OK Now I am Free and Without Defect —- But there’s a Pandemic!

In my last post, I showed how we are declared without defect and freed because of what Jesus did, and we got permission to enter God’s Most Holy Place.

And I promised to explain some of what that meant in real life in my next post, and I would have talked about a refreshed Christian life during normal times. But there’s been quite a change since I wrote that post.Within two weeks, we suddenly entered a time of pandemic, lockdowns, and panic!

Within two weeks, we suddenly entered a time of pandemic, lockdowns, and panic!

I did not have a particularly good start adapting to that change.  My attitude was Boo-hoo, there’s so much I can’t do. I miss March madness! I can’t go to the restaurant with my wife! I can’t join my friends in fellowship groups! Indeed, I saw a video from last month of one of our worship services – did you ever take the greeting time for granted? Oh the handshakes and hugs!  

So what does entering into the holy place have to do with the corona virus?

First, I needed reminding that that following Jesus is not a guarantee that we have a stable life with no unexpected changes. I was not able to find a verse where Jesus says if you keep his commands you are guaranteed to have health and wealth and no Corona virus.

But I can find where Jesus talks like this:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (John 14:27)

In the middle of writing my blog the dove in today’s picture was at my window cooing. Perhaps he’s a reminder that we will come out of this and there will be a time of peace………

Following Jesus leads to the joy of walking intimately with God and having peace outside of the crazed events that are happening. That’s a peace that endures during ongoing tests and trials.

And I like being reminded that I am not on my own. I am thankful that online communities using Zoom and Google Hangout are springing up to cut down on our isolation.

At our church, our services are now online only, with only the pastor and worship team there live.  A chat scrolls on the right side of the screen, allowing us to see a virtual congregation. Here is the link for our streamed services: https://thechapelnj.churchonline.org/

 Scripture doesn’t command me to thank God for this season, but it does ask me to keep thanking God during this season.  My prayer is that anyone reading this can take courage. You are not on your own!

A Post From Leviticus??

It may surprise you to see that today’s devotion starts from the book of Leviticus.

Leviticus is often viewed as a book that’s full of puzzling and outdated rules, but amazingly it can spur our passion to follow our Lord God today. I’ll warm up by giving you one command from Leviticus that is appealing for people of a certain age……….

Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.  (Leviticus 19:32)   If you are old enough for young people to stand up for you, this is a nice command. (Of course on a more serious note, think how our culture venerates youth and discriminates against talented older workers.)

But now on to today’s main point. Many ceremonies described in Leviticus seem quite strange to our 21st century eyes. But there’s one ceremony that points straight to the heart of what Christians believe. In talking to the people of Israel, God says: On the tenth day of the seventh month atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you…. from all your sins. The …. high priest is to make atonement. (Leviticus 16:29,30,32)

And in verse 34 God says: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”

Can you imagine having your sins pile up for a full year……and then having an annual cleanup? It’s good to get rid of sin but still …. something about this remedy is defective.   

Speaking of defective, I vividly remember one episode on the original Star Trek. It’s called The Changeling.Here the Enterprise crew meta space robot called Nomad. Nomad approached and then probed some crew members, and was not pleased with what it found. Indeed, in its robotic voice, Nomad would exclaim: “This unit is defective,” and the consequences were rather dire…. say goodbye to that crew member.

But now, let’s hear what Leviticus says about defective units.  Here, someone is not allowed to approach God’s altar: 

  No man who has any defect may come near; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. …. because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD (Leviticus 21:18,21,23)

This passage focuses on people with physical defects like crushed testicles, but aren’t we all defective when we stand on our own before the Lord? Yes, but are we hopeless?

No, we have hope because God chose to come in the flesh. Born a baby, Jesus grew up to become the man who lived the one and only perfect Christian life. He then was crucified to become the perfect, once for all sacrifice for our sin.

Jesus’ death and resurrection tore the curtain before God’s altar in the temple so that we can enter God’s presence. And now, free from sin, God no longer views us as defective units! We are presented “without defect” because of what Christ has done……….. What a joy!

Now to him that is able to keep you from falling, and make you appear in his glorious presence, without defect, and full of joy: (Jude 24)

Once we are freed from defect, what happens next? Do we just sit back and chill out? I don’t think so. See my next post.

“A pox on both your houses”

A friend asked why I don’t write any posts about politics. My goal is to present the way of Jesus and not to write propaganda for a party or candidate. But with that in mind there are some things I can say. For starters, there’s a growing trend in this country to have the attitude “My party is the embodiment of total good and yours is totally evil.”

