Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Futility of Chasing Idols

[This entry follows a sermon titled "The Only Hope for Mankind".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

Throughout the Bible, God condemns the pursuit of any other gods.  The first commandment tells that we shall have no other gods.  Now, admittedly, there aren't many physical statues of idols in our living rooms, but idols do abound in our culture.  They are primarily idols of the heart, and one way to describe an idol is to say this...when we look to anything for something only God can give us, then we have set up an idol for ourselves.

Take money, for example.  Making money is not inherently evil, and actually, being wealthy isn't either.  Paul gives specific instructions for the wealthy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19.  That being said, Jesus makes it very clear that you cannot serve God and money (Mt. 6:24).  As we look around our nation, there are many people that serve money...they find their greatest satisfaction in money, their security is in money.

Paul labels this kind of longing for money...this covetousness...idolatry (Eph. 5:5), and money idolatry is no respecter of persons.  It is lodged in the hearts of NBA owners as well as players.  It is exalted in the big banks and the OWS protesters against the big banks.  It is worshipped among the rich and the poor.  It reigns over the Republican and the Democrat.  It takes root in the lives of both Christians and non-Christians.  As I said, it is no respecter of persons.

And idols like money make great claims.  "There is great security in me.  If you serve me, you will find peace, joy, and lasting fulfillment.  You can even give a little away and earn eternal favor with God."  However, according to Isaiah 46, the idols never deliver.  Greed for money cannot earn favor with God, and generosity with money cannot earn favor with God.  If it could, then philanthropic atheists would be in for a pleasant surprise upon their death, huh?

No, the idols cannot deliver.  Isaiah says "if one cries to it [i.e.- an idol], it does not answer or save him from his trouble" (v. 7).  Let's stick with the money example.  Dave Ramsey is a financial advisor with a nationally syndicated radio show.  I've listened to Dave quite a bit in my life, and I've heard numerous callers ask if they should transfer credit card debt to a different card to get a better interest rate...or get a consolidation loan...or cash in their 401ks to pay things off. 

One of the things Dave usually says in this scenario is that just paying off these debts will not fix the problem.  Money won't fix the problem.  Why?  Because the debt was a symptom.  The massive debt typically represented a lifestyle of wanting to appear to have money without actually having money.  So, throwing more money into a lifestyle that serves money won't fix the problem.  You can cry out to that god all you want, but it's not going to save you from trouble.  The heart has to change, and money can't do that.

The picture of Isaiah 46 is a sobering one.  It is a picture of a people who set up their idols...who imagine them, shape them, give them divine characteristics, etc.  In other words, the men make the idols and then, through their life's devotion to them, breathe life into these idols.  They imagine a god who is at their disposal...who has great divine power but serves their needs.

And what God says through Isaiah is that no such god can deliver you.  The only One who can save you from trouble is the One who is absolutely unlike these gods.  Man did not give form and life to God...God gave form and life to man!  And it is only this God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of life, that can save you...that can truly satisfy your soul.  If you reverse the words earlier quoted from verse 7, then you have an idea of what God can do - If one cries to Him, He does answer and saves him from his trouble.

Don't waste your life serving gods that cannot save!  Serve the only God who saves, and your life won't be wasted.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Intimacy Doesn't Happen Overnight

[The following entry follows a sermon titled "Renewed Intimacy with God".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

This last Sunday, we looked at Isaiah 42:18-44:23 in a kind of overview fashion.  If you sit down and read these chapters, you will get a sneaking suspicion that certain themes seem to show up more than once.  Thanks to Alec Motyer's commentary on Isaiah, my hunch that themes were repeating themselves were crystallized.  The essential pattern could be outlined "Man's Problem - God's Consequences - God's Intervention - Man's Restoration."

As we read Isaiah, as we read the Bible, and as we observe human behavior, we notice that man has a tendency to walk away from God.  Yet, the good news of the Bible is that though we are "prone to wander," God is prone to pursue.  Man has a tendency to walk away from God, but God has a tendency to go after man.  We walk away from intimacy, but God works to bring us back into intimacy.

This is the message of the gospel, isn't it?  Man was created in a perfect relationship with God and with one another.  Adam could truly sing the lyrics of the old hymn "In the Garden": "And He walks with me and He talks with me; and He tells me I am His own; And the joy we share as we tarry there; None other has ever known."  Yet, in sin, Adam walked away from that intimacy...he fell out of intimacy.  And so the whole of the human race fell with him.  Man was excluded from intimacy with God in the garden, and there was no way back.

But there was another Man...a Second Adam...who had perfect intimacy with God.  He was perfectly submissive to God's Word and will.  He never walked away...He never fell.  Jesus Christ was this Man.  The Getty song says, "A second Adam walks the earth; Whose blameless life would take the curse; Whose death would set us free; To live with Him eternally."  In other words, as Jesus hung on the cross...though He never did anything to lose intimacy with God, He was completely cut off.  He was cut out of intimacy with God on the cross, so that we could experience eternal intimacy with God.

Nothing warms the heart like remembering the gospel; yet, even as Christians, our hearts still tend toward coldness.  We are still prone to wander, and we still need to remember the warmth of the gospel.  But what do you do when it seems you've been cold for so long?  Is there a way to a 'microwave' warm up?  Though we live in a "download at lightning speed" society, spiritual intimacy returns over time.

Think of it this way.  Imagine a married couple who has focused all their time and energy on their children.  They do soccer, basketball, dance recitals, band concerts, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  Their focus on the tasks of everyday life have taken a husband and wife and turned them into a domestic partnership running the company they call "home."  Do you know when it's revealed?  It's usually revealed when the last child has left for college...when the nest has emptied.  Then, there's no buffer...there's no distraction...there's just distance and even coldness between them.

Can that marriage be rekindled?  and if so, how does it get rekindled?  It doesn't happen overnight.  It takes time...little steps, frequent steps, persistent steps.  Slowly, over time, the warmth returns...the love is rekindled.  We can draw a similar analogy in our relationships with God, though God never wanes on His end of the relationship.

Our spiritual coldness doesn't happen overnight, and growing in the warmth of spiritual intimacy doesn't happen over night.  It takes time...little steps, frequent steps, persistent steps.  What are these steps?  Well, some of them are what we call spiritual disciplines: Bible intake (e.g.- reading, meditating, studying, memorizing, listening, etc.), prayer, corporate and private worship, fasting, and more.  If you want some stimulating reading on the spiritual disciplines, then get Don Whitney's book on the subject.  I have found it very helpful.

If you're like me, you have a tendency to think that a couple of days of spiritual discipline should bring quick results.  We feel that it should be like a training montage in a Rocky movie...you know, about 2 1/2 minutes work of visible work resulting in complete preparation for a championship bout.  Why is that so wrong?  It's wrong because this is not the way that God normally works in us.  He works day by day, step by step.  As we walk in faith, He grows us spiritually, including our sense of nearness to Him. 

Yes, there are times that we seem to leap forward...leap closer to Him...but this is the exception, not the rule.  The Bible's picture of how God shapes us is like that of a potter with clay...His hand is on us, refining the shape of our character through spiritual disciplines, getting rid of extraneous material, burnishing us in the fire of trials, and conforming us to the image of Christ.  And let's not forget...this conforming to Christ's image...this sanctification...this spiritual growth...is a lifelong process, which means it's not quick.  And the sense of nearness to God, a blessing that accompanies spiritual growth, is not quick either.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Idolatry Makes Something Good Into Something Ultimate

[This entry follows a sermon called "From Fear to Security".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

As we looked at Isaiah 41:1-42:17, we found that the prophet predicts the coming of a new world power and the fear that will result (41:2-4).  This strikes fear into the hearts of men and women, which leads them into an idolatry that God confronts.  Fear is a common experience in life...an internal alarm system to warn us of impending danger (real or imagined), and fear drives us to look for security somewhere. 

In other words, we echo the beginning of the psalmist's words: "When I am afraid, I..."  We will do something...we will look somewhere.  He finishes with the commitment to put trust in the Lord (Ps. 56:3).  Yet, the human heart is prone to wander from such trust...we are prone to trust anything and everything but the Lord.  We are prone to trust in idols.

