Bible/Christian Living

Irony and Evangelism

I was reading the news this morning, and saw three interesting stories, each of which had its own twist. The first involved a visitor to Florida who was injured when he stopped and got out of his car to look at an alligator. No, the gator didn’t get him—but the water moccasin he stepped on did. The second story involved a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” who got all the letters but couldn’t cash in because he couldn’t read the phrase. His inept attempt showed the world the “Achilles” heel in his education.

But the story that got me thinking was from a local university that has adopted a policy making it more receptive to students living in an alternate lifestyle (or perhaps even in an alternate reality). In announcing the change, a university spokesperson said, “All of our policies reflect our values. This reflects our value of being inclusive.”

The first half of that statement is absolutely true. What one does is a reflection of what he believes is good, acceptable, perfect, and preeminent. Even when I violate my conscience, the guilt or uneasiness that I feel confirms the truth of my foundational values.

The problem of the second half of the statement arises from the fact that values are dialectical—they always have two sides. For everything that one believes is true, there is something that must be false. For everything that one believes is good, there is something that must be bad. Usually that’s not a problem: there’s room in the world for people who think that cookie dough ice cream is delectable, as well as those who find it despicable. They can agree to disagree (or to compromise on mint chocolate chip). But that is the underlying falsehood of “inclusivity” and “tolerance”.

For every “tolerance” that claims that all opinions are equally valid, there is an “intolerance” that believes that no opinion is valid but its own. “Tolerance” must reject “intolerance,” thus becoming less tolerant itself. To embrace a relativistic morality is to reject the very concept of morality.

Jesus Christ was both the most tolerant and the most intolerant man who ever lived. He loved every person, and He hated every sinful act. As His followers, we must do the same; our problem arises when people claim that their very identity is defined by sinful behavior. If we point out the wrongness of their actions, we may appear unloving—attacking them personally. We may alienate these people for whom Christ died.

But that’s the key that we must keep in mind: Jesus died to save them from their sins. If we never share the message that all people can be delivered from their sins, we are not preaching the Gospel. In order to fulfill the Great Commission, we must be willing to be inclusive in our love, and intolerant toward sin in ourselves and others. These must be our values.

People who define themselves by sinful behavior will hate us. That hurts. But we must remember the Lord’s words, “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you for My sake…Great is your reward in Heaven.”

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America Chafes as the President Goes Commando

Here’s the wrong question:  Should the President get congressional approval before sending a military strike against Syria?

Here’s the right question:  Who died and left America boss?

There was a time when the free nations of the world needed help arming and defending themselves against evil regimes intent on their destruction; the United States stood strong with our friends and allies.  Because of God’s blessings and two broad oceans, we had the resources that our allies needed to preserve their existence.

There was a time when the free nations of the world determined to stop the spread of militaristic communist tyranny over defenseless neighboring states; the US answered the call to help the international community.  Once again, God’s goodness to us enabled us to take a leading role within a joint effort.

Than came a time when politicians began to see themselves as defenders not of allied nations or international victims but of “flavor-of-the-month” oppressed ethnic or ideological groups.  Certain American leaders, even while they apologized for being military and economic busybodies, stepped up to take sides against recognized nations struggling against rebellion, civil unrest, and civil war.  (Can anyone remember the last time America stood militarily with an established government and against the violent minority attempting to overthrow them?)

And so we end up with a situation where we have come to rely on such demagoguery as, “If we let Syria get away with using chemical weapons, we’ll have to let everybody use them.”  Our mainstream media somehow buys into the idea that any heterogeneous mob deserves our support as long as they claim to want freedom.  We can overlook the fact that radical-extremist-religious terrorist factions are at the heart of a violent revolution as long as they can get ignorant anarchists to march in the streets and make noises about “oppression” and “civil rights”.

The logical conclusion to our political confusion is a peace-prize-winning president threatening war against an internationally-recognized state if it doesn’t follow our rules; followed by embarrassing attempts at political buck-passing when it is clear that no nation in the world (including Israel) needs or wants our help in “resolving” an international non-incident.  The problem when an American administration gets too big for its britches is that it is only a matter of time before less-attractive aspects of the executive anatomy are put on public display.  Oops.  When a rash leader goes commando, he runs the risk of being exposed.  In this case, he is calling on the congress to cover his butt.

Do I approve of gassing civilians or even soldiers?  Of course not.  It’s appalling.  But I’m not in charge of bringing judgment and justice to someone else’s house.  God is alive and He’s the boss–the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Some things we just have to trust Him to deal with in His time and in His way.

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What Is a Christian Nation?

In a recent commentary reprinted in the Press&Sun-Bulletin, Charles C. Haynes referred to the “myth” that the US has been a Christian nation.  While I agree with him that the Constitution itself did not make our nation “Christian”, I must point out a couple of serious flaws in his argument.

Mr. Haynes contends that a necessary condition for a Christian nation would be that political power must be limited to people of one faith (and implied by his comments about the diversity among Protestants, people of one denomination).  While his narrow definition could apply to a theocracy–a Christian government, if you please–a nation consists of far more than government.  Our culture, heritage, legal system, music, literature, and even our societal structure could define us as a Christian nation, while the government is built on the Christian principal of religious freedom.

