God’s Open Secrets

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Romans 16:25-27

The world is filled with secrets. We like secrets and secret places. Victoria’s Secret has been discovered. The secret is that nobody who is older than thirty can fit into her stuff. Jack Gulledge the retired editor of Mature Living told one of his favorite jokes – A mischievous man walked up to an elderly woman and asked, “Lady, how old are you?” She indignantly replied, “Sir, my age is my business!” The man then countered, “Well, lady, it looks like you’ve been in business a long time.”

M. F. Ashley’s Montagu’s book entitled Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, includes the story of a wife of a Worcester Cathedral Canon who listened to the first announcement of the theory of evolution with consternation. “Descended from the apes!” she exclaimed. “My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known!” Some secrets are worth keeping. Others are too good to keep.

Paul writes to the Corinthian Church and says, We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. The mature are those Christians who have some spiritual maturity. They would not be new converts or Christians not interested in learning more about themselves or God. The ones Paul would say have to be fed with “milk.” No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. God’s secret wisdom? Sounds almost like scripture text from Romans! “…the mystery hidden for long ages past….” What is this secret of God? It is a secret that Paul says, None of the rulers of this age understood it…for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. (1 Cor 2:6)

The word “mystery,” in the Bible, properly means a thing that is “concealed,” or that “has been concealed.” It does not mean that the thing was “incomprehensible,” or even difficult to be understood. The thing might be “plain” enough if revealed, but it means simply that it “had” not been before made known. We know with God there will always be some secrets or mystery. Where did God come from? Explain the Trinity? We can’t even begin. We can only accept it-a mystery, disclosed in Scripture. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”

In a seminary class that forced us to look at our individual callings, I shared about all of the odd things that had happened in my life. The death of my natural mother. The dreams. Some of the unexplainable happenings. One person said, “The mystery of God is very real for you.”

I have always resonated to two quotations: “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived” and “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” A Federal Judge lives in one of the homes behind the church. One day a few years ago, the police came and blocked off the whole neighborhood. A package had arrived at the judge’s home without a return address or any identifying marks. The bomb squad found clothes in the package that the judge’s parents had mailed him for his birthday. We fear secrets, we fear the unknown.

Paul’s writing in Romans is a doxology that centers in God’s ability or power to strengthen the readers. This mystery has to do with God’s reaching both Jew and Gentile through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Here is the secret, God will win! He who created the universe will be the one to destroy it and make it anew. He who created humanity will also be the one to judge and redeem humanity. But we ask, didn’t anyone tell the Devil? Satan honestly thinks he is going to win the war.

However, there is only one way you will understand that mystery, through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. Everybody knows the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept”, but few understand human tears. In 1964, a 16-year-old boy named William Frey saved the life of a 2-year-old girl. He was traumatized by the event but didn’t cry. That experience began Frey’s journey toward becoming an expert on crying and stress. In 1985, he released his groundbreaking book on the subject called, Crying: The Mystery of Tears.

Dr. Frey is a leading neuroscientist and head of the Ramsey Foundation Alzheimer’s Treatment and Research Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is one of the world’s leading proponents of the theory that men die younger than women in part because they don’t deal well with emotions. Women average 5.3 crying episodes per month, men just 1.4. Men’s eyes tear up, women’s tears run down their face. Tears for emotional reasons are chemically different from tears caused by eye irritation. 85% of women and 73% of men report feeling better after they have cried about a stressful situation. Boys and girls under the age of 12 cry the same amount. The difference begins developing in puberty. Generally, boys stop crying between ages 13 and 16, due primarily to societal expectations. Dr. Frey has stated, “The only physiological mechanism we have to alleviate stress that is different from every other animal is the ability to cry emotional tears.”

It was a secret that God instilled long ago when He created you and me that we are just now discovering. Wonder how many more secrets do you and I have to learn? And only through the lenses of the Holy Spirit.

Why Were They Called Christians?

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Acts 11:25-26

We live in a time of a reawakening of “spirituality.” Is this a good or bad thing? There is a great difference between the contemporary, formless spirituality and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives weight, substance, call, and identity to our vague spirituality.

For some years now we seem to be going through a resurgence of interest in the Spirit. Americans are becoming more spiritual. “I am not very religious, I’ll admit,” someone else said, “but I am very spiritual.” We have had programs on television about angels, even about the perils and pitfalls of pastors. It does seem, if popular culture is a valid indicator, that we are becoming more spiritual. But I feel duty bound to warn all these sincere folk that from our church experience, “life in the spirit” can be a great challenge. Be careful of the Spirit!

