Saturday, January 30, 2016

God Rejoices Over You

God is love, and he loves and rejoices over you.  There is a reason why so many people in this cruel and calloused world are unloving and unkind:  they lack knowing that God loves them.  If we do not believe or know that God infinitely loves us, then our words and our actions will reflect more of hate than love.  God really truly does love you and me.  This is crucial.  Do not forget this.  Believe it.  Live it.  Enjoy it.  Know it.  Tell it to yourselves until you are thoroughly bathed in it because it is more wonderful than any 70’s sappy love song could ever describe it.

            There is a verse tucked away in the small book of Solomon’s Song of Songs.  It is an ode to love.  The verse, Song of Solomon 7:10 says, “I am my Beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”  Far too often we think of God’s love in some abstract, distant, detached way.  But the truth is that we belong to God and his desire is for you and me.  God has an intense and overpowering longing for you.  I encourage you to pray that verse every day this week, multiple times in the day.  Let the deep desire of God for you shape and form your thoughts so that fear is replaced with faith; loneliness with enjoyment; the fickle nature of others with satisfaction; praying as duty with praying because I want to be with the God who loves me so much.

            Oh, how we need a vision of God singing over us with joy!  Yes, God loves you that much!  Grab a hold of this verse:  Zephaniah 3:17 – “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  Even the most unlovely of people are made lovely through God’s persistent and pursuing love for them.  You are being seen every single day by the infinite gaze and eternal compassion of God, who watches our every step with delight.

            Christianity does not “happen” simply by knowing some belief statements about him; rather, Christianity “happens” when individuals experience the white hot burning love of God in Jesus Christ.  Jesus came not only for those who skip church and only occasionally read their Bibles, but also came for the hard-hearted prick, the immoral adulterer, the strung-out addict, the terrorist, the murderer, and for all those caught up in bad choices and failed relationships.  “I have not come to call the self-righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13).  “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).  “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). “Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34-35).  All of Christ’s words and actions are because of God’s intense desire to love the world, and to love it through his church.

            God’s love is never based on our performance, or how good we look to others; it is never conditioned by our moods.  The love of God only looks longingly at you and me with the potential of what we can become in Christ and cares for us as we are.  It is a world-altering revolutionary thought that God loves me as I am and not as I should be.  “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

            Despite the inroads of atheism in our Western world, the vast majority of people still believe that God exists.  Conversely, however, the majority of people do not believe that God really loves them.  We are in a crisis of love.  People need to know the God who is Love.  Christianity never begins with what we do for God to make ourselves lovely for him.  No! Christianity always starts with what God has done for us, the great and wonderful love that exists for us in Christ Jesus.

            “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:4).  All the wrong turns in the past, the mistakes and the moral lapses, everything that is ugly or painful all melts in the light of God’s acceptance and love for us.

            If the consuming passion of church ministry and followers of Christ is not showing God’s love, then we have lost both our mission and our first love of Jesus.  Perhaps we must let time evaporate as we bow at the foot of the cross and experientially know the great love of God in Christ for us and for the world.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Short Primer on Christianity

           It perhaps goes without saying, but, nevertheless, really does need to be said explicitly:  Christianity is and revolves around the person of Jesus Christ.  Anything less is not Christianity.  Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the triune God, with the Father and the Spirit – three persons, one God.  God the Father determined that in all things Christ would have preeminence (Colossians 1:18).  Therefore, the equal and full realities of Christ’s humanity and deity are of central importance.

            Christ’s humanity should not be suppressed, ignored, or diminished in order to protect his deity.  Christ’s deity must never be marginalized in order to bring his humanity to the fore.  Both the deity and humanity of Jesus must be carefully maintained at all times.  To do less is not Christianity.

            Only through this God-Man, Jesus, could redemption from an empty sinful way of life be accomplished for us.  This union of humanity and deity in Jesus alone is able to secure a new and fresh relationship with God, and do away with alienation, hate, death, and eternal torment.

