From the Preacher's Heart
PASTOR ADAM ADDRESSES CULTURAL ISSUES FROM A BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW, DEVOTIONALS FROM GOD'S WORD, AND THOUGHTS ON CHURCH, MINISTRY AND THE CHRISTIAN LIFE.
"The Serving, Suffering Son of God"
A Call to Unique Living in an Upside-Down World
Christianity is a unique religion. Christianity finds its God coming as a humble servant and bloody lamb rather than a powerful ruler and war-hero. Steven Lambert remarks, “In no other manner are the differences between Muslims and Christians more sharply contrasted than in the difference between the characters and legacies of their prophets. Mohammed rode into Mecca on a warhorse, surrounded by 400 mounted men and 10,000 foot soldiers...Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, accompanied by his 12 disciples.” The Christian symbol of victory is an instrument of violent death: the Roman crucifix. In Christianity, God willingly becomes man instead of man laboring to become God. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche labeled Christianity as a “slave religion.” Centuries earlier the pagan writer Celsus mocked Jesus, “What could be the purpose of such a visit to earth by God? To find out what is taking place among humans? Does he not know everything? Or is it perhaps that he knows, but is incapable of doing anything about evil unless he does it in person?” To the power-hungry Romans the early Christians’ honor of service and sacrifice was repulsive. Who desires a religion which boasts of its followers, such as Ignatius, faithfully and fearlessly facing Roman persecution, counting it an honor to give his life for worshipping Christ, “I am God’s wheat, to be ground by the teeth of beasts, so that I may be offered as pure bread to Christ.”
Even Jesus’ immediate followers appear clueless as to the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom in the Gospels. The more Jesus taught, the more his followers failed to receive the uniqueness of Jesus’ mission. They continued to seek an earthly warrior who would overthrow Roman authority and provide political freedom to the Jewish people. Even Peter, the closest of Jesus’ followers, was reprimanded and called “Satan” by the Lord for his refusal to hear what Jesus communicated about his impending victory through death and resurrection. The Old Testament promised a serving, suffering Messiah, nevertheless the people clamored for something less.
The week of Jesus’ death provides no improvement in people’s appreciation for how God was working. Interestingly, Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday occurred precisely as the lambs were being selected for Passover. Moses writes in Exodus 12:3, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their father’s houses, a lamb for a household.” It was the fourteenth day on which the lambs were killed. Since Passover began on Thursday evening, four days earlier would have been Palm Sunday. Therefore, while the people were exclaiming “Hosanna” and waving palm branches in expectation of a national king, God was saying, “This is my perfect Lamb for the ultimate Passover. Will you select him as your sacrificial Lamb?” How bizarre, yet incredible, that God took the form of man, came to wash feet, and gave his life as a ransom for many. If the essence of sin is man ascending to be like God, then grace is God descending to be like man. Centuries of history and prophecy pointing to a meek, lowly, serving, suffering Messiah were forgotten and ignored as people demanded a king on their own terms who would meet their selfish expectations at the expense of their eternal souls. When Jesus refused, the authorities carried out God’s will and killed the serving, suffering Son of God.
Real triumph occurs through serving and suffering. This Easter weekend, Christians should celebrate the victory Jesus won over sin and death. At the same time, we must remember Christ’s call to go and do likewise, giving ourselves to loving service and selfless sacrifice. We should ask ourselves whether we are “redeeming the time” with which Christ has entrusted us or wasting time serving our idols of pleasure, leisure, and self-aggrandizement. Do we choose to use our vacation time, weekends, and financial resources to minister by making disciples of young believers and loving others in our communities through creative ministries, or have we become so distracted by the lure of the beach and ball that our hearts can go no higher than the things this world has to offer? Time away resting and playing with family is needed, but I fear we’ve moved decisively away from the example of our serving, suffering Savior. I pray this Easter drowns us again in the unique passion of the serving, suffering Son of God so that our lives are turned upside-down by his resurrection power and unique commission to “Go.”
Salty Living in 2017,
The ability to use and understand words is vital for increasing our knowledge, deepening our relationships, and globalizing our businesses. In the 2016 movie Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, states, “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds people together.” As a young boy, my teachers constantly reminded me, “Never stop expanding your vocabulary,” and then proceeded to give the dreaded weekly vocabulary tests to make certain I heeded their advice. An expansive vocabulary allows for greater freedom in expressing our joys, pains, and love to others. Skilled writers and speakers seem to effortlessly paint detailed scenes on our minds through the proficient use of words. On the other hand, we’ve all likely encountered the frustration that occurs because of the inability to adequately communicate. Who hasn’t experienced the medical doctor employing language difficult for the sick patient to properly translate and understand?
Similar communication freedoms and frustrations can occur between Christians and the Bible. Like a child who slowly develops the ability to pronounce and properly utilize words, so too does developing a biblical vocabulary require time and attention. Eugene Peterson reminds us, “Language is spoken into us; we learn language only as we are spoken to. We are plunged at birth into a sea of language...Then slowly syllable by syllable we acquire the capacity to answer: mama, papa, bottle, blanket. Not one of these words was a first word. All speech is answering speech. We were all spoken to before we spoke.” Likewise, through plunging ourselves into the sea of God’s speech, the Scriptures, we receive the vocabulary to more fully appreciate God’s salvation in Jesus and develop the ability to speak back in proper praise and prayer.
As Easter approaches, Christians throughout the world will reflect on the death of Jesus Christ and gather together to celebrate his resurrection. For many, however, Passion Week will continue a long, lifeless walk in lukewarm, laisse-faire Christianity, as if such a thing exists. I fear many lack an appreciation and enthusiasm for what Christ’s death communicates about God, humanity, and redemption due to a limited biblical vocabulary. The language necessary for understanding all the New Testament writers provide about the mission of Jesus is taught to us by God in the Old Testament. Old Testament scholar Ken Mathews writes, “In many ways, the foundational sketch for the work of Christ, which the New Testament illuminates, is provided most vividly in the sacrifices, priestly roles, and Day of Atonement sections of Leviticus.” Another scholar affirms that understanding the nuances of sacrifice in the Old Testament is vital for grasping the fullness of what Christ accomplished in his substitutionary death for sinners. One writer makes what some might think to be a remarkable claim, “It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the function and influence of the Old Testament in the New Testament. The evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) seek in various ways to show how Jesus understood the Old Testament, fulfilled the Old Testament, and was clarified by the Old Testament. Apart from the Old Testament, the New Testament would make little sense.”
Genesis is the unfolding of God’s story, the place where our language first develops. Genesis 1-3 describes the image of God and its distortion by sin, preparing our hearts for the One who came in the image of man to restore the image of God in us. The drunken nakedness of Noah and subsequent covering by two of his sons in Genesis 9 attunes our minds to our spiritual nakedness and gracious covering by Jesus’ robe of righteousness. Genesis 12 shows how God chooses one man through whom to bless all the nations of the world, terminology by which we understand Jesus came to bless all nations of the world through his death and resurrection. Genesis 22 details a father and son climbing a hill on which a lamb will be provided for sacrifice, language which helps inform us of the provision of our heavenly Father through the sacrifice of his Son, the perfect Lamb of God. Exodus 12-13 presents the Passover meal and God-led exodus from Egypt. “In the death of the Passover lamb, God was laying down part of the most basic vocabulary by which we were later to understand the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Messiah.” The vocabulary lessons continue like this throughout the Old Testament, each lesson building upon previous lessons learned in earlier books. God is the master communicator, beautifully articulating on the canvas of history his sovereignty, love, and devotion to his creation. The way in which he works with us and prepares us to understand his greatest communication, the Word who became flesh, is a testimony to his grace. The church, beginning in its pulpits and continuing in its homes, must make time to immerse itself again in the Old Testament, listening and reading intently as God equips us with vocabulary necessary for a richer and more vibrant journey to the cross and empty tomb of Christ.
C.A. Evans, “New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity and Diversity of Scripture, eds. T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D. A. Carson, and Graeme Goldsworthy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 72-73.
“Naked & Not Ashamed”
During my childhood days I giggled every time I heard the preacher read Genesis 2:25. I had no idea what “not ashamed” meant, but I didn’t care because my buddies and I were overtly focused on the “naked” part. Twenty-five years later as a husband, father, and pastor, I no longer giggle when I read or preach this verse. Instead, I long for the day when the relational frustrations which come from NOT being “naked and not ashamed” will be finally removed.
