.

You might ask, "Didn't they follow Moses?" No — Scripture is very clear bout this. Moses was only an instrument. But, it was God Himself who literally, personally, and miraculously led the approximately 3 million Israelites out of Egypt's borders (and slavery) into the wilderness (toward freedom in the Promised Land).

And how He did that was absolutely fascinating, and a real eye-opener to me as we did this study.

In the last two verses of chapter 13 we read:
By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Many people envision this cloud by day/pillar of fire by night situation sort of like a divine signpost. You see paintings of an unusual column of cloud, there on the horizon, and people follow it. If it drifts to the left, they go left; to the right, they go right.

But I actually think the situation was simpler (and more profound) than that. Why? Psalm 105:39, recounting the same situation, says:
He spread out a cloud as a covering,
and a fire to give light at night.
This reveals a specific, functional two-fold purpose for the pillar that was God's presence: covering (shade) during the heat of day (which could be excruciating in the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabian desert, especially in a group of 3 million sweaty backpackers); and illumination (guidance) during the pitch black of night.

I think when God wanted Israel to move a certain direction, they simply had to get up and walk, in order to follow the shade and stay cool! (Or else, at night, to follow the pillar of fire and stay safe and warm.)

The illustrates, for me, two very important principles in following (and doing) the will of God. The first principle is, try and stay as close to God as you possibly can! Through Proverbs 8:17 God tells us:
I love those who love Me; and those who seek Me, find Me.
Earlier (in Deuteronomy 4:29) Moses had told the Hebrews:
But if from there [referring to their ultimate arrival in the Promised Land] you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Quite simply, following God means seeking Him out with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

The second principle flows from the first. If (and only if) we are doing the first, then following God's will means following the desires of our heart:
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Many people, said C. S. Lewis, are afraid of God for the wrong reason. They envision that if they will commit themselves to God, He will capriciously take all their fun away. He will take a football player and break his leg, and force him into a miserable life of playing the violin, for instance.

But the truth is closer to the opposite of that.

You will probably remember Eric Liddell, the Olympian / Scottish missionary whose dramatic career was the subject of the film "Chariots of Fire." His famous quote goes:
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
If we delight ourselves in the Lord, then His joy becomes our joy, and seeking joy becomes seeking His will.

Here in Seattle we are very excited about our beloved Seahawks going to the SuperBowl next weekend. (Yes, please don't wince ... it's me, talking about football. Apparently things have come to that.) As much as I normally try to ignore football, I really do admire our quarterback, Russell Wilson, who is a committed Christ-follower. In a video about Wilson's life, titled The Making of a Champion, he said:
“… I realized that God had given me so many talents that I wanted to give him all the glory … God has given me this amazing talent to throw the football even though I’m five-foot-eleven, and people said I couldn’t do it. Nobody can stop what God has for you.”
Wilson is doing what God created him to do — and loving every minute of it. "Following the shade," as it were.

Also I find it interesting that God's presence became even more dramatic and pronounced when night fell and the Israelites were surrounded by darkness. It became a "pillar of light" which wedged itself between the Israelites and their pursuers, then led the way across a dangerous sea floor to freedom. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For Thou art with me."

It All Comes Together at the Red Sea

Earlier I alluded to the fact that the Christian life isn't easy, that it's a battle. Having been saved when I was 8, and then consecrating myself to following God when I was 16, I indicated that I just began to get into the fight. Forty years later (while I wouldn't characterize the intervening years as a "wilderness experience," necessarily ... though I am indeed drawing nearer the Promised Land!), I see that my life has been full of "Red Sea moments." In chapter 14, their backs against the wall, the children of Israel are pursued by the forces of Egypt, who want them back (or want them dead, which basically amounts to the same thing). And of course they are forced to trust in God for yet another miraculous act of salvation.

I've had my Red Sea moments, as I know you probably have as well. (In fact, I've written, or will write, about a lot of those in this blog.) But the common thread is the same as what the children of Israel experienced. Sometimes it's at the last moment ... but God always comes through!

I pray that's true for you, as well, and that as you journey through this year ... saved, consecrated, and convocating (following hard after God, in community) ... you will experience His mighty hand in your life, again and again, until we reach the Promised Land, together!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What's a Miracle?

A conversation (in the jacuzzi) with my son Nathan, a few weeks ago, got me thinking about the nature of miracles.

