Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent



             I did not begin my ministry as a Pastor decades ago observing Advent. I needed to learn for myself that Advent is a special season anticipating the arrival of the Lord Jesus.  I have come to completely embrace the season.  Here’s why:  I found in Advent a solution to the problem of secular Christmas vs. spiritual Christmas. We as Christians recognize that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s a holiday that focuses on the meaning of the Incarnation. Yet, given the secular traditions of Christmas, we spend much of our time preparing, not for a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but for fulfilling the demands of the holidays. We buy lots of presents for lots of people and make sure they are all wrapped and delivered. We attend and host holiday parties. We have relatives who come to visit, and/or we are the relatives who go elsewhere to visit.  Christmas cards need to get out, and the annual Christmas letter often turns into a project for next year.  Our holiday season requires lots of planning and energy, and it can end up being downright exhausting. If we have younger children, we may very well spend hours trying to assemble gifts on Christmas Day that come with sketchy instructions written by someone for whom English is, at best, a third language….

            Christ can, ironically, get pushed out of Christmas, not by unchurched non-Christians, but by us.  But Advent helps us come back to God and put our focus and our delight where it rightly belongs:  in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

            Embedded within the season of Advent are a message and a mission.  The Gospel of John begins with the great proclamation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God has entered into human history in the person of Jesus.  It is a message of grace and hope, completely centering round Christ.  It is a story – the greatest ever told – of God loving his creatures so much as to become one of them.  This redemption narrative gives shape to our own witness.  We simply tell the story of God’s love to humanity through the sending of the Son, Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell and bring us into a kingdom full of grace, joy, wholeness, and love.

            So, how, then, do we keep our focus where it needs to be during the month of December and observe the Advent season?  First of all, attend Advent services.  Pay attention to the Advent Wreath and candles, the special readings, and all the heightened awareness of Christ’s coming.  Another way to focus on Jesus is by enjoying Advent music.  This sounds easy, but really is not. There are hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping malls. There are comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God.  Other ideas for Advent can include:  putting together an Advent Wreath at home; and, using a Nativity scene with lots of pieces as an Advent Calendar, adding one character to the scene every day.

            A practical way I discovered in remembering Advent is standing in the long lines of stores during the holidays.  A few years back I was going nuts waiting in a crazy long line with a cashier who was clearly seasonal help.  As my frustration mounted, God did what God often does with me.  He asked a question. “Tim, why are you so upset?” “Duh, God! This stupid line and slow cashier!” “Tim, what is my Advent really all about?”  I was busted. As a Pastor I tell others about the time of waiting and anticipation, but here I was selfishly impatient.


            Go ahead and try it out this season.  Let the inevitable standing in line be a reminder that Advent is really about waiting and patiently anticipating the coming of the Lord Jesus.  Let’s be honest.  You are going to wait whether you like it or not.  If by God’s grace you don’t stand in a line, you will instead wait in the heavy holiday traffic that moves at a snail’s pace.  But you and I have a choice.  Either the wait will form us for naught or for good.  Let’s allow the time of waiting to bring a fresh Advent spirit into our lives this season so that our Christmas will be a glorious one.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Reign of Christ the King



In my undergraduate college days, one of the required classes for my major was Philosophy of History taught by a crusty old professor who looked like he was one-hundred ten years old.  Professor Thompson knew that I was a Christian because I always sat in the front of his class taking notes with a Bible on my desk.  One day he came into the classroom and began his lecture by looking directly at me with those beady black eyes of his and said, as only Professor Thompson could say it, “Ehrhardt!  Can God change history?”

            My answer was this:  the question is only relevant if God were never in control and sovereign over history to begin with; there is no need to change history if God is actively and continually working out his purposes in and through history.  So, a more appropriate question would be:  Since God is Lord over all history, will we submit to him? 

            In difficult times, it is only human to wonder if God is really sovereign over all the earth.  When terrorists kill others; when natural disasters claim countless lives; when Christianity is seen as a threat to many; with such realities we might ask ourselves – Can God change history?

            Even though Christ’s reign is invisible and seems limited and temporary, it will ultimately be visible and is pervasive and permanent (Revelation 1:4-8).  Faithful believers in the first centuries of the church would witness to their faith and tell others about the redemptive events of Jesus and that, since Jesus is alive, others can experience new life.  They were effective enough to alter the social order of things, which brought persecution and, in some cases, death.  These men and women were killed proclaiming their devotion to Jesus, witnessing to others.  So, the term “witness” or “martyr” began to refer to those who were killed for their proclamation of the gospel.  In doing this, they saw themselves as only emulating and following in the way of their sovereign Lord Jesus, who was himself a faithful martyr.  Just as Jesus died proclaiming the kingdom of God and people’s need to submit to it, so the earliest believers needed to see their solidarity with their Lord so that they would not falter and give in to being silent.

