August 30, 2010

God, the Gospel, and Glenn Beck

A far more thought-provoking article than my last one ... but on a similar subject. From Russ Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ... and, perhaps almost as happily, a native Mississippian.

Return to God? Or Ready Excuse?

Last Wednesday night, we studied Luke 14.15-24 as a church. It’s that famous parable where the banquet master (God) is turned down again and again by people who are too pre-occupied to accept his invitation. One man has to check on his real estate, and another his farm equipment. A third is too into his new wife to attend. And so the story goes … with the point being that money and possessions (as in the first man’s field), work and business (as in the second man’s team of oxen), and family and relationships (as in the third man’s marriage) can become deadly idols. I say it again – money and possessions, work and business, and family and relationships can become deadly idols in the life of a Christian!

Are they bad things? By no means. But it is precisely because they are good things that they can so subtly substitute for the best thing – Christ himself! If we seem to be doing well for ourselves, and achieving some measure of success as decent, family-oriented, hard-workers … we are prone to think we have achieved our highest goals; to believe we are just where God wants us … and to miss the call to repentance altogether!

And yet this is precisely what is happening to thousands (dare I say hundreds of thousands, or even millions) of Christians in our country. Good morals, the freedom to be whom and what we want to be, and even family values have become the watchwords for so many church going people. These kinds of topics can gather enormous crowds (witness D.C. last weekend) filled with people who equate having good families, good values, and the freedom to work and earn an honest wage with what it means to be people of ‘faith’; and to ‘return to God’. But it doesn’t take a return to God to want a good family, to want to be a decent person, and to want a job and my freedom … does it?

And, stepping back inside the churches … there is little wonder that pastors who recycle these topics every three months or so should have full churches! I don’t doubt that many of these men have good intentions. They want to see people coming in … just like I do. And they have figured out that if their sermon series run a regular circuit through the topics of friends, family, and finances … people will be more likely to come than if they announced a seven-part series on the attributes of God, or on the book of Zechariah. So they do three weeks on finances, followed by five weeks on marriage, followed by two weeks on how to find fulfillment at work, followed by four weeks on child-rearing, followed by three weeks on true friendship, followed (once more) by three weeks on finances, five weeks on marriage, and so on. And then, every now and again, just to keep themselves honest, they’ll do a one month fly over of a book like John, or a topic like prayer.

And it is little wonder, I say, that people flock to their services! Because these preachers – many of them unwittingly (although inexcusably) – are simply helping them to prop up the idols that all Americans (and all human beings) are most prone to worship. And many conservative politicians and commentators have tuned in along this same wave length. I agree, on a surface level, with a lot of what they say. But for a pastor, politician, or pundit to equate good families, good morals, and the basic freedom to work and live in peace … I say to equate those things with returning to God or being people of faith is to miss the whole point! Everyone wants to have a good family, and good finances, and fulfillment at work! It does not require repentance for sin or faith in Jesus to want that!

Indeed, it is precisely because people pursue these things with such ardor, Jesus says in Luke 14, that many of them never come to Christ! The natural man loves his money and his family and his freedoms more than he loves God! That is just plain and simple fact. And what he needs to be challenged to do is not to prop up his idols and fight for them in the public square, but to lay them aside in favor of repentance toward, and faith in, and love for, and abandon to Christ and His gospel!

So what am I trying to say? That preachers or politicians should never speak about issues like family, or finances, or work, or even good morals? Or that Christians shouldn’t care about these things? Not for a moment! I am simply saying that these things do not equate to the Christian faith! At best, they are some good side effects of it. But, for most Christians in the world, things like freedom and financial stability are never to be seen. And, further, when we equate these various pieces of American Dream with faith … not only is the plain and simple gospel often marginalized or even overlooked entirely (in favor of other, more ‘relevant’ material); but those who preach in this way are only further fixating people’s minds on those things which Jesus says are already their most prominent preoccupations … and, indeed, their most ready excuses for delaying real repentance and faith!

Jesus says, in Luke 14, that it is precisely because we are so concerned for our stuff, and our jobs, and our families that many of us miss heaven! Because, having achieved some measure of success in these areas, we might think that we have achieved our highest goals … and thereby miss eternity! So let’s heed His advice … and never confuse the good with the gospel.

August 23, 2010

Where we got Julia's Name

By means of these weekly articles (and at our 9am prayer meeting), we have spent the last eight months together in the book of Romans. And, alas, this week we come to the end of those journeys. I have tried, week by week – and consecutively through the book’s 16 chapters – to scribble down a few devotional thoughts that might be helpful to you. I hope, in some small way, they have been.

And today, in Paul’s final chapter, we are faced with a long list of names – many of which are difficult to pronounce, and most of which we have never heard before, and never will again (this side of heaven). Names like Phoebe, and Andronicus, and Narcissus. In this chapter, Paul mentions all sorts of people who, along the pathway of his ministry, “risked their own necks” for the gospel (v.4); who were “workers in the Lord” (v.12); who were “choice men in the Lord” (v.13), and so on. Persis, Rufus, Herodian, Junias, and so on. Here we have all sorts of faceless men and women (faceless to us, that is … but not to Paul; and not to God!); here we have several handfuls of people largely forgotten by history … but who were so vital in Paul’s great accomplishment of preaching the gospel, practically, throughout the known world!

One of the names in the list (as you will see in verse 15) is “Julia”. Nothing is said about her except that she was paired up, in Paul’s list, with a man named “Philologus”. Probably they were husband and wife. Maybe she called him “Gus” for short! We don’t know for sure. And the reason we don’t know for sure is because, like most of these other characters, we never see them stepping onto the stage of history again. History, from a merely human perspective, records these two – and nearly all their compatriots in Romans 16 – as merely bit characters. And yet to Paul, people like Julia meant everything. And to God, they are well-known and loved!

So, as we prepared, a little over seven years ago, to see our first child come into the world, I was perusing this list one morning – not looking for baby names, but simply reading the book of Romans. And it occurred to me that this is what I hoped our children might be like – like the people in Romans 16: godly, hard workers in the Lord … advancing the gospel whether anyone ever remembered their names or not. And, of all the names we might have selected from Romans 16, Julia stood out (it just has a little better ring to it, I think you’ll agree, than does “Tryphosa”!). So we went with it … and continue to pray that, by God’s grace, our little girl will become more and more like her Roman namesake.

But I don’t share that story with you simply because I am a proud papa, over eager to gush about my children or talk about myself. I share the story with you because it seems to me that Julia, Philologus, Nereus, and the rest ought to serve as role models for us all.

Let’s be honest. There are some names that will be remembered throughout all church history – Spurgeon, Luther, Calvin, Elliot, Augustine, and so on. But none of our names will be on that list. A hundred years from now, if someone should run across a yellowing copy of our church roster, our names will appear just as unfamiliar (and some of them hard to pronounce!) as those in Romans 16. No one (on this earth) will remember who we were. But that’s not the point of what we’re doing, is it? It wasn’t the point for Julia and the others. They just wanted to serve the Lord; to spread the gospel; to serve those who were on the front lines; to please the Lord … even if always behind the scenes. And, evidently they did so … though we may never know exactly how.

Let’s be like them. Let’s give our everything for the fame of a far more memorable and significant name – Jesus! Our names may never be written in the annals. But if they are in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that is enough.

August 16, 2010

Next Stop: Spain

No, I am not heading off any time soon on a mission (or pleasure) trip to Spain (although I enjoy going there, every so often, via Rick Steves’s Best of Europe PBS programs!). Rather, I am writing, once again, about Paul’s letter to the Romans. And, when we come to the latter portion of the 15th chapter, we discover that his love for the country of Spain was one of His reasons for sending this marvelous letter to Italy! That requires some explaining, doesn’t it?

One of the reasons Paul wrote to the Romans was to introduce himself to these Christians more thoroughly. As an aside, it’s interesting that, in introducing himself to them, he doesn’t actually do a lot of introducing of himself (how many churches he’d planted; how many people he’d baptized; how many chapels he’d built). There is a tiny bit of that. But Paul’s introduction of himself is more like an introduction to his gospel! A reminder that, when we support some mission work, we ought to want to know far more about what is preached than about how ‘successful’ the missionary has been! But I digress …

Paul wrote this letter to the church at Rome in order to introduce himself to them. And one of the reasons he wanted them to know who he was (and what he preached) is because he hoped (15.24 and 28) to stop off in Rome on his way to Spain. And he hoped, frankly, that the Romans church would support this great missionary effort to the western edge of the Mediterranean (and, really, the know world). So Paul wrote the Romans because he wanted to preach the gospel to the Spaniards! And I find that intriguing and challenging!

