Wednesday, February 24, 2016

There Seems To Be A Lot Of Shouting These Days

There seems to be a lot of shouting these days.  I am not speaking of the arena of politics, nor am I speaking of the cultural clashes or the roar of thousands gathered to see a sporting contest.  Sadly, I am speaking of conflict within the church.

Throughout our land, churches are best with turmoil and division.  Factions of Christians have lined up against one another.  You have heard the labels, they sound as if they are names for sports teams or political parties: Liberal, Conservative, Progressive, Legalistic.  Voices are raised, tempers flare, feelings are hurts, and brothers are divided.

“You’re violating my conscience,” shouts one.  “You are weak in your understanding,” responds another.  “You’re seeking to destroy the church,” one levels.  “You’re just holding us back with your stubbornness,” chastises another.  “It’s my way or no way,” argues yet another.

The fighting seems to make a mockery of Jesus’ words, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13.35).  The shouting seems to dismiss the prayer of our Lord: “I ask . . . That they may be one” (Jn. 17.20-21).

It is human nature to defend what seems to be right and to promote that which is personally beneficial or comfortable.  However, our identity as Christians and as joint heirs of the eternal blessings of God demands that we defer to one another in love.  Paul’s words are clear: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were called in the one body” (Col. 3.12-15).

In this spirit, may each of us defer to one another in love.  May our shouts be reduced to civility.  May our separate agendas be replaced with the unified agenda of proclaiming God’s eternal love to a lost and dying world.  We can get along, we can be one, and we can impact our world with the Gospel of Christ, but we must begin by humbling ourselves.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Staying the Course

taying the course is not always easy.

The Gospel writer describes the resoluteness of Jesus as he set out for Jerusalem, despite knowing the tragedy that would occur there.  In Luke 9.51, the description is given, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  A rather matter-of-fact statement.  A statement that subtly underscores the determination with which Christ set out on the path that would lead to his death.

The statement should remind one of the words Isaiah spoke about the one called the “Lord’s Servant.”  This servant is the Messiah, the one God would send as deliverer and redeemer.

The Lord’s Servant speaks of the difficult and trying times he would face, of the opposition that would be pitted against him, and he concludes in Isaiah 50.7, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.”

The Lord’s Servant affirms that God will be with him during his time of trial and that he will overcome, with God’s help, the opposition he will face.  The Servant is able to declare, “I have set my face like flint,” a statement declaring his resolve to be faithful to the task given him by God.

Jesus, writes Luke, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  He would go to the place of the cross with the same spirit of resolve exhibited by God’s Servant.

Do we share in Jesus’ resolve as we follow in his steps and obey the will of our Father?  So many distractions vie for our gaze; it is so difficult, at times, to concentrate on the task at hand . . . faithful service to God.

Let us refocus and become more resolute as we follow the steps of our Savior and Lord.  Our God will surely provide us with the strength we need.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Trouble Was, He Never One a Battle

General George S. McClellan was a smart general. Trouble was, he never won a battle.

McClellan graduated first in his class at West Point. His intellect was better than most. As the Civil War erupted, President Abraham Lincoln called on McClellan to be commander of the Union Army of Northern Virginia, the main fighting force arrayed against the armies of the Confederacy.

In every respect, McClellan's force was superior to that of his Confederate counterpart. He had General Robert E. Lee out-manned, out-gunned, out-resourced, and out-trained. Unfortunately, McClellan lacked the initiative and daring of Lee and the Confederate Army.

McClellan was timid. Before he sent his troops into battle he wanted every "i" dotted and every "t" crossed. He spent hour after hour drilling his troops and scouting out the enemy, waiting for the perfect momen to strike. As noble as his efforts were, they were all for naught. McClellan's army never won a battle against its adversary.

Timidiy can cripple the strongest man in the world and make him susceptible to the smallest of foes. Timidity on the part of churches has resulted in an attitude of complacency (if not downright satisfaction) expressed toward dwindling numbers. Timidity on the part of churches has resulted in a desire to focus on the home-front while the mission field is neglected. Timidity on the part of churches has resulted in the abandonment of the number one rule of church growth: "Plant the seed, and God will provide the growth." Timidity on the part of churches has resulted on congregations that have little or no standing in the community and that have virtually no reputation for doing good. Timidity on the part of churches finds fulfillment in the status quo.

