Thursday, September 28, 2006

Just Play, Already
Several years ago I began an unofficial, unilateral boycott of the NBA. I'm sure they miss me. I won't even watch the newsclips when they come on. I love basketball. I cannot, however, continue to support a league of thugs. You can read about them on the police blotter pages just as often as in the sports pages.

I'm getting disenchanted with the NFL, too. Beyond the thug quotient, there is also the posturing. These large persons are all millionaires. They became millionaires because they can play football. I have no problem with that. I love football. But, every time they make a play, - which is what they're supposed to do to earn those big salaries - they "celebrate." These guys are well-compensated because they can make first downs, or tackles. But every play looks like a Super Bowl victory party. Just play the game.
There used to be a MLB team in New England, right?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Playing Church

They call it “the C Word” today. Commitment. Even television commercials push the concept that life is better if you don’t have to make any commitments. I can understand that with phone service. But there are times when commitment is good and necessary. In fact, if you claim to be a Christian, you have made a commitment – which God expects you to keep!

What God wants from us, as individuals and as the church, is often very different from the popular perception in a lot of places - including both conservative and liberal churches. He doesn’t want religion – even orthodoxy – He wants our commitment. Amos 5:21-24 reads this way:

21 "I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship
offerings, I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

God not interested in how our worship services look, or sound (or smell). He’s not interested in body count. His interest is not in the outward trappings of religion. Rather, God is interested in the attitude of our hearts as we come before Him to worship. In this passage God is telling Israel that He’s not interested in their proper worship; their sacrifices. But, didn’t God tell them to do those things in the first place? Yes, He did. But there needs to be more involved than just the right form. Look at some examples.

Israel sang and played religious music. Take a look at verse 23. The Israelites probably had some nice choirs. Maybe even entire orchestras at times. The Hebrews were noted for musical skills. But God says, “Take it away. I don’t want to hear it.” It was hollow. Their lives indicated that their words were false (no matter how beautifully they sang them). What they sang and what they LIVED were two very different things. It was just “holy entertainment,” devoid of true meaning.

Israel also went to church a lot. These folks celebrated all the feast days in the Old Testament. They even held “solemn assemblies,” according to v. 21. The problem was not that they missed church. The fact of the matter is that they probably saw church attendance as a sort of magic shield between them and trouble. Why should they ever have problems? After all, they were a nation of church-goers. Yet this wasn’t enough for God then – and it isn’t enough today. Real worship of God cannot be boiled down to attendance at certain rituals and feasts, although we certainly should attend church services – even Bible studies and prayer meetings. But, just attending isn’t the point. Our participation has to have heartfelt meaning. It has to reflect a relationship between God and His people. Israel simply clung to a form of worship without substance. Their hearts were not really in it. Our worship services may look different from those in other places, but what matters is whether or not our hearts are lifted toward God.

Israel even made the proper offerings. Take a look at verse 22. Is this the real nitty-gritty? Is this where Israel made up for their indifference toward God? They may have thought so – just as some folks think so today. But God did not accept their tithes and offerings.

There really are a lot of people who think that they can do as they please as long as they keep putting money in the offering plate. They think they can buy God. They obviously don’t realize that He already owns everything! He can’t be bribed. Think about it. He doesn’t need our money. He wants us to give out of love and gratitude; not guilt; not duty; not an attempt to buy His favor.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with music, church attendance or offerings….In fact it is God who told us He wants them in the first place! Is this hypocritical? Contrary? No. He wants them offered up with the proper attitude – not just as a religious exercise.

More on this topic will follow!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Establishment

In John 5:1-16, we read the narrative referred to as “The Healing by the Pool.” At first glance, most people view this passage as the story of another miracle. It is that – but it is also much more. Here we see a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, as narrated by John. We see a change in relations between Jesus and the established church of the day; the establishment.

Those of us who lived through the ‘60s certainly remember this term, “the establishment.” It was almost always spoken with a snarl – and was often accompanied by the motto; “Never trust anyone over 30.” It was negative. It labeled one generation as “those who messed up the world and left us a lousy legacy. It meant those in charge – who aren’t interested in change or relinquishing any of their power.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve tended to think that new is “good,” and old is “bad,” and we’re responsible for the creation of all good things. We have to recognize, though, that we didn’t even invent the “establishment.”

Four times in this passage, the term “the Jews” is mentioned. The first of these, in verse 1, is used as an adjective. The feast spoken of was a Jewish feast. The other times, however, (in vv. 10,15,16) form an important commentary on the religious situation in 1st C. Jerusalem. For instance, in verse 10 we read, "and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, 'It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat."'

So the question that comes to mind is: “Who Are These Jews?” It’s obvious that John, who was Jewish himself, was not referring to all of the Jewish people of Jerusalem. Rather, he was referring to the powerful – and hostile – leaders of the religious establishment. We get a little more insight into the mindset of these “Jews” in John 9:20-22, which reads:

We know he is our son," the parents answered, "and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.

These parents were Jewish. They feared “the Jews.” This was not some form of anti-Semitism. It was a warning; a warning against misuse of church authority; a warning against misplaced loyalties. It was a warning not to forget God!

Another question that arises is: “What Was the Complaint of These Jews?” Verses 8-10 give us one viewpoint on that question:
Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat."
God’s Word clearly calls for us to honor the sabbath. The Church in the 21st C. would do well to give more heed to this teaching. In that sense we might actually applaud the leaders of Israel. But, it’s obvious that there’s more involved here than simply being zealous for God’s Word. There was a lot of man’s regulation added to the law – and loopholes inserted.

Allow me to give some examples of how Israel actually treated the sabbath. A man was not to travel on the Sabbath, according to Scripture. So the scribes defined a “sabbath day’s journey” as a distance equivalent to about 1,000 yards from home. That’s how far you could walk without sinning. What if you tied a cord to each house in a village or town? Obviously, then you could walk to the end of the village and another thousand yards. If that cord went out into the forest, would it not still be part of one’s home? The possibilities are numerous.

Carrying a burden on the Sabbath was also prohibited in Scripture. Ah, but what if it were an article of clothing. Tying something to one’s body made it clothing, so it could then be transported with a clear conscience.

The Jews were concerned. But their concern was not for the purity of the Word of God. They were concerned over a possible loss of control. These men were leaders of the “messianic religion.” Their scriptures prophesied the coming of the Christ. And they decided to do away with the Messiah! (read verse 16). He was in the way of their program; their plan; their leadership!

The Church is always in danger of crossing this line. When the church gets caught up in politics, social issues, guarding its orthodoxy, proper order, tight committee structures, budgetary processes, ecclesiastical infighting, fill-in-the-blank, all to the exclusion of worship for their Savior (the one who is the head of His body, the Church), then we become the hostile, jealous, sinful religious establishment.

How do you think about the church? Is it a “clubhouse?” Is it some sort of “dueling society?” What is your role in assuring that the church keeps its eyes on Jesus? Are you part of the “religious establishment,” or are you a follower of the Head of the Church?

We, individual members of the Church; we, the redeemed, need constantly to remind ourselves – and one another – to keep our eyes focused on Jesus.