God Never Gets Lucky

God’s providence is a fundamental necessity to Christian orthodoxy.

“We believe that this good God, after creating all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement.  Yet God is not the author of, and cannot be charged with, the sin that occurs.  For God’s power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that God arranges and does his works very well and justly even when the devils and the wicked act unjustly.

 

“We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what God does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend.  But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what God shows us in the Word, without going beyond those limits.

 

“This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father, who watches over us with fatherly care, sustaining all creatures under his lordship, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father” (The Belgic Confession, Art. 13).

The doctrine of God’s providence does not merely confess “God is in control” but that he is in control of all things to a certain end.  God is not playing eternal checkers with himself, moving humankind infinitely around the same old board.  He is accomplishing something. He is accomplishing everything.

Genesis is about the beginnings of things.   The beginning of time, matter, people.  The beginning of all that’s right and all that’s wrong.  But it’s about far more.  Things that are begun by a powerful and benevolent God necessarily infer purpose.  And purpose, according to Christianity, infers God’s providence.  God did not merely begin all things.  He started all things in order to finish all things.  Genesis not a mere story of creation but the outworking of God’s divine and loving providence.

Genesis offers details that surely confuse me and force important and unanswerable questions.  But one thing remains constant: God has ordained every detail of history to serve his appointed ends; namely, the eternal display of his grace to his people through Jesus Christ (Eph 1.3-14).

Either God has gotten lucky for ten thousand years (or ten gazillion, which only strengthens my point), reacting perfectly to all human behavior so that Jesus happened on the scene in the nick of time and the church holds on by the skin of her teeth.  Or, God has orchestrated all of human history — favoring one person rather than another, allowing this event and not that one, preserving one life and not the ten next to it — to prove he alone is God and will get all glory for the salvation of any one man.

God’s providence is on full display in Genesis 11 where we read eight times in vv10-25, “and he had other sons and daughters.”  The same phrase was used nine times in 5.4-30, most importantly of Noah who had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.  But Genesis 11.10-30 concerns itself only with Shem’s lineage beginning with his son Arpachshad on its way to Abram.  But if Shem “had other sons and daughters” why is Arpachshad singled out?  Why not any one of Shem’s other sons?

Arpachshad and I have something in common.  We both welcomed children at 35.  He had Shelah at 35 but over the next 403 (!) years “he had other sons and daughters.”  They, however, are lost to history and only Shelah is immortalized in the biblical witness.  Shem’s line gets more and more specific until the spotlight shines on one man: Shem’s great-whatever grandson Abram.  All along the way, though, everyone was having “other sons and daughters.”

In a stroke of literary brilliance, the author (Moses?) stopped us dead in our tracks.  He’s rhythmically ended each generational iteration with “and he had other sons and daughters.”  He gets to Terah and mentioned his three (not one) sons: Abram, Nahor Jr., and Haran (v26).  Haran died (v27) thus ending that line and leaving Abram and Nahor to continue whatever God started with Shem and Arpachshad.  Abram married Sarai and Nahor married Milcah (v29).

Verse 29 leaves us hanging in suspense.  Which son will enjoy being “begat” and which one swept into the “other sons and daughters” category?  Who will be the “one” and who the “other”?  In v30 we’re startled to read, “Sarai was barren; she had no child.”  Barren?  No child?  In a chapter carried along by the rhythm of fertility, each stanza refrained “and he had other sons and daughters,” the song ends abruptly with this crescendo of barrenness.  If Shem was a movie, it was a short one.

But that settles it, right?  There’s only one son left to keep the line moving.  We should then expect v31 to begin “So Nahor became the father of Uz” but we don’t hear that until Genesis 22.20.  No, whatever God is doing through the line of Shem will go through Abram, husband of Barren Sarah, not Nahor, husband of fertile Milcah.  Nahor fades from the scene and the next twelve chapters are, as we say, history.

Did God get lucky that Shem had a son, and every son thereafter had a son until Abram went and married that barren woman?  If God were merely reacting to history then he should’ve chosen Nahor, who did have a fertile wife and did bear a son.  Like a coloring book maze, God hit a wall and should back up to a more promising line.  Why insist on “interfering” with the seeming natural order of things by risking history on an impossible situation?  How many details must “fall into place” so that an Arpachshad could be born, much less an Isaac?

