Reflecting the Light of the World

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, ESV).

Light is essential to life. Much of our diet hinges on plant life; we mostly eat plants that survive via photosynthesis (using sunlight to create energy) or things that have eaten those plants. Studies have shown that exposure to sunlight is necessary for human health; it is how our bodies produce vitamin D, and sunlight deprivation has been linked to depression. We also rely on light to know where we are and the direction in which we are headed.

Thus, when Jesus called Himself “the light of the world,” His audience knew what He meant. Nobody could misunderstand what He was saying. By calling Himself the light of the world, He called Himself God. At the very least, His hearers recognized that He was claiming to be the Messiah:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

Natural light allows us to see where we are going. Likewise, spiritual light guides our steps spiritually. Jesus’ audience would have recognized that too:

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path (Psalms 119:105).

God’s written Word—the Bible—gives us guidance and direction for our path so that we can know how He wants us to live. Likewise, Jesus is the light of the world and the living Word of God to guide our paths:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:4–5, 9–14).

All of these aspects of Jesus flow together. He is the Word that became flesh to reveal God to us. He is the light of the world, so that we may see. Also, He is life so that we may live. His life is the light of men. His light, His life, and His love guide our steps. We cannot see the path God has prepared for us unless we follow Him.

One of the great lies we deceive ourselves into believing is that we can make it on our own and just call Jesus for backup when things get difficult. We think of Him as our co-pilot (to quote that bumper sticker) when He should be the pilot. We think we can find our way and let Jesus follow us to tweak our efforts. We think we can lead our own lives, yet Jesus tells us that He is the life and that apart from Him we can do nothing (John 14:6; 15:5).

Yet, Jesus is our source of life and light. We need Him first and foremost. But there is another side to this. We do not keep the light to ourselves. We are called to reflect that light to others.

In nature, Earth receives almost all of its light from two sources. During the day, we receive light from our primary source, the sun. However, at night, we receive a little bit of light from the moon. The moon does not create its own light; instead, it reflects light from the sun to us. It takes the light it receives and passes it on to earth.

Likewise, we are called to reflect the light of Jesus:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16).

Clearly, we are not the light of the world in the same sense that Jesus is. But, He calls us to take His light and share it with others. We may want to hide it, keeping it to ourselves, but He calls us to spread His light to others. It is through His followers that He is able to shine His light to the nations. When people see us following the true light, they can see the source of all light and life, give glory to Him, and follow Him themselves.

The apostle Paul could tell the churches under his care to be imitators of God (Galatians 5:1) and also imitate him, as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Can we say the same? Can we tell others that they can imitate Christ by imitating us? Are we reflecting the light, life, and love of God in such a way that people can see the light of Jesus through us?

That is not an impossible idealistic fantasy. That is God’s desire. He wants us to receive His light and reflect it to others. But to do that, we need to first recognize that Jesus is the source of light, life, and love. We cannot create it on our own, but we can reflect His glory as we receive it and follow Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

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Wise Men and Wisdom

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:9–11).

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True wisdom comes from God and directs its attention to God. The wise men worshiped Jesus, because divine wisdom led them to do so. Worldly wisdom would have led them otherwise. “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Paolo Veronese [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, many churches celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the wise men who visited Jesus. This feast brings the Christmas season to an end, but it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the wise men and the nature of biblical wisdom. We can recognize that true wisdom has both a divine source and a divine focus. It comes from God and it directs us to seek our greatest needs and desires from Him.

The wise men sought a meeting with “he who has been born king of the Jews.” While in their homeland (possibly Persia), they had seen a star which led them to believe that a great king had been born for the Jewish people. So, they came to meet this great king. First, the went to the most logical place to find a king of the Jews: the palace of King Herod. There were no newborn princes there. So, they went to Bethlehem where, according to Old-Testament prophecy, the Messiah would be born. The star directed them to the home of a poor young couple and their baby boy. Against common sense, they offered their royal gifts to this working-class poor baby.

True wisdom did not submit to common sense: It followed God’s direction. They found the king of the Jews, not in a royal palace, but in a common family’s home. They worshiped God where He chose to reveal Himself, not where it would seem to make sense.

When we read the Old Testament, we usually associate “wisdom” with King Solomon. First Kings 3:12 tells us that God gave him “a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” Solomon’s wisdom is the fount from which most of the Book of Proverbs flowed.

Although the book does not specifically say it is written by him, Ecclesiastes is also usually ascribed to Solomon. Many Christians believe he wrote it near the end of his life, as he reflected on his greatest accomplishments and deepest disappointments. The passage at the beginning of this post is one of many from that book, reflecting his discovery that his boldest pursuits were “vanity and a striving after wind.”

