Wednesday, December 02, 2015

"Take Time to be Holy"

“Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.” (William D. Longstaff)

One of the great hymns that exhort each other in worship is indeed ‘Take Time to be Holy’ by William D. Longstaff. Written around 1882.
It emphasizes an essential aspect of biblical spirituality--spiritual life is lived intentionally, it requires effort. Billy Graham said years ago that to go to hell we don’t have to do anything, the road leads there anyway. But to make it to heaven, one has to really steer away.
Holiness is not just having good thoughts, deeds or attitudes. It is not defined in reference to us or to our world around. It is living a life that pleases God. God alone is holy and he demands that ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (1 Pet 1:16 ESV). Actions, words, thoughts, attitudes and all that do matter but only if it meets God’s standards. His holiness is the standard for our holiness. This holiness requires determination from our side, it doesn’t come automatically.
The reason for making conscious effort to lead lives that meet God’s standard is that the ‘world rushes on.’ The world is in a mad rush and it can carry us with us unless we are careful. The world keeps us busy so that we have no time think about anything at all and that includes God. So, we get caught in this mad rush that forces us to even ignore to eat, sleep having time with our families. This combined with a lifestyle that ignores God is the recipe for disaster. So, it is important to pull aside from the maddening crowd and its din to find quality time with God.
This requires us to focus on Jesus, spending time in secret prayer and meditate his Word. To grow into his likeness is a wonderful goal in life.

Friday, November 27, 2015

'Helpless Babe!'

