Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Way In A Manger

I love the Christmas season. It's my favorite time of the year. I love the food, the festivities & the family time. The warmth and the spirit that envelopes everyone this time of the year.

I also really enjoy Christmas movies. The Christmas Story, The Santa Clause series, A Charlie Brown Christmas and I even like Elf.

One of the classic Christmas films is Frank Capra's, Itʼs a wonderful life.

You know the story. George Bailey owns the savings & loan in sleepy Bedford Falls and it's getting ready to go under due to a mistake his uncle made. Heʼs going to lose everything, his house is rickety and needs
repair, he has a wife & several children to provide for and no where to turn. All he has is a few dollars in his pocket and a life insurance policy. He arrives at the conclusion that he is worth more dead than alive. As he's standing on the bridge preparing to end it all Clarence the angel intervenes and, in a night he'll never forget, shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never been born.

It's not only a great Christmas movie but one of the greatest films of all time because we all sometimes wonder, what if…

What would the world look like without you or me? How different would our friends and family be if we had never been born? What difference have I ever made?

Then I read John 15:22 where Jesus is talking to the disciples. He is speaking to them about the way the world will reject them and ultimately Himself. He tells them that the world hates Him because He shines light in their darkness, and theyʼd rather have darkness. During this discourse He makes a simple point by saying, “if I had not come…”

It had not occurred to me before. What would the world look like if Jesus had never been born? So much of our present world is informed and influenced by His life and death.

What would it look like if we could scroll back through history to 30 BC and from that year forward begin to pull out from the root, like a weed from a garden, every result and reference to Christ.

There would be no manger, no wise men, no shepherds. No story of God coming to earth, no peace on earth, goodwill to men. There would be no Peter, no walking on the water. No John, no Paul, no Revelation of Heaven. No triumph in the catcombs, no Mars Hill, no Constantinople, no Byzantine architecture.

Forget about the renaissance, the paintings & the frescos. What would Bellini, Michaelango & DaVinci muse over? If Jesus had not been born there would be no St. Peterʼs Basilica, no Sistine Chapel, no fresco on the ceiling, no Notre Dame, no national cathedral. Donʼt forget the music. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart composed what they did to be played in churches.

There would likely be no Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Dartmouth or Princeton. All began as Christian seminaries.

What about the hospitals? It is not the pagans building hospitals but the followers of Jesus Christ. Hospitals, as an institution of healing and care for the sick and wounded, are first found in Rome around 100 BC. The First Council of Nicea, in 325 AD provided for a hospital to be built in every city where a Cathedral was built. Similarly, Itʼs been Christians to build orphanages, shelters & rescue missions.

Think of all the people, believers, whoʼs decisions and lives were informed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. MLK, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington were all influenced and guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Without Jesus there would've been no Puritans and Pilgrims to leave England for religious freedom, no Mother Teresa, no William Booth and his Salvation Army, and no CS Lewis.

Then there's the believers The nameless thousands who minister daily to the poor, the sick, the hurting. Who help others and endeavor to follow peace with all men as the Bible instructs. What would our world look like if there were no people as an aggregate who believed in something bigger than themselves and in a savior who saw every soul as something worth giving and dying for.

Our world would be indelibly different if it had not been for Jesus Christ.

The world He came into was not much different than ours. Athens & Rome were in decline. The gods of Greece and Rome no longer could command the blind allegiance of the masses. Their world was as advanced or more than our own. Pound for pound they were probably more advanced than us in every way.

Rome gave us engineering, acquaducts, coliseums & hippodromes. The senate, governmental structures & law. Greece gave us philosophy, art & athletics.

Art, literature, poetry, music, architecture, and the greatest military machine the world had ever known, all of it taken together could not provide meaning to life, or point the way to lasting
forgiveness, or offer any answer to three questions we all must answer: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Again, it is a simple historical fact that the condition of the heathen world was deplorable. Even the Roman poets said as much. They saw the problem but were powerless to do anything about it. They had no power to effect lasting change. The result was gross superstition,
debased immorality, widespread corruption, evil run amok, and rank injustice.