If you wonder what that phrase means, step outside, catch the wind in your hands, and then bring it indoors and place it on your table. It will not work. You may feel the wind hitting your hand, but when you close your fingers around it, you will realize you have nothing. The air molecules that have pelted your palm immediately float elsewhere leaving you with nothing.

This illustrates how many live our lives. We grasp for something, and we find we have nothing. Or we grab hold of something, and we find that we have gained something worthless. We fool ourselves into believing one of life’s great lies: That happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of personal significance or meaning in life can be found in the things of this world.

Take time to read Ecclesiastes. Although written thousands of years ago, some of Solomon’s temptations and frustrations sound very current. He sought and achieved great wealth. He amassed power and influence. He pursued pleasure. He thought great building projects or other noble accomplishments would bring him satisfaction. Yet, throughout his life, he learned that all of these things could be lost in a moment. He would one day pass his wealth on to his heirs, and may one day be forgotten by his descendants. (I wonder if anybody has ever gone to ancestry.com and traced their family tree back to King Solomon? Probably not.) Those things that seemed to bring joy, satisfaction, and significance all seemed to end in emptiness, vanity, and chasing after wind.

However, this was not a cause for despair:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).

The flaw of worldly wisdom and common sense is that it focuses on everything that happens “under the sun” and does not recognize its source and focus in God Himself. The pleasures, passions, and purposes we often seek are temporary; a focus on God Himself is eternal.

I wonder about the aftermath of the Magi’s visit. Magi were usually employed by their king, so their visit was probably intended to be as much political as spiritual. Yet, they did not find what they expected. They did not cut a political treaty for their king with a powerful ruler. Instead, they left their gifts with a poor family and came back with nothing more than stories about a baby that somehow inspired them to worship. Yet, they had worshiped God incarnate, and Scripture testifies to this day of their faithfulness. We do not remember their names and their homeland is not specified, but we know that God remembers them. He says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Most importantly, God invites us to seek our joy and significance by worshiping His Son instead of the things of this world.

It is not common sense, but it is wise.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blood and the Name of Jesus

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21).

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25).

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“Adoration of the Name of Jesus,” by Juan de las Roelas (ca. 1604) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 1 is a day of new beginnings. In western culture, we begin a new year. On the traditional church calendar, it is the eighth day of Christmas, celebrating yet another new beginning in salvation history.

On the eighth day since the birth of Jesus, we commemorate the circumcision of Christ, at which time He was formally given the name “Jesus.” On the eighth day, Jewish boys would be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3), and it is during this ceremony that the baby received his name. One can essentially say that Jesus shed His “first blood” at that time. James Keifer writes:

On January 1st, we celebrate the Circumcision of Christ. Since we are more squeamish than our ancestors, modern calendars often list it as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but the other emphasis is the older. Every Jewish boy was circumcised (and formally named) on the eighth day of his life, and so, one week after Christmas, we celebrate the occasion when Our Lord first shed His blood for us. It is a fit close for a week of martyrs, and reminds us that to suffer for Christ is to suffer with Him.

Since commercialism tends to silence the spiritual aspects of Christmas, few of us give serious thought to all twelve days. Therefore, January 1 becomes a secular holiday and we overlook the message of Christ’s circumcision. As He receives “the name that is above all names,” He sheds His blood for the first time: a foreshadowing of the fulfillment of His mission to save us from our sins and of His eventual glorification:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

Instead of clinging to His divine majesty, Jesus took on human flesh, lived a life that was in many ways quite ordinary, so that he could live, suffer, and die as one of us. This is the essence of His entire incarnation and of the Gospel.

Many Christians will speak of the power of the name of Jesus, and others will speak of the power of His blood. Here, at the beginning of His earthly life, the two are united. At the end of His life, He shed His blood completely for the forgiveness of our sins, and in the last days we will all kneel before Him because He has the name that is above all names.

This post copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Resolving to Follow Christ in the New Year

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As I write, the year 2017 is approaching its end. Many people are writing down their New Year’s resolutions. Although I usually quip that my New Year’s resolution is to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, I must admit that there is some value to this tradition. Many of us can think of ways we would like to improve our lives. Maybe we want to eat healthier, exercise regularly, get control of our finances, quit a bad habit, etc. We can make positive changes anytime, but somehow it seems convenient to make major life changes while replacing the calendars that are hanging on our walls.

Have you made New Year’s resolutions? If so, where does God fit into them? How does Jesus affect your resolutions. Resolutions are great. Seeking to be a better person in 2018 than you were in 2017 is wonderful. We should all resolve to live better, be healthier, and improve where necessary. But if Jesus is not the Lord of your resolutions, do you truly confess Him as Lord of your life?