            Jesus Christ is the ultimate prophet.  He has revealed to us the will of God for our salvation.  Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).  Jesus has promised that the truth will set us free (John 8:32; 1 John 5:9-13).  Freedom involves knowledge, honesty, and decisions of faith, hope, and love whereby the truth is applied in one’s life.

            Jesus Christ is the ultimate priest.  He is the once-for-all offering as a sacrifice to atone for our sinfulness, to reconcile us to God, and now continually makes intercession for us (Romans 5:8-10; Hebrews 4:14, 5:6, 7:23-27, 9:11-12; 1 John 2:1).  As our representative, and the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3; 2 Peter 1:3).

            Jesus Christ is the universal King.  He is the rightful Ruler of all things (Matthew 21:5; John 18:36-37; Ephesians 1:20-23; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 1:5).  Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, and is Supreme over the Church.  He is able to make all things work together for good in life of his people (Romans 8:28-29).

            The church, therefore, is to do everything by completely wrapping herself around the person and work of Jesus Christ.  We are to continually unbend ourselves to conformity with prevailing cultural mores, and, instead, be thoroughly transformed through the complete renovation of our minds (Romans 12:1-2).  Our true spiritual act of worship in the church is to exalt the name of Jesus, praise Christ’s holy name, and enamor ourselves with his incredible grace, mercy, and peace.

            What this means, then, is that Christianity is not about being a particular nationality or ethnicity; is not merely a belief system; and, is not only an assent to certain facts and knowledge.  Rather, Christianity is a living relationship with Jesus, our Savior, Lord, Teacher, and Healer.  Christ scandalously died through an instrument of torture, the cross, which has become for us, ironically, our badge of honor and identity.  In short, since Jesus lived, died, and rose from death, we, too, as Christians, die to ourselves and live into a new life secured for us by Christ.  Through faith in this very unique God-Man, we are saved.

            This makes the church the Community of the Redeemed, a special people who are different than all other people because our lives are totally centered round Jesus.  Anything less is neither church, nor Christianity.  Christians are people secure in their identity, bold in their witness of Jesus, and concerned to serve the world in the words and ways of Christ, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  May it be so.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cultural Christianity

            It is usually a dubious action to place adjectives in front of the noun “Christianity.”  The actual word can stand alone quite well on its own without any modifiers in place.  But sometimes it might be appropriate to do so, for no other reason than to point out the oxymoronic nature of some of Christianity’s adherents.  “Cultural Christianity” ends up being something like “Grape Nuts” which, in reality, is neither grapes nor nuts.

            Which gets us to the heart of the issue:  cultural Christianity is not really Christianity at all, and isn’t even distinctively Christian in its actual culture.  Okay, some of you are getting impatient and want me to say it plainly.  So here it is:  just because someone shows up as a church attender doesn’t make them a Christian, any more than standing in a garage makes a person a car.  A nice person isn’t necessarily a Christian just because he/she is pleasant to be around.  An atheist isn’t necessarily unethical or immoral just because he/she is an atheist. 

            One of the parables of Jesus that was a complete head-scratcher for his disciples was the one about the sower who went out to sow seed.  They just did not get what the heck Christ was saying because the disciples were too steeped in a cultural understanding of their religious practice and belief.  So, Jesus made the meaning of the parable of the sower scattering seed a bit more understandable for them: 

“The seed is the word of God.  Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.  Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root.  They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.  The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering, produce a crop” (Luke 8:11-15).

All four scenarios of the seed involve hearing the word of God.  But, here is the scandal that brought Jesus some derision:  only the seed that retained what it heard and produced a crop is real true genuine authentic belief.  This is not a parable from Jesus about differing levels of maturity among Christians.  Nope, this is declaration from Jesus that out of the four who heard, only one proved to be the real deal.  To put it another way:  three out of the four people were cultural Christians, which really meant they were not Christians at all.  They looked and acted like Christians enough to slide by as identified believers for a while, but the message never really took; it didn’t stick.

