jasonbwatson

July 29, 2015

The Narrow Way

Last month my wife and I spent a few days in Denver. Odd though it may sound, it seemed to me that the Denver area had the narrowest parking spaces I can remember ever encountering. Even if I was parked squarely within the lines of my space, and the car in the next space was as well, I felt cramped. It seemed like we were much too close together, and I had to be very careful when opening my car door not to hit the car next to me. When I mentioned this to a friend who had also been in the Denver area recently she said, “Well, Colorado is supposedly the fittest state in the nation; maybe they don’t think they need the extra space!” She was joking, but at least it is a possible explanation… Of course, it is also possible that I have become used to the area in which I live, where parking lots are as likely as not to have no spaces marked off and people figure it out. I am inclined to doubt that, though, as I do encounter delineated parking spaces often enough. Still, I am not going to blog about narrow parking spaces, which I am sure is a relief to you. You were just about to stop reading, weren’t you?

Instead, I want to write about the Narrow Way. Jesus talks about this concept a number of times in the gospels, most notably in Matthew 7. He said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (verses 13-14). Jesus was making the point that pursuing a life that is pleasing to God, living a life that endeavors to demonstrate Christ to others, will not be easy. It will not be comfortable. Just as I was irritated by the proximity of the cars next to mine while I was parking in Denver, we do not like the feel confined, closed in or restricted. When given the option, most people will choose the wide way, the way with plenty of elbow room, the way that allows them to do their own thing without bumping into anyone else or anything else–anything like walls, fences and boundaries. Of course walls, fences and boundaries, when it comes to life, can mean rules, guidelines and expectations. It can mean putting personal preferences, desires and tendencies aside in order to pursue Christ and live according to His direction. It can mean yielding to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives instead of following self.

It is interesting, I think, that Jesus instruction to take the narrow way comes immediately after His instruction to do to others as we would have them do to us. The Golden Rule is followed immediately by the instruction that taking the wide way will lead to destruction. In fact, if your Bible has section headings, it likely sets verses 12-14 apart, possibly under the heading “The Golden Rule.” Immediately before this section is Jesus’s instruction to ask God for what we need and to trust that God will provide for our needs; immediately after is instruction about false prophets and recognizing trees by their fruit. Taking the narrow way, then, necessarily means doing to others–living proactively in a way that lives out the teachings of Jesus, the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As I have mentioned here before, this was a revolutionary teaching by Jesus. The Jewish leaders had always taught “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,” but that is not nearly the same thing as what Jesus said. After all, I can refrain from smacking you across the face without ever being kind to you, without ever considering your needs ahead of my own, without ever helping to bear your burdens.

The truth is, I can refrain from smacking you across the face without being all that uncomfortable. There may well be times when I would like to do it, and when doing so might seem like it would feel really good, but I can probably live a perfectly content and comfortable life while still resisting any temptation to smack someone. Going beyond that, though, can be rather distressing. Showing kindness to you when I do not feel like being kind–or when, frankly, I do not even like you all that much–is not comfortable. Setting aside my preferences in order to make way for yours can be annoying. Forgiving you when you have wronged me unjustly can be, let’s face it, excruciatingly difficult. Still, this is all part of what it means to take the narrow way. As Jesus said, it is hard. It would much easier to take the wide way, to avoid the unpleasant elbow rubbing and shoulder bumping of the narrow way. The wide way, though, leads to destruction. It may be n easier path, but the destination is not worth it. I much prefer life to destruction, even if the path is a bit narrow.