The famous song ‘Servant King’ by Graham Kendricks begins with this line: ‘From heaven You came helpless babe.’ It is indeed a wonderful song which goes on to describe Jesus who is ‘The Servant King.’ However, the phrase ‘helpless babe’ needs to be explored. How helpless was this babe born to Mary in a little manger in Bethlehem whom we celebrate during the season of Christmas? Or put in other words who was Jesus in his incarnation?
The christological hymn in Philippians 2:6-10 is certainly profound. However, the phrase ‘but made himself nothing’ (Phil 2:7) has given rise to much speculattion. The Greek phrase literally means ‘but he emptied himself’ as CEB puts it. However most English translations avoid the literal meaning. The English Standard Version has it as ‘but made himself nothing’ and KJV has it as ‘But made himself of no reputation.’ The original word comes from the Greek word KENOW which means ‘empty.’
The resason why the translations avoid the literal translation is to avoid a debate called Kenosis Theory. This theory was propounded in the beginning of the 19th century with good intentions. It proposed that Jesus in his incarnation was limited in omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Then there were many variations of the theory down through the centuries. This theory tried to explain why Jesus in his human form seems to have limited in his knowledge—he doesn’t know the times and days appointed by the father. Seems to have limited power—he did not resist the arrest. He was limited by his language and culture—he lived and died as a Jew.
I have nothing more to add to this debate but would like to use insights from these discussions to understand this ‘helpless babe’ that Graham Kendricks popularized through his song, ‘The Servant King.’
The meaning of the word ‘empty’ is not in the word itself but in what Jesus revealed to us about himself in words and deeds. I want to suggest that ‘emptying’ here gets a new dimension of meaning. Just two aspects of it. In becoming man, he did not leave his divinity nor did he become less divine. But ‘emptying here’ implies two things: first of all he restrained his divine power and secondly, he veiled his glory.
On the very outset would like to make another observation. Jesus prayed in John 17:5, ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’ This does not mean a glory that was lost but a glory that was veiled.
Instead of suggesting that Jesus was devoid of his divine power I would like to suggest that he was still with the divine power but restrained it and used it discreetly. It is true that Jesus did not resist when he was attacked physically. Once they tried to push him over the cliff and kill him. It is also true that he did struggle with hunger pangs. At Jacob’s well in Samaria we find him thirsting for water.
But the Gospels also present another side of Jesus’ power. He exercised his power over domains where humans have no authority over. This is evident in his exorcisms and nature miracles. Here his power over the domain of Satan and the nature as the creator is evident.
The Jewish and Hellenistic excorcists of his day used means to drive out demons. For example in the Book of Tobit the demon called Asmadaeus was destroyed using a strange mixture fish gall and other herbs which angel Raphael prescribed. But Jesus did not drive out demons by the helpe of any means. They just dreaded his presence, and they were driven out by the power of his word. As creator God he exercised his power over the nature—over the waves and the wind. He was not powerless but in his incarnation he just restrained his power and used it discreetly.
This power he did not gain through training, as he grew up. He did not cultivate these skills, but he was born with it as the Word became flesh. The babe in the manger was not a helpless babe. But he was born with power to help the helpless and hopeless. However, he took the form of a helpless babe.
Secondly in his incarnation Christ did not give up his glory, but he simply veiled his glory.
However, a plain reading of John 17:5 may suggest that he was devoid of his glory in his incarnation. Here he prayed: ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’
What does this mean? Does this mean that he was devoid of the divine glory while he was on earth? I think the emphasis of the passage is on two different aspects. First of all, the emphasis here is on ‘glorifying’ than on glory. Glorifying simply means acknowledging the glory that is already there than bestowing the glory. Secondly, we must also note that the emphasis is on the place than on the state. It has to do with being in a glorified position in heaven, after his resurrection, ascension and session on God’s right hand. It doesn’t imply that he was without glory on earth.
The evidence that he was with glory on earth but veiled and not devoid of it is narrated than stated. The Gospel accounts provide us with enough evidence to this fact. Just as he restrained his divine power in his incarnation, he veiled his glory within the flesh that he chose to put on in his incarnation.
However, it had at times broke through the thick cover of human flesh that he put on. One such instance is the Transfiguration that we find in Mark 9.2-3.
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.
Every miracle, especially the nature miracles, in particular the one where he walked defying the wind over the waves was display of his glory and power as the creator of the world.
John 2:11
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11 ESV).
So, his closest disciple would later reflect on their life together on earth in the following words.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV).
He was born with this glory; it is not gathered over the years. The baby in the manger was not a helpless babe! He was God in all glory but a veiled glory. It was not glory to dazzle feeble human eyes but to be revealed very discreetly.
There were people who were touched by his glory and power throughout his period of incarnation! They are the disciples who witnessed his miracles, those who experienced his power, those who testify that they saw his glory.
He maintained that power and glory even at the height of his physical weakness and shame. The soldiers who came to arrest him in the Garden of Gathsemene are witnesses to this. They saw him when he was at the lowest of his human state. He was holed up in a garden at night, spent the whole night pleading with God to avoid that moment, however failed. He was sleepless and hungry, deserted by his own dear friends. It was at that moment the soldiers came to arrest him. However, when he said ‘I am he’ they experiened the divine power of those words and his presence and ‘drew back and fell to the ground’ (John 18:6).
Another example is the Roman centurion who was in charge of Jesus’ execution. He recognized in the bleeding, weak, dying Jesus the Son of God. The Gospel of Mark records:
And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he 1 breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son 2 of God!” Mark 15:39 ESV.
So we conclude that the baby was cute, weak and adorable. However, he came with to us in a manger restraining his power and veiling his glory. He did not cultivate power and glory through a tapas or training. This our king, born in a manger. Looked helpless. But full of divine power and glory!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

‘God Remembered Noah’