Perhaps a great place to start would be by devoting 2018 to re-evaluate who Jesus is
in your life. Far too many of us try to mold Jesus into our own image. To some, He is the all-American Jesus. To others, He is the Republican conservative Jesus. Others think of Jesus as the great social-activist liberal. Some view Jesus as the perfect boyfriend, or their “best bud.” He might be your motivational life coach. The list goes on. Some of these images of Jesus have an element of truth, but often that becomes exaggerated to the point of ignoring some key aspects of His nature. Others are simply wrong, projecting our own self-image onto Him, creating a god after our image, in our likeness. Let us devote 2018 to seek to know Jesus as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, not as we wish He would be.

Our view of Jesus will affect every aspect of our faith in Him. It will affect how we live our lives, what kinds of decisions we make, and how we pray. My mother has at times referred to what she might call “Monty Hall Christianity,” after the host of a game show entitled “Let’s Make a Deal.” Such people treat their faith as an opportunity to bargain with God: “If You do what I want, then I will follow You. If not, I will do my own thing.”

Perhaps we may see an element of that thinking in Jacob’s prayer, after God appeared to him in the vision of a ladder leading to heaven:

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20–22).

Notice the wording: “If God will” do this, “then the Lord shall be my God” and I will serve Him. Thank God for His grace, since so many of us pray like this. God answered that prayer, and Jacob’s faith grew. However, it contrasts with the perspective of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:

If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery
furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17–18).

In other words, “We know God can protect us and do what we want. But even if He does not give in to our demands, we will continue to worship Him. Case closed!”

Many of us treat God like He is our cosmic butler or servant. We expect Him to fulfill our wishes, give us what we want, and make us feel good about ourselves. We want Him to justify our choices (even when they conflict with the Bible) and bless our goals and plans.

Biblical discipleship recognizes that Jesus Christ is Lord: not butler, boyfriend, bargaining agent, etc. The true disciple of Jesus does not pray, “My will be done,” but instead “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10; 26:39, 42). The true disciple does not make his plans and then demand that God bless them; instead, he asks God to reveal His will and give wisdom, strength, and direction to accomplish it.

When faced with the opportunity to pray for prosperity or an easy life, the true disciple prays like King Solomon. Solomon could have requested wealth, long life, or the death of his enemies, but he asked God, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people” (I Kings 3:9).

When the early Christians faced threats and persecution, they did not ask God to change the leaders of their government or to make their lives easy. They prayed for the boldness to continue doing what Jesus had told them to do (Acts 4:23–31).

Before we write down our New Year’s resolutions, let us ask God to give us His wisdom:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without
reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:5–8).

That is a prayer God is always willing to answer. Instead of making our plans and asking God to bless them, we should ask God to reveal His plans to us.

As we begin the New Year, we have several choices ahead of us. We can continue living as we did in 2017, and will get the same results. We can write out New Year’s resolutions, telling God what we want to do in 2018 and demanding that He bless that, whether it is His will or not. Or, we can begin each day by praying “Thy will be done,” and asking God to give us the wisdom, integrity, and perseverance to seek His will and to fill us anew with the Holy Spirit to guide us throughout the day.

May 2018 be a year when we come to more clearly discern God’s will for our lives.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

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Shepherds, Wise Men, and Ordinary People

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:8–16, ESV).

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Nativity scene at Franciscan church in Sanok, Poland. Photo by Silar (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The nativity scene (or crèche) is one of the most popular Christmas decorations. Many homes and churches display one throughout Advent and Christmas. According to tradition, it was invented by St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) as a simple teaching aide to help people remember the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. All the key players are present: The Virgin Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a few shepherds, three wise men, one or two angels, and a bunch of animals. In a society when most people could not read, such a visual aide was necessary to teach a central story of the Bible.

It may not tell the story perfectly. For example, the shepherds came to visit the baby Jesus possibly within 24 hours of his birth, whereas the Magi (who were not kings) came possibly as late as two years later, when the Holy Family was now living in a house. Nevertheless, we can see the main figures in the account of Jesus’ birth together in one location at once. However, it works as an effective story-telling device.

