Wednesday, November 27, 2013

God's Story & Black Friday

Long before the day after Thanksgiving became known as Black Friday, there was another Friday that was black. On that dark Friday, over 1,900 years ago, an obedient Son laid down His life to ensure that His Father’s Story – which includes His will to dwell among people in an unhindered relationship again – would not be thwarted by anything ever again.

Jesus, whose name means The LORD (YHWH) is salvation, was brutally executed. The forces which control this world – and keep it in darkness – deceived people into killing the Prince of Peace. Yet in a beautiful twist of irony so majestic that it could only be found in God’s Story, the servant who laid His life down was raised back to life and is now enthroned as the King above all kings…and the whole world groans, longing for His return when He will make things right. 

Wow, there is a lot that needs explained in the above paragraphs...but I want to keep this short. Therefore I will cut to the chase.

What bearing does that black Friday have on the Black Friday that is now less than 48 hours away? I would say a lot... Yet if I expounded on even some of the “a lots,” this would not be short. So, while it is true that Jesus died because of the sin of is also true that we do not grasp how far that sin reaches its ugly hands.

It certainly shows up in greed, and while other descriptors could be used to describe these Black Friday disasters, greed certainly is applicable.

But alas, in order to keep this short, I am not going to rant and rail against Black Friday (like I kind of did last year). Yet more importantly, in order to turn one of the evil one’s weapons against him, I am going to say the following (by the way, the cross gives us the opportunity to turn every weapon of the evil one against him). If you plan to go Black Friday shopping I am not going to try and talk you out of it. However, I do want you to consider – and actually do – the following…   

1) For whatever amount of money you save on Black Friday, give a sizeable portion of that to something like The BigDent []. The Big Dent is a Christian organization that works with microfinance to help people in the two-thirds world with a small loan. This loan is then paid back, which provides more money to loan to other small businesses. This is a way the cycle of poverty can be broken. Oh yeah, you do not even have to fund the whole loan if you did not save that much…but there are so many on the list – with varying amounts – that you may be surprised.

Here is another one that extends beyond Black Friday.
2) For whatever amount of money you spend on your “Christmas shopping” as a whole, give a portion of that away to a local charity. What we do at New Life Christian Church, in Emporia KS, where I preach is this:
We encourage families to at least “tithe” (give 10% - they can give more) of whatever money they spend on Christmas gifts back to the church. We then take this money and send it to The Voice ofthe Martyrs [] in order to help persecuted Christians around the world. This help does take the form of a Christmas Care pack – but these care packs are much different than what many in our culture would think. This year they are going to Nepal, and $25 will provide a backpack, a children’s Bible, school supplies, a sweater for school, socks, and shoes. 

While I am sure there are other better ideas out there somewhere, that is not the point. The point is people today can harness an aspect of our culture’s Black Friday and be a light shining into the darkness for others in great need. Nice huh? In other words, turn a weapon of the evil one – i.e., grossly disproportionate wealth – against him by diverting some “savings,” and even planned expenditures, to help others.

There, how’s that for short? Oh yeah, even if you are not a Christian and are reading this blog, please feel free to give to the above organizations. I think if you checked into them your heart would break for what those they help experience. However, if you want to give to a local charitable organization instead, I have no problem with that. 

The reality is, the black Friday over 1,900 years ago does have profound implications for the Black Friday in less than 48 hours. To not consider those implications is less than Christian – if you are a follower of Jesus that is.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

God's Story: Which God? [3]

I bet a lot of people think God is going a “poor” job of running things (feel free to insert whatever expletive you want). Truth be known, I bet you have had a similar thought in your lifetime too. In fact, this truth goes for those claiming to be atheists (perhaps this thought was a step on their journey to rejecting a belief in God), those who are agnostic (perhaps this thought keeps them from trusting in God), and even many Christians. Yep, you read that correctly, even many Christians too.

Yet I will assert that if you are thinking this, or something similar, then you really do not know God’s Story as well as He would like you to know it… So, let us get back to exploring God’s Story together.

If you had someone read Genesis 2:4-3:24 out loud to you, your ears undoubtedly heard a major shift in Genesis 3:1. Yet the shift was not simply that a serpent entered the narrative. No, the shift was from the use of YHWH God to simply god in the text. Not only was this shift on the tongue of the serpent…but on the lips of Eve as well.

Eve, who was in a covenant relationship with God, shockingly bought into the distorted view of God put forth by the serpent…started by the omission of the word YHWH when referring to God. When the serpent used the distant, non-covenant word for “god,” it put forth a deity who was distant and uninvolved – perhaps even uncaring. And Eve took the bait. Sadly many take the same bait today – but I am ahead of myself.

