Giving up a free meal
1Corinthians 8: When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ.
You’d think that today a discussion about eating meat that’s been offered to an idol can be safely skipped. However, to do so is a mistake. While the literal situation is foreign to me, the principle Paul teaches here is invaluable. In Corinth there’s lots of idol worship. Often people share a meal with their god, offering some to the idol and then having a party in the god’s honor with the rest of it. A Christian might receive a friendly invitation to the party. That’s where there’s a problem. Some Christians think it is fine to attend, that meat is meat and an idol is nothing anyway. Other Christians are just coming out of that idol worshiping culture. Not too long ago they were the ones dining with the idols and to them eating the idol’s meat is a step backwards into the old way of life. The church at Corinth has been debating this issue and now Paul weighs in on the subject. He tells them that the issue in play isn’t about meat and idols at all. Rather it’s about one Christians loving one another. Even if the more mature believer knows that idols are nothing but wood or stone he or she has the responsibility to love their fellow believer who’s still working through the issue. The principle, then, is that I’m to be willing to give up some of my “rights” for the good of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I can’t resist adding here that if you know enough about this that you use this principle as a way to control me (“oh, you can’t do that because it’s against my convictions”) then you’re just trying to manipulate me. Thus, you become the one who’s guilty of disregarding this same principle. When all is said and done, I’m still left with the truth that I’m to love you enough to be willing to sacrifice a bit rather than cause you pain. If I fail here, I not only hurt you but I hurt the Lord we both serve.
Take Away: Love is the guiding principle of Christianity.
The carried cross
Luke 14: Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.
Jesus is now one of the most famous people in all of Israel. Everywhere he goes he’s accompanied by a large crowd. On this day, to everyone’s surprise he stops, turns, and addresses them all. There’s nothing gentle about what he says to them. If they want to really follow him and not just be tagalongs they have to let go of all else. Family ties have to be loosed. Claims to self-sovereignty have to be renounced. These are hard enough words, but then he adds, “If you won’t shoulder your own cross you can’t be my disciple.” These Jewish people absolutely hate the cross. It’s not only the instrument of cruel execution but it’s the symbol of their humiliation under Roman rule. The cross not only means death for the one who is so unfortunate as to be hung on it, but it’s also the means of grinding to dust the pride of the entire nation. Those who are following Jesus in hopes of seeing a miracle or at least getting a free meal need to rethink their discipleship. To this day the decision to follow Jesus should be a thoughtful one. Long after the memory of seeing a “miracle” fades and the meal has been digested the cross remains. The occupied cross becomes for Christians the symbol of God’s love for us. The empty cross becomes the symbol of resurrection and hope. The carried cross is the mark of our continued sacrifice and commitment to Jesus.
Take Away: Am I a tagalong or a genuine follower of Jesus? The answer is found in my willingness or unwillingness to take up the cross.
Broken body, shed blood
Mark 14: Take, this is my body.
They’ve eaten the Passover all their lives so they know the ritual well. Now, as they gather in the upper room Jesus takes his place as “father” and the meal begins. To their surprise, he doesn’t follow the well-known script and, instead, comes up with his own version, the now familiar words of the Communion ritual Christians have used for 2000 years now. The bread and wine become, in this new ritual, symbols of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord. These things, in turn, represent the New Covenant God has made with the human race. Under this covenant, salvation is dependent on faith in the Son of God who willingly gives himself for us. The Gospel of Mark moves quickly through the Last Supper and I immediately find myself at Gethsemane where Jesus wrestles with the reality of “broken body and shed blood.” Every time I receive Communion I’m taken back to the New Covenant and the sacrifice that seals it with blood. This ritual is rich with meaning but it all starts with broken body, shed blood.
Take Away: My hope of salvation is bound in what is remembered each time I receive communion.
How to get a better preacher for your church
Malachi 1: You say “I’m bored – this doesn’t do anything for me.”
The people of Malachi’s day have lost the edge off of their religion. Worship services are a burden rather than a blessing. For them, righteous living is more about “have to” than “want to.” What should be the most satisfying part of life has become just another burden for them to bear. Malachi tells them why it’s like this: they’ve settled for a cheap religion. When they bring an animal to the Lord they don’t pick the finest they have. Instead, they pick one that’s probably going to die anyway. Even when they brag that they’re going to make some significant offering, at the last minute they just can’t bring themselves to do it and settle for a mere token offering instead. The result, according to Malachi, is a dull, boring religion. The less they put into their relationship with God the less they get out of it. Here’s the real kicker: God isn’t satisfied with their religion either. He says, “If this is how it’s going to be just lock the Temple doors.” Apparently, the Lord isn’t into playing church. I don’t think this concept gives us preachers a license to preach dull, sloppy, poorly prepared sermons or for singers and others to sleep walk through church. However, from years of experience I can affirm that the people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them. Why not give it a try? Get up early enough to pray for the services and for yourself, arrive ahead of time, focus on the Lord, and give 100% to worship. Who knows? You might have a better preacher at your church than you think you do!
Take Away: The people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them.
A given life
Isaiah 66: But there is something I’m looking for: a person simple and plain, reverently responsive to what I say.
