The Silence of God

I preached a sermon 45 years ago on the Silence of God. After 3 yrs of pastoral ministry under my belt I came to the conclusion that God’s silence was never due to indifference, but always to higher thoughts or greater purposes. “For as the heaven is higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts, and my ways than your ways, says the Lord.” Not a bad conclusion for a young greenhorn pastor who was trying to be faithful to God’s Word without a lot of experience in ‘applying it.

Today, after 48 yrs of pastoral ministry experience, I am still and will always remain a greenhorn at trying to figure out the ways of an eternal God. I still believe that God’s silence is one of higher purpose, but I would state it differently now. I would say, God is never silent. We could cite Psalm 19 where we read that the heavens are declaring the glory of God—that God is speaking in creation, loud enough to hold us accountable for not believing that he exists (Romans 1:18-20). Also, we could go to Hebrews 1 and read that God has spoken in the past through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken through his Son, Jesus, the Word of God (John 1).

That God is never silent can also be seen from the few notable occasions in the Gospels when Jesus was silent in the present of someone. He was silent when the Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter (Matt 15:21-28). He was silent before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin at the kangaroo court hastily convened to accuse him of blasphemy on trumped up charges (Matt 26:59-63). He was also silent before Herod who saw him as a bit of a curiosity (Luke 23:9).

I would submit to you that in each of these situations Jesus was shouting in his “silence.” To Herod, whose only interest was to see Jesus walk across his swimming pool (if you are familiar with the Rock Opera, Jesus Christ Super Star), Jesus was shouting “I will not be trivialized!” His silence was a judgment against the spiritual shallowness of Herod. His “silence” before the Sanhedrin was a shout against their spiritual hypocrisy and their self-interest in preserving their own place and ambitions. Finally, in his “silence” before the Canaanite woman he was shouting out “trust me, trust me!” He was drawing out of her a faith born of desperation. She knew who he was and had heard of his compassion, and so in the face of his silence she casts herself upon his mercy and says, “Lord help me!”

We find a parallel between the “silence” this woman confronted and the greatest Silence in all of scripture; the Silence of the cross. In that Silence, Jesus himself cried out “My God, Why have you forsaken me!” In that Silence, the disciples ran away and the women were in despair. And yet…And yet…just a few days latter it became clear that in the midst of this great “Silence” God was doing his greatest work. In the Silence, God was shouting, “I love you!”

Helmut Theilicke wrote a book The Silence of God at the height of the darkness of WW2. In it he said this: “Even when we thought He did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings He did His work of love. We live in the power of this Golgatha night of silence. Where should we be without the cross.”

Thus as we face the life-dominating issues which seem to render silent God’s voice, let us hold on to the theology of the cross. Let us remember that even in his silence, God is not silent—he is speaking, he is working, he is fulfilling his higher purposes of a grander plan than we can ever imagine. He is shouting for us to trust him because he loves us. HE WHO HAS EARS TO EAR LET HIM LISTEN!

Greed! (a confession)

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Jesus spoke a lot about money. In fact, he spoke more about money than he did about love, sex, heaven, or hell. In just a sample swath of the book of Luke (chapters 12-16), he told the parable of the rich fool; admonished the disciples not to worry about what they were going eat or wear; challenged his followers to be wise and faithful managers of what they had been given; spoke about counting the cost of following him; told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the son who squandered his money; and he also told stories about a shrewd manager, and the rich man and Lazarus.

Money can be a dangerous thing because it pushes our greed button more than any other factor. The Greek philosopher Plato said that “Poverty [the feeling of] does not consist in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed.” The last commandment of the moral law, “Thou shall not covet,” addresses the underlying motive for keeping/breaking all the other commandments which precede it. Money is also dangerous because it reveals that greed, like ice cream, comes in all kinds of different flavors. Jesus told us to “guard against all kinds of greed.”

The kind of greed that I struggle with is what I call “religious greed.” It is most clearly exemplified in those hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They loved to announce their charitable donations with trumpets (Matt 6:2) instead of the anonymous giving of most people. They would tithe even the smallest things, like the spices they used on their food, while completely ignoring the weightier matters of the law (like justice and mercy- Matt 23:23). They would pronounce the word “Corban” (devoted to God) over all their possessions, so they could keep them for their own selfish ends rather than using them to provide for their parents in old age (Mark 7:11). Hypocrites!

We can also see this religious greed evidenced in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). They were Barnabas “wanabes” who sold a piece of property for a certain amount as a gift to the church. Such an act was indeed generous, but they did so under the pretense of donating the entire amount from the sale while keeping back part of the money for themselves. They lied to the church and before God, and lost their lives because of it. Liars!

