Father of Us All

Abraham Stars

Genesis 17:3-5 “Abram fell facedown and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.’”

Abram’s original name means “exalted father.” Maybe even he saw the irony in it. It took 86 years for him to become any kind of father at all. The birth of his son Ishmael by a woman to whom he was not married made him a dad. But even then he had not become the father of the son God promised.

Now God gave him a new name. It was a name that did more than confirm the past promises. It expanded them. In the past the Lord had promised, “I will make you into a great nation.” “I will make your name great.” “A son coming from your own body will be your heir.”

Now he adds, “You will be the father of many nations.” So Abram’s new name “Abraham” means “the father of many.” His son Ishmael became the father of the Arab peoples. Through Isaac, his first truly legitimate son, the nation of Israel descends. After the death of Sarai, Abraham would marry Keturah, and among her descendants was the nation later known in Scripture as Midian.

But the expanded promise embraces a larger nation than these. In Romans chapter 4 the Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore the promise (of God declaring us righteous by faith in Jesus) comes by faith so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed…”

I don’t have a drop of Jewish blood in me, so far as I know. Whether you do or whether you don’t, we are spiritual descendants of Abraham, because we share his faith. We are part of the fulfillment of the promise, “…your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” The promise embraces the whole Christian Church.

For you and me, the name Abraham promises that God had his sights set on making us his children by faith already 4100 years ago. Abraham waited 25 years for the son God promised to him. The Lord waited thousands and thousands of years to make you his child by faith in Jesus. If your faith is failing, that’s a little gospel gem to prop it up, a gospel truth hidden for us in the name of Abraham, the father of us all.

El Shaddai

God the Father

Genesis 17:1 “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.’”

In the Hebrew, “God Almighty” is “El Shaddai.” You may be familiar with it already. The names by which our Lord chooses to identify himself are always meaningful. This one is no exception. It tells us that there are no limits to what our God can do. He never overextends himself on his promises, like the person who was a little too optimistic and took on more credit card debt than he will ever be able to pay. God will never have to declare bankruptcy on his promises because he is “God Almighty.” No matter how much he promises, no matter how impossible those promises appear to keep, he is always good for the whole thing.

That name offered Abram a needed rebuke. El Shaddai’s next words to him were “walk before me and be blameless.” “Blameless” did not mean that God expected Abram never to sin again. It did confront Abram’s present sin. At the root of the Hebrew word behind “blameless” is a command to be “whole,” or “complete.” In essence, God was telling Abram to live his whole life trusting in God’s promises, faithful to God’s word. He was not to waver between trust and mistrust. He was not to look for his needs in other sources besides the Lord. He and Sarai had done just that when they concocted a plan to use Hagar as a surrogate mother. They were going to help the Lord give them a son. El Shaddai, God Almighty, didn’t need human help to keep the promises he had made.

More than a rebuke, however, God used the name El Shaddai to bolster Abram’s failing faith. “I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers” (Genesis 17:2). The covenant had already been made: a son, more descendants than the stars in the sky, a blessing for the nations. Now God came to confirm it. He wants Abram to know that he has both the power and the intention of keeping his promise.

God has a name, he has many names, to help us when our faith is failing. Are we ever tempted with this thought? “Maybe God can’t. Maybe I need to take matters into my own hands.” No, he is still El Shaddai, God Almighty. He needs no help from us to make his promises come true. Salvation history shows him humbling powerful nations, dividing large bodies of water, even stopping the earth’s rotation. He made sure that, when the time was right, he could clothe himself in a little baby’s body, enter our world in an unknown little family, and save us from our sins. El Shaddai has the power to do all of that. He will not come up short on giving us this day our daily bread, or helping us through the temptation of the moment.

For New Testament believers, God has revealed another name even more vital for our failing faith. Jesus (Ye’shua in Hebrew) means, “The Lord saves.” His name is a sermon, not so much on God’s power, but on God’s love. It promises us that Abram’s greatest descendant is the same God who became one of us, died for our sin, and rose from the dead. John Newton’s hymn sings, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away all fear.” More than any other, “Jesus” is the name God has given to inspire our faith when it is failing.

More than Sacrifice

tombstone crosses

1 Corinthians 13:3 “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Natural disasters often remind us how urgently our charity is needed. Our aid makes a difference for those who receive it. For some it becomes, literally, a matter of life and death. Can it reach those who need it in time to prevent starvation and disease?

