Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I Will Build My Church

According to 1 Peter, God takes the initiative. He gives us birth that allows us to love and believe in Jesus (1:3, 8); He plants the seed that has its fruit in it (1:23); He builds the Temple, the residence of His glory, by incorporating people like you and I, living stones, which, by the way, are practical impossibilities apart from His initiative (2:5).

We believe in this God, but we also show by our practice that we believe something else. The initiative of yesterday may belong to God, but the initiative of today belongs with us, with me. We read and write books, we attend and conduct training seminars, and we build like the Babelites (Gen 11), constructing our human significance, demonstrating our own importance and success, because, of course, we are the initiators of all good things that really matter. Good ideas. Great plans. Monumental projects.

We have growing confidence in technological manipulation – even to create life. God is the author of life, but we are learning how to produce it without him, though confronting us with haunting ethical issues. We contribute unceasing energies to a management control that will leverage better results this year than last, pressuring the perishable seed (1:23) to see what can be wrung from it, and leaving behind bruised and burned-out casualties. We tear down our barns to build bigger ones (Luke 12:18), hoping that that the bigger church building will compensate for the disciples’ immaturity, or the bigger house will make one feel better about the family’s dysfunctionality.

But being practically involved in God’s temple has not only to do with recognizing God’s initiative in its construction. It also demands that we be properly aligned with God’s select Cornerstone, Christ. The question is really not, “Do I feel good about myself” but "Is my life correctly aligned with Jesus Christ?” That question is more difficult than merely saying, “Follow Jesus.” Due to the distance caused by centuries and cultures, let alone sin and selfishness, we often have a hard time answering how it is that we are to align our lives with Christ.

And so when we face “life” questions, we tend to take the initiative and resort to our most trusted resources. They are doctors, psychologists, financial advisors, and school counselors. Most have no regard for God, or your faith, or the Cornerstone. They advise according to their own faith – faith in science, or faith in proven principles of (temporal) investment, or the secret of happiness as found in prescription drugs.

Does science, medicine, etc., have a role? Of course. We ought to thank God for what has been learned about how His creation works. But these things must be applied spiritually. They will not – they cannot – be applied spiritually by these people alone.

Our present and usual course of actions denies a practical faith in God. Our handling of life’s biggest and most painful issues denies full confidence in pursuing Christlikeness (Hebrews 3). We shortcut the Spirit’s guidance in our lives by resorting to other guides who will not direct us to the Cornerstone or give God His due.

How do we expect the Spirit to work? Through God’s Word. And how is God’s Word brought to bear upon one’s life? Through reading, study and meditation. Have you submitted yourself to that kind of investment in God’s Word? Also, through various individuals’ teaching of the Word. But also through the discernment of life issues as evaluated in light of Scripture and as lovingly handled by trusted Christian brothers and sisters.

God’s House is built upon the Cornerstone, and with many living stones. The Christian life is not to be lived alone, but in community. We find our proper alignment with the Cornerstone by the help of other living stones, other believers who are handlers of God’s Word and bearers of God’s Spirit, (being) equipped to hear and to help.

Is there another believer whom you trust? Are there others with whom you could share your heart, and allow them to ask questions, and understand? The sad reality is that many of us are more likely to reveal our doubts, questions and hurts to an unbeliever. Is it because we don’t really believe in God, we don’t really care about Christlikeness, and we simply cannot trust the Spirit to use other believers spiritually in my life?

What God builds will last forever, for His glory. What is built without faith (Hebrews 11:6) and apart from Him (John 15:5) will be destroyed, to our shame.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Spiritual Application

I’ve used my paint illustration before to try to describe the Trinity. This illustration has not been widely publicized, which has spared it being justly criticized.

The Father conceives a color. Think of a color that has never before been painted. You can’t. We may mix and match and “arrive” at a color, but we cannot say, “I am thinking of a color that does not exist.” God can. Not only does He create it. He also names it. Let’s call this new color “grace.”

The Son embodies the color. The name of the color and the description of the color (“it’s kind of like x, but not exactly”) cause us difficulty. We need to see it if we are to know it. We had never before seen or experienced “grace” until we saw it in Jesus.

The Spirit applies the color. For those who come to see “grace,” appreciate its beauty and love its lustre, there is the desire to bring it within one’s own space or room, into one’s own life. The Spirit takes the grace of Christ from its vessel (Jesus himself) and distributes it, applies it, paints it in and on our lives.

So what is Spiritual Application?
We call it sanctification. It is the process by which the Spirit of God renovates and redecorates the lives of believers so that they, more and more, reflect the beauty of the character of Christ.

