A Rescue I Did Not Want

small__2741887628It was a rescue I did not want. As a young teenager I had been a sailor for a very short time, but long enough to develop a love, in fact passion, for sailing. And long enough to develop a disdain for the noise-and-water-polluting powerboats that I referred to as ‘stink-pots.’ But it was a rescue I needed. My Dad was with me for a wonderful blustery sail, but the wonderful part had turned to downright scary and we needed to get back. My boat seemed to have other plans and we started to struggle. We tried bringing down the sails and paddling. That got us nowhere. We tried throwing out the anchor. Being nothing more than a tin of beans with cement instead of beans, that did nothing. Though in sight of where we wanted to be, we just could not get back. But finally our problems were solved, by a water-and-noise-polluting stinkpot.

There is an offer of rescue through Jesus whose name means “God saves,” or “God rescues.” An angel tells Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 NRSV). There are three things to note about this rescue:

People really do not want a rescue. They would rather be able to do it on their own. There is a bugging sense that sin is real and a real problem, but we will deal with that ourselves by living better, and by being more religious. The apostle Paul studies religion in Romans but concludes “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24 NRSV). I did not want a rescue and would rather have sailed back or paddled back, but that wasn’t working. When I got over my pride and accepted the offer of rescue I got back. Many people try many things to deal with their sin. None of it will work, but we have a Rescuer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25 NRSV).

People do not want a rescue if it is by Jesus. That would mean giving up preconceived ideas. It would mean a change of heart and a change in behaviour. People do not want Jesus touching their time, their money, their desires. People do not want a rescue if it has anything to do with Christianity. They will point to hypocrites, to wars, and to science. But none of all that disproves the Rescuer. If I was to be rescued, I would want a more experienced sailor to jump on board and help us sail back. But I did not get to choose the manner of rescue. And I did not refuse the rescue. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” (Revelation 3:20 KJV) Will you refuse the Rescuer?

People see no need for a rescue. To borrow a line from one of my favourite rock bands “I don’t need to be forgiven.” Why look for a solution where there is no problem? While we may feel that way today, there is the future to think about. The longer I was in trouble on the water, the more I realized I needed the rescue. The winds may be light right now, but the day will come when you will be overwhelmed with grief over your sin. “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.'” (Revelation 22:20a NRSV) Why not take the rescue and instead be overwhelmed with joy over the experience of God’s love, God’s rescue? “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20b NRSV)

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Selfish Generosity? Reflections on Matthew 19, 20.

small__5096035675Can you be generous and yet remain selfish and self-centred at the same time? According to the Bible, yes!

First, let us consider the rich young ruler who asks: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16 NRSV). Notice incidentally that he is looking for only one thing to do! But notice especially what he is not asking: “Teacher, what must I do to see God’s name honoured? Teacher, what must I do to see your Kingdom come? Teacher, what must I do to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven? Teacher, how can I be of help?” Instead his question is very self focused. He may as well be asking “What about me? What’s in this for me?” Being rich, he would have had the resources to be helpful to Jesus in His ministry, being young he would have had the energy, and being a ruler, his influence also might of been of help. But helping himself is the only thing on his mind at this time.

A short conversation between Jesus and the young man ensues, but there is something notable about Jesus’ response as to which commands the man should focus on:

And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 19:18-19 NRSV)

Do you notice anything about this list? These are all commands that focus on relationships. Jesus is here looking to wean the young man off his self-focus and instead to focus on others. Jesus takes this focus on others a step further:

“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me (Matthew 19:21 NRSV)

The young man walks away grieved for being rich now he cannot fathom becoming poor and trusting the Lord with his treasures in heaven. He cannot focus on others. He cannot get beyond his self-focus.

Jesus takes the opportunity to teach, as we read 19:23-26 , about the difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom Heaven but things quickly get back to the theme of self-focus: “Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”” (Matthew 19:27 NRSV). Peter here is comparing himself and the other disciples to the rich young ruler. They had left everything to follow, the young man had not. Is there reward for that? Yes, great will be their reward according to Jesus in verses 28-29. However, notice how Peter’s question is very much like the rich young man’s? He may as well be saying “What about me? What’s in this for me?” It is a self-centred question.