Eve taking the bait is clear as she too calls YHWH God merely god. But she goes further. Not only does Eve not correct the serpent’s words in Genesis 3:1, which is a total trashing of YHWH God’s generous provision in Genesis 2:16-17, she also distorts what YHWH God said. On the lips of Eve are words YHWH God never said, “neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” Again, as far as we know, YHWH God said no such thing. The serpent jumped on this continued distortion of God, twisted things a bit more, and the rest of humanity – in fact all of creation – have felt the brunt of the next decision for millennia.

I like the words of Gordon Wenham as he says of Eve’s comment, “The creator’s generosity is not being given its full due, and he is being painted as a little harsh and repressive, forbidding the tree even to be touched. Indeed, the way “lest you die” follows “touch” suggests that not just eating it but touching it may be lethal.[1]

After Eve, and then Adam, ate of the fruit, the gig was up. God’s Story says their eyes were opened, and among other things, they hid from “god.” However, who is it that shows up in Genesis 3:8? Yep, it is YHWH God once again (remember the 20x YHWH God is in act two as compared to the four times god is used here). This shift back to YHWH God is significant.

In my sanctified imagination I cannot help but wonder if Adam & Eve were hiding from “god” because since they did not immediately die, they thought He was coming to finish them off. Yet the text says it was YHWH God who came looking for them.

You may scoff at such a notion. But let me ask you. When you are caught in sin (whatever it may be), do you run to God immediately, or do you hide it? Do you run to the Body of Christ on earth (The Church), or do you isolate yourself from community and cover it up? Answer truthfully…because if you do not, you will not be able to appropriate the beauty of God’s Story.

You see, what is so amazing about God’s Story, and learning about God based on who the Bible says He is, is that the God of the Bible is not much like what people expect. I think many Christians cower from God in fear. I think many Christians are afraid and ashamed of what they have done and are wondering how God could possibly love them. Oh He may have loved me in the past…but I have crossed the line this time… Whenever you think thoughts like that, you are thinking of a god, and not YHWH God.  

I say this because what we see in Genesis 3:8 is that, even in the midst of their rebellion, YHWH God moves toward Adam and Eve. Can you imagine that? The Creator of everything, longing to be with the crowning point of His creation so much that He seeks them out while they are hiding from Him – in fear and rebellion.

There is much more that could be said about act two of Genesis. I am not sure I will get to it before moving onto the next chapter in “The Story.” My goodness, I expected to do a short post per chapter highlighting something. Well...

But I want to leave you with this encouragement; before you reject God…or hide from Him in fear…make sure you know which God you are rejecting and/or hiding from. Is it a god formed from a variety of readings and experiences? Or is it YHWH God, who reveals Himself in the Bible (and Jesus - but that is later), who is at work undoing the effects of sin on His creation – which includes you reading this right now. 

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 73.

Monday, November 25, 2013

God's Story: Which God? [2]

I did some google searches a moment ago. I typed “who is god?” and got 1.25 Billion results in .25 seconds. I also searched “What does god want?” and got 1.35 Billion results in .39 seconds. I doubt there is enough time remaining in my life to read the results from just one of those searches – let alone both – even if I did nothing but read them. This reality can pose a variety of interesting questions. Yet I will focus on one; where would people have found the answer to those questions BG (before google)?

I realize there are many answers to the question. However, for our current purpose, we will stick with one source – the Bible. While this may seem like a “no-brainer” answer, it is surprising how many people have formed a view of God that is not based on the Bible – and this goes for both Christians and those who are not Christians. The outcome of this practice is not good.

So, last time I encouraged you to read Genesis 1:1-2:3 as “act one” and Genesis 2:4-3:24 as “act two.” Simply stated, “act one” shows us a god created; “act two” shows us which God created and what this God desires. This can also be stated as “act one” shows us creation in broad brushstrokes (like for a painting), while “act two” focuses in on certain aspects of those brushstrokes (like day six and events sometime after it). In other words, these are not competing creation accounts; they are complementary vantage points of the same creative act. 

In act one a generic word for god (or God as it is in the Bible) is used. This is why I said “a god” in the above paragraph. There were lots of gods in the ancient world…just as there are today (we just do not call them gods – but that is another issue). An assertion that a god created would not have been earth shattering in the ancient world. The real question would be which god(s) actually did it. And as you can guess, this would be answered by whose creation story you were reading. Yet there are still some striking elements to act one in Genesis that clue the reader (or hearer) in a bit that something is different.

