Sin much? Love much.

“You need to start praying that God will show you the depth of your sin.”

Her words hung in the air for a moment. It didn’t sting like it does when someone boldly calls you out—at least not at first. It was a conversation with a mentor, my mom, and her delivery on this kind of thing is always gentle. But gentle with conviction.

And wisdom. It is one of many conversations that I play back over and over, even years after the fact. I’ve got dozens of these little gems, life lessons, that I can trace back to coffee and a chat with my mom.

When I did feel the sting, it wasn’t because she was calling me out for being a sinner. She was telling me I was a Pharisee.

At the first of the year I began reading through the New Testament, but lately I’ve been on a quest to understand worship. Everything I read gets filtered through that lens.

Church culture has staunchly settled on 20 minutes of music selections on Sunday mornings, calling that worship. But if we even bother to attend physically, we may check out spiritually. There continues the ubiquitous dispute over what we have labeled worship style. Does those two words together sound contradictory to anyone else? No? Just me?

But, if you go looking for guidance in the bible, worship in scripture can be perplexing. Often the word appears with little detail except, “And he bowed and worshiped.” In other places the word is used when a biblical figure makes a sacrifice, as when Abraham prepares to offer Isaac and tells the company with them, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” (Genesis 22:5, ESV)

Huh. I’m not much further along than I was when I started this whole worship quest thing.

Then my morning reading brought me to this story. Jesus has dinner at the home of a Pharisee—you knew I’d get back to the Pharisee thing, right? A woman with a bad reputation found out where Jesus was, and her arrival at the feast made Simon the Pharisee indignant. She washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair. She kissed His feet and poured perfume on them.

“He can’t be a prophet,” Simon thought. “If he were, he would know all about her.” I can just see Simon rolling his eyes and exchanging looks with other Pharisees at the table. In that age, in Simon’s world, the touch of such a woman—even a loving gesture on your nasty stinky feet–would be repulsive.

Never fear, folks. Jesus set the man straight. And true to form, He used a parable to illustrate His point. Rather, He used a parable so that Simon could make His point.

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Luke 7:40-43, ESV

See what He did there? He set this up for Simon to expose his own hypocrisy. From the parable, it may sound like this woman who seemingly had morals like an alley cat owed a bigger debt because of her sin. But if you read the gospels, a lot—an inordinate amount, really–of harsh words and stern warnings are reserved for the Pharisees, the supposedly less sinful.

John the Baptist kicked off the show by calling them a “brood of vipers” and talked about the coming judgment (Matthew 3:7-12). Later Jesus would soundly castigate them with words like “blind guides” and “hypocrites” because, among other reasons, they slam heaven’s door in the face of genuine seekers. And, oh yeah, the Pharisees are not actually entering the kingdom, either (Matthew 23:13-14). Then He would call them sons of the devil because—guess why?—they don’t love Jesus so there is no way that God can be their Father (John 8:42-44). Those two things—loving Christ and being God’s child—are irrevocably connected.

Here’s what it boils down to. Judgment is the same for anyone who does not respond to the invitation of the grace and forgiveness of Christ. When He separates the sheep from the goats, there are no sub-categories. There’s not a special place for those who didn’t quite make it to heaven but aren’t so bad that they should go to hell. Either you enter the kingdom or you don’t.

Furthermore, the price for the woman’s sin and the price for the Pharisees’ sin is exactly the same—it cost the Son His life. Period. He didn’t have to give an extra sacrifice because these sins are worse than those sins. There’s no special negotiation that took place for those whose behavior serve as a cautionary tale trumpeted by the self-righteous.

What is so special about this woman is her worship. One difference between her and Simon the Pharisee is she knows the depth of her sin. Another is the depth of her love. Remember, loving Jesus and being God’s child are connected.

Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  (Luke 7:44-48, ESV)

Worship encompasses a lot of things. There are many examples in the bible that don’t look like this one, and we won’t always engage in such an emotional display of affection for the Lord. But I still feel there is a model for worship in this story that is important. Worship should always be more than a passive deference to God. I became His child because I love Jesus. It should be evident in my worship.