Let me recap some of the examples I gave Sunday.  When we are afraid of economic failure, we run to the idol of money.  We serve money, sacrificing generosity on the altar of our money god...believing that such a sacrifice will guarantee our salvation from economic failure.  When we are afraid of rebellious children, we run to the god of parental control.  Those who do think if they just have rules that are strict enough, consequences that are harsh enough, etc., then they can securely say their children won't rebel.

I though of another one today.  Where do we run when we fear ministry failure?  Where do we run when it seems the gospel is not taking the desired effects in our congregation?  Where do we go when things aren't looking too good?  Well, we often run to one of two gods...human approval or fashionable methodology.  We believe that if we pander to popular opinion or or popular methodology, then they will deliver real security in the face of ministry failure.

All this is essentially review from Sunday.  In talking about idols, we said that an idol is anything that we look to for something only God can give us.  I want to add another caveat here.  We also make idols for ourselves when we take something good and make it into something ultimate.  For example, money can be a good thing...we can do a lot of good things, even biblical things, with money.  But idolatry is when we make money an ultimate thing in our lives.  The same can be said of parental control, human approval, or fashionable methodology.  These can be good things, but they become idols when they become ultimate.

The question is...do we see this in the Scripture anywhere?  Is the idea of "making something good into something ultimate" anywhere in the Bible?  The answer is yes.  In fact, it's in Isaiah's prophecy.  Take a look at what Isaiah 44:14-17 says:
"He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest.  He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.  Then it becomes fuel for a man.  He takes part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread.  Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes an idol and falls down before it.  Half of it he burns in the fire.  Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied.  Also he warms himself and says, 'Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!'  And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down and worships it.  He prays to it and says, 'Deliver me, for you are my god!'"
Did you see it?  Think about the wood from a tree...it's good for a lot of things.  The wood can be burned (i.e.- used) for the man's good...baking bread, keeping warm, roasting meat that satisfies hunger, making s'mores to to eat after dinner, etc.  (Okay...the s'mores weren't in there, but we were all thinking it.)

Yet, this good thing...wood...can also be made into something seen as ultimate...an idol.  The man falls down and worships it, prays to it, and seeks deliverance at its hands.  One half of the wood gets burned up and is used for good purposes...the other half is made ultimate and is used for evil purposes. 

What can be said of the one who takes something good (like money, children, human approval, methodology, etc.) and making them ultimate?  In that man, there is no "knowledge or discernment" (v. 19).  I remember hearing Tim Keller say that people who make an idol of their career only think they work hard, and people who idolize their children only think they're just being good parents.  Yet, Isaiah says we lack knowledge and discernment.

When fear enters our experience, we tend to look anywhere and everywhere except God for security.  We look to the idols.  We do so in our own foolishness, and we do so to our own peril.  There are many good things in life...things which God has provided for our benefit, for our joy, and for our service to Him.  Yet, let us beware of making good things into ultimate things, for then we become idolaters.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Longing for Revival

[This entry follows a sermon called "Revive Us O Lord". Click on the title to find the audio.]

This past Sunday, our congregation focused on this statement, in light of the message of Psalm 85: We cannot plan revival, but we should plead for revival and believe God will answer. Feeling stale can be the experience of an individual Christian, and it can be the experience of an entire congregation. Psalm 85 is the expression of a people who have known the goodness of God (v. 1-3) and long to experience it afresh (v. 4-7). When we experience stagnant times in our spiritual lives, we too should look back on what the Lord has done for us in Christ and plead with Him to give us fresh joy...fresh life.

There is a sense of desperation in this kind of praying because we know that if God does not answer, we will remain stale. We certain cannot revive ourselves...we cannot refresh ourselves. We need God to act on our behalf and breathe new life into our stagnant spiritual state. After Sunday's service, I was discussing this desperation with a man in our congregation, and it reminded me of a story.

I once heard that Socrates had a student come to him seeking his help. "What do you want?" the eminent philosopher asked. "I want to be wise." Socrates led the young man to sea shore, and they waded into the water together. Socrates promptly plunged the student's head beneath the water and held him there.

After a few moments, he allowed the student to stand and asked again, "What do you want?" The student replied, "I want to be wise." Again, Socrates plunged the young man's head under water...this time holding it longer. Eventually, the student came up with a bit of a gasp, and Socrates asked more firmly, "What do you want?" "Teacher, I want to be wise."

For the third time, Socrates pushed the boy's head under water...holding it still longer. This time, the boy was struggling under the water, eventually fighting his way out of Socrates' grip and up to the surface. "What do you want?" The boy shouted, "Air! I need air!" Socrates instructed him, "When you want wisdom the way you now want air, then you will have wisdom."

That's the kind of desperation that the one praying for revival should feel. Alexander Cumming, a minister who lived in the 18th century, said: "It is the invariable constitution of the kingdom of heaven that blessings of great magnitude are not imparted except to the prayers of deepest urgency." Desperation...deep urgency. Does this mark the way we pray for God to revive our own hearts? For God to bless our church with "blessings of great magnitude"? Do we even pray this way in 2011?

It is interesting that we can think about a subject such as revival on a Sunday morning, and then the busyness of the week can set in and make our memory fade. I know that the dentist, the doctor, gymnastics, homeschool co-op, and basketball practice have filled our family's schedule in the 48 hours since Sunday. You know...in the midst of service, we may feel a great sense of urgency to pray for God to bring greater conviction of sin, greater commitment to the cause of Christ, greater fruit in our evangelistic efforts, and more. Yet, the routine of life can dull that great urgency into a sweet memory of a 'good service.'

What should be our response to this? Even more prayer...fighting in prayer...remaining steadfast in prayer. I said it Sunday, but in the evangelical world, we have trained ourselves not to feel this desperation for God to work in our midst. We have relegated desperate prayers to the realm of tragic events, when it seems that the general ineffectiveness of many churches (maybe even our own) should feel more tragic.

Of course, we resist the idea that we can formulate services and programs that can produce immediate, large-scale, genuine, spiritual results...and this is a right resistance. Yet, it seems that in resisting this path, we seemed to convince ourselves that the very absence of immediate, large-scale, genuine, spiritual results is the evidence that we are doing things well.

Of course, it is true...many of us will not see the kinds of awakening and conversion that we read about in church history under the preaching men like Edwards or Whitefield. And when we don't see these kinds of results, we do persevere because God works through what seems mundane to us. We don't despise the days of small things.

However, shouldn't we want great awakenings in our churches? Shouldn't we long for God to save on a large scale? Shouldn't we long for God to make His glory known in this way? Knowing the desperate wickedness and depravity in our world, shouldn't the believers' soul cry out for God's reviving work? Psalm 85 looks back on the past work of God and longs for it again; shouldn't we do the same?

For those of us who believe in God's sovereignty, this kind of desperation should be increased...not decreased. We may plant, and we may water...yet, it is only God who can give the increase. And this God who gives the increase has designed that His work is regularly accomplished in response to our prayers. So, we don't lose heart in the days of small things...and we don't stop desperately praying for God to do more.

I close with these words from C.H. Spurgeon: “Oh! men and brethren, what would this heart feel if I could but believe that there were some among you who would go home and pray for a revival of religion– men whose faith is large enough, and their love fiery enough to lead them from this moment to exercise unceasing intercessions that God would appear among us and do wondrous things here, as in the times of former generations.” Amen.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Guest Blogger: Pastor Glen Lockwood

The Secret to True Christian Living

When we Christians are convicted in our hearts about living more completely for Christ or forsaking sin, our usual response is to determine that we will try harder.  So we exert our will power to be kinder, or more patient, or more devoted to Christ.  Or we resolve that no longer will we give in to some particular temptation.  We will be what God wants us to be, no matter what!

And what happens?  After a while, sometimes quite soon, we fail.  We’re right back where we were.  After that has happened several times it is so easy to just quit trying and settle down into relative defeat.  While we may not be committing gross sin, we do not have a vibrant, powerful Christian life.

The problem is two-fold.  One, we do not understand what the Christian life is. Two, we do not know how to experience it. 

The Christian life is not the Christian living for Christ.  That is impossible.  The sooner you realize that you simply cannot live the Christian life, the sooner you will be on your way to understanding it.  The Christian life is not the Christian doing anything.  The theological foundation for that is Romans chapter seven.  That chapter teaches that we are dead to the law.  That simply means that by trying to do good you cannot be justified nor become sanctified (holy).  If you try to keep the law, even the commandments of the New Testament, you are headed for defeat.