            At this point we could become cynical and pessimistic about the current Christian climate in the West.  If only three out of four people are really Christians, then what hope is there?  Am I in or out?  Are you questioning others’ salvation?  Instead, we need to look at this from a different angle.  If three out of four times the seed doesn’t take root and grow into genuine belief, then we keep scattering the seed!  A person who hears but doesn’t actually believe doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done situation.  In fact, the average person needs to hear the gospel of grace proclaimed anywhere from five to twenty-five times from several different people before the word of God sticks, they take root in the true soil of belief, and end up growing up into mature faith.

            The real aim of Christ’s parable was to not only unmask the cultural religion that was rampant, but to encourage the disciples to scatter the seed, to keep proclaiming the word of God over and over and over again in all kinds of places, all over the world.  They were not to give up because the continual proclamation of good news will eventually result in a massive harvest.

            So, be patient.  Keep embodying the message of Christ.  Continue speaking of Jesus everywhere to everyone.  Persevere in praying for those within and without the church who need the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.  Do not give up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Our View of God Influences Us

            There are many people today who have given up on Christianity.  For all the reasons given (and they are many), the one I encounter most often is the person who comes to the point of believing that Christianity just does not work.  I will say at the outset that I approach Christianity with two major presuppositions:  I believe the Christian life works; and, I believe our view of God largely determines whether Christianity works, or not. I don’t think anyone sets out attempting to live the Christian life in order to fail at it.  No, we fully expect for it to work.  So, then, if we are to live a successful Christian life, we need to keep a few things in mind.

One of Satan’s primary objectives is to destroy the believer’s understanding of God (Genesis 3:1-10).

A chief way of doing this is through using influential factors from our past.  We can trace much of our contemporary beliefs, values, and actions to the past actors of parents, church, good/bad experiences, place of upbringing, siblings, peer groups, teachers, and friends.  Our earthly relationships in life are often transferred to our relationship with God.  For example, if one’s father was demanding and perfectionistic, it is possible that the person might transfer those same attributes to God. 

Sometimes a Christian’s view of God is more like a policeman always watching for us to break the rules; an old man who is aloof and largely uninterested; or, a fickle Being who can never be pleased.

But this isn’t how God describes himself in Holy Scripture.  God is the Sovereign Creator, Lord, and Redeemer.  He is our heavenly Father who is absolute in holiness, truth, and love.  Within God himself there is complete self-existence, unity, harmony, love, enjoyment, immensity, and infinite integrity (Psalm 147:5; Malachi 3:6; Deuteronomy 6:4).  When God deals with his creatures he is always observant, powerful, and present (Psalm 39:7-12; Jeremiah 32:17, 27).  What is more, God continually acts with veracity, faithfulness, mercy, goodness, justice and righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:9, 10:13; Psalm 36: 7, 10; Jeremiah 31:3; Hosea 14:9).  God always acts this way because he is love and truth.

Who God is determines how he reveals himself in his law and his will (Leviticus 11:44, 19:1-2; 1 Peter 1:16).

This is why Jesus is described as “The Word of God” in John 1:1.  In his revelation, God has made himself known to us.  Therefore, the appropriate response to such a God of truth and love is worship (recognizing His sovereign greatness); praise (recognizing His absolute perfection); and, obedience (recognizing His infinite love).  When we gain a view of God as always having our best interests at mind; showing steadfast love to us even when no one else does; redeeming and healing us from past trauma; giving purpose and meaning to us; providing everything we need for life and godliness in the awful muck of this world; then, it is not a stretch to offer worship, praise, and obedience to such a God because our view of him is one of adoration.

