Friday, June 03, 2011

Christ or Culture?

Will we surrender to God or go along with the culture?

The daily need to answer that question has emerged as one of the major themes as we at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, spend a year reading the Bible together.*

In Exodus, God commanded His people to have no other gods but Him. Compassion, not egotism, is behind this command. Only God can give life, after all. To follow any other god, literally spells everlasting death. To spare ancient Israel, God's people, from such a fate, God called them to be "holy," a word that means set apart for God.

The ongoing challenge (and demand) God issued to His people is voiced by Joshua, the leader of the Israelites who succeeded Moses, when Joshua says:
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.

Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

But the Old Testament honestly reports that the lure of surrounding cultures repeatedly proved overpowering for Israel.

God called Israel into being to bring the possibility of new life from Him to all the world. Eventually, Christians believe, Israel gave birth to the Savior Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.

In Jesus, God issues the same command to all the world that He once issued to Israel. Before His death and resurrection, Jesus said:
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven." (Matthew 10:32-33)
Again, God commands trust and obedience out of compassion, not egotism. Life only comes through the God made clear to the world in Jesus of Nazareth.

But, as was true of the ancient Israelites, the lure of culture can sometimes prove overpowering. It's easier to follow the little gods you can see than it is to follow the God you can't see at the moment.

Besides, you're likely to find it easier going to go along with the culture than you will if you march to the rhythm of a different drum, especially if it's being played by God.

The contemporary American church isn't immune to going along to get along with the culture.

The conservative version of Christianity upheld by the "Christian Right" is a hyper American nationalism that uses the Bible to justify the rampant materialism and arrogance that non-Christians like Donald Trump readily endorse.

The liberal version of Christianity in vogue in "liberal Protestantism" attempts to put God's stamp of approval on cheap grace (that is, God's forgiveness without our repentance and salvation without trusting surrender to Jesus Christ) and, notably, the legitimization of sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a woman and a man.**

Whether done out of a well-meaning, but unintended, disregard for God's revealed will in Scripture or from an attempt to make their version of Christianity acceptable to a mass audience, both of these caricatures of Christianity are faithless.

They each are guilty of choosing favored cultural mores, rather than choosing to follow the God Who demands our acquiescence to His sometimes inconvenient truth. *

To be a "holy people," a people devoted to God, doesn't imply moral perfection. Christians are imperfect. We sin every day. As I've said elsewhere, we are recovering hypocrites who bring our lives before God each day in repentance, so that God not only can forgive us, but also perform reconstructive surgery on our souls.

To be a holy people, then, is to keep turning to God. It's to acknowledge the deep wisdom underlying Proverbs 3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight."

Believers in the God of the Bible are called to be subversives who run counter to the culture. "Choose this day..."

The God revealed in Christ or the gods of the prevailing cultures? "As for me and my house..."

*We started on March 9. We read about three chapters a day. Today's reading is 1 Samuel 28-31.

**This is the route chosen by my own denominational body. I pray regularly that it will reverse course.


When the "coincidences" that just happen to answer your prayers start to pile up, you may want to re-categorize them as "God-incidences." Thanking God for all the God-incidences He's sent my way this week.

Make cupcakes...

...not war.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

This is a truth I'm thankful for...and take advantage of...every day.

"If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins..." (1 John 1:9). See here.

Unfortunately, He Saw The Trends Quite Clearly

William Booth, a nineteenth century Methodist preacher and founder of the Salvation Army, was evidently asked about what trends he saw unfolding in the twentieth century:
“In answer to your inquiry, I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.” [Source]
Praying that as the twenty-first century unfolds, God will reverse these trends through forgiven sinners who live in daily repentance and renewal.

[Note: I remember that we read Vachel Lindsay's poem, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven, in high school literature class.]

I Love New York!

And this new image of one of my favorite spots on the planet, Times Square, only makes me want to go back again sometime soon.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More on Revelation 20:11-15 from Hanns Lilje

I love the description of Revelation 20:11-15, about which I wrote here, by the late Lutheran scholar, Hanns Lilje (1899-1977):
The great description of the "last judgment"...has been represented...often in art. The element which distinguishes it from the mass of pictorial its strange, unearthly character. The whole scene is bathed in a transparent light which is not of this world at everything that belongs to our earthly life fades out of sight...God's throne glows with a white radiance...[T]he presence of God is of such transcendent majesty that it can only be described indirectly...

