Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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Do You Believe in Miracles?

BURNING CHURCHOne of my favorite “true” stories is certifiably true.  I had wondered about it over the years but  I never managed to find any evidence for or against.  Then recently it was confirmed by Snopes.com.  How do you explain this?

The choir at West Side Baptist Church met religiously for rehearsal on Wednesday evenings at 7:20.  So of course, shock and terror spread quickly across little Beatrice, Nebraska, one Wednesday night when the church furnace exploded at 7:25 PM.  The blast quickly leveled the church building, with flames leaping everywhere.  The force of the explosion knocked a nearby radio station off the air and shattered windows in neighboring homes.

Fire rescue workers and stunned neighbors descended on the scene expecting the worst. Weren’t there fifteen regular members in the choir?  How many charred corpses would they be forced to unearth from the ashes and despair?  Much to everyone’s astonishment and relief, the answer was 0.

No one was killed in the tragic blast because on that chill February evening, all fifteen members of the West Side Choir arrived late for rehearsal!

  • Royena Estes had planned to leave on time, but her car wouldn’t start.  She called and asked her sister Ladona for a ride, but the high school sophomore needed a few more minutes to solve a geometry problem in her homework. They ran late.
  • Pastor Klempel and his wife were about to leave at their usual time when she noticed her dress was badly wrinkled.  She went back inside to press it, so they left home late.
  • Harvey Ahl was nearly always early for rehearsal, but on this evening his wife was out-of-town and he was having fun playing with his two young sons.  When he finally glanced at his watch, he was already running behind.
  • Marilyn, the pianist, had planned to arrive half an hour early to rehearse a difficult section in one of the songs, but she nodded off for just a moment and over napped. Because she was late, her mother, the choir director, was also slow to arrive.
  • And so it went on February 1.  One choir member took a nap and overslept. Another felt lazy and decided to steal just five more minutes wrapped up in her blanket. Two were frustrated when their automobiles wouldn’t crank.

So on the night when West Side Baptist Church exploded, not a single choir member was inside the building.  All had been providentially hindered by completely unrelated distractions, and everyone was uncharacteristically late.

Some would say they were all just lucky.  But the odds of all 15 faithful choir members being late on the very same night would surely be one in a million.  It calls to mind the promise from Ephesians 3:20 that our God can do more than we ask or imagine.

Lift up the Cross!

Don’t Get Mad, Get a Life

FIGHT CLUBOur beloved battle hymn foresees the Lord returning to trample “on the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”  Well if that’s a fair description of the end of time, then surely we have arrived.  Those bitter grapes are everywhere, indeed, the world is a vineyard.  Without a doubt, we are awaiting the last trump!  (Don’t scream at me: that last word is not capitalized.)

Here is the USA, fight clubs still sweep the country, not among gangs like MS-13, but championed by young, well-educated, urban professionals.  College students riot after being offended by trigger words.  Popular politicians are shouted down and hounded off the stage at town hall meetings.  If your business flight isn’t delayed while stubborn passengers are pummeled and dragged off the aircraft, it may be forced to land prematurely due to a furious passenger assailing the flight attendant. Meanwhile, social media like Facebook and Twitter are so charged with rage, insults, and vitriol that ordinary people are afraid to sign on for their daily dose of baby pictures.

What gives?  C.S. Lewis offered a precise diagnosis of today’s world three-quarters of a century ago.  “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither.”

There’s a powerful idea we’ve abandoned, and it begins with trans.  Does anything come to mind? Not transsexual: but transcendent.  People who cherish transcendent values can live with disappointment and adversity in life because their spiritual convictions lift them above the moments of mundane frustration. Because they believe in heaven, in divine wisdom, and in the power of love, spiritual people literally transcend the down times by trusting Providence and practicing delayed gratification. People of true faith believe many of the best things in life are invisible at the moment, and other treasures are awaiting the fullness of time.

