Advent Calls to Deepen Our Faith

You’ve heard some say that key narratives in the Bible are based on myths — stories that serve to explain issues otherwise beyond human explanation. This claim can be used to dismiss portions of the Bible and eventually the Bible as a whole.

It is true that the Bible is a library with literature of many kinds — parables, proverbs, history, poetry, letters, apocalypses, etc. — and that each of these genres may convey truth in a different way. But in the light of this variety, is the Gospel narrative in particular a made-up story intended to brighten the reader’s spirit? Or is it truth to nurture saving faith?

The Advent season of the church year is a good time to face the question afresh: Are the historical claims of the Gospel account to be trusted? Was Jesus miraculously born? Did he really heal the blind? Did he die to grant forgiveness of sins? Is he the only way to God in this life or the next?

One faith-prompting passage for me and many other believers is the opening paragraph of the Gospel as Luke presents it (Luke 1:1-4). Luke was an educated man. The Apostle Paul refers to him as “our dear friend Luke, the doctor” (Colossians 4:14). That is significant. He would have the scientific training of that era. His first paragraph is like an introduction to a medical treatise.

It is also significant that Luke’s introductory statement (verses 1-4) is one complete sentence in the original language (though divided into more than one in our English versions). It is written in beautifully crafted Greek without punctuation or spaces. It is the longest sentence in the Bible and shows a style and content any qualified first-century scholar would use to introduce a serious historical document.

Without taking anything from the beauty and thoroughness of the sentence, I break it down to show its several elements, with an editorial touch, perhaps, to aid clarity. Luke writes as follows:

Something wonderful has actually happened among us and this has prompted a number of witnesses to try to capture its essence in writing.

The witnesses I speak of were eyewitnesses to these wonderful events and were already testifying to them and telling their meaning when they passed the truth on to us first hand.

I take the information I’ve received seriously but at the same time I have investigated every detail for myself from the very beginning. I’ve left no detail unexamined.

I’m doing this for you, Most Excellent Theophilus. I decided that I too would write a carefully researched and ordered account for your benefit. I write to reinforce your faith in the truths you already have been taught.

We don’t know who this Theophilus was. His name means God Lover. He may have been a convert from paganism to the faith who needed further guidance and grounding. The way Luke addresses him he may have been an elevated officer of the Roman government. It is even possible, though not likely, that Theophilus was a fictitious name that Luke used as a foil to tell his story.

Whatever the case, Luke’s first paragraph radiates seriousness and substance. And God’s Spirit uses his thoroughness to testify to the truth that follows. When we feel the power of Luke’s first paragraph, we are like someone standing at the entrance of a beautiful cathedral — The Gospel According to Luke. We hesitate momentarily before entering his report.

Pausing there, we are filled with wonder and awe. We kneel instinctively to absorb this ancient man’s forceful account as inspired by God Himself. And once we enter Luke’s narrative, we are open to the possibility that it is indeed a cathedral of God’s truth and love and no myths could renew us as these sacred words stand ready to do.

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Using “Amen!” in the Practice of Our Faith

Jesus often introduced his eternal truths with the the Greek word for “Amen.” That may surprise you, because the word is buried in his frequent formula, “Verily, verily I say to you.” Or, as the NIV puts it, “Very truly.”

“Amen” is a word used to underline a certainty. Even today, you might notice this underlining effect when someone at the office says, “I’ll say Amen to that” — another way of saying, “Yes! I heartily agree!”

I write about this word because it is much-used in the Bible and I believe it deserves more exercise than we give it. At a time when Christian convictions seem to lack vigor, it is a word to be used resolutely.

There are 52 Amens in the Synoptic Gospels and 25 in the Gospel according to John. However, even when used as doubled (verily, verily … or truly, truly), the emphasis in the original is not clearly evident.

In John’s Gospel especially, Jesus uses “Amen, Amen” repeatedly to introduce the truths he spoke to his hearers. He wanted it to be understood that absolute truth was always his issue.