Heaven and earth "flee away"...and fade into the background. They disappear; they are no longer there. This void means that all what made human life on earth possible has vanished. All that is left is a vast open space of spiritual emptiness, in which no human being could breathe or stand--peopled only by the dead in countless numbers, undifferentiated, without any earthly and historical differences, bound together by one thing only: that they are "before the throne of God." This expression really means the "second resurrection." All that the preceding chapters [of Revelation]...have constantly emphasized becomes clear: God has kept the last judgment in his own hands. It only seemed as though the course of history ran counter to his holy will. But no single day in earthly history has been able to detract for one moment from God's sovereignty.

Judgment, Works, the Lake of Fire, and Eternity: What's Up with All That?

The Biblical text on which today's Our Daily Bread devotion is based, Revelation 20:11-15, is interesting to consider in light of the recent publicized prediction made by one man that the world would end on May 21. As I pointed out here, only a misguided person or an unbelieving one would make such a prediction. Jesus makes that clear.

But that doesn't alter the fact that Jesus teaches that one day, life in this world will be brought to an end by God's decision.

Nor does it alter the fact that Jesus and the rest of the Bible teaches that some will spend eternity with God and others will not. (Whether some contemporary Christians believe there's a hell or not, Jesus clearly does believe that hell is real and talked about it quite a lot.)

Nor does it alter Jesus' teaching that one day all lives will be judged by God.

Revelation 20:11-15 tells us about the judgment, the only judgment recorded in the strange last book of the New Testament. Here's what it says (remember that the narrator is John, given a vision of the end of all things--and the beginning of new things--by the risen and ascended Jesus):
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.  
Many Christians, maybe especially Lutheran Christians, will be disturbed by the passage telling us, "the dead were judged according to their works." Doesn't the rest of the Bible tell us that we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ because of the charitable grace God bears for the human race? Doesn't the rest of the Bible--the whole Bible, from Genesis onward--teach that we aren't saved from sin and death by our works?

Yes, the Bible does teach those things. And this passage doesn't disagree with any of it.

Notice that there are two kinds of books mentioned in the passage. One is the single book of life. It contains the names of all who have entrusted their lives to Jesus Christ.

But, another kind of book contains the records of the deeds of every human being.

These books represent the sober fulfillment of something Jesus said in different ways and times during His earthly ministry. For example, in Luke 12:2-3, Jesus says:
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. 
At the judgment, our lives will be transparently disclosed for all to see, like on a Jumbotron in a stadium. I cringe at that thought because I am a sinner, though, thank God, a forgiven one who depends on God's amazing grace. But this display of our lives, even what we thought was secret, will happen.

The question to be asked of us at this judgment, whether by those of us who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ or those who have spurned Jesus Christ and will be thrown into the lake of fire (go to hell), will, at this moment, be the same:
What did you do with the earthly life God gave to you?
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, of course, says that those who spurn Him and the new life He freely offers, condemn themselves to hell. He says that in His conversation with Nicodemus:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3: 16-18)
He also says that hell will be the place in which those who have spurned His love will spend eternity regretting their decision.

This is what it means to engage in "gnashing of teeth," as Jesus calls it, to regret forever having blown the opportunity to become the children of God we were made to be:
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:28)
Those who spurn surrender to Christ will be thrown into the lake of fire, an image of hell reminiscent of the lifeless roiling storms of primordial chaos in Genesis 1.

God is a God of relationship, Whose highest desire us for us to live in relationship with Him and with others. But God also respects our decisions in these matters.

The occupants of hell will regret the disconnection from God and others they chose in this life and live with that choice in eternal isolation.

Having opted for the "kingdom of me," the little fiefdoms we human beings try to establish in order to rationalize walking away from God and violating God's commandments, God will let those who have rejected Christ live in its deathly confines eternally.

For believers in Christ, the judgment described in Revelation 20 will be a moment also marked by regret that we have often fallen short of the glory of God and failed to live the useful lives God's Holy Spirit empowers those who believe in Christ to live. (Underscoring the importance of living the life style of repentance and renewal.)

But it will also be a moment of gratitude that our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, an appeal to the Father for mercy that will not be ignored.

And it will be a moment when we resolve to use the new lives given to those who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, to glorify God to the fullest, whatever task God gives us in eternity.

Rather than being intimidated by this scene from Revelation, we need to simply surrender our lives and our days to the Lordship of Christ. A Christ-ward life today is the only certain preparation for a joyous, useful eternity, spent in the company of God and others.

