Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Order of Worship

We're bouncing off a text in the Gospel of Luke where even the ancient Jews knew when church ran too long - when Zechariah did not come out of the Most Holy Place on time. 

See, as the priest chosen by lot that year, his job was to go into the Temple and burn the incense and offer the prayer that would cover God's people until another lot would be cast the next year. This was a ritual that the people understood, and they knew exactly how it should go. 

It's interesting to think about what the people must have been thinking when Zechariah didn't come out on time. The truth is that they were probably worried about something having gone wrong, something either unworthy in Zechariah himself or the incense or the prayer. Remember all those folks in the Old Testament who offered unlicensed incense to God and died for it? The people were probably thinking Zechariah died in the Most Holy Place.

They were probably trying to figure out how they were going to get his body out of the Most Holy Place. No one else could go in for a whole year. Anyone who tried to even reach in to grab Zechariah's ankle and try to pull him out was going to die themselves; they knew that for sure. But they can't just leave the guy in there for a year, either. The smell...would not be pleasing to the Lord. 

What we know is that they were not out in the courtyard thinking that something holy was happening in there. That thought didn't cross their minds at all. 

Because it's not until Zechariah comes out and cannot speak to them that they seem to realize that something happened in there. Something holy. It's not until it's clear to them that he has seen a vision that they seem to even consider the possibility that he has seen a vision. 

Think about that for a minute. The people of God did not even seem to consider that the reason church was taking so long is because God showed up. 

Ouch. 

We, too, are prone to think just about everything except that. We are prone to pick apart the Sunday service when it runs too long. The praise team shouldn't have played that extra chorus. The guy giving the prayer rambled on too long. The pastor shouldn't have told that story - even though it was a good story. And who gave that woman the microphone? Didn't they know she was going to tell her own life story? We even pick apart the time "wasted" on technical malfunctions - trying to line up the slides, finding a lost slide, fixing a staticky microphone, finding the right light dimmer, etc. 

What we often don't consider is that...maybe God was there. Maybe God, not human error, orchestrated your church service to run that long. Maybe God was speaking something that you didn't hear because you were too busy listening to the clock tick. Maybe God was speaking something that someone else desperately needed to hear - and she didn't even notice how long church was taking. 

Maybe God doesn't care if you beat the Methodists to Wendy's.

It seems so strange to me that the people of God seem to be the last ones to consider that God might actually show up. That our minds go to a thousand other possibilities first. That we get so worried, and so upset, when things aren't going the way we think they should. After all, we plan the order of worship, don't we? We know how church should work. 

Or do we? 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Sunday Lunch

One of my former pastors used to make a joke about how he would keep his sermon short and sweet, so we could "beat the Methodists to Wendy's." It's funny, sure, but humor always contains a bit of truth. 

You'd think this is a new problem, in a newly hectic world - that Christians today are so time-obsessed that we're the first ones to sit around watching the second hand click away on the clock, thinking about all of the rest of the things we need to do...and what we're going to do next. 

It seems like this would be a fairly new phenomenon. After all, the world was shut down on Sundays until just a generation or so ago. You didn't have to worry about all the things you had to do after church - or beating the Methodists to Wendy's - because there wasn't anything to do on a Sunday and Wendy's wasn't open. Sundays were for church and family dinner and hanging around the house talking with one another. Although I suppose an argument might be made for whoever does the cooking thinking during the sermon about getting that pot on the stove in time, but probably not - we just weren't a people driven by time. No one was looking at their watching thinking, "Gosh, the pot roast better be ready on time." We just weren't like that. 

Except...we've always kind of been like that. 

This struck me last week as my pastor was reading from the Gospel of Luke. At the beginning of the book, Luke tells the story of Zechariah, who was the priest chosen to enter the Most Holy Places that year. You know the story. He goes in to burn the incense, and Gabriel appears to him and tells him all about the baby that is coming for his barren wife, Elizabeth. Gabriel goes into how all of this will happen and Zechariah can hardly believe it all, to the point that he is struck mute until these things come to pass. 

Meanwhile, Luke tells us, the people outside were growing restless because they knew it was taking too long

To put that in modern language, church should have been over by now. 

Zechariah is in the temple, in the Most Holy Place, burning incense, praying, and talking with the angel of the Lord himself, and the people are outside watching the second hand tick away on their watches, tapping their feet, beginning to pace and to worry. The women are starting to put things into their purse; the men are straightening their jackets. They're gonna walk out of this place, even if nobody comes to dismiss them properly. Church is supposed to be over by now. 

There were no Methodists. There was no Wendy's. This was a Sabbath proper in the synagogue - the most sacred of all days. No work was being done. There was nothing to do. There was nowhere to go. And still the people right on the edge of Jesus's day were clock-watching. Still, they knew when church was supposed to be over. Still, they were impatient for the service to end. 