Our nation was not founded on the Constitution; it was founded on the Declaration of Independence, which clearly  stated that our rights come from our Creator.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court recognized in 1892 that”…we are a Christian nation…” and in 1931 that “We are a Christian people….”

The “propaganda” of a Christian nation is working because it is an accurate historical portrayal of our people.

Notice I wrote “historical portrayal”.  Personally, I’m convinced that little in our culture today could be used in a court of law as proof that we are still a Christian nation.  Let us determine to be Christian individuals in Christian families attending Christian churches–and see how much impact we can have on our culture between now and the rapture.

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The Chaplain and the Atheist

Being a chaplain in the US armed services has gotten increasingly harder during this age of political correctness.  The religious leaders we hire to help our troops are not only warned to avoid going public with statements that are too religious, now at least one is under attack for printing a common cultural truism.

The entire article is here and is worth reading, but I will summarize it for your convenience.   A chaplain in Alaska published an article entitled “No Atheists in Foxholes: Chaplains Gave All in World War II” in the Chaplain’s Corner of the base’s website.  Spokesman for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (an atheist group) protested the “anti-secular diatribe” and had the article removed from the site, as well as getting an apology from the base commander.  The atheist group is calling for further punishment for the chaplain because of his “faith based hate”.

The leader of the atheist group is well-known for his own anti-religious beliefs.  As the article says,

MRFF is activist Mikey Weinstein’s organization. He called observant Christians “fundamentalist monsters” seeking to impose a “reign of theocratic terror,” and he described sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the military as an act of “spiritual rape” that makes believers “enemies of the Constitution” who are committing an act of “sedition and treason” against this nation.

Does anybody besides me see a hint of hate speech there?

As another article records:

He cites Dr. James Dobson—the famous Christian founder of Focus on the Family—as “illustrating the extremist, militant nature of these virulently homophobic organizations’ rhetorically-charged propaganda.” Regarding those who teach orthodox Christian beliefs from the Bible, Weinstein concludes, “Let’s call these ignoble actions what they are: the senseless and cowardly squallings of human monsters.”

And oh, by the way,  Mikey Weinstein is a consultant to the Pentagon, helping them to develop new policies regarding…wait for it…religious tolerance

Mr. Weinstein is entitled to say what he wants.  And so am I:  God bless America.

 

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The Teacher is the Key

A recent article in the LA Times cited a survey from California in which 59% of respondents said that increasing the number of online courses would make college education more accessible and affordable.

Well, duh.

Eliminate the teacher and the classroom, and you eliminate most of the cost; make the course available 24/7 on any computer, and it is more convenient for many who work or are otherwise unable to attend classes during normal hours.  Accessible?  Mostly.  Affordable?  Mostly.  Successful? 

Hardly.

Another story reported in the LA Times this week points out what any good teacher could have predicted:  most students do not complete and pass the courses.  Some classes have a drop-out rate as high as 90%.  Many of the classes offered online are remedial in nature, and

Educators elsewhere have said the purely online courses aren’t a good fit for remedial students who may lack the self-discipline, motivation and even technical savvy to pass the classes. They say these students may benefit from more one-on-one attention from instructors.

The teacher is the key.  The textbook, curriculum, or computer program is a less important factor for student success than the instructor.  Location, social/economic background, and past performance are less important than the teacher.  A good teacher can provide the discipline, motivation, and even technical savvy to help the vast majority of students to complete and even pass the course.

So is California considering adding more qualified teachers to overcome the failures of its online program?

Of course not.  They are proposing to add another round of courses–orientation to teach students how to take online courses.  And from the sounds of it, some of those West Coast students need some orientation:

Fewer than half of the [online course] students were enrolled in San Jose State; many were high school students from low-income communities.  A large group were enrolled in the Oakland Military Institute, a college prep academy. Many of them didn’t have access to a computer — a fact that course mentors didn’t learn about until three weeks into the semester…

So the students in a college prep academy didn’t know that they needed a computer to take an online course?  A good teacher could have fixed that misunderstanding in a heartbeat; I guess the hearts of online course monitors beat a little more slowly.

Please note:  the Oakland Military Academy is a highly-regarded charter school in California.  The school should not be judged because of a group of students who foolishly signed up for something not appropriate for them.

And By the Way:  this topic has direct correlation to the situation in our churches today.  From my observation, it seems that more and more people are choosing a do-it-yourself type of Christianity where the pastor, Sunday school teacher, and local congregation play no part.  Not only are they missing out on a key factor in Biblical learning, but they can’t even blame it on accessibility or affordability.

Sadly, I expect that this post-Christian Christianity will have a high drop-out rate, and an even higher failure rate.

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Other People’s Heroes

I’m sure that my family is getting sick of my complaining when the news is on.

For quite some time now, the 30-minute evening tv news has wasted precious time each night reporting on people who, in my opinion, are NOT more important than the real news stories they replace.