When my wife is away, I get into the kitchen for my culiniary experiments. Having followed the recipe in all its details, I leave it to be cooked on the stove and get back to my desk. Most of the time, I get so engrossed in my work and remember my cooking only when the burning smell wafts to my office from the kitchen. That is when I remember that I had left a vessel on a burning stove.
Genesis 8:1 surprises us with this obervation: ‘But God remembered Noah’ (ESV). This is the first time the word ‘remember’ occurs in the Bible. Does this mean that God had forgotten Noah and all that he has in the ark? What would have happened if God did not remember them—certainly it would have been disastrous. The supply of food would not last for ever for all of them.
This short phrase brings out the turning point in whole story—a turning point from the devastating flood to the new earth and newness of life. In other words it is the fulcrum on which the events turn from annihiliation to reconstruction. Chapter 7 begins with the beginning of the flood. Around the middle of this chapter we see the fury of the waters that drowned everything—waters from inside the earth, above the earth and then torrential rains lashed to lift the ark up and to drown even mountain peaks (Gen 7:11-12). Chapter 7 ends with the report that the flood is still abating.
He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. (Gen 7:23-23 ESV).
Then comes this short sentence bringing with it relief rousing in us the eagerness to know what is going to happen next: ‘But God remembered Noah’ (Gen 8:1 ESV). I would rather like to translate it as ‘then God remembered Noah’ because God’s act of remembering is part of the series of events that we see in Genesis 7. Fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens that were opened to flood the earth are now closed. The rain that persisted for 150 days also ‘was restrained’ (8:2). God had already made a ‘wind to blow over the earth’ so that the ‘water recede’ (8:1). Then finally, the story goes on to tell us how the tops of the mountains became visible, new shoots came out of the trees, dry land appeared and how they landed safely on the new earth as the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat. All because ‘God remembered Noah.’
When God remembers things take a new turn, not only here but throughout the Bible. The reason for Lot’s escape from the destruction was that ‘God remembered Abraham’ (Gen 19:29). When God remembered barren Rachel she gave birth to a child (Gen 30:22). The reason for the deliverance of the Israelite slaves from Egypt was nothing but ‘God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Exod 2:24). In the New Testament Zechariah the priest affirms his faith in the God ‘who remembers his holy covenant’ (Luke 1:72).
God’s remembrance is the basis for our prayer both positively and negatively. Positively we pray God to remember us fully assured that God will act. When God remembers with favour things are going to be positive. So, when asking for God’s favour in his life Job prayed: ‘Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good’ (Job 7:7 ESV). So also the Psalmist prayes, ‘Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old’ (Psa 25:6 ESV). Making God to ‘remember’ is to make God to act.
Negatively, we ask God not to remember what we have done to earn his displeasure. The dreadful reality is that when God remembers sins things are going to turn against us. So the Psalmist prays:
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! (Psa 25:7 ESV).
Thus when God ‘remembers,’ things take a new turn. People of God had prayed to God to remember their faithfulness as the supplicant of Psalm 20:3 prayed or to remember their helplessness as Job did (Job 7:7). We can also plead for God not to remember our sins so that his favour will remain upon us. Whichever way it goes we cling on to the divine promise that we find in Isaiah 43:25:
I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins. (Isa 43:25 ESV).

Thursday, September 03, 2015

'Fool' redefined

Usually we take a ‘fool’ to be an unknowdegeable person. A random search for the meaning of ‘fool’ on Google landed me on this definition: ‘a person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person.’ You might have come across quite a number of people (some with earned doctoral degrees from reputed universities) who are foolish in their behaviour. Foolishness is thus not a matter of how much a person know but how a person behaves.
That is closer to the definition that we find in the bible where a ‘fool’ is a person who behaves ignoring God (Psa 14:1). Fools not only deny God but also refuse to learn wisdom that comes from God. In addition to being unteachable they cannot be disciplined (Prov 15:5). So, by refusing to learn but guided by their own ‘wisdom’ they end up in trouble always (Prov 14:3). They cause trouble to others as well, as their behaviour is not in line with the expectations of the society and the standards of God (Psa 53:1).
Though not exclusive, Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 offers a closer look at the concept of ‘fool.’
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many words. When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. (Eccl 5:1-7 ESV).
The fools are characterized by their rash speech. Note that here ‘listening’ is contrasted with the ‘sacrifice of the fools’ (Eccl 5:1-2). Fools can say any thing any time without considering what they are going to say and its consequence. In this particular passage this is connected with worship. The righteous person draws closer to God in worship to hear what God has to say—they are all ears in the presence of God but the fools are ‘all mouth!’ The fools walk in to offer their sacrifices and doesn’t care if God has to tell them anything. Because they are wise in their own eyes.
The rashness also has another danger. The fools makes vows rashly and later discover that they cannot fulfill them. The reason is simple: they did not consider the need and feasibility of their comitment. This rashness is the ticket to destruction: ‘Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?’ (Eccl 5:6 ESV).
Another characteristic of ‘fools’ is excessive speech. If ‘rashness’ has to do with the speed, excessive speech has to do with the quantity; but both are of vey low quality indeed! The preacher notes that ‘... a fool’s voice (comes) with many words.’ First of all the fool doesn’t consider what he is going to say before he begins his speech. He thinks along the way as the speech progress. So, he has to use a lot of words. Fools try to persuade people not by the power of their words but the amount of their words. Thus superflous speech is not only comes from foolishness it makes a fool more evidently foolish.
Apostle James has summarized this very well in James 1:19: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger...."

