Understanding


Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, “Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood.

Joshua 20: 1-3

 

The cities of refuge that are discussed here in Joshua have a very slight connection to the politically motivated and dedicated ones of our times. In admittedly simplistic terms, the cities of refuge of today’s world are a protest statement against laws and governmental attitudes that the leadership of these cities stand in disagreement with. The places that God through Moses instructed Joshua to dedicate were primarily about redemption and forgiveness. They created an opportunity for people who stood under penalty of a sentence of death in certain circumstances to gain an opportunity to be pardoned and set free to live within the society again. They also cut short the potential for a cycle of violence that revolved around revenge and retribution. These ancient cities of refuge are closely related to the way that God has worked with people and in our world since our first days upon the earth.

 

When Paul said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3: 23, 24), he is making a very inclusive statement. The “all” there is a group that enfolds you and me and every other person who has ever drawn breath in this world. We are born with a sentence of death already proclaimed for us, and we will live out our days awaiting its execution upon us if we do not encounter and respond to God’s offer of refuge that comes to us in and through Christ. In God’s great and marvelous graciousness, He took His desire to offer redemption to us to another level of accessibility. In Jesus, God made it so that the cities of refuge in our world are as close as the air that surrounds us. He eliminated the need for us to travel to His designated place, and instead, God came into our world in a manner that makes His love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness real and tangibly present with everyone. We dwell inside of the walls of our city of refuge if we will simply open our eyes to grasp its reality.

 

Christ opens the door to salvation, and He invites us in. This invitation is ours to accept or to reject, but even that offer is an on-going thing. The Lord continues to seek after people as He goes to every end of the earth in His pursuit of us. Unlike these cities in Joshua’s day, Christ’s offer of grace covers all of the sinfulness that we may engage in, for there is nothing that we can do that is greater than the life-saving sacrifice that Jesus offered up on our behalf. God’s heart and His intent is to be known by all people; so, He offers His redemption to all of us. This is the same inclusive “all” that defines our lost state in Romans. When we accept Christ’s offer of refuge, we are set free from the death of sin that covered us previously. Thus, in this new life that we have been granted we are sent out to live fully in the presence of God and to bring the reality of that life that we now enjoy into contact with a world that is still in need of that safe and secure place of refuge.

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But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Galatians 5: 15

 

This idea might seem quaint, old-fashioned, or even foolish today. For the world where we live takes great delight in the way that we put down others and looks to gain power and dominance by means of the words that we use to describe people who differ from us. This is something that is going on across political, social, and economic lines, and it is, sadly, also far too much a part of the nature of the dialogue within the holy realm of Christ’s own church. Thus, what Jesus shed His most precious blood to consecrate is often being reduced to something that would shame a back-alley shout-down. This is true even when the civility of lowered voices and the decorum of the setting are maintained as a façade, for when the heart is enraged, its murderous intent still stings, wounds, and commits acts of murder upon the spirit

 

In Christ, we are called to something better than this. We are also led by the Spirit into a manner of engagement that should not utilize verbal and emotional assault as a weapon and that should not accept it in people who we follow and whose direction we take for the conduct of the business of our days. This is the sort of thing that diminished the God-image based humanity of all who enter into such exchanges, and I fear that this is the intent, either overt or underlying, of people who resort to verbal character assassination, graphically negative description of others, and rapid fire, long distance put-downs as a valid method of dialogue or debate. Yet, this is what we are doing. This is the way that we have become accustomed to hearing the views of those who rule this world expressed, and far too many of us in the church are applauding these utterly worldly words and giving credence to their cleverness, force, and truth-saying when they deserve nothing more than rejection and rebuke for the this-world centered nature and character of their content and the hurtful desire of their delivery.

 

In case you are beginning to look toward singular people and say that this is about one person or a specific point of reference in the on-going discourse of our world, please reconsider, think again. For my heart is troubled by much more than what a person or even a political party might be saying. I am joining with Paul in my concern over what is happening inside of Christ’s church. We can and perhaps even should disagree on the issues of our day. Yet, we should never look toward another follower of Christ in a manner that is dismissive or unloving and that does anything to sever the bonds of fellowship that Christ gave His all to construct among us. I will say this again, we can disagree. We even must disagree, for the dialogue around the way and the manner that God’s Word informs and speaks into the issues of our times is an important aspect of the way that the Spirit works out His will and intent in and among us. We should also hold our public figures accountable for speaking truth, for the direction that they lead us, and for the manner in which they engage in the discourse. However, we must never resort to the ways of this world in doing these things, for that path is one that does nothing other than bring division and destruction into Christ’s most precious body of faith.