Boldness (notice, I did not say brashness) . . . boldness is a product of faith. It is confidence in God's eternal presence and provision of his people. Let us boldly be the people of God in this world. Let us not be intimidated by any task. Let us not doubt any outcome. Let us boldly put to use our abilities, resources, and opportunities. Let us not give the initiative to our Enemy, for timidity has never led one to victory, but is all-to-often the path to defeat.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Naming of God in the Story of Noah

An intriguing feature of the story of Noah and the Great Flood, one that almost goes unnoticed, is the naming of God in the story.  God has two names in the story of the Flood.  These two names give added meaning to the story; indeed I don’t know if the story can be fully appreciated without the knowledge that in it God is given two names.

For much of the story, God is referred to by the name Elohim.  The name, in English, is simply, “God.”  Elohim is a rather generic name for God.  It is the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible.  Elohim emphasizes the majesty and transcendence of God above all creation and over all other gods.  The name can even be translated “God of gods” or “All gods in One,” for that is the concept inherent in the name.

In certain scenes of the Flood narrative, though, God is called by the name YahwehYahweh (or, Jehovah), in English, is “Lord,” or “Lord God”  (The term “Lord God” is Yahweh Elohim).  Yahweh is the most personal name for God in the Old Testament.  Yahweh was the name given by God to Moses at the sigh of the burning bush in Exodus 3, on the occasion of God calling Moses to return to Egypt and free his people from bondage.  Yahweh is God’s covenant name, the name of God that stresses his great love for and interest in the well-being of man.  Yahweh is a very intimate name; it is the name God cautioned the Jews to not misuse in the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  (Although, the Jews misapplied the meaning of this command; they went as far as condemning the public usage of the name and even its mere utterance and writing.)

In the Flood narrative, the name Yahweh is used strategically and purposefully.  It is used in three specific scenes, along with an isolated fourth reference.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 6.5-8, the scene where God’s sorrow over the sinfulness of the world is expressed.  It is here, in this paragraph, where God’s intent to judge the world is made known and where Noah’s finding favor in the sight of the Lord is reported.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 7.1-5, the scene where God commands Noah to enter the ark, taking with him seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every unclean animal.  God tells him (in more detail than before) of what is going to transpire; namely, the world will be destroyed by flood and only those onboard the ark will survive.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 7.16, in the statement, “And the Lord shut them in,” describing God’s action of closing the door on the ark.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 8.20-22, the scene where Noah, having just left the ark, offers sacrifices to God.  God’s favorable response to the sacrifices is noted.

In each of these scene, God is shown acting in a personal manner; in other words, he is shown having human qualities and behaviors.  In Gen. 6.5-8 and 7.1-5, God sees.  What he sees, causes him sorrow (he has emotions).  In 7.16, he shuts the door of the ark (an action).  In 8.20-22, he smells the offering made by Noah, and he is pleased (again, and action and emotion).  In these passages, God is shown acting in a personal manner: he senses, he has emotions, and he acts.

What is the effect of this composite portrayal of God?  He is real.  God is a participant in the story—an active participant.  He is not a distant deity destroying the world on a whim.  He is an involved God fully conscious of what he is doing.

In his alternating between Elohim and Yahweh, the inspired author is teaching us that God takes an active interest in the affairs of man.

Remember, Elohim is a name for God that emphasizes his greatness, his transcendence above all else.  It is an important name, a name we should know and respect, but it is a name, when used by itself, which gives us an incomplete picture of God.

It is easy to see God as aloof, distant, above everything.  Many see God as all-consumed in himself, we cannot rise to his level, he cannot stoop to ours, so there is this wide gulf between God and man.
In the Flood story, it is easy to see God in this light.  A perfect God destroying a far-less-than-perfect world.  The act could be seen as being doing by a God who could care less.  He can always start over and make a more perfect world.

But, no, God has a vested interest in his creation.  He has an infatuation (wholesome, mind you) with his creation, namely mankind.  This vested interest is made manifest in the name, Yahweh.

The story of the Flood is not merely about a transcendent God doing what he has the power to do—that is, to destroy what stands opposed to him.  The story of the Flood is a about a transcendent God who cares deeply and eternally for his creation, no matter to what extreme they have gone to hurt him and from whom they have distanced themselves.

In the story of the Flood, God is not looking to destroy man, but to have fellowship with him.  Punishment is due (and deserved), but restoration is offered.  God delivers humanity by taking Noah and his family and delivering them from the Flood.  Indeed it really is more a story about Noah (man) than a story about a Great Flood.

