Sunday, August 30, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
The phrase "feet of clay" comes from the Book of Daniel where King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a massive statue with a golden head, arms and chest of silver, legs of bronze, and feet of iron and clay, representing the crumbling foundations of the kingdoms of humankind. For centuries, people have used the phrase “feet of clay” from Daniel 2: 31-32 to describe an unexpected flaw or vulnerable point in the character of a hero or any admired person. The dream and Daniel’s interpretation raises an important question in our culture of celebrity: What do we do when the person we most admire fails or disappoints us? I believe that the first thing we need to do is to recognize something fundamental about human nature, that...
We are often drawn to those with big dreams, position, popularity, or power. Nebuchadnezzar was a man of great power and influence – the King of the Babylonian Empire, the most powerful political and military force on the planet at that time; which had decimated Jerusalem in 587 BC and deported its citizens (the wise counselor Daniel, among them). Most dream of power, position, and popularity; but Nebuchadnezzar lived the dream. His fame was so enduring that 2500 years later, Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, insisted that he was the literal reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar. No doubt the king of Babylon had thousands at his beck and call; servants, magicians, consorts, counselors, just to name a few. And they knew that in his service they would (for the most part) benefit as well.
Who are your role models? Who are you drawn to? Who are the people you like to be associated with? You may be drawn to a person because you sense that he/she walks closely with God and can help you do the same; because she has gifts you wish you had, or greatly admire; because he can help you to achieve your own goals; because he/she is able to fill a need that you have…like the love of a father or mother. The Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians that he had guided spiritually, “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). Paul did not apologize for his fathering role in the life of his Corinthians brethren, he celebrated it. As I look back, I can see that God has blessed me with parents, teachers, pastors, friends, spiritual fathers and mothers who have played a significant role in shaping who I am today. I’m sure you can too. Celebrate that...
But, like Daniel, never lose site of who you are serving and why; especially if you have access to position, popularity, or power. There is a lot being written today about the Culture of Celebrity; that we live our lives vicariously through famous athletes, actors, politicians, psychologists, cooks, singers, religious gurus etc. Daniel was never so enamored with the King’s power or his own…that he forgot that he was God’s celebrity.
God’s celebrity uses power and position not just for himself…but for the benefit of others. When Daniel heard that the king intended to execute all the wise men in Babylon because they could not interpret his dreams…he spoke up (even on behalf of those who did not worship God). “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon” Daniel said. “Bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation” (2:24).
God’s celebrity does not seek glory, he gives glory to God. Daniel never let power go to his head. When he had the opportunity to interpret the king’s dream, he made it clear that he was at the king’s service by the grace of God: “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (27-28). Daniel knew where his talents, gifts and abilities came from. He knew it was not just his abilities but God working in him. When he was praised he could reply, “See what they’re saying about us, Lord!” – and so can we…with every success, with every promotion, with every commendation, with every good grade, with every tackle or field goal, with every well run race, with every job well done, with every drop of sweat, and with every act of faithful service that others recognize, we can say….“See what they’re saying about us, Lord!”
Third, understand with Daniel that all human beings, regardless of their position, popularity, or power, have flaws (feet of clay) which must be acknowledged before God; or denied at great cost. Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of “a great statue…The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of bronze, its feet part of iron and partly of clay” (29, 31-33). Daniel explained to the king that Babylon represented “the head of gold” (38). From other parts of the Book we know that the kingdom after Babylon, symbolized by the chest and arms of silver, was the Medo-Persian Empire (8:20). The legs of bronze were a symbol for Alexander the Great who spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean (8:21). The iron and clay feet may refer to the future Roman Empire. But regardless of the interpretation, the outstanding characteristic of the statue is that it has a flawed foundation; a foundation of pride, of selfishness, of cruelty, of idolatry; and eventually it would all come crashing down. For in the king's dream he sees a “stone not made with hands” which destroys the statue; and which inaugurates “a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” – the kingdom of God (44).
The City of Babylon seemed invincible in its day. It was 14 miles square, surrounded by a 300 ft. wall, 25 ft. thick. It had 250 towers, each 450 ft. high; and was paved with stone slabs 3 ft. square. The City had 53 temples, and a solid golden statue of Baal that weighed over 50,000 lbs. Daniel writes about this statue in ch. 3. Did Nebuchadnezzar build this golden statue in defiance of the vision? Perhaps; but it didn’t save the city from destruction. The ancient greek historian, Herodotus, records that on the night of Oct. 12, 539BC, as the Babylonians were celebrating a great festival, the Persian army diverted the Euphrates River, which flowed under the walls and through the city. Then Cyrus and his men marched into Babylon on the empty riverbed (Herodotus 1.191). Babylon collapsed in a night.
