The Illogical Gift of Grace

123935213_whitman-us-mint-jefferson-nickels-coin-book-1938-1964-I recently stopped by our local flea market to check things out and to buy some eggs from my farmer friend. I always enjoy browsing for a few minutes and talking to various sellers. One seller told me about a small collection of nickels that he had for sale. They were inserted into one of those coin collector books. He was selling the nickels and the book for the face value of the money, about five dollars worth of nickels. Some nickels might have been a little older and have some additional value, but he was asking face value. Five dollars of nickels for five dollars. The incentive to buy them was because they were already sorted into years in the books. He told me that one lady came up to him and offered him one dollar for all of them. He questioned her logic. “Why would I sell you five dollars worth of nickels for a one dollar bill?” She didn’t quite get it. She replied, “Well, you want to sell them, don’t you?” Needless to say, she didn’t win her negotiated price nor a price in between. While other items on the table might be gotten for a negotiated price because of their estimated value, this money had government backed official value that made all negotiation rather silly. Would you sell someone a five-dollar bill for one dollar?

Now consider God’s grace. As illogical as it seems to sell five dollars worth of nickels for one dollar, God actually does something even more illogical than that. He offers something of official heavenly worth—pure righteousness, minted in heaven and stamped with the official seal of God Almighty – and he offers it to us for free. This gift of grace, getting something for nothing, is sometimes too out there for us. It doesn’t compute in our heads. So we work to bargain with God. We know his approval is worth something great, so we work hard to earn his approval. But in the end, our efforts to achieve God’s approval through our good works are even more silly than seeking to buy five dollars worth of nickels for one dollar. Why? Because our good works in view of God’s righteousness and holiness don’t even measure up to the value of a penny. We for sure will never be able to attain enough value with our works to offer God even exchange—five dollars for five dollars, my righteousness for God’s righteousness. Indeed, we’ll never get up to the point where we can offer one dollar. God knows this. He knows we’ll never be able to earn our keep, so he invites us freely. He gives us grace upon grace, five dollars upon five dollars, for nothing. And the price is not negotiable, though we often try to earn some of it. No! No negotiation! It’s free and it always will be. There’s no inflation, no increase in cost because of rise in heavenly overhead or pay raise for the angels. It’s free and it always will be! The only thing that will rise is the value of it in our hearts as we recognize the riches that God has given us, for free.

Grace—what a truly illogical and beautiful thing!

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Legacy of a Nomad

"Abraham and Isaac"Phillip Ratner

“Abraham and Isaac”
Phillip Ratner

I wrote this to be read in our worship service yesterday. I’m working through an Advent series entitled “The Promise of a Child,” which focuses on passing on our faith to the next generation  so they might be the children of promise. Yesterday I preached on God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would bear a son in their old age. This letter is a faith testimony letter from Abraham to to his son Isaac. As followers of Christ are all part of Abraham’s seed, I trust this letter speaks to all who are counted in the number as numerous as the stars.

My beloved son Isaac,

I write these words to you as my journey on this earth will soon be complete. Though I have much to leave you with in worldly wealth and prosperity, I do not see that as your true inheritance. Worldly wealth is one thing, but spiritual wealth much more. Take this to heart. It is the treasure that you must seek and safeguard. This I have learned as I’ve journeyed on this earth, and believe me, I’ve journeyed. It seems like my life has been one of constant movement, moving here, moving there. I am a nomad. But that is the life of faith – willing to follow the call of the Lord where he might lead.

And oh, the blessed calling of God. It saved my life and brought about yours. I’ve told you this before, but I must say it again. When the Lord calls, listen and follow. I didn’t grasp this until later in life, until it seemed like my life was to end in nothing. Indeed, I had plenty of wealth, but you can’t take that with you. Most painfully, I had no son, no descendant, no heir to bless and pass on my life. What despair filled your mother and I. It’s all that filled her empty womb. We cried plenty, but eventually adjusted. We were cursed and we had to learn to live with it.

Then, the call came. You’ve heard this before, my son, but hear it again. The call rang through our hearts like an unbelievable hope. It seemed too good to be true. It seemed ludicrous. Me, the father of a great nation? Your mom, the grand matriarch of children as numerous as the stars above? Perhaps it seemed to others that we were grasping at straw for some ray of hope. To us, it was truth, spoken to us with assurance, something I couldn’t resist believing. This promise, unlike all the other promises of this life, would come true.

This is not to say it was all easy, as if my trust was perfect. I dare not hide in a false cloak of self-righteous faith lest my shameful nakedness be exposed. I made plenty of mistakes, plenty of foolish attempts at fulfilling the promise my way. I had to learn to trust with patience. My attempts to create this promised future were as barren as your mother’s womb.

