Fruitful (Part 3)

(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio)

For the beginning of this brief series, check out Part 1 and Part 2. The previous post in this series considered the “cleansing” of the temple during Jesus’ final week leading to the cross.

Read Mark 11:27-12:12

The authority of Jesus included not only the ability to do something, but the freedom and the right to act. Divine authority – when Jesus acts, the kingdom of God is revealed. The leaders of the day would not be happy about this authority. From their perspective, if Jesus was not given authority by the Sanhedrin, the ruling body made up of the Pharisees, elders and scribes, then he had no authority at all. The only greater authority he could possibly claim was that of God himself… which is probably why they asked.

Two chapters back, after the transfiguration, if you recall, Jesus used the nature of John the Baptizer’s ministry to teach a lesson about his own ministry… in essence he asked, if the spirt of Elijah, the ministry of John the Baptizer, is more than people anticipated, isnt’ it possible that the ministry of the Messiah runs deeper than imagined? Here he takes the same approach to answering the questions of the leaders. At a glance, you might think Jesus asked a random question in order to confuse the leaders and dodge the issue. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that he actually answered the question in a way that silenced his opposition. Jesus had a gift for proclaiming reality without opening the door for dispute. The leaders had no choice but to chew on the truth.

John had no authority from the Sanhedrin to offer a baptism of repentance. The only way his baptism had ANY meaning is if it was commissioned by God himself. John’s authority was handed down by the Creator of the universe. No human formality set him in the Jordan river to prepare the nation. Just as he did with the disciples after the transfiguration, Jesus is highlighting John’s ministry to explain his own. If you misunderstood John’s authority to baptize, then you will certainly misunderstand my authority as well. After all, John said After me comes he who is mightier, (JESUS) the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

Jesus, with perfect subtlety, was claiming divine authority.

His answer revealed the state of the leaders’ hearts. They were most concerned with preservation and politics, not the matters of the kingdom of God. Had they been looking for the kingdom, they would have repented under John’s ministry. Had they been looking for the kingdom, they would be bowing before Jesus rather than questioning him. Their eyes were fixed on the brick and mortar, the system over which they believed they had control. They missed the blessing.

Jesus then taught them in a parable. Remember, our job with parable is not to read but to listen, to boil down, to gather the sense and take hold of the big contrast rather than obsess over the details. (Obviously, in a written format, this is difficult!?! But it is immensely helpful if you have help, or if you are in the context of a worship service!)

Psalm 80 says the LORD brought a vine out of Egypt and planted it. Vineyard imagery is commonly used to represent Israel. Notice the judgment of this parable is not upon the nation, but upon her leaders… so-called caretakers who would kill to secure their autonomy. As Jesus cast judgment on the temple the day before, the leaders were anxious to destroy him. But it is they who will be destroyed. The vineyard will be given to others. The New Testament is clear that Israel’s vine would be trimmed, natural branches cut back so that others could be grafted in – the Gentiles. That includes me. Yes, the natural branches would eventually be grafted back in as well – but for now things would appear to be different – a fulfillment of God’s promise to save from every nation, tribe, and tongue.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? Israel believed this prophecy to be about her. But here Jesus takes this promise upon himself as well. He is the cornerstone. The rejected cornerstone. He is unwelcome among the caretakers. Cast down & murdered.

This is another quote from Psalm 118 –the very same song of the people as Jesus arrived on a donkey’s colt in Part 1. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Even the rejection… is the Lord’s doing. The rejection… is marvelous. Necessary. The psalm goes on to say, this is the day the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad. Hosanna! Save us! Glad because of what the rejection would accomplish, setting sinners free.

The leaders were dumbfounded and silent because they knew Jesus was casting judgment – first on the temple, now on them. Only the cornerstone remains.

 

 

 

 

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Fruitful (Part 2)

(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio) 

In my previous post, I offered a few thoughts on the Royal Procession of Jesus towards Jerusalem. Though the next day begins with the cursing of the fig tree, I chose to save that for the end of the message.

Read Mark 11:15-19 

As Linda Richman might say, the cleansing of the temple was neither a cleansing, nor a temple… discuss… There are passages where the bold headings are helpful… Mark 11 is not one of them. I’d like to challenge the notion that Jesus was cleansing the temple as we examine these details. He entered the court of the Gentiles, an area approximately 500yds x 325yds. That amounts to roughly 35-acres. The central courts that held the temple measured more than a football field alone. Why do I bring this up? Because Jesus, one man, granted the God-man, but one man, raised a scene. Was it sufficient to bring 35-acres of activity to a halt? Was it enough, in a moment, to cleanse a broken system? The assumption would be that, following a cleansing, the temple would be… clean. 

He drove out the sellers. But did you notice he also drove out the buyers?! We think of Jesus sending away the corrupt traders and money changers, but why the buyers? Why the worshipers?

Animals bought and sold as commodities were a part of temple life. Pilgrims weren’t often able to bring the necessary sacrifices. Temple giving required a particular unit of currency, the temple shekel, which required money changers. And this was the week of Passover, the most grand and busy festival of the year. Because God’s worship was very specific, these merchants found use in the temple system. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been in the court. Perhaps they were corrupt. But it was a desire to adhere to the law that gave rise to their trade.

The last verse of the prophet Zechariah says that one day, there would be no more traders. And on that day… Something would shift. The shift would draw the worshipers nearer to the LORD who saves them.

Notice Jesus wouldn’t let anyone carry anything through, as if Jesus, rather than seeking to purify the totality of what was happening, was actually trying to disrupt totally, on a small scale, everything and everyone, as if planting a seed or setting to motion a ripple effect approaching something larger… all so he could teach from Isaiah 56… a chapter about the salvation of the Gentiles. A house for the nations. Everyone who holds fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Isaiah goes on to call Israel’s leaders idolatrous blind watchmen, and to preach the humility that pleases God.

Jesus was ready to bring Jews and Gentiles together, to tear down the dividing wall of hostility, as Paul called it in Ephesians 2:14. Because of sin, ethnic distinction was necessary for a season of God’s plan. It was ethnic distinction that set apart the family line that would welcome Jesus. God chose, save, protected, and preserved a particular nation as part of the plan to choose, save, protect, and preserve people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Now in Christ, all of the resentment could be restored and healed. Sinners united at the foot of the cross.

There were, at the time, signs posted in the temple distinguishing the various courts. The courts were a progression towards the presence of God. The outermost court was for the Gentiles. Next came the court of the women, then the court of the Israelites, and the court of the priests. Inside the temple, of course, was the distinction of the holy place – visited only by priest – and the most holy place – visited only by the high priest, and only once each year. Each distinction communicated a message of the realities of God’s redemption, but the messages had descended into hostile division. History reports that signs posted in the Gentile court threatened death for any who was found ascending beyond his or her position. Divisions designed to create longing instead created enmity. 

The time had come, not only to preach a message of unity, but to provide – through the cross – a means of unity.

Jesus then mentions robbers, and we think again of those pesky merchants. But think about this… what is the robber’s den for? They don’t rob the den. They leave the den for crime. They come home to hide. The den is a reference to Jeremiah 7, where God warns the worshipers, Do not trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD. It is foolish to trust the building. Don’t hide in the building.

Jeremiah blasts Israel’s oppression of foreigners, orphans, widows. They live in sin, and are then all-too-confident to return to stand before the LORD expecting deliverance. They treated the temple like a den. A hideout to bury a life of treachery Jeremiah warns the people of coming judgment in the hands of the LORD. Now Jesus takes these verses and applies them to the temple mount, the den.

Instead of reaching out, they were cowering inside. God’s good system was defiled by sin. Sure, it was impressive to look at… but there was no fruit inside. The temple mount was a pretty picture, but a hollow practice.

It wasn’t just the sellers who needed redemption.

