Thursday, December 14, 2017

This week's lesson (December 9-15): the Elect

Some things are more difficult to appreciate than others.
Take music recitals, for instance – we’ve all been to music recitals, band concerts, and school programs put on by children . . .
And I know that our children all sound good. Yes, our children always do a wonderful job – a wonderful job any time they’re in one of those recitals, concerts or school programs . . .
But we’ve all been to recitals – recitals, concerts, and school programs . . . in which some of those other children were not quite so easy to enjoy as our own.
And if you know what that’s like – yes, if you know just how difficult it can be to appreciate some people . . . then you know what Paul’s talking about here in Romans 12:9-21. You see, here in Romans 12:9ff, Paul’s writes to a church that’s made-up of two, very different groups. Yes, some of those believers are Jewish, and some are Gentiles.
And when you’ve got two groups like this in the same church – two groups who don’t eat the same, and they don’t dress the same, and you’d better believe they don’t listen to the same kind of music . . . then it’s easy to see why these two groups don’t always get along!
Just like those recitals, in other words, it’s easy to love what our kids are doing – and not so easy to love somebody else’s kids!
But here in Romans 12:9ff, Paul makes it easy on us – and that’s because Paul says that we don’t need to pretend we love everybody! No, we don’t need to pretend that we love anybody; we just need to act like we do – and to see what I mean, take a look at a group that’s easy to love, here in Romans 12:9ff.
Verse nine: “Love must be sincere” – and when Paul says “love must be sincere,” he literally says that “love can’t wear a mask.” 
You see, actors in those days never showed their real face; no, if you were in a play, a skit, or a musical, then you had to wear a mask.
If you played someone who was happy, for instance, then you wore a “smiley” mask.
But if you played somebody sad, then you had to wear a “frowny” mask.
In short, nobody ever saw “the real you” out on that stage; no, all they saw was that mask – that thing you wore on your face . . .
And that’s why their word for an actor was literally, “a hypocrite.”
You see “hupo” means “upon.”
“Kritos” means “a face.”
So put them together, and you’ve got a “hypocrite” – literally “somebody who wears something on their face” . . . or in our words, “somebody who wears a mask.”
So go back to verse nine – and when Paul says, “love must be sincere,” what he’s saying is that we can’t just wear the mask. We can’t just play a role. We don’t need a church full of people who just pretend to love each other. Verse nine:
Love must be sincere [and what does that mean? It means you] hate what is evil; [and you] cling to what is good. [It means you are] devoted to one another in brotherly love. [It means you should] never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. [Yes, sincere love is] joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [It shares] with God’s people who are in need, [and it practices] hospitality.
Yes, that’s what Paul means when he talks about “sincere love” – and we all know what this is like; we’ve all seen this in action. You go to the airport, for instance; yes, you watch a group that’s waiting for someone to get off the plane – someone they haven’t seen for a long, long time.
Maybe it’s a kid home from college.
Maybe it’s a soldier home on leave.
Or maybe it’s a Student Missionary who’s just spent the last year on some island in the Pacific – but whoever it is, that whole family’s waiting for them . . . and when they show up, then you’re going to see the zeal . . . you’re going to see the fervor . . . you’re going to see the kind of love that Paul talks about in these verses!
Yes, when that family at the airport finally sees that person they’ve been waiting to see for so long . . . then the love you see is real. Ain’t nobody wearing a mask!
Again, that kind of love is real – but it’s not always easy. No, it’s not always easy to feel that kind of love for some people . . . and to be honest, some people don’t make it easy!
Read what happens next, as a matter of fact, and it reminds me of the time I learned how to use an AED – one of those Automatic Emergency Defibrillators; the things that “zap” people whose heart has stopped.
Now I don’t have a problem with “zapping” people – in fact, I think that’s pretty cool.
But then they tell me that part of this “zapping” people means giving them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – and to be honest, that doesn’t sound nearly so cool.
