Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

CSI: Naked and Afraid

NAKED AND AFRAID

It could be just another crime scene.  There’s a naked man, unconscious and bleeding, lying there alongside a mountain pass. Apparently, he was the victim of a robbery so there is no identification.  In Christ’s haunting saga of the Good Samaritan, the mystery is not what happened, but what happens next.  The most important clue, the detail commonly overlooked by people on the case, is one unpleasant but revealing word.

Stripped.  The Bible specifically says the robbery victim left for dead along the Jericho Road was naked.  His attackers had “stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)  Gone was his prayer shawl, the tallit men of the region always wore. For Hebrew males, there was a tzitzit on each corner, a tassel that denoted reverence for God.  The Law required that Jewish men have a dark blue thread woven into the tzitzit. The Samaritans, their despised cousins, would have have been identified by a white thread in their tzitzit or perhaps light blue.  Without their traditional robes and clothing, the Jews and Samaritans looked just alike.

So the Jewish priest and the Levite did not step around the poor man, leaving him to die, because they were too busy to help a neighbor.  They couldn’t tell if the man was their neighbor or not!  Despite their calling from God to love their neighbors as themselves, their definition of “neighbor” was just too narrow to afford a stranger the benefit of the doubt.

What makes this parable so helpful and so compelling is the singular detail it does not divulge. The priest and Levite were Hebrews, and the Samaritan was obviously not Jewish. But the identity of the robbery victim is as mysterious to you and me as it was to the Samaritan arriving on the scene. Yet seeing a helpless human being in desperate need of assistance, this man from Samaria was moved with basic human kindness. We’re not even told he was a religious guy.  But here’s the bottom line: he didn’t have to rise above any feelings of resentment for an enemy.  He didn’t see an adversary.  All he could see was another man whose skin and features were mostly like his.

Love isn’t blind.  It just doesn’t need a formal introduction to act.

Writers and preachers tend to mock the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite who walk on by, but that dilutes the message.  In his telling of the story, Jesus allows us all to see the enemy, and it is us!  We have all failed at one time or another to look beyond the cultural disguises others affect in order to see the human heart that beats deep inside.  Skin-deep compassion must be a common condition.

For instance, historians tell us that young Mohammed reached out to both Christians and Jews around Mecca when he was trying to find his own spiritual bearings.  Sadly, both groups frowned upon pagans in their hometown as savages to be avoided; not neighbors to be loved and cared for.  Sadly, we know what happened next.  Even today, many of us are so agitated over Islamic extremism and open borders that we’d not only leave a Muslim-looking victim lying in the road, but we might kick him while walking past.

It’s easy to be condescending toward competitors, especially when they seem so angry. But false religion is not always a form of competition: more often it’s just a way to be connected to something instead of nothing.  And rage is frequently an expression of fear and desperation.  Of course, Islamist extremists are not seething with fury because they live in poverty; many don’t. They’re angry because they’re empty.  That spiritual hunger leaves them vulnerable to political players with personal ambitions.  They are dangerous, but they’re not really monsters.  They’re just people.

According to Jesus, loving God by loving my neighbors is the key to my faith. It’s also the key to their’s, being loved unconditionally by a fellow human being who knows Christ. As the Samaritan generously offered mercy to a fellow human being in need, let’s you and I go and do likewise.  We can take our frustrations to prayer closets and ballot boxes. Let’s take our love to the streets.

And lift up the Cross!

 

dreamstime_m_20815583

We were camping on the veldt in Tsavo National Park in Kenya.  Our long line of tents was set up facing an elephant watering hole about fifty yards away.  As we turned in for the night, a sentry armed with a rifle paced between the campfires burning to ward off the animals.

After 11:00 PM a solitary male lion approached our camp on his way to the waterhole. We were an unexpected barrier blocking his access; the fires and the sight of the guard all very intimidating.  So the big cat began to roar as he skulked along the rear line of our tents, first one direction and then the other, back and forth. I fell asleep to the distinctive lullaby of a snarling lion, the king of beasts expressing his violent displeasure.