It must be that God has sovereignly ordained the most minute details of history — even which son will inherit his favor — to serve his good and wise purposes.  Otherwise, every generation was a roll of the cosmic dice.  Why favor Seth and not Cain?  Why Shem and not Japheth?  Why Abram and not Nahor?  Why Isaac and not Ishmael?  Why Jacob (the liar) and not Esau?  Why Joseph and not one of his 11 other better-suited brothers?  Why little David and not one of his strapping brothers?  There were always other sons and daughters to use who were just as, if not more, fit for God’s purposes.

And on and on until we read of a teenage virgin who is pregnant.  And we thought a post-menopausal Barren Sarah becoming pregnant was something!

In the end we must ask ourselves, “Why me and not him?  Why him and not her?”  Dear sister, why do you love Christ and not your younger brother who grew up in the same house?  Dear brother, why do you believe the gospel and not your older sister who sat beside you in the same pew every Sunday?  Dear friend, why would God use you in his kingdom and not your neighbor who gives twice as much to charity?  Among all the better people in the world, who have done seemingly far less to offend God, why would God favor you and not them?  Why did God adopt you rather than the hundred other spiritual orphans next door?  Why should my salvation possibly happen?

From Genesis 1.1 on we cannot help but say, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9.16).

All the genealogies of Scripture are of a piece of one lineage: Our Heavenly Father’s only begotten Son.  And this Son has many brothers and sisters “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1.13).  This Son’s Bride is not barren, but fertile, to beget God’s many sons and daughters into his kingdom through the gospel (Mt 16.18).

With the gospel’s aroma wafting through heaven we will spend eternity confessing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9).  Dead sinners can take no more credit for their eternal life than post-menopausal barren women and teenage virgins can for their pregnancies.  And so goes the rhythm of sovereign grace.

The Banality of Horoscopes

“For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do so.  The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. . . . I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all I command him” (Dt 18.14-15, 18).

A dominant characteristic separated old covenant Israel from every other nation on the planet.  They were Yahweh’s people and their God actually spoke to them.  No other nation had such a revealing and accommodating god.

Other nations had gods, to be sure, and they looked lifelike.  They had hands and feet, eyes and mouths.  But those gods “have mouths,  but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see” (Pss 115.5; 135.16).  Therefore, the pagan nations had to employ a variety of spiritists and diviners to interpret the will of their wax-nosed gods.  As we would expect, there was lucrative market for those interested in interpreting the will of the gods.  God-whisperers manipulated people for their own purposes.  Their “ministry” twisted their marionette-gods to man’s will.  For a fee, of course.

Can you take seriously a god that can be milled in high school woodshop or molded by the local potter?

The mammoth stone and wooden gods looked strong.  Crystal balls, palm-readers and tarot cards looked impressive.  They lent themselves to immediate results masquerading as a word from the gods.

But, Israel was to resist at all costs.  They served and were cared for by the One, True and Living God.  And He speaks.  There would be no need to conjure him up with smoke, mirrors and sleight-of-hand.  He needed no bribe because he already owned the universe (Ps 50.7-15).  Even if his tummy grumbled, he could make his own meal!  Yahweh was always present, always revealing.

Israel needed no medium because God himself would provide his prophet.  This prophet would hear from God and communicate to the people.  No spooky incantations or two-bit psychics.  No elicit sex acts or midnight cookies.

God sent many preparatory prophets who anticipated the Prophet to come.  The Prophet would be “like God” (Dt 18.15) and “like you” (Dt 18.18).  He would be the God-Man to speak God’s word to God’s people.  From the earliest days, God was using Israel to prepare the world for The Prophet — the One to embody God’s Word before us, the Living Word who dwells among us (Jn 1.1-5, 14).

Once, Jesus gave the Three Musketeers (Peter, James and John) a sneak peek at the future of all things (Mt 17.1-8).  In a scene of Sinaitic proportions God thundered from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (v5).  The prophet to whom God’s covenant people were to listen (Dt 18.15) has come.  He speaks for God and as God for the salvation of his people.  They have no reason to consult any other means for their salvation.

We have a far greater need than to know if we should take this or that flight, love this or that person, spend tonight here or there, or even hear from the dead.  We need to hear from God about our sin.  We need to hear there is hope for sinners who live rather confused and hypocritical and contradictory lives.  We need to hear that there is a remedy for the mess we’ve made of this world and our lives.

Besides, even if someone did speak to us from the “great beyond” would still not be convinced of our greatest need (Lk 16.31).  If we will not listen to the voice of the Creator of the Universe then in what universe do we think we’ll listen to a ghost or stargazer?

All the words of God are contained in the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 1.1).  He teaches us the will of God and supplies the means by which that will is accomplished.  He unveiled our future when he rose from the dead (Rom 8.11).  He doesn’t align the stars.  He created them.