There is a radical relational digression which occurs in the short time frame from Genesis 2:25 to Genesis 3:7. In the span of seven verses, the first couple descends from being “naked and not ashamed” to sewing fig leaves together in an attempt to cover their shame and heighten their self-image. No longer do they enjoy walking with God and each other; they now hide from God and one another. Their enthusiasm for God and for one another has vanished. The search for autonomy and self-fulfillment results in catastrophic shame and relational brokenness. After their sinful rebellion, it seems as if Adam and Eve expect the other to be critical, harsh, and unforgiving. Therefore, they became hypocrites, going to great lengths in hiding their sin, weakness, and fear. They no longer trust each other. Each had proven to be concerned only for himself/herself regardless of the harm it causes the other. Self-image and self-preservation become paramount at the expense of genuine community with God and each other.
The catastrophe of Genesis 3 continues to play out in today’s marriages, relationships, and communities. Americans in the 21st century are in many ways image-driven, and the results continue to be frustrating and harmful. Marriages and families are no longer safe-havens where forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional love are found. Instead, selfishness continues, leading us to be highly critical of our spouse’s appearance, fears, and choices to the point where we publish them on social media for our friends to join us in our unloving criticism. I ridicule my child’s poor performance in a game or class because I fear it may cause others to think I am a bad parent. I don’t hesitate to shift blame or negative attention onto another so long as it bolsters others’ image of me. Distrust deepens, and instead of moving back toward the original status of “naked and not ashamed,” we covet punier, high-priced, time-consuming fig leaves to make ourselves look better.
How do we reverse this catastrophic cycle? How do we move our marriages and other relationships back toward the God-given experience of being “naked and not ashamed?”
1) Remember Your Own Sinfulness and Failures
In our daily attempts to deceive others as to who we really are, we end up deceiving ourselves. The mask we wear becomes a part of who we are, and we forget the wrinkles and warts underneath the mask. We forget our past failures, and we fail to acknowledge our current struggles. We forget the patience, forgiveness, and opportunity others have shown to us, and we place ourselves on the pedestal of self-made perfection which others are expected to attain. Though painful, we must acknowledge that we don’t have it all figured out. Honesty with ourselves promotes humble patience towards others.
2) Reflect on Jesus’ Demonstration of Unconditional Love for You
The most critical people are those who have never experienced genuine love and forgiveness. This is true in churches I’ve pastored and marriages I’ve counseled. The antidote to a critical attitude is a critical study of Jesus’ love for us. Though we fail him, he loves us still. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Unlike Adam, Jesus loves his bride, the Church, unconditionally, washing away her stains with his sacrificial blood. Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus’ executioners, and reflect on the truth that Jesus’ death was for you even as your sin put him there. The more deeply you drink from the fountain of Jesus’ love, the more that fountain will flow through you to others.
3) Run to Jesus Christ
Adam and Eve’s original condition of being “naked and not ashamed” can never be recovered on your own. The removal of shame didn’t occur lightly. Its weight is so great that no human can lift it. Only God could lift such a burden. On Calvary’s cross, God in the flesh lifted our shame and sin, and killed it through his own death. Run to Jesus, and ask him to forgive you and transform you into a person who loves, forgives, and shows mercy.
4) Receive Your New Clothing
The frustration and shame of losing our original status of “naked and not ashamed” meets its end in Christ. Jesus not only lifts our shame onto himself, he also clothes us with his robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). For those abiding in Christ, we have confidence before him and we don’t “shrink from him in shame at his (second) coming” (1 John 2:28). Although the frustrations and struggle with a critical spirit are not completely removed during our time on earth, we receive a foretaste of Eden’s original condition of being “naked and not ashamed” by learning patience, long-suffering, and unconditional love for one another in our homes and communities.
5) Rejoice in Your New Image
As long as we live for the approval of others, we will trend toward hypocritical self-aggrandizing and harsh criticism of others. It’s like running on a treadmill faster and faster but moving nowhere. Exhaustion and despair eventually overcome us as we strive to live up to what we think others expect from us. Jesus welcomes us to experience his rest and favor. He invites us to hear his approval of us as adopted and loved children in his family. When our image is found in Christ, we experience the freedom of loving others without seeking their constant approval. Rather than simply talking about our image in Christ, Christians must practically receive their renewed image in Christ.
“Good Friday: When the Wall Came Tumbling Down”
Walls are a hot topic in the news media and political world these days. One recurring question in the never-ending political debates is, “Should we or shouldn’t we build a wall at the American borders?” Walls were also the topic of conversation in the twentieth century. Concerning the tension between the Soviet Union and rest of the world, Winston Churchill wrote to President Harry Truman, “An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind.” Soviet forces created a wall of armed soldiers separating Soviet-controlled states from the rest of the world. Though this “Iron Curtain” was only a few hundred yards wide, the cultures, values, and worldviews existing on either side of the “Curtain” were worlds apart.
Another wall, another “Iron Curtain,” was constructed millennia before any of these modern-day walls became reality. The Tabernacle’s inner curtain isn’t as well-known as the Soviet “Iron Curtain” nor is it discussed as much as Donald Trump’s proposed border-wall, yet it produced great fear and deep distress within people’s hearts. Though neither designed by governments nor guarded by human soldiers, it proved to be most impenetrable. The Tabernacle’s inner curtain separated God from humanity. Embroidered into the curtain were God’s angelic cherubim.
Our first encounter with these cherubim occurs in Genesis 3:24 at the Garden of Eden, where the cherubim served as a perpetual reminder of man’s sinfulness by guarding the Eden’s east entrance. Any time Adam and Eve approached Eden, there stood the cherubim reminding the couple of their isolation, mortality, guilt, frailty, and foolishness. The cherubim served as an impenetrable wall separating life in the Garden of Eden from death in the wilderness. Centuries later, the Tabernacle’s curtain with embroidered cherubim continued to provide the “No Trespassing” sign for all to see and sorrow over. When sinful men and the holy God interact, a violent explosion occurs, instantly killing sinners (cf. Leviticus 16:2). The curtain stood between them as a reminder of inaccessibility. As Michael Morales states, “Here Israel (along with us) is brought face to face with the fundamental question that has perplexed human civilization across the ages and cultures of history: How does one get back inside, back to paradise with God?”
It is this baffling question God decisively answers on Good Friday in the death of Jesus. If we are to appreciate the riches and accomplishments of Jesus on Good Friday, we must stand before the iron curtain of cherubim outside Eden’s gate and the Tabernacle’s towering curtain. We must come to grips with the cost of our sin and our inability to do anything about it. We must stand in the Temple as Jesus is on Calvary breathing his last and read Matthew’s words with a renewed zeal, “And behold, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). Good Friday is the day God sent the wall tumbling down, crumbling the iron curtain separating the Creator from his created. Good Friday is about God crucifying the God-man so that we may experience his welcome and hospitality. Ultimately, this is the story of Scripture: God making a way through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so you and I can enter the house of God to dwell with God, beholding, glorifying and enjoying him forever.
Only as our appreciation deepens for what Christ accomplished on our behalf will we be motivated to remove the walls of hatred and hostility which exist between us and others. We are quick to construct walls founded on arrogance, ignorance, and fear, thus alienating us from our spouse, co-workers, church family, and other nationalities. Because we fail to understand and savor the hospitality God has shown us, we often offer hostility to those around us. On Good Friday God destroyed the iron curtain separating us from him; perhaps this Good Friday we will destroy the iron curtains we’ve erected toward others.
Building the Body,
Winston Churchill, “Telegram of 12 May 1945, Prime Minister to President, No. 44,” Cabinet Papers, 120/186.
Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the book of Leviticus, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 107.
For Video Format: "From the Preacher's Heart"
“Learning to Savor the Scriptures” (Part 1)
Recently, it came to my attention Lindsay’s car was burning oil at a rapid rate. To burn any oil at all is never a good thing, but to use 1.5 quarts in only 1,200 miles is extremely problematic (thoughts of purchasing a new car right now don’t excite me). So, I took her car to the local dealership and thankfully learned Toyota has acknowledged certain engine models have a piston ring defect and will be repaired at no cost to the customer. They told me it would be a 2-3 day process. Upon hearing this news, I figured I would surf the internet to see if I could find a manual showing how complicated the process is to replace piston rings. I found the repair manual, started reading it, and got a headache! It was a 13 page manual containing parts, procedures, and tools of which I had never heard. I quickly closed the page and went back to ESPN.com where I could understand and appreciate what I was reading.