Despite my foolishness, the call and promise remained. Remember this above all, my son, The Lord is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. We are defined by grace, by the divine gift of love. We must not be defined by anything else, not work or wealth or status or accomplishment, only God’s grace. As I’ve learned, the work of my flesh could not create the future I desired. It was grace that brought life to my soul. It was grace that gave purpose to my life. It was grace that filled your mother’s parched womb with life. It was grace that promised and provided a future. It was grace that brought true laughter to our lives.

Grace defines me, a weary old man who deserved nothing, but was given everything. May grace define you, for you too are called by God. You are the promised child, the start of the great nation God promised. Do I know how he’s going to make this all happen? I do not, but this I do know. You are here. Outside of God’s power and grace, you don’t exist. It would be impossible. I don’t know how his promise will be fulfilled, but I know it will. Cling to this. Never abandon it. Live each day trusting in the promise. Someday we’ll see it all and we’ll see the small, but significant role that we each played in God’s grand design.

It’s not always an easy life, but we seek a life beyond this life, a treasure beyond all worldly treasures, a country beyond what this earth can offer. Never settle for what this world offers. Never desire to settle in it and feel at home here. By faith, live a nomadic life. Be on constant journey with God toward the better country – the heavenly one.

I leave these words as my testimony, my statement of faith. Remember these words. Live them out. Make them your own. Pass them on to the children that will come, those numbered by the sand on the seashore.

I love you, my beloved Isaac.

You are the child of promise.

Your father, Abraham

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Weaned from the Momentary

Wisdom is needed in times like these, times where words are many. As Ecclesiastes 10.14 instructs us, 

“A fool multiplies words,
though no man knows what is to be,
and who can tell him what will be after him?” (ESV)

In this political season (do we really have a distinct season anymore?) we hear many words on both sides. Before the election we heard many words of what would happen. Now after the election, we hear many words of what is and what is now going to happen. To the victor goes the spoils, so they say, so at this moment the vision of secularized humanism, with its own morality, is claiming its spoils and ready to assume the role as master of the future. In the midst of this, the above wisdom is needed to get beyond the “momentary.” Some claim that a new America is upon us – that there is no going back. Indeed, we shouldn’t desire to go back. The question becomes, to what end are we moving forward? It is a question of eschatologies, or visions of what the end goal is. On the one side, you have the eschatology of secular humanism and defining life and morality how we wish. On the other, you have the eschatology of the kingdom of God, where God defines the purpose of life and morality in the fullness of his glory and love. We must be careful as Christians though, because the purposes of the kingdom of God are bigger than either political party’s platform and the vision of secular humanism is found from different angles in each. But in the midst of claims of surety of the future, with talks of mandates and demographic certainties and getting on the “right side” of history…etc, it is wise to be silent for a bit and reflect. With all the focus on politics and politicians and political strategy, what is lost, first of all, is who we are. We are not, first of all, political animals who should reduce everything to polls and focus groups and demographic shifts. We are first of all human beings – individuals created in the image of God – each and every one, including those in the womb. So as the winners speak brashly about the future and the certainties of the new America before us and as the losers seek to figure out politically what to do to win as they are chided for their inherent folly, let’s be wise to our task as Christians and not allow the culture at-large to control and define us. Let’s seek wise counsel that looks more broadly and eternally, that which is “weaned from the momentary.” I’m reminded of these words from Malcolm Muggeridge’s book, A Third Testament, (Plough 2002)In one chapter he is focusing on the life and testimony of Soren Kierkegaard. Muggeridge writes,

“Take, for instance, [Kierkegaard’s] profound sense that if men lost the solitude or separateness that an awareness of the presence of God alone can give, they would soon find themselves irretrievably part of a collectivity with only mass communications to shape their hopes, formulate their values and arrange their thinking” (p. 81)

He then quotes Kierkegaard, who is writing prophetically in the mid-1800’s.

“Suppose someone invented an instrument, a convenient little talking tube which, say, could be heard over the whole land…I wonder if the police would not forbid it, fearing that the whole country would become mentally deranged if it were used. On the whole the evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary. If Christianity is really to be proclaimed, it will become apparent that it is the daily press which will, if possible, make it impossible. There has never been a power so diametrically opposed to Christianity as the daily press. Day in and day out the daily press does nothing but delude men with the supreme axiom of this lie, that numbers are decisive. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on the thought that the truth lies in the single individual.

It is very doubtful, then, that the age will be saved through the notion of social organization, of association. In our age the principle of association (which may at best have validity with respect only to material interests)…is an evasion, a dissipation, an illusion, whose dialectic is that as it strengthens individuals, so it weakens them. It strengthens by numbers, by solidarity, but from the ethical point of view this is a weakening. Not until the single individual has established an ethical stance in spite of the whole world, not until then can there be any question of genuinely uniting. Otherwise it gets to be a union of people who separately are weak; a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage” (pp. 81-82).

