Wednesday, January 27, 2010

High School Memories from JoJo's Carport

Sometimes, our minds make unusual connections, jumping from one memory to another until we finaly arrive at something. If we do this in conversation, it often comes out as a random change of subject to a totally unrelated topic. This morning, my memory took me on a musical journey back to my senior year of high school, in the spring, on my grandmother's carport. We call her JoJo, and we'll get to her carport momentarily. First, let me explain how I got there.

This morning, as I was preparing to teach Isaiah 40 at tonight's Bible study and prayer meeting, the words of v. 21 stuck in my mind. In high school, I auditioned for the all-state chorus and made it. I got to spend time rehearsing with kids from my high school and from all over the state, and one of the pieces we performed was "Have Ye Not Known? w/ Ye Shall Have a Song" by Randall Thompson. These connected because the opening of this piece is found in the words of Isaiah 40:21: "Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?" It's a wonderful piece of it if you have time.

After finding this and listening to it while I continued working, my mind made another 'quantum leap' to another choral piece by Randall Thompson, simply entitled 'Alleluia.' This was not one of our all-state was a piece we sang in our high school ensemble, and we went to a state competition with it and did quite well. That competition was just 7 miles from my grandmother's house, so we all packed into our cars and headed to JoJo's for some food and to hang out. To say 'thank you' for her hospitality, we decided to perform this piece of music on her carport before we left. I don't know that I will ever forget being on that carport, singing that piece (with a little too much gusto, I might add), being with those friends, and having JoJo listen.

So, this morning...I decided I would listen to that one as well. In 1940, the Berkshire Music Center was founded as a summer music academy for young musicians to train. The founder, Sege Koussevitsky, wanted a living American composer to write a kind of choral fanfare that would be Berkshire's anthem, and he turned to Randall Thompson. As you can tell by the date, World War II was going on, and Thompson was moved by the events of the war...particularly the fall of France to the Nazis. So, he didn't write a powerful, choral fanfare...he wrote 'Alleluia,' a 5-minute piece whose entire lyric is made up of that one word (with one simple 'amen' at the end. Though different than Koussevitsky expected, the piece became the mark of the Berkshire Music Center, and each summer, this piece is sung by all 400 students as part of their opening ceremony.

When asked about the piece, Randall Thompson said, "The music in my Alleluia cannot be made to sound it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.'" Blessed be the name of the Lord.'" Surely at that low point in world history, such resolve to say 'Blessed be the name of the Lord' is a good one. Think about the low points in your own history...those times during which you feel like you have nowhere to turn...those times when the Lord feels distant from you. May our confidence in the truth that God will never leave nor forsake His children, neither in this life nor in the world to come, give comfort to our hearts, and may our souls echo 'Alleluia.'

In my ear, I'm not sure anything can beat the sound of my friends and I singing this piece on a Spring afternoon with a slight breeze encouraging JoJo's windchimes to sing along, but I encourage you to watch the video below and enjoy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

What about the Lord's Day?

[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. If you would like to listen to that message, just click on "The Lord of the Sabbath, Part I".]

In the Old Testament, the Sabbath was a day that was set apart from the rest of the week. It was enjoyed by God in creation and commanded for God's people to remember. I will not take the time to reiterate all that background information. If you want to listen again, just click on the link to the sermon, given above.

In the New Testament, we see that there is a particular day of the week that is emphasized above others. It is the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). This day would become known as the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10) because it was on the first day of the week, Sunday, that our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:19). So, just as the Lord's Supper remembers the death of Christ, our gathering each week on Sunday remembers His resurrection. are we to think about the Lord's Day? In Christian history, the marks of the Lord's Day have been the concepts of rest, public and private worship, and refraining from secular employment/recreation (see 1689 Second London Baptist Confession, ch. 22 or article 15 in the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith or chapter XXII of the Westminster Confession). These documents certainly give a Sabbath flavor to the historic view of the Lord's Day.

