The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

We are sometimes told that giving thanks is such a simple thing to do.  But it is not always so.  Sometimes thankfulness comes very hard.  The biblical writers knew this and spoke on occasion of the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.  The Scripture issues a call to such a sacrifice and gives us examples.  Let’s begin in Psalm 50 and make three giant leaps across time.

From the wrong side of obedience comes a call to such sacrifice.  Psalm 50:14  Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  Psalm 50 is a stirring call for the people of God to awaken from their ritualistic stupor and recognize again the greatness of God.  God reminded them of the divine order of things in verse 15.  Psalm 50:15  call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.  Saved people are thankful people, even when the thanksgiving comes hard for other reasons.  They know who keeps them.  Now leap across 65 psalms and plant yourself in Psalm 116.

From the right side of salvation comes a response.  Psalm 116:12-13, 17  What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD… I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD.  The psalmist had been delivered from a certain death (116:3).  Greater still, he had been assured that even in death, God would not forget him.  Psalm 116:15  Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.  This salvation, this knowledge and assurance made him ready to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  Now leap across a vast track of time to the book of Hebrews.

From the other side of the cross comes a renewed call to make this sacrifice.  Hebrews 13:15  Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.  “Him” refers to Jesus, the one who never leaves nor forsakes (13:5), the one who is the same all the days and eternally (13:8), the one who went outside the camp to suffer for our salvation (13:12).  All of which is excellent ground for the sacrifice of praise.  Then one last leap over an unknown time and beyond sacrifice.

From the other side of time… Revelation 7:11-12  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”  I am not sure whether thanksgiving in heaven can be regarded as sacrifice.  I will have to go and see.  You are invited too.

What a wonderful Savior he is!  John 3:16.

I Am a Christian

I am a Christian.

Some hesitate in their response to the question, “Are you a Christian?”  There may be many reasons.  But one reason may be that we don’t clearly understand what a Christian is.  Have you ever heard a response to that question that sounded something like this?  “Well, I try to be.”

When someone is trying to be a Christian, they often understand the word ‘Christian’ to be an adjective.  That is, the word describes a certain kind of behavior.  If you believe this is a correct understanding, you may well hesitate to say “I am.”  Who would have the cheek to declare that they were walking exactly as Jesus walked?  “I am trying” is the proper response, if you believe ‘Christian’ is an adjective.

Granted, the dictionary gives the word ‘Christian’ as both adjective and noun.  But its original use was as a noun.  It was the word bestowed upon the disciples in the city of Antioch.  God was working in an extraordinary way in this church.  Barnabas came down from Jerusalem, saw the need for more help, and went to fetch Saul.

Acts 11:26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

If everybody in Antioch was walking exactly as Jesus walked, I am not sure why Barnabas needed to go get Saul.  I assume that Antioch was like every other church I have known.  They were doing a good work but some were doing better than others.  Yet they are all called Christians.

Christianity has much to say about behavior.  But its first word is about belief.  Indeed, Christianity says that behavior without belief is an affront to a holy God.  Isaiah 64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  If the deeds we regard as righteous fail in God’s eyes, what then is God looking for?  The next verse in Isaiah tells us.

Isaiah 64:7 There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.  The relationship was broken.  God was looking for a relationship born of his grace and their trust.

When someone says plainly, “I am a Christian,” it is not a confession of pride in their behavior at all.  For the absolute beginning of believing in Christ is repentance.  If I say I am a Christian, I have immediately acknowledged that I know myself to be a sinner who needs to be saved.  It also means that I have a very definite belief that Jesus is none other than God’s only begotten Son, that his death on the cross is my pardon, and that his resurrection is my hope.

Am I trying to be a Christian?  No.  I am a Christian.  I very much need to be a better one.  God is very much trying to help me with that.  The progress is his to judge.  But I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for the Gospel is about Jesus, not me.

Romans 1:16-17  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.

Oh, what a Savior he is!

Contradictions

2 Chronicles 26:18-19  They withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.”  Then Uzziah was angry.

The only people I know who like being contradicted are the ones who love to argue.  For them contradiction is an open door to paradise.  King Uzziah didn’t like it  and neither do I.

But the Word of God contradicts us at many turns.  This is often the motivation behind those who seek to find contradictions within his Word.  If his Word is self-contradictory, they are satisfied that the voice of correction has been silenced.  Yet the very effort they expend to discredit his Word reveals the truth.  Does the judge spend his time proving the innocence of the law to the guilty?  Or does the guilty spend his time trying to prove the injustice of the law to the judge?  God does not have to defend his Word.  He only needs to speak it.  How we align with his Word falls upon us.

Let us be found among those who have come to regard this contradiction of our ways as a good thing.  2 Timothy 3:16-17  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.  For it is the word of correction that also reveals the path of restoration and the way home.

John 14:1-3  Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

What a wonderful Savior he is!