If I want my worship to be a genuine act of love for Christ, I need to understand the depth of my sin. I come back to that conversation with my mom often. That sting I felt for the exposure of my hypocrisy is not at all a bad thing. It makes me thankful for a rescue I don’t deserve, and for the enormous worth of the Savior whose life paid for that rescue.

For those who are in Christ, our sins, which are many are forgiven. We should “love much.”

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:9-10, ESV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ADVENTures Day 3–He carries us close to His heart . . .

Go up on a high mountain, O herald Zion!
Shout out loudly, O herald Jerusalem!
Shout, don’t be afraid!
Say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Look, the sovereign Lord comes as a victorious warrior;
his military power establishes his rule.
Look, his reward is with him;
his prize goes before him.
Like a shepherd he tends his flock;
he gathers up the lambs with his arm;
he carries them close to his heart;
he leads the ewes along.   Isaiah 40:9-11

Maybe I didn’t know what I was getting myself into—posting each day. If I were capable of just writing a little blurb about the scripture—600 words or less—this wouldn’t be a problem. But once I start breaking a scripture down, I’m sucked in! Call me a nerd, but I love this stuff. I like to research and study. I love history and God’s word. So, the two together? It’s a feast, I tell ya. I’ll have my bible and eight websites open at once. That’s really not practical for a post a day!

Isaiah fascinates me because his prophecies easily speak to today’s church. He describes judgment and exile for Israel, which had continued in religious activity but was still not righteous. They marked the sacrifices and feasts prescribed in the law of Moses, but they also sprinkled in practices from pagan nations (2:6), including the sacrifice of children at Gehenna. Isaiah refers to Jerusalem, once “the faithful city”, now as a “harlot” (1:21). Among Isaiah’s charges against Judah is social injustice, neglecting the “oppressed . . . the fatherless . . . the widow.”

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? That the people chosen of God and the recipients of His favor should fall so far—even to the point of continuing in their sacrifices to the LORD while also giving themselves over to idols. But, is the American church so different? Have we not seen blessing upon blessing of God’s favor? Yet, churches will spend millions upon millions on themselves—buildings and programs and fluff—and neglect the needy right outside their doors. In doing so, who is our idol? We are. Alright, now what about child sacrifice? Did you know that the views on abortion within the church mirror secular views on abortion? I just gave a cursory glance to a web article defending a “Christian” view in favor of abortion. It’s okay if your theology allows for it. Wait– what??? Does God’s feelings about sin–murder, even–fluctuate because of the theological views we choose to adopt? That’s absurd! Again, look no further than yourself to determine which idol you worship if you can be convinced that God accommodates this sin. To that writer, I say, read Isaiah’s laundry list of horrors in store for Israel and then get back to me.

Where I see the most obvious parallel between Isaiah’s prophecies and the modern church is what we’re willing to call worship. Too often, church membership and attendance is flashed around like some kind of Jesus talisman. I attend. I sing a few songs—but only if they are the songs I prefer performed only by certain instruments. I hear a little lightweight preaching and call it good for the week. What is neglected is devotion—a devotion that can only come about in a heart that knows it has been rescued.

Which brings me to our scripture.

I haven’t had a ton of time to study up for this post, but if I can believe the notes in my NIV Study Bible, I’ll assume that chapter 40 is written for the time when “the Babylonian exile is almost over.” God’s people endured years of suffering, which He intended as a purging of the evil they had absorbed into their community. But even as far back as chapter 1, Isaiah gave the people God’s assurance that despite the prevalence of their evil acts, their “scarlet” sins would be made “white as snow” (1:18). What I love about chapter 40 is the softer tone of the language. “Comfort, comfort,” it says in verse 1, and in verse 2, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . her hard service has been completed.”

Looking specifically at our verses for today, 9-11, I love the contrast between God’s power (v.10) and His care (v.11). The good news for the people in exile is that God in all His power will come to lead them back home. In love, He will not only lead as a shepherd, but “carry them close to His heart.”

What does this say to us? God will have His kingdom, made up of a people who are righteous— that is, in a right relationship with Him. This can only come about because of Christ, because He rescues us from evil. I believe God will purify His church of the drivel—the teaching that accommodates sin, the ho-hum worship of a people who barely realize what was done on their behalf, the preaching that amounts to little more than life coaching rather than conviction. He purged the people of Israel to make them righteous. He wants to purge us of our sin–of the way we’ve let the world’s theology creep into our worship. That kind of purging is painful.