It was never God’s intent to keep grace contained. God has appointed this work of the Spirit. And we know that we are to be involved in seeking Christ and the reflection of His character weekly in each message and daily in each devotion.

Mud Wrestling

My sermons are not pretty. The outlines are often fragmented and easily forgotten. The framework that is supposed to make clear the text is crooked and decrepit. The force of the argument is often lost in a preoccupation with a concept or an image.

As I spend my week in the text of Scripture, I feel like I’ve been mud wrestling. My insights are all smeared and gritty, and my notes are half-erased by the struggle and the search. By the time I enter the pulpit on Sunday, the page has surrendered to oblivion, and I am left to share my impressions and convictions.

You’ve got to admire the national preachers who can present their material so neat and tidy. They are a joy to listen to. They give you confidence that they have it all figured out, and they also give you assurance that, if you do these three things, you also will make significant progress. It’s why church can be fun, and Bible conferences can be entertaining.

I’m not buying it. The text isn’t that neat, and neither is the Christian life. The truth is, as we approach the text, we are a mess, and the text only exposes the mess for what it is. We seek to understand, to believe, to obey – and at the end of the day, there’s still mud in our eyes.

I could try and pretend. Forget it. Everyone knows that when you go to a mud wrestling event, it’s going to get ugly.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Survivors (Joel 2:32)

In a way, we are all survivors - that is, if we, indeed, survive.

All of us, believers and unbelievers, are beneficiaries of the grace of life. Common grace sheds abroad God’s goodness on us all.

As believers, we have been grabbed hold of by God’s redemptive grace. He graciously takes the initiative and reverses our destiny by replacing our hearts. We are blessed with Holy Spirit insight into God’s Word, and Holy Spirit presence in our hearts and lives.
So in what sense are we survivors?

We are survivors from our sin. Another word used commonly alongside “survivor” in the OT is “escapee.” We are not survivors because of our own fortitude, but escapees because of the daring rescue accomplished by God. But we are survivors nonetheless.

More importantly in Joel’s prophecy, we are survivors of the prosperity that we enjoy.

Surprisingly, not a single sin is mentioned in the Book of Joel. The people were being judged, but all that is mentioned is the loss of God’s blessing in their lives. The text does not identify the one or many sins that brought God to focus His displeasure and withhold (1:13) the basic lubricants (wine and oil) for gladness and joy (1:16).

The problem that occasioned the punishment was a dreadful disconnect between the blessings of God, and ... God. The people were enjoying their good times, but they failed to enjoy their good God. They thought that their pleasurable existence could be savored independently from their Savior. They were wrong. God took it away.

He sent the locusts - gnawing, swarming, creeping, and stripping locusts (1:4). They consumed all that was green. The people lost their blessings. God gained their attention. And the people repented (2:12-14, the pivot point of the book). Now, perhaps God would restore the tools of worship which he had previously been withholding.

The people survived. But they survived not only their sin - they survived their prosperity. And I wonder, will we?

Two phrases surround the reference to “survivor” in 2:32: “whoever calls’ at the beginning of the verse; and “whom the Lord calls” at the end of the verse.

What does it mean to be a survivor? To remember to call on the Lord in the busyness that our prosperity demands, and to hear the Lord’s call above the noise that is the constant by-product of our celebrations.

Monday, January 15, 2007

How do we live Spiritually in a Material world?

How do we live Spiritually in a Material world? Although the word “spiritual” is currently being used in many strange and plastic ways; and although we are severely impacted by a materialistic way of life, we must pursue the Bible’s teaching. Peter addresses this subject in the beginning of 1 Peter 2.

First, Let’s think through the issues in Trinitarian fashion (1. Spirit; 2. Father; 3. Son). Along the way, we will grab hold of some of the images involved (1a, 2a, 3a). Finally, I will suggest some practical expressions of spiritual living (1b, 2b, 3b).

1. To live spiritually must surely have to do with the Spirit. We are being built into a spiritual house as a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrificies (1 Peter 2:5). What this means is that, in our relation with others (as priests have relation with others) we must be chiefly concerned, not with the material element of their existence, but with the immaterial; not with the temporal expression of their existence, but with the eternal. The eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14 ) would have us correspond with the souls of men and women.

1a. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, faced a decidedly unspiritual blindness. The religious leaders were fully cognizant of his humanity. But they could not see his divinity. And they hated him. Our inability to see people only from a fleshly point of view is similar. We are holding them in unholy disregard.

1b. Led by the Spirit, we are called to “love one another earnestly” (1 Peter 1:22). We are to love the souls of men and women, not because of their bodies or their appearance or their image, and not even in spite of what we see with our eyes of flesh. Rather, we are to love them regardless of their appearance.

