Sunday, December 24, 2017

This week's lesson (December 23-29): Christian Living

It’s easy to see why some things are important.
Back in 1961, for instance, the Air Force was looking for two H-bombs: two thermonuclear devices it’s lost somewhere in North Carolina. You see, one of its bombers had broken-up in mid-air – broken-up and killed three of its crew. And when it broke-up, that B-52 bomber dropped the two bombs it was carrying – yes, it dropped two, Mark 39 thermonuclear devices, each with a yield of four megatons, right there on North Carolina. Now they didn’t go off – and trust me, you would have heard about it if they had gone off . . . but as you can imagine, the Air Force wanted to find those two bombs – to find those two bombs and get them back!
So you can see why they’re feeling the pressure; you cans see why they’re feeling the heat – yes, you can see why they feel the way Paul does, here in Romans 15:25ff (pages 1125f).
And no, nothing’s going to blow up if things go wrong for Paul – but as we read Romans 15:25ff, we need to remember that Paul writes these words at a very important time in his life. Yes, Paul writes at a time when he’s getting ready to move – to move from east to west, from Greece to Spain, from someplace familiar to someplace that’s totally new to him. But Paul can’t make that move just yet – no, Paul can’t move until he’s done with this big, important project that’s been in the works for years.
Just like the Air Force, in other words, Paul’s got something important – something big that needs to get done . . . but in Romans 15:25ff, we’ll notice that big, important jobs aren’t the only things that need to get done. No, sometimes God calls us to do something small – and to see what I mean, take a look at Paul’s plans here in Romans 15:25ff. Verse 25:
15:25Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem, in the service of the saints there. 26For Macedonia and Achaia [or in our language, we’d say, “northern and southern Greece”] were pleased to make a contribution to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. 28So after I have completed this task and have made sure they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. 29I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.
Now as we read this text, we’ll remember that Paul’s taking an offering – he’s taking money from churches in Greece to the church in Jerusalem; in fact, we can read more about Paul’s plans for that offering in his first and second letters to the church in Corinth. And you can read those texts later if you want . . . but for now, it’s enough to know this offering is important to Paul – important for three reasons:
Number one: those believers there in Jerusalem need this money; yes, they are poor – so poor that all those other people in Jerusalem don’t call them “Christians.” They don’t call them, “the followers of Jesus.” No, everyone just calls them, “the Ebionites” – that means, “the poor people.” In short, they’re not just poor; no, they’re famous for being poor!
Then too, those believers in Jerusalem aren’t just poor; no, they’re also Jewish – Jewish believers who are just a little suspicious of Gentiles . . . and Paul’s hoping that a nice, big, generous offering from those Gentile believers in Greece might just be what it takes to sweeten up those Jewish believers in Jerusalem.
Finally, we need to remember just how much work Paul’s put in to this offering – in fact, some people say he’s been working on it for five years . . . and if that seems hard to believe, then remember there’s no debit cards in those days; there’s no checks or paper money. No, needs to move silver and gold to Jerusalem – silver and gold from places like Berea, Caesarea, Corinth, Cyprus, Derbe, Ephesus, Lystra, Philippi, Ptolemais, Thessalonica, and Troas!
I mean, I can’t even remember the places where Paul’s gets this offering – but Paul needs to visit them all!
So put it all together – I mean, take the need of those people in Jerusalem . . . then add Paul’s desire to bring Jews and Gentiles together . . . and then finish with the sheer, physical size of the job that needs to be done . . . again, put it all together, and you can see why that offering to Jerusalem is so important right now!
Yes, it’s a big, important job – the kind of job that gets your picture in the papers and looks good on your resumé . . .
And no,  there’s nothing wrong with jobs like that; nothing wrong with getting your picture in the paper . . . it’s just that, sometimes, we don’t get asked to do those kind of jobs. No, sometimes we get asked to do . . . something else.
Read what happens next, in fact, and it reminds me of what was always happening to one of our Surgeon Generals: Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.Now as you might guess from his title, the Surgeon General had a very important job; yes, as head of the Public Health Service, he held the rank of a three-star admiral. What’s more, the Surgeon General got to wear a fancy uniform – a fancy uniform with gold stripes on his sleeves . . . and gold shoulder boards . . .  and all that fancy, gold trim on his hat they call “scrambled eggs.”
All you had to do was just look at him, in other words, and you could tell that Surgeon General Koop was somebody special!
Likewise, Romans 16:1-2 tells us about a believer named Phoebe – and just like Koop, you can tell she’s somebody special. Verse one:
16:1I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea [which is the seaport roughly seven-miles east of where Paul’s writing this letter, there in Corinth]. 2I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.
Now as we read, you’ll notice she’s traveling alone – traveling alone from Greece to Rome . . . and right away, this tells you she is one, tough woman. (In fact, she’s probably a widow; widows were the only women who traveled alone like this – but even for them, it wasn’t easy!)
Then too, you’ll notice that Paul says “she’s been a great help,” he literally says she’s a “patron.” That means she pays the bills for her church; what’s more, it probably meets in her house.
That said you can see why Paul calls Phoebe a leader in her church; in fact, he literally calls her a “deacon” – a diakonon: the same as we find in Titus or I Timothy.
Put it all together, in other words, and it’s clear that Phoebe is a VIP – a Very Important Person . . . but even VIPs don’t always get treated that way.
When Koop wore his uniform, for instance, people didn’t treat him like a three-star admiral – like somebody who was important. No, they asked for him for help with their luggage; that’s because they saw his uniform . . . and they thought he was a flight attendant!
Likewise, it’s clear that Phoebe is strong, tough, capable woman – a woman who could handle anything Paul needs her to do . . . but right then, all he needs her to do is to carry a letter – to carry this letter that Paul’s just written to the believers in Rome.
And yes, somebody needs to do it . . .
But it’s not a glamorous job.
It’s not the kind of job that gets your picture in the paper.
No, it’s like asking the Surgeon General to carry your bags; it’s not something that an important person should be asked to.
But Phoebe did it anyway – and for what it’s worth, the Surgeon General would help you with your bags if you asked him to do it. That’s because they both knew some jobs need to be done.
Likewise today: there are times God asks us to do something big and important – something like that offering for Jerusalem. And when God asks us to do something big and important, then we can be sure that God will help us get it done.
But there will be times when God asks us to do something that won’t get our picture in the local paper – no, there are times when God will ask us to do something “small,” something that doesn’t get noticed . . . something like taking a letter to Rome. 
But just because something is “small” and doesn’t get noticed . . . that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
You think of the time we dropped those bombs on North Carolina, for instance – those two, thermonuclear devices that would have caused all kinds of trouble if they’d managed to trip just four little switches on each bomb.
Four little switches – that’s all it would have took.
Now on one of those bombs, they’d tripped two of those switches.
But on the other, they’d tripped three.
And I don’t know who designed the fourth switch on that bomb – no, I don’t know who came up with the one switch that kept that bomb from going off in North Carolina . . .
But whoever they were, I’m glad they did it.
Yes, they may not be famous – but they made a real big difference.
In much the same way, Phoebe doesn’t get much attention – but when she carried Paul’s letter to Rome, then she made a difference.
And when God gives you that kind of job – the kind of job that He gave Phoebe . . . then it may not seem like much; no, it may seem all that important.
But sometimes, God asks us to do something small.
And sometimes, we need to do something small for God.

