Unbelievable Joy

Advent 2013…Joy: Isaiah 35.1-10

As I reflected this passage, I was struck by this overwhelming picture of great joy that Isaiah paints for us. It’s a joy that in many ways is incomprehensible where all of creation can’t help but shout over the salvation that the LORD brings. Nothing on earth can compare…sporting event, concert, celebration of any kind…all pale in comparison.

I shared a tweet this past week, “The pursuit of happiness is a far cry from the everlasting joy of the kingdom…only the latter truly satisfies the longing of our souls.” As the guys and I talked about the sermon, the question was asked, “What’s the difference between happiness and joy?” Great question. Happiness has a lot to do with circumstances. It tends to be more momentary, more fleeting. It’s rooted in the physical. That’s why the pursuit of happiness is a vain pursuit…it never lasts and is always fleeting. It tends to focus on self…building my own earthly kingdom.

But joy, the joy that Isaiah talks about, true kingdom-joy, like kingdom-peace, goes down to the soul. It is lasting and mostly independent, but not totally separate from current circumstances. Positive circumstances may cause you to reflect on that joy (return of exiles to Zion, believer being baptized, unbeliever finally trusting in Christ), but the presence of that joy can be felt and experienced even in the midst of suffering (very negative circumstance).

Where does that joy come from? What causes creation to rejoice with joyful shouting? The movement from death to life. What causes those returning to Zion on the Highway of Holiness, the redeemed and ransomed, to rejoice with everlasting joy? Again, the movement from death to life.

And I think the experience of our joy is tied to our experience of the kingdom. The Israelites in Isaiah’s prophecy rejoice greatly because they have come from death to life, from captivity to freedom, from darkness and despair to hope and light. Our experience of joy is tied to the degree to which we see the gospel as good news. When we think less of our sin, grace really isn’t that big a deal, but when we see the enormity of our transgression against God, then grace is an occasion of great joy, joy that allows us to rejoice in suffering, that gives us that deep settledness that all is well with my soul. It’s the joy of Jesus…a joy that is independent of circumstance.

This story challenges us to pursue true joy…the joy of the kingdom, the joy that comes from knowing that we have been rescued by the King. And as we learn to recognize more and more fully God’s saving grace and the reality of His kingdom, then we experience more and more fully joy even in the midst of the trials, pain and suffering of this life.

My prayer for us this week is that we might more fully realize Unbelievable Joy because of our Unbelievable Savior.

Until next time…stay salty.

To hear an mp3 of this sermon, visit us at: http://www.centralchristian.org. You can also follow us on twitter: @mattdumas1969.

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Through the Looking Glass

“Genesis 3.15 is the key to the entire Bible,” I heard myself say again for the hundredth time (slight exaggeration)  with a group that I’m taking through the book of Genesis. It’s become so much a part of my schtick that I find myself referring to it almost weekly in the two other books I’m taking groups through – Luke and Acts. It’s been amazing seeing the connections. After all, the Genesis 3.15 Seed of the woman is Jesus, so should I expect anything less?

Anyway, we spent time yesterday going through Genesis 4-6.9, focusing primarily on the genealogies and the sons of God/daughters of men reference at the beginning of 6. Seeing the fig leaves, garment of skins, Cain’s sacrifice of fruit, Abel’s sacrifice of meat, the line of Cain and the line of Seth, and the sons of God and the daughters of men through the prism of Genesis 3.15 brings both clarity and cohesion to what could be, and often is, interpreted as a disjointed section of Scripture.

God judges the serpent for his part in the fall. In the midst of his judgment, God says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise you on the head, but you will bruise Him on the heel.” A couple of things to note: constant warfare between those who follow God and those who follow satan, and the death of the innocent in delivering the guilty.The heel crushing is more than a flesh wound…it’s a kill shot. Adam and Eve respond to their sin with fig leaves, while God illustrates Genesis 3.15 by providing animal skins – a sacrifice of blood (the innocent for the guilty). Cain follows in his parents’ example before the blood offering by bringing fruit. But Abel mirrors God’s example bringing firstlings of the flock and fat portions. Cain proves to be a seed of the serpent, while Abel represents the seed of the woman; and death is sadly an apt example of the enmity between the two.

