Monday, June 26, 2006

Philippians 3:16

The latest in a series of devotions. If you're looking for Sunday's sermon, please scroll down.

Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

In the preceding verses, Paul has argued that Christians cannot become perfect in this life; complete conformity to Christ can only come after this life, with the resurrection of the dead.

Still, Paul believes that we can grow more and more into Christ’s image throughout our lives. There are times, no doubt, in our lives that confirm this is true.

I am amazed at how having a daughter is teaching me an incredible amount about Christlikeness. In a way, parenting is a spiritual discipline, if I’m aware enough of it to appropriate its lessons.

For example, I am not by nature a selfless person. Actually, I really like very basic comforts in life. I like greasy food like pizza and burgers. I like to listen to music. I like having quiet time and I like having time to exercise. I especially like long nights of sleep.

Having a baby is challenging all of these things. We’re more budget conscious, so there’s more spaghetti-eating than pizza-picking-up. I forget the last time I simply listened to a whole album of music. Quiet time is an absolute premium; exercise is squeezed in. And sleep is great by baby standards, but not by pre-baby standards.

The reason I say it is a discipline with power to change me is that I have no options. I have to care for Grace. I can’t simply choose to put her aside and go for a run. I can’t simply choose to not tend to her when she cries in the middle of the night or at 5:30 in the morning. I have to be a dad first now.

And here’s the thing: it’s changing me. Sleeping uninterrupted until 5:30 now is greeted with more gratefulness than a lazy morning dozing until 11 AM used to be. I treasure what sleep I get as a gift. I really enjoy it when I have music on now, instead of letting it drift along in the background. I treasure music now more than I used to. I even am learning to treasure those moments when nothing is going right—when she won’t fall asleep, when she roars for food when Mommy’s not there.

Like Paul reminds me, though, those things can never make me perfect. I can grow in my love and gratitude toward God and people, but there will still be mornings I am muttering under my breath about my lack of sleep, missing my old life.

Still, this verse reminds me that I need to hang on to what I am learning here. “Hold fast to what we have attained,” reminds us that each moment of spiritual insight and growth is precious. It is a tremendous thing to look at your heart then and now and see that you have grown, that you have changed, that you look and act more like Jesus now than you did a day ago, a week ago, a year ago. In my case, I’m so happy to see how God is weaning me more from self through the gift of a child. (And she’s an awfully cute way to grow spiritually!)

If I “graduate” from Grace, and go stumbling back to what used to be, then I show contempt for this good gift. I show that I don’t truly want to be like Christ if I give these lessons back, if I put my heart in the wrong place and go back to being the same person I was before. Every step on the road to becoming like Christ is precious and we dare never give any of that ground back. We hold fast and we forget what lay behind and we press on toward what is ahead, desperate for that next time, desperate for that day when the resurrection makes us completely into his image.

6-25 sermon

Hi all--here is the sermon from yesterday. It is from 1 Samuel 16, where Samuel anoints David as ruler over Israel.

By the way--I will be here during the week, hopefully posting once or twice more, and then on vacation from June 30-July 8. I'll be taking a little time away and then I'll look forward to posting on my return!

One of the hit TV shows over the last year, and one that frankly I don’t fully understand, is the game show Deal or No Deal. The idea of the show is that these glamorous models holding suitcases, and inside the suitcases there a different amounts of money, from 1 penny to $1 million. Now I don’t want to get bogged down explaining all the rules, but the show basically revolves around choices. Do you want to take some known amount of money, or do you want to risk that for what’s in your suitcase, knowing it might be more and it might be less?

Now it’s a fine idea for a game show, fully a game of chance, though there’s some mathematical formula I’m sure that could give you a bit of an edge. But really, it’s a fun idea for a game show.

But the trouble I see with Deal or No Deal is that when I watch it, it’s so–dragged–out. Lots of game shows have decisions like this, but whenever I watch Deal or No Deal, there’s way too much time spent on watching the contestant in the throes of indecision. She’ll look this way, and look that, and touch her finger to her nose, and think. Then she’ll ask her family and friends who are with her on stage what they think she should do, and they’ll yell back. Then we’ll watch her twiddle her thumbs, and scratch her head, and think some more, and then she’ll ask the audience what they think she should do, and so they yell back the audience kinds of things: “Take the money!” “Go for it!” And then the camera will cut back and she’ll be hemming and hawing, shifting her weight from one hip to another. I tell you, it has to be the least compelling TV I’ve ever seen, just watching someone make a decision. And finally, she makes her mind up and starts to say her decision, and then the host, a genial-looking bald man, says, “And we’ll have Janie’s answer right after these messages,” and I just want to scream, you know? It’s a clever enough idea for a show, but the show could last ten minutes instead of an hour as far as I’m concerned.