Like Babylon and its king, all people regardless of their position, popularity, or power, have feet of clay. If you've been disappointed by a leader, a celebrity, or even a family member…you can bet that you’ll be disappointed by them again. One summer in high school, I participated in a Christian leadership training camp. It was led by a guy I greatly admired. He was a runner…so I started running. He took us on my first backpack trip, and I fell in love with backpacking. He loved to teach the Bible; and I wanted to as well. He had a wonderful wife; and I knew I would have one someday too. He was very cool…and I, well… I’m still working on that. I idolized him in many ways…and so it shocked me when I learned a couple of years later that he and his wife divorced. I didn’t think that happened to people like that. Suddenly, I saw that he too had clay feet.
People will disappoint you; the church will disappoint you. In recent years some churches have begun to backpedal from the proclamation that Jesus Christ alone is Lord and Savior; from the authority of Scripture; and from the call to discipleship - to putting God before things like national interest, success, sexual fulfillment, entertainment, or appearance. This week, I am again disappointed that something as well attested in Scripture as the call to marriage between one man and one woman or to chastity in singleness is considered optional in some corners of the church. I'm disappointed, but my faith is not in the church; my faith is in Jesus.
Like Daniel, you can’t always change Nebuchadnezzar’s mind…you may not be able to do a lot about the teacher or pastor or parent or work associate who disappointed you and let you down…but if they were irresponsible, you can be dependable. If they were disloyal; you can be faithful. If they were uncaring, you can be compassionate. If they were unforgiving, you can be merciful. If they were arrogant and unrepentant, you can model humility. And one more thing,
Consider “the Stone which the builders rejected” the One who rejected earthly position, popularity, and power; and whose Kingdom shall never end. Daniel speaks of a stone not cut by human hands (34) that crushes the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold; and becomes a mountain that fills the world. He tells us that it represents the One who will establish God’s kingdom on earth. Now that’s an absolutely stunning image of God’s rule over every so-called human power; but it’s even more startling when we realize Christ is its fulfillment. For on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus identified himself with this Stone (Psalm 118:22; Matt. 21:42); the stone which the builders rejected; the Stone that has become the Cornerstone. He is the King who set aside his divine position, popularity, and power, to be our Redeemer in the flesh.
I began by pointing out that even the men who walked on the moon had feet of clay. But if such great men are fallible; what hope is there for the rest of us? Our hope should be in the one whose imprint continues to endure after 2000 years, who set aside power, popularity, and position, to be our Redeemer in the flesh; and who will never fail or forsake us: to walk in his footsteps is the best way to leave our mark on this world. Yes, I will disappoint you...and you will disappoint me, but "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever!"
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The first test is the GATE test. In Matthew 7: 13-14, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate”; and again in John 10:9, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” It has been the confession of the Church for 2000 years that Jesus Christ is the narrow gate that leads to peace with God and eternal life…not just one gate among several equally good options. There are many gods and spiritual leaders that are venerated in this world. So choose your god wisely! Your god may be money.…technology… your children… your reputation. Your god may be science or scientology. It may be fear. It may be the wisdom of a modern day guru. Choose your god wisely.
The second test is the ROAD test: Do we affirm the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us? Do we teach people to follow Jesus’ way of life and obey his commands or to ignore them? Jesus says, "the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7: 14); and again, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). Historically, churches have stressed either the call to personal faith in Christ, or social righteousness in his name; but the reality is that Jesus calls us to both. He calls us to believe in him, know his word, and fellowship with his people. But he also calls us to the street; to reconcile with enemies; to speak the truth in love, to guard and protect sexual purity, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; serve God instead of money; and to let our good works shine like a light so that others might see them and glorify God.
The third test is the FRUIT test. I can teach people to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. I can teach people to do the right thing all day long...but the acid test as far as Jesus is concerned is personal integrity, “Do I practice what I preach; do I exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in my own life?
The fourth and final test that Jesus gives us here for genuine faith and trust in him is what we may call the STORM test: That is, has this person’s faith been storm-tested and revealed to be founded on the truth of God’s word. In Matthew 7: 24-27, Jesus says that the wind will blow and the rain will come, but that the house built on the solid rock of his word will stand…the house built on the sand of our own pathetic efforts and false gods will not. The fourth acid test of the spiritual leader is that he or she has found the word of Christ to be the solid foundation of his/her life in the midst of suffering and hardship.