Any desire to divine God’s will by any other means is to seek a treasure far too small.  If you are impressed by a daily horoscope, consider that the Eternal God has ordained every one of your days so you might enjoy Jesus (Ps 139.16).  We have no need to rub anyone’s belly, massage anyone’s hand or read anyone’s horoscope.  We don’t need a “reading,” but to be reading!  We open our Bibles in the community of faith wherein God speaks through Christ for our everlasting joy (Jn 15.11).

The Danger of “Christianness”

Gripped by this selection from Rejoicing in Christ by Michael Reeves:

“. . . we naturally gravitate, it seems, toward anything but Jesus–and Christians almost as much as anyone–whether it’s ‘the Christian worldview,’ ‘grace,’ ‘the Bible’ or ‘the gospel,’ as if they were things in themselves that could save us.  Even ‘the cross’ can get abstracted from Jesus, as if the wood had some power of its own.  Other things, wonderful things, vital concepts, beautiful discoveries so easily edge Jesus aside.  Precious theological concepts meant to describe him and his work get treated as things in their own right.  He becomes just another brick in the wall.  But the center, the cornerstone, the jewel in the crown of Christianity is not an idea, a system or a thing; it is not even ‘the gospel’ as such.  It is Jesus Christ.

“He is not a mere topic, a subject we can pick out from a menu of options.  Without him, our gospel or our system– however coherent, ‘grace-filled or ‘Bible-based’–simply is not Christian.  It will only be Christian to the extent that it is about him, and then what we make of him will govern what we mean by the word gospel.  I’m going to dare to say, in fact, that most of our Christian problems and errors of thought come about precisely through forgetting or marginalizing Christ.  That is, that despite all our apparent Christianness, we fail to build our lives and thoughts upon the Rock.

“I can’t put it any better than the Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who wrote to a friend with this advice:  ‘Learn much of the Lord Jesus.  For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.  He is altogether lovely.  Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief.  Live much in the smiles of God.  Bask in his beams.  Fell His all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in His almighty arms . . . Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him.'” (pp10-11)

Let’s be careful that, in seeing the gospel, we don’t miss Jesus.

I Saw Jesus at the “Place,” and He Wept

Dad has recently settled into an assisted living facility. None of us is particularly glad about it but we’re seeing some benefits.  Within three years he’s gone from 2,500 square feet to 700 to 120.  It’s metaphorical, really.  As we get older our world gets smaller and more temporary, more lonely.  Dad has yet to call it “home” and I’m not sure he should.  At best, he calls it where he “stays” or his “place.”  And that’s what it is: a place, not home.

He’s stronger some days than others but he still inches toward the midnight hour.  John 11 escorts me out when we leave Dad in his chair in his room.  And I take tearful comfort that Jesus has been there, too.

The apostle John put  Jesus on peculiar display in John 11.  It’s only one of two occasions the Gospel writers refer to Jesus crying (cf. Lk 19.41).  The fullness of God and the fullness of man swirling heavenward to stir up faith in the Bethany township.  The Son of God who raises the dead is also the Son of Man who weeps in graveyards. 

Because he is the Son of Man, fully human, Jesus had a beloved friend on his deathbed (v3). Because he is the Son of God, fully divine, Jesus had already written the end of the story (v4).  Or more appropriately, the beginning of the story.

The Son of Man went to a funeral as good friends do (vv15, 17). The Son of God would end the funeral.

The Son of Man consoled a grieving and theologically astute sister (vv23-27).  As the Son of God Jesus eased her pain, not with platitudes, but by drawing her to himself.

The Son of Man was “deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” that his friends suffered (v33).  The Son of God Jesus could actually do something about it:  “Where have you laid him?” (v34).

The Son of Man wept as he stood before his beloved friend’s newly-sealed tomb (vv35, 38). The Son of God broke the seal and solved the dilemma of death by commanding life back into his friend (vv33-34).  “Remove the stone” (v39).

And somehow the man “bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face…wrapped around with a cloth” “came forth” (v44).  Maybe he shuffled.  Maybe he floated. Maybe he just appeared.  But when Jesus spoke a living soul returned to a reeking corpse, oxygen filled Lazarus’ lungs, decomposition reversed course, strength returned to his legs. As if speaking to death itself Jesus commanded, “Unbind him, and let him go” (v44).