Believe it or not, I received a lot of spankings as a child.  My dad could give a good spanking.  He wore a wide heavy belt; it stung; it got the message across (I was just a slow learner).  But, I remember that every spanking was followed by a hug.  Why a hug?  It was my fathers’ way of reaffirming his love for me.  My behavior demanded punishment, but that did not mean he had stopped loving me.  I remained his son, he remained my father, and the hug reinforced these truths.
Just as a father hugs his son after disciplining him, the alternating names used in the story of Noah affirm God’s eternal love for mankind.  He is Elohim, and his greatness demands our respect and reverence—he remains King and Judge.  He is Yahweh, and his love for us is everlasting—he wants to be our Father.
Jeff Foster

Churches Must Be Places of Healing

Each time I read the Gospel of Luke, I am impressed with the responsiveness of “sinners” to Jesus.  This responsiveness and the ease and care with which Jesus reacts provides insight into how churches can and must grow.

One scene from the Third Gospel stands out more than any other.  The story is told in Luke 7.36-50 of Jesus being entertained in the home of Simon, a Pharisee.  During the meal a woman enters the house and comes to Jesus.  “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair” (v. 38).  The action of this woman repulses the host, because this woman was “a sinner” (32), a woman of the streets, a prostitute.

The exchange that follows between Simon and Jesus is instructive.  Jesus condemns the man’s prejudice, and commends the woman’s contriteness.  He concludes, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (47).

This episode illustrates an important truth about the Gospel and provides insight into how church growth should be viewed.  This woman, convicted of her sins (at the very least, moved to find healing and wholeness) comes to Jesus.  She views Jesus as one who could help her, one who would be compassionate, one who would not drive her out into the streets again, one who would not condemn and exclude.  Perhaps she had witnesses his interaction with others.  Perhaps she had heard of his gentleness from those he had met.  And, as she came, she found the one she sought: the Lord, who, with gentleness not scorn, responded mercifully and decisively.

What is the challenge for the church?  What is the pattern given for church growth?  Are we viewed by the broader society and community as an “institution” (I do not like the word, but it fits) where the “sinner” can come and find the answers for which they are searching?  In other words, does the person on the street view the church as a people where he could and should be a part?  Does he see us as a gentle and merciful people and not as scornful and harsh?

Yet another way to ask the question: are we “pricking people’s hearts” with the Gospel (see Acts 2.37), or are we shaming them with our self-righteous smugness?

Zacchaeus sought out Jesus.  Jesus did not reject Peter when the fisherman said, “Lord, I am a sinner.”  He touched the leper.  He ate in the home of Levi.  He told the story of the Samaritan.  He condemned the old brother of the prodigal.  He blessed the centurion with the healing of his servant.  He restored Legion to renewed health and mind.
I am afraid that most churches today are viewed by the broader society and culture as peoples and places of exclusion and condemnation.  We are not seeker-friendly.  A poverty of spirit (Lk. 6.20) is needed in our churches.  We should look and feel more like hospitals than country clubs.

The mission of Christ needs to serve as our inspiration.  At Nazareth, he declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4.18-19).  To those who criticized his fraternizing with Levi, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5.31-32).  To Zacchaeus, he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (19.10).  And, in the context of his lost but found parables, he explains, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15.7)

When churches are viewed as a people of acceptance and as places of healing, phenomenal growth can and will take place.  It is an evaluation, however, that is not produced passively.  In other words, merely leaving the door open does not answer the challenge.  We must be present and visible in the broader community.  Our lack of conformity does not demand isolation.  (After all, salt must be tasted and light must shine.)  We must be present in the world, upholding what is good, opposing what is not (see Ephesians 5.11), and aiming to draw people to us and not driving them away.

A humility of spirit, all-encompassing faith, and a deep, genuine compassion for all persons are the fundamental building blocks needed in the construction of churches.  The eyes of Jesus were cast on the hurting and those in need; our gaze must be directed in the same way.  We must understand that we are all digging our way out of the same pit (rather, we are all being rescued out of the same pit!).

This is why our buildings need windows!  What message do we send when our gaze cannot be cast beyond bricks and mortar?  What message do we send when we cannot present ourselves transparently before the world?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What God Has Brought Together . . .

Since the middle of October I have been preaching through Jesus' Sermon On the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This morning, our study brought us to Matthew 5.31-32, Jesus' statement on divorce and remarriage. I have been somewhat apprehensive about approaching this text, because of the trajectory my life has taken over the past 5 years. I did put a sermon together and preached it this morning. I humbly submit it to you, here, in written form. I pray that you will find these words a blessing. I would enjoy your comments and the wisdom you bring to this hard subject.

Did you read the Sermon On the Mount this week? This morning, we continue our study of this important part of the Bible. We come to a very difficult subject and one that is deeply personal to many of us here in this room.

But, first a little lightheartedness: A man visits a lawyer to seek a divorce. The lawyer asked, “Do you have any Grounds?” The man replied: “About three acres.” The lawyer tried again, “No, I mean do you have a Grudge?” The man answered, “No, but we have a carport.” The lawyer made one last effort: “Are you really sure you want a divorce?” The client replied, “No, I don’t, but my wife does. She says we can’t communicate!”

