Luke 11:24-28 – Human Nature Abhors a Vacuum

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“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, searching for rest. But when it finds none, it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So, it returns and finds that its former home is all swept and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.”

As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd called out, “God bless your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (New Living Translation)

You have likely heard the old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This idiom is used to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics. Jesus expressed a similar statement, not about physical nature but human nature.

People experience emptiness whenever something, or someone, has been expelled from our lives, creating a vacuum. In today’s Gospel lesson, the expulsion is that of an evil spirit. The bad spirit is kicked to the curb, so it goes looking somewhere else to settle, with no success. Then, the spirit decides to go back, check, and see if the person is occupied, or not.

Everything in nice, neat order. Cleaned up, looking good. But empty. For the spirit, this is ideal. So much space in such an organized environment that it becomes the ideal spot for a party of peers to turn the order back into chaos.

Yet, if there had been something to fill the void, the spirits could never have come and occupied the space.

It’s a pointed lesson about truly hearing. There’s the kind of hearing that goes in one ear and out the other. There’s also a type of hearing which listens yet does nothing to act on what is being heard. That seems to be the kind of hearing Jesus was talking about.

To hear God’s Word is one thing. To make it stick by putting into practice, is another thing altogether. It’s akin to the difference between having an attractive and expensive goatskin leather Bible adorning a coffee table in the center of the house. Looks great. Problem is, it never gets a genuine hearing because the cover rarely gets cracked open.

Once, in my first church as their Pastor, a man had a bevy of family issues which seemed endless. At first, I didn’t understand it. He seemed like a really nice guy. Every Sunday he was there, without fail, and always brought his Bible.

Then, one Sunday, after everyone had left, I found a Bible sitting in the pew where the man always sat. I opened it, and sure enough, it was his, his name written inside the cover. It appeared to be a brand spanking new one, until I looked at the publication date and inscription from when it was given to him: 1949.

In returning the Bible to the man the next day, I discovered that he indeed never read it. In fact, I quickly found out that in the thousands of sermons he had heard over the decades, none of them seemed to ever stick. He heard but didn’t really hear. Instead, he spent most of his life trying not to be involved in much of anything as a means of protecting himself from hurt.

Hearing God’s Word without putting any of into practice isn’t ever going to end well.

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice.

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He can’t stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes.  And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing. 

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up. 

Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Good hearing leads to a good response.

When my firstborn daughter was still in her mother’s womb, I constantly talked to her. I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew. I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed. I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her. I told her of Jesus and his love for her. I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.

When the day finally came of her birth, the nurses took her, and she cried and cried. She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.” The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room: my little baby daughter immediately got quiet. It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital. The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her.

We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it. If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know the Divine voice. My baby daughter didn’t need a lesson on how to respond to me. She knew exactly who I was: her father. 

Do we know our heavenly Father? Can we distinguish God’s voice?

We need to be servants who hear and respond to the voice of God, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.

Human nature abhors a vacuum. Our own inner emptiness needs to be filled with practicing the words of life we hear. This is the true path of blessing.

Gracious Lord, you have caused Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word so that we may do what it says and embrace the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 90 – Of God and Humanity

Lord, you have been our help,
    generation after generation.
Before the mountains were born,
    before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—
    from forever in the past
    to forever in the future, you are God.

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
    because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past,
    like a short period during the night watch.
You sweep humans away like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning.
True, in the morning it thrives, renewed,
    but come evening it withers, all dried up.
Yes, we are wasting away because of your wrath;
    we are paralyzed with fear on account of your rage.
You put our sins right in front of you,
    set our hidden faults in the light from your face.
Yes, all our days slip away because of your fury;
    we finish up our years with a whimper.
We live at best to be seventy years old,
    maybe eighty, if we’re strong.
But their duration brings hard work and trouble
    because they go by so quickly.
    And then we fly off.
Who can comprehend the power of your anger?
    The honor that is due you corresponds to your wrath.
Teach us to number our days
    so we can have a wise heart.

Come back to us, Lord!
    Please, quick!
    Have some compassion for your servants!
Fill us full every morning with your faithful love
    so we can rejoice and celebrate our whole life long.
Make us happy for the same amount of time that you afflicted us—
    for the same number of years that we saw only trouble.
Let your acts be seen by your servants;
    let your glory be seen by their children.
Let the kindness of the Lord our God be over us.
    Make the work of our hands last.
    Make the work of our hands last! (Common English Bible)

The Bible is first and foremost a collection of books about God. Even though Scripture’s pages are filled with the fame and foibles of humans, nevertheless, the biblical drama unfolds because of the Lord. Holy Scripture is, indeed, a self-revelation of God.