Jesus is Lord of both good days and bad days.  Our faith cannot be dependent upon our circumstances because it is the blood of Jesus that has freed us to live for God no matter what the situation we have before us.  We overcome only on the ground of the blood of Christ – not because everything goes our way.  We overcome our consciences, bad tempers, defeats, lusts, fears, and pettiness on the basis of the blood of the Lamb.  Jesus frees us! The goal of the church is not having a wonderful existence without any adversity; the goal is to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, dead, risen and ascended. 

As believers in Jesus we have continual access and unconditional acceptance of God through his blood.  We can intercede for others directly by going straight to God.  Just as Jesus has unlimited access to the Father, so, the Christian has the ability and the privilege of coming to God at all times.  Christians are a kingdom of priests where every believer intercedes for other believers, and even for the world which persecutes them.

While we wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus, we do not idly wait.  We intercede for the world.  We proclaim the gospel to all the earth.  We love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Nothing in this world can ever deprive us of grace and peace.  No circumstance or adverse situation, no terrorist or natural disaster, no ornery people, no other person can take away Jesus from us.  So, with this security, assurance, and blessing we are free to rescue others from the coming judgment.


The reign of Jesus Christ elicits some probing questions:  Will we be faithful to Jesus by being faithful witnesses?  Will we live into the new life offered to us?  Will we submit to King Jesus?  Jesus is worthy of our praise.  He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.  His kingdom will never end.  Since this is true, we are meant to serve God.  In life and in death, we belong to God.  We are not our own; we were bought at a price.  Therefore we are to serve God in the ways he wants us to serve.  “Can God change history?” is not really the question we should be asking.  Since God has changed history forever in the sending of the Son, what will we do with him?  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be an Encourager



Attending church is not an end in itself – there is a practical reason why we are to be regular attenders.  We are to pay thoughtful attention to other believers, to take an interest in their welfare, and put some significant thought into how to help, support, give hope, love, spur, assist, stimulate, and uplift them into keeping up with Jesus (Hebrews 10:24-25).  A major opportunity for this is to occur at corporate gatherings.  Worship services, small group Bible studies, and other ministries of the church are all important because they are opportunities for us to encourage other people.  Yes, we are to be fed ourselves, but we are also to have the attitude and practice of attending ministries so that we will have the opportunity to speak words of encouragement to others.

This whole church thing is not some sort of optional equipment for the Christian life.  We need each other.  We need the church.  Eugene Peterson has said:  “Love cannot exist in isolation: away from others, love bloats into pride. Grace cannot be received privately: cut off from others, it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude: separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith. ‘Outside the church there is no salvation’ is not ecclesiastical arrogance but spiritual common sense, confirmed in everyday experience.”

The church provides Christians with the nurture, guidance, and encouragement necessary for spiritual development. God gives us the church:  to help form our identity as Christians, and give us a secure sense of belonging; to bring comfort and encouragement in difficult times; to proclaim the Word in preaching and sacrament; to provide godly examples for us to imitate; and, to discipline us when we go astray.  We are to be the church to one another, helping each other to become more like Jesus.

            Therefore, we are to put ourselves in a position to be an encouragement to others, to love them with the love of Jesus.  Here are six types of encouragers that I see displayed in the book of Hebrews for us to emulate:
  1. The Cheerleader.  “You can do it.  I believe in you!”  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on to push through the quitting points.  They did it, and so can we (12:1).
  2. The Affirmer.  “What you are doing is valuable and important!”  The preacher said, “We are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation.  God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (6:9-10).
  3. The Rebuker.  Better is open rebuke than hidden love.  “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:1-3).
  4. The Prayer Warrior.  “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).
  5. The Partner.  Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs – not by themselves.  “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13).
  6. The Pastor.  Shepherding in the Bible is a practice and function, not just a title.  It is someone who comes alongside and helps make sense of the confusing situations of life, knowing what to do.  “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:12-14).

