In Herod’s Jail

May 31, 2013

I wonder what John the Baptist pondered in Herod’s jail. It doesn’t seem quite fair. If anyone had ever lived a self-sacrificing, dedicated life, it was John. God set him apart even before birth. He was not to drink wine or strong drink possibly suggesting a perpetual Nazarite vow (Luke 1:15, on Nazarite vows see Numbers 6). His life was at best ascetic. His clothes remind us of Elijah – camel’s hair clothing and a leather belt (Mark 1:6, 2 Kings 1:8). His food was locusts and wild honey. Even Jesus referenced his austerity: “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (Matthew 11:8, ESV).

It was from prison that John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another” (Matthew 11:3, ESV )? We long for Jesus just to say “yes”. Instead, he answers about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the dead raised, and the poor hearing good news. To this he adds, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6, ESV). The first century world had many who claimed to be the One. False “messianic” uprisings had led some astray. Rather than an easily offered “yes,” Jesus recounted evidence to one in prison who may have been struggling with the purposes of God in the world. Was John’s subtext something like this? If you are the coming King, will you make things right soon… like getting me out of prison?

After John’s disciples left, Jesus acknowledged the greatness of John. John was the “Elijah to come” the fulfillment of Malachi chapter four, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). John prepared the way for the coming King and his Kingdom, yet he would die before the day arrived. Beheading at a tyrant’s whim doesn’t seem quite fair. Like Moses, John the Baptist could only look at the promised from afar.

Life can be disorienting. Pondering God’s ways can leave us questioning. Real life doesn’t always work out the way we think it should. But John the Baptist’s case is also paradoxical. It is in his suffering, sacrifice, and even death that we see the depth of his faith. It is his worst of times that provides us the greatest instruction.

Life can be disorienting, and our questions perplexing. But faith can anchor us to the God who is there, even when life doesn’t work the way we think it should. God’s ways are not our ways, yet it is He who has promised someday to wipe away all tears. I wonder what John the Baptist pondered in Herod’s jail.

The Indescribable Gift!

May 24, 2013

It is an outburst of praise as if Paul could no longer contain himself, and a prayer pours out of his heart. The prayer is simple; the prayer is profound. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV)!

The context of this praise is Paul’s discussion of the special collection for Jerusalem that is the subject of chapters 8 and 9. In fact, commentators have divided on what Paul means by this phrase. A few have suggested that the indescribable gift is the special collection itself. That’s the impression left by the New Living Translation’s rendering, “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” But even they footnote that the Greek says “his gift.”

It seems more likely that the indescribable gift is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s as if Paul’s thoughts about Christians giving naturally leads to what God has given us. No matter what we give, we cannot out give God.

God’s gift is indescribable. The word that Paul uses for indescribable has its first occurrence in Greek literature in this passage. Some think that Paul may have even coined the word. It is one of those words that simply has a negative prefix attached as we do with un- (unhappy instead of happy) or a- (atheist instead of theist). The word without the negation means “to tell in detail” or “narrate in full or completely.”

Paul does not mean that the gift cannot be described. Indescribable in English has two senses. If I go to the doctor and say that I have an indescribable sensation, it means that I have a feeling that I can’t put into words at all – frustrating to both doctor and patient. But if I were to say that I have indescribable joy, I would mean that it is surpassing description. I would have words, plenty of words, and quite possibly a rushing torrent of words. I would mean that all of the words put together could never completely describe it.

That’s the way it is with God’s gift. Can I get my head around the concept “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”? What was it like for the one who knew the glory of heaven to experience a peasant’s birth, a carpenter’s life? How do I depict the meaning of the death of Christ? I can imagine myself standing before the judgment seat of God deserving “guilty as charged.” Yet Christ brings me acceptance. I can imagine myself in chains – a slave to sin. Christ’s death redeems me out of my bondage. He has paid the price to set me free. I can imagine myself in front of an altar. The wrath of God is coming upon me because of sin. What sacrifice can I offer to appease God? My hands are empty. In the midst of my predicament, God provides the sacrifice of His own son.

And so it goes. Many words can describe what God has done, but we are approaching something wondrous. Whether we approach the task with great analytical skill and precision or whether we burst out with the evocative words of a poet, words fail. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

Directions for the Narrow Road

May 17, 2013

A recent article describes the disasters that have befallen people who followed their GPS even when it was wrong.*

  • A man in the Upper West Side of Manhattan followed the directions of his GPS to turn west. He suddenly found himself driving down the steps in Riverside Park.
  • Japanese tourists in Australia were attempting to get to North Stradbroke Island, which is actually nine miles off the coast from Brisbane. They followed the instructions of their GPS to drive down a gravel road, but ended up driving into the sea. The preferred method for getting to the island is by ferry boat. The car was a total loss.
  • A woman in Brussels was picking up friends at the train station. She continued to follow her GPS even when it required her to stop and refill her car up with gasoline twice. Finally when she arrived in Zagreb, Croatia, she decided there was a problem.