In one of his letters to one of the churches he helped to establish, Paul speaks about the need to “test the Spirit.” “Not every spirit,” says Paul is the “Holy Spirit.” Presumably, according to Paul, there can be good and bad spirits.
But I am not writing about that. I am writing about the way the Holy Spirit deals with us. I hear these people talking about how good a thing it is to be spiritual. Much of the talk implies that, if we just get a little spirit, we will receive help with our problems, more satisfying lives, a lowering of our blood pressure. If I read my stories correctly in scripture, getting more spiritual can get you killed. But I can say this, the Holy Spirit is a power, a power outside ourselves, that helps us in our weakness, yes, but also a power that pushes us, prods us, pokes at us, and rarely leaves us as we are. The Holy Spirit is not only a power, it is also a persona, that visage of the aspects of the nature of God.

I’ll tell you why the Holy Spirit is threatening. Am I only speaking for myself when I say that I like to be in control? Life can be disordered enough, and I like order. I like to get up in the morning, eat the same honey buns, brush the same teeth, move in the same direction through ritual, habit, and pattern. It is good to have a few things tied down, patterned, and predictable. The Holy Spirit is about none of that. Furthermore, I like to feel that I am in charge, in control, in the driver’s seat determining the direction of life. I like to make decisions, set goals, priorities, and move toward them, achieving them, checking off my list of projects. Life hits you with enough strange stuff. You can make, decide, create, achieve. The Holy Spirit is about none of that. I suppose rising out of my desire for predictability and control is my strong yearning to know. I want to understand why things work the way they do.
I want to be able to explain the incongruities of the world, to define, understand, explain. The world can be mysterious. Therefore, I like to get things explained, defined, understood – even God. The Holy Spirit is about none of that.

Antioch was in Syria, 16 1/2 miles from the Mediterranean and three hundred miles N of Jerusalem. It was founded about 300 B.C. The city was destroyed several times by earthquakes, one of which, A.D. 526, killed 250,000 persons.
Antioch was luxurious, it’s main street, four miles in length, was lined with magnificent mansions. It was highly cultured, but its social life was debased, sensual, and shocking. It became the third city in the Roman Empire, reaching a population of 500,000. Antioch was associated early with Christian effort.
It was there that the persecuted disciples fled after the demise of Stephen.
The name Christian was first applied to followers of Jesus there. All three of Paul’s missionary journeys began in Antioch.

Princeton University and the National Museum of France excavated at Antioch for six seasons during the years 1932-39. A street plan of a large part of the ancient city has been established. Numerous significant mosaic pavements were uncovered in churches. The Chalice of Antioch is a controversial art object found at Antioch in 1910 and now is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The chalice is of two parts: a plain inner cup of silver, about seven and a half inches high and six inches in diameter, and an outer gilded silver holder with twelve figures displayed on the outside. It has even been identified as the Holy Grail used by Christ at the Last Supper. Perhaps this chalice is an early piece of Christian art of some century later than the first.

Why were they called “Christian” at Antioch? We as believers are called by many titles – Disciples of Christ, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic. What is required to be called a “Christian?” A Christian is a believer in and a follower of Jesus Christ. Christian literally means “Christ Like.” However, it occurs in the Scriptures only three times: “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26); “and Agrippa replied to Paul, ‘In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian'” (26:28); “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed” (1 Peter 4:16). The term Christian is clearly a Gentile designation for believers because the word Christ, upon which the term was constructed, suggests recognition of the Messiah, which no unbelieving Jew was prepared to do.

Becoming a Christian, according to the New Testament, is a definite act with significant results. I was asked to do a funeral for a man I hadn’t ever met and while visiting with the family this is the information I was given: The family said, “He was a good Christian man.” What church was he a member of? None. When was he baptized? Never was baptized. Well, what church did he attend. Didn’t go to church. What was he like? Everyone knew of his temper. He had a bad habit of cussing. But he believed in God. I don’t have to be a minister to figure out that this man was not a Christian. Where is the fruit? Where is the evidence?

The “spirituality” that I see being established today is an “I believe in a God that is defined by me.” Christian spirituality isn’t just some projection of our various inclinations about God. Spirituality is not something vague within us. It is something that is brought to us, taught to us. Christianity is a revealed and revealing religion.

