Broken Pencils

Some failures cannot be fixed by getting a new sheet of paper and starting over. If the pencil is broken, rewriting the assignment won’t make the work neater.

As Christians, God’s Word provides the master image in front of the class that we’re supposed to copy. Scripture reveals what our portrait is supposed to look like. When we see an error on our paper, we try to correct it. But sometimes we assume, wrongly, that our motivation is right, it was just poor execution. We really should be more quick to take a look at the pencil.

Solomon used a different illustration: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:26). If the spring is polluted, the shape of bottle you use to contain it can’t purify the water. If the source is contaminated, giving it a pristine name won’t make it clean. If the fountain is messed up, everything downstream will be too, no matter how many EPA officials declare it suitable for drinking.

God’s Word tests our hearts. It sets the standard for our work. His law points out the problems in our behavior in order to bring to light the problems in our hearts. We confess too little when we confess disobedience if we do not also confess that the disobedience came out of us (Mark 7:20-23). We need a new pencil, a new spring, better love, not just better behavior.

A Successful Catastrophe

This was a helpful rundown from the military perspective, Can America win a war in Syria? From what I understand, the Assad regime has chemical weaponry and President Obama is considering a “limited” strike, perhaps shooting missiles but sending no men on the ground.

The article above argued the high probability that such an attack would be a success; we could indeed target and destroy the weapons. Such a success, however, would also be a catastrophe. There is no way to explode explosive chemicals without an explosion of those chemicals. Or, we could destroy the storage facilities without destroying the weapons, but without troops to contain them, the weapons could be seized by other enemies, resulting in a different kind of catastrophe. To destroy the weapons without releasing the gas or the weapons themselves, we would need to occupy Syria for some time. That could give countries such as Russia and China a reason to ally against us, a conflict we don’t have the money for. Any of these three paths to “success” would be catastrophic.

The death of Christ, on the other hand, was a successful catastrophe. As the Nicene Creed affirms, the “Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.” That Lord was crucified by men He created. The perfectly righteous One was condemned. The God of life laid down His life. It was a universal shock. The rocks cry out at the injustice. No other event in history was such a disaster.

But His catastrophic death was a success, accomplishing every objective against the serpent and sin. Christ fully propitiated God’s wrath against sinful men. He paid the price in full. He shut the mouth of the accuser. In Christ, we are declared righteous. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. In Christ, the dead are resurrected to eternal life. As we eat and drink at His Table, we remember the catastrophe and rejoice in the victory.

Centuries Long Confusion

Our blessings are almost an embarrassment. If we were thankful, it would be okay. Instead, we disgrace ourselves with skimpy gratitude and boldness. We have considerable freedom and security for gathering to worship; it costs us very little. We have our own copies of God’s Word, let alone working eyes and the education to read it. We also have a two-thousand year long hindsight over generations of Christians who settled a foundation of clear and coherent truth for us to stand on.

What amazes and encourages me is that God controls both the course and the pace of our history. That means that He must enjoy, at least in some way, the dramatic suspense of centuries long confusion.

For a few hundred years after Christ came, the early church struggled to explain Christ’s nature. How could He be both fully God and fully man, glorious in humility and even death? Jesus’ own disciples were confused and, though they recorded truth accurately with the help of the Spirit, their disciples still struggled. From our vantage point, we live in the clarity they labored to find.

Again, I’m amazed and encouraged that this was all according to God’s plan. Does He not desire great, global honor for His Son? Does He not want all men to know His Son’s excellent glory? Does He not expect us to see and praise the grace, truth, love, and humility of the eternal Logos? Yes! A thousand times, Yes! And yet the Father was, and is, okay taking His time for the truth to spread.

We benefit from observing this process in at least two ways. First, we can be thankful for God’s gracious placement of us at this bend in the river of history. Second, we can be confident that God will continue to fix the confusion about and overcome the rebellion against His Son as we labor by His strength today. The world knows Jesus more than it did and, according to His Word, it will know more than it does now.

Glossing the Skids

I taught John 14:6 a couple Sundays ago and thought that a great communion meditation that day would be to focus on the exclusivity of Jesus as the one way, one truth, one life. Or, put in Reformation sola sort of terms, Christ is the only way, the only truth, the only life. I know enough Latin to look up words in a dictionary, so I thought about attaching the “way,” “truth” and “life” to sola, or una (the Latin word for “one”). As I made progress I found a pattern: way is via, truth is veritas, and life is vita. There you go: una via, una veritas, una vita. The whole thing took me quite a long time, and then I decided to look up John 14:6 in Latin.

“Ego sum via, et veritas, et vita.”

Maybe I should have started there.