That’s about as humorous as the subject before us this morning gets.

DIVORCE. A scary word. A word that we’d rather not hear. A word that represents much pain and heartache, distress . . . even shame. Everyone of us here today has been affected by the sorrow of failed marriages. I have experienced divorce firsthand . . . my first marriage failed . . . many of you have walked in those same shoes . . . some of you have had children that have suffered divorce . . . some of you have experienced the divorce of your parents.

In 1999, thirteen years ago!, a study showed that 25% of adults in the United States have had a marriage end in divorce . . . one out of four adults in this country! Did you know that among those who call themselves “born-again” Christians the percentage of divorced adults is 27% . . . two percentage points HIGHER than the public at large.

Divorce is not merely “of the world” . . . it’s in the church, as well . . . indeed I would say that at least a third of the adults in this room today have been divorced, including myself.

So, what does Jesus teach about divorce? He addresses the subject in the Sermon On the Mount.

In Matthew 5.31-32, Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Do you see the pattern? The pattern that Jesus has repeatedly employed in this section of His Sermon On the Mount? Notice, Jesus says, “It was also said,” similar to the refrain from earlier verses, “You have heard that it was said.” And that is followed by, “But I tell You” (as we also see in vv. 21 and 27). This pattern will again be employed in vv. 33, 38, and 43.

What Jesus is doing is taking portions of the Law (the writings of Moses) and reciting them to His audience as their teachers (the Pharisees and scribes) were teaching them during that time. And He contrasts those teachings with proper applications of them for His disciples to employ in their lives.

Remember, the Pharisees, and those like them, emphasized the letter of the law . . . their’s was a religion of rule-keeping . . . crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. And they sought ways to skirt around God’s laws . . . to do JUST what was required and nothing more. But, Jesus is calling for a deeper obedience . . . He says that our righteousness must “surpass” that of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not a matter of mere rule keeping, but a desire from the heart to BE the person God wants me to be. Jesus is emphasizing the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. And, so, He takes a portion of the Law that had been misapplied, or glossed over, and says let Me tell you what this principle truly means in the lives of My disciples.

And, so, Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’” He is referring to something Moses said in Deuteronomy 24.

Deuteronomy 24.1-4a: Moses said, “If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the second man hates her, writes her a divorce certificate, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house or if he dies, the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the Lord.”

Notice, Moses neither encourages or commands divorce. He basically presents one long conditional sentence . . . saying that if this set of conditions occurs, then this is how the matter should be handled. Moses’ interest in the matter is not so much focused on “divorce” as it is on the treatment of the woman affected by the divorce.

As Moses is outlining this instruction, there was great disparity between men and women. A husband was the unquestioned master of the house and of marriage. If he chose to dismiss his wife, SHE had little recourse. He could throw her out . . . and, out on her own, she would be in a very precarious situation . . . especially if she sought to remarry. She could be accused of adultery for remarrying, and would have little ability to prove otherwise. And, in Moses’ day, the penalty for adultery was not merely the inability to remarry . . . BUT it was death . . . if you were guilty of adultery, you were to be stoned.

So, Moses says that the husband who divorced his wife MUST give her documentation, a “certificate of divorce,” declaring her purity. Moses also guards against further manipulation of the woman by saying that her first husband cannot then subsequently remarry her, if she has been divorced by another man. In effect, Moses is saying that you can’t go in and out of marriage at a whim.

People in Jesus’ day, notably the Pharisees, were using this instruction from Moses to JUSTIFY divorce. Thus, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’”

In fact, as Jesus sat on the hillside near the Sea of Galilee and delivered His Sermon On the Mount, a rather hotly-debated controversy was being fought between two factions of Pharisees over Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 24. It was a debate that broiled for many decades. The battle hinged on Moses’ words, “she becomes displeasing to him,” and “he finds something improper about her.”

On one side of the issue was the school of Rabbi Shammai, who took the conservative line. He and his followers taught that Moses allowed for divorce, but only because some “grave marital offense” had been committed. Shammai argued that this offense was an act of “absolute indecency”—basically, an act of infidelity . . . not necessarily limited to promiscuity, but a “major” offense.

On the other side of the issue was the school of Rabbi Hillel, who adopted a much more lax position . . . and, the more widely-accepted view during Jesus’ day. Hillel and his followers argued that Moses gave permission to a husband to divorce his wife for any action of hers that upset him. For instance, Hillel argued that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by adding too much salt, or if she were seen in public with her head uncovered, or if she talked to other men on the street, or if she spoke disrespectfully to her husband’s parents, or if she became “plain-looking” compared with other women who seemed more beautiful in her husband’s eyes. These are laughable, but they were viewed as legitimate reasons for divorce in Jesus’ day.