July 24, 2015

Friendship

Last month Tabletalk magazine included a devotional entitled “True Friendship.” It was based on Proverbs 17:17, which reminds us that a friend loves at all times. The writer of the devotional, though, went deeper than that verse in examining what friendship really is. He started off reminding us of the tremendous irony of the day in which we live–the fact that “we live in a world that is both more connected and more disconnected than ever before. Smartphones, social media, e-mail and other technologies make it simple to stay in contact with friends and loved ones even when they live thousands of miles away. And yet, there is a dearth of true intimacy.” This is certainly true, and I have explored this phenomenon in this space before. Social media and other communications technology can be a two-edged sword, providing wonderful benefits but also tremendous problems. Some of those problems come from the comparisons that inevitably result from the almost constant viewing of Facebook status updates and tweets among our contacts. Some of the problems come from the fact that we can communicate with almost anyone instantly yet we seem to have deep, meaningful conversations less and less frequently.

Another of the problems is identified by the Tabletalk writer this way: “With the click of a mouse we can be listed as the friend of someone whom we have never met–and probably never will meet–in person.” I am sure I am not alone in restricting my social media “friends” to people I really do know, but there is a large contingent of folks who like to see how high they can get that friend number. (I also know I am not alone in having received numerous “friend requests” from people I have never heard of, perhaps only because we have one “mutual friend”). Are all of my Facebook friends intimate friends? Of course not. But at least I really do know them all. The writer also mentions the challenge these days of having a “close friend of the same gender without raising suspicions of homosexuality.” Wouldn’t it be tragic if the single-digit percentile of the American population that claims to be homosexual could have really warped our view of human interaction to the point that two men or two women cannot be close friends without being suspected of being sexually involved? Of course, the inverse has long been true, as well–there were suspicions of “something more” when a male and female were close friends. Indeed, I have heard some people suggest that a male and a female cannot be close friends without it leading to something more, whether that “more” be sexual behavior, inappropriate non-sexual intimacy or just confusion and hurt feelings.

The devotional writer states that Scripture “offers a key corrective” to the problems of human friendship by “offering us a high view of human friendship. [Proverbs 17:17] lauds the benefit of true friendship, a relationship in which we receive love from another at our best and at our worst.” I would suggest that precisely because of this, true friendships are quite finite in number. Some people have hundreds of acquaintances and scores of friends, yet when they hit a real crisis they do not know who to call because they have no true, real, lasting friends, friends who will stick with them through the hard times, come along side during adversity, believe the best and stay true through the worst. If you do have friends like that–and I hope you do–I suspect you could count them on one hand, or certainly on two. “Our friendships are harmed and often destroyed when our friends reveal their flaws,” the devotional writer states. “Sadly, this means that our friendships are often quite tenuous, prompting us to look for a friendship that is secure because it is not based on what the other person finds lovely in us. The only one who can provide this friendship is Jesus Christ.”

I would posit that the only one who can provide this friendship perfectly is Jesus Christ, but it is possible to have human friends that do not run away when we reveal flaws, when we fall flat on our faces (literally or figuratively), when we do mess up or behave like a jerk. Certainly we have all had friendships that ended suddenly when circumstances changed, whether they be grades in school, new friends coming on the scene, interests shifting, opinions conflicting or whatever. These were seldom deep, meaningful friendships in the first place. If, however, you have been blessed to have longtime friends who have remained your friends even through challenges, disagreements and screw ups then you are truly blessed, and you have experienced Proverbs 17:17 in a very personal way.

My recent hiatus from blogging was due to a family vacation. During that time I was able to visit two longtime friends, one whom I have known for probably twenty-two years now, I guess, and another whom I have known for seventeen. I do not see either of these individuals often. In fact, one I had not seen in three years and the other I had not seen in perhaps ten. One I stay in fairly regular contact with through e-mails, the other I seldom communicate with. Still, based on our longtime friendships and past experience in both instances, I believe I could confide in both of those friends and turn to each of them for help in a real crisis in my life–even if it was a crisis of my own making. I think I know both of them well enough to know that they would be honest with me if I messed up but they would also help me get out of the mess rather than walking away. Interestingly, going back to one of the points discussed above, one of these friends is male and the other is female. Both friendships have had bumps, including some caused by own stupidity at times. (It really is incredible how much harm our tongues can do, isn’t it?) Repentance and forgiveness are wonderful things though, and stupidity does not have to be a friendship-ender in true, meaningful friendships. I have hundreds of Facebook friends and untold acquaintances and contacts through personal and professional life, but I have a handful of real, deep, true friends. I am blessed and encouraged by them. Some are male, some are female. When we get out of the way of ourselves and put our own preferences and opinions aside long enough to realize that the world does not revolve around us, to recognize that the love Jesus has for us is based on absolutely nothing we could ever do to merit, deserve or sustain it, it is possible to have such friendships. It is not easy; like I said, you will probably not have many of them. Do not, though, let the fact that it is not easy deter you. Do not let possible questions of “something more” interfere with the development and maintenance of real friendships with others of the same or the opposite sex. Do not let Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting be your only connection with your “friends.” Do not run the other way when you find your friends are not perfect. After all, you are not, either. Neither am I.

