Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deuteronomy 20.1-9 (When It Requires Our Faith)

Deuteronomy 20 begins,

"When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." (v.1)
And then two leaders step up to address the people. First, the priest. And then the military officials. The priest stands up to rally the people by reiterating the posture of faith,

"Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory." (vv.3-4)
After this faith challenge, the military officials step up with a reality check. He addresses those with worries in their hearts due to the matters of life that need tending to (new homes, new vineyards, marriage in the works). He tells them to step back and go home. He summarizes his talk this way,
"Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own." (v.8b)
And then with those who are left, the army is to go to war with God leading them onto certain victory.

It is a fascinating teaching. There are two parts to this. First, there is Truth. It is a truth for all time. That truth is that no matter what is in front of us, no matter how large the opposition or task, our God is with us and he will fight for us to give us victory. And then, secondly, there is Faith. Can we trust in this invisible God when we can see, by our human logic and crunching of the numbers, that the tast is seemly too difficult or nearly impossible? Can we truly trust and obey?

Several things to point out.

1) But, is it God's battle? We know that our God will not lead us into ALL battles (i.e., Num 14.39f). He will lead us only in those battles he himself commands us to fight. Too many times, we hear church leaders proclaim that a certain project, or a direction is God's will. Well, is it? I admit that I have used the phrase, "it's God's will" several times and then had to step back and apologize to God and to the congregation. This is a great sin for us church leaders. We must not use God's name in our selfish projects -- people expect us pastors and elders to hear from God and then to act upon God's instructions, not the other way around. We must not create a project or form a direction apart from God, and then ask God to bless it, and/or turn to the people and declare that it's of God. And it is never right to assume something is of God even if the task seems godly enough. It is imperative for the leaders to hear from God, to confirm with God, to be able to stand before God and know it is God's command. This is the foundation of this passage. The task, the project, the fight, the mission. It must be a directive from God.

For many people in the church, the issue is not a matter of their faith. The issue has to do with #1. Is it really a direction God is taking us? Is this project really of God? The leaders of the church must prayerfully address this first.

And this can be applied to our home situation, or to our school/work situation as well. That's because our God cares about those things and wants to be Lord over all matters of life. Where is God leading me? What does he want with my skills and talents? Once we understand God's will and direction, it requires our faith to trust God because our God will fight for us and will give us victory.

2) Is my faith big enough? Even if we see that the battle is God's will and command, there is a matter of our faith that is addressed in this passage. In fact, many times, it is the lack of faith that will cast doubt that the task is of God. No matter how many times and how many methods are used to show that the battle is of God, there are the denials and the doubts (Gideon comes to mind. But even he came around at the end). That is because, by declaring that the task is not of God, our lack of faith remains unexposed, hidden from the people. It is a daunting task to trust in an invisible God. It is truly difficult to put all of our eggs in one basket "by faith."

That is why God graciously gives us an out. We must check our faith. If it is not big enough, then recognized it for what it is. And then step aside for the faithful -- rather than pollute the rest with our doubt and faithlessness.

3) But God wants us to live by faith. Even though God gives us an out, the desire of God is that we become participants in God's battle, side by side with other faithful ones. He wants us to taste the victory that comes from God rather than hear about it from others. He wants us to enjoy God's presence and activity as participants, rather than clapping as spectators. So how to live by faith? We do it day by day, week by week. We fill our intellect with God's Word daily, we listen to praises and sermons through the radio as we drive, and we consider the will of God in our daily activities -- "what would Jesus do?" And when we practice faith in the little things, before we know it, our faith increases and our doubts decrease.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Leviticus 9-8 (Teaching on Ordination)

A few years back, I enjoyed my time with my presbytery's CPM (Committee on the Preparation of Ministry). I volunteered to be on it for because 1) I wanted to assist in the calling process for pastor candidates, to give them my two cents on what I have gleaned from the office of the ordained pastor, and 2) I realized that the candidates came in all different colors but the existing CPM was mainly white. I wanted to speak up for the people of various hues.

