Grace Words

A Daily Bible Reader's Blog

Presented by Mike Tune, Pulpit Minister for the Church of Christ in Falls Church and Amazing Grace International

Waiting

“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Psalm 27:14

Ed Harrell died March 15. For over thirty years he was a distinguished professor of History at the University of Alabama and Auburn University. More importantly (to me), he was a gospel preacher. He wrote the following in Christianity Magazine in 1986 (Vol. 3, #4)

It occurs to me that much of life has to do with waiting.

When I was a teenager, my physician father would pack me off every summer to work on our farm in South Georgia. For three months each year, I did brutal tobacco field labor in one of the most ferocious summer climates in the world. My father was not really trying to teach me a lesson (what I did was a piece of his own life experience), but he did teach me several.

I have often tried to reconstruct my thoughts during the sultry evenings when I lay exhausted on the wooden floors of our farm shanties. I think I was just waiting. I knew the torture that lay ahead in the fields the next day, and week, and month. But I steeled myself to grit it out; I could wait; this would not last forever.

I have waited many times since. I waited while in the Navy and I waited through graduate school. My wife, so she tells me, waited through a series of pregnancies.

All Christians understand that life is a wait. We know that we are “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth (Hebrews 11:13). But too often we forget that we are waiting, thinking rather that we are living. Near the end of his long life, the seventeenth-century Puritan preacher, Increase Mather, received a letter from a friend asking if he was “still in the land of the living.” “No,” he replied, “I am in the land of the dying. I am going to the land of the living.”

If we fail to grasp the transient nature of life, it will throw old age out of perspective. Being old then becomes a discontinuity with the rest of life, instead of being the culmination of our existence. On the other hand, if we know that all of life is waiting, then we come to the end of it more yieldingly.

And so, if you come to visit me when I have become aged and gnarled, and I look upon you with blank and clouded eyes, do not, I ask, regard me with pity or pathos. I shall just be waiting. I have done it before and I am tough enough to do it again. If, by God’s grace, I can still think, I shall have my mind fastened on the object of my long wait. If it is my lot to face the final days without reason, I pray that my body will be so conditioned to waiting that it will do so gently. But, whatever the case, like all waits, this one too will pass and I shall be on my way to what is next.”

Kindness

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . (Colossians 3:12).

Isaac Litton by Phil Ponder.jpg.jpg

Opened in 1930, Isaac Litton was an iconic high school on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. In the course of its 41 year history it was at times a football powerhouse, but was most often known as the home of a 100+ member marching band.  I come across “Litton” grads often in my travels.  My mother attended there.  By the time I came along they had added a Junior High which I attended briefly in the 9th grade. Every graduate I’ve ever talked to spoke glowingly of their time there. My mother treasured her class ring all her life. The school has now been closed for nearly half a century.

Recently, on a social media page devoted to my own high school (Madison) someone wrote asking if anyone had any memorabilia from “Litton” (the schools were rivals but not that far apart). It would seem his grandfather graduated from there in 1955 and he was looking for an Isaac Litton pennant from his grandfather’s time to remember him by.

I was surprised when, in reading the responses, a woman wrote: “Your grandfather was in my class. I was a cheerleader then and I have some things. I will look to see if a pennant is among them. He was a great guy and a special friend.”

Graduating in 1955 would put the woman in her 80’s. She’s kept memorabilia from her high school days because they were precious to her, but she was willing to share her treasure with someone she didn’t know.

I thought: “That’s a kindness. To give something you value to bless the life of another.” It’s what God did. It’s what Jesus did. And while anyone can show a kindness, kindness is a necessary identifying marker of a follower of Jesus.

Azazel

And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel (Leviticus 16:8).

The tenth day of the seventh month of Israel’s year was the “Day of Atonement.” On that day, and that day alone, the High Priest of Israel would sacrifice a bull for his own sins and a goat for the sins of the people. The blood of both sacrifices would be brought into the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle and sprinkled before the Lord. Then, he would take another goat (the one for “Azazel”), place his hands on it and confess the sins of the people. That goat would then be let go into the wilderness. This was the imagery: one goat paid the price for sin. The other took the sins away when he was let loose..

Most modern translations call this latter goat the one for “Azazel.” The problem is, we don’t know what “Azazel” was. Since we don’t really know the meaning of the word, modern translators leave it alone – you have a Hebrew word expressed in English letters. But if you look in older translations, you’ll see it translated “scapegoat.”

A scapegoat is one who bears another’s blame. Regardless of the meaning of “Azazel,” that’s really what the goat was.

