ROMANS 13

DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02

What’s Natural

Ever played the game Tribond? Given three words one must guess the bond between those seemingly unconnected words, like: What do a car, an elephant, and a tree have in common? Pause and think. They all have trunks. That was easy. Now here’s a harder one: What do beauty, disasters and resources have in common?

Natural. All three can be described by the adjective ‘natural’. Natural is a catchword that invokes something primeval; it describes what occurs without human intention or interference. The environment is natural when we have neither removed anything from it (like old growth forests) nor added to it (like fish ladders or high-rises).

We find the concept discussed in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, an epistle in which the Apostle Paul exposes the central truths of Christianity. But here, ‘natural’ refers to human nature.

“The hour has come,” alerts Paul, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because we are nearer now than when we first believed.”

He’s speaking to Christians, the early believers who were still trying to discover how their faith would affect their lives, and how a right view of God would transform their minds. But anyone who is willing to learn can glean from what he says.

“The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:11-14).

Paul is bringing us to a crossroads of the natural. He’s exposing the false assumption that whatever is natural must be good for us. Remember the poison dart frogs of South America? The Golden Poison Frog (P. terribilis) contains enough toxin to kill ten to twenty people. That’s natural.

He shows us that we, in fact, have access to two streams or paths of human nature. One, described by darkness, is the natural bent we were born with, and bent truly describes this nature. It’s a contortion or deformation of what we were designed to be by nature. It consists of a destructive tendency to abuse our consciousness – the ability to be aware of truth; to abuse our reproductivity – a gift given us by God, the sustainability of our species; and to abuse interpersonal relationships – healthy social interactions. It is characterized by self-absorption and oblivion to the above abuses.

The other nature is … well … supernatural; it is the truly human nature modeled by Jesus Christ and made available only when we invite His Spirit into our lives. This nature is described by light, decency and daytime. It is clothed and in its right mind. This nature is available by the superhuman determination of God to rescue us from our self-destructive tendencies.

Yes, both paths are natural. The desires of the sinful nature are most easily accessible, but they are gratified at the expense of our true humanity. Ask anyone who has helplessly observed a family member self-destruct under the influence of drugs, alcohol, the sexual revolution, the gender revolution, eating disorders, materialism or other natural choices. It’s staggering.

The work of the Spirit of God in our lives, on the other hand, means that God takes His own nature and makes it second-nature to us. It happens by degrees, don’t get Paul wrong. Those who open themselves to this path of the crossroad don’t become perfect immediately. We obey and grow, and then we stumble and fall back into the old ways. But Jesus helps us up. He forgives us and gives us the strength to try again. It’s sometimes two steps forward and one step back, but the trend is forward.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect,” says Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers (and sisters), I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

That is how we change from being controlled by our flesh-nature, to being natural-born children of God. Which path does it move you toward?

(Photo Credit: “DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02” by Tim Ross – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg#/media/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg)

Advertisements

CROSSROADS, Part 3

 1280px-La_route_qui_mène_vers_le_coté_obscur

“Are you dying for him?” she whispered.

“And his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”

At the climax of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, an exchange occurs; an unexpected substitution extricates the story’s protagonist from his imminent appointment with death. An eleventh-hour switch happens and a ransom results.

While in this story the anti-hero who orchestrates the exchange is by no means faultless, his act is reminiscent of the greatest ransom and rescue ever performed, not in literature, but in real life, by a man who proved Himself to be God’s Son. It is this great rescue to which the apostle Paul refers in this third chapter of the letter to the Romans.

This concept of rescue is not as easy to accept at it would appear. Sometimes we even abhor the idea; the offer of a remedy we fail to see we need strikes us as intrusive advertising. At other times, we catch a glimpse of our desperate situation, but then do not believe the rescue will accomplish what we want; we’ve become skeptical in our old age and new morality, unable to believe there is a solution to our problem. Sometimes we philosophize there are no problems – only appearances. We just need to look at life from a new angle and all will fall into place, we think.

Who wants a rescuer?

Only children do, really. Yet, only when we see ourselves as children do can we admit that a rescuer is necessary. Romans 3 looks at this crossroads because it’s the place where we choose the direction our thinking will follow.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Paul is saying it’s a crossroads everyone entertains. In earlier verses he divides people into ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’, divisions that described the religious milieu of the day. He is saying we all come from one perspective or another that has its own road: the narrow law-keeping road, or the broader naturalist road. Those traveling each road consider themselves on the right road. Do you see yourself on either of these?

Yet, says Paul, the historical death of Jesus changes everything. It creates an intersection out of which two new paths issue. One path he calls faith – not faith in general, but specifically faith in the death-defying ransom paid by Jesus. The only other path is the absence of faith, in all its various expressions. Our daily lives are marked by our passage on one of these two roads. The former is easy to stray from, because we are, as one songwriter so aptly put it, “prone to wander”. The other path is so much easier to traverse but its ending, by small degrees and ultimately, destroys us.

As we make choices that will define our steps today, we do well to keep in mind a clear picture of that ransoming crossroad. It will be our best guide and strongest motivation to keep pace on the faith road and stay the course.

“Did You die for all humanity?” we ask Jesus.

“And for you. Hush! Yes.”