As John’s famous seventh sign, the raising of Lazarus echoed the seventh day of creation: God’s salvific rest.  John’s Gospel would slow down to the last week of Jesus’ mortal life as chapter 12 begins “six days before the Passover.”  It would be The Passover to end all Passovers.  John covered eternity past to AD 33 in eleven chapters.  John would took the next ten chapters to cover a few days. Raising Lazarus was the literary equivalent of an emergency brake on a locomotive.  With Lazarus’s resurrection, the preface to John’s Gospel was finally complete and he could get on with the story.

The Beloved Son would die, be sealed in a tomb behind a stone, and his friends would mourn.  But God would remove the stone (Jn 20.1) and the Beloved One would come forth.  Only this One would leave his burial clothes in the tomb (v5).  Unlike Lazarus, Jesus would never need them again.

Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead long before Lazarus ever died: “This sickness is not to end in death” (vv4, 11).  Yet, Jesus he was moved by the sorrow (v33). Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus after a short prayer (v42) and yet he still wept before he prayed (v35).

Scholars debate why Jesus cried at Lazarus’ tomb.  Maybe he was mad.  Maybe he was frustrated.  Maybe he was disappointed in Martha.  Maybe he was put out with naysayers (v37).

Or maybe he was human.

Jesus entered into the fullness of human suffering (Heb 2.14; 4.15).  As the Son of Man Jesus would take on and endure the curse we welcomed into his world.  Therefore, the Creator and Goal of all things (Col 1.16) – who created a good and perfect world, who is Life and Light (Jn 1.1-5) – chose to stand before the lifeless, lightless cave of a beloved friend. Knowing he would ransack death, Jesus stood in the middle of wailing mourners before a stonewalled tomb and cried as if to say, “This is what my world has come to! Look how far we’ve fallen!”

When God said “Let there be” he didn’t create any tombs.  Jesus didn’t create caves to hide rotting bodies.  He created flowers to stretch upward in praise, not to wilt over graves.  He created the morning, not mourning.

But there he was.  Engulfed in the tidal wave of human depravity. Satan’s playground.  The one who created the Tree of Life tasted the bitter fruit of death.  And he wept.

It was this very death he would undergo for his beloved friends: the children God gave him (Jn 6.37-40).  For them he will be the resurrection and the life.  He will endure their death and then some so that they will have his life.  There was a we-ness about Lazarus’ tomb.

It is a John 11 moment when we visit Dad at his “place.”   We know Jesus has been raised and will raise us on the last day (Rom 8.11).  But until then we stand with and before broken people crying “This ought not be!”  Look at what this world, the world we wanted, has come to.  It’s broken.  Really broken.  There are folks far worse off than Dad but there is a we-ness about things at the place.

Image-bearers of God should not lose their minds or their legs or their sight or their continence.  We should not be so disgraced.  God’s people should not need wheelchairs or eat through straws or drool or wear diapers.  They should not live on chemicals and in isolation.  They should not stink (v39).  Satan should not make sport of us.  Humans should not be so dehumanized.  A Living God should not have a dying people.  We are rightly compelled to provide as much dignity as possible in such situations because dignity is becoming of the imago Dei.

In our attempt to become gods ourselves we became rather sub-human (Gen 3.2-3), ruled by those things we should’ve ruled over.  In the most ironic consequence of sin, we actually now live in a world where we consider death to be an act of mercy.  God’s world is so upside down that we actually pray for death as an answer to misery.  What we want for our loved ones often opposes what is necessary for them.  This ought not be.

It was that sort of day in Bethany.  So Jesus wept just like every other human would and should.  Jesus would say to us what he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (vv25-26).  The one who dies will never die.  Only the Son of God could reconcile that antimony.  Jesus, our Jesus, entered into our suffering with both feet.  Better yet, he was baptized into it.

In the meantime, we live in the proverbial “two days” in which Jesus is staying where he is (v6) until he returns with his word of Life (Jn 5.28-29; 14.2-3).  We live by tear-stained faith in the Risen-and-Returning One.  Until then we mourn and cry and pray and hope behind the stone with a small shaft of Light at the edge.  While we mourn here Jesus prays for us there that we will keep believing (Jn 11.42; Heb 7.25).

I saw Jesus at the “place.”  And he wept.

Friday Hymn Meditation: O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire

My favorite hymn is O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire.  John Chandler translated the 8th-century Latin hymn into English in 1837.  There are two different tunes, one arranged by Handel in 1751 (Bradford) and another by George Greatorex in 1851 (Manoah).  I’m familiar with the latter because it’s far easier to sing (and I need all the help I can get!).  Robust theology jam-packed into a simple, childlike tune makes a great combination for congregational and family worship.