Perhaps there are times when you open your Bible and feel as I did reading the repair manual. It gives you a headache and heartache. There are words, sacrificial procedures, and cultures of which you’ve never heard. You think it’ll just be easier to close the Bible and go back to reading, watching, or doing something you understand and appreciate. However, to forfeit time in the Scriptures is to forfeit the life only God can give. So, where do we find this longing to saturate our lives with this life-giving and life-sustaining Word? How do we grow in our ability to rightly understand and savor what we’re reading? How do we mature to the point where we genuinely proclaim, “I delight in the Law of the Lord?” (Psalm 1:2).
Although there are tools to help us along the road of reading and rightly interpreting the Scriptures (we will explore some of these tools in future articles), I fear the primary reasons for our not reading, meditating on, and savoring God’s Word are much more foundational and serious than simply “not having the proper interpretive tools in the toolbox.” Until we confess and correct these foundational issues, the Bible will never become to us anything more than another book we discard on our shelves. Here are three foundational questions to ask and evaluate about our lives if we are going to learn to savor the Scriptures.
1) “Do I really love Jesus?”
Shortly before Moses’ death, he warns the Israelites, “This word (the Law of God) is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:47). History proves when the Israelites loved, learned, and obeyed God’s Word, they experienced abundant life. When they silenced the prophets and ignored God’s Word, they inevitably disobeyed and were destroyed. Today, the Spirit of Christ, which indwells all believers, “leads the people of God to honor the (written) Word of God.” To devalue and dishonor God’s Word by disregarding the regular reading of it demonstrates a lack of love for the One who grants us life. If we love the living Word of God (Jesus), his Spirit will create within us an appetite for the written Word of God. The church is the people in whom the Word of Christ finds a welcoming home (Colossians 3:16).
2) “Is there unconfessed sin in my life grieving the Holy Spirit?”
The Apostle Paul states that the Holy Spirit illuminates our minds and hearts to see and receive what the Scriptures teach (1st Corinthians 2:9-16). The natural man will not and indeed cannot understand spiritual things. Reading the Scriptures without the illumination of God’s Spirit is akin to trying to do Calculus with an encyclopedia. You’re operating in two totally different worlds. Therefore, quenching the light of God’s Spirit by allowing your heart to be a home for unconfessed sin (bitterness, selfishness, addictions, sexual impurity, etc.) necessarily equates to being unable to savor the Scriptures.
3) “Am I continually asking God to open my eyes to behold his glory in his Word?”
The Psalmist writes, “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Just as salvation is a gift of God, so also is the ability to behold wonderful insights from the Scriptures. Sadly, prayer and humility are scarce in the lives of many Christians and churches. Yet, dependence upon God is a prerequisite for insight into God’s Word. Bible intake and prayer should work harmoniously. The Scriptures form the content of prayer even as prayer is preparing us for further understanding in the Scriptures.
Since “God is most beautifully praised when his people hear his Word, love his Word, and obey his Word,” we must learn to savor the Scriptures. This Word which is our very life is often treated as something empty, dead, and powerless. Through introspection of the three foundational questions listed above, I am confident many of the deficiencies in our Bible reading, understanding, and savoring can be corrected. More to come on this subject next week…
Building the Body,
John Stott, The Living Church (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: 2007), 25.
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO: 1991), 71.
Albert Mohler, “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem” (accessed January 20, 2016), http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/
“Celebrating Christmas from the Cradle to the Cross”
(Author’s Note: I am fully aware that as helpful as metaphors can be in aiding our understanding of a person or event, every metaphor is bound to break down on some level. So, I proceed with both optimism and caution in hopes of faithfully communicating the beauty of Christ’s righteous life and atoning death as we walk through this Christmas season.)
Sitting in a theatre, we become engrossed in the two-hour drama on the screen as we appreciate the finished work of actors, actresses, and directors. Standing in a stadium, we celebrate three hours of athleticism and competition as players and coaches match skill and strategy. Walking through an art museum, our eyes are fixed upon finished paintings & sculptures that demonstrate the creative giftedness of the painter & sculptor. As much as we enjoy the finished work of actors, players, and painters, we often ignore the years of behind-the-curtain detailed planning and practice-facility repetitions that are required from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Peyton Manning, and Michelangelo. Yet, it is rehearsals and repetitions that make the experience in the theatre, stadium and art gallery so remarkable and memorable.
Those six hours on Good Friday provide the point of all reference for the Church. The finished work of Christ on the cross deserves and demands the believer’s full attention and amazement. It is true that any attempt to view and understand Christmas without Calvary’s cross is a foolish and futile effort. Christ on the cross is heaven’s deepest, richest, and loudest “I love you” cry to earth. Christ on the cross reveals that cheap grace and the God of the Scriptures are removed from one another as far as the east is from the west. Christ on the cross demonstrates most visibly the reality that God’s holiness demands God’s wrath against sinners, a reality that many in more liberal circles vehemently react against today. Christ on the cross boggles the mind with the truth that the God-Man being crucified is God saving us from God, his wrath that is to come. Again, Christ on the cross and Christmas can never be divorced. The cross must remain the focus of the Church.
However, Christmas provides an opportunity for the Church to reflect on and appreciate the life of Christ that leads up to the cross. While gazing in amazement at the eternal implications of the six-hour crucifixion, we must at the same time be awed by Divinity’s plan enacted before the foundation of the world that the Lamb would be slain. Without Jesus’ Spirit-conceived virgin birth and obedient life, Christ on the cross becomes nothing more than a cruel, unjustified homicide. It is both Jesus’ living and dying that provides for us what is needed for a restored relationship with our Creator. We need both atonement for sin (his substitutionary death) and a perfect righteousness that comes from outside ourselves (his righteous life). As Spurgeon says, “Remember, young believers, that from the first moment when Christ did lie in the cradle until the time when he ascended up on high, he was at work for his people; and from the moment when he was seen in Mary’s arms, till the instant when in the arms of death he bowed his head and gave up the ghost, he was at work for your salvation and mine…You have as much to thank Christ for living as for dying, and you should be as reverently and devoutly grateful for his spotless life as for his terrible and fearful death.” This Christmas, I pray that our homes and churches will worship the greatest Gift ever given as we celebrate the righteous life of Christ and the wrath-bearing death of Christ. The two can never be separated.
Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross, 20.
R.C. Sproul, Romans: The Righteous Shall Live by Faith, 103.
Note Philippians 3:9 where the Apostle Paul says, “(That I may) be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Charles Spurgeon, A Treasury of Spurgeon on the Life and Work of Our Lord, Volume II, 216.
Making Disciples Amidst the Difficulty of the Refugee Crisis
There are many things that I simply don’t know! And all the people said…”AMEN!” It’s a fact I’ve never been shy about admitting. “I don’t know.” That has been my response over the past few days when asked about what the United States should do concerning the Syrian refugee crisis. In many respects, I don’t know the best way forward for our nation regarding this crisis. Unlike many in our nation and some within the Christian community during the past week, I don’t claim to be informed enough or bold enough to say definitively how the situation must be addressed. I am fully aware that there are details of this messy affair to which I am not privy. However, there are numerous aspects of this crisis in its relation to the Church that I do know. Here are a few:
1) I know that Christians and churches have differences of opinion concerning the way forward. Frankly, I’m hesitant to trust anyone who claims that he or she isn’t experiencing at least some internal tension between showing unreserved compassion to the stranger and showing compassion to our American neighbor whose life & family may be endangered. The dialogue between Christians with different perspectives can be an “iron-sharpening-iron” phenomenon if carried out with genuine love and respect. I’ve already learned much from Christian writers on both sides of the topic, and for them I am thankful.
2) I know that many of the responses I have seen on social media from Christians seem to reveal that they are taking more of their cues about this crisis from Fox News and political associations than the Scriptures.
3) I know there are many confused, frustrated, and fearful Christians in regards to Syria, ISIS, and our own government (state & federal).
4) I know that many of these same Christians are genuinely seeking to become more devoted followers of Jesus through this crisis. I’ve heard & read people asking questions such as, “What attitudes and perspectives should the Christian have? What role can my church play in ministering to the refugees? Why am I feeling such tension in my soul about this? What about the responsibility I have to protect my family?”
I’m prayerful that my response in the following paragraphs will not be misrepresented as being a “cop-out” so that I don’t have to give a definitive opinion on a difficult subject. As concerned as I am for those in Syria who are being killed and persecuted, I am also deeply concerned that the people I have been given the joyful charge to pastor approach this crisis with the mind of Christ. We can & should become more devoted disciples & disciple-makers as we think through this tragedy. In response to the four items listed above, here are four things that you and I need to be searching during this time.
1) Search the Scriptures.
