Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Center and Substance of the Message

[This entry follows a sermon titled 'The Wonder of the Cross'. Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Mark 15:33-39 give us Mark's account of the events of the crucifixion. Mark focuses his account on the darkness which covered the land and the tearing of the temple curtain. These two things correspond with the message of the cross, which is that Jesus Christ suffered under the wrath of God, often pictured as darkness in the OT. He did this to make the once-for-all sacrifice for sin, which made the regular sacrifices of the temple obsolete. Jesus was not only the sacrifice, but He is also the high priest who administers that sacrifice. So, the way into God's presence is through Christ and not through the curtain, and that way has been opened to everyone who will believe in Him. So, following the death of Christ, God testifies to all this through tearing the curtain in the temple.

This message of a crucified Christ is the center and substance of what God is saying to the world, and it must be the center and substance of what the church is saying. In evangelism, it is a good thing to share a testimony of God's work in our lives; however, our testimonies are not the gospel. Our testimonies are a result of the gospel. We don't want our friends and neighbors to simply be moved by the results of the gospel...we want them to encounter and be changed by the gospel itself. For it is only the gospel that is the power of God to save all who will believe (Rom. 1:16). So, in seeking to evangelize another, we must be primarily concerned with knowing how to communicate to them Christ and Him crucified.

Not only in evangelism, though, but in our daily lives, we must keep the gospel central and substantial. One important application of Christ and Him crucified in daily living is to consider how we respond when we sin. Of course, we do not continue willfully sinning simply because we have the assurance that we are forgiven (Rom. 6:1, 15; Gal. 5:13). We must be holy because God has called us to be holy and because God is holy. However, when we sin, what are we to do? We are to remember that One stands before the Father who has dealt with our sin. "But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins..." (1 Jn. 2:1-2a). We remember that our sin was fully punished in Christ, and it will not be punished in us. We do not believe the lie that our position in God is affected by our sin...our position in God has been forever established in Christ. We have disturbed our fellowship with God because one cannot be fully devoted to a holy God and unholy living in the same moment. However, we repent of that desire, that thought, that word, that deed, and we appropriate the forgiveness of Christ once again.

The death of Christ gives us strength in fighting against sin. Take, for example, this quote about fighting against lust from John Piper's book Pierced by the Word.

"...have you ever in the first five seconds of temptation demanded of your mind that it look steadfastly at the crucified form of Jesus Christ? Picture this. You have just seen a peek-a-boo blouse inviting further fantasy. You have five seconds. 'No! Get out of my mind! God help me!' Now immediately, demand of your mind - you can do this by the Spirit (Romans 8:13) - demand of our mind that it fix its gaze on Christ on the cross. use all your fantasizing power to see His lacerated back. Thirty-nine lashes left little flesh intact. He heaves with His breath up and down against the rough vertical beam of the cross. Each breath puts splinters into the lacerations. The Lord gasps. From time to time He screams out with intolerable pain. He tries to pull away from the wood and the massive spokes through His wrists rip into nerve endings and He screams again with agony and pushes up with His feet to give some relief to His wrists. But the bones and nerves in His pierced feet crush against each other with anguish and He screams again. There is no relief. His throat is raw from screaming and thirst. He loses His breath and thinks He is suffocating, and suddenly His body involuntarily gasps for air and all the injuries unite in pain. In torment, He forgets about the crown of two-inch thorns and throws His head back in desperation, only to hit one of those thorns perpendicular against the cross beam and drive it half an inch into His skull. His voice reaches a soprano pitch of pain and sobs break over His pain-wracked body as every cry brings more and more pain.//Now, I am not thinking about the blouse anymore..."