Reading through Leviticus recently, I came across a great find. If I am asked to speak at a candidate's ordination service, I think I am going to speak from these two chapters. Chapter 8 gives instructions on the proper procedure of ordination, and chapter 9 describes the first duties of the newly ordained. Here, if the Old Testament priests are replaced with modern day pastors, then, the spirit of the Word becomes very applicable for us. But first, an outline summary of the two chapters:

Chapter 8: Ordination Service
  1. Dress the candidates for ordination with their priestly garbs (vv.6-9)
  2. Each candidate are to present, in order, 
    • Sin Offering (vv.14-17)
    • Burnt Offering (vv.18-21)
    • Ram of Ordination (vv.22-29)
  3. Anointing with oil mixed with blood of sacrifice (v.30)
  4. Seven days of keeping post at the entrance to the Tabernacle (vv.31-36)
Chapter 9: First Duties of the Newly Ordained
  1. Offering Sin & Burnt Offerings at the altar
    • For the self (vv.8-14)
    • Then for the congregation (vv.15-17)
  2. Offering of Fellowship Offering (offering of well-being) (vv.18-21)
  3. Benediction to the congregation (vv.22-24)
My first impression after reading these two chapters was that the process itself was quite lengthy. When I was ordained in 1998 it was easier. Of course there were several years of preparation and passing of tests, but when the ordination service began, it was short and sweet. And at the end of the ordination service, I got to get up, raise my hands, and give the benediction -- two chapters of worth in an hour and a quarter!

I want to apply the Old Testament instructions on priestly ordination for us today.

First of all, I love the picture of the candidate being dressed by another. It gives the picture of one who is conferred the robe, rather than putting it on themselves. Ordination and the office of pastor is not the fruit of their effort or their talents, but someone else, namely God, is conferring the title and office unto the candidate. Love this scene!

Secondly, I am forced to stop and gaze at the picture of the offerings, especially the Sin and Burnt. Before the whole congregation that has come to celebrate this occasion, the candidate brings the biggest animal among them, the bull, for his/her sins! How great a sinner am I? Look at the beast that I am bringing! Of course, this is meant to be a humbling experience rather than a boast. It is meant to be a teaching moment for the candidate that they are not being ordained because they sin less or are more qualified. God has chosen them. That's it. And only after that is the burnt offering presented. The burnt offering signifies total devotion to God -- the whole animal burnt up as a prayer to God, and so my life is totally devoted to you, O God. This is a good introspection moment for us older pastors. There was a time when I could proclaim that truth with a megaphone. But then life gets busy and our desires and ambitions get twisted with church and family and friends and issues and experiences and...we realize that our life's focus has become complex and our devotion to God is stained with our self-interests...we've got to check our hearts often.

Thirdly, I love the seven days of keeping guard at the entrance of the tabernacle. Who wants to be a guard, a gatekeeper? But that's exactly what the priest's role is. The pastor's role is to connect people to God. The guard does many things. Some people come to the entrance to ask how they might enter. The guard can inform them. Some people try to enter with wrong motives or without proper understanding that to enter is to meet God. The guard's proper instruction can save those peoples' lives! Some come arrogantly, without the sacrifice in hand. The guard blocks their path. But they do so for the others' benefit. They understand the fear of God and the need for the sacrifice for sins. The seven days are surely instructive for the candidates. We should make all of our pastor candidates do this! Yeah!

Francis of Assisi @ Smith College
Fourthly, the first duty of the newly ordained priest was to offer up MORE sacrifices! Obviously, this is about Jesus and grace. Pastors are sinful people. We don't become sinless with ordination and the wearing of the robe. And so it is not only proper, but of utmost importance that we confess our sins often and always. And only after that, can we properly pray for our congregation and bless them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Matthew 14.22-33 (Walking on Water)

I have been thinking about Peter’s walk on water for some time. That’s the story in the Gospels where Peter asks Jesus to allow him to walk on water during a storm. “Lord, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14.28). Jesus replies to his request, “Come.” And for a moment, Peter is actually walking on water!