This is the world into which Christ came. It is the world Paul describes so graphically in Romans 1, a world that knew the truth but suppressed it, ignored the true God, and turned to idolatry. It was a world that was given over to paganism, sexual immorality, homosexuality, murder, perversion, dishonesty, and brutality. A world of broken promises, broken dreams, broken homes, and broken hearts.

Education, power, philosophy and great art created desires they could not fill. In the end the verdict was clear. Athens could produce Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Rome produced Seneca, Cicero, Juvenal, Tacitus, and Julius Caesar. But 2,000 years later here we are celebrating a baby born in a tiny village of an obscure nation, in the corner of the great Roman kingdom, and laid in a manger. Into the darkness of their world, and into ours, God shined a light that will never be put out. He gave us Himself, Jesus our Lord and Savior.

The earth needed peace but we had no way.
We needed salvation but we couldnʼt do it ourselves.
We needed joy but had no way to acquire it.
We needed a promise and hope of eternal life but we had no way.

So God made a way in a manger and invited everyone to take that way.

It was Charles Spurgeon who said, "Come now to the babe in Bethlehem’s manger. Little children should come for he was once a little child himself. Young women should come for Mary was a young woman who was God’s instrument for bringing Christ into the world. Young men should come for Joseph was a young man who had great faith in God. Old women should come for Anna was an old woman who looked for the coming of the Lord. Old men should come for aged Simeon waited for the consolation of Israel. The working men and women should come to Christ because the shepherds represent all those who work with their hands for a living—and they too came to Bethlehem. Finally, the highly-educated of the world should come for the Wise Men came bearing gifts. They too bowed and worshiped the King."

Jesus made a way in a manger for all to find peace & to celebrate glad tidings of great joy. It was something Rome could never do, a vacuum Athens could not fill. Itʼs something Capitol Hill and Washington DC canʼt give you. Something youʼll never find in a shopping center.

We need Jesus and He made a way for us to get to God, and that way was first seen in the manger. It sounds banal but Jesus really is the reason for the season.

Heʼs the reason for everything.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Fine Line

Christians are asked, in many matters, to walk a fine line.

The Christian is asked to walk the fine line of rejecting sin but receiving sinners. He's taught to honor God above all yet rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's. The believer is to both do justly and love mercy (Micah 6:8), a very fine line. Followers of Jesus Christ walk in the paradox that they are in the world but not of the world (John 17:11-16). The Christian must find balance in the principle that all things are lawful but not all things are expedient (1 Cor. 10:23).

Living for Christ is to walk a fine line.

This week offered Christians an opportunity to walk one of those fine lines. President Obama announced late Sunday evening that a covert team of Navy Seals had killed Osama Bin Laden. After almost 10 years of evasion the mastermind behind the attacks of 9/11 was brought to justice.

As an American I find his death a relief. My hope is that the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks can find some manner of closure and rest in his capture and death. I am proud of our troops and honor their service. In my opinion, the United States as well as the entire world, is better off without his evil influence.

That's my opinion of the matter as an American. My opinion of the matter as a Christian is a little different.

As a Christian, I believe justice was served. Scripture teaches that those in power do not carry a sword in vain but they are the ministers of God to execute wrath of those who do evil (Romans 13:4). In other words the Navy Seals don't carry an M4 Carbine for show. They'll use it if you cross the line. However, I also believe that hell is real and that when an evil man dies his soul will go there.

The line the Believer is asked to walk is to celebrate justice and yet acknowledge the sobering reality of hell.

I was shocked as I read some comments made by Christians on Facebook and Twitter. Many of them celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden with comments like, "He's sharing a room in hell with Hitler now." and "I bet he was disappointed when he found out hell doesn't have virgins."

I'm afraid that many Christians, at times, allow their patriotism to override their faith. Some even equate being an American with being a Christian. They are not the same. Christians must, not extinguish, but moderate their celebration of justice with a sober belief in a real hell. To promote one over the other is unbalanced.

I am happy for America but there is a greater truth that animates my life. That truth includes a belief in a literal hell that is nothing to celebrate.