Another realm in which the death of Christ should daily touch us is within our marriages. Here are two sinners who have said 'I do.' Though they stand righteous before God because of the work of Christ, they continue to battle against sin. Sin often shows itself in the context of marriage...two sinners living in close quarters will do that. Christ and Him crucified reminds us of how we have been forgiven by God, and we are instructed to forgive others in like manner (Eph. 4:32). If we stand in awe of the love and forgiveness of God on the cross, then there should be something awe-inspiring about the way that we forgive one another in marriage. The gospel of Christ and Him crucified daily informs how we treat our spouse and how we freely and continually offer forgiveness to one another.

To go beyond this, the crucifixion of Jesus sets an incredible standard of love for husbands. Paul wrote, "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." (Eph. 4:25). We are thankful that Christ's love is not equivalent to a box of chocolates or a Hallmark card. There's nothing wrong with these kinds of expressions of affection, but they do not reflect the self-giving, sacrificial love to which we husbands are called. The kind of love we must demonstrate causes deep pain...if we are to love our wives, we must be killing sin in the flesh...we must "crucify the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24).

In short, the death of Christ is meant to encourage and strengthen us for endurance as believers. The words of Hebrews 12 are especially pertinent here, and I have included a few of my own questions to help you think through it. "...let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [How are we to do this?] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, [What about looking to Jesus will help us here?] who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. [But what if it's too hard?] In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood" (v. 1-4).

In our evangelism, in our response to our own sin, in fighting against sin, in our marriages...in living for Christ...we must keep Christ and Him crucified central and substantial. May our lives, this very day, be lived as informed by the death of Christ!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Christian Parenting 'Mantra'

Psalm 127:3a - "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord..."

Do you know what a mantra is? It’s a form of prayer associated with Hinduism. These prayers are spoken repetitiously in the hopes that the power of repetition will mystically bring about the granting of the person’s prayers. One popular example of a mantra, though it’s not exactly a Hindu prayer, is at the end of The Wizard of Oz. The good witch tells Dorothy that if she wants to go home, all she needs to do is click her heels three times and repeat, “There’s no place like home.” It works, and the movie ends.

If one ever spoke of a “Christian parenting mantra,” it might be something like, “Children are a blessing from the Lord…children are a blessing from the Lord.” I have spoken with parents who have repeated this phrase to themselves to try and induce a calmed state when facing a frustrating parenting situation. Whether it’s feeling helpless with a two-year-old pushing your buttons or feeling hopeless with a teenager pushing his curfew, we have all faced frustrating situations…those times when we feel that we were far passed the “end of our rope.” At those times, we may be tempted to feel that a mantra-like repetition of Psalm 127:3 will bring us back to our senses. We want to replace the exaggerated “I could kill him!” with “Children are a blessing from the Lord,” hoping we can calm down and think clearly.

What I want to ask in this month’s newsletter is this: Is this what is means for children to be a blessing from the Lord? A gift from the Lord? A heritage from the Lord? If Psalm 127:3 is not meant to be a “Christian parenting mantra,” then how are we to think about it? Well, Solomon is the author of this psalm, and he writes about the vanity of living life, building a city, and protecting a city apart from God…it’s almost like a two-verse summary of the book of Ecclesiastes.

Then, in the middle of the psalm, he shifts from what is hopeless without God to what is a blessing from God. Children are a blessing from God…children are a heritage from God. They are created by God, they are given to particular families by God, and the way in which they must be raised is commanded by God. He brought them about in our families…whether through biology or adoption, and the Scripture tells us that this is a gift.

So, what are we to think in those frustrating moments when our “blessings” feel more like “curses”? What are we to do when it doesn’t feel like our children are a blessing? How do we battle feeling as if they are just a burden? Well, the first thing we should be reminded of is that our feelings are not always trustworthy…they are affected by just about every environmental factor (how much we sleep, eat, exercise, our stress level, etc.), and they can shift faster than the weather in central Indiana. Feelings are not to be trusted…when it comes to our security in relationship to God and when it comes to the place of our children in our lives.

