Archive for March 2008

Incredibly Grand and Incomprehensible

March 29, 2008

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
Surely you know! (Prov. 30.4)

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Thus spake François Arouet de Voltaire, that famously complicated French philosopher (d. 1778). To this day, scholars debate exactly what he meant. Some take it as evidence of atheism, even though Voltaire himself denied the charge. More likely he meant that if the insipid “Deity” half-heartedly “worshipped” by the church of his day should somehow disappear, men would still have to reckon with the real God. Perhaps Voltaire had in mind the sort of response Richard Dawkins gave to Time magazine, when asked what caused the universe to exist. Dawkins, a self-proclaimed atheist, replied, “There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.” For Dawkins, God does not exist, so he must invent “something incredibly grand and incomprehensible.”

For Richard Dawkins and others like him, “Agur, the son of Jakeh” posed these five remarkable questions in Proverbs 30.4. (Take a moment to review them.) The first question penetrates the mysteries of the universe. Sir Isaac Newton once summarized his scientific career saying, “I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore . . . whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me” (Memoirs). The second question ponders the powers of the universe—how, for example, can the air we breathe drive a ship or destroy a city? The third question wonders over the marvelous order of things, like rain that falls because God “wrapped up the waters in a garment.” John Piper observes how something so commonplace is actually “a great and unsearchable wonder wrought by God.” A one-inch rain over a square mile of farmland weighs 1,650,501,280 pounds. If it falls too fast, or in drops too big, it destroys everything. So God meters it out just so (and never mind how He gets it up there in the first place, or takes out the salt!). The fourth question contemplates the laws that govern every movement, process, and place in the universe. The sun rose this morning in Rapid City at precisely 6:39—but then you could have known that just as well a year ago (log on to the Naval Observatory website), because God “has established all the ends of the earth.”

No one can answer the first four questions without “God,” so even an atheist must admit that “there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible” that caused the universe to exist. But Agur’s fifth question (with the sarcastic “Surely you know!” attached) asks what this “something” is like—or rather, this “incredibly grand and incomprehensible” Someone. For some, like Richard Dawkins, “God” cannot be known—He (It) is “incredibly grand and incomprehensible.” But to our shame we must say that many of us—who confess this great Someone through His Son—many of us have lost our sense of awe before Him, as if knowing God were as simple a matter as knowing your multiplication tables. God give us grace to sing a new song, and “Ascribe to the Lord,” once again, “the glory due His name” (Ps. 96.8). You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

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The Last Easter

March 20, 2008

Only rarely do I read “forwarded” emails.  It’s not disrespect, or even lack of interest, it’s just a matter of time.  Not enough time.  But once in a while, something in the “Subject” line grabs my eyeballs long enough to make me scroll down.

On this Easter Sunday, let me share one of those somethings.

Someone has calculated that Easter 2008 is the earliest any of us will ever live to see.  As you know, Easter is based on the lunar calendar.  Since the Council of Nicea (AD 325), most churches, other than Eastern Orthodox, observe Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (but never 14 Nisan on the Jewish calendar).  In layman’s terms, Easter can be as late as April 25 or as early as March 22.  Today, of course, is March 23 – the earliest Easter since 1913 (if you are, say, 103 years old, you might remember).  The next time Easter will fall so early is 2160-152 years from today.  This is the last Easter any of us will ever see on March 23.

At one level, this is nothing more than a piece of trivia.  Interesting, but not important.  At another level, we could say, at least this explains why Easter seems so early this year.  It is early – earlier than almost anyone can remember.

But the real reason this particular “FWD” in the Subject line grabbed my attention is that it hit me as a little jab of finality, a whiff of William Blake’s “Eternity in an hour.”  It struck me that there is something sobering in the realization that this is “the last Easter” any of us will ever live to see so early.  And that realization set me thinking thoughts of life and death – how swiftly life passes and how inexorably death approaches.