But what about our reasons for giving it? Are we just buying off a guilty conscience? Henry Drummond once commented, “We purchase relief from the sympathetic feelings roused by the spectacle of misery, at the copper (coin)’s cost. It is too cheap–too cheap for us, and often too dear for the beggar. If we really loved him we would either do more for him, or less” (less if our gift only reinforces some bad habits that got him into this situation in the first place).

Or might we be purchasing the praise of others, like the Pharisees once did? Jesus warns, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

What if we give, not just our last penny, but our very lives for the gospel, or to rescue someone from earthly peril? Even the ultimate sacrifice can be driven by false motives. You don’t have to be an Islamic suicide bomber for that to be true. An overdeveloped sense of duty, dreams of glory, visions of being declared a hero, the prospect of occupying a prominent and respected place in the annals of history, the idea that long into the future people will be telling stories about you and your courage and your sacrifice–all these have inspired people to let go of life itself for a cause, to save others, even to promote the gospel. Still, if I “have not love, I gain nothing.”

Nothing! Love is more than all of these and everything else we might do. Everything of value hinges on it. First our Salvation–that God loves us so much he chose not to condemn us but to forgive our sins. He loves us so much that he gave his Son, and his blood, and new life, and a place in his family, and a place in heaven.

And second, our entire life of response– not that we do what we do for ourselves, but that we love, that we freely, with no thought of personal gain, live to serve each other and bring glory to God. That is why we are still here. With salvation secured and eternal life as a free gift, love is all there is left for us to do.

Nothing Without Love

Talk tin can

1 Corinthians 13:2 “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

If we are looking at gifts apart from the motivation behind their use, then the Apostle Paul ranked prophecy, and teaching, and the knowledge behind them ahead of speaking in tongues. In the next chapter Paul simply says, “He who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues” (14:5). The reason? “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” It served more people–the whole church– to speak God’s message in a language everyone could understand.

So the church has always valued the kind of people Paul describes here: Leaders who are at home in God’s Word–they can “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge.” They have the speaking gifts to deliver what they know, a gift for prophecy. And because faith comes from hearing the message, their own faith is strong, and so is that of those who hear them–a faith that is ready to do great things.

Or so it seems. But what good is all their knowledge when there is no love: when all that knowledge and all that rhetoric and all that seeming faith to tackle the big challenges facing the church is really focused on the leader? Earlier in this book Paul told the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Without love, all that knowledge and preaching and confidence can come across as arrogance. It becomes a roadblock for the gospel. As someone has said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Still worse, when such gifted leaders succeed in taking people under their spell, they develop a “cult of the personality.” Everyone gives lip service to the idea, “We are all about following Jesus,” when the truth is “We are all about following Pastor Bob.”

If we have such a deep knowledge of God’s word and its mysteries, and the talent to deliver it, and the faith to act on it, but don’t have love? “I am nothing.” Only God himself knows how many great scholars, and great preachers, have ended up lost because they became so full of themselves they no longer had any room for the Holy Spirit.

The Bible praises things like knowledge and preaching. They bring people God’s grace, and faith, and life. But we still need love to use them well and be blessed for ourselves.

The Most Excellent Way

Heart rustic

1 Corinthians 13:1 “And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

The Holy Spirit gave some of the people in Corinth the ability to speak in different languages. This “speaking in tongues” was miraculous, not natural. It became a coveted gift on which many of the Corinthians put a higher value than was warranted.

When some of these people used this ability in their worship services, it drew attention to them. It set them apart. Though many could not understand what they were saying, all understand that God had given them a miraculous gift. Those who could do it were proud of their ability. Those who could not envied them.

We face similar temptations when someone is gifted with an unusually beautiful singing voice, or an unusually eloquent way of speaking. They are a pleasure to listen to. Not everyone can do these things. When those who can use their gifts, it draws attention.

Paul did not tell these people to stop using their gift. But living the Christian life is more than the miracle of speaking in tongues. Love, he says is the most excellent way. Without it, we have a problem. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” The gift is valuable only if love is driving it.

In this same chapter Paul defines love for us. Those are the words from 1 Corinthians 13 we know best. They have been read and preached at a million weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud,” and so on. Without looking at each word in detail, we might summarize this way: “Love is not concerned with self. Questions like ‘What about me?’ or ‘What about my rights?’ or ‘Don’t I matter?’ or ‘How come I can’t have what I want?’ don’t even occur to love. Love has one thing in mind: “What will serve others? What will do the most good?” That’s not the same thing as “What will make them happy? How can I give them what they want?” Love is concerned with what benefits the people around me, even if that makes them stop liking me.