For example:  last night the news featured a story on the the difficulties a certain Mr. Snowden is having finding a new home.  Never mentioned were the new documents he continues to leak daily–the latest detailing the US government’s spying on France, Germany, and other allies in Europe.  Those nations, because of the revelations, have threatened to hold up or boycott trade talks–but that didn’t make the cut for the broadcast I watched.

Other recent stories have focused on three past Nobel Peace Prize winners.  Frankly, I can’t find much evidence that any of them did much to achieve peace, but that is overlooked in the rush to report on them as international celebrities.  In fact, I looked on line to find out what one of them had done to benefit mankind; the answer according to Ask.com was “He won the Nobel Peace prize.”  So he is a hero because someone called him a hero.

A few years back, a candidate for President was asked who his hero was, and he replied, “Jesus Christ.”  Do you remember the ridicule he received from the mainstream media for verbalizing his admiration for the Prince of Peace?  Maybe it was because Jesus never won a Nobel prize.

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The News Depresses Me

All my life I have been a “news junkie”.  People still ask me what I have heard about various stories.  I have become used to the network TV news reporting stories that I had seen several days earlier–or leaving out the most important part of the story.  I still cringe when I hear Rush L. or Sean H. rant about a story that would have been very different if only they had done a little more reading and research.

I am still waiting through TV news stories of Nelson Mandela’s slow recovery to see if the networks will cover the IRS, NSA, Benghazi, or State Department scandals.  They don’t.

I am sick of people who measure economic recovery by the rise in the stock market, or the number of people who leave the unemployment rolls (often because their assistance is exhausted, they have taken part-time, minimum wage jobs, or they have claimed early retirement or disability).

I am confused when my unemployment is cut 10.7% to save money while the First Family spends millions of dollars per day on trips to Africa, Europe, and Ireland, among other places.

I am angered when covert operations are called transparent and private communications have been improperly accessed by the NSA, who then passed them to the
Attorney General, who claims to have destroyed them without reading them. 

How is it possible that an IRS supervisor in DC admits to asking that Tea Party tax exempt requests be routed to her, and yet the media insist on quoting political hacks who claim that the targeting was done by a handful of disgruntled and delusional low-level employees?

I could go on, but I need to stop with one more item.  I may have to give up my news intake before my depression takes me down that dark and dangerous road again.  But here’s a story and quote from our President, reported yesterday (emphasis added):

In an interview that’s been heavily promoted by the White House and Obama aides, the president acknowledged that a program which collects massive amounts of data on telephone calls made in or through the U.S. could theoretically be used to invade individuals’ privacy, even potentially yielding conclusions about callers’ health conditions.

“All of that is true. Except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal.”

As if that has ever stopped them before.  With popular confidence in the credibility of the federal government at such a low point, I can think of fewer things that the President could have said that would be more idiotic or less reassuring than that.

My struggle has come down to this:  how do I find the balance between being an informed citizen and a biblical Christian?  After all, Paul said in Philippians 4:8,

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Somehow, that description doesn’t fit the news.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/obama-im-not-dick-cheney-92925.html#ixzz2Wf1NRDbo

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Civil Rights

Just a quick note on civil rights.

Last week, the attorney general of the United States said that citizenship is a civil right.  He was speaking in the context of immigration reform, and his words renewed a curiosity within me.

So today I got out my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and looked up the word civil.

According to the most definitive dictionary in the English language, civil refers to attributes belonging to citizens.  Unless there is a law on the books (or in the Constitution) guaranteeing that all people are to be considered citizens, then citizenship by very definition cannot be a civil right–civil rights are the result of citizenship, not the root cause.

What about the Civil Rights movement?  That was an attempt to see that all citizens received the rights guaranteed them by Constitutional amendment.  The term civil was used correctly.

One of the other definitions offers an alternative name for the Civil Rights movement–the Natural Rights Movement.   Civil rights, endowed by citizenship, can change; but Natural rights are endowed by God based on our very existence as beings made in His likeness and image.  All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I think I read that somewhere.

And, Mr. Holder, God never promised anyone citizenship in the US or any other nation–though He did offer citizenship in Heaven for all who will come to Him by grace through faith.

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Sympathy

I am saddened and express my heart-felt condolences to the Rick Warren family on the loss of their son this week. While suicide is generally considered an act of the will, for a person with mental illness it can be more of an accidental death; though well-meaning (but misinformed) friends, family, and church-goers may not understand it.

Imagine with me, if you will, a father who knows that his son’s car is acting up. Its acceleration is erratic and unpredictable, and it seems potentially unsafe. All that the son knows is that he needs the car to get to work. His father takes the car to his local mechanic, who can’t find the problem, but says he doesn’t think it’s serious. The car is then taken to the dealer, who says that the problem is familiar, and that certain fuel additives and intentional changes in driving habits can make the problem less noticeable. All the son knows is that he needs the car to get to work. Dad takes responsibility for seeing that the additives are used and reminds his son to drive carefully. Mom doesn’t know anything about cars, but she knows how important working and having money is to her son, and does her best to be supportive as he pursues his career goals. After all, the only way to slow him down would be to lock him in his room, which goes against her love for him and her desire to see him happy. When the car breaks down and the son dies, the blame game starts.