Even though Jerome already glossed the skids centuries ago, every week when we come to the Lord’s Table we affirm and celebrate that Jesus is all three: the way, the truth, and the life. We affirm that He is the way, the only route to the Father, our one access to God. In particular, His death was the way, represented by the bread and the cup. It took a perfect sacrifice to satisfy God’s judgment against unrighteousness and there is only one that works: the sacrifice of His Son. Una via.

We affirm that He is the truth. Generations of unbelievers have sought multiple roads and told many lies to nurture their idolatries. Men wouldn’t and couldn’t come up with the gospel by themselves. Jesus embodies the only truth, the truth about judgment and deliverance of wrath and love and hope. Jesus reveals our true condition and the one true solution. Una veritas.

We affirm that He is the life. When the first Adam sinned, he died. His death meant separation. Adam lost life, he lost fellowship with God (and with his wife). If death means separation, then life is relationship, life is fellowship, life is communion. So Jesus, the Second Adam, described Himself as the life then immediately descries how He reveals the Father to disciples and brings them to Him. Jesus fixed what Adam broke. Una vita.

We have communion with God through Jesus. We have fellowship with each other through Jesus. We enjoy the freedom of one, the freedom in Christ alone that comes by grace alone through faith alone.

A Lot of Trouble

At least four sorts of trouble surface in the Bible. First there is trouble that results from our sin (think 1 Peter 4:14). We will reap suffering if we sow disobedience. Second is trouble that comes from living in a world of sinners; “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job, 5:7; think also about Paul’s comments regarding marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:28). Thistles and cancer and gossip and orthodontist payments grow after Genesis 3. The third is the trouble of spirit that Jesus displayed when He saw pain (John 11:33; 12:27; 13:21). And fourth, there is the trouble Jesus prohibits when He told His disciples not to let their hearts be troubled (John 14:1, 27).

Some trouble is inescapable. Other trouble is disobedient. Note that this is not trouble as a result of being disobedient, but being troubled is being disobedient. A surprising number of times, at least to us natural non-trusters, God directs us not to be troubled, not to be anxious (Philippians 4:6), to put all our cares on Him (1 Peter 5:6-7), even when we’re suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 3:14).

Why does God require us to believe to the extent of not being upset? He knows how the knotty the wood here can get. He knows that there is a plot twist on the last page, and that He’s only giving us the story one chapter at a time. He knows the pain of searing loss over a loved one. So why does He tell us not to be troubled? Why would He count it sin when we are?

God requires us to trust Him in trouble because He is infinitely trustworthy. He always tells the truth. He always is faithful to do what He said. We can trust in His character and in His promises. When we don’t, we say (in effect) that we know better, that He cannot be depended on. When our hearts are troubled it isn’t that circumstances are so bad that we had to. It’s that we think the circumstances are more unwieldy than God can control. Not only is it wrong, it is a blight on God’s perfect record.

We Can’t Be Silent

Men proclaim their loves in a variety of ways and one of those ways involves words. There are many non-verbal forms of communication, too. A man may only invest in clothes stiched with a certain logo. He may enthrone a television that takes up half a wall. He may stock his pockets with mini-computers made by only one company. He may cross his arms left hand up to keep his wedding ring finger out from under his right armpit. He may besiege every weed every week from his yard with military rigidity. There are many ways that we show what we love.

Showing what we love is inescapable whether or not we post it on Facebook. The words we use are not unimportant but they are only part of our expression.

As Christians we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes by opening our mouths to eat and drink (1 Corinthians 11:26), not only to preach. As creation speaks God’s glory without words, so communion speaks our faith and fellowship with God and each other. We don’t just talk about unity, we walk together to the same table. We don’t just say that Christ is our life, we eat His body and drink His blood as our food.

All men will know we are Christians by our love for one another. As we celebrate this Supper all men will know that we only love one another only because He loved us first. We proclaim that He loved us, that He gave Himself for us in love, and that our love for others is derivative from His divine love. Sharing this meal may not require many words, but it cannot remain silent when we participate by faith.

Adorned with Bible Verses

Two brothers met for coffee one afternoon and the younger brother announced that he no longer loved his wife of seven years and was planning to leave her. The older brother, dressed in righteous indignation adorned with Bible verses, rebuked his younger brother’s foolishness. But, as Solomon said, “crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle yet his folly will not depart from him.” Neither listened to the other and both brothers left.

The older brother didn’t go straight home. His wife had asked him to pick up some groceries for dinner. Heading to the dairy section against the back wall he lingered in the magazine aisle. The local supermarket didn’t sell pornography so he figured he was safe to look at the pictures; certainly nothing was too bad. When he pulled into his driveway, a neighbor was working in his yard and they chatted for a few minutes. The conversation was superficial enough, so it didn’t seem like a big deal when the older brother laughed off his wife’s laziness since she never pruned her flowers as she promised and left him to do the work.