Friday, December 22, 2017

This week's lesson (December 16-23): Overcoming Evil with Good

There is nothing more dangerous than someone who knows they’re right – who knows they are right, and you are wrong.
And if we need proof, then take a look at Hymn #304 “Faith of Our Fathers.” As we read Hymn #304, we’ll notice this is a hymn about martyrs – about the English martyrs who suffered for their faith during the English Reformation.
And if you remember your history, then you know those believers did not suffer at the hands of unbelievers; they were not killed by people who were trying to get rid of Christianity. No, this is a hymn about believers who were killed by other believers – believers who were killed by members of another church.
In short, this is a hymn inspired by church fights – inspired by people who are so sure they’re right that they’re willing to kill the people who are wrong!
And I wish I could say this kind of thing was gone – yes, I wish I could say that believers don’t do horrible things to other believers any more . . . but I’m afraid we still need Paul’s advice here in Romans 14:1-8 (page 1124).
You see, Paul wrote this to believers who didn’t always agree with each other . . .
And because they didn’t always agree with each other, those believers didn’t always get along with each other!
Just like that hymn, in other words, you’d have one group of believers going after another group – and just like that hymn, some of those fights could get pretty vicious!
That’s why Paul reminds us in Romans 14:1ff that some fights aren’t worth fighting. No, if someone is good enough for Jesus, then they should be good enough for us – and to see what I mean, take a look at the fight here in Romans 14:1ff. Verse one:
14:1Accept [them] whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2One [person’s] faith [for instance, allows them] to eat everything, but another [person], whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The [person] who eats everything must not look down on [the one] who does not, and the [person] who does not eat everything must not condemn the [one] who does not, for God has accepted [that person]. 4Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To [their] own master [they stand or fall]. And [they] will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5[Likewise,] one [person] considers one day more sacred than another; another [person] considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in [their] own mind . . .
And no, Paul’s not saying that, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just so long as you’re sincere.”  Neither is he saying that, “It doesn’t matter how you behave, just so long as you’re sincere.” No, we have a Bible full of books that says that’s not true; we have a Bible full of books that say what we believe and how we behave both matter very much!
But even people who believe all the right things and behave in all the right ways – yes, even “church members in good and regular standing” may disagree with each other.
Think of that fight about food offered to idols – the fight we read about in Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth.
Or think of that fight about Jewish food and festivals – the fight we read about in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia.
And if that’s not bad enough, then some experts say this fight here in Rome was a fight about fasting – about giving up certain foods at certain times of the year.
And yes, people back then took fasting seriously!
I mean, we know the Pharisees fasted twice a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays.
And we know that many early believers also fasted twice a week – not Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Wednesdays and Fridays.
And even today members of the Orthodox Church still fast twice a week: not Tuesdays and Thursdays like the Pharisees, but Wednesdays and Fridays.
And if you’re a member of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, as a matter of fact, then you’re going to be fasting every one of the 40-days before Christmas; yes, you’re going completely vegan – no meat, eggs, or dairy products (and no wine or oil either) . . . and what’s more, you only get to eat one meal a day!
So imagine what happens one of those Ethiopian believers join our church – yes, they believe what we believe; they practice what we practice . . . but during today’s potluck, they mention how sad they are that there won’t be a potluck in December.
“What do you mean?” you say, “Of course there’s a potluck in December!”
“Not with the fast,” they say. “You know – the 40-day fast before Christmas?”
“Oh, we don’t worry about that,” you say – and no, we don’t worry about that . . .
But they do!
Yes, they’ll look at us . . . and we’ll look at them . . . and they’ll think we’re not much of a Christian if we don’t keep that fast . . . and we’ll think they’re not much of a Christian if they do keep that fast!
