Tuesday, August 25, 2009

". . . and they turned their lights on"

I first posted this in May 2008. After staring at the stars tonight, I decided to run it again (with a different title).

Last summer the International Space Station (ISS) flew over our house with Space Shuttle Atlantis following close behind. Atlantis had undocked and was preparing for return to earth within a day or two. It was evening after sunset, but the western sky was not dark. The ISS appeared north-northwest from Raymore as if it were coming from Kansas City, Missouri. It was on time and it appeared exactly where NASA said that it would. I had herded the girls into the front yard. Cara was living at home for a few weeks after graduating from college. She did not know what to expect except that the neighbors would think we were crazy. Nevertheless, Lisa and Cara indulged me out of kindness, but the little girls seemed to be genuinely interested in seeing spaceships.

The reflected light from the ISS moved directly toward us for several seconds before the light from Atlantis also became visible. The two spacecraft moved silently through the sky growing gradually larger, brighter, and faster as they approached. The girls watched intently as the ISS and shuttle drew near. Gabby and Claire began to wave energetically at the light in the sky, but Cara began to chuckle at Gabby and Claire. As the ISS flew directly overhead, it caught a ray of sunshine and flashed brilliance against the darkening sky. Gabby exclaimed, “They saw us waving, and they turned their lights on!” The two craft flew around the ash tree by the driveway and over the garage roof. The little girls dashed into the backyard to watch the ISS and the Atlantis disappear into the night.

I am impressed with rocket scientists and especially their project managers. It is amazing that they can build, launch, and retrieve spacecraft and preserve the life onboard. I was enthralled with the spectacular view of the ISS from my front yard. I am glad that the dazzling lights captivated Gabby’s imagination. Nevertheless, neither the ISS nor the Space Shuttle is the most spectacular object in the summer-night sky. In fact, the ISS is amazing to me primarily because it is manmade.

The moon orbits the earth every 29½ days. It rotates as it revolves keeping its dark side hidden from Earth’s view. It reflects the sunlight in a cycle that signals to some the arrival of seasons. As it orbits the earth, it pulls the ocean tides in concert with the sun. The gravitational attractions of earth, moon, and sun comprise a machine that helps keep the ocean currents flowing. Along with the sun’s heat, the ocean currents also influence the earth’s winds bringing both rain and clear skies in season.

While we are enthralled on summer nights by manmade satellites sailing silently in space, they are less amazing than the moon which is visible nearly every day. The ISS will help men learn about the earth it floats above, but life on earth is not directly dependent upon its orbiting on a schedule. Nevertheless, the sky follows an intricate if unfathomable schedule that directly contributes to life on earth.

When Daniel was a little guy, we camped near a pond along with my brother-in-law, Steve. Mars hung out over the water low on the horizon. It appeared to be so close that you could almost see its spherical shape with the naked eye. The next time Mars and Earth were in perihelic opposition was the week that we took Cara to college. Lisa and I walked the beach on Assateague Island and saw Mars hanging in the Atlantic mist. It appeared to be not too far out nor too high up, but rather just beyond breaking waves and over the open water. When I saw Mars at its brightest from the beach at Assateague, I remembered that sixteen years had passed since I had seen it with Daniel as it hovered over Uncle Paul’s pond. Gabby will be a teenager before we see Mars nearly so close again. Earth has never observed a closer approach to Mars as in 2003. It was sublime and it was fleeting, none of us will see it quite the same way in our lifetimes.

While the earth repeats a daily pattern of night and day, and the moon repeats its cycle from new to full, the planets and other celestial objects follow their choreography in such a way that no night sky is exactly like another. We might confuse the heavens’ complexity with randomness, yet each object follows its course with precision. In each day’s concert, together they play subtle variations of their repertoire.

The sky is an orchestration of infinite design and complexity in which man, by virtue of rocket science, now plays a cowbell. When we glimpse spacecraft sailing above the margin of night and day we exult, “Look, there is the Space Shuttle!” or “Wow, see the ISS?” In comparison with the beauty of space, it is like saying, “More cowbell!” We want more cowbell because men like us play cowbells. We cannot understand, let alone control, all the physics of the sun, moon, planets, and stars; however, some brilliant among us can play cowbell: “More cowbell!” That is all right; it takes a lot of human skill and effort to play cowbell in the symphony of the sky.