The story of Jesus’ birth has become so familiar to most Christians, though, that many of us miss a few key points. Consider the key characters:

  • Mary was a virgin, but could anybody really believe that? An unwed woman could be pregnant in only one way: via premarital sex. In a very religious society, the punishment could be as severe as stoning. At the very least, she could face rejection by the community, perhaps even her parents and immediate family. The best she could hope for would be a quiet divorce by her husband and a life of shame and rejection (betrothal was legally binding). She actually got better than she hoped for.
  • Joseph was a working-class artisan, probably living day-to-day. Although we think of him as a carpenter, he may have engaged in other skilled work with his hands to build and repair things. Could he really believe Mary’s excuse, that the baby was sent by God and she had not had sex with another man? If he married her, it would suggest to the rest of the community that he must be the real father. One can only imagine how his carpentry business would fare when he is known as the reprobate who could not control himself until his wedding night.
  • The shepherds: We like to think of them as gentle souls who spent their days taking care of cute little farm animals. However, most people in Bethlehem would have a different perspective: a bunch of dirty, uncouth rogues who smell like sheep droppings, among the outcasts of society. They may not be as bad as tax collectors and harlots, but they would still not be likely to get an invitation to celebrate the birth of a King.
  • The wise men or Magi were perhaps some of the worst pagans a Jew could imagine. Tradition refers to them as kings, but they may have been emissaries for a king. Magi were actually astrologers, who made their living engaging in a practice deemed abominable in the Old Testament (see, e.g., Isaiah 47:13–15).

Who is missing from this story? The Roman emperor with his appointed regional vassal King Herod, the wealthy, the religious elite, the powerful, etc. The people whom we would most likely include in a strategy to save the world from certain doom are not in the nativity scene. God chose to send His Son into the world through the womb of an ordinary woman, one whose family would never appear in the historical records otherwise, into a very ordinary family, in a small town within a politically insignificant occupied territory within in a pagan empire. He chose to reveal His Son first to people from the outer fringes of society and pagan astrologers who found out about Him via a condemned occult practice of observing omens.

However, you do not need to be left out of the nativity scene. Jesus came to invite you to have eternal life with Him and His Father. While the world worships at the altar of materialism and Santa Claus, join the shepherds and wise men to bow before the Son of God in the manger. Invite Jesus to take His place at the center of the most ordinary aspects of your life, so that Christmas can remain with you every day.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Examining Our Ways in Times of Suffering

“Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:40).

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).

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Jeremiah lamenting over Jerusalem, by Rembrandt [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of Advent and the “joy of the season,” we cannot ignore the reality of human suffering. In fact, the holiday season often magnifies pain and suffering. The world and the church call us to celebrate Christmas: there are gifts to buy, cards to write, parties to attend, extra worship services at church, etc. Yet, ordinary life’s hardships do not recognize holidays. This season, people close to me have been affected by house fires, death, illness, financial strain, the threat of losing their homes, etc. These trials can happen at any time during the year, yet the Advent/Christmas season demands our extra attention and prohibits us from devoting ourselves to the challenges of everyday life; not only that, but we are expected to feel joyful and happy despite our circumstances.

Pain and suffering are a central part of our earthly existence. Sometimes, it seems unfair, as if God Himself is unjust. We try to make sense of suffering, but it does not always work: When the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001, many Christians sought a biblical rationale. Perhaps God was using these events to judge American materialism and hubris. But, why did some godly people have to die? If God was judging America’s sins, was He also judging the first responders who raced into the building to rescue total strangers?

The answers are rarely obvious or simple. Jeremiah wrote the book Lamentations around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in 586 BC. A godly prophet, from a priestly family, he had suffered for many years. He was persecuted by his countrymen for warning them that this day would come. Now, he suffered with them. It seemed as if his nation was destroyed, doomed to become a footnote on the pages of history. The covenant and promises of God seemed forgotten. Through it all, Jeremiah wept and mourned over the city he loved.

In near the middle of his lamentations, Jeremiah wrote the words at the top of this post: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” He had warned that the nation of Judah would suffer for its unfaithfulness to God. Even when all seemed lost, he believed there was still hope. God had not changed. No matter how bad things seemed, God still loved His people:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23).

God’s love never ceases. Even when things look bleak, He loves us. At times, bad times come to draw us back to Him. God may be shouting to us, as C. S. Lewis wrote.

What is He trying to say? Often, bad things happen to us as a direct result of our sin. Unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are the natural consequences of sex outside of marriage. If you run into financial problems, the answer may not be to “rebuke the devouring spirit”: you may be spending your money irresponsibly and selfishly.

Let me emphasize that this is frequently, but not always, the case. Sometimes, we suffer the fallout of other people’s mistakes or other circumstances affect us negatively. However, when we face such suffering, we would be wise to examine our ways. Spend some time in prayer, and ask God:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalms 139:23–24).

Ask honestly, “Is there anything I did to contribute to this situation? Is there anything I can learn from this?” It is true that you may be an innocent victim of circumstances. Or, perhaps, you contributed at least partially to it. Perhaps hardship is entirely the result of your mistakes or sins. Admit it to God (confession), ask for His forgiveness, and seek His wisdom and power to live a better life (repentance).