And yet that is the trouble of never being able to see inside the suitcases. You can make an educated guess; if you know that five of the suitcases have big money, and three don’t, you might feel confident, but there’s just no way to know until you open those suitcases. Just because the model holding it might be pretty doesn’t mean that what’s inside the suitcase is pretty. I make fun of it a little bit, but I’m sure if I were up there, I would take forever to decide too!

I’m sure Samuel felt a bit like this contestant on Deal or No Deal as he walked up to the city of Bethlehem, the town where Jesse lived with his eight sons. He was going to anoint a new king; and you see, Samuel had already been burned once before in this game. The last time he had anointed a king, Samuel had anointed Saul, which was a bit like choosing one of those disappointing suitcases with a dollar or two rather than a million dollars. Saul had not been a great king; he had regularly distrusted God, making rash vows, keeping the spoils of war for himself, etc. etc. In fact, we read at the end of chapter 15 the theologically difficult verse, “And God was sorry he had ever made Saul king over Israel.”

And so now Samuel is forced to make a decision where a whole lot is at stake. He is forced to anoint one of these sons of Jesse to be the next ruler of Israel, and he doesn’t have any more to go on than a game show contestant. All he can see is what these people look like, but what he really needs to know is what’s going on inside! All he can see are pretty faces, but the information he really needs is the kind of information you can’t get by a simple look.

Jesse offers to bring his sons out one at a time so that Samuel can see them. The first one out is Eliab. Okay, this the one? A whole lot is riding on this decision. Deal or no deal? And Samuel looks at him and he sees that he’s tall, and very handsome in appearance. Maybe in the old days this would have swayed Samuel. In that culture, a person who was very tall was considered a natural leader, a mighty person, an obvious fit for a king. We still have some of that idea in our culture today. But the last king Samuel had anointed, King Saul, he was also a tall person and we all know he didn’t turn out so great. But just in case Samuel is thinking about choosing Eliab, though, we read that the Lord spoke to Samuel and told him not to do it. “I know he looks like a leader,” says the Lord; but don’t just look at the way he looks, how tall he is, how ruggedly handsome, how very regal he looks.” Then God says something very revealing: he says, “the Lord doesn’t see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

“The Lord does not see as mortals see; mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” With these words, Samuel receives exactly what he needs. He needs someone who can cut through the pretty face on the outside and see clear through to the middle of the suitcase, someone who can see more than just looks and height and can see what type of heart that person has. What truly matters in a king, or in any person, is not the way he or she looks, but what sort of heart they have. Are they loyal? Kind-hearted? Sleazy? Spiteful? Patient? Loving? Quiet? Cluttered? What kind of heart is it that this person truly has?

And the exciting thing for Samuel is that he is in touch with the God who can see through to the heart. And so he is able to say, “You know, I just don’t think Eliab’s our guy.” So Jesse trots out Abinadab. And Samuel is able to say with confidence, “Not this one either.” And then Shammah. “Uh-uh. Not Shammah either.” And then four more sons, and they don’t even bother to give their names.

And so finally, after seven men have come and gone, Samuel asks if this is it, if these are all of Jesse’s sons. And Jesse says, “Well, there is one more, but he’s out tending the sheep.” So Samuel asks for him to come in and we read that he is ruddy, and that he has beautiful eyes, and that he is handsome. And the Lord says to Samuel, “He’s the one. Get up and anoint him.” And so Samuel does anoint David, and from that day on the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David.

The Lord sees through to the heart. When Saul began to be unfaithful to the Lord, Samuel came to him and said, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God. The Lord would have established your kingdom forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him to be ruler...” and this man after God’s own heart is David. God sees this in David’s heart and chooses him.

The Lord sees through to the heart. This is a phrase that sometimes gives me comfort and it is a phrase that sometimes I don’t exactly want to hear. There are times when I’m truly happy to hear that phrase, because I feel like I’m trying to be a person of integrity and other people around me don’t have the same concern. In times like that, I like to hear that Lord sees the heart, because in those times I feel like my heart is honest and other hearts are not honest.

Of course, there are many other times where I would much rather this idea not be in the Scripture. There are days when I simply am going through the motions, a painted-on smile as I deal with the business of my day. I know that you all know what I’m feeling–we all go through it. Some days, we are kind and giving on the outside, while inside we are nursing a grudge. We may do kind things for another person, but inside we grumble about them. We may go to great lengths to paint on a smile when a person is around only to butcher them behind their back. We pretend to be acting out of selfless concern, but meanwhile we say, “How dare they presume on my kindness?” In days like this, I would prefer the Scripture not talk about my heart. I would prefer it just be about my outside actions rather than the disposition of my heart–because I can fake the outside, but I can’t fake the heart. Sometimes it gives me joy to know God sees my heart and sometimes I want to hide my heart from God. No doubt you have similar feelings at times; sometimes you’re glad God can see your heart and sometimes you just pretend he can’t.

