Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Prophet Micah and Today's God

I have been spending some quality time this week working through the Book of Micah. As I have shared with you before, my favorite book in the Bible is Isaiah. What a grand book that is! And, when I teach Old Testament Survey, I devote almost an entire evening just to Isaiah. And I have always apologized to Micah, whose book is also taught that same evening. Well, after my time this week, I just may have to rescind that apology and spend more time sharing with my students the wonderful truths that flow from his pen.

Micah was a contemporary with Isaiah. While the latter was engaged in sharing with Hezekiah and the court, Micah was out working the streets. His was a message that the laypeople truly needed to hear. It is full of judgment, yet also hope, especially as built around the Shepherd-King would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Micah also describes Him as the Breaker-King (Micah 2:13).

But, one passage that greatly intrigued me was Micah 2:6 -' "Do not prophesy," their prophets say. "Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will overtake us." ' The religious leaders are highly critical of Micah's message and demand that he stop his preaching immediately. Their reason being that what Micah is preaching is running counter to what they are proclaiming. If I could paraphrase this verse it would say, "Micah, stop your preaching immediately. You are making us look bad in front of the people."

Now, as I read this passage, my heart immediately raced toward those words of the Apostle Paul to his young colleague Timothy. You remember those words: "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Is that not exactly what is happening today? People attend church and want to leave feeling good. I call it "the I'm OK, you're OK" Syndrome. Don't rock the boat! Don't make people feel uncomfortable! Don't challenge their thinking! Don't encourage them to have a life-change!

Recently I read an article written by R. Albert Mohler, president of Southwest Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The article was titled, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism - the New American Religion." You can read the article at: Allow me to share a few quotes from the article, which was based on research done by Christian Smith and the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).

"As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. (You might remember that song from years ago titled, God is Watching Over Us from a Distance - my note). 2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 5. Good people go to heaven when they die." Friends, I think that is a pretty apt description of what most preaching is like today. Let's make our congregants feel good about themselves. Let's assure them that all is well!

The article continued: "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. As the researchers explained, 'This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God's love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.'"

So, who is this Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic god? "In short, God is something like a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes cares of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process."

This is the god of today's young people. This is the god that they will bring into the churches they elect to attend as adults. This is the god they will rely upon in their hour of crisis. Yet, this god is just as pagan as were the idols that were paraded down the streets of Jerusalem during the days of Micah. Perhaps it is time for us to be as confrontation as was Micah. After all the real God did not call us to achieve success in a popularity poll. He has called us to be salt and light - salt, which irritates, and light, which exposes. Neither is particularly pleasant, but, if the world is to hear truth, we must recommit ourselves to being just that.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Small People

Last Wednesday, June 16, after a day of intense grilling in the White House, the Chairman of British Petroleum, better known as BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, stopped and delivered a statement to reporters. Then he decided to respond to a few questions. Among the comments that he made were these: "He (speaking of President Obama) is frustrated because he cares about the small people and we care about the small people. ... I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people."

Immediately the media had a hay-day with that term "small people." They accused the Chairman of being insensitive to the small business owners along the Gulf Coast who have had their livelihoods either threatened or destroyed because of the oil spill. They said that this was the attitude of big-business to look out for only themselves and not to care about others. The next day, a spokesman for BP said that Mr. Svanberg's comments were due to a language barrier: Mr. Svanberg is a Swede and his abilities to communicate in English were not the best.

As I listened to the replays of his comments, I knew what he meant. And I think every American knew what he meant. It was not a derogatory term. He was not looking down upon the shrimp and oyster fisheries or the tourist shops or the restaurants that are suffering because of the lack of business. I think, in his own way - limited by language, he was saying that he truly cared about those who were suffering.

But that term "small people" got me to thinking about a statement Jesus gave to His disciples. They were coming from the temple during Jesus' final week of life. They had asked Jesus to share with them signs about the coming of the kingdom. Jesus then told them about the separating of the sheep from the goats on that last day. Listen to these words of Jesus: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:34-36). Of course that elicited a response from His disciples as to when that had happened. Pay attention to what Jesus says next: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).

In this passage I believe Jesus was describing "small people." These were the people that are easily overlooked in the everyday humdrum of life. These are the people that we sometimes go out of our way to avoid, much like the Levite and priest did to the wounded traveler in the story of the Good Samaritan. These are people that we are tempted to think cannot amount to much in the world. But Jesus challenges us to care for them; to provide for their needs; to have compassion upon them.

As I have done some re-reading of the Gospels, I continue to marvel at the time Jesus willingly took for those people that were looked down upon by the elite of His day. Jesus delighted in caring for the small people of Galilee and Judea and even an outcast woman in Samaria.

Mr. Svanberg said that the people at BP care about the small people. Should we not also as believers?