I can’t see Jesus going to any great effort to reform or clean temple worship when, in three days, he would open the door to God’s presence for all mankind. Tabernacle and temple worship were a season of preparation in which the nation of Israel was to stand as a beacon of light, shining the truth of the one true God. Her worship should have foreshadowed true worship, sacrifice, prayer, relationship, and obedience that would come with the Messiah. And now, in the fullness of time, at the climax of human history, the temple had exhausted its ability to produce Godly fruit.

In the middle of this exhaustion stands Jesus… the Savior. The time had come to forge a better way to the Father. Not to erase the temple, but to fulfill its purpose.

The scribes and chief priests heard about the ruckus, understanding enough about the Lord’s actions that they sought to destroy him. The incident itself, the “cleansing” was small-ish. The area of catastrophe was likely clean and in operation again by morning if not sooner. But the message of judgment was big. This was no cleansing. It was a declaration that change was coming. The people didn’t realize the depth of change, that the loving redemption of worship was only days away.

Jesus went to Bethany for the night.

 

 

 

Fruitful (Part 1)

(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio) 

In the early 90s, there was a skit on SNL called Coffee Talk with Linda Richman. She talked coffee, NY, daughters, dogs, you know, no big whoop… just coffee talk. Mike Meyers played Linda Richman.

Every so often Linda would get a little verklempt… Talk amongst yourselves… here, I’ll give you a topic… Rhode Island is neither a road, nor an island… discuss… The New Deal was neither new, nor was it a deal… discuss…

Linda Richman could have fun with the bold heading in my Bible for this particular chapter.
The Triumphal Entry was neither triumphal, nor an entry… discuss…

Check out Mark 11:1-11 (Link to BibleGateway)

The royal procession is recorded in all four gospels. It’s important to notice that Jesus staged this event. He didn’t lay the branches or the clothing in the roads, but he sent his disciples ahead to prepare his ride. Sometimes, it seemed as though Scriptural fulfillment just happened to Jesus. (i.e. his birth) Other times, he was very intentional in ministry. In this case, he was making a very thinly veiled statement of his identity that perfectly fulfilled Scripture.

He started from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. The prophets had foretold that this mountain was the place the Messiah, the king of the earth, would set his feet before conquering. But this is no victorious ride… at least, not from any earthly vantage point. There is a particular rabbinical teaching that if the LORD found his people to be faithful, even for a day, that the Messiah would arrive on a white horse to reign. If not, he would arrive humbly, on a donkey. The people had need of redemption, need of forgiveness. Only the colt would do!

The colt, also, was significant for the Jews. The prophet Zechariah (9:9) had said, behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Colts were primarily used for transportation, so Jesus essentially sent his friends to borrow a guy’s ride. But he gave them a solid explanation if anyone started asking questions… Where ya going with that? Uh… the Lord needs it. We’ll… uh… bring it back when we’re done.  Oh! Ok. Very well. Even if Jesus assured them it would be all right, they had to feel suspicious…

The disciples laid their cloaks – more literally their clothes – on the colt while the crowd laid their clothing and branches on the road. This was a sign of political alignment. (2Kings 9) They were placing their trust in this KING. They were crying out from Psalm 118, Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

In consecutive stories now, Jesus is referred to as the son of David. Bartimaeus, if you remember, cried, Son of David, have mercy on me! Ten centuries earlier, God had made an eternal covenant with David unto a kingdom (2Samuel 7) that would span eternity. Israel was waiting – begging – for the realization of this kingdom. To call Jesus the Son of David is to recognize him as the king. The awaited Messiah.

Now the people cry Hosanna! which simply means, save us!

Side note: So often, in an effort to emphasize the contrast of responses among the people, and to attempt to highlight the fickle human heart, folks link this particular crowd to the crowd crying for the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday morning. I do not believe these are the same people. We’ll see by the end of our chapter today which group would insist upon his death. I don’t see them as the bloodthirsty mob of Friday morning. This crowd, much like the disciples, would fail to stand up for Jesus, but I believe we should stop there when the Scriptures are silent.

This royal procession gathered outside the gates and led him to the city. His humble arrival spoke a loud message – Jesus was laying claim to the throne of David.

He entered Jerusalem. Jesus had been here before, but in Mark’s gospel this is the first recorded visit. Mark has been funneling his gospel to this point. It’s as if he avoided talking about Jerusalem earlier in the life of Christ so as to turn this week into a bold-faced highlight. This is the week, the visit to the city and the temple, that we’ve been sprinting towards.

Christ entered the temple.

This is no small moment. God with us ascended the temple mount. The radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature set foot again on the hallowed ground. He looked around. He left for the night. His pattern for the week would be to spend days in the temple, and nights in Bethany.

I have to wonder if he considered at that point what would happen in the morning.

For now, the people cried for their God and King to save them.

 

References:

There are some GREAT commentaries on Mark. A few favorites:

The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC) by R.T. France
The Gospel According to Mark (Pillar) by James R. Edwards
Mark (NIV Application) by David E. Garland
Jesus the King by Tim Keller
Mark: St. Andrews Expository by R.C. Sproul

Cru @ SRU : Ask Anything Night (Part 3)

My apologies for the delays in responding. My preaching weeks become scattered. Back to the joyful grind! (It’s probably healthy at this point to remind folks that I’m not on staff with Cru, so these positions are not meant to reflect the organization! I’m just a pastor guy asked to participate – if you have a beef… it’s with me!)

 

Have you struggled or do you struggle to sit still and listen for God? If you can hear God during quiet time how does that happen for you and what can I do? 

There are a couple things going on in this question. I’ll take them in order. I have always struggled to find the mythical “quiet time” that some folks describe. That does not mean I do not have meaningful time with God – it simply means that my meaningful time works in ways that fit my life and personality. For example, one of my favorite things to do is to walk with my Bible. I’m always the first awake in my family. In the seasons when the sun is up early, I’ll grab my devotional passages for the morning and walk the streets/sidewalks of town with my Bible. I find that walking is helpful for me to carry on conversation with the Word. I love to ride my bike in the summer. I try to take a verse or passage with me to consider while I pedal. In the months where I can’t walk, I miss it. Walking inside is not as fruitful. But still I’ll spend time at the dining room table (my “office”) or elsewhere with the Word. Walking is my preference, though.

I believe the calling on each individual is to meet with the Lord in a way and at a time that is fruitful. If I were to wake up early and then close my eyes to seek the mythical & magical quiet time, I would be asleep in two seconds. Likewise at night… or any other time. Life can be exhausting. But I’ve found a way that I am able to dial in (so to speak) and enjoy the Lord’s presence through his Word. If I were to offer advice in this matter, it would sound like this:

  1. Give the Lord your most fruitful mental hour. If your mind and heart are strongest in the morning, then devote time in the morning.  If it is evening, then evening. There is no prescribed time.
  2. Include the Word. The only way to know 100% that you’re hearing the voice of God is to hear his revealed Word in the Scripture. We so often take for granted the fact that the Word is living and active. It cuts. It heals. It is true and abiding. Whatever you do, do it with the Word… written, digital, memorized. Do it all.
  3. Explore until you find fruit. Some people can withdraw and be in a literal prayer closet. Some have places that allow for focus. Some walk 😉 Some talk aloud. Some journal. Some draw. There are lots of ways to interact with the Word that speak from your heart as a reflection on what God has revealed to be true. Pursue. Pursue. Pursue. Don’t be discouraged if something isn’t “working.” It just means you’ve found another way that, in this season of life, is not fruitful for you. But there is a way. I guarantee it.
  4. I am often discouraged by hearing how others do it “differently” (which my heart unfortunately believes is “better”). This is a poison on our devotional life. I’ve spent years whittling away the methods at which I fail. But in that I’ve had great times and seasons, and I’ve found things that encourage my soul. Listen to others (including me) for ideas and encouragement, but don’t believe my answers are better… they’re better for me.

 

What does Philippians 4:13 mean to you? 