Notice the progression of Christ’s glory: creation, cross, enthronement, our sanctification in him, the goal of salvation and eternal praise to our Trinitarian God.  All of redemptive-history in six stanzas.  It’s like stained-glass for your soul.

Although in The Baptist Hymnal (#414), I’ve never sung it in church except when I sneaked it a time or two in Texas.  Perhaps you might listen and nudge your church’s music leader(s) to sneak it in, too.  As usual, there are more original stanzas than often included in our hymnals.

O Christ, our Hope, our heart’s Desire,
Redemption’s only Spring!
Creator of the world art Thou,
Its Savior and its King.

How vast the mercy and the love
Which laid our sins on Thee,
And led Thee to a cruel death,
To set Thy people free.

But now the bands of death are burst,
The ransom has been paid,
And Thou art on Thy Father’s throne,
In glorious robes arrayed.

O may Thy mighty love prevail
Our sinful souls to spare;
O may we come before Thy throne,
And find acceptance there!

O Christ, be Thou our lasting Joy,
Our ever great Reward!
Our only glory may be it be
To glory in the Lord.

All praise to Thee, ascended Lord;
All glory ever be
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Through all eternity.

Angels & Interns

…and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household (Acts 11.14).

While in Joppa (the same port city Jonah put on the map), Peter raised Tabitha-Dorcas from the dead like he’d seen Jesus do for Talitha (Acts 9.36-43; cf. 5.40-41).  Expectedly, Joppa became fertile ground for the gospel so Peter bunked at Simon the Tanner’s house while the iron was hot.  Unexpectedly, God was busy arranging Peter’s next stop up the Mediterranean coast.

The Holy Spirit is master of the redirect.  Luke just reported that “many believed in the Lord” in Joppa; therefore, “Peter stayed many days there” (Acts 9.42-43).  We would expect then to read about even more stories of gospel’s success in this prolonged Joppa revival.  But Luke followed up with “Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius” (Acts 10.1).  Caesarea?  That’s thirty miles north up the coast.  Cornelius?  He’s a Gentile Italian.  What does the revival among Joppa Jews have to do with Cornelius in Caesarea?

Well, everything.  In Acts 10-11, we hear this story told and then retold twice.  It must be important.

Cornelius was a good man by Southern standards.  He feared.  He gave.  He prayed.  He was a friend of Israel (10.22).  But he wasn’t a Christian and that made all the difference in the world.

As any good Southerner does, Cornelius was sipping his sweet tea one afternoon when a Lord-like angel showed up in some sort of vision.  God had taken notice of Cornelius’ humility and generosity.  God would now make his Gentile move through this Italian soldier.

The angel told Cornelius to send some interns to Joppa.  They were to bring back this man called Peter.  He will have a message for Cornelius and his household.  So, Cornelius dispatched his interns to Joppa.

As any good Jew does, Peter went on the roof for his lunchtime prayers.  Little did he know this was only a day after the angel appeared to Cornelius. As Peter’s stomach grumbled, God played out a scenario before Peter.  Because of Jesus, he could now eat anything he wanted.  Peter was appalled. Hungry as he was, he’d never eaten anything unclean and wasn’t about to start.  God replayed the scene two more times before leaving Peter to contemplate the vision.

We find out this wasn’t really about food at all.

As a perplexed Peter tried to make sense of the vision he heard a knock at the door.  It was Gentile Cornelius’s interns (i.e. unclean).  The Spirit commanded Peter to go with them without hesitation or discrimination (10.20). Not only would Peter eat “unclean” food, he was to extend and receive the hospitality of “unclean” people (10.28).  Without hesitation.  Like Jesus.

What happens next is the Gentile Pentecost (10.34-48).  What the Holy Spirit did for Jews in Acts 2 he was now doing for the Gentiles.  One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4.4-6).

Word quickly got back to Jerusalem that Gentiles “also had received the word of God” (Acts 11.1).  This did not sit well with “those who were circumcised” (i.e. the Fundamentalists) (11.2).  Gentiles?  Peter actually and knowingly ate with unclean people?  Had he lost his mind?  Or worse, his faith?

Peter explained the whole situation (11.4-17).  Once they heard the story there was nothing to do but quiet down and glorify God (v18).  God was saving Gentiles, too, just like Jesus said.

As he retold the stories about angels and visions, Peter inserted an interesting detail.  The angel had told Cornelius to send for Peter in Joppa so “he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (11.14).

This begs the question.  Why didn’t the angel himself simply tell Cornelius those words?  Why not save Cornelius then and there before the sweet tea warmed?  If Cornelius was that important then why risk so much?  What if the interns were killed on the way?  What if Peter had already decided to go back home to Jerusalem?  So much was riding on every detail.  Why not use the angel to speak the saving words to Cornelius and his household?