Amen is also used in the Old Testament. When the children of Israel were about to complete their long trek through the wilderness to the promised land Moses notified them of a twelve-part pledge they would be required to make when they were well into the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 27).

The 12 tribes would be given a series of evils they must avoid at all times and they were to reply in agreement to each prohibition with a hearty “Amen.”

For example, here is the first prohibition and the response:

Cursed is anyone who makes an idol — a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands — and sets it up in secret.

Then all the people shall say, “Amen.”

Amen is a word for pledging formally and emphatically. The people of Israel would be tempted to follow the strange, even grotesque Canaanite gods. Their Amen said thunderously and in unison was to be their pledge to reject the false gods around them and worship only Jehovah.

If by that time the numbers of Israel had reached two million, an affirming and resounding Amen would echo between the mountains. By the end, they would raise a solid Amen to affirm each of the 12 evils.

The advancing of secularism in our times sets before us also idols that are detestable and we too should pledge to resist them as the Israelites were called to do.

To respond, we should utter a robust Amen to the following: the Scriptures we read, the creeds we affirm, the hymns we sing, the sermons we hear, the prayers we offer. When we hear statements such as, I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, a limp okay — a kind of verbal nod — is not enough. The Apostles’ Creed deserves a hearty Amen in both heart and voice.

The Apostle Paul seizes the word Amen and connects it firmly with the Gospel of Christ. He writes to the Corinthians: For no matter how many promises God has made they are “yes” in Christ. And so through him the Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Christ is the “Yes” to every promise God has ever made. Think of the reach of that certainty. Will we respond with a firm Amen, thus glorifying Christ through whom all grace is given? Amen and Amen!

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Can We Be Christians and Secular at the Same Time?

Recently the Barna Groups’ annual report on the “State of the Bible” reported that half of Americans are Bible users and about six out of ten say Bible reading has changed their lives. This is good.

At the same time, however, the report showed a growth in the percentage of Americans with secular and non-traditional  views on such matters as: divorce, sex outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, having a baby out of wedlock, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography, polygamy …., etc. I suspect the Canadian picture would be little different.

Do these findings suggest that secularism is eroding the Christian faith to any serious degree? I propose three questions to ponder.

First, in the simplest words possible what is secularism? The word is from a Latin root that means this world or age. The emphasis of secularism is on human self-sufficiency and the concerns of this world only. Secularism tends to be anti-religious and has no place for the eternal or transcendent.

Secularism insists that religion is a private matter and should be kept within one’s own head or at most, within the walls of the church. We might ask ourselves: Am I buying into this, and subtly devaluing  Christian faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus  Christ, favoring instead what is secular only?

Second, in processing the flow of questions that repeatedly crop up in today’s social  discourse, what is my primary source of authority in matters of life and death? Do I seek answers from the Scriptures, and do I rest my beliefs in what the Bible makes clear? Recall that the Bible stood as a beacon on all of life long before we moderns came on the scene and it will continue to do so long after we are gone. It has proven to be timeless.

For example, when the Bible makes clear that marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman for life, as is beautifully described in Scripture and sanctioned by Jesus, do I lodge my faith there and seek to be obedient regardless of national trends? (Genesis 1:27; 2:20-25; Matthew 19:1-12; Hebrews 13:4)

Third, do I join weekly with a company of Christians to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, and to enrich my understanding and practice of the Christian faith? It is in neglecting this historic practice that secularism may erode faith and make inroads into my values, moral understandings, and lifestyle  commitments.

The New Testament’s most used word for church is ecclesia which means the “called out.” It appeared first in common Greek and was adopted by the apostles and church fathers. It means to assemble or to be called out to meet in a central place. A church is a gathering of God’s people whether in a store front or a cathedral, whether a dozen in numbers or a thousand.

Jesus was speaking of the church in its simplest form when he promised: Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them (Matthew 18:20). Churches have their human weaknesses, for sure, but they are God’s way of gathering his flocks together for nurture and challenge. Our scorning or even neglecting such gatherings may reflect the drift of secularism.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews exhorts: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all  the more as you see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:25).