July 1, 2015

Truth Matters

I want to talk to you about truth. If I were to say that this was not influenced by recent events in Washington, DC I would be less than honest, and you would know I was. You may be very disturbed by the recent Supreme Court decisions -— and we should all be —- but the reality is that these decisions are but the latest in a long line of events in our country and decisions by our leaders that frustrate, sadden and even anger us. As I reflected on what has happened recently my mind flashed back to a message that I preached in the late 1990s in the midst of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. I went back through my files and I found that message and I found that it is entirely relevant today, as well.

Here is what I found in looking back at those notes: I did not set out to prepare a message which would deal with or even relate to current political events and the message I prepared was not going to deal specifically with that event. In fact, based on my notes for that message I had been working on something else entirely and in the process of looking up a cross reference to a verse I was dealing with this passage in Isaiah grabbed me. Have you ever heard someone say, or maybe seen in a book advertisement, “a gripping read”? Well, this was a gripping read. I turned to it and started reading and literally it was as if I had been grabbed by the collar and told, “read this!” It was a gripping read. In this instance I sought this out, but it is just as gripping and just as relevant today. This is not going to be specifically about the recent decisions, but it will relate to them clearly. We are going to talk about truth and why truth matters.

Look at Isaiah 59:1-15. This is what grabbed me all those years ago when I was reading. I am sure I had read this before, I imagine many of you have read this before as well, but never had it grabbed me like this—and that’s the thing about God’s Word, isn’t it? It never gets old, it is always new. This passage screamed to me then that it needed to be preached, because it is so much like the current situation in this country.

Look at verse 4. I read from the ESV, but I like the NKJV here better, and it reads like this: “No one calls for justice, Nor does any plead for truth.” Does that not sound like America today? We could give many examples of people in the United States, of all walks of life but particularly among our leaders, who have dismissed calls for the truth. “What difference does it make?” they may ask. The truth is not desirable for most people, they do not want justice. They would rather, as verse 4 says, “conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity”. Why is that? It is because truth and justice necessitate right and wrong, and right and wrong necessitate an unchanging, unalterable definition or determination. In other words, truth and justice, right and wrong require an almighty, sovereign God and humanity does not like that because truth and justice, right and wrong get in the way of us doing what we want to do, what seems expedient at the time, what we feel like doing, what makes us happy and brings us pleasure.

The skill in devising mischievous schemes – as the spider weaves its web, the comparison is made – will not save them. They shall not, verse 6 says, cover themselves with their works of iniquity. Why? Because no schemes of self-wrought salvation can avail in the light of God’s truth!

Still, we see in verse 7, their feet run to evil, they shed innocent blood, they think evil thoughts. I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of how we see the world described before the flood in Genesis 6:5, where we read, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” It reminds me of the description of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18.

