UNCHANGING

Friends,

God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent;
Has He said, and will He not do it?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?

Numbers 23:19 NASB

This should be easy.

God doesn’t lie; He always keeps His word.

We’ve already talked about this concept a little, so we shouldn’t have any problem grasping it here.

But, there’s another level to this, more easily seen when we look at the first half of the verse in the NRSV:

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.

Truthfully, this has been a puzzle to some, because they look at the God of the Old Testament and then they look at the God f the New Testament and they thing, “Wait a minute; maybe He DOES change His mind.”

Or, could there be another explanation for this?

This is a good place to talk a little about the contextual nature of Scripture, or learning to understand how to read the Bible.  WAY too often, I see people quoting the WORDS of Scripture but using those words in a Western thinking 21st (OK, often a 20th) century understanding of the word. It’s as if those words carried all the same contextual meaning in the days of the Babylonian exile, about 2600 years ago, in the middle east area we now think of as Iraq and west into what is now modern day Israel, among a group of people who spoke ancient languages that are no longer spoken in our time, even if there are languages that go by the same label, as they do today in California, or wherever you live.

Here’s the thing.  They don’t.  Those were different people living in very different circumstances with a VERY different concept of the world around them.  They didn’t have access to the scientific explanations as to why a lot of things are the way they are.  They lacked the perspective of being able to review a broad expanse of history ranging over a very broad portion of the earth in which to gain a better understanding of why things are as they are.

And, they wrote about God within the contextual understanding of how they perceived Him.  No, God wasn’t leaning over their shoulders whispering, “Hey, write it this way.”  He inspired their understanding and, within their best attempt to illustrate what they perceived, they wrote the words of Scripture.

Were those understandings perfect?  No, how could they be?  That’s why we don’t spend all our time spinning our wheels in the endlessly hopeless pursuit of proving that every word written in Scripture was without error.

Think about it, if you were being held to every opinion or perception you had when you were 5 years old, how serious would anyone take you right now?  Santa Claus isn’t real (I apologize here to anyone who was careless enough to hand this to their small children to read; this is adult stuff, people).  Most of you didn’t grow up to be major league baseball players or princesses or whatever you thought was going to be your future in your incompletely formed childish personality.

God was seen in the earliest parts of recorded understanding primarily as a God of judgment.  Don’t think so.  Trying reading that creation narrative again.  One strike and you’re out.  OK, it was a very BIG strike; I get that.  But, a God of judgment, nevertheless.

Throughout most of the OLD Testament period, He came to be viewed more as a God of mercy.  He still judged you and what you did, but He gave you a method for clearing your slate, atonement, by way of animal sacrifice.  A God of mercy.

But then, in the fullness of time, He came directly into the realm of the creation in the person of Jesus and revealed Himself to be a God of radical grace.  Yes, there was still a right and wrong, but now His mercy took the form of an ultimate atonement that He provided one for all to everyone who believed in Him.

Grace is that attribute that perfectly dissects judgment and mercy.  Judgment says you were wrong and have to pay the price.  Mercy says you were wrong but get to pay a lesser penalty.  Grace acknowledges fully the price of judgment and then removes it entirely from our account.

AWESOME!

So, did God CHANGE there?

No, He became more fully revealed to us.  He is as He always was.

And we are the recipients of great grace.

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.

Continue on.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

CHOOSE LIGHT

Friends,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

John 3:16-19 NRSV

It’s so easy to assign this passage of Scripture to “Sunday School status,” that is, to think of it as being so simply that little kids can understand the whole thing.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Some have said that the entirety of the Gospel is found in these words, and while there’s some truth in that, it’s an oversimplification.  Because, there’s some more complex truth in this for us right now, today, in OUR cultural context.

Verse 17 says that Jesus did NOT come into the world to condemn the world, and yet we so often want to shake the Kingdom like a fist at the world and speak words of condemnation as if we were being spokespersons for the same God who provided us this statement.  We look at the people with whom we disagree and we try to claim the moral high ground using Jesus to stake our superior claim.

But, that wasn’t His mission, and if we truly want to be like Him, how can it be ours.

His mission was that the world would be saved through Him, literally that the entirety of creation would be restored to its original relationship with the Creator.  It’s pretty hard to see that mission being accomplished when we lead with words of scathing condemnation and separation.

Of course, the passage goes on to make note that the people of this world who select darkness over light will have condemned themselves in this great salvation attempt.  And, the writer of this Gospel account says that the decision point is the belief in the Son of God.

This IS the Word of the Lord, so we have to accept that this is truth.

But, we also have to understand what it means.

It means that this great salvation comes through accepting Him, not through accepting the stylized version of Him that we’ve woven through our human attempts to codify the “rules” of the Kingdom.  Too often, we substitute the words of our cultural adaptation of Christianity, even our own personal understandings of what Scripture “really” means, for the Spirit of God that is the ONLY reconciling agent between Creator and creation.

Believing in Him is not synonymous with subscribing to the doctrines and special rules of the Church of the Nazarene.  And, for you non-Nazarene’s and possible Nazarene haters out there who are giggling about that, it applies to you and your preferred theological statements, as well.  Repeating the words of some personal evangelism road to salvation (you know what I’m talking about) is NOT what gains your place in the Kingdom.

He offers eternal life to those who believe in HIM.

Here’s an idea: let’s try to see if we can get out of His way and begin to simply point the way to the cross where He can do His work in the lives of those He came to save.

Continue on.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

UNO IGLESIA

Friends,

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6 NASB

First, just let me admit one thing.  I’m kind of a church junkie.  That’s like the church version of being a gym rat.  You hang out there, you spend time thinking about the church and any time someone starts a conversation about the church, you want to get in on it.

I know that a lot of people think that’s because I’m a pastor and being at the church is kind of my job.  But, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  You can ask Miss Margie.  I’ve always been like that, even before I felt called into vocational ministry at the age of 40.

So, what happens in the Church is important to me, and I don’t just mean the churches I serve as pastor.  I’m talking about the Church with a capital “C.”

And, sadly, what I see when I look at the Church today is a complete lack of unity.  I’m not talking here about unanimity, where we all think the same thing.  I’m talking about unity where we are still One Church, even when we disagree.

And, we disagree about a lot.  The existence of the numerous denominational and non-denominational bodies points out to us that there are things on which we disagree.

And, that used to be OK, because if we were honest with ourselves, our points of disagreement were much smaller that the broad areas of consensus and agreement that existed within the Church of Jesus Christ.  But, I’m not sure that’s still the case.

I think that the primary reason for this is that the Church, the vessel in which Jesus invested all the power of heaven here on earth, that Body of Christ that He created and left in our hands when He ascended into heaven, THAT expression of the Kingdom of which He specifically called on us to be a part, is now a secondary consideration in the lives and minds of a lot of people who claim to be its heirs.

Their career goals, political ambitions and material possessions are their new gods and the Church is merely their power base for achieving the goals that are actually of importance to them. It’s become more about turf than Kingdom.  The Body of Christ has become a voting bloc rather than the mighty army of God assigned to fulfill the Great Commission.  It’s no wonder that we can’t find that unity of expression and purpose when we’re not even talking about the same things, anymore.

This competitive, “winner-take-all” mindset accounts for the fact that we feel a need to demonize the “others” in our lives.  It’s become a zero sum game where there have to be losers in order to define winners.  We’re no longer focused on extending the love of God to them, or even to recognize that they might themselves already be the recipients of that love.

We need to return to a Kingdom focus where everyone we see is a person for whom Christ died.  We need to see the pursuit of the Kingdom as our single goal.

It’s OK to have various theological interpretations of Scripture that lead to a variety of denominational expressions of the Church, as long as we remember that we are One Church.

A few years ago my friend, Wilmer Guido, and I began to discuss the need for our Spanish speaking and English speaking congregations to recognize our common longer range goal, which was not to draw everyone to our personal language and ethnic context, but to draw them to the One Church where we were all working toward the same goal, without regard to the language being spoken or the food being served at the potluck.  We simply referred to that desire in Spanish, Uno Iglesia.

Today’s Lent Scripture meditation reminds us that there is One Lord, One Body and One Spirit.  We need to take a hard look at ourselves, not others, to determine if we continue to believe that.  We can’t fix everyone else.  We’re responsible primarily for ourselves first, in this context.

How about it for you?  Are you in?  Is it still Uno Iglesia in your life?

Continue on.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

HE KEEPS HIS PROMISES

Friends,

It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

“Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people. Remember, do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you arrived at this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.

Deuteronomy 9:5-7 NASB

OK, this one might be a little tougher to take, for some of us.  This is a passage about God keeping His promises.  It’s not actually a diatribe about how evil the world around us is, although some might choose to latch onto the words that sound that way.  This is about God and us, or more specifically, about God toward us.

God keeps His promises.

That sounds like something we might all be able to accept and believe.  After all, He’s God, for Go…..OK, maybe that wasn’t going the right direction there.  But, we accept that He’s God and we accept intellectually that He will keep His promises.

So, why do we not live like we believe it?

He said that He’d never leave nor forsake us, but at the least little setback in our lives, we start to complain about wondering where God is.  He promised that He’d provide for us, but we look at those bills we’re struggling to pay or that retirement we wish we had and are tempted to complain about all the money we’ve been giving to the church.

