Was Anyone Grateful for The Christian Church This Thanksgiving?

As people gathered around the Thanksgiving turkey with thanksgiving reflections, how many said something like “thank you Lord, for Christians”? It feels like in Canada right now, many would echo the thoughts of Ghandi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” Do we, who call ourselves Christian, inspire gratitude? Are people grateful for the Christian Church? If you are a Christian reading this, are people grateful for you? You may wonder why I am sticking to the series from Romans for Thanksgiving Sunday. Read on, there is a connection!

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:8-10 (NRSV)

As far as I know, people upon discovering their spouse is in an adulterous affair don’t say “thank you, Lord!”. Nor if they discover their family member is a murderer do they say “thank God for that.” And so on. People, whether religious or not, have gratitude when their loved ones  are righteous. Paul fleshes out for us in Romans 13 the kind of life that inspires gratitude.

A life full of love inspires gratitude: “love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Love naturally inclines us toward the righteousness that people are thankful for when they experience it from their loved ones. When we learn to love, we do not even need the law. One who holds to a high standard of love does not need rules saying “do not commit adultery”, “do not steal”, and so on. He or she would not want to. When I am driving my wife’s van on the highway, I need the occasional sign to remind me of the rule “thou shalt not drive faster than 100 km/h”. It is easy to speed when you have a smooth ride and a 3.6 litre V6 engine. When I ride my motorcycle, I need neither the signs, nor the rule. Having an engine smaller than your average lawn mower, it is “out-of-character” for my Honda 125 to go any faster. When we are so filled with the love and presence of God that His love is overflowing from us, we don’t need the rules to keep us from hurting people. Hurting others is out of character for a loving person. Doing anything but being helpful to others is out of character for the loving person. Keep in mind we are not talking about the “I love what you do for me” kind of love, but the Jesus-going-to-the-cross-for-people-who-do-not-deserve-it kind of love. It is a decisive, sacrificial, other benefitting kind of love.

Are we learning that kind of love that inspires gratitude? If Canadians are not generally thankful for Christians, perhaps we Christians are not loving like we can and should?

Paul continues:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Romans 13:11-14 (NRSV)

A life full of light inspires gratitude. To give a loose paraphrase of verse 11, “do this love thing we just spoke of, knowing the age we are in, the age of light breaking in on the darkness”. There is a progression in the Bible from God saying “let there be light” through spiritual darkness beginning with Adam and Eve, through Israel called to be a light to the nations but often having trouble finding the switch, to Jesus being the true light in ways Israel never could. John calls Jesus, the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9 NRSV). With Christ a new day has dawned and the darkness is receding. We are called to wake up and live in that new day. We are called to live as those belonging to the Kingdom of light, and not those who live according to the old empire of darkness.

The metaphor of waking up continues with the command to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” when we get dressed. In other words, when people see us, when they see what we put on in the morning, they will see Jesus. Here is also a reminder that it is not about our efforts. It is about God’s continual presence with us.

Let us be reminded of Paul’s original appeal:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

People don’t like it when we are not conformed to this world. But when we are full of love, when we are full of light, the people close to us are grateful. If Canadians are not particularly grateful for the Christian Church, then perhaps it is time for us to wake up and put on Christ. Are you up and dressed yet?

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Life as a Living Sacrifice. Sounds Like Fun?

Romans 12:1 (NRSV) 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” You may have three reactions to this verse.

First off, it does not sound much like fun. A sacrifice, not just of money, or of some time, but your very self. And just any old self, but a self which is “holy and acceptable to God.” However, to have this kind of negative reaction is to miss what is really being said here. To react negatively to the idea of giving yourself to God would be like a groom, who on seeing his bride walking down the aisle says “well this sucks.” Or a bride walking down the aisle to meet her groom saying “I’d far rather be somewhere else, with someone else.” I suppose such sentiments can happen in arranged marriages and the like, but in the twenty years I have been officiating weddings, the excitement of the bride and groom over the moment and over each other has always been palpable. The wedding, that moment you give yourself to another person, is not seen as a misfortune, but as a very positive opportunity! Likewise with God, giving ourselves to God is a glorious opportunity! We should not think of it as something we have to do, so much as something we get to do. I did not have to get married, changing my life and focus to “us” rather than “me.” But I got to!