The Christian life is Christ living His life through you.  It is not you trying to live as you should.
Galatians 2:20 says it well, and I’m going to paraphrase it:  “I have been crucified with Christ (I am dead; see Col. 3:3), but I’m alive.  But it isn’t I who live in this body, it is Christ.  And this life I now live in this body (Christ living in me, through my body), I live by faith in the Son of God (I trust Him to live through me, to empower me, to reveal Himself to the world through me).”

That is the Christian life.  Christ living His life in and through us.  Now, how does it come about?  We know all this is true.  But what do I do to make it happen, so that Christ is the one living in me, and not me? 

Meditate on just one verse, 2 Corinthians 3:18, although there are many others which support it. The clearest translation is in the ESB, and it says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

This verse says that as you gaze on the face of Jesus, the glory of Jesus,  you are transformed into His image.  The Greek word for transformed is the word from which we get the English word metamorphosis.  The change that occurs is a profound, life-altering one.  We use this word to refer to the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  Paul here further states that this transformation increases as we continue to gaze on His glory: “from one degree of glory to another.”
So the answer is clear.  If I am to be like Jesus Christ, if He is to live in and through my body, I must look at Him – intensely focus my attention upon Him!  I must stop trying to live for Him and begin to fellowship with Him so intimately that the Spirit begins to transform me.  We do this by meditating on God’s Word day and night (Psalm 1), by learning to pray like Jesus and Paul prayed, by so letting the Spirit control us that we are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).  My prayer is that you may understand, and that you will begin to seek the Lord with all your heart!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Stepford Children in the Church?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Can I Really Trust God?"  Click here to find the audio.]

The Stepford Children was a made-for-TV movie aired by NBC in 1987, and it was a sequel to the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, which was remade in the last decade (I haven't seen these movies either, but stick with me...I'm going somewhere). In The Stepford Wives, men essentially turn their wives into robots, and in The Stepford Children, the attention turns on rebellious teenagers. The Men's Association in Stepford, Connecticut, is turning out robotic kids who love their homework, are accomplished in various ways, and are obedient.

The whole 'stepford' idea is the pursuit of the perfect, nuclear family. The Men's Association believed that there really was a path to perfection...that they could control their own familial destiny, so to speak. In the end, things fall apart...actually, they explode. The Stepford Children ends with the non-robotic heroine and her two non-robotic children riding out of town, and malfunctioning machines at the Men's Association cause it to explode. It's as if the story tells us, "If you think you can make the perfect family, don't be surprised when it blows up in your face."

In the realm of Christian parenting, there is a temptation to believe that if we can just instill all the right information and behavior patterns into children, they will turn out fine.  Yet, the statistics tell us that things aren't fine.  All our attempts to create spiritual Stepford children are blowing up in our collective faces!  What does that have to do with Isaiah 40?  Fair question...let's talk about it.

Isaiah 40 is one of those passages that we should visit often...it is a reminder of both the power of God and the love of the God we serve.  In studying verses 12-31, you run into a lot of questions...rhetorical questions like "Who taught [God] the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?" (v. 14).  The understood answer is, "No one."

Yet, there is a different kind of question among these verses, too.  It's not a rhetorical question meant to teach the audience...it's a genuine question meant to confront the audience.  And it's found in verse 27: "Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, 'My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God'?"

Yes...these are statements that many people make.  Yes...these statements seem to be part of the fabric of life in a sin-riddled world.  Yet, God's question is a serious question.  Through the use of capital letters, the English translation reveals that "LORD" here is the covenant name of God...Yahweh.  In other words, this statement about God is not coming from one who hasn't been taught about the nature of God...it's coming from an insider, a devoted attender of the temple, a person in the community of faith, a child of faithful parents...i.e., someone who has been taught.

The man saying this kind of thing may very well have been taught when he sat in the house or when he walked on the way.  The woman questioning God's care was probably instructed when she laid down and when she rose.  The people here may have been taught every day of their lives...in formal and informal ways...yet they are still questioning the very theology they have been taught.

My initial response to such things is to be humbled.  As a pastor and as a father, no matter how diligent I am in teaching, I cannot guarantee the outcome.  If my children are going to be converted, to live holy lives, to walk through difficulty in faith, etc., it will only be by God's grace.  Of course, God has prescribed that parents must teach diligently, but He has not given us a formula for turning out spiritual Stepford children. 

This means that as disciple makers...whether parents, friends, coworkers, or pastors...we must call out to God for help.  If God is the only One who can bring the change and growth we long to see in those we teach, then prayer must be a habitual practice.  It is a humbling thing to invest your life in other people knowing that all your investment must be met by God's blessing to be effective...and that humility is a healthy thing.

My second response to such a truth is to be energized.  Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?  Well, it's not.  You see, the necessity of God's blessing is no excuse for laziness in teaching...any more than God's sovereignty is a viable excuse for evangelistic apathy.  The truth is...God has said that His Word will not come back void, and while that is not a promise for automatic salvation and growth, it is a promise that God works through His Word.  God's chosen means of working in our lives...whether for conversion or sanctification...is through the vehicle of His Word.

As one who longs to see change and growth in my children and in others, I must be actively involved in sharing God's Word.  I must be sharing it to evangelize unbelievers...I must be sharing it in raising my children...I must be sharing it to encourage and correct other believers.  And while I only recently heard another story of a man converted through simply reading God's Word, the primary way God gets His word to people is through other people.  The same is true with our children...the primary means by which God develops faith in children is through the teaching of their parents.

I know it's a bit of a rabbit trail from Isaiah 40:27 to these two responses, but as I meditate on the setting of the verse, I find it is a helpful one.  May we all humbly cry out to God to bless our efforts in sharing the Word with believers and unbelievers...knowing that we can't creat any spiritual Stepford children.  And may we all be energized to keep sharing the Word...knowing that God works and transforms lives through the power of His Word!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Forgiveness as a Path, Not a Destination

[This post follows a sermon titled "A Word Fitly Spoken".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

Jay Adams has written a little booklet called "What Do You Do When Your Marriage Goes Sour?"  Among the things written about in this helpful booklet, Adams addresses the issue of forgiveness.  He says that, fundamentally speaking, forgiveness is a promise...a threefold promise.

He writes, "When you forgive...another...you are promising to do three things about his wrong doings.  You promise: (1) I shall not use them against you in the future.  (2) I shall not talk to others about them.  (3) I shall not dwell on them myself."  This is a helpful way to think about forgiveness, and today, I want to write about the fact that forgiveness is meant to be a path...not a destination.

You see, many people see forgiveness as the end.  If someone wrongs you, you say you are willing to forgive the person...to let them off the hook...to not demand repayment for the wrong you have suffered.  However, that's the end...literally.  It's often the end of the relationship.  It's as if one person is saying to the other, "I forgive you, but I don't want to see you anymore."  Or, "I forgive you, but I will keep you at an arm's distance for the rest of our lives."

I want to suggest that this is not how biblical forgiveness is meant to function.  In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (4:31-32). 

In other words, there are two different ways to handle conflict.  On the one hand, there is bitterness, wrath, anger, and malice.  On the other, there is kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.  In Paul's mind, these two lists aren't meant to be mixed.  The example of forgiveness as an end seem to try and mix the two...e.g., forgiveness and malice. 

Now, I'm not trying to say that it's easy to keep the two lists unmixed...I'm saying it's necessary to keep them unmixed.  You see, this falls in a section of Paul's letter which is explaining what it means to "put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt...and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:22, 24).  Putting away bitterness, wrath, anger, and the rest of verse 31 is part of what it means to put off the old self.  Being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving is part of what it means to put on the new self.

So, forgiveness is not meant to be an end...neither the end of the relationship nor the end of the conflict resolution process, really.  The reason I believe that forgiveness is a path and not a destination is because of the end of Ephesians 4:32..."as God in Christ forgave you."  How did God forgive you?  Did He just say you're off the hook?  Did He just relieve you of the guilt of your sin?  Has He simply promised that you will not face eternal punishment?

Now, I do not make light of these things, for they are infinitely wonderful promises.  Yet, they are not the end.  They are a path to relationship.  When God forgave us in Christ, it was so we might be brought near to Him...adopted as His sons...no longer enemies of God but reconciled.  And this is how Paul says forgiveness should work in human relationships.

