A different kind of “street service”
Hebrews 13: God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship…that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets.
We’re not sure who is the writer of Hebrews, but this chapter (and not just the Timothy, Italy, and prison references) feels a whole lot like Paul’s writings. As he closes the letter, as Paul does, the writer tosses in a lot of one line instructions. As a reader, what I get out of a chapter like this depends a lot on what’s happening in my life right now. Tomorrow I might read it again and have a different “one-liner” jump out at me. Anyway, the instruction to take our faith out of the church and into the streets stands out to me. Christians are to be generous people who not only respond to needs when we’re confronted with them, but who actively go out and seek those in need that we might minister to them in Christ’s name. I tend to think of “worship” as what takes place on Sunday mornings inside the church building. In this passage I’m reminded that God really likes it when I make my “sacrifices” (an Old Testament style of worship) outside the church building and into my everyday life; at home, at work, and out in the general public. In-church worship is important, a vital part of living in Christ. Out-of-church worship is just as important as I take Jesus in practical ways to those “out there.”
Take Away: Worship inside the church and service outside the church are both vital parts of Christianity.
Life in the middle
Titus 3: Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print about the law code.
Since Paul’s somewhat critical of the average resident of Crete I assume that his warning to Titus here isn’t based on some natural tendency of Titus to get caught up in trivial matters. It seems to me that Paul thinks that the people of that island do share this tendency and if he isn’t careful Titus will get bound up in it too. Paul wants Titus, and all believers, to focus on the big picture. The Lord has graciously and in mercy reached out to us in our sinful state to establish us in a new relationship with him. He stepped into this world and knowing full well that we don’t deserve it, loved us anyway and went to work transforming our lives. Now, we’re made new, cleaned up by Jesus, recipients of God’s gift of himself to us. These are the things we’re to think and tell about. We’re to let others, outsiders, have the corner on worrying about the minutia of the law. They’re welcome to it. After all, if such things provide salvation, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have been Jesus’ best friends. Paul tells Titus to “put his foot down” and insist that the business of the Church is declaring Jesus and to provide evidence of what he does in people’s lives by being “bighearted and courteous,” law-abiding citizens. On one side of us are those who are “ordered every which way by their glands.” On the other side are those who focus on debating the finer points of the Law. Here in the middle, we just live for Jesus, telling our story to all who will listen.
Take Away: It’s easy to major on the minors – but to do so is to fail to live the life to which the Lord calls us.
Acts 25: I appeal to Caesar
Paul has been confined in Caesarea for two years as Governor Felix ignores his innocence and hopes for some kind of bribe that never comes. It isn’t that Paul is chained in a dungeon; in fact, he’s invited to chat with Felix several times. Then, a new Governor is appointed. Festus is immediately approached by Paul’s enemies who want him moved to Jerusalem, supposedly to stand trial in their courts, but actually that he might be removed from Roman protection and murdered. The new Governor knows the kind of people he’s dealing with and, instead, invites them to come to Caesarea and make their case there. In less than two weeks, Paul finds himself being wildly accused once again, this time before Festus. When this new Governor wavers and asks Paul if he’s willing to face these people (who obviously can’t wait to get their hands on him) he surprises everyone by playing the trump card available to a Roman citizen: he requests that his case be heard by Caesar, himself. This takes the Jews of Jerusalem out of play and places Paul under the scrutiny of the Emperor. In this case, Caesar isn’t an especially nice guy and he certainly isn’t known for his mercy. From Paul’s point of view, though, it’s better to take his chances with Caesar than face certain death from the Jewish leadership. I’m glad today that when I face the accusations of my failure, guilt, and sin that, rather than face the consequences, that I can appeal to a Higher Court. This Court is known for its grace and mercy. This is a place where love and forgiveness abounds. As my life is on the line and my sin moves to condemn me, I appeal to God, not for justice, but for mercy.
Take Away: Its mercy I need from God and its mercy I receive.
Letting the Pharisees have it
Matthew 23: They talk a good line, but they don’t live it.