To celebrate in the death and eternal judgment, even of an enemy, simply doesn't balance with the New Testament Christian ethic. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‎"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

Singer Bruce Cockburn said, "Everybody wants to see justice done, to someone else."

Our faith must temper everything in our lives, including our patriotism. It will not always be easy, but it is the calling of all Christians to walk the fine line.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Church In Decline

I very much dislike having to qualify an opinion. It seems to me rather obvious that an opinion is, by definition, not necessarily universally agreed upon logic and fact but rather based upon personal rationalizations, anecdote and experience.

That being said, my family and I have travelled the midwest and some of the south for over 7 years as a full-time evangelist. What follows are not the findings of a university trained statistician but rather the gleanings of 10 years in active ministry. Whatever that's worth.

Furthermore, I feel it is important for anyone endeavoring to do anything worthwhile, personally or corporately, to stop on occasion and evaluate your progress and effectiveness. That is my disclaimer.

I was speaking to a friend today, who is also an evangelist, about a church we had been at for 3 weeks. It is an amazing place with honest, sincere people passionately trying to follow Jesus Christ. In discussing this church we commented on how refreshing it was to find a place where it felt like a genuine move of God was present. We both found it so refreshing because all too often we find ourselves ministering in churches that are in decline. There's no definitive way to diagnosis this but the symptoms are easy to feel.

1. Apathetic Worship
In my experience one of the first symptoms a church might be in decline is apathetic worship. There should be something about the worship experience of a church that draws the focus and enthusiasm of those in attendance. It should be full of passion and expression of the worshippers heart to God and Gods work in our lives. When people find themselves unable to prevent their mind from wandering and can be unfocused and unexpressive, to me, that's a sign that something is in decline in that church body. If the Spirit of God is present and working in a church in a real way, it will affect the way people in that church respond to His Word and His people.

2. Internal Focus
It seems one of the easiest causes of decline to develop, as well as the most easily overlooked sign of church decline, is that of focus. Without being intentional it is natural for any organization, group or church to internalize, stagnate and fade. It can be even easier to overlook. We're meeting our needs. We feel blessed and happy with where we are and what we have and see no need to challenge our comfort level. When the dominant conversations and concerns around a church are the felt needs of those in the establishment, how the building and budgets can meet their preferences, you might be witnessing a church in decline.

3. Leadership vs. Discipleship
I've seen many churches where the Pastor is, intentionally or unintentionally, disconnected from the people. Some are simply so unconcerned with their task of making disciples that they disconnect. Others feel they must remain aloof in order to retain their Pastoral aura. That kind of leadership simply will not sustain a healthy church. Many Pastors feel if they're friends with a person in their church they can't speak as the "voice of God" in their life. Not true. People trust those they know. You can talk all day and it will not affect the way I live unless you have influence to disciple me. The only way to gain that kind of influence in my life is to be my friend.

4. Closed Culture
This is one of those symptoms that "you know it when you see it". There's a lack of interest in the ministries of the church. No one wants to volunteer for fear of what so-and-so will say of their performance. Usually there's a small handful of people who control things and in order to fit into the culture of the church you must be welcomed or approved of by some if not all of that elite group. This is the kind of church that spends more effort defending the extra-biblical minutiae that define their cultural identity than preaching the teachings of Jesus. What Bible version we use, what kind of songs we sing, how we dress for service and when we have service become our top priorities (often whether we realize it or not).

5. Prayerlessness
When a church makes prayer a low priority they make God a low priority and that never works.

I believe these are all symptoms that can be turned around. With prayer, a willingness to examine our motives, purpose and even a willingness to repent of attitudes that have driven our actions. I wonder what would happen if more churches were willing to pray and ask God to show them what they were doing wrong and how to serve in a way that more fully pleases Him.

By the way, if you have a problem with the premise that your church might be doing something wrong, you might be in a church in decline.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sin, It Ruins Everything (Part 3)

“for the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, KJV)

The Jews have a word they greet one another with, Shalom. We’ve all heard that Shalom means “peace” but it means even more than that. According to Strong’s Concordance Shalom means “peace, completeness, wholeness, health, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.” Sin challenges shalom.