Many people today say that “All things happen for a reason.” However, God’s reasons are never unreasonable, irrational, or capricious. He has a redemptive purpose when bad things happen to us. He is not seeking to destroy us, but rather, to heal us.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Understanding the Deep Waters of the Heart

“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5).

When studying the topic of “renewal of the mind” and its impact on a believer’s life, it is easy to think of Christianity as something that goes on purely within one’s brain, disconnected from the rest of the world. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Renewing our minds is simply one part of the Christian life, intertwined with other aspects. Our minds are renewed not only through Bible study and prayer, but also through corporate worship, ministry to others, and fellowship.

Proverbs 20:5 is a difficult Scripture to understand, mainly because we are forced to begin with this question: Is the man in the first part of the verse the same as the “man of understanding” in the second part? I believe they are two different persons, and will write from that perspective. (While the ESV uses the word “man” both times, it might be better to say “person”; we can just as accurately speak about the purpose of a woman’s heart and a woman of understanding.) Even great men need wise counselors, and King Solomon (to whom God gave wisdom and understanding “beyond measure,” according to 1 Kings 4:29) realized he needed such counsel.

The Amplified Bible translates this verse slightly differently, hoping to make the first half of the passage more clear:

“A plan (motive, wise counsel) in the heart of a man is like water in a deep well,
But a man of understanding draws it out.”

The Hebrew word “etzah” (“purpose” in the ESV) is usually translated “counsel,” but can also mean “plan” or “advice.” It refers to what a person hopes to accomplish, including his goals and strategies. These are closely intertwined with one’s motives. What one hopes to do, how he hopes to do it, and why he wants to do it are important questions.

However, such things are often “deep water.” John Wesley said this means that such things are “secret and hard to be discovered.” The Amplified Bible envisions someone who trying to water from a deep well.

 

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Hirondella gigea, a native of the Mariana Trench. By Daiju Azuma (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Mariana Trench is the deepest underwater location on Earth. In the Pacific Ocean, it is 36,000 feet below sea level (more than a mile deeper than the height of Mount Everest!) and hosts some of the most unique lifeforms on Earth. Until scientists could develop equipment capable of descending to that depth (the water pressure would crush most undersea probes), we had no idea what kind of creatures were there. Men needed understanding and wisdom to find out what lived there.

A person of understanding will draw these depths out of your soul. He can give good advice. He can hear what seems to be lacking in your explanations and ask you the tough questions that you need to think about while you pursue your goals.

I remember a time when I was in college, when I ran into a friend at a Christian group’s meeting. I asked how she was doing, and she began to talk about a situation in her life that had her troubled. I asked her a few questions; she kept talking about the problem. I asked something else; she talked further. After a few minutes, she said something like, “You know what? I think I should….” Then, she thanked me for my advice. At no point did I give her actual advice or tell her what I thought she should do. I had simply asked a few questions and listened. As she thought about her situation while speaking, she realized what she needed to do. (I can think of a few times when I have been on the receiving end of such “advice that was not really advice,” when I encountered someone who was willing to listen and care.)

Often, that is all that a person needs. We are tempted to tell people what they must do, when instead we simply need to ask questions, listen, and silently ask the Holy Spirit to give wisdom. The person of understanding may ask questions about why they want to do something, how the situation developed, who will be affected by its outcome, or what options they have considered. The list can go on. We can often look back at our own experiences to provide wisdom, not by telling people what to do, but simply by remembering what a similar situation was like for us.

Finally, “deep water” can make us think of one of Jesus’ images for the Holy Spirit:

“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37–39).

The deep water reminds us of the “rivers of living water” flowing with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, which we often have difficulty discerning. Some Christians are particularly gifted with wisdom and can help others discern exactly what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. We would be wise to seek such counsel, even when we think we have heard from the Holy Spirit. A person of understanding can provide clarity and perspective, and help us see when we are allowing our own selfish carnal thinking to pollute divine guidance.

This is why “renewal of the mind” must occur within the context of fellowship. Left to our own devices with the Word of God, we can be tempted to simply reinforce harmful thought patterns, plans, and motives by distorting Scripture to suit our agendas. However, a trusted person of understanding can help us confront the negative thinking and fine-tune our perspective.

People in Twelve-Step programs often speak of “sharing our experiences, strength, and hope with others.” May we each find people who can compassionately share their experience, strength, hope and wisdom with us so that that we can grow in our knowledge of Christ. Furthermore, may we all find the wisdom that we can share with others. This is how we grow as believers and become transformed by the renewing of our minds.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent, Christmas, and Parallel Universes

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Science fiction characters like Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk may find themselves in parallel universes. Christians may feel like they are living in parallel universes during Advent and Christmas. Photo from Wikipedia.