If we stay alert to the creeping inroads of secularism, assent to the authority of God’s holy word, reading from it daily, and join our energies regularly with a company of God’s people we will avoid the world’s secularity and live joyfully with eternal life in view.

 

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What Asaph Learned When He Went to Church

Asaph was a true worshiper of Israel’s God. He was likely a singer in the ancient temple and 12 psalms in the Psalter are attributed to him.

Once, in a creative moment he began writing as follows: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Call that his topic sentence.

But, in spite of this noble burst of faith, he has a problem that nearly sweeps him off his feet. He is envious over the successes of the wicked, and the wicked appeared to him to be everywhere.

They have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong (verse 4). (Yet) they are violent and prideful (verse 6); malicious (verse 8). And, in spite of it all, he says, They scoff and speak with malice (verse 8).

He says: They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by common ills (verse 5).

Add that Asaph’s own condition seems quite opposite to theirs. He says: Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued, I have been punished every morning (verse 13).

He complains of pain he has to endure every morning (verse 14). Was he suffering the aches and pains of the aged?

Suddenly the light goes on. When I tried to understand all this, he writes, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny (verses 16, 17).

We might say, Asaph went to church. It was where the law of God was read, psalms were sung, where God made himself known to the hearts of worshipers. Good things can happen when the tempted go to church.

There, in the light of the eternal he saw how unstable the life of the wicked really is, even when it seems indestructible. Surely you place them on slippery ground, you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (verse 18).

It is not that God is presented as vengeful or vindictive; rather it is that any chosen style of life is judged by its end. Wickedness has consequences, not always at the moment, but sooner or later.

Truth about the nature of life is revealed in worship. And with it often comes insight. Here, Asaph acknowledges his folly: When my heart was grieved / and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Call it not only insight but also repentance — a drastic change of mind.

He can find peace of mind and an action plan now: Those who are far from you will perish, you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. / But as for me, it is good to be near God. / I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge; / I will tell of all your deeds (verses 27, 28).

And his destructive envy evaporates. It is cleansed. He is free to renew the joy of his faith: But as for me, it is good to be near God. / I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds (verse 26).

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What to Do When We Feel Under Assault

In Psalm 42 a psalmist describes what it feels like to be robbed of the sense that God loves him.

This psalmist is running for his life. He captures in a word picture what that feels like: Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole soul craves you, God” (Psalm 42:1 Common English Bible).

A deer, after a long run to escape a mortal threat, and with flanks heaving, must above all find water. Only a person fleeing from peril and hiding in the wilds of nature, would come up with this analogy for his plight.

We can guess that King David wrote the psalm when his own son, Absalom, was driving him out of his palace in Jerusalem with murderous intent. Or was it from much earlier in David’s life when he was running from King Saul?

Whichever it was, it addresses the question: how do we talk to ourselves when life visits upon us such a swarm of perils? What if we felt deprived of the sense of God’s presence, isolated from our worshipping community, and wordlessly taunted by wrongdoers who might exult to know of our distress?

If a similar plight should burst upon us, this psalmist can help us regain perspective. The psalmist’s first strategy is to call up memory as an aid: These things I remember as I pour out my soul (verse 4)

That is, he reminds himself: I recall that in better days I went to the tabernacle where there were throngs of God’s people. I led the procession. I participated in the shouts of joy and thanksgiving. What memories! (Psalm 42:4).

The memories give his faith a momentary boost and he says to himself: Don’t be downcast; hope in God. He is my Savior and my God. In his time, again I will worship at the tabernacle as I long to do (Verse 5).

When he says I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, from the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar (verse 6), we can imagine that he may be at the northern part of Israel, with Mount Herman nearby.  Even though so far from his worshipping community, he acknowledges that the omnipresent God is even there. How steadying to his faith!

