November 25, 2014

Prosperity’s Calling

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading
Jonah 4 (Listen – 2:00)
Luke 9 (Listen – 7:43)

Prosperity’s Calling 

Pedaling the promise of earthly riches through spiritual commitment, teachers of the prosperity gospel clamor for the spotlight in American media. Far too often they win it, entwining the American Dream with a verse or two in order to sell their brand of success (favor, blessing, etc). The Bible affirms that, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above,” [1] but it also warns, ardently, that chasing the gifts instead of following the giver is a pathway to destruction.

Jesus’ call to follow him was a call to a difficult path. He gave up every good and perfect gift of heaven to be born in a subsistence-level family. He spent much of his ministry homeless, owning only the clothes on his back at his crucifixion. Of all the emotions associated with Jesus, he is referred to most often as a man of sorrows, weeping for the brokenness he saw all around him. Jesus’ charge to his disciples was the antithesis of a call to seek earthly blessing. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9.23-35)

“Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His cross,” says Thomas à Kempis. “He finds many companions at His feasting, but few at His fasting. All desire to rejoice in Him; Few are willing to endure anything for Him. Many follow Jesus as far as the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of His passion. Many reverence His miracles, but few will follow the shame of His cross.” [2]

Christianity that results in prosperity is a call to sacrifice. Radical generosity is the only way to keep our hearts from falling in love with the things of this world. John Wesley draws our attention to what happens when Christians gain prosperity through faith and then refuse to deny themselves: “riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity.” [3] Jesus’ warning was precisely because the gospel can lead to prosperity, but anyone using Christ to obtain worldly status and prosperity is not truly pursing Christ. That person, Christ says, could gain all the blessings of the whole world and still lose their soul.

Prayer: Father, purify our hearts; bring to light ways we pursue you for your blessings. You are our hope, God, and we long to be with you. Give us this day our daily bread, and lead us not into temptation. We give ourselves to you, for in you we have found everything we need.

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Footnotes

[1] James 1.17 | [2] As quoted in, The Divine Hours, p.95. | [3] John Wesley. Sermons on Several Occasions: Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity, p.1069.

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November 24, 2014

Evil is Easy; Cultivate Good

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading
Jonah 3 (Listen – 1:45)
Luke 8 (Listen – 7:26)

And some [seed] fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it.” — Luke 8.7

Thorns rob nutrients from the soil before plants can benefit from them——choking them to death. Jesus’ vivid picture draws our attention to the way in which the promise of fruit is robbed from otherwise healthy plants. Jesus explained, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” 

The longer thorns are left untended the deeper the roots grow, consuming more than ever. Eventually, thorns can overcome a field and block the light, leaving the landscape fruitless and barren. Professor Thomas Constable says choking on thorns is a metaphor for what happens when we’re focused on, “The present life, rather than the life to come, and present treasure, rather than future treasure… [Thorns] are deceitful because they can drain spiritual vitality before the person realizes what is happening.” [1] Loving riches, even if they are blessings, can steal our best time and energy away from loving God.

Evil things are easy things, for they are natural to our fallen nature. Right things are rare flowers that need cultivation,” Charles Spurgeon counseled his London congregation in 1888.  Spurgeon knew our spiritual vitality is always in danger of being choked by the thorns we live among. “The thorns were already established in the soil. They were not only the natural inhabitants of the soil but they were rooted and fixed in it… The roots of sin run through and through our nature, grasp it with wonderful force and keep up their grasp with marvelous tenacity.” [2]

Jesus wasn’t trying to burden those who follow him with fear of thorns, but to warn of the severity of leaving them untended. Conviction over sin is a sign of grace; inaction over conviction is a sign of thorns. Spurgeon finishes his sermon saying Christians should address the pain of spiritual thorns in the same way children respond when inflicted with a garden’s thorns: by running to our parents. It is only in the arms of our Father where we see He will stop at nothing to remove the wretched thorn, all while handling us with the greatest tenderness and precision.

Prayer: Father, we confess that our lives become consumed by the things in them——that the worries of the world come to our mind far more readily than the security of your salvation. We want to thrive in you. Give us courage to confess, surround us with merciful friends, help us to see your grace.