I’m not arguing here for suppression of people’s speech, but for Christian self-suppression of our ears to listen too carefully to it and be paralyzed by it. Much of it is the speech of fools – on both political sides. As Christians, we must first tune our ears to the wisdom and truth that has stood the test of time and to the Word who is from all eternity. The future is sure all right, but it is not based on any election of man, but upon the resurrection of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. As Christians, we must promote and proclaim the true dignity of each individual, that they are not creatures of their own making, but those made in the image of God. We must work to that end, to preserve that dignity, to proclaim that vision, and to work strongly to counter attacks that seek to reduce the individual to a fetus, a mere consumer, a mere sexual being, or a mere political animal. We must fight against these reductions because they enslave, oppress, and destroy. Above all, we must speak the eternal word of the gospel, so that individuals are heightened through the grace of God as they become brothers and sisters of the God-man Jesus Christ and so share in the glorious inheritance of the kingdom of God. God instructs us “to be still and know that I am God” so that we might be weaned from the momentary. Instead, may we eat and drink of eternal food so that we might remember our call and be freed from the paralyzing doubt of the moment.

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Nurturing a Child to be Formed in God’s Image, not vice versa

The following excerpt is from an interview with Christian author and pastor Francis Chan in a recent Christianity Today interview. The full interview can be found here.

Chan is discussing the role of parenting and how parenting’s greatest role is to teach the nature of God and how we relate to him. Too often, parenting in our day fails to nurture children to be formed in the image of God and instead nurtures children to by default form a god in their own image. May we have the courage as parents to hear these words and teach our children the truth and love of their Creator and Redeemer.

“I explained that our job [as parents] is to represent God well. As a dad I’ve seen my shortcomings. At times I want to distance myself from the child that’s bothering me or rebellious and go play with the other ones. And I realized, I’m not representing God. And there are dads who let their kids get away with everything and there is no sense of authority. And it’s because of [this] that kids grow up also having a weak [view] of God himself. [People think] ‘[God] doesn’t have the right to do this.” We kind of learn that from our dads, who weren’t strong enough to say, “No, I can tell you to quit throwing a tantrum.”

I see in Scripture a God who says, “Look, when I say something it goes, I don’t care if your feelings are this or that. At the end of the day, I am God and I say and do what I want.”

And I’ve been careful to communicate that to my children. And make sure that they do respect me. Why? Because I want them growing up with the respect of God that I see in Scripture. Are my kids afraid of me? No, they are secure in me. We’re in love. I don’t want to boast because I [do] this is all to the glory of God, but I’ve got an awesome family and I’m best friends with my kids. At the same time, they aren’t going to talk back to me.

Our culture has become one where kids talk back to their parents and people openly mock our president. And in the church, the things the people say about their pastors, the elders! There really is no respect for authority. So how do we help people understand a God who is free to do as he pleases?”

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Who Resembles Whom?

The recent royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton brought up the discussion in our home again of the somewhat close resemblance William and I share. Whenever it is brought up, it is always stated that I resemble William. I typically take exception to this because the facts are the facts: I am older than he. By considering that simple and important fact, the opposite is actually true. I don’t resemble him. He resembles me. The usual response from my wife is that age doesn’t matter, but prestige. No one looks at William and says, “Hey, he looks like that guy from Kalamazoo.” At that, I am left to merely repeat my earlier objection, but repetition doesn’t help to win the discussion. I must admit, the prestige argument beats the age argument.

This turned my thinking to our Christian life and the resemblance that we’re supposed to have with Christ. The Christian life is a continual process of growing closer and closer in resemblance to Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul states in Romans 13.14, “…clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

Here’s the rub. Far too often, instead of clothing ourselves with Christ and seeking to resemble him, we instead clothe Christ with ourselves as we gratify the desires of the sinful nature. This gets us back to the original topic of who resembles whom. Does William resemble me or do I resemble William? The deciding factor was prestige. Whoever has higher prestige is the one who is resembled not the one who resembles. So it is with our life with Christ. If we recognize the truth, that Christ has greater prestige than us because of his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, we will seek to resemble him in our lives. But, if we are still more self-absorbed with ourselves and live sinfully and foolishly as if we have more prestige than Christ, people won’t see Christ in us, but will see a false Christ. They will merely see us. The problem is that many Christians live their lives this way, as if they have more prestige than Christ. They make Christ into their own image rather than being made in the image of Christ.

In your relationship with Christ, who resembles whom?

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Do You Feel the Ground Shaking?

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.” Haggai 2.6

The above was part of the text I preached from this past Sunday morning. The question I posed was, “Do we feel the spiritual shaking that is ongoing in the world through Christ’s movement, which began at Christmas?”