I find it comforting to know that the prophet Isaiah called Jesus, “Sar Shalom”. The prince of peace. Jesus is the only one that can clean out the toxin of sin and set us free from it’s control.

The Bible describes two types of people. The carnal man and the spiritual man. Another way to understand it is the man who has not yet been filled with the Spirit of God and the man who has been filled with His Spirit. The carnal man is dead and the spiritual man is alive. The carnal man serves sin and the spiritual man serves Christ.

Paul explains that the carnal man is only finally freed from sin when he dies. So the carnal man continues to sin, he needs to sin, so that sin can work its horror in his life, ruining everything, destroying the beauty and corrupting the sacred, until it finally brings death, freeing him from sin.

The spiritual man however, the Spirit filled believer, is dead in Christ. So he has been freed from sin while he yet lives. He can live free from the bondage of sin in this life! The Apostle Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”.

When Jesus died on the cross God accepted it as payment for the sins of every man. So now anyone who puts their faith in Jesus can be freed from sin. The Bible teaches that if we will repent of our sins and be baptized in Jesus name that He will fill us with His Spirit and we can be free from the power of sin in our lives.

The truth is we don’t have to be controlled by sin. If we will begin to believe in Jesus and live the life He teaches we can be free from sin. It doesn’t have to ruin anymore. We can be free form the law of sin and death and live in the liberty of a spiritual life.

Many people have offered solutions to sin throughout the ages. Some have said sin is not a real thing and if we just ignore it soon it will fade from societies consciousness. That hasn’t worked. Some have said that if you’re a good person that you can live a relatively happy life. That’s no comfort. I want to be free from sin. Some have said you can believe in God, or any other faith for that matter, they all lead to heaven, and you’ll be ok. That doesn’t make sense. Not all faiths agree. Some of them radically disagree. So how could they all be right?

The truth of the matter is that Jesus is the only way to be free from sin. There is no alternative to faith in Jesus Christ. His death on the cross provided the way for all our sins to be forgiven in the eyes of God and for His Spirit to live inside us, which gives us power over sin. Sin ruins everything, but the believer has, in the blood of Jesus Christ, an agent that can clean it out once and for all. Jesus is the solution for sin.

In chemistry there is a simple principle that like dissolves like. It refers to polar and non-polar compounds or solutions. If the structures are similar than one will dissolve the other. For instance, water is polar and oil is non-polar. So water does not dissolve oil. However, salt is polar so water dissolves salt. Like dissolves like. If you want to clean a mirror that’s crusted with hairspray, spray more hairspray on it. Like dissolves like.

Jesus had to become like us so that His blood could cleanse us. His sinless human blood dissolves the sin in our blood. He is the only way. His blood is the only solution for sin.

He has been vaccinated against the disease of sin. When you’re given a vaccine you receive a non-threatening dose of the disease itself which allows your bodies natural defenses to prepare to fight the real disease. When Jesus died on the cross He took on all the sin of the world and it did not defeat Him. So now His blood is the only blood with the power to fight sin.

Sin is real and it separates us from God. When we’re distanced from God sin denies us the blessings and goodness that flow naturally from following God’s heart. Sin ruins everything, but Jesus death made a way to defeat the effect of sin.

Jesus, and only Jesus, is the solution to sin!

Sin, It Ruins Everything (Part 2)

Sin ruins everything. Everything. Everything sin touches it either ruins, cheapens, destroys, injures or corrupts. It is toxic. It’s a poison. It ruins everything. Unfortunately, we love it.

There’s something about sinful behavior that comes easy to us. It has been the inclination of man since Adam and Eve to challenge God’s law and God’s order. It’s our nature to sin. The Bible teaches that we inherited that sin nature from Adam and Eve. It’s as natural for a man to sin as it is to breathe. We sin with ease and with regularity. We sin without even thinking about it. We sin every day. We are slaves to sin.

