Sunday, April 27, 2014

Suffering and Joy

Easter is not only one Sunday on the calendar, but is a season in the Christian Year spanning seven weeks, or fifty days, until Pentecost.  In the Easter season the church explores the theme of resurrection and new life in Jesus.  Our Lord Christ did not only die so that we might have forgiveness of sins; He also died so that we might live a new life with a clean slate to follow him daily.  God saves us and forgives us, regenerates us, in order that we will live a new life in Christ.  This regenerated life is not really a matter of making new resolutions or turning over a new leaf – it is a faith response to the grace of God displayed in Christ by dying on the cross and rising from the dead for us.

            One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It is primarily a story of grace and new life.  The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man.  By the time he is released, he is hard and angry at life.  Since ex-convicts were not treated well in 19th century France, he had nowhere to go.  In desperation he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit.  In the middle of the night he steals the bishop’s silver, but is caught by the police.  When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, they are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, and says, “You forgot these.”  After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.”  In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.

            But that is only a small part of the story; his forgiveness is the beginning of a new life.  The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a regenerated and redeemed life.  Jean Valjean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done.  Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life.  There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way, but what keeps him pursuing his new life is mercy.  Whereas before being shown mercy Valjean responded with a brooding melancholy and inner anger.  Now, after being shown grace, Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

            Suffering and joy.  They seem to be opposed to each other.  And, if we conform to this world’s thinking, they are taken as opposites.  Only Christianity has the worldview perspective that sees suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just senseless, random, and empty grief.  Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior in going in the way of suffering.  We are told in Scripture that these sufferings are trials to our faith, that is, they are the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened.  Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles.  Walking in the way of our Lord Jesus, adversity is our teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great salvation we possess in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-9).

            The most miserable people I know are those who do not know grace, have not been taught by mercy, and, therefore, do not know the joy of extending grace and mercy to others.  There is a tendency for many Christians today towards being stoic through the trials of life.  We try and keep a stiff upper lip and simply endure.  Taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long.  Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a more appropriate response to trouble. But it is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice, even though the rejoicing is through tears, in the living hope that is kept for us and not by us. This spiritual inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer, and not add to the weight of our troubles by blaming the failure of faith.   
            Our goal in this life is not to escape the world because at the end of time when our salvation is completely consummated, heaven comes down to earth and both are joined together.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of god is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).  This is our inheritance in Christ.  But we must come prepared for this encounter with God by presently undergoing grief in all kinds of sufferings; these trials to our faith are the pre-marital sessions that prepare us for our marriage with Jesus.

            Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever.  Until that day, however, let us not hunker down and stay in the garage of life.  Let us explore the open road that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith.  Let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.  Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today.  And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of loving the world.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Surprised by Joy

            From Good Friday to Easter we move from grief and confusion to joy and confidence.  In this post-Holy Week arousal from Winter to Spring, it is not simply a time to experience a Resurrection Sunday celebration and move on.  It is the season to rejoice in being surprised by joy in the risen Savior.

One day when I was a young seminarian, I was down sick with the flu and in bed.  I barely remember my wife coming into our bedroom after a doctor’s appointment upset and crying.  She was trying to rouse me with a mix of good and bad news.  Mary had gone to the doctor thinking that she probably had the flu, as well.  But the doctor gave her the news that she was pregnant with our first child.  However, after the examination he had reason to be concerned that our little baby was in the wrong place – she was not where she should be, but may very well be in the fallopian tube and not the womb.  So, here I am, barely able to move, getting out of bed and driving to the hospital to get my wife an ultrasound with such a range of emotions within me that all I can do is weep, feeling, like Mary Magdalene on resurrection morning, that my Lord has been taken away from me – it just felt like I didn’t know where Jesus was at that moment and why I was going through this craziness.  I will never forget the words and even the tone of voice of the ultrasound technician as we anxiously were in the dimly lit room looking at a screen we didn’t understand; the technician said, “She is right where she is supposed to be!”  The tears turned to complete joy.  And the words were prophetic; there was no way that the technician could know at six weeks in the womb that we were having a little girl, but she referred to the peanut within my wife as “she.”  And we immediately knew what her name was:  “Sarah,” which is the Hebrew name for “Princess.”  God had graced us with a precious gift of royalty, coming from the grace of King Jesus. 