There is enough criticism already out there; one needs not look any further than Facebook to get their fill of it.  Instead, decide to be an encourager.  Everyone needs encouragement, which means every single Christian needs to be an encourager to others.  What kind of encourager are you?  In what ways do you need to develop to become a better encourager?  How can you influence your church through encouragement?  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Christian Contemplation



           There is a great deal of loneliness in this world.  Increasingly, more and more people live alone.  As job hours build to crazy levels, disconnection occurs simply out of having no discretionary time to spend with others.  So, for many people, taking the time to sit in the presence of God and forget about the clock seems almost absurd.  It is as if contemplating Christ is some luxury instead of a necessity.  But it is a vital Christian practice. 

I propose that just maybe the reason why so many Christians, churches, and ministry organizations have contemplation off their spiritual radars has to do with how we view our relationship with God.  Communicating with God is a great privilege, and made possible through the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Christian contemplation we do not just pray to get something; we seek to adore God and enjoy being in his presence.  God longs for our companionship.  Yes, you read that right.  God delights in us.  He wants to be with us.  This weird notion that God always wants something from us is one-dimensional and truncates the true knowledge of God into a business transaction where we give God obedience and he answers our prayers.

If that is your typical understanding of how we relate to God, consider the beginning of humanity.  God enjoyed “walking in the cool of the day” with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8-9).  The original garden is portrayed as a paradise because it was the place where God and his creatures simply enjoyed being with one another.  We must come to grips with the reality that becoming spiritually mature means learning to love God for who he is, not just for what he can do for us.

Contemplative prayer has as its singular goal being with God, period.  It is about allowing time to melt away into an enjoyment of God, and God’s enjoyment of us.  If this seems strange, mystical, or medieval, it is only because contemporary evangelicalism has strayed far from the streams of living water offered through the kind of prayer that contemplates the grace and love of God in Christ.  Maybe you can only view God loving you if you are living a perfect life.  Remember this:  there is nothing you can do to make God love you more or less.  It is high time we relax enough to receive the wondrous reality that God loves us for who we are and not for what we can give to him.

God longs to be with us!  The “Jesus Prayer” is a simple and ancient prayer that combines the prayer of the tax collector from Luke 18:13 (“God be merciful to me, a sinner”) with the earliest confession of the church (“Jesus is Lord”).  Put it together, and the Jesus Prayer is:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It is meant to be a means of entering into the presence of God and experiencing communion with Jesus.  Repeating phrases from Holy Scripture are some of my favorite ways of engaging in contemplative prayer.  I like personalizing Philippians 3:10, “I want to know you, Lord Christ, and the power of your resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in your sufferings.”  Using the biblical book of psalms is a wonderful place to express the desire of our hearts toward God, and to drink in his love for us.  Over time the repeated words begin to fall away into a deep connection with God.

Again, if I seem to be sounding like some reclusive monk locked up in a remote monastery, I can assure you that I am not in any such place.  I am a busy pastor who has more responsibilities that he ought to have.  But I do neither my church nor my God any favors by constantly working with no time set aside to connect with the reason we are to engage in this Christian work to start with:  to know Jesus to the very core our beings.  None of us are brains-on-a-stick meant to check off on a list of beliefs; then, go on our merry way being uptight, anxious, and worried about everything under the sun because we did not let those beliefs sink down into the marrow of our spiritual bones.


God is huge, and he is full of huge love for his creatures.  The Western church must begin to allow the fog to lift so that we can walk with God in the garden of the soul.  How will you and your church allow God into your lives to make this happen?  The answer to that question might just be the very thing you have been looking for all along.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Forgiveness Is Real



When my girls were small and growing up in West Michigan, they always enjoyed going to Meijer, which is a something like a Super Wal-Mart and a Super-Target combined.  At Meijer they have a row of mechanical horses that only cost a penny to ride.  Riding the horses was always the highlight of shopping for them.  On one occasion their aunt came for a visit and brought a coffee can full of pennies and took them to Meijer just to ride the horses for an afternoon.  All three of my girls are now grown adult women.  They do not ride mechanical horses anymore.  They now ride real live horses.  As excited as they were to ride mechanical horses, my daughters now have no desire to do so because those horses were only a simulation of the real thing.

            As Christians, since Christ has come as the true and real sacrifice for sin, we are no longer to be content with simulations and copies of the real deal.  And we are to know the difference between them.  Our forgiveness is not a simulation, not a copy or a shadow, but is real because Christ is the real thing (Hebrews 9:24-28). 

