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Monday, November 25, 2019

#1 The Tale of Tamar


Introduction
2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.”

All Scripture is inspired by God.  Even the parts we tend to skip like the genealogies or the weird and disturbing stories in the Old Testament.  In this blog, I'm going to focus on a couple of those passages people tend to skip over.  I'm not going to skip these passages today, because they are inspired by God and they have much to teach us if we listen closely.


Matthew 1:1-16
This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham[a]:

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
3 Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar).
Perez was the father of Hezron.
Hezron was the father of Ram.[b]
4 Ram was the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon.
Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
5 Salmon was the father of Boaz (whose mother was Rahab).
Boaz was the father of Obed (whose mother was Ruth).
Obed was the father of Jesse.
6 Jesse was the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon (whose mother was Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah).
7 Solomon was the father of Rehoboam.
Rehoboam was the father of Abijah.
Abijah was the father of Asa.[c]
8 Asa was the father of Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat was the father of Jehoram.[d]
Jehoram was the father[e] of Uzziah.
9 Uzziah was the father of Jotham.
Jotham was the father of Ahaz.
Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah.
10 Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh.
Manasseh was the father of Amon.[f]
Amon was the father of Josiah.
11 Josiah was the father of Jehoiachin[g] and his brothers (born at the time of the exile to Babylon).
12 After the Babylonian exile:
Jehoiachin was the father of Shealtiel.
Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.
13 Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud.
Abiud was the father of Eliakim.
Eliakim was the father of Azor.
14 Azor was the father of Zadok.
Zadok was the father of Akim.
Akim was the father of Eliud.
15 Eliud was the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar was the father of Matthan.
Matthan was the father of Jacob.
16 Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

5 Christmas Maidens
Do you keep up with your own genealogy?  Some people are fascinated by their own ancestry.  There are even shows on television now where experts trace the ancestry of famous celebrities.  We tend to skip over the genealogy of Christ, though, the most famous person who ever lived.  And if you skip over Christ’s inspired genealogy, you will miss some important facts.  

Like this:  There are 40 men listed in Jesus genealogy, which makes sense because Jewish genealogies from the first century listed lineage through the male ancestors.  The people the Bible records were a mostly a male dominated, patriarchal culture.  You don’t have to like it.  God didn’t, but it is the reality and you must understand the role of patriarchy in the biblical text or you might miss some very important clues, like this:  There are 40 men listed in Jesus’ genealogy and only 5 women. 

But the fact that there are 5 women listed in a genealogy written in a male dominated, patriarchal society is huge!  Why did the men who kept track of all this stuff and write it down even care about these 5 women—the 5 Christmas maidens?   You might think they are some pretty special women who really deserved the recognition.  They are special, but maybe not in the way you think.  Their stories may challenge your preconceived notions of holiness.

Apparently, God inspired the writer of Matthew 1:1-16 to record the names of these 5 women, without whom Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of all would not have been born into the world that first Christmas day.  So, between now and Christmas, we are going to hear the stories of each of these 5 Christmas maidens between now and Christmas.

Tamar
The first Christmas maiden is Tamar and her tale comes from Genesis 38.  Tamar was a Canaanite woman.  The Canaanites—as a whole—were evil in God’s site.  They were evil because they had twisted religion so much that it had nothing to do with the One True God who made them anymore.  Canaanite religion was a way to make God into their own image through idolatry.  They worshiped through sexual orgies in order to arouse their gods so they would do favors for them.  They even hired temple prostitutes to have sex with the worshipers.  (I’m not making this stuff up. This was the Canaanite religion.)  Furthermore, the Canaanites even sacrificed their own children as part of their wicked religious ceremonies.  God rejected the Canaanites’ wicked religion and determined to drive them out of Canaan and give their land to Abraham’s descendants.  Tamar (the great, great… grandmother of Jesus) was a despised Canaanite.  (If you ever feel like there’s no hope for you, remember Tamar.)

The name Tamar means date palm.  The date palm is a tree in Israel that produces a most amazing fruit called a date that is dried to make something like a raisin, but a raisin the size of your thumb!  You can buy dates at Kroger, but they don’t even come close to the amazing Medjool dates you get in Israel, their native land.  I have been to Israel and enjoyed the dates their near Jericho and they are to die for.  Tamar means date.  And apparently, Tamar was to die for too.  Her story is found in Genesis 38.

