Friday, January 23, 2009

THOSE WHO STAY FILLED: How do they do it?

"At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

"At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'

"Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'

" 'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'

"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. . . .” (Matt. 25:1-10).

Have you wondered why some Christians are so alive in Christ, while others seem lukewarm, at best? I certainly have. I was struck by one of my parents’ fellow missionaries whose face radiated the joy of the Lord—in the middle of a routine day. I remember also an evangelist who preached at family camp whose words and demeanor took me right into the presence of God. At that same family camp was a teenage girl who spoke about the Lord regularly in the most natural way, and who was always in the same mood—a positive, glad, caring, peaceful one. I wondered greatly how they could be that way, because I certainly longed to be that way myself. It also was the description that I saw in the Word for what a Christian was supposed to be like.

Growing up in a conservative, evangelical tradition, I inherited a common perception that those who were “really saved” and “sanctified (Spirit-filled)” would just naturally remain “on fire” for the Lord the rest of their lives. This belief did not give much direction or hope to a person who knew she was not, and was not satisfied with being a lukewarm and fairly ineffective Christian.

This is why I am so interested in the parable of the ten virgins. The wise virgins were able to keep their lamps filled and radiant, while the lamps of the unwise virgins were about to go out. The good news in this parable is that there appears to be a practical reason for the success of the wise virgins, a concrete notion of how to be among those perpetually-burning followers of his.

As I meditated on the words of the parable (including the next three verses, which will be the basis for my next blog) to discover the wise virgins’ secret, here’s what I saw: that they did not have a hand-me-down religion; these young women went straight to the source for themselves. The unwise virgins appear to have passively received a supply of oil from someone, thoughtlessly expecting it to last forever. This can be compared to a Christian who goes to church and leaves uplifted and comforted, but who has no understanding of how to remain close to the Lord the rest of the week.

The wise Christian also goes to church and leaves uplifted and comforted. However, unlike the unwise Christian, this one is aware of the nature of the oil which filled his lamp while he was at church. She knows that it was nothing other than the gracious presence of the Lord himself and the life-giving quality of his Word that caused her spirit to come alive. Such a Christian has a revelation of how precious and desirable this oil is. She is not content to receive a dab of it (so to speak) to perk up her already-determined lifestyle. She is not content with the inferior quality of life that results from burning the fuel of her own limited wisdom, goodness, and ability. She desires the lifestyle motivated and enabled by divine oil. Therefore, this wise Christian personally seeks out her own supply of it and carries it with her everywhere. She does not buy into the common belief that the only way to receive new inspiration is from the oil that is in her pastor and other, “more spiritual” Christians.

Moses and Joshua are two examples of this truth. They witnessed the same miracles as the rest of the Israelite nation. They received the same teaching from the Lord. But there was a basic difference between them and the nation at large. The difference in their attitudes showed up plainly when the people arrived at Mt. Sinai where the Lord had promised to meet with them.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him (Ex. 19:16-19). . . .

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die" (Ex. 20:18-19).

The people at large were content with hand-me-down religion! They didn’t want to know God; they just wanted a few of his benefits—as many as Moses could get for them.

On the contrary, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai several times, staying alone with God for 40 days at a time. Well, perhaps not entirely alone:

The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction."

Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. He said to the elders, "Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them" (Ex. 24:12-14).

So Joshua went with him, at least one time, up the mountain to meet with God.

After leaving Mt. Sinai, Moses pitched a tent outside the camp where anyone could go to meet with God.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the "tent of meeting." Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent (Ex. 33:7-11).

Apparently, Moses and Joshua were the principal ones who frequented this tent of meeting. The rest of the nation had great respect for the fact that God spoke to Moses there, but their worship of God was from a distance. Anyone who knows the stories of the years in the wilderness knows how small was the faith, stability, and godliness of the vast majority of the people who were content with this from-a-distance, second-hand religion.

On the other hand, Moses and Joshua were stalwart men of faith and courage. Men who heard from God. Men whose personal lives prospered and who bore fruit that fed an entire nation. It was surely because they welcomed personal rendezvous with God and staked their lives on his Word.

Incidentally, neither of them were just “born that way.” Moses’ relationship with God was hugely boosted by the encounter at the burning bush. But he had to muster up all of his courage—over and over again—to obey God’s orders. As he did that, his relationship with God deepened, and hunger to know God even more intimately overtook him. Joshua did not start out with a burning bush experience. He tagged along with someone who knew how to relate to God personally until the hunger to know God ignited in him as well.

How can I stay filled with the life of God? Not by being passive. Not by staying at a distance from God. Not by letting someone else pray for me or tell me what the Bible says. No, it’s by esteeming the Lord and his Word— and going after them myself.

Does this mean becoming a reclusive mystic? Is it only possible for Bible scholars? Heavens, no! Were Peter and John reclusive? Were they scholars? No. Were the Holy Spirit and the Word mighty in them? Yes! It can be so for us too. Bear with me for further insight—in the next blog—into having a constant supply of oil.

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