Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Matthew 5:13

Though it may seem commonplace today, in the ancient world salt was a precious commodity. Its usefulness was owed to one particular aspect of its nature. It was not its color that made it useful. Plenty of things are white. Nor was its value tied to its texture. Sand is also coarse like salt. It was its saltiness that made it precious. It was useful for both seasoning and preserving food because of its saltiness. If that characteristic was lost, salt was not merely useless, it was a nuisance. Much of the salt in first century Palestine came from the Dead Sea. This was not a very high quality salt and if it got damp it could actually lose its saltiness. At which point it was no longer useful as a seasoning or a preservative. However, salt (even ruined salt) still kills vegetation. This ruined salt could not merely be thrown out, but had to be disposed of carefully in order to avoid harming food sources. Thus, it was often cast on a foot path where it would not harm vegetation but would be ground into the earth.

It is the same with Christians. Our value and effectiveness lies in those things which set us apart from the world. Scripture calls us to be holy like the God we serve is holy (I Peter 1:15). By living a life that is set apart and holy to the Lord, we serve the same purposes as salt. We season the world with our good deeds and we season the gospel of truth with our holy lives. We also preserve the world by our holy living. Our enemy advances like a spoiling mold across the flesh of all humanity tainting the image of God wherever he can. By God's grace and guidance, we fight his advances by shining the light of the truth of the gospel into our world. By Christ's gospel, God reclaims souls from the putrid grasp of the enemy's hand and sets them free to engage in holy living as well.

The application for us is clear. Like the salt of first century Palestine, if we lose that characteristic which sets us apart, we become worse than useless. If we fall back into worldly living and "trample the Son of God underfoot", ignoring the surpassing greatness of His sacrifice, then we became much worse than unusable: we actually bring shame to the cross of Christ (Hebrews 10:29). If we bear the title "Christian" and live like pagans, we only have potential to do damage to Christ's name and all that remains for us is judgment. We are called to be in the world but not of the world. This is no easy task. It is not for the faint of heart or for men pleasers. It is only by the power of God working in our lives that we can accomplish it (Hebrews 13:21). Check your saltiness. Are you living a life set apart for God or are you fading into the background of the world? Remember you serve a Savior who "is able to empathize with your weakness," so turn from sin and call to your Savior for help (Hebrews 4:15).

For further reading...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Scandal of Grace

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius [which was a day's wage] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, "You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, "Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?" "Because no one has hired us," they answered. He said to them, "You also go and work in my vineyard."

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first." The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. "These who were hired last worked only one hour," they said, "and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day."

But he answered one of them, "I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Matthew 20:1-16

I think that many of us are like moral accountants. We walk around day in and day out making little tick marks in our mind... keeping track of how good we are and how bad others are. We may not do it consciously, but most of us are constantly measuring ourselves against other people morally. And we get lost in this endless accounting of how good we are compared to how good they are. When we don't measure up we feel bad, but when we do measure up we feel pretty good about ourselves. And I think that is why many of us find ourselves sympathizing with the workers who worked all day in the above parable. Their logic seems solid to us moral accountants. It isn't fair that they should work hard all day and receive the same amount of money as those who had only worked one hour. Something deep down inside of us wants to scream, "That's not fair!"

You see, we like to think that we have been working hard all day like those early workers and that one day it will be time for us to get our reward. But in all our moral accounting, we have lost sight of our own sinfulness. It isn't as though God were cheating us any more than the landowner cheated those workers. He hasn't withheld anything from those who deserved it. Indeed, none of us deserve anything from God but wrath and punishment for "we all, like sheep, have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6). So it isn't that God has cheated anyone. On the contrary, He has been exorbitantly generous. It's His generosity that bothers us. It makes other people equal to us that we believe to be inferior. When God offers forgiveness to all, it renders our moral accounting useless. Now we all stand before Him on level ground. That is the scandal of grace. That is what makes God's grace so hard for us to accept. It requires us to let go of our perceived entitlement and come to God based not on our merits but on His generosity.

