Again I Will Say, Grumble

Listening to many of us talk, you’d swear that Philippians 4:4 said, “Grumble always before the Lord, again I will say, Grumble.” Church people don’t have a monopoly on whining, but that’s largely because we like to whine so much that we just give it away for free.

Grumbling kicks humility in the shins. The two don’t like each other, though grumbling usually does most of the smack talk. Grumbling prefers to perch above the situation, to take the judges chair, and to pronounce all his unfulfilled expectations about schedules and traffic and disobedient kids and work hours and weather and Bible teachers. Humility doesn’t deny bad things, but humility also knows that bad things aren’t as bad as he deserves.

Grumbling drives away and leaves hope standing alone. Grumbling partners with his pal Unbelief and they love to predict how bad it probably will be. Grumbling pleads the law of uniformity: the same laws and processes that operate in the universe have always operated in the past and will continue to apply everywhere now and in the future. It has been bad, it won’t get any better. Hope sees past the fray by remembering the gospel and the promises of a sovereign God who loves to tell redemption stories.

We cannot fight grumbling with indifference. God does not aim to make us uncomplaining but lethargic onlookers, He aims to make us rejoicers. He implores us to rejoice, not mainly because happy people will live a few more years, but mainly because eternal life is sharing God’s life. He is glad and so He calls us to quit our complaining.

The Same God

Many who love to profess their love of God’s sovereignty struggle to profess their love of God’s love. Perhaps that’s because it is easier to be proud about knowing that He’s sovereign, which is quite an ugly cacophony if you think about it. Nevertheless, if He acts for His own name (and He does), if He seeks His own glory (and He does), then how could He be for us? How can we know He loves us?

Yes, God controls everything. Yes, God punishes those who will not praise His infinite excellencies. But the same God who told us that He is omnipotent also told us that He is love. The creation story reveals God’s love for His image-bearers as He couldn’t wait to show them all He’d made for them. The Incarnation puts love into flesh and bones. The Word came who into the world because He loved the Father and those the Father was giving Him.

How do we know it was done by love? Look at the Lord’s Table. The Son gave His flesh, gave His life so that we who believe might share His life and know His love. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The bread and the cup represent life laid down and that represents love.

God is autonomous; He has no need for others. His glory is untouchable; we cannot steal it away from Him. And yet the Father sent His only Son as a sacrifice to save and secure all those given to Him. Here is love vast as the ocean. Here is life in Jesus. Come to Him and commune with Him and He will raise you up on the last day.

Telephone Poles

We image-bearers are always telling the other image-bearers around us what God is like. If we were likened to a delivery company, we might say that our trucks are always loaded and on the road. There are no weekends off, no holiday breaks. We deliver non-stop information about God even if our trucks regularly run into telephone poles.

In Nehemiah 8:10, Ezra and some of the Levites called Israel to celebrate that “the joy of the LORD is your strength.” They had heard the law read and explained and were weeping with conviction. But it was a holy day for the LORD and they were to rejoice.

Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.

This verse is worth memorizing for multiple reasons, but it is as hard as it is heartening.

It rouses our interest because we hear that something makes us strong. Where does strength originate? Strength comes from theology proper. We are made strong by knowing that our God is holy and joyful. His Triune gladness is indefatigable–never tired, irrepressible–never hopeless, and unmistakably strong like brewing French Roast in a closet. His joy is, it can’t be knocked over.

If the joy of the Lord is our strength, doesn’t that also mean that when we are not strong in Him, when we will not rejoice, we are making Him out to be wearied, sorrowful, or wobbly? Not that He actually is any of those things, but that is the baggage our behavior delivers. When we show up grouchy (at work, at home after work, at the assembly’s worship, etc.) we are not reflecting His gladness. When we don’t show up at all we reflect a reticent joy, a joy that cannot make anyone strong.

This is a reason why worship is so important. We cannot be strong if He is not glad and we will not see His gladness if we do not draw near to Him in Christ. If we do know His joy, then we will be strong and our trucks will stay away from the poles.

If Only

There are many sign seekers today. “If only God would show something miraculous to me, then I would believe. If only He would prove the truth to me, then I would trust Him. If only He would answer all my questions, then I would follow Christ.”

The first problem with sign-seeking is that it makes doubting men those who administer a test that God must take. But God did not enroll in our lab class so that we could grade His performance and believability. He has graciously revealed Himself as the standard, He has not submitted Himself to our standards.

The second problem with sign-seeking is that signs don’t trump the Word. Abraham told the rich man in Hades that “If they (your five brothers) do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” and we must “pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).