Let me give you an example from marriage.  Let's say I sin against my wife, Susan.  I go to her, I confess my sin, and I seek her forgiveness.  Now, why is that forgiveness so precious?  Is it just so I don't feel as guilty about my sin?  No.  Is it only for the purpose of obedience that Susan should desire to forgive?  No.  What I want more than anything is for the frigid atmosphere that sin creates to warm up again.  I want to sit on the couch with her and not feel like we're miles apart.  I want to know that we're not just operating as partners in a domestic household but as husband and wife.  Namely, I want the relationship back!  And if Susan loves me...which she does...then she will want the relationship back as well, even when my sin has messed up the relationship.  And the path to that reconciled relationship is forgiveness.

Speaking words of forgiveness as an end in themselves does not fulfill the biblical injunction to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us.  When we say "I forgive you" but want to break off that relationship forever, we sometimes just want to ease our own conscience.  Some want to be able to say they did the "Christian" thing, while holding on to bitterness and malice in their hearts.  This, too, is a path, but it is the prideful path to a feeling of moral superiority...a path we are never encouraged to walk.

One may object, "Yeah...that's okay for trivial stuff, but what about real, deep, painful conflicts?  You don't know the pain I've endured from others."  Look, I know how this must sound to some who read this, and I would never try to be reductionistic about your pain.  I don't think I could cover every situation in one blog entry...specific cases are best handled in biblical counseling settings.  The truth is that, in some ways, you're right...you have faced deeper hurts than I may ever face in my life.  And though it sounds simplistic and unreasonable and even impossible right now, I would still say that forgiveness is meant to be a path to reconciliation.  It is harder to walk in some instances than in others, but it is still the biblical path to walk.

Let me finish with a question: Is it possible for our problems to be so big, so life-shattering, so painful, so devastating that God cannot bring healing to those involved and to the relationship?  In thinking about this answer, there are two things we could underestimate.  First, we could underestimate the power of God.  When we are in the middle of disastrous conflict, it seems like nothing will work...nothing will make this better.  "I will never be able to reconcile with him or her," the hurt person thinks.  "This relationship is as good as dead."  What we fail to remember with these kinds of thoughts is the God we serve...He actually raises dead things to life, including relationships...including marriages.  If I believe that I was dead in my sin until God made me alive in Christ, saying, "Toby, come forth," how can I not believe that He cannot do the same with my marriage?  Let us not underestimate the power of God.

Second, we could underestimate the power of sin.  Sin is deadly and dangerous and affects us more than we know.  Relational conflict is not just born in sin, it is fed by sin.  Just as God warned Cain that sin was crouching at his door, wanting to overtake him (Gen. 4:7), God warns us as well through the apostle Paul to "give no opportunity to the devil" (Eph. 4:27).  Answering this question too quickly with a trite 'no' can be destructive...we must not underestimate the power of sin and its war against our reconciliation efforts.

Yet, in reality, 'no' is the right answer.  There is no wound God cannot heal.  Sure...we will have the scars of conflict afterward, but if we humble ourselves and fight to walk the biblical path of forgiveness toward reconciliation, then they will be scars of grace.  They will be scars which taught us how to forgive...scars which taught us of reconciliation.  They will be scars which reveal that we are being conformed to the image of our Savior, whose unjustly inflicted wounds left scars that testify of our forgiveness and reconciliation.  Now, as God in Christ has forgiven us, may we likewise with one another.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Christian Karma?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Learning from a King's Sickness".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

Do you know what "karma" is?  Found primarily in Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is the idea that one brings on himself either good or bad experiences through previous good/bad behavior, respectively.  It's the notion behind the popular TV sitcom My Name is Earl.  The main character, Earl, gives a plain-language definition: "Do good things and good things happen.  Do bad things and bad things happen."

Do you know what "Christian karma" is?  Well, it doesn't actually exist, but it's a phrase I would use to talk about the way Christians believe God answers prayer.  If you do good things, God answers your prayer the way you want.  If you do bad things, God won't give you what you want.  There is a general feeling that somehow I can live my life in a way that merits the blessing of God.  Yet, this notion is contrary to the gospel, which tells us God's blessings come by His grace...not by our merit.

In Isaiah 38-39, we find King Hezekiah sick and at the point of death (38:1).  The king prays for healing on the basis of his moral record before God, but when God answers, He answers on the basis of being "the God of David your father" (38:5).  God heals because of His grace, not because of Hezekiah's merit.  You see, God's promise to David was that one of his descendants would be an eternal king (2 Sam. 7), and in answering Hezekiah's prayer, God was keeping that promise.  About three years after Hezekiah was healed, his son, Manasseh, was born.  And the line of David went on...a line that led straight to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 1).

So, when God grants what we ask for, we should always see it as an act of His grace...not some kind of spiritual wage we have earned.  That being said, the Scripture is clear that there are ways to hinder our prayers to God.  I am thankful for Tim Challies for putting these passages together on his blog several months back.  Here are five ways that our prayers might be hindered.

1. By our selfish motives - "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3).  Also, in 1 John 5:14, we read, "And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us."  As God hears our prayers, our motives matter.  It matters if we are aligning our will with His, as we know it in Scripture...it matters if we are praying simply for our own benefit or for the glory of God.  When we are in small groups praying for one another, we cannot hear the heart's motive.  It could be masked by the right wording of the prayer.  Yet, God sees the heart...He knows the motive...and our wrong motives can hinder our prayers.

2. By turning away from Scripture - "If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Prov. 28:9).  When we ignore the words of God and then plead with God to hear us in our time of need, it is an abomination.  Why?  Because when we do this, we are acting as if God as a means to an end.  God is not a means to our desired end...He is the end.  He is the Treasure.  The healing is not greater than the Healer.  The provision is not greater than the Provider.  The answer is not greater than the One who answers.  Turning away from Scripture is a turning away from God Himself, and it is an indication that He is not our treasure...He is a tool for our pursuits.  This hinders prayer, for God will not be used.

3. Through discord in our families - "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).  As the spiritual leaders of their homes, men are meant to maintain peace and order in their homes.  This means living with our wives in ways that are sensitive to their needs...ways that demonstrate we know them as fellow 'heirs...of the grace of life.'  In other words, having personal, intimate communion with God and a strained, alienated relationship with your spouse are incongruous ideas...a bit like blessing God and cursing men with the same mouth (James 3:9-10).  Being content to live in such marital strife hinders prayers.

4. By cherishing sin - "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psalm 66:18).  Many people speak of feeling distant from God...like God doesn't hear them when they pray.  Well, before we begin to imagine we are like "Moses...going through a desert experience", we should examine our hearts.  Could it be that there is some area in which we are refusing to repent of sin?  We may not verbally say that we cherish our sin, but when we refuse to repent, we are proclaiming that our sin is a greater treasure to us than God.  When this happens, we do feel distant from God because, experientially, we are distant from Him.  We have not drawn near to God, and so we must not expect God to draw near to us.  Rather, we should listen to James: "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom" (4:8b-9).

5. Through doubting as we ask - "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given.  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.  For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:5-7).  When we ask the Lord, we must ask expectantly.  He is a good God and is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).  We must believe two things.  One, we must believe that if we have asked according to God's will, He will certainly grant our request.  Two, we must believe that if our prayer is not aligned with God's will, it is because His wisdom and will are better than ours, and it is for our sanctification that He refuses or puts us in a place of waiting on Him.

So, again...let us pray.  If we are receiving what we ask, then let's remember that it is not because we've earned it...or because of "good, Christian karma."  It's because our God is gracious and loves giving good gifts to His children that we receive.  If we are not receiving what we ask, let's examine our own lives...are we living in ways that would hinder God hearing when we call on Him?  If honest self-evaluation results in the belief that we are not hindering our prayers, then let's keep praying in faith...keep on knocking...keep on seeking...keep on asking.  And let's trust our good, righteous God to do what is right...in His own way, and in His own time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sovereignty and Prayer

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Where if Your Trust?"  Click on the title to find the audio.]

In Isaiah 36, the impending attack of the Assyrians on the city of Jerusalem brings Hezekiah to his knees...quite literally.  Repentant and knowing his need of the Lord, Hezekiah prays in Isaiah 37:16-20 concerning the Assyrian threat and taunts.  Then, in verses 21-22, God responds to the prayer of King Hezekiah: "Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him..."