This aspect of grace came to the forefront of the Christian community a number of years ago in the person of Jeffrey Dahmer. Late in the winter of 1992, Dahmer was found guilty of murdering 15 men and boys and was sentenced to 957 years in prison. The shocking nature of his crimes made Jeffrey Dahmer one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. It isn't appropriate to go into detail here, but it is sufficient to say that his crimes were unspeakably gruesome. As Dahmer served his time at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, his father sent him Christian materials. In 1994 Jeffrey Dahmer accepted Christ as his personal Savior. He was baptized and met weekly with Reverend Roy Ratcliff until he was murdered by a fellow inmate later in that year.* As Dahmer's conversion became news and people began to debate whether it could be sincere, many Christians struggled with the thought that Dahmer could be equal to them in the eyes of God.

The truth is that your moral accounting is bankrupt. We all have a tendency to fudge the numbers in our favor so much so that we can't be trusted. We are all much more like those workers who only worked an hour than we would like to admit. None of us has earned a spot in heaven. No matter how good we may look by the measure of this world, we are all dependent on God's exorbitant grace. The true scandal of grace isn't that God is cheating those who deserve more from Him. It's that God would choose to love any of us at all...that He would choose to let any of us into His heaven. Don't stumble over the rock of offence (Romans 9:32-33). Fully embrace the good news that God has for your life and the lives of those around you. Embrace the magnificent unfairness of the gospel of Christ for it is only by it that you can be saved!

For further reading...
  • Hosea- Much of this book is devoted to the scandal of grace. In it God commands His prophet (Hosea) to marry a prostitute (Gomer) as a metaphor for His love for unfaithful Israel. How scandalous. After Gomer leaves Hosea to return to her life of prostitution, God commands Hosea to take her back. He must purchase his own wife at a public auction as a slave! But the real scandal isn't that a prophet would marry a prostitute or that he would take her back after all she had done. It's that God would love Israel in spite of all her sin.

*See Wikipedia's entry on Jeffrey Dahmer and the following article:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Water Damage

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Matthew 7:24-27

In May of 2010, my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee experienced a flood so large that it is estimated to have done more than $1.5 billion in damage. In technical terms the flood was a 1,000 year flood, meaning that it is estimated that a flood this large would only strike once in a thousand years. Many homes and businesses that weren't even in the floodplain (and therefore did not have flood insurance) suffered significant damage. This has temporarily left its mark on the Nashville housing market. When people look at houses in certain parts of town they are careful to ask if the house was flooded. And you better believe that the next time I consider buying a house I will make sure it isn't in the floodplain. But this makes sense right? Now that we have seen with our own eyes how much damage a flood can do to your home, it makes sense that we would want to avoid it.

Christ plays on the same type of thought in today´s parable. He contrasts two different ways people build their homes and the different outcomes. The first way you can build is to dig down and build your house on a solid rock foundation. This will cause your house to be strong and it will be able to withstand all kinds of storms. It may take a little longer to build this way but it will last for a very long time. On the other hand, you could skip all that digging and simply build your house say, in the sand of an old washed out creek bed. Your house will certainly get built faster but it's only a matter of time before a strong enough storm blows through to destroy your home.

We understand that Christ is using a home as a metaphor for our lives. There are two ways to build (or live) your life. You can live your life based on Christ's teaching or you can live your own way. Christ says that if you build your life on His teaching, then your life will be safe and secure. It will weather many storms. It may not be the easiest route but it is the safest and most rewarding. But you could always live life your own way. The problem is that our way of living life doesn't bring the best results. The kind of lives that we build for oursleves have a nasty habit of crumbling around just when we need them most...when the storms of life are raging.

This is a parable that most everyone knows but we don't always think of it in its context. Christ places this parable right at the end of His Sermon on the Mount which sprawls from Matthew 5-7. So this parable is really like the conclusion to His sermon. He is essentially telling people, "Don't merely listen to the what it says" (James 1:22). So let's take a look at just a few of the themes in Christ's famous sermon. As we do, evaluate whether or not your life is on shaky ground....
Many Christians are building their lives on the sand. For some it is because they have never taken the time to read God's Word. They simply do not know His way of living. For others the problem isn't that they don't know God's Word but that they really don't believe it. They know it says "seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be added to you," but the kingdom still hasn't made it quite that far up their list (Mathew 6:33). I am sad to say that the majority of lives today are in shambles. People are clearly bearing the weight and the damage of their poor decisions and yet they refuse to change their lives.