The situation isn’t much different today, is it? Don’t people still divorce for just about any and every reason imaginable? A man in Hazard, Kentucky divorced his wife because she “beat him whenever he removed onions from his hamburger without asking for permission.” A deaf man in Bennettsville, South Carolina filed for divorce because his wife “was always nagging him in sign language.” A woman in Canon City, Colorado divorced her husband because he forced her to “duck under the dashboard whenever they drove past his former girlfriend’s house.” And a woman in Hardwick, Georgia divorced her husband on the grounds that he “stayed home too much and was much too affectionate.” These are actual statements made by plaintiffs seeking divorces. Did you know that every state in our union except South Dakota has some sort of law in place allowing for what is commonly called “no fault divorce”? It essentially means that either spouse in a marriage can file and petition for divorce for any and all reasons, or no reason at all.

This was essentially the view of the School of Rabbi Hillel . . . although it was a prerogative of only the husband . . . the wife had no legal standing to divorce her husband. She was at his mercy . . . or lack thereof!

Jesus is called into this debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. In Matthew 19 we have recorded an exchange that took place between Jesus and some Pharisees.

Matthew 19.3: “Some Pharisees approached Jesus to test Him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?’”

In other words, they are asking, “Which Rabbi do you side with, Shammai or Hillel?” They might as well have been asking Jesus, “Are you a conservative or a liberal on the matter of divorce?”

Jesus responds in vv. 4-6: He said, “Haven’t you read that He who created them in the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.”

Jesus’ answer must have surprised the Pharisees. Undoubtedly, they expected Him to cite Moses in Deuteronomy, but He doesn’t . . . Jesus goes all the way back to the beginning . . . to the creation of man . . . and in doing so, stresses the permanence of marriage.

Jesus says that God’s ultimate plan, the ideal, is that marriage: (1) is between one man and one woman; (2) is for life; and (3) is an institution created by God.

The Pharisees shout back: “Why then did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?” (v. 7).

Notice the attitude. The Pharisees saw Moses’ instruction as a license to divorce. They totally missed the point that Moses was simply speaking in the woman’s defense.

Jesus responds. In vv. 8-9, he says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning. And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Jesus doesn’t take the bait . . . He’s not going to referee the controversy that was waging between Rabbis Shammai and Hillel. They were all about the permissiveness of divorce . . . that was their focus . . . whether it be the conservatives who limited it to some serious sin on the part of the woman, or the liberals who said it could be because of any offense brought to the husband . . . their focus was merely on the rights of the man to the end the marriage.

Jesus dismisses that battle as essentially a misreading (or, misapplying) of Moses’ instruction. And, in a manner of speaking, Jesus says, “Back up a moment, and remember what marriage is. It is a relationship created and given by God to a man and woman . . . it isn’t some trivial matter. It is a serious relationship that can’t just be thrown away on a whim. The cause of the failure of a marriage must be isolated to an act that in and of itself desecrates the very bond of marriage . . . like adultery.”

And, this is what Jesus also says in the Sermon On the Mount. Again, in Matthew 5.31-32, Jesus teaches, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

First of all, notice, the focus of Jesus’ teaching is on the MAN . . . the husband . . . HE “causes her to commit adultery,” and the man who “marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Now, certainly, Jesus’ teaching applies to both men and women, to husbands and wives, especially in our day and time when there is a certain equality of rights and actions for men and women, BUT, it seems to me, that Jesus is not-so-subtly leveling the “gender” playing field.

Remember, in Jesus’ day (and in Moses’ day), it was the men who had the power . . . whether it be in society, or in the family. According to the customs of the day, a MAN could divorce his wife, but a WIFE had no such ability. And, at least in the eyes of the more progressive-thinking Pharisees, a man could dismiss his wife for ANY reason.

To this mindset, Jesus puts the SIN of the divorce squarely at the feet of the husband . . . YOU cause “her to commit adultery,” he says. And, it would seem, the one who seeks to benefit from the callousness of the first man “commits adultery” when he “marries a divorced woman.”

In Matthew 19.9, Jesus’ focus is even more squarely on the man. He says, “And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

And, in Mark 10.11, the point is even clearer. There, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against HER.”

I see this focus on the MAN as being a primary reason for the strength of Jesus’ statement about divorce and remarriage. He’s employing a bit of hyperbole here to make a point . . . to stress the seriousness of the subject . . . much like what He says in the preceding verses about the temptations we have. Remember, Jesus says in Matt. 5.29, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away,” and, in v. 30, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Gouge out your eye . . . cut off your hand . . . obviously exaggerations to make a point about the seriousness of temptation.