In this passage, death itself is thrown into the lake of fire. So too are those who have spurned Christ. This is why Martin Luther wrote in his Bible next to Revelation 20:11-15:
"Born once - die twice; Born twice - die once."
Those who spurn Christ will die twice, here and at the lake of fire. Those who are born from above in baptism and who trust in Jesus Christ's grace, who die to sin in order to rise to newness of life, will die only once. 

The vision Christ gave to John, recorded in Revelation 20:11-15, isn't meant as a threat to anyone. Nor should Christians or the Church use it that way.

It states a simple fact, one on full display in every revealing encounter God has had with the human race from Genesis 1 until today: God is sovereign.

And this sovereign God wants to give you life forever with Him.

He will not force it on you. You may take it or leave it.

But why, even if we find faith hard to grasp onto, would anyone leave it?

Why would you try to live this life or face the world to come without the God of the universe by your side?

Even if you're a skeptic, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling God right now:
"Lord, I don't understand everything about you and it's hard for me to believe in You. I do understand that my deeds won't always look so good up on that Jumbotron at the judgment. I want to be clean. I want to live on clean motives. I want to enjoy relationships of trust and love with others. And I understand that these are things that You want to give to me. So, in Jesus' Name, I ask you to help me to have faith, to help me to trust in You, and please, start making me new today. I promise to read Your Word, the Bible; to check in with You in prayer each day; and to get involved with a church where I can serve You and share You along with others who, just like me, are imperfect people who want You in their lives. Amen."
Nor will you have anything to lose if you keep praying (and keep meaning) prayers like that every day for the rest of your life.

Live this life to the full and look forward to eternity--and God's new heaven and new earth--with joyful anticipation!

Faith in Christ can take root in your life and both this life and the one to come will be the better for it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Be Healthy...Go, Share Jesus!

The healthiest Christians and the healthiest churches are those that look beyond themselves and their four walls. Jesus tells us to go, make disciples, not to wait for them to drop into our laps. You can't go fishing if you don't go where the fish are.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Six Lessons on How to Share Your Faith

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Acts 17:22-31
At the risk of sending you all for the doors at the outset, I’ll tell you that today we’re going to consider how to witness for Jesus Christ.

I’ve found that most sincere Christians want to share Jesus with others. But things get in our way.

And the biggest of these is fear. We’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing.” We're afraid of offending people the way some Christians do with their high-pressure tactics and their judgmental attitudes.

The result is that we don’t do anything. We don’t witness.

But we need to challenge our fears about sharing Christ.

Penn Jillette, one half of the magician-comedian team of Penn and Teller, is an atheist. Not long ago though, he said this about Christians who allow fear to get in the way of their sharing Christ with others (please consider his words carefully):
“If you believe [he said] that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell—or not getting eternal life or whatever—and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to not [be a witness for Christ]? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Even a thoughtful atheist understands a responsibility shared by every baptized believer in Jesus Christ. We Christians need to understand that responsibility too.

Pull out one of the pew Bibles and turn to page 703, please. Look at 1 Peter, chapter 2, verse 9. It reminds Christians, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, God’s own special people.” Then Peter explains why God has made us these things: “That you may proclaim the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

Indifference to the eternal destinies of others is not an option for those of us who follow Jesus Christ!

You and I haven’t been saved from sin and death just so we can sit around at church luncheons and visit with friends with whom we share a common faith…enjoyable as that is.

All baptized believers in Jesus have been made priests. A priest has two jobs: to represent people to God through our praying and to represent God to people through our witnessing for Christ.

Witnessing is the job of every Christian believer.

Disciple making is the job of every Christian believer.

After 35 years as a Christian, I confess that I’m embarrassed by my lackluster performance as a witness for Christ. What about you? And what are both you and I going to do about it? How will we witness for Christ?

Look now, please, at our second lesson, found on the Celebrate insert, Acts 17:22-31. Here’s the scene: It’s about 50AD and Paul, a tentmaker by trade, has set up shop in Athens, Greece, as he had already done in other ancient cities previously, looking for the chance to share Christ with others. Like him, whatever our profession, our real job is to share Christ in word and deed.

After spending parts of his days talking with others about Christ in the marketplace and the synagogue, Paul goes to the place in the city where all the leading thinkers go to talk things out, the Areopagus. It had once been a place where judicial judgments were rendered and had become a place where people talked about and debated ideas.