It called to mind 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  And it struck me, lions don’t roar when they’re hunting.  They roar when they’re angry or threatened.   When Peter warns us to be alert because Satan is like a roaring lion, he’s also tipping us off: all that racket means our adversary is angry and frustrated. It doesn’t sound like a successful hunt, does it?

That’s why we in the Kingdom continue to hear the same old snarling cliches and tired slogans recycled from Hell again and again. Don’t the enemies of Christ ever come up with new material?  If it doesn’t work the first time, then roar louder the next time, right?

Just this morning, a friend asked how to answer an insult hurled endlessly in print and conversation.  How can Christians be offended by Islamist terrorism when we did the very same things during the Crusades?  I just smiled.  In the first place, the Crusades happened a thousand years ago. How is it that people who cannot remember 9/11/01 have such vivid memories of 1095 AD?  But more importantly, the Crusades were launched as a defensive measure to resist the unrelenting slaughter and kidnapping of peaceful pilgrims hoping to visit the Holy Land and walk where Jesus walked.  The motivation was never about claiming new nations for Christ or forcing anyone to convert. The Crusaders were always a last ditch response to foreign aggression. Quite notably, the Christian pilgrims were not being killed and kidnapped by offended atheists.  (For details, read God’s Battalions, Rodney Stark’s highly acclaimed defense of the Crusades.)

Earlier this week, I found myself offering encouragement to a frustrated professional who came by my office. He had fallen away from another church years ago and was attempting to explain his rationale for rejecting the faith.  Along the way he assured me that all religions are the same: “Islamic extremists kill people but so do all those Christians who bomb abortion clinics.” I didn’t lose my smile, but I did politely interrupt.

“Which evangelical abortion clinic bombers do you have in mind?” I asked.  Abortion clinic bombings are so incredibly rare that death by falling into vats of chocolate must surely be more numerous.  And just because we know a bomber hated abortionists, doesn’t mean we know he loved Jesus.  In fact, killing innocent people is compelling evidence he didn’t know Jesus Christ and was simply deranged or just mean.  That’s a far cry from the armies of suicide bombers and masked executioners who carry the Koran and shout “Allahu Akbar,” as they wage bloody war on civilians.  The man in my office sighed as he conceded the point.

With all due respect to the sincerity of Islamic State killers and Boko Haram rapists, you don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize those kinds of activities are ghastly and unthinkable to followers of Jesus Christ! There are no Christian majority nations where angry mobs stand in the streets chanting for death to any other nation or even another religious group. Nothing could be more unlike Jesus.

Angry, snarling pagans are still trying to toss Jesus into the lions’ den.  But their arguments are toothless.  Their facts are just fake news.  And even a spoonful of Truth seasoned with gentleness and respect can often shut the mouths of the lions- or at least enlighten the spectators watching from the gallery.  Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel, and don’t let mindless slogans and bogus history lessons lie there unanswered.  But speak the truth in love, with all gentleness and respect.

And lift up the Cross!

 

Coffee with an Exorcist

THE EXORCIST PHOTORob is not a priest: in fact, he’s a police officer.  On duty, one of his tasks is training other officers to respond to subjects who are agitated, delusional, or otherwise suffering from some form of mental illness.   It’s what he does when he’s off duty that got my attention. Rob rescues people who are demon possessed.

Believe it or not, a mental health professional referred me to him.  A trusted friend of mine had described an extraordinary scene that erupted at a small dinner among friends late one evening. When I recounted what my friend had experienced, the therapist replied, “I’ve never seen anything like that in the field of mental health.  It sounds demonic to me.”  So that’s how I came to meet an exorcist at Starbuck’s on a Saturday morning.