The third problem with sign-seeking is that He has already shown Himself. The crowd in Capernaum asked Jesus for another sign after they had already eaten the bread and fish until their bellies were full (John 6:30). We have better; we have the risen Son of God. Jesus died for our sins according to Scripture, was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. We have all the proof we need though it must be received by faith.

As Christians, when we come to the Lord’s Table, we do not come seeking signs. We come, instructed by the Word, to eat and to drink the symbols of His death and life for us. He is the food that endures to eternal life and He offers Himself to all who believe.

Dispensable to Replaceable

Our government continues marching towards a legal redefinition of marriage. Last week our President pandered to the homosexual crowd and offered up his “evolved” support for same sex marriage. I realize that there are many factors that have led our country to this edge and that no one response will counteract it. We must certainly proclaim the gospel, starting with God’s good and righteous standards and then His gracious offer of forgiveness in Christ to all who repent and believe. As Christians, we must speak boldly about judgment on all sin, including homosexuality, and speak humbly as those who deserved His judgment ourselves. Win or lose in the political short term, we must not back down.

We must also love and honor our moms. The move toward naturalizing homosexual marriage is a direct attack against male and female image-bearing as well as a strike at the family at the centralizing unit of society. As I said, there are a variety of problems that got us here but one clear failure is the dishonoring of wives and moms in the home. Dads have provided the model of neglect and allowed their kids to pay little attention as well. The heads of houses have neglected to train the household to give thanks for moms. Children reach a certain level where mom becomes dispensable. If mom is dispensable, certainly her role can be redefined and she can be replaced by anyone.

Conservative Christians have left the door wide open for unbelievers, not because we have compromised our paperwork, but because we’ve shown no reason to appreciate moms. The church is responsible to lead the way in showing honor to whom honor is due and instead we’ve taught the culture that giving flowers and cards on one Sunday a year is enough.

Broken Glass

*One Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 2000 I arrived at my basement office in the student ministries department at Grace Community Church. I had recently taken the reigns as the Junior High Pastor and one of the students, desiring to encourage me, gifted me with a chilled Mocha Frappuccino bottle from Starbucks. I talked a lot about Starbucks in those days, especially my affection for venti caramel macchiatos. A friend of mine, Doug Main, the previous Junior High Pastor, discipled me in the ways and I followed the calorie laden path.

I assume that “Starbucks” is all that this well-intending Junior High guy heard me say, so anything with a Starbucks sticker on it applied. His gift was as thoughtful as it was inattentive.

Not one to let good deeds go unrewarded, I paraded my gift and the giver in front of all the students and staff at the beginning of that night’s meeting. I think I said something such as, “Look how much this guy loves me!” I expressed my public gratitude and we moved on.

I had never consumed a bottled frappuccino before. I had no idea if it was tasty. I simply appreciated the present. Later that night when I drank it down, I decided that it was good but not so good that I needed to purchase more for myself. As it turns out I didn’t have to.

Over the next year and a half, for holidays and birthdays and miscellaneous occasions of “thanks,” bottles of frappuccinos were bestowed to me. Whether by single bottle or by four pack or by twelve pack, the gracious people brought me more mocha.

I don’t remember why. I don’t recall having a plan. Yet for some reason I kept that first empty bottle, rinsed it, and displayed it prominently on the top of my wall-filling bookshelf. Then my collection grew week by week.

The row became quite a discussion starter for visitors to my office (including preparation concerns for possible Southern California earthquakes). It also became a palpable way for others to gift me and almost became a competition among the students to get the line to the other wall. Once in a while a student brought me an already empty bottle but mostly they let me drink them before going on the shelf.

My mother-in-law wrapped every last bottle in its own packing paper when I moved to Washington State in the summer of 2001. I hadn’t decided whether I would display them in my new office at Grace Bible Church or not. After a few days, Mo felt like unboxing the bottles would make the north feel more like home, so I did.

The collection grew slowly over the next few years. On a few occasions the Women’s Ministry borrowed fifty or so for use as centerpiece vases at different events or retreats. Those bottles were never cleaner.

When I left the second Grace I packed the bottles again and brought them home. Not only was there no compelling reason to display them, there also was no space to do so. I figured that eventually I would take a picture of them before sending them off to the happy recycling place in the sky.

Those precious bottles were in a box in our garage for the last sixteen months until Monday. The sun was shining and I thought the time seemed right to finally finish the to-do.

It was going to be a glorious picture.

The base row had 35 bottles. I was almost finished with the fifth row on the pyramid when the wind knocked over a good many layers. The glass was no match for our driveway. Undaunted I began to build again, emptying the boxes and snatching unbroken bottles from the pile. I’m not sure how far I got in the second stacking but the wind got the better of us.