            We are all right where we are supposed to be.  Whatever your life-circumstance is right now, God has you right where he wants you.  We are here on this spinning planet Earth because we have a divine appointment with Jesus.  Mary Magdalene embraced a mission from the Lord.  “I have seen the Lord” was her witness (John 20:18).  Easter opens up a new world for us, as it did for Mary – a future of spreading the good news and announcing resurrection.  A beloved disciple of my church has recently experienced hearing in an ear that did not hear anything for sixteen years.  Some wonderful technology has enabled her to hear in that ear again, and she has not been shy about spreading that good news!  I can now say her name and she can hear her name said in not just one ear, but in both ears.  Jesus is saying your name; he is calling you.  There is a simple reason why the grave-clothes of Jesus were left in the tomb just lying there – they were not needed anymore!  We no longer need the grave-clothes of discouragement and defeat; we no longer need to weep and wonder, because Christ is risen!  He has called our name and we can now hear in both ears!

            The 20th century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, said that what brings people to worship – not just on Easter, but on any Sunday – is an unspoken question clinging to our minds and hearts:  Is it true?  Is it true that God lives?  Is it true that Jesus is alive?  Is it true that I can live a new life in Christ?  Is it true that I can rebuild my life?  Is it all true?

            All over the world followers of Jesus are testifying that it is true:  Christ is risen, and there is new life in Jesus our Lord.  Believers in Jesus gather together underground for worship with the threat of being caught.  Young college students gather for bible study with significant risk to their lives if they are found to be studying the Christian Scriptures.  Christians huddle together in secluded places celebrating the resurrection of Jesus because they believe it is true, and they believe it is true because they have seen Jesus and heard his voice.

            Pastor Tim Keller once told of a minister who traveled to Italy and there saw the grave of a man who had died centuries before who was an unbeliever and completely against Christianity, but a little afraid of it, too. So the man had a huge stone slab put over his grave so he would not have to be raised from the dead in case there is a resurrection from the dead. He had insignias put all over the slab saying, "I do not want to be raised from the dead. I don't believe in it." Evidently, when he was buried, an acorn must have fallen into the grave. So a hundred years later the acorn had grown up through the grave and split that slab. It is now a tall towering oak tree. The minister looked at it and asked, "If an acorn, which has power of biological life in it, can split a slab of that magnitude, what can the acorn of God's resurrection power do in a person's life?"

When a person believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit is there. It's the power of the resurrection—the same thing that raised Jesus from the dead.  Think of the things you see as immovable slabs in your life—your bitterness, your insecurity, your fears, your self-doubts and cynicism. Those things can be split and rolled off. The more you know Jesus, the more you grow into the power of the resurrection.  You do not need to just hear accounts of changed lives; you can experience new life yourself.

            Ministry in the church is to center in the redemptive events of Jesus; this is what makes the church a unique institution.  Use this Easter season to more fully circle everything in life and ministry around the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In doing so, the power of resurrection is with you.  Praise the Lord.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Palm Sunday

            Palm Sunday is a day to begin focusing on the events of Holy Week by journeying with Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem to the shouts of “hosanna!”  It is ironic that those shouts of praise by the week’s end turn to the visceral cries of “crucify him!”  Capturing that irony makes remembering the love of God even more profound as we consider the depth of grace Jesus went to in order to secure deliverance for us from sin.

            Every year on Palm Sunday thousands of Christians, from all over the world, gather together in the small town of Bethphage, located just 2½ miles outside of Jerusalem. They gather to walk from Bethphage to Jerusalem like Jesus did in his triumphal entry on a donkey.  Many of those pilgrims will carry palm branches and olive branches.  All of the people sing hymns as they walk up over the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and then up Mount Moriah into the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a worship experience filled to the brim with gratitude. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1).

Psalm 118 was an actual liturgy for worshipers coming to Jerusalem and the temple from all parts of Israel in order to celebrate Passover.  Like the Christian pilgrims today on Palm Sunday, the ancient Jewish worshipers would walk into Jerusalem with great anticipation of their Holy Week together.  And they would sing of God’s love and remember that love expressed to them in taking them from Egypt and slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land.  It is not just love itself; it is the love of God.  This word for “love” throughout Psalm 118 is my very favorite word in the entire Old Testament.  It is a rich word that is difficult to translate in English because the term is so pregnant with meaning.  The Hebrew word is “chesed” and the NIV translates it in various ways:  grace, covenant loyalty, mercy, compassion, kindness, and consistently translated in Psalm 118 as love.  It is the kind of love that is graciously given despite whether a person deserves it or not.  It is a steadfast love that holds on and never lets go.  Our God is the God who shows and demonstrates grace when we sin; who has unflagging commitment where we are fickle; who gives unbounded mercy when we are broken; who provides constant compassion when we have been hurt; who gives a forever kindness even when we are unkind; and, who dispenses steadfast love that will never pass away and finds its ultimate expression in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who literally embodied chesed for us so that we might live and experience life to the full.  That’s the kind of God we worship and serve.

