Monday, January 30, 2006

What Does It Mean to Endure?

We are admonished in Scripture “to endure.” But what does endurance look like? Your answer will depend partly on your view of the world and the nature of sin. Your view of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus will define “endurance,” as well as your future expectations for the fulfilment of the plan of God.

I’ve been thinking about endurance from three categorical positions. In order to draw out distinctions, I have described the more extreme elements of these religious positions, so the reader should understand my usage and be careful not to take offense.

1. Fundamentalism
a. the world is evil and headed for hell
b. separation and isolation are marks of discipleship
c. evangelism is quick and pointed, like a tract (black and white; get in and out quickly)
d. often leads to self-righteousness and hatefulness, since a key fundamentalist skill is pointing out evil and error. Because of the priority of separation, this is a religion that is largely invisible to and misunderstood by the world
e. endurance means being different, and staying different

2. Liberalism
a. the world is basically good, and, incrementally, becoming more heavenly
b. social actions are the marks of discipleship
c. evangelism is love in deed, and non-judgmental (many moral issues are psychologized, except, of course, judgmentalism)
d. often leads to a religion that makes no difference, since it looks exactly like the world
e. endurance means continuing to love and share, to be continually more open-minded and ultimately a-moral

3. Evangelicalism
a. the world is both good, as created by God, and evil, as fallen
b. there is a pattern of both separation from the world, and engagement with the world; our lives in the world are filled with both attachments and detachments in ways that often lead to painful decisions. The mark of discipleship is being a follower/learner of Jesus as guided by Word and Spirit.
c. evangelism is an invitation to an impossibility – to die in order to live; to join a new family; to step into a new humanity that has a divine history and an eternal destiny
d. often leads to waywardness, since the paradoxical nature of the Christian life and the Church can only be discerned spiritually – and if the Word is not obeyed, and the Spirit is not present and active, then this religion becomes only pretense and play-acting
e. endurance, then, means living lives of obedience, sensitive to the leading of the Spirit so as to be guided through the difficult decisions of service and sacrifice the call for dying to sin and self in order to live to God.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

God: Both Immanent and Transcendent

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousville and an outspoken Christian commentator on cultural issues, appeared on Larry King’s program this past week, opposed by a homosexual actor. Mohler referred to the enduring standards of the transcendent God, which establish marriage as being between a man and a woman, and which condemn homosexual activity. His opponent replied that he also talked to this transcendent God, and that this God had told him in his heart that what he was doing was just fine.

You know how those talk shows work – you can never explain anything fully. I’m sure Mohler would have liked to critique the young man’s answer, because he had traded the transcendence of God for immanence. What we must learn to do is hold both in a balanced tension.

Transcendence means that God is “out there.” He is beyond the constraints of time and space and individual situations. He is above the fray; He is sovereign. But a problem arises when we remove transcendence from its tension with immanence. We begin to think of God as being so far away, He can be ignored, and we are left to live our lives as we please.

Immmanence means that God is “in here.” He has come close to us by revealing Himself to us, by sending His Son for our sakes, and by giving His Spirit to all who receive His Son in faith. But this does not mean that we can privatize God, individualize Him, or tailor Him to our own views and desires. He still remains the transcendent God whose morality is fixed eternally according to His righteousness.

One of the comforts of the truth of transcendence is that God is big enough to handle the biggest problems of the universe. One of the comforts of immanence is that God cares even about the smallest details of our lives. Our prayers often indicate that we are making the same mistake as the young man on Larry King, when it is all about “me, me, me.” Let’s try and stay in balance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What Are We To Do With an Angry God?

“What Are We To Do with an Angry God?
Judges 1:1-3:6

First Introduction: Israel’s Decreasing Influence; Increasingly Influenced (1:1-2:10)
A. The Trend – as the tribes begin to conquer, we see a trend from overpowering influence on the ungodly culture to lessening influence (Judg. 1:19,21,27-30). The tipping point occurs at v.31, where it is not now a question of how much influence the people of God will exert, but rather, to what degree they will be influenced by the ungodly culture. In v.34, it degenerates to the point of the tribe of Dan being pressed. As we look at our contemporary situation, I believe that we are on the latter side of this tipping point, more influenced by our ungodly culture than exerting a godly influence.

