Only Victory

A friend recently told me about a woman she knows who has cancer.  This lady is undergoing treatment, but said something to this effect:  “if I live, I win because I get to stay with my family and loved ones;  however, if I die, I also win because I will be with Jesus.”  This reminds me of something the apostle Paul said in the book of Philippians:

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  Philippians 4:12

He didn’t desire death because if he lived, he could continue to produce fruit for the Lord;  but death and being with the Lord would be even better.

Maybe that’s why I’m not afraid of this virus.  At my age, I have accomplished the life tasks most of us expect to complete.  I’ve had a long marriage, raised two daughters, worked at a career I feel proud of ( because my work helped others} and have even seen my grandchildren be born. I’ve been a daughter, wife, mother, sibling, aunt, friend, employee and Christian (not necessarily in that order).  Have I done these things perfectly?  Certainly not.  I’ve made mistakes, but they’ve been repented and forgiven.  I’ve had opportunities to learn and travel, to read and write.  I’ve never been in serious want.  I’ve suffered physically and mentally, and I’m now beginning to experience the limitations that age brings.  Still, all of that is only what is common to all humans.  My gratitude for my life is great and my regrets are small.  If I did die tomorrow (or today) I would be content.  I could say (again quoting Paul):

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  1 Timothy 4:7

 

You see, as Christians, whatever happens, we have only victory ahead of us.

Song of Songs

The first type of love listed on Michele’s “new month/new theme” post is eros, or passionate love.  When I think about eros in relationship to the Bible, the first thing that comes to my mind is “Song of Songs.”  On the surface it is a lyrical and intimate love poem, possibly intended as a wedding song. The bride and bridegroom address one another in mutual adoration:

“How beautiful you are, my darling!  O how beautiful!  Your eyes are doves.

How handsome you are, my lover! O how charming! And our bed is verdant.”  Song of Songs 1:15-16

At times it becomes unabashedly sensual:

“How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter.

Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of a craftsman’s hands.

Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.

Your waist is a mound of wheat, encircled by lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.”  Song of Songs 7:1-3

There has been great debate about this book.  Why is it even included in the Scriptures?  God is never explicitly mentioned. Some consider it simply a literal story of married love.  If, however, we accept the teaching that “all Scripture is breathed out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness”( 2 Timothy 3:16) then there must be a deeper meaning.

See the source image

Over the years Christians have seen “Song of Songs” as an allegory of God’s love for His people, Christ’s love for the church and the Christian’s love for the Lord.  Shouldn’t this love be passionate?  Isn’t it appropriate to describe it in terms of the most intimate of human relationships?  Shouldn’t we to know God personally, rather than just know about Him?  Could this be the answer to “why” God chose to include this erotic love poem in His Word?  That’s my guess, anyway.  What’s yours?

Run Away

In addition to telling us what to pursue, the Bible gives us quite a list of things to flee, or run away from.  Chapter 6 of 1 Timothy lists some things to avoid:

  • Craving for controversy
  • Quarrels about words
  • Envy
  • Dissention
  • Slander
  • Evil suspicions
  • Love of money

Ending with the admonition:

“But as for you, O man of God flee from these things.” 1 Timothy 6:11

In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul says we are to:

“Flee from sexual immorality …”(6:18)

“…flee from idolatry.” (10:14)

Most of these things, sadly, come up in everyday life.  If you think they don’t, remember looking lustfully at another person can lead to adultery and anything we love more than God is an idol.  That makes them pretty common, not to mention the “lesser” evils mentioned by Timothy–envy, quarrels, etc..  So how exactly do we “flee” from these things?

Well, we all know our own weaknesses.  If yours is gossip, don’t hang around with the folks who like to do that.  Take a walk instead of indulging in idle words with coworkers at lunch.  Is it greed?  Make a resolution to tithe or better yet, support a worthwhile ministry in addition to your tithe. Is it lust?  Throw away the magazines and avoid the internet sites that encourage it. Read something worthwhile instead. Tactics like this are well known to mothers of toddlers and teenagers:  we call it “distract and replace.”

Dwell on God’s Word instead of your sinful inclinations.  When you notice yourself falling into quarrelsome or suspicious thinking, have a Bible verse ready for meditation.  If things get really bad, call a godly friend you know will calm you and guide you in the right path.

Will fleeing always work?  Of course not.  I fall into bad habits of negative thinking and speaking all the time.  However, when we consciously lean away from sinful behavior, in time an improvement is visible.

“..beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”  2 Corinthians 7:1

Run from sin.  Run hard.