Seth replaces Abel. In Cain’s genealogy, Moses highlights the very earthy accomplishments of his line. These guys are famous from a worldly perspective – lots of “first of’s”. But Seth’s progeny are distinguished by their calling on the name of the Lord. They have a heavenly focus. Like Cain, his line will represent the seed of the serpent, while Seth and his crew represent the seed of the woman. Which brings us to Genesis 6.

This passage presents quite a challenge for most Bible students. Who are the sons of God? And what does Moses mean by daughters of men? Where do the Nephilim fit in? And what about the mighty men of old, the men of renown? If we parachute into this passage without regard to the preceding context of Genesis 1-5, then we are left with word studies and ancient myths. And this becomes one more story in a string of stories that Moses is telling to the ancient Israelites rather than one story with different vignettes. Whatever conclusion you draw about the identities of the aforementioned groups, the balance of the chapter makes it clear that God holds man culpable. I believe it’s because those who call on the name of the Lord begin to disappear as they intermarry with those who don’t (no such thing as missionary dating!). And the result is increasing violence (Am I my brother’s keeper?) which leads to the destruction of the earth by the flood. But we have a potential Genesis 3.15 candidate in Noah…

I’m always aware of the danger of reading my own thoughts into Scripture. And having a text through which you evaluate the whole is dangerous, but if Genesis 3.15 is pointing us ultimately to Jesus, and He is the focus of Scripture…He’s the Word made flesh, then maybe I’m not too far off.

Until next time…stay salty.

Tripped up again

 

My first ministry assignment out of seminary was a medium-sized church in a small town in Nebraska. Coming from the sprawling metropolis of Dallas-Ft Worth composed of millions of people to the somewhat more modest Lexington with a mere ten thousand souls was quite a culture shock. Going from the land of malls and movies, of shopping and spending, of busy schedules and out-of-control lives to the relative quiet of the country was refreshing, but it was clear that we “weren’t from around here”. I remember the comment (or complaint) made about how far the Wal-Mart was from town. It took almost 10 minutes to get there. Really…in Dallas it takes 10 minutes to get out of your neighborhood. But after living in Lexington for a year, we were already immersed in the culture. I found myself complaining about the drive to Wal-Mart. My wife had even learned to “put up corn”. And after 3 years we moved back to Dallas – an even bigger culture shock from Midwest small town life. But once again we’ve adjusted to life in the city. I’ve learned that I’m adaptable. It may take me awhile, but I can and eventually do conform to the culture around me. And being adaptable is a good thing, right?

James 4. The gloves come off. Up to this point, James has admonished; and he’s corrected. Now he’s going for the jugular. What’s the source of conflicts and struggles? It’s your selfishly motivated lusts that drive you. The same ones that drive me. And when those two collide, there’s quite an explosion. Imagine two two-year-olds throwing a tantrum over the toy they both want times a hundred. Far from loving our neighbor, we are in danger of murdering them to get our own way. Instead of seeing others from God’s perspective as those who are uniquely created in His image and purchased with Christ’s blood, we look at them from a worldly perspective as means to further our own selfish ends – to be used or discarded as dictated by our whims.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve two masters; you will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and money.” James simply says, “You can’t be a friend of both God and the world.” You have to choose one. Trying to serve both is adultery. Wow…very strong language.

James writes to the Jewish diaspora…Jewish believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Not just a single church. It’s not a singular problem. It’s a universal problem. You see, we’re all adaptable. And living in this world, it tends to mold us. It shapes our way of thinking and of interacting with those around us. It takes a very strong opposite thrust to resist the centrifical force of this world’s pull.