This kind of love is best illustrated by Jesus’ saving love for us. Jesus’ tongue had miracle-working powers. His words once called the universe into existence. They called the dead back to life. They tamed storms and drove out demons and healed diseases.  Jesus’ miracles often brought him attention from the crowds. But our Savior was no publicity hound. He did not covet large crowds to admire him for his special abilities. He downplayed the miracles. He told people to stop talking about them. At times he avoided the crowds who kept coming to see another miracle.

Jesus loved them, as he loves us. His interest in doing miracles was only to end their suffering, and open up the door for people to see that he could do something much greater for them. So he took the blame for the great crimes and petty sins we have committed. He shouldered the guilt for the sins of the world. He allowed the misguided authorities of his day to deprive him of his freedom, his dignity, justice, and, ultimately, his life on the cross. There was no “What about me or my rights? Don’t I matter?” Why? He loved us, and this was the only way to secure forgiveness for our sins and save us from hell. John later writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

When that kind of love was combined with the miraculous ability to speak in other languages by the people of Corinth, when it is still combined with a voice that sings sweetly or speaks eloquently, God’s people are served. One who can speak in another language uses it to evangelize those who speak it naturally. Those who sing do so to glorify God, not themselves. The gospel, the saving Word of God, is delivered to hearts and minds in a way people can understand and will remember. Jesus becomes greater. We, the messengers, become less. Faith grows. Salvation spreads. More than miracles, love is the most excellent way.

But when I have not love? “I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” When all I do is draw attention to myself, it’s just noise. No one is served. Silence would be preferable. Love, the most excellent way, makes all the difference.

Fear?

Crown Jeweled

Luke 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Jesus calls us a little flock. That suggests we suffer from a certain poverty. Jesus’ little group of disciples and followers seemed like an insignificant number of people compared to the vast world population. Do we feel the same? Even where churches are growing Christians are in the minority.

Nor are sheep the most powerful or assertive animals in the world. They aren’t the roaring lions or crafty foxes of the animal kingdom. They are vulnerable, dependent, and defenseless. As Jesus’ little flock of sheep, we perceive the same weaknesses in ourselves. We are vulnerable. Perhaps the year just past has exposed more of our personal vulnerabilities than we care to think about: health concerns, family struggles, financial worries. We are at the mercy of the changing world around us. Political uncertainties upset us. Uncontrollable forces of nature threaten us.

Our status as Jesus’ little flock, his command that we not be afraid, suggest that there is an issue of trust with which we must struggle. In the context Jesus was speaking these words to his disciples. He knew that it was easy for them to worry about their earthly supply. He had taught them that God considered them incomparably more dear than the rest of his creation, things like birds or flowers. Despite this knowledge, they still found it difficult to be certain he would take care of them.

Our sin-sickened senses share the same fears. We withhold our trust. We base our conclusions on what we can see with our eyes instead of what God promises to our hearts. We may object that our fears are defensible, even sensible, but our lack of trust still calls for repentance.

Then Jesus leads us to look in the right direction to build that trust up again. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Look at what we have! Even before we look at the gift, look at the Giver! We have a Father who is pleased to give us things. It makes him happy to see us open his gifts. At Christmas you watched as your child or friend opened a gift you know they wanted. You saw their surprise and joy, their gasp or squeal, and it gave you a deep feeling of satisfaction.

The difference is that our Father is pleased to give us his gifts even when we look inside the box and we don’t get it right away. We may react with a disappointed, “oh.” That doesn’t stop him. He keeps on giving generously. He keeps on being happy to do so.

Then there is the obvious difference in value. One Christmas a brand new car appeared in my neighbor’s yard with a great big bow attached to the top, just like you see on TV. That is a worthless trinket compared to the gifts our Father gives. He is God, and his gifts literally cost him everything. God gives us himself, and the Lord of Lords and King of Kings becomes our Servant. God gives us his Son. He sacrifices the most precious life to save us from sin, and he doesn’t resent the cost. He is only happy to give it.