And, so, likewise, here, Jesus is using a rather pointed statement to get the attention of those men who thought they had license to summarily dismiss their wives without much cause or concern for their plight.

But, there’s more.

The debate between Rabbis Shammai and Hillel was much more a battle of semantics than anything else. They were debating the meaning of words that Moses used many centuries before. To Shammai, Moses meant something akin to adultery. To Hillel it was anything that brought displeasure to the husband. These two rabbinical schools could not agree . . . and so in their struggle to be RIGHT on the subject they forgot the true importance of Moses’ instruction. In a battle over semantics (the meaning and use of words) the Pharisees reduced the sanctity of marriage to just another issue to fight over.

But Jesus, in both the Sermon On the Mount and especially later in Matthew 19, returns the focus to the sanctity of marriage.

Remember, when the Pharisees come to Him and ask Him to pick sides in the Shammai-Hillel debate, Jesus ignores the controversy over semantics and instead makes an appeal to what was true at the very beginning . . . that God had given marriage to a man and woman . . . it was not a relationship of convenience . . . but a holy bond.

The Pharisees debated when and how they could break that bond, BUT Jesus is saying, in essence, treasure that bond . . . value it . . . don’t be wrapped up in how can be nullified.

Today, sadly, the battlefield has shifted. Instead of fighting over the semantics of “adultery,” and trying to determine what is meant by “grave marital offense,” we fight over the “semantics” of “remarriage” . . . over when it is permissible for a divorced person to remarry.

Wouldn’t you agree? There’s been a lot of ink spilled (and probably more than a little blood, too) over the subject of divorce and remarriage. Families have become divided over it . . . churches, too. And the differing camps are as impassioned about their stances as were Rabbis Shammai and Hillel in Jesus’ day.

But, sadly, the battle is fought in the midst of half-truths and innuendos and speculations . . . in other words, we place ourselves as judges of relationships that are not our own and that we only view from the outside.

Do we get as worked up when somebody lies and sins? . . . treats another rudely and sins? . . . is improper with finances and sins? . . . dishonors his parents and sins? . . . withholds from God and sins? Do you catch the drift of what I am saying? We’re so quick to point fingers at another and question the validity of their divorce and remarriage, that we forget to notice our own sin.

Yes, divorce can certainly be sinful . . . but, it can also be that act of last resort that must be taken in a relationship that has become fractured beyond repair, and, worse, has become dangerous to one’s health and well-being. But, God is the judge of the merits of that . . . not me, not you.

Yes, remarriage after divorce can be sinful, but it also can be permissible in the judgment of God . . . and, I emphasize that, “in the judgment of God.”

I like the words of John Stott. He writes, “To be preoccupied with the grounds for divorce [and remarriage] is to be guilty of the very pharisaism which Jesus condemned.”

It is important to realize, we cannot undo the past. We can simply live this day forward in the best way that we can.

Let me say that again: we cannot undo the past, we can simply live this day forward in the best way that we can.

We all have past regrets . . . mistakes . . . things that we wish we had done differently. And it’s not always a matter of ruing over past sins. Sometimes it is a desire to have made wiser choices than were made . . . taking a more constructive course in life.

For some of us, those regrets involve the choices over who we married, or how we conducted ourselves in that marriage, or how that marriage may have come to an end, or what happened in the years that followed. But, no matter how strong our regrets are, we cannot go back and undo what has happened . . . the pieces cannot be reassembled as if nothing had happened.

  We can simply take this day, TODAY, and live it to God’s glory, knowing that the past is gone, forgiven by a gracious and merciful God, but realizing, too, that there are ongoing consequences from past choices . . . the issues related to divorce LINGER (especially if you have children involved) . . . but taking TODAY and committing ourselves to honoring God with the rest of our days.

I am reminded of the words Jesus shared with a woman caught in adultery.

  He said, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus didn’t dwell in the woman’s past, or grill her over past choices and past sins. He simply helped her in the present and said, “Go and sin no more.”

Make TODAY a turning point, Jesus says, and live the rest of your days honoring God.

For those of us who have been personally affected by divorce and remarriage, those are encouraging words!

In His Sermon On the Mount Jesus says to those who want to be His disciples, “Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.”

The Pharisees were caught up in semantics, the meaning use of words . . . there’s was a religion of rule keeping. Jesus is calling us to something more.

  Instead of debating when and how a person might get out of marriage, Jesus says VALUE marriage . . . HONOR that bond. Instead of fighting over the subjects of divorce and remarriage and the semantics that surround the issues, we should be much more focused on promoting marriage and creating marriages that last.