Paul had already done so much, had he not? Even a cursory reading of the book of Acts demonstrates that Paul had already preached in dozens of widespread locations, and planted several handfuls of churches! In fact, here in Romans 15, he tells us that he is on his way to Jerusalem (v.25); and that he has just finished a tour in Macedonia and Achaia (or modern Greece, v.26). Indeed, in verse 19 he tells us that “from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum (modern Albania and Croatia) I have fully preached the gospel of Christ”. In short, Paul had spent ten very hard years travelling, often on foot, a distance roughly the equivalent of traversing the original 13 colonies of the United States! And now he wanted to almost double that distance by heading to Spain!

And I say: ‘What a heart for the gospel!’ What a desire Paul had to proclaim Jesus and to see people bend the knee to Him! He meant what he said when he wrote that his desire (v.20) was “to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named”! And, O, that more of that desire would rub off on me! Are we all called to go to China, or Yemen, or Afghanistan? No more than all of the Christians in Jerusalem, or Rome, or Antioch were all called to board the ship with Paul on his way to Spain! But, O, that we all had his spirit! Many of you do … and have demonstrated it by faithful prayer and support. And let’s keep going … longing to see people at the ends of the earth – people we may never see this side of heaven – coming into Christ’s kingdom!

August 9, 2010

Like Jesus

Three times, in the first nine verses of Romans 15, Paul exhorts us to love and serve our brethren – not just because they are made in God’s image; not just because they, as believers, are God’s children; not just as a good testimony to outsiders; and not just because to do so strengthens one another’s faith. All those things are true! But three times in the first few verses of this chapter, Paul exhorts us to bear with one another, love one another, serve one another, and so on … based on the example of Jesus!

Isn’t that what we are aiming for – to be like Christ? And isn’t that one of the big reasons why God saved us in the first place (Romans 8.29) – to be conformed to the image of Jesus? Of course it is! And, if we are serious about being like Jesus, we will be serious about loving and serving the brothers! Notice how Paul puts it …

First he says that “each of us is to please his neighbor … for even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘the reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (vv.2-3). In other words, when Jesus went to that cross and bore the stripes that we deserve for having reproached our Maker … He did not do so to please Himself! O yes, I know that there was “joy set before Him” and that, in one sense, He was glad to accomplish the purpose for which His Father had sent Him. But, at the same time, there could have been nothing in His human flesh that relished the thought of dying like that – in shame and humiliation; in excruciating pain; forsaken by His Father. It was a terrible thing – something no one would volunteer for excitedly. And yet Christ went through with it, choosing not to please Himself, but to love sinners! And that is how we ought to relate to our brothers and sisters in Jesus, and even to unbelieving neighbors. We ought to be willing, for God’s sake, not to please ourselves, but others. Are you willing?

To help you become so, notice verse 7 as well. Paul writes that we should “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” In other words, if you are tempted to turn away from someone in disgust (whether because of their sin, or their skin color, or their hygiene, or their accent, or their denominational affiliation, or their __________); I say, if you are tempted to keep your distance from another believer in Jesus, remember well that this is not how Christ treated you! Our sins, and foibles, and worldliness are far more shocking to Jesus than the most cocky, out of line person’s could ever be to us. And yet He accepted us. He accepted me … the snobby, selfish pastor who gets irritated when things don’t go his way. And He accepted you, warts and all. So doesn’t it just make common sense that people who have been so welcomed would bend over backwards to welcome others? But will you bend over backwards? And will I?

Finally, notice what Paul says in verse 9: “Christ has become a servant to the circumcision”. Have you ever read the gospels and been amazed that Jesus could do all that He did without having a physical or emotional breakdown? He seemed always surrounded by crowds. Always answering someone’s questions; or dealing with someone’s objections; or healing someone’s body; or meeting someone’s needs; or counseling someone’s soul. How did He not wear out? First, because He was continually filled with the Holy Spirit, and that without measure! But also because He had made up His mind that this was why He came – not to have a nice, middle class existence; but to serve other people! Have you made up your mind that, as a follower of Jesus, that is your role, too?

