Thanking the universe

More and more I read people on social media “thanking the universe” for their new job or their new relationship, and also sometimes expressing hope that the universe will come through for them – sort of smooth their path to whatever it is they want. I’ve seen this expression way more than I’d like to in the posts and tweets of the formerly churched – and as a former student lay-minister I know a lot of formerly churched people, unfortunately.

I’m not exactly sure what’s with this, but I think it has something to do with that stubborn Imago Dei in each one of us. Reverence and loving fidelity to the God of the Bible (the giver of all good gifts) and in his only begotten Son is anathema in many of our subcultures, but that stubborn, programmed-in desire persists for something outside ourselves to worship provide help and salvation. This spiritual habit of the formerly churched doesn’t pass away easily, evidently, so perhaps re-branding its object is the path of least resistance.

I have an idealistic and at times even poetic mindset and even I know that “the universe” is for the most part a howling void that not only doesn’t care about me, it doesn’t have the ability to care about me. It is a created thing, in fact the sum of all created material; marvelous and awe-inspiring and glory-declaring but in no way, shape or form is it sentient.

One who wants to believe that there’s something in the universe to be worshiped or supplicated is obviously not a materialist but is more like a pantheist – here in the midst of our supposedly sophisticated and advanced post-modern times.

I can’t help thinking: how much more rational it is to worship and call out to the Maker of the universe rather than to what he has made?

. . .because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. – Romans 1:25 ESV

Worth waiting for

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

(Romans 8:18-19 ESV)

Think about it: how much of your time is spent waiting for something (whatever that something may be) versus obtaining and fully enjoying that something? Have you noticed how much of your life you spend waiting?

When we’re young, we wait to get older. When we get older, we wait to get through school, or get married, or get a new job. Here in Houston we wait for extended lengths of time in traffic.

Humans spend a lot of time waiting. Many of us get very accustomed to living in the “wait”, and make the mistake of never really being where we are, because our minds are where and when we want to be; that distant time and far land where things will be quite alright. We wait and hope and focus on that day when our ship will come in or we will retire and travel the world or finally write that book or that song or finally get the girl or finally find our beach.

This waiting, this longing is natural in fallen humanity, even though we often shoot the arrow at the wrong tree. This sense of waiting, of everything not quite as it should be, is lit, however brightly or dimly, with the knowledge that it could be and maybe will be. That light of hope was put there by God, who has put eternity in our hearts. But rather than wait on the promise, we wait for things in the here and now, happenstances in our temporal circumstances because they seem more obtainable than what God has promised.

But look at what he has promised! Glory! In fact, the whole creation itself waits eagerly for what will be revealed when the Lord makes us, finally, what we were always meant to be.

Romans 8 goes on to describe how creation groans, and we ourselves groan inwardly and wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters of the King, because of what our Lord (and big brother!) Jesus has done to make that adoption a certainty.

Sons and daughters of our loving, royal Father. Now that is something worth waiting for!

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others”

From today’s reading of Matthew 23, Luke 20-21

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long . . . – Matthew 23:1-5 (ESV)

It’s easy when reading the gospels to just assume the scribes and Pharisees were wrong through and through. But Jesus here affirms that their teaching was not wrong. They were sitting on Moses’ seat, teaching the law given by God. The law is good.

And yet, in a very crucial way, their teaching was wrong. They showed by their own lives that keeping God’s law is impossible in our own power, and yet still taught that salvation comes through keeping the whole law. This kind of teaching will do a number on the teacher, and it had developed in the Pharisees an exquisite blindness to their own hypocrisy.

Jesus is, of course, the great Light who gives sight to the blind. He decides to shed some light on the situation and so in Matthew 23 he lays into the scribes and Pharisees with brutal precision.

The Pharisees in their teaching had made it a habit to tie up their people with the heavy burden of keeping a law that in our fallen state we are incapable of keeping. Out of the cognitive dissonance that followed, within the heart of each scribe and Pharisee it seems that the mission changed for them. Deep in their hearts this statement took hold.