It is so easy for me to see religious greed in others and pronounce judgment upon them while being blind to the greed in my own heart. I am saying all of this as a confession. We recently sold our house and purchased a new one and made a profit. We have designated a portion of that profit as a tithe. We haven’t even given it yet and already I feel the urge to announce how generous we are (like the Pharisees). I also feel the Ananias and Sapphira chronovirus coming on. The strings of greed are starting to creep over my heart like weeds trying to choke out the thanksgiving and praise that I want to give to my God for being so generous to me. And then there are the whisperings of the Tempter. Can you really afford this? What about your grandkid’s future education? What if you have to go back on chemo? This could pay for it. Isn’t that good stewardship? Arrgh!

I need to go back to where we started with the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. Jesus concludes the story with these words (v 21), “So is the one (the one who is a fool) who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” This isn’t an encouragement to give God more of my money—he doesn’t need it. Being rich toward God means that I consider God as my greatest Treasure. And the way I handle my money should be done in such a way that shows that I am free from the tentacles of greed precisely because God is my greatest Treasure—he is my true Wealth, my Reward, my Inheritance. In him, I am rich no matter how little money I have at the moment, and without him I am poverty-stricken regardless of how much worldly wealth I possess. C.S. Lewis nailed it in his Weight of Glory when he said, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God alone.” And before Lewis, St Augustine framed it like this: “He who has God has everything; he who has everything but God has nothing.”

We Christians, of all people, should be the least greedy and most lavish givers in this world because the Lord is our Wealth, our Treasure, our Shepherd, and in him we shall not lack for any good thing. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share this with you.

OK—now, just write the check Mac and stop talking!

The Shriveled Hand of Faith…

I have always been intrigued with the account in Matt 12:9-14 of the man with the shriveled hand. I believe that this whole scenario was a set up by the Pharisees (Luke 6:7, 8). These religious leaders were in the process of garnering evidence so that they might bring charges against Jesus for breaking the Law of Moses. Here, I believe, they positioned this man in the Temple on the Sabbath just to see what Jesus would do. Actually, they knew what he would do—Jesus would heal the man.

It shows how callous these Pharisees had become in their interpretation of the Law. (It was originally passed on to them as oral tradition and ultimately written down in the 3rd century A.D. as the Mishnah, containing 63 tractates on various subjects—800 pages in English. Later, the Jews got to interpreting these interpretations in commentaries called the Talmud—the Jerusalem Talmud had 12 volumes; the Babylonian Talmud has 60 volumes.) Earlier in Matthew 12, the Pharisees had criticized Jesus’ hungry disciples for picking grain to eat from the edges of a field on the Sabbath. Jesus responded to this criticism by cutting through the fog of oral tradition by establishing two important principles based upon the original purpose of the Law: 1) The Sabbath was made for man (for his rest and well-being) and not man for the Sabbath; 2) God desires mercy and not sacrifice  (Hosea 6:6).

These religious leaders used this poor man as a pawn to achieve their own malicious goal of doing away with Jesus. By considering his healing on the Sabbath unlawful according to their oral tradition, the Pharisees treated this man with less mercy than they would show one of their own farm animals. In Deuteronomy 22:4, the Law of Moses made provision to allow the rescue of such an animal if it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath. Yet these super-spiritual, merciless leaders, by their own interpretation of the Law, did not allow the rescue of this man made in the image of God. This made Jesus angry.

And so, Jesus showed the man mercy and established his dignity as an image-bearer of God by healing him. It was how Jesus healed this man that intrigues me and teaches me one more aspect in understanding this word faith. Jesus told the man “stretch out your hand.” Think about that … Jesus did not “un-whither” the guys hand first and then tell him to stretch it out. He told him to stretch out his shriveled hand—the very thing he could not do. The guy could have said, “Lord, why do you think they call me the man with the withered hand? I can’t stretch it out! I need you to heal it first.” Instead, as this man acted upon the word of Christ, he received the ability to do what he could not do and was healed.  

This is a further consideration in our understanding of faith. Faith is acting upon the specific word of Christ and in so doing finding the ability to do what we cannot do in our own strength.  Let me give an example of how this might work. I’m sitting next to someone on an airplane and sense that God wants me to engage my seat-mate in conversation that may lead to sharing the gospel. So I pray that God would give me strength and wisdom to do that. Do I wait for God to give me an anointing of empowerment—change me from Clark Kent into Super Dave, or do I just start engaging my seat-mate and trust that God will work through in the process?  I have found the latter to be the way to proceed. “Stretch out your hand”; start the conversation, give that gift, ask to pray for that needy one, be merciful to your enemy, love the unlovely one, don’t be anxious at bad news—whatever you cannot do in your own strength, trust in the word of Christ and “stretch out your hand.” And watch how the Holy Spirit shows up. 