Reason for Optimism, Part 2

In response to my previous post (about how the TV talking heads and pseudo-prophets can scare us into a gloom and doom view of the future) someone may say to me: ‘You know, pastor, it’s not just the guys on TV. The Bible itself often seems to present a pessimistic view of the future. What about the book of Revelation, or Matthew 24?’ That is a good question; and a valid objection. In fact, let me show you just how valid by reading to you a few verses from Matthew 24. Listen to Matthew 24.9-12:

Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold.

Now, in light of all that I have been saying … what do I say to that? Well, I grant that it is true! Christians will be “hated by all nations”. Lawlessness will increase. People’s love will wax cold. I do not dispute those things for a moment! I simply say that Matthew 24, and the book of Revelation, and other similar passages are not the only passages in the Bible that we should consider when pondering the future! Luke 13 and Romans 11 and Revelation 7 are just as true as Matthew 24!

For instance, while it is true that, in latter days (Matthew 24.12) many people’s “love will grow cold”; it is also true, according to the apostle Paul, that in latter days (Romans 11.26) “all Israel will be saved”. In other words, while some people’s love grows cold, other’s is made hot! And while it is true that, in latter days (Matthew 24.11) “many false prophets will arise and will mislead many”; it is also true (Matthew 24.14) that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come”! Do you see? While false prophets lead many astray, the gospel will still be quietly, successfully doing its work … all the way until the end of time! And the mustard plant will continue to grow, and the lump of dough continue to rise until (Revelation 7.9) people “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” are brought to bow at the Savior’s feet!

So yes, there are depressing realities in the world … and will continue to be. And some of them will grow even more depressing! And yet, at the same time, the leaven of the gospel (verse 21) is still being kneaded into people’s hearts all across this planet. And while our culture seems to be in a steep decline … other cultures are slowly being brought to bow their knees at Jesus’ feet! Right now the gospel is flourishing, for instance, in places like Zambia and China. This morning, while we may feel our own ground is barren, Chinese Christians are living right in the middle of Luke 13.19 … and Zambian Christians in verse 21!

So what’s my point? Simply that, while troublesome times surely lie ahead; while our own days may seem dark in many respects … the gospel is still the gospel! And as long as it is … well then the future is filled with hope for those who believe! Who knows when the seed that is being lovingly sown on the rapidly hardening soil of American culture will once again spring up and grow into a mighty tree? There is every reason to believe it will, if we keep throwing the mustard seed into the garden!

Reason for Optimism

So He was saying, "What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and THE BIRDS OF THE AIR NESTED IN ITS BRANCHES." And again He said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened." Luke 13.18-21

“Maybe this passage will help us” my friend said cleverly, “to gain our hope for the future from our great God, instead of from Fox News.” And what he meant was that many Christians – particularly those who gain the bulk of their cultural insights from television’s talking heads – are far too pessimistic. And it is, admittedly, easy to be so. We watch the news and see that a federal judge has repealed proposition 8 in California. We listen to the pundits go back and forth about health care as though it were Armageddon. We hear our presidents – whether Democratic or Republican – consistently demonized. And it is, therefore, no wonder that many people are prone to think the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket; that the anti-Christ is probably sitting on Capitol Hill as we speak!

Our culture continues its rapid secularization. Churches, in many places, continue to dwindle. And, therefore, many Christians seem almost content to pack it in; to just hunker down and wait for the Second Coming. And many preachers stand, every week, in front of the frightened masses, serving as cheerleaders for this pessimistic view of the future. And so – whether from the talking heads on TV, or the preachers in their pulpits – I say that there is a great deal of fear-mongering being perpetrated in our day. And there is a strange and even magnetic power that exists in being able to frighten people about the future – which is why loud-mouthed talk show hosts and political preachers have such a hearing! And too many Christians, it seems to me, have become all too easily taken in by just such tactics. Many Christians are far too pessimistic about the future!

To make that point clear … just contrast, for a moment or two, all the current political and prophetic rhetoric with what Jesus Himself says in Luke 13.18-21. Jesus, it seems to me, presents to us a reason for great future hope! The kingdom of God; the good news of Jesus (v.19) “is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden.” And while, for a long time, it may not appear that that seed is having any effect; while, for a long time, it may appear that the ground is only getting harder and harder … one day a sprout peeks its head above ground! And, in due time, that sprout turns into a large mustard plant, big enough to be thought of as “a tree.” Or similarly, the kingdom of God; the rule of Jesus in the lives of men and women (v.21) is like a pinch of “leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour.” And again, when she first starts pressing and kneading the dough, it doesn’t seem like the leaven is having any effect at all. But a little more kneading, and a few more turns of the hourglass, and soon the whole lump has been transformed!