God's answer might be summarized by these words: "Hezekiah, I am sovereign.  I brought this army to your doorstep, and I will keep them from overtaking you."  Think about this.  This is the sovereign God whose hand brought the Assyrian army to the doorstep and whose hand will keep them from overtaking Jerusalem says to Hezekiah.  Yet, it is also the God that heard Hezekiah's prayer and responded, "Because you have prayed..."

How can God be both sovereign and responsive to our prayers?  If God knows what we need and when we need it...and He already has His intervention planned...then why pray?  These are honest questions that many people ask.  This was the answer I expressed Sunday in my message: "God has ordained that His purposes in this world will be accomplished, and He has ordained that they will often be accomplished through the prayers of His people.  As we pray, God works His marvelous, sovereign plan for us and for His world."

Recorded in Prayer by Philip Yance is a challenge once given to C.S. Lewis by Kurt Vonnegut: "...if [God] is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn't He already know what is best?  And if He is all-good won't He do it whether we pray or not?"  Here is Yancey's explanation of Lewis' answer.  "In reply, Lewis said that you could use the same argument against any human activity, not just prayer.  'Why wash your hands?  If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without your washing them...Why ask for the salt?  Why put on your boots?  Why do anything?'  God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms.  God chose a different style of governing the world..."  God has ordained that our actions...including our prayers...are woven into the fabric of His sovereign rule over all things.

Another form of this answer is found in a short devotional from John Piper in his book, A Godward Life.  In one of the chapters, titled "Prayer and Predestination," Piper writes a fictional conversation between "Prayerful" and "Prayerless" (hearkening back to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress).  Their conversation covers this very topic, and I share it today, in its entirety to remind us all that God's sovereignty does not negate the need to pray...it stimulates it!  [The following is taken from pp. 144-146 of Piper's book.]

Prayerless: I understand that you believe in the providence of God.  Is that right?
Prayerful: Yes.
Prayerless: Does that mean you believe, like the Heidelberg Catechism says, that nothing comes about by chance, but only by God's design and plan?
Prayerful: Yes, I believe that's what the Bible teaches.  Job prays, "No purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (42:2).  There are lots of texts like that.
Prayerless: Then why do you pray?
Prayerful: I don't see the problem.  Why shouldn't we pray?
Prayerless: Well, if God ordains and controls everything, then what he plans from of old will come to pass, right?
Prayerful: Yes.
Prayerless: So it's going to come to pass whether you pray or not, right?
Prayerful: That depends on whether God ordained for it to come to pass in answer to prayer.  If God predestined that something happen in answer to prayer, it won't happen without prayer.
Prayerless: Wait a minute, this is confusing.  Are you saying that every answer to prayer is predestined?
Prayerful: Yes it is.  It's predestined as an answer to prayer.
Prayerless: So if the prayer doesn't happen, the answer doesn't happen?
Prayerful: That's right.
Prayerless: So the event is contingent on our praying for it to happen?
Prayerful: Yes.  I take it that by contingent you mean prayer is a real reason that the event happens, and without the prayer the event would not happen.
Prayerless: Yes, that's what I mean.  But how can an event be contingent on my prayer and still be eternally fixed and predestined by God?
Prayerful: Because your prayer is as fixed as the predestined answer.
Prayerless: Explain.
Prayerful: It's not complicated.  God providentially ordains all events.  God never ordains an event without a cause.  The cause is also an event.  Therefore the cause is also foreordained.  So you cannot say that the event will happen if the cause doesn't because God has ordained otherwise.  The event will happen if the cause happens.
Prayerless: So what you are saying is that answers to prayer are always ordained as effects of prayer, which is one of the causes, and that God predestined the answer only as an effect of the cause.
Prayerful: That's right.  Since both the cause and the effect are ordained together, you can't say that the effect will happen even if the cause doesn't, because God doesn't ordain effects without causes.
Prayerless: Can you give some examples?
Prayerless: No.
Prayerful: I agree.  Why not?
Prayerless: Because the brightness of the sun comes from the fire.
Prayerful: Right.  That's the way I think about answers to prayer.  They are the brightness and prayer is the fire.  God has established the universe so that in large measure it runs by prayer, the same way he has established brightness so that in large measure it happens by fire.  Doesn't that make sense?
Prayerless: I think it does.
Prayerful: Then let's stop thinking up problems and go with what the Scriptures say: "Ask and you will receive" (John 16:24), and "You do not have, because you do not ask" (James 4:2).


May knowing that God ordains to accomplish great things through the prayers of His people fuel the fire of our prayers!

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Apology of Aristides

[This post follows a sermon called "A Model for the Church".  Click the title to find the audio.]

This past Sunday, we looked at a familiar passage of Scripture when it comes to the life of the early church.  In Acts 2:42-47, we see a kind of model for the church...an ideal for which we can all strive.  No...the early church was not perfect.  After all, they had to deal with sin (Acts 5:1-11), division (Acts 6:1), and persecution (Acts 8:1).  Yet, Luke records this paragraph to let us know what was typical among the people of God.  These Spirit-filled believers lived together, worshiped together, learned together, and interacted with one another in a particular way...a way which sets forth a model for us to follow.

One of the results of this behavior was that they were "having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:47).  Yes, their distinction would also bring persecution, but there was (and still should be) something attractive about the community of believers.  In fact, one 2nd century philosopher named Aristides used the nature of the Christian community in his defense of the faith.  One early church father noted, "Aristides, a most eloquent Athenian philosopher, and a disciple of Christ while yet retaining his philosopher's garb, presented a work to Hadrian [i.e.- the Roman Emperor]...The work contained a systematic statement of our doctrine, that is, an Apology for the Christians, which is still extant and is regarded by [experts] as a monument to his genius" (Jerome, in Lives of Illustrious Men).

Here is part of the apology of Aristides for us to consider as we think about pursuing a model for the church.  This follows a discussion of Barbarians and Greeks and their worship of false gods.  It also follows a discussion regarding the practice of Jews, and he says that "they too erred from true knowledge."  Then, the philosopher speaks of the Christians:

"Now the Christians, O King, by going about and seeking, have found the truth.  For they know and trust in God, the Maker of heaven and earth, who has no fellow.  From him they received those commandments which they have engraved on their minds...

"For this reason they do not commit adultery or immorality; they do not bear false witness, or embezzle, nor do they covet what is not theirs.  They honor their father and mother, and do good to those who are their neighbors.  Whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly.  They do not worship idols made in the image of man.  Whatever they do not wish that others should do to them, they in turn do not do; and they do not eat the food sacrificed to idols.

"Those who oppress them they exhort and make them their friends.  They do good to their enemies.  Their wives, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest.  Their men abstain from all unlawful sexual contact and from impurity, in the hope of recompense that is to come in another world.

"As for their bondmen and bondwomen...they persuade them to become Christians; and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.

"They refuse to worship strange gods; and they go their way in all humility and cheerfulness.  Falsehood is not found among them.  They love one another; the widow's needs are not ignored, and they rescue the orphan...He who has gives to him who has not, ungrudgingly and without boasting.  When the Christians find a stranger, they bring him to their homes and rejoice over him as a true brother.  They do not call brothers those who are bound by blood ties alone, but those who are brethren after the Spirit and in God.

"When one of their poor passes away from the world, each provides for his burial according to his ability.  If they hear of any of their number who are imprisoned or oppressed for the name of the Messiah, they all provide for his needs, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free.

"If they find poverty in their midst, and they do not have spare food, they fast two or three days in order that the needy might be supplied with the necessities.  They observe scrupulously the commandments of their Messiah, living honestly and soberly as the Lord their God ordered them.  Every morning and every hour they praise and thank God for his goodness to them; and for their food and drink they offer thanksgiving...Such, O King, is the commandment given to the Christians, and such is their conduct."  (The Apology of Aristides, translated by Rendel Harris [London: Cambridge, 1893]...as quoted in John MacArthur, Acts 1-12 [Chicago: Moody, 1994].)

In Acts 2, and in the Apology of Aristides, we see a portrait of a church deeply committed to God, His Word, and one another.  May God give us the grace to follow these great examples...both individually and corporately.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God and His People - A Brief Survey

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Jesus and the Church".  Click on the title to find the audio, or search "Gray Road Baptist Church" on iTunes.]