            When my wife and I were raising those three very active and precocious girls, we had a certain process we would go through with them when they did something wrong toward one another.  We would talk about the offense, and then they would need to say the words, “I am sorry.”  But the matter was never over until they hugged each other and told each other they loved the other.  If they could do that, it was the real deal.  You see, they could mouth the words to get us off their backs, but to hug and express love was the reality.

            Jesus did not just mouth words to us of forgiveness.  He secured it through his death on a cross.  It is not a cheap forgiveness.  It is real.  Christ died a very violent death.  This whole emphasis in Scripture on blood and sacrifice can be upsetting for many people.  But we need to understand that our sin and disobedience is really terrible.  Christ’s death reflects the horrible sin of humanity.  Since Jesus has secured forgiveness for us at such a steep price, we are to receive it with much humility and a great deal of joy that God would love us so much.

            Jesus Christ came to deal with the sin issue once for all through his blood.  He came to do away with sin, not just veneer over it.  The old sacrificial system was like whitewashing a barn – it took care of the issue for a while, but it would need to be done over and over again.  Jesus is no temporary arrangement.  The forgiveness he offers is permanent.  There is no need to keep offering sacrifices over and over because Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  The forgiveness we possess is not like paying an annual fee and getting a forgiveness sticker for the year.  In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!  And this forgiveness was purchased with Christ’s own blood.

I truly believe that what this old world needs more than anything else is forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving, but a real forgiveness that is so costly that it lasts forever and ever.  A lot of religious energy can be spent trying to figure out how to make ourselves acceptable to God.  But in Christ we do not need to fear the future.  We have been made right with God through the death of Jesus.  Through Christ’s sacrifice the doors to heaven and earth get flung wide open.  The way has been secured, the trail has been blazed, and the road has been made smooth in order to come to God.


Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives.  He has granted us forgiveness so that we will eagerly eat the Word of God and sit right up front to hear the preacher serve the meal.  Jesus sacrificed himself so that we would enjoy laboring together in the gospel, looking forward to how the Spirit will transform lives through his forgiveness.  The price has been paid for a real forgiveness which opens our minds and our energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our faith.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Young Adults and Faith



            It is no secret for many churches that the millennial generation, particularly ages 18-24, are leaving organized religion.  A lot has been written in the past several years about why they have left.  But let’s turn this around and think about what makes those who do not stray stay in the institutional church.  My own anecdotal evidence of why this age group either stays or leaves leads to three reasons:  the involvement, or lack thereof, in church ministry beyond the youth group; the impact of the family; and, whether there are basic spiritual disciplines practiced, or not.

            I have noticed over the years of serving in the church that when teenagers have a significant involvement in a ministry that reaches across the span of the church community (i.e. worship services, small groups), then they are much more likely to understand that they are needed in the Body of Christ.  I have also observed that when kids are raised in a spiritual environment that places emphasis and importance on church ministry engagement, they are exposed to it being modeled and are likely to follow the example.  Finally, there is simply no substitute for basic practices in the Christian life getting started as early as possible.  Teens which learn to read their Bibles and pray tend to keep up those disciplines into adulthood.

            Ministry experience is one thing, but there is evidence to back up some of these observations.  Sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, says that his extensive research demonstrates that highly religious teenagers are not very likely to become very un-religious five years later.  Smith points to six factors that lead to the strength of religious practice among emerging adults:  strong parental religion; frequent personal prayer; high importance of religious faith; frequent reading of Scripture; many supportive religious adults; and, doubts about religious beliefs.

            Each one of these factors can be unpacked and examined in much more detail.  But for our purposes here in simply broaching the subject, it should become increasingly clear that we can exude a good deal of influence toward the younger generations within the church.  Whether a young adult is devoted, regular, sporadic, or disengaged in church might be their personal decision, but it is within our corporate sphere of control as to whether we will leave an impactful impression upon him/her for positive good.

            Indeed, from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures we get the admonition to leave such a persuasive influence upon our kids.  “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

            If Christianity is a commitment that centers round all of life, then we can reasonably expect that this will leave an enduring and endearing legacy.  But if Christianity is something that exists to be present only when needed, then we ought not to be surprised when Christian faith is jettisoned by young adults who find something else that addresses their wants. 


            Inter-generational ministry, then, is not really something that is a nice notion, but is vital to the ongoing faith development of teens into adulthood and beyond.  It is the sage leadership team that thinks through these realities in their own context and develops some concrete ministry.  After all, the Christian life is not just for a season; it is to move and mature over a lifetime.