Plans

Psalm 146:3-4 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

The phone call was from an anxious youth worker.  They were in the area for an outdoor event that had been cancelled by inclement weather.  He was pleading for use of our fellowship hall.  He would have to make up activities on the fly but at least they would not have to immediately return home having done nothing.  As I ushered him into the fellowship hall, he leaned in and and whispered a beatitude.  It was not a biblical one but it is one known far and wide.  “Blessed is he who has plan B.”

Plan A is what I intend to do.  Plan B is what I will most likely get a chance to do.  But the psalmist was looking beyond both.  There comes a day when both plans A and B will be silently shelved in favor of… what?

Isaiah 30:1  “Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit.”  Isaiah wrote those words in a day when God’s people were doing exactly what Psalm 146:3-4 said they shouldn’t do.  They looked to the nations around them to succor them in their distress.  They trusted plan A and plan B, but they had no plan for the day when all of man’s plans fail.

God had a plan but they would not hear it.  Isaiah 30:9-10  For they are… children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions…”  Don’t ruffle us with the truth.  Don’t chaff us with what is right.  It is a familiar theme.  2 Timothy 4:3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.

But God’s plan endures.  It works too, then, now, always.   Isaiah 30:15 For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”  I wish that Isaiah 30:15 ended right there.  But it has one last phrase.  “But you were unwilling,”

Don’t know what your plan for heaven is today.  But you may as well make a plan to drain the Atlantic into your bathtub as to think any plan of man will get you there.  Heaven is that much bigger than our feeble plans.  If he hadn’t opened the door no man would enter.  All glory to him!  He has a plan.  He has executed it.  The sign over the door reads, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

What a wonderful Savior he is!

Hell’s Bankruptcy

Matthew 4:1  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is rich with significance for Christians.  It reveals much about the nature of temptation, but even more significantly, it reveals the Savior.  As Jesus declines to use supernatural power to feed himself, as he rejects invoking the promise of divine protection devoid of divine relationship, and as he honors the Father above the Father’s gifts and worships him alone, he stands where all have fallen.  He did this for us, first to save us, then to show us the way.

But there is another revelation to be had here.  Once the light of Christ begins to shine in the heart, the darkness of hell begins to be exposed.  Hell is bankrupt.  Satan has no bread to offer, no protection to give, and no glory to share.  He cannot make bread but must challenge Jesus to misuse his power.  God, on the other hand, has made the corn to grow.  The world has been feeding at his table for all time.  Satan must challenge Jesus to misappropriate the Father’s protection.  He cannot keep pestilence from the door nor death from the family.  He dare not even hint at raising the dead.  And as for glory, all he can do is lay claim to that which God has made and ordained, a false claim at that.  God is glorious even if he had never made anything.  Where then is Satan’s personal glory?  It doesn’t exist.

The longer I walk in faith, the more I appreciate an image given to me by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce.  Hell is simply not big enough to contain the soul of even one child of God.  Indeed, hell is as near nothing as one could conceive.

But it is something.  Here is what Hell does have to offer; sleight of hand, tricky words, a gnawing hunger, an endless fear, and a hopeless future.  We may eat at the Lord’s table for a while and not give him thanks.  But there is an end to that.  Then the real hunger must finally be faced and the real bread which we spurned is out of reach.

Real bread, genuine care, and true riches are available now.  Isaiah 55:1-3  Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live

What a wonderful Savior he is!

How Much Is Enough

Matthew 6:27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?

In the initial encounter of The Prince and the Pauper, the Prince peppered the pauper with questions about his life of poverty.  In one exchange about servants and garments and the pauper’s two sisters, the Prince noted the use of the singular “garment.”

“Their garment!  Have they but one?”

“Ah, good your worship, what would they do with more?  Truly they have not two bodies each.”

What would they do, indeed?  Bunch them together in too little space?  Iron them because they have been bunched together?  Sort them and match them and maybe wear them?  Clean them and dry them and bunch them together again?

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” (H. D. Thoreau)

Jesus put it bluntly.  The sum total of all your anxiety cannot add an hour to your life.  Indeed, there seems to be evidence that it may steal a few hours, not only in the shortening of life, but in the hours we waste by being anxious.

1 Peter 5:6-7  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

What a wonderful Savior he is!

Seth’s Arrow

Psalm 127:4-5 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!

Cain’s revenge was celebrated for five generations in his family, at last producing Lamech, the brute par excellence.  The reach of evil is long.

But Cain’s younger brother Seth began another tradition in the first family.  He and those around him began to pray. (Genesis 4:25-26)  I have not found many coincidences in the Scriptures.  Precisely five generations later in Seth’s family, there arose a man whose godliness was at least as great as Lamech’s evil.

Genesis 5:24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.

Let me hasten to say that I do not know all that this means.  “Translated” is the word I have most often met in the attempts to explain it.  That something extraordinary happened is without doubt.  Generation after generation ended the same way, “and he died.”  Genesis 5:5,8,11,14,17 and 20 echo like the beating of a drum, “and he died, and he died, and he died.”  All that we can say from the text is that one day they went looking for Enoch and couldn’t find him.  Everyone knew him as a man that walked with God just as everyone knew Lamech as man who would kill you sooner rather than later.  Hebrews 11:5 adds the significant detail that Enoch did not die.  By some means, God took him from this earthly life without death.