This last Sunday, we started a four-week sermon series called Church Matters.  We're not just doing this short series to talk about church matters but to remember that the church matters.  This first Sunday, we looked at the identity of Jesus in connection with the identity of the church.  The central thesis was this: "You can't fully understand the identity of Jesus without the Church, and you can't fully understand the identity of the Church without Jesus."  The Scripture deeply connects the two with images such as (1) Jesus as the Head and the Church as His body, (2) Jesus as the Husband and the Church as His bride, and (3) Jesus as the cornerstone on which the Church is built.

In addition, we think about the three offices that Jesus fulfills from the Old Testament...that of prophet, priest, and king.  A prophet speaks God's Word to the people.  A priest mediates between God and the people.  A king is the ruler over the people.  When you divorce these roles from the presence of "the people," you don't get a full understanding of what a prophet, priest, and king truly are.  Part of their identity is wrapped up in their role among the people.  Likewise, we cannot fully understand Jesus as the fulfillment of these unless He is intimately tied to a people...to God's people...to the Church.

My purpose today is to say that this is nothing new in the Bible.  God has always designed to have a people for Himself.  His plan didn't change in the coming of Jesus...it was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.  We see the eternal nature of His plan in passages like Ephesians 1:4-6: "...he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved" [emphasis mine].

While it is true that the "us" in these verses represents a plurality of individuals, it is not a plurality of individualists.  No, it is the gathering of men and women into God's designed people...the Church.  Later in this letter, Paul uses very similar language to describe Christ's work with the Church.  "...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...that he might present the church to himself in splendor, that she might be holy and without blemish" (5:25, 27).  So, in chapter 1, God has chosen "us" to be holy and blameless.  In chapter 5, Christ gave himself up for "the church" that we might be holy and without blemish.  In other words...us = the Church!  God's plan from eternity past was to adopt us...His family...the Church.

This idea of God's desire for a people develops over the course of the Bible.  In the beginning, God created mankind in His image...male and female, He created them.  And what was one of the first commands God gave them?  "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth..."  Why did God want the earth filled with persons made in His image?  Because God's design was to have a people for Himself...a people who would bear His image and glorify Him...a people who would live by His Word and glorify Him.  However, as we know man rebelled against his Maker, and sin entered the human race.  [By the way, the entrance of sin did not send God to 'Plan B.'  Remember, God's eternal purpose was to send Christ to die for all who would believe and bring them into His people...the Church.]

Sin and its destructive effects were clearly passed on to Adam and Eve's children, as seen in Cain murdering his brother, Abel.  Things continued in a downward spiral of sin until we read this: "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Gen. 6:5-6).  So, God would punish mankind, but out of the population of mankind, He would call...you guessed it...a people.  More specifically, a family...Noah's family.  The flood came, and all humanity was destroyed under God's judgment...except for Noah's family.

Still, the waters of the flood could never wash away sin, and the sinfulness of mankind continued...even in this people (i.e.- Noah's family) chosen by God.  We see another climactic moment as men try to make much of themselves in the building of the Tower of Babel.  In response, God confuses their language and scatters them.  Then, we see God set apart an individual...Abram (i.e.- Abraham).  This man would be God's chosen means through which He would bless every nation of the earth.  Though Abraham, God would create...you guessed it again...a people.  God's people would become a great nation, and through that nation, the other nations of the world would find blessing.  The rest of the OT follows the history, the triumphs, and the tragedies of this people.

Then, with the coming of Jesus Christ, we see most fully what it means for God to have a people.  Jesus even came and called twelve men (reminiscent of the 12 tribes) to follow Him and be His disciples.  It was a clear indication that God still wanted a people.  Through all the sin we see in the OT people of God, God still desired to have a people.  And it is through Jesus Christ, Abraham's descendent, that God's blessing is extended to every nation.  Jesus' death makes full and final atonement for sin, and the result is eternal life in a reconciled relationship with God.  God's people will still battle sin, but because of the work of Christ, we know that our relationship to God as His people is secure.

So, God's design has always included a people.  We see it through the Old Testament, and we see it full and finally in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  But that's not all...after all, how does the Bible close?  What is the imagery of the future?  "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb..." (Rev. 7:9).  Who is this that we find before the throne?  It is God's people!  Of this eternal relationship between God and His people, the apostle John records, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God" (Rev. 21:3).

God's eternal design includes a people...the Church.  We see this design for a people started in creation, in the flood, in the call of Abraham, and in the rest of the Old Testament.  We see it in the coming of Jesus, in the work of Jesus, and forward into eternity.  So, we can't fully understand Jesus' identity without the Church, and we can't fully understand the Church's identity without Jesus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Life of Chaos

[This entry follow a sermon titled "Straightening Out Distorted Views of God".  Click the title to find the audio.]

Isaiah 34 and 35 paint two very different pictures, yet they are one cohesive picture.  The judgment of God (ch. 34) and the grace of God (ch. 35) go hand in hand.  They rise or fall together.  We cannot dismiss either and maintain a biblical view of God.

In the midst of the discussion about God's judgment, we find an interesting phrase in 34:11 - "He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plumb line of emptiness."  At this point, Isaiah is talking about Edom as representative of the world, which is opposed to God and set for judgment.  This judgment will be one from which the "smoke shall go up forever" (34:10; cf. Rev. 14:11).  It is a sobering picture, as we read of swords dripping with blood, slaughter, and mountains dripping with blood.  This chapter alone should prevent those of us who believe in hell as a place of eternal, conscious punishment from speaking of it lightly or, as it sometimes comes across, arrogantly.

So, with that set as the context, what is all this talk about lines of confusion and plumb lines of emptiness in verse 11?  Well, the "line" in the first phrase was actually used to describe the marking off pieces of property for ownership.  I have a friend who recently put a fence in his backyard, and he put some flags on the corners of his property to mark it off.  This way, the company he hired would know where to dig the posts for the fence.  In this verse, God is marking off the area...He's making a distinguishing mark of those whose lives are marked by "confusion."  We'll get to that word in just a minute, but for now, you get the picture.  These people are marked off.

The next phrase says God will use the "plumb line of emptiness."  A plumb line could be used in the construction of a new building...it would be used to make sure that the walls of the building are plumb...they're square.  It could also be used to assess an existing structure.  My wife and I lived in a house built in the 1950s when we lived in Marion, IN.  As a friend and I were laying a new laminate floor in one area, we learned that the walls weren't square.  How did we learn this?  Well, to be honest, if you look close enough, you wouldn't need a tool to see it, but we used a device that affirmed what we saw with the naked eye...these walls are messed up!  Here in Isaiah 34:11, God uses a measuring tool called "emptiness" to see that the people truly do deserve the judgment described earlier in the chapter.

So, we see the idea of measuring...a "line of confusion," indication that these are the people whose lives are marked by "confusion."  Also, there's a "plumb line of emptiness," affirming that the ones who will receive judgment truly are deserving of it.  Now that we see the tools, let's think about the measurements here...confusion and emptiness.  What are these?

Looking behind the English to the original Hebrew in this text, we see that the words for 'confusion' and 'emptiness' are found somewhere else.  They are actually found in the second verse of the first book of the Bible.  Genesis 1:2 says, "The earth was without form [i.e.- confusion] and void [i.e.- emptiness], and darkness was over the face of the deep."  Okay...so, if these are the same terms, why would Isaiah use them to talk about those who will face God's judgment?

Here's an answer...see what you think.  When God created the world, He created it with purpose.  He created it with order.  When man and woman were created, they were created with purpose...they were created with order.  They were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and were meant to bear that image as they existed in God's creation.  Part of this design meant living under God's rulership, under the authority of His Word.  It was a simple word in the beginning...do not eat.  As they lived in relationship to God and in relationship to one another, everything remained in order.

Yet, what happened when they ate...when they disobeyed God's command?  The order was broken.  They had rebelled against God's authority and, therefore, against His purpose and His order.  No longer were they living with God as their king.  They lived as if there was no king, and they did what was right in their own eyes (cf. Judg. 21:25).  What God had done perfectly in creation, man rebelled against in sin.  In some ways, they were working to de-create what God had made...they were living in ways that took their existence back to being formless and void...confused and empty.