How about you? If you are tired of watching everything in your life come tumbling down around you right at the worst possible time? If so, I have some good news for you. We serve a God of second chances. (Joel 2:12-14). It's not too late to begin acting like the wise man. Take a long hard look at God's master plan for your life and start renovating today. And if you need a place to start, try Matthew 5-7.

For further reading...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Eat the Wax Tadpole

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
Matthew 13:31-32 

We live in a global age. Nowadays most large companies have adjusted to this fact and are sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences that may arise in their marketing campaigns for markets abroad. This wasn't always the case though. Many companies made big mistakes when they first went abroad because they didn't pay attention to the little things. As the old adage goes, "The little things can make a big difference." Here's one example. When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market it chose a series of characters which rendered a sound similar to Coca-Cola. Literally it sounded like Ke-ke-ken-la. It wasn't until after they had already printed thousands of signs that the executives at Coke found out that the literal rendering of the characters meant "bite the wax tadpole" in one Chinese dialect. Needless to say this probably didn't help sales. Coke later changed it's Chinese brand name to Ko-kou-ko-le which means "happiness in the mouth."

Little things really do make a big difference sometimes, and I think that this pretty well sums up what Jesus meant by his parable of the mustard seed. It's easy for us to think about Christianity (or as Jesus liked to call it "the kingdom of God") from a 21st century perspective and forget that it was ever small. It's easy for us to forget that the kingdom may have seemed insignificant back then. It consisted of mainly a carpenter turned preacher and his ragtag goup of uneducated disciples, some fisherman and some traiterous tax collectors. We look back over the centuries and see the millions of believers, all the great thinkers and theologians, the famous sermons, and the great revivals. But Christ spoke these words sometime around 30AD. Christ is going around and teaching people that the kingdom of God is at hand. It could arrive anytime now. Be ready! Watch! But people expected a glorious king to arrive in pomp and splendor and by comparison Jesus may have seemed a little disappointing. He couldn't even keep all his followers (John 6:60-71).

Christ reminds his contemporaries about the properties of the mustard seed. Though it was the smallest of their seeds, when planted and given time it grew into a tree which was large enough for birds to nest in its branches. So too is the kingdom. God chose to start small but over time it has gown larger than anyone could have imagined. This is a helpful reminder for me because there are days when what I have to offer God doesn't seem much bigger than a mustard seed. There are days when the work I am doing for the kingdom seems insignificant. On those days, it is helpful to be reminded that we serve a God who uses the small things.  A God who oftentimes starts with what little we have to offer and then mulitplies it by the power of His Spirit to do great things. (John 6:1-15).

So if you are feeling like what you have to offer God is a little insignificant remember that we serve the guy who bragged on a widow for offering a mite! (Mark 12:41-44) So stop worrying about the fact that you aren't the next Billy Graham. Simply do what God has called and gifted you to do and trust Him to use it for His glory. If you work the security team at your church do it to His glory. If you keep babies in the nursery, do it for His glory. If you serve on the Finance Committee do it for His glory and trust Him to take your small offering and make a big impact. Don't use this as an excuse though. You may feel like you are insignificant in the kingdom because you legitmately aren't doing anything. You aren't serving the Lord in any way. You aren't speaking to your neighbors or your friends about salvation. You aren't serving your church or even going to church at all. If so, then remember that the small things make a big difference in your life too. Start doing the little things that you know you are supposed to be doing. Go to church. Pray. Tell someone else about Jesus; plant a seed in their life. Start small and surrender yourself to God to do the rest over time. Remember the kingdom starts small and small things can make a big difference. 

For further reading...
John 6 (especially 6:1-15 & 6:60-71) - Can you see the kingdom?
Mark 12:41-44 - The widow's mite.