Dad blames himself, sensing that there must have been something more that he could have done to get the car fixed. Mom feels that somehow she should have raised her son differently, as if it’s her fault that he became obsessive about work, regardless of the risks. Friends and acquaintances are shocked, knowing that the car was faulty, but still never expecting it would lead to this outcome.

Depression is a faulty car; the need to drive it is mental illness; the unnecessary death that results is suicide–not necessarily a selfish act of the will, but the sad outcome of the mental illness.
(I understand that people kill themselves for many reasons; but this young man was not trying to make a statement or to strike back at a perceived insult or injury–this situation, as reported, was not in that category.)

Mental illness is real; its potential deadly consequences can become tragically real; and when all is said and done, all we can do is pray for the family and friends. Pray for comfort, and pray for understanding–and pray for the young man or woman that you know is driving that defective car down the rough road of life.

Prayer first is better than sympathy later.

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Effort vs. Achievement

There’s a story in the news today about a 106-year-old Ohio woman who has been given her high school diploma, even though she did not fulfill the requirements for graduation.  Years back, she refused to do the final required assignment–to read a book–in order to pass English and have the credits she needed to graduate.  She claims to have said that she had read the book in the past, and no one was going to make her read it again if she didn’t want to.  The teacher, supported by the school, upheld state educational law and denied her credit for the class, meaning that she did not meet the standards to graduate.  Now they have had a change of heart and have reversed their decision because…well, I guess just because she’s old.  This is just another example of the disregard that our society has for achievement.

Several years ago I conducted a survey of students in our high school in order to determine how they viewed the importance of achievement versus other factors such as effort or fairness.  I proposed a theoretical situation where the PE teacher was testing students on their ability to do chin-ups (today called pull-ups in order to accommodate, I assume, people who have no chins).  The majority response was that a student who attempted a chin-up should not only pass the test, but get the same grade as a student who performed one or more of the exercises.  Furthermore, a smaller majority answered the survey by saying that even a person who would not attempt a chin-up (for any reason whatsoever) should pass the test, though with a lower grade than one who tried or accomplished the task.

Understanding that many non-athletic students do not believe that physical requirements should be tested or used to determine a student’s grade, I changed the questions, and targeted an English assignment.  Once again, the students said that anyone who attempted a term paper, even if they didn’t finish the assignment or meet the requirement should get a passing grade.  Only the student who did nothing and turned in nothing should get a failing grade–but even that grade should be high enough that it would not have a significant impact on the student’s overall grade for the term.

In essence, my students believed that anyone who attend school should pass every class, even if they do not actively participate; and anyone who tries the work should get grades equal to those who succeed in completing the work as required.  Effort, intent, fairness, and perhaps other factors were held to be as important as achievement.  In the case of this elderly woman, the teachers and administration today apparently felt that it was unfair to deny her a diploma any longer, out of deference to her longevity alone. 

On a spiritual note, God does not judge us on our intentions, efforts, or our expectation of fairness toward us.  He will never say, “Welcome, sort-of-good, kind-of-faithful person; I’ll let you into my Heaven because you tried to keep my commandments.”  Christ does not reward us for the wood, hay, or stubble that we build into the house of our spiritual life–Christian behavior is judged by what remains of the story of our life after He burns away all the unworthy parts.  We will give account for what we have done (not just tried) for Him.

[If we were judged based on our efforts, that would mean that salvation is something that we could earn if we tried, and God would owe us credit for anything we try or intend to do to please Him.  On the contrary, salvation itself is based on Jesus Christ’s achievement by laying down His life a sacrificial offering for our sins.  Our part in His salvation–our ticket to eternal life and heavenly blessings is based on the completed adoption process achieved when we surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives.  By the way, I don’t know of any place in the Bible where God assigned a believer to do a task for Him, and then He didn’t give them the power, wisdom, and direction to meet the goal.  When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, our salvation is already a done deal; but we will lose reward when we have failed in the assignments He has given us.]

Which takes me back to a bumper sticker I used to have:  “God doesn’t grade on a curve.”  While He may choose to show us mercy and grace while we walk this earth, the day is coming when the grade He gives will be Pass or Fail–and I surely don’t want to fail.  A big red “F” on that final report card is a guaranteed ticket to a place that starts with a big red “H”, if you know what I mean.  That’s why I accepted as a teenager the eternal grace of Christ’s completed work which was accomplished when He died on the cross.  And that’s when He wrote my name in the Lamb’s Honor Roll of Life, never to be crossed out.

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Three Cheers for Humility!

My church awarded me their annual “Humility Trophy,” but when I displayed it in my living room they made me give it back.

That’s an old joke; but the topic is newer and truer every day.  I could go on a rant here about the cult of celebrity; toddler pageants; reality shows; end zone celebrations; public immodesty; or any number of other attention-grabbing behaviors, but who am I to throw stones at others?  I post here on a semi-regular basis as if my thoughts and opinions are so important that they should be known outside of my own head and home.

