Of Septic Tanks and God

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My son says that I can take anything and find a spiritual application to it. I suppose that’s so but it’s because I see God in everything. He is the Creator and Sustainer of everything. Nothing exists that He did not create with His powerful word or fashion with His divine hand. If he could somehow cease to exist, which He will not, everything in heaven and earth would also cease to exist. So yeah, I see spiritual things in everything and every situation.  

There is this spot in my yard that is especially lush and green. You city people won’t understand, but the country folk know that this is where the septic tank sits.  The “contents” of the tank become fertilizer for the soil so that the grass and bushes in the immediate vicinity are “nurtured.” How can I find a spiritual application in a septic tank?  In God’s hands, the crappiest parts of our life often become the most fruitful for the Kingdom. Ask Joseph whose horrible brothers sold him into slavery. He was taken to Egypt where he was falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown in prison. There, he interpreted a dream for a fellow prisoner who promised to remember him to the Pharoah but promptly forgot. Until two years later when Pharoah had a dream and the ex-prisoner remembered Joseph and recommended him. Joseph not only told the Pharoah the meaning of his anxious dream but how to resolve the problem that the dream was prophecying. Impressed, Pharoah appointed him to the second-highest position in his kingdom and Joseph saved the lives of the Egyptians and became very wealthy in the process. He also saved the lives of his family – including the brothers who had betrayed him. And in doing so, he saved the lineage through which the Savior of all mankind would come.  Had Joseph not made it to Egypt to stand before the Pharoah – however harsh the circumstances – there would be no nation of Israel, no Jewish people, no Jesus, and no salvation for you and me.  Joseph told his brothers, “ You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Beloved, if life feels like a septic tank right now be encouraged. God has a way of taking the crappiest things and bringing unexpected good out of them.

You Must be Righteous

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Continuing our study of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s gospel is all about the Kingdom of Heaven and revealing Jesus as the rightful King. So far we’ve learned about who the Kingdom people are in the Beatitudes. We’ve learned about the influence Kingdom people should bring to the world in 5:13- 20. In Matthew 5:17-26, Jesus taught about Kingdom righteousness. I’ll jump ahead and give you the key to this passage: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). The Pharisees and teachers of the law were considered the most righteous people in Jerusalem. They built their righteousness on following every jot and tittle of the law – and most of those jots and tittles had been added to God’s Law by man. Their lives were consumed with following rules and rituals, even washing their hands was an elaborate process that was more about the show than about cleanliness.

Who does the Bible point to as “righteous?”  Matthew 1:19 says, Joseph [Mary’s husband-to-be] was a righteous man, but not because he adhered to the letter of the law. When Mary announced that she was pregnant, and he knew this baby was not his, by the Law he should have taken her out to be stoned to death. But “he did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph chose to treat Mary with mercy. That is why the Scripture called him “a righteous man.”

Jesus later called the religious leaders hypocrites (and a brood of vipers!) because, though they did everything right, they did it all for the wrong reasons. He said “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matter of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt 23:23).  They obeyed the letter of the Law but neglected the heart of the Law, which is love.

So how could anyone be more righteous than the religious hierarchy? By understanding that God commanded obedience to the Law, but not for obedience’s sake. The Israelites were to obey the law because they loved God. And love changes everything.

What Does it Mean to Be Righteous?

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“Joseph took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24)

In the telling of the Christmas story, Joseph, the earthly “step-father’ of Jesus doesn’t get much attention.  Little is recorded about him other than he was a carpenter by trade (Matthew 13:55) and a descendant of David (John 2:4).  But I learned something recently about him that had previously escaped my attention in the rush to get to the birth story.

“This his how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.  Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the eyes of the Jewish community, Mary had committed a grievous sin – conceiving a child as an unmarried woman with someone other than her betrothed. According to the religious law, the “righteous” thing to do was to “bring her to the door of her father’s house and there the men of the town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21).  Instead, Joseph chose to handle the situation quietly to spare her from disgrace and punishment.  And because he acted mercifully, God, through the pen of Matthew, declared Joseph “a righteous man.”

Jesus esteemed mercy; He said the merciful will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7) and declared that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:8).  His brother James proclaimed, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).  I think, sometimes the church has it backward.  Much like the Jewish religious leaders, we think that righteousness means always doing the right thing; Joseph shows us that righteousness is doing the Jesus thing – showing mercy.  After all, that is the heart of the Christmas story: God’s love poured out in mercy to sinners like you and me through Jesus Christ. 