When you come to the New Testament, Jesus is both goats. It is his own blood that paid the price for our sins (the atonement – Hebrews 2:17) and it is he who bears our sins outside the camp (Hebrews 13:11-14). He is our Azazel. He is our “scapegoat.”
Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood.
Sealed my pardon with His blood
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

The God Who Saves

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

The gods of antiquity had little feeling for mankind. They were considered powerful, and possibly helpful — but getting their aid was another story (more dependent on buying it, or cajoling them into helping, than on their natural compassion and feeling for humankind). If the gods were angry with you, you needed a way to soothe their temper.

You could try to court their favor with a sacrifice. It might work.

But Christianity turned all that around.

In the first place, the God of scripture always felt the same toward mankind. He never changed. He always loved humanity. Though sin made God angry, and might distance humans from the Lord, it did not separate them from His love. It only affected the way he acted toward them.

Ancient people would have searched for an appropriate sacrifice to somehow calm God’s wrath. But there was no sacrifice that would work – and that brings us to the second difference between Christianity and the religions of the ancient world: our Lord solved the problem Himself. John Stott once put it like this: “God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it Himself in His own son when he took our place and died for us.”

In his book, Search for Salvation David Wells puts it this way: “Man is alienated from God by sin and God is alienated from man by wrath. It is in the substitutionary death of Christ that sin is overcome and wrath averted so that God can look on man without displeasure and man can look on God without fear.”

The Straight(er) Path

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).

My first attempt at plumbing was a disaster. What my father-in-law assured me was an easy thirty-minute job (installing a garbage disposal) took all day – and several trips to the plumbing supply house and untold frustration. The reason he thought it was an easy thirty-minute job was that he had already done it – several times over the years – and knew how and what to expect. I knew neither.

It wasn’t just Roy’s personal experience that made the task seem easy. He also had a good teacher. As a young man Roy undertook to build a house. When it came to plumbing (something he knew nothing about at the time), his wife’s uncle (an experienced plumber) came and spent a week helping him. Without that help, the house might never have been finished.

The wise person recognizes his (her) limitations and brings in help. When it comes to the affairs of life, Solomon wrote that wisdom (knowledge that comes from experience) begins with consulting God. In fact, the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs begins and ends with the note that wisdom starts with God. And in the New Testament, James wrote: “If you lack wisdom, ask God.”

What does all this have to do with plumbing? Perhaps nothing. On the other hand, prayer that God might open my eyes to my own limitations would have been a good idea. Prayer that God might make me humble enough to ask for direction and help couldn’t hurt either, followed up with prayer that God might give me a receptive heart to instruction.

The result might have been a thirty minute job rather than one that took all day. Or, in the words of Solomon, a straighter path.

Disciple: Traveler or Tourist?

[Paul and Barnabas] preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. (Acts 14:21-22)

Do you know the difference between a traveler and a tourist? In his book Your Church Is Too Safe Mark Buchanan notes that a traveler literally means “one who travails.” He labors, suffers, endures. A traveler immerses himself in a culture, learns the language and customs, lives with the locals, imitates the dress, eats what’s set before him. He takes risks, some enormous, and makes sacrifices, some extravagant. He has tight scrapes and narrow escapes. He is gone a long time. If he ever returns, he returns forever altered.

A tourist – not so. Tourist means, literally, “one who goes in circles.” He’s just taking an exotic detour home, He’s only passing through, sampling wares, acquiring souvenirs. He tastes more than eats what’s put before him. He retreats each night to what’s safe and familiar. He spectates and consumes. He returns to where he’s come from with an album of photos, a few mementos, a cheap hat. He’s happy to be back. He declares there’s no place like home.

As a disciple of Christ, are you a traveler or a tourist? The tourist samples the Christian life, but is not changed by it – always returning to what is familiar and comfortable. The “travailer” disciple knows he’s never been home yet. The “travailer” (in Buchanan’s words) “loses her life in order to find it. She steeps in the language and culture of Christ until his word and his world reshape hers, redefines hers, changes inside and out how she sees, and thinks, and dreams and finally, lives . . . ”

All that can be more than a bit uncomfortable of course – painful even – yet, remembering the words of Paul and Barnabas, it is absolutely necessary to discipleship.

Self Control

As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” (Acts 24:25)

Antonius Felix was a horrid fellow. He served as a slave to Antonia, Emperor Claudius’ mother, until she freed him as an adult. His brother, Pallas, helped him find a job and Felix determined from that point forward to make up for every slight, deprivation, and poverty he’d ever experienced. Eventually, he became governor of Judea and his uncontrolled passion led him to steal another man’s wife. The Roman historian Tacitus described him as “a master of cruelty and lust who exercised the powers of a king in the spirit of a slave.”

Paul was tried before Felix about 58AD. It didn’t go well. Though Felix liked to hear Paul speak, he didn’t like his message which involved repeated urgeings to “self-control” and warnings of God’s judgement.

Self-control is an important but often overlooked theme in the New Testament. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into “strict training.” The “strict training” is that “self-control” theme.