But it does not remove the turbulence he feels. He still feels its buffeting effects, remarking that, just as they break at the base of thundering waterfalls, waves and breakers have swept over me (verse 7b)

Yet his faith again bursts forth momentarily and he sings: By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life (verse 8). In those special times when faith is a struggle of the soul, for us too there can be a surging back and forth between hope and dejection.

Just as he feels the back-and-forth of his feelings, so to the end of this psalm his question persists: I say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’ (Verse 9). And yet again he addresses himself, Why are you downcast , O my soul? (verse 11).

But this backwards-and-forwards can’t go on forever in believers. So he brings his psalm to a close by exhorting himself to trust even though at the moment he can’t understand God’s ways: Put your hope in God, he prompts, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

In the life of authentic faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whatever the situation today, and whatever surprises may come tomorrow, we have David’s example. For us as well, authentic faith prompts us to say — whatever our feelings of the moment — “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him (Verse 11).


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Convictions About Marriage Spring up Where You Don’t Expect Them

253317539_aac78de442_mFor those who accept the Bible as God’s timeless Word, and who receive its message with openness and honesty, God’s design for marriage is clearly presented in many places.

There’s an example in Abraham’s and Sarah’s experience when they moved into the alien territory of the Philistine King Abimelech (Genesis 20). This land was the extreme southwest section of the Negev Desert, between Egypt and Israel.

In that era, a king usually gathered a harem of beautiful women — sometimes as trophies, sometimes for political reasons. This would be just one example of culture’s veering from the message of the Biblical account of creation — that marriage is a bonding between one man and one woman (Genesis 1,2).

After establishing God’s intention for marriage, in Genesis 1 and 2 this book of beginnings reports faithfully the state of affairs for domestic life the world drifted into — bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, incest, fornication, and adultery. Genesis reports these aberrations because they describe the broken world into which God would send our Lord Jesus for our redemption.

At the outset of their travels from Mesopotamia into Canaan and Egypt, Abraham and Sarah knew about harems. They therefore agreed between themselves that if Sarah were seized and taken into a king’s harem because of her beauty, they would present themselves as brother and sister — not a completely false claim because they shared a common father, Terah. The marriage of half-siblings is not affirmed in the Bible but simply reported here as a feature of the honesty of the Book.

Word of her beauty reached the king. She was sent for and preliminarily taken into the harem, as they had feared would happen. Abraham might now be killed to get him out of the way if it were discovered that she was his wife, not his “sister”.

But before Abimelech went near Sarah, God came to the king in a dream, revealing the fact that Sarah was more than a sister to Abraham; God said in the dream, “she is a married woman.”

Abimelech, the pagan ruler, was instantly stricken with fear at what he had done — he had invaded a marriage to take a woman who was already the wife of another man. Within the dream, Abimelech protested his innocence to God, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” In spite of his harem, here is a pagan king acknowledging that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman regardless of how far culture might have traveled or moved away from that standard.

Early the next morning, Abimelech called his officers together to report the perilous situation they were in. They, too, were stricken with the fear of divine judgment. Abraham was immediately called before the king to explain his deception and in the presence of the king’s officers he was rebuked and asked why he had done this evil deed.

Abraham defensively told the king of the fear that drove him: “There is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.”

To stave off divine judgment, Abimelech gave Abraham abundant gifts of sheep, cattle, and slaves while restoring Sarah to him and graciously inviting them to live anywhere in his land they might choose.

He also notified Sarah that he was giving “her brother” one thousand shekels of silver to make amends for the offense committed against her. The story ends as Abraham prays God’s blessing on Abimelech and his house.

It’s an ancient story, lodged in an ancient culture. Its setting is devoid of the full revelation eventually reported in God’s divine Word. Yet the story shows that the Eternal God has his ways of affirming his rules even among those who do not know him.

There, in the Bible itself, is a case for natural law, known by Abimelech and affirmed in a dream even long before the divine law establishing the sanctity of marriage was given on Sinai.

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