A popular theme in science fiction is the parallel-universe story. In one example from the 1960s television series Star Trek, several crew members from the USS Enterprise are accidentally teleported onto a version of their star ship in another universe, populated by more malicious versions of the crew members (meanwhile, their duplicates from the other universe find themselves on the regular Enterprise). The two universes look identical, at first glance, but differences between the two worlds soon become apparent.

Christians can often sympathize with the person who travels between parallel universes. We seem to do it all the time. This is most obvious during “the most wonderful time of the year.” Over the next month, we will be bombarded with “holiday savings” ads, Christmas songs on the radio (ranging from “Oh Holy Night” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”), “Keep Christ in Christmas” social-networking memes, etc. Many of us feel torn between the church’s message (Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus), a secularized variation of that message (the reason for the season is family, friends, love, peace on earth, and good will towards men), and the commercialized brand of Christmas that says we have to max out our credit cards and buy tons of fruitcake to prove that we care about people.

In the coming year, I hope to devote some posts to discussion of significant dates on the church calendar. That calendar started today, with the first Sunday of Advent. The mere mention of Advent highlights the differences between the secular world’s view of Christmas and the Christian view. Yet, Advent is almost totally ignored by the world, and if Christians are easily wrapped up in a worldly brand of Christmas, we will miss the significance of the season. Without Advent, Christians will miss the reason for the season.

For one, most of us are saying that this is the “Christmas season,” but from a historic Christian perspective, that season lasts 12 days, from December 25 (Christmas Day) until January 5. We are currently in Advent. The following chart shows the flow of the 2017–18 Christmas season, from a secular and Christian perspective, to clarify the differences between the two (in each calendar, I provide an American viewpoint; I realize other nations and cultures may differ):

DATE

SECULAR CALENDAR

CHRISTIAN CALENDAR

11/23

Thanksgiving: Americans gather to eat a large feast, watch football, and kick off the “Christmas season.”

Thanksgiving: American gather to eat a large feast and give thanks to God.

11/24-26

Black Friday: The same people who previously “gave thanks” for their blessings will now go on a spending
binge at department stores. (Deals and insanity continue throughout the weekend, including “Small Business Saturday” at small local stores.)

Some radio stations will begin playing non-stop “holiday music.” Televised Christmas specials take over the airwaves and cable.

Nothing special

11/27

Cyber-Monday: Follows up on Black Friday with online shopping.

Nothing special.

11/28-12/2

Shopping, television specials, etc., continue the “Christmas season.”

Nothing.

12/3

See above.

First Sunday of Advent. A new church year begins. Christians are encouraged to begin a time of reflection as we seek a closer relationship with Christ, in anticipation of the Christmas celebration and preparation for His second coming.

12/4-12/23

Continued “Christmas celebration” as we all go into debt. By now, my ears bleed when I hear jingly bells at the beginning of a song.

Some people think the “12 Days of Christmas” begin on December 14 and end on December 25.

Advent continues. Let us continue to reflect on the meaning of the season and our need for a Saviour.

12/24

LAST CHANCE TO BUY PRESENTS. Road rage and hostility reign supreme as we rush to buy THOSE LAST FEW GIFTS.

Christmas Eve. We prepare our hearts for a deeper awareness of the presence of Jesus in our hearts.

12/25

Christmas Day: Open presents and celebrate.

Christmas Day: Also known as “Feast of the Nativity” or the “First Day of Christmas.” Open presents and celebrate. If you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, you go to church.

12/26

Well, that’s it. Christmas is over. No more blasted Christmas music. Radio stations dump Wham’s “Last Christmas” and start playing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” again.

Second day of Christmas. Also known as the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr).

12/27-30

No more Christmas.

Third-sixth days of Christmas. Includes a few more feast days. Still celebrating the birth of Jesus.

12/31

New Year’s Eve. Get drunk, sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Prepare to watch a shiny ball drop.

Seventh day of Christmas.

1/1

New Year’s Day. Nurse hangover.

Eight day of Christmas. Also known as the “Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus” since, as a Jewish boy, he would have been circumcised and “officially” named on the eighth day.

1/2-1/5

Nothing. Life is back to normal, until credit card statements arrive.

Ninth-twelfth days of Christmas.

1/6

Nothing special.

Feast of the Epiphany. Celebrates the coming of the wise men. Begins a new season on the church calendar.

As you may notice, there are only a few dates in that stretch where the Christian and secular “calendars” coincide at all: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. The world thinks “the Christmas season” runs from Thanksgiving until December 25. The church recognizes most of that time as Advent, beginning shortly after Thanksgiving and ending on Christmas Eve. The “12 days of Christmas” run from December 25 until January 5, although the secular world acts as though Christmas ends when midnight arrives on December 26.