This life of sin...this confusion and emptiness...would mark all of mankind.  Paul would write, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned..." (Rom. 5:12).  In other words, Adam and Eve weren't the only ones who lived in rebellion to God...who lived lives in opposition to His purposes and order.  We share in that confusion and emptiness, both by nature and by choice.  The sin introduced through their act is reproduced in us and our acts.

The proper order of creation is that God is Creator and King, and as creatures, we are to live in submission to His Word.  Yet, sin has entered, and in that sin, all of humanity lives in opposition to the creation purposes of God...we seek to de-create and make chaotic what God has brought to order.  Yet, creation cannot rebel forever against its Creator, and Isaiah 34 tells us there is a day when all accounts will be settled (i.e.- vengeance and recompense, v. 8).  Sinful mankind will face its Judge, and Isaiah is saying that the verdict has already been determined...guilty!

Yet, in the purposes of God, there is hope because there is One who has not rebelled against God as Creator or as King.  He has lived in perfect harmony with God's purposes and His order.  The Lord Jesus Christ is the only man who walked the earth who has lived as man ought to live.  As the Son of God was killed on the cross, He took the vengeance and recompense of God on our behalf.  In other words, He settled our account with God, so that if we trust in Him and His work, we are a new creation.  As Tim Keller succinctly put it, "Jesus Christ was de-created so that we might be recreated."

The severity of God's judgment matches the severity of the crime, yet the sweetness of God's grace is that we can be renewed, redeemed, and ransomed through the death of Jesus Christ.  Through faith in Him, we step out of the desolation of judgment in Isaiah 34 and enjoy the delight of grace in Isaiah 35.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Human Innovation vs. Divine Intervention

[This entry follows a sermon called "Trust and Obey".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Blogs are often used as a soap box of one kind or another.  In the subcategory of 'blogs written by Christians,' it is no different.  It's not unusual to find a man or woman railing against one thing or another in culture or even in the church.  Recently, I was interested to hear Tim Keller comment about being a scoffer.  I'm trying to quote from memory here, but he said something close to this: "The internet breeds scoffers...[because]...if you are a scoffer, you'll get more traffic to your blog."  This is so true, and I want to say, right up front, that I am my primary audience in today's blog.

I begin this way because I am going to write about the tendency to rely on human innovation verses divine intervention.  It would be ridiculous and wrong for me to say that all innovation is wrong.  For example, while reading this article, you could be in a different city, a different state, or a different nation.  You might be at home, at work (hopefully on some kind of break), or just out at a local wifi hot spot.  The innovation of the internet makes sharing information possible, and that's a good thing, generally speaking.  A blog like this being posted as soon as I hit "Publish Post" makes it possible to share worldwide, and that's a pretty fantastic thing when you think about the call to take the gospel to the world.  It's no substitute for actual, flesh-and-blood people moving to a different culture for the sake of the gospel, but the internet can be a great tool.  So, innovation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing...it is actually a great thing.

And...truth be told...innovation is not an innovative idea.  It's been around a while.  King Hezekiah led the people of Judah to look to the innovative military strength of Egypt rather than looking to God for their salvation from the Assyrians.  Our congregation studied this in Isaiah 30 on Sunday, and in fact, chapter 31 goes on to echo the same message.  Take a minute to pull out your Bible or just click and read Isaiah 31.  The clear problem is that the people are relying on Egypt when they should be relying on God.  The real folly of this strategy is exposed in verse 3: "The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit."  Can it get any clearer than that? 

Verse 4 goes on to say that God is like "a lion or a young lion [who] growls over his prey, and when a band of shepherds is called out against him is not terrified by their shouting or daunted by their noise."  Usually, the Scripture portrays God as a shepherd (e.g.- Psalm 23), but here, He is likened to a lion who can't be stopped from getting His prey.  Those for whom God fights have His tenacious and awesome power, which cannot be defeated, on their side.  They can truly say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  Yet, Hezekiah led his people in failure.  They trusted in the innovation of Egypt rather than the intervention of God.  It was a plan that was not God's plan (30:1), and for that reason, it would fail.

The same temptation which drew King Hezekiah into sinful failure does so to pastors and churches today.  Innovation, though not a bad thing, can tempt one to unbelief...believing that human innovation is a superior substitute to divine intervention.  The pressure is on a lot of pastors to produce numerical results.  Church leadership meetings are held where a pastor is told he must produce "x"% growth in attendance and "y" baptisms in "z" months or he may get the axe.  I know this from experience.  As a youth pastor in Florida, I was in meetings like this, I was evaluated based on these statistics, and I know the pressure it produces.  Even without external pressure, there is still internal pressure.  It might not be the same numbers-driven pressure, but there is a good and right desire to see more men and women saved and growing under the preaching of the gospel.  I long to see it in my own congregation!  However, the temptation, when one feels such pressure (externally or internally), is to turn to something fast...something that will 'produce'...maybe some innovative technique.

It is true that the church growth movement has produced scores of books that seem to feed this temptation rather than fight it.  One website I perused in thinking about this topic advertised a church growth system which promised to double the size of your congregation...it's been done in 90 days in other churches, and it can work for you!  In fact, to entice the well-meaning pastor to buy said program, the website asks the question, "How will you choose to be remembered by your present congregation?  Will you be remembered as someone who made it all happen?"  It turns my stomach to even type such things, and I hope it turns yours to read them.

After all, Isn't this what Hezekiah thought of Egypt's help?  The Egyptian army was the "it" that would keep Assyria off Judah's collective back...not God, Egypt...not spirit, flesh.  Today, "its" abound.  There is a program and a tool for just about anything in church ministry, and the truth is...they're not all bad.  For example, I've been trained in several different personal evangelism courses in my Christian life.  I learned the Romans Road early on...I picked up Evangelism Explosion in seminary...I learned the FAITH outline as a youth pastor in Florida.  Right now, our congregation is using Matthias Media's Two Ways to Live to help teach personal evangelism.  There's nothing wrong with any of these, per se...there's just nothing magical about them either.

Here's the sad fact...learning these evangelistic tools didn't make me more evangelistic personally.  None of the "its" worked, but it's not "its" problem...that's a mouthful!  "It" couldn't do what only God can do.  The only way lasting growth in personal evangelism has come in my life is as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit...most recently, God used a book on hell to grow me in this area!  The same is true for all programmatic approaches.  Given proper content and motivation, there's nothing wrong with a program...I'm not saying we should rid the world of every program.  What's wrong is when we think the program is the "it" that will really grow the church, will really make disciples, or will really bring the lost to Christ.

Think about this.  Having a desire to see men and women saved and growing in Christ is a biblical desire.  It's needed more than ever in the church...I need to continue growing in it.  So, with this good and right desire, what comes to mind when we think about what is needed for our congregation to see this happen?  Fill in the blank: "If only our church had/did ___________, then more people would be saved."  What would you put in that blank?  Was it the mighty work of the Holy Spirit?  If not, shouldn't it be?

I realize there is a danger in writing this kind of blog entry because some will swing the pendulum so far away from innovation that they will conclude it's all bad.  That's not the point.  The point isn't to rid the world of innovation...innovation will happen whether we want it to or not.  As I said, we can use human innovation to communicate the gospel to a culture immersed in it.  However, when we trust man's innovation to do what only God's intervention can do, then we've steered way off course.  Apart from God's intervention, all the innovation in the world will be useless...it is "Rahab the Do-Nothing" (30:7).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Real Worship War

[This email follows a sermon called "Evaluating Religion".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

For several decades now, "worship wars" have been taking place.  What is a worship war?  Well, in terms of the American church, a worship war is a battle over what style of music will be used in any given congregation.  Let's just call them cultural worship wars, since that's what they really are.  Thinking in military imagery, picture a line of men and women on one side, armed with hymnals and organs...they fight for the "traditional" army.  On the other side, picture men and women armed with electric guitars and drums...they fight for the "contemporary" army.

I realize there shouldn't be a third side in a battle, but in this case, there is one.  It is the side of musical compromise...it's the "blended army," and they hold a hymnal in one hand and an electric guitar in the other.  Much like a blended family, there can sometimes be inner turmoil in the "blended" camp.

Anyway, one army calls out its battle cry, "Turn to hymn #..."  The second does the same: "Let's rock the house!"  The third adds its voice: "Let's rock the hymnal!"  Let me give you a down to earth example of what I mean from the congregation I serve.  We have communication cards in the back of our pews, and though they are not meant to be "comment cards," they are sometimes used that way.  It's not necessarily a big deal...it's just an observation. 