In other words, the somewhat generic creation story in act one still makes some startling claims. An example is on day four. In the text, when the sun and the moon are created, they are called “the greater light” and the “lesser light” (Gen1:16). This is significant as both the sun and the moon were viewed as gods in many cultures – particularly in Egypt.[i] In other words, the Bible begins by telling of a god who created everything, even what others claim to be gods. Huh, that is interesting. 

Now, some may be bothered by my use of the lower case “g” in god. There is a reason for this, and it becomes clear as we swiftly move into “act two.” In act two, the account that looks at certain aspects of the broad brushstrokes of act one, there is a shift from god to the LORD God (YHWH God from here on in the blog; YHWH = The LORD). This shift is huge as YHWH was the personal, covenant name of the God of the Bible. In other words, while act one makes some startling claims, act two becomes even more alarming as the Hebrew people learn it is their covenant God – YHWH God – who made everything.

And now, for literary purposes, I will get a bit Jewish on you. In act one god is mentioned 35 times. This may sound insignificant, but numbers were very important to Jewish people (they are for us too – but in terms of $$$). Jewish people (and other ancient cultures) were often more interested in the “weight” of a number rather than the number’s “measure”. In other words, certain numbers were significant, because of their weight, and at times this was the focus rather than the actual numeric value we view as important (and let us not forget that numbers “weigh” for us too – e.g., 13, or 9/11).

The number seven was one of their numbers for completion; using god 35 times in act one is a complete number multiplied (7 * 5). There are other phrases and words in act one which have numeric weight to them, but alas, we will move on. The point here is what happens when we shift to act two. In act two, YHWH God is used 20 times (10 is another number of completion in Jewish thinking). Interestingly, the generic word for god appears in act two as well. However, it only occurs four times (yes, a number for completion…often attached to the earth; e.g., think of four directions)…but what is astounding is where these four occurrences are in act two.

If you do not remember from reading it, they all occur in Genes 3:1-5. These are the verses where the serpent comes to Eve (and Adam) and asks, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen3:1). Make no mistake about it, this is huge. The serpent, already introduced as crafty, does not give the God of the Bible His full due. The words of the narrative (story) shift in his mouth from YHWH God to god. In other words, from the personal, covenant God to a distant, non-caring god… 

Even more shocking, Eve reciprocates and does not correct the serpent. Eve says, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said…” Note, she did not say “‘YHWH God’ said.” This reality is not some minor bit of trivia…this is huge.

How huge it is we will look at a bit more next time. Yet you can be thinking of misrepresentations of the God of the Bible in the meantime. Until then (hopefully tomorrow), try reading out loud – or better yet have someone read to you – act two and see what you notice around the time the serpent enters the picture.

While there is major difficulty in act two…it is not all downhill from here. After all, this is God’s Story.

[i]  Christian tradition holds that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, which would place them sometime after the departure from Egypt (the exodus). This is a significant point as a) we should not read Genesis as a “reporting on the go” type of document like the news of our day...or like a scientific explanation of the world, and b) it points strongly to Genesis being a “polemic” (a verbal attack on something) on the worldview the Hebrew people had been living among for over 400 years. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

God's Story: Which God?

In the last post I mentioned how I am preaching through The Story where I serve. I plan to have a series of posts dealing with an issue or two in each chapter of The Story as I progress through it. But first a few disclaimers: 1) there will likely (hopefully) be other posts intermingled with this “God’s Story” series, and 2) hopefully this will not die in the realm of good writing intentions (I have had more than a few of those).

With that said, chapter one in The Story covers material found in Genesis 1-4 and Genesis 6-9. Granted, not every verse is included as the editors selected what they thought were the more important passages in order to accomplish their purpose.

A major issue I focused on in this sermon (from 9/8/13) was the importance of knowing who God is based on what the Bible says about Him. While this may sound a bit simplistic, it is foundational for learning more about God.  

Let’s be honest, everyone has a concept of God. Even if one’s concept of God is that He does not exist, this is still a concept of Him. This concept is certainly not accurate based on the Bible…but people who believe God does not exist do not believe the Bible is truthful – which is a much different topic than I am addressing here.

What I am addressing here is that if we are going to open ourselves up to the transformative power of God’s Story, then we need to have an accurate view of God. We cannot base our view of God on our experiences or what we have been told. This does not mean everything you have been told about God is untrue, or that your experiences are not valid. Yet it does mean people can, and do, misrepresent God (not always willfully, though sadly this is sometimes the case), and God is bigger than our experiences (however joyful or painful they may be).   