Yes, we need to be informed about the current events in our world, but how will our response to these events be Christ-like if we never seek to filter them through the Scriptures? The news media presents the news; the Scriptures provide Christians with our response to the news. God’s Word softens our hardness toward outsiders, eliminates our racism, and gives us strength and courage in the midst of paralyzing fear. The news media often thrives on the fear of the population; Christians thrive when our paralyzing fears are met with the providence and promises of God.
The oft-quoted passage in James is a good reminder for us, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Although this passage is good advice for all situations, the text is centered in the heart of James’ discussion about hearing the Word of God and obeying it. James is telling us to be quick to hear what God has to say concerning the refugee crisis, slow to speak our opinions & opposition back at God, and slow to become angry when God’s Word contradicts our previously held perspectives.
God’s story of salvation repeatedly reminds us that we were foreigners who were alienated from the Kingdom of God. The most remarkable display of hospitality, love, and compassion in the midst of evil is God coming in the flesh. We are living evidences of the power of sacrificial hospitality. We have been saved out of this evil regime, only to be sent right back into it to do the same thing for others that has been accomplished for us (Leviticus 19:9-18; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-22; Matthew 25:31-46).
2) Search for the Wisdom & Heart of God through Prayer.
As we search the Scriptures, we are immediately led into seeking the heart and wisdom of God for ourselves and others. I’m concerned that this past week has demonstrated that many Christians have offered more opinions than prayers. We are so quick to make our thoughts known that we fail to stop and know the heart of God. The Scriptures remind us about the role of government and our responsibility to pray for them (whether we agree with them & their policies or not!). As our leaders attempt to decipher the best policy for the protection of our nation and showing compassion to the hurting, we need to pray that they would submit themselves to God and seek heavenly wisdom.
Yesterday, Dr. Russell Moore wrote an article entitled “Should We Pray for ISIS to be Defeated or Converted?” In the article Moore highlights that believers should pray for both justice and justification, meaning that we should pray for both the terrorists to be converted and that God would use the United States to bring judgment on those who are raping, brutalizing, and killing. The Scriptures remind us to pray for the hurting and oppressed, as well as for our Christian brothers and sisters who are imprisoned and being martyred. The most influential thing a man or woman can do is pray. Let us not simply give lip-service to this oft-ignored responsibility we have as Christians.
3) Join the Spirit of God in Searching Our Own Hearts for Idols that We’ve Never Noticed.
As we search the Scriptures, we are faced with the reality that our patriotism and personal security can be detrimental to following the Lord Jesus. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). I hear some referencing that America needs to “count the great costs” of receiving immigrants. That’s true, but I would remind those who quote that verse that Jesus uses it while discussing the costs of following him. I like the comforts and conveniences as much as anyone, yet God is showing me that personal security can quickly morph into a personal idol that we protect at all costs. The Good Samaritan counted the numerous risks involved in helping the stranger on the cruel Road to Jericho, yet he cared for the man as if he were his own brother.
If we listen, maybe we can hear the voice of our hearts’ idols speaking during this debate on whether or not to receive refugees. These idols are articulate, biblically-literate, and applauded by the public, yet they are not to be trusted. Remember that even Satan referenced Scripture when tempting Jesus, but he couldn’t be trusted. Perhaps we need to fall on our faces before God and echo the Psalmist who said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).
4) Search for Creative Ways to Minister to Refugees & Hurting People in Our Own Community.
Screaming that the United States should receive Syrian refugees and compassionately caring for those refugees are two separate ideas. It is hypocritical for a person to demand that the government receive refugees when he or she does little to help the hurting in their own backyard. There are numerous individuals and families who are hungry and hurting in Walker County, yet they often go unapproached, untouched, and unloved by the hundreds of churches throughout this county. However our nation responds to the Syrian refugees, searching the Scriptures should lead us to a more proactive stance in ministering to our community.
Dr. Russell Moore, “Should We Pray for ISIS to be Defeated or Converted?” Nov. 18, 2015. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/should-we-pray-for-isis-to-be-defeated-or-converted.
“Is the Church Stuffocating?”
“To die because you are unable to breathe; to be uncomfortable because there is not enough fresh air; to feel trapped and oppressed.” These are the definitions provided by three online dictionaries for the word “suffocate.” A brief Google search of the worst ways to die will immediately lead you to various forms of suffocation. In the years leading up to her death, my own grandmother furiously battled emphysema. A short walk to the garden would leave her breathless and fatigued. Work was almost completely out of the equation. I remember her repeatedly telling me that she felt like she was “smothering to death.” Not only was she dying; she wasn’t able to fully enjoy the life she had left.
During yesterday’s message entitled “Keeping Our Promise” from Leviticus 27, I mentioned that the Church in the West is being “Stuffocated.” The stuff of the world is literally suffocating the joyous breath of Christ out of many Christians. Jesus knew the dangers of stuffocation for all humans, which is why he taught so frequently about wise stewardship and generous giving. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to have the big house, finest clothing, big boat, expensive vehicle, or newest iPhone; the reality is that Jesus doesn’t want you to spiritually smother under the pillow of these things. God gives us physical blessings, and we who are idol-making factories take these physical blessings and bring them so close to our face that the fresh wind of God’s Spirit is choked out. We allow the gifts to eclipse the Gift, who is also the Giver. And just like my grandmother’s physical health, our spiritual health becomes such that we can’t walk with Christ or work for Christ in this world without quickly becoming exhausted. Our lungs quit breathing in God’s grace and beauty as the emphysema of the soul takes over. The fresh wind of revival is neglected in favor of the stale, polluted air of materialism. We convince ourselves that one more purchase will fill our lungs with life and vigor, but we find instead that it only further blocks Jesus’ ability to breathe heavenly oxygen into us. Without the breath of Christ, corporate worship becomes mundane, discipleship seems dull, and the passion for ministry, evangelism, and missions is suffocated out.
The Bible’s remedy for the deadly danger of stuffocation is surrender. In fact, it is the only answer. Dr. Kenneth Mathews writes,
“When it comes to dedicating our gifts to the LORD, the first thing we must do is give ourselves…Once we have given ourselves to the kingdom’s work, then the release of our possessions more easily follows…The issue for us is not our ability to give. It is a matter of our desire to give. If we desire to give ourselves to the LORD, then we will prioritize our expenditures, ensuring that we give of our possessions freely.”
So then, the disease of stuffocation isn’t so much a “stuff” problem as it is a heart problem. Jesus said it this way, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Only when we drop the gifts at the feet of the Giver will we experience the life-giving breath for which our lives so desperately long and churches so desperately need. God doesn’t often ask us to test him, but when it comes to giving generously to the Kingdom’s work of ministry he says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Malachi 3:10). Giving of our financial resources, time, and talents to Kingdom work in the local church and beyond causes God to heal our spiritual emphysema. Morning doses of surrender remove the pillow that is firmly placed over the noses of so many Christian homes and churches. Do you and I really desire a fresh breath of Jesus? If so, it is time that we take the necessary steps to quit stuffocating ourselves.
Holy Spirit, Breathe on Us!
Kenneth Mathews, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People, 243.
“Babel's Curse, Jesus' Cross, & The Body of Christ”
“You’re not hearing what I’m saying!” I’m sure there’s no married person who hasn’t, at some point, heard this statement from his or her spouse. We hear the words our spouse utters, but we miss the heart message of what they attempt to communicate. The Apostle James knows our tendency to be poor listeners, so he commands us, “Be eager to listen” (James 1:19). Although this wisdom is good for developing healthy relationships with others, James’ concern is focused more specifically on our eagerness to listen to God’s Word. Like many of our everyday conversations, we can read God’s Word yet miss the point of what God is saying. Perhaps this is why Bible reading, particularly Old Testament reading, can be so difficult and dry for us. We may know how to pronounce the words on the page, but we don’t really hear the message.
Since the Bible is God’s story of salvation, no part of the story can be read in isolation from the rest. It is a story (from beginning to end) of love and sacrifice, salvation and sanctification, community ministry and worldwide mission. The story of salvation doesn’t start in Matthew; it begins in Genesis. The central character & hero of the story is Jesus, from Genesis to Revelation. The “red letters” of the Bible aren’t found only in the four Gospels and Acts; they are found in all sixty-six books. Every part of the story provides insight and definition about the story’s plot, characters, and climax, allowing us to understand and appreciate the fullness of the Author’s work. When we intentionally skip certain books/chapters of the Bible, we misplace the keys that unlock the doors to: 1) a deeper appreciation of Jesus’ life and atonement; 2) a more faithful understanding of the church’s identity and mission in the world. Let me provide an example.