I don’t know much about the wise men in the Christmas story, but I do know that they come to Jesus. The gifts they bring are, I understand, expensive ones. Beyond those material things, though, the important thing is that they bring themselves. In this passage Isaiah reminds me that God made it all and he owns it all. He’s not depending on me to bring him gold, frankincense, and myrrh or anything else for that matter. He is, though, counting on me to bring him my reverent obedience. I believe a person ought to practice their faith in Christ in practical ways, including being a good steward of all that has been placed in his or her hands. However, the offering I give is simply an outflow of a given life. That’s a gift that’s guaranteed to please the Lord.
Take Away: Our offerings are an outflow of our given lives.
God’s plan: my hope
Isaiah 53: We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
No one has to convince Isaiah that his people are sinners. There’s ample evidence of that. Also, no one has to convince him that sin brings death; it’s everywhere. What he needs help with is a way back out of this mess. They’re lost to the point of having no hope of returning. The way back has to be provided by God, Himself. So how can a righteous God redeem an unrighteous people? The answer is in this powerful chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. The horrible sins of his nation will be gathered up and put on the shoulders of the holy Suffering Servant. Their sins will become his sins and as the meek lamb being sacrificed in their rituals symbolically dies for their sins, he’ll literally give his all to restore them to God. God’s plan: my hope. The message of salvation was desperately needed by those of Isaiah’s day and it’s just as necessary today. The wonderful thing is that it’s all true. In spite of my sin, my rebellion, and my “wandering off” God is providing a way back through Jesus Christ.
Take Away: God’s plan: my hope.
The power of love
Song of Songs 4: You looked at me, and I fell in love. One look my way and I was hopelessly in love!
Previously I mentioned that some Christians have made this book into an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. As I said then, I’m not all that convinced, although passages like this do remind me of scriptures like Ephesians 4 where I’m told that: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…and to present her to himself as a radiant church… holy and blameless.” That passage describes Christ’s passionate love for the Church, a love that takes him to the cross. In the portion of Song of Songs that’s before me today, the man describes the power of his love for the woman. In Ephesians I see the power of Christ’s love for the Church. Whether or not Song of Songs is intended to connect me to Christ and his love for us, I’m reminded in this passage of the power of love and the sacrifice one who loves is willing to make for his beloved.
Take Away: “Love” is, ultimately, an action word…real love takes action on behalf of the one who is loved.
Return on investment
Ecclesiastes 11: Be generous: Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns.
The Lord is wonderfully generous to us. He’s given us the world and all its beauty and life itself. His greatest gift to us is salvation. This gift cost him everything as is seen at the cross. This is God’s investment in us and his charity toward us. Solomon says “charity yields high returns.” God gave everything and he has every right to expect big returns on his investment. What is the return he expects? He expects human beings to respond to his great act of charity by giving their hearts to him in loving devotion. From the very beginning God has desired willing fellowship from us. That relationship is so valuable to the Lord that he gave everything (invested everything) that that relationship might be restored. It’s my positive response to that sacrifice; my responding in love and thanksgiving, and my walking in continued fellowship with the Lord that he considers to be a “high return.”
Take Away: Am I giving the Lord a “high return” on his investment in me?
Follow the leader
Proverbs 14: The mark of a good leader is loyal followers; leadership is nothing without a following.
There’s no such thing as a leader without followers. The Bible has several stories of leadership. Moses led for 40 years. David led not only in military and affairs of government but in worship as well. His son Solomon led to prosperity. Here are three things that come to mind when I read about these leaders. First, each of these men is not only a leader, but is also a follower who accepts the authority of the Lord and spends time with him getting his marching orders. Second, these men know how to share leadership and to train leaders. They don’t try to do everything themselves and surround themselves with capable people to help carry the leadership load. Third, they lead people to meaningful goals. These men have God given visions that gives their leadership real purpose. People believe in them and they believe the goal set out for them is worth their sacrifice. Leaders such as these have no problem attracting followers.
Take Away: God-called leaders lead with purpose in a God-chosen direction.
Leaving everything to follow
2 Chronicles 11: The Levites left their pastures and properties and moved to Judah and Jerusalem.
His subjects have requested that Rehoboam back off a bit and give them some breathing room but he foolishly promises more of the same. The result is that he loses half his Kingdom. From now on we’ll have twin kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Right off Israel enthrones an evil man who shuts down the worship of Jehovah God. However, not everyone in Israel is on his side and several relocate to Judah, not because they like Rehoboam all that much but because they want to worship the Lord. One group, in particular, is mentioned. Traditionally the Levites have served God, first in the Tabernacle and then at the Temple. Now, the Levites living in the new nation of Israel have a decision to make. Will they abandon their calling or will they abandon their property? Many, we’re told, decide for God. They leave home that they can be true to their calling and serve God in Jerusalem. I’m impressed by their decision as I’m impressed by stories of people who leave home to live in some distant place in response to the call of missions. The most many of us can say about following the Lord is that we’ve been inconvenienced at times. Here’s a group of people who abandoned everything to be faithful to God’s call on their lives. People who make that kind of decision are worthy of our admiration. The Lord’s impressed by it too. As Jesus says in Luke 18, “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for people who are willing to live out their faith even in the face of real personal sacrifice.