Additionally, “holy and acceptable to God” may seem like a downer. However, holiness is also something we get to do, something we will want to do ! I have never officiated a wedding where upon getting to the marriage vows the bride or groom has said “do I have to do this part?” To be a good man or woman for our bride or groom is something we aspire to on our wedding day. Sometimes the bride or groom will forget such things once they are wife and husband, but God is aways faithful.

Being “holy and acceptable to God” may also feel like a predicament. How are we going to pull that off? But this is something we are enabled to do. It is “by the mercies of God” or “through the mercies of God” that we are enabled to become holy and acceptable to God. It is through the work of Jesus for us and the Holy Spirit within us. Again, it is part of a wonderful privilege and opportunity.

Secondly, you may think: “I guess I can commit to this if it is going to make God love me.” This is to to turn this verse into a “so that” verse. There is no “so that” here in Romans 12:1. There are “so that” verses in the Bible. For example you might want to consider John 3:16, which says “For God so loved the world, so that he gave His only begotten Son, in order that, whoever believes in Him, shall not perish” (a conglomeration of translations, quite literal where italicized). The “so that” points to how God loved us first. In Romans 12:1 we have a “therefore” verse. Paul is pointing back to all he has reviewed in Romans chapters 1 through 11, namely, the human predicament and the glory of God’s love. Now, therefore, on the basis of His love, let us commit ourselves to God. We do not do so to make Him love us more. We can not make Him love us more than He already does. We give ourselves to Him as our expression of love for Him.

Consider the vows and promises that an in-love couple make to each other on their wedding day. They should never think “I commit to these vows so that you will love me”, but rather “I commit to these vows already knowing you love me”. Living out the the vows of marriage is a reflection of the reality of love, not a prerequisite to eventually attain it. It is much the same with our relationship with God who has already demonstrated His love for us in the gift of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Further, when you have a good love relationship with your fiancé, committing to these vows, committing to having your life changed by marriage, is a very reasonable and rational thing to do. It is a sensible next step in your relationship. This too is reflected in our relationship with God as Romans 12:1 points out:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1 (NRSV emphasis mine)

The word translated as “spiritual” here in the NRSV is a word from which we get the English word “logical.” Knowing God’s love and commitment to you, committing your life to God is a logical next step. It is a reasonable and rational thing to do in the same way that marrying my wife was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made!

Third, you may hear these verses and think “Okay, I’m in. I’m ready to present myself to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, now give me the rule book so I can memorize all the rules.” We want to be careful here, not to think of Paul, or any other New Testament writer, as the second coming of Moses. It had already been established that Gentiles coming to faith in Christ did not need to become Jewish with the observance of all the rules of Judaism. But they could not simply live like Romans either. So what we have in the New Testament is not a new rule book, but the implications of giving one’s life to God. The Christian life is not about following a rule book, but about relationship. Relationships require, not rules, but discernment. God is not asking us to fill our minds with rules, but the renewing of our minds with His presence:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2 (NRSV)

Looking to the marriage analogy again, I have never known a bride and groom exchange rule books at the wedding ceremony. They are entering into a relationship, not with a list of rules, but with each other. There is a learning and discerning which is part and parcel of the wonderful institution of marriage.

In conclusion, people may have negative responses to the idea of giving themselves to God as living sacrifices. But when we begin to grasp just Who God is, and what His love is like, we recognize that doing so is a most wonderful opportunity. May the opportunity that lay before you fill and thrill your soul.

Ezekiel and the Glory Days

We may feel like our glory days are well behind us. Some look back to when one hundred sit-ups were an easy thing, others look back to when they could simply sit up without help. Some look back to better paycheques. Some look back to when children were home and a spouse was still alive. Some look back to a time when loved ones were not suffering. When the aches and pains of life settle in, we can long for the “glory days” we see in the rearview mirror.

God’s people in Ezekiel’s day would have felt that their glory days were behind them. They could look back to the days of David and Solomon, and see how things had never been quite as good as they were then. And now that they are in exile, Jerusalem is destroyed, and the temple lay in ruins, there would be a strong temptation to keep their eyes fixed on the rearview mirror in search of the “glory days”.