Secondly, we need to remember that having children is more than a physical blessing, though it is that. It is a wonderful blessing to know that our families will continue on, that our sons will carry our names, that our daughters will bear grandchildren, etc. Yet, there is a greater blessing that God is concerned to give His children through their having children. It is a spiritual blessing. It is the blessing we find in Romans 8:28-29: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” (emphasis added).

God’s great purpose for us is to be conformed to the image of His Son, and He has designed our lives such that “all things” will work to accomplish His purposes. This process of becoming like Jesus is called progressive sanctification...or, in simpler terms, spiritual growth. Spiritual growth happens as my sin is exposed, I confess it, and then I seek to kill it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual growth happens as I am stretched through Bible study and prayer. Spiritual growth happens as I learn to trust God through great difficulties in life. And, as a Christian, I want to grow…it is a blessing to grow spiritually.

Christians typically pull out Romans 8:28-29 when a friend is grieving the loss of a loved one or when someone loses their job. However, this is not “all things.” One of those “things” is having children. Think about this…God places children in our families and in our lives in order to make us more like Jesus. Parenting children is an activity that exposes our sin in ways that no other activity can. Being selfish, impatient, quick to anger, etc., are all exposed in the day-to-day routine of parenting.

Also, raising children is a constant reminder of our need for the Word of God and for prayer in our lives. It is in the battle of parenting that we see the superficiality of the world’s approaches and we find the depths of the riches of God’s wisdom. We find ourselves on our knees…not just when the parental floodwaters rise…but also in the daily bustle of childrearing.

Finally, parenting children, especially when they rebel against us, presents us with opportunities to trust God. Raising children will break your heart…over and over again. There will be plenty of dark days in seeking to raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. However, it is when we are in the parental valley of the shadow of death, we can know that God is with us and His rod and staff comfort us. We can trust our heavenly Father for He has entrusted these children to our care, and He wants to grow us through the difficulties of parenting.

Children are a heritage from the Lord. It’s not a mantra to keep us sane in the midst of chaos. It’s a promise…a promise that parenting is not an activity that we must merely endure until we get our children out of the house. It’s a promise that God is so committed to your spiritual growth…to your sanctification…to your being like Jesus…that He gave you children. You will laugh, cry, rejoice, mourn, experience victory, suffer defeat, and have your heart broken as you raise them, but it is all part of God’s amazing plan to conform you to the image of His dear Son. Don’t chant Psalm 127:3…memorize it, meditate on it, and rejoice in it as you raise your children.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Follow in His Steps

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church titled "The Irony of the Crucifixion." Click here to listen to the audio.]

Charles Sheldon wrote a book published in 1896 under the title In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? It is the story of a pastor who meets a destitute man and then challenges his congregation to take a one-year challenge. This challenge was to not do anything until they answered the question, "What would Jesus do?" Just under 100 years later, in 1989, a youth leader from Holland, Michigan, decided to use the question from Sheldon's book to challenge her teenagers. She had the original bracelets made for her students, and one thing led to another. The American culture popularized the idea so that, eventually, one could get "WWJD" on anything from necklaces to T-shirts to hats to shoes to dog tags...and much, much more. The question even became the object of parody.

Now, while the question "What would Jesus do?" seems relatively helpful at first glance, it is actually not. The answer to the question (and, thus, the behavior that follows) is typically based on one's opinion of what Jesus would do in a given situation. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we do not make decisions based on our opinion of what Jesus might do in a given situation. We must live our lives based on the actual teaching of the Scripture. Rather than dream up Jesus' response to one situation or another, God would have us know His Word and respond to life's circumstances in ways based on His guidelines...not our guesses.

In saying all this, I do not mean to imply that Christ has not given us an example to follow, for 1 Peter 2 tells us that He has. "...while Christ's perfect obedience is elsewhere said to earn for us God's approval which Adam failed to earn and which we could not earn ourselves (cf. Rom. 5:18-19), Peter here emphasizes that Christ's obedience through unjust suffering has left us an example to imitate, an example of the kind of life that is perfectly pleasing in God's sight" (Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 129).