Simple.  Because God “has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that he may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor 1.27-29).  God sovereignly saves those he loves.  He sees to it the right people get to the right places with the right message.

It didn’t matter how many angels Cornelius saw or believed.  Or how many Jews he helped or prayers he prayed.  He had to hear and believe the saving words if he was to be a Christian. And God would see to that.

Jesus demonstrates his power and populates his kingdom, not by mobilizing angels, but by the most unlikely of means.  Rather than preach through angels, Jesus preaches through fallible, former deserters.  His gospel spreads by hands, feet and mouths, not wings (Is 52.7).

Sure, God could’ve bum rushed Cornelius with angels.  And it would’ve been impressive in all the ways the world defines impressive.  But our God is different.  He would cause Peter to love those he would’ve never been caught dead around.  God creates his people through and unites them around The Loving Truth, not visions and personal angelic experiences.

We need not pray for or wait for angels to show up in dreams and visions.  Jesus hasn’t sent them to speak the saving words.  He awakens us to love and sends us to our enemies.  We open our door and then open our mouths in love.  Without hesitation.

In the meantime, pour yourself a glass of sweet tea and keep an ear out for the interns.

Friday Hymn Meditation: At Calvary

Mom’s favorite hymn, At Calvary, was published in 1895 by William Reed Newell.  Newell was a Presbyterian pastor, assistant superintendent of Moody Bible Institute under the famous R.A. Torrey, and well-renowned Bible expositor.  His only hymn was forty years old when Mom would’ve started singing it in Itta Bena, MS.

The song meant little-to-nothing to me until five years after she died.  But the song itself anticipates that very situation. doesn’t it?  After years spent in vanity and pride, God brought me to the Calvary she so richly loved.  I would love to sing it with her again.  In God’s providence, the first time we sing it together will be for all eternity.

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

Over 21 years, to be exact.

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

The eternal refrain of the gospel: mercy, grace, pardon, liberty.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

No mystical experience.  Just God exposing my guilt through the simple, clear preaching of Scripture.  Trembling, repented to Calvary.

Now I’ve giv’n to Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary!

Jesus is the King who makes us sing.

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!

Calvary: the convergence of God’s love and grace for sinners.

For My Queen on Her Birthday

Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear: Forget your people and your father’s house; then the King will desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him (Ps 45:10-11).

Psalm 45 was a song written for the king’s wedding.  Israel’s handsome, valiant and humble king was joined to a radiant woman who “is all glorious within” (v13).  In vv10-11, the the bride’s father gave her away to her new husband.  He didn’t mean for her to forget her family as if the never existed.  He meant the King-Groom was crazy about her.  Any thought of homesickness would pale in comparison to how much he desired her.  She need not fear if she’ll be taken good care of or provided for.  Her new husband desired her and what was best for her.

Hebrews 1.8-9 quoted Psalm 45.6.  The psalm finds its ultimate glory displayed ultimately in Jesus Christ and his union with his bride, the church.  Jesus is the fair King with grace-drenched lips (v2).  Jesus is the Mighty One who is splendorous and majestic (v3).  Jesus earns his victory with meekness and righteousness (v4).  Jesus is God enthroned (v6) and praised forever (v17).  He loves his Bride, who leaves the world in which she was born to live forever in the loving care of Israel’s King.

There’s no more fitting text to honor my wife, my Queen, on her birthday.  She is indeed “all glorious within” and Jesus is her King.

When Idelette died in 1549, John Calvin wrote of his wife:  “During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.  From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.  She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself.”  I am no Calvin, but I’m as proud to say the same of and to my wife.  I can know Jesus loves me because she loves me.

She is my Queen.  Jesus is her King.  And I am a pauper who feasts on the crumbs at the King’s wedding reception.

I love you, my Queen.  Happy Birthday.

Death by Analytics (Why Stats Choke the Life Out of Your Church)

“but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal 6.13).

Baseball has its BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  Basketball has its PER (player efficiency rating).  Football has its AYPA (adjusted yards per attempt).

“Analytics” has taken professional sports by storm.  Calculus before coaching.  Algorithms over experience.  Xs-and-Os on a clipboard only arrange 3-D mathematics.  Losses once explained by how a fickle ball bounces are really the result of complex and predictable equations.  Successful coaches must play the averages, not the man.  Don’t take any chances.  Do the math.  Or else.