On Palm Sunday let us not take for granted the fact that we may take a spiritual pilgrimage each and every day to the very heart of God and meet his great love there at the throne of Jesus.  Our Christian life might be a bit like The Book of Heroic Failures, which contains a story about the 1978 strike of British firefighters, when the army filled the gap for the missing firemen. One afternoon the replacement firefighters got a call to rescue a cat caught high in a tree. The soldiers rushed to the scene, put up a ladder, brought down the cat, and gave it back to the owner. The woman was grateful and invited them in for tea. After a nice time together, they said goodbye, got in the truck, and backed away—over the cat.  Let us never replace God’s love with human love because we desperately need God and the saving love he has shown through Jesus who has gone before us and made the way clear to a life-giving relationship with the divine.  Let us never take for granted the ability to take a spiritual pilgrimage to God through the saving acts of Jesus that made it all possible.  Let us be thankful and be forever grateful to God for his unique and eternal love, for he is good, and his love endures forever.  Let us come to King Jesus, and allow his sovereign rule to so deeply penetrate our hearts that there is no room for complaint but only thanksgiving.  Let us enter through the gates of righteousness and give thanks to the LORD.

True and genuine joy cannot be manufactured, but is a spontaneous response to being deeply thankful for the love of God in Christ.  The season of Lent, the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is a time of seriousness, self-evaluation, and looking at one’s heart and practicing repentance.  So, to have this joyous worship celebration toward the end of the season might seem a bit out of place, maybe even weird.  But that would be to misunderstand repentance because repenting of sin might be a hard thing to do, but it is a joyful act.  It is a joyful act because it is a beautiful thing to say “good-bye” to old sins and idolatrous liturgies that vie for our love and attention.  And there is no love-loss here – it is a happy occasion to let go of those long established sinful liturgies of life, those routines that do not develop us as faithful followers of God, and throw ourselves upon the mercy, the chesed of God.

Turning from old sinful liturgies of life and turning to a new liturgy of following Jesus is like walking through a gate into a new reality and rejoicing with all the other redeemed pilgrims who are walking the road to Jerusalem to be with Jesus.  Our Lord himself said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out, and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:9-10).

So let us enter worship on Palm Sunday, as well as each and every day, with the heart of a pilgrim. Let us enter with a song on our lips and joy in our hearts. Let us enter knowing that this is the place where we come in contact with the love of God through our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us enter expecting to come out of worship changed, expecting great things to happen.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


In a vision that God gave to Ezekiel, the Lord made it known that a valley of dead dry bones represented the whole house of Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  They were spiritually dry with seemingly no hope. But how did ancient Israel get to the point of being so dry and dead that only a miraculous act of the Lord could revive them?

            After God brought Israel out of hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, he led them to the Promised Land with Moses as leader.  Moses died and his young protégé Joshua took over and led Israel in her military campaigns to take the land that God had promised them.  God held to his promises and went before them so that the pagan nations were judged and Israel gained the land.  However, although Israel had geographically taken the land, they did not completely dislodge all the pagan peoples living there as God had told them to do.  In other words, Israel partially obeyed and was content to be in the land without dealing with all the remaining people.

            Whenever we read in the Old Testament of Israel’s relationship to the land, it often also serves as a metaphor for the church and her faith.  Israel saw the land simply as a possession, as something to have, rather than as something to be used and developed for the glory of God.  If and when God’s people in any age look upon their faith as only a possession to have instead of a dynamic relationship between themselves and the Lord, then the beginnings of spiritual rigor mortis begin to settle in.  So, we get this haunting narrative in the book of Judges after the people took the land and Joshua died:  “Another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.  Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD….  They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt.  They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them” (Judges 2:10-12).  The land became something not to lose instead of something God wanted to use to grow them into his faithful people.

            The day the Israelites took the land was both the day they rejoiced in victory, and the day that they died because they were content with the land as a possession and did not exercise their faith to see God work among them.  The Old Testament is a long drawn out story of a disobedient and obstinate people who continually forsake their God and live like the nations for whom they did not exercise their faith to completely overcome.  God, being longsuffering and patient, went century after century sending his prophets to call them back to a living faith; but with each passing year they would die a little bit more.  Eventually, the Babylonians came and destroyed Jerusalem, took over the land, and deported most of the people away from the Promised Land into exile; the people were like a valley of dead and dry bones.

            On the day we begin to treat faith as merely a possession to have, and go through long established routines with no faith-development and no life, is the day those routines lead to ruts which leads to never changing which leads to death which leads to dry bones. 

The church of Jesus must look upon faith as a wonderful opportunity to spiritually engage the world, exploring all the dimensions of knowing God through putting itself in situations where God can show up and take the land.  If our goal is to just keep some semblance of looking like a real Christian, then there are probably some dry bones in the closet.  If we become more afraid of making mistakes than we are of missing God-given opportunities, then the time is right for revival.  God does not send us to safe places to do easy things; he breathes in us to send us to places where revival is needed.

