Thursday, March 26, 2020

Not a Comforting Message

During a time of national crisis, what do we do?  Many young people will not remember 9-11.  Some young people might remember people talking about the financial crisis a little over ten years ago.  There was the tsunami, the hurricane, the fire, and other natural disasters the devastated the lives of so many people.  Today, it is a disease that has rapidly spread out over the entire world, claiming the lives of thousands of people and sickening thousands more.  How do we in the Kingdom of God respond in such a time as this?

One of the things we do not do is attribute it to God in any way.  We do not want to be seen as a wild-eyed religious nut case who takes smug satisfaction in the ruin of precious lives.  In addition to this, we do not know if God caused any of this.  In fact, we do not believe that God would ever do such a thing.  God is good and does good things.  It is extremely offensive to our religious understanding to think otherwise.

Faithful Prophets of Yahweh vs. the King’s Chaplains

As I have been perusing the scriptures, I am reminded that this is very similar to the various times of national crisis in Israel.  When the enemy was at the gates, the official prophets tried to “pastor” the people, to uplift their spirits, to give them hope.  They tried to avoid discouraging the people as a religious and civil service to the nation.  The official prophets, who prophesied in the kings courts, were patriotic chaplains to the king, troops, and the nation.  The faithful prophets of Yahweh, were always at odds with them.   Here are some examples:

And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there,  but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was[a] no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:12-15)

“So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (Jer 38:6)

Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’  Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.  But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’ “ (1 Kg 19:2-4).

And the king of Israel said, ‘Seize Micaiah, and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king's son, and say, ‘Thus says the king, ‘Put this fellow in prison and feed him meager rations of bread and water, until I come in peace.’’’ And Micaiah said, ‘If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.’ And he said, ‘Hear, all you peoples!’” (1 Kg 22:26-28).

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated -  of whom the world was not worthy - wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb 12:35-38).

God’s Assessment

There are more examples, but these demonstrate that the message of the faithful prophets of Yahweh were not popular, especially times of national crisis.  God called and sent his faithful prophets to proclaim a very different message than what the false prophets were prophesying for the kings.  Here is God’s assessment of those false messages:

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? (Jer 7:8-10).

“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?  No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jer 8:11-12).

“Then I said: ‘Ah, Lord God, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’’ And the Lord said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds’” (Jer 14:13-14).

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord God. Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ezek 13:9-10).

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God” (Mic 3:5-7).

Because of the false sense of security that led to non-repentance, the end wound up being worse.  One of the hardest chapters for me to read in Lamentations chapter 2, which highlights the devastation of the country because the people refused to listen to the Lord’s message and instead listened to the false prophets.

What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem?  What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion?  For your ruin is vast as the sea; who can heal you?   Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading” (Lam 2:13-14)

Biblical Perspective on “Natural” Disasters

I wonder if Israel and the faithful prophets of Yahweh ever viewed a disaster as a “natural” disaster?  They believed that God was involved in earthly affairs, whether it was to stir the heart of the king (Prov 21:1; 2 Chr 36:22), a locust plague (Joel 1:1-12), a nation-wide sickness (Ex 15:26), or an enemy invasion (Heb 1:5-11).  These occurrences were supposed to have gotten the attention of the people, but they were not paying attention.  Even when God sent his messengers to make it clear, many did not listen.  Rather than repent, they chose to try and silence the voice of God through his messengers.  They were highly offended at what was often the lone voice criticizing the God’s nation and the king, calling on them to repent.

As I read through the book of Revelation, there are national disasters, sicknesses, and enemy invasions that the people faced.  A phrase shows up several times after these events in chapter 9 and chapter 16, “they still did not repent.”  These things did not get their attention.

I stop short of saying God “caused” a particular crisis because I do not know the extent of his direct involvement.  It is not because God never does such a thing.  The scriptures clearly say otherwise.  However, there is one thing I do know confidently.  God has the ability to prevent these things from happening.  I wonder how many times God prevented a disaster, and we are barely aware of it if at all?  When they do happen, God could have stopped it, but did not. 

I am always encouraged when I see my brothers and sisters demonstrating Christian compassion by serving others in the name of Christ, even when it means taking a personal risk.  This follows in the footsteps of Christ, who left the safety of Heaven and came to our dangerous and infested world to minister to us and bring the ultimate cure through his own blood.  I understand that early Christians who served during the plagues and contracted the sickness saw it as a form of martyrdom.  They were sharing Christ and gave their lives to do so.