Genesis 38:6-10
In the course of time, Judah arranged for his firstborn son, Er, to marry a young woman named Tamar. But Er was a wicked man in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Er’s brother Onan, “Go and marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. You must produce an heir for your brother.”

But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own heir. So whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground. This prevented her from having a child who would belong to his brother. 10 But the Lord considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan’s life, too.

Levirate Marriage and Wickedness
Now here’s a weird passage (and a bit gross and explicit).  It’s no wonder you don’t hear this story that much in church.  But, it is part of the God’s inspired story of the redemption of all humanity so we’re not going to skip it today.  What’s going on here?

The ancient Israelites had a custom called Levirate marriage.  It seems strange to us, but it had an important purpose for them.  The people of the Old Testament lived in a patriarchal society.  Men dominated everything.  Women had very little status and no way to provide for or protect themselves without the men in their lives.  I don't think that's the way God intended life to be, but sin was part of the world and that's the way people lived.  Thankfully, we have grown to a place in the 21st century in America, where women are finally getting the respect they are due because women are equal with men and should be treated fairly.  But 4,000 years ago when Tamar lived in the middle east, women were not treated equally.  When they were young, their father protected and cared for them.  When they were married, their husband protected and cared for them.  When they were old, their grown male children protected and cared for them.  So it was devastating if a wife's husband died and she had no grown male children to care for her.  Levirate marriage provided for widows.  When Tamar's husband died, she became their dead brother's responsibility to protect and care for her.

Levirate marriage addressed another pressing problem for the Bible's patriarchal society.  The greatest curse for ancient Israelites was for your family name to die out.  Therefore, if a wife's husband died before he was able to produce a male child to carry on the family name, the dead husband's brother was obligated to produce a male child with his wife for him.  I know that seems really weird to us today, but that was very important to the ancient Israelites like Judah's family.  And it may not be as far fetched as you think.  Today, if a husband and wife can't conceive a child, they might go to a fertility clinic and pursue artificial insemination.  Levirate marriage was the way the ancients solved the problem long before fertility clinics were available.

Unfortunately, Judah and his sons were wicked. Judah’s first son, Ere, married Tamar, “But Er was a wicked man in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord took his life.” We don’t know why Er was wicked; the passage doesn't say. You might infer one reason though. This is reading into the text a bit, but maybe Er was more interested in the "tasty date" Tamar than he was in the Lord's plan for the Israelites.  You see, the Israelites were the people God chose to represent God to the whole world.  As such, they were to reject all other gods and false religions, like that of the Canaanites.  But Er seems to be more interested in tasty Tamar than the religion of the One True God.  Whatever the reason, Er was so wicked to God that he died.  

So, levirate marriage kicks in.  Er’s brother, Onan, is supposed to take Tamar as his own wife, protect her, care for her, and it was Onan's absolute obligation to make sure Tamar got pregnant and produced an heir to carry on his dead brother's name.  Now Onan, being a man, was perfectly willng to enjoy “pleasure” with Tamar, but he refused to produce children.  Sexual pleasure is great but children are a costly responsibility Onan didn't want, even though it was the law of his own people.  Verse 10 says, “the Lord considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan’s life, too.”

Genesis 38:11
11 Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, “Go back to your parents’ home and remain a widow until my son Shelah is old enough to marry you.” (But Judah didn’t really intend to do this because he was afraid Shelah would also die, like his two brothers.) So Tamar went back to live in her father’s home.

Used, Abused, and Forgotten
Tamar has now been used, abused, and forgotten.  Have you ever felt used, abused and forgotten?
Judah has a responsibility.  As the patriarch of the family, it is his responsibility to take care of everyone in his household; and this includes Tamar.  If his third son is too young to marry, then it is Judah's duty to take care of his daughter-in-law himself or until his youngest son is grown enough to do it.  Judah has no intention of doing the right thing.  His first two sons died because they were both wicked, but all Judah can think is it was Tamar fault.  Instead of seeing his son’s wickedness, send Tamar away.