So I will just say this and move on:  the President is already the President.  He has already been sworn in.  There have already been 2 days of partying (including a “Children’s Inaugural” event).  So everything you see and hear today is fake–phony–artificial “news”, designed to remind us how wonderful a particular public servant, his party, and his family and friends are.  I understand that in today’s culture, tremendous ambition is required of any candidate seeking to win elected office; but it seems to me that the desire for man’s approval has to end at some time if we truly desire God’s approval.

After all, my Bible still says, “If My people…shall HUMBLE themselves [the first of several requirements]…then will I hear from Heaven and heal their land.”  –2 Chronicles 7:14

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At the Corner of Body and Soul

At the risk of sounding self-centered, I’m going to let you, My Gentle Readers, into another corner of my personal life.  There’s a commercial on television that says, “Depression hurts.”  I can testify just as sincerely that “Hurts depress.”

There is a definite (though not completely understood) relationship between the workings of emotion and intellect with the physical body.  In my case, I have a hormone imbalance that predisposed my mind to depressive and even suicidal thoughts.  In searching for the root of that imbalance, doctors have discovered that I have Graves Disease, which in itself disposes my mind to depressive thoughts, even while it acts on the thyroid to cause anxiety (or, in some cases, mania).  Now I have a herniated disk in my lower back, pinching a nerve and interfering with virtually all physical activity.  It also interferes with my sleeping and contributes to a depressive predisposition.

I cannot meet my home or church obligations, and my inability to work leaves me with ethical considerations regarding my unemployment benefits.  My wife had signed us up for a cruise to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, which could be less than optimal if I have to attend on crutches or in a wheelchair (and we didn’t purchase the insurance, so we can’t cancel or reschedule without losing beaucoup bucks).

When Darlene gets home from work, I have little or nothing to talk about, because my day has centered around my pain and little else.  This leaves the burden of conversation (as well as my chores) on her, at a time when her work situation is hectic and almost oppressive, and she could benefit from being able to put her own aches and pains aside.  Tomorrow is a “respite day” for us, but we have relatively few options for getting away for some “us” time.  The church has graciously stepped in to provide some meals because she is so busy and I am unable to stand long enough to prepare dinner.

I am not looking for pity.  Many people in my support group have far more serious problems than I have.  There are medications to take the edge off the pain and to reduce the swelling while I await the next step.  I have a loving and understanding wife, and 3 children and grandchildren who are all involved and concerned.  My church family is helping to carry the burden.  I am truly blessed.

But next time you hear that mental illness is all in somebody’s head, don’t you believe it.  It pollutes the soul and contaminates the body.  It dominates the mind as well as the physical aspects of life.  My intellect may tell me that happiness is a choice, but my body laughs at that assertion.

Gentle Reader, if you have gotten this far, please stay with me for one more minute, for there IS a positive side to all this.  For there is more to me than body and soul; there is also spirit.  And while happiness may or may not be a choice, the fact is that faith is a gift from God.  I have the spiritual foundation of Jesus Christ, Who never changes.  I have the guarantee of full recovery in a land where the body will be glorified and my soul will know all things.  God’s love for me and caring for me never waver, even when I crash at the corner of Body and Soul.

I have a request for you today.  If your time and energy are limited, please don’t pray for me; I have lots of brothers and sisters praying for me.  Rather, think of someone else in your family, your church, your circle of acquaintances, who suffers from mental illness; and ask God to guide them through their mental morass and their physical minefield.  Ask that they may find a listening ear, and an appropriate medical treatment.

And pray that the Lord will protect you and the rest of your family from this accident of life that could be waiting just around the corner.

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Scriptural Principles for the New Year

Here is a brief summary of a New Year’s sermon I have preached in the past.  All references are from Joshua 4 and 5.  I will let you fill in the details.

How to Get a New Start

Seek and follow godly advice.  (4:4-5)

Don’t go back to the old way, but remember how God brought you out. (4:19-24)

Make your relationship with God public, and then maintain a consistent testimony.  (5:2-8)

Renew your dedication to God’s ways–His commands, His principles, His wisdom.  (5:10)

Stop relying on the blessings of the past.  Seek–pursue–acquire–assimilate the new blessings God has prepared for you.  (5:11-12)

Seek wisdom in quiet moments.  (5:13a)

Test the spirits, but follow God’s leading with conviction and courage.  (5:13b-15)

May God establish you in your new year; tear down the walls that obstruct you; and give you victory in every endeavor for Him.

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The Christmas Story in the Gospel of Matthew Part 2–Answers

I fully expect some of these answers to be controversial.  Between competing traditions and the attempts to explain miracles scientifically, we have all been programmed to be a bit defensive about the timing and means of God’s workings in Matthew 2.  Here are the best answers I can find from the Scriptures, history, and reasonable speculation.