Philippians 4:13 is unfortunately mishandled by the body. It does not mean if you put your mind to Jesus you can do whatever you want, which is most often how people understand it. We live in a sound clip culture that wants one sentence (preferably with 140 characters or less) to fix our lives. This approach does not work with Scripture. Bible verses do not exist in a vacuum. They require context.

The context of Philippians 4:13 is so beautiful and relevant that it is doubly tragic to see it abused. I encourage folks to read the whole letter! That’s the way it was written. It has a flow. But even the few verses surrounding 4:13 serve to debunk the way it is mistreated:

… for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.
In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret
of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

Incorrect understanding: I can do anything if I put my mind to it (and keep Jesus in my pocket)
Correct understanding: Life will have highs and lows, but I can endure with Jesus.

Philippians 4:13 is a verse about contentment, the satisfaction that Jesus provides a satisfaction that extends beyond circumstance. Whether in joy or suffering, Jesus is enough. And because Jesus is enough, he provides the strength to abound with humility and to suffer with dignity.

 

What is your view on gay marriage? Also, what do you think of people who are Christian but support gay marriage? Do you think it’s a bad thing? 

My view on marriage begins with God, because God created marriage.
My view on marriage comes from the Bible – the WHOLE Bible – because it is the Word of God.

God created marriage in Genesis 2. Adam, though enjoying the full fellowship of God, was lonely. God exists eternally in relationship as three Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. Because we are created in his image, it stands to reason that we, too, would desire relationship with others. In the garden, before the fall, God provided for Adam more than just a mate. He provided woman as a friend and companion who filled a very specific void, who would serve alongside him to fulfill the commission of Genesis 1. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. Have dominion. God created humanity to bring him glory by extending this commission. This has not changed. This is true today.

Marriage was not created to give us the warm fuzzies and make us feel good about who we believe ourselves to be. It was created to glorify God by living in line with his commission. Obviously sin screwed everything up. We still seek to fill the earth and to exercise dominion, but not to glorify God. This is the heart condition of all humanity. As such, it makes sense that we would distort what God has revealed to be true about everything, which would include marriage and sexuality. As such, any perversion of God’s intended design for humanity, marriage, and sexuality would stand as sin. This is ONE reason why sexual sin is so extensively dealt with in the Bible.

The other reason, just as important, is the gospel. From the beginning, God has used language depicting himself as a husband and his people as a bride. Most often, his people have played the role of the harlot – idolatrous and unfaithful, giving ourselves to any alternative that tickles our fancy. The ultimate expression of this marriage metaphor is the gospel. Jesus died to save his bride, the church. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that marriage is a picture of the gospel – a faithful husband dying to himself to present his bride pure to God… a bride loving her husband above herself. God, in his sovereign omniscience, gave us marriage to prepare us for what would be necessary in Christ – a plan which was laid forth before the foundation of the world. There is more at stake in the marriage question than a human relationship… it is the picture of the divine-human relationship that is compromised.

All that being said, I do not see homosexual marriage as honoring to our God, who created us for his purposes (not our own – that’s where the whole sin problem came from), and who created marriage as an active and widespread demonstration of the kind of love he has extended in Jesus Christ. The heart of sinful humanity is to do what we want, not what God wants. Every human faces this struggle. I face this struggle. The struggle will manifest differently in different people. As such, I believe in compassion. I cannot endorse the marriage, but that does not mean I cannot love the individual.

To answer that part of your question, I believe love is key, but love involves truth. The church is a hospital for sinners, and so I do not believe in casting down any one person for any one particular sin. But there must also be an understanding that certain sins have a far reaching impact. This means we stand on delicate ground. May God have compassion and help us! May he be glorified by the love that is indicative of his sacrifice for us! May we humbly approach him!

One final consideration (because this is a looooong dialogue these days) is with regard to identity, because the argument is very often made that sexual preference is a matter of identity – that it runs at the core of who we are. Human sexuality, by nature, involves another human. In fact, it requires another human. Sexuality involves the identification of an object of desire… but there has to be an object to desire, or it’s not human (we’re not asexual?!?). As such, I think sexuality is disqualified from providing true identity. True identity is in our souls. Regardless of the label, if we place our identity on something that is not intrinsic, we’re actually abdicating identity in favor of letting something outside of self define us.

The biblical assumption is that the image of God is intrinsic, stamped on our souls. That is how we were made. Obviously, folks can make the argument that God is outside of self, and so it’s the same thing. But I would also argue that if there is a transcendent God capable of speaking the universe into existence, then he is best qualified to tell us what we’re made of and why. (I know that sounds harsh, but I am brought low by this truth with regularity!)

The good news of the gospel is that, in Jesus, there is hope. The good news of the gospel that we cannot – in our sinful flesh – understand is that surrender to Jesus will involve surrender of those things which we have heretofore believed to be defining qualities. That last line might have sounded like bad news, but I assure you it’s not. Surrender to Jesus is to rightly acknowledge and agree with God that our basest desires are eternally flawed (and I’m not just referring to sexuality here. EVERY desire is broken and in need of new life). No matter who you are, what you do, or what you believe prior to meeting Jesus,  you must necessarily give it ALL to him and let him tell you what is right and true. The Christian life is a long sequence of finding out that he has better things for us… but most of those better things involve laying down sinful things that we are convinced will provide us happiness. That is the lie of the garden, the poison on God’s commission. There are numerous qualities that I would have used to define myself prior to meeting Christ. I am never happy to find that they are sinful. But I am ever grateful that he has shown me a better way.

There is hope.
And in our hope, there should be love.

 

How do I overcome judging myself and others? I know it is not my place to think negative thoughts about others and I do my best not to act on those judgments, but is there anything I can do to overcome judging as if I was God? 

Strangely, the answer is simple. But the outworking is lifelong and humbling. The gospel is the key. The good news of the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus is not a get out of hell free card. It is not a ticket to be punched, a doctrine we adopt in a moment and then tuck in our back pocket. It is a truth into which we immerse ourselves, letting it shape us – heart, soul, and actions.

Why do I start there?

Because we are in desperate need to be reminded of the sin from which we’ve been rescued. We are in continual need of being reminded of his sacrifice. We live at the foot of the cross because his blood is an ever-present reminder of the vileness of our own hearts, and his willing compassion to die for us anyway. As we dwell on this truth, we find ourselves able to believe two truths:

  1. Jesus loves me.
  2. Jesus loves them.

As we come to understand that we’ve been loved, we are able to see ourselves through the eyes of God – flawed, yes. But loved. Oh, we are so loved! While we were enemies, God died for us! If you are in Christ, you are an adopted son or daughter of God, given by Christ the right to call him Abba! Father! Daddy! God draws so near, not because you’re perfect, but because he is good. The revelation of his goodness will change you. Get in the habit of preaching the gospel to yourself – in good days and in bad. In the good days, the gospel will humble you. In the bad days, the gospel will pick you up. The truth never changes, so live there.

As we come to understand the vast love of God, we are able to see others through his eyes as well – flawed, yes. But loved. They are so loved! Whether his enemies or his children, the sacrifice of Christ stands as hope for them, the hope of adoption stands for them! Just imagine what it would be like to call them brother or sister! Not because we chose them, but because God’s love is bigger than our choices. I might suggest you get in the habit of praying for the people you are prone to judge. Asking the Lord to smile upon them despite their flaws will change you.

The gospel will also, in time (and in relationship!) impart to you the kind of love that enables you to be honest with another person about a matter of the soul. In other words, it is possible to judge rightly without condemnation, with an eye towards restoration (Galatians 6!). While there may be times to address matters of sin in a broad forum (like an “Ask Anything Night”, or in expositionally preaching the Word of God), I believe the  intention of biblical community is that sin would be addressed in relationship with other people, where healthy fellowship allows for compassionate conversation, prayer, and accountability. My final suggestion would be to seek community, kindred souls tethered to the gospel of Jesus Christ, who can help you live an honest and humbly surrendered life!

 

 

I’m still letting these churn. If you have questions, or would like to pursue additional conversation (in person… I’ve never seen a fruitful extended online conversation), contact me!