I opened with talking about how common physical earthquakes are in the world. Stats show that an earthquake can be felt somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. The earth is shaking all the time. I also relayed that on Christmas day, a 4.7 magnitude quake was felt in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Seismologists tell us that the quake was one of hundreds of aftershocks from a larger quake that struck in early September.

My whole point was whether we are aware of the spiritually shaking that the Holy Spirit is doing around the world to change hearts and lives. With how common quakes are in the physical earth, are we spiritually sensitive enough to recognize them happening all the time in the spiritual transformation of the Holy Spirit?

The one thing that I totally missed saying, which would have worked perfect was tying together my opening illustration with my main point. It hit me later how perfect that the place where the earthquake happened on Christmas day was a city named Christchurch. A physical earthquake in Christchurch – now what about a spiritual earthquake in Christ’s church? The question becomes, what aftershocks are we feeling in Christ’s church, both here and around the world that have come as a result of the Son of God coming in human flesh? Are we sensitive to them or are our spiritual seismometers dull and in need of rehabilitation? What might Christ need to do to shake us up and wake us to his work in the world?

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A Stranger in His Own Home

A Meditation for Christmas based on John 1.1-14

Everyone was on the move. That’s what Luke’s gospel tells us. Caesar had decreed a census, so as Luke tells us, “everyone went to his own town to register.” Everyone was on the move. They were going home. Going home to be counted – to be noted on a Roman ledger that they existed. Of course to Rome, the reason to know who existed was to know how much money it could gain in taxes. It desired money that the glory of Rome might be further extended. It wasn’t cheap to bring the glories of Rome to outlying peoples.

So as Rome desired to be on the move in extending its own glory, they demanded everyone else be on the move to. To create a better world, Rome needed you to go home.

How fitting that while everyone else was on the move, so was God. Luke tells us that when Joseph and Mary had arrived in his ancestral home, Bethlehem, “the time came for the baby to be born.” As we hear it from John’s perspective, the birth of this baby was the eternal Word made flesh. The eternal Son of God leaving his glorious heavenly robes and donning human flesh covered with common clothes.

Coming at this time, when a census was demanded for the glory of Rome, when everyone was on the move to his home, it’s almost as if God wanted to be counted too. It’s as if the God of the universe wanted his name included on that Roman ledger. As he came into a world so focused on its own self-interest and glory, he’s nudging his way in, saying, “Hey, don’t forget about me.” In all your self-focused efforts to expand your glory and make a name for yourself, haven’t you forgotten about somebody? After all, I am the one who created all this.”

That’s what John tells us in v. 1-3, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” While Luke puts Jesus’ birth in the immediate historical context of Rome’s vain self-creation of the world, John puts Jesus’ birth in the broad context of God’s creation of the world. John is saying, “You see this baby before you. He is the incarnation of the true God who created the whole world.”

And as everyone was going to his own home town to register in Luke’s story, God too was coming home, in a way, in John’s gospel. As John says in v.11, “He came to that which was his own.” The earth was his creation, it was a place he created that he might dwell with his beloved creatures. At creation, he dwelled with us in the Garden of Eden and the whole rest of the Bible is him working to make that possible again after we messed that all up.

And so as everyone is on the move, so is God. He came to that which was his own, but as John continues in v. 11, the harsh reality is this, “but his own did not receive him.” John says in the verse earlier, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” They didn’t recognize him and they didn’t receive him. He was a stranger in his own home.

The world didn’t want him. Why? Because they had their own plans for how the house should look, how it should be designed. And in all their self-interested pursuits, God comes and says, put my name on that ledger. Don’t forget about me, for without me you’ll never attain what you truly long for. But with great effort, his own sought to as quickly as possible eliminate his name from that ledger. Herod sought to kill him as an infant. His hometown eventually rejected him. The Pharisees plotted to kill him. Eventually, he was killed, at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. At that point, they sought to give him a permanent home, shut up in a tomb. There they thought they could confine him from messing up their plans for the world.

And really, for much of the world, that is where Jesus stays – shut away. Merely a name in the historical ledger of a life valiantly lived, but now ceased.

But the message of Christmas says, “Wait!” As everyone is on the move still, from high-minded national pursuits to self-interested and self-gratifying personal pursuits, so too is God. You see, the world couldn’t contain Jesus in that final “home.” He burst forth and rose again. And because of the resurrection, Christmas after Christmas reminds us that God is still on the move. And again, he wants to be counted, counted on our own personal ledger. That Jesus will count in our hearts as the reason for why we live and move and have our being. For it is through him that each and every one of us was created.

The question for us is this, is Jesus a stranger in his own home of our hearts? Have we turned away from recognizing him? Have we turned away from receiving him while we pursue our own path or wants or desires? Or does Jesus feel right at home in our hearts that recognize him as our Creator and receive him as our Savior? That is the question before us today. Merry Christmas!


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