One of the most memorable things Lisa and I saw in the Colorado Rockies two months ago was the spectacular big horn sheep. Let me tell you, wolves are impressive…but nothing beats a Rocky Mountain bighorn; weighing up to 300 lbs; living in large herds, able to climb incredibly steep terrain and more than able to defend itself with its large curved horns. But what’s amazing is that the bighorn was in danger of extinction not more than 70 years ago due to overhunting and exposure to the diseases of domesticated sheep. But the bighorn has made a comeback because the boy scouts and others made a concerted effort to protect it.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Pigs were held in contempt by Jews of the first century. The flesh of a pig was considered to be unclean; and so Gentiles and "non-believers" were often referred to as "pigs" or "dogs." Jesus had a few run-ins with pigs himself. In Gergasa, he cast a legion of evil spirits into a herd of pigs, who ran headlong down a hillside and drowned (Mark 5: 1-20); and then there is Jesus' arresting proverb: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6). It's obvious that Jesus thinks there are things in our possession far more precious than pearls...and that he doesn't want us to abuse them or cast them aside.
In Matthew 13: 45-46, Jesus says that the gospel of the kingdom is like “a pearl” of the greatest value that a merchant sold everything to possess. It would seem that the primary meaning of Matthew 7:6, then, is that we should not continue to push the good news about Jesus and his kingdom on those who are unwilling or unable to receive it; or who reject and despise it. The message of the gospel has been entrusted to us…and we are to be wise in how we share it. Let's face it, not many of us would bring our dog to church. We love our dogs but we know they would have trouble sitting up straight; and it would be difficult for them to even hum the songs. Nor would many of us buy a pearl necklace and then throw it to a wild pig at the LA Zoo! The fact is, pigs can’t digest pearls; and dogs don’t sing or pray. All that is to simply say that we can’t force good things on other people…not even the Gospel. They must be ready to receive what we have to give. Jesus is giving us permission to walk away…and to put that person in God’s hands.
But more often than not, our problem is not that we are too pushy with the gospel; but that we fail to share it at all. Our fear of appearing “pushy” should not discourage us from listening and getting to know the people around us who don’t know Christ; nor discourage us from sharing our faith in a relaxed and non-manipulative way. Having said that, there may still be a person who is simply not ready or willing to hear the gospel. Does this proverb about pigs and pearls mean that we simply write people off as hopeless? That doesn’t sound like Jesus. Let me suggest, then, that when our testimony is not welcomed -- our actions are more important than ever.
In his book, A Modern Epiphany, Cecil Prescott shares about a discussion in a camp of students from many nations regarding the various ways that Christ can be shared with other people. At one point, Maria, a girl from Africa, was asked what she did in her country. “We don’t have missions or give pamphlets away” she said, “We just send one or two families to live and work in a village; and when the people see what they are like, they want to become Christians too” (William Barclay, Matthew vol. 1). Do you think that strategy would work in West Los Angeles? And if not, why not? We cannot always tell a person about Christ…but we can show them Christ. Are you breathing a sigh of relief right about now? "Good," you say to yourself. "I don’t have to tell anyone about Jesus, I can just show them with my life." To that I would say that showing people Jesus with our lives is in many ways our greatest challenge…which is why I want to talk about another way that we can understand this proverb of Jesus. Namely, that there is a time to cherish and protect our God-given gifts & there is a time to share them freely with others.
Casting your pearls before swine, in this case, means to treat something precious with contempt; with disrespect; with carelessness. To live out the Christian life before others often means that we must learn to cherish the pearls that he has given us; it means that w e must often guard and protect them in a way that may seem strange, or unpopular, or out of step with the rest of the culture. What are the pearls that God wants you to guard and protect before sharing with others? How can you be a witness to Christ in the way you handle the precious and holy things that God has given you? Some examples would be helpful here, so let me suggest a few.
One very obvious “pearl” that deserves to be cherished and not hastily or thoughtlessly cast away is our purity. Our purity is something which God has given us…and as children and teenagers we have a God-given desire to protect it. We live in a day and time in which innocence is being violated at pandemic levels. Did you know that youth and children right now comprise 50% of the 15-30 million people who are being abused and trafficked as slaves?According to World Vision, at least 1 million of these youth and children are being trafficked as sex slaves (seekjustice.org). I believe that we as a church should be involved in working against this plague. Why am I sharing this? Because it made me aware that what one million children are having violently taken from them by force; many young people everyday are casting aside without the slightest thought – I’m talking about their innocence. Our purity is like a pearl; and God calls us to guard and protect this pearl until the day we are ready to make a lifelong commitment in marriage. I want to challenge you to reclaim as your own what many would like to steal from you or drag through the mud. I would also like to say that Christ can heal and restore what has been lost as we come to him in humility and repentance….for he says, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Speaking of children just now, I want to also say to moms and dads that our children are precious; that they are far more valuable than silver or gold or pearls; and yet we often spend far more time trying to accumulate silver and gold than we do cherishing our children. It’s not too late to re-evaluate our priorities; to begin counting our children and our family more important than our work or out hobbies or our so-called success. Having just celebrated a wonderful week of Vacation Bible School, I’ve been reminded again that Jesus was never too busy to spend time with children… and we shouldn’t be either.