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Footnotes

[1] Dr. Thomas Constable. Matthew, 2014 edition, p.213. | [2] Charles H. Spurgeon. Sown Among Thorns, 1888, Newington, England.

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November 21, 2014

3 Pictures of Christ in Luke 5

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading:
Obadiah 1 (Listen – 3:31 min)
Luke 5 (Listen – 5:15 min)

1. Christ as a Master Worth Following

As Simon Peter responded to Jesus’ command to lower his nets after a night of fruitless fishing, he called Jesus, “master.” It’s likely he was obeying out of respect, and Simon Peter must have been wondering what kind of master Jesus was. The masters of the world lorded their power over people like Simon Peter; he was a mere fisherman, dependent on what he pulled from the water for the well-being of his life. After a miraculous catch, Simon Peter fell in awe at the Master’s feet. The sovereignty and generosity Jesus had shown was something Simon Peter joyfully pursued with all his heart, mind, and strength. (Luke 5.1-11)

2. Christ as the Lord and Healer of Our Greatest Pain

Later, Jesus gave clean skin to a leper and strong legs to a paralytic; but he wasn’t satisfied with just physical healing. Jesus knew there were many then, and now, that he would not stand in front of to touch and heal, so he drew our attention to something greater. “Your sins are forgiven,” he said to the paralytic. Jesus taught it is sin that separates men and women from God. It is only in the healing of our deepest pain, which we cannot heal apart from Christ, that Jesus shows himself as true Lord and Healer. (Luke 5.12-26)

3. Christ as Friends of Sinners 

Tax collectors were notoriously corrupt. Eating at Levi’s table is the equivalent of sipping wine from Bernie Madoff’s cellar——it’s offensive to even think of an upright person partaking in the fruit of corruption. Jesus wasn’t there to enjoy exquisite food and drink, he was there to give himself as a friend. Jesus befriends sinners to his own detriment, giving up his reputation as the elite scorn him and offering his life as sinners reject him. Jesus is the living example that there is no greater love than a man laying down his life, even while we were yet sinners. (Luke 5.27-39)

None were left the same, all had been touched by grace. Instead of unapproachable power, Simon Peter found blessing. Instead of a God removed from the pain of life, the sick found intimacy and healing. Instead of judgment that precludes relationship, Levi found sacrifice that allowed for embrace. Christ shows himself as our greatest provider, the solution to our deepest problem, and loving friend who lays down all to live in relationship with us.

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Weekend Readings

Saturday: Jonah 1 (txt | aud, 2:52 min); Luke 6 (txt | aud, 6:28 min)
Sunday: Jonah 2 (txt | aud, 1:27 min); Luke 7 (txt | aud, 6:39 min)

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November 20, 2014

The Purpose of Temptation

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading
Amos 9 (Listen – 2:56)
Luke 4 (Listen – 5:51)

The Purpose of Temptation | by John Wesley
Throwback Thursday: Heaviness through Manifold Temptations (1872, London)

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. — Luke 4.1

For what ends, then, does God permit heaviness to befall so many of his children? 

The first and great end of God’s permitting the temptations which bring heaviness on his children, is the trial of their faith, which is tried by these, even as gold by the fire. Now we know, gold tried in the fire is purified thereby; is separated from its dross. And so is faith in the fire of temptation; the more it is tried, the more it is purified; — yea, and not only purified, but also strengthened, confirmed, increased abundantly, by so many more proofs of the wisdom and power, the love and faithfulness, of God.

Yet another is, their advance in holiness: holiness of heart, and holiness of conversation; the latter naturally resulting from the former; for a good tree will bring forth good fruit. And all inward holiness is the immediate fruit of the faith that works by love. By this the blessed Spirit purifies the heart from pride, self-will, passion; from love of the world, from foolish and hurtful desires, from vile and vain affections. Beside that, sanctified afflictions have, through the grace of God, an immediate and direct tendency to holiness. Through the operation of his Spirit, they humble, more and more, and abase the soul before God. They calm and meeken our turbulent spirit, tame the fierceness of our nature, soften our obstinacy and self-will, crucify us to the world, and bring us to expect all our strength from, and to seek all our happiness in, God.

And all these terminate in that great end, that our faith, hope, love, and holiness may be found, if it doth not yet appear, unto praise from God himself, and honor from men and angels, and glory, assigned by the great Judge to all that have endured unto the end. So many ways do these “light afflictions, which are but for a moment, work out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory!”