Cru @ SRU : Ask Anything Night

I am excited to have had the opportunity to sit on the panel last night (Thursday, March 31, 2016) for Cru’s Ask Anything Night on the campus of Slippery Rock University. The evening was quite encouraging to me. I appreciate honest reflection and an atmosphere that welcomes discussion, so I was glad to take part. At the event, students were able to text questions to be addressed by a panel of four believers. The evening was only an hour, the texts were numerous, which means many were not answered ‘live’. Even with the invitation to face-to-face conversation afterwards, we just couldn’t tackle them all. As such, there is a heaping pile of text messages on my phone – questions asked by college students about the nature of God from a variety of perspectives. I thought I’d take the time to post the answers here for two reasons:

  1. I am not exactly adept at texting long answers. I struggle not seeing the whole answer in front of me, and I struggle with typing – even with swipe.
  2. I thought many if not most might like to see some of the questions, and ponder some of my proposed answers.

If I’ve answered YOUR question here, know that I am still available for extended conversation. I welcome the possibilities! But I wanted this to be a starting point and a resource for you (maybe even for me!). I’m not pouring hours into the aesthetics of these posts, just aiming to answer honestly the questions I’ve received.

Finally, know that I could not possibly exhaust the full possibility of every answer to the 40 individuals and nearly 100 questions currently on my phone. However, I will attempt to draw from every topic covered with at least a nugget of my feeble understanding. Without further delay, here we go:

 

Why is God portrayed as having much more wrath in the Old Testament than Jesus does in the New Testament? For example, God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for not having any righteous people… why didn’t he try to save the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah instead of passing judgment on them and destroying the city? 

I’ll offer thoughts in two parts for this. First, with regard to the perceived different portrayal of God’s character in the Old and the New Testaments, I might point you to Hebrews 1:1-3. If you want to see the fullness of the revelation of God’s character, you look no further than the person and work of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, it is not particularly easy to understand every decision God has made throughout history, but he is best understood by the fullest expression of his nature – that being the person of his son with the work of his cross. Justice and mercy converge at the cross. In an instant, God was both pouring out wrath and extending grace to undeserving sinners. That is the perfect imprint of his nature.

Jesus experienced the fullness of God’s wrath – something not even Sodom & Gomorrah tasted. And for that, I would argue the New Testament contains the fullest portrayal of separation and punishment. However, the shadows of the Old Testament – real life events that reveal the character and nature of our Creator – serve to foreshadow the depth of the deserved penalty for sin. But temporal pain does not carry the same gravity as eternal separation. In addition, S&G demonstrate the breadth of sin AND the depth of mercy, as God was willing/wanting to spare the entire city for even 10 righteous.

A fair look at the Old and New Testaments reveal every aspect of God’s character which we are capable of ingesting. His mercy is as great as his wrath in all of Scripture. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are portrayed as the embodiment of every divine attribute – whether we like them or not. His character is quite consistent, but we are prone to hang on the stories we don’t like and/or don’t understand. As an extension, might I suggest this thought: In Scripture, we have received that which we require to find the truth of God unto salvation in Christ. We do not have every tangible aspect of the story (we so rarely do in this broken life!), and so we do not fully understand. We have been given the story in order to seek the truth – and in this case we find the truth of the severity of sin, of the justice of God, of the desire for mercy, and the provision for the redeemed (Lot!). We cannot presume to understand the entirety of the story or the eternal implications for every human life, but we can learn from what God has revealed and preserved as true. His desire is for us to see and trust his son, not to become omniscient ourselves.

 

How can God be benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful, but there still be unnecessary evil in the world? 

We talked at the event about the danger of definitions. In this case, I stick on the word unnecessary. I’ll ask a question: what if God granted Adam the freedom to choose evil? And what if, by choosing evil, Adam was introducing a depth of depravity that he could not have foreseen, but against which God issued a stern warning? What if God, despite man’s decision to rebel and choose evil over love, decided to carry out a plan of redemption that would ultimately quench and defeat evil and all of its consequences because he knew that an eternity won by love would outweigh the pain it would take to get there? I would call that benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful. In light of what has happened, then, I might ask what a necessary level of evil would entail? At every exposure, we would ask for less, yet the consequence of our sin is far greater.

Why would he wait thousands of years to redeem a nation/family from slavery, only then to wait over one thousand more to bring into the world his incarnate son through that nation/family, only then to have his perfect sinless son die in order to pay the required penalty of justice, only then to wait two thousand years more while people turn to him in faith? Why is a difficult question. But let me ask, what would you call a god who does only what you agree with, only at a level you can understand, using means that only you might produce? I would call him no god at all, but rather an extension of broken human thought. There is comfort in the mystery of God when the fullness of his revelation demonstrates that he has in fact, in utter love – yet without compromising holiness or justice – provided a solution that enables eternal bliss, albeit only after a lifetime of enduring the messy world we’ve created.

 

What happens to people living in 3rd world countries where they are unable to hear the gospel? What about people never given the opportunity to hear about the Son, if he is the only way? 

I have to be honest, this question breaks my heart. The Scriptures are indeed clear that the only way to the Father is through the Son. And as Paul said in Romans 10, how will they know if they’ve not heard? And how will they hear if no one goes to tell them? This question underscores the desperate need for Christian mission. There are countless stories of missionaries giving up their lives in order to pursue the Great Commission to tell the world. I read a book about Dr. Robert Foster this year – an amazing story of faith, hope, and love. And there was fruit of such a mission, but there are so many who need to hear. The encouragement of Revelation 7 is that every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages will stand before the Throne in praise of God – the Great Commission will succeed!

But in the interim, what about those who fail to hear? The truth of Scripture is devastating. Creation itself is enough to reveal the fact that God exists and is worthy of praise. (Romans 1), but creation is only enough to condemn, for creation cannot redeem. Only the gospel of God’s kingdom in Christ can redeem. The gospel must be received by grace through faith. The gospel must awaken repentance in the sinner. There is no way around this truth in God’s word. I have heard many stories of the Lord visiting remote villages through dreams and visions. I have heard stories of faith that give me hope that no one is beyond the reach of God should he reveal himself in such a way. But because we are called to participate, I believe our emphasis must be on praying, equipping, sending, and going – leaning on his everlasting arms. God has revealed himself to be good, and I believe he will be vindicated when our faith becomes sight. Yet until that day, we must weep and pray that many would come to Jesus.

 

Do you feel that God has abandoned us? Considering he is omniscient, why would he allow Adam and Eve to fail in the garden of Eden? 

I’ll give two thoughts. No, I do not believe he has abandoned us. He has provided for us two great gifts. First, he has given us the gift of his son – God in flesh, walking the earth, revealing perfect obedience and dying sacrificially to save sinners deserving of torment. Second, he has given us the gift of a written word. Think about it – an incomprehensible being has accommodated lowly rebellious creatures in order to be certain that the message of his grace, mercy, and love, is within the grasp of our darkened understanding through a written word. God who, were we to see the fullness of his glory, would consume us has made a way that we can know him intimately. Far from abandonment, God has given us every means and reason to embrace him.

Why would he allow Adam and Eve to fail? Again, asking why can evaporate our sanity. Perhaps a more interesting question is, why would he create at all knowing we would fall if given the choice? What I believe is that he is best glorified in his loving rescue of creatures who chose to be enemies rather than friends. I can’t answer why that is true, but I believe it to be true. He was so moved to share love and relationship that all this mess must be worth it. And if he believes so, and is willing to sacrifice deeply to enact a blessing, I am inclined to think he knows what he is doing.

 

Do you believe that everything happens for a reason? 