Here is a third pearl that comes to mind today: our spiritual gifts and, in general, our capacity to serve the Lord in ministry and mission. It’s easy to underestimate the spiritual gifts and talents of our young people. Just last week I learned that one of the middle school students in our church completed a 2 mile ocean swim as a junior life guard. It takes incredible strength, endurance, and determination to do something like that…and it makes me want to get serious in the pool too! She has taken her God-given athletic ability, and developed it. Sadly, a lot of us are sitting on the beach…when God wants us to get in the water and start swimming. That wasn't the case with two of the daughters of our church who told me last week that they will be involved in hands-on mission work this next year. One will be working at Cal State LA with Campus Crusade for Christ; and a second has just been accepted as an intern with Youth for Christ and will be serving for six months in Mexico. God is calling these women into spiritual leadership; and he can do the same with us…but we must allow him to develop and to use our spiritual gifts and talents.
We’ve talked about purity, about our children and families, about our God-given talents; but I want to mention one more pearl – and that is our God-stories. While Lisa and I we were en route to Marina Del Rey on one of our early "pre-marital dates"… I had been sharing a lot about my background in response to some questions Lisa had asked me. But then I asked a rather dumb question of her: “Lisa, I’ve been sharing a lot about myself; how come you haven’t been sharing very much about yourself? You’ve been kind of quiet and reserved on our last two dates?” Then she quipped: “Well, I like to be asked; I don’t like casting my pearls before swine....” I laughed out loud as I was put soundly in my place; but inwardly I realized how insensitive I had been. It was then and there that I realized how important it is for Lisa to know that someone is actually interested in finding out how she is doing before she shares anything. And Lisa practices what she preaches…she is great at asking people how they are doing, but she likes to be extended the same courtesy. Don’t we all? How easy it is to get lost in our own world…and forget that the person sitting right across from us has a life too. Lisa reminded me that each of us wants to feel like a pearl of great value; respected, cherished and important; enough to merit concern, compassion, and curiosity.
That (painful) story brings me full circle, because until we truly value and respect each person we meet as a pearl that Christ has purchased at the price of his own blood… we will be in no position to share the pearl of the gospel with them. Until we are willing to climb out of our own world of self-concern and self-interest enough to get to know other people, to show genuine interest in them as human beings; the gospel message we have to share will ring hollow. We cherish the gospel message more than pearls…by learning to respect and value the people around us; and earning the right to be heard. Put another way, we can’t cast our pearls…until the common herd before us become in our eyes children of God whom he has called us to love and forgive just as he has loved and forgiven us.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Last week we visited my brother and his family in Maui; certainly one of the most beautiful places on earth. The deep blue water that is so clear you can see 20 or 30 feet down; the colorful tropical fish and the giant sea turtles that populate its coral reefs; the rainforests filled with hanging vines, exotic plants, waterfalls and rock pools, mango and passion fruit trees; and the songs of native birds…these things for me offer a taste of paradise.
Yet the reality of pain and suffering in the midst of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring experiences reminds us that Paradise has been lost. Despite Paul’s amazing experience he was very honest about "the thorn" that was his constant companion and teacher. For he says that “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan … to keep me from being too elated” (7).
Through a life of joy and hardship, God is forming the character of Christ in us; empowering us to serve him here and in the true Paradise to come. Paul made an amazing discovery. Three times he asked the Lord to take this thorn from him; but God said this: “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness...Therefore (says Paul) I am content with weaknesses…for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (10). Jesus has shown us the way to overcome the troubles and temptations of this world…and that is not by denial or running away; but by humbly surrendering to the grace and power of God in the midst of them. In his commentary, William Barclay points out the all-sufficiency of God's grace in Paul's life:
Sitting out on the balcony of my brother's house in Maui, as the sun was coming up over Molokai and Lana'i, I turned in the special Bible I use for a daily devotional and read Romans 6:22 where we learn that for those freed from sin and claimed by God through faith in his Son, “the end is eternal life.” As I read those words, I was reminded that as good as things may seem to be in this life (or as bad) this is not the end! The end is eternal life. Paradise, real paradise, is yet to come. Through his all-sufficient grace Christ is empowering us to serve him here in this imperfect world…and in the paradise that is yet to come. And for that I say, “Mahalo!”