Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

EARTH IN SPACESLIDE

Most of us can’t even pronounce 700,000,000,000,000,000,000, much less count there.  For people who aren’t math geniuses, it’s 700 Quintillion.  According to recent research in Sweden, that’s the number of planets in the cosmos.  But the scientific team learned something else from their epic research project: amid those 700 quintillion planets, the Earth is one of a kind!

Astrophysicist Erik Zackrissen and his team developed a massive computer model to simulate the development of the universe.  They entered everything we know about exoplanets and then programmed in the laws of physics. They recreated 13.8 billion years of history.  The results demonstrate that life on earth defies all the odds.  Here’s how the article sums it up:  “His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.”

The writer for Discover concludes that “Earth appears to have been dealt a fairly lucky hand.”  That’s funny!  Three Aces and two kings is a lucky hand.  The scientists believe we were dealt five Aces! (Read the article here.)

The Bible never argues that the Earth is the only planet where life is possible.  But scripture is clear that the staging and adornment of our planet happened near the end of the Creation process, with the climax drawing near.  Genesis emphasizes the loving care demonstrated by God as he fashioned Eden as a splendid home for his masterpiece: men and women.

Last night I finally watched The War for the Planet of the Apes.  I was entertained but saddened.  The script is emphatic that all men and women are hopelessly destructive.  Except for one innocent child, every human being in the movie comes to a tragic, well-deserved end.  Hollywood finally agrees with the Church: all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death.

But in sharp contrast to the blind despair of Tinsel Town, the Gospel foresees a happy ending for people of this planet of apes.  The same God who so carefully crafted the planet with all the resources for life has also intervened to rescue his wayward sons and daughters.  Amid all the grief and confusion of the current age, we believe there is more here than meets the eye.

Step back and watch the Creator working in stardust and DNA.  You can see it every day in the beauty of fall foliage; in the mystery of tiny black seeds bearing giant, sweet watermelons; in the mystery and wonder of a child in the womb.  You can experience it when you read the Bible slowly enough to allow the pulse of Eternity to restart your heart.

We are unique in this dark, sprawling, mostly empty universe; but we are not alone. We are in the presence of our Father.

To hear the companion sermon, click Awe and Reverence.

Lift up the Cross!

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Left for Dead @ Church

SHUTTERSTOCK 45

The good news is that people who love Jesus don’t hate gay men and women.  We love em!  Sadly, we love em to death.  We promise not to judge, we tell them about Jesus, and then we go away and leave them just standing there, beaten and dying slowly.

Everybody knows what Romans 1 says about same-sex attraction.  But that’s not the most useful verse for believers helping friends with SSA.  If you want to minister to a gay man or woman who reaches with questions, think about Christ’s warning that we must not let our light be hidden under a bushel.  In Matthew 5:16, Christ goes on to say, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”

Churches leave wounded people for dead when we only give them half of the gospel.  We talk vaguely about trusting Christ, worshiping in spite of feelings, and praying fervently.  And we say it with that those sweet little tears of concern, rain from heaven, welling up in our eyes.  But a lot of us seem to have trouble telling gay men and women that remaining morally pure will be a sacrificial act of love for Christ!  Laying your life on the altar of God sounds uncomfortable at first, but the words of the Lord are clear and compelling: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.”

We cringe because we know people with desperate addictions can’t see the power of that kind of self-denial and sacrifice in our lives.  How are they supposed to be convicted when we’ve buried the evidence?

What if the real reason I cannot encourage a gay neighbor seeking Christ to deny himself and carry his particular cross is that, frankly, it seems so unrealistic to me? Many of us have never forfeited anything precious in the name of Christ- except perhaps a cup of Starbucks’ coffee in order to give $5 to world hunger.  And even if I gave $100 or $1,000, is that really what Christ had in mind when he called me to crucify my flesh and die with him?

People with same-sex attraction would be more motivated in their pursuit of holy abstinence if they could see how other saints express adoration and sacrifice in profound ways as well.

  • Have I walked away from a career, at least risked being fired, when the job compromised my faith or dishonored the Lord?
  • Have my kids and I given up league soccer because it conflicts with worship on Sunday?
  • Is it apparent that I am generous with people who need a meal, a place to stay, new clothes for a job and a path out of poverty?
  • Can my life and schedule be easily interrupted by a neighbor who has relapsed into addiction and crawled back to a pub;  a woman whose husband has become violent; a young person whose angry parents have tossed her out of the house?
  • Does my compassion for others occasionally take me to difficult, dangerous places at inconvenient times, or do I just wait for a quick church activity in prime time to serve the Lord?
  • Has anyone ever seen me rejoice and praise God when my faith in Christ cost me something valuable and significant?
  • Does my love for Christ ever prompt others to call me ignorant or narrow-minded?  And on those occasions when it does, do I bear it all gladly, refusing to get angry and defend myself?
  • If a repentant gay friend ever asked me about the precious things I have given up in the name of Jesus, could I freely share my story with joy and tears?