Rob’s assault on the gates of Hell began late one night in 2007, standing alongside an automobile in a mall parking lot with a troubled young man inside pleading for help. Over the next four hours in two or three different locations, he found himself staring into the eyes of Hell.  He prayed, quoted scripture, prayed some more, and even called in a local church pastor for a while.  Around 2:00 AM, an evil spirit came shrieking out of the dazed victim, and an exhausted young police officer, soaked in perspiration, realized The Exorcist was more just pulp fiction.

Many episodes later, he draws an interesting comparison.  In the first century, people tended to perceive demons everywhere because they didn’t understand mental illness. Today we’ve been so programmed to look for mental illness and mood disorders that we don’t recognize the spiritual, the demonic when it should be apparent.

To my surprise, he doesn’t invoke mystical words or the jargon we often associate with demonology and exorcism, although he can pray in Latin. What makes this guy so compelling is the way he draws on the sermons of Jesus and core ideas of the Gospel. “Certain events or problems seem to open human beings up to demon activity,” he explains. “Things like trauma, sexual abuse, and unforgiveness.”  Even Christians can suffer spiritual oppression when we allow resentment to build up in our hearts and refuse Christ’s commandment to forgive those who offend and injure us.  “You don’t do it for the other person.” he elaborates. “You do it for yourself.”

When he finds himself face to face with someone who may be either controlled or at least harassed by an evil spirit, Rob doesn’t reach for a crucifix or a flask of holy water. “Intercessory prayer is key,” he asserts. “Always begin with intercessory prayer. Sometimes, it’s the prayer that provokes the demon to reveal himself.”

Most of us are familiar with the Gospel accounts of Legion, a wretched man inhabited by more demons that he could count (Matthew 8.)  Crazed and out of control, he lived among the gravestones, screeching and howling every night.  In a world already sensitive to demon possession, his terrified neighbors could not recognize his problem: he was their problem.  Their conventional methods, binding him with ropes and even chains, had failed every time.  Jesus of Nazareth was not afraid to peer behind that familiar one thousand yard stare to diagnose the ancient evil that afflicted him from within.  He cast them out with a simple command.

Immersed as we are in high-tech and Twitter feeds, you and I quite naturally try to boil our faith down to a short list of slogans: the gospel for dummies.  We tend to be uncomfortable with mystery- even the mysterious nature of the Holy God of Eternity. Despite biblical assurances that his thoughts and his ways are infinitely higher than ours, we’re still pretty sure we can explain anything with a smartphone and a Google search. Think again!

Author and theologian John Piper recalls his own experience in an exorcism several years ago.  And he emphasizes 2 Timothy 2:24, ” Teach with gentleness, correct your opponents in love. God may perhaps grant them to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth and be delivered or escape from the power of the evil one who had taken them captive.” Notice scripture’s use of the word perhapsit’s complicated.

Demons are not science fiction.  Even as skeptics dismiss the very idea as superstitious nonsense, they watch breaking news reports about the senseless and agonizing death some human beings inflict on strangers and ask “How could a human being ever do something like that?”  There is obviously more here than meets the eye.

The Book of Revelation foresees a new wave of demonic warfare just as the Final Countdown begins.  In other words, we won’t get out of here before all of us have encountered demons in the escalating conflict. Our victory is certain, but it won’t be cheaply won. “They overcame the devil by the blood of the lamb, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

Be ready for He is coming!  And lift up the Cross!

Show Me My Cross

CROSS AT DREAMSTIME

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  It was true in the second century when Tertullian first penned those words, and it’s been the experience of saints somewhere on the planet in every age since.

In his profound spiritual reflection, Silence and Beauty,  Makoto Fujimura reconsiders the awe and the agony of the Christian community which took root in Japan in the 16th Century. The number of believers there soon reached 300,000, a feat so amazing that missionary Francis Xavier concluded Japan, of all nations in Asia, was “most suited for Christianity.”  When the backlash came, it was brutal, demonic, and devastating.