As we think about what each Lord's Day should look like, I want to do three things. (1) Repeat what I said in the sermon about Romans 14, (2) reiterate the dangers I listed in regard to the Lord's Day...with one added, and (3) give a brief personal testimony.

(1) Romans 14 - There are three principles that need to guide us as we make decisions about the Lord's Day...let me give you in one sentence each. FIRST, we must make decisions about the Lord's Day based on biblical conviction (v. 5). SECOND, our conviction should be carried out with the motive of honoring the Lord (v. 6). THIRD, we should make decisions this way because we will give an account of ourselves to God (v. 12).

(2) Dangers - Briefly, let me mention three dangers to avoid in making things regarding the Lord's Day. (a) We must not despise another believer because their conviction about the Lord's Day differs from our own. That kind of division is what Paul is fighting against in Romans 14. (b) We must avoid the danger of not searching the Scripture on these things, not having a firm conviction, and not acting to honor the Lord. (c) We must avoid the danger of building legalistic walls around our convictions so that we are no different than the Pharisees. Jesus must be Lord over these convictions...not us.

(3) By way of personal testimony, let me say that looking again into these things has brought conviction and challenge to my own life. Our family is committed to being with God's people on the Lord's Day. That seems to be the easy part for us...we love being with God's people. Every week, our children do chores in our house, but we have made it a habit to refrain from housework on the Lord's Day. We do this to rest from our labor, but we also do it to teach our children the need to rest from our labors. The exception to this is when we want to be hospitable with a family from our provide an environment in which hospitality is better performed (e.g. - we will need clean glasses to drink from, plates to eat from, and bathrooms to offer our guests). In our house, we generally have a purposeful rest time (notice the word "generally"...we are growing in these things as well). Our goal is to have some time set aside for physical rest, so we will have our children go to their rooms with no screens (i.e.- video games, computers, TV). They may play quietly or read, but it is meant for real downtime.

As I have revisited this area anew this week, I have wrestled with it. I continue to wrestle with it even as I write this blog entry. I don't have to wrestle to avoid housework or take a nap or be in church on the Lord's Day. I don't have to wrestle to avoid secular employment on the Lord's Day. Those convictions come easy to me. My struggles come in arenas of things like entertainment and sport. I struggle against anything that would lead me into the legalism of the Pharisee. However, in my effort to not be legalistic, I also don't want to ignore the possibility that God would want me to adjust how I mark this day off as especially His (remember, every day is the Lord's...even in the OT, He was still Lord of all of it).

That's a picture of what's been going through my mind in the last week. Let me give you four questions from Alistair Begg's Pathway to Freedom: How God's Laws Guide Our Lives. These are questions he suggests to help one think through the activities of the Lord's Day. You may or may not find them helpful, but they are thought-provoking. (1) Is this activity a selfish indulgence? (2) Am I just doing as I please without reference to God and His Word? (3) Will participation be a help or a hindrance to delighting in the Sabbath? (4) Am I helping others to take the Lord's Day seriously by engaging in this activity?

I write these things to let you know that we all need to grow and change...not necessarily in this area, but in general. The God who began a good work in us continues it to this very day (Phil. 1:6), and that work will not end until we are with Him. The way in which He continues to work in us for His good purpose is seen in the fact that we are continually working out our salvation (Phil. 2:12-13). We all need to stay aware of why we do what we do. So, let's keep our eyes on Jesus, who has given our souls rest, and let us seek to please Him in all we do, including our observance of the Lord's Day.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What New Fasting Points To

[These thoughts follows the sermon, "Out with the Old, In with the New". If you'd like to listen to that sermon, just click on the title.]

"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins - and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins."

- Mark 2:21-22

Looking at this text in its paragraph, we see that John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting...participating in what I will call old fasting. The foundation on which their fasting was built was that of the mourning of the sins of God's people and the hope that, one day, a Messiah would be sent to redeem them. It is this fasting that we see described most clearly in the life of Anna, the prophetess, who was "waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Lk. 2:38).