God holds each of us accountable for our own sins.  It isn’t your lineage that makes you righteous or gains you favor in God’s eyes.  It is those who repent of their sins and turn to God through Jesus Christ His Son who enjoy the Lord’s favor.  In Tamar's story, we see taht Tamar hasn’t done anything wrong even though she is a Canaanite.  It is Judah and his sons--who are supposed to be God's chosen people--who are doing all the evil!  

Genesis 38:12-19
12 Some years later Judah’s wife died. After the time of mourning was over, Judah and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went up to Timnah to supervise the shearing of his sheep. 13 Someone told Tamar, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.”
14 Tamar was aware that Shelah had grown up, but no arrangements had been made for her to come and marry him. [Judah has no intentions of doing the right thing for Tamar.]
So she changed out of her widow’s clothing and covered herself with a veil to disguise herself. Then she sat beside the road at the entrance to the village of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. 15 Judah noticed her and thought she was a prostitute, since she had covered her face. 
[Now notice, it doesn’t say Tamar dressed up like a prostitute.  It says Judah thought she was a prostitute.  What does that tell you was on Judah's mind?  It seems to me, Judah is not acting or thinking the way God wants His chosen people to act.]
16 So he stopped and propositioned her. “Let me have sex with you,” he said, not realizing that she was his own daughter-in-law.
“How much will you pay to have sex with me?” Tamar asked.
[Tamar is a smart woman.  She plays along to see where it might get her.  Tamar recognizes God’s purposes in Judah’s family.  Even though Judah’s family was not living the way they should, they were still the family God chose for His great plan to save the world.  Somehow, Tamar sensed God’s hand at work in Judah’s people--despite their wickedness--and she was determined to be part of it.  Are you determined to be part of God’s family even if His children—the people you see in Church on Sunday—don’t always live they way they should.  Can you recognize that God has a plan for everyone and that God is saving the whole world, even through a broken church?]
17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” Judah promised.
“But what will you give me to guarantee that you will send the goat?” she asked.
18 “What kind of guarantee do you want?” he replied.
She answered, “Leave me your identification seal and its cord and the walking stick you are carrying.” So Judah gave them to her. Then he had intercourse with her, and she became pregnant. 19 Afterward she went back home, took off her veil, and put on her widow’s clothing as usual.
Genesis 38:24-26
24 About three months later, Judah was told, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has acted like a prostitute. And now, because of this, she’s pregnant.”
“Bring her out, and let her be burned!” Judah demanded. 
[This was the typical punishment.  It's definitely a double standard.  Men were obviously getting away with all kinds of sexual promiscuity and sleeping with prostitutes, but the women were being burned when they were unfaithful.  I don't think God was happy about it, but that's the broken world Tamar and Judah lived in.]
25 But as they were taking her out to kill her, she sent this message to her father-in-law: “The man who owns these things made me pregnant. Look closely. Whose seal and cord and walking stick are these?”  [Busted!]
26 Judah recognized them immediately and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I didn’t arrange for her to marry my son Shelah.” And Judah never slept with Tamar again.

Closing Points
Tamar's story (and others like it) are one of the major reasons I believe the Bible is the reliable account of God's salvation work throughout history.  If I were going to make up a fictional story of God's people, I definitely would not include all this dirty laundry.  Would you?  The Bible doesn't try to sugar coat anything.  The story of how God saved humanity includes a lot of ugly, embarrassing stuff.  It's just to messy to be made up!  Do you have any skeletons in your family closet? So does Jesus.  

None of the people in Jesus family tree were there because they deserved it. They were only there because of God's grace and their faith to be a part of God's great plan—a plan that they didn’t even fully understand.  They just knew if it was God’s plan, it must be worth more than any thing else in the whole world!  God is looking for people like Tamar--people who have the faith to see that God is at work even when His people are not doing the right thing.  People who are willing to give up everything to be part of God's great Kingdom plan.  Are you willing to give up everything to be part of God’s Kingdom?  Do you have the faith to see it is worth it?