Sacrifice is so far from the minds of most American church folks that we can’t even countenance a day of fasting. (“I would be worthless at the office if I skipped food all day! What’s the point?”)  We are convinced that 21st Century living means we can have it all.  But we can’t have everything else and have Jesus too.  

Christ compared the Kingdom to a man who finds treasure in a field and then sells everything he owns to make that plot of land his own.  It’s like a pearl merchant who finds a pearl so exquisite that he sells his entire inventory to claim that singular treasure.  Jesus clearly knew what that meant.  His first-century listeners understood as well.  Sadly, we in the 21st Century have no idea.

Let’s pray for repentance and faith, and pray tirelessly for a teachable spirit. Some of us in the church may need to be born again, for real.  And lift up the Cross!

To hear Pastor Cole’s companion message on Sacrifice, click here.

#Resist

THE RESISTANCE

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

There is another tsunami of rage sweeping your way.  Lately, it feels like we live and breathe in a sea of outrage, disgust, fury, and offense.  Serious people are not permitted to be tranquil, optimistic, or content.  It’s normative to be mad at the world: it’s expected.  Even when you must offer a bit of praise for someone or something noble or virtuous, it must be qualified.  Nothing’s that good anymore.

That’s the world we inhabit today.  And that’s the Establishment Jesus has empowered us to overcome.  Our Gospel is supernatural.   We can shine like lights in the darkness.  You and I are The Resistance, and we’re not nearly the first.  Paul coached resistance in the 1st Century:  “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” (Romans 12:2; The Message)

Here’s how we resist:

Don’t be swept away in the rip current of outrage.  Anger is rooted in fear. Confess Christ and cast your fears to the winds.  Your Father cares for you.

Walk away from the angry demonstrators.  The culture of complaint and criticism keep us ever focused on negatives.  Find a place where God is positively working and join him there, and with passion.

Don’t be another #Me Too!  Others can hurt you, but only you can make yourself a victim.  Break out of your prison of the past and walk boldly into a future of hope and joy.  Leave the shame and powerlessness behind you.

Stop drinking the poison Kool-Aid.  Read the Bible more and best-selling fiction less.  Stop watching TV shows you know are profane and inflammatory, no matter how you’ve rationalized it as acceptable because everybody’s watching it.  Turn off news programs that stir up indignation just to keep you watching rather than praying.

Dare to be noble and compassionate.  In Christ, we have the capacity to concentrate on powerful ideas that are true, noble, excellent, commendable, lovely, and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)

Meet God in worship and take an outcast with you.  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you’re only deployed here on hostile soil for a while.  We don’t have time to be dragged down by the aggravated, earthbound people around us.  They don’t understand that the names and faces change with each generation, but the system always stays the same.  That corrupted system is called The World.

That’s what we resist: the deadly system, not the politicians and power players, all interchangeable.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.  Don’t let outrage and irritation leave you powerless.

Lift up the Cross.

MEN TALKING

If God keeps waiting on the Church, this world will never be saved.  Let’s face the facts: they’re distracted and we’re paralyzed.  You know it’s true.

There’s so much buzz in church circles about relationships and building bridges to lost friends, but mostly what comes out of all that chill chatter is generalities and coffee conversations.  If that celebrated bridge ever gets underway, it’s generally another bridge to nowhere.  Maybe it’s partly due to growing urbanization and the oppressive idea of tolerance, but Jesus feels like a very offensive topic, even to people in the church.  His name may be the last taboo.

  • We’re afraid we’ll mention faith too soon and turn them off.
  • We fear we’ll be too direct and friends will feel judged.
  • What if they ask a question and I can’t answer?
  • It would be embarrassing if I got through my whole testimony and the only reply was, “So what?”

I’ve struggled with the same anxieties here along the Washington DC Beltway where people are very secular and overly sensitive.  After a lot of prayer, discouragement, and struggle, I’ve found a better way: Let Jesus do it.  He’s always more convincing when he uses his own words.  It’s not your job to argue with people.  Introduce them to Jesus!

