The Unknown God
Acts 17: He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him.
Paul is speaking at the Areopagus in Athens. He’s disturbed by all the shrines to all the deities worshiped there. He’s even seen one shrine dedicated to the “unknown god.” The folks there don’t want to overlook some god and unintentionally get on the bad side of him! When Paul gets a chance to be heard, he uses that shrine as his launching point. He’s there to tell them about the God they’ve missed. His argument is right out of the Old Testament. The prophets of old often called their people to worship the God not made with human hands. Paul tells them that the God he serves is good and gracious, blessing their lives even though they haven’t acknowledged him. This God reaches out to them, inviting them to live in a relationship with him. However, there comes a time when the “unknown” becomes the “known.” It’s one thing to enjoy the blessings of God in ignorance. It’s something altogether different to know of this good God and to intentionally ignore him. In fact, God intends to divide people along that very line. He’s so serious about it that he’s already appointed a Judge over the people of the earth. To make it perfectly clear to the whole world that this is his chosen Judge, God has raised him from the dead. Many of Paul’s listeners, worshipers of a variety of gods, can’t swallow this “resurrection business.” They can’t imagine their gods having that kind of power. They walk away believing that they’ve just heard an impossible myth. Others, though, are drawn to this good God and his resurrected, appointed Judge. They want to know more. I know where I stand on this issue. Where do you stand?
Take Away: This “Unknown God” can, and wants to be known by all.
This angel got the job all the angels wanted
Matthew 28: He rolled back the stone and then sat on it.
This angel is pretty cool. He’s supernatural, coming down out of heaven. He’s majestic with shafts of light blazing out of him. He’s powerful, rolling away the stone. Then, what does he do? He has a seat on the stone he speaks calmly and reassuringly and matter-of-factly to the women. It’s almost as though they don’t know whether to bow down to him or invite him out for breakfast. Then the resurrected Jesus makes his appearance. It’s the same way. Here’s the victor over death, freshly raised from the grave; yet he greats them with a cheery “good morning” as though they are just old friends who happen to meet at the mall. The women, though, know just what to do in this case. They bow before him. Jesus, still in an apparent light hearted mood tells them not to be afraid, but to go and tell the disciples that “plan A” is still in order and they’re to meet him at the designated spot in Galilee. This first Easter morning is awesome — holy. It’s also happy, joyous, and just a little light hearted. It’s an interesting balance and the Church should do all it can to capture this wonderful mixture as it proclaims the resurrection of Jesus.
Take Away: It’s the resurrection that makes Christianity the happy, hope-filled religion that it is.
Intentionally or not, the disciples did the right thing
Matthew 17: His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face.
To some extent I don’t think the Church has ever fully grasped the Person of Jesus. It took hundreds of years for the doctrine of the Trinity to be established and it’s been “official” now for over 1600 years. Still, if you talk to some people they’re still back in the early years of Christian theology and not convinced at all that the Trinity doctrine has it right. When we think about the Person of Jesus there’s always a tug a war between “he’s God” and “he’s man.” In the pages of the Gospels we watch Jesus, the man. He grows weary and sleeps, he gets thirsty, and he bleeds. We also watch Jesus, the Lord. He forgives sins and tells his disciples that he and the Father are one. In this passage, as Jesus takes three disciples up on the mountain, the humanity of Jesus is overwhelmed by this divinity. The disciples see it as light that pours out of him. This isn’t the Jesus they ate supper with last light. This isn’t the Jesus who slept through the storm. This is God. Peter, James, and John don’t know what to say or do as they experience this Jesus. Still, maybe by instinct, they do the right thing: they fall flat on their faces in reverence and awe. Know what? This radiant-light-pouring-out-of-his-face Jesus is just as much Jesus as the hungry, sleepy, dying-on-the-cross Jesus. Falling down in worship before him is an excellent response.
Take Away: We may struggle with the person of Jesus, but worshiping him is always the right response.
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.
The correct focus in worship
Haggai 1: The little you have brought…I’ve blown away.
The people being addressed in Haggai’s short story aren’t pagans who have turned their backs on God to worship another. They aren’t godless people at all. Despite their having ruins instead of a Temple they have worship services. As faithful Jews they bring sacrifices and observe the feasts and regulations of their religion. Yet, somehow, their worship experience is dissatisfying to them. As they leave these events they feel they’ve been faithful in keeping all that which is required of them but they remain empty inside. Haggai puts his finger on the problem. In reframing their religion to suit themselves they’ve blundered into a religion that the God they worship rejects. Failure to rebuild the Temple is the symptom of this larger problem. This situation speaks to me today and its tone isn’t soothing! How much of my religious life is founded on obligation and tradition and how much of it is about a living, vital relationship with God? While I’m busy being sure all the details of worship are taken care of have I forgotten that it isn’t me who’s in charge? What makes me think God will accept a self-centered worship effort from me in the first place? The thing is that as I picture the people of Haggai’s day walking out of a worship service feeling that somehow something is missing, I can identify with them. That, my friends, makes me very uncomfortable.
Take Away: Our religious lives are to be founded on a living, vital relationship with God.
The secret to satisfaction
Haggai 1: Take a good, hard look at your life.