In Hot Pursuit

According to the dictionary, to pursue means to chase or run after something or someone.  We pursue the things we really want and are interested in. What are you chasing after in your life?  Is it money?  A beautiful home?  A prestigious job? An expensive car?  A certain someone who attracts you?  If we’re honest, we realize many (if not most) of the things we pursue have to do with worldly approval or success.

The Bible tells us to pursue a whole different set of things.  For example:

“Turn from evil and do good;  seek peace and pursue it.”  Psalm 34:14

Pursue is a verb, an action word.  This means I must not only think peace is a nice idea, I must do what I can to promote it.  Maybe this means compromise, or putting another person first.  Certainly it means caring more about the other person than winning or getting my own way.

Here’s another one:

Pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…” 1 Corinthians 14:1

Pursuing love means behaving in a loving way to all of God’s children–not just the ones I care about or the ones who treat me well.  It means using my gifts to encourage and support others, not to promote only myself and my own interests.

Finally:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.”  1 Timothy 6:11b

Pursuing righteousness and godliness means going against my natural inclination by doing God’s will instead of my own.  Pursuing God’s way means trying to be selfless instead of selfish.

I know I’ll never completely stop pursuing the wrong things;  but staying close to God through study, worship and prayer will help me remind me of the things I really want.

“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18b

Run after God.  Pursue the eternal.

 

 

 

The Road Map

This is a continuation of the ideas in yesterday’s post about the Sunday sermon at St. Paul’s.

Joseph followed the directions God sent him orally, through the visitation of angels and in prophetic dreams.  Those sorts of occurrences were rare even in Bible times, so we can’t expect to rely strongly on them today to guide our decisions.  However, we do have an important road map for finding our way.

“Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105

The Bible is God’s word.  It enlightens us.  It informs us.  It guides us.  It’s hard to follow any path in darkness, but the verse above tells us that God’s word brings the light we need to follow Him.  Try imagining it like the luminaries that some churches put out on Christmas eve, along the street or sidewalk.

Of course, the Bible does not contain specific instructions for every situation.  It does have broad principles that can point us in the right direction.  It also contains the life stories of many of God’s people.  As we study them, we learn how to deal with similar challenges and temptations.  The book of Psalms is another great place to start.  In Psalms you will find every human emotion known to man.  The Psalms can teach us to cry out to God, in any situation.

You can come to church each week and hear God’s word.  Better yet, you can study it every day on your own or with others. What a great New Year’s resolution that would be!  Follow God’s road map and you will always walk in the light.

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  1 Timothy 3:16

Christ Alone

Our Elders recently held a workshop on the 5 solas of the Reformation.  There was singing, food and fellowship (what can I say, we’re Lutherans!) and a brief talk on each sola (speakers ranged from age 17-70 something).  I thought I’d post my talk on the topic Christ Alone.  Let me know what this sola means to you!

At first blush, Christ Alone may seem like a no brainer.  After all, we call ourselves Christians and we don’t have a collection of gods for every occasion like the ancient Greeks or modern day Hindus.  Doesn’t that mean we worship Christ alone?  Well, think again.  How many people, even Christians, have you heard say things like this:

  1. We all worship the same God by different names
  2. There are many paths to God
  3. God is loving and would not condemn anyone who is a good person, or has sincere religious beliefs, even if they are wrong.  After all, how can someone be held accountable for the family or culture  they are born into?

Because we live in a society that values tolerance and diversity ideas like this are widespread.  They may seem fair.  They may make sense to us. Unfortunately, they aren’t scriptural.  In John Chapter 14, verse 6 Jesus says:

 “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the father but by me.”

He doesn’t say I am one of the ways that some people come to God.  He says he is the way, the only way.  There is no wiggle room.

This is a big challenge to us as American Christians today, and one we should keep in mind when we think about “Christ Alone.”  Those of us studying the book of Ezekiel in our evening Bible Study are learning that God’s wrath was aroused not because his people abandoned Him, but because they were worshipping the gods of other nations along with Him.

The Christians of Martin Luther’s time had a different challenge to face, and in order to understand why “Christ Alone” was a rallying cry of the Reformation we need to know what it meant to them.  If you want a fancy term for this, it’s “sitz im leben”, a German phrase which means the setting or context in which something is placed.

In the 1500’s the Christian church in the West was the Roman Catholic Church.   Although the church taught that Christ’s death atoned for our sins, church doctrine added to Christ’s work by teaching that our souls must go to purgatory after death where they suffer and are purified of any sins not dealt with in life.  The prayers of the saints and the faithful could release them more quickly from purgatory. Good works and certain rites of the church (especially confession and penance) would also shorten the time in purgatory.  This led to many abuses, such as the selling of indulgences, and caused anxiety among the faithful, who could never be sure that they, or their loved ones had done enough, or fulfilled all the requirements necessary to be saved.  If you’ve read a biography of Martin Luther you know that he also fell prey to these kinds of doubts and fears.  Luther spent as much as 6 hours a day confessing his sins and still felt no true peace with God.