But God doesn’t want to leave us in this miserable state of being conformed to this world. He is jealous for us. His desire is that we grow to maturity, that, far from being conformed to this world, we become conformed to the image of His Son. James’ solution: back to the basics – submit to God, resist the devil, cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, humble yourself, control your tongue…only possible as we receive the Word implanted, as we become doers of the Word and not hearers only, as we ask God for wisdom to interpret our circumstances from His perspective.

Being adaptable can be a very good thing, especially when it is informed by the truth of God’s Word. Until next time…stay salty.

 

A Question of Perspective

It was early morning. Two men stood on the wall of the city looking out over the enormous army amassed against them. For months now, one of these men has been sending warnings to the king of the land about the traps set by these marauding invaders. The king of Aram has had enough of his plans being foiled. He sends his warriors en masse to capture the prophet Elisha. And now here they are, surrounding the city.

Elisha’s servant is terrified, and rightfully so. The citizens of the city are unlikely to fight to defend the two men. And he asks the question that any of us would ask, “What are we to do?” Elisha responds, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prays. He prays that his servant’s eyes might be opened. God answers his prayer, and Elisha’s servant sees “the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elijah.”

Two people. Two totally different perspectives. James tackles this issue of perspective in chapter 2 as he challenges his readers about the way they view those around them. His audience was apparently guilty of showing favoritism to the rich in their assembly. The wealthy were given places of honor, while the poor where relegated to the “cheap seats” and treated with at least mild contempt. Any such judgment based on outward appearance is wrong. For God has created us all in His image, and although that image was marred in the fall, it is still there. That is the basis of the command to love our neighbor as ourself which James calls the “royal law”. And when we focus on the externals, we fail to see the infinite value that each person has in the eyes of God.

When I, when we, make judgments about others from an earthly perspective (wealth, beauty, status, brains, etc.), we are looking only at the temporary, earthly things…the things that are destined for destruction. We are like Elisha’s servant who could only see his circumstances – what was are right in front of him – and he missed the deeper truth that God was right there with him all the time. We too miss the deeper spiritual realities, that are every bit as true, all around us…such as the people that God has given us to love. And a failure to love is a failure to keep any of the commandments, because love is the foundation of them all. James is continually calling us to see life from God’s perspective. And if we can’t, he admonishes us to pray for the wisdom to be able to do so.

I pray that God would give you the ability to see your world – your circumstances, yourself and others around you – through His eyes.

Until next time, stay salty.

What happened?

Expectations. We all have them, whether they are expressed. Our expectations tend to color the way we see the world. They give perspective and meaning, whether real or imagined, to our experiences. When our expectations are met or are exceeded, (ok maybe that only rarely happens) life is good. But when those expectations are not met, even if they haven’t been clearly defined, we get frustrated. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. The disciples are there in Luke 9.

Jesus sends out the 12 with His power and authority to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. The disciples get back and can’t wait to fill Jesus in on all the cool stuff they have done. They experienced a taste of the messianic kingdom to come. The kingdom that Jesus, as the King, came to bring. They were caught up in the same fervor that the rest of the nation felt as they anticipated the Messiah. They expected that He would bring in times of refreshing and healing, but they also expected that He would, as the Son of David, be a Warrior who would lead the nation in overthrowing Roman rule. And now as the disciples have been with Jesus, seen Him at work, and have experienced some of that same power, they see themselves as generals in the King’s army. Like Joshua, they are ready to take the promised land.