This is where we intersect with the text from Mark 15. In Mark 15:16-32, we see Jesus being mocked by Roman soldiers, mocked by the crowds, and mocked by the chief priests and scribes. How did Jesus respond? He took all of it! 1 Peter 2 puts it this way, "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (v. 23). It is in this way that Jesus was "leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps." [That's where Sheldon got the title of his book, by the way.]

The mocking of Jesus was unjust and uncalled for. There was nothing valid for which to mock Him. Yet, He did not revile in return...He did not threaten. If anyone had the power to exact revenge on His assailants, it was Jesus Christ. He was their Creator, and with a word, He could end their existence. As surely as He raised Jairus' daughter from the dead, He could have sent them to their deaths. However, He did not. He knew that vengeance was not His to take in that moment. Instead, Jesus entrusted Himself to His heavenly Father. And, in a very real sense, He entrusted the justice these men deserved to His heavenly Father.

This glimpse at Jesus' life reminds us of just how unique our Savior was as He lived on earth. He was fully God and fully man. Yet, being fully man, He did not respond the way that we would respond to such mockery. Our instinctual response is to bow up, to bark back, and to begin a verbal assault in return. Rather than humbly accepting the mockery as part of following Christ and inwardly being honored (even counting it joy) to suffer for Christ's sake (Acts 5:41; James 1:2), we want to win the argument, prove that we are not "mock worthy," and turn the tables on those who mock us. We want to revile...to threaten.

The pride of the human heart is quickly revealed when we are treated unfairly...particularly for things to which we are deeply committed, like the gospel. The human heart is also desperately wicked and deceitful...making us feel as though this is the way we should respond. We desire the temporal triumph rather than trusting in our faithful Creator. Of course, there is a time to give an answer for the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). Yet, even then, we must behave with gentleness and respect toward the unbelievers, so that when they continue reviling us, our good behavior shames them (1 Peter 3:16).

In thinking about this line through Peter's letter, one place where such humility, gentleness, and respect is especially needed is in the marriage relationship between a believer and an unbeliever. The stories of unbelieving husbands reviling their believing wives must have been as real and widely-known in Peter's day as they are today. The mockery of unbelieving husbands toward their believing wives can be particularly reviling...deeply hurtful. It is bothersome and divisive enough for only half of a marital relationship to be committed to following Jesus Christ, but certainly, some unbelievers take every opportunity they can get to mock and criticize and tear down the faith of their spouses.

What is a wife to do with that? Peter's answer is "Likewise, wives, be submissive to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives - when they see your respectful and pure conduct" (1 Peter 3:1-2). Peter's counsel is to not revile and threaten in return. Repaying evil for evil does nothing for the soul of your husband. It does not glorify God, and it does not reveal "the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit" (v. 4). Only those who have walked in these shoes could truly speak of the difficulty of doing so, but God's Word is clear...as believers, we do not revile and threaten in return...we follow the example of Jesus Christ, who entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.

Last Friday, I attended the funeral of Virginia Merrett. I was her pastor and knew her for only about 15 months, but I was so encouraged by every interaction I had with her. Her funeral service was a beautiful testimony to God's grace and Virginia's faithfulness. It was wonderful to hear, over and over again, how God used this humble woman to pave a path of godliness for her family.

During the service, her daughter recalled that Virginia was converted in 1941, upon her first hearing of the gospel. She was married at the time, and the Lord immediately gave her a burden for the salvation of her husband. For over 20 years, Virginia prayed for her husband and lived, as her daughter testified, "as a 1 Peter 3 wife." She did not seek to win an argument with her husband about religion...she sought to win his soul through her prayer and submission. In the early 60s, God answered Virginia's prayer, and her husband was saved.

I recall this story because, due to our pride, we often fail to see how humility and even silence can produce fruit of lasting value. Jesus' silence in the midst of mockery is an amazing example for all Christians. If we would please God, then we must "follow in his steps" (1 Pt. 2:21).