FIRST: Find an opening in the conversation and ask, “Have you ever met Jesus?”  If your friend gives you a funny look, break the tension with a big laugh, and then add, “I’m serious.  He wants to meet you.”  Listen kindly for the next couple of minutes until they ask, in one way or another, what you’re talking about.”

This is not a trick question.  It’s not about being lost or found; not about being saved or condemned.  In a world where people talk about relationships all the time, you’re just wondering if they’ve met someone you happen to love and adore.

SECOND:  Don’t lecture.  Smile again and gently say something like this: “The Bible is like a letter from God.  He makes this promise to actually reveal himself to people who ask.  So I was just wondering if that ever happened to you?”

In case you’re unsure, this is absolutely true. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) Think about Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” My personal favorite is Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”  There’s a ton of verses like this.  Just remember one in case someone asks if the Bible really says that.

THIRD: Suggest an experiment. Without trying to sound like your pastor encourage your friend to simply ask Christ to reveal himself, maybe for a month or so.  He can take a moment every day and simply pray, “Jesus, please reveal yourself to me.  I want to know you.”  Or better yet, read the Gospel of Luke, one chapter every day.  Then simply pause and ask Jesus Christ to show up.

Ask your friend if it’s okay if you check in after 30 days to find out what happened.  Tell him that Jesus Christ has always kept his word with you, and you’re wondering what might happen with him (or her.)  Here’s the amazing secret.

  • In a friendly, non-threatening way, you’ve invited someone to talk to God every day.
  • Without being judgmental, you have suggested daily Bible reading.
  • There’s a good chance you’ve created some curiosity.
  • Isaiah 55:11 promises God’s Word  “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”

FINALLY, spend the following month praying for your friend. Then follow up as promised. In 30 days, create another opportunity to chat and ask your friend what happened.  You haven’t tried to argue anyone into Heaven or jam anything down someone else’s throat. You’ve simply let Jesus say it in his own way.

Let me know what happens.

And lift up the Cross!

Good to be Small Again

DOWNSIZING

Is it “body shaming” to suggest we’re all too large and would be happier if we were much, much smaller?  Matt Damon’s upcoming movie, Downsizing, is a comedy about people who allow themselves to be miniaturized so their income will go much farther and their dreams will be affordable.  The story apparently presses all the hot buttons of 2017: carbon footprints, unhappiness with one’s biology, the fragmenting family, and the confusion of a world where everything is normal.

It’s a fun idea: you could probably afford the McMansion of your dreams if the scale could be 90% smaller.  And you would surely use less fuel driving an SUV from the Hot Wheels toy collection.  But good luck when a regular-sized typhoon floods your tiny Leisureville Community- not to mention a sprawling monster hurricane like Harvey or Irma!

It’s not likely shrinking the human body will catch on, so I’ve gotten a better idea: let’s shrink the human ego!  Downsizing the self would be a lot more practical. It would wipe out White Supremacy, which is a lingering fever, as well as Moral Superiority, which is a raging epidemic!  NFL players would emphasize the team over personal political agendas. What if I stopped emphasizing what makes me special, in favor of the idea that all human beings are equally valuable, created in the image of God? There must be a movie script there: a futuristic world where the human ego is reduced by 90%!  I can imagine a few laughs, but it wouldn’t have a lot of violence because people with downsized egos could live together in peace and tranquility, even in Washington, DC or North Korea.

Ironically, I came across a review of Downsizing after watching video of the desperate conditions in SE Texas after that historic storm.  A drenched, young woman and her family had just been rescued from their inundated neighborhood.  A reporter reached out with a microphone, asking, “How are you?”  She replied, “We’re alive.  But it humbled us.”  She was speaking for the multitudes.

If only those giant sucker punches delivered to Texas and Florida and the Carribean could momentarily knock the wind out of us all. It was almost miraculous how quickly the tone of news reporting changed for a few days as storms approached fragile communities!  So much of the political slander, bigotry, character assassination, instant outrage, and moral posturing have been washed away by news of flood waters that continue to rise in cities of despair.  Even as Americans grieve the losses being endured by our neighbors in Texas, there is a boundless optimism beginning to build.  Neighbors are helping neighbors. The other forty-nine states are sending in rescuers and equipment from hundreds of miles away.  Families are giving to charities and churches are organizing to provide relief.  None of us is sufficient for such a catastrophe but our combined resources can seriously add up.

