Sunday, December 28, 2014

This week's lesson (December 27 - January 2): the call of wisdom

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." -- Matthew 10:16, NIV
Salvation is not enough.

That's why history is full of born-again believers who did incredibly stupid stuff -- stupid stuff that hurt a lot of people . . . and made it difficult for many, many more to believe.
  • Think of the Children's Crusade.
  • Think of Prohibition.
  • Or think of the churches that put convicted pedophiles in charge of children's ministries "because they've repented and we need to forgive them."
And you can't fault the motives of the people responsible for each of these mistakes. No, they had faith. They were sincere. And they honestly thought God was leading them to march on Jerusalem . . . ban alcoholic beverages . . . and trust people who shouldn't be trusted.

But in each case, those faithful, sincere, and honest believers did something that was dumber than a sackful of hammers.

That's why Jesus urges us to be wise.

That's why Proverbs teaches us to be wise.

That's why God's people need to be wise.

To be sure, you don't need wisdom to be saved.

But it just might keep somebody else from being lost.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

This week's lesson (December 20-26): the everlasting gospel

"It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. . . . Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." -- Acts 4:10-12, NIV.
If Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion, then he would have done so.
  • Yes, if "the blood of bulls and goats" could take away sins, then there'd be no need for the cross.
  • If virtuous pagans could be saved "by living up to the light they have" (as if anyone ever does this), then there'd be no need for Christ's death.
  • And if God says to the last generation of humanity that "everyone else was saved by grace -- but you must achieve perfection," then you have to wonder why He doesn't just require this of everyone and be done with it.
No, somehow God's love for all humanity is enabled, revealed, and mediated through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
To be sure, we don't know exactly how God saves us -- and the fact that two different theories of the atonement have existed side-by-side for the past thousand years suggests we're not likely to figure out the answer anytime soon.
Then too, we don't know exactly who God has saved; as Augustine of Hippo points out, "we don't know how grace has been offered to someone else; we don't know how graced has been received by someone else -- and that is why we dare not judge anyone else this side of Heaven."
But if you want to know what salvation means, then look at the cross.
If you want to know what salvation costs, then look at the cross.
And if you want to know how salvation is possible, then you can speculate, contemplate, meditate, cogitate, and even celebrate . . . 
But one way or another, you'll always end up at the cross.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

This week's lesson (December 3-19): prayer, healing, and restoration

Is any of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. . . . My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins. -- James 5:14-16, 19-20, NIV.
Following Jesus is like baseball: yes, you can practice on your own . . .

But sooner or later, you need a team.

In the last few verses of his letter, for instance, James takes it for granted you're part of a church; what's more, he makes it clear that church is not a place where autonomous individuals arrive, enjoy the program, then go their separate ways. Instead, he says that "church" is a place where believers:
  • Pray for each other,
  • Are honest with each other,
  • And get after each other when the need arises.
None of this happens unless you hang out with other believers on a regular basis -- and no, that's that easy; that's why James spent most of his letter discussing things that can go wrong when believers hang out together.
But "just me and Jesus" is not enough.
"Spiritual but not religious" is not enough.
And while I sympathize with people who are "just not into organized religion," the fact remains: you can't play the game all by yourself.
Not unless you want to be way off-base.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

This week's lesson (December 6-12): getting ready for the harvest

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. . . . Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. -- James 5:7-11, NIV
If you need proof of these words in James, then take a look at your garage. If it's like mine, then it's full of of toys -- bicycles, kayaks, tennis rackets, golf clubs, cross-country skies . . .
  • All of which were bought in a flush of enthusiasm.
  • All of which were used a few times.
  • And all of which are now gathering dust, rust, and spider-webs.
You see, these all have a "learning curve" . . . 
Which is another way of saying that "This is fun!" soon gives way to "This is hard . . . and my feet hurt . . . and I think I'll go back to the car now."
Likewise, we follow Jesus with zeal and gusto . . . at first.
But all too soon (and all too often), the zeal falters. The gusto fades. Bible study becomes a chore, prayer a burden, and worship just something to get through.
That's why James tells us to persevere.
That's why James tell us to stick with it.
For if we just hang in there . . . 
Things begin to click.
The pieces come together.
And all that stuff in our garage becomes a blessing.

FOOTNOTE: Sunday's lesson (December 7) gives the impression there are two rainy seasons in Palestine:
  • "The early rain, which generally falls in October and November, [and which] moistens the ground and prepares it for planting and germination.
  • "[And] the latter rain, around March or April, [which] ripens the grain for harvest."
The phrase, "autumn and spring rains," in other words, is a merism, i.e. a pair of opposites that means "everything." Just as "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" is "the tree of all knowledge," in other words, "the autumn and spring rains" is a phrase that refers to the whole rainy season.