When we open our Bible to Genesis 10, we read about nations that are foreign to us and names that are difficult to pronounce. At first glance this chapter seems to have no importance for us or message to us. (I can hear you saying, “This is good for people in ancient times, but it doesn’t apply to us now.”) Then, we move to Genesis 11 and read about the Tower of Babel incident before encountering more ancient names. If anything, we think that Genesis 11 teaches us only about God’s hatred towards pride. And, we would be wrong. He does hate pride, but there’s much more going on here in these chapters. This is where understanding the big story of the Bible is vital.
Genesis 10 gives us a description of “All the Nations” in the world at that time. Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel incident demonstrate the sinfulness of all humanity. So, God is saying that “All the Nations” rebel against him and deserve his wrath. So, he sends “All the Nations” into the confusion caused by the inability to communicate. Then, the story transitions to more names, but these names lead to a specific person: Abram (Abraham). There is nothing special about Abram. He is an idolater just like “All the Nations,” and deserves God’s wrath. Yet, in his grace God sovereignly chooses Abram in Genesis 12, calling him out from “All the Nations.” God calls and later covenants with Abram, promising: 1) to make Abraham’s name great; 2) to make him into a great nation; 3) to bless “All the Nations” through Abraham.
All the Nations (Cursed) -- One Nation (Person) Chosen -- All the Nations (Blessed)
When the Apostle Paul reflects on these chapters, he interprets God’s promise to Abraham as a promise about the blessing that comes to “All the Nations” through Christ. Paul writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings, referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). So, now we can begin to understand that Genesis 10—11 provide the filthy foundation on which God’s glory will be displayed as he provides salvation, not just to ethnic Israelites but to “All the Nations” who place faith in Christ. Christ becomes the One through whom the promise is ultimately realized. Those who bless Christ are eternally blessed; those who curse Christ are eternally cursed. But there’s more…
As the people of faith, we are called the “Body of Christ.” We have been called out from the prideful, wrath-deserving nations of Genesis 10—11 into a relationship with the sovereignly chosen Christ, foreshadowed in Genesis 12. Like Abraham, we deserve God’s wrath because we are just like “All the Nations.” We are selfish, evil, idolatrous people. It is only by divine grace that we experience the blessing. And now as the Body of Christ, we are tasked with blessing “All the Nations” with the gospel of the Christ. Our identity is as adopted sons and daughters of God; our purpose is to bless “All the Nations.” The well-known Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 becomes for us then a call to fulfill the promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12.
Called Out from the Nations -- Converted in Christ -- Sent Back into the Nations
The story of our lives finds significance and favor only when it is enveloped by God’s story of salvation. And ironically, he chooses to use us who were destined for eternal cursing to bring the gospel of eternal blessing to the world. It is a joy and responsibility from which we must not shrink. The story of God manifests the glory of God to the world.
Let the Fire Fall,
“Are Tribulations Shielding Us From a Greater Threat?”
Trials are inevitably coming our way. All of us are well aware that life will slap you in the face, knock your feet from underneath you, and attempt to beat you into bitterness. Cancer, death, disappointment, persecution, and a whole host of other difficulties arise daily. Yet, the Scriptures repeatedly remind us that these slaps, kicks, and beatings serve as a rich environment in which something, either sweet or bitterly rotten, will grow in our lives. We will either produce the rottenness of bitterness and anger, or we will grow into deeper Christian maturity and Christ-likeness. John Piper offers this creative perspective, “All the perplexing turns in our lives are going somewhere good. They do not lead off a cliff. In all the setbacks of our lives as believers, God is plotting for our joy.” Let that sink in: Setbacks in this life are God’s ultimate plotting for our joy. Could it be that the tribulations we encounter are in reality God’s way to protect us from a far greater threat to our souls?
Not coincidently, James, the half-brother of Christ, marries the believer’s walk through life’s trials with persistent, trusting prayer. If trials are to accomplish anything good in us, we must be driven to our knees in genuine and complete dependence before our sovereign, gracious Father. Tribulations can shield us from the enemies of self-sufficiency, pride, and prayerlessness that will damage our walk with God and witness to the world. Much like a football team who never plays a legitimate opponent throughout a season, a life without difficult tribulation leads to an erroneous evaluation of how strong, mature, and complete we really are. Laziness and smug complacency poison the soul, serving as a far greater threat to us than any tribulation we encounter. So, God’s antidote to the poison of self-sufficiency comes in the bottle labeled “trials,” which ought to bring us to a bold dependence on the wisdom and goodness of God. The antidote rarely tastes good, but it is necessary if we are to become the people God ordains us to be.
Anicia Proba, widowed in her thirties, had to flee for her life to Africa during the attack on Rome in 410 AD. While in Africa she began to struggle internally with the difficult circumstances of her life. During this time, she met Augustine and questioned him about how she should pray in the midst of despair and loneliness. Augustine responded, “Should a widow not commit her widowhood to her God as her shield in continual and most fervent prayer?” Augustine was saying that her suffering served as a shield, defending her from the illusions of self-sufficiency. Her difficulties led her to more richly and passionately seek the God who helps. The grave threat to her soul was being killed at the same time she was growing more complete in Christ. If Anicia’s story teaches us anything, it is that we ought to embrace James’ command to “consider it pure joy when you face trials of various kinds” with more intensity than ever before.
For those interested, Keith & Kristyn Getty have written a song based on James 1:2-8, which is the text we've studied the previous two weeks. You can click on the link to have your heart encouraged. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpScEpriWZs
James 1:2-8, Romans 5:2-4, and Luke 6:22-23 provide three different voices speaking about the inevitably & potential good of life’s trials.
John Piper, A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God.
James 1:2-4 & James 1:5-8 are not two separate discussions. Requesting God’s wisdom and faithfully walking through various trials are interwoven.
Taken from Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, 88.
It issues a call to deep discipleship and intimate fellowship. It serves as a vivid reminder that we are to offer Spirit-filled, fiery worship to our Creator. It provides a timely and necessary push into being faithful witnesses in a land where we are but strangers passing through. It sounds a forceful warning against idolatry, identification with this worldly system, and indifference toward the Savior. It “builds conviction, inspires worship, and encourages patient endurance” in the midst of Satanic oppression and opposition.
It crescendos into a detailed celebration of Christ’s atonement, the Holy Spirit’s transformative power, and God’s triumphant kingdom, even though it is written to a people who daily experienced the pains of living under Roman rule. It furnishes a closer and clearer examination of who is the ultimate authority in heaven and on earth. It unmasks the dragon and false beasts for what they are: defeated and destroyed wannabe’s. It unleashes the full fury of God’s wrath on unrepentant sinners and unrelenting persecutors. It brings the scales of heavenly justice to those who love worldly injustice. It constructs the stage on which the lion lays down with the lamb. It sifts the wheat from the chaff. It discriminates between those made holy by the Lamb and the unholy hypocrites. It divides the sheep and goats. It paints the unparalleled portrait of the risen, glorified Jesus who was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, yet who reigns sovereignly over both groups.
It serves as the climax to the greatest story ever told, in which we find the visible culmination of God’s eternal rule. It is the uniting together of all the characters and events found in the first sixty-five chapters of God’s narrative, down to the most miniscule of details. It speaks the final word about the Living Word who is worthy of the nations’ worship. It endures two thousand years later to encourage and embolden us today to be faithful witnesses living in the midst of confusion and chaos. It energizes our oftentimes anemic worship. It implants a genuine hope in our hearts that motivates us to invite others to take their place at the Lamb’s heavenly feast. It is Christ’s letter to the seven churches of Asia, known as the Revelation, written to be read and received with thanksgiving and joy by you and me. Maranatha, come quickly Lord Jesus!
Let the Fire Fall,
 Douglas D. Webster, Follow the Lamb, 3.
An Easter Prayer for Our Community
Based from John 12:37-40
You have revealed your salvation to us through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ. You have provided clear evidence of his authority through the mighty works and numerous signs done during the time in which he took on human flesh. Father, this week I ask that you would cause many to believe the Gospel message they hear from us, your Church. I ask that your outstretched arm of salvation deliver and your Spirit breathe life into some soul that has drowned in the sea of sin and death. I ask that they believe and live! Would you this week anoint the dark eyes of a husband’s heart and wash away a wife’s blindness in the pool of Jesus’ blood so that a family sees, loves, and runs to the Light. May the heat of your intense love melt away the hardness evident within so many hearts in this community. Cause them to see with their eyes the wondrous cross on which Prince of Glory died. Cause them to understand that on Calvary’s hill a divine trade was enacted in which human sin was exchanged for the heavenly righteousness of Christ. May they turn from their sin in repentance and run Spirit-filled down the narrow path of holiness, pursuing Christ-likeness. Heal their broken lives, dead souls, and twisted desires so that others may join the saints’ choir in worshiping you. Add more to the number who go into the fields and witness to your saving work throughout the nations. As I eagerly long for Christ's return to see your glory fully revealed, I ask that this week many would experience your kingdom bursting into their lives by being reconciled to you, trusting Christ for salvation. Amen.