The Message of Repentance

But what of the message of repentance?  Should a national crisis be an occasion to humbly look in the mirror?  Is this not a time to ask some tough questions of ourselves in humility and to pray for mercy?  It is not a popular message to point out that there is sin in the camp.  It is offensive to suggest that perhaps God is trying to get our attention.  But what good is it to bring comfort without repentance?  This is what the false prophets of old did and it ended with an even worse disaster.  True comfort and true peace only comes when we are in harmony with God according to his will.  His peace is peace in the midst of the storm.

I hesitate in writing this message, thinking, “This is not what the people need to hear.”  But perhaps this is exactly what we need to hear.  This is a reminder that our idols will not ultimately save us, whether it is government, medicine, or anything else of this creation.  Trust in anything other than God is crumbling wall that will fail when an enemy comes against it.  Whether it is a storm, or a virus, the walls we can build will fail.  Times like this remind should remind us of our need for our Lord and cause us to do an inventory of our life.  Are we in harmony with God?

I am reminded what Isaiah wrote in Isaiah

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Is 30:15).

Returning to God, which the Bible also calls “repentance,” and staying there in peaceful trust and obedience is our salvation.

The Sufficiency of God’s Grace for Christ Followers

God is gracious, and things such as these can be seen as one of his expressions of grace.  I think Paul came to understand this.

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:7-10).

God’s grace left Paul’s thorn in the flesh in place.  Paul called it a “messenger of Satan to harass” him.  Yet, God, in his wisdom and power, used it for good.  “My grace is sufficient for you.”  Oh, to remember these empowering words in times of difficulty.  God has given us all that we need.  We have all sufficiency in every situation when we are equipped with God’s grace.  The power and wisdom of God is not that he works in spite of these things, but that he works through these things.  Paul demonstrated that it takes a life of prayer, humility, and submission to God to gain this empowering perspective. 

Our confidence is that we know how it will all end.  The end will be the beginning for us.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Our confidence is that all things work together for good for those of us that have accepted Jesus as Lord and love God.  “All” includes sicknesses, disasters, dangers, and other things.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

However, the sobering reality is that the opposite is true for everyone else.  Nothing will ultimately work out for good for those who have not accepted Jesus as Lord and love God.  It may seem to be good for a season, and it may seem like peace, but without God, there is no peace. 

Grace.  It is what our Lord demonstrates to us in ways we are still learning.  It is what enables us to minister to others, even at great risk to ourselves.  It is what motivates us to love and compassion.  It is what moves us to share the message of repentance, hope, and reconciliation. 

The title of this reflection is, “Not a Comforting Message.”  But I realize that this depends on how we respond.  In Christ, we have comfort, even in our afflictions, and are able to comfort one another. 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.   For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.  You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor 1:3-11).

May you continue in the comfort, confidence, and grace of our Lord and be encouraged. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Lord's Table in the Presence of An Enemy

Obviously, some of the ways Communion is practiced among faithful Christians has not always been identical in every time or place.  The look of the table changes, the type of utensils change, and even some of the methods of making the wine/juice and bread changes.  In fact, the invention of grape juice that kept on the shelf without naturally fermenting was invented in 1869 by Thomas Welch, who invented a method of pasteurization that kept the juice from fermenting.  He marketed it as, “Welch’s unfermented wine.”  Prior to this, wine was much more common in communion.

It was also in the late 1800’s that individual communion cups began to be used.  Before this time, most churches used one or two single cups that everyone drank from.  Some churches had a couple more for the sake of time.  In the 1890’s churches began to use individual communion cups to help stop the spread of some of the outbreaks of disease at the time, including diphtheria and tuberculosis. 

There were those who opposed it.  Some claimed that there was no case of someone catching a disease from sharing a communion cup, and that the metal in the cups along with the wine made the cups an inhospitable place for germs.  Nevertheless, the individual cup became the standard for many churches.  But the majority eventually were in favor of it for practical reasons regarding sanitary concerns. 

I find the design of some of the early cups rather interesting.  The slanted design of the opening of the cups was to make it unnecessary for the congregant to have to throw their head backward while drinking the cup.  The reason for this was so that it did not resemble those who drank liquor from shot glasses.  They did not want drinking from those communion cups to resemble what people were doing in the bars.

The latest development of communion ware is the individually prepackaged cup and bread.  Last week as the first time I had ever used one of these.  The Corona Virus outbreak caused us to decide to use these for the same reason church leaders began using individual communion cups over 100 years ago.