There are times we get too focused on ourselves – our fears, inadequacies, weaknesses, failures – and lose sight of just how huge God really is. Today’s psalm helps reorient us back toward the grand Sovereign of the universe. There is a decidedly theistic worldview espoused and embedded in the psalm. It is a cosmology dominated by the immensity and largeness of a Creator God who is pictured as completely in control of all creation.

Let’s face it: Our lives are a weird and complex concoction of fear and joy that can combust at any time. We swing from high to low, and low to high. If we are on an even keel, its only because we are currently in the middle of swaying to one extreme or the other. Even introverts are familiar with this – it just happens to take place mostly inside their vast inner world, instead of on the outside for all to see.

So, we all need the grand vision of God in this psalm to anchor us through the unpredictable vicissitudes of life. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth was formed, from everlasting to everlasting the Lord is God. 

The transcendent God, although high and above everything in all creation, is not at all aloof from humanity; the Lord of the universe is also imminently close. God is near enough to know both our outward iniquities as well as our secret sins. Nothing gets by God. The Lord always knows the score.

The proper and appropriate response to such a God is to exclaim along with the psalmist to teach us to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom. Whenever we appropriate a biblical worldview, we learn to measure our days and live consistently moral lives with wholeness and integrity. 

This is why a regular regimen of the psalms is important to us, so that we will continually have before us the basic nature and character of God. And, as we do so, we cannot help but reflect God’s glory and contribute to human flourishing on this earth and the care of all creation.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, we rejoice in your greatness and power, your gentleness and love, your mercy and justice. Enable us by your Spirit to honor you in our thoughts, words, and actions, and to serve you in every aspect of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 119:9-16 – How Can a Young Person Live a Pure Life?

How can a young person live a pure life?
    By obeying your word.
I try with all my heart to serve you.
    Help me obey your commands.
I study your teachings very carefully
    so that I will not sin against you.
Lord, you are worthy of praise!
    Teach me your laws.
I will repeat the laws we have heard from you.
I enjoy following your rules
    as much as others enjoy great riches.
I will study your instructions.
    I will give thought to your way of life.
I enjoy your laws.
    I will not forget your word. (ERV)

Pornography is a multi-billion-dollar a year industry and is steadily growing. The younger generation is particularly susceptible in this internet age of easy access and multiple porn websites.

  • 35% of all internet downloads worldwide are related to pornography.
  • Teen-aged boys are the largest consumers of pornographic internet sites. 

The following percentages of children report having seen pornography in some way:

  • 50% of 11-13-year-olds
  • 65% of 14-15-year-olds
  • 78% of 16-17-year-olds
  • 75% of parents believe their children have not seen pornography online.
  • 53% of the children said that they had seen pornography online.

Into this terrible muck of impurity an impropriety enters the biblical psalmist with his ancient, yet truly relevant question for us today: How can a young person live a pure life? 

The answer the psalmist gives is this: By guarding the heart through obedience to God’s Holy Word. The psalmist himself stored up the commands and teachings of Scripture in his heart so that he might not sin against God.

A solid tried-and-true activity parents can do for themselves (the statistics for adult use of porn are staggering) and for their kids in this area of purity is for the entire family to do some old school Bible memorization. Yes, I mean getting down to rote memory work. 

This is to be neither a legalistic practice nor some fetish that will keep evil away. Instead, memorizing verses and large sections of the Bible provides a solid foundation from which to construct of base of operations for the work of meditation. When temptation occurs, there will be something to stand upon in the heat of the moment.

Today’s lesson from Psalm 119 is a great place to begin. Expand to memorize the entire psalm, all 176 verses of it. When faced with the decision of viewing pornography or not, it would be wise to dedicate the time to memorizing Scripture so that there will be a delight in God’s statutes rather than a depressed guilt over another fall into impure thoughts and/or actions.

Now, I can feel the pushback from some folks. You might not have memorized anything your entire life, or so you think. One of the reasons many people can freely quote lines from movies is that they have watched their favorites repeatedly. Ah, so we are on to something, right!?