“I can’t keep this law I am teaching. The second best thing will be to at least look like I’m keeping it.”

I’ve engaged in that deadly logic myself, many times. The law of God is good. But in a cage match against my flesh, obedience to the law is going to get trounced. Paul writes the following in Romans 8:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 (ESV)

The Pharisees weren’t completely wrong. The righteous requirement of the law can be fulfilled in us. But the only hope of that happening is to throw ourselves upon Jesus, the Gift of God. In a completely unfair trade, we give him our weakness, our hypocrisy, our show-morality, our flesh, our sin, and we get his righteousness, his Spirit, and most of all, we get all of him!

Freedom!

It’s impossible to be nihilistic when your God can create ex nihilo

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  – Romans 4:16-18

I’m feeling this passage this morning. Not because I’m adhering to it, but because I am not. I did not wake up hopeful this morning. Petty anxieties and useless self-doubt enveloped me like a fog when I woke up in the wee hours.

Have you had days that started that way, or nights that ended that way, not in hope and peace but in anxiety and downcast thoughts?

Faith really stands or falls when it is challenged, doesn’t it? Worry is the marker of a weak faith; and not because when you have strong faith life is rosy with no reason to worry, but rather when you have strong faith and have placed that faith in the right Person the problems of life grow strangely, joyously dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Consider Abraham. He had access to a miniscule percentage of the knowledge of God that we have, yet the brother knew God. I claim to know God, yet stress about easily fixed situations such as faltering projects at work, longer-term financial and career anxiety, and general feelings of self-doubt. My problems do not shake the foundations of eternity; they don’t even register on the seismograph, but they certainly expose the cracks and fault-lines in the paper mache and sand mixture of the foundation I decided to trust in this morning.

Abraham had every reason to not just doubt but to completely dismiss any thoughts of being a father at all, let alone being the father of many nations. He was old. His wife was old and barren. But he put his faith in a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist. It’s impossible to be nihilistic when your God can create ex nihilo.

One reason among thousands that I’m looking forward to church this morning is that I know I will be reminded, again, of the good news of Jesus and the peace that passes understanding that is in Him. I’ll get perspective on the mini-problems and max-blessings that I already live in today and will know that no matter what befall, nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

I’ll be reminded, again, of the God I trust in and who I will trust in, who gives life to the dead, who gave life to me, and who calls into existence things that do not exist.

"The gospel is no failure"

“I have to say, with Paul, ‘What if some did not believe?’ It is generic cialis no new thing; for there have always been some who have rejected the revelation of God. What then? You and I had better go on believing, and testing for ourselves, and proving the faithfulness of God, and living upon Christ our Lord, even though we see another set of doubters, and another, and yet another ad infinitum. The gospel is no failure, as many of us know.” – Charles Spurgeon

Quoted in Guzik’s commentary on Romans 3.

Beloved and destined

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints . . . (Romans 1:7, ESV)

I love this salutation in the opening of the book of Romans.

“To all those in Rome who are loved by God . . .”

Do you see it? Paul addresses the believers in Rome as those who are loved by God. This is true of all believers in Jesus, and yet I’ve noticed that for some of us the idea that God loves us is difficult to accept. Yes, we know he has saved us. But it’s easy for me, at least, to think that he’s holding back his love from me until I get a little more adept at doing this Christian thing.

I was talking recently with a precious young believer who told me about her hard background. She said something very interesting to me regarding her relationship with her earthly father. They were a pair who didn’t naturally get along, but she said that eventually she “chose to love” her father, and he “chose to love her”.

I bring that up because, I admit, often times in my heart of hearts I believe that God is mistaken to love me. I think this because I’m not that lovable, frankly, especially when I compare myself to other believers or to God himself. In other words, it feels like I haven’t earned it yet. I’m  a fool for thinking that: God has chosen to love me; his love is not something I can earn. I hope that if you, like me, think God would have to be off his rocker to love you, you’ll let these words, this simple truth, sink deep into your soul: God loves you.