Monday, August 24, 2015

Little James' Big Faith

I noticed James (not the real name) waiting to meet me. He was of a very frail small frame, shy and seldom spoke in public or in a group. He is an overseas student who is very much part of the little congregation that I pastor in university town in India.
When the last person was gone, James came forward and muttered: ‘Pastor, can I have a word with you, outside?’ So, I followed him to the balcony of the church. Leaning on the rails of the balcony, I stared at him to hear another big problem my little sheep is facing. It can be about a sickness that he suffers silently, a relationship problem—he might have spotted his girl friend in the company of another person, or a problem at his far away home—mom is sick or father might have lost job.
But James’ problem appeared small to me. He hasn’t paid house-rent for the last two months. Parents haven’t sent the money, but they have promised they will sent it soon! But the landlord has issued the ultimatum of 48 hours. If he is not able to pay it within two days he will have to leave the house, leaving his precious possessions behind until he pay it in full.
My mind made some quick calculations as I found out how much he owe his landlord. I suggested that I will lend him the money right now so that he can avoid the evacuation. He can pay me when the parents send the money. So, I encouraged him, patted on his shoulder as I began to walk away to the other person waiting for the pastor. But James stopped me. He said, ‘Pastor! I don’t want to borrow.’ ‘I only need your prayer. Could you pray for me right now that the money will come tomorrow.’
‘Of course!’ I said. We bowed our heads and prayed—James bowed his head in faith but I rather in shame and embarassment.
Just before the the deadline set by his landlord was over I called James to find out if he received the money. My rescue plan was still in place, ready for any eventuality.  James’ ‘hello’ had a rim of joy as he picked up my call. ‘Yes pastor!’ he said in a very jubilant tone. ‘Mom transferred the money online and I paid the rent,’ he continued. ‘Praise God,’ I said in a rather subdued voice. I, an experienced, senior pastor felt guilty and shrank in size before a young man who was full of faith. I depended on my mind and my capacity to help the poor and needy. But this young man, a new believer had faith full to the rim. He knew that something that I also knew but often ignored—God hears prayers.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Chat With God

A Chat With God: Prayer can sometimes be a tough thing for people. This video takes a look at some of the struggles and thoughts a person might have with prayer, through the lens of a 'chat' conversation with God.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Ancient Art of Hiding

Hiding is the second oldest sin in the history of the world ̧a sin that is the consequence of the first one ̧disobedience.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit that they were not allowed to eat. Before eating that they were naked but were not ashamed of their nakedness (Gen 2:25). When they disobeyed God by eating the fruit that God forbade them to eat they realised their nakedness and were ashamed of it. The Bible says,
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Gen 2:7̆ ESV).
Shame was a consequence of the sin of disobedience. We go into hiding as Adam and Eve did because we are ashamed of our disobedience. In this case of Adam and Eve they tried to hide their nakedness from each other. They never had to do that before they committed sin. Before sinning they were naked but were not ashamed; but after sin they did not become naked but were ashamed of their nakedness. They never had to hide their private parts from each other since they were not ashamed of it. Sin brought shame into the life of humans so ̧they started hiding from each other.
This act of making something to cover their nakedness with fig-leaves is symbolic of human attempt to hide our shame from each other. This act of hiding from each other is a game that the descendants of Adam and Eve (including you and me) have perfected over the years. This explains why spouses hide many aspects of their lives from each other. Many marriages wreck because spouses play this game until the inevitable happens. Parents hide their lives from their children by hiding behind an ideal past that they never had. Children hide their lives from parents too by pretending to be what they are not yet. Many pastors have hidden their shameful lives from their congregation and when they had to come out of their hiding ̧ their marriages are broken, children are shattered, and congregation fall apart.
Sin produces shame ̧shame sends us to hiding, and hiding makes us continue in sin. This chain has to be broken.
Humans not only hide from each other but from God too. That is the second act in the drama of hiding. The write of Genesis tells us that
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Gen 3:8 ESV).
What they hid from each other is their shame but from God they tried to hide themselves. Why do people deny God? I have often found that most people who deny God have no philosophical justifications except their own sense of guilt. Their way of dealing with sin is to deny that God doesn't exist or doesn't matter. This is vividly protrayed in Psalm 14/53.
The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. (Ṗsa 14:1 ESV).
'Saying in his heart' is an attempt to convince oneself. The two sentences of the above verse are connected as a bridge that has two-way traffic. The denial of God is the result of their corruption, at the same time it is the denial that leads to corruption as well.
God is merciful and kind ̧but he can deal with our shame only if we can come out of our hiding into the open. When we come out to the open then he deals with our sins. In the case of Adam and Eve, he points out that the human attempt to hide from each other is inadequate. However ̧there is a divine solution which involves a sacrifice. The writer of Genesis only knew that the solution to the human problem is a sacrifice of an animal. Many Christian interpreters see here an indication of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
God demands us to admit what has gone wrong in our lives. This is what God did when he called out to Adam ̧'Where are you?' God knew where he was and what he has done but by this God was demanding an admission from Adam. God want Adam to acknowledge what he has done and thus come out of his moral hiding.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Religious Violence—Laying down Lives not Taking Lives