  1. Matthew 2:1 When were the days of Herod the King?

Not all historians agree, and the changing of the calendar from Julian to Gregorian confused the issue, but the best research shows that Herod died in late March or early April of 4 B.C.  These events occurred near the very end of his life—my best guess is that the magi arrived in late winter of 4 B.C.

 

  1. Who were the Wise Men from the East?  How many were there?

The Greek word for them comes directly from the Persian word magoi, referring to people highly trained and widely respected for their knowledge in astronomy (and perhaps astrology).  They would have been relatively wealthy, and would have been considered wise men indeed.  They came from the East (of Israel), which would agree with their identification as Persians.  If that is the case, they would have traveled 900-1,000 miles—a journey of 2 months or less.  They were certainly NOT kings, and we only know that there were more than 2—because they brought 3 gifts, the myth has arisen that there were 3 magi named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and that one rode a camel, one rode a horse, and one rode an elephant.  Some nativity scenes portray this, and the myth is carried on even in popular literature such as Ben Hur.

 

  1. Why did they go to Jerusalem instead of to Bethlehem?

They may not have known Micah’s prophecy, and in any case the place for a “king” is in the capital city.  Apparently they were not discrete in their inquiries, for soon all Jerusalem was aware of their arrival and purpose, and word got to Herod indirectly—not from them. 

 

4.   v. 2 How did they know the prophecy about a star, and why did they associate it with a King of the Jews?

They must have known the prophecy in Numbers 24:17 and its relation to Genesis 49:10.  It is possible, though less likely, that they knew Isaiah 60:1-3—less likely because they probably knew the books of Moses from Daniel’s tenure and ministry among the magi in the Medo-Persian Empire about 550 years earlier, and we have no indication that Daniel (or his companions) knew the prophecies of Isaiah.

 

5.   v. 3 Why would Herod, the “King of the Jews,” NOT know the prophecy about Bethlehem? 

He was not an educated, trained, or practicing Jew.  Exposure to the Scriptures came from attendance at synagogue or temple, and he certainly did not attend either—let alone have a private tutor to educate him in the teachings of the rabbis.  Though he claimed to have some Jewish heritage, he was thoroughly Romanized.

Even if he had known the answer, the question itself may have given Herod the opportunity he wanted to gather all the chief priests and scribes together in Jericho, where he had them locked in the Hippodrome (horse track/coliseum).  History records that shortly before his death, he had them locked up with orders that they be killed upon his passing, so that there would be mourning in the land instead of the rejoicing he feared would happen at his death.  Fortunately, his orders were not carried out, and the men were released instead.

 

6.  v. 6 How does Micah describe the Messiah?

The reference partially quoted  by Matthew comes from Micah 5:2 and following, where He is described not only as a ruler in Israel, but as an eternal King who will leave and then return to rule the whole earth.

 

7.  v. 7 What one question does Herod ask the magi?  What is their answer?  (Compare v. 16)  What is the significance of their answer?

This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christmas story, which makes my comments controversial.  Herod asks the magi when the star appeared, and we don’t know what they told him.  Based on whatever they said, Herod chose the 2-year time frame for the execution of the baby boys in and around Bethlehem.  As a result, most Bible readers, preachers, and scholars have assumed that their answer to Herod was “2 years”, which logically makes no sense whatever.  Herod wanted to be sure to kill the baby king, so he included all the boys two years old and under—not just those two years old.  It is inconceivable that he would choose to include those younger than the magi indicated, but ignore those older.  Any crafty king (and Herod was crafty indeed) would have included anyone remotely possible as the baby in question; so the most logical conclusion is that the magi said that the star appeared one year earlier.

The other assumption that most people make is that the star appeared on the night that Christ was born, even though there is no Scriptural reason to assume that.  In reality, the star appeared twice (see vv. 9-10)—which appearance marked the birth?  It is just as reasonable and Scripturally justifiable to assume that the star first appeared before Christ was born, in order to start the magi on their journey; just as it appeared the second time after He was born, to lead them to their destination.

 

8.  v. 8 Why do you suppose Herod sent the magi alone to Bethlehem, instead of soldiers?

We can only speculate; but given his distrust of everyone around him, (and especially so if this was very close to the end of his life,) he might have suspected that the guards might be won over by the teachings of the magi, or the presence of the Messiah.  It is also possible that the magi refused the escort, and Herod did not want to offend his only means of finding the child—though in that case, he probably would have had them followed by his spies.  Perhaps he considered them fools and didn’t believe their message until they disobeyed by not returning.  The fact that Herod sent the magi out by night indicates that he did not want anyone from Jerusalem joining them, and that he probably had a curfew enforced by guards, which depleted his numbers.  Perhaps God used his mental and physical condition to distract him from being thorough.  (We know from history that Herod attempted suicide 5 days before his death.)

 

9.  v. 9 What evidence is there that the star was miraculous and not merely an astronomical oddity?

It appeared when they were in the East, and at some point it disappeared.  (The Bible never says that they followed it to Jerusalem.)  There is no indication either Scripturally or historically that anyone else ever saw the star.  It reappeared when they were ready to leave Jerusalem (thus their joy when they saw it again).  A natural astronomical oddity could have guided them southward toward Bethlehem—but only a miraculous star could have indicated one particular house.