2. The Father is the Giver of Life. He creates out of nothing. He consistently does the unlikely, and surprises with the impossible. As children of the Father, we do not plan his surprises, but we can expect to be surprised.

2a. Now what should we expect from a stone (1 Peter 2:4,5)? Well, if we consider only the stone, then we should expect very little. Stones don’t do much, which is why they make good boundary markers. But if we consider God who can make the stones cry out in praise of the Son (Luke 19:40 ), or if we look at stones as divinely appointed wombs from which children of Abraham may emerge (Luke 3:8), then we begin to look at dead entities with a sense of expectancy.

2b. Do I have the kind of faith in God that expects him to radically re-engineer the dead ends of life? My faith was not given so that I could tell God what to do, but it is given so that I might grasp what God can do. He can rescue a marriage from the rocks. He can raise a church from the dead. A key question is: Do I want him to? Lazarus’ sister objected, “Behold, he stinketh.” Sometimes it is easier for us to be done with dead entities. God doing the unlikely can end up being uncomfortable.

3. We come to Jesus (1 Peter 2:4), but it seems as though we often have little influence over others in getting them properly lined up with the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6). We know that we ourselves did not do the heavy lifting in securing our own relationship with him, so it would seem that there is little that we can do for others - Except that we act and serve “in Jesus’ name.”

3a. Matthew 10 mentions the “cup of cold water” offered to little ones. Quickly consumed. Easily spilled. Often forgotten. What good does it do? What about the salvation of our neighbors, or the return of our kids to the fold. We pray, in Jesus’ name.

3b. Sowing seed can be a wasteful activity. In the parable of the seed and soils, much is lost. I feel that way. Words are cheap, sometimes useless. They’ve heard it all before. They are accustomed to tuning out. Sometimes we wonder why we should bother. But we are to serve in little ways and we pray with hope that the redemptive activity of Jesus will be extended to the lives of the people to whom we serve and for whom we pray. And because of this hope, we do not give up. We continue on, in Jesus’ name.

So to be Spiritual – what does it mean? It means to be involved with the Spirit in love, with the Father in faith, and with the Son in hope. It means that we see people for their souls, that we dare to believe that God can and will again do what only God can do. It means that redemption still changes lives today, using weak and clumsy instruments to achieve his ends. This is at least a little bit of what it means to be spiritual in a material world.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Introduction to Discipleship

The word “discipleship” has a number of definitions and associations. But its closest cousin is a very important word in the Bible: disciple. If we remember that, we may avoid some of these problems.

Discipleship is not a program. When Peter and John were invited, no, summoned by Jesus to follow him as disciples, they were not recruited to subscribe to a program. They were called to live a whole new kind of life. The old life was left behind. The new life would be radically different.

Discipleship is not a class. Churches have often treated this subject almost like catechism. Now teaching the basics of the faith is important, but it is not discipleship. Because following Christ as a disciple includes not only what you learn, but how you behave. It is not just a mastery of facts and information, but it is being mastered by the Master.

Discipleship is not an option. It is not unusual in Sunday School to have electives. Discipleship is not one of these. One cannot say, “I would love to be a Christian, but I would rather not be a disciple.” A Christian is a believer who has been drawn into such a relationship with the Savior that he/she follows and learns, trusts and obeys as a disciple.

So what is Discipleship?
Discipleship is an involvement with Jesus along with other disciples of Jesus. It is not an individualistic exercise.

Discipleship is a commitment to other disciples of Jesus, encouraging them and holding them accountable in their walk with Christ.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Immersed Life

We are an immersed people. We are soaked and marinated in our culture. As sinners, we are buried under the avalanche of sin. And, as believers, we are immersed in Christ, washed by his blood, and clothed with his righteousness.

We are Baptists. We immerse. We believe that this is a wonderful Gospel portrayal of the overwhelming truth of the forgiveness of sins. The sacrifice of Christ is sufficient to completely cleanse us from our sins. His identification with us was and is so complete, that no debt is left over, no punishment is yet due. Jesus paid it all.

But we desire to not only glory in the immersed life accomplished by justification, but also to experience the immersed life worked out in sanctification. How do I live the immersed life? How can I be so soaked in Christ that I am freed from my attachments to sinful patterns which are only encouraged by a godless culture?

I believe the answer is to live the Gospel - to be immersed in Gospel living. We need to learn what it means to be Gospel family members, and Gospel students, and Gospel employees, managers, bosses, and entrepreneurs.