Sadly, at this moment in September, the raging debate about NFL players kneeling or locking arms has drowned out reporting from devastated Puerto Rico. Surely, the apocalyptic crisis crushing millions of American neighbors should rate more attention than the perceived slights of a few privileged athletes.  If the USA is guilty of sins against humanity, surely one of them is ignoring devastated Puerto Ricans in 2017 while obsessing on an inconsequential debate that will be forgotten in two years.

More generosity and less instant outrage would demonstrate a more accurate appraisal of how small each of us really is and how little we actually know.  Less abject scorn in public and the social media would allow space for conversation rather than the unkind, snarky confrontation so popular in every realm of life today.  A great society doesn’t require that everyone must be perfect, or even that everyone must agree.  Rather, greatness in a land is possible when everyone’s ego is small enough that he can see beyond it to recognize the enormity of God and the value of others.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  1 Peter 5:6

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

Impeaching Dead Presidents

APOTHEOSIS OF GEORGE

Mood swings are part of the human condition.  So it’s no surprise that the history of the human race is also marked by wild, irrational tides sweeping in extreme directions. Back in 1863, Americans wanted to honor George Washington prominently in the newly completed US Capitol building.  A renowned artist was commissioned to paint a fresco on the underside of the capitol dome.  Today you can still marvel at The Apotheosis of George Washington that depicts the first president elevated to the status of a god and seated among divine beings in the heavens.  Don’t miss the point: he’s seated in Heaven as a god, not a saint!

It’s a majestic fresco, but I’ve always hated it.  There’s only one God and his name is not George.  Indeed, Mr. Washington was a modest man who would never have tolerated such an irreverent comparison during his lifetime.  But by the 1860’s the country was emotionally charged, war drums were already pounding, and the impeccable character of the late first president was one of few things everyone could agree on.

So it’s painful to see angry mobs running toward the other extreme today.  We all agree that slavery is the darkest blot on the history of our nation, and it’s on the record that George Washington was one of many who owned slaves in the colonies.  Amazingly, even some well-educated Americans have actually been caught up in the delusion that this sin outweighs everything else the man ever did.  It matters not that he fought to win our liberty, or served as a unifying first president, or even that he refused to be crowned king for life! The rumbling has already begun that statues must come down; schools and institutions must be renamed.  To some, George Washington is nothing more than a despised human trafficker and a disgrace.

As Christians, you and I appreciate the simple principle that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Even saints have sinned.  The only reason any of us can ever stand before God hopeful and unashamed is that someone has carried our condemnation for us.  Christ has exchanged his righteousness for our fetid rags of guilt and shame. That’s why Scripture never conceals the fact that David committed adultery with the wife of one of his oldest and most loyal generals.  Worse still, he finally ordered the death of that trusted friend in order to conceal the illicit pregnancy and claim the woman for himself.  How can it be that God is a holy God and yet David can be described as a man after His own heart?  Grace is messy.

So it’s actually ungodly to demand that capable leaders must also be morally flawless in order to serve their country.  Nobody is.  That explains why a woman caught in adultery walked away unharmed after Jesus concurred with her death sentence, but insisted the first stone should be cast by someone who had never sinned.

It’s also outrageous and irrational to judge historical figures by present day standards that evolved in a different environment decades later.  Many of us in 2017 are offended by President Roosevelt’s order that Japanese-Americans should be rounded up and relocated at the onset of World War II, but we have the advantage of knowing how everything turned out.  He made that call in different circumstances under unimaginable pressure. We cringe when we read about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but President Truman had to sign that order back in 1945 having been advised that the military invasion of Japan could result in another 4 million casualties and 800,000 additional deaths among US fighting forces.  Wouldn’t it be grand if you and I could delay all our hard choices fifty years until we could confirm how everything had turned out?

The desire to erase painful national history is rooted in ignorance and immaturity. History is dead and gone, for better or worse.  Bad history doesn’t enslave and destroy people, but bad memory can.  There’s a reason we build Holocaust Museums.  We say “Never Forget,” so that it will never be tolerated again.  The same should be true of slavery.  Let’s not deceive ourselves with the illusion that great people are not capable of serious mistakes.  We all are.

The irony here is so rich.  Matthew 7 doesn’t actually command us not to judge other people, as is commonly suggested.  In context, it reminds us not to judge unfairly; not to hold others to unrealistic standards we could never meet in our own lives.  Christ’s warning is that people who judge unfairly will be held to the same unjust standards.  So the angry idealists assailing Washington and Jefferson are doing precisely what the Bible warns against.   Witch hunts can feel unifying and even satisfying in the moment.  They invariably lead to painful history, easier to prevent than erase.

And lift up the Cross!

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