Scripture says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9.27).  Which means there is nothing morbid about contemplating our own mortality.  Thus did Moses pray, “Teach us to number our days” (Ps. 90.12).  So let us number our days.  Reflect with me on the fact that in fifty years’ time, most of the adults in the congregation of South Canyon Baptist Church today will have died.  They – you and I – will have stepped into eternity.  Of course, the world being full of wars and rumors of wars (or if the History Channel is right about a super-volcano in Yellowstone), this could be “the last Easter” for all of us in Rapid City.  But listen – please, please, listen – this will be “the last Easter” for some of us, and it could be “the last Easter” for any one of us.  And none of us knows for whom it will be.  It could be the last for me.

Or it could be the last Easter for you.

Death is the one appointment everyone will keep.  But for all who put their trust in Him, Jesus has defeated death by His death, and triumphed in His resurrection.  That’s the message of the first Easter – for “the last Easter.”  You are loved; and prayed for today.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

The First Lunch

March 18, 2008

Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, for his is like one who is inwardly calculating. ‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you but his heart is not with you (Prov. 23.6-7).

“Watch out for the first person who invites you to lunch.” Someone gave me that little piece of advice years ago, and over the years since, when God has led me into this or that new role, I have found it to be sound advice. Not to be a cynic-after all, you might have the good fortune to come into the company of hospitable people-but experience teaches us to be wary. That “first lunch” may hide an agenda. Believe me, I could tell you stories.As a powerful man, Solomon must have known all about “First Lunches.” He doubtless knew many men in his own court who got by using any means to curry favor with anyone who might gain them some advantage. Even to the point of pretending hospitality.

Solomon describes that sort of person in these verses. In our English Standard translation, he is “stingy,” but the old King James Version captures the Hebrew perfectly-he “hath an evil eye.” His eyes move to and fro, as it were, seeking someone to use for his own ends. By contrast, “whoever has a bountiful [literally, a ‘good’] eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (Prov. 22.9). The eye of this latter man also moves to and fro, as it were-seeking someone to serve. The former seeks only himself. He may give the appearance of generosity and goodwill, but “his heart is not with you,” Solomon says. Don’t let your guard down.

This is no idle warning, for we humans are forever making ourselves prey to the “evil eye.” That’s why Solomon warns us, “don’t desire his delicacies.” He means to say, “steel yourself against his flattery and gentility, power and promise. They can be very seductive. Don’t get hypnotized by a gold watch.” The outwardly charming host may be an “inwardly calculating” con man.

Solomon’s warning reaches far beyond “the first person who invites you to lunch.” In the fourth century, Basil, the famous bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor, picked up on these verses to make a wider application. Said Basil, when Solomon “forbids us even to dine in company with an envious man . . . he implies a reference to all other social contacts as well.” For (Basil went on to say),

Just as we are careful to keep material which is easily flammable as far away as possible from fire, so we must refrain insofar as we can from contacting friendships in circles of which envious persons are members. By doing so, we place ourselves beyond the range of their shafts. We can be caught in the toils of envy only by establishing intimacy with it” (Homily Concerning Envy)

The Whole World in His Hands

March 13, 2008

The Lord has made everything for its purpose,

even the wicked for the day of trouble (Prov. 16.4).

Let me ask you a hard question: “Do you really believe what Solomon says here?”  We teach our children to sing, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”  We quote the verse, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4.4).  In hard times, we testify that “God is in control.”  But in some dark night of the soul, when evil seems to be having its own way, do we still believe that “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble”?

You know what I mean.  A child struck and killed by a drunk driver, who walks away with a slap on the wrist.  A woman deserted by her husband and left to cope.  Politicians conniving their way to money, sex, and power.  Murderers, rapists, and thieves, liars, scoundrels, and cheats, the unfair, the greedy, the arrogant, and the unscrupulous, the lazy, the loveless, the gossip, and the troublemaker, the unreasonable, the unforgiving, the unrepentant.  Everything from the criminal element to everyday nastiness.  Does God not see?  Does He not know?  Does He not care?