Then Luke includes the story of the feeding of the 5,000. That’s a lot of people. You guys know…5 loaves, 2 fish. They’re in the wilderness. There’s 12 baskets left over. The imagery is meant to remind the disciples of Israel’s past to instruct them about their future. Jesus is teaching them something important not only about Himself, but also about themselves. John 6 makes it more explicit. There was another time when Israel was in the wilderness, and the nation was miraculously provided for, and it wasn’t as they were entering the promised land to do battle. But it was during a 40-year holding period as they awaited that time. And far from the conquering warrior-leader named Joshua, there was a humble, servant-hearted leader named Moses. The latter is what Jesus is calling them to. So instead of being the military élite who will lead the people into battle against the Romans, the disciples are being called to take up the role of shepherds who nurture, provide for and protect the flock.

If that wasn’t disturbing enough, Jesus then says something even more shocking. After Peter confesses that He is “the Christ of God” (think the LORD’s Anointed, like King David), Jesus says that far from the glory of a Conquering King, He would be rejected and killed and raised the third day. Talk about unmet expectations. At one moment, they are in with the Guy who’s going to change everything and return Israel to its former glory. The next, He says, “Guys, I’m not going to be around that much longer…” And then He says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and of the Father and of the holy angels…”

They must have been stunned. The cross was not only a symbol of horrific pain and death, but it was also a symbol of great shame and disgrace. In fact, friends and family of one who was crucified would deny knowing him. And Jesus says, “Far from parading at the front of the army, following Me looks like humiliation and disgrace and even death. Forget the temporal glory.” As is so often the case, Jesus says that even though it looks like you are losing, you’re winning. And if you think you’re winning, there’s a good chance you are losing. Those ideas are wrapped up in the Greek word that is translated ashamed (to experience a painful feeling or sense of loss of status because of some particular event or activity). Jesus contrasts the cross with life, and shame now with shame later. He says leadership is not lording, but serving.

And I find that I am so like the disciples. I want the kingdom now, not later. I want to feel like I’m winning, not losing. I want to be respected, not humiliated. I want to celebrate, not suffer. I want ruling, not serving. I want Jesus, the Conqueror, not Jesus the Suffering Servant. And often I’m frustrated.

But the good news is…one day the disciples expectations (and yours and mine) will be more than met. A day when the kingdom comes, when winning is apparent, when following Jesus looks like “well done”, when suffering is finished and celebration begins, when Jesus is seen as the Conquering King because He was the Suffering Servant, when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God, when seeing is believing and believing is seeing, when we experience an eternal weight of glory, when we see the Father face to face. O what a glorious day!

Until next time, stay salty.

Who am I?

Who am I…

My son came in the other day. Once again he had gotten a discipline notice at school. Again for being the class clown. I asked him, “Why do you feel like you have to cut up in class? You are a bright student and a natural leader. Kids like you, but you are developing a reputation so that parents are not so eager to have you around their boys. Your attempts to be popular are having the opposite affect.”

His response broke my heart…”Daddy, if I don’t make them laugh, they won’t like me.” How often had that same lie been whispered in my own ears on countless occasions. For my son it was making his classmates laugh, for me it’s being well-liked as a teacher and preacher, being an A student, being considered a great athlete. The lie pulsates and grows, wrapping its tendrils around my soul. “If you don’t ____, they won’t like you. They won’t except you. You are worthless.”

I think I first started listening to the lie about the same time in my life that my son is now going through. And now 30+ years later I’m finally beginning to see the lie for what it is. You see, I told my son that day, “It’s not being the smartest, or the prettiest, or the funniest, or the fastest, or the coolest, or the richest, or the most successful. It’s not having the biggest house or the fatest bank account or kids in the right school. It’s not the praise and the accolades of others that bring significance. It’s being a son of the King. That’s what gives you value. That’s what makes you special.” And as I said that to my son, something shifted for me. A weight lifted. And my son, by accident…yeah right…dispelled the lie that I had been seduced by for so long.

I pray that you too will see the lie for what it is. Your value comes, not from what you do, but from who you are in relation to the King.

Until next time, stay salty.

Which is it?

If there is one issue that has fueled debate in Christendom and ignited more than a few tempers, even sparking the Reformation, it is the place of works in the process of salvation.