I have been reading the Holy Bible for over forty years, every day. I have large chunks of Scripture memorized – mostly because of all that reading. So far in my life I’ve read the entire Old Testament around 100 times and the New Testament about 300 times – not because I ever had the goal of doing all that reading but because I need God’s Word.

What’s more, I take the further step of spending some time in reflection and ongoing meditation on Scripture, especially at night before retiring. This might seem over the top to some. However, the reading and reflection of Scripture is about a 30-minute venture for me on most days. The goal is engrafting the message of the Bible into the heart and life. Memorization is simply the means of helping that to happen.

There are some memorization tips I use and have picked up along the way to aid in pressing Scripture firmly into my soul:

  • Sleep on it. Studies show that our brains process and store information while we sleep. Try to review some Scripture just before you go to sleep—even if it’s only for a few minutes—and see if it helps embed the information in your memory.
  • Repeat it. There is no substitute for consistent and repetitive reading or listening to Scripture being read to you. This one practice alone has been key to my own ability to memorize. 
  • Write it out. Writing helps deeply encode biblical truth we’re trying to learn because there is a direct connection between our hand and our brain. To increase recall, speak the Scripture out loud and visualize the concepts as well.
  • Sing it. Singing is what got my middle daughter through school. Songs or jingles use your brain’s right hemisphere, helping us to remember. There are already plenty of songs out there for all kinds of biblical passages. And, of course, you can always try making your own music.
  • Sense it. Use as many of the five senses as possible. Our senses enable us to use more parts of our brains and retain information better. For example, when I read Scripture, I use a physical Bible to hold and often use a pointer when reading (touch); have a cross in front of me (sight); read out loud, sometimes with worship music in the background (hearing); light a candle (smell); and, I always have a cup of coffee to sip while reading! (taste)

The biblical psalms are meant to be prayed. So, using them for that purpose has the effect of shaping our prayers and desires in a good direction, as well as helping us to live into the commands of God to “repeat the laws I have heard from you.” In a world of spiritual impurity, emotional assault, and mental adultery, we need the purifying work of God’s Word to wash our souls clean.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Merciful God, thank you for providing your Word to me so that I might read it, use it, memorize it, meditate upon it, and engraft it into my soul.  Fortify my spirit against the demons of impurity by the power of your Holy Spirit, to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Greatest Ever

John 3:16 by Holly Rhodes

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, NIV)

John 3:16 is a Bible verse so familiar as to be cliché. But when Jesus originally said these words, they were both tremendously freeing and incredibly scandalous. When something is familiar, we tend not to explore it any further. We need a closer look at the message of John 3:16 so we can not only see why some people embrace its light, but why others remain in darkness.

Perhaps another examination the gospel will dispel dullness and impel us toward praise, as well as to share its life-giving message not because we must, but because we want to. John 3:16 contains nine of the greatest spiritual realities we could ever experience.

1.“God” is the greatest subject ever.

The Bible contains lots of messages, promises, and commands. However, those are not the primary purpose for having the Holy Scriptures. The Bible has been given to us as a revelation of God to us so that we might know God. Every time the Scriptures are used, read, quoted, prayed, taught, learned, and heard – we know God a bit better. Anything short of knowing God falls short of the Bible’s intended purpose.

I constantly encourage a regular daily regimen of Bible-reading because it is the primary means of knowing God. Yes, we get to know God in creation and through experience, yet one of the best ways of experiencing God is through taking time for reading, meditating, memorizing, and praying of the Scriptures. Some of my most encouraging times are when I hear what people are learning about the Lord in God’s Word. With the Holy Spirit being our teacher, we discover more and more that God is the greatest subject we could ever learn about, talk about, and give our lives to.

2. “So” is the greatest extent ever.

There is a great wideness to God. God is a huge Being! Nothing is outside of God’s reach. So, when God decides to do something, nothing can stop it. We might be limited in our strength and abilities to accomplish things. But God’s extent is limitless. Knowing God means becoming familiar with an all-knowing and all-powerful Being. Prayer, then, becomes a response to God. God speaks to us through the Word, and we speak back with prayer so that the Word and prayer go like a hand in a glove. Our extent is temporary and small. Yet God takes our human prayers and uses them to accomplish divine purposes on this earth.

3. “Loved” is the greatest demonstration ever.