Fujimura, himself a believer, describes a monument to 26 Christian martyrs from that era of darkness that descended on the church: a few missionaries, some adult believers, and two boys, Ibaraki and Anthony, the older being 13 years old. This particular group of believers was force-marched 480 miles from their home to a hill in Nagasaki.  The ordeal began with their ears and noses being cut off, and it concluded with twenty-six crosses lined up and waiting at their destination.  The tormentors must have been certain this nightmarish ordeal would bring about a change of heart.  They had miscalculated.

As soon as they arrived, one of the battered lads stepped forward and called out, “Show me my cross.” The other boy followed, “And show me mine.”

In spite of our reverence for the cross, many of us in the West scarcely consider the power and the impact of suffering for righteousness.  In our age of convenience and consumer values, the idea of enduring affliction for a higher cause seems unnecessary at best and maybe even ungodly at worst. Why would I do that?  And yet a friend described for me just last night how she slept on the floor beside her husband’s sickbed night after night as he lay dying, just to be near him in his final hours. How commonly we skip meals when a family member is suffering.  Many of us understand bearing discomfort for loved ones, and yet for Jesus…?

The Book of Job can be a perplexing struggle, but our problem is not just the poetry.  The ancient hero’s dark night of the soul seems like utter folly to us.  We throw up our hands, asking why God’s people should suffer bad things; finding no answer.  In fact, that’s not the question God addresses in this familiar story.  Job could never have discerned that his misery had resulted from a conversation in Heaven. Neither can you or I detect spiritual forces and purposes that turn the wheels of heaven just out of sight.

Job’s story asks a more compelling question: Do we really love God, or do we simply use him for His blessings?  The old man clung to God even as his earthly assets went down the drain.  Later in the New Testament, Paul was convinced he could know Christ better by  bonding with him through his own afflictions.  “I want to know Him..!” (Philippians 3:10)

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost sight of Heaven.  It’s easy to become addicted to the comforts of here and now; offended by anything less that The American Dream.  Then I recall the promise of Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  The most splendid experience in that kingdom will be his presence.

Scripture teaches the saints to pray for gold refined by fire.  Many of us might find it helpful to take a look at Silence and Beauty; or just read the Book of Job again, more slowly this time.

Lift up the Cross!

 

ISIS CRUCIFIXION

When 22 people died outside a concert hall in Manchester, England, the media coverage was wall to wall.  The cry went up that something must be done! Journalists followed the investigation.  Press briefings were scheduled regularly. With broken hearts, we pored over color photographs of the victims, many of them only children, and we listened to bystanders describe their horror.  The world grieved as the story unfolded for a week.

Five days later, 29 Christians in Egypt died when terrorists attacked their bus. Forty-two others were seriously injured and the assassins got away.  That story vanished in less than 48 hours.  No color photos.  No interviews with authorities. No tragic details.

Here’s what you probably never heard.  The Christian group of parents, grandparents, and children were traveling in two buses to pray at a monastery. Their vehicles were stopped by terrorists outside the town of Minya.  After the buses were surrounded by killers, passengers on one of the buses were forced to exit the bus one by one.  As each reached the door to face masked gunmen, they were asked, “Are you Muslim?” None of them were. Each was then given a chance to renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam.

As each passenger confessed Christ and refused to convert, he was dragged a few feet away to be killed by either a shot in the head or a slit throat.  One at a time, nineteen adults, and ten children were ordered to become Muslims or die.  One by one they were instantly murdered.  The criminals then fired on the group in the second bus, injuring 42, before speeding away to safety.

Why are tragedies like the one in Manchester more interesting or important than massacres like the one in Minya, Egypt?  I suppose it could be racism.  Or maybe we only care about tragedies that involve celebrities and beautiful people.  But I seriously believe two reasons are more likely.