Now look at verse 8 – “the way of peace they do not know.” You could certainly argue that we have not been in a time of peace since the 9/11 attacks, though we do live in a time of greater peace now than we have at some other times in our nation’s history in terms of day to day armed conflict on the international stage. But are we at peace within our own country? No. Far from it. Look at the chaos that has erupted around the country in recent months, of which Ferguson and Baltimore are but two examples among many. We have, as verse 9 says, shut our eyes to the truth. We have shut our eyes to the light of truth to the point where we stumble around at the brightest of day, groping for a wall like a blind man, because we have closed our eyes to the light. We wait for brightness yet we walk in darkness. When we have turned so much from God is it not just for God to hide from us the things which belong to peace? Why would we have peace when we have ignored the truth? How could we?

Verse 12 says that the transgressions of the people had been multiplied before God. He sees every single one, and they are multiplying—they are piling up before Him. “And our sins testify against us,” the verse says. Not only before God, by the way, but before man. Our sins testify against us around the world. The sins of those who profess to be God’s people are worse than the sins of others, and, like it or not, we still claim to be a Christian nation—though that is certainly diminishing and that claim is certainly becoming more difficult for anyone to make with any degree if sincerity. The sins of a nation are public and they will bring public judgement—especially when they are not restrained by public justice! How tragic it is when those individuals charged with overseeing public justice are the very ones committing the most heinous sins.

Verses 14-15 describe our country exactly. Justice is turned away backward. Righteousness stands far off. Truth has fallen in the streets. Equity, justice, uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lying dead in the streets of America. And, the second part of verse 15 says, “the Lord saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice.” God is displeased. There is no way around that, no other way to imagine it; God is displeased when we make a mockery of what He has created—and marriage, mind you, was created by God, to be between one man and one woman. And man and woman, mind you, were created by God as well, not as concepts or identities which we can choose for ourselves.

There are three things about truth and the wicked that we can see in Scripture that are important for us to note. First, the wicked do not ask for truth. In Isaiah 59:4 we see that none plead for truth. In 2 Timothy 4:4 we see that the wicked “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” The wicked turn away from the truth, they do not ask for truth, because they do not want to hear it.

Second, the wicked do not defend truth. In Jeremiah 9:3, in the KJV, we read this: “And they bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the LORD.” The wicked do not stand up for the truth, they do not fight for truth.

Third, the wicked do not speak the truth. Jeremiah 9:5 says, “Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity.” Quite simply, the wicked lie.

I could provide you with abundant examples of lies coming from the mouths of our elected officials, from our unelected judges, from celebrities and supposed role models, from preachers and professors and religious leaders, from common everyday people like you and me. I could, but I am not going to, because you have no doubt seen and heard them yourself and you do not need me to provide examples of something you already are aware of. I will tell you this, though: God does not like the lack of truth. Isaiah 59:15 tells us that God is displeased. In Hosea 4:1 we read these words: “Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land.” God had a controversy with the people of Israel because there was no truth in the land. Yes, these passages are talking about the people of Israel, but the principles are the same. God is no less intolerant of wickedness and lies today than He was then. I will tell you, the last thing I would want is to have a controversy with God, but I believe our nation does…because there is no truth. We have turned our backs on truth.

Let me remind you that I would be the first one to stand up and point out that we have a biblical responsibility to pray for our leaders, and to respect them, because they are ordained by God. Scripture makes it abundantly clear, in a number of passages, that the powers and authorities over us are ordained by God and we are to respect them, to pray for them and to obey them—unless and until they instruct us to disobey God. So we must respect Barack Obama, we must respect the five justices of the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of homosexual marriage, because they hold offices that God has ordained. At the same time, we must also realize that God made us a people of free will and we elect who we wish. The very fact that we have turned so far from God and from truth is both a contribution to, and a result of, the fact that we have not elected for ourselves great leaders, godly leaders who desire to do what is right regardless of what is popular.
Do not doubt—the wicked will be punished. In Jeremiah 5:29 we read this: “Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” Jeremiah 9:9 says the exact same thing. God will visit this nation, I believe, just as He visited the nation of Israel, and He will be avenged. Why? Because there is no truth.
So what are our responsibilities, as those who follow Christ? As those who are to be lovers of truth?