Materialists, on the other hand, expect satisfaction every day because they live in a world filled with things; and things are supposed to bring us joy.  Who wouldn’t be happy with the newest smartphone, the most gargantuan HD TV,  and a futuristic home where smart devices do everything for them effortlessly?  Apparently, that’s not nearly enough for most people.  Look again at the seething multitudes all around you.  To paraphrase a former president, “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to smartphones or social media or antipathy to people who don’t agree with their ideas as a way to explain their frustrations.”

People who hope only in the here and now have no patience with delay and defeat, even the most fleeting variety.  And therein is found the crux of our national despair.  We suffer from the most powerful forms of addiction; big money and big government.  And now that both of us have failed us miserably, we are left in the misery of withdrawal.  We traded away the transcendent spiritual truths that could lift our souls from the Slough of Despond.  Very soon, perhaps an old cliche’ will begin to resonate once again: Jesus is the Answer.  The world is not enough… seriously.

Lift up the Cross!

 

God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

Childlike Faith vs Childish Religion

childlike-faith

Kids take the winding path when adults choose the short cut.

Children wish they could make time move faster, but grown ups want to slow it down.

Little guys would rather play than eat. Big people want their meals on time.

And none of those distinctions were in the mind of Christ when he coached his budding apostles, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)  When the Lord called for childlike faith, he had a specific quality in mind which he explained with his next statement: humility.

That is, kids realize they’re  small and need the care of more powerful individuals. That’s why toddlers become so clingy and insecure when one parent is away: they want as much adult care as possible.  As a result, little kids are comfortable being out of control.  Sure, there are those terrible two’s and occasional tantrums, but kids spend most of their time living comfortably under the authority of bigger people.

New Testament faith is the cultivation of that kind of dependence among the children of God.  Have you ever noticed how often people of faith are compared to children in the Bible?  I’m thinking children of Israel; the warning about causing one of God’s little ones to stumble; the directive to call upon your Father who is in Heaven.  Have you ever wondered why the model prayer set forth by Jesus includes a plea that God will provide us with our daily bread each day?

Childlike faith is the recognition of my scale in the universe: small, lacking in resources, and dependent on outside intervention from someone more powerful. Turning to God is not a last resort for people of faith; it’s the first line of defense in a world that seems seriously out of our control!

I have come to believe that’s why awe and wonder are so lacking in the Christian Faith of this particular generation.  Awe is a combination of love, fear, and surprise that leads to reverence.  An awesome motion picture leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence.  An awesome rocket launch leaves masses gazing quietly at the empty sky. Moments of wonder leave us feeling small; speechless in the presence of something vast and beyond our reach.

The trouble with grown ups today is that we have fallen in love with devices we believe can give us complete control.  My smart phone gives me mastery of my calendar, my photographs, favorite music, plus instant access to all my friends wherever they are.  Alexa orders flowers for my wife and turns the AC up or down!  That sense of personal power is a carefully curated illusion, but an illusion all the same.

In fact, cherished relationships can crash and burn quite suddenly- often completely apart from our actions.  Circumstances change, health conditions spiral downward, finances go south, best laid plans hit the wall, and cars come crashing through restaurant windows. Just last month a friend diagnosed with Stage IV cancer early in December was gone to be with God by Christmas Eve!   In the most important areas of life, the only thing I can affect is my own behavior; which can often seem useless at best.

Childlike faith doesn’t chafe at the authority of God.  Neither does it need to understand what God is thinking when he takes a particular course of action. Children learn to deal patiently with major decisions whose only explanation is “because I said so.”  So do children of God.  Because unless we are converted to childlike faith, we will never enter the Kingdom.

Take some time to be dazzled by the presence of God and the timeless power of His Holy Word.  Go out of your way to offer God true worship this week.  And lift up the Cross!

For last week’s message, The Trouble with Grown Ups, click here.