This is the chapter in which Jesus nails the Pharisees. In line after line he pronounces judgment on them. They, who know more about the Laws of the Old Testament than anyone else, have strained all the grace and mercy out of it, leaving only a brittle, unyielding, damning crust. They load people down with all that while stripping away the very essence of God. Rather than pointing the way to a living relationship with a good, loving, and gracious God they point to rules and regulations and assured failure and doom. To say it gently, Jesus thinks these rule-making, burden-loading, grace-denying individuals are bad people. We Christians need to pay careful attention to this. We understand that living in the Lord means that we abstain from some things and pursue others. However, if that approach becomes the dominant one; if keeping all the rules becomes the definition of who we are in God; if we come to believe that “knowing about” God is our primary calling, then we’ve taken a dangerous step toward the religion of the Pharisees. In contrast to that brittle religion our Lord pictures God’s desire for people as being like that of the mother hen who extends her embrace to her chicks. If we lose sight of that and make the “hard side” the main element of our relationship with the Lord we have more in common with the Pharisees than we might want to think.
Take Away: Christianity is more about love and grace and mercy than it is about knowing all the right things and keeping a list of rules.
Really, it’s God’s business and not mine
Matthew 20: Can’t I do what I want with my own money?
Jesus tells the story of a man who hires day laborers. Early in the morning he hires a group, promising them a certain wage. As the day goes on, he continues to add workers with some only working the last hour of the day. When the workers are paid, all receive the amount promised the workers who first hired on and have worked all day long. Some of them complain that since they worked longer and harder that they should be paid more. The answer is that they’re being paid exactly what was agreed when they were hired and it’s no business of theirs what the boss does with his own money. This, I think, is a picture of God’s grace to us. I understand that no one is deserving of God’s blessings, but obviously, some are more deserving than others. However, the Lord wants to bless each and every one. At the Judgment there will be some who gave their lives to Jesus while they were young and then served the Lord many years. Others will be there who barely made it in, maybe due to a death bed conversion. The grace of God will be extended to all who were willing to receive it. After all, it’s his grace and he can do with it whatever he wants.
Take Away: The very definition of grace includes the concept that it’s given to the undeserving.
The way to forgiveness
Matthew 12: If Satan banishes Satan is there any Satan left?
It’s really about the Sabbath. The religious leaders have taken “Remember the Sabbath day” and turned it into a heavy burden laid on the backs of the people. Even picking a piece of fruit to eat is considered to be a transgression. Jesus responds with examples from their own law and history proving that they’re wrong. He goes on healing people, even on the Sabbath. When a demon-afflicted woman is set free the critics of Jesus sputter that he must be in cahoots with the devil. Our Lord responds that if they say that about him what do they say about their own exorcists? Beyond that, it’s a silly contention anyway. If Satan casts out Satan there wouldn’t be anything of Satan left. He then deals with the opposite side of the same coin. If the Holy Spirit is the One who forgives sins and we cast the Holy Spirit out of lives, how can we ever expect to be forgiven our sins? Its serious business isn’t it. We’re sinners in need of forgiveness. There’s one who forgives. Throw him out and we’re left without hope. Stated differently, there’s one road to forgiveness, if I refuse to travel that road, there’s no way I can ever arrive at forgiveness. The way to God is abundant and grace-filled, offering hope to the worst sinner. Still, it’s the only way. I can take it or leave it, but if I leave it, I’m left with nothing.
Take Away: We have, in Christ, hope abundant, but aside from Christ we have no hope at all.
The sweetest invitation
Matthew 11: Come to me.