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November 19, 2014

Street Art, Emerson, Pascal, and Love

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading
Amos 8 (Listen – 2:16)
Luke 3 (Listen – 5:15)

Trash bags laying across the subway grates that line New York City sidewalks are not uncommon, unless they’ve been installed as street art by Joshua Allen Harris. [1] Air rushes through the grates as trains jet underneath, inflating Harris’ trash bags to reveal life-size articulating sculptures of dogs, polar bears, and giraffes. Each animal in the series is a striking image of latency and potential. In similar fashion, the law was dormant for centuries until Christ became its living perfection. Christ came as the complete articulation of the law and revealed its full purpose as love. This, in every way, is good news——but it requires a difficult step in order to embrace.

The offense of the gospel is that as the good news of Christ is found as we realize both the tragedy of our brokenness and the insufficiency of our good works. Admitting guilt is intensely difficult. Ralph Waldo Emerson observes, “We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others is experiment for us… No man admits at last that he can be lost, or that the crime in him is as black as is in the felon.” [2] Yet when we hold ourselves next to Christ, his perfection reveals our counterfeit. We can no longer go on pretending we have it all together; we are crushed by the magnitude of his infinite glory. But we are not alone. 

In his inaugural address of the gospel, John the Baptist proclaims, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” in Christ (Luke 3.6). Christ is love fully articulated, his sacrifice washing over us like a tidal wave of grace. John announces the absolute relief to our pain; in Christ we have, offered freely, all that we never could earn for ourselves.

It is the height of Christ’s beauty, not the depth of our depravity, that is most shocking about the gospel. There is something in Christ we have never seen; Pascal confronts the reality of our world, “Evil is easy. Its forms are infinite; good is almost unique.” [3] Christ took all we deserved but could not bear. In Christ we see all that we hope, but cannot attain. Christ is love brought to life in surprising and magnificent ways.

Prayer: Father, show us your love as we read the story of Christ in Luke. Heal us of our brokenness through your Son, the suffering servant who left the glory of heaven, filled with love for you, in order to give himself in love for us.

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Footnotes

[1] Installations throughout 2008-2012, joshuaallenharris.com. | [2] Emerson, R.W. Essay 14. | [3] Pascal, B. Pensées 5.408: Justice and the Reason of Effects.

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November 18, 2014

The Cost of Peace on Earth

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading:
Amos 7 (Listen – 2:50)
Luke 2 (Listen – 6:41)

Oppression masquerading as peace. Most modern tellings of the Christmas story begin, as Luke does, with the decree sent out from Caesar Augustus for all to register. Augustus took numerous censuses; his first on record is from 28 B.C.E. when the Empire was barely over 4 million people and his last, taken over 40 years later, when the population was almost 5 million. The Empire’s rate of growth, and overall size, is massive by ancient standards. Augustus pursued what he called “peace” at whatever cost, because he knew it lead to growth, yet Augustus’ “peace” is far from tranquility——more aptly described as stability won by sword. 

N.T. Wright explains, “Here is the old king in Rome, turning sixty in the year Jesus was born: he represents perhaps the best that pagan kingdoms can do. At least he knows that peace and stability are good things; unfortunately he has had to kill a lot of people to bring them about, and to kill a lot more, on a regular basis, to preserve them.” [2] Indeed, to maintain stability in even a small part of Augustus’ empire, Herod barbarously murders every male toddler and infant in Bethlehem at the mere threat of a new king.

Peace in a world at war comes at a cost. Augustus was neither the first or last leader to attempt to bring peace by coercion. The angel’s announcement of Christ, “Peace among those with whom [God] is pleased,” would have been as intimidating as it was promising. [3] What kind of peace would God bring——and what would it cost?

“What Luke is getting at here, what the angels are getting at is the peace we’re talking about is not a peace between us or a peace within us;” says Timothy Keller, “it’s a peace between God and us.” [4] All peace on earth comes from this peace: all struggles are brought to an end, all sins relieved——humankind restored. Augustus brought peace for himself through the destruction of others, Jesus brought peace to others through the destruction of himself. The cost of peace on earth has been paid; the good news of Christ is that we are heirs to the victory of God’s love.