Anyway, one Sunday, we received two communication cards that were used as comment cards.  I'll paraphrase how they read.  One essentially said, "I really like the old hymns...is there any way we could sing more of them?"  The other read this way: "Can we please sing some more contemporary music?"  Each of these represents one of those armies.  The same kind of preferential division could be said of preaching and preachers...each army takes up arms for their particular desire and is prepared to live or die for it.

This kind of 'cultural worship war' is everywhere.  Everyone likes what they like, and everyone would prefer to have more of what they like (the author of this blog included).  With that being laid out, I need to break the news that the purpose of today's blog is not to settle the debate between the traditional, contemporary, and blended camps.  In fact, this issue of musical style is not the real worship war...however, it does mask the real worship war.

The real worship war is revealed in the words of Isaiah 29:13 - "...this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men."  This is where the battle lines are drawn...the battle is to keep the heart engaged where the mouth is.  Our mouths must say good and right things as we praise, preach, and pray, but we must fight to keep our hearts engaged with our mouths...to fight against the drifting heart.

In Isaiah 29, the battle is not about words...the rightness of the words is settled in Isaiah's mind.  It's right doctrine...it's right content.  God says their words "honor me."  The problem in Isaiah's audience is that their hearts don't believe what their mouths are saying!  This is where the real battle is...it is the battle for the heart.  "Above all else, guard your hearts..." (Prov. 4:23).

Think about this.  Cultural worship wars are primarily centered on preferences...in that way, they are mostly self-centered.  The real worship war is centered on spiritual sincerity...in that way, it is more God-glorifying.  Part of the difficulty, in the American culture, is that the line between what is merely preferential and what is biblical gets blurred.  Some styles are said to be truly sincere, while others are not.  This is simply untrue.

Do you realize what happens when cultural worship wars dominate our view of corporate worship?  We lose the real worship war, and we lose our hearts to consumerism.  We become convinced that we can't reflect on the goodness and mercy of God in Christ (in song and in preaching) unless is comes in the package we prefer.  Then, when we find the package we like, it's not the glory of the cross that generates awe and wonder; it's the packaging.  At that point, our defeat is concealed by our happiness in having our desires met.

As I said, the cultural worship war masks the real worship war, and it seems that the enemy loves to mask spiritual issues with superficial issues.  That way, if we can stay divided and argumentative and stubborn and selfish about the superficial, we'll never actually deal with the spiritual.  As Christians, we must take the warning of Isaiah 29 seriously, and we must fight the good fight of the worship war.  We must fight to stay doctrinally right in our praise, our prayers, and our preaching...and we can't stop there.  We must fight to believe, love, and live in light of all that we sing and pray and hear from the Word...then, we have victory in the worship war for our souls.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Compartmentalized Life?

[This entry follows a sermon called "A Sure Foundation".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

This last Sunday, we worked our way through Isaiah 28 and found several things that are uncertain foundations for life.  One of these was political stability, and the way the people of Judah were seeking to keep their stability was through a treaty with Egypt.  Assyria was breathing down their neck, and King Hezekiah set the nation’s hopes on Egyptian help for deliverance.

One of the odd things about this treaty was the fact that it was Hezekiah who was making it.  He was a king who led the nation through great religious reform.  In many modern translations, there aren’t just chapter and verse numbers…there are also little headlines to help one find his way.  Let me run through a few of the headlines regarding Hezekiah’s religious reform from 2 Chronicles 29-31:

1.      Hezekiah Reigns in Judah (29:1-2) – Hezekiah’s ascension to power came at the age of 25, and the Scripture, speaking generally about Hezekiah’s reign, said he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 2).

2.      Hezekiah Cleanses the Temple (29:3-19) – The former king of Judah, Ahaz, had promoted idolatry in the nation and closed the doors of the temple (28:24).  Hezekiah restored what Ahaz had taken away, so that the priests “brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the Lord…And the Levites took it and carried it out to the brook at Kidron” (v. 16).

3.      Hezekiah Restores Temple Worship (29:20-36) – With the temple cleansed, proper worship was once again practiced.  “Thus the service of the house of the Lord was restored” (v. 35b).

4.      Passover Celebrated (30:1-27) – Passover was one of the most important times of the year, and it had not been celebrated recently “because the priests had not consecrated themselves in sufficient number, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem” (v. 3).  So distinct and celebratory was this Passover that this was written about it: “So there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem” (v. 26).  Not only was it unique; this pleased the Lord so that the prayers of the priests and Levites “came to his holy habitation in heaven” (v. 27).

5.      Hezekiah Organizes the Priests (31:1-21) – With the initial reform under way, it was time to delegate.  Hezekiah did just that and made sure that proper order was re-established in the service of the temple.  “And Hezekiah appointed the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, division by division, each according to his service…” (v. 2a).

These are great headlines.  If you were a faithful believer in God and these were the newspaper headlines of your day, you would rejoice in all of this.  In fact, the chronicler summarizes all this with the following words: “This Hezekiah did throughout all Judah, and he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God.  And every work he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered” (31:20-21).

It’s as if things couldn’t get any better.  Yet, Hezekiah didn’t just come to power in a nation of religious idolatry…he also came to power and had to deal with international instability.  As I said, Assyria was breathing down Judah’s neck.  How would Hezekiah respond?  Would he seek the Lord, as he did in the religious reform (30:21)?  Unfortunately, this would not be his first response.

When one of the Assyrian commanders, Rabshekah, shows up with a message, he points out where the king has looked for help.  In 2 Kings 18:21, he says this: “Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it.  Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.”  The king whose allegiance to God was clear in matters of religious reform is now turning to Egypt for military protection.  In other words, religion had its place, and leadership had another…he compartmentalized his life.

This is the temptation today, isn’t it?  It is easy to have a “Christianity” compartment, a “career” compartment, a “family” compartment, a “recreation/entertainment” compartment, etc.  It can show up in things as simple as a list of priorities…God is first, family is second, church activity/commitment is third, friends are fourth, work/school is fifth, and the list continues.  But what is implied in lists such as these?  Look back at the list, write out your own list of priorities, and then answer that question…what is implied in a list like this one?

Here’s the answer, as I understand it.  In making a list like this, we are implying that all of the items on the list are separate things that have different levels of importance in our lives.  Does that sound about right?  The next question is this…is this the way that God would have us live?  Would God have us separate everything on the hypothetical list I gave and then rank their importance in relation to one another?  Stop again, and think about it.

  It separates.  It separates work from family…ok.  It separated entertainment from work…still ok.  It separates God from…wait a second, it separates God?  That’s the implication.  There’s my life with God, which is most important…then my life with my family is second in importance.  And we talk in this way, as if the two should never intersect? 

The truth is…we may have priorities, but if we are Christians, God doesn’t belong as a single item on the list.  Rather, every item on our list of human priorities must be influenced by our relationship to God.  So, maybe we should have a list…maybe we shouldn’t.  But if we choose to make written priorities, it seems that every item ought to contain some kind of adjective (e.g.- “God-honoring,” “God-centered,” “God-glorifying,” etc.).

Hezekiah’s priority list may have started with (1) God and (2) career, but it seems that Isaiah’s prophecy would have been different if it had been (1) God-centered worship in the nation and (2) God-centered military leadership.  Even then, Rabshekah would have shown up to taunt the people, but their victory would have been sure…rather than a last-minute prayer from the king and deliverance from the Lord (2 Ki. 19:14-36).

The questions we must ask ourselves are obvious…am I seeking to honor God in every aspect of my life, or is my life divided into compartments?  Does God’s Word affect my attitude and behavior in my career, or do I see its place only in organized Bible studies and Sunday morning sermons?  Am I seeking to live a God-centered life apart from God-centered commitments to God’s people or corporate worship?  [These last two are incompatible, by the way…but that’s a subject for another blog.]

God’s people must never separate God’s influence from any part of life.  He is King, and there is no part of our lives exempt from His dominion…not our family, not our career, not our friendships, not our recreation, not our entertainment…nothing.  He rules it all, and we are to live in such a way that our lives reflect His rulership over it all.  May God help us not compartmentalize our lives.  Rather, let us commit, once again, to “make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9) in every part of life.