If you claim faith in Christ, it doesn’t hurt to evaluate your worship. If it accommodates you, your preferences—or worse, your sin—then make this Christmas a time to re-devote yourself to Him. There’s no reason to adopt a theology that accommodates sin—the Lamb shed His blood to make those scarlet sins white as snow. He came for you, to gather you up like a little lamb and lead you home, cancelling your debt in the process. Does your worship reflect a gratitude for your rescue?

Maybe you don’t know God. Maybe you feel conviction over the things I’ve listed above. Abortion, maybe? Know that He also came for you. He simply doesn’t accommodate your sins—but He pays the price for them with the blood of His Son. Our sin would separate us from God forever except for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Here’s some really amazing news—no sin (that’s right, not even abortion) is so great that you can’t be redeemed by God. You see, the worth of Jesus Christ is incalculable—His blood’s power to rescue cannot be exhausted by the number or depth of your sins. He will scoop you up like a little lamb and carry you close to His heart.

lamb chop

We celebrate the birth of a little baby on Christmas Day. Now, imagine. That little baby came with power to rescue you. It is the “good news of great joy that will be for all people”. Receive the Lord Jesus and be at peace.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God . . . [your] sin has been paid for . . .” Isaiah 40:1-2 (NIV)

ADVENTures Day 2–It’s the bad news that makes the good news . . .

How delightful it is to see approaching over the mountains
the feet of a messenger who announces peace,
a messenger who brings good news, who announces deliverance,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Listen, your watchmen shout;
in unison they shout for joy,
for they see with their very own eyes
the Lord’s return to Zion.
In unison give a joyful shout,
O ruins of Jerusalem!
For the Lord consoles his people;
he protects Jerusalem.
 The Lord reveals his royal power
in the sight of all the nations;
the entire earth sees
our God deliver.       Isaiah 52:7-1

Day 2. I’ve been in the car all day, driving home from Thanksgiving at the farm. As tired as I am, there’s no way I’m skipping the second day of Adventures in Advent! Especially since God has made this scripture real to me.

Tomorrow is the last day of National Adoption Month. For weeks I’ve wanted to get some thoughts on my blog about our adoption experience, but time is at a premium and other topics were easier to tackle. As I looked over the second Advent scripture, I saw my experiences with adoption peeking out from behind the words. I know what good news is!

Possibly, I know good news so well because the bad news was such a piercing to my heart.

I was ten weeks pregnant when I went to my first OB appointment. Todd went with me, and we were so excited. Todd had spent months looking for a church job after graduating from seminary. The appointment was on a Monday morning, but the day before Todd preached at a church in Tulsa in view of a call to a staff position. The whole weekend had been one long interview, and we felt sure that this job was the one we had prayed for. Now we were off to see the first images of our first baby. Everything was coming together. A new job, a new home, and now the beginnings of our little family. I was going to quit teaching and be a stay at home mom. We had the world by the tail.

The doctor was all smiles, offered an extra VHS tape since we hadn’t known to bring one, and I was all set up for the ultrasound and the first recording of our sweet little one.

Maybe the reason I’ve held off on writing about these experiences for so long is that words just fail me when I try to describe that pain. I remember every excruciating detail, but to write it is to relive it, and maybe deep down, I don’t want to go back there.

The doctor went from buoyant to business in a fraction of a second. Quiet and grim faced, he simply tapped my knee, saying to get dressed and come to his office. We, of course, were seized with fear. I remember my limbs going limp and clumsily going through the motions—tumbling into my pants, getting lost in my shirt sleeves, gripping my equally shocked husband, numbly making my way to a seat in another room.

The doctor delivered the news factually but compassionately. He seemed particularly concerned that I not blame myself. Todd stuttered his way through a few questions—I couldn’t find my breath. It felt like I’d been body slammed. Then I was given a choice: I could schedule a D&C or wait until I miscarried naturally. At that moment, I was suspended somewhere between denial and complete despair. I just wanted out of there, to find a place where I could cry or collapse or scream or throw things or any other socially unacceptable behavior I chose.