This past Sunday a group of friends and I decided to hit the issue square on as we compared two passages that are seemingly at odds with one another: Ephesians 2.1-10 and James 2.14-16.

In Ephesians 2.8-9, Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not as a result of works lest any man should boast.” James 2.17 seems to counter, “Faith without works is dead, being by itself.”

Reconciling these two passages has troubled many a commentator throughout church history and caused Martin Luther to declare James “a right strawy epistle.” But I believe without a doubt that there is no contradiction here.

Paul writes to a largely Gentile group of believers in Ephesus explaining their transference from death to life. (I love the “But God…in 2.4.) Salvation is a total gift from God. Period. End of story. But don’t miss 2.10 because there Paul says we were saved for a purpose…to walk in the good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. That’s our bridge. We weren’t just saved so that we could go to heaven, as amazing as that will be. We were saved to do the works that God has called us to, to expand the kingdom, to share the gospel, to love our neighbor. It’s not about fire insurance, but about a new life.

James writes to a largely Jewish group of believers that have been scattered abroad. Last week we talked about trials and temptations from James 1 (see last blog post: http://wp.me/p1Kcf-2t). Trials are faced seeking wisdom, so that as faith is tested endurance and maturity are produced allowing us to rejoice. Temptations are faced by receiving the word implanted. The idea is that the word takes root and produces fruit (30, 60, and 100-fold…think Jesus and the parable of the soils). This means that we cannot just be hearers of the word; we must also be doers. (BTW from a Hebrew’s perspective to hear and not do is not to hear at all. The great Shema from Deuteronomy 6.4-6 is labeled as such because the Hebrew verb for “Hear” is shema.)

A couple of terms that will be important to define as we look at James are: dead, works, useless, justified. James has already indicated what he means by “works”…caring for widows and orphans in their distress, giving food and clothing to the poor, loving your neighbor.

The Greek word translated “dead” in English has the same meaning as it does in Greek. It refers to a corpse. Now suppose you and I were to go to a wax museum and were to look at the likenesses of folks like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Pocahantas, etc. Would you say, “Wow, look at all the dead people”? Of course not. You might comment on how lifelike they seem, but they are only imitations of what was real. On the other hand, if I took you to a morgue, you could say, “Wow, look at all the dead people.” I think you get my point. Something can only be described as dead if it was once alive. James is writing to a group of believers. Their faith was once flourishing, but now has died. It isn’t non-existent. But it has lost its vibrancy.

The Greek word translated “useless” carries with it the idea of being unemployed or idle or lazy. It’s a faith that is not producing as it should.

James uses two examples in this passage: Abraham and Rahab. It’s interesting that Paul in Romans 4 (Abraham) and the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 11 (Rahab) use these same two characters to highlight faith. But there is an important distinction, and this goes to what James means by being justified in 2.24. Both the Romans and Hebrews passages look at Abraham (Genesis 15.6) and Rahab (Joshua 2.8-14) from God’s perspective. From His vantage point, a person is saved by faith. And that’s it. But James looks at these two characters from man’s perspective. Abraham is called a “friend of God” by folks who witness his faith in offering up Isaac (Genesis 22), while Rahab’s faith is seen by the two spies when she sends them out (Joshua 2.15-21). So works justify us before men, but never before God (Think of the tax collector and the Pharisee…the Pharisee left justified in his own eyes, while the tax collector left justified before God – Luke 18.9-14.).

But just like Paul, James echoes the same sentiment: if your faith isn’t producing good works – both the fruit of the spirit and love for your neighbor – then something is wrong. From James vantage point, your faith needs to be resucitated…it needs new life. You see James isn’t writing to give folks a barometer of whether faith exists, but whether or not it is alive and vibrant. Because that’s the goal.

There is definitely more to dig into in this passage. I encourage you to grab a group of friends and wrestle through it for yourselves.

Until next time, stay salty.