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.

1 Corinthians 7: 17

 

At first this verse might seem to be about contentment; about accepting who and what you are. Those ideas are exposed here, but there is also much more. This is about the fact that people are complicated and complex. We are diverse in ways that are both large-scale and obvious and at the same time, subtly nuanced or shaded. People are a direct reflection of the one who created us as we are so made in God’s image. None of us are the totality if that image in ourselves, but in the sum total of all of us, we begin to demonstrate a more complete expression of the Creator.

 

This does not mean that we each come into a relationship with God in a fully formed condition or that there is not growth and reforming to be done over time. God takes us where we are and as we are at that time, and He begins a life-long process of working on and in us to shape us into being a more fully developed person who brings the presence of God into the world. Yet, God’s acceptance of each of us means that His earthly family, His body, is populated by people who are different from each other in almost every way that it is possible for us to differ. This means that we are going to be in close relationship with people from other social and economic situations, with vast educational disparity, who speak various languages and do so with interestingly odd to us accents. God also brings together racial differences, cultural divides, and various political persuasions into one great gathering based upon faith in Christ and founded upon the fact that He breaks down all divisions and barriers between His people.

 

God calls upon us to live in this diverse and even troubling or uncomfortable environment. He directs us to focus upon our commonality in Christ rather than upon the differences that we perceive in our humanity. God directs His people to live out to the fullest the gifts, skills, talents, and personality that we have been given as all of this is a part of that complete image of the Creator that is formed by Christ’s body when we are gathered together. We can turn to Christ to help us gain in our ability to be accepting of who and what we are in His kingdom, and we can do the same regarding others in the body of Christ in order to come to a place of acceptance and understanding of them, for Christ’s grace, love, and wisdom are the gifts that He grants to us so that we can learn to live in the manner that He desires for us to do. In Christ and through His grace, we, His Body, are bearers of light in our world, and we bring forth the hope of peace that Christ alone sets out as the goal of life on earth and as the gateway to eternity.

 

 

The LORD is good,

a stronghold in the day of trouble;

he knows those who take refuge in him.

Nahum 1: 7

 

Motives are not always easy to understand. We think that we know someone and get the way that they think or what drives their actions and then they say or do something that completely disorients us and that turns our world upside down. So, we pick ourselves up, set our spinning eyes on a fixed spot on the horizon, and chalk up the chaos to human nature. There is some real truth to the idea that the inconsistencies and the disruptive actions that pervade our world are a part of the fabric of our human tapestry of life. Now I do believe that they are formed up and compelled onward by forces from beyond the realm of people’s experience, for deception, lies, confusion, violence, and other such destructive actions are devised and empowered by the fallen, anti-God operatives whose allegiance is to Satan. This war between God and the dark angel has been going on continually throughout earth’s history, and it will continue to impact our lives and influence our world until Christ permanently ends it all.

 

Until then, we live in the ongoing drama of this tension, and we do need to understand God’s motives for what He does as they are different from those of His adversary. Everything that God does and all of His interaction with His Creation, especially with the people of this world, is formed up and compelled by His goodness. This is in direct and absolute contrast to the dark evil of Satan and to the deep deception that he attempts to fill our world with. God’s goodness is also what He desires to pour out into our lives. This is primarily done as His Word and its truth become our guidance for thinking and for acting in all aspects of our days. God’s Word is made real and alive in relationship with Him, and relationship with God is entered into through being known by Christ and so by knowing Him. This is something that we choose to do. God does not compel us to accept relationship with Him, but there is truly no other way to enter into the peace and the security of wisdom and truth in our troubled world than through that intimate connection to their author and source.

 

In Christ, we find that safe harbor, that sheltering cave that are the literary images for a secure place to go when there are powerful forces of nature or of human derivation that are ready to overtake and to destroy us. Yet, Christ is far more than just an image. He is the most real and solidly tangible form of shelter that exists in all of this world and beyond. That word of truth, the presence of His Spirit, and the support of Christ’s body of faith are all parts of one great whole that forms a tangible sanctuary for our minds, bodies, and souls. When we enter into this place we are often battered and weary from the journey and because of the fight that we have been engaged in; so, Christ takes us in and He grants us rest and time for recovery. Since He knows us to a degree that is beyond the grasp of human reason, the Lord enters into meeting our real needs and starts working on our restoration. Christ grants to us a place to lie down and sleep in safety, to be fed upon His bread of life, and to fill our thirsty souls with His restorative waters of redemption.