Let the Fire Fall,
“Paying Taxes & Personal Transformation”
There are many well-known Bible verses and passages whose true meaning and message have been brutalized throughout church history. The real meaning and message of the text is sometimes hidden behind our traditional, cultural, and situational interpretations. I don’t know about you, but I cringe a little every time I hear an athlete remind the world after an on-field victory, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” as if God was referring to the Super Bowl opponent in that Isaiah 54 passage. Lest we think athletes are the only guilty party, there are numerous other examples of interpretation-brutality that we hear eloquently and confidently flow from the lips of preachers, deacons, youth pastors, and Christian dads and moms every day at funerals, weddings, hospitals, corporate worship services, and places of work. When I look back on some of my early-ministry sermon outlines, I almost weep at the thought that I actually preached some of those sermons to God’s people! If there were ever examples of making the text say something it didn’t really say, some of those sermons would, I dare say, be readily used. I stand in awe of God’s Spirit and remain thankful for how God took those sermons and impacted lives despite my obvious ignorance.
With April 15th being less than a month away, I think it prudent for us to look at one passage that is often brutalized when discussing government authority for taxation. Matthew 22:20 is famously quoted, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Now, there is no doubt that Christ is teaching us here about our responsibility to pay taxes. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 provide further foundation for this responsibility and expectation. (There’s a message here somewhere about Christians and churches cheating on their tax filings, but I’ll save that for another day.) The brutality that often comes along with quoting this verse lies not with what is said, but rather in what is not said about the verse. Jesus’ main concern in Matthew 22:20 is NOT to make certain that Caesar receives our money. Jesus’ primary thrust is found in the part of the verse that we often ignore and overlook in our haste to figure out our taxation responsibilities, “…and to God the things that are God’s.” In asking whose image is printed on the coin, Jesus is rhetorically reminding us whose image is imprinted on our lives. Moses tells us in Genesis, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Just as the coins belong to Caesar because his image is imprinted on them, so our lives are to belong to God because his image is imprinted all over and in us. This reality is further recognized in the lives of Christians when Paul states, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). The work of Christ in the believers’ lives remakes us into what God had originally created us to be: bearers of his image!
Perhaps you’ve never thought about tax season as being the perfect opportunity for both powerful praise and Spirit-led personal evaluation. In most of our homes, the only connection between taxes and the Bible is that there is great “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yet, as we rediscover Jesus’ statement in the midst of our paying taxes, I think we will find it to be most joyous and liberating to remember that we are members of God’s family, having his imprint on our lives. At the same time, this verse will challenge us to ask whether or not our lives are being lived in such a way that honors the One who not only created us but is daily recreating us into the image of Christ. By all means, pay your taxes. Render to Washington what is Washington’s. But as you do, don’t neglect the praise and evaluation that come along with the main thrust of Jesus’ statement, “render to God what is God’s.”
Let the Fire Fall,
Abandoned Buildings & Apathetic Christianity
Walk past an abandoned building and you’ll likely have visions of what once was; visions and memories of industry and progress that had previously taken place in the now hollow shell through which echoes reverberate. Perhaps a smile or tear appears on your face as you reflect back on the energetic creativity that once filled the structure but now sits dull and lifeless. Abandoned buildings house fat rats that feast upon the waste of yesterday’s wealth. The real sadness is that it isn’t so much the building that has been abandoned; it’s the purpose, work, and dreams that occurred inside the building that have likely been abandoned and let go.
This past Sunday we hopefully had ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us, even as he spoke to the church in Ephesus two millennia ago. “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” People were still attending church, the budget appeared healthy, and their cardinal doctrines and beliefs were a stern warning against false teachers. Yet, here is a church that has abandoned the Cornerstone of their existence. “They were going through religious motions after Spirit-motives were gone. Their sluggish lives were propped up by termite-riddled timbers of a once vigorous religion.” The joys of worship: abandoned. The compassion towards one another: abandoned. The fire for reaching their world with the Gospel: abandoned. This church was doctrinally-precise but Gospel dead. If they refuse to heed this timely warning from Christ, the church would soon become nothing more than a place where the pious fat rats feed off the religious waste of yesterday’s spiritual wealth.
The most unloving, merciless thing Christ could have done for the church in Ephesus was to remain silent and unaffected by the cancer growing within its soul. He could have simply applauded their positive characteristics without causing them any discomfort with the true status of their souls. Yet, because of his great love for us, Jesus speaks with the preciseness of a surgeon. He calls for reflection about what once was, and he demands repentance that leads to a fiery revival of the heart. Lest we too soon place Sunday’s sermon and last evening’s prayers in the cluttered closet, I write this to again ask that you have ears that truly hear what our Savior is saying to us. He speaks because he loves. He speaks not to condemn us but to change us into his likeness.
Let the Fire Fall,
 Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (San Francisco; HarperCollins Publishing, 1988), 52.
God’s Christmas Carol: A Strange Orchestration (Part 4)
“Why Christmas At All?”
This orchestration of God that we call Christmas does indeed have twists and turns that seem strange from our perspective. From a strange birthplace to a strange absence of human compassion and hospitality, the way in which God delivers his Gift to us causes us to marvel at this mystery being unwrapped. Many in our day have lost the sense of mystery that comes with Christmas; not the mystery and excitement of Santa and his reindeer, but the mystery and wonder that come with the Word being born into silence and the Creator becoming one of the created. Yet, I find that the strangest part of God’s Christmas carol isn’t the verse about the bright star, the scene with intellectual Gentiles coming from the East, or the crescendo in which shepherds hear an angelic choir. The strangest part, the part that should leave us in most awe, is that God ever wrote his Christmas carol at all.
Think about it. Since God is omniscient, knowing everything about every moment from eternity past to eternity future, he therefore knows not only the way in which his Son will be received at birth but also how Jesus will die. God is fully aware when he sends us his Gift that the nation of Israel will not receive him. The Father knows that the Son’s friends will abandon him at a time they were most needed. He understands that betrayal by a kiss is imminent. The Father hears the shouts, “Crucify him, crucify him,” and sees the blood flowing from nail-pierced hands long before Mary conceives. The Father feels the vibrations of the agonizing, yet trusting Son’s cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He knows that his Seed will be placed into a tomb he created, laying there wrapped and left for dead. Had it been me who had all of the information ahead of time, I would have fought to my last breath against allowing such a thing to happen to my son. I would have scrapped the first draft and burned it in the furnace, never to be revisited again. Yet, the Father not only allows it to happen, he is the One who composes every note! In our world, God would be arrested for child brutality. In his world, God is demonstrating his love.
Christmas is God’s love Gift to the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Don’t think of the bigness of the world in which God sent his Son; think about its badness. Into a bad, immoral, depraved world, the all-knowing God sends us His Gift and writes for us His Christmas carol. Its strangeness is what makes its Composer all the more glorious and gracious. This Christmas, take some time to do the one thing that the Composer wants you to do with his Christmas carol: sing it over and over with a renewed joy. The miracle is that it even exists.
God’s Christmas Carol: A Strange Orchestration (Part 3)
“Why Was There No Place for Them?”
I know, I know. Trust me, I am fully aware that the reason there was no vacancy in the inn that evening in Bethlehem was due to the registration. I understand that there were thousands of guests returning to Bethlehem at that time who needed lodging. I hear your explanations and your logic, and you’re right. Yet, something about this whole picture still doesn’t add up. The way this entire thing is orchestrated gets stranger with every detail. Didn’t anyone in the inn have an ounce of compassion for this obviously pregnant lady that would stir them to get up so that she could lie down? I get that I shouldn’t expect southern hospitality in the Middle East, but to totally ignore this family and soon-to-be newborn seems pathetic and deplorable. His first nap takes place in a feeding trough, and his first outfit is nothing more than strips of cloth. I grasp the fact that there were no Buy Buy Baby’s or Babies “R” Us stores at which to purchase him the finest cribs and clothes, but for there to be “no place” seems very much “out of place” for the arrival of a newborn King. God is born on that crowded night, yet loneliness surrounds Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The angels watch and the shepherds are on their way, yet so far as we understand no one in the crowded inn even offers a single word of congratulations, much less worship and adoration. The Christian group Casting Crowns sums up the situation that night in Bethlehem best, “Oh Bethlehem, what you have missed while you were sleeping; For God became a man and stepped into your world today. Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history; As a city with no room for its King.”