Next week, we will hear the story of Rahab the prostitute.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Christian Response to Racism


Romans 12:2
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Introduction
A Christian is a person for whom Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  In the Methodist Church, we begin our Christian life with a profession of faith, where we promise to follow Jesus Christ as Lord—to obey Him, follow Him, and live after His example.  If you are already a Christian, I want to remind you of the promises you've made.  If you have never made a promise to follow Jesus Christ, I invite you to make that promise right now.  Here is our profession of faith:

The Christian Profession of Faith
Pastor: On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

People: I do.

Pastor: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

People: I do.

Pastor: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?

People:  I do.

If you made these promises for the first time today and if they are the true desire of your heart, then I
congratulate you.  You have become a Christian today!  Jesus Christ is your Lord and He saves you from your sin.  If you truly follow Him as your Lord, you will inherit eternal life; you will be with Jesus in paradise for all eternity.  Your sins are forgiven and will not be counted against you!  Hallelujah!

Romans 12:2 explains how Christians are to live.  We are not to copy the behaviors and customs of this world.  Instead, we are to let God transform us into a new person by changing the way we think.  Will you do that as a follower of Christ?  Will you stop copying the behaviors and customs of this world and let God transform you into a new person by changing the way we think?

Over the past several weeks, I've been answering questions people submitted to me.  I have one final question to address in this series.

What is the Christian response to racism? 
According to the Anti-defamation League (ADL.org), "Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Racial separatism is the belief, most of the time based on racism, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another."

According to Christianity, racism is a consequence of sin in a fallen world.  The consequences are terrible.  They hurt people and our communities.  Christian minister and civil rights champion, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught that racism is just as damaging to the racist person as it is to the people they oppress.  King fought to liberate—not only blacks who suffered discrimination, but also—white supremists who were trapped in a wrong way of thinking.

The short answer to the question today is this, it’s what we promise to do in our Christian profession of faith: We must renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin.  We must resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

Satan is a liar and the father of lies.  We’ve been lied to.  The Christian website Answers in Genesis says, “Because of our culture’s racist roots, because of the way the world thinks, because of the influence of Darwinian thinking, we have been programmed to look at the exterior rather than the interior of a person, and to make broad judgments based on what we see.” [i]
We see a black man and we judge his character based on the color of his skin.  We see an Asian woman or a Latino person and we make judgments about their personality based solely on the way they look or the language they speak.  And it’s ludicrous.

In the past, some have even tried to use the Bible to justify their own racist behavior.  However, there is no credible way to show that the Bible condones racism or the idea that one race is superior to another.  On the contrary, what the Bible clearly teaches is:

What the Bible Teaches About Racism
The Bible teaches there is only one biological race.
“All humans are descended from Adam and Eve and so all are related and need the salvation offered by the Last Adam, Jesus. From a biblical perspective, there is one biological race. This is confirmed by scientific studies on the human genome. Biblically and scientifically there is no defense [for] racism.”[ii]

The real differences between “races” is cultural, not genetic. Matches for organ transplants are just a likely between whites and blacks as they are between whites and whites. So the differences we see are literally only skin deep. It is sin and evil that causes people to judge other people by the appearance of their skin instead of the content of their character. Racism is a shallow and corrupt way of thinking and the Christian should have nothing to do with it. We must reject this evil and resist it whenever we see it.

The Bible teaches interracial marriage is OK.
Many godly people in the Old Testament were outsiders to the Jewish people. Moses had an interracial marriage. He was Hebrew and his wife, Zipporah, was a Midianite. Rahab and Ruth were foreign gentiles who interracially married into God’s people and were so notable they were included in Jesus’ genealogy. If it was good enough for Jesus’ family tree, how can anyone argue with it? (Ruth had an whole book of the Bible named after her and her husband, Boaz was considered a righteous man!)

The New Testament does not counsel against interracial marriage either. The only kind of marriage Bible counsels against is marriages between believers and nonbelievers.  2 Corinthians 6:14-15 says, “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever?”