Mr. Svanberg, I knew what you meant. And I am glad that you do care and I hope that caring truly flows, not just from the big pocketbook of BP, but from the heart of everyone associated with your company. And, thank you for reminding me of those words of Jesus to be mindful of the small people around us. They are very important to Him.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What Would Jesus Say about the Oil Spill? is dominating our news these days. It is not the high prices, although they have been quietly climbing in recent days. It is not the threat of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, although the Iranians have not hesitated to declare that such a closure is a distinct possibility if Israel were to attack it. No, the oil that is dominating our news is what is flowing from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico. In late April, one of the many oil platforms that dot the Gulf along the southern coasts of the United States exploded sending the platform down to the bottom of the sea. At first the experts stated that the damage would be minimal, but then the rupture grew and more and more oil was leaked into the Gulf. It is now nearly two months since that accident happened. And, although diligent efforts have been made by BP, the petroleum giant who operated the well, oil continues to spew from the ruptured pipe.

Immediately people responded by doing what we do best these days - cast blame. To hear the talk of some, this was no accident; it was part of a great conspiracy to force through stronger environmental legislation and to penalize the oil giants. Water-cooler conversations included accusations that BP should have responded differently; they should have had a plan. Others blamed the government for not stepping in sooner.

Was this a deliberate act? I highly doubt that the officials at BP sat in a closed room and discussed how they could ruin their company. This was an accident. Accidents do happen every day. Tires blow out causing a car crash. Airplane landing doors fail causing a worker to die. Bleachers collapse at a sporting event sending many to the hospital. Friends, the list goes on and on. Accidents are a part of life.

I have been drawn to an often overlooked portion of the Gospel of Luke. In the early verses of chapter thirteen, Jesus is listening to conversations around the water-cooler. (I put this into a modern context so we can better realize what Jesus is saying). "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1). That news story probably headlined the local papers. We are not given the background for this attack at the Temple, but several people had died when the government stepped in. Listen to Jesus' response: "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:2-3). Notice, Jesus did not cast blame either upon those who died or upon the government who caused their deaths. The event simply happened. What Jesus did state very powerfully was the truth that we do not know when our lives will end; therefore, we need to be ready.

But, another headline appeared: "Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?" (Luke 13:4). Faulty construction? Shoddy workmanship? Architectural flaws? No! Jesus simply said it was an accident. But, listen again to His warning: "I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5). Jesus is saying, "Accidents happen! Life is short! You have no guarantee for tomorrow! Be prepared now!"

That being said that accidents do happen and that this crisis caused by the exploded well was an accident, BP has two responsibilities and one opportunity. First, they have the responsibility to cap the well as quickly as possible. They have tried short-term strategies which have not worked. The long-term strategy is taking time. Perhaps they can be faulted for not having a redundancy plan in place. But, they did not plan for this accident to happen. After all, the last time there was an oil platform explosion resulting in the platform descending to the bottom of the Gulf was 40 years ago. Those types of accidents do not happen with any sense of frequency. So, they never dreamed this would happen to their well or platform.

Second, they have the responsibility to capture as much of the oil that has flowed into the Gulf as possible. After all, the oil technically belongs to them. This will be an incredible task that could take years to accomplish.

And what is their opportunity? They are aware of the hundreds of lives that have been impacted because of this accident. What an incredible opportunity for the leaders of this giant multi-national corporation is send representatives to the little villages that dot the coastlines of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida to offer assistance to businesses to recover. Perhaps it might include an investment of capital. Perhaps it might include enlisting their ideas as to how something like this could be prevented. Perhaps it is just to say, "we care!" Such acts would go a long way, I believe, to replace the stereo-type of the irresponsibility of big business that most Americans have.

And there is one thing that all the oil giants need to learn from this experience: Be prepared for any accident or emergency. I believe that is what Jesus would tell them. Have a plan in place and then hope you never have to use it.

Friends, earthquakes happen (a 7.2 magnitude quake just this morning in Indonesia; and a 5.7 magnitude quake over the weekend in Southern California). Tornadoes and floods occur (the tragedy in Arkansas over the weekend). And oil rigs can explode causing death and an oil spill. They are simply reminders that the world we live in is still under the curse placed upon it because of the sin of Adam and Eve. And, until the King arrives, we can and should expect those accidents to occur.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Be Concerned about What is Happening Around Us?

Are you making any sense of what is happening in the world today? Any thoughts on the "flotilla story" that continues to dominate the media? Any sense in the direction our country is headed economically, politically, morally, and especially in relation to Israel? I have found that, when I engage a person in a conversation about today's world and their understanding of it, they either shrug their shoulders and state, "I really am not interested," or they admit that they are interested by don't know where to turn for answers. Sadly, the first group of responders is much greater than the second group.

Where do we turn for answers? The only adequate response is the Scriptures. I have had people ask me why they should care about what is happening in the world. Here is my response: Because Jesus said we should. In Matthew 16:1-3, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees with a question: "The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, 'When evening comes, you say, '"It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,"', and in the morning, '"Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.'" You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times."