The prophecies in Ezekiel chapters 36 through 39 spoke to God’s people about their glory days. They speak to us today about ours. Let’s take a bird’s eye view.

Chapter 36. The first prophecy is directed toward the land itself. For example,

. . . and I will multiply human beings and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am the Lord. Ezekiel 36:11 (NRSV)

The wording of this alludes to “Be fruitful and multiply” from Genesis 1:28 which recalls Eden before the ground was cursed thanks to Adam (see Genesis 3:17). The promise is for a future even better than the glory days!

The second prophecy of chapter 36 is directed at the people. Among the promises are the following:

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Ezekiel 36:24-27 (NRSV)

The promise goes well beyond a mere return to the land and the status quo. God promises to clean His people up and give them His Spirit. This is a far better situation than what they enjoyed in the “glory days” of David and Solomon.

Chapter 37. The first prophecy is the infamous “dry bones” vision where Ezekiel sees dry bones come together, and then come alive when life is breathed into them. This is another allusion to Genesis when God breathed life into Adam (see Genesis 2:7). There is a tension in this vision between a metaphorical interpretation, meaning a promise of return from exile, and a more literal interpretation, meaning an anticipated resurrection from the dead. We feel this tension in verse 12:

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Ezekiel 37:12 (NRSV)

We should probably see both here, with a return from exile made even better by the fact that all past generations will be able to participate as well. This would be far better than the past glory days.

The second prophecy speaks of there being one king again, like the glory days of David and Solomon. But watch for what is repeated again and again in the following:

Ezekiel 37:22-26 (NRSV) I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the apostasies into which they have fallen, and will cleanse them. . . . They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.

Words like “never again” and “forever” are important, whereas in the glory days of the past, the big word was “if”. That is, “if you are faithful to me things will go well”. Here in Ezekiel’s prophecy there is no “if”, just God’s people enjoying God forevermore. This is much better than the glory days of the past.

Chapters 38 and 39. These are prophecies against a land called Gog. There has been much conjecture as to the identity of Gog. For now, let us notice that the enemies assemble to the north (see Ezekiel 38:1-6). The Assyrians invaded from the north when they destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. The Babylonians invaded from the north when they destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah. The point is that such destruction will never happen again! The safety and security of God’s people will be much better than in the glory days of the past.

Concluding chapter 39, we can sum up Ezekiel 39:21-29 this way: “God hid His face from His people and they went into exile because they sinned against Him. But now God, for the sake of His glory, will be generous with His Spirit and never hide His face from them again.”

Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; 29 and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. Ezekiel 39:28-29 (NRSV)

This is not just restoration of the former status quo. This is restoration to God! This is much better than in the glory days of the past!

History records that God’s people did, in fact, return from exile in Babylon to their own land. However, there was a problem. Not only were things not better than the glory days of David and Solomon, they were not even as good. Roman occupation made sure that Israel’s glory days remained firmly in the past. However, this seeming lack of prophetic fulfillment points us to the the greater fulfillment in Christ. The fulfillment of these promises lies not in the flourishing of an empire-like kingdom called Israel, but in a greater Kingdom brought through Jesus Christ. There is a much bigger exile in view here; separation from the presence of God. Through Jesus we have:

  • Cleansing from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, as in Ezekiel 36.
  • Resurrection from the dead, and the inclusion of all generations in the promise, as in Ezekiel 37:1-14.
  • The Messiah as the Lord of a united and holy people, as in Ezekiel 37:15-28.
  • A future, safe and secure from every enemy, as in Ezekiel 38 and 39:1-20.
  • Restoration, not just to a land, but to God Himself, as in 39:21-29.

The days of David and Solomon never really were the glory days. The days of Adam and Eve before the fall are a better fit for the title “glory days”. According to Ezekiel chapters 36 through 39, the glory days are ahead. When we find ourselves wishing we could be restored to the so-called glory days of our past, in Christ we have something far better; restoration to God Himself. In Christ our glory days are ahead! As Randy Bachman famously sang “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”