This Christmas season, is there someone in your life that needs mercy – someone who needs love?  I know this theme is playing itself out in my own family right now.  It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, but it is the Jesus thing. Let’s commit to being righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

Friday the 13th

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It’s Friday the 13th – does that make you a little nervous? Why are we so fearful of this day? Tradition refers back to the fact that Jesus was the 13th person at the table on the night before His crucifixion on a Friday. So, does that mean that Jesus’ death was just bad luck? Absolutely not! Jesus’ death was the perfect plan of God from before the foundation of the world.  (Rev. 13:8).

Do bad things happen to good – yes even godly – people? Of course. But that’s not bad luck. Nothing in the life of the person devoted to God is ever “lucky” or “unlucky.” Did Joseph consider being sold into slavery and falsely imprisoned to be a stroke of bad luck? If so then he would have had to conclude that luck put him in the second-highest position in Egypt. But he told his brothers – the very ones who sold him out – “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Sometimes it’s very hard to believe that God, not luck or “karma,” is directing the path of our lives, especially when things go awry.  When the diagnosis is bad, when the loved one doesn’t recover, when the car is repossessed, when the kid brings his troubles back home with him, when the business shuts down, when the election goes the wrong way. Either we are very unlucky, or we are in the good hands of a good God with a good plan. As for me – I’m trusting in the providence and sovereignty of God. Yes, even in 2020.

Beloved, wherever you are today, whatever your situation, it’s not because of luck or happenstance. God has you. He has not surrendered control for even a millisecond. Nothing – not one single thing – escapes His notice or His charge. So lay down your 4-leaf clover and your rabbit’s foot and stop avoiding ladders and black cats. Who knows? Friday the 13th may turn out to be the best day of your life!

The Real Joy of Christmas

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Christmas isn’t always a Currier and Ives painting. Some Christmases are hard, saturated in grief, exhaustion, disappointment, loneliness, struggle, and family drama. I’ve had some of those Christmases – no doubt you’ve had them too. I remember Christmases when my Dad was stationed far away from us, the first Christmas after my Mom died, and Christmases with no tree and no presents because there were no funds. Those were sad holidays, but they were not joyless. I know – that sounds like a contradiction, but the joy of Christmas is not in trees and presents. And while they are (usually) a blessing and a delight at Christmas, our family is not the heart of our joy. Christmas Joy is not found in stores – you can’t even order it from Amazon. And I can guarantee you that it isn’t in “Christmas” themed movies or T.V. specials or over-produced “Christmas” songs.

The true joy of Christmas is the assurance of God’s faithfulness to redeem His people from their sins. That’s exactly what Matthew said in his gospel. The angel who appeared to Joseph said, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This baby wasn’t just born to be a king who would rule on a throne. He was born to be the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He was born to break the power of death. John said He came to bring light into our darkness (John 1:4-9). Joy at Christmas comes from understanding our desperate situation before God and then recognizing what He did for us. The truest expression of Christmas joy is not a party or a present – it’s worship. That’s how Mary saw it. She said “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46). Christmas should be a holy celebration, a time when we put aside the tinsel and trappings and bow low before the Baby in the manger. It may never be as perfect as the picture on your Christmas cards, but Beloved, no matter your circumstances in this season, may your Christmas be full of real joy.

Real Faith

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Merriam-Webster defines faith as allegiance to duty or a person, sincerity of intentions, belief, trust in, and loyalty to God, trust in the traditional doctrines of a religion, and firm belief in something for which there is no proof. But faith in the Bible is different – deeper, stronger, longer-lasting. The Greek word for faith is pistis and it means belief or trust with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow. There’s an old story about a tightrope walker who strung his rope across a tall and dangerous precipice then asked the crowd, “Who here believes I can walk across this rope and back without falling?” Many applauded their approval and so he stepped up and made the trip across and back with ease. Then he set a wheelbarrow on the rope and asked, “Who here believes I can push this wheelbarrow across this rope and back without dropping it or falling off?” The crowd, encouraged by his previous success, agreed that he could. And so he pushed the wheelbarrow across and back without a hitch. When he returned, the crowd whistled and clapped with delight. “Now,” the man said, “who’s willing to get in the wheelbarrow?” That’s what the Bible means by faith.