 

10.  v. 11 Where did they find the Christ?  Who was there?  How old was Jesus?

In a house in Bethlehem.  While Jesus and Mary were present when they arrived, it is clear from v. 13 that Joseph was there before they left.

The age of the Christ child has been caught up in the misunderstandings of the timing of the star and Herod’s order to kill the babies 2 years old and under—we are often told that He was two years old when the magi arrived.  This is often “supported” by the use of the word child in vv. 11, 13.  In reality, the Greek word used in those verses is the same word used to describe Jesus when He was a newborn (Luke 2:16-17) and when he was 8 days old (Luke 2:21).  John also used the word to refer to a newborn (John 16:21)  Without that linguistic support, and IF the star first appeared at His birth, He would probably have been about a year old.  However, it makes no sense that Joseph would have stayed in Judea for a year or more.  (It was not to hide the timing of Mary’s delivery, since she was already “great with child” when they left Nazareth.) 

And it is inconceivable that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could have appeared to Simeon and Anna in the temple without anyone knowing about it—especially with Anna spreading the word (Luke 2:38); so Jerusalem was already beginning to buzz with talk of the Messiah before the magi arrived, though the gossip had not yet reached Herod in Jericho (even with his network of spies).  The most reasonable conclusion is that Jesus had been presented in the temple just days (or even hours!) before the magi arrived—and Jesus was 40 days old when He was presented.  It is logical to think that Jesus was no more than 2 months old when the magi came.

 

11.  v. 11 What is the significance of the gifts?

Gold signified royalty; frankincense was used in the worship of Jehovah God; and myrrh was associated with death and burial.  Jesus was Divine King and our Perfect Sacrifice.

 

12.  v. 12 Why do you suppose God spoke to the magi in a dream, instead of using the star?  How did they respond?  What does this say about the spirituality of these scientists?

It probably would have confused them if the star appeared again.  What would it mean?  Should they follow it?  Did it indicate another king?  A dream from God was much more direct, especially when they were in a worshipful and spiritually receptive mode.  They obeyed implicitly and immediately, as we all should.

 

13.  v. 13 Where was Joseph told to go, and for how long?

He was told to go to Egypt until he heard from God again.  He was not told that Herod would die—only that he would seek to kill Jesus.  We have no idea how far into Egypt they went, but there was no reason for them to go as far as Alexandria or Thebes.  It is reasonable to assume that they went only far enough inside the border to be safe from Herod’s forces, who could not cross into Egyptian territory without creating an international incident.  As early as the 5th Century, 2 sites in Cairo were claimed to be locations related to the exile, and were visited by pilgrims as such.

 

14.  v. 16 When did Herod send his soldiers to Bethlehem?  What were their instructions?  Why do you suppose that this episode is not recorded in history apart from the Bible?

He waited until it was obvious that the magi were not going to return, which indicated their deliberate disobedience and his own failure to oversee them. This would have happened within days—a little longer if Herod was distracted.   However, he does not send troops to catch and kill the magi; by this time he was convinced that the recently-born “King of the Jews” was a greater threat, and ordered the soldiers to kill all baby boys in and around Bethlehem 2 years old and younger.  The number of babies and children is unknown, but would have been fairly small, since Bethlehem was a small village.  Even so, it would have been reported among the long list of Herod’s depredations, unless it was completely overshadowed by a far more significant event—such as the death of Herod himself.

Though tradition in the Greek Orthodox church claims that 14,000 children were killed, that number far exceeds the total population of the village, which was probably no more than 2,000 people.  Based on that figure, the number of murders would have been around 20 or 30.

 

15.  vv. 19-22 How did Joseph know when to leave Egypt, and where to go?

Sometime not long after the death of Herod, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to return to Israel.  The normal route to Nazareth led through Judea, but Joseph was wisely afraid of Herod’s son, and God instructed him to take a detour to get back home.  (It almost sounds like Nazareth is a new location for the family; but actually Matthew had never mentioned where they were from, and chooses to identify the town at this time in order to link it to a prophecy.

 

16.  v. 23  Where does the prophecy regarding the Nazarene come from?

Isaiah 11:1 refers to the coming Messiah as a branch, which is the Hebrew word netzer.  Apparently there was a rabbinical school that interpreted this to mean that He would come from Nazareth.  (The kabala believed in by so many celebrities today comes from the unique interpretations of just such a mystic group.)   Though the followers of this particular sect had taught this prophecy (justifying Matthew’s referring to the prophets), the teaching was apparently not widely known or believed.  Compare John 1:46 and 7:41, where the speakers express their doubt that Messiah could come from anywhere in the Galilee, let alone the village of Nazareth.

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By Request: What Nuts Can Teach Us About God

Last week, I presented an object lesson about culinary nuts, and some lessons we can learn from them.  A number of kind people have asked me to post my notes, so here they are.