The media run away from Christian martyrs because they are a powerful witness to the Christian faith.  When random concert-goers fall prey to terror, in the wrong place at the wrong time, it makes the rest of us feel sad but lucky.  But when Christians die because they refuse to renounce their faith, it speaks to the power and the freedom ordinary people discover in Christ.  No sane person willingly dies for something he knows is a lie. Historically, seeing the deaths of Christian martyrs has inspired others to follow the Savior as well.  The secular media wants no part of anything like that!  So a vague headline about people dying in a bus attack manages to cover the bad news without accentuating the Good News.

Christians in America turn their backs as well because stories about martyrs in other lands reflect poorly on the quality our faith here in the West.  In persecution lands, believers risk their lives and the safety of their children to attend worship services and even public prayer times. They worship Christ in the open, fully aware that churches and Christian gatherings are soft targets. But in the Land of the Free, we casually skip worship on Sundays to take our kids to soccer practice or recover from a mild headache.  Just imagine, if youth sports leagues existed in Minya, Egypt, those unfortunate children could have saved their lives by skipping church and going to play soccer instead!

In America, churches report that “regular worship attendance” is now defined as twice a month.  Think about it: when worshipers in Egypt and China become as committed to Christ as we are, the rate of martyrdom could be slashed by half!

The most difficult question facing the American church today is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  We already know the answer to that question: character, faith and the purposes of God.  The harder question is this one: What is a Christian, anyway?

Jesus said no one can come after him without first being willing to deny self, pick up a cross, and follow.  In the religious ghetto of American life, that particular Bible verse is just about as welcome as stories of Egyptian children who are willing to die violently before disappointing Jesus.

To hear the companion message, click Waging Peace

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

THANK GOD IM AN ATHEIST

Not many Americans would call themselves atheists; only about 3% according to Pew Research.  But that doesn’t count the practicing atheists.  I’m thinking about all the people who religiously go to church on Sundays but live the other six-and-a-half days as though heaven is empty and the Bible is fiction.

I’m not even talking about secret sins that weaken our testimony. Think about all those honest, open conversations between Bible believers, those of us who call ourselves Evangelicals.

Surely, we can all agree that friends must be able to speak honestly to each other, and without condemnation.  But when another follower of Christ confides in me that he’s undermining his jerk supervisor at work, what am I supposed to do with the New Testament idea of honoring God by the way I treat those in authority? (1 Peter 2:19) Atheism says the boss is a loser: he’s got it coming.  But a godly friend ought to sympathize, “Man, I understand why you’re so angry.  But I’m wondering if there’s a place for your faith in all of this. What do you think?”  No condemnation there!

When a married woman confides that her conversations with the new single guy at the office have gone well beyond innocent flirtation, what’s a friend in the faith to do? Atheism says we’re living in a whole new world: this seems harmless enough. But a friend who is also a believer has a different take. “Can we pray about this together?  It may feel harmless right now, but are you running away from sexual immorality, or tip-toeing toward it?” (1 Corinthians 6:18)  True friendship does require honesty, right?

In this week’s message on dealing with bad bosses, Pastor Cole reminded us how often we give each other a pass for doing evil.  Instead of coaching our fellow saints with faith and wise counsel, we tend to shrug and suggest we’re all only human. But that’s what atheists believe.  Followers of Jesus counter with 2 Corinthians 5:17.  “I am a new creation in Christ: the old has gone, the new has come!” Saints encourage each other to set our affections on this above, not the things of this world.

Suggest to a child that he’s not as capable of a B-average, and you’ll soon have a D student on your hands!  Tell a teenager it’s impossible to resist fornication, and she’ll soon agree with you wholeheartedly.  Imply to a Christian friend under fire that nobody seriously expects to be holy all the time, and you’ll soon have an unholy friend in an ungodly dilemma.

Being the salt of the earth requires more than merely influencing pagans and unbelievers next door.  It means we are willing to rub off on our friends at church as well.

To catch this week’s message, click Take this Job and Love It.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

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!

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