We often live like we think God is at the very least a little too slow in coming through when we need Him.

That’s on us, but it’s not really the thought I wanted to share today.

There’s another issue in walking out the belief that He keeps His promises.  And that’s found in the way we keep OUR promises, both to Him and to those around us.

We are, after all, followers of Jesus Christ, who is, Himself, God.  We call ourselves Christians which literally means “little Christs” or “like Christ.”  We carry within our selves the image of the Divine, so that the way we act reflects directly on the One we claim to represent.

Are you a little anxious about being told that you REPRESENT Him?  Get over it; it’s not about who you are or how good you are.  It’s Him working within you.

So, is He?  Are you keeping your promises in a way that would reflect well on God?

When you confessed and repented of your sins and told God that you’d live for Him, are you now doing that?

And, when you told that friend or other person you know that you’d be praying for them, did you actually do it?

OUCH!  This just got personal, didn’t it?

Every day, in every way, in everything you do, you are the walking, talking, living representation of Christ in His creation.  When you came to Him, you promised to love for Him.  And, following the principle of the blessing of the Covenant, you became blessed to BE a blessing so that He could bless others all around you. (You can check that out in Genesis 12, and yes, I know that wasn’t written directly to you and me, but it DOES represent that nature and character of God toward those who follow Him, so move on.)

Does God keep His promises?  The world will only know that by watching the way we keep ours.

Continue on.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO

Friends,

With what shall I come to the Lord
And bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:6-8 NASB

We spend a lot of time in the Christian faith pretending we don’t know what we ought to do.

Seriously, people are always saying they don’t know God’s will for their life, as if that’s an acceptable excuse for not moving forward in the intersection of their faith and their life practice.  If I don’t know exactly what God WANTS me to do, I can just continue doing what I’m doing now until He writes something on the wall in blood, or speaks to me with a disembodied voice or some other supernatural transmission of His will to us.

And, it’s true that we may not know EVERYTHING He wants us to do at the very moment, but our inactivity is rarely driven by that lack of knowledge so much as an unwillingness to do the things we already DO know He wants from us.

That’s why I love this Scriptural passage.  Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Micah is speaking out against checking the box in worship, that is, going through the motions that seem easy as opposed to really moving forward in our lives.

Do you want to know God’s future will for your life?

Then get to work on the things you already know.

Micah notes in verse 8 three important steps.

To do justice.

To love kindness.

To walk humbly before your God.

There have to be a thousand ways you could apply those three pieces of direction in your life TODAY.  It’s not rocket science.  Look around you.

Is there injustice?  Take a stand against it, in God’s name.  If you don’t do it perfectly, He’ll see your heart and assist you.

Are there people in need of kindness?  Fulfill that need, insofar as it’s applicable for you to step in and represent God.  If you aren’t exactly perfect in doing it. He’ll know your heart and make your efforts worthwhile.

And, the last one ought to already be your everyday marching order.

Get to work.  Somewhere in that effort, you’ll see the hand of God and understand His voice in a way you’d have never expected.

Continue on.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

NEVER ALONE

Friends,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 NRSV

On this second day of Lent, a lot of us are trying to adjust ourselves to the fasting commitments we made for this 40 days plus Sundays of Lent.  In the process, some of us are struggling a little bit and maybe wondering if we’ve made a mistake.

And, we’re kind of feeling in the spotlight because we made that commitment before God and now we feel like we have His complete attention.

And that can make you feel all alone.

In truth, one of the toughest parts of trying to live as a follower of Jesus Christ is the realization that you’re not perfect in the performance of living your life, either in front of the people around you or, more critically, in His eyes.

And THAT can make you feel really alone.

Hebrews 12:3 is great news for followers of Christ for TWO reasons.

First, you’re never really alone.  The writer of To The Hebrews reminds us here that we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses.  In the context of this Scripture, following Hebrews 12, the recounting of the great heroes of the faith throughout the Old Testament, this would seem to refer only to those Scriptural giants.  But, of course, centuries have since past and there’s an even greater cloud of witnesses around us.

And, it doesn’t only apply to the Biblical figures.  It includes those personal giants of the faith that have made a contribution in our lives.

For me, that includes my dad, my first hero of the faith.  But, it also includes all those individuals whose lives have changed mine.  And, that includes more recent heroes like Rev. Ed Bass, Rev. Tom Betzer, Rachel Ruth, Nyla Wagoner and, most recently, Carole Biggs.  Their lives affected me while they were here and, according to this Scripture, their spiritual presence continues to be with me.

OK, maybe that scares you even more, as if you were being examined by even more people judging your actions.  But, there’s even more.