The reason the God's Word counsels against marriage between Christians and non-Christians is because a Christians faith should be the most central part of their identity, the most important core value.  And a person's spouse is to be their most intimate partner in life and someone who shares your most essential core beliefs.  Why would a Christian knowingly choose a life-partner who does not share in their most important core value?  Such a choice would certainly lead to serious conflict and be a hinder a Christians most important mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

However, among many Christians today, we fund unequally yoked marriage is very common.  Christians often choose to marry unbelievers.  Today and in the past, interracial marriage was frowned upon by many while inter-faith marriage was much more acceptable even though the Bible is clear there is no problem with interracial marriage, but inter-faith marriage is strongly discouraged.  And this reveals the racism within our culture.

Which marriage are you more concerned about: Interracial marriage or unequally yoked marriage?

The Bible says in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, make nor female, slave nor free.
Colossians 3:11 says, “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.”
I.E. it doesn't matter what country you're from or what ethnicity you are. If you are a Christian, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

How should Christians respond to racism?
Let the Word of God’s change the way you think. 
We need to reject the corrupt ideas of this world--including the wrong ideas we’ve inherited--and assimilate God’s ideas in His Word. We are all brothers and sisters. There is no more “Jew or Gentile, Male or Female”. Our affiliation in Christ far outweighs any differences in skin color, culture, nationality, and even gender.

Live out the Principles of God’s Word. 
James 1:22 says, “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” Christians need to take God’s Word to heart and live by God’s standards, not the world’s lies. We must love our neighbors the way God loves them.

Build real relationships. 
The Christian's response--your personal response--needs to be real and not just words.  People like to watch news stories on TV and get all worked up.  But this has hardly anything to do with real life.  Mostly, it becomes an excuse to confine your personal response to racism to the intellectual/theoretical realm.  Why do people care so much about what protesters are doing in New York City if we don’t even really know someone of a different race right here in our own town?  I say turn off CNN (and turn of Fox News too).  Those channels are just huge money-making corporations interested in selling you a product to earn money.  All they’re peddling is gossip and sensationalism and anger and sentimentalism.  We “buy” their product; they make a lot of money.  And little to nothing productive gets accomplished.  They make us feel like we are informed and know it all.  But in reality, all they do is distract us from real life and fill us with anger and resentment.

If you really wan to make a difference, then build some real relationships with people who look different than you.  Reach out to people in the Hispanic, Black, or Asian community.  Befriend your neighbor who is from a foreign country.  We need to become friends and neighbors.  We need to build real trust and confide in each other.  This is where real reconciliation and healing take place.

God’s Questions for You
Now that I've taken time to answer your question, God has some questions for you.

Do you truly renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

Are your answers to these questions just ideas and empty words? Or are you ready to really live by them?



Monday, November 11, 2019

Questions about Forgiveness


1 John 1:9
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.

Introduction
People were designed to live in harmony with God and each other.  Unfortunately, sin destroys these relationships.  Sin separates us from God and each other.  Sin tears our world apart.  It corrupts everything—from our relationships to the very nature of the world around us.  The glorious Good News of Jesus Christ is that the blood He shed on the cross atones for our sin.  We can be forgiven and reconciled to God through Jesus.  As 1 John 1:9 says, if we confess our sins to Jesus, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

I've been asking people to submit questions about Christianity.  A couple questions came in about forgiveness.  And I want to address those today.

First Question:  If you are asking for forgiveness, can you only go to God or do you need to go to the other person and say out loud what your sin is?
This is a great question.  We know from Scripture that God is merciful and quick to forgive.  Jesus’ death on the cross assures our forgiveness by God.  But what about people?  Will they forgive us too?  Should we seek to be forgiven by the people we offend?  Many might like to avoid seeking forgiveness from people as that could be very awkward and painful.  Can't we just ask God to forgive us and be done with it?

Let me start this answer with a parable.  Suppose you are backing out of the driveway from your friend’s house and you accidentally run over his mailbox.  You didn’t mean to.  It was an accident.  But still, your friend’s mailbox is ruined and it was your fault.  What should you do?  Should you:
a. Feel guilty and beat yourself up about it for the rest of your life. 
b. Ask God to forgive you and then forget about it. (If your friend ever asks you about it, just say, “Oh yeah, I ran over your mailbox. But it’s OK because I asked God to forgive me and He did.”)
c. Make a donation to to your church for the amount it would have cost to fix your friend’s mailbox.
d. Apologize to your friend and pay to have a new mailbox put in.