Here then from Paul's time at the Areopagus, recorded in our first Bible reading, are six lessons to teach you and me how to share Christ with others.

Lesson #1: Be ready, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to witness for Christ. In our second lesson, Peter tells us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…”

Paul was ready!

Digging into God’s Word, as we’re doing through Read the Bible in a Year, and helpless dependent prayer to God, are two essential ways God prepares us to tell others about the hope that we have in Christ.

Jesus tells us that we can be bold witnesses even when we confront people with hard hearts who persecute us for our faith. When we need the right words, Jesus says, “the Holy Spirit will teach you…what you ought to say.” Study God’s Word and pray; you’ll be ready to witness for Christ.

#2: Never be hostile. In Athens, Paul experienced a city that held to values and beliefs very different from his own. The Athenians worshiped all sorts of gods and godlets, rather than honoring the one God of the universe revealed over time to Israel and, ultimately, in Jesus.

The Athenians also loved the latest fads and the freshest big ideas. They lacked the steady joy and stability that Paul had through the singular focus of all his allegiance and belief on Jesus Christ.

Paul could have upbraided the Athenians for their faithlessness and flightiness.

But instead, as the Eighth Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor), teaches Christians to do, Paul put the most charitable construction on the life and culture of the faithless city. Read his words in verse 22: “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’” Paul wasn't hostile. He was charitable toward the unbelieving, spiritually disconnected people he met in Athens. We should be too.

Most unbelieving or spiritually disconnected people you and I know aren’t sinister atheists joined with Satan in a knowing conspiracy. They’re people who haven’t met the real God the Father or the real God the Son, Jesus.

Your unbelieving friends are just like you: sinners in need of a Savior. They would like to know God. They just haven’t been introduced to Him yet.

You can be the one to do the introductions.

Never be hostile!

#3: Meet people where they are. That’s what Paul does in verses 23 to 28. He mentions a statue to an unknown god, no doubt erected there by Athenians fearful of the bevy of gods they worshiped, who, by and large, viewed human beings as play things to be toyed with.

Paul meets the Athenians where they are, saying that this unknown God had been revealed for all to know. He’s the God of all creation, first revealed to the Israelites and now plain for all to see in Jesus. Meet people where they are, so you can help them see all that God is and the life-giving relationship He wants to give to them.

#4: Enter the worlds of your unchurched friends. Paul, we see, had spent time listening to and reading the Athenians’ own poets and philosophers. He was interested in them.

We need to show an interest in our unchurched friends. (And by the way, if you don't have any unchurched friends, do what Paul did: Make them!)

We have to be interested in others. One of the things that impresses me in reading the story of evangelist Billy Graham's life is that when he went to Wheaton College, where he might have been expected to major in Religion or Christian Ministry, he chose to major in Anthropology. He felt called to share the Gospel around the world and to do so, he wanted to understand people from around the world.

Paul was confident that the God revealed in Jesus was (and is) the one true Creator and Savior of the universe. But he was not arrogant. He entered the world of these unbelieving people with an appreciation of their value in the eyes of the God Who had died and risen for them.

God inspired my friend, Pastor Steve Sjogren, to create modern servant evangelism. Through practical outreaches like giving cold water or Coke to people at busy intersections, re-upping nearly expired parking meters, or giving away coupons to be redeemed at filling stations, all in the Name of Jesus, the stereotypes of churches as places of judgment that just want people’s money are undermined.

One of Steve’s outreaches involves cleaning toilets in places of business: bars, restaurants, filling stations, convenience markets. (He trained me in this outreach and later, the youth of my previous congregation used to go with me to do this.)

It’s an eye-opener when a harried clerk is told by two people holding cleaning kits, “We’re here to clean your toilets” and when the clerk asks why, hearing, “We’re trying to share God’s love in a practical way.”

Steve tells about what happened at one business where he and another church members did this outreach. As he cleaned the toilet in the men’s room, the clerk approached him and asked, “Why are you doing this again?” Steve said, “We just think that if Jesus were walking on the earth today, He probably would be cleaning toilets for busy people like you.”

The man said, as tears formed in his eyes, “That’s the kind of thing I think He would do today, too.”

Jesus is God Who entered a sinful world to share His life with people in desperate need of Him. As Jesus’ ambassadors, we need to be willing to enter the worlds of others and love them into relationship with Jesus.

