Putrid

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. (Jonah 2:1-2)

Apologists (those who defend the Christian faith) often point out how the Bible isn’t sanitized. It por­trays its characters warts and all. Jonah is a classic example. He’s a very flawed individual, yet he was still God’s man. The Bible doesn’t sanitize him in the least.

Yet in another sense, the Bible does sanitize Jonah. If we could describe the vile innards of a huge fish, “putrid” comes to mind. It’s a crass word picture, but think of puke, the slimy stench of stomach acid and half-digested food. Just the thought of it is wretched. The putrid smell inside the fish would make anyone throw up. Probably Jonah lost his lunch in there. That only compounded his problem. He couldn’t escape the smell. Even the big fish could handle the stomachache for only three days before it finally vomited up Jonah. If the fish had had a voice, it might have cried out in frustra­tion, “Good riddance!” to Jonah after it upchucked.

As horrific as it must have been inside the fish, Jonah’s account of his experience is tame and brief. This short chapter could be nominated as the most sanitized story in the Bible. It’s not only the smell and the slime. There also was claustrophobia and darkness for Jonah inside that big fish. It sounds like the grave, which is exactly how Jonah described it. That is where Jonah prayed – from the grave. Oddly, it’s the prayer Jonah prayed and the God he prayed to, not the putrid gut he prayed from, which is highlighted for us in Jonah chapter2.

The putrid smell of the fish’s belly reminds me of the stench of sin. If sin has a smell, that’s it. Jonah was smelling his own sin inside the fish’s belly. Fortunately, God in his grace provided a way out of the stench for Jonah. The fish vomited up Jonah. And God provides a way out for us, too. It’s much worse than vomit. It’s the cross of Christ.

Water

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ (John 3:5-7)

Water is essential to life. That’s Biology 101. Every elementary science student knows we can survive only a few minutes without air and a few days without water. It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus would use water as a starting point to explain spiritual life to Nicodemus in their rendezvous. Water is a basic requirement for life. But it will not gain us access to the kingdom of God. Jesus said we must be born of water (physical birth) and the Spirit (new birth).

Before we can be born again, we must be born a first time. Physical birth precedes spiritual birth. This disqualifies fallen angelic spirits from redemption. The new birth is only for humans. Only those who have been born once can be born twice. One comes before two. The math is easy, but it’s much more than math. Water is a prominent theme throughout Scripture. In the Gospel of John, water is noted in each of the first seven chap­ters.

Don’t take my word for it. Check it out your­self. Water is referenced many different ways in John’s gospel. In chapter one, for example, John the Baptist baptized with water in the Jordan River. In chapter two, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In chapter three, Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born of water and the Spirit. In chapter four, Jesus met a woman at the well in Sychar and offered her living water. Chapter five provides the account of an invalid’s healing at the pool of Bethesda. When we come to chapter six, we find Jesus walking on water. That’s a novel use for water – making it a highway! A cynic might say Jesus couldn’t swim. I have a better explanation: Jesus is Master over nature. He’s not subject to the same limitations we mere humans have with water.

Water is basic to life. We’re made of water. More than half our body weight is water. We drink water. We wash with water. We travel with water. We find energy in water. We go to war for water. We are born in water. Flesh gives birth to flesh in water. But physical birth is not enough to enter the kingdom of God. We must be born again, born of the Spirit.

Of course, Nicodemus didn’t understand all this. So Jesus the explained the new birth to Nicodemus by comparing it to another element of nature. You can read about it in John chapter 3. Or drop by New Life Church and study the passage with us the next three Sundays.

Jesus and Nicodemus. What a rendezvous!

Rendezvous

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” John 3:1-2

Astronaut Wally Schirra was the first person to accom­plish a space rendezvous on December 15, 1965. He piloted Gemini 6 to within one foot of Gemini 7 as both space crafts orbited the globe at 17,000 mph. It was an amazing accomplishment which required immense plan­ning and precise execution. The astronauts had worked out an agreed place and time, as well as an exact course and speed.

Not all rendezvouses occur in space. In fact, most of them take place here on earth when two people meet to do something special. Two thousand years ago God brought a man named Nicodemus to a secret night rendezvous with Jesus. They had an agreed time and place. What followed is one of the most fascinating dialogues in the Bible. Tucked in the middle of that con­versation is one of the most famous statements in the Bible. The reference is familiar to most people, even if they don’t know what it means. Have you ever seen a John 3:16 sign at a football game on television?

“John 3:16” is a reference to a verse in the Bible. It’s the most recognized verse in the New Testament. If you have a religious background, maybe you can recite the words. I’ll get you started: “For God so loved the world…” Do you know those words originally were spoken by Jesus to a curious seeker in a private, divinely orchestrated rendezvous?