There are five things that are necessary to be a Christian.
FAITH: Do you genuinely believe that God is real? Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
REPENTANCE: Repentance is to know and accept the fact that we are sinners. Once we admit that we are sinner we are sorrowful for our actions.
BAPTISM: Baptism is a necessary part of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.
FORGIVENESS: Those who accept Christ are forgiven of their sins. No matter how many times we sin, we are forgiven.
THE HOLY SPIRIT: All who have accepted Jesus, have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God’s Promise Celebrated

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Luke 2:21-40

While Jesus was in Bethany reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. Jesus said what she did was a beautiful thing. The beauty of it lay in its very extravagance.

This isn’t just a $5 bottle of Musk or a $50 bottle of White Diamonds. You wouldn’t wrap this up for Valentines Day, and say, “Surprise honey, I got you a pint of Nard #5.” This stuff was expensive, imported from the Himalayan mountains of India, and was worth about a year’s income. Can you imagine blowing about 30 grand on a jar of cologne? There is no indication that she was wealthy. What she gave cost her, just like it would cost you if you gave a year’s wages. Mary breaks it open and empties it on Jesus’ head. Then she wipes his feet with her hair. This is her act of worship…extravagant giving, humbling service. She didn’t give the left over after satisfying her own wants and desires. She gave her best.

If our giving never costs us, then our giving never really means anything. On the other hand, we have Judas Iscariot, who viewed this act of extravagant giving as a complete waste. “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant, ‘Why this waste?’ they asked, ‘This perfume could have been sold at a higher price and the money given to the poor.’

Christmas is about gift giving. Ever since the wise men brought the three gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, giving is a part of Christmas. It’s not Christmas to which we object, but rather the “commercial racket” that Christmas has become. The problem with commercialized Christmas began with Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick carrying a cod to Dingley Dell as an offering for their Yuletide celebration. Then it was Scrooge ordering a turkey for his clerk. “But then the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards,” a tradition “forced upon us by the shopkeepers.” And the worst of it is the giving of gifts by people one hardly knows. The “whole thing is a nightmare,” says Lewis. “Most of it is involuntary.

What is the point of getting a gift we did not want, a gift we did not need from someone whom we hardly know? Perhaps it is the whole point of this blessed day of days. Did you hear the Scripture? “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Our neighbor asked me once if my parents liked country ham? He said that he was giving them one for Christmas. My parents were mad at me for not telling them about the ham because they had nothing ready to give in return.

God kept trying, with every means at God’s disposal, to get through to us – the covenant to Abraham and Sarah, the promises to the patriarchs, the poetry of the prophets, the praise of the psalms. When none of this worked, God gave us the Son. Down through the centuries thousands had begged God for a sign, a word, a signal, but who had asked for the Son, the very Son of God “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3)? The angel said to us, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). A sign of what? “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). The word grace is the same word in the New Testament as gift.

When Adlai Stevenson worked for the Agricultural Administration, he received a Christmas gift from a walnut company: a large sack of individually packaged walnuts. He received this gift well before Christmas and realized he could never eat this many walnuts. He identified his opportunity and sent the individually wrapped walnuts to his friends as presents–only to find out later that inside each of the packages of walnuts was a card that read: “Merry Christmas to Adlai from the walnut industry.” Good gift; wrong recipient!

Love heals people it heals the one who gives it and it heals the one who receives it. In so many ways, down through all the ages, God tried to show us that he loved us and cared for us. God tried to speak to us in various ways, to reach us through various means. Now God has come to us as the Son, as the babe at Bethlehem. Here is a gift we did not know how to ask for, much less graciously receive. Yet here is the great gift, the magnificent act of grace, that God knew we needed. God in the flesh. Jesus, the Messiah, born among us.
Herein is our great joy.

I know of a man who spent an hour’s flight seated next to a man from Minneapolis, a salesman of some sort. He engaged my friend in conversation about this and that. My friend had intended to get some work done on the flight, but this stranger wanted to talk, so they talked. During the conversation he said, “You look like a man who needs to learn to relax.”
My friend thought it an impertinent comment from someone he had just met.
But he remembered that comment about two weeks later when in the mail he received a package. A gift. All the card said was, “From John.” He had not the faintest idea who John was. It was a couple of woodcarving knives, whittling knives, of all things. What was he supposed to do with these and who on earth were they from? Then he turned the card over. It read, “To a man who needs some-times to relax, from someone who found these helpful.”

Can you believe that? He never asked for woodcarving knives. This guy didn’t even know him. Now, what is he supposed to do? Is he expected now to send him some gift in return? A gift from a virtual stranger?