Television and newspapers has been very disturbing these days. To add to our woe we have multiple choices of media that update us on the disturbing news happenign all over the world. The slaughter of Egyptian Christians by ISIS in Libya and many reenacted videos telling the real stories of individuals and communities who are masacred by the Islamic fundamentalists belong to this list. The story of a village pastor who was abducted and killed by some Hindu groups in India recently came as a shock. Violence in the name of religion is on the rise.
I realized that many times I don’t pause to ask what is involved until I saw a reenacted video of what a family in Syria went through. If I didn’t have that video narrating what that family went through their story would have been merely a newspaper headline for me. The video portrayed the struggles that the family went through when they realized that the militants were approaching and they will be their targets soon! They realized that the militants will demand that they accept Islam and they will be tempted to deny Jesus to save their lives. They realized that God demands their lives as a sacrifice for the sake of Christ. Finally, the day came and right in front of the wife and the two kids the husband was shot dead.
The video made me realize one thing—there is more than a mere headline to what is going on in the lives of my brothers and sisters who are at the line of fire for Christ. Their story is more than a few pictures that flashes across my TV screen. It also told me that I need to explore the depth of their struggles in order to pray for them.
This also takes my thoughts in another direction. Why should anyone be killed in the name of religion? Why should those who have a different faith than my own be killed?
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sent them out to preach has to be pondered on. Jesus said:
 As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. (Matt 10:12-14 ESV).
Jesus did not anticipate that all those who hear the Gospel is going to accept it. A lot of people are likely to reject what his disciples preach. However, the disciples are not supposed to force it on them. Preach the gospel in a convincing and acceptable way but if it is rejected move on shaking the dust on your feet. Shaking dust on ones feet was a way of saying that I am not responsible for the consequences but you are. That is all.
At times the response will not be just denial of the message but the messenger may face persecution. Not just a feeling of rejection but physical harassment to the point of death. Jesus advised them not to worry about their defense before courts of law when they are arrested and charged. Sometimes they were charged with treason, sometimes for blaspemy, sometimes they were accused of disturbing peace and order and the list may go on. Jesus assured them that they didn’t have to worry about their defense, they will have the help of the Holy Spirit right on time. Jesus said:
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matt 10:16-20 ESV).
Jesus knew that if they were anxious about their defenses they will be tempted to invent lies, find false evidences to get off the noose and in the process of doing these lose God’s favour in their lives. He assured divine help in such times.
Preaching the gospel may lead to physical harassment and even death. Way of Christ is not an easy road to prosperity and success but it is costly. However, God challenges us to embrace it fully. To follow the Master to the cross. Jesus encouraged his disciples not to be worried about death at the hands of their enemies.
 I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.  But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5 ESV).
The Book of Hebrews challenged its readers to lay down their lives.
 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:4 ESV).
There could be point in the life of the followers of Christ, which is ‘shedding’ one’s own blood. There is no place in the Bible for shedding other’s blood to protect or to propogate our faith. Bible teaches us to lay down our lives for the sake of our faith but not to take the life of others. That is where the uniqueness of the way of Christ is. It gives life and never takes life.

Being the light of the world

'You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that t...