In God, whose word I praise,

in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.

What can flesh do to me?

Psalm 56: 4

 

Last night was a busy one in our neighborhood. As the month of October came to an end, the streets and our front door were filled with laughter, running feet, and mostly very young voices calling out, “Trick or Treat!” It is a night that we enjoy and look forward to with more positive anticipation than apprehension. The costumes that are worn by our youngest neighbors vary greatly in theme and in complexity. They range from happy themes such as princesses and cowboys to scary ones along the lines of zombies and vampires. Yet, even the most terrifying of costume themes do not bring about any real fear, for we all know that behind it all are the hearts of a small children. So, we look at what under other circumstances would be frightening and fear inducing and we laugh and smile at the joy that surrounds the night’s activity. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther confronted a different form of fear and did something truly decisive about its control over people.

 

Although we commemorate Luther’s powerful moment of open defiance when on October 31, 1517 he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses onto the door of the church in Wittenberg, this was just a public demonstration of his bigger battle against power and control of people by others. It was a very large step into the freedom of the truth that is at the center of God’s Word, and it was a bold act of fearless obedience to the leading of the Lord. Luther found that David’s expression of faith and trust in the Lord as stated in the 56th Psalm spoke to him in a personal way. His thoughts and the actions that he was led to take took him out of safety and into direct confrontation with people and with systems in his world that were mighty and that were capable of doing him great harm. No doubt, there were people who counseled him to remain quiet, to submit to authority, and to stay safe. Yet, that was not what he did.

 

Instead, Luther followed the one voice that he knew he could trust with all and beyond all others, for he listened to the words of truth that flowed out of God’s Word and that were reinforced to him by the Spirit of Christ within. Like David before him, when there were enemies to be found all around him and there were no safe places to go, he trusted in the powerful protection, comfort, and strengthening that Christ grants to His people. From this place of security, Luther stepped out in faith and led the way for us all to step into the light of God’s truth that flows out of His word and that defeats all of this world’s attempts to dominate and to control the lives of people. If we follow Christ, we will each face the opposition of this world and there will be enemies to encounter and to engage with. We are called by the Lord to be active and to be bold in our proclamation of His Gospel of truth, love, and redemption. I pray that I have the courage and the faith to follow along the path of my kinsmen David and Luther by lifting that hammer and placing my trust in Christ openly before the entire world to see.

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one.

1 Corinthians 8: 4

 

As we start out today, I am making an assumption, and that is that very few of us are concerned about the consumption of foodstuffs that were previously used as sacrifices to various types and forms of gods or in other religious practices. This was a real issue in Paul’s world, and it is simply not as obviously pervasive in ours as it was in his. Yet, the fact that idols exist is something that I think is important for us to consider in our culture and in our lives, and almost in contrast to the approach that Paul took toward the sacrificial foods, I think that the way that we feed our idols and the idolatrous foods that we consume are important to consider.

 

We live in an age of consumption. It often seems that the primary fuel that feeds our world is made up of the goods and the services that we can purchase and utilize for the sake of personal enjoyment, pleasure, and self-worth appeasement. These things that take on great importance to us are not very different from the idols that were so prevalent in Paul’s times, for they too demand our attention, bring us to a place of worship for their sake, and engage our passion as disciples to their cause and of their personage. We can each look introspectively at our lives and into our hearts in order to determine where this sort of over zealous commitment to things of this world might be found. They can be relatively minor in their impact upon living for Christ, and they can be powerfully consuming and devastating to the same purpose and calling.

 

Regardless of the depth of commitment to the idol or of the amount of personal resource it demands from us, everything that ascends to this level of ownership over us is something that drives its wedge of distraction and distance between Christ and us. Anything that takes us away from our ability to focus on the Lord’s calling and commission for our lives or that places itself above Christ in priority for us, even if this is only momentary in duration, is an idol, and it will demand that we feed it out of the precious resource that is our love, devotion, and submission to righteousness. Fortunately Paul also gives us an answer to this universal challenge. He points us toward the one singular truth that changes everything in the fact that there is only one real God. All of these other things are false and are made by our hands out of the raw materials that God, Himself, created for us. So, everything in life that takes us away from serving Christ with the fullest possible expression of our heart and the complete engagement of our passions can and should be placed behind Christ so that all of our being is dedicated without distraction or diversion to service to our God.

 

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