            Church ministry thrives when individual believers have a view of God which is consistent with his infinite grace, love, mercy, and truth.  When there are cracks in the foundation of understanding the basic nature and attributes of God, then the house cannot stand.  This is more than checking off a list of appropriate beliefs in God; it is giving ourselves fully and irrevocably to God because he is the One who loves us perfectly and completely.  One of the prayers that God delights to answer is:  “God, show me your glory, love, and truth.”  Don’t give up quite yet.  Let God reveal His attributes to you and your church as you seek Him with all your hearts.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Faith in Jesus Changes Everything

Having done my share of weddings, I can tell you that something always goes awry and not according to plan.  Sometimes it is a big thing, sometimes a small thing.  I have had best men forget rings, bridesmaids faint, sound systems go out, and, both grooms and brides either laugh or cry so much that they can’t say their vows.  And then there is the reception.  I have been at receptions where we had to wait two hours for the food to be ready, places where different food had to be served than planned, and situations where there was no alcohol and circumstances where there was probably too much alcohol.

            Back in Christ’s day, a wedding ceremony lasted a full week with a feast at the groom’s home.  Running out of wine constituted a real social crisis.  Sometimes we forget that Jesus attended weddings and participated in gladness, celebration, and joy (John 2:1-11).  God is not always some dour upset divine Being who has no place for a party.  When a person places his/her faith in Christ, it does not necessarily mean taking vows of chastity, poverty, and going without the enjoyable things of this created world.  In fact, it makes complete sense that Christians above all other people would be people of deep faith and lots of celebration.

            Since Christians have been liberated from the fear of death; since they have meaning and purpose to life; since they are forgiven and made right by Christ, justified by him, there really ought to be a preoccupation with parties, banquets, feasts, and general merriment.  Christians ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is in being a Christian.

            If that piques your interest, and you are finding that your church experience is not always an enjoyable one, then pay attention to three important observations about faith in Jesus from the miracle of the wedding at Cana.

1.      Nobody looked for Jesus until the wine was gone.

            Old wine is still wine, and it was enough to keep the guests from seeking Jesus.  Many people do not pursue faith in Jesus until the old something runs out.  Those old attitudes, actions, habits, hurts, insecurities, and information are what we rely on and return to when things are rough.  But those old things can get in the way of faith in Jesus.  Sometimes the old just has to completely dry up and go away until we are truly open to Jesus.

            There are times when God allows all the old friends, old reliance, and old habits to run out so that there is no possible way of going back to it.  In order to embrace a new and living faith in Jesus Christ, the past trust in certain ways of doing things must go away.  This is why people most often come to faith in Christ in a time of crisis or trouble.  The rug has been pulled out from underneath them and they have no one and nowhere to look.  Sometimes, until the old is stripped away we cannot see the new possibilities of a fresh faith in Jesus.

2.      Obedience has to be mixed with faith.

            If we want Jesus to move in our churches, then we must do what he says.  Jesus commanded the servants at the wedding in Cana to fill the jars with water.  Fill them with water.  Without knowing the end of the story, this makes no sense at all.  But obeying Jesus was important because without it there is no miracle.  We really need to quit looking at what we have lost and no longer possess, and look to Jesus, giving him what we do have.  Jesus can do something with whatever we give him.  If it is only water, then he can turn water into wine.

            It is easy to become discouraged.  But sometimes only a few people who do what Jesus says, is enough.  They might not have much, but they bring what they have, and they end up seeing God’s glory.  We can trust Jesus by doing something simple:  give him what you have instead of wishing you had something more or different.

            Jesus did not explain himself.  He did not lay out his goals and strategy to the people.  Jesus just told the servants to fill the jars with water.  If you are a person of simple prayer, offer your prayers to Jesus and watch what he can do with them.  If you are a simple servant, give your service to Jesus and let him transform it into the miraculous. 

3.      The response of the disciples is that they believed.

            The disciples put their faith in Jesus.  Here is thought to think about:  maybe faith is kindled through parties and food more than it is through abstaining from stuff.  Perhaps the kingdom of God is marked predominantly by radical hospitality because it may illicit faith in people more than anything else.  Maybe the party-planning fun-loving playful otters in the church are the ones to take the lead in showing us the way to faith in Jesus.  Maybe eating and drinking with people is the avenue of showing Jesus to others.