Christmas is many stories of faith. The shepherds had faith and went to see the Baby in the manger. Joseph had faith and took Mary to be his wife despite the scandalous circumstances. Mary had faith and humbly surrendered to the will of God even though it put her in a very difficult situation. The Magi had faith and traveled for two years to worship a King who didn’t rule their country. Elizabeth restored Mary’s faith by reminding her that there is a great blessing in believing God. Simeon and Anna had faith in God’s promise to redeem Israel, and their faith was rewarded in the face of the infant Son of God.

Faith is not just sitting around thinking faithy thoughts. Real faith, sustaining faith is faith that moves you. It looks at the impossibility of the situation and steps forward anyway. It submits to God’s will even when it’s hard. It makes the difficult journey of life an adventure and it never loses sight of the promises of El Emunah, the Faithful God.

Beloved, do you have real faith?

Joseph’s Christmas Story

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Of all the people in the Christmas story, I think Joseph is the one whom I most admire. He was just a simple carpenter from Nazareth, diligently preparing the home that he and Mary – and hopefully sons and daughters – would share. All was coming together as they had planned – until the day he saw her strained face. Something was troubling her, something that would turn his life upside-down.

“With child? Mary, how can this be? Who Mary? Why Mary?”

She began to spin this fanciful tale about an angel named Gabriel and the Holy Spirit and Jesus. It was all too much to understand. He was heartbroken, dumbfounded, shocked, and shaken. She cried as he walked away from her, but what else could he do?

Then in the night – a dream and an angel and a message just for him. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21).

I admire Joseph not because he stepped in to raise a child that was not his own – millions of men have done the same. I don’t even admire him for making himself part of the scandalous situation Mary was in – a situation not of his making. I admire him because of his faith. He believed – not Mary; Joseph believed God and he acted in obedience and “took Mary home as his wife” (v. 24) and become a father to her son. It takes a very humble man to forgive a seemingly unfaithful woman and love her child as his own. And it takes great faith to believe that God is in the middle of such a big mess. Joseph had great faith and a humble heart.

This Christmas season may find you in the middle of a mess – perhaps not of your own making. I’ve been there. So was Joseph. Beloved, humility and faith will carry you through. Humility lets you enter into another’s troubled world. Faith believes that God is in the midst of it all. Is He calling you to be Joseph to someone you love?

Kanye and the Church

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What does it mean to be a “righteous person?” Merriam-Webster says that “righteous” means “to act in accord with divine or moral law.” In Scripture, it means to be “right.” But who sets the standards for “right” and “wrong?” In our culture, that standard shifts like a sheet caught in the wind. God gave His law and commandments so that His people would know exactly what He deems to be right and live accordingly. Righteous behavior was rewarded and unrighteousness was punished. In a previous post, I shared how the Prodigal Son would, according to Levitical law, be stoned to death when he returned home for rebelling against his father. Likewise, a woman who was found to not be a virgin when she married would also be stoned to death. The law stated: “She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her Father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). According to the Law, this was the right way to deal with her.

So how is it that Joseph was called “a righteous man” when he decided to disobey this law? When Mary revealed her pregnancy to her fiancé, Joseph “did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [so] he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph did not want Mary to endure what the law said she deserved. Yet the Scriptures called him righteous. Because Joseph opted for mercy over judgment. No wonder God chose him to be the earthly father who would raise His Son.

A popular entertainer professed to be a Christian recently and just dropped a full gospel album. He has a reputation as a foul-mouthed, wild, arrogant, rebellious guy, but now he says he is a follower of Christ. And the church has judged him and his claim by his past. Where is mercy? Where is righteousness? Who among us has the right to judge his faith? Shouldn’t we instead be proclaiming the saving power of Christ? If the angels are rejoicing that a sinner came to Jesus, why aren’t we? We have an opportunity to show the world the grace and mercy of God by embracing this man and his new-found faith – but we’re showing them that Heaven has slammed the door in his face. And theirs. Why would they want a God like that? The truth is, it took the same amount of holy blood to cleanse my sins as it did to cleanse his. And it takes the same grace to overcome my mistakes as a believer as it will to overcome his. If God can save a wretch like me, no one is outside of the reach of His salvation.

James said it clearly and boldly: “Judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).

I’m choosing righteousness here. I’m choosing the same mercy that was shown to me. I’m going to believe that my God can save. Anyone.