The Apostle Paul helps us understand this nature to sin when he explains, in his letter to the believers in Rome, that we are slaves to sin. We work for sin and it’s wages is death. If sin is in our lives, even a little, we are not in control, sin is. When it is finished, it will not only ruin everything but it will bring death.

If you really want to develop some serious mental issues think about this. One of the most important elements for sustaining life on this planet is oxygen. Everything needs it. Trees need oxygen, animals need oxygen, the atmosphere contains oxygen, and of course, humans need oxygen. Water is a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is vital for all life to continue. Yet the process by which everything on this planet decays is oxidation; exposure to oxygen.

The rust that destroys metal is oxidation. The brown spots that form on leaves as they die are the result of oxidation. When you bite that apple, breaking its protective skin, and let the oxygen in the air begin to react with it, it turns brown, mushy and decays as a result of oxidation. And then there’s us. We breathe it every day and our skin cells decay and fall off and replenish themselves in constant cycle because of the process of oxidation. Yet we cannot get enough of this precious oxygen. We need it, and it’s killing us and everything it touches!

How can we escape? That’s the same question Paul asks in Romans 7:24. I serve sin, yet I know it’s killing me and it’s ruining everything. We’re not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners.

The big problem with sin is that it’s hard to clean out once it begins to grow. The Bible often compares sin to yeast. Once a little bit gets in it becomes nearly impossible to ever clean it all out. Furthermore, it spreads and influences every aspect of your life. Sin ruins everything.

Not only is it hard to clean out, it’s hard to cover up. It has a way of leaking out of whatever you try to contain it in and exposing its presence to the world. It’s an acid. You can’t clean sins container and think it’s gone. The Pharisee’s tried. They washed the outside clean and white but inside they were still full of sin. Jesus said they were like a tomb that had been painted white. It looks nice on the outside but inside is dead men’s bones.

The problem is that sin doesn’t come from what’s on the outside but from what’s on the inside. The sin problem we have comes from within. Sin starts within our hearts.

Jesus told a story about a son that left home in search of his own life. He took his inheritance from his father and went into “a far country”. While in this far country the son spent his money on what Jesus called “riotous living”. Soon the day came when the money ran out and his friends were gone. He had nothing left and no one to give him anything. He was ruined.

The son, now broke, friendless and desperate, joined himself to a citizen in that far country. That man sent him into the fields to feed the swine. It was an insult for an observant Jew to be standing in the mud and filth of pigs. As he stood there, amongst the filth and the swine, Jesus said he almost ate the slop that the pigs were eating. He didn’t eat it, but he came so close.

That’s what sin does. It brings us to places we never thought we would go. It joins us to people we never wanted to walk with. It causes us to touch things we never thought we would handle. Sin will bring you closer to losing everything than you ever thought you would be. Sin ruins everything.

Sin is the cause of death, sorrow, pain and fear. We don’t have a drug problem in our cities, we have a sin problem. We don’t have an epidemic of divorce and broken families. We have an epidemic of sin.

Sin is the cause of violence, death and brokenness. Sin is what entices people to do stupid things in dangerous places with people they shouldn’t trust. Sin is the reason we’re easily addicted to chemicals that destroy our minds and our bodies. Sin is the reason people’s futures and ambitions are destroyed. Sin is what corrupts talent and potential. Sin cheapens love and ruins relationships.

Our problem is sin and sin ruins everything.

Sin, It Ruins Everything (Part 1)

I know some big words. Words like existentialism and modalistic monarchianism. I can both define the word empirical and use it in a sentence. I can even spell mayonnaise without using spellcheck (most of the time). So I was surprised as I was scrolling through an edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and came across some words I had never heard before.

Words like monomachy, mensal, lambrequin, fuligin, and cataphract. Words so ancient and arcane that no one even knows what they mean anymore. Many of these words are so obscure that they have been phased out of modern editions of dictionaries.

There is another word that is quickly becoming lost in modern languages. It is a word with ancient roots and rich in meaning. Unfortunately, it is rarely used by the modern speakers and writers and it is in danger of becoming undefinable by many. This word in danger of being lost is, sin.