B. The Consequence (Judg. 2:2-3, ESV) – Ben told me a story following our meeting about a coyote that he found being harried by their dogs. It had been caught in a trap (a snare), and therefore one of its “wrists” was broken. He skinned the animal, and found some rather large thorns embedded. The “snares” and “thorns” had rendered the animal unable to defend itself – and so do we when we expose ourselves to the influence of an ungodly culture.

C. The Result (Judg. 2:10, ESV) – we no longer know the Lord in the fullness of His Biblical self-revelation, and we have twisted expectations for what He can do or what He should do.

The Story of Adoni-Bezek (1:1-7)
• He at one time had subjected 70 kings to servitude – they had been placed “under his feet”
• He suffered a similar fate, and had his thumbs and big toes cut off, meaning that he lost the ability to wield weapons and to take an aggressive stance
• He found it only reasonable that “as I have done, the Lord has repaid me” – a conclusion that we miss today, in spite of the fact the truth of God's "repayment" is found throughout the Scriptures

A Review of the “Repayment” theme in Scripture
Here are a selection of just 10 texts: Job 34:10-12; Ps 27:4; Rev 22:12; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Pet 1:17; Jer 17:10; Rev 2:23; Acts 10:42; Eccl 11:9; Jer 51:56

Second Introduction: Specific Offenses and God’s Response (2:11-3:6) – these 4 terms, from 2:12-14, can be illustrated by the pain of a family in the process of breaking up. It is we who have cheated on God.
A. Abandonment – you cheated on me
B. Provocation – and you have thrown you betrayal in my face
B’ Kindled anger – I’ve had it up to here – I can’t take any more of your unfaithfulness
A’ Withdrawal – you’re going to have to leave

Analysis of a Divine “Lawsuit” (Hos 4:1; 12:2; Mic 6:1,2)
Decide, who the different key players are in this lawsuit:
a. Plaintiff; the Accused;
b. the Judge; the Jury;
c. the Prosecuting Attorney; the Defense
If you see it the same way I do, God is the Plaintiff, we are the Accused. God is the Judge, and He is the jury. What is more, He is the prosecuting attorney, and we stand before Him with virtually no defense.

Application: What Defense?
But what God has done is to give His Son, first in our place, and then as our defense. He poured out His wrath or vengeance on our sin, but since Jesus bore our sin, this punishment fell upon him. Secondly, He is now our defense attorney, so that when God looks at us, He sees us through our defense attorney, and finds that thepenalty for our sin has been paid.

This truth is laid out in the hymn, “Jesus Paid It All.” The first line of the third verse goes like this:
For nothing good have I Whereby Thy grace to claim;

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Church - and the Need for Renewal

“the church is the front where all of these other battles are joined simultaneously—
1. our view of ourselves as consumers who are sovereign rather than seeing that sovereignty in God,
2. ourselves as unique selves rather than as those sharing the same human nature,
3. as those who are only wounded or maybe deficient rather than sinful,
4. as those who find God within rather than as those who are addressed from without,
5. as those who shape reality rather than respond to it,
6. those who choose rather than those who are chosen,
7. those who see in Christ only a source of therapeutic aid rather than the One who holds all of reality together. “

These words belong to David Wells, written in a response to a Roundtable discussion on the Reformation21 website. He is responding to those reviewing his new book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ In A Postmodern World. He responds to critique with a more penetrating self-critique, and then goes on to write about what is prohibiting the church from taking Scripture, God, sin, and Christ seriously.

Of these seven points listed above, we have been addressing several in some ways, and some points have been neglected.

Concerning #1, we speak of our consumer culture often, and we have suggested that it will take serious activity in at least three different spheres to help one move the center from self to God: corporate worship in which the Word of God is seriously preached; personal devotion in which the heart is laid bare and serious thinking takes place; and group interaction where one is called upon to express their faith in word and deed.