While five generations of violence was producing Lamech, five generations of prayer produced a man of faith who walked to heaven one day as easily as going to the Post Office.  And he probably did not have to wait in line when he got there!  The reach of evil is long.  The reach of grace is very long indeed.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.”  The praying community is not without its weapons.  Seth’s arrow traversed five generations and produced Enoch.  And God did such a thing in Enoch’s life that still makes us wonder.

What a wonder-filled Savior he is!

Pluck Up

Psalm 137  By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willow trees there we hung up our lyres.

If you wanted to play those instruments you would really have to pluck up!  So discouraged were the people of God that they hung their instruments up a tree!  Whatever the Babylonians meant by requesting a song of Zion, it was torment for the people of God to hear it.  They would not sing, but they would not forget either.

Psalm 137:5-6 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!  Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.  No skillful hand to pluck, no nimble tongue to sing, such was the curse they laid upon themselves, if they ever forgot their homeland.  Defeated and dejected, lyres up a tree, dog-determined to remember, they unfolded an important question.

Psalm 137:4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?  What lurks behind that question is the notion that God is over there, at home, but not over here where we are bound and broken in a strange place. But God sent them word that their troubles should not squelch their song.  In fact, there were a lot of things that shouldn’t be squelched.  Jeremiah 29:4f Thus says the LORD of hosts… to all the exiles… build, plant, eat, get married, multiply…  for I know the plans I have for you…  Babylon was not the end.  It was just a stopover.  They were not home.  Seventy years later, they returned to Jerusalem.  They still were not home.

1 Peter 2:9-11  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles

Sojourners!  Exiles!  A people on their way home.  Babylon is no place to hang up your instrument.  It is the place to bring it down and sing a new song.  Sing something these people have not heard before, a song from a land none of us has seen.  By his grace we call it home.  And may God bless your song with the sweet breath of heaven so that someone whose instrument is up a tree will pluck up courage and learn to sing again.

What a Savior!

One Rock

Genesis 13:9 “Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left.”

Genesis 13:12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom.

“One rock can change the course of a river.” (C.S. Lewis – Perelandra)

The prosperity of Abraham and Lot required expansion.  Abraham took the initiative by starting the conversation, but he relinquished the choice of direction to Lot.  Abraham opted to choose his character, not his place.  Character will serve in Canaan or Sodom both.  Lack of character will fail even in Canaan and doesn’t have a chance in Sodom.

Up in the mountains where the river is only beginning to gather its strength, it does not require a giant rock, only a well-placed one, to shape the course of the future.  Wait too long and even a giant rock may be worn down and swept away by the torrent that rushes to the sea.  Abraham chose character early.  Lot discovered character late.

Deuteronomy 6:5-7  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

What a wonderful Savior he is!

Cain’s Revenge

Genesis 4:24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.

Lamech was the great, great, great grandson of Cain.  The words above are but one line in his song that celebrates violence.  He came by it honest.  Cain’s plunge into the pool of murder began where all sin begins, failure to honor God as God.  From there he spiraled downward through jealousy, anger, bitterness, rejection of counsel, violence, and denial of responsibility.  But when his own attitude and action came back to bite him, he cried for mercy.  He found mercy with the Lord, but the mercy did not change him.  He left. (Genesis 4:1-16)

Cain’s revenge did not stop at the blood of his brother.  Five generations later, Cain was famous in his family for vengeance.  Anyone who messed with Cain got seven times more in return.  Five generations of exalted violence at last produced Lamech.  Lamech would kill you at the drop of a hat.  If you dared to wound him, you would die.  If you so much as slapped him, even a mere boy, the gig was up. (Genesis 4:23)  The apple, they say, does not fall far from the tree.  But this apple was bigger and nastier than anyone could have imagined.

Well have we been warned.   Romans 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  Anger, violence and revenge do not correct themselves.  Don’t we know it?  This is the age in which you don’t even have to drop your hat to be killed.  All you need to do is to be conceived.  And you aren’t even responsible for that!  Cain bred violence.  Who could be shocked when Lamech arrived?  Humanity is breeding violence every day.  When the grandchild comes home with blood on his hands it will be a very, very bad day.  But it should not be a surprise.

In contrast to and alongside of this violent Genesis generation, the next two verses introduce us to Seth.  Genesis 4:25-26 reveal that God did not leave Adam and Eve to watch and mourn as the sin they introduced wormed its ugly way through all the good in God’s world.  God comforted them with the arrival of Seth.  Eve understood this to be a God-appointed matter.  So it must have been.  For in his generation, “men began to call upon the name of the Lord.”  There was born a praying community that in New Testament language we would call salt and light.  Perhaps one of their prayers was, “Help us, O Lord, for vengeance belongs to you alone.”

What a wonderful Savior he is!