Prayer: God, forgive us for the ways in which we find ourselves at war——for unforgiveness, envy, lust, and other worldly strivings. Our only hope for peace with one another is found in the peace that you gave us through the sacrifice of your Son. Use our words and actions to generously share with others the peace you’ve given us.

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Footnotes

[1] Res Gestae 8.2 and 8.4. | [2] Wright, T. (1996). The Lord and His Prayer (p. 78). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. | [3] Luke 2.14 | [4] Keller, T.J., 2013. The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church. “Christmas Peace,” 1996.

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November 17, 2014

The Linchpin of Generous Words

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading
Amos 6 (Listen – 2:22)
Luke 1.39-80 (Listen – 9:58)

Emotions run high during the holidays… people in the United States are more likely to feel their stress increase rather than decrease,” notes the American Psychological Association. [1] In this way, the human experience around Christ’s birth hasn’t changed since Mary responded to the angel’s announcement. Mary initially replied not with exuberant praise but simple obedience; “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her unadorned submission stands in stark contrast to the deluge of joy-filled worship Luke records from her just eight verses later:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” [2]

Mary was overwhelmed in her first response, not only by the presence of an angel in front of her, but also by the immense pressure of the news that she would soon become an unwed mother. Her plans for her future——her marriage, social status, everything——would have vanished in an instant. She tells no one, rushing out of her town before anyone can see her body is changing, and walks into the house of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s generosity of spirit was the linchpin. Luke records, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” [3] This is when everything changes. God has affirmed her through the words of someone else. Mary wasn’t self-anointed——and there is such power in the affirmation of her trusted friend she immediately bursts into ardent worship, looking toward the future with profound hope [4].

It’s a risk to affirm something unseen in someone. Elizabeth’s words made no sense apart from her faith. Yet they were the very thing that led Mary to her need for a Savior and her faithful response to live into the journey to which God called her.

Prayer: Father, help us see what you see in people and give us courage to affirm them in your love and will for their lives. Use our lives, even if it costs us the vision we have for our future. We rejoice in you; you are our Savior.

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Footnotes

[1] http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.pdf | [2] Luke 1.46-49 | [3] Luke 1.41-42 | [4] Luke 1.46-55

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November 14, 2014

The Justice of God

by Bethany

Daily Reading:
Amos 3 (Listen – 2:01)
Psalm 146-147 (Listen – 1:03)

Rwanda: As a young attorney at the Department of Justice, Gary Haugen took a leave of absence to direct the United Nations’ investigation of the Rwandan genocide. He saw human rights atrocities – burned piles of bodies, children hacked to death with machetes, the decaying body of a woman with her child’s corpse beneath her. Perhaps the most disorienting thing he discovered, however, was that those who were tasked with bringing about justice, e.g., the police, were the ones who had carried out the injustice that he saw. Who are you supposed to turn to when the justice-keepers become the justice-breakers?

Justice: Justice has two aspects – showing favor to the oppressed and enacting punishment for the perpetrators. The Psalmist praised the Lord for possessing these twin aspects of justice: “[The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” [1].

Truth: Today, Haugen serves as President of the International Justice Mission, which seeks to reform the rule of law in the developing world [2]. In his book, The Good News About Injustice, Haugen says that the good news about injustice is that God cares about it. He writes, “Amid a world of injustice, oppression and abuse, we can know some simple truths about God if we study his Word. No matter what the circumstances, we can depend on what he has revealed about himself. In regard to injustice, our heavenly Father bids us to trust in four solid truths about his character: (1) God loves justice and, conversely, hates injustice, (2) God has compassion for those who suffer injustice – everywhere around the world, without distinction or favor, (3) God judges and condemns those who perpetrate injustice, and (4) God seeks active rescue for the victims of injustice” [3].

Prayer: Lord, You love justice and hate injustice. Yet we recognize that, as sinners, we perpetrate injustice. We may not murder, but Jesus teaches us that we commit murder if we are angry with our brothers [4]. Yet we praise him for bearing judgment for us. On the cross, justice kissed love. Therefore, cause us to cherish your justice and, in response, seek it. Amen.