Yes. The world is not a random place. God has revealed himself to be sovereign. And sovereign means sovereign. This means nothing happens apart from his knowing. If God is sovereign, this means even if he allows something to happen, by virtue of withholding his sovereign hand, he is in fact exercising dominion over the moment. This makes people uncomfortable. At times, this makes me uncomfortable. Yet the glorious mystery is that God’s sovereign hand in no way removes the responsibility of every man, woman, and child for the consequences of their actions. In Scripture, God is revealed to be at work in the most devastating of moments, in fact bringing about the most glorious redemption. (Genesis 50:20, Acts 4:28)

The truth of God’s sovereignty is that he is not obligated to explain his motives or the full implications of every occurrence. But by showing through his word his benevolence and his unyielding drive to bring about good in the life of the believer by bringing glory to his son, he opens the door for us to trust his intentions in the strangest and most difficult trials.

Understanding God to be sovereign does not guarantee our comfort in every moment. BUT…

Understanding God to be sovereign means we can view every moment as an opportunity to draw near to him, to grow in wisdom, to grow in faith by virtue of our surrender to his gracious hand.

 

Look for more posts as I am able in the coming days!

 

 

King Me

(This post is taken from a recent sermon on 1Samuel 8)

 

Having grown up in the US, I’v never lived under the reign of an honest to goodness, earthly king. I’ve never been a subject to a monarch. We choose leaders through an electoral process. And thanks to a culture of 24hr news that not only feels the desperate need to let ANYONE talk about SOMETHING for all 24 of those hours EVERY SINGLE DAY, but also feels the pressure to make the endless drivel sound exciting, our electoral process feels like it is wrapped in useless minutiae to the point that by the time we go to the polls, we’re somehow exhausted and annoyed at having exercised our constitutional rights.

But it’s always nice when the homestretch is in view. (Just think only 8 more months… sigh)

My practical knowledge of monarchy is limited, so in my Monty-Python-esque daydreaming, I kind of wish real-life monarchy would work like the game of checkers… or Draughts, if you embrace the game’s British roots.

Imagine with me, if you will, ancient kingdoms lining a battlefield. Men moving across the battlefield in a series of diagonal maneuvers, jumping OVER the opposing soldiers along the way. As opposing soldiers are leapt OVER, they recognizes the athletic prowess of their opponents and lay down their arms. But one brave man finally reaches the far side of the battlefield, he shouts, at which point one of the previously defeated men climbs on TOP of his shoulders, instituting the monarchy which comes with no particularly special powers other than the ability to move, and continue jumping over men, this time whilst backwards.

THEY say (you know you can trust what they say, because they are they.) that it is more difficult to master the game of checkers than it is to master the game of chess. Who would’ve thought?

This post is a reflection upon our relationship to God as KING. I really do believe it’s hard for us to practically understand what it means to have a sovereign reigning over us, because our cultural context is not exactly comparable. We can chase book smarts, but in our context, we rejected monarchy centuries ago, choosing instead to allow the people hold the power collectively – which has its merits and flaws in a sinful and broken world.

 

You need to know that it was always God’s revealed plan to provide a king, a sovereign who would reign over the earth with justice and peace. This king would come as a man in fulfillment of a promise. A long time ago, God told Abraham (Genesis 17:6)  that, in addition to blessing all the families of the earth through his family, kings would also come through his line. This promise was often renewed to the Israelites, ultimately leading to a narrower vision of one True king, the blessing for the earth who would sit on the throne forever.

Trouble springs when the people, in sin, try to wrestle the plan out of God’s hands, demanding the right thing for the wrong reason. This story is from Israel’s past. The heart behind it is as old as the garden of Eden, and the implications stretch to the cross of Christ and to you, to us today.

 

In 1Samuel 8, the nation of Israel asked God to provide a human king. Until this particular moment in history, the nation had lived under the kingship of God. As needed, in the midst of trouble wrought by their own sinfulness, our good and saving God would raise deliverers, called judges, who would restore freedom from oppression according to the will and the work of the Lord. But the judges were temporary. The day to day affairs of the nation knew YHWH, the God of the Exodus, as sovereign King. Samuel, the man after whom the book is named, served the Lord by leading the chosen people.  Samuel had been good to the people of Israel. He served faithfully as a prophet and judge. The people love Samuel. But his kiddos are rotten. The people fear for the future in a land surrounded by enemies. They fear life under poor leadership. So they ask for a king… it seems reasonable.

And I’ve already told you this was God’s plan. So why all the trouble? Why is it such a big deal that the people are asking for what God has promised them?

Sometimes asking for the right thing is, in fact, the wrong thing, when desired for the wrong reason.

Israel didn’t want God’s king. They wanted a king. They wanted this king to do what kings do. But their heart’s desire was to be just like everyone else. That we may be like all the nations. (1Samuel 8:5, 20)

The heart problem here is that God’s call upon his people is to be holy. Be holy as I, the LORD your God, am holy. To be holy is to be set apart. Consecrated. Different. To be holy unto the Creator of the universe is to stand out as belonging to the One who is distinct from this world in all the best ways. To be holy unto God is to be unlike any nation, any people, by virtue of faith according to his grace. Here the people of God ask God to make them just like everyone else. Plain. Fallen. Broken.

God recognizes the brokenness of their request when he acknowledges that it’s not Samuel that they’ve rejected. In fact, they’ve rejected God himself – because until this time, there was no human king in Israel. Only God occupied the throne. But these people flatly and boldly told their God that he was not enough – he was not what they had in mind.

Even after Samuel tells the people just how selfish and corrupt their king would be, the people will not relent. They iterate their demands for a king. This king would not just pronounce judgment on the people. This king, requested in sin, would be judgment on the people. And from an historical perspective, this was true of the first human king of Israel – a man named Saul. Saul would exhibit very few admirable moments. Through his continual sinfulness, his favor in the eyes of God would disappear almost as quickly as he was anointed. He becomes a picture of everything that happens when we, in our sinfulness, are given the reins of a kingdom.

 

If you read the story of Saul, don’t fall into the trap of believing that he is a bad guy and you are somehow better. Saul is we. He is a for real man who lived a for real busted life that stands as a stark reminder of what our fallen nature looks like if given a throne. His sin is our sin. His darkness is our darkness. I know this because the heart of Saul, the heart of the people’s request for a king, was born long before, in the garden, when Adam ate the fruit and told God he thought he’d make a better king.

Think about the familiar sin of the garden. Real life Adam is faced with a choice. Obey God, receive and follow him as the sovereign of his life. Or take the fruit. Disobey. Knock God off the throne and take it by seemingly genuine but more like imaginary force.

The parallels are striking, really. But the heart of the issue is a rejection of God as king. Adam, misguided and self-centered, wanted the throne for himself. He believed the enemy of our soul. The serpent whispered to his willing ears that God was withholding something from humanity… that partaking of the fruit would somehow open a window to our full potential! Wisdom! Knowledge! Lay God aside and claim for yourself the very thing he has promised to be!

Foolishness.

The lie of the enemy and the heart of Adam are alive and well in the people of Israel in 1Samuel 8. Take the reins. Hijack the Lord’s promise, claim it on your terms. By asking you to be holy, God is holding out on you! You’re missing the boat on the good stuff! Kick him to the curb and you’ll find what you’re looking for by being just like everyone else.

When you read the story of Adam, don’t read it like a victim. Don’t read it like you could’ve done any better, like if it weren’t for this chump in the garden I wouldn’t be so broken. The Scriptures are clear, and any honest reflection on the condition of your soul would agree – you’re just as busted as Adam, and you’re just as responsible for the sinful condition of the world. We all are.

 

I wish these stories represented the worst of our sinful rejection of God. But there is one worse yet. You see, God did send his king to the earth. He sent his Son. Humanity had the opportunity to meet God in flesh. Jesus Christ came to earth as the eternal son of God, stepping down from glory to visit the world created by his hand.

Jesus walked the earth as the radiance of God’s glory, the perfect representation of God’s being.