Some of these cases are humorous (as long as your not the one making the mistake), but faulty GPS directions can also be life threatening. A man in the UK followed his satellite navigation system even when the road became a path. His car finally bumped up against a thin wire fence — the only thing between him and a 100-foot drop. Cases have also occurred of people running out of gas in the desert because of faulty GPS information resulting in a search and rescue.

The old computer adage is garbage in, garbage out. It is still true even when it is a GPS giving you spoken, turn by turn directions. The problem with the machine is that humans make mistakes.

What about the spiritual directions in your life? Someone will say so-and-so told me this is the way to be saved. Are they right? How do you know for sure? Human beings make mistakes, and they sometimes give faulty directions even when well-intentioned. (By the way, this is why I frequently say: “I don’t want you to believe it because I said it, but because you found it in Scripture.”)

Jesus spoke of the narrow gate and the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus says that few find it. It is worth checking your directions. After all, the Bible is the only infallible guide of directions for the narrow road.



“Let Her Works Praise Her”

May 10, 2013

It may be announced with morning sickness, that odd juxtaposition of joy and suffering which characterizes so much of motherhood. The expectant mother’s body changes as this new life grows inside her. The girlish figure becomes matronly (this word’s etymology has “mother” in it by the way). “Do I look fat?” she may ask. There may be cravings and eating for two. But there is also the first kick, the sound of another’s heartbeat, and the modern first baby picture — a sonogram.

The current word is labor; the archaic word is travail. Both could be used of ordinary work emphasizing the difficulty and pain of such activities. Both are apt for describing the process of giving birth. Hours of contractions are indeed labor and travail. But the pain gives way to great joy when a child enters the world and is laid in a mother’s arms.

“Bundle of joy” is frequently the way we refer to a newborn. As in, John and Jane took their bundle of joy home from the hospital. It is a much catchier phrase than “bundle of work” or “bundle of sleepless nights” or “bundle of frequent diaper changes” or “bundle of every four hour feedings.” And yet, a cooing baby snuggled in your arms is more precious than much labor and missed sleep. Bundle of joy is the right phrase.

Childhood is filled with wonder — the first word, the first steps, and oh so many other firsts. What a joy to see the world through a child’s eyes. Yet, there is also a battle of wills. Francis Xavier said, “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.” The quote reflects that a child learns morality at a very early age, and modern research has confirmed Xavier’s intuition. We often learn our first and best lessons about right and wrong from our mothers. She may teach us about God and prayer. The training and disciplining of a child is not an easy task, but to the consistent and diligent there is great reward.

We bring this bundle of joy so close to our hearts to raise and to let go. It is not surprising to see a mother shed tears as she drives away from the first dorm room, apartment, or deployment. She may cry at your wedding. Because no matter what else may be true, you will always be her baby.

Motherhood is a labor intensive task. Children cannot be mass produced into moral, productive adults. If you had a loving mother, you are blessed; if you also had a godly mother, you received the greatest blessing of all. The work of mothers deserves our thanks and our praise (Proverbs 31:28-31). “… and let her works praise her in the gates.”

Rich, Riches, Richly

May 3, 2013

Paul uses the root word “rich” three times in 1 Timothy 6:17 — rich, riches, and richly. Examining these three occurrences will help us think through Paul’s teaching about material things (1 Timothy 6:6-10, 6:17-19).

God richly provides us with everything to enjoy. God is the creator of wealth. He has provided an abundant, fruitful world rather than one of mere subsistence. These blessings are for our enjoyment. This rich provision makes riches a possibility, but Paul provides us with some legitimate cautions. The desire for riches and the love of money can lead to temptations and spiritual ruin. People may through hard work, good stewardship, ingenuity, and inheritance find themselves with abundance. But the proper response should be thanksgiving to God.

The uncertainty of riches is a reality. The financial news may report the stock market is down, and billions of dollars of value is wiped out. Hurricane Sandy hits the east coast and property loss is estimated at $75 billion. Proverbs warns of this: “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 23:5, NIV). Therefore, our hope should be on God and not on riches.

Paul is warning us of the danger of worshipping the creation rather than the creator. That is why greed can be classified as idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Jesus had also warned, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).

Paul gives a charge for the rich in this present age. The phrase invites a contrast with the age to come. If rich now, what will be the status then? Jesus, after all, told a story of the rich man and Lazarus in which there was a great reversal. The rich man of this present age ignored the beggar Lazarus. He became the beggar whose pleas were by necessity ignored, while Lazarus enjoyed the riches of being at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

So how does Paul want the rich of this present age to prepare for the age to come? We must worship and put our hope in God. We must learn contentment when our basic needs are met (1 Timothy 6:6-8). In other words, more things will not necessarily make us happier. We must be humble (not haughty) towards others. We must not think that material possessions make us better than others. All are created in the image of God; all are precious in his sight. We must learn to be rich in good works and be generous. The only treasure we take out of this world is the treasure we lay up in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). We must take hold of that which is truly life, which is the life lived as a follower of Jesus Christ. We must all deal with material things. Paul’s instructions help us to live properly in this age and to have hope for the age to come.