It was disappointing. And funny. I was going to recycle them after the glory picture anyway and instead recycled them after the guts picture. My best count among the shards was 251 (though I do have record of 271 in March of 2009). They’re gone now but the story lives on.

Punching Entitlement in the Face

The more I think about it the more I believe that the most powerful weapon God gives His people to fight dualism, entitlement, and hypocrisy is thanks.

Consider the apostle John’s transition from the story of Jesus feeding the five-thousand (John 6:1-15) to Jesus’ offer of Himself as the bread of life (John 6:22-34). Tucked into John’s description of the crowd’s movement from the “other side of the sea” back to Capernaum is a key repetition. John does not repeat the miracle Jesus performed, He repeats the thanks Jesus gave. “Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks” (John 6:23, see verse 11 for the first mention of Jesus giving thanks).

Thinking back over the story, as far as we’re told, Jesus is the only one who expressed thanks. The disciples don’t. The crowd doesn’t. The crowds follow Him because they wanted more bread, not because they wanted to express gratitude. They wanted to make Him King so that He could give them security not so that they could give Him appreciation.

The bread by itself wasn’t the problem. Jesus was glad to provide bread of both kinds, imperishable and perishable. He didn’t make them a meal in order to make them feel guilty on full stomachs. Thanks keeps the imperishable in mind while enjoying the perishable. Thanks fights dualism which says only the spiritual matters. But the crowd couldn’t recognize the distinction or receive the full benefits of either bread as evidenced by their lack of thanks.

Thanks also fights entitlement. The crowd didn’t get bread because they were great or because they deserved it or because He was obligated to meet their expectations. For us, thanks enables us to receive what He gives, even to seek provision from Him with a dependency that honors Him rather than with an self-referential expectancy. It is hard to be grateful and demanding at the same time. Pride buys entitlement a drink and sits down to commiserate. Thanks punches entitlement in the face (in the right way).

Thanks also fights hypocrisy. Take communion as one example. The point of this ordinance is not half-hearted, let alone hardhearted, participation. We fight against externalism, Pharisee-ism, going-through-the-motions-ism by stirring up and starting with thanks. And how much life, here and forever, we have to be thankful for at this Table.

Complaining Like Americans

If you’re like me, as you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ve probably wondered why the Israelites blew it so often. How did they miss the point that obedience brought God’s gracious blessing and that disobedience brought God’s gracious, usually painful discipline? What kept them from trusting God? Take just one instance: their deliverance from Egypt by miraculous plagues and the Passover and crossing the Red Sea. Within months they were complaining like Americans. What was the problem?

It’s an easy answer. They didn’t have the Holy Spirit living in them like we do. Certainly, even in the wilderness, spiritual people wouldn’t have acted entitled to better provisions and conditions. We would never act like them, we would never harden our hearts like them.

Or we would.

The author of Hebrews states that we “who share in the heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1), we who have Jesus as our High Priest, should look to the Israelites as an object lesson. He argues that their problem may become our problem, not that we can’t have their problem. Hardheartedness is on the table.

So, “as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.'” (Hebrews 3:7, quoted again in 3:15 and 4:7) “Take care, brothers, lest their be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

There are a number of issues at work in Hebrews three and four, but if the goal is the promised rest of God, the threat is unbelieving, hardness of heart among us. The threat is disobeying God and doing what we desire like Israel did. The blessing of God’s Word is that it confronts us, it cuts up our hearts and exposes them, and makes them tender (see Hebrews 4:12-13). We also have a sympathetic High Priest who was without sin and who invites us to draw near to the throne of grace for help in time of need (4:14-16), even against the threat of entitlement and hardheartedness.

A Meal to Soften Hearts

Observing the Lord’s Supper softens the hearts for all those with faith. For those without faith, their participation will harden their hearts more. They eat and drink judgment on themselves (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-28). “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthians 13:5)

Believers in Christ meet with God over a meal He’s provided. We commune with the Father and the Son by the Spirit. We fellowship in God’s presence, we fellowship with the Triune God. It is His presence that softens our hearts more than anything else.

At this Table, the Lord is proclaimed by the Word and pictured in the sacrament. We remember the gospel Word by which we are being saved: the Lord’s death for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, His burial, and resurrection on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). We also eat and drink His body and blood. As we do, He melts our hearts by His gospel, His grace, His love, His sacrifice, His promises, His own self given for us.

The weekly feast helps our hearts. It deals with our hardening hearts by establishing peaceful thanks. In dark and stormy weeks, He comes to us in a sign of His presence, a sign of His joyful sacrifice on the cross for us. He invites all who hunger for Him to keep feeding on Him, all who trust Him to keep trusting Him. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”