The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 3

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Agreeing with God.

Do some hear the call of God better than others? “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did,” the author of Hebrews 11 explains, launching into the list of the first of those named as having heard and responded to the call of God. “By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

We’ve been exploring the theme of God calling to people, and are given Abel as our first personal example. What we know from this verse and from the early chapters of Genesis where the story is originally recorded is that Cain and Abel were the first offspring of Adam and Eve following their expulsion from Eden. They symbolize all of humanity that would follow, blazing the two moral paths from which each of us may choose.

One day, Cain and Abel brought to God each of their respective offerings from the products of their labour. One brought the best of what he had. The other brought some of what he had. Each product was good, but it was obvious to God that the hearts of the two young men were quite different. Abel the younger had listened to God’s call and embraced the opportunity to offer God his best. Cain the elder had hardened his heart to God’s call and refused to respond with much more than lip service. God accepted the one but rejected the other. Cain was incensed by God’s rejection. Giving free reign to his growing anger and jealousy, Cain murdered his brother Abel and defended his action by arguing, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

How could such a seemingly innocent practice as presenting an honorarium to the Creator have such disastrous repercussions? The anecdote condenses for us in one concise account the state of affairs each of our lives mirror. God speaks to each of us—calls to us—in ways that allow us the opportunity to agree with Him or not. It all depends on our willingness to listen. Those who choose by degrees to listen to God’s call, to agree with what He says about the human heart, find faith growing. They believe that He is telling the truth when He says that no one can find peace with Father God except through Jesus. In contrast, those who refuse to listen, who choose to ignore or blatantly reject God’s call on their lives begin a downward spiral of hurting themselves and others. Abel himself still speaks of this great dichotomy of choices.

Those who have been willing to listen to God’s call and agree with Him have looked back over their lives and discovered God’s transforming power and goodness runs parallel to His voice. When God speaks sparks fly. Lives are given wings, darkness is dissolved by light, and death is swallowed up by life. This recollection of humankind’s early history on earth teaches us that when God speaks to us, it is because He has our ultimate good in mind. God’s call is always for the purpose of protecting us from our own tendencies toward selfward and otherward destruction.

What about Abel? Suffering an early and turbulent death hardly seems a fitting reward for one who listened and responded well to God. Where’s the fairness in that? Where was the good God seems to promise? Look again. It’s there in the middle of the Hebrews verse; “By faith,” we’re told, “he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings.” God commends Abel. He makes a judgment call on Abel, taking everything He knows about Abel into account: his heart attitude, his willingness to listen to God, his convictions put into practice even when it cost him dearly. All these aspects describe true faith. As a result, God judges Abel righteous.

This word ‘righteous’ is a key word in God’s economy. In means God has transferred, by the highest standard of justice that characterizes Himself, the guilt of that individual onto Jesus. In exchange, the perfect right-ness of Jesus is transferred to that individual’s account and God sees that person as right with Him. Abel—like his brother Cain—was intrinsically sinful. But Abel chose to listen to God’s call and respond. It was an act of faith, of agreement. And God respects that heart attitude so highly—not only in Abel but also in each of us who make a similar choice—that He offers eternal life to those who have listened to Him.

So we have before us a choice and a fine example in Abel who lives in eternity’s grand glory with His Lord. Softening our hearts to God’s voice is the first call of God. Then listening to and agreeing with what He tells us about Himself through His Word, the Bible, is next. And then obeying what He commands through His Word is the natural by-product that will mark our lives. Do you hear Him calling you?

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Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 11

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Rejoices With the Truth.

“(It) is as temperamental as an opera singer,” complained John L. Smith, chemist and executive of Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company, regarding a new drug soon to be on the market. “The yields are low, the isolation is difficult, the extraction is murder, the purification invites disaster, and the assay is unsatisfactory.” But Smith and his retinue recognized and rejoiced in its unprecedented value: They were referring to penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic. Infections up to that time had resulted in a multitude of unnecessary suffering and early deaths. Now they could be treated. World War II was producing untold casualties but now penicillin would save many of those lives.

The author of I Corinthians 13—the Bible’s Love Chapter—explains that love “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” We have observed that God designed our hearts to delight, to experience pleasure to such an extent that we become bound to what we delight in. We have agreed that delighting in evil puts us into a bondage that eventually results in our own disintegration. It also ultimately destroys all relationships with others, especially our relationship with God. So the author explains how we avoid that outcome. We rejoice with the truth.

To rejoice with the truth means three things. It requires accepting, it requires recognizing, and it requires submitting. Firstly, rejoicing with the truth necessitates that we accept the exclusive nature of truth. If something is true, then by necessity its opposite must be untrue. If it is nighttime in Paris, it cannot also be daytime there. If the sun is ninety million miles from earth, it is not also immeasurably distant from earth. If penicillin destroys bacteria, it does not also support those same bacteria. This is the nature of truth. Its exclusivity enables us to separate things that are true from things that are false, deceiving and erroneous. Think about it. The very fabric of our society is built on accepting truth—from the realms of law, science, research and education to engineering and construction—even down to assembling our IKEA furniture—we accept the existence and value of truth. Everything we absorb through our five senses or manipulate with our bodies we test to ensure what we are seeing and hearing is true.

Secondly, rejoicing with the truth necessitates recognizing truth when it appears. When data is measurable, it is relatively easy to recognize truth from error. We pay for a product with cash and immediately recognize if the change we are given is accurate—if the cashier’s accounting is true or false. Some truths, though, are more difficult to ascertain: when two individual’s claim exclusive ownership of the same object, or in the application of certain laws that are conflicting, truth must be recognized and discerned in order to know how to act in line with truth.

Thirdly, rejoicing with the truth necessitates submitting to truth’s demands. We cannot manipulate truth to satisfy our whims without the result of becoming dishonest and reaping its twisted harvest. “You cannot go against the grain of the universe,” advises C.S. Lewis, “and not expect to get splinters.” The concept of submitting to truth brings us to the pinnacle of our discussion of truth. Truth is bound up in a Person, Jesus Christ who called Himself “the truth.” Submitting to truth ultimately brings us to the necessity of submitting our intellect and worldview to God, the author and sustainer of all truth.

As we do these three difficult tasks we find something extraordinary beginning to happen. When we accept truth we accept Jesus (and vice versa). When we recognize truth for what it really is, we will recognize the deity and Lordship of Jesus. To fully submit to truth is to submit to Jesus. Jesus is the kingpin of Truth. To grasp Jesus is to fully grasp truth. As He Himself explained, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus brings expanding freedom for us, not the shackling restrictions and limitations we had feared when we were distant from truth and from Him.

And that is not all. When we come into community with Jesus, we find Him to be joy incarnate. He is the epitome of gladness and exultation, of true happiness and delight. This is why the author of I Corinthians 13 says that love “rejoices with the truth.” Rejoicing “with” is all about relationship. Christ’s unbounded joy as Maker of the Universe is only exceeded by His joy in ransoming those of us who were lost in the personal darkness of deception and rebellion to truth.

So come to Truth and rejoice with Him. This is what we were designed for. This is love.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)