I hope it's obvious to everyone that the answer is "d".  

I know. This is a very simple situation and issues about forgiveness and relationships are often far more complex.  I could write a whole series about issues related to confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation (and maybe I will one day).  

Jesus said in Matthew 5:23-24, “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God."

Jesus taught it’s very important to be reconciled with the people we’ve wronged.  Jesus also said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (The Golden Rule, Matthew 7:12).  If someone had sinned against you the way you sinned against this other person, what would you want them to do to you?  Would you want them to come confess their sin and seek your forgiveness and make it right?  If so, then that’s a strong indication you should also go to the person against whom you’ve sinned and confess your sin and ask forgiveness and seek to make it right.

Jesus said the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbor.  If asking forgiveness will help the person you wronged, then you should go to them and confess and seek forgiveness and try to make it right.  However, you should only do this after much prayer and reflection; perhaps you should speak with a wise counselor or pastor first.  Ask God whether this is really going to help the other person.  Remember, this is about doing the right thing or the other person.  It’s not about assuaging your own guilt or winning some reward for yourself.  It’s about helping the other person and making it right.  And sometimes, going to ask forgiveness from someone you’ve wronged will do the more harm than good.  If this is the case, you should not go to the person for forgiveness.  If asking forgiveness would bring more harm than good, it may be better to pray for them and hope they forgive you in their own time because it might make them less unhappy, not because it does anything to help you.

As for how all this affects your relationship with God, God has already forgiven you through Jesus Christ.  God still loves you even if you are unable to be forgiven by those you’ve wronged in this life.  However, don’t let God’s forgiveness and grace be an excuse to selfishly avoid doing the right thing for the people you’ve wronged in this life when it’s in your power to do better.

God’s Question for You – Is there anyone to whom you need to apologize?  Is there anything you can do to make right a wrong you’ve done?

Next Question:  We get forgiveness when we ask for it.  Will our sins be hashed out again when we get to heaven?  Is there an actual judgment day?
Another great question.  The Bible teaches that one day everyone will have to make an account for the way they’ve lived in this life.  Everyone—Christians and non-Christians—will face this judgment.  Let me share what Scripture teaches.
Revelation 20:12 gives a vision of the final judgment before God.  It says, “I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books.” And verse 13 says, “And all were judged according to their deeds.”  And verse 15 says, “And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

You want to make sure your name is in the Book of Life.  How do you make sure your name is in the Book of Life?  This is part the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ.  Jesus death on the cross opens a way for us to be forgiven of all our sins and have our name recorded in the Book of Life.  For everyone who surrenders to God, repents of their sin, and follows Jesus Christ as Lord shall be saved.  Their names are recorded in the Book of Life.  And at the final judgment, when God judges the living and the dead, He will find all your sins have been washed away.  Your sins will be no more because Jesus Christ already paid the price for all your sins.  You will be washed and clean and spotless before the Lord.

Now, that doesn't mean you should live however you want in this life and sin as much as you like because you know all your sins will be forgiven in the end.  No!  That is not the way people who follow Jesus as Lord ought to live (or want to live)!  We should follow the Lord and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more and more into His likeness, so we treat people the way Jesus treats people, so that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our mid, and all our strength, and love our neighbor as our self.

Furthermore, I want to tell you, Christians will face a kind of judgment too.  In 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, the Apostle Paul explained how Christians will be judged in the final days.  You can think of this judgment for Christians as a performance review at work.  We will be evaluated for the work we've done for God’s Kingdom in this life.  This will help determine how we will be rewarded in eternity.  The work we've done in this life will be presented to God.  Any work that was frivolous and useless will be burned up like straw or wood in a fire. Those deeds that were pure and worthwhile (whether in whole or in part) will pass through the fire like gold, silver, and precious stones.  The impurities will be removed and the good of all our deeds will be refined like gold in a furnace. 

Scripture names some of the rewards that await people who serve the Lord faithfully in this life:
  • The Soul Winners crown for leading people to Jesus.  
  • The Victors Crown for those who persevere and refuse to give up during persecution.  
  • The Crown of Glory for those who pastor well Christ's "flock". 
  • The Crown of Life for martyrs who were killed for their faith.  
  • The Crown of Righteousness for looking with anticipation for the Second Coming.