When questioned why His disciples are not joining in with the fasting, the answer seems obvious. The fasting of John's disciples and the Pharisees was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mk. 1:1). True...the fasting of the Pharisees had become an empty ritual meant to give them a greater sense of self-righteousness (Lk. 18:11-12). However, the original intent of fasting, which was distorted by the Pharisees, was to mourn over the sins of God's people and long for the day when a Redeemer would come. When Jesus came, this was fulfilled. The clearer answer is in Jesus' words in verse 19 of Mark 2, where He points out that the mourning pictured in fasting was inconsistent with the joy associated with His coming as the bridegroom of God (Is. 65:2; Ez. 16:8; Hos. 2:19-20).

When fasting returns (Mk. 2:20), it will be a new kind of fasting (Mk. 2:21-22). No longer will the people of God fast in the hopes that a Redeemer will one day come. Instead, they will fast knowing the Redeemer has come and has dealt with the sin that once separated them from God. This is the new foundation for abstaining from food for a time...for wanting God more than we want food. This desire...this discipline...this fasting...would be fueled by the person and work of Jesus Christ in history.

This new foundation for fasting is now the only acceptable foundation for fasting. As Paul warned, "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11). If the person and work of Jesus Christ are not the foundation for our fasting, then we build our lives of spiritual discipline on sinking sand (Mt. 7:26). This indicates where the new fasting should point us.

The new fasting points us to the fact that all of life...not just our fasting...must be built on the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ and His gospel are the only foundation for our preaching, our teaching, our parenting, our marriages, our singleness, our prayer lives, our children's ministries, our youth ministries, our senior adult ministries, our evangelism, our deacon ministry, our mission work, our relationships within the church, our ethical decisions, our hospitality, and the list could keep growing.

It is when we shift these areas to a different foundation that things begin to fall apart. They may go well for a season...or for several seasons...maybe even for the rest of our lives on this earth. However, in the end, they will be revealed for what they are. There is a day coming when "each of us will give an account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:12). How will we give account of those parts of our lives which are not founded on the gospel? How will we explain our decision to parent apart from the gospel...or do deacon ministry apart from the gospel...or relate to others in the body of Christ apart from the gospel...or any of these other things?

It seems that we would do well to consider these questions now...examine our own lives now...examine all of it now...and plead with God for the grace needed to found all of life on the gospel. We don't do this so we can build up our own sense of accomplishment, put notches in our "gospel belt," or gain a sense of self-reliance or self-righteousness. Rather, because of the gospel's power in our lives, "we make it our aim to please him" (2 Cor. 5:9).

After all, "no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him" (2 Tim. 2:4). And where would the recipient of this letter get the strength to stay free of civilian pursuits? "You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2:1). The very gospel which calls one to Christ for salvation is the same gospel which empowers the Christian to remain free of civilian affairs.

So, we fast with the gospel as our foundation. Because of this gospel, we are free to fast with the knowledge that our sin has been forgiven, and we will one day cease fasting as we feast with our bridegroom face to face (Rev. 19:6-9; Rev. 22:12-21). Even so...come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Gospel of the Pharisee?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. To find and listen to "The Divine Dinner Party," click here.]

Mark 2:17: "And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'"

These are incredible words spoken by the Lord Jesus. Looking into the eyes of those who claimed themselves righteous because of their outward obedience to the law (i.e.- the Pharisees), Jesus says, "I came not to call the righteous." These Pharisees strove to be pious individuals...they sought to obey the law at every turn...they wanted to live squeaky clean lives. Yet, this Jesus, who claims and displays the very authority of God in forgiving sins (Mk. 1-12), will have nothing to do with them. Matthew 23 takes us even farther...Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their empty, whitewashed lives of self-righteousness because He knows the dead bones of lawlessness that lie beneath the surface.