Just like Paul writes about in the Book of Romans, in other words, we’ll be fussing at each other about days and foods and who’s the better Christian . . .
And just like Paul says in the Book of Romans, we need to stop . . . take a deep breath . . . and remember whose side we’re on.
I’ve never been in the military, for instance – but I’m told that people in one service often have strong feelings about people in a different service. That’s why you get sailors and Marines in a bar, for instance, and there will be words! Just because they’re both in uniform, in other words, doesn’t mean they get along!
Likewise, we may all be “members of this church in good and regular standing” – yes, everyone here may have signed-off on all 13 baptismal vows, and all 28 of our Fundamental Beliefs:
But that doesn’t mean we all read the same version of the Bible.
It doesn’t mean we all read every verse in that Bible the exact same way.
All you need to do, as a matter of fact, is to bring up some topics in this church – and I don’t need to say what they are; no, you know what they are . . . but bring up some topics in this church, and you will have church members going at each other like sailors and Marines in a bar.
But in spite of all their differences, I’m told that sailors and Marines are both on the same side – they’re both what you call, “blue forces” . . . and what’s more, they’re not supposed to attack each other; they’re not supposed to go what they call, “blue on blue.”
In much the same way, Paul says in verses 5ff that we do have our differences – but we’re all in the same side . . . and we’re not supposed to attack each other; no, we’re not supposed to go “blue on blue.” Verse five:
5One [person] considers one day more sacred than another; another [person] considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in [their] own mind.
If you want to fast for those 40-days before Christmas, in other words, then that’s fine – but if you don’t want to fast, then that’s fine too! Verse six:
6[The one] who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. [The one] who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for [they give] thanks to God; and [the one] who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to [themself] alone and none of us dies to [themselves] alone. 8If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Yes, we both belong to the Lord.
What’s more, we both belong to the Lord . . . even if we don’t agree with each other!
When he writes to those believers church in Rome, for instance, Paul says the strong can eat anything at anytime – but he doesn’t say that everyone needs to live this way. No, he says we’re free to make up our own mind.
Likewise, we may have very strong feelings about all kinds of things – about the way we dress, the way we eat, or even how we spend our money . . . but just because we have strong feelings doesn’t always mean everyone needs to agree with us. No, there are times we need to let people make up their minds on their own.
And even if we know they’re wrong – yes, even if we know they’re wrong about something important, something vital, something that is a matter of salvation . . . but even if they’re wrong, this doesn’t always mean we’re right.
Think of that hymn I was talking about: that hymn that goes back to the English Reformation, back to a time when believers killed in the name of faith.
But this is not a hymn about the Protestants who suffered at the hands of Catholics.
No, when Frederick Faber wrote this hymn – when Father Frederick Faber wrote this hymn . . . he wrote it for the members of his church – for the Catholic members of his Roman Catholic Church . . . and yes, when he wrote about the martyrs who suffered “dungeon, fire, and sword,” he was writing about the Catholic martyrs – the Roman Catholic martyrs who suffered all these things at the hands of Protestants.
And I want you to know that I’m a Protestant – not a Catholic.
And if I’d been alive back then, then I would have been on the Protestant side – not the Catholic. Yes, I would have been on the Protestant side – and I still say that was the right side to be on . . .
But looking back, I’m amazed that people who were so right . . . yes, I’m amazed they could still do things that were so wrong.
Likewise, we may be right – but we still need to be careful.
In fact, it’s those times we are right that we need to be especially careful.
That’s because we need to remember that Jesus can still love somebody – even when they’re wrong.
Yes, we need to remember that Jesus may love somebody – even if that person disagrees with me.
That’s because Romans 14:1-8 tells us  that somebody who’s not good enough for me may still be good enough for Jesus . . .
And if they’re good enough for Jesus, then maybe . . . maybe . . . just maybe . . . yes, if they’re good enough for Jesus, then maybe they should be good enough for me.

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.