Man’s conquest of space declares his glory, but Psalm 19 begins by saying,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4a (NIV)

Man pushes into space in pursuit of scientific knowledge, preferably useful information; yet Psalm 19 says that the purpose of the heavens is to reveal the magnificence of God. Observing the heavens without acknowledging God is like attending a symphony and ignoring the music but rather concentrating merely on the shape of the instruments. Likewise, when we observe man’s creations we should exult not only in man, but also in the God who made us all in his image. When we view the heavens, we should hear the symphony that proclaims to us the glory of God, and we should respond. Psalm 19 concludes,

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14 (NIV)

The God who created the heavens and choreographed the celestial courses is also aware of the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts. Either they please him, or they do not.

When Gabby saw the ISS move from partial shadow into the full illumination of the sun, she said, “They saw us waving, and they turned their lights on!” I did not tell Gabby that she imagined fiction. Nevertheless, all the lights of the heavens shine for our benefit. They were not turned on in response to our waving, but rather so that we could see the magnificent glory of the Creator. Man is not waiting on God to reveal himself; the heavens declare his glory and “the skies proclaim the work of his hands . . . There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” Will we thus acknowledge him?

More important than merely acknowledging God, is our relationship to him. David addresses him, “O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” When we acknowledge God, we should ask him, “Are you my LORD? Are you my Rock? Are you my Redeemer?” Then we should say, “Be my LORD. Be my Rock. Be my Redeemer.” God illuminated the host of heaven to draw our attention to him. God is now watching from heaven awaiting our response. He turned his lights on; will he now see us waving?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Though with tears he sought it

For we have become partakers of the Christ, if indeed the beginning of the support we should hold firm until the end.

Hebrews 3:14 (AB)

There is a smug mantra within Evangelical Christianity that states, “Once saved, always saved.” The inference is that once a person becomes a “Christian” by some ritual action, an eternal reward is secured regardless. Many Evangelicals believe that once a person prays a little “sinner’s prayer” their eternal destiny is sealed. Faith, they believe, is an instantaneous epiphany, which obligates God to grant eternal life regardless of the convert’s faithfulness. Evangelicals often scoff at those who think that salvation might not be so easily secured. They brand those who differ from their viewpoint as legalists who must believe salvation comes by works.

While there are legalists who think that salvation comes by works, the once-saved-always-saved Evangelicals are the worst of the lot because they teach a works-based salvation of the lowest possible standard, “Repeat after me, ‘Dear Jesus, blah, blah, blah . . .’ Congratulations, you’re now a child of God.” These so-called believers reject the truth that faith and faithfulness are the same word in Scripture! They teach salvation without repentance, and they manufacture word meanings that deceive people into false assurances of salvation.

The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that the end must validate the beginning. A plausible beginning does not guarantee the expected end. How have we “become partakers of the Christ?” Only if “we should hold firm until the end!” Hebrews does not tell us we might become partakers of the Christ, if we hold firm to the end. Rather, it says we have already become partakers of the Christ. Nevertheless, the proof requires that we hold firm until the end.

Not only so, those not holding firm to the end are in peril!

For where voluntarily we sin after receiving the full knowledge of the truth, no longer is left a sacrifice for sins; but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a zealous fire being about to devour the adversaries.
Hebrews 10:26 (AB)

The writer of Hebrews uses Esau as a negative example. He commands believers to be involved in each other’s lives lest any should lack God’s grace. We are supposed to watch out for those in peril such as Esau,

. . . who for one portion of food delivered over his rights of the first born. For you understand that also afterwards wanting to inherit the blessing, he was rejected; for no place for repentance was found though with tears he sought it.

Hebrews 12:14-17 (AB)

Some so-called Christians mistakenly believe that in the Old Testament, salvation came by obedience to the Law. Hebrews rebuts this theory in chapter 11 revealing that salvation has always come by faith. Even scoundrels like Jepthah, who sacrificed his daughter, were enshrined in the “Hall of Faith” not because of their deeds but because of their faith in God.

Paul encouraged the Philippians to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling.” Paul exhorted the Corinthians to examine themselves to see whether they were in the faith. What was the standard of the test he proposed? “Do you not recognize yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you – except you be rejected.” 2 Corinthians 13:5 If Christ is in us, then it will become evident.

For many, salvation is more a gradual process than a instantaneous enlightenment. Saving faith is not merely intellectual assent. However, such knowledge of the truth, puts one in jeopardy should they subsequently reject the truth and fall away.

The writer of Hebrews seems almost obsessed with those within the assembly who were not fully committed to Jesus Christ. He warned against the hardening of hearts which also prevented Israel from obtaining God’s favor.

Take heed, brethren, lest at any time there should be in some of you a wicked unbelief in heart in the separating from the living God. But encourage yourselves according to each day,  as long as of which it is called today, that you should not be hardened, any of you, any by the deception of sin.