Since I viewed both presidential candidates in 2016 as deeply flawed, my attitude was: “A pox on both your houses”.  That’s a paraphrase of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Is using Mercutio’s quote too harsh? I know there were millions of people who voted for a third party in 2016 instead of either Trump or Clinton. (Full disclosure: I was one of them).

Here’s a polarization check: Regardless of which party you are in, do you have a charitable heart when your party doesn’t get its own way? Or are you furious that those ______ of ______ in the other party have gotten their own way?

And when a politician from your party is defeated, can he or she cheerfully move back to having a real job? Every four years you hear “This is the most momentous election in history —- our democracy will probably end if the other party wins.”  Look at the way the opponent is portrayed in attack ads. I get the impression that the devil is a sweetheart compared to the target of the attack ad!

Much has changed over the last 60 years. Think of the generous way Richard Nixon reacted in 1960—yes, Richard Nixon. He accepted his disputed loss in the 1960 election with good grace. He knew that he would be the new president but for the election fraud in Illinois and Texas. But Nixon knew that somehow, the US would continue and survive even under a Kennedy presidency.

Nowadays someone in Nixon’s shoes would scream “The whole thing was rigged — I have been cheated out of the presidency—the country is doomed.”

Back in Nixon’s time there was a generalized cultural belief that God was the absolute. God was in charge. We were one nation under God whether the “R” or the “D” won. Those were the days of BOMFOG, the acronym for the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God. This wasn’t tied to any one denomination —- BOMFOG was simply a generic belief that a higher power was in charge and not us. Indeed, President Eisenhower said, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Now, though, what a momentous change: The civility of BOMFOG patriotism has ended. Loyalty to any religious denomination has eroded. Often, fealty to one’s party has replaced loyalty to God.   Instead of joining a church or synagogue or civic organization, we get a sense of belonging by joining like-minded ranters and screamers on the internet.

Does this sound too pessimistic? Can it change? Going forward I will take a stab at some answers.

Feeling Worthless? God helps.

On an October Sunday this past Fall, a strong negative feeling of discouragement started to overwhelm me. I felt that whatever kind of ministry I did for the Lord was worth nothing and I was a useless Christian. For a while these feelings were like a whirlpool from which there was no escape.

Too often, when I have such annoying or uncomfortable feelings, I want to quickly escape from them; trying to push them aside or shut them down as quickly as possible to escape any pain. But when I do that, I don’t thoroughly understand what’s going on in my heart and I miss the opportunity to really grow.

On this fall Sunday afternoon, one means of escape would have been to watch a good football game. But with a miserable Jets game on one channel and a horrible Giants game on the other, there was no escape. I was forced to deal with what I was experiencing.  What did it mean? What exactly was making me feel so worthless? What was God trying to show me, and how could he help me?

This is where the Lord drew me to Romans 12:3 and it came alive :For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

But you may ask, how does feeling low and discouraged mean you are thinking too highly of yourself? Here’s why: it’s thinking that what’s going on in my life all depends on me and not on God.

If I know what my true strengths and true weaknesses are before God, then I can better resist whenever there is an onslaught of negativity, a lie that contradicts God.  When negativity arises, I like how God invites us to spew out our frustrations to him:

 I pour out before him my complaint;
    before him I tell my trouble.

Listen to my cry,
    for I am in desperate need;
(Psalm 142:2,6)

I start taking my reactions to the Lord in prayer. But it’s not just me and God.

Because many who are reading this are brothers and sisters are going through the same thing. I am not the only one who wrestles with the gap between where I am and everything that God wants me to be.  In the above Psalm David continues in verse 7: Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. I love this — for I know that God will respond! By admitting our shortcomings and not hiding from them, God begins to turn around even our bad reactions to build more of Christ in us.

Mandatory donations?

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  (2 Corinthians 9:7)

In this verse we give out of thanks for who God is, without expecting or demanding to get anything back. This is different from the teaching that says, “If you give to this ministry then God will pay you back much much more money than you gave — guaranteed!”

In truth, our good God may graciously give even more back than we gave but he is good whether or not he does that. Our God isn’t a heavenly ATM machine and does not give an ironclad guarantee to make us whole like FDIC deposit insurance does! 

What is a cheerful giver like? The cheerful giver donates without being cajoled or manipulated. At our church we call this grace giving. Free grace giving gets rid of the transactional quid pro quo that often creeps into teaching on giving.