            Faith is not a static one-time event.  Rather, faith is a process of getting to know Jesus, like having an easy conversation with him across the table.  Like an ever-deepening friendship, being in the company of Jesus can bring us great joy and gladness.

            Church ministry is meant to be enjoyable and liberating; it is not meant to be overly austere and difficult.  We are to delight in the good gifts that God has provided.  The miraculous sign of the wedding feast points to God’s grace.  Jesus is the source of every good thing; faith in him changes everything.  Since Jesus is here, God is with us.  Because God is present, let the party begin!

Monday, January 11, 2016

God Alone Justifies

God alone makes people right (Romans 8:33; Luke 18:9-14).  Because it is God who justifies, we do not have to!  We do not need to defend ourselves, make ourselves look good, or fool ourselves into believing that we are what we want others to think of us.  Insisting that we are always okay and right only creates division, separates people into bad and good, fosters disharmony, and is an affront to God.  To pursue what is already provided by God’s grace is sin.

            I realize I am using strong language here about self-justification.  But consider its origins.  It goes all the way back to the original sin of Adam and Eve.  They were told by God that they could eat from any tree in the garden; but they were given strict instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Have you ever wondered why God deemed it so important not to eat of that specific tree?  The knowledge of good and evil actually seems like it might be useful, even necessary.  So, why completely avoid that tree?  When Adam and Eve ate from it their eyes were opened to a different perspective, a new reality that changed the way humanity deals with one another.  From that point forward people began drawing lines down the middle and placing themselves on the good side while vilifying those on the other side, the bad side.

            Adam and Even started justifying their actions, their attitudes, and their behavior on the day they fell by drawing lines between good and evil.  Adam drew a line between him and Eve.  Eve gave him the fruit; she is on the other side.  Eve drew a line between her and the serpent.  Adam drew a line between himself and God!  Ever since our original ancestors started drawing lines and taking sides, it has never stopped.  We draw political lines and place ourselves on the good side while demonizing the other side.  We draw religious lines and place ourselves on the good side while distancing ourselves from our fellow humanity and calling them evil.  We draw lines between classes, races, gender, and ethnicities.  We are constantly drawing lines and taking sides.  Violence, war, and every other sin in the world come from the original sin of self-justification:  I am okay, you are not.

            In the movie, What About Bob? Bill Murray was asked by his therapist why he was divorced.  His answer:  “There are two kinds of people in the world; those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t; my wife loved him.”  Bob drew a line, placing himself on the good side of it while implying that his ex-wife was on the other side, the bad side.  Ever since the fall of humanity we keep drawing lines and justifying our attitudes and our actions.

            Self-justification always compares itself with others.  People who think that it is their job to always be right are constantly concerned about other people; they need to know what is going on with them.  They keep their ear to the ground because they must be vigilant to keep the lines drawn and distinguish themselves from those on the other side, the bad side.

            But when we are justified by God and he makes us right by his own grace, the curse upon humanity is reversed.  Everything changes and reverts to its original design.  Our souls are rebuilt and become robust and vigorous not through effort and work, but through relaxation and rest in Christ’s finished work.  There is now no fear because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  There is no comparisons needed anymore because God is enough, Christ is sufficient.  There is no more worry about how we look to others; instead, there is contentment and satisfaction in the love of God in Christ.