This Sunday at New Life Church we’re going to begin a four-week study of this fascinating conversation. Jesus rendezvoused with Nicodemus to talk about signs, water, wind and light. Sounds down to earth, doesn’t it? This clandestine encounter was quite a contrast to a space rendezvous.

You’ve seen John 3:16 signs. Now learn about the signs that point to John 3:16. For information about time and place to make a weekend rendezvous, go to www.newlifecma.com.

Dorian

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” Matthew 25:345-36

Earlier this week, Hurricane Dorian hovered over the northwest Bahama Islands as a stationary Category 5 monster. The record-breaking storm pummeled the territory with howling wind, pouring rain and rising ocean surge for three days before it finally drifted away. The scene now emerging from the devastation in the Bahamas is horrifying. People there have used terms like “catastrophic,” “staggering,” “apocalyptic,” and “war zone” to describe what’s left of Grand Bahama and Great Abaco. Over 13,000 homes have been destroyed. Infrastructure is in tatters. The hospital’s emergency room is under water. Survivors are in dire need of food, water, shelter, and medical care.

Fortunately, first responders are beginning to arrive. Our church family, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, is already on the scene, along with many other groups. Government and non-government organizations are coordinating efforts to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Those of us who cannot go can support the efforts of those on the scene. I encourage people to donate generously to CAMA Services or another relief organization to help with this urgent crisis.

This relief effort will be needed for several weeks, if not months. Gradually, emergency relief will give way to rehabilitation, as private citizens and public communities begin to rebuild and recover. Undoubtedly, this will take years of hard work by both individual residents and civic organizations. Eventually, rehabilitation will give way to development, as the impoverished and devastated people rise above their former condition and embrace their God-given opportunities and callings.

Jesus’ people can shine in all three stages – relief, rehabilitation and development. The church should be people helping people. Not just in the short term, but for the long haul.

Who’s in?

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40

Home

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. (2 Corinthians 5:6-9)

Carol and I just returned from a two-week vacation road trip. We called it a “meander” as we followed back roads, many of which we had never driven, to visit the graves of our grandparents, which are spread across three states, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. We had never been to some of the graves. Other sites we had not visited since the funerals, now decades in the past. In two cases we had great difficulty finding the right location within the cemetery. At each stop we paused to reflect and pray. We took photos and kept careful notes for future reference.

The target of our travel was a family reunion in Ashland, Ohio, where Carol’s disabled younger sister resides in a nursing home. Two of our three sons and their families were able to join us. Our youngest son and his family missed the reunion at the last minute when his son suddenly became extremely ill the day before they were to depart. The poor little guy was hospitalized for three days in Georgia and they couldn’t make the trip. As a result, we still have never had all six of our grandchildren and their six parents together in the same place at the same time. We don’t have a complete family portrait because one doesn’t exist.

After a few additional days with Carol’s older sister, we departed Ohio for Minnesota early Tuesday morning. We had allotted two days for the 900 mile drive, but my foot was glued to the accelerator. We drove straight through with little stress. Traveling west energized me in a way I had not experienced when we were driving east. I was ready for home.

When I told this story to a friend yesterday here in Clarkfield, he asked a great question: “Is this home?” It was an insightful question because pastors come and go. It can be difficult for pastors to identify a specific and temporary location as home.

“Yes, it is,” I immediately replied. While I enjoy visits to my childhood home in Ohio, I feel at home in Clarkfield, Minnesota. Since my dad had traveled to attend the reunion, this became our first ever trip to Ohio in which we didn’t visit either a childhood home or a parent’s retirement residence.

I don’t talk much about it, but I’m prone to homesickness when I travel for retreats and short-term missions trips. For me, the difference is whether I’m with Carol. If Carol is with me, I’m OK. Long ago I concluded that where Carol is, I’m at home. She is the cure for my homesickness.

The Apostle Paul experienced the same thing, except he was homesick for heaven. Being with the Lord is the ultimate cure for homesickness. Heaven is our true home. We are merely transients on earth.

Twenty years ago when we bought our first house, I noticed how realtors don’t sell houses. They sell homes. Go ahead and check any listing. The place for sale is always a home, never a house. I consider that false advertising. In reality, a house is all realtors can sell, even if they won’t admit it. They can’t sell a home. And we can’t buy one, either. We can buy a house. But we have to create a home.

In the New Testament, the common word for house (oikos) is often translated “home.” That’s legitimate because a house is a natural context to create a home. We live in a house. We can make it our home.