The answer of Scripture could not possibly be more clear.  Holy God will never allow wickedness to pass unjudged.  The “Judge of all the earth” will “do what is just” (Gen. 18.25)–even though His judgment does not always fall immediately.  Sometimes it does (remember Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5?); but more often it does not.  That explains why so many Psalms (to take just one biblical example) cry out against the “prosperity” of the wicked and call on God to intervene: “let the evil of the wicked come to an end” (7.9); “Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked” (71.4); “Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked” (140.8).  Yet the Psalms, and the rest of Scripture, return again and again to this assurance of Solomon–that God, the righteous Judge, will most assuredly, in His own time, in His own way, and for His own glory, deal with all wickedness (Ps. 9.5; 146.9; and many, many more).  Do you believe that?

And if you do, what difference does it make?  In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis imagines an older, experienced demon (“Screwtape”) advising his young nephew (“Wormwood”) on how to subvert the purposes of God (“our Enemy above”).  In one letter, he “warns” about Christians who remain faithful despite the wickedness they see:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause [remember this is a demon!] is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

The proof that we believe Prov. 16.4 is that we “still obey,” because we know that, “yes,” a thousand times, “yes,” “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Seven Pillars

March 8, 2008

Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out her seven pillars (Prov. 9.1).

As a master builder, King Solomon has never had an equal.  He spent seven years building a Temple to the glory of God, and thirteen more years on lavish palaces and elaborate courts.  He built cities throughout his Empire, and transformed Jerusalem from small town to glittering capital city.  He employed more than 180,000 men.  He built for the ages with massive, costly stones.  He bought entire forests from Lebanon to get the finest wood.  He made gold as common as silver, and silver as common as stone to adorn his great works.  Archaeologists are still discovering the remains-beautiful even in ruin-of vision and skill that left the Queen of Sheba speechless (1 Ki. 10.5).

In this little proverb, Solomon speaks of Wisdom as a queen-greater than the Queen of Sheba, greater even than Solomon himself-who “has built her house,” a house like no other, the dwelling place for the Wisdom of God.  And of this magnificent place, Solomon tells us three things.

First, it has “seven pillars.”  Architecturally, “seven pillars” might not seem very striking, or even very symmetrical.  But “seven” is the number of perfection, and Solomon means to say that the Wisdom of God is perfect.  His truth, His counsel, His power, His leading, His light, His life-this is all we need or ever will need.  “For me,” Paul said, “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1.21).

Second, Wisdom has “hewn” her seven pillars.  One of Solomon’s palaces was 75 feet wide, 150 feet long, and 45 feet high, supported by 45 pillars of cedar.  Note-cut out of cedar, not carved out of stone.  Almost all pillars unearthed by archaeologists are partial, partly stone with wood on top, or hewn in blocks and stacked to look like a single stone.  But Wisdom “has hewn her seven pillars.”  Each one from a single stone.  Complete, whole, solid, strong.  Likewise, the perfections of God’s Wisdom extend to every detail of the universe-so how could they not extend to every detail of our lives?  They do.  In every need, in every circumstance, in every way, we find our sufficiency in Christ, “who upholds the universe by the word of His power” (Heb. 1.3).  Thus with the Apostle can we dare to claim the promise of God, “My grace is sufficient for you;” and with him dare to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12.9).

Third, Wisdom has “built” her house.  She doesn’t buy a fixer-upper, put a manufactured home on a lot, or purchase a custom home in a gated community.  She builds the house herself-because there is no human substitute for God’s wisdom.  Worldly wisdom can be shrewd, clever, ambitious, charming, learned, sophisticated, charismatic, confident, prudent, temperate, dynamic, personable, cautious, and more.  All the wisdom of this age, however, is “doomed to pass away” (1 Cor. 2.6).  But, thanks be to God, as Christians, “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 1.12).

Solomon says we are invited to a banquet in the palace of God (Prov. 9.2).  Or we can settle for a shack in the wilderness.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells