The Gilded Cathedral

Background Passages: Matthew 23:25-28; James 2:14-18

My wife and spent the last two weeks celebrating our 40th anniversary on a Baltic Sea cruise. We started with a side trip to Spain before boarding a ship in London for Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Finland and Belgium. As with most of these European vacations, every stop featured palaces, castles and cathedrals.

I stood before each church and cathedral awestruck by the size and scope of the construction, thinking about how the architects of old created inspiring buildings worthy of God’s presence. Today, these massive facades still rise high above the surrounding neighborhoods, dominating city skylines with ornate spires and mammoth domes that reach toward heaven. Intricate carvings covering the face of each cathedral serve as silent and lasting testimony to the skill of the collection of artisans who spent centuries, in some cases, creating these magnificent houses of worship.

As I stepped inside and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting within, I marveled at the invaluable artwork that filled each sanctuary, drawing my attention always forward toward the marbled and gilded altars. I find it difficult to wrap my arms around the wealth represented in the gold-plated structures filling these halls.

A thought dawned on me as I stood in the back of the nave of St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, staring at the gilded altar rising to the ceiling. Inching my way through the milling throng of tourists snapping pictures, jabbering nosily, jockeying for position to catch a glimpse of whatever the tour guide highlighted, I felt a profound sense of loss. I stood in a magnificent house of worship, yet nothing about the chaotic atmosphere within resembled worship.

I sincerely appreciate the beauty and boldness of these magnificent churches, even though the opulent style challenges my simpler tastes. The beauty is wasted when you realize that few of the cathedrals offered more than the occasional worship service. Most served only a secular function, reflecting the history of time gone by. Museums to extravagance. Mausoleums for a faith dying of apathy.

Statistics tell us that the Christian faith in Europe has been on a steady decline for decades. Fewer than 10 percent of the populations in Norway, Denmark and Finland attend church regularly. Those who profess a faith in Christ stand in absolute minority among the citizens of Scandinavia and northern Europe. Did the extravagance of the buildings contribute in any way to the decline in faith, or was it something more personal?

As I sorted through my distress over the decline of faith and the emptiness of these sanctuaries of worship, I recalled an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees late in his ministry. The conversation was one of Jesus’ most direct and confrontational messages to the religious leaders of his day.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” –Matthew 23:25-28

With those words Jesus reminds me that the decline of faith evident in Europe and in our own country has far less to do with the physical appearance of our buildings than it does the spiritual application of my heart. Jesus reminds me that I can play the part, speak the words, construct a beautiful façade as I proclaim myself a Christian, and still my heart beats as empty and devoid of worship as those amazing cathedrals. I can gild myself in gold, putting up a grand façade, but never demonstrate God’s love to a lost and dying world.

Cathedrals and churches echo with emptiness across the world because our deeds do not match our faith. James spoke to this.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But some will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” –James 2:14-18

Sadly, I’m sure there are times when those men and women searching for answers to faith’s questions see me as a gilded cathedral. An empty shell hiding behind a gilded face. Christ-like in outside appearance, but without the deeds to back it up. Such is the height of hypocrisy.

A cathedral without worship is a museum. Faith without works a mausoleum. How much better would it be for us to be plain an unattractive to the world, but open to God’s presence as we serve and minister to his people?

At the end of the day, these beautiful cathedrals sit idle because the people forgot what it meant to serve. Forgot what it meant to invest themselves in the lives of those they encountered. Our modern churches run the risk of becoming silent witnesses to our dying faith unless those of us who profess Christ act faithfully on his behalf in service and ministry to those we encounter today and tomorrow.

For the sake of our country and our faith, I pray we’re up to the task.

Unfathomable

Background Passage: Job 11:7-9

As a celebration of our 40th anniversary, my wife and I are today enjoying a cruise on the Baltic Sea. We spent our first 36 hours at sea. The expanse of God’s creation and the endless waves outside our stateroom window remind me of a verse in Job as the suffering one is challenged by Zophar, one of his friends. Zophar chastises Job saying,

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do? They are deeper that the depths below—What can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea. (Job 11:7-9)

I look in amazement at the expanse of ocean before me. Stare in wonder at God’s creation. Its magnificence…his magnificence…can be overwhelming. Yet, like Job, I question at times why things happen the way they do. Raise my fist in frustration at times when life turns tragic, asking the same question Job asked. “Where are you, God?” Life and its vagaries seldom come with explanations.

At other times, I think long and hard about how he constantly blesses my life. Cry out in complete joy because I know he carries me through my darkest nights and my brightest days. Shudder at the thought of any moment lived without his presence.

It is those times, I know what I need to know.

Since I cannot fathom God’s mysteries, nor probe the limits of his mighty power, I simply enjoy this life for what it is. His power expressed in the beauty and glory I see around me. His love exalted in the laughter of a child and the feel of a grandchild’s hand in mine. His joy evident in family and friends who continue to make my life more glorious each day. His work encountered within the context of my life that places me where he needs me to be at any specific moment in time.

I don’t need to know everything about how and why God interacts with my life. I just need to accept his grace for what it is.

Longer than the earth.

Wider than the sea.

Unfathomable.

When Christmas Is Over

The Christmas story of the Bible remains one of the world’s most cherished stories for more than one-third of the world’s population. Those of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus reflect upon its meaning, using the day as a reminder of God’s plan and purpose to bring the world back into relationship with him by sending is Son.  It is far too easy for many of us to revel in the birth of the child and forget that God expects more from us.

What do we do after we read that beautiful story for the last time this year? After we snuff out the Advent candles? After we sing the last carol? After we dismantle the Nativity scenes? What change does it bring to our lives? What do we do after we celebrate the birth of the Christ child?

The Christmas story does not end with the birth of Jesus. Once the baby is born, the story and its impact should serve as a catalyst for God’s power in our lives. What should we do when Christmas is over? We need look no farther than the scripture recorded in Luke 2.

Consider the Parents. The baby promised by the angel was born under those most unusual circumstances , but afterwards,  the new family settled into a routine in Bethlehem, awed daily by the presence of the baby Mary and Joseph held in her arms. Six weeks after baby is born the parents take Jesus five miles to Jerusalem at the required time of purification, commending their first born son to the service of God.

In this we learn our first lesson of Christmas. Joseph and Mary ensured that Jesus started out on the right foot by dedicating him to God from the beginning, the start of a process of “training him up in the way he should go.” So, after we celebrate the birth of Christ, it is a time of recommitting ourselves to God’s service, repaying him for the greatest gift we will ever receive by dedicating ourselves to his will and way. Rededicating ourselves to the worship of our Father.

Consider Simeon.  This “devout and righteous” man of God had been told by the Holy Spirit that the Messiah would come during his lifetime. As he entered the Temple and stumbled upon the purification ceremony for this little baby boy, he knew in his heart that he was looking at the one God had sent to bring salvation to the world. His response was simple (Luke 2:28)…

“Simeon took him in his arms and praised God.”

As Simeon holds on the God’s Son, we experience our second lesson of the season. The days after Christmas ought to be a time when we embrace God’s Son and declare our praise to God for the salvation he offers, not just on that day, but every day. Give him the proper place of prominence in our lives. Hold on to him during the good and difficult times as the sources of our strength.

Consider Anna. This elderly widow worshiped at the Temple day and night, devoting her life to God. Her love for God evident to those who entered the Temple court. Heard her prayers. Listened to her proclaim truth she had been taught. On the day of purification, she was drawn to the young couple holding a little boy. As she heard their story and listened to Simeon’s pronouncement, she believed with all her heart that the child before her was the Messiah. Luke 2:36-36 tells us what she did…

“She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Anna’s lesson is a reminder that we are to be so thankful for the presence of Jesus that we bear witness to those around us of his saving grace, giving testimony to the difference he has made in our lives. Serving him with faithfulness no matter where we live. No matter what we do. To be God’s voice. God’s hands. God’s heart in a troubled world.

Consider Jesus. Born to human parents, but also divine. God’s Son. It’s a hard concept to grasp. So much of it we accept by faith. Jesus may have been born with God’s DNA, but understand the full measure of what it meant to be Savior did not come instinctively. He learned. When he turned 12-years-old, Jesus journeyed to the Temple with his parents. Look at Luke 2:41-52, where we find Jesus…

“spending his time sitting among the teachers,  studying scripture and asking questions…” Learning more about “his Father’s business.” Eventually, he returned with his parents to Nazareth where…“Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.”

Understanding our relationship to God and his will for our lives is not implanted naturally into our DNA just because we are born to Christian parents or attend church regularly. Our understanding of what God requires of us comes from following Jesus’ lead. We learn. We grow. We “spend time sitting among the teachers, studying scripture and asking questions.” In the end, our desire is to grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.

*

Christmas ends. When that last Nativity gets put in its box and stacked in the closet, we can forget its meaning and live our lives ignoring the demands of discipleship,  or we can…

Consider the Parents. Commit ourselves and our lives to God.  Every hour. Each day.

Consider Simeon. Embrace the Son, not just for the holidays, but each and every day. Praise God for sending his Son as our Savior.

Consider Anna. Give thanks for God’s goodness and bearing witness to all we encounter about everything he has given to us.

Consider Jesus. Live as he lived, growing in our understanding of God’s will for our lives and putting into practice all God reveals to us each day.

There is life after Christmas. As we approach the New Year and its resolutions, let’s recognize that Christmas never ends. Rather, it stands as a time of recommitment and rededication as we pursue life worth living.

May you and your family enjoy all of God’s grace and wisdom in the year to come.

Religion Is Not Enough

Background Verses: Acts 17:16-34

 

Paul stood alone.
Deep in the center of the Athenian Agora.

Oblivious, it seemed, to the bustling crowd,

busy commerce,

and boisterous conversations.

Lips formed his words,

yet he uttered no sound.

Stunned by the

sights and sounds

of sinful ignorance.

 

He stretched out his arms.

Slowly turned full circle.

Intelligent eyes taking his surroundings.

Everywhere he looked,

Every direction he faced,

Glistening granite.

Chiseled marble.

Gilded stone.

Testimony to human confusion and idolatry.

 

Idol after idol.

Apollo.

Ares.

Demeter

Dionysus.

Gods of the people who worshipped…

Music and healing.

War and chaos.

Fertility and harvest.

Wine and pleasure.

 

Hera.

Harmonia.

Nemesis.

Zelos.

Gods and goddesses of…

Women and empires.

Harmony and peace.

Revenge and hatred.

Jealousy and rivalry.

 

He threaded his way through the crowd.

Listened to the debates and arguments

of Athens’ fabled philosophers.

Learned men.

Fumbling with matters of man’s

life,

purpose and

existence.

 

For several days

Paul walked the marketplace.

Engaged at times in quiet

and lively debate with

Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

Paul parried their intellectual thrusts.

Countered with his personal beliefs.

Sought to understand the…

Epicureans.

Their “eat, drink and be merry” constructs

that ignored their personal responsibilities.

 

Sought to know the…

Stoics.

Their deliberate disdain for life and

unending and unjoyful quest for life on a higher plain.

 

Paul’s introduction of a loving God,

a resurrected Lord,

fell upon curious, but deaf ears.

 

Despite their general apathy,

the philosophers lived for and loved a good debate.

Liked nothing more than to spend

time talking and listening to the latest ideas.

Invited Paul to voice his strange philosophy to the Areopagus,

The council of the most learned in Athens.

Tomorrow morning.

On a hill in the shadow of the Acropolis.

 

Paul walked the remainder of the day

considering the challenge before him.

Constantly in prayer for words to share.

How could he convince them of the God he adored?

The God he worshipped?

 

Head bent.

Focused only on his thoughts.

Paul’s elbow caught the edge of another stone monument,

forcing his attention to his right.

As he rubbed his arm to soothe the discomfort,

he stood face to face with

another idol.

Another altar.

 

He looked at the whitewashed image.

Carved from stone.

The half-nude body of a man.

Chest bare.

Poised and powerful.

Cloth draped across its left shoulder,

tied around its waist.

Face framed by a laurel wreath.

Void of expression.

Featureless.

Paul’s eyes drifted down to the inscription.

Chuckled at the irony.

Marveled at God’s inspiration.

Chiseled into the base of the statue…

“TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.”

 

Offering a quiet prayer to Jehovah.

Paul hurried back to his home for the night.

Gathering his thoughts.

 

*

Early the next morning,

Paul sat quietly on the boulder.

Gazing east.

The rising sun casting a reddish glow onto the low clouds.

The philosophers arrived alone and in small groups.

Eager to begin another day

searching for understanding and knowledge.

Their sole reason for breathing.

 

After a time,

One of the men whom Paul debated yesterday,

held out his hands.

Gathering the attention and eyes of every man.

With an air of derision and scorn,

he pointed at Paul.

“This stranger among us comes at my invitation.

His babblings in the Agora amused me.

While I find his philosophy little more than the chirping of a bird, others…”

he paused, glaring intently at a group of

more open-minded men sitting to his left…

“others, found his argument a ‘herald of some  new divination.’

So, my friend,” said the philosopher,

“tell us about this new thought you bring for it is strange to us.”

*

Paul stood slowly.

Walked toward the edge of the mountain

Looked down on the Agora.

The streets below.

Stretched out his arm over the city beneath him.

Stared down at the Altar of Apollo,

clearly visible in the distant marketplace.

 

Voice clear.

Laced with authority.

Paul declared,

“Men of Athens.”

“I see that in every way you are very religious.

For as I walked around.

Looked carefully at your objects of worship.

I saw many altars to many gods.

I even found an altar with this inscription,

‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’”

Paul turned.

Faced the philosophers seated around the Areopagus.

A smile on his face.

A gleam in his eye.

“What you worship as something unknown…

I am going to proclaim to you.”

 

With an eloquence of speech

And the voice emboldened by the Holy Spirit,

Paul proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ

and his resurrection.

 

*

 

Paul preached the

plan and purpose of God

Summarized in seven short verses

in Acts 17:24-31.

 

God created.

God rules.

God gives life.

 

A life of purpose given so…

man could seek him.

Reach out for  him.

Find him.

Not distant on the mythical mountaintop.

Not hidden in the clouds of Olympus.

Not crafted by human hands.

Not an image reflecting our failures and weaknesses.

 

Rather, we find him

in the warmth of personal relationship.

We belong to him.

 

He is unique.

The One.

The Only.

 

He calls us to repentance.

Demands our obedience.

Desires our worship.

 

Paul looked at the world around him

Made a simple observation.

“I see that in every way you are very religious.”

 

If he stood on the hill overlooking

our city…

Our lives…

Our hearts…

How many altars could he count dedicated to the

Gods of our own choosing?

How many gods have I created in my image?

How many things have I placed in priority

over my Lord?

 

Religion…

Goes through the motions.

Plays for appearance.

Creates a false sense of belonging.

 

Faith focuses our lives, not on what is

unknown or unreal,

but on the

One and Only

that is known to us…

 

Creator.

Lord.

Indwelling Spirit.

Comforter.

Redeemer.

Restorer of Life Abundant.

 Source: The Searcher