I wonder if our confusion about God seeing our hearts isn’t because we don’t really know the kind of heart God is looking for. God looked at David and saw a man after his own heart. Yet a quick review of David’s life might make us question, “How on earth could this man be said to be a man after God’s own heart?” Certainly, David won many great battles, but there were times David had a total brain freeze and did terrible things, horrible things that did not become a man after God’s own heart.

Once, David didn’t trust in God’s way either. Even after Samuel had anointed him, while Saul was still living, he was afraid Saul was going to kill him and so he apparently turned traitor, joining the Philistines against God’s chosen people. Even though he never really was a traitor, he never actually took up arms against the people, he still was treading the line awfully close. God can see through to the heart–and this is the heart he chose?

He saw a woman, Bathsheba, bathing, the wife of a soldier, and had her brought to the palace, where he slept with her. When he found out the woman was pregnant, he told the army officers to put her husband Uriah on the front lines where he would certainly be killed in the heat of battle. God can see through to the heart–and this is the kind of heart he chose?

David’s son raped his half-sister and David refused to punish him. God can see through to the heart–and this is the kind of heart he chose?

It was important to the Lord that King David never take a census of the people of Israel. To do so would have meant that David was worried about his own greatness, counting the number of people he ruled over. And yet, David goes against God’s specific instructions and counts the people of Israel, taking a census of them. God can see through to the heart–and this is the kind of heart he chose?

People have long debated what it means that David was a man after God’s own heart. How could you possibly look at his track record and compare it with a perfect, holy God? And yet this is what the Scriptures say, that this same broken, messed-up David, who sleeps around and kills husbands, who allows his daughter to be abused, who violates direct commands of God, this David has a heart after God’s.

What was it about David’s heart that, when God saw it, he said, this is the one I want to lead my people? Well, I can’t say this with absolute certainty, but I think that part of the reason that God approved of his heart was David’s incredible capacity for brokenness. After the sordid affair with Bathsheba and Uriah, a prophet of the Lord named Nathan comes to David and tells him very bluntly that what he did was wrong. When he sees it, when he sees where he has fallen short, he immediately says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Not, “You don’t understand! She was so hot!” Not, “I couldn’t control myself.” Simply, “I have sinned. I blew it.” Then the child of the affair becomes sick and David prays intensely for the child. He lays aside all he is doing and we read he “pleaded with God for the child.” He fasted, and he lay all night on the ground before the Lord, begging for the life of this little one. But the child died. But David was so passionate about his pleading before God, he was so broken his sin and its consequences, that when the child died, his servants were afraid to tell him because they were afraid it would devastate him to the point he might harm himself.

Even though the child died, David here shows us what he’s made of, gives us a glimpse of a heart, and I think I know why God sees David’s heart and approves. I think God approves of David’s heart because he is so broken by these things that break God’s heart. When David looks at his choices and their disastrous consequences, he is broken up. He feels deeply the pain that God feels when we make decisions that mess up our lives; he feels deeply the pain of human relationships that fracture because of sin, especially his own sin.

I think another reason that David was a man after God’s own heart was his tremendous ability to celebrate the good things. Even while he was broken up over terrible things, he celebrated just as passionately the good things of God. For this we merely need to look at the Psalms, seventy-three of which are said to be authored by David. One of them, Psalm 18, was written on a day when the Lord saved him from his enemies, and Saul. Here, we see him rejoicing as passionately as he weeps. David’s ability to rejoice at the good and to be broken at the bad was part of what made him a man after God’s own heart, and I think an important part of it.

God can see through to our hearts, see deeper than human vision can penetrate. It is a level deeper than our looks; deeper than our actions; deeper even than our intentions. It is a level where this basic question is asked: Does your heart rejoice at what God calls good? And does your heart break with those things that break the heart of God?

You and I may have different understandings of what God calls good and bad, and that’s part of life, part of being human. I understand that. There’s no two people in this room who think exactly alike on these things, and I don’t think exactly the same as I did five years ago, one year ago or even yesterday. We are always called on to be growing and learning new things, our minds opening up more fully to God’s direction each day. Yet the fact is we must be passionate to know that which is good and that which breaks God’s heart because if we do not know it, we cannot perfectly order our lives after it. If we do not know and do not care to know what God calls good, we cannot celebrate it with David’s passion. If we do not know what breaks God’s heart, our heart cannot break with it.

Let us be people who know the Lord, so that when he sees our hearts, he will see women and men after His own heart.

Benediction: From Hosea 6:3-4: “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.”