Ask someone on the street today, “What is sin?” and you are likely to get a variety of answers. Some would say sin is anything that hurts someone else. Sin might be doing something that is illegal. Some suggest that there is no such thing as sin. Sin is simply an ideological relic of our religious past.

The truth is that sin is a real word with real meaning. We will never fully understand what it means to say, “Jesus died for your sin” unless we understand what sin really is.

Sin is called many things in the Bible. We’re given an array of words throughout scripture that give us an understanding of the nature of sin. It’s called rebellion, folly, madness, idolatry, foolishness, blindness, deafness, and death. Sin is a law at work in the hearts of men and women that challenges the law of God. The Bible is clear that sin is “the transgression of the law” (1John 3:4). Sin is, to put it simply, the act of violating God’s laws and God’s order.

Some sins are things we do, sins of commission, sins we commit. Other sins are things we don’t do and those are called sins of omission. If we lie to someone that is a sin because it violates God’s law of truth. It is a sin of commission. If we fail to protect or come to the rescue of someone who needs us that is sin. That is a sin of omission, something we neglected to do.

Either way, if it’s something we did or something we failed to do, sin is that which violates God. Sin doesn’t just violate God’s law and His order. God’s order and His laws issue from His nature, from what He is. Sin violates the nature of God Himself. It is a rebellion against all that God is.

Sin is the word we use to describe anything that opposes the nature and order of God. That’s why God and sin cannot be in the same place. James reveals the truth that salt water and fresh water don’t come from the same source. “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” (James 3:11-12). Sin is at odds with the nature of God and the two will never blend. God brings righteousness, peace and joy. Sin corrupts, decays and destroys.

Sin ruins everything.

The ultimate problem that sin presents is that it separates us from God. It is our separation from God, caused by sin, that brings the trouble into our lives. Sin is what denies the blessings and promises that a righteous life brings to those who honor God and His order. Sin separated God from Adam and Eve in the garden and God has been seeking to rid us of sin ever since. He wants to restore that relationship we had with Him before sin started ruining everything.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

He Is With Us

I had trouble sleeping this weekend. I was preaching at a church a few hours from home and had to go alone. My wife and three children were at home together and I was in a hotel 2 hours away.

I will admit, part of me enjoyed the peace and quiet, all too rare with three toddlers in the house. I was able to read as much of a book as I wanted uninterrupted. The car ride was peaceful and the radio stayed on the station I wanted to listen to. I didn't have to take anyone to the potty and I didn't have to change a single diaper all weekend. It was nice.

But then I tried to fall asleep. I didn't realize how accustomed I had become to having someone else in the bed with me. I tossed and turned all night and laid awake for hours. I discovered I don't really like sleeping alone. I like to know someone is with me.

I don't think I'm alone. I think most people like to know someone is with us.

I was reminded of my sleepless night while reading the drama of Joseph's life. Joseph rode a roller coaster of favor and famine. From his father's favored son to his brother's pit. Then from the pit and slavery to Potiphar's house. From Potiphar's house to prison then from prison to the throne.

I was particularly taken by a verse about Joseph's time in prison. The Bible says that, "God was with Joseph and showed him stedfast love and gave him favor" (Gen. 39:20-23, ESV). In prison.

Most of us think we've been abandoned by God when we're in the pit. God showed Joseph "stedfast love" and was with him. It's often difficult, when you're living in the graybar motel, to feel as if you've been shown stedfast love and favor. And yet, He is with us.

We often don't even know it but He's with us. We must not judge the two disciples on the road to Emmaus too harshly because we've all walked in their shoes. Distraught, confused and completely unaware that while we deliberate the dilemma we're in He is walking with us.

The most common promise in scripture is not that He will heal us, though He will. It is not that He will deliver us, though He is a deliverer. It is not that He will provide for us, though He does bless His children.

The most common promise in scripture is, "I will be with you." Even the promised name the angels declared was "Emmanuel" which being interpreted is "God with us" (Matt. 1:23).

So, as a friend once advised me, if you come to a fork in the road, take it. Because no matter where you go, He is with us.