Then they tell me the people who need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation the most . . . well, I’m not going into detail here, but they tell me the people who need it most may not be the kind of people to whom you want to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!
Likewise, read verses 14ff, and it’s clear that the people who need God’s love the most . . . they may not be kind of people you feel like loving. Look at the kind of people Paul describes here, for instance, in verses 14ff:
“Bless those who persecute you,” says Paul – and when Paul talks about those who “persecute” us by the way, he literally means people who pursue us, people who come after us, people who are always on our case.
And no, these are not loveable people – but Paul still says in verses 14ff that we should:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
To be sure, I don’t always feel like treating some people this way – no more than I’d feel like giving some people mouth-to-mouth resuscitation . . . but when it comes to First Aid, you don’t have to feel right to do right. No, you just go ahead and do it anyway.
Likewise, Paul doesn’t say we need to feel this great surge of love for the people who treat us wrong; you read verses 17ff, as a matter of fact, and you’ll notice he say doesn’t say anything about the way we’re supposed to feel! Just like First Aid, in other words, you don’t need to like them; no, you just need to treat them right. Verse 17:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, given him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
And no, I don’t know what it means with this talk of burning coals – but I do understand verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil,” Paul says, “but overcome evil with good.”
When Paul talks about love, in other words, he doesn’t talk about the way I’m supposed to feel; no, he talks about the way I'm supposed to act.
I mean, we can’t always change the way someone feels about us – and that’s especially true if they don’t like us. That’s why I’m glad Paul doesn’t say we need to make people think nice thoughts about us; no, he just says that “if it is possible, as far as it depends on [us, that we should] live at peace with everyone.”
What’s more, we can’t always change the way we feel about someone – and that’s especially true if we think they’ve been mean to us. That’s why I’m glad Paul doesn’t say we need to feel good about these people; he just says we need to treat them good.
Finally, we can’t always pretend that nothing is wrong with some people – that we wouldn’t notice these things if we really loved them. No, Paul says flat-out that some people do bad stuff: they persecute us. They do evil to us. They tempt us to revenge – and we’ve all been tempted to revenge.
But we don’t need to give in to those temptations.
No, Paul says the best way to we overcome evil . . . is with good.
Think of all those recitals my parents attended, for instance – all those recitals, concerts, and band programs that I put them through when I was growing up . . . and even then, I knew they were awful; no, I knew just how bad we really were.
But even then, my parents still went to those programs.
Even then, my parents still clapped at those programs.
Even then, my parents still took us out for ice cream when the program was over – and if you asked them what they thought about the program, then they’d just change the subject.
You see, I don’t know what they thought about those programs. No, I don’t know if they were bored, if they were proud, if they were relieved that it was over, or if they were irritated they were missing their favorite TV program.
But no matter how they felt, I can tell you this: I can tell you that my parents treated me with love – the kind of love Paul talks about.
In much the same way: somebody may not like us – but we can still be good to them.
And we may not like somebody else – but we’re not hypocrites; we don’t smile in their face while we stab them in the back. No, we may not like them – but we still treat them right.
And it may take a long, long time before our feelings catch up with our actions – yes, we may need to be nice for years to people we don’t like very much . . . but that’s okay. That’s fine. By God’s grace, we can do it.
That’s because we don’t need to pretend that we love everybody. 
No, we don’t need to pretend we love them; we just need to act like we do.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