There is so much more to this story. I could fill a book. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll stick with what is relevant to our Advent passage. We went through this pain several more times—being told by a doctor that our baby had not survived beyond the seventh week. Those three miscarriages were particularly traumatic—the first two I ended up in the ER. But I believe that there were a number of very short pregnancies in between where I miscarried before I knew I was pregnant.

So what does this have to do with Advent?  For about five years, all we got was bad news. I wish I could tell you that these were years that were fruitful in my walk, years I spent pressing in, studying His Word and allowing Him to reveal His character during my times of suffering. Ha! Not even close. I was unbelievably angry with God. If He loves me, why doesn’t He heal this? It’s like my situation didn’t reflect what I thought was true of God, so I just held Him at arm’s length for a long time. I did not see any new revelation of God’s character because I wasn’t really looking. What I wanted was an answer to my prayer in the only way that I could see where the healing of my heart could take place. He simply had to give me a baby.

Then one day, after four years of miscarriages and heartache, I started praying the right prayer. Instead of praying that God would give me a biological child, I prayed that He would heal me in whatever manner He chose. I just didn’t want to be angry anymore, and I wanted my relationship with Him to be what it had been before all this mess. I wanted Him to restore the joy of my salvation.

One thing led to another that led to an adoption agency in Houston, Texas, called Alternatives in Motion. We waited a long year for the phone call. You know the one I mean? THE phone call!

The phone rang on a Sunday night when we were least expecting it. We were a few minutes into the conversation before I realized what was happening. I remember saying, “Wait, are you saying that this baby is available for adoption?”

On the other end of the line was the agency director, Jan Deets. She laughed a little. “Katie, I’m saying this is your baby!” I’m not even sure what happened for the next few minutes of the conversation. Todd was on the phone in the bedroom, asking a few questions and getting all the details. I was too busy dancing! Finally!

Jan with Emma Kate

That’s Jan on the day we met our second daughter, Emma Kate. I’ve always loved this picture.

 

Within a few weeks of having our sweet Eden home, I realized what God had done. He had revealed Himself through the adoption of our daughter. Even though I was a believer for a lot of years before, I now saw salvation in a different light—that God deeply, deeply loves me and made all the arrangements so that I could be His child. I had doubted for so long that God could work all this pain together for good. I had felt for so long that God was punishing me by not allowing me to carry a baby to term. I had grown accustomed to thinking of God as angry, and cold, and distant. But here He was showing Himself. He does good things! I pined for that baby for so long; finally I was able to bring her home, call her mine, and lavish her with love I’d been carrying for years since my first pregnancy.

Eden day 1

The good Rev with sweet Eden on day 1. This picture is another one of my all-time favorites.

 

Isn’t that a beautiful picture of salvation as well? He pines for us, for our repentance, so that we can be forever in His love—never to be snatched from His hand. Todd and I went through a whole rigmarole in order to adopt—paperwork, interviews, workshops, and payments. But God made His payment for my adoption in blood—the blood of His own Son. And if I, being so imperfect, could so love this little baby girl who was only mine because of a legal document and the say-so of a judge, how much more could a perfect God love those for whom He paid so immeasurable a price?

As for our scripture, Isaiah spent many pages describing judgment and exile, using words like fire and wrath. These people got bad news, over and over, unlike anything that we can comprehend. God’s people would not only hear the bad news in prophecy, they would live out its horrors. They must have doubted His goodness at times. They must have wondered if they had been forever cut off from His love. Imagine the joy, the expectancy, of a people who so suffered to hear their salvation proclaimed! Not only that, how they must have treasured the assurance that they belong to the God who reigns over all—and that every nation everywhere would witness their redemption.

Guess what? If you are in Christ, these words are for you as well. Sometimes, the good news is best understood in light of all the bad that has gone before. None of what you have suffered has been wasted. Your God reigns, and He will return and comfort His people. Every nation everywhere will see what our God has done to redeem us.

If you don’t know Christ, then know this–He wants to adopt you. You’ve been separated from Him because of your sin, but He’s pining for you. All the work is done, signed in the blood of the perfect Christ, who will buy you back from your sin. We celebrate His birth at Christmas, but it’s His death and resurrection that are the true tidings of comfort and joy!