There just seems to be something about us that wants to keep God on a schedule. That wants to keep God on our schedule. There's something about us that always seems to have in the back of our minds all the other things we want to do and all the plans that we have for ourselves.

How funny it is that the very next thing we always seem to have to do is also to be impatient - we have to beat the Methodists to Wendy's because we don't have time to wait in line. Because we don't want to wait in line. 

And maybe you're thinking to yourself right now what a silly post this is. And it is. Kinda. But we're going somewhere with this, somewhere important. So just keep this in the back of your mind as we move forward. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Loving the Lost

If you haven't figured it out by now, the reason that Lot's story - Lot's real story - is so important for us is because so many of us are living Lot's story. So many of us have lives filled with those we love who...just don't believe. We have lived a righteous witness before them. They have seen the blessings of God. They have known of the angels that have come to visit. They have heard the truth of judgment. They can smell the sulfur. And it's just not enough for them. 

Or, in some cases, we have been able to bring them with us a certain distance. They have come to visit our church, maybe even signed up for a small group. They read the Bible we gave them for Christmas a few years ago. At least, they keep it on their coffee table. They are the object of so much of our prayer. And yet, for some reason, they can't stop looking back. They can't take their eyes off the world. 

Lot's daughters, Lot's wife - these are those that we know and love. These are our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our sisters, our daughters, our sons, our neighbors, our friends. And as hard as it is to accept, the truth is that some of them will simply not be saved. 

But hear me on this - if they are not, it will not be our fault. 

We feel some kind of sense of personal failure when someone doesn't come to Christ. Like maybe we are bad at evangelism. Or maybe something in our own witness is broken. If only we were more articulate. Or persuasive. Or faithful. Or righteous. If we invested more time. Or if we performed more acts of service. Certainly, we tell ourselves, there must be something we can do to ensure that those we love most come to understand the saving grace of Jesus and to want that. If they don't, we think it's our fault. We think we just have to try harder. Or do something different. Or do something better.  

Lot loved his daughters. There's not question about that. He loved his wife; we know that for certain. There is no doubt as to the depth or the authenticity of Lot's love for his family. But his daughters were not his; they were their own women, belonging to their husbands and to the world they had chosen. Nor could Lot have blindfolded his wife so that she couldn't choose anything else. 

We don't get to force those we love to love God. We can't. We cannot, in so many cases, break the ties of the world that have hold on them. We cannot break someone else's addiction. We cannot heal their brokenness. We cannot bind their wounds. Jesus can, but if they won't come to Jesus with us.... 

It hurts. It hurts so bad because we know that everything they're looking for, Jesus has for them in spades. And even more than that. It hurts because we believe that if they'd just listen, if they'd just give it a fair hearing, they'd hear what grace sounds like and they'd never turn back. It hurts because we want so badly for those we love to be saved and yet, the truth remains...we can't save them. 

If we could, we wouldn't have needed the Cross. 

That's the double-edged sword of Jesus. He is so good and the promise is so amazing, but if we were capable of getting those we love all the way there, we wouldn't have needed Him in the first place. 

Salvation is, ultimately, a work of God, no matter how righteous or faithful we are. That is true in our own lives, and it is true in the lives of those we love. And the reality is that sometimes, we can do everything we can possibly do - and do it right and do it well - and it just won't be enough. It won't be enough to tear our daughters away from the world, and it won't be enough to keep our wife from looking back, and it won't be enough to save those we love. 

So...what do we do? We...run for the hills with everyone we love who's willing to come with us and we keep our eyes focused on what lies ahead. Maybe they'll see that spark in our eye. Maybe they'll see that hope shimmering. Maybe they'll see how fixed our gaze is and decide they, too, want to look at the horizon and not back at flaming Sodom. 

We continue to live our lives in faith, hoping, praying, longing, and leading and by the grace of God, some of those we love will come with us. They will. 

And those that don't?

Well, God has done even greater things than this, hasn't He? I believe He still can. I believe He still is.  

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Unbelievers

Lot was not able to save at least two of his daughters, who were now so captivated by the world that they could not leave Sodom. Nor was he able to save his wife, whose heart was so tied to her daughters that she could not look forward to the promise but only backward to the curse. And this is a hard pill for us to swallow, especially when we've been thinking for so long that Lot simply took his family - all of his family - and ran for the hills in one of those almost-perfect happy endings (we know, of course, that his wife didn't quite make it, but we blame her for that, though the reality is much more complicated). 

But the truth is that the Bible is full of stories of those who heard, but did not believe. Those who were interested, but not invested. Those who were even certain, but not saved. 