Very quickly, here are some basic strategies for creating marriages that last. I offer these especially to the kids that are in here today and to those who are unmarried.

(1) View marriage as a sacred institution created and given by God.

(2) Find a mate who is committal in ways that extend beyond marriage.

(3) Look at yourself: value the commitments you make.

(4) Know that love is not the absence of conflict.

(5) Marry a Christian.

(6) Develop a mutual faith with your mate.

(7) Be humble. Always put the needs of your mate above your own.

One of the greatest gifts I have been given in life are the examples of my parents and grandparents. In July, my parents will celebrate 43 years of marriage. Yesterday would have been the 67th wedding anniversary of my mother’s parents, were my grandfather still living. Indeed I was blessed to have been at the Golden Anniversary celebrations of both sets of my grandparents.

We are blessed here in this congregation to have couples who have stood the tests of time . . . and provide to us such an example of love and commitment. They are the ideal! They are what its all about. Let’s honor them. Let’s be encouraged by them. Let’s learn from them . . . as we each strive to honor God each day forward.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Budding Photogs?

My youngest daughters, Hannah (11) and Grace (9), celebrated birthdays recently.  I gave each a digital camera.  They have been having fun taking photos with their new cameras.  As you can tell from these sample shots they are still trying to figure out things like "focus" and "framing," but I am impressed with their budding artistry.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mack Brown on Conference Realignment

I am an Oklahoma Sooner fan, but I greatly respect Mack Brown of the University of Texas.  His take on the conference realignment talks is a view worth hearing.  The following is from an article posted on

Mack Brown:

"What I'm concerned about is the players and their parents," Brown said. "As much as we talk about money, as much as we talk about college football, as much as we talk about realignment, as much as we talk about great games, playoffs and all that stuff, we better go back and make sure that we're taking care of the players and that the players and the high school coaches are always considered in the equation.

"Because if not, we're not going to have a game, and they're the ones that are playing. And, for parents to travel all the way across the country is going to put a bigger burden on them," Brown added. "It's going to be more difficult. And right now with the regional leagues the parents can go see their kids play and that's really important because these kids are working their guts out year-round for us to have a show on Saturday that everyone enjoys.

"College football's as great as it's ever been, but we better keep considering what's in the best interest of the players or at some point they're going to get so frustrated it won't be fun for them."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Acts 8.4 . . . A Calling for Today

It seems that the common strategies for church growth consist of a polished and charismatic preacher, a large and ultra-modern facility, and dozens of active programs, among other flashy qualities. The mega-church model is certainly effective, and it is a good thing that these groups are making large impacts for the sake of Christ. BUT, there is another way to share the Gospel . . . more subtle, and even under the radar, but no less important and necessary.

Vocational ministry has been around a long time, even since the beginning days of the church. In fact, vocational ministry certainly predates the professional variety. I doubt Peter ever took much of a paycheck for his preaching . . . perhaps he benefited from the provision of a meal here and there, and perhaps the use of a "bed" to lay his head. And, Paul, often labored with his hands to make possible his evangelistic work. Certainly, the prospects of a consistent salary, housing allowances, IRAs, health insurance, and the like, were centuries away from becoming reality, and, it may seem now, the norm, and expected. BUT, in the beginning days of Christianity, the Gospel was shared, for the most part, by neighbor to neighbor, from one layman to another.

Christianity has made impressive gains in the past 20 centuries. Millions upon millions of people profess faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. And, professional ministry has surely played a big role in this spread. BUT, how much of the growth is the product of ordinary men and women sharing their faith with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers? Surely, a considerable amount.

The example of Acts 8.4 is often overlooked . . . a quick bridge verse connecting the stoning of Stephen with the remarkable ministry of Philip. The verse reads, "So those who were scattered went on their way proclaiming the message of good news." This description comes following a statement that the apostles had remained behind in Jerusalem. The church continued to grow, despite the persecution. The church continued to grow, because of the testimony of the laity . . . average, ordinary men and women convicted in their faith and devoted to sharing what they had discovered in Jesus. Yes, the professionals hit the paths to the mission fields, as well, and educated preachers would make their mark for the sake of Christ. BUT, the church grew, largely, because of the efforts of countless nameless believers.

I live in the western United States, near the shared border of New Mexico and Arizona. Churches here are, for the most part, small, aging and struggling. The mega-church model exists hundreds and thousands of miles from us; it is a model that does not mesh with reality here. The growth strategies of a highly skilled and polished preacher, an imposing facility, and around-the-clock programming are often qualities that are unrealistic here. So, how is the church to grow? Through simplicity, basically, and because of the labors of ordinary men and women. In other words, the ones sitting in the pews must get up and work, and lead, and follow in the steps of Acts 8.4.