Poetic people say the eyes are the window to the soul. For the precious generation who walked the earth with Jesus, they had the opportunity to gaze upon him, to look into the eyes, and thereby the very soul, of God. God remained true to his word. All of the promises. All of the waiting came to a crescendo at the fullness of time, the very moment for which God started the hands of the clock spinning. And now God’s people, the very people who rejected an invisible God in favor of a visible, if broken, king; would have the opportunity to welcome the fullness of God’s promise in the person of his Son.

Instead Jesus was met with skepticism, anger, hatred. Many who did draw near did so for selfish reasons, attracted to the novelty of his teaching and the spectacle of the miraculous. But when they were truly challenged by his perfection, most walked away. When he started to face persecution fueled by the religious leaders, many more abandoned him. When authorities arrested him and tried him for claiming to be himself, even those closest to him turned their backs in fear. The Jewish establishment condemned him for claiming to be God. The Roman establishment condemned him for claiming to be a king.

At the height of human sin, the most damning and simultaneously glorious moment in ALL of human history, Roman governor Pontius Pilate asked the crowd a question. (John 19:12-16)

Shall I crucify your king?

The response of the chief priests?

We have no king but Caesar!

In a moment, the full and final rejection of God took place as he stood, in the flesh before them and listened to the people boldly declare that earth’s emperor, the delusional, self-declared deity, was the ruler to whom they would submit. The people declared, as Johan Herman Bavinck so beautifully states, “that they would rather have a king who takes than a God who gives.” And they handed God over to die.

The sinful heart is as old as the garden.

But… there is good news.

Good because, what the chief priests didn’t realize is that, in their moment of rejection, God was also carrying out his plan. Never doubt the brilliance of our God to enact the perfect plan, even in the face of the insurmountable problem of our sinfulness. In the NT book of Acts, Peter declares in the 4th chapter that even this sinful rejection of the people was under the sovereign hand of God. Here is a glimpse of the mystery of God’s sovereignty.

Under the old covenant, the high priest’s job was to perform sacrificial rites, destroying the life of a sacrificial animal, a lamb or a goat, as a substitute on behalf of the people. By offering the sacrifice, the priest would atone for the sins of the people, a picture of reconciliation between a holy God and his rebellious people. The wages of sin is death. Without the spilling of blood, there is no forgiveness for sins. As the chief priests and elders of the people handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate to be executed, they were filled with sinful hatred. Yet it was in that very act that they were leading the spotless Lamb of God, the sinless Son, to become the eternal atoning sacrifice. The chief priests, blinded by sin, were completely oblivious to the fact they were, on a mysterious level, doing their job. They were setting apart a sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind.

Ultimately, Jesus is not only the sacrifice, but also the very real and perfect high priest who willingly laid down HIS OWN life on behalf of the world. But God was at work, in the sinfulness of humanity, carrying out his plan of redemption. That as the blood of Jesus was spilled on the cross, the price was being paid for countless generations of sin. Countless generations of rejection, faithlessness and idolatry, weakness and shame. His blood paid it all.

Felix culpa.

 

Three days later, as our Savior was raised to life, overcoming death and delivering the crushing blow to the enemy of our souls, he was making another promise. This time, the promise is that all who grab hold of Jesus by grace through faith would experience a resurrection like his. That one day, God’s promised King, the one who is now in heaven, exalted and reigning, will return to claim his own to be with him, bodily, forever.

 

He is our king.

And we who have received him, have received an inheritance that cannot be shaken. Surrender to him today as king,

On God, Family, and Grief: The Great Divorce #10

“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.” (Luke 14:26 ESV) 

When stripped of all context and understanding of the gospel, this verse is quite challenging. Through the eyes of sin and self-centeredness, this verse is downright offensive. And yet this is the call of Christ upon the life of any would-be disciple. At the start of Chapter 11, Lewis plays out the consequences of this particular verse and passage in the form of a conversation between Pam, a Ghost, and Reginald, her Bright-Spirit brother.

 

“the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for his own sake.” (Reginald) 

Each and every Ghost seems to come to this country with a particular agenda. Each is looking for something from God, and none seem to be looking for God. Each comes with a complaint or an issue, some grudge against God for the events of their earthly lives. And in a fit of fantastic irony, they now want something from the God with whom they stand at odds. This is the case with Pam, whose son was taken from her sooner than she would have designed.

In self-centeredness, Pam is only able to see her own suffering & loss, and she completely fails to grasp the fact that God, too, has suffered. God suffered as humanity, the pinnacle of his creative work, chose sin and death over his glorious presence. God then suffered even further as his own son paid the ultimate price in order to bring redemption. Pam’s vision of God’s suffering, though, is blinded by her own. And that is the point of these conversations – each Bright Spirit is tasked with lifting the gaze of a sinner (even a suffering sinner) from the despair of humanity to the glory of God.

 

“no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” (Reginald) 

 

It’s amazing how a gaze fixed upon God through the cross of Christ can comfort grief, enhance joy, and provide eternal perspective. This is not to say that grief is not real and substantial. But feelings wrapped up in the flesh are but a trap if God’s hands are not on the reins. Pam was consumed by her grief without a focal point to define suffering. Christians will suffer, as will all until the curse of sin is completely removed. The encouragement of the Lord, though, is that suffering need not consume and define our existence if we have a buoy to grasp in the midst of tragedy.

 

“[the past] was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with sorrow. It was Egyptian – like embalming a dead body.” (Reginald) 

 

The beauty of the cross is the grace-enabled ability to reorient the viewpoint of the broken heart from the past to the future. Embalming is a strange practice when you think about it. Preserving death to make it seem alive. Or, by definition, to forestall decomposition. It is the art of keeping something which has died from looking as though it has died. It is the choice to live in the past. Our Ghost had chosen a future that was entirely oriented around the past. Again, and I can’t say this enough, I do not wish to minimize very real pain, but rather to say that there is a hope and a future which lifts our souls from the suffering of the world. To view the past from the present with a heart for our future – in Christ – is to have an eternal perspective. To be satisfied in such a view is to want God for his own sake, trusting his goodness with the details.

 

“I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.” (Reginald) 

 

Looking back on Luke 14:26, I think of this quote. Loving God in Christ is not a matter of more or less. In other words, to love God over family is not simply to love God more than family. It is entirely possible to chase God in such a way as to abandon family, all the while claiming to love him more. This is backwards, for the Scriptures are also clear that adoration of God will enhance love for family.

To have a properly oriented view of the love of God is to love him first. As Lewis reveals in this chapter, such love is to want God for his own sake. From the love of God, then, every other love is strengthened as God takes hold of the reins. This does not mean the complete removal of pain, or even the complete perfection of love – not so long as the corruption and curse of sin remain. But it does mean a gaze heavenward to the cross of Christ, beholding his glory, his suffering, his redemption, and his promise. And it is a gospel-soaked, grace-infused fixation of the heart upon Jesus which will, all at once, reduce what we thought was real love on earth until it seems as hatred, and elevate that same love to a place of glory in the hands of God.

All we need is a little germ of desire to start the process.

Praise God that his grace is such a germ.

May it be so for you today.

 

 

You can visit the Summer Reading page by clicking here, or by opening the menu at the top right.

 

 

 

For Shame: The Great Divorce #7

Shame: (n.) a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
I’ve often thought one of the most remarkable sentences in the Bible to be Genesis 2:25. They were naked, and they felt no shame. Adam & Eve, married in the garden, naked before each other and God – yet feeling no shame. They were quite visible in every sense of the word. No clothes. No sin. Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear. Knowing and being known.

Incomprehensible.

In our current state, we cannot fathom this feeling. In the moments following, everything fell apart when our first parents chose sin and self over God. Humanity’s heritage is now steeped in sin and the accompanying shame. Pain. Humiliation. Distress.

Shame is something that is stirred. Our sinful nature guides us to hide all things unacceptable. When those things are brought into the light, there is inevitable pain. As the pain surfaces, we have a choice: carry it or bury it.