The Catholic Church no longer sells indulgences but their basic doctrines have not changed.  Indulgences are now granted for a long list of things that include studying the scripture, praying the rosary or obtaining a blessing from the Pope. They can be earned by individuals and also religious institutions and still have the same purpose – to lessen the time of suffering in purgatory.

As Protestants we do not believe in purgatory but many of our denominations have fallen into other kinds of legalistic practices.  Perhaps you have heard someone say “do your best and then rely upon Christ to do the rest?”  Or met a Christian who insisted that you must “invite Christ into your heart”, pray the sinner’s prayer, be fully immersed in baptism or perform certain specific works if you want to be saved.

Again, this thinking may make sense to us.  We like to know the rules.  We are accustomed to believing we get what we deserve and what we earn.  But the Bible tells us in Romans 10:9:

 “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in you heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And in 1 Timothy 2:5-6

 “For there is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.”

The Reformers pointed to these and similar verses to prove that the sacrifice of Christ for our sins is sufficient. In fact it’s presumptuous to think man can add anything to what God has done.

I’ve been a Lutheran for most of my life and have had good Lutheran instruction, so I find it fairly easy to accept and understand the doctrine of Christ Alone intellectually. Maybe you feel the same way.  However, as I prepared this talk, I realized that if I owe my eternal life entirely to Christ, shouldn’t I also be living completely for Him?  I’be been asking myself questions like this:

  1. Do I trust in Christ Alone?  Or do I trust in my pension, my savings accounts, my education or the military might of my country?
  2. Is Christ Alone my heart’s desire?  Or are things like an attractive home, a successful family life, or an exciting vacation what I really want?
  3. Do I strive to “put on the mind of Christ when making a decision?  Or am I influenced by my friends, family and even well-known experts?
  4. Do I long to hear Christ say “well done good and faithful servant”?  Or would I rather hear words of approval from my fellow church members, spouse, children or friends?
  5. Is my service to the church and my works of charity something I do for Christ?  Or something I do look good in the eyes of others and gain their admiration?
  6. Do I mean it when I say ‘thy will be done’?  Or do I really want my own plans to be blessed by God?

So today, I’m asking you….

Where do your thoughts linger?  How do you spend your time and your money?  Do your checkbook, your calendar and your thoughts reflect a life lived for Christ alone?  Remember John the Baptist said, “I must decrease so he can increase.” Are you living your life every day so that people will see more of Christ and less of you?

I’d like to close with a quote from a Christian classic called The Christian’s Guide to a Happy Life by Hannah Whitehall Smith that I find personally challenging.

“Once it was ‘I and not Christ’.  Next it was ‘I and Christ.’  Perhaps now it is even ‘Christ and I.’ But has it come yet to be Christ only and not I at all?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Get Personal

I believe that once we become a Christian, and start trying to follow God’s will, He will gradually change us into the person He created us to be (in Lutheran speak, that’s sanctification).  That doesn’t mean our whole personality will do an about face.  It doesn’t mean we’ll be transformed into saints.  It does mean we’ll be more like Jesus, and more gifted, more joyful, more full of life, more peaceful with ourselves and others.

In my own case, the biggest thing God frees me from (I say frees because it still has to happen daily) is fear.  If I were asked to choose one word to describe myself, especially years ago, it would be shy, maybe even timid.  Social situations were not pleasant, but stressful.  I was afraid people wouldn’t like me, that they would discover what a fraud I was, or that I would make a stupid mistake.  Of course, that kept me from trying all kinds of things or taking risks of any kind … who knew what might happen?  It’s not a great way to live.

Becoming a serious Christian helped me to move outside of my comfort zone.  I’m still a quiet introvert (nothing wrong with that, it’s how God made me!) but I have taught Sunday School (children and adults), led workshops and retreats, given talks to groups, organized committees and more. I can use the gifts God gave me in my own way.  I’m not tooting my own horn, just telling you what God can do, because I would NEVER, EVER have done those things without Him.

Am I still afraid?  All the time.  My husband says if there isn’t something to worry about, I’ll invent it.  However, I don’t have to let my anxiety control me. I can step out in faith and take a risk.  A friend of mine once said, “there’s no better place to try something new than at church.  If you fail, they’ll still love you.”  That’s what’s so freeing about being a Christian — you know that no matter what happens, you can never lose the love and Christ.

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”  1 Timothy 1:7

What has God freed you from?  We want to hear from you.