 

Losing It

silenceThis is a true story.  In 1614 the Christian faith was spreading rapidly through one region of Japan and beginning to take root.  For a number of political reasons, the government decided to crush and eliminate this threat to national unity.  A ruthless,unrelenting war against missionaries and evangelists was unleashed.  In October of that year, fifty-five persons of all ages were burned alive alongside the Kamo River in Kyoto. There were elderly people, young mothers, and children as young as 5 or 6 years old.

A crowd of 30,000 spectators gathered to observe the spectacle.  Here’s how an Englishman standing among the crowd described the event: “When the faggots were kindled, the martyrs said sayonara to the onlookers who then began to intone, The Magnificat, followed by [Psalm 113 and 116]… Since it had rained heavily the night before, the faggots were wet and the wood burned slowly; but as long as the martyrdom lasted, the spectators continued to sing hymns and canticles.  When death put an end to the victim’s suffering, the crowd intoned [a Latin hymn with these lyrics: ‘You are God, we praise you/ Your are Lord, we acclaim you/ You are the Eternal Father/ All Creation worships you.’]”

God not only commends saints who die for their faith; he encourages it.  Hebrews 11 concludes with this epic celebration of martyrdom: “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy…!” In Revelation 3:18, the Christ encourages us to ask for gold tried by fire; that is, fiery trial.

Here in the safety of our American fortress, Christians like you and me think of ourselves as tolerant and open-minded: we can talk openly about sex, adultery, pornography, or atheism- anything except the glory of the martyrs.  We send teams to the mission field praying that Jesus will keep them safe: not that God will make them dangerous.  We can scarcely summon the courage to suggest our young people consider the mission field. Heaven forbid we should think of them martyred for Christ while spreading the gospel! Mention personal sacrifice and we imagine two hours in church when the espresso machine is broken!

Of all the Christmas texts available for poetic reflection this Christmas, few of us will deal with aging Simeon’s prophecy to Mary during the dedication of Jesus at the Temple. The old man describes the ministry of the Messiah, and adds parenthetically for the young mother, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul, too.”  That’s clearly a scribal gloss: Everybody knows the Gospel makes us rich and happy!

Read Revelation this Christmas.  Jesus looks forward to celebrating in Heaven with all the martyrs who have given their lives in service on the Earth. He offers extraordinary rewards to those who dare to lose it all without regret.

In American churches, our brand of worship is high-tech, but low-ambition.  We aspire to joyful experiences with Christ.  We pray for God to heal everybody.  We feel persecuted when a clerk at Macy’s says, “Happy Holiday!”  Sadly, we cannot imagine why anyone would stand there watching godly people burn, and sing, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.  O Lord, I am your servant.  Praise the Lord!”

The narrative from Japan is taken from the introduction to a 1966 classic, Silence by Shusaku Endo.  It is an elegant, historical novel based on actual events.  I’m reading it for Christmas this year, and feeling unworthy.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

Shaken, Not Stirred

shaken-not-stirred

James Bond was describing his favorite vodka martini but he could have been thinking of American churches in 2016.  We have been shaken by the godless revolution that has turned social values on their heads and has forbidden the Bible as superstition and hate speech.  But we have not been stirred to repentance or even serious prayer.

Unfortunately, too many saints seem utterly fixated with the approaching presidential election.  Pastors and other spiritual leaders have squandered their good names endorsing one candidate or another, both of whom are appalling, and urging the people of God to pray about this election.  Tense, guarded voices warn us that this election represents our last good chance to take the nation back.

In fact, the nation we once knew is gone, and it’s time to get over it. There is no super hero- and certainly no politician– coming to turn back time and restore sanity to our government and our culture.  Like it or not, this is the new normal.  What if we in the church stopped wringing our hands in grief, and decided to accept the call of God?  Could this be the moment when we should resolve to stop living in the past and begin serving God in the place where He has planted us?

Christ encouraged his apostles to be fearless when he dispatched them to go ahead of him and prepare the way.  “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”  (Hint: wolves are hazardous for sheep.)