In Matthew 24, that passage we often call Jesus' Olivet Discourse, Jesus continually commands His followers to be discerners of the times, to be observers of what is happening in their world. "Watch out that no one deceives you" (verse 4). That means to pay attention to what is happening and how it might impact your life. We are not to go around with our heads buried in the sand about what is happening around us. Again Jesus declared, "So when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation spoken of through the prophet Daniel - let the reader understand" (verse 15). Again comes the challenge to be cognizant of events taking place before our very eyes. Jesus continued, "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. (verses 32-33). Could that statement be any clearer? Just as we observe the various stages of the agricultural cycle - anticipating the time of harvest - so we are to observe the various events happening in our world - anticipating the time of spiritual harvest.

Finally, Jesus commands us: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come" (verse 42). How can a person keep watch when his eyes are closed? How can a person keep watch when his mind is closed to the events happening all around him?

I know that many of you are very good at discerning the signs of good or bad weather. I have had people share with me that they believe it will be a hot, dry summer because of the way this plant or that insect is behaving. Others of you are very good at discerning the success or failure of your favorite ball team - mine, the Cubs...well, let's just say it is "wait until next year." Why should we be so reticent in discerning the events happening around us?

It is time that we wake up so that we can watch for our Lord's return. In so many ways I believe He is announcing to us that His coming is near. Oh Lord Jesus, come quickly!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Flotilla of Peace? I Don't Think So!

Once again the eyes of the world are focused upon the Middle East. And, once again, the nation of Israel is caught in the cross hairs of public opinion. As you know by now, this past Sunday commandos from the Israeli navy boarded six ships in a flotilla whose destination was the Gaza Strip. The ships were filled with Palestinian sympathizers from around the world as well as 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies. The Israeli navy had tried to direct the ships into the Israeli harbor at Ashdod where the supplies could be off-loaded, inspected for contraband and weapons, and then loaded on trucks for the Gaza Strip. In the light of the recent smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip through the border with Egypt, this seemed like a sensible request on the part of the Israeli government.

Five of the six ships were successfully boarded with no incidences of violence. But the sixth ship was a different story. Aboard this ship, flying the Turkish flag, were militants armed with knives, metal rods, and other weapons. As the Israeli navy commandos descended from their helicopters, they were attacked. I have seen the video footage shot from the helicopters. Armed with only paintball guns and side-guns, the Israeli commandos sought permission to return fire. When the request was granted, in the exchange of gun fire nine militants were killed and many more were wounded, including several Israeli soldiers.

Immediately the world was condemning of Israel. The Turkish government recalled its ambassador from Israel. Other European countries denounced the actions of the Israeli military. Protests were staged around the world before a media that displayed a feeding frenzy. "Israel is guilty" was the instant declaration.

Perhaps the facts speak otherwise. First, the world views the Gazans are prisoners locked in a cage. While it is true that Israel and Egypt together provided a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip following the Hamas take-over in 2006, it is not true that humanitarian aide is not getting to the Palestinians living there. During the first three months of 2010, Israel supplied over 94,500 tons of relief supplies - including 48,000 tons of food supplies, 40,000 tons of wheat, 2760 tons of rice and 1987 tons of clothing and shoes. (The flotilla of six ships carried a meager 10,000 tons of supplies).

Second, the Israeli government did not prohibit the supplies from reaching Gaza; they merely asked that the ships off-load at Ashdod so that the supplies could be inspected for illegal weapons and other contraband, and then sent off to Gaza. From a nation that has experienced over 10,000 rockets from Gaza over the past 3 years, this seemed like a logical request.

Third, supposedly the participants in this flotilla were peace-activists. By the very term that should have denoted men and women given to non-violent ways. Instead of promoting peace, they instigated conflict. As one Muslim activist on one of the ships exclaimed, "There are two possible happy endings; either we will reach Gaza or we will achieve martyrdom." Doesn't sound very peace-loving to me, does it to you?

Fourth, according to a report from Al-Jazeera television, you know this station from its broadcasts of the ben-Laden tapes, the Muslim activists were shouting, "Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammed will return." Khaybar was Jewish settlement that was viciously attacked by Muhammed; 628 Jews were massacred.

Now, as I write this piece, two more ships are headed for Gaza. The Israeli navy has threatened to intercept them as well. This does not sound like peace; it sounds like provocation to me.

Does this assault have any biblical importance? I believe that it does. It is another step in the isolating of Israel from the world community. As I continue reading and studying the writings of the prophets, I am becoming increasingly aware that God will separate His people from the nations of the world in the end times. He has a special work that He desires to accomplish through them during those days. This will not be the first time the Jewish people have been isolated; in fact, when one carefully studies their history, isolation is almost a Jewish thing.

What I do find sad, though, is the lack of support from our nation's government. Although invited to the White House for a meeting with President Obama yesterday, according to a leading Israeli paper, Prime Minister Netanyahu was told that President Obama did not want him to use the White House as a stage on which to present Israel's side of the story. Thus the Prime Minister returned to Israel.

Friends, the focus of our attention should continue to be on the Middle East. You can rest assured that the Iranians are loving this diversion of attention. Now the eyes of the world are off them allowing them to pursue their goals of nuclear armament. The bulls-eye has been moved over a nation no larger than New Jersey. Satan has hated Israel since the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His one desire would be to see Israel totally destroyed. And with that desire, the Bible tells us that he will be defeated.