There are three kinds of nuts identified in the Bible:

1.  Almonds–They teach us of God’s Favor

  • Numbers 17:8  When God wanted to identify His choice for the people of Israel, He had Aaron’s rod not only bud and blossom, but to produce almonds.
  • Ecclesiastes 12:5  The almond blossom is used as an analogy for white hair, which is a sign of God’s blessing (Prov. 16:31)
  • Exodus 25:33-34  When God wanted to decorate the Holy Place of the Tabernacle, He instructed Moses to construct the Lampstand in the form of almond buds and blossoms.
  • Trivia:  the almond is actually a member of the peach family; and because it ripens early and does not keep well, the nuts are usually pickled in brine to extend the shelf life.
  • The almond teaches us that God loves us and will use His own means to demonstrate the things that please Him.

2.  Pistachios–They teach us of God’s Riches

  • Genesis 43:11  Jacob sent nuts as one of the gifts to Egypt–the Hebrew word is specifically the word for pistachios.  These grew in Lebanon and Syria, and thus were expensive and precious.
  • Trivia:  Pistachio trees are male and female–it takes two trees to produce the fruit.  The female tree will produce about 50,000 seeds every two years.  Pistachios were originally dyed to hide the bruising caused by hand picking; today, if they are dyed it is only as a matter of preference.  (When dyed red, they have been marinated in a mixture including salt and strawberries.
  • The pistachio teaches us that God shares with us His riches–every good and perfect gift comes from Him–and, of course, the most precious is Jesus Christ Himself.

3.  Walnuts–They teach us of God’s Comfort

  • Song of Solomon 6:11  The bride goes walking in the garden of nuts–the Hebrew word is the word for walnuts.  Though walnuts were eaten, and their shells were used to make dyes, the chief purpose of walnut trees at the time was for shade.  The walnut garden would have been a cool and beautiful place because of the overshadowing trees.
  • Trivia:  Walnut trees secrete chemicals into the soil to prevent competing vegetation from growing too close and depleting their water or nutrients.
  • The walnut teaches us that God wants us to enjoy this wonderful world in which He has placed us, and to look ahead to the comfort of that heavenly rest yet to come.

Other nuts are not mentioned in the Bible, but can still teach us about God.  Romans 1 tells us that we can learn of God through nature.

4.  Brazil nuts–They teach us of God’s protection

  • It is almost miraculous that brazil nuts exist at all.  The blossom that produces the nuts (seeds, actually) is tightly wrapped into itself, and can only be opened and fertilized by a particular breed of large, strong, long-tongued female bees–but they are not attracted to the blossom.  They are attracted to the smaller male bees, but only after they have interacted with a specific orchid, which does not grow on the tree of the brazil nut.  So God put the orchid near by to attract the male bee, who then moves to the brazil nut blossom and attracts the female, who ends up fertilizing the plant.  That chain of required events did not evolve–it shows Divine intelligent design!
  • In addition, while the nuts are taking 14 months to develop, they must be protected from insects and other jungle creatures, so they grow inside a hard, wooden casing like a coconut shell (8-24 nuts per shell).  This casing also protects them when they ripen and fall to the ground–often a fall of 100 feet or more!  Yet, to propagate the species, God left a hole in the shell, and created a rodent called the agouti who can use its strong jaws and teeth on the hole and open the casing to release the nuts.  The animal will eat some of the brazil nuts, and bury the rest for later.  Because each nuts has its own strong shell, they can last underground for decades–which is good, because they cannot germinate and grow until their planting ground is in sunlit warmth, which does not happen on the jungle floor until a tree falls and lets the sunshine in.  When that happens, then the life cycle starts over.
  • The brazil nut teaches us how God has planned for our protection and our good in every aspect of our lives;  even when we fall, we will not break.  Even when our security is ripped open, we will survive.  And even when we must patiently wait for His next blessing, we know that one day we will thrive.

5.  Cashews–They teach us of God’s ingenuity,  and our creation in His image.

  • Cashews are poisonous–that’s why you NEVER see a cashew in a shell.  The bud and blossom form, then the nut (seed) grows from it, and then a red or yellow fruit grows between the nut and the bud.  This “cashew apple” is edible and highly desired by the people who cultivate them.  (They are too fragile for transport, which is why we never see them in our stores.)  However, the nut itself, now in a hard shell attached to the bottom of the fruit, is highly poisonous until the shell is roasted and removed.  In fact, the roasting must be done outside to prevent the poison from affecting the workers!  Once that is done, however, what is left is a delicious nut.
  • The fruit is edible; so who decided to eat the nut?  Who invented the means for removing the poisonous shell to make it safe to eat?  We will never know.  But we know this:  God is the creator, and He made us in His image–which means that man is creative.  This creativity that comes from our Maker is the source of the curiosity and inventiveness that has made our lives so much easier and more pleasant.
  • The cashew nut teaches us that God wants us to have dominion over nature, and to use the abilities He has given to discover and unlock the secret pleasures He has prepared for us.

We have a Great God, Who has put us in a wonderful world!  Let’s look for lessons about our Creator in everything we see!

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