Of course, Peter begins to sink when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and stares at the violent sky.

One time, I asked a class full of people, “What do you think about Peter in this story?” One gentleman replied, “I think he’s a failure. Ultimately he sank and so showed he didn’t have faith.” I asked him further, “What about the eleven disciples still in the boat? What do you think about them?” He frowned. He didn’t know where I was going with that.

I believe Peter was successful that day. Of course it matters that he sank and so revealed he still had a lot to go. It did show that he lacked the necessary faith. But on the other hand, he dared to take up the litmus test of faith. For him, and really for all the disciples, the event became a chance to test out their faith. In that situation, Peter stood up from among his peers and waved his hand loudly, “Jesus, I want to go first!” And Jesus responded, “Okay! You are first! Come!” The rest of the disciples sat around in silence and watched.

And with the faith test completed, Peter got back his results and found out what he needed to work on. He needed to keep his eyes on Jesus and not on his problems. The disciples sat around in silence and watched.

But he also found out that he could walk on water! He experienced it, if for only a moment. As he stepped out of the boat and dared to set his first foot into the water, he looked at Jesus and the water felt firm under his foot. And with confidence, he set the other foot into the water, and as he looked at Jesus, that foot also felt firm. He let go of the boat and found himself, miraculously, standing on water. Impossible! But he did it. But more! Our passage records, "So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water, and came toward Jesus" (v.29). Wow! I don't know how many steps he took, but he took deliberate steps! There was definite direction, toward Jesus! And I think Peter was so far from the boat that he could not on his own swim back into the boat so that he could only cry out, "Lord, save me!" (v.30). Can you imagine the shock of the disciples in the boat? With opened mouths, they watched.

And Peter found out that Jesus got his back. As soon as he began to sink, Jesus was right there (how did he get to Peter so quick?!?), “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” (v.31). Peter didn't drown. Jesus wouldn't let that happen! That day, through that event, I think Peter was able to test his safety net (the kind that trapeze artists use when they perform) and found it completely dependable. Next time he takes the faith challenge, he won’t be as scared or as worried because he knows by experience, that his divine safety net is secure. And the disciples sat around in silence and watched.

So who do we want to be in this story? It’s obvious that we all want to be Peter. We want to experience God and his power. We long to have our own walking on water experience! And we want to have Jesus reach out his hand to catch us. How exciting would that be! But, and here’s an important but, all of this was possible precisely because Peter made the decision to step out of the boat. He made a choice to test out his faith, to dare to walk on water, to go beyond the routine, to ask for the extraordinary, to experience life beyond the regular!

Just like Peter in this story, and Moses at the burning bush, and Paul on the road to Damascus, and through so many other examples, the Bible tells us that God comes to us in a personal way and invites us to step out in faith. Some of them are minor, someone called them the whispers of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, but some are pretty major! And we hear testimonies from those Peters around us who raised their hands and said “YES.”They give testimonies that give us goose bumps. At our church in May, we are going to hear from a successful surgeon who is selling his possessions, high position, and comfortable life and departing for Ethiopia with his family because they heard the call of God and chose to be like Peter and Moses and Paul. And we are going to amazed at their story and listen with open mouths. Just like the disciples.

This article is not a push for missions (unless that is what God is calling you for). Rather, I believe God calls us to live out a life of faith on a regular basis. To stand up from our position inside the comfortable boat of life and dare to walk out in faith, to work on something that is divinely inspired, to choose to participate in what God is doing at the cost of our time and comforts, to give of our money and our selves as acts of Peter-like faiths. And I turn the pointing finger at myself -- so what have I done? How am I any different from the disciples in the story? And I remain humbled and sinful. Peter remains my motivation.