Players once valued for their leadership, guts, character and instinct (i.e. the “intangibles”) are now merely the sum of their stats. We mathematize a player’s every move and dehumanize the player himself!  Life-like video games and video replay are removing the need for real men to play and referee the real sport.  We need only the collision of statistics to know the thrill of victory.  We aren’t competitors, but producers.

Of what relevance could hockey’s Pythagorean Won-Loss Formula have on the church?

The church also suffers from its own dehumanizing advanced analytics.  We evaluate churches based on their BBB (buildings, budgets and baptisms). How many square feet do you have or did you build last year?  How much is your budget?  How many did you baptize?  Increase equals faithfulness. Decrease or stagnancy equals decline.

If trending downward, we expect the pastors do less exegesis and more analysis to ensure we produce more.  Pastors feel compelled to pad their résumés with attractive statistics. Rarely can pastors appeal as Paul did when the Corinthians demanded his stats: “you are our letter” (2 Cor 3.1-3). Instead, they must show a track record of increasing attendance, giving and building to keep or find a job.

The Gospels show us the nature of Christ’s kingdom.  His kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18.36) and therefore not measured by the finest MIT has to offer.  Crowds and worldly acclaim didn’t impress the Gospel writers.  They were impressed by occasions when Jesus confronted, healed, changed, loved persons.  A Samaritan woman.  A man born blind.  A father pleading for his sick son.  A short, greedy tax collector.  In fact, the “crowds” don’t typically fare well in the Gospels.  People with names and faces do.

Paul confronted the Galatian Judaizers who sought to seduce Gentile converts into a Torah-dependent life.  In a scathing rebuke Paul said, despite their pious rhetoric, they only wanted notches on their Mosaic belts (Gal 6.13).  They demanded circumcision so they could boast in the flesh and be on to the next promising market.

Would Paul say the same to us about our baptisms?  Do our stats tempt us to vain-glory?  Do we care more about how many we baptize than who it is we’re actually baptizing?  Do we boast in baptizing 500 last year but ignore the 200 professing Christians who stopped coming altogether or the faithfulness of the new widow who cherishes Jesus even more now?  Using Jesus’s otherwordly metrics, does it matter how many we baptize if we pay little attention to their perseverance in Christian faith?

How many did your church baptize last year?  Do you know their names?  Are they still faithfully pursuing Christ?  Do you know who is discipling them?  Better to baptize one whose name we know and progress we see than 100 whose names we forgot and progress we ignore.

Did we boast in our acreage or square footage last year?  Do we pride ourselves on having land/buildings we’ve never really needed and will probably never really use? A better indication of your church’s health could be how much land it sold or gave away.  Did your church do with less so that others in the kingdom could have more?  Perhaps not building for the glory of God is better than building for it.

We don’t enjoy sports because we love math.  We enjoy sports because of the inherent humanity in them.  Analytics rob us of that humanity and make competition about equations rather than people.  They choke the life out of the living.

Such is infinitely more true of Christ’s kingdom.  His church plays by different rules and rejoices in what cannot be measured.  When you have a crucified Savior, formulas never measure faithfulness.  We rejoice in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22) rather than the numerical outcome of strategies. We rejoice in particular names and faces more than numbers and trends. We don’t care as much about counting noses as looking into eyes. Not how many in the seats but who has Jesus saved.

When you gather with your church next Sunday don’t count the crowd and boast in (or bemoan) the math.  Look in the eyes of those sitting next to you and give them Christ’s peace.  Jesus calls us by name, not by our number (Jn 10.3).  We couldn’t ask for a better Coach.

Jesus Makes Nothing out of Something (and That Means Everything)

Paul wrote Galatians to confront and combat the attempted Judaization of the church.  Such was arguably the backdrop behind many of the New Testament letters. Intoxicated by the air of religious supremacy, Jews sought to enslave (Paul’s word for it) Gentiles under the burdensome yoke of Torah (cf. 4.7, 25; 5.1). Anyone wanting to be part of Yahweh’s people (i.e. Abraham’s people) had to come under the authority of Torah.  And the front door to the kingdom was circumcision (Gal 5.2-6).

But Christ had lived, died and lived again.  He was cut off in the flesh so that entrance into the new covenant would be faith, not a scalpel (cf. Col 2.11-12).  There was no going back to time when that hadn’t happened.  Therefore, the gospel of Christ revolutionized the nature of God’s covenant people.

