We started this series of lessons with the warning that we are the church of the last days, the Laodicean church. Revelation 3:15-16 tells us that our church is "lukewarm," and God would rather it be hot or cold. If we are lukewarm, we are not willing to grow and change. What, exactly, does it mean to grow and change? What will motivate us to grow hot? Let's jump into our study of the Bible and see if we can find the answers!
Reformation: The Willingness to Grow and Change
Commentary for the September 7, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5, NIV
Much has been written and said through the centuries since the incarnation of Jesus about the relationship between what mankind provides toward salvation and what God provides. Those doing the discussing tend to fall into three main groups. First, there are those who believe that a man is simply judged by what he has done in life, and if there is enough good to outweigh any bad he may have done, he will be allowed to enter heaven. In the second group, we may find those who believe that a man does what good he can, but if it is not enough to outweigh the bad, Jesus will make up the difference, and the sinner will be allowed to enter heaven. In the third group are those who maintain that it is impossible for man to contribute anything to his salvation, and rather than make up any shortcoming, Jesus provides all the righteousness the sinner possesses and that righteousness is the only requirement to enter heaven.
Which is right? Are the scales tipped heavily toward our works of righteousness? Or are they more balanced with our works and Christ’s righteousness contributing equal weight to the equation? Or is all the weight on the side of Christ and His righteousness? What we believe regarding this heavily influences how we see Christianity and how it shapes our lives. With the first two options, we often hear a steady drumbeat of “Obedience! Obedience! Obedience!” You see, if our works contribute in any way to our salvation then it becomes necessary to be sure those works conform to expectation. We must first determine the expectation. Then we must measure ourselves against it. Of course some will go beyond and find it convenient to measure others as well.
To determine those expectations, believers will often go to the Bible, but they may also use extra-biblical sources. They will search their sources for rules to develop a framework for obedience. Sometimes those rules will be straightforward, as in the Decalogue.[i] Rules like those can be very black-and-white, lending themselves quite easily to a rigid structure for obedience. At other times, varying degrees of interpretation are necessary to develop rules to obey. For instance, the rule where some would prohibit Christmas trees is often based on the prophet Jeremiah’s writings concerning idolatry.[ii] While Jeremiah knew nothing of Christmas, and I know of no one who prays to a Christmas tree like the people of Jeremiah’s time were praying to their wooden idols, still the search for a framework for obedience to enter heaven causes some to place interpretations on Bible passages far afield from the intent of the original authors.
This is nothing new. The list of rules developed in such ways had become so extensive by the time of Christ that they created a burden few could bear. The religious leaders became experts at managing and interpreting those rules. Being beyond the ken of the average man who must be concerned with survival for him and his family as opposed to esoteric rules about ritual washings and what is or is not a burden to be carried or a work to be done on the Sabbath. The more esoteric those rules became, the more the average person would need to go to a specialist to understand their application. This gave those who interpreted the rules, the religious leaders, tremendous control over the spiritual lives of the people which translated into a great deal of secular power as well. The assumption being that in spite of the power derived from such a position of authority, the benevolence of the one in power would naturally prevent its abuse. However, history is rife with examples of why that was not such a good idea.
Those who act as interpreters of such rules can begin to see themselves as speaking for God and with God’s authority even though the interpretations may only be products of their own understanding and perspective. Once one begins to see themselves in this light, they may feel that their interpretation is unassailable as it is derived from their special standing with God. This is the basis for the doctrine of “divine right” which was asserted by many a monarch in centuries past.[iii] The Enlightenment purported to be a foil to such practices and produced several documents and constitutions seeking to limit the power of the “divine right” monarchs.[iv] Nonetheless, those who see themselves as mouthpieces for God and interpreters of articles of faith for others continue to pop up when faith is oriented toward obedience and rule interpretation.
Is this the faith of Jesus? When He encountered such individuals, His responses about such practices were telling. The Pharisees approached Him to assert that He and His followers were not submitting themselves to the accepted rules and the interpretations of the church elders regarding ritual washings.[v] Jesus challenged these rules as being man-made and based on interpretations intended to benefit the religious leaders rather than the people. He pointed out how egregious this selfishness had become in an example regarding an endorsement by the religious leaders of the idea that one can eliminate the need to support those of his own family by giving his wealth to the church. Jesus was all about love and compassion. Perhaps He chose this particular example because it really rankled Him.
Jesus pointed out that these rule interpreters were more concerned with the rules than the people. He revealed that they burdened the people with these rules while doing nothing to help with the burdens they were creating.[vi] While the people became like frustrated robots eating this, washing that, wearing or not wearing what they were told by these self-proclaimed mouthpieces for God’s will, Jesus offered a better way. He offered to lift these onerous burdens.[vii] Because the need continues, what He offered then, He also offers now.