The work of the Temple was put on hold years earlier because people felt they needed to concentrate on the necessities of life. They built homes and cleared land for planting crops. They built walls to protect them in what had become a dangerous land. Meanwhile, the Temple was left in ruins. Now, as they face a devastating drought, God’s man tells them it’s time to take a hard look at their lives. All their building and planting is meaningless without God. Even with plates full of food and warm clothing to wear they’ve faced an inner dissatisfaction with life. Their neglect of the Temple is a symptom of something even more important. Beyond the building, they’ve left the God of the building out on the periphery of their lives. Without him life is empty and meaningless. Their mistake is both colossal and common. The worship of God is not a luxury to be put on hold till “important” things are cared for. In fact, worship is a core necessity and without God, nothing ever satisfies. We can’t be too hard on the people of Haggai’s day because we too tend to view worship as something that can be pushed aside as we pursue things we deem to be more important. The issue isn’t that God’s unhappy with us and will find a way to get back at us for ignoring him. Instead, it’s that when we leave God out, we’re ignoring the central need of our lives. In the case before us, that’s evidenced by their failure to rebuild the Temple. In our case, it might be that we don’t show a proper interest in the worship of God. When we fail here, we find that all other successes in life taste like failures. When we succeed here, we find that everything else in life finds its proper place.
Take Away: Without the Lord life is empty and meaningless.
Habakkuk 2: God is in his holy Temple! Quiet everyone – a holy silence. Listen!
Chapter two is mostly a listing of the sins of Babylon. The Lord may intend to use this godless nation in his dealings with Judah but that doesn’t mean its despicable evil will be overlooked. As a series of “Who do you think you are?” judgments is being listed, the prophet suddenly has a vision of God. Immediately, the prophet calls for “holy silence.” This isn’t the time to preach sermons of condemnation. The only thing a human being can do at this point is to bow in silence before the Lord. This, I think is God’s second answer to Habakkuk. The prophet has asked how a holy God can use a sinful nation to punish Judah. One answer is that God is well aware of the sin of Babylon and that he will decisively deal with it. The other answer is heard as the Almighty reveals himself to Habakkuk. This is similar to what happens in the Book of Job. Job has asked for an audience with God that he might plead his case. However, when God appears, Job is speechless and all he can do is bow in worship and adoration. When I see God my questions are answered. My need is not for the Lord to explain to me everything I think I want to know. The need in my life is a fresh vision of God.
Take Away: All our questions are answered when we genuinely experience the Lord.
Worshiping to please the right Person
Amos 5: When was the last time you sang to me?
Toward the end of Amos 5 the Lord challenges almost everything about their church services. He says he can’t stand their meetings, conferences, and conventions. He washes his hands of their projects and goals and he says he can’t stand their singing which is more focused on what they like than on him. This message may be buried deep in the Minor Prophets but it should be right at the top of our concerns as Christians who go to church each Sunday. It isn’t that their services and conferences should be discontinued and it isn’t that their projects aren’t worthwhile. Also, this is no call to change the music style of the church (whatever it may be). It is, though, a powerful reminder of what (better stated, “Who”) it’s all about. The Lord says that what they’re doing is worthless, not because it’s worthless activity, but because they’re ignoring him and his purposes for their lives. God states, “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s all I want.” If I refuse God’s priority of caring for the poor, of helping the one who’s down and out then God will refuse my acts of worship. Maybe this passage needs to be read before we have our church planning meetings!
Take Away: If we’re missing the Lord’s priorities for the church the other things we do aren’t worth much.
Amos 4: But you never got hungry for me. You continued to ignore me.
The people Amos preaches to are religious people. They’re faithful to attend worship services, to make the correct sacrifices, and to pay their tithes. The casual observer might conclude that they’re just the sort of people God wants. However, that isn’t the case. Amos complains that all they’re doing is putting on a religious show. At the core of all their religious activities is, not God, but themselves. Even as Amos delivers his sermons the Lord is acting to bring a stop to it all. The fact is that God won’t be ignored! He, who created me, demands that I focus my life on him. That’s true in all of my life, and it’s especially true in my religious life. The issue of what I “like” or “don’t like” is, ultimately, unimportant. God isn’t looking at the show I put on. Instead, he’s looking at my heart. The issue in play in my worship activities is whether or not I hunger for him. I want to do church “right.” I want the worship services I attend to be well thought out and intentional. However, beyond all of that, I want the Lord to see that more than anything else, my worship activities are a reflection of my hunger for him and of my rejoicing in his presence. God won’t be ignored and a God-ignoring worship experience is a waste of time.
Take Away: The Lord isn’t looking so much at how we do church as he is looking at our hearts.
Shopping for religion
Hosea 7: They turn…here, then there, like a weather vane.
“Welcome to WorshipMart, your one stop shop for religion. Please keep an eye out for our blue light specials, you may find a very nice accessory to your faith for a low price.” You head over to the New Age aisle. Maybe a new crystal will help you pray better. The Politically Correct section has some interesting items, some of that “what works for you may not work for me” might come in handy when dealing with some of the more narrow people you know. The Hedonism section makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable but you can’t resist some of the “it can’t be all that bad if it feels right.” And then you head over to the staples section. After all, when all else fails you might just want some help from God Almighty. At the checkout counter the salesperson asks if you found everything you wanted. You answer “yes” but you think, “I’ll probably be back in here before long, somehow this stuff doesn’t seem to last like it should.” As you check out, you can’t find the last item. That’s happened before. Everything else is there though; you’ll just have to make it without God. Anyway, your religion is no one’s business but your own. Right?
Take Away: He’ll either be Lord of all or he won’t be Lord at all.