Now they have some kind of a relationship, I suppose. My friend now has to think of something to do for him. Here, with this uninvited gift, this guy has turned their chance conversation into a relationship. Now what? Now, three years later, when my friend wants to relax, he’ll take out that woodcarving set and start carving on a piece of wood. He is no artist and no expert, but it does cause him to relax. And to think, he didn’t even want this. Some gift. Some grace. And the angel said, “Don’t be afraid. This is good news, a sign that God really cares for you. You shall find a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…”

Forgiveness: A Measure Of Love

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Luke 7:36-48

A little boy disobeyed his mother. But his conscience began to hurt him, and he was sneaking up to his room when his mother saw him. “Where are you going, Frank?” she asked. “To my room to talk to God.” “Is it something you can’t tell me?” Frank explained, “Yes, it is. You’ll just scold and punish me while God will forgive and forget all about it.”

Our news as a society is filled with questions of forgiveness. An accident occurs in the Pacific that cost the lives of 14 young people when a sub hits a boat. Mistakes were made and the captain is punished. But families think it is not enough and demand more. A bomber blows up a building and changes the lives of a whole community. So we want to watch the execution on TV. We say, “It will bring closure.”

No one denies that wrongs were done and that great injustice took place in these two cases and in hundreds of others like them. Even things on a much smaller scale that in some ways bothers us more. The neighbors dog that keeps fertilizing your lawn. The colleague at work who gossips about you. The friend who borrowed something and won’t return it.

What do we do with our anger? Buddy Hackett says he doesn’t bother to carry a grudge. He says, “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”

I have seen people hold grudges for years. Ever heard of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s? You think that only happens in the hills of Kentucky? We hold the grudge because we cannot resolve the anger.

I was teaching a Bible study one time on the story of the “Healing of the Demonic.” A man with so many demons in him that they are called legion. Jesus orders the demons out of the man into a herd of pigs that are nearby. The pigs run off the side of a cliff and die. Now our attention is on the fact that this man is healed, he was once mentally deranged and now he is well. A woman asked, “Is the farmer compensated by Jesus for the loss of the pigs?” Good question! It was a good thing that happened but the farmer experienced the loss. To whom does the farmer express his anger and does his injustice keep the farmer from becoming a Christian?

“We are such a mixture of sinner and sinned against that we cannot forgive people without feeling set free ourselves.” A woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. A known sinful life and with an alabaster jar of perfume – the woman had been a prostitute. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. The Pharisee doesn’t like this happening at his house. Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. You and I know that God is the moneylender and that we are the debtors. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Corrie Ten Boom, who years after her concentration camp experiences in Nazi Germany, met face to face one of the most cruel and heartless German guards that she had ever encountered. He had humiliated and degraded her and her sister. He had jeered and visually raped them as they stood in the delousing shower. Now he stood before her with hand out-stretched and said, “Will you forgive me?” She writes, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I know that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, Jesus, help me! Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. I forgive you, brother, I cried with my whole heart. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment!” To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.

They betray him, whip him, taunt him, mock him, spit on him, curse him and nail him to a cross, and in retaliation he cries out to God: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

We all know that we are to forgive so that we may be forgiven, but how do we do it? Four simple rules to forgiveness!

Remember God’s Word – they have been forgiven by God whether we forgive them or not. For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14) “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21)

Turn to God in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer shows how important prayer is in being released of the anger. “…forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors….” The best therapy is to talk it out and there is no better therapy then to talk it out with God. “You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:43)

Deal with the anger (issue) now. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph 4:26)

Do a good deed/turn for the one that needs our forgiveness. On the evening of April 25th, 1958, a young Korean exchange student, a leader in student Christian affairs in the University of Pennsylvania, left his flat and went to the corner to post a letter to his parents in Pusan. Turning from the mailbox he stepped into the path of eleven leather-jacketed teenage boys. Without a word they attacked him, beating him with a black-jack, a lead pipe and with their shoes and fists. Later, when the police found him in the gutter, he was dead. All Philadelphia cried out for vengeance. The District Attorney secured legal authority to try the boys as adults so that those found guilty could be given the death penalty. Then a letter arrived from Korea that made everyone stop and think. It was signed by the parents and by twenty other relatives of the murdered boy. It read in part: “Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action . . . In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund to be used for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released . . . We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ who died for our sins.” Turning the other cheek to our enemy is a call to make friends of that enemy. The best way to forgive is to turn the bitterness to love.