It seems to me that God is again pointing us to His wondrous grace in these few words about Jesus’ birth. Human rejection paints the background through which Divine love shines brightest. Rejection was not only a part of Jesus’ birth; it is the constant theme of his eternal existence. Wasn’t rejection the story of Jesus pre-incarnate? Adam and Eve live in paradise until they reject God and His Word, eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God’s promise of a good and fertile land is rejected by the Exodus generation. God’s prophets rejected by an idolatrous people throughout the Old Testament. Now, God in the flesh is repeatedly rejected. Remember when Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), or “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). It seems to me that everywhere Jesus went “there was no place” for him. Whether 30 minutes old or 30 years old, few people made room for Christ.
Strangely, the One whose abundant grace offers us a place to lay our weary heads is refused a place to lay His head on that night in Bethlehem. Even stranger, and downright alarming, is the reality that the One who is preparing a place for us is often refused the place of lordship in our lives. Why would we want a place with Him in eternity if we have no desire for Him to have a place in us today? Still, His love and grace extend toward us. His grace pleads with us to walk with Him. The rejection at Bethlehem didn’t stop Him from walking through the rejection at Calvary. Why? Because His grace is indeed greater than our sin. It really is marvelous grace. He was rejected and despised so that you and I can experience the welcome of God.
As God’s Word comes to you this Christmas, will He find any place and time to speak into your life? Will we treat the Spirit of God like the guests at Bethlehem, rejecting and ignoring Him? Casting Crowns asks, “America, what will we miss while we are sleeping? Will Jesus come again and leave us slumbering where we lay? America, will we go down in history as a nation with no room for its King? Will we be sleeping?”
More to come…
 Casting Crowns, “While You Were Sleeping,” Peace on Earth (Released Oct. 3, 2008).
God’s Christmas Carol: A Strange Orchestration (Part 2)
“Why A Manger?”
It is no coincidence that the one writing for us about the birth of Jesus was, by occupation, a physician. Having given the travel plans & destination town for this strange couple leading up to the day of birth, Dr. Luke now provides for us—again with no flamboyance—the miracle of a virgin giving birth. That the King of the universe was born in Bethlehem, instead of some major metropolis, is curious. That this same King is described as having been born in a manger, instead of a St. Vincent’s style birth suite, is downright scandalous. Put yourself in Joseph & Mary’s shoes as you read Kent Hughes’ description of the birth.
"In Bethlehem the accommodations for travelers were primitive. The eastern inn was the crudest of arrangements. Typically it was a series of stalls built on the inside of an enclosure and opening onto a common yard where the animals were kept. All the innkeeper provided was fodder for the animals and a fire to cook on. On that cold day when the expectant parents arrived, nothing at all was available, not even one of those crude stalls. And despite the urgency, no one would make room for them. So it was probably in the common courtyard where the travelers’ animals were tethered that Mary gave birth to Jesus, with only Joseph attending her. Joseph probably wept as much as Mary did. Seeing her pain, the stinking barnyard, their poverty, people’s indifference, the humiliation, and the sense of utter helplessness, feeling shame at not being able to provide for young Mary on the night of her travail—all that would make a man either curse or cry."
The incredible reality of Jesus’ birth is that he was born in the filth, stench, and excrement of animals. Even as he wrote these verses, surely Dr. Luke cringed as he pictured disease, dirt, and deadly bacteria surrounding this baby! There were no well-kept birth suites or washed-up maternity care doctors available for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. “When the Son of God came down from heaven, He came all the way down.” Here, we see the Son of God actually lowering himself below the status of ignorant humanity that slept around him that night, a fitting picture for the life He lived and purpose for which He came. This scene proves that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). Although every muscle in our bodies tightens at the thought of giving birth next to pig slop or cow-patties, this is another picture painted by God that points us to His divine grace. Why a manger? It was for you and for me.
More to come…
R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 83.
 John F. MacArthur Jr., God in the Manger: The Miraculous Birth of Christ (Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group, 2001), 65.
God’s Christmas Carol: A Strange Orchestration (Part 1)
To the south they traveled. Mile after dusty mile they journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem, heading to Joseph’s hometown to be registered for taxation purposes. Nine months pregnant with the Promise of God wrapped in her virgin flesh, Mary traversed the bumpy terrain. Without the leisure and ease of interstates and automobiles, the seventy-five mile trek had to be most grueling for this teenage girl whose womb served as host to the Gift that would change the world. Nevertheless, under the Conductor’s hand they safely made their way into this small, insignificant town where Luke simply states, “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (Luke 2:6).
Bethlehem seems to be the unlikeliest of places to find God becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. Jerusalem seems more fitting. Rome, the capital of the great empire, seems a most appropriate setting. Yet, the Great Conductor orchestrates this expecting couple to Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” where the Bread of Life is born. Caesar’s registration policy doesn’t catch the Conductor off guard or unprepared. Hundreds of years earlier, the Great Conductor knew of Caesar’s plan and prophesied through His trumpeter Micah, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). Ironically, while Caesar is enacting a registration plan that would make his citizens poorer, the Great Conductor is simultaneously using Caesar’s plan to fulfill His promise of giving His citizens what they most need, Himself, making them the richest of people.
God, the Great Conductor of the universe, seems to work in the strangest of ways and places. A virgin, an unmarried couple, shepherds, and Bethlehem all fit into the “strange” category for an event of this magnitude. Even well-meaning, God-honoring people sometimes think that the Conductor’s arrangements are strange, totally missing God’s presence and blessings. Remember Samuel, the prophet of God, who was stunned to learn that the Conductor had already anointed David as Israel’s king, a man with few positive physical features who carried the stench of animals and called Bethlehem home (1st Samuel 16). We tend to look for God in the bright lights and big cities, and mercifully God does work there. Yet, God also does miracles in strange places and strange people. For instance, the Great Conductor once gave birth to His Son in my life, a place of sin and filth. Thankfully, He continues to orchestrate His music in my life today. What about yours?
More to come this month!
“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”
As our church busily prepares for the opportunity that awaits in next week’s VBS to joyfully watch God work in the lives of children & transform families, my heart & mind have been consumed recently with thoughts of renewal, revival, and restoration. Visions of God’s glory, a church set on fire, and a community attentive to the Gospel message that is being vibrantly lived out among God’s people repeatedly regurgitate through my desires. And yet, I am becoming more fully aware that reaping all these things in joy happens only as God’s people sow prayers of confession & repentance in tears. Some of you may wonder, “Why discuss personal & church renewal right now when there is such enthusiasm for VBS?” My response is that the two must hold hands if there is to be any lasting impact. Personal brokenness & Christ-centered evangelism cannot be divorced. Personal humility & the power of God will not be strangers to one another. Genuine mourning over personal & community sin cannot be estranged from the fruit of God’s salvation. There’s never a bad time for God’s people to seek his glory & the filling of the Holy Spirit.
The prayers & teachings of Nehemiah, Daniel, the prophet Joel, Jesus, & Paul prescribe a formula for frontline, character-altering prayer. (1) This isn’t a mechanical, one-size-fits-all formula that we haphazardly follow in an attempt to somehow gain God’s favor for an event or worldly want we may have. Rather, this structure is a genuine coming before the God we understand to be holy, all-powerful, and merciful. This, as with all genuine praying, is clearly us taking the position of a beggar coming into the presence of a king. (2) The attitude & background for the fervent prayers of the men mentioned above is a weeping, mourning, & grieved heart over personal & community sin. Yet, we find very little mourning, grieving, & hurt over sin in many local churches today. Sadly, many of our spiritual eyes have dried up, our hearts have become calloused to the seriousness of sin, & we repulse at the mention of repentance. The saddest thing in life is not a sorrowing heart, but a heart that is incapable of grief over sin, for it is without grace. In Daniel’s prayer for Israel, we read where Daniel begins, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). He had been reading the prophet Jeremiah, and his heart was pierced by God’s Word concerning idolatry & injustice. Sackcloth & ashes were an external display of Daniel’s internal reality. “The attitude of Daniel shows us that we should come into the presence of the Lord with an earnestness that storms the gates of Heaven, but a humility that realizes that he is sovereign and we are sinful." (3)
While praying for the city of Jerusalem, Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days” (Nehemiah 1:4). He contemplated his own corruption, his family’s unfaithfulness, and the nation’s idolatry. He mourned as he thought about the grievous nature of sin upon the heart of God. And as he wept, God began in that moment to transform the remnant of Israel into what he had designed them to be. Nehemiah experienced what Jesus centuries later preached, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) & what Paul wrote, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). In Jesus’ world, the happiest people go through times where they are the saddest.