Only God can justify!  Righteousness is a gift.  Until we know this, receive the gift, and live in it, we will continue in vain to make ourselves look good and be on the right side of everything while making others look bad.  It is not the job of church ministries to group people into who is in and who is out, who is bad and who is good; rather, church ministry is to proclaim the righteousness of Christ as the only means of making people right.  If there are no sides to take, then we are all in life together.  Until we get to that point, there is no progress.  But when we do, there is peace, love, and abundant joy that God would save such as sinner as I.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Praise the Lord

We are made to praise the Lord.  It is in our spiritual DNA to give adoration, praise, and honor to God.  Praise is not just meant for the times when our circumstances are going well; it is also for the despondent times, the times of difficulty, and the situations which are downright hard.  It is always open season on praising the Lord, no matter what is going on in and around us.  Praise can help to re-orient our lives around God instead of remaining stuck in being dis-oriented.  Whether in good times or bad, we are to praise the Lord. 

            Everything and everyone is to praise the Lord (Psalm 148).  Because God has created and continues to impact every nook and cranny of his creation, the entire universe, every creature, and all humanity have the common task to praise the Lord.  The outer reaches of the universe, everything out there which we cannot even see, are to praise the Lord.  The earth and everything in it is to praise the Lord.  The forces of nature are to praise the Lord.  The landscape, the flora and fauna, animals and humans are, together with all creation, to praise the Lord.  Young people, old people, men and women no matter who they are or where they come from are to praise the Lord.  The proper purpose of everything and everyone that exists is to give adoration and praise to God.

            Praise to the Lord is the recognition that God deserves praise from everyone, and the way to do that is to bow, yield, and submit to him.  “Praise the Lord” is the Hebrew “hallelujah.”  Hallelujah literally means “to raise the hands.”  Raising the hands is not just for Pentecostals! It is a symbol of submission and joy.  To have open hands lifted toward heaven is to convey to God that we will obey him and live for him in everything.  Praising the Lord, lifting the hands, is not only to occur in church; praising the Lord is to happen everywhere.  We are to lift our arms in reverent submission at our workplaces when we land a client or have a good day, as well as when we are overwhelmed and cranky people demean us.  It is always open season on praising the Lord, and it is not limited to a certain set of good circumstances.

            We are to raise our hands and praise the Lord when our neighbors care about us and look out for us, as well as when they make noise and irritate us with their less than kept up yards and houses.  Yielding to God’s purposes for our lives is not dependent upon whether we have good neighbors or not.  We are to praise the Lord and raise our hands when our marriages are life-giving and thriving, as well as when our relationship with our spouse is dry, dull, and going nowhere.  It is always open season on praising the Lord and reflecting his image through love.  We are to praise the Lord over our kids, not only when they do what is right but we are to raise our hands with hallelujah when they are complete stinkers and drive us nuts.  We are to use our hands to praise and enact obedience, not refuse to praise and use them for violence through finger pointing, fist shaking, and even hitting.

            In adversity we praise the Lord because it gives us a chance to put our faith into action.  In times when someone is being insensitive and callous, it provides the opportunity to praise the Lord and love them because God loves us.  It is very difficult to see God with your head down and your shoulders slumped; raise your hands, lift up your head and praise the Lord!

At all times, and in all places, in every circumstance and with each situation we are to raise our hands in hallelujah to Jesus for saving us from our misguided ways and bringing us back into fellowship with God.  Sometimes we go through experiences that leave us feeling alone, as if no one else has ever known such pain.  At other times we encounter such sentiments of joy that we wonder if there are people who have ever known such elation.  And then there are the typical, ordinary, mundane times of the daily grind, the living of each day almost on auto-pilot – going through the motions without much thought to what we are doing or where we are going.

            No matter our current situation, every day and every situation is a summons to praise the Lord.  God’s claim upon our lives ought to lead us toward raising the hands to him.  The person who truly praises God is marked by three things:  a deep humility, understanding that they are not God; expressive gratitude, recognizing God’s actions and living in patience; and, unity, a sense of common purpose with all humanity and all creation to praise the Lord. 

            There is to be a seamless transition from praising God in church settings to praising him in all other environments.  Our adoration of God is to be consistent across the entire spectrum of our lives.  By God’s grace our Sunday worship will train us to carry our adoration of Christ into daily praise.  May it be so, to the glory of God.