BUT, here's a thought and a modern calling . . . how much good could be done by couples trained in various fields--teaching, medicine, business, etc.--relocating from large and effective churches to small and struggling ones? What I am suggesting is that couples and individuals, mature in their faith, and from communities where the church is strong, relocate to areas in the West (and other parts of the country) where the church is weak. For example, a couple graduating with education degrees from Abilene Christian University might choose to find jobs in a town like Aztec, New Mexico or Holbrook, Arizona or Blanding, Utah for the expressed purpose of becoming active in the local church and being a boost to that congregation . . . taking this course, instead of finding employment in Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio, cities where the church is strong, and where one's addition to a congregation would be largely inconsequential (in terms of that church's effectiveness in ministry and outreach).

I call this a modern calling inspired by the example of Acts 8.4, and I find it an important and necessary strategy for church growth in areas where the church (and the Gospel testimony) does not have the footprint it does in other places.

Join me at my new blog, I devote this blog to what I am terming the Acts 8.4 Calling. This blog will be a sounding-board and bulletin board with the expressed purpose of encouraging and facilitating vocational missions (and, particularly, of the variety described in this article). The articles I post there will include profiles of communities where the church is alive but in need of help; in other words, an introduction to places where "transplanted" Christians could be a big help. These profiles will include a description of the communities at large, a survey of employment opportunities, contact information (where known), and other vital information. I invite your feedback and contributions.

Help me make this Acts 8.4 Calling a meaningful and productive ministry.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pray for Rain!!!

A photo certainly worth a 1,000 words . . . and some tears!

(Photo of wildfire burning near Bastrop, Texas)

Please pray for rain to come to Texas and drench these awful fires.
Our God is much greater than any wildfire.

Now is the time for a well-placed tropical depression!

Predictions for NFL 2011

Are you ready for some football? I must admit that unlike most seasons, my enthusiasm is lacking for this NFL season. But, come Thursday, I'm sure the excitement will have returned. So, here are my predictions for the upcoming season. Don't run to Vegas with them, 'cause if it's like most seasons . . . these will look fairly ridiculous by season's end.

NFC Playoffs

Philadelphia Eagles

New Orleans Saints

Green Bay Packers

San Francisco 49er's

WC-Dallas Cowboys

WC-Detroit Lions (and, no, I'm not smoking anything!)

AFC Playoffs

New England Patriots

Pittsburgh Steelers

Houston Texans

San Diego Chargers

WC-New York Jets

WC-Indianapolis Colts (unless Peyton misses 4 games)

Super Bowl

Cowboys def. Jets (and, no, I'm still not smoking anything!)

And, yes, I still miss the man in the hat!!!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Thriving In a Certain Place

Last week I stood in front of the largest and one of the oldest living things on earth. This is little old me standing in front of the General Sherman Tree, growing high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

The General Sherman Tree stands 275 feet high. Its trunk has a circumference of over 100 feet. At its base, the tree has a diameter of 36 feet. It weighs over 2,100 tons, the equivalent of 50 blue whales. If placed in the middle of an interstate highway, it would totally block both lanes of traffic and hang out over the shoulders.

This tree, the king of all Giant Sequoias is estimated to have sprung forth as a sapling 2,500 years ago. Think about that . . . this tree began its long life over a century before Alexander the Great was marched his armies across the steppes of Asia. It was already 400 years old when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It's as old as the oldest sections of the Great Wall. It has weathered the lifetimes of 120+ generations of humans. It has "seen" Halley's Comet come and go 33 times.

The Giant Sequoias grow so large and old because of their great resilience. These trees are basically impervious to disease, rot, and ravages of fire. It's thick skin (the bark is 3 feet thick in places) and wide spread (but shallow) root system make it largely resistant to the stresses that bring lesser trees down.

There's another important key to its growth and longevity. The Giant Sequoias ONLY grow in a certain, specific and limited environment. They can only be found growing on the west facing slopes of the Sierra Nevadas between an elevation of 5,000-7,000 feet above sea level.

And, herein, I find a parallel.

In Matthew 6.25 & 33, Jesus tells us, "Don't worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn't life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and ALL these things will be provided for you."

In a way similar to the Giant Sequoias thriving only in a certain place, true prosperity and peace in our lives can only be found in Christ and the good things God gives to his children. So, take care in where you put your roots and from where and in what you draw your sustenance. May we ever grow tall and strong in the care of our God.

(The top photo was taken by Nancy Foster on 8-22-2011 at Sequoia National Park. The bottom photo is borrowed from Wikipedia.)