While high-minded Jews insisted the mainstay of God’s salvation was Torah, Jesus’s (Jewish!) apostles taught otherwise.  All who were “baptized into Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “belong to Christ” were “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” and therefore Abraham’s children (Gal 3.26-29).  There was no need for Gentiles to become Jews because Jesus was the New, True Israel and they were “in him.”  You were either in him by faith or otherwise eternally excluded from God’s salvation (i.e. Abraham’s promise and inheritance).  Gentile Christians were as much a part of Abraham as any Jew thought himself to be, and in some cases even moreso (Rom 9.6).

Gentile Christians met all the demands of Torah because Jesus is the end/goal (Rom 10.4) and fulfiller (Mt 5.17) of the Torah.  There was no need for any Gentile (or Jew, for that matter) to be “in Moses” because even Moses was now “in Christ” (cf. Mt 17.1-5).  Need Paul remind them that Abraham never observed Torah either (Gal 3.16-18)!  The Jewish Messiah had to come just as far to save the Jew as the did the Gentile.

“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.4-6).

Paul could even say to the Galatians:  “I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Gal 4.12).  Paul, a Jew of Jews (Phil 3.4-6), had become a functional Gentile:  a sinner brought into God’s covenant by grace through faith in Christ (Rom 11.1-6).  And now he pleaded with Galatian Christians tempted to become functional Jews to consider themselves Gentile sinners again.  In perhaps history’s greatest irony, they’d traded redemptive places!

Because of the gospel the arrogant oneupsmanship had to stop.  Anyone assuming themselves superior to others, no matter their heritage, was antithetical to God’s purposes in salvation.  No one was to seek vain-glory (Gal 5.26).  Even those restoring a weakened, sin-whipped brother should be aware of pridefully assuming they were above his sin (Gal 6.1-3).  They weren’t, and to assume they were was as much sin as anything the restored brother committed.

Such was the warning in Gal 6.4-5.  You may consider yourself “something” (i.e. superior to another) but God makes no such comparison.  He doesn’t grade on a curve. You’re accountable for your own sin on its own demerits.  You are not “something” but “nothing” when measured against the perfections and demands of the God who made you.

Calvin thusly commented on Gal 6.5:

“To destroy sloth and pride, he brings before us the judgment of God, in which every individual for himself, and without a comparison with others, will give an account of his life. It is thus that we are deceived; for, if a man who has but one eye is placed among the blind, he considers his vision to be perfect; and a tawny person among negroes thinks himself white. The apostle affirms that the false conclusions to which we are thus conducted will find no place in the judgment of God; because there every one will bear his own burden, and none will stand acquitted by others from their own sins.”

Was Calvin a racist?  Of course not.  He simply stated the obvious.  We will take any advantage to vault ourselves above others given the context. We will find a way to convince ourselves and others we are better than those around us.  In fact, we might go out of our way to find those contexts to feed our lustful ego.

(As an aside, we should remember black/white racism and related civil rights issues are nothing new.  We’re not the first to tackle these issues or morally superior to previous generations because they didn’t have hashtags.  Here is Calvin in the 16th century addressing a contemporary issue that was as much a problem in the church then as now. And the answer then is the same as now: the one and only gospel Paul commended to the Galatians.)

Perhaps Calvin recalled the famous quote by Desidirius Erasmus (43 years Calvin’s senior): “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” If there is vain-glory in being white then even the tan-skinned will consider himself white among the company of his darker-skinned brothers.  The opposite would also be true.  If there is benefit to being black then the tan-skinned will consider himself black in a room full of white folk.

In a room of adulterers, the faithful husband deceives himself to think he is superior (i.e. less guilty) in God’s eyes.  In a room full of thieves, the hard-working union man assumes himself more honest in God’s eyes.  In a room full of sinners, the Sunday School teacher assumes herself less sinful in God’s eyes.  In a room full of convicts, the innocent man assumes himself more innocent in God’s eyes.  In a room full of Arminians the Calvinist assume himself holier. In the end, everyone in the room is “nothing” (Gal 6.3) and those who are Christ’s realize that.  And the gospel is having its way among us when all the nothings in the room love the other nothings as though they’re everything (Gal 5.6, 13).

Christian maturity is the process of becoming lower.  We are growing in gospel grace when our noses turn downward, our hearts reach upward and hands reach outward.  You are no different than I and I no different than you.  We’re not equally impressive, mind you, but equally condemned and cursed by sin.  If you’re a Christian, Christ became as much a curse for you as he did me (Gal 3.13).  He has freed us both from the tyranny of vain-glory (Gal 5.1).  Therefore, let’s lock arms, bend knees and rejoice we need never be like the other but that Jesus became like us.  And we’re together because we’re forever “in Him.”