The church in Laodicea was rich and comfortable, but utterly lacking in influence. Christ rebuked that church, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire.”  He was prescribing purity that can be derived only in the fires of persecution.  That may very well be what the Master has in store for churches in the USA as well; not because he hates us, but because he loves us.

Persecution is not the exception for exceptional churches; it is the rule. Counter-cultural congregations always threaten the Establishment.  The gospel unites people around timeless truth even as kings and congressmen scramble to divide us over race, economics, age, and gender.  The harder tyrants work to suppress the church or stamp it out, the more potent the Holy Spirit grows in multiplying the saints and manufacturing holy ambition. Pinpoint the places around the globe where holiness is rising, where churches are exploding, and you’ll find most of your pins point to places on the map where the church is under fire.

It’s not pleasant to think about the approach of serious persecution of believers: not just icy glares when one mentions Christmas, but violence and prison time.  But wouldn’t it be thrilling, even earth shaking, to experience the awe and wonder of Acts in our 21st Century American churches today? That may very well be why so much chaff is being sifted out of the church scene. Perhaps God is refining the Bride of Christ for what is to come: less is more. Thinking about persecution for ourselves and our children, it may be that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

That’s why prayer closets will be much more urgent than voting booths for many years to come.  If you can do both, vote and pray.  If you have to choose, opt for the latter.

Don’t pray for the election. Pray for the Elect.

And lift up the Cross!

Deck Chairs on the Titanic

make-disciplesWhere did Christians get the trite idea that we’re supposed to change the world? If we can all agree on anything about the Book of Revelation, it is this: the church doesn’t reform the world.  To the contrary, John makes it clear the world will get worse and worse until God finally brings the curtain down.  Like it or not, our unsinkable world will one day go down.

Think about it: Joseph was empowered by God to become the second most powerful man in Egypt, but he didn’t even change Egypt, much less the neighboring world.  David led Israel to become a stronger nation, but certainly not a center of spiritual revival.  Daniel saw God do mighty miracles but Babylon remained a bastion of paganism till the day it fell.

God never directs us to change the world.  Isaiah dismissed the nations as a mere drop in the bucket to God. Rather, Christ commissions us to make disciples and win souls. Winning a Christian majority may eventually change the spiritual worldview of a nation, but not necessarily.  The largest church in the world continues to thrive in communist China where oppression has recently intensified. Regimes decline. Fashions fade.  Souls last forever.

Enter the words “world” + “change” in a Bible concordance.  What you’ll find is Romans 12:2, which admonishes us “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  The only guaranteed change that happens in the world occurs when Jesus transforms the individual men and women he has saved by grace through faith.  How will they hear without a messenger?

I am convinced the vision of miraculously changing the world has become a destructive paradigm, at least for our generation of saints.  It shifts our emphasis to political elections and social activism.

  • The quickest way to change the world is to elect a new president or improve the economy, right?  If you can’t figure that one out, just Google “Moral Majority.”  Political changes are easy come, easy go: except they don’t come that easy.
  •  In addition, we tend to be sidetracked and enraged by the moral decline all around us. We spit in the eye of the malign culture and its captives, rather than steeling ourselves to grow outstanding disciples in a lifetime struggle against decay and hostility.  We have to become better planters.

One of my heroes, William Tyndale, eventually had a huge impact on the world but it was generations after his violent death at the hands of the government.  His English translation of the New Testament enabled simple farm boys to sing the scriptures as they went about plowing and harvesting.  In time, his ministry really did change the world but his goal had simply been to make disciples and win souls.

God is big enough to change the world in his own season.  The task for us is less daunting: share the gospel and win souls.  Entrust the gospel to disciples who are trained to share it with others.

There must be a reason Revelation is the final book in the Bible.  The closing four chapters guarantee that God will change the world forever.  Until we finally reach chapter 19, the church must persevere under fire and preach the undiluted but often unpopular gospel. Change will come in God’s time.  We tirelessly make disciples one soul at a time.

Lift up the Cross!

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