Once inside and after greeting his wife and daughters, he asked if his wife had finished a task he asked her to do earlier in the day. She said she got busy and forgot. He gave her a lecture about all he did for her, showing off the bag of groceries as Exhibit A, and wondered why she couldn’t do this one thing for him. He huffed off to the living room, turned on the game, and left her to finish dinner, clean up the kitchen, and tuck the kids into bed all by herself.

Which brother loved his wife? One said he didn’t, both showed they didn’t. Many in the church have the same problem with their professions of love for God. Some deny Him up front, others deny Him out back. Talk and walk are siblings with similar consequences and we ought to pay attention to both.

Called to a Common Commandment

It’s been said that there are some sights only visible in the valley. Likewise, some glories only shine on earth, not in heaven. The love of God in Christ is perfect, but not pristine. Jesus washed dirty feet because He loved His disciples. He was betrayed, then beaten bloody because He loved His own. His love changes sinners, it doesn’t avoid them.

To measure the quantity, the volume of God’s love would break our calculators. To measure the power, the energy of His love would fry our testers. But we can see His love in action. We see Jesus loving His disciples to the end, and we see the community created as a result of their love for one another. That community has brought the gospel to us.

We are a Christian community. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We hold a Savior in common, a Book in common, an inheritance in common. We also a called to submit to a common commandment: to love one another as Jesus loved us. We will only be as distinct as we love each other into growth, not when we love each other because we’ve arrived at perfect maturity.

The glory we share around the Lord’s Table knits us together in love. The Table reminds us that our acceptance with God cleanses us, not that we must clean ourselves up in order to get accepted. We accept each other because He accepts us. So also we do not have unity because none of us does anything annoying anymore. We seek unity with other sinners because it is right.

The world won’t know what to do with an entire community obeying Christ’s commandment. Christ is the key who causes all the tumblers in the lock to be clicked into place. Christ opens the way for us to know God’s love for us and for His disciples to love one another. Here is God’s love on the ground, and it is glorious.

Struck Out Looking

The greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not one of us loves God with all of our faculties let alone doing it every moment, so we fail on the foremost demand. The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, another thorough requirement that we don’t ever entirely obey. The count is 0-2 when Jesus pitches His mandate that we love one another just as He loved us.

God commands love. We rebel when we offer worship to Him apart from love, when we serve others without love, and when we do love but only half-heartedly. God accepts no substitutes for love or lukewarm loves. Throw in the “just as Jesus” clause and we have struck out looking on three straight sins of omission.

Let us consider the “just as Jesus” clause further. He loves us when? He loves us all the time, including when we don’t obey His commands to love. He loves us in immaturity, in weakness, in sinfulness. He loves when we don’t qualify for love. That is Jesus love.

It is one thing for us to love God fully; He deserves love. It is one thing to love our neighbors, or enemies; we might get away with loving them only one afternoon. But to keep on loving one another, the anothers we’re stuck with, the little need machine anothers, the anothers who question or misrepresent or needle us, this makes Jesus’ love unbelievable, and glorious.

We confess our sin and we also trust that He forgives us because He loves us. We believe this because He tells us it is true. He also tells us to love one another just as He loved us. The greater we see our sin the greater we must love other sinners. Christlike love abounds, sacrifices, and targets the undeserving. If our love doesn’t, then our love hasn’t put the ball in play.

They Didn’t Know

When Satan provoked Judas to betray Jesus he played into Jesus’ plan. Satan fulfilled his part in God’s eternal story and Judas obeyed Jesus even as he despised Him. The enemies of Christ did not know that they were working toward their own destruction.

Paul told the Corinthians that he and his fellow representatives of Christ imparted a “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” It is a wisdom that the world doesn’t get. In fact, “none of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). The jealous Jewish authorities, the ignorant Roman officials, the spiritual forces of evil could not see their own defeat in the death of Jesus.

It all happened according to God’s wisdom, under His direction, for our glory. Those who are spiritual, those who are mature, see by faith great ends to traumatic trouble.

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him.
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

Without God’s Spirit in us we too would see Judas as a rogue character, Satan as having the upper hand, the cross as the enemies of Jesus defeating Him not the means of Jesus defeating His enemies. The world doesn’t know–and wouldn’t appreciate it if they did–how they are fulfilling God’s purposes even when it looks to them like they are winning. We believers are a people who see a glorious future out of impossibly ugly loss. That’s how God works.