Friday, June 20, 2014

Self-Denial in Luke 9:23

Luke 9:23
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

"As the phrase is popularly employed, the following might be considered examples of self-denial:
  • Having one brownie instead of two, even though you're known for your sweet tooth.
  • Getting up an hour early each day to make time to care for a sick neighbor.
  • Choosing to spend time with family instead of devoting the afternoon to your favorite outdoor activity, even though the weather is perfect.

Notice that each example involves allowing some appetite of desire to go unsatisfied.  This reflects the fact that we normally define self-denial as the opposite of self-indulgence.  However, self-denial actually involves a much more difficult battle.  Like a gardener who plucks leaves off a dandelion instead of pulling it up by the roots, it is foolish to think that we have grasped the biblical concept of denying ourselves when we are only denying our desires.

"A deeper understanding of self-denial begins when we notice that Jesus calls us to deny persons---namely, ourselves.  What this involves is powerfully illustrated by Peter's denial of Jesus in Luke 22:54-62; we may summarize the text as follows:
  • First denial: In the courtyard of the high priest's house, a servant girl observes that Peter is one of Jesus' companions.  Peter denies it, saying, 'Woman, I do not know him."
  • Second denial: Later, a second bystander observes that Peter is one of Jesus' followers.  Peter replies, "Man, I am not."
  • Third denial: After "about an hour" a third person insists even more forcefully that Peter is a follower of Jesus.  Peter responds, "Man, I do not know what you are talking about."
  • Fourth denial: As a rooster crows, Jesus looks at Peter who remembers Jesus' prediction: "Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times." Peter goes out and weeps "bitterly."

Here we must be clear: in this text, Peter is not denying himself, nor is he serving as a positive role model.  However, Peter's actions do have something to teach us, since self-denial involves treating ourselves the way Peter treats Jesus.

"In this sobering episode, Peter is essentially saying of Jesus, "I have no allegiance to him.  He has no authority over me, no significance for my life, no claims on how I think or live."  By analogy, self-denial means saying, "I have no allegiance to myself, to my own purposes and plans.  I am not my own authority, and it is not my claims that determine how I think or live."  In other words, we deny ourselves when we let someone else---Jesus, in the case of Luke 9:23---define who we are, what we consider most important, and what goals we pursue.  In the context of discipleship and cross-bearing, self-denial therefore means saying about ourselves, "The version of me that once took delight in going its own way is unrecognizable to me.  That old 'me' has no significance for my life now.  The only 'me' I recognize anymore is the one that takes up a cross and follows Jesus.

"This kind of allegiance to Christ will of course impact how we exercise our appetites and desires; but such self-control is the fruit of self-denial, not its essence---for as we have seen, self-denial is the opposite not of self-indulgence, but of self-definition."
            ---C. D. Agan III from The Imitation of Christ in the Gospel of Luke

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, pow'r divine,
Cleanse this guilty heart of mine;
In Thy mercy pity me,
From sin's bondage set me free.

Holy Spirit, joy divine
Cheer this saddened heart of mine;
Yield a sacred, settled peace,
Let it grow and still increase.

Holy Spirit, all divine,
Dwell within this heart of mine;
Cast down ev'ry idol throne,
Reign supreme, and reign alone.

--Andrew Reed, 1787-1862

Learning to See

The psalmists and the apostles teach us how our minds are to move from nature and natural things to spiritual things, i.e., Jesus Christ and his gospel.  This is the point of the structure of Psalm 19 with its implicit comparison of the book of nature and the book of Scripture.  It is also what the apostle John teaches us, when he points to who Jesus is, moving from the natural to the spiritual.  The great I AM, declares:

I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
I am the door, or gate (John 10:7)
I am the good shepherd (John 10:11)
I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6)
I am the true vine (John 15:1)

In Scripture, six points to imperfection, while seven points to perfection.  In Jesus we have perfection and all we need to satisfy our souls.  Just as the Samaritan woman had six previous men in her life, when Jesus came, the perfect husband and bridegroom, and, even more, the Lord in human flesh, had come.  He is the One who meets every human need.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is It Possible for Our Worship Services to be Idolatrous?

"And when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal. And David danced before the Lord with all his might." (2 Samuel 6:13-14)
"And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play....And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain." (Exodus 32:4, 6, 19)
Two scenes. Both include dancing. One receives approval and the other disapproval. What is the difference?

Is it not obedience to the pattern of worship? David was given strict instructions as to how to move the ark, and in the verses above, he follows those directions, unlike his previous disastrous attempt. Because he is obedient to the pattern given, his dancing is approved. But Israel, unlike David, does not follow the pattern given in Exodus 20:4: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image...." Therefore, their dancing is disapproved as rising "up to play."

Now, here is my question: Are Charismatics, Evangelicals and Reformed folk standing up to play in an idolatrous way, when we sing and/or dance in worship? How can we know? 

Isn't the answer, still, the issue of following the pattern of worship we are given in Scripture? That pattern is Jesus' meeting with us in Word and meal to teach us and give us his life, based on his pattern of teaching/sign and teaching/meal given in the Gospels, particularly Luke. That pattern is also elaborated in the church's devotion to four things: Word, meal, prayer, and fellowship, according to Acts 2:42. 

Our songs, then, are not to be play or entertainment or primarily an inducement to feeling, but rather they are Word (God speaking to us), prayer (our response to His speaking), or fellowship (our speaking to one another). Our songs must fit into the main pattern of Christ's teaching and meal, and the dialogue of worship that includes Word, prayer, and fellowship. If they do not, it could be that our worship bears the character more of Exodus 32 than 2 Samuel 6! 

O that we might truly search the Scriptures and reform our worship services, as was attempted in the Reformation, not according to our preferences, tastes, feelings, or desires, but according to God's Word! Then, we can know that our worship is approved by the only One whose approval truly matters.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Short meditation on the fourth beatitude

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied." Matthew 5:6

The word "righteousness" can be rather abstract, so it is helpful to think of righteousness in terms of right relationships. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships, first, with God, and second, with our fellow human beings. The two go together, for we cannot truly love human beings if we don't love God, and we don't really love God if we don't love others.

But who is the true God? He is the God and Father of Jesus Christ. He is the God who has acted in history to save his people from sin and its effects. He is the God who imputes righteousness to his people as a gift. To know this triune God is to know and share in his life and love, and it is his life and love, and only his life and love, that can change our self-centered and sinful hearts into loving hearts that live in right relationships with the people around us.

Heavenly Father, may we always live near you, come to love you and your Son, and live in your love---not in lust, not in self-seeking, not in sensuality, not in impurity---but in the holiness and blessedness of your love. In your mercy, hear our prayer, for we pray in the name of your blessed Son, who is forever praised together with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Faith, Not Virtue, Is Sin's Opposite

"Too often it has been overlooked that the opposite of sin is not virtue, not by any manner or means. This is in part the pagan view which is content with a merely human measure and properly does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as is affirmed in Romans 14:23. 'whatsoever is not of faith is sin.'" S. Kierkegaard
Commenting on this quote, David Garland writes, "The problem with setting up virtue as sin's opposite number is that one then tries to avoid the sinner category by being virtuous. This effort leads to a lifetime of trying to maintain a report card of good works that demonstrates one's virtue to God. The irony is that this effort stokes the attitudinal sins of self-righteousness and reproachful faultfinding in others. The reality is that we all start out with an F and work it into an F-. The only remedy is divine grace and the response of faith that trusts God's salvation through Christ."

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