Concerning #2, it seems to me that the Martin Luther King, Jr. observances point to this truth. How is it that it was so deeply ingrained into a white person’s thinking that a black person was less than human, or less human, or of less value? How could that thought exist in a Christian? And the question for today, how does it continue to exist, not only with regard to those who have black skin, but those who are different in other ways?

Concerning #3, I do not know precisely what other preachers in town preach, but I wonder if there is any other church that addresses seriously the subject of sin.

Concerning #4, “God-within” seems to be the major trend of evangelicalism today, and the popular movements, whether mega- or emergent, are drifting this direction.

Concerning #5, we are oblivious to our vulnerability in the shaping and defining of our view of the world. We think we are masters of our minds and affections, even as we sit in front of our televisions and let programmers and advertisers shape reality for us.

Concerning #6, this seems to be a rewording of #1 – “let God be God, and every man a liar”

Concerning #7, “holding all things together” is a translation of the title of this blog, anakephalaiosasthai, the form of the Greek word found in Ephesians 1:10. I must do a better job in the ways that I habitually use language to describe the importance of Christ. We, in our culture, too easily interpret what we hear as, “what’s in it for me?” That is not the kind of leap that leads one to fly to Christ or to cling to Christ, as one finds in the verbiage of Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Nowhere to hide - No safe place to stand

I have been thinking about Paul’s “boast .. in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14) and about its opposite – shame, or to be ashamed. A couple of images are useful in describing their difference in Biblical usage: one’s foundation, and one’s covering.

If you are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, you want the ground to be firm, lest you take the big slide into the big ditch. If you are on firm ground, you have good reason to feel confident, and you can boast in your solid position, and you can enjoy the view. No worries.

In Paul’s experience, he has exchanged his boasts for his shames. All that gave him solid footing in his social/religious/political world was stripped away, and once those garments that denoted success and acceptance and honor were rendered useless, he was left with his shame. And the Bible uses this ugly picture of exposed nakedness as a way of conveying shame.

That will be the experience of many when they stand before God. If a person seeks to present himself in the garb of human achievement of any kind, he will suffer complete humiliation even as he receives the penalty that he deserves. There will be nowhere to hide, no safe place to stand.

Paul had witnessed this truth from at least a couple of different perspectives. In his youth, as he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, he was taking part in a shaming activity. From Old Testament times, stoning was an extreme way of proclaiming that this person was not worthy to be a part of the covenant community, and that the members of that community could only show their faithfulness by punishing his faithlessness. So do your part, and pick up a stone.

Paul also was confronted with the risen Lord on the Damascus road. His previous, mental image consisted of Jesus, affixed to a cross, suffering the shame of exclusion a by temple and religious authority, sentenced to death by political authority, and abandoned by his own social circle - humiliated, in every way. But now, the stone that was rolled up tight as the seal of his humiliation was rolled away, and Paul was confronted with a crisis. “The stone rejected by the builders has now been made the head of the corner.” Jesus, and him crucified, is no longer the definition of shame, but rather of God’s vindication. For Paul, it was time to step to a whole new foundation, where the definitions are changed, even reversed.

And so we trust in Christ that we might be clothed in Christ, so that when we stand in judgment, we will not be ashamed. The guilt of our rebellion as been washed away, and we stand in the righteousness of Christ.

So do I now embrace my new boast, and flee from my current shame? Or do I wallow in things which I claim are things of shame, Am I guilty of dressing myself in filthy rags, even under the outer clothing of Jesus Himself, seeking to have a bit of both worlds? And do I think that Christ does not know when I make a compromised boast, or harbor a hidden shame?

You see, doctrine is practical. And the wonderful doctrine of imputed righteousness is to be complemented by a hunger and thirst for experiential righteousness. And I call into question the former when I deny through my actions the latter.