              The need for new life and resurrection presupposes that there is death.  Praying for revival, renewal, and reawakening means that something is dead and needs life.  But here is the thing about God:  nothing is impossible for him, and when disaster happens, he is ready to be gracious and restore, even when things are as bad as a valley of dry dead bones with no life at all because he specializes in resurrection.

            God not only gives life; he restores life.  And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives and our churches.  God is not just a helper; he reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us.  And he does this for a reason.  Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said, ‘“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-21).  In other words, God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be sent into the world to love God in it through loving our neighbors.  Faith is not only a possession to have, but a gift to be used to glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the dry bones without Ezekiel’s being a part of it; but God used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones. 

God has you living where you are living so that you will bring life to your neighborhood.  Who will pray for your neighbors if not you?  Who will be concerned for our communities and campuses if not us?  God has you working where you are working so that you can speak to the places of dead dry bones and see them become animated and living.  Who will make a difference at your workplace if not you?  God placed you in your family and in your school so that you can bring life to it.  God places us in the church so that we will bring spiritual life and vigor to it.

            Ezekiel’s vision allows us to see that:  revival can only come by an act of God; and, God wants to use us to see the miracle of new spiritual hope and life take place.  Take some time to consider whether your church or ministry organization really needs another program or campaign initiative; perhaps what is needed is a heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious revival to new life in Jesus Christ.  I am praying with you for it to be so.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Hindrances to the Christian Life

           Within the church there are those persons who are committed, growing, and participating in the life of the congregation and exhibit spiritual sensitivity.  There are others, however, that are marginal in the church, seem stagnant in their faith, and do not readily express a fellowship with God.  And there are more who move in and out between vital relationship and indifferent service within the church.  There is no one-size-fits-all reason why this reality is so, but anyone who has been around the church very long knows that the congregants within are at differing places as to their spirituality.  It is possible, even with the best of intentions, for many believers in Jesus to be mistaken in some important area of belief and are living in error.  These erroneous beliefs almost always produce incorrect actions and become barriers to their Christian lives.  If we are to be successful in living the Christian life and be a vital part of the church’s life we must search out and destroy these hindrances.  God only delivers on the basis of truth.  Satan, on the other hand, keeps people in bondage through lies. 

            Consider twenty-five of these errors concerning the church and the Christian life that I have heard from people over the years as a pastor, preacher, and teacher.  I include these because they have been expressed several times from various people in different churches.  Buying into any one of the following of these mistaken beliefs inevitably brings spiritual slavery and hinders a believer from realizing the blessings of living for Christ and enjoying his church:

1.      God does not really care about me like he does others.
2.      There are “second rate” Christians.  God has not given himself equally to all believers.
3.      Only clergy are really called to ministry; the rest are not as obligated to either God or the church.
4.      Knowing the Bible is not necessary for everyone.  As long as the pastor knows Scripture, others can rely on his understanding.
5.      Prayer is for the spiritual, and not for everyone.  Moral action can take the place of prayer.
6.      I don’t need to learn because when I get to heaven the “egalitarian zap” by God will make me understand everything.
7.      Spiritual growth can happen apart from Scripture and the church.
8.      Religious feelings are reliable as confirmation of God’s will.
9.      Since I am saved, sanctified, and redeemed by the blood I can live however I want.
10.  The commandments of God are good advice, but not obligatory.
11.  Since I am a Christian, there is nothing I can do to displease God.
12.  I am under no obligation to grow spiritually; spiritual growth is optional.
13.  Faith is a feeling.
14.  I am saved by faith, but spiritually grow through effort.
15.  God will stop me if I am doing something wrong.
16.  I have tried the church thing and it doesn’t work for me; not everyone needs the church.
17.  Some sins are worse than others – physical sins are worse than spiritual sins.
18.  If someone in the church hurts me, I should hurt them back so they will know not to do it again.
19.  If I confess my sin to God I do not need to confess it to others.
20.  If I confess my sin to God I will be totally free from its consequences.
21.  Christianity works for some people, but not for everyone.
22.  As long as one is sincere, then everything is okay with God.
23.  If I cannot serve in the church giving 100% effort, then I should not serve at all.
24.  I put in my time serving the church; there is no need for me to serve anymore.
25.  A person can be right with God without believing in Jesus, if they are a good person.

What are some statements you would add to this list? 
What hindrances have you identified and overcome in your own Christian life? 
How would you respond to someone who believes any one of these errors? 
Do you have a plan for discipleship in your church to help people learn Scripture and grow in grace and truth?

Will you pray for your church and its leaders on a regular basis?