This week's lesson (December 2-8): Children of the Promise

It's tough to explain just why somebody loves you.
I've been married 33-years, for instance -- but if you asked why my wife still loves me after all those years, then any reason I gave would sound pretty silly.
  • If I said she loves me "because I'm so good looking," for instance, then I'd sound like an idiot.
  • And if I said she needs to love me because I'm so good looking -- in fact, she has no choice in the matter. . . then I don't just sound like an idiot. No, I sound like a creepy idiot!
  • In fact, the only reason I could give that doesn’t make me sound like an idiot . . . is to say I don’t understand it; I don't know why she loves me -- but for some reason that only she knows, Narelle has chosen to be in love with me.
Yes, it's her choice -- not mine!

It's something she does -- not me!

Likewise, Paul says we're saved because God chooses to save us.
Not because we're so nice.
Not because we're so good-looking.
No, nothing we can do will make God love us (any more than anything I can do will make my wife love me.)
And yes, we have some choice in the matter . . . 
But so does God.

And for reasons we'll never be able to understand (much less explain) . . . 

He's chosen to love us.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

This week's lesson (November 25-December 1): No Condemnation

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
You can sum-up all of Romans 8 (and not just the 17-verses this Quarterly talks about) in just seven words.


Here they are: "You don't need a password for prayer."

And yes, that's important.

Then as now, remember, most religions said it was incredibly difficult to get in touch with The Divine -- so difficult that only the right people using the right words to ask for the right things in the right way at the right place at the right time could be sure they'd get a hearing.

Everyone else?

They'd get the same message you get when you're having trouble logging-on to your computer: "Password Incorrect."

To be sure, various and sundry "prayer hackers" said they'd found a way around this -- a way to by-pass God's security system, and get what you want from Him . . .

And then as now, they'd offer their "prayer hacks" for a price . . .

In books.

At seminars.

And through classes at Camp Meeting.

But in Romans 8:26-27, Paul says there's no need to "get in right" in prayer; in fact, he assumes we'll get it wrong -- that we'll use the wrong words to ask for the wrong things in the wrong way in the wrong place at the wrong time . . .

Yet God hears us anyway.

That's because Jesus has removed everything that comes between us and God -- yes, the pay-walls are down, the passwords have been removed, the signs that warned "Authorized Personnel Only" have all been thrown away.

If you want to get in touch with God, in other words, then feel free.

Nothing's stopping you

And if you need help . . .

Just ask.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

This week's lesson (November 18-24): Who Is the Man of Romans 7?

Actually, a better title for this week's lesson might be, "Why is there such a fuss about Romans 7:14-25?"

And the answer would be another question, "Can a Christian be 'perfect' in this life?"

In these verses, remember, Paul summarizes the purpose of the Law: it can diagnose, but it cannot cure. Like an X-ray machine, it can show you what it is broken -- but it can't put on a cast. No, for that kind of healing you need Someone Else . . .

And Paul talks about that "Someone Else" in Romans 8.

But in his discussion of the Law back in Romans 7:14-25, Paul gave his version of Maher's Law, i.e. "knowing better doesn't help." You may know what God wants you to do, in other words -- and you may even want to do what God wants you to do . . . but that still doesn't mean you can do it.

In short, nobody's perfect.

But in Matthew 5:48, Jesus commands us to "be perfect" -- and over the years, believers have struggled to reconcile that command with Romans 7:14-25.
  • Some believers (such as Pelagius) said Christians should be perfect in this life; the Law tells us what to do, after all, and Jesus shows us how to do it.
  • Other believers (such as Augustine of Hippo) said Christians could not be perfect in this life -- and yes, most Protestant Reformers agreed with him. We are "Simul Iustus et Peccator," said Luther, "simultaneously saints and sinners."
  • Though he was definitely a Protestant, however, John Wesley seems to have believed in something he called "The Second Blessing," i.e. a gift of the Holy Spirit that would gradually free believers from all known sin. "We may not be perfect in anything else," Wesley said in effect, "but we can be perfect in love."
  • Like Wesley, for instance, she said "sanctification was the work of a lifetime" -- not the instantaneous experience claimed by some in the Holiness Movement.
  • Like Wesley, she said those who are "perfect in love" don't know it (and certainly don't claim it) -- again, not like some in the Holiness Movement.
  • And like Wesley, she was resolutely practical in her holiness; "the sign of the Holy Spirit" is not miracles, in other words, but the love we show for each other.
While she never claimed perfection, in other words, Ellen White was certainly open to the idea . . . 
But it took M. L. Andreasen to make it mandatory.
Andreasen was a famous Adventist speaker, theologian, and church leader; he was also a keen student of Ellen White. And when he read her words about our need for holiness and God's gift of the Holy Spirit at the end of time, he came up with the belief we now call, "Last Generation Theology."
  • Like Wesley, Andreasen said perfection is possible.
  • Like Adventists everywhere, Andreasen said the time would come "when Probation closed," i.e. when salvation was no longer possible for anyone who was not already saved. 
  • And like many "Historic Adventists" today, Andreasen said believers could make it through this "close of Probation" only if they'd been made perfect -- both sealed and sanctified -- by the Holy Spirit.
Perfection was not only possible, in other words; Andreasen said it was required for anyone who was alive when Jesus returned . . .
Which brings us back to Romans 7:14-25.
  • Reformers such as Luther, remember, viewed this text as "proof" that believers could not achieve perfection in this life.
  • But Adventists such as Andreasen say that that it's talking about people who try to overcome sin by their own power; as such, it doesn't apply to believers who are made perfect by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • And then you have John Brunt -- the author of the companion-book to the Adult Sabbath School Lesson way back in 2010 -- who says flat-out that we're missing the point. That's because "Paul isn't trying to talk about the human dilemma at some point in a person's experience. He's talking about the law, and the human dilemma is merely an illustration." (John Brunt, Redemption in Romans [Pacific Press: 2010], page 75.) 
Myself, I suspect that Brunt is right -- that the subject of these verses is the Law, and the point of them is our need for Christ.
If we struggle with sin, after all, then that means we need Jesus.
But if we are able to overcome sin, then it's only because of Jesus.
And when we stand in the Judgment after the close of Probation, then the only reason we will be able to stand is all because of Jesus -- the same Jesus who said He'd be with us always, "even to the close of this age."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