There is no greater demonstration of love than our triune God loving us with a sacrificial self-emptying love that saw our great need for deliverance and went to the greatest lengths possible to accomplish it. Our own love for God, each other, and the world is a direct result of God’s love for us.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 3:16; 4:9-11, NIV)

Where there is a lack of love there is an absence of God. Every human on planet earth needs the love of God in Christ. Without it we are lost. You are loved with sacrificial love. The greatest thing that can be said of you is that you are “loved.” Whatever has happened, is happening, and will happen that breaks you down, belittles you, hurts you, or causes you to feel like the north end of a southbound cow, is not what defines you. All may be going to hell around you, but nothing will change the unalterable reality that in Christ you are “loved!”

4. “The world” is the greatest object ever.

Up to this point you might not have sensed anything scandalous about this message of God’s grace and love. But this was the game-changing term for the original hearers of Christ’s words: God so loved the world. Many of Christ’s listeners could easily understand God loved the nation of Israel. But to say that God loved the world was going too far. It meant God loved Gentiles, specifically, Romans who occupied their land and oppressed them.

To capture the punch of this, it would be like Jesus showing up in our world today and saying that God so loved whomever we despise or hate. We often tend to assume that God hates who we hate. Right? Wrong. Yes, God hates evil and is opposed to all that destroys. Yet, God loves people for whom is placed the divine image within. For God to love the world is an incredible because there are so many unlovely people in the world.

Since God loves the world and demonstrated it in through Jesus, Christ’s Church is to reflect and embody this same love for the world. This has enormous implications for followers of Jesus. The Church is must embrace the same pejorative title as given its leader, Jesus: “Friend of Sinners.”  People come to know Jesus through the love given us in Christ. Since this is our title, Christian ministry then becomes not about my personal preferences but about what will most effectively love the world to Jesus.

5. “That he gave his one and only Son” is the greatest gift ever.

 

John 3:16 by an 11 year old

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17, NIV)

We do not get God’s leftovers or second-hand items. God gave the dearest, best, and most beloved gift he could ever give: his Son. Therefore, the greatest and dearest gift we can give to another person is Jesus. Sharing such a gift Jesus must come freely from the depths of divine love. Apart from love we are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If it takes cajoling and exhortation for us to give the gift of the gospel, then the problem lies in our hearts. It takes coming back to God’s Word and knowing the love of God in Christ through the Scriptures.

6. “That whoever” is the greatest opportunity ever.

If the greatest gift a person can receive is Jesus, then the best opportunity one could take advantage of is Jesus. We are all at differing places in our relationship with Jesus. Yet no matter the person, the opportunity for grace and love is more than anything you could hope or ask for. 

We are fortunate to have such a grace to know Jesus as Lord, Savior, teacher, healer, and friend. Those familiar with the name of Jesus all their lives but it has not gone much further than that, then the next point is vitally important….

7. “Believes in him” is the greatest commitment ever.

Jesus wants more than our acknowledgment of him; he wants us. Whenever I go home, my dog, Max Power, gets extremely excited. Honestly, I don’t really get excited about him. My typical response to him is, “Yes, Max, I acknowledge your existence.” I say it in hopes he will just kind of leave me alone and let me go about my business. But Max wants more. He wants my affection, my love, and my commitment. He wants a pet, a walk, food, and water.

God does not want to be treated like an annoying puppy. God wants our commitment. The Lord desires more than the tepid response, “I acknowledge your existence.”  The most common response I get from people when sharing the gift of Jesus is “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”  It is their way of saying they acknowledge his existence but are not much interested in giving their lives to him because they want to go about their business without God pestering them about anything. But God does demand something from us – our very souls. If we gain a view of God as gracious and loving, then we willingly desire an intimate commitment.

8. “Shall not perish” is the greatest rescue ever.

People perish not because God is unloving but because their theology is twisted – not to mention that we like our sin, and we don’t want to accommodate a holy God. The Titanic lost hundreds of people not for a lack of lifeboats. In fact, most of the lifeboats went into the water about three-fourths capacity. Many people simply did not believe they were perishing. They trusted in the ship’s reputation as being “unsinkable.” Jesus is our lifeboat.

9. “But have eternal life” is the greatest promise ever.

The promise begins now, not someday. Everlasting life means experiencing a life-saving and life-giving relationship with Jesus today.

Conclusion

If you ever had the feeling there is something more to life than what you are experiencing; if you ever wished you could start over; if you ever felt you cannot do this on your own; then, I have the greatest news ever. God has made a way to handle all your guilt, shame, and darkness. God loves you deeply in the person of Jesus Christ. There is new life in Jesus.