In the midst of all of these developments, one thing has remained consistent and unchanged.  The two items remind us of the body and blood of the Lord.  They remind us that only he is our bread of life, our source of life and spiritual sustenance.  They remind us that he has brought us together as his body.  We gather as one people and one family around the Lord’s table!  He prepared this table for us in the presence of all our enemies.  Whether it is sin, powers and authorities opposed to him, or even a virus, nothing can snatch us out of his hand.  Our place at his table is secured by the blood that he shed for us, earning us a place at his table.  We are reminded that his life is our life.  We are reminded that he has bound himself to us in covenant that was executed through his own blood, the blood of our Lord!

Due to the current pandemic and the instructions of doctors, leaders, and other professionals, we are not able to meet together around the Lord’s Table at our regular meeting place.  Some do not have Welch’s grape juice or matza at home.  Some feel guilty for this.  Others feel like they are giving in to worldly worries and should “have faith” and meet anyway.  And there are those who have defied the instructions of our leaders and health professionals and decided to meet any way in groups of over a hundred people.  I am not sure that this is wise or even desirable.  As we have made the wise and godly decision to not meet physically, here are some truths to reflect on to keep all of this in perspective. 

First of all, the Lord’s Table is not something we have built, but something Jesus himself has built.  With wood, nails, and blood stain, he went to the cross in order to bring us around the Lord’s Table.  Every first day of the week, his people all around the world gather around his table.  Some gather under a tree, some gather in a building, some gather in their living rooms.  Regardless of the physical place or the physical furniture, the actual table of the Lord stretches all around the world. 

Second, God desires mercy and compassion over sacrifice.  This principle is what allowed hungry people to do a little gleaning on the Sabbath for their personal self when they were hungry in Matthew 12.  This principle is why Israel was able to still observe Passover in an unusual circumstance in 2 Chronicles 30, even though they did not have type to properly consecrate themselves.  Their desire to get right with God in the integrity of their heart, rather than carelessness was key.  Those who do not have Welch’s grape juice or matza on hand may find themselves trying to find something else in order to not miss out on communion.  It is a high point of the week for many people.  I remember a brother telling me, “No matter what happens through the week, when I meet the Lord at his table, it brings me back where I need to be.” 

Third, God is with us even in these unusual circumstances.  We are not able to meet physically at the present time due to the sickness.  Fortunately, we are able to connect with each other through the use of technology.  Whether it is through live streaming worship, communion, and a Bible lesson, or through participation in an online blog or study group, there are still ways we can stay connected. 

Fourth, faith, hope, and love do not diminish during times such as this.  Our faith is not in our health, but in our Lord, who overcame sin and all of the ills that came from it.  Our hope is the place he is preparing for us, where there will no longer be any more pain, mourning, or death.  Our love is what motivates us.  Paul himself said, “The Love of Christ COMPELS us.”  Our decision to not meet physically is motivated not from a sense of self-preservation as much as it is out of a sense of love for our fellow man.  We do not want to be the ones inadvertently spreading a sickness that may to the life of another.  So, we have decided to take precautions by not meeting as a large group.  This is another example of mercy over sacrifice.  This is also why ministry is still happening.   This motivation of love is something that has moved brethren to look after those not able to get out due to diminished health.  Whether it is delivering groceries or other supplies, or simply a phone call to make sure everything is okay, brethren are looking out after those who need it.  This is yet another way for the light of Christ to shine when the darkness comes.  Truly, perfect love casts out fear.

I recently read some timely remarks from Dr. Kent Brantley, the Christian doctor and fellow ACU graduate who was working with a Medical Mission Group several years ago in Africa.  He contracted the deadly Ebola virus and survived after receiving an experimental drug when he was returned to the states.  Concerning the Corona virus, Brantley said, “The coronavirus outbreak is an opportunity to "choose compassion over fear,"  He went on to say, “I am thankful to the many, many people who said 'yes' to me in the midst of my most desperate need, allowing me to be flown to Atlanta and treated at Emory," Brantly said. "I'm thankful for the compassion that was shown to me, and I will advocate for that same type of compassion to be shown to others, including other health care workers who put themselves in harm's way in order to protect the rest of us from a global epidemic. …Fear has a dehumanizing effect, both on those toward whom we project our fear as well as on ourselves.  We cannot allow fear, however reasonable it might seem, to dominate us and drive our decisions. We live in an interconnected world; the well-being of all of us is directly connected to the well-being of each of us. The best way to ensure self-preservation is through joining in the suffering of others and together finding the way forward."

This is the perspective of one who has accepted Christ as Lord and understands faith, hope, and love in Christ.  Our faith, hope, and love gives us the lens by which to see such things as this.  As we commune together, let’s meditate on all these things as give God thank for our hope which propels us into the love of God.