And so, Scripture teaches that everyone will be judged on the Last Day.  Those who rejected Christ will go to eternal punishment.  Those who followed Christ as Lord will enters into eternal life with Jesus where their will be no more suffering or pain or sorrow or death.  And Christians will be rewarded for every faithful deed.

God’s questions for you – Is your name written in the Book of Life?  (In other words:  Have you surrendered to God, repented of your sins, and chosen to follow Jesus as your Lord?)  How will the things you do in this life be judged by the Lord on at the Last Judgment?  Will they be found useless like hay burned up in a fire?  Or will He find gold and silver because you were faithful in this life and worked hard to show the love of Christ to everyone around you and you lead people to Jesus?




Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Afterlife

Revelation 21:1-8
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.
“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
Introduction
Revelation 21 gives us a vision of God’s ultimate plan for humanity and all of creation.  Most people are only thinking “What’s next?  What happens after we die? Will I go to heaven?”  But God’s plans are much grander and far reaching.  Ultimate, God will restore the original vision He began when He created the world in Genesis 1.  God will create a new heaven and a new earth, for old heaven and earth will pass away.  And the great shout of Revelation 21:3 will come true: “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.  God’s redemption is not just for people.  God will redeem all the animals, the trees, the plants… All creation will be renewed.  We will live in peace and harmony with all the earth—just as it was when God first created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden to live without any fear or shame or suffering.  And Isaiah 11:6 foretells, “In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.”

I had several questions asked about heaven and the afterlife and I want to address those today.  And I think it is especially appropriate today as we celebrate All Saints Sunday, the day we honor and remember our loved ones who’ve gone to heaven to be with the Lord.  For all who are truly Christian--who believe in and follow Jesus Christ--are saints.  We are perfect in God's sight, because of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.

How does God decides when to call people to heaven, young or old?
God is sovereign. That means God has absolute authority and absolute right to do whatever He decides.  First of all, this is because He made us.  Secondly, He rescued us when we were already dead because of our sin.  The only thing enabling us to draw a single breath is the providence and protection of God.  So God has two reasons to claim absolute sovereignty over us.

That being said, God allows us the freedom to live autonomously.  In other words, we get to make our own decisions.  We can choose to live a clean, healthy life, which tends to lead to a long life.  Or we can smoke and drink and eat two pounds of bacon every day for breakfast and cake for dinner and never force our bodies to exercise.  That will probably lead to poor health and an early grave.  It’s your choice; God gives you the freedom how you want to live.  Furthermore, others have a choice too.  People choose to get drunk and drive and crash into innocent people causing untimely deaths.  Big corporations sometimes choose to pollute our earth, favoring short term profit over the long-term environmental health of our planet.  How many cancers and tumors and other life-ending health problems are the result?  Our world is broken because of sin. 

Sometimes, God calls a person Home to heaven.  Sarah Brooker, a godly member of my church, may be an example of God specifically calling a saint Home to be with Him. Sara was a woman who lived a full life and touched so many; a lady who fulfilled God’s will for her life to the last day.  A lady who wanted to go to heaven for the last ten years, but who faithfully endured the sorrows of this life and declining health for the sake of Christ until Jesus finally said the job was done.  Then, and only then, when she realized her work for the Lord was done, she laid her head back and the Lord called her Home.

But we need not assume that every person who dies was personally chosen by God to die at that moment.  That’s a wrong way to think.  God can choose when a person goes to heaven, but more often than not I think it is our own decisions (or the decisions of others around us).  We need to be extra careful when we claim God is the one naming the day and hour of every single person's death.  I’m not going to blame God for the man who dies of a heart attack when that man was repeatedly warned about his unhealthy eating habits, high cholesterol, and lack of exercise.  I’m not going to blame God for the death of a young girl hit by a drunk driver.  Do you see where I’m going with all this?  Let’s stop making God the scape goat for all our suffering and death.  Let’s take responsibility here.  God created the world.  But then we took over and we’ve been ruining this place for thousands of years by our own rotten choices.  I’d rather blame anyone than God for all these tragedies.