(Later this summer, by the way, we’re going to do some kindness outreaches here in Logan so that we too, can share Jesus in practical ways with our unchurched neighbors.)

#5: When the time is right, make sure you convey the way to reconciliation with God. Look at verse 30. Paul says, in the Daniels paraphrase: “OK. You’ve been ignorant about this unknown God until now. But now, you know. He calls us all to experience oneness with Himself by repenting for our sins and entrusting our lives to Jesus Christ.” Paul also says, you see, that there will be a judgment day. All people will be judged, but those who have been made righteous (that is, made right with God) by believing in Christ will be with God forever.

And, he points out, the guarantee for that has been sealed by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We need point people to repentance and faith in Jesus as the way to reconciliation with God.

#6: Don’t go on and on. (This is something Ann has been trying to teach me for years!) Paul’s words about Jesus’ resurrection raised controversy. He chose not to argue. Instead, he left, willing to let the Holy Spirit use the short speech he had made to nudge people toward faith in Christ.

This is what social historian and pastor Leonard Sweet calls “nudge evangelism.”  The quickest way to turn people off to God is through long harangues.

It’s best to give people something to think about so that the next time they encounter you or another Christian, they’ll want to know more about Jesus.

People are always nudged to Jesus; they are never dragged to Him.

The Bible tells us that it’s the Holy Spirit Who makes it possible for people to believe in Jesus.

And Jesus says that it is He Who will build His Church, not us.

But, if we will ask God to help us to be faithful witnesses, God can and will use our witness to nudge people to faith in Christ.

So, these are today's six lessons on how we can be faithful witnesses for Jesus Christ to the unchurched and the unbelieving:
  • Through Bible study and prayer, be ready.*
  • Never be hostile. 
  • Meet people where they are. 
  • Enter the worlds of the unchurched. 
  • When the time is right, make clear the way of reconciliation with God, which is repentance for sin and faith in Jesus Christ alone. 
  • And don’t go on and on.
Now, I’ll follow my own advice, refraining from going on and on.

But, by all means, as you leave here today, go determined to share Jesus Christ with unbelieving and unchurched neighbors with boldness, love, and humility. Amen

*Of equal importance is regular worship with fellow believers, active engagement in church life, and regularly receiving Holy Communion. More on these things another time. They're all assumed here as this was a sermon given to a congregation of people who do these three things.

The Object of Christian Faith: God's Glory, Not Our Comfort

These days I am really enjoying a book recommended to me by our son, Philip. The book is called Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt. This book inspires and challenges me to divest myself of a "culture Christianity" and to instead, Christ's call to radical repentance and radical discipleship. This was especially true of these words, which I read yesterday:
God blesses his people with extraordinary grace so they might extend his extravagant glory to all the peoples of the earth. This basic, fundamental truth permeates Scripture from beginning to end. Yet I wonder if we unknowingly ignore [this]...

We live in a church culture that has a dangerous tendency to disconnect the grace of God from the glory of God. Our hearts resonate with the idea of enjoying God's grace. We bask in sermons, conferences, and books that exalt a grace centering on us. And while the wonder of grace is worthy of our attention, if that grace is disconnected from its purposes [to empower believers to glorify and share the God made known in Christ with others], the sad result is a self-centered Christianity that bypasses the heart of God.

If you were to ask the average Christian sitting in a worship service on Sunday morning to summarize the message of Christianity, you would most likely hear something along the lines of "The message of Christianity is that God loves me." Or someone might say, "The message of Christianity is that God loves me enough to send his Son, Jesus, to die for me."

As wonderful as that sentiment sounds, is it biblical? Isn't it incomplete, based on what [we see] in the Bible? "God loves me" is not the essence of biblical Christianity. Because if "God loves me" is the message of Christianity, then who is the object of Christianity?

God loves me.


Christianity's object is me.

Therefore, when I look for a church, I look for the music that best fits me and the programs that best cater to me and my family. When I consider the house I will live in, the clothes I will wear, the way I will live, I will choose according to what is best for me. This is the version of Christianity that largely prevails in our culture.

But it is not biblical Christianity.

The message of biblical Christianity is not "God loves me, period," as if we were the object of faith. The message of biblical Christianity is "God loves me so that I might make him--his ways, his salvation, his glory, and his greatness--known among all nations." Now God is the object of our faith and Christianity centers around him. We are not the end of the gospel; God is.
[The bold emphases are mine.]