Let me give you for your own reflection the references to at least some of the verses on “shame”, in various verbal forms:

Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 13:17; 14:9; 16:3; Rom. 1:16,27; 5:5; 6:21; 9:33; 10:11; 1Cor. 1:27; 7:36; 11:4-5,22; 12:23; 13:5; 2Cor. 4:2; 7:14; 9:4; 10:8; Phil. 1:20; 3:19; 2Tim. 1:8,12,16; 2:15; Heb. 2:11; 11:16; 12:2; 1Pet. 2:6; 3:16; 4:16; 1John 2:28; Jude 1:13; Rev. 3:18; 16:15

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Preaching Over the Dead

Death Certificates are bare facts typewritten on a form. They are used for legal and formal purposes, and convey “vital” information about the person deceased. Actually, the facts and the information are from “vital,” They hide more than they reveal. Do not ever think you know a person based on a death certificate.

There are, thankfully, other forms of information. Personal information is gleaned from such things as one’s personal effects, job records, and insurance policies. One is able to know more of the interests and struggles in which the deceased was involved, perhaps through club records and health reports. Writings, hobby products, and artistic expressions give evidence of an inner person that others could know and with whom they could engage.

Another form of personal information is the memories that family, friends, neighbors and associates have of the deceased. I would argue that their memories are personal in a different sense, in that they reveal as much about the person with the memories as they do about the person being remembered. Nevertheless, one is able to begin to see the deceased actually involved in personal relationships, whether those relationships were healthy or lousy. And because of the “final” setting, the memories shared are skewed to the congenial. One must not speak evil of the one that she could hardly bear when alive.

And so I preach over the dead. I don’t preach to the dead, and I am able to say relatively little about the dead. I preach with the realization that here is a person that I hardly knew, and barely know. I preach to the living, to the hurting. I preach about ultimate, not temporal, realities. And I preach about Christ.

One might argue that I know this Christ only from his death certificate. They would maintain that the Scriptures contain only a few, verifiable facts that establish approximate bookends to a historically distant life. They would say that the personal information is of the form of legends, and that the memories have been exaggerated and edited. They would say that I speak of that which I could not possibly know, and that is permitted, because one is allowed such liberties at times like this.

But I am a pastor – a helper and a healer. And one does not help by circulating myths and mistakes. One does not heal by serving up legends and lies. There is more to this than reciting meaningless facts and trying to make those who remain feel better. If that’s all there is, then I would rather go make something, or do something – something more than fill an empty space with empty words.

The preacher seeks to articulate an unseen truth about a person that is alive, who has experienced death and has come to life again, offering hope that there is a resurrection for those who would link their dying lives to his living one. He must speak about a person that he knows, personally, and presently. He speaks to those in the assembly, and, at the same time, is engaged in conversation with the one about whom he is preaching. Peter’s words must be true for the one who preaches over the dead:

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,”
(1Pet. 1:8, ESV)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Whatever Happened to Cowboys

Remember the “good old days?” The truth is, the good old days were probably not that good. And yesterday’s cowboys were not exactly models of virtue.

I grew up seeing billboards of the Marlboro man. He was tall, lean, and self-assured. He wasn’t much like any of the deacons in the church where I grew up.

But America’s love affair with cowboys is taking a strange turn. We love our cowboys, but they aren’t supposed to be in love with each other. From what I remember from some of the old, B-westerns, they spent most of their time shooting each other. Evidently, we’ve come a long way.

I enjoy a movie with great scenery. A couple that come to mind are “Out of Africa” and “A River Runs Through It.” But I have no desire to see the scenery in the new, ridiculously promoted movie that features cowboys in love.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Love is a wonderful thing, and love between friends of the same gender is a good thing. But can we stop believing the lie that is told every day in our schools and on the streets that love finds its ultimate expression in some kind of sexual act? By all means, love, love sincerely, and love earnestly (1 Peter 1:22), but love expressed sexually is only to occur between a man and a woman who are involved in a “’til death do us part” relationship known as marriage.

Secondly, let’s be clear about cowboys. God is no more pleased by a philandering heterosexual than he is a “trying-to-find-out-who-I-am” homosexual. God is not pleased by a strong independence that has no room for one’s Creator/Redeemer; He is not pleased by crudeness or cruelty. Somehow, we have come to excuse some sins on the screen and exhibit outrage at others. We should put up with none of it.

But I still wouldn’t mind looking a little more like the Marlboro man.