 

“Friend, you see I’m not dressed at all.” (the Bright Person)

 

This chapter features an interesting perspective of shame as the well-dressed Ghost encounters a Bright Person. There’s a delightful irony in that the well-dressed Ghost is, um, well-dressed, while the Bright Person is quite naked. But it is the Ghost who feels shame. She believes it to be far worse to be transparent in heaven than to be naked on earth. To bear her ghostliness in the presence of the Bright People is more than she is willing to endure.

The Bright Person tries to encourage her. Bear your shame just long enough to take the first step, and you’ll find the burden lifted. An hour later you won’t care. A day later you’ll be laughing about it. But give in to the moment. Drink that cup to the bottom and take the first step. In fact, the Bright Person offers to walk along, to lift as much of the burden as possible, everything short of carrying her. But it starts with a single step.

 

“Friend, could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?” (the Bright Person)

 

When our focus is inward, it’s hard to see goodness beyond that first step. It’s hard to see healing beyond the first momentary glimpse of pain.

The gospel introduces life to the carry or bury scenario. Carry that shame… to the cross. Lift your eyes to the heavens, fix your gaze on Jesus who bore sin and shame in his death. Fix your mind and your heart on the one who has overcome, and surrender. That moment of pain is real – the moment of conviction at the realization that we’ve offended our holy God. That moment of shame is real, an awakened conscience in the face of what God has done in response to what we have done. Powerful.

There is relief in taking the first step towards the cross. The burden is not erased in that first step, for our sinful flesh remains. But the burden begins to lift. An hour passes, then a day. Jesus is fully capable of turning shame into joy through a gift of redemption.

 

“But, I tell you, they’ll see me.” (the well-dressed Ghost)

 

I can’t help but think of the tragedy of the modern altar call. Maybe some pastors will share my sentiment. Bow your heads, close your eyes. I have to be honest, I have a problem with these words. So many churches. So many events. So many pastors invite people to respond to the gospel with heads down and eyes closed.

Billy Graham once said something like this: If Jesus died publicly on a cross for you, the least you can do is respond to him in kind. In fact, I would add, because he died publicly for you, he enables you to respond in kind. Because he bore infinite shame, he can carry yours in that moment of surrender.

8148552878_586f703d52_zMaybe I’m wrong here, but I believe the ultra-private altar call has consequences. By inviting people to respond in hiding, is it possible that we’re burying shame? Is it possible that we’re adding the gospel  to the list of things to be ashamed of? Could it be that people need to take a first step in order to surrender the burden of shame and find true healing?

When I first heard Billy Graham’s words, I vowed never again to ask people to hide when they respond to the gospel. I remember saying I didn’t want people to be embarrassed. I didn’t want them to be singled out. The honest truth is that I didn’t believe Jesus could carry them through a moment like that. I didn’t believe the church or the event to be a safe enough place for the gospel I was preaching.

I’ve since watched individuals stand alone in a crowd of hundreds in response to Jesus. I’ve watched people stand up, walk to the front and drop to their knees. I’ve watched people drink that cup of shame and be exposed as a sinner. It is glorious. It is the moment the Bright Person and the Writer were waiting to see. I can honestly say I’m thankful that others have been around to witness my moments of brokenness and inadequacy. I don’t recall ever waking up thinking, “I hope someone sees me weep today.” But I do recall waking up the next day thinking, “I’m glad somebody was there to see what happened.”

 

“My suspense was strained up to the height.” (the Writer)

 

Like the Writer, I have had moments of wondering, inwardly pleading that somebody would face the moment and surrender. I felt that my own destiny hung on her reply. I can honestly say, I understand that feeling.

Lewis leaves us with the delightful tension of an unresolved situation. The Writer walks away, the interview incomplete. How nice.

 

 

You can visit the Summer Reading page by clicking here, or by opening the menu at the top right.

 

 

 

Heaven and Hell – Literally: The Great Divorce #5

I could spend weeks reflecting on Chapter 5.

I felt a sting as I read and reread a conversation between two members of the clergy. Two men who gave their lives to the consideration of biblical things, though never submitting to biblical truth. Two men who spent a lifetime knowing about God, while wasting precious lives that could be spent knowing God. In the end, one submitted to the truth, the other submitted only to himself. And their eternities – though they intersect here for a moment – remain separated.

My sting in this chapter is twofold. The first comes from knowing how often my heart defaults to its sinfulness, treating God like a philosophical construct instead of a being. In fact, as RC Sproul often says, God is the only being… the rest of us are still becoming. He himself is unchanging, all the while constantly changing me. How often has my heart ignored him personally as I’ve pursued him intellectually? How often have I chosen to think and talk about God rather than talking to him? I can hear my own voice in the voice of the episcopal ghost.

The second sting comes from my tendency to generalize, another error corrected by our bright friend. This is a symptom that comes with an intellectual approach to matters of eternity. If I can just keep the reality of God, sin, and salvation vague and general, then I need not let my heart be affected. Because I occasionally have a platform to preach (or blog), the occasional attempt to speak in general language certainly infects my ability or desire to see the truth as the Lord speaks to me. I’m fighting that one.

 

“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?” (Dick)

 

This conversation finally gives names to the bus stops. Heaven and hell. Not the idea of heaven and hell. Not the subjective understanding of heaven and hell, but the real life, literal, honest to goodness heaven and hell. It’s worth remembering again the statement in the preface that CS Lewis had no intention of describing the biblical and theological revelation of heaven or hell. Rather he sought to place the reader at a crossroads – a crossroads where human interaction is rich, where the weight of eternity is real, where the condition of our hearts is more important than the intellectual framework. Don’t go digging for specifics, let the conversations carry you to the crossroads!

This conversation also names Jesus as the Lord of heaven and hell. Here, God is real. Jesus is real. Eternity is real. I’m pretty sure Lewis’ agenda is now on the table! Eternal destinations are set by the response of the heart to the revelation of God in his Son. Grace is unfathomable and accessible. Forgiveness has been accomplished and is being applied.

 

“Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions?” (The Fat Ghost)

 

Relativism. Post-modern. Post-Christian. Post-everything. These terms define a great deal of the prevalent thinking in our culture. There is an idea that we’ve moved beyond the idea of Truth. As a culture, we’ve collectively matured such that we no longer need to seek objectivity and absolutes. I’m reminded of the third episode of Star Wars, though obviously not for reasons of cinematic excellence. As the classic face-off between Obi-Wan and Anakin launches, Anakin says something along the lines of, “If you are not with me, then you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan responds by saying, “Only a Sith (evil) speaks in absolutes.”

The sentiment is widespread that absolutes are evil. Even the possibility that right exists apart from self is downright combative to many. For such thinkers, much like the Fat Ghost, the thrill is often found in the question, more than the answer. Stirring doubt raises excitement. I can certainly appreciate the anticipation of the intellectual chase. I love asking questions. But I’ve come to love even more the realization that there is stability in Truth, and joy in that stability.

Our bright friend encourages childlike inquiry. Rather than remaining satisfied at asking a good question (a real zinger!), a child simply wants to know. The beauty of inquiries into the heart of God is that, as he has revealed himself to be incomprehensible, while every answer is satisfying in and of itself, every answer will also likely raise a deeper question. In my opinion, God is the refuge for the modern thinker, providing a constant wellspring of investigation, all the while providing sweet contentment as the source of unending Truth. In him there are worthy questions and, better yet, real answers.

The Fat Ghost is no fan of absolutes. He acknowledges God is real, as long as that reality is defined subjectively. I’ve posted on this subject before. The American population is undeniably spiritual, but when the conversation is narrowed to the idea that there is one legitimate, personal, and eternal source of life, things get a bit more tense. That this one true Deity has declared a death sentence over humanity because of sin, causes the proverbial rubber hits the road. But friends, there is good news in Jesus.

Both Ghostly conversations thus far have been a direct struggle with the reality of sin. The Big Ghost just wanted his rights. He had tried as hard as he could, and that should be enough. The Fat Ghost was honest and sincere, and that should be enough. Neither considered the possibility of real sin with real consequence.