We were talking about the Bible, and miracles in the Bible, and he asked me, "How do you define a miracle?" My casual definition was, "Something that defies the laws of physics, or the established laws of the universe, that only God can do."

But, as I've been reflecting on this, since that time, I'm wondering if my definition of "miracle" was not completely accurate, or at least way too narrow.

Type "define:miracle" into Google and you get this result:

"A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency."

But I'm really not sure I agree with that. Are miracles always welcome? To some people, no doubt. To others, clearly not. God did all kinds of battle miracles for the children of Israel, defeating their enemies in hideously unpleasant ways. When the walls of Jericho fell, no doubt many of the residents of Jericho were none too happy about it.

Also, when you think about it, most of what we consider miracles ARE actually explicable by natural or scientific laws. The walls of Jericho? Construction flaws, slight tremors or earthquakes could have accounted for the collapse. There have been lots of failures of walls throughout history.

Peter walking on the water? Perhaps there was a large fish that happened to be swimming by, just beneath the surface. (A pair of large fish, if you include the one Jesus was walking on.)

Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? We have plenty of examples of people we thought were dead, who revived after various periods of time.

My point is that nearly every possible act of God can be explained away. I've witnessed what I consider to be miracles, a few times in my life. I am 99% certain they were indeed miracles. But there is always a possible, non-miraculous explanation. The one percent uncertainty.

Of course some miracles are harder than others to explain, and probably by design. Jesus, crucified on a Roman Cross, was declared dead after being speared in the side. Blood and water flowed out of the wound. He lay in a tomb for three days before rising from the dead. After he did, he magically appeared in various places, passing through walls to gain access to locked rooms. Pretty high on the miracle scale, all. But that part of you which still has 1% doubt can always still contrive some sort of a possible, more-or-less plausible explanation.

So, what's my point? I think I have three:

1) There are many things which we don't put into the category of miracles ... but probably should. We love our kids. That doesn't sound like a miracle, does it? There is a good, rational, Darwinian explanation for this, no doubt. But a heart of faith believes that it's divine agency behind any true love. God created families, He expresses His love through us. Divine agency.

So, the first of my points is: Be open to the possibility that the everyday things which surround you are, in reality, miraculous.

2) All of life is about faith. There is no way to "prove" that Christianity is true. Some measure of faith will always be required. When I've discussed this with skeptics, they have accused me of circular reasoning. "You only believe the Bible is true because it says it's true and that you must believe this." I'll reply, that's certainly not the only reason I believe the Bible is true; it also strikes me as a highly rational and plausible explanation of perceived reality. I believe none of this perceived universe around me could really have come about by "accident"; that there is evidence everywhere in nature for intelligent design. If there is intelligent design, there must be an intelligent designer. This must in fact be "God." If there is an all-powerful Intelligent Designer, it seems plausible that He would seek to communicate His love for us (if He indeed loved us); and the Bible seems a perfectly plausible and rational explanation for that communication. (The only really good explanation that I've found.) It is, in fact, itself "miraculous," when you think about it, in so many ways. (Sixty-six books written by dozens of disparate writers over thousands of years, all with a very high degree of internal consistency on the facts and a highly consistent theology/philosophy of life reflected as well, cover to cover.)

But, of course you need faith to believe that. There could always be another explanation. You can approach life as an utter skeptic who refuses to believe anything until you are "convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt" (and if you are intellectually honest, you never will be) ... and then come to the end of your life never having come close to finding out (or fulfilling) the purpose for which you were created. Or you can take a leap of (rational) faith.

3) Which brings me to my third point. Time is short. Life is short. You only live once. But most of us don't seek the high ground, we settle for the low: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Those who do seek the high ground, who stake a claim in faith, we honor as a source of inspiration ... the Mother Teresas, the Billy Grahams, the Nelson Mandelas. But really, what is the difference between us and them? We should figure out the answer to that question, and narrow the gap. Our lives, like theirs, could be a miracle.

Baker's Dictionary of the Bible defines a miracle as "an event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God." Considering this definition, I think we have three choices as we travel through life. We can respond:
  • There are no miracles.
  • I don't know whether or not there are miracles. If I saw one, I might care.
  • Every day is a miracle. You are a miracle.
Which do you believe?