And so it is, says Jesus, with the gospel, and the church, and the expansion of the rule of Christ in the hearts of men! And I submit to you that that is not a gloomy picture … but one of great hope! The gospel is doing its work, whether we can see it or not. As long as the gospel of Jesus is preached, God’s rule over the hearts of men will not dwindle, but increase and expand! That’s why we send out missionaries isn’t it? Because we believe that, though some patches of ground are as barren, today, as they could possibly be … there is still hope! And if that is true in Sweden, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia ... it is true in our own country, barren as things appear to be becoming!

I say as long as we have and proclaim the gospel, there is reason for us to be hopeful about the future … no matter what the TV pundits and preachers may say!

August 2, 2010

The Man in the Mirror

So then each one of us will give an account of himself before God. Romans 14.12

What a full verse! Short, yes. But there is a great deal that could be said from Romans 14.12 …

We could emphasize the words give an account … reminding ourselves that we are, indeed, going to have to open our lips someday and explain why we did the things we did. I’ll bet there will be a lot of stammering and stuttering on that day!

Or we could emphasize the words before God, adding even more drama to the aforementioned courtroom scene. We will stand before a judge who has no biases and no blind spots ... and who knows our record better than we do. O, how important to have an Advocate with the Father” (1 John 2.1)!

Indeed, we might also emphasize the words each one of us, at the beginning of the verse. There is no one who will escape God’s courtroom. No one who will somehow slip through the cracks of the system. No. “Each one of us” will die once, and after this comes judgment.

I say, there are a number of phrases and words we could light upon … creating a several point sermon on a verse like Romans 14.12. But I think the word that Paul intends us to emphasize, when we read that verse, is the word himself. “So then each one of us will give an account of himself before God.” And why do I think that is the word that Paul would emphasize? Because this verse falls into the middle of a passage (the whole of Romans 14) in which Paul is reminding believers not to judge one another over secondary issues, but rather, to worry about her or himself!

“Each person must be fully convinced” he says about secondary issues like food, and drink, and church holidays, “in his own mind” (v.5). In other words, there are some areas in which God has left matters somewhat open to the studied wisdom of the individual conscience. Not all matters are matters of conscience, mind you! There are tons of black and white commands all throughout Scripture! But there are some things where God has intentionally painted His truth in the color gray.

For instance, some people can celebrate Christmas and Easter to the glory of God. Others, for various (and sometimes, good) reasons, find those things a stumbling block – and choose not to celebrate them … also for the glory of God! Again, some people think it is best to refrain from the use of all alcoholic beverages, to the glory of God. And other people, realizing that the Bible does not issue a blanket requirement of tee-totaling, are able to enjoy a glass of wine with thanksgiving to their heavenly Father. But let each person be convinced in his own mind, Paul says in verse 5! Let each one do what, according to his own conscience, is glorifying to God. And “let us not judge one another anymore” (v.13) over things for which not even God Himself intends to judge us!

That is the background of verse 12. And so, I think, what Paul has in mind when he reminds us that “each one of us will give an account of himself before God” is to teach us that, when we stand to give an account before God … it will not be to tell Him what we thought about how so-and-so drank wine at her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary; or how such and such a family was too legalistic (or too loosey-goosey) about Christmas. No! Each one of us will stand before God to give an account for our own obedience to scripture; and for our own obedience to the wisdom and conscience God gave to us on issues where Scripture draws no definitive lines in the sand. “Each one of us will give an account of himself before God.” And when I think of it like that, I realize I’ll have plenty of ‘splaining to do at the judgment seat … without ever having to point my fingers toward anyone but myself! And so will you!

And so once again I say, ‘thank God for our Advocate’! Yes, we will have to give an account, in some form or fashion. And it won’t be pretty. But our Advocate will be able to give an even better account – of His sinless perfection, and atonement for transgressions, and resurrection from the dead … all accomplished on behalf of those who believe! And if God looks at me through those cross-shaped lenses, shouldn’t I look at my brother through them as well?