A couple of years ago we had a guest speaker at our church who took a collection. His cause was good, but I disagreed when he said, “Forget about what you planned to give — now give what God wants you to give!” But wait a minute — if someone has prayed and decided in their heart what to give, aren’t they a cheerful giver before God? Isn’t it a form of manipulative compulsion to say that the amount someone decided was bogus because it was too low? What good is it if someone gives some more because they were made to feel guilty ?

Cheerful giving gets rid of the fear of “What happens if I don’t give enough?” Some claim that it is mandatory to give at least 10% of your income to the church and they drag in some Old Testament verses to say that if you don’t give that percent then you are “robbing God.” How different that sounds from the grace shown in today’s opening verse!

 Ironically, people in my church end up giving more over the long term because we are not being cajoled, frightened and bullied into giving more! Indeed, as we grow in Christ, we have less acquisitive lives.  Note that we are not told to never spend a penny on our own pleasures but rather we see that the drive to strive to get more and more to spend on our own pleasures is toned down. As that happens, we simultaneously richly enjoy God’s provision for our own needs andwe cheerfully set aside a sizable chunk to give for the Lord’s work.

Do rules make me good?

Unlimited unconditional overflowing grace makes it less likely that we would sin; and using rules and regulations to control our behavior makes it more likely that we would sin.  How can this be?

When I was younger and I knew everything, grace was alien to me. After all, someone as wonderful as I was certainly did not deserve punishment!  But thankfully, God didn’t let me remain in this mistaken belief.  He shocked me by showing me  that yes, I did deserve punishment — but also that he provided me a way out of what I deserved :  to my great relief, I had my eyes opened to see that Christ took on the punishment that I deserve. I learned a good acronym for grace — G.R.A.C.E —- God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

But even so, I did not really understand grace very well.  So instead of a heartfelt and deepening trust in and thankfulness for what Christ did, I fell into an unfortunate error: I had to follow the rules to stay in Christ’s good graces. If I did enough, then I could stay on God’s good side. But if I didn’t do enough, God might be ticked.

Sickeningly, that put human rules and regulations measures in control, not the Lord.

And when I see human rules, I want to break them. Indeed, in the book of Romans, Paul says that the law shows me what a rebel I am.

Did you ever not care whether you did something or not, then someone told you not to do it and then you wanted to do it? If you saw the trail sign above, wouldn’t you at least be tempted to enter and see what’s happening on the trail? I know I would. That is how the law works! And then once I snuck down the trail, I would feel that I had to do enough good to try to pay back what I owed by disobeying the rules.

Now, Jesus did say “Obey my commands.” But guidelines and commands can’t be viewed as being mandatory rules to get God to approve of me. No, God showed his approval of me outside of anything I ever did by permanently sealing me in Christ. So following wise guidelines and commands may help me to keep reflecting God’s loving glory — but they do not earn anything!

Knowing I can’t earn approval from God, I am free to live a grace-driven life instead of a rules-driven life.  Freed by grace, secure in God’s approval, I can finally start to do some genuinely loving deeds.

From Weeping to Joy

Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
 Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.
(Psalm 126:5-6)

This Psalm promises that sadness will turn to joy. When we have a sad season in our lives, God often walks us through it and moves us on to a cheerier time. But what happens when we don’t see an end to what saddens us?  

Then, we can look through the Psalms like a telescope, zooming to the future: we have a blessed hope that will be filled beyond our own lifetime here on this earth. Then our joy will be full and permanent.  

This “telescope effect” is an antidote to a teaching that’s popular nowadays that says you are guaranteed a joyful and healthy life now if only you have faith. According to this bogus teaching, if you lack a joyful and prosperous life now, that means you don’t have enough faith. And that lack of faith is your fault.

Today’s passage helps me deal with the end of my being a serious competitive runner. Because of developing atrial fibrillation, I no longer have mighty power in my legs. I am now more of a jogger than a racer. My cardiologist says it will never be healed in my lifetime. He is probably correct…. and no, the persistence of the problem is not my fault for not having enough faith!

Do I miss competing and winning medals? Yes. But I really am not nearly as upset about it as I would have thought I would be if you had told me this two years ago.   Why? Because God keeps providing. One example: He gave me a new volunteer assignment serving the Board of our church…what a useful way to redeem some of the time I would have spent on my crazed competitive running.

I can’t rack up medals anymore, but I’m glad that God keeps providing grace. The joy that gives is an amazing preview of what eternity will be like when we’ll have joy beyond measure.