So, here is the challenge for Christians, many of whom are trying to live in two parallel spiritual universes at the same time. How can I devote myself to reflection, perhaps even renewed repentance, while the world calls us to commercialism and celebration without spiritual preparation?

For those seeking to “keep Christ in Christmas,” a renewed appreciation of the meaning of Advent and the church’s rhythm of the holidays will transform the holidays. Anticipation through Advent will lead to a climax on Christmas, gradually transitioning to a new spiritual norm while the world crashes away from Christmas with more material accumulation, greater financial debt, and minimal spiritual impact.

Adventskranz 3. Advent

By Liesel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Christians and Culture, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Guarding Your Heart

“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23, ESV).

27489072214_02bc4c08ac_bOne of the greatest dangers in the Christian life is the temptation to focus on rules rather than on the relationship with Jesus Christ. We think rules will keep us from sin. Often, they can lead us into sin, because we focus on what we cannot do rather than how a particular area of our life is related to our walk with Christ.

Much of the book of Proverbs contains wisdom that King Solomon sought to pass on to his children. One of his key instructions is, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life.”

Keep your heart: Not your activities. Everything we think, say, and do flows from our hearts. When our hearts are in the right place, we will do the will of God.

John Wesley wrote that heart means “thy thoughts, will and affections.” It sums up our inner life. What do I choose to think about? What do I want or try to do? What spurs my emotions? Define these, and you have described your heart in this biblical sense. Wesley writes that the second part of this verse means “From thence proceed all the actions, as of the natural, so of the spiritual life, which lead to eternal life.”

If we do not guard our hearts, our outward behavior can suffer. Many Christians focus heavily on rules rather than this heart-protection, and as a result they may approach life trying to see how close they can get to sin without actually falling into it. The unmarried couple can try to see how far they can go without actually falling into sexual sin—and then their hormones take over, driving their emotions to take charge and forcing their intellectual agreement with the Bible into the background. The person who is struggling to overcome alcohol addiction may decide, “I can go to the bar if I don’t drink”; but, his desire to fit in and be accepted overtakes his desire for sobriety and he falls off the wagon. Similar examples can be given for a host of human weaknesses.

What are some ways to guard our hearts, so that we do not fall into this trap?

First, change your standard. Numerous churches have a canon of moral and ethical rules they demand of their members. Some are biblical (“do not commit adultery; do not lust; do not steal”); some are logical extensions of biblical rules (“don’t spend time alone with a woman to whom you are not married”); some are man-made rules (“don’t dance; don’t listen to rock music; don’t smoke”). Rules tell us what we can get away with.

The New Testament standard is different: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (I Corinthians 10:23). Instead of asking, “What can I get away with?” we can ask, “What will strengthen me spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, etc.? What is the best way to use my time and resources? How can I best glorify God and build up his people?”

Proverbs 4 adds a few other ways to guard our hearts. Take charge of what you say and hear. Proverbs 4:24 tells us, “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.” Do not allow yourself to give in to dishonest, perverted, negative, or hate-filled speech. To do that, one has to avoid listening to such speech. We will end up treasuring the things we focus on in our hearts: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

This should probably be the real guiding principle in our entertainment choices. Many preachers talk about the sensuality and vulgarity in popular music, movies, and television. These are serious issues; they influence the values of their audiences. But, what about the anger and negativity on many talk and news shows? What about the quick rushes to judgment whenever a rumor pops up about a celebrity or politician? We seem to think the command to “not bear false witness against your neighbor” does not apply if it involves bad news we want to believe about a celebrity we have never met. However, that constant barrage of negativity into our ears is bound to corrupt our thoughts and feelings and come out in our attitudes and speech.

Finally, let us keep our eyes on Jesus and walk in His direction:

“Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.
Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil” (Proverbs 4:25-27).

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Renewing the mind is all about learning to think like Jesus and know Him better. To do that, we must keep our eyes on Him. We do that by reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping Him. He should be the vision that we place directly before us and, as we follow Him, we must choose not to deviate to the right or to the left.

Following Jesus should adjust our priorities. When we place our eyes on Him, we know the most profitable way to use our time and abilities. It becomes easier to say “No” to good options when we know God’s best plan for our lives. I could easily overburden myself, making more commitments than I can fill. Before I take on a responsibility, I bring it to the Lord in prayer and ask, “Is this Your will? How does this tie in to Your mission for my life? Have you equipped me with the abilities to pull this off?” Being overburdened leads to burnout, which leads to tiredness, depression, and discouragement, along with other negative attitudes that leave one open to temptation.