“Self-control,” the effort to discipline oneself is one of the fruit of the Spirit.
Learning and practicing self-control is an important discipline of life. A study by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that “kids who scored low on assessments of self-control as toddlers were more likely to have adult difficulties including health problems, alcohol and drug dependence, financial problems and a criminal record.” Self-control, doing, on our own, what we need to do or what we must do rather than what we want to do or what is easiest to do, is critical to successful living – and equally important in our relationship with God.

Effective Evangelism

In his book A Concise History of Christian World Mission Herbert Kane writes: Although [Jesus’] untimely death at the age of 33 sent his disciples into confusion, His resurrection on the third day revived their Messianic hope, rejuvenated their flagging spirits, and sent them out to win the world. Their task was formidable. Their chances of success? Almost nil. They had no central organization, no financial resources, no influential friends, no political machine. Arrayed against them was the ecclesiastical power of the Sanhedrin, the political and military power of the Roman Empire, and the religious fanaticism of the Jews. Moreover, their leader, whose life and teachings were to constitute their message, was unknown outside his small circle of friends. He had written no books, erected no monuments, endowed no institutions. The task looked hopeless.

And yet . . .

Within five hundred years, Christianity had dislodged classical paganism and had become the dominant faith of Western civilization, the established religion of the Western world.

How?

Not by developing central organizations, raising large amounts of capital, or courting favor in the halls of political power. In fact, for most of those years the Christian faith faced opposition and persecution.

What did work, and what still cannot help but work, was individual Christ followers living the message of Jesus and sharing it with their friends. That was, and is, the secret to growth. It’s what Luke tells us. Despite great persecution, Christ followers did not shrink from Christ’s commission, but scattered and spoke the word of the Lord everywhere they went. The Lord’s hand was with them and “a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21).

When the people of God engage the will of God, the power of God will guarantee success in the work of God – no matter and despite whatever else is going on in the world.

Daily Bible Reading

I mentioned previously the book Unto A Good Land: A History of the American People. Written by six American historians  the book is massive — a little over twelve hundred copy-paper sized pages. It’s too big and heavy to hold on my lap, so I read with it open on my desk. When I began, I found myself taking copious notes. There was so much I didn’t know! I needed to keep track.

But at that rate, a little each day at lunch, I’d never finish. Perhaps, I thought, I should just read. Absorb as much as possible, and then read it again – or read another book covering the same ground. The idea was to improve my over-all understanding of American history.

For a similar reason I encourage you to read the Bible through every year. Wouldn’t it be better to just pick a book of the Bible and read it several times, or spend your time in a detailed study of a small section?

There is a place for both of those efforts. But unless you are able to seat your study in the entirety of the text, you’ll probably go off course. You can’t be a “specialist” without first being a “generalist.” The history of anything is inseparably connected to the history of everything, and every book of the Bible is connected to the whole.

We are coming to the end of 2020.  If you didn’t read the Bible through this year, or tried but fell off the wagon, determine to pick it up and begin anew. Four chapters a day will get you through by the end of 2021.  Give it a whirl. A year from now you will have developed a habit that will expose you to everything God has revealed. And if you don’t get it all the first go round, you’ll get more the second.

By the way . . . I finished Unto A Good Land this week.  Six to ten pages a day got me through, and I learned a lot.  Set a goal, lay a plan to accomplish it, and don’t let anything get in your way.

Effective Witness

In their book, Unto A Good Land, five noted history professors tell the story of our nation taking into particular account the influence of religion on our history. The early explorers were Spanish and Portugese and while trade and riches were motivating factors in their efforts, mission work was also on their minds. Columbus claimed to be God’s “messenger of the new heaven and the new earth.”

But the methods of such early explorers as Cortes, Vasquez de Coronado, and Don Juan Onate were a far cry from what Jesus had in mind with the Great Commission. Cortes, for example, forced the Indians to give up their idols and embrace Christianity, giving captured women to his captains but requiring them to be baptized before marriage or cohabitation. Natives were often treated with such little regard by their conquerors that one observant missionary complained “we cannot preach the gospel now.”

Effective witness begins not with a message, but with personal presentation and treatment of others. I remember seeing a 1946 photo of fifteen Dr. Pepper salesmen in crisp uniforms gathered for a 7 am sales meeting. A blackboard was filled with daily reminders but to one side was a poster with these words at the bottom: “Every member of an organization who in any capacity comes into contact with the public is a salesman, and the impression he makes is an advertisement, good or bad.”

The apostle Paul wrote that God’s ambassadors should set an example for others by doing good so that God’s name might not be slandered and that the teaching about God our Savior might be attractive.

You can force people to embrace a religion. The early explorers did it. But you cannot force people to have faith. Cultivating faith in others through example, mentoring and teaching is really what the Great Commission is all about.