The next parable in 20:1-16 develops this. Some labourers are hired to put in a full twelve hour day, while others are hired for less, some even for only one hour. But at the end of the day they all get the same amount, and understandably the workers who worked the longest are upset. But to this the master responds:

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:13-16 NRSV)

That we are to take this parable as furthering the thoughts of reward in the previous chapter is made clear by the repeating of “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” in both 19:30 and 20:16. To summarize those two passages: “First; yes you will be rewarded. Second; do not focus on your reward.” Someone who has fully surrendered to the Master will trust Him with the final outcome of all things. Someone who has a self focus, however, will focus in on the rewards and make comparisons with others receive. Though we may leave all to follow Jesus, we may still be self-centred rather than fully surrendered. Self-sacrifice may not be sacrificial at all if it is an attempt to come out on top.

Keep reading and we will keep seeing this lesson on self focus. Next up, Jesus speaks of His own death in 20:17-19, which of course has its focus on you and me. Right after that in 20:2-,21 the mother of James and John, with both of them along, asks Jesus to give her sons the best places in the Kingdom. They didn’t get the lesson on being focused on others. They didn’t get the lesson on being focused on God. They didn’t get the lesson on being focused on the Kingdom. They had left everything to follow Jesus. But they had not yet left their self focus. Have you?

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Curing a Bad Case of Goodstuffitis. Gratitude, Generosity, and Deuteronomy 8

small__2400610219Many of us suffer from a widespread but little known affliction called “Goodstuffitis”. How do you know if you have it? Its primary symptoms are forgetfulness and boasting but the early warning signs that we are getting it are when we say things like “I deserve this, I earned that, life would be unfair if I did not have it.”

The Bible speaks of a people in danger of coming down with a bad case of goodstuffitis in Deuteronomy. God’s people are ready to enter the promised land and God, through Moses, is preparing them. But the danger they face in the future is not just from the danger of battle, but also what waits for them beyond the battle:

12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.” Deuteronomy 8:12-18 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Affluence is the danger that lay ahead of God’s people. Note the twin dangers that lurk in a good life; forgetting God and exalting oneself. A lot has been written on the sobering statistics of the Christian faith in Canada. Some blame church music, some blame boring preaching, and some blame stuck-in-the-mud ethics for the shift away from faith. Meanwhile those of an atheistic bent would have us believe that we can thank better education. But perhaps what we are experiencing are the symptoms of a bad case of goodstuffitis. Things are going good for the typical Canadian. Opportunities abound. Houses are being built. Fancy cars, fancy cottages, and fancy coffees are being bought. People are doing well. And God is all but forgotten. Self, on the other hand, is exalted.

What are we to do? The cure for goodstuffitis is gratitude. God’s people are told to “remember the Lord your God” (verse 18). They are, of course, not just to remember that God exists, but rather to remember that everything good that they have and experience, would not have happened if it were not for the Lord’s goodness to them. Likewise, we can remember the Lord in all the good that we have and experience.

However, we may push back and say “I have this because I earned it, I am entitled to it.” We might consider the words of Paul here: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” 1 Corinthians 4:7b (NRSV). Yes, we may have worked hard in school to get good grades, but did you create your own brain? Yes, you may work hard to earn money, but did you create the earth with its resources, routines, and seasons so necessary for your work to be carried out? At some point or other, everything that we can point to as good in our lives has its source in God.

​Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. (James 1:17 NASB)

And the greatest example of all is our salvation. How people so badly want to earn it! How people so assuredly think they are entitled to it. We can not, and we are not. Salvation, in all the fullness of what that means, is a gift! There is no greater good that we could have or experience, but gratitude must be applied to keep us from developing goodstuffitis even in this: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” Corinthians 9:15 (NRSV).

We have been considering how God through His Holy Spirit is creating within us the character trait of generosity. We have considered also that we may at times stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. A bad case of goodstuffitis with its symptoms of boasting and a sense of entitlement can kill generosity. It’s not hard to see how this can kill our hopes of becoming generous people; “I worked for it and you didn’t, I deserve it, and you don’t.” But thankfully there is a cure, and that cure is gratitude. Lord, may I not feel entitled to, nor boast about, the good that I have and experience, but may I be grateful to your for it, and knowing it is from your hand, help me share it with others.

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