And to the original question—how does God decides when to call people to heaven?  I think He doesn’t have to make that decision very often.  I think we usually make it ourselves, in one way or another. And sometimes, when God does specifically call an individual Home, I believe it's an act of mercy.

God’s question for you is:  What do the decisions you make in your life say about when you will be going to heaven?

What do Methodist believe about The Rapture?
The rapture is a term some Christians use to describe a future event when Jesus calls all Christian believers who are alive, along with the resurrected dead believers, up to "the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air".  It is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever.”  Some Christian denominations place more emphasis on the rapture and the End Times than others.  My Grandma was more and more interested in eschatological studies, including the rapture, the older she got.  She  hope her and her husband would be spared the pain of death and separation.  She saw the world around her becoming increasingly evil and longed for Jesus' return.  She hopes she and her husband would live to see the day He came back and they would be raptured to meet Him in the air.  Unfortunately, that didn't happen.  She died in 1994 and my grandpa died five years latter in 1999.

Methodist don’t have an official doctrine about the rapture (or many other End Times concepts) other than what we say in the Apostles’ Creed:  we believe Jesus “will come again to judge the quick and the dead.”  We know Jesus is coming again.  It plainly says it in Scripture.  Most Methodists believe and accept the concept of a rapture, but we tend not to be as concerned with the End Times.  We are more concerned with the present.  We want to live our lives for God now, sharing the love of Christ with as many as we can as often as we can in as many ways as we can.  We believe if we do this, we will be ready whenever and however the end comes.

God’s question for you:  Are you ready if Jesus comes for you today?

Will I recognize my family in Heaven?
Yes.  In fact, I believe you will recognize them better then than you ever did here on earth.  1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”

Here on earth, we recognize people by mostly by their physical appearance.  My older brother and I look pretty similar and sound even more alike.  Over the phone, we can almost be indistinguishable.  Back in the day before everyone had caller ID, I would often call my mom and she would think she was talking to Nelson.  And being he practical joker I am, I would just go with it and pretend to be my older brother.  And I could make it several minutes before I would laugh and let my mom know who it really was.  My brother used to do the same thing when Mom would mistake him for me.

That will be no mistaken identities in heaven.  Just as God sees into your soul now, we will be able to see deeply into the core of those we love when we get to Glory.  We will see and be seen this way.  And just like Adam and Eve who were naked in the Garden of Eden but were unashamed, we will have nothing to hide in eternity.  We will gladly be completely open and vulnerable, so that people can see who we really are, and we will not be ashamed.  Yes.  We will recognize our loved ones, even better than we know them now.

God’s question for you is:  How do you recognize your family and friends today?  Do you see them mostly for how they look or what they do for you?  Could you look at them in a deeper way and recognize something in them you’ve missed before?

What am I supposed to get out of Holy Communion?
First, Holy Communion is an opportunity to do something Jesus asked you to do.  Think of someone you love who has died.  Suppose they asked you to do something just before they died.  Something simple, a simple ceremony that you should do often to remember them.  Wouldn’t you do it?  Well, Jesus, whom we love, said "take and eat and drink in remembrance of me."

Second, Holy Communion is a chance to commune with all the saints (all believers of Jesus Christ), both living and dead.  As we gather around the Lord’s Table to remember Him and His sacrifice, so to do all the saints gather with us.  How this happens is a mystery, but we allude to it every Sunday as we recite the Apostles’ Creed:  We believe in the communion of saints.

Third, Holy Communion is a chance to commune with Jesus Christ.  Jesus is not dead; He is alive.  And He is with us as we celebrate communion.  Yes, I know Jesus is with us always; but through Holy Communion, He can open our hearts in a special way so we can experience His presence with us.  I encourage you, as you take Holy Communion, to seek to know Christ’s presence with you as you kneel at the altar to pray.

Fourth, Holy Communion is a sacrament God uses to pour His grace into our lives.  Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.  Through Holy Communion, God strengthens and equips us to live as His people.  Just as food nourishes your body, God’s grace imparted through Communion nourishes your spirit in a special way that you can live as His people.

Conclusion
I hope it has been helpful to ponder the questions with me.  May God bless you.