Temptation hits us hardest when we do not guard our hearts. When we allow Satan to nail us with negativity and discouragement, or hit us in our weak spots, we open ourselves up to temptation, sin, discouragement, and defeat. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we can play with fire without getting burned. Guard your heart!

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Sufficiency or Gratitude

“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them…” (Deuteronomy 11:13–16, ESV).

031 Stoke Rochford Ss Andrew & Mary, interior - tower arch restoration plaque

A plaque on a church thanks God for protection during World War II. By Acabashi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

During the past year, a new phrase has gained popularity: “fake news.” The term has been around for a while, but it now permeates the Internet. If one does not want to believe something that has been reported, they will claim it is fake news. While President Donald Trump may be most responsible for the phrase’s popularity, no side of the political spectrum holds a monopoly on it. Indeed, some websites and media outlets are generally untrustworthy and deserve to be called “fake news,” but many will invoke that term to avoid investigating claims that go against their presuppositions, regardless of the source.

Like I said, fake news has been around for some time. In a very real sense, it is just the newest synonym in a family of words and phrases related to untruth, dishonesty, deception, etc. It is the newest twist on “lie.” People are prone to believe lies, especially in the spiritual realm. In my previous post, I addressed a few of the lies that we can overcome through confession of sin. No single short article can address all of the spiritual lies people believe, but we will look at some of the big ones in the next few weeks.

Perhaps the greatest lie of all is self-sufficiency, and God’s Word warns His people against it frequently in His Word. A false belief that “I accomplished something great and do not need God’s help” is the entry point onto the shortcut to idolatry. Deuteronomy 11:13–16 reminds the reader of a similar warning earlier in that book:

“And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you…” (Deuteronomy 6:10–14).

Similar warnings appear elsewhere in Scripture. In Revelation 3:14–22, Jesus reprimanded the Laodicean church for its lukewarm faith. Most Christians will read their own pet peeve into that passage: Did Jesus think their worship songs were boring? Were they praying too mechanically? Maybe they enjoyed the same hobbies and entertainment as their heathen neighbors did. Actually, none of those were the real problems. Laodicea was a very wealthy community, prospering from a nearby hot spring and other successful industries. We see Jesus hinting at these blessings throughout His rebuke, beginning with the hot springs: Once the water cooled off, it was lukewarm and unpleasant. The city was famous for an eye salve and textiles, both of which are called unprofitable in this warning. Their lukewarm faith was not so much a matter of worship or morals: They thought they could make it on their own and did not need Jesus in their daily lives. Thus, He ends up outside the church, asking to be invited in. Laodicea thus becomes a picture of many Christians: lukewarm, self-sufficient, leaving our Saviour out in the cold.

Despite God’s warnings, the lie of self-sufficiency is one that people love to believe. American culture exalts the “self-made man.” We celebrate the man who rose from humble means to become a great success in business, politics, or some other field. We create a myth about how he achieved greatness by the sweat of his brow and his own ingenuity and inspiration, with little or no help from others. Those who guided or assisted him can be readily forgotten. The Frank Sinatra song that declares “I did it my way” may very well be the anthem of the self-made man.

To such people, Jesus declares, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). God had placed those healing waters close to Laodicea. He gave each of us the talents, insight, and resources that lead to our success. He surrounded us with the people who helped us succeed. With every victory we achieve, or every goal we accomplish in life, we should give thanks to God first and foremost. He made it possible.

The lie of self-sufficiency is a step towards idolatry. For the ancient Israelites, that could be idolatry in the most literal sense. They might decide, “I had a great harvest. Yahweh didn’t do this; I did it! Maybe I can shop around for other gods who will allow me to do things my way to prosper.” The all-powerful God of all things, who provided the soil and weather that made a produced a bountiful harvest, may be rejected in favor of idols whom the self-made man seeks to manipulate for greater gain.

Today, we may choose other idols. In its broadest sense, an idol can be anything that we choose to focus on instead of God. We can make our own ideas an idol. We can idolize money (Ephesians 5:5 equates idolatry with covetousness or greed), political parties and systems, self-help gurus, financial advisors, etc. Anything or anybody who takes our eyes off God and claims to offer peace, pleasure, and prosperity can be an idol.

The answer to the lie of self-sufficiency is gratitude. It is tempting to give ourselves a pat on the back whenever we accomplish something. However, before we exalt ourselves, let us take some time to think of three ways that God made your success possible. What obstacles to success were not present because He removed them even before you began? Why or what helped you succeed? How did you obtain the resources to succeed? How did you develop the skills to succeed? The answer to almost all of these questions will point back to God’s grace. He remains the source of all our blessings, and He deserves to be thanked and worshiped because of His goodness.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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