This week's lesson (November 11-17): Overcoming Sin

You never would have made it out on your own -- in fact, they had to carry you most of the way . . .

But now you're free. You're safe. Yes, you've left it all behind: the work camps, the secret police, the  constant fear of just what the authorities might do next . . .

But then one day, there's a knock on your door.

And when you open it, a busy little man pushes past you into your living room, sits down in your favorite chair, and tells you it's not that easy.

Yes, he says you're still one of them.

Still subject to their laws.

Still obligated to follow their commands -- and for that reason, you will do what he tells you to do.

And yes, you're free.

But old habits die hard -- and when he says these things, then you're tempted to obey.

Yes, it would be easy for you to do what he says . . .

In fact, he could probably force you to do what he says . . .

And that's why you need to call for help.

Right now.

Friday, November 10, 2017

This week's lesson (November 4-10): Adam & Jesus

It all depends on the group you're in.

If your high school was like mine, for instance, each group had its own table in the lunchroom.
  • Yes, football players sat with other football players.
  • Members of the Chess Club sat with other members of the Chess Club.
  • And if someone sat at the wrong table -- if a new member of the Chess Club inadvertently sat next to a defensive lineman, for instance . . . then he would be told where to go, how to get there, and and what he should do while making trip.
Likewise, Jews and Gentiles did not mix if they could help it. Like football players and members of the Chess Club, they each inhabited their own worlds -- each with its own concerns, each with its own set of rules, and each with its own list of Who's In, and Who's Out.

So what happened when members from each group found themselves sharing a pew in church?

Pretty much the same thing that happened at my high school -- and that's where Romans 6 comes in.

In Romans 6, Paul points out that whatever had divided them in the past wasn't as important as what had united them in the past -- that they'd all attended the same high school, even if they'd all sat at different tables . . .

And as students at Old Adam High School (so to speak), they'd all faced the same, dismal future.

But now they're all in a new high school.

All seated at the same table.

All looking at the same, bright future together.

And if they're all members of that same, new group . . .

Then maybe . . .

Just maybe . . .

What unites us now . . .

Is more important than all the things that divided us in the past.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

This week's lesson (October 28 - November 3): the Faith of Abraham

Abraham was a man of faith.
What do you mean by "faith"?
Just look at the way he followed God to the Promised Land!
And look at the way he left Sarah in the lurch when they went to Egypt.
 He rescued Lot!
Then had a child by Hagar -- and left her in the lurch too!
He bargained with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When did questioning God become a sign of "faith"?
Then he left Sarah in the lurch again with Abimelech . . . wait a minute -- now you've got me doing it!
And Hagar too -- again!
What about his willingness to sacrifice Isaac?
 I'll give you that one -- though that story's always seemed kind of "problematic" to me. 
Okay, so Abraham wasn't always quite as "faithful" as we might want.
No, he wasn't -- but he had one thing going for him.
What's that?
God was faithful, even when Abraham was not.