So, Jesus makes it clear...He came to call sinners, not the righteous. He will save Pharisees, but only by conquering their pride and self-righteousness, not by affirming their piety and worthiness of the kingdom (e.g.- Saul in Acts 9; cf. Phil. 3:2-10). So, in Christ, their is hope for all men...but those men are sinners who know their alienation from God and their deep need of forgiveness...a need that cannot be met by self-exertion of any kind. It is a forgiveness and reconciliation that God must work or it will not happen.

As I studied for this past week, I dwelt on the tendency toward the 'spirit of the Pharisee' within myself and within the church today. It is a good reminder to us all to beware of self-righteousness and self-exaltation because Jesus came neither to call nor produce this kind of Christian...if a self-righteous, self-exalting person can be called 'Christian' in the first place.

Another thought hit me, though. If you are reading any evangelical writing today, you will constantly hear the concern for the gospel...its recovery, its clarity, its centrality. Why is that? What's being done to the gospel to change it? Well, that is probably the subject of a book and not a blog, but I'll mention one thing that is relevant to our text and the idea of a 'spirit of the Pharisee' being with us today. What would be the gospel of the Pharisee?

Think about the scene here in Mark 2. The Pharisees, who would say they are good...they live good lives...would like to see a Jesus who affirms their way of life, who takes them (as good men) and just raises them to the next level of living. In other words, following Jesus would just be a means of sprucing up an already full and good life. This is why they are appalled at Jesus' statement that He did not come for them. Their shock grows into hatred, so that they will eventually begin to plan their destruction of Jesus (Mk. 3:6).

This is not too far off from the Jesus that some preach. Preaching often comes across as this: "You have a great life. You do good things, and that's wonderful. But you're missing really need Jesus. He'll take your life to heights you've never known before." Something else heard from preachers (or Christian radio personalities, for that matter) is that everyone is lonely, or needs purpose, or has a hole in their heart...if they'll just be really honest and look deep enough. The problem with these kinds of statements is that many people who do not believe don't feel this way. They don't feel restless, they feel like they do have purpose, they have plenty of friends, and their lives are just fine...thank you very much. So, they see no use for a gospel about a man who takes away loneliness, gives purpose, or fills a void.

This brings us back to Jesus' statement...He came to call sinners. His message was, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mk. 1:15). This is very different from the messages represented in that last paragraph. This is a message which calls for repentance. The kingdom of God is at hand, and the King will judge all. The need which Jesus came to address is not primarily an experiential need of this is the need to be prepared to stand before the King of the Universe and have hope. Sinners standing before a holy God have no such hope. Jesus came to call sinners. He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). He came to die, taking the full wrath of God against the sin of the sinner, so that the sinner might be declared righteous by God (2 Cor. 5:21).

This mission is not about loneliness or purpose. True...Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). Christ, our purpose is changed and we accomplish the good works that God has ordained for us (Eph. 2:10). Jesus did not suffer the wrath of God so that we wouldn't be lonely but so that we wouldn't be lost. He did not bear our sin in his flesh so that we would have purpose but so that we would be prepared to meet the God who created us in His image.

The gospel of the Pharisee would say that humanity is long as you're a good person, you will be fine with God. Jesus may add benefits of friendship and purpose, but even without Him, you can still be right with God.

The gospel says "For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight" (Rom. 3:20), and while justification (i.e.- being made right with God) is a gift of grace through the work of Christ (Rom. 3:23-25), the gospel clarifies that God will only justify the one "who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). The gospel is not something we add to an already good life that is pleasing to order to enhance. The gospel is the message that we are dead in our transgressions and sins, but by grace through faith, we can be saved from the wrath which is to come.

Which will you believe? Which will you share with your family member, friend, neighbor, or co-worker? The gospel of the Pharisee or the gospel of Jesus? Beware, the gospel of the Pharisee does not save, for it is no gospel at all.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Authority to Forgive

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. If you would like to listen to that message, click here and find the sermon entitled "Who Has the Authority to Forgive?"]