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Weekend Readings

Saturday: Amos 4 (Listen – 2:22); Psalms 148-50 (Listen – 2:40)
Sunday: Amos 5 (Listen – 2:22); Luke 1.1-48 (Listen – 9:48)

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Footnotes

[1] Psalm 146:7-9 ESV  |  [2] For more information on the International Justice Mission, see www.ijm.org. See also Wikipedia, International Justice Mission.  |  [3] Gary Haugen. The Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. InterVarsity Press. (1999), p. 69-70.  |  [4] See Matthew 5:21-26.

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November 13, 2014

God’s Willingness to Grant Our Prayers

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading:
Amos 2 (Listen – 2:32)
Psalm 145 (Listen – 1:59)

God’s Willingness to Grant Our Prayers | by John Calvin
Throwback Thursday: Commentary on the Psalms (1557)

Psalm 145.17-19

The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.

The Holy Spirit, by the mouth of David, tells us, that God will accommodate himself to the desires of all who fear him. This is a mode of expression of which it is difficult to say how much it ought to impress our minds. Who is man, that God should show complaisance to his will, when rather it is ours to look up to his exalted greatness, and humbly submit to his authority? Yet he voluntarily condescends to these terms, to [comply with] our desires. 

At the same time, there is a check to be put upon this liberty, and we have not a license of universal appetency, as if his people might forwardly clamor for whatever their corrupt desires listed, but before God says that he will hear their prayers, he enjoins the law of moderation and submission upon their affections, as we learn from John, — 

“We know that he will deny us nothing, if we seek it according to his will.” (1 John 5:14) 

For the same reason, Christ dictated that form of prayer, “Thy will be done,” setting limits round us, that we should not preposterously prefer our desires to those of God, nor ask without deliberation what first comes into our mouth. David, in making express mention of them that fear God, enjoins fear, reverence, and obedience upon them before holding out the favorable indulgence of God, that they might not think themselves warranted to ask more than his word grants and approves. 

God’s willingness to grant our prayers is not always so apparent that he answers them at the very moment they are made. We have, therefore, need of perseverance in this trial of our faith, and our desires must be confirmed by crying. The last clause — he will save them — is also added by way of correction, to make us aware how far, and for what end God answers the prayers of his people, namely, to evidence in a practical manner that he is the faithful guardian of their welfare. 

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Footnotes

[1] Abridged from pp. 255-56.

 

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November 12, 2014

The Greater Battle

by Steven Dilla

Daily Reading:
Amos 1 (Listen – 3:18)
Psalm 144 (Listen – 1:50)

Wartime: David’s words in Psalm 144, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle,” are shocking in our modern world. Militaristic references to the Christian faith peaked somewhere after the great wars of the early 20th century. Hymns like the British-written, “Onward Christian Soldier” and children’s songs like the American-written, “I’m In The Lord’s Army” began rapidly decreasing in popularity as Americans processed the realities of Vietnam. Modern tragedies, like religious terrorism, have only intensified trepidation to war-related themes.

While the Word of God is the root of our deep longings for peace, and Scripture serves as the foundation to historic human rights frameworks, it is not adverse to viewing battle as a posture which is normative to faith. David’s had his battles against men, but it was the greater battle of David’s faith that stands as the most compelling part of his story. 

The True Enemy: The author of Ephesians reminds us that “we do not battle against flesh and blood.” Evil is consistently personified in Scripture because the ancients understood that evil wasn’t a passive force. The faithful have, for centuries, viewed evil as precise, cunning, and intensely personal. In light of such evil, the English clergyman Thomas Scott talked about the Christian’s need for readiness; “Happy are they whom the Lord teaches to fight the good fight of faith, and to whom He gives that noblest victory and rule, the conquest and dominion over their own spirits!”

Ephesians tells us that we are ready for spiritual battle only through putting on The Armor of God: truth, righteousness, the good news of peace with God, faith, salvation, prayer, and perseverance. These are not things we can spin up on our own——they are gifts of the Spirit——which is precisely why David thanks God for readying him. Only by God’s grace and sacrifice was the victory from the greatest war imparted to us, and only by God’s Spirit can we be equipped and ready to win the battle inside our hearts.

Prayer: Father, thank you for defeating the enemy we are powerless against.  Our battle is not against humankind; you have done all that is necessary to restore those relationships. Help us to extend your peace on earth. Strengthen us for the battle of our hearts, give us your Spirit, that we may live.

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