Look at the Old Testament - the nations that Israel came up against always knew they were in big trouble because the God of Israel was a powerful God who was about to destroy them. They knew God's power. They knew His goodness to His people. They knew His presence among them (they could see the smoke and the fire, too, you know). And yet, what we don't see in the Old Testament is a bunch of peoples coming to Israel to ask how they can convert to Judaism and become peoples of this God in whose power and presence they are so convinced. 

Nah, they hang out around their own towns and continue to think that somehow, they're going to defeat Him. Even though they know that they can't. 

For a more specific example of this, look at Jericho. Rahab tells the spies that everyone in town knows about the Lord God of Israel and is scared of what's about to happen, but only Rahab expresses an interest in joining the people of God. Everyone else in Jericho fights to their death and dies under the rubble of their destroyed town. There are many more examples in the Old Testament - for example, look at what Babylon witnessed with Daniel and yet, Babylon did not become a people of God.

Move on into the New Testament, and we see that masses and masses of persons came to hear Jesus speak. They followed Him from town to town. They say on hillsides and ate bread that He broke out of a little boy's lunch. They watched Him give sight to the blind, sound to the deaf, voice to the mute, and to drive out demons. In many cases, they were the blind, the deaf, the mute, and the demon-possessed. We can count a total of at least 9,000 men on hillsides (not including, we're told, the women and the children), and yet - how many were at Calvary? How many came to the tomb? How many went into the synagogues? To the churches? 

At least 9,000 men (plus women and children), and Acts tells us that in the greatest move of the Spirit to date at that time, a mere few thousand were added to their numbers. Christianity itself started small. 

How could it possibly have started so small when the streets were packed and the seas crowded and the crowds pressing in? How could it have started so small when at least 9,000 men (plus women and children) saw the power and love and mercy and goodness of Jesus with their own eyes? 

Simply put, they saw, but they did not believe. They heard, but they did not believe. They had the witness right in front of them, heard the very voice of God and saw His face, and it was not enough for them. 

The hard truth is that there is a majority in this world - a majority - who will hear the testimony of God, who will know everything there is to know about His power, love, mercy and goodness, and who still will not believe. Including many that we ourselves know and love and long to save, those we long to lead to Jesus. There are so many in so many of our lives that we, like Lot, will do everything that we can to save...and it won't be enough. It just...won't be enough. 

One more day on this; stay tuned tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Love and Loss

Lot was a righteous man - so righteous that God sent His angels to save this man from the destruction that was about to come upon this sinful Sodom. But although Lot escaped with his life, he did not escape with his family. Lot left behind at least two daughters, and he lost his life along the way. 

Why? Why did I have to go and tear this story apart and draw out the absolute heartbreak of being Lot? Why did I have to bring down our false understanding that Lot took his family and ran for the hills and started over, happy as a clam? 

Because many of us are living Lot's life. That's why. 

Many of us are living a righteous life in a sinful world. At least, we're trying. We are worshiping God and serving Him and loving our neighbors and raising our kids and doing all of the things that God would ask of us to the best of our abilities, and we are blessed for it. Many of us, because of the blessing of God on our lives and the way He has allowed us to see the world and our lives, see how sinful this world is. We see how much like Sodom is this place in which we live. And we would do anything to save those we love. 

This is the heart of evangelism, isn't it? This is what we're trying to do - get everyone we know to listen to, believe in, and love God the same way that we do. Because we know that doing this will save their lives. 

But the truth is...we can't make them. We can't make someone else listen to God or love Him. Or even believe in Him. We can't make someone else live the way that God wants them to live. 

There are persons in this world that we love deeply...that we will not be able to save. That we will not be able to bring to the Cross so that Jesus can save them. 

Some of them, like Lot's daughters, don't really belong to us any more. They have moved on and gone into new places and have new structures set up around them, new authorities that speak into their lives. Lot's sons-in-law wouldn't listen to him, and because of this, he lost his daughters. The authorities in this world won't listen to you and me and because of that, we will lose some that we love because they live under the authority of the world now. They live with a voice that doesn't listen to ours. 

Some of them, like Lot's wife, will have bonds too strong to sever. We might be able to pull them along for awhile, but at some point, they're going to turn back. They're going to look at what's going on. Their hearts are going to want to know what's happening to things that they hold dear, and that's going to draw them right back to burning Sodom. It is. We can have them by the hand, have led them this far, be oh so close, almost there, and there are some who are going to turn back. 

We, like Lot, will do everything that we can do and sometimes, that's still not going to be enough to save even those that we love the most. 

That's why it's important that we read Lot's story and understand what's really happening here. That's why we have to realize that even this righteous man, which we all strive to be, could not force anyone else to be saved. In some cases, he couldn't even convince them. All of the blessings that he had in all the world and the very presence of the angels of God were not enough evidence even for those who put so much of their trust in him. 

Are you getting this? This is important. In fact, we'll keep talking about this particular point tomorrow.