That leads to the gift Jesus promises here. He says our Father has been pleased to give you and me the kingdom! Now don’t we look silly worrying about something to eat or something to wear or how we are going to pay for things. We worry about plastic beads when all this time we have been holding gold and diamonds in our hands.

Remember the musical “Little Orphan Annie?” It’s a bit schmaltzy, but it plays like a modern day fairy-tale: poor little orphan gets adopted by lonely, rich industrialist and they live happily ever after. Our real story is more amazing. It is more than rags to riches. The Lord of the universe has snatched us from death, cleansed us from sin, adopted us and made us the children of God. He has given us his kingdom as our very own. What, then, is left for us to fear?

Born Again

newborn

1 Peter 1:23 “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”

God has some important things for us to understand when he illustrates our coming to faith as being born again. It illustrates our helplessness. You have known people whose pregnancies were filled with uncertainty about the baby’s health. Think of how weak, how frail, and how dependent that little baby is before it is born. It didn’t produce its own life. It simply received life from its parents. It doesn’t choose the day of its birth. When the time is right, mom’s body gives it birth.

There are many parallels with our spiritual life. Because of sin, we are helpless on our own, totally dependent on God. We have no spiritual life until we receive it from our heavenly Father. Before that we are a dead thing. People without Christ are not just spiritually confused or spiritually weak. They are spiritually dead. That was true of each of us. It still is true of our own sinful natures. Since we must be born again, we are utterly dependent on God. He alone can give us spiritual life.

But the really important thing to appreciate is that he does give us spiritual life. We have been born again. Peter reminds us just a few verses earlier, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as gold or silver that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” We live life with faith in forgiveness. God has made our hearts the Holy Spirit’s home. God gives us a new life, a life producing love.

Peter tells us that God has given us this new life through the living and enduring word of God. This word of God is a living word. It has a life of its own. Though you don’t detect a literal heartbeat, though you can’t hear it breathing, the word is alive and active and accomplishes great things. Its heartbeat is the overwhelming love God has given us in Jesus’ life lived and given for us. Its breath is the breath of the Holy Spirit himself. Like a good germ this message of love invades our souls and transforms our minds with the Holy Spirit’s power. It drives out doubt and despair. It teaches us to trust God and know he will take care of us. It overpowers sin and creates a heart that enjoys doing what is good. It is more fully alive than anything else we will ever know.

This word of God is also an enduring word. Peter illustrates this in the words of Isaiah, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” We are all like grass and flowers. We are flimsy and frail. Our health fades with each passing year.

Like grass and flowers, our glory is fading and shallow. Flowers look nice for a while, but their beauty doesn’t really change anything. Then they die. No one will remember our accomplishments a generation from now. How we looked and what we did last year is already a mere memory. The Apostle James once summed it up: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

But the word of the Lord stands forever. Long before our time the word of God was there, the same word we know today. Long after we are gone, the word will still stand unchanging. It will still be comforting, supporting, empowering. It will give birth to new life in new generations.

Our new birth is no more our own accomplishment than the first one was. God’s word is the womb in which he has given new life to our souls.

Finding Jesus

constellation-1851128_1280

Matthew 2:1-2 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”

We could spend a long time discussing s what this star really was. It has become one of the chief symbols of Christmas. Some believe God made use of a natural occurrence in the sky: a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter in 7 B.C. Some believe the description of the star’s movement so defies anything we see in the heavens that God must have provided some other kind of light in the sky miraculously. I strongly lean that way myself. But even if we were able to settle the debate definitively, what would we do with the information?

This much we can say without debate: God was at work behind the things the wise men saw and experienced. He was even using it to guide them in a certain direction. But the things they saw and experienced in life could only get them so far. They could not lead them all the way to Christ. For that they needed something more.

It is the same for us. The last two times my family and I moved, we looked at lots of houses. Neither time did we get the house that was our first choice. I’m not saying that what we got was worse. In each case it was far better. But why? Why didn’t we get the home we wanted first? We have a sense that God is guiding these kinds of things. When my friend had her car break down several years ago, she ended up in a car dealership sitting next to a member of my congregation in Dallas. When her car broke down, she could not have known God would use it to get her back into church. But just meeting the man from our church didn’t bring her back to Jesus all by itself.

My point is this: We trust that God is guiding and directing the story of our lives. The things we see and experience come from him. Sometimes we have an idea of where he is leading. But we are never certain what he is doing based on experience alone. We can’t fill in all the blanks. By itself, “Life” never leads us all the way to Christ.