There’s no sweeter invitation than what we hear from the Lord: “Come to me.” This invitation is directed to people who are weary and beaten down by life. It’s for people who’ve tried to find satisfaction in sometimes self-destructive ways and, in the end, realize that all they have is a handful of sand. Specifically, this invitation is for people who’ve tried religion and been hurt, maybe even abused, there. To all who are hurting, disappointed, tired, and empty Jesus says, “Come to me.” It’s not about church rituals and rules; although such things have been found by many to be helpful. It’s not about turning over a new leaf, making a New Year’s resolution, or simply trying harder; although there’s room here for self-improvement. Beyond all that, though, is Jesus. I respond to his sweet invitation by giving up my own claims to righteousness and reordering all other relationships to something less than number one. In response to this invitation to “come” I turn my attention to Jesus and lay all else, including myself, at his feet. From that point on, I walk with him and learn from him, how to really live.
Take Away: Jesus is the only one who can truly make this offer, and he does make it to all who will come.
The God of grace
Nahum 1: He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.
Even as the prophet prepares to deliver his sermon of condemnation on the mighty nation of Assyria he can’t help but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God. This same God who declares his judgment on those who reject his claim on their lives has nothing but good news for those who turn to him for help. In fact, the Lord is drawn to such people. I love the fact that even in these portions of the Old Testament that appear to be focused on God as Judge of the World that there are these beautiful word pictures of him as the God of Grace. Nahum declares that “no matter how desperate the trouble” that God is more than willing to “recognize and welcome” all who come to him. In an uncertain world I need such a Savior. I’m reminded in this passage that I don’t have to come to God and convince him that I’m worthy of his help in my life. Instead, I see that he stands ready to extend his mercy to me. In the parable of the prodigal son, the returning son expects to have to make concessions, to take a lowly role if he wants to, once again, have a place in the Father’s household. Instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him, and immediately begins celebrating his return. Hundreds of years before Jesus ever tells this story, Nahum understands this about God, declaring, “He recognizes and welcomes anyone looking for help.”
Take Away: The Lord stands ready to extend his mercy to us.
Yes, that’s good enough for me!
Micah 7: You’ll sink our sins to the bottom of the ocean.
“Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my sins are gone…buried in the deepest sea, yes, that’s good enough for me.” You have to have been around the church awhile to recognize the words to the children’s chorus I sang back in the “good old days.” At the time, if I thought about such things at all, I got the message of the song: when God forgives my sins, they are “gone, gone, gone.” However, the mercy being described here isn’t childlike at all. Micah talks to adults who are committing adult-level sins. The result of those sins will be not a slap on the wrist, but national destruction with pain and death everywhere. It doesn’t have to be that way. Micah tells his people that mercy is a specialty of God and that the Lord much prefers granting mercy and forgetting sins to destroying those who live in rebellion against him. Micah assures his listeners that the Lord anxiously waits to forgive and forget; to show mercy and compassion on them. I sang the chorus as a child but as an adult I realize what an amazing offer it is. There’s hope for a new start with God in this passage: “praise God, my sins are gone!”
Take Away: Mercy is a specialty of the Lord.
Why Jonah Runs
Jonah 4: I knew you were sheer grace and mercy.
Jonah runs because he understands what God’s all about and because his heart doesn’t beat with God’s heart. He knows that in spite of the message of condemnation and destruction the Lord gives him to preach that the very reason he’s sent to Nineveh is that God doesn’t want to destroy that city at all. Here are the things Jonah knows about God: his attitude toward lost people is one of grace; he delights in being merciful, he’s not easily angered; and he’s rich in love toward the lost. Jonah also knows that when it comes to judgment God always stands ready to change his mind. Since Jonah knows these things about God and since he’s so out of sync with God, he’d rather be dead than be instrumental in God’s extending mercy to his enemies. Also, Jonah knows that many of his countrymen agree with him. Once people find out that Jonah went to Nineveh to warn them and that he’s instrumental in God’s deciding not to destroy them his life won’t be worth a plug nickel. It’s a miserable thing to be filled with hate and to be used as an instrument of God’s love. I see here that God loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them. If he has to use a hard-hearted prophet and a big fish to do it, then that’s what he’ll do. If I’m going to be a partner with God in what he’s doing in this world, I’m going to have to allow him to love people with that kind of abandon through me.
Take Away: The Lord loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them.