Believer, you are beloved by him. He cares for you in ways you can’t fathom, and he loves you passionately, fervently, with a love that is purer and more intense than any you have ever known on earth. Most of us have a deep, deep need to be loved and fully known. This causes much distress in our lives because of the Catch-22 it embodies: we fear that if we were ever fully known, no one could possibly love us. But God knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows the truth about us, even the truth we hide from ourselves. He knows ever atom in our bodies and every thought in our heads and every action we’ve ever done, and he loves us.

The second half of Paul’s sentence brings this home: “. . . called to be saints”.

When I was a new believer, many moons ago, the word “saint” in the Bible tripped me up. I thought you only became a saint when men in elaborate robes met in a stone castle and elected you. But someone explained to me, early on, that Biblically all believers in Jesus are saints. The word “saint” simply means “holy one” or “called out one”. A saint is someone whom God is “sanctifying”. Now “sanctify” is another large word that might cause confusion. To be sanctified means to become like Jesus, to be made to conform to his likeness. Take a look at this verse:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. – Romans 8:29

This hit me like a freight train a few years ago. I thought God saved me to make me a better person. I know now that God has no interest at all in doing small renovation projects on me, or performing minor cosmetic surgery, applying nips and tucks to my often unpresentable life. His goal is not to make me better. His goal is to make me new.

God is remaking me into the image of his Son. This is my destiny. It’s not an optional change, reserved only for the most devoted and dedicated of his followers. It’s the destiny of every person who has placed their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. He has us, and he means to bring us into perfect conformity with his perfect Son.

He’s not kidding around on this either. Our God is stubborn, zealous, and almighty, and he means what he says. This is the God who led his people with a pillar of fire to the promised land, bringing them out of the land of slavery with plagues and wonders and a strong and mighty hand. This is the God who sent his Beloved through the whips and thorns and nails of the cross to bridge the canyon-like chasm of our horrible sin and make us his sons and daughters. He is not fooling around.  If you are a believer in Jesus, you will one day be like him.

Case closed. It’s your destiny.

Idolatry versus Joy

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  (Romans 1:22-25, ESV)

For some reason, I’ve recently become more aware of the ocean of idolatry I live in (and often swim in). Gone are the days when I would read of the Israelites rising up to play around the golden calf with a quizzical expression on my face. Idolatry can seem quaint, a relic from antiquity, but only when we are blind to what idolatry is. 

Here’s my definition: Idolatry is the expectation, pursued with our daily energy, that there is something out there that can make me happy in the ways that only God can.

There is much that we consider good that can be that graven image of a man, bird, animal or creeping things in our lives. Our family can be an idol. A relationship. Good music.. Our children. Technology – and before you roll your eyes, how excited were you for IOS 7? The day it came out my twitter feed turned into such a river of joy that for a moment I thought perhaps Jesus had returned.

Exchanging the glory of the Creator for the things that he has created is never good; it brings dishonor and destruction into our lives. It also, inevitably, brings disappointment. We weren’t designed to find ultimate satisfaction in things or people. But it doesn’t mean we don’t try. We keep replacing our idols with newer, shinier models because we have an innate knowledge that we were made for better things.

The mistake we make is trying to find joy in better things, or the next, better thrill, or a better relationship, or a better cause, or . . . you get the idea. The chase is fun for awhile, but it gets old. Running around in circles usually does. The scenery starts to look the same. Still excited about IOS 7?

Running after Jesus is the path of real joy, though our idols work very hard at blinding our eyes to that truth. One reason we find joy in Jesus is because Jesus’ path does not go in circles. It goes straight on and up! He is making all things new, including the daily joys of the former idolater who has found the true God that the false ones can only hope to imitate.

We were made by Him. They are made by us. Wise is the person who has compared the Creator’s credentials to those of us idol-makers and has chosen joy!