(Photo Credit: “La route qui mène vers le coté obscur”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg#/media/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg)

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 3

Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words

Unique Death (Isaiah 53)

Crucifixion completed Jesus’ earthly life in apparent humiliation. No human body could withstand its life-sapping horrors without a miracle, but no miracle came then for Jesus. He, the Lifegiver, gave up His spirit with the final words, “It is finished.”

Eight centuries earlier, Isaiah had written that this Man would be a “man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering”. That, “by oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.”

It’s pretty clear that the crucifixion was no surprise to Jesus. He knew the plan for Easter long before His crucifiers or their ancestors were born. He’d had an eternity prior to His earthly life to think about the “oppression”, “crush(ing)” and “suffer(ing)” He would be enduring as part of the plan for Easter.

Imagine that for a moment. Why would anyone do it? Why would God bother with the effort of rescuing a race gone awry, especially when it would cause Him such personal sacrifice in the rescuing?

There is only one answer: Love.

God, the personification of the deepest and truest of love, cares about you and me. He designed each of us for so much more than any of us have experienced yet, and He hated to stand by and watch us self-destruct. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Not that He was the only person ever crucified. It is estimated that many thousands of people have died by crucifixion. In the year 70 A.D. alone, five hundred people daily met their slow, excruciating deaths by that inhumane method of execution.

But He alone did it out of perfect love for a world of people who didn’t even realize their own hopeless condition.

Not only is His love totally inclusive toward every person ever conceived, it is also completely effective. It has the power to restore each of us to the relationship with Him we were designed to have—if we will accept it. Included in that, relationship with God means accessing His version of life which is unending; it means escaping our own unnatural mortality, and finding our life becoming eternal.

Imagine being loved by One who knows all our secrets, all our weaknesses and foibles, all our insecurities and stumblings, yet His love not diminishing one bit.

Imagine being loved by One who experienced the horror of death on our behalf, in order that death could become for us a passage from the shadow lands into the great expansive eternal existence with Him.

Doesn’t that change our perspective on Easter? Doesn’t that give us a clue as to why the day we commemorate as Jesus’ death is called ‘Good Friday’?

The love of God for you and me, expressed in the willing death of Jesus, is no more explicitly seen than in the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life. It’s not morose to think about it. It’s true and right and proper considering its great significance. What is unseemly and even shameful is when we ignore the essence and magnitude of what Easter really is. We do a disservice to ourselves and to God’s love when we fail to think deeply about what He did for us that first Easter.

Don’t despair. It’s not all death and darkness. That is only the first part of Easter. There is more to His plan. There is even more to His love. Are you ready to hear about it?

(Photo Credit: “Fred Holland Day- Last Seven Words” by F. Holland Day – Frizot: Neue Geschichte der Fotografie, Köln 1998, S.302. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words.jpg#/media/File:Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words.jpg)

DEFENDERS, RESCUERS, DELIVERERS

800px-Millwall_FC_huddle

Picture God—in all His magnificence and might—in a group huddle, preparing to give his team the play, the mental blueprint every player needs to know. They wait expectantly, envisioning the glory, the acclaim and renown of playing for God on team ‘gods’.

Then they hear a great roar, the mighty waterfall-like voice of God saying, “Go now! Use my wisdom and great insight to bring justice to all people. The nations are my inheritance. The weak, the fatherless, the poor and oppressed must be given hope. I am God; you are gods. Use my wisdom, power and love to raise up those who have been treated unfairly.” The players blink in surprise.

“You mean,” they ask, “it’s not just about us? It’s not exclusive? We’re not the whole team?”

No, it’s not just about us, the inner circle of players. It’s not even a game. Those of us who have heard God saying those words to us are gradually coming to see it as more of a race than a game. We have a task and time is running out. We have each been given a finite opportunity here on planet earth to do His bidding on behalf of the downtrodden, to be salt and light, bring hope and love, insist on justice for the oppressed. This is not a game where those who have been brought onto the team can just bask in the glory. We can’t look blankly toward the stands at those who are left out of the game and see only a sea of shapes. We have not been given freedom to ornament and embellish our own jerseys for the glory of the team. Jesus calls us to give our jersey to others, to the weak and disheartened, the lost and the lonely. And like the fish and bread served to five thousand our back will never be short of jerseys to share.

Asaph, psalmist of two millennia ago, describes a similar picture of playmaking in Psalm 82. Here’s the dialogue:

Psalmist narrates: “God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”.

God to team: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.

Psalmist to God: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.”

It’s a rather sharp correction God gives to us, isn’t it? God’s team is not an exclusive Old Boys’ Club. Living in insular security our wealthy and programme-oriented lives is not the play God has called. Players on this team must move off the artificial turf, the falsely smoothed ice, the perfect court of what we have considered our playing field and get into the stands.

Our Defender calls us to defend the weak; our Rescuer’s desire is that we rescue the needy; our Deliverer’s power is for delivering the oppressed. As sons and daughters of the Most High we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of padding our own coffers while there are yet some in this world who could benefit spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially from what we can offer.

How did Jesus live given the context He was born into? How did He practice justice? The record of history tells us His feet stepped out to find the needy. His hands touched the untouchables in healing comfort. His voice spoke words of truth and hope and challenge.

Are we rising to the challenge Asaph records in the Psalm? Are we imitators of Jesus? We have a high calling—let’s answer it.

(Photo Credit: BillyBatty, Wikimedia Commons)