Have you ever heard someone say this?..."God has forgiven you. Others have forgiven you. What you need is to forgive yourself!" Go back, read it again...what do you think about that statement? It is a fairly common thought, isn't it? The question I think we should ponder this appropriate? Are we to forgive ourselves? If so, how is this done? If not, what do we need instead?

The need that is expressed in a phrase like 'forgive yourself' is an understandable one. We feel a sense of guilt over an action we have taken or a word spoken. We desire to be released from this guilt. We have sought forgiveness from God and from the person we hurt, but we still have looming feelings of guilt. We don't feel like the process is complete. What are we to do? How can those feelings be released?

This hits home, doesn't it? We have all made mistakes that seem to come back and haunt us from time to time. At times, the bones of the 'skeletons in our closets' rattle furiously in our minds. I remember being a freshman in college and struggling with a past sin. I sat across the table from a dear friend, explaining that I couldn't get rid of my feelings of guilt. I couldn't forgive myself for what I had done over a year earlier.

He looked at me and simply said, "Toby, do you believe the Bible is true?" This seemed to be an odd question given the way I way pouring out my heart to him. I must have paused too long in responding because he asked it again, "" I said, "Of course." He then asked if I had confessed my sin, repented, and sought God's forgiveness, to which I replied that I had probably confessed and asked for forgiveness 100 times (that was an exaggerated number). Then he smiled..."Well, do you believe the Bible is true?"

I was halfway through asking what that question had to do with my problem when it hit me. The Scripture teaches me that confession and repentance lead to forgiveness. If God has forgiven me, then I am forgiven. My problem was not my refusal to forgive myself. My problem was that I didn't believe that God's forgiveness of my sin was sufficient to release me from my guilt. My problem was that I wasn't acting as if I believed the Bible was true. My problem, in short, was unbelief.

This experience made me question whether the idea of forgiving myself was valid at all, and searching the Scripture to find this idea came up empty. Some say that commands to forgive one another imply the ability to forgive oneself, but I'm not so sure. Jesus talks about forgiving others seventy times seven (Mt. 18; Lk. 17). The church is commanded to forgive a fallen brother who returns (2 Cor. 2). We are told that, in light of the forgiveness which restored our relationship with God, we are to keep our relationships restored by extending that same forgiveness (Col. 3; Eph. 4). These are all clearly about relationships between two separate people in a community...not about general forgiveness to be applied to relationships as well as to oneself.

The issue with respect to ourselves seems to be whether we believe that God's authoritative declaration of our position as a forgiven man or woman is true...if that's really enough. Do we reckon or consider ourselves forgiven when God says we are? If I don't believe God's forgiveness is enough, then I will wrestle with the guilt and the shame of the sins I commit. I will feel that something more is needed. If, however, I truly believe that God's work in forgiving my sin is enough...that though my sins were like scarlet, yet they are white as snow...then this will change how I relate to that guilt or shame. The fight against feelings may continue, but I have real weaponry now...I can claim the truth of Scripture and the authority of God to forgive my sin.

Now, step back and think of that statement again: "God has forgiven you. Others have forgiven you. What you need is to forgive yourself!" Think of what is actually being said in this statement. God has crushed his Son, bearing the sin...the guilt...the shame...the wrath...on your behalf, so that you would be released from the penalty of that sin. By the work of His Holy Spirit, He has laid your sin upon Christ and Christ's righteousness upon you (2 Cor. 5:21). You have humbly come to Him seeking mercy and grace, and you have received it. You have gone to the one you offended, and because of the impact of God's transforming forgiveness in their lives, they have graciously forgiven you. Your relationship with God has been restored. Your relationship with the person you hurt has been restored.

There is something else you need, but I don't think it is self-forgiveness. What else do you need? Believe the forgiveness...enjoy the forgiveness...count yourself forgiven. And...when the enemy of your soul, the accuser of the brethren, seeks to remind you of all you have done, don't go looking for something else that has to be in your position before God and your position before others...FORGIVEN!