A modern-day example can be found in the push by church leaders to see every child in parochial school. They place this burden on the poor who cannot afford the tuition, even though the church workers receive hefty discounts for themselves when they send their children to the same schools. While many churches offer church subsidies to encourage the poor to send their children, they often do so in a humiliating manner that requires every family be screened to squeeze as much financial participation as possible from the participants. Never mind that the financial participation means that their children cannot wear the same nice fashions that others might wear or have the same nice lunches as the other children, the children are there. Sermons about the blessedness of these sacrifices are endorsements of suffering that those who preach them do not have to make due to their benefit of reduced tuition costs.
Of course this could all be eliminated by a “Temple Plan” for the parochial school where every child is guaranteed attendance regardless of financial circumstances and all school expenses are simply a part of the church budget as opposed to squeezing funds out of the poor. But some distance themselves from the unmerited grace of the Bible and the socialism it implies and feel they must make sure the poor are truly deserving of the help they receive. While it is never said to be such, the process of screening the poor is frequently designed to make sure only the deserving can enroll their children in the parochial school and to drive away the rest.
Those who were driven away by the religious leaders and their rules in Christ’s day came to Jesus. When they did, instead of finding humiliation and condemnation, they found grace. What a relief that must have been. No matter how hard they worked, no matter how much they obeyed, they only ever saw judgment in the eyes of those who should have been their spiritual shepherds. But with Jesus, it was different. He taught them that obedience was a hundred percent God’s work and none of their own.[viii] The only thing they needed to do was to begin walking toward God instead of away from Him.
Like the father of the prodigal son, He would receive them and restore them.[ix] The son could do nothing to increase his worth in his father’s eyes, but the father could do everything to restore the worth of his son in the son’s eyes and willingly and lovingly did so. Those who understand this tend to also believe that we can contribute nothing to our salvation and that all righteousness comes not from any obedience we can muster on our behalf. It comes only from the unmerited grace we receive from the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Our sins tell us we do not deserve God’s love, and the accuser[x] and anyone doing his work are both eager to humiliate us and drive us away from Jesus. They judge us on our obedience, but Jesus extends to us His love even though we are sinners.[xi] All we need to do is turn around and start walking toward Him instead of away from Him. He will take care of the rest.
[i] Exodus 20:1-17
[ii] Jeremiah 10:1-4
[iii] “Divine right of kings,” www.wikipedia.org
[iv] “Age of Enlightenment,” www.wikipedia.org
[v] Mark 7:1-16
[vi] Luke 11:46
[vii] Matthew 11:28-30
[viii] Philippians 2:13
[ix] Luke 15:11-24
[x] Revelation 12:10
[xi] Romans 5:8
"Reformation: The Willingness to Grow and Change"
September 7, 2013
1 John 2:1-9; Philippians 2:12-14; Matthew 26:31-35; John 20:24-29; Luke 15:11-21; John 5:1-14
"Find a way." That's what Diana Nyad said after four failed attempts over the last 36 years to swim from Cuba to Florida. But on Monday, she found a way. The 64-year-old woman from New York completed the 110 mile stretch in 53 hours, vomiting almost constantly through the whole ordeal.
Most swimmers are worried about hungry sharks and use a cage to protect them while crossing the waters between the two countries. Nyad was the first to successfully make it without shark cage, though she did have a small electrical field surrounding her.
What bothered Diana most on previous efforts were small creatures and jellyfish. So, on this try she wore a special mask. But it made her take in a lot of salt water. "I was sick as a dog," she told NBC's 'Today' show.
"After swimming non-stop for more than 50 hours, Ms. Nyad touched land on the shores of Key West, Fla. and raised her fist in triumphant victory. The visibly fatigued, and considerably swollen swimmer offered these words of wisdom to the world following her harrowing swim.
"I have three messages. One is, we should never ever give up. Two is, you never are too old to chase your dreams. And three is, it looks like a solitary sport but it's a team."1
This week in our Sabbath school lesson, as we continue our study on revival and reformation, we look at "The Willingness to Grow and Change." Sometimes we imagine change comes from submitting to God and then waiting for magic dust to miraculously transform us. While the Lord extends grace to us so we may grow, there is a work for us to do. We must choose to turn to God. Like the prodigal son, we must return to the father. We must act in faith.
The growth of a Christian is not a solo act. We cooperate with God in the work. We have a responsibility to step into the water and put forth effort. The paralytic, laying on his bed for 38 years, could have told Jesus, "Can't you see? I do not have the ability to get up and walk!" But the words of Christ struck a chord of faith and he chose to stand up.
The perseverance of Diana Nyad is inspiring. She could have said, "Look, I've tried four times. Besides that, I'm much older than when I first made an effort." But she didn't. She never gave up. She never thought she was too old. And she knew she was not alone.
Neither are we.
1. CS Monitor
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