I certainly do not have God all figured out and will not claim to as I write. Yet it is sad to hear of perceptions of God, even some shared by Christians, which are simply not true. This is why looking at the Bible is foundational to knowing God. Actually, it is vital. The Bible must trump our experience and what we think we know.

With that said, next time we will look at parts of Genesis 1-3. If you read it, I want to encourage you to treat Genesis 1:1-2:3 as “act one” and Genesis 2:4-3:24 as “act two.” Trust me; it really is OK to ignore chapter and verse divisions in the Bible. While they are helpful, they can also be a hindrance. Oh yeah, a reason to read Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a unit is because Genesis 2:4 starts with “These are the generations…,” which is a phrase found numerous times in Genesis – all of which start a new section (e.g., Gen5:1; 6:9; 11:10; et al.).

Until next time, may the Spirit of God open our eyes to the truth of Who God is and what He desires. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

God's Story

I remember years ago – more than a few, but not too many…I am not that old you know – when I just graduated from Bible College I had a thought. The thought occurred to me while reading through the Bible; it would be cool to preach through the entire Bible – like do a sermon per Bible book.

At the time I was not employed full time by any congregation. In fact, I was volunteering quite a bit of time at a church while working various other jobs and getting ready to start seminary. Yet the thought stayed with me – a sermon per Bible book.

I remember talking to an older, more mature, and wiser friend in the ministry about the idea. He had the same idea when he was younger and started to preach through the entire Bible, but did not finish for a variety of reasons. Yet the thought stayed with me – a sermon per Bible book. 

The thought of preaching through the entire Bible, a sermon per book, is still with me. I suppose it would be the “mother” of all sermon series. I mean a 66 week series. Who does such a thing? This is more than a year! Yet more than this…it is not having a Sunday off for over a year! While it is exciting, at times, to think about a sermon per Bible book, couched in terms of no Sundays off for over a year…it is not exactly a healthy thing.

While the thought of preaching a sermon per Bible book has not totally died within me…a more compelling thought – birthed by the initial thought – has grown stronger. The thought is the compelling power of God’s Story.

While I did not know it at the time, what was driving me toward thoughts of preaching through each Bible book in a series was a desire for people to know God’s Story. God’s Story is the most powerful and compelling Story ever told. And by Story I do not mean fiction. I mean Story in the sense of explanation of reality – and where reality is moving.

While I am not preaching through each book of the Bible, I am preaching through God’s Story right now. Since September I have been preaching through The Story as the people of New Life Christian Church read along in it. If you are not familiar with it, The Story is a book of carefully selected verses chronologically arranged from Genesis to Revelation. It is intended to help God’s people understand God’s story as a seamless narrative of God and His pursuit of relationship with mankind (I think that is one of Zondervan’s descriptions of the book).

I will admit, when an elder approached me and the other elders about going through The Story I was a bit hesitant. However, after prayer, our discussing it, and realizing I like to talk about God’s Story and have been for quite some time, we agreed to proceed with it.

Granted, I will not be preaching from every Biblical book (The Story is divided into 31 chapters), but I will be exposing others – and myself – to the broad sweep of God’s Story. And this is a good thing. So far we have done a 5-week mini series titled “Creation to Creation” in which we looked at things from the creation in Genesis to the creation of a people with the giving of the covenant at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19.

Just this past Sunday we finished another 5-week mini series titled “Rebellion to Rebellion” in which we looked at the start of the wandering in the wilderness in Numbers (due to their rebellion against God), and ended with Israel’s rebellion by rejecting God as their King because they desired an earthly king in the book of 1 Samuel.

When Advent starts (December 1st) we will resume looking at The Story as we talk about “Longing for The King.” We will look at some of the monarchy in Israel (e.g., David and Solomon) in contrast to Jesus as King.

God’s Story is amazing. I am enjoying both reading in The Story as well as preaching from the Bible. However, there is at least one unfortunate thing in going through it. I am having so many thoughts of what to say and continue to study, that they are having to be left “left on the shelf” for now. Oh well…there is never an end to the study and application of God’s Story. It is The Story by which we are to view all of life.

I will wrap this post up with what we have on some banners around our church building:
The greatest Story ever told has the power to radically reshape your individual story. Allow your story to get caught up and remade in God’s Story.
We want every person to find Hope, Healing, and Purpose in their individual story as they daily engage God’s Story.
God’s Story starts in a Garden (Gen2:15) and ends in a Garden (Rev2:7) thanks to Jesus’ obedience in another Garden (Mk14:36). Your story’s purpose is found in this Story.

Oh God, grant us to see Your Story more clearly and live out It’s implications in our lives – for Your glory. Amen.