Hebrews 3:12 (AB)

The tone in Hebrews is urgent. We must continue on in our sanctification because the consequences of falling short of God’s grace are so severe.

It is impossible for the ones once enlightened, having tasted also of the heavenly gift, and becoming partakers of holy spirit, and having tasted the good word of God, and of powers of the eon about to be, and having fallen, again to renew to repentance; crucifying again to themselves the son of God, and making an example of him.

Hebrews 6:4-6 (AB)

The word translated, “having fallen”, or parapesontas, only appears once in the New Testament. Usually word meanings are best inferred by comparing many contexts. The scarcity of parapesontas actually helps us understand that to which the writer of Hebrews was alluding. The New Testament, of course was written in Greek, and the Old Testament source available to the New Testament writers had been translated into Greek. In the Greek Old Testament, parapesontas occurs in only two books. In Esther 6:10, the evil Haman is told that he must not fall short of his duty to honor Mordecai, whom he hates. Elsewhere, in Ezekiel, parapesontas is used five times to refer to Israel’s rebellion against God.

In Ezekiel 18, Israel accuses God of injustice. God reminds Israel that they are the ones who are unjust. God promises to punish the lawless and reward the righteous. In the middle of this discourse, God says,

And the lawless one, if he should turn from all his lawless deeds which he did, and should keep all my commandments, and should do equity and righteousness and mercy; to life he shall live, and he shall not die. All his transgressions, as many as he did, they shall not be remembered to him; in his righteousness which he did he shall live.

“By volition do I want the death of the lawless one?” says Adonai the LORD? “No, but as to turn him from his way and enliven him.”

But in the turning the just from his righteousness, and he should commit iniquity according to all the iniquities which the lawless one did, if he should do thus, he shall not live. In all the righteousness of his, which he did, in no way shall they be remembered; in his transgression in which he fell, and in his sins in which he sinned, in them he shall die.

Ezekiel 18:21-24 (AB)

The writer of Hebrews 6:6, echoes what Ezekiel had prophesied long before. God earnestly desires for sinners to repent. But the righteous, having fallen, it is impossible to renew him to repentance. Jesus said, “I have not come to call righteous ones but sinners unto repentance.” Luke 5:32 (AB) Yet, in Matthew 12, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees saw the power of God demonstrated, yet they refused to believe. Their willful rebellion sealed their destiny.

Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver and was later overwhelmed by regret. Regardless of Judas’ remorse, Jesus referred to Judas as the “son of destruction” and “a devil.” Though he had walked three years with Jesus – possibly performing miracles on missionary journeys (Matthew 10:5-15) – Judas had no avenue for repentance after his betrayal of Christ.

A good beginning is not a measure of faithfulness. Those with an intellectual acknowledgment of the truth, without having received God’s favor, face incredible risk. Should they fall away into deliberate rebellion, there is nothing that can restore them to repentance even if they become rapt with regret.

Esau wept with remorse. Yet he could not find repentance.

While some may ignore Scripture regarding those who fall away after knowing the truth, Scripture is clear that their condition is hopeless. The examples given in Scripture are extreme: Esau, the Pharisees, and Judas. However the danger is real enough that the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the risk. Paul wrote to Timothy saying,

Because of this I endure all things on account of the chosen, that also they should attain deliverance of the one in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

Trustworthy is the word,
For if we died together, also we shall live together;
if we endure, also we shall reign together,
if we deny, that one also will will deny us;
if we disbelieve, that one is sure to abide;
to deny himself he is not able.
2 Timothy 2:10-14 (AB)

Paul states clearly that denying Christ will result in His denying us. Nevertheless, God’s grace allows us room for imperfection because if we disbelieve, Christ remains faithful. Clearly, God forgives our hamartia (1 John 1:9), but His purpose is also to cleanse us from hamartia and not to have us wallow in it. Should we reject God’s favor after knowing the truth, then is God’s judgment unjust?

Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews emphasize finishing what we started. How we finish validates how we began. Faith results in faithfulness because faith and faithfulness are the same. God knows the hearts of men better than we know our own. While we might set our hopes of salvation on doggerel recitatives, God looks passed our actions and into our hearts. He knows those who belong to him.

Paul closes his last letter to Timothy, saying,

For I am already am offered as a libation, and the time of my separation stands by. The good struggle, I have struggled; the race, I have finished; the belief I have kept. Remaining reserved for me is the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will recompense to me in that day; and not only to me, but also to all the ones loving his grandeur.

2 Timothy 4:6-8 (AB)

As we learn more about Him, are we also drawn closer to Him? Are we still clinging to the hope by which we began our lives in Jesus Christ?