 

“Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?” (Dick) 

The bright folks plead with the ghosts to come to the mountain. To dwell in the midst of the Truth long enough to let it penetrate the grey heart – to gaze upon the face of God and find grace in the midst of deserved judgment. To take a long walk that will hurt, but ultimately will heal. The invitation to walk with Jesus, for us, is no less an offer. Bring your doubts, your pride, your intellect. Bring them to the mountain. But know that an honest encounter with the Truth (He has a name) will cause you to lay it all down.

 

 

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Achan, Identity, and Repentance

(adapted from a recent sermon on Joshua 7)

So the guy takes a few thousand dollars in silver and gold… and a coat… he pleads guilty… and they give him the death sentence, ALONG with his family, a bunch of innocent animals, AND everything he owns. They essentially erase him.

I’ve come across different responses to a story like this:

1. Folks who think God unreasonable – and his followers a bunch of loose screws.

2. Folks who distance themselves entirely from God in the Old Testament. They say things like “MY God wouldn’t,” or “only the fundamentalists believe this stuff really happened. It’s probably an allegory. Let’s move forward a few hundred pages.”

3. Folks who celebrate the judgment of God falling upon others. They say things like “he had it coming. An example had to be made.”

I try – and it’s tough sometimes – to fit into a fourth category… folks who are heartbroken to see judgment carried out, not because we think God unjust, but because a fellow image bearer is taken – but who also trust that God has revealed himself to be good, a goodness that finds its ultimate expression in the gift of life won by Jesus Christ. The expression of the gospel reminds me that there has to be more to the story.

But how does a story like this INCREASE my affection for God through the good news of Jesus?

This story revolves around the treatment of these devoted things. What on earth are devoted things? In this story, they are things devoted to God, some for kingdom use, some for destruction. The common thread is that they are things devoted, irrevocably, irreversibly, in order that God’s will would be accomplished. If that meant rendering something to God for his service, so be it. And in this chapter, if that meant rendering something to God for removal so that his will is not impeded, so be it.

Jericho was devoted to the LORD. That meant everything that could be employed for carrying out his will was preserved and delivered to the treasury. Everything that was a stumbling block was removed, blotted out. God’s people here were instruments of his will in time and space.

Is that easy to swallow? Not necessarily. But if God revealed himself to be good? Better.

Why was Achan’s sin a big deal?

By taking and hiding silver and gold, Achan wasn’t stealing from the Canaanites. He was stealing from God. As the Creator, God ultimately owns everything. And in this case, he had reclaimed the silver and gold for his purposes.

God rolled away the reproach of Egypt when he called Joshua to circumcise the Israelites in Joshua 5. Rolling away the reproach is God’s way of saying he was renewing their lives and their identities, marking them for himself. They had once been identified with Egypt, with death, but God made them new. This applies to us when we receive new life and a new identity in Christ.

By taking the devoted things, Achan was identifying with things rather than with God. God rolled away the reproach of Egypt, Achan rolled on the reproach of Canaan. He shifted his trust and his identity away from God and placed it firmly in the things of this world. His sin had far reaching consequences. He brought reproach upon himself, upon his family who became guilty alongside, upon his nation, whom God held responsible until they purged the evil from their midst.

Achan poised himself as an enemy of God. Sadly, this is a familiar place for mankind.

According to Romans, we are all suppressors of the truth, bearing the wrath of God because we’ve exchanged the truth for a lie, worshiping created things rather than the Creator of all things. The earned and deserved sentence for sin is death.

Could it be that we are bothered by God’s judgment of Achan’s idolatry, his covetousness, his theft, his deception, because we, too, are guilty of the same sin? Sure, I never stole a pretty Babylonian coat, but sin is a matter of the heart. And if we are guilty of the same sin before the same holy God, would it not mean that we have earned the same fate?

Here’s another question. What happens when you find out you’re under the wrath of God?

I’m reminded of a hymn by Isaac Watts, a reflection on Romans 7:

 

Lord, how secure my conscience was, and felt no inward dread.
I was alive without the law, and thought my sins were dead.

My hopes of heaven were firm and bright, but then your standard came
With a convincing power and light, to show how vile I am.

My guilt appeared so small before, till terribly I saw
how perfect, holy, just, and pure was your eternal law

Then felt my soul the heavy load; my sins revived again;
I had provoked a dreadful God, all my hopes were slain.

My God, I cry with every breath for some kind power to save,
to break the yoke of sin and death, and thus redeem the slave.

 

The essence of the song is that we’re upbeat about our personal goodness, until we’re shown exactly how sinful we are. And it’s in those moments of clarity that we are most broken, most terrified of the holiness of God. And unless he gives us a reason to hope, some kind power to save, some redemption for our slavery to sin, we are lost.

Joshua calls out to the people, “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you. In the morning therefore you shall be brought near… and he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.”

Achan knew. He knew he was sunk.

The knowledge that sin is sin is meant to awaken a struggle within us. Revelation of our sin reveals death. Consequence. Awareness of sin should show us the helplessness of our cause apart from God so that we cry out in desperation like the apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death!?!”

That, apparently, didn’t happen for Achan. The whole next morning ordeal wouldn’t have been necessary had he been moved to confession & repentance for his sin. Had he cried out to God for mercy.

Surely he was grieved over what was coming. But it wasn’t the godly grief of 2Corinthians 7 – the kind of grief that moves us to repent. He didn’t repent. He hid.

He decided to take his chances.

Achan didn’t see God as merciful. He couldn’t have. When you see God as a God of mercy, which he is, you plead for mercy – you don’t turn away. Though you know the penalty, you still plead because there is no other hope.

You don’t hide from the light when you know there is safety in the light. You only hide from the light when you’re afraid.

In the morning he waited. He watched. He sat back while the lots were cast… slow… agonizing… sealing his fate, round by round. He waited. And when it was clear that God had drawn his sin to light, had brought him to judgment; then he admitted his guilt. He confessed.

It was a polished confession. Neat. Eloquent. He used all those churchy words. Truly I have sinned. Coveted. But it was heartless. No repentance, just words. True confession comes from a humble heart. True confession is born of godly grief over having sinned against the Creator. True confession brings us in line with God’s truth, crying for the treasure of God’s grace.

Achan didn’t treasure the LORD. Achan was buried with his treasure. This has to be true because God has promised mercy to the humble and contrite heart.

You can wait like Achan.

You can provide a smooth answer like Achan.

But if your heart is not repentant when you face your sinfulness, then your answer isn’t worth the breath you’ve spent to deliver it.

One day you will face the risen Lord Jesus. One day your knee will bow. Your tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord. No one has ever entered the presence of the glory of God without confessing this to be true. The Scriptures testify. It WILL happen. But if the final judgment is the FIRST time you are brought low before him, the Word says it will be too late. Every man has been given this one life, and with it this one chance to repent. We are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment.

But the good news of the gospel is that mercy has been given! The blood of Jesus has been shed. The perfect Son of God came to earth as a man in order to live a perfect life. A perfect life in preparation to be the perfect sacrifice, so that his shed blood would pay the penalty for the sin of any who would turn to him in humble submission, in repentance and faith.

The good news of the gospel is that the penalty of death was transferred to God’s only Son so that everyone who calls upon his name would receive life. Mercy. Grace. Love.

We are called to repent and believe.

This story of Achan increases our affection for God by showing us our sin, by leading us to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ and the fountain of life which flows. As we are brought low, he is lifted high as the only avenue of grace. The LORD turned from his anger when sin was removed from the people.

History here teaches us, not to execute the sinner, but to see that sin itself was given a death sentence in the ministry of the Lord – and so the call in the life of the Christian is to put to death the remaining sin, assuming a posture of repentance, receiving the gift of forgiveness in Christ alone.

Achan was called to grab hold of the promise of redemption given when sin entered the garden. We are called to grab hold of the promise of redemption fulfilled at Calvary.