The writer also reminds us that Jesus is not only with us, He is our model to follow.  I know; you’re feeling here like that’s just one more example to which you can’t aspire.  But, there’s one more reminder here.

He knows exactly how you feel.  He experienced life just like you.  He knows how it feels.

And, as a matter of fact, so does that great cloud of witnesses.  Their example is not just a reminder that you’re not as good as them.  It’s a reminder that many before you have overcome everything you’re experiencing right now.

Don’t give up.  Don’t lose hope.  You’re not alone.

There is reason here for great hope.

Continue on.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

CHANGE YOUR LIFE, NOT YOUR CLOTHES (REPOST)

Friends,

(This is a repost from a previous year; I’m sharing it tonight at the Ash Wednesday service for San Francisco New Start Ministries, but I thought it would be a good way to kick off our Lent observances.  I’m planning to post several briefer thoughts during Lent.  As Rachel Maddow likes to say, “Watch this space.”)

The Lent season is less than a day old, and I already feel like I’m starting to learn things from God.

It reminds me of an episode from Taxi, an old TV show that I’m sure was gone by the time many of you were born.  One of the characters meets a woman in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office.  The woman is smoking a cigarette (yeah, in the waiting room; the show is THAT old), but she looks very happy.  He asks her why she’s so happy and she says, “Oh, I just quit smoking.”

He looks at her in astonishment because, obviously, she is STILL smoking.  She realizes that he’s looking at the cigarette in her fingers and she says, “Oh, this is my last one.  After this, I’m through.”

She then gets a pensive look on her face and says, “And, I feel so much better.  In fact, I think my taste buds are already starting to return.”  All this while she continues to smoke.

I guess I’m feeling kind of the same way.  I really haven’t done anything different yet.  I finished my last game of Scrabble yesterday.  (If that requires explanation, you need to read the previous blog.)  I just removed all the bookmarks from my computer and the icons from my iPhone for the sports web sites I’m not going to read.  The truth is that I haven’t actually started to change anything, yet.

But, even this morning as I woke up about 4 AM, the usual thinking patterns about my day began and, when thoughts about some of my “small amusements” (that’s how I refer to the list of things I’ve set aside for Lent) came up, I stopped and began to pray, instead.

And, I think I began to feel the return of some of my spiritual “taste buds,” if you know what I mean.

In my experience, that’s how spiritual change begins.  It starts with our basic impulses.  Instead of moving down one thinking path, we intentionally choose another, one that may seem less natural, at first.  We kind of have to force ourselves to go that direction in our minds.

But, once we make that small directional shift, things begin to fall into place.

For our Ash Wednesday service yesterday at Journey of Faith, I was looking for a Scripture reading to share with those who came to make their Lent commitments.  I wanted to share something on the subject of fasting, because our Lent commitments are actually a form of fasting.  God directed me to a passage in Joel 2, verses 12-17.  I read it from The Message.  It’s a good Scripture on the subject of fasting, but one brief phrase really caught my eye.  Verse 13 says this:

Change your life, not just your clothes.
Come back to God, your God.

The reference here is to the ancient Jewish practice of tearing the clothes during times of mourning.  It was traditional to indicate that a person was in mourning, as after the death of a loved one, by making tears in their clothing, literally rending their garment.  The oldest version of this is what we refer to as “sackcloth and ashes.”  The modern version of it is, typically, to tear the breast pocket of a shirt or jacket.

When fasting, a devout Jew would also follow this mourning tradition, indicating that the sacrifice of their fast was akin to the feeling of the loss of someone important.  It was an outward sign that fasting was underway.

But, most of the prophetic writers who speak about fasting rail against this outward show.  Clearly, it had become fashionable to demonstrate the devoutness of fasting rather than to actually feel the process in an intimate way.  Jesus, Himself, speaks out against putting on a show of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.

In this Joel passage, the prophet refers to this as merely changing your clothes, and offers as the better path an actual change of life.

Right now, I’m feeling the mere flutter of the possibility of change.  I can choose to look like I’m changing, a mere wardrobe shift, or I can choose to actually let God change me from the inside out.

I believe that I really am longing to “come back to God, my God,” just like the prophet said.  I don’t mean to indicate that I had ever left Him, but like all of us, the lack of intentionality of my life has allowed me to stray from best that God has for me.  And, I long to get back in balance.

That’s what Lent is all about, getting your spiritual life back in the balance God intends for you.

Where are you in all this?  Did you make a Lent commitment?  Was it really about a change of life, or was it just a change of clothes.

My prayer for you is that you will allow God to get a brand new grip on your life.  It’s what He wants to do, and not just during Lent.  He longs for you to re-center your life on Him.

Change your life, not just your clothes.
Come back to God, your God.

Always praying for you,

Your older brother,

Pastor Joe