More Thoughts on Faith…

I was reading the other morning about Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, recorded for us in Mark 6:1-6. The town’s people marveled at his wisdom and teaching, and yet they apparently did not believe that he was the Messiah because they knew him and his family. “He grew up here, we’ve known him since he was a kid and we’ve known his brothers and sisters. He certainly has gotten a good education somewhere, but he’s just one of us. Who does he think he is getting off acting like the Messiah?” They were scandalized by him. Jesus responded by saying “a prophet is without honor in his own country.” And consequently “he could not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” However, the text goes on to add, “but he did lay hands on a few sick people and healed them.” 

What are we to make of this? Is it true that God can only work where there is enough faith, and if he does not work does it show that the faith that is present doesn’t measure up?” Many years ago, during a serious back injury that sidelined me for 3 months, someone came to my house to pray for me.  This person told me that if someone prayed for my healing and yet I remained bedridden, it was because I did not have enough faith; because God can’t work where there is no faith. This was not an encouragement to me. How much faith is needed before God can work? Is there a barometer in heaven that has a base-line for the amount of faith we must have before God answers prayer?  I have always found solace in the words of Jesus that even if we have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, we could move mountains. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it doesn’t take a hyper-faith to be preset for God to work. The problem at Nazareth was not a “little faith,” but “no faith” that stemmed from stubborn unbelief.

One commentator said of this passage that it teaches us “there are certain situations where we can ‘tie God’s hands’… because of our lack of faith.” I strongly disagree. Our faith, or the lack of it, does not rule God. I do not believe that this is the lesson of Mark 6:1-6. Instead, I believe the among the lessons of this text is that familiarity with the messenger can often interfere with accepting the message. (Sometimes the hardest people to reach are those in our own family.) The text also teaches that God works where he wills; in most cases he has chosen to work in response to our faith, but sometimes he chooses to work where there is no faith in order to produce faith in hearts filled with unbelief. We see elsewhere in Mark that a person’s faith was not necessary for a miracle (Mark 1:31). We also see the sometimes it was the faith of friends and family that was recognized (Mark 2:5; 7:32). At other times (Mark 9:24), it was a matter of “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Even in this little town of  “no faith” (Nazareth), God chose to heal some who were sick.  

Faith is not a commodity we offer God in order to merit a hearing. Rather, faith is a position that we adopt wherein we choose to trust God and submit to his will for us no matter what the circumstances. No sincere child of God should ever be judged for a lack of faith just because they do not receive that for which they ask—they are probably hurting enough as it is. Instead, they should be encouraged to trust in the Lord with all their heart, even in the midst of God’s silence (Mark 7:26; Matthew 15:23). It is in this position of trust alone that they will find the growth of a deeper dependency on their Heavenly Father and a greater usefulness in his Kingdom because they have learned how to persevere (James 1:3).

Thoughts on Faith…

I am sitting here drinking barium and waiting in the doctor’s office to get a CT scan that will reveal what impact 12 treatments of chemotherapy have had on my pancreatic cancer. As I was praying, I was reminded of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26… “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” If Jesus were to pray this prayer today as a member of the “hyper-faith” movement, he would probably say, “Father, by the authority given to me as your Beloved Son, I claim the victory in advance over this coming Crucifixion! In your Name, I command that the forces of evil be defeated and that this cup of suffering be taken away from me! Vindicate me according to my faith.” 

Instead, what we hear from the lips of our Lord is an agonizing prayer that would not cut it in a more charismatic gathering. “My Father, if it is possible (Matthew), everything is possible for you (Mark), if you are willing (Luke)… take this cup from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” The bottom line for Jesus was to do the will of God, not to escape his pain. It is faintly reminiscent of the faith-statement of Daniel’s three friends who were threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they did not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. “Our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But even if He doesn’t (if He is not willing), we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up.” (Dan 3:17, 18)

Do you honestly think that such a prayer made by Jesus and the confessional by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrate a lack of faith? There are some who would claim so—that praying for God’s will to be done is a default position that shows a shallow faith. I once heard a TV evangelist say, “For those who do not have the faith to boldly ask God for something, they always tend to meekly ask him for his will to be done.” Really? 