None of us would be worshiping Jesus as our King if it weren’t for our true guide: “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: But you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

The star could tell the Magi a king had been born among the Jews. God’s own word, revealed through the prophet Micah, could tell them who and what he was, and where he would be born. The prophecy promises a King from Bethlehem, a good ruler who would take care of God’s people like a Good Shepherd. A Shepherd doesn’t just rule the sheep and tell them what to do. He takes care of them. He feeds them. He even lays his life down to protect them. A little further into the prophecy than Matthew takes us, we learn that this King, has origins before time. In other words, he is no ordinary human being. He is timeless. He is your God.

Micah’s words, then, guide the Magi to know the King himself. God’s Word is still the true guide leading us to Jesus. The Apostle Paul once wrote, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (That is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ (That is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming.” Do you want to find Jesus? You don’t have to haul him out of heaven or dig up his grave (you know that’s empty anyway). Just listen to the Word of God that is preached to you, because that’s where Jesus still promises to be found.

And what do we find when we come looking? He is more than an interesting historical character to study. He provides more than wholesome entertainment to distract. Finding him isn’t primarily about finding healing or inspiration, or saving our marriage, or getting control of our drinking problem, though he can do all those things for us, too.

But when God’s word is our guide we find the one who forgives our sins, who came to save us from sin and death. That is why we also come to worship him.

It’s A Meaningful Life

Elderly Woman

Luke 2:36-38 “There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then she was a widow until she was eighty four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them (Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus) at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel”

Anna was a senior citizen. The Bible considers long life a blessing, but old age brings its own set of burdens. Years of wear and tear on the body take their toll. I remember my grandfather going to the doctor because of joint pain when he was in his 70’s. The doctor told him: “Marvin, you’ve worked hard all your life. You are simply worn out at the seams.” At some point in time you start to realize that the other members of your generation are disappearing. Loneliness becomes more common.

We don’t know how Anna felt about her age. We do know that more serious hardships were a feature of her youth. She was widowed after only seven years of marriage. She may have buried her first and only husband in her twenties. Did she see herself a widow so soon? Was this what she expected her family life to be?

For Anna, widowhood brought another struggle. There was no regular employment for women living in First-Century Israel. The law of Moses provided some kind of welfare for widows and orphans, but having enough to eat could be a daily struggle.

We see nothing to criticize about Anna as she fought through life’s hardships. But for ourselves, we need to understand the temptations that go along with a life that falls far short of our hopes and expectations. These can be spiritually deadening.

A cultivated sense of bitterness can make us very unpleasant people to be around. Worse yet, it flies in the face of God’s word: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It is hard to place trust in God, or feel love for him, while we are busy being bitter about our burdens.

Another dangerous trap is self-pity. It is a waste of our time and energy to spend them in endless reruns of how hard our life has become. Like bitterness, focusing on self erodes our faith, chokes our love for others, and opens the door to other sins.

Anna didn’t spend her long years of widowhood sulking. She spent them in worship. Every day found her at the temple until as late in the evening as they would let her stay.

Who really benefits when we spend time in God’s service at worship? Does the Lord need anything from us? He is not, as Phil Donahue once suggested, “An egomaniac who constantly needs to be adored.” Worship benefits us. It keeps us in touch with what matters: We have a God who loves us so much he made himself our Savior. He let himself be tortured to death to free us from sin and deliver us from death. Our lives are meaningful because Jesus considered them meaningful enough to redeem them for himself.

There is another place in God’s service that Jesus makes our life meaningful. That is in our life of witness. “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel.” Redemption is one of those loaded words we hardly think about. It speaks about a price paid to set us free. Anna recognized Jesus as our Redeemer–the one who would pay the price, the Lamb of Sacrifice who sets us free from sin’s guilt and power. Straight from her heart Anna gave her little witness to all who would listen. This baby is redemption sent from God. He pays the price to take our sins away.

What would make your life meaningful? Inventing a cure for cancer? Making a billion dollars? Feeding people in a third world country? What about sharing the love of Jesus with your own children? What about helping a friend to know Jesus as his Savior? What about being part of an effort to send missionaries to people who haven’t heard the gospel before? When we serve God by spreading the good news of redemption to others, we are making an eternal difference in their lives. And our own words about Christ and cross and sins forgiven come back to feed our own faith as well.

Your life is meaningful, child of God. Jesus makes it that way.