Why should there be both excitement & mourning as our church approaches VBS? We should be thrilled at the possibilities of next week (and the many weeks after that) as we hope for the fruit of salvation the Holy Spirit can produce. Yet, we should weep over the reality that we are completely inadequate to produce this fruit, undeserving to have the Spirit work through us, & offering up to God our lives as vessels that are contaminated. Let us mourn over sin even as we cling to God’s promise that He will cause us to reap in joy.
Be the Towel,
 The term “Frontline Prayer” is taken from C. John Miller’s work Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. Miller differentiates “Maintenance Prayers” from “Frontline Prayers.” He says that “maintenance prayers” are short, mechanic, physically-based prayer meetings. On the other hand, “frontline prayers” are prayers that have 3 essential elements: 1) A request for grace to confess sins & to humble ourselves; 2) A compassion & zeal for the flourishing of the church & reaching the lost; 3) A yearning to know God, to see his face, and glimpse his glory.
The Day "World Vision" Went Blind
Tuesday, March 25, 2014 Comments (0)
“World Vision's American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman...Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage."
Mr. Stearns reassured us however that World Vision will continue its commitment to possessing its Christian identity in the world, “World Vision is committed to our Christian identity. We are absolutely resolute about every employee being followers of Jesus Christ. We are not wavering on that.” That’s an interesting position to hold; it’s also heretical.
Apparently, Mr. Stearns and World Vision have mistakenly forgotten that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). For while ministering to the poverty-stricken children of our world and possessing hiring practices that demands all employees be followers of Jesus Christ, World Vision has just issued a public welcome for the leaven of sin to invade and infect its entire organization. It will take time, but the leaven of homosexuality will do to World Vision exactly as it is doing to families, churches, denominations, and other organizations who publicly welcome it: homosexuality will extinguish their “vision.” God understands the power for even the slightest hint of sin to ultimately infect, blind, cripple, and kill. That’s why God commanded the Israelites to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread on an annual basis. It was a week-long celebration when the people committed to the Lord that their lives would be uninfected by the presence of sin. They symbolically demonstrated their commitment to purity by removing all leaven from their homes for a week. Likewise, Paul says to the church of Corinth who is allowing sexual immorality to exist in their church, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Yet, World Vision, regardless of Mr. Stearns’ rhetoric about “church-parachurch” distinctions and worldly visions of “unity over purity,” is doing exactly the opposite. This “Christian” organization has issued a public invitation to the forces of hell to invade and infect its people, purpose, and passion. Over time, unless there is repentance from the top levels of this organization, the impact of this worldly vision will enslave and erode World Vision into a shell of the ministry it once was. This leaven will lead to further compromises with the prevailing culture in its hiring practices, and its “Christian” identity in the world will be further stripped of eternal effectiveness. And, as Trevin Wax, John Piper, and Kevin DeYoung have already discussed, this is indeed a terrible day for the children across the world to whom World Vision ministers. Sadly, March 24, 2014 will be the day to which we all point as the day World Vision went blind.
Be the Towel,
“The Wee Little Man & His Sovereign Savior” (Part 1)
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 Comments (0)
Dr. Luke paints a picture for us in the first two verses of the narrative that when understood in their context leaves us feeling the same way toward Zacchaeus as we would feel about a modern-day meth dealer, merciless IRS agent, or pimp. “Little Man Zac” was head of the Jericho IRS, and he didn’t mind ruthlessly overcharging and financially gutting everyone within his own community, regardless of whether they were the wealthy, middle class, or those living in poverty. He was a hated man, whose short physical stature was a prime illustration of how others viewed him; he was the lowest of the low. Luke’s two-verse depiction also reminds us that “Little Man Zac” seems to have no shot whatsoever for being a part of God’s Kingdom. Jesus had just finished saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). The only needle the townspeople wanted Zacchaeus going through was the one in which he was “squeezed out in one long bloody thread from tail to snout.” It would seem that this wealthy tax collector would commit the same damning sin as the rich young ruler before him, along with the countless millions who have lived after him: trust his wealth, riches, and self-genius to provide security and salvation. Yet, God was about to make possible the impossible.
In the midst of this evil heart and grumbling community, the sovereign Savior walks into Jericho and strolls into the sinner’s front door. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to fulfill the mission for which he came, namely “to seek and save the lost” by “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Luke 19:10; Philippians 2:8). Yet, even before his ultimate sacrifice takes place, we receive a glorious picture of what his transforming power does to a heart softened by grace. In the span of six short verses, Zacchaeus is squeezed through the eye of the Kingdom needle and comes out on the other side a different man.
All around us today in our own community there are those who we despise, reject, and cast off as unfit for the Kingdom. Yet, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). The wee little man should remind us of ourselves, all of us who by almost any standard are considered materially rich and tempted to trust in our bank accounts, occupations, and self-genius for security and salvation. The wee little man should cause us to consider those in our community whom we characterize as “worldly, materialistic, and harsh.” When the sovereign Savior comes to town, his intent continues to be seeking and saving the lost. The only difference between the Jericho of Jesus’ day and our community today is that instead of seeing and hearing from the sovereign Savior in the flesh, the wee little men and women of our day see and hear the sovereign Savior through his witnesses. Followers of Christ possess the same message and authority that the Lord used that day in Jericho. Today, would you pause to consider whether or not you’ve been squeezed through the eye of the Kingdom needle? If so, give praise to God for your salvation and begin praying for others who you may despise, reject, and cast off as unfit for the Kingdom. You never know when salvation may come to another Zacchaeus.
More to come on the wee little man tomorrow…
Be the Towel,
"The Wee Little Man & His Sovereign Savior" (Part 2)
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Comments (0)
“And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then, the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!” This famous line at the end of the Christmas classic provides a small glimpse into what Zacchaeus experienced the day Jesus walked into Jericho, and I assure you that what Zacchaeus encountered caused his heart to do more than simply grow three sizes that day. We don’t know all that was said in the wee little man’s home after Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree. From other encounters that Jesus had with tax collectors, sinners, and general crowds, we can surmise that he talked to him about the Kingdom of God, demanded repentance, and ended the conversation by saying something akin to, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Though Dr. Luke doesn’t privy us to the contents of the conversation between Jesus and “Little Man Zac,” he leaves no doubt as to the outcome of their meeting. The wee little man had heart surgery, and a right attitude toward God and those whom he had defrauded came alive that day.
It’s no secret that Jesus made a big deal about the connection between salvation and money, something from which we like to run and hide. He had recently seen a rich ruler walk away from salvation because money owned the young man and pulled the strings of his life like a puppeteer. Earlier, Jesus preached that people should store up heavenly, eternal treasure instead of making their earthly estates the aim of their lives, and then added the deafening conclusion, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Jesus knew the impossibility of being both a Godly person and a materialistic coveter, regardless of how we like to reinterpret his wise counsel through our money-colored lenses. All of this is what makes Zacchaeus’ transformation so real. The first thing ole Zac does is declare, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Whoa! Here is a rich man who is walking through the eye of a needle and living to tell about it. Don’t miss the math here; he willingly and joyfully gives 50% of all he possesses to the poor. Then, with the remaining 50% he restores to everyone (and there were undoubtedly many people) four times the amount for which he had defrauded them, even though the Mosaic Law only required 120% (Lev. 6:5). So, Zacchaeus give 400% when only 120% was required. Grace was at work in this wee little man’s life, and the first place it impacted was his bank account. His view of God, others, and money had been radically altered when Jesus walked into his home and life.
It isn’t the sycamore tree or “wee-ness” of the little man that should garner our attention in this text. Our amazement should be fixed on the reality that Zacchaeus moved from finding pleasure and joy in his own possessions to finding pleasure by lavishly using what he had to bless others and advance the Kingdom. He was transformed from a “getter” to a “giver.” The work of grace in our hearts will do no less. Giving is never the means of our salvation, but it is always the result of salvation. We can quibble over the percentages we should give to the local church and justify the reasons we spend our money where we do, but the fact remains: the heart touched by God’s grace perceives money and materials in a totally different light. Christ-followers far surpass the transformation of the Grinch at Christmas; when the true meaning of Jesus really comes through, we find the strength to give like Jesus in tens of ways, plus two.
Be the Towel,