I believe that such a perspective shows how Satan can twist the Scripture (example of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) in order to sow seeds of confusion and disagreement among God’s people—all under the guise of super-spirituality. It reminds me of the teaching of the Pharisees whose twisted interpretation of the Law kept God’s people in bondage.

What has been helpful for me to think through this issue of faith and God’s will is the analogy that Jesus drew between the good gifts our Father desires to give us as his children and those we wish to bestow on our own children.  “If you then, who are evil (not a perfect parent like God), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matt 7:11) The context is where Jesus encouraged his followers to continue to ask, seek, and knock for things they desire from God. 

Let’s say your older child comes to you and presents a request in this way: “Dad (Mom), on the basis of the authority you have given me as your beloved child, I claim in advance the right to be given $250 of my future inheritance in order to pay for the repairs on my car!” Do you have any initial reactions to this scenario?

However, let’s say your child comes to you in this way: “Dad (Mom), I know that it is possible and completely within your ability to take away the burden that I have of not being able to pay my car repair bill. I also know that you love me and know what is best for me, so I trust you to do what is according to your will because what you want for me is more important than what I want for myself.” After you picked yourself up from off the floor, how would you respond to this request? Which request demonstrates the greatest amount of trust in you? 

How much more your Heavenly Father…

A Spiritual Diagnostic for 2020…

“Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” Haggai 1:5 (NIV)

The Prophet Haggai urged the post-exilic remnant to reflect on some of the things happening to them and to evaluate their slipshod spirituality in light of what God had commanded them. It is a good thing to pause and think about the direction of our lives from time to time- kind of a spiritual evaluation. No matter who you are, no matter how long you have served the Lord, we believe this type of introspection, examination and reflection is a good and necessary thing.

As you face the new year, here is a diagnostic tool for you to use to do your own intentional spiritual tune up. Answer the questions honestly and prayerfully in the presence of God so that you can gain a more accurate idea of where you are in your spiritual formation and what you need to work on by God’s grace.

This is not an exercise in navel-gazing. Many Christians aren’t growing spiritually because they have no plan for growth, they are unwilling to pay the price for growth, and they have not called someone else alongside to hold them accountable so that growth can take place. So here are some questions to help you “give careful thought to your ways.” Your responses could also provide helpful information to a mentor whom you might ask to help you in your growth.

1. Do I struggle with God’s approval of me? (In what way?) [The issue of grace or God’s approval of us is formative to how we live our lives – Titus 2:11-12]

2. What are the ungodly heart-attitude(s) in me that may compromise my usefulness to God? [A question to uncover heart issues not just behavior- Matt.7:15-20; 2 Tim.2:20-21]

3. What do I need to do to strengthen my walk with God? Is there a spiritual discipline that I must implement? [1 Tim. 4:7]

4. What is the single biggest time-waster in my life, and what will I do about it? [Eph. 5:15, 16]

5. What one thing do I most regret and how am I dealing with that? [How we deal with past baggage is important to how we live in the present- Phil.3:13]

6. What’s the single most important thing I could do to improve the quality of my family life this year? [If unmarried, answer with your family of origin in mind.]

7. For whose salvation will I pray most fervently this year? [2 Peter 3:9]

8. What is the most important decision I need to make this year and how will I keep God in the middle of my future concerns so they are not merely my own dreams? [Phil.4:6]

9. What is my most important financial goal this year, and what is the most important step I can take toward achieving it in a way that honors God? [Financial stewardship- 1 Tim. 6:17-19]

10. What could I do this year to enrich the spiritual legacy I will leave to my children and grandchildren? [Stewardship of the family- Psalm 71:17,18]

11. Who will I ask to come alongside of me to help challenge me to love and good works? [Heb. 10:24)] Who will I come alongside of to do the same thing? [The importance of mentoring and being mentored.]

12. Who could I welcome into my life that looks and talks differently than I do? [The love of the “stranger”- Matt 25:31-40

Living Life with No Regret

As we watch the Christmas season festivities converge with the New Year’s celebrations, we naturally think about the past and future and recalibrate how we want our lives to count for something. As a cancer survivor whose life span will be shorter than most of yours, I find a certain urgency in wanting to make sure that I do everything I can to live my life with no regret. One may ask whether that is even possible, but I believe it is and I’d like to share that with you if you have time (20 min.).

The following was my last chapel message as chaplain of the Wheaton College Graduate School, preached on May 1, 2019. It is a portion of a longer series that I have developed for several Men’s Retreats that I have done in the past and would love to do for your church’s men’s retreat in the future. I hope you find it helpful as you go about living a life with no regret.