There’s another word for home (endemeo), a verb which means “to be at home” or “to feel at home.” It occurs only three times in the New Testament, all in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, where Paul addresses being at home in the physical body or being at home with the Lord in heaven. Living in a house, even your own house, is not the same as being at home.

This is a crucial distinction: A house is a noun, but a home is a verb. A house is merely an object made of concrete and wood, but a home presses our foot to the accelerator. A house is a place to take off your shoes. Home is the reason to take them off.

Yes, Clarkfield is my home – for now. But a yearning grows in my heart for another home in a different dimension. The older I get, the more my foot presses to the accelerator for heaven. That’s my true home.

Escaping the Bubble

Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. Proverbs 18:2

All of us have a self-defined comfort zone, a bubble of safe familiarity, in which we like to spend as much time as possible. Most of us tend to hang around people who look like us, act like us, think like us, eat like us, vote like us, and worship like us. It’s part of the homogeneous principle. Birds of a feather still flock together. But they rarely can make new friends because they never get close enough to strike up a conversation.

If we’re fortunate, life offers opportunities for us to interact with people who are different from us. But not all of us have that opportunity. Some of us don’t even want an opportunity to escape our bubbles. College students sometimes boycott events in which opposing views will be expressed. Sometimes the conflict results in speakers being uninvited to campus. We don’t like opposing views so much that we even will suppress free speech to avoid hearing other ideas. Let’s face it. We all prefer life in the comfort zone.

None of us are comfortable with the concept of hell. That’s true for me, too. If there’s anything about my faith which makes me uncomfortable, it’s hell. Many Americans reject the biblical teaching about hell. In fact, many Americans who believe in heaven do not believe in hell. It doesn’t fit inside our comfort zone.

This Sunday at New Life Church we’re going to bust our bubbles, escape our comfort zones, and consider what Jesus said about hell. It won’t be easy for me to talk about hell. But I’m going to do it anyway as part of a series in which I answer questions submitted by people in the congregation. If someone was bold enough to ask about hell, I will be bold enough to answer the question. And if Jesus was straight enough to speak about hell, we should be straight enough to consider his words carefully.

If you’re in the area of Clarkfield, Minnesota, you’re invited to join us this weekend. It won’t be hell, I promise! But you might find it very interesting. You can find more information at www.newlifecma.com.

Serendipity

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22

We have battled a leaky faucet in our bathtub for six or seven years. Last month I finally threw in the towel and asked the plumber to replace the whole fixture this time. After he was done, we had invested over $1,000 in fixing a dripping faucet.

The good news is that the faucet no longer leaks. The bad news is the attachment for the shower hose is now attached in a way which forces us to loop it over the faucet, making it a lot shorter when we hang up the shower head. One day when I was replacing the shower head, I didn’t quite stretch it over the plastic hook on wall, which snapped off.

So we couldn’t hang up the shower hose at all. We had to hold it while showering and leave the whole thing lying in the tub. I went to a major hardware store for a new hook, which I expected to cost a buck or two. As soon as I showed the broken piece to the helpful clerk, he said, “That’s non-standard. We can’t replace it.”

We attempted a couple makeshift solutions, but nothing worked. So I was faced with the prospect of calling the plumber again and asking for a complete new hose assembly. This was going to cost hundreds of dollars more.

I was telling this story in our Saturday morning men’s discipleship group. I don’t know if I was laughing or crying. Probably both. All of a sudden, Harvey blurted out, “I’ve got one of those hooks. Actually, I have the whole hose assembly. You can have it.”

I answered, “You don’t understand. It’s non-standard. It’s 30 years old. It looks like this.” And I described it again.

Harvey didn’t budge. “That’s exactly what I’ve got. I brought it with me when I moved here from Montana in the 80s. I thought I might need it sometime, but I never did. I’ll bring it to church tomorrow.”

I wondered if he would even be able to find it after 30 years. But the next day, Harvey brought the entire hose assembly. It was a perfect match. The shower is fixed. That’s a serendipity. Thanks, Harvey!

Here’s another serendipity: Yesterday at school I told the students before they entered the music room that it was a free seat day. They could sit anywhere they wanted. That’s a rare treat for them because we had been working hard for our spring concert. This was the first music day after the concert and I wanted to give them a little reward for their hard work.

Then an amazing thing happened in all three elementary classes. The room filled up from front to back. Literally. All the front seats filled. Then the middle row. Last was the back row. I was astonished. It was a very pleasant and unexpected surprise. Three times.

Now, if only I could figure out how to fill the church pews from front to back on Sunday mornings. Should I start with assigned seating and then give them a free day? Maybe not. Anyone got an idea?