First, Look at Jeremiah 9:1. “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” We should be crying for our country. When was the last time you did that? When was the last time you wept in prayer because of the state of our union? I confess, I do not know the answer for myself. It is easy to become hardened and cynical and callous toward the sin around us, but we need to be praying for this nation. Some of us are faithful to pray for our nation regularly and consistently, and that is good. But we need to do it not just because we recognize our biblical obligation to do so but because we really think about and care about what is going on in our nation. If we think about it, really think about it, and care about it, it will bring tears. It will bring anger, too, by the way, and that can be good if it motivates us to do the right thing.

Second, we see from Isaiah 58:1 that we have a responsibility to identify the transgressions of our nation—to call them out. “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins” it says. We who know the truth have a responsibility to point out the problems that exist. We should be able, figuratively speaking, to hear people yelling about the problems in this country, lifting up their voices like trumpets to call to repentance a nation that is all too content to pursue its own purposes and desires. We have to recognize the transgressions and point them out. Why? Because the national mindset is formed by one of two dynamics—propaganda or truth. Today it is being molded by propaganda. The church needs to respond to her responsibility in the formation of the national mindset. Churches must assume their responsibility for shaping the biblical mind and confronting the national mind. We must find ways to assert biblical values in the public square. If the secular mass media inundate the nation with propaganda, the church must counter with the truth.

Third, look at Psalm 51. This is a well-known psalm in which David cries out to the Lord after the prophet Nathan confronts him on his sin with Bathsheba. We need, as a nation as well as individually, to acknowledge our sin. We do not need to apologize for it; an apology is a verbal defense, and it does not bring forgiveness. Nowhere does Scripture say that we are to apologize for our sin. Rather, we need to acknowledge it, confess it, repent of it and turn around. 2 Chronicles 7:14 contains this instruction as well. That verse tells us that if God’s people call on Him, humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, then He will hear, forgive and heal their land.

Finally, look at Malachi 3:5-7. The punishment will come. It most definitely will. That is not up for debate. But it is not too late to return to God. I believe it is still possible for a revival to sweep through this land. Look back to Isaiah 59, where we started. Verses 1-2 tell us that God’s hand is not shortened that He cannot save. God is not tired or weary of hearing our prayers. We as a nation, however, grown tired of praying. We have separated ourselves from God with iniquities and sin has hid our face from His. Truth is lying dead in the streets. It is not too late to turn back; God is ready to hear and He will forgive. No matter how disappointed, how frustrated, how saddened, how angered we may become, we must not give up our responsibility to stand for the truth. This is what we are called to do, no matter the cost, no matter the popularity, no matter the penalty that may result.

Keith Getty and Stuart Townend have written a hymn entitled “O Church Arise,” and the first verse reads like this:

O church, arise and put your armor on;
Hear the call of Christ our captain;
For now the weak can say that they are strong
In the strength that God has given.
With shield of faith and belt of truth
We’ll stand against the devil’s lies;
An army bold whose battle cry is “Love!”
Reaching out to those in darkness.

That is what we are to do; to go in the strength and armor of the Lord, standing against the lies of the devil. We may be spitting mad about the SCOTUS decision, the five justices or the people who pushed and fought for this decision. But Jesus died for them, too, and they are in darkness, and we are to reach out to them with God’s love.
The second verse of that hymn says this:

Our call to war, to love the captive soul,
But to rage against the captor;
And with the sword that makes the wounded whole
We will fight with faith and valor.
When faced with trials on ev’ry side,
We know the outcome is secure,
And Christ will have the prize for which He died—
An inheritance of nations.

We are called to war. Make no mistake about that; we are in the thick of a very real, very intense spiritual war! Our enemy, though, is the captor—Satan—not the captive souls who have fallen under his lies. We must fight on, faithfully and confidently, because even when we seem to be making no ground, even when we seem to be losing, we know, “the outcome is secure.” No decision by any number of human beings will ever change that, and we are on the side of victory.

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