It begins with sin. Jesus died for my sins. In my desire to be immersed in Christ, I will live “dead to sin” (Romans 6:3,4). We need to become much more serious about our playing around with this cancer in our lives. How can we ever expect the enjoy the blessings of the immersed life when, by our indulgence in attitudes and activities which condone carelessness with regard to sin, we treat Jesus’ sacrifice for sin as being trivial? The cross of Jesus was the decisive attack in the battle against sin and Satan, a war that continues to rage in our world, our culture, our homes, and in our bodies. Can we continue to behave as though we are at peace?

We must live “alive” to God. Wake up! Pay attention! Our God reigns! Stop living as though God does not exist! Talk to Him! Listen to Him! Seek His help in your recalcitrant heart. Submit to each prodding of His Spirit to listen, to learn, to lean on Him.

This is the beginning of the immersed life.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Taking the Weight Off

No, not another new year’s diet. This is about how we as a local church participate in the mission given by Christ to make disciples.

As I and others have wrestled with issues of fruit and faith, we have been forced to acknowledge a lack of both. And in that acknowledgement, we have been forced to go back to the Bible, and to ask what is involved in being faithful so as to develop fruitful disciples.

Our Sunday worship has been, by default, the primary component in our efforts to “make disciples.” It is not working. And I conclude that God never meant for it to work. The worship gathering is important, even essential; but the worship gathering is not sufficient to accomplish the work of disciple-making all by itself.

You and I need to cease expecting the worship gathering to “carry all the weight” of our spiritual growth. The worship gathering, and the ministry of the Word that takes place in these gatherings, in no way completes this week’s lesson. It actually only begins this week’s spiritual exercise.

How did we get here, to this condition of an out-of-proportion discipleship? There are probably many reasons. It’s partly the pastor’s fault, since Sunday is the focal point of his preparation. While that is true, and right, there is more to making disciples than this. Maybe it’s partly the deacons’ fault, for not leading into neglected areas of discipleship. And maybe it is partly the congregation’s fault, content to do what is easiest (sit) and feel congratulated for it. Nonetheless, discipleship demands that we distribute the weight of our energies to all that is needed for growth.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Has Such a Thing Ever Happened Before? Joel 1:2

We grow accustomed to certain patterns and cycles. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The work week and the week-end. The seasons and the holidays. Births, graduations, weddings, and funerals. We know what to expect. We go with the flow.
Every once in a while, something notable occurs. Has such a thing ever happened before? We turn to the elders, to the historians - what are we to make of this, that does not fit our patterns and cycles?

These disruptions may very well be gifts of God designed to interrupt our spiritual decline. The tremendous locust plagues that afflicted Israel were given for that very purpose. There is no question that the rare occurrence was not primarily a problem for agriculturalists, economists, and entomologists. The appearance of this enemy “like has never been before, nor will be again after them (2:2) was a divine signal calling for a spiritual response.

When our patterns and cycles are disturbed, do we ask the right questions? What is the source of our answers? Should it not be from the Lord, who will have his Day, and who works and moves to prepare us for that Day?

In our English translation of Joel’s prophecy, the locusts are mighty characters for the first chapter and a half. But the latter half of this book deals not with God’s before unheard of judgment, but rather of God’s never-seen-before revival. His mercies, which had been previously withheld (1:13) is now poured out in abundance, replacing desolation with abundance and distress with satisfaction. Whereas the people had never before experienced such chastisement, neither had they ever experienced such blessing.

Our lives are made up of cycles and patterns. But praise the Lord for His blessed interruptions, which bring both distress and comfort. May God be gracious to halt our spiritual decline, that we may see His glory as never before.

Eating Spiritually

We have already read about our need to breathe spiritually (On the Same Page). When we gather together, it is most often for our spiritual feeding.

I have been thinking and praying hard about how to properly feed people. To change metaphors, if the Bible is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6), then I think we do a lot of sword waving. But a sword is not for waving; it is for cutting. We must get better at making application, so that the Word of God actually shapes our lives (by cutting) and causes growth (by digesting).

I think we tend to teach the Bible as though it is for old believers – for people who have heard it all before. We need to teach the Bible to new believers, as though we are hearing it for the very first time. I think you will notice significant change with regard to this on the coming Sundays.

If our worship and teaching gatherings are times of eating spiritually, then we all need to eat, to chew, and to swallow. It’s not much fun to come and watch one person consume what he has prepared. I want to watch you enjoy what teachers have prepared. Come hungry. Come ready to feast on God’s Word. You also have some preparation duties.

If we are going to eat spiritually together, then we shouldn’t be all spread out. You don’t take the cook’s food and go eat it in another room. We need worship that connects – that connects us to God’s Word, and to one another. I would love to rearrange this room. But until we are able, come forward. Sit close. We’re all in this together.