Thursday, December 19, 2013

Your King Has Come

Caesar Augustus’ birthday was honored as the “birthday of the god!” A stone monument (Priene Inscription) was erected 9 yrs before Jesus’ birth celebrating Caesar as “a savior for the world” whose birth was the beginning of “good tidings for all people.” 
It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euangelion] for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna.
Sound familiar? Luke, in his gospel concerning Jesus, chose his words in Luke 2 very pointedly. 
Civilizations have no problem celebrating Saviors, healers, people willing to die for others. But they trip over Kings who upset the current regime. That’s why it is significant that Luke 2 is all about announcing Jesus as the King. In India, Jesus is welcomed if presented only as a Savior. A Hindu Doctor there once took a ministry leader into his home to show him the cross he had installed on his wall. Trouble was, it was in the middle of many other Hindu idols. His explanation? "Jesus is my Savior. These others are gods for my business, family, health” etc. 
In China, the same reality is true. In the US, Christianity is fine as long as it is kept “private” and does not insist on being “public truth.”
But present Jesus as Lord of Life, the One before whom “every knee will bow,” and you’re asking for trouble. That’ll get you mocked here, killed in some places.

Pray for your brothers and sisters in those regions--that as they celebrate Christmas, they will be bold about King Jesus. Pray their faith will not waver despite persecution. As YOU celebrate Christmas, remember: your King has come to you! Rejoice! 

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Word to Sermon Critics

We've all done it. I have. I'm you at times have too. We listen to a sermon not so much to hear how I should change or repent or be challenged or encouraged, but rather how the preacher's got it wrong. We pick apart his arguments or his delivery or his choice of tie (or lack of one). As a preacher, I'll think how I could have said it so much better. Sometimes I wonder, have we come to church to learn or to lecture? 

Martin Bucer, over 400 years ago, addressed those who were sinfully critical of preachers and their preaching. His words are as needed today as (apparently) they were needed then:

This is why Christians are first of all to ask the Lord with great earnestness to grant them faithful ministers, and to watch diligently in choosing them to see that they walk in accordance with their calling and serve faithfully; and when these ministers come to warn, punish, teach or exhort in the Lord’s name, not to dismiss it thoughtlessly and despise this ministry, as sadly many are wont to do today.  Such people are so kind as to object to and judge the sermons and all the church activities of their ministers, just as if they had been appointed to do so and the only reason for hearing sermons was so that they might in the most unfriendly way discuss, distort and run down what had been said in them, or anything else which had been done in the church.  In such people you do not observe any thought of approaching sermons in such a way that they might in some way be moved by what they have heard in them to acknowledge their sins more fully, or to commit themselves more wholeheartedly to Christ and seek more earnestly to improve their ways; all they do is to judge and criticize anything which is said which applies to them, or which in some way they consider not to fit in with their carnal impudence (and not Christian freedom).  And when they praise something in a sermon, it is generally because it applies to other people, whom they like to hear criticized; and they take from such sermons nothing beyond an excuse to run down those they do not like, and not so that they might be warned or built up. (Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls)

On any given Sunday, I will hear words of appreciation for the message, and words of critique. I welcome both. But what I hope is happening is that most would not feel the need to approach me about what I said in the sermon because they are dealing with God about what they heard him say.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Approaching Marriage with the Gospel

My wife, Heather, once said that our marriage is the most beautiful, most broken thing she has ever experienced. I concur. I still think that Dave Harvey wrote When Sinners Say 'I Do' about us. I'm not sure what either one of us was expecting when we entered marital bliss, but I do know that we both got a whole lot more than we bargained for.

Paul Tripp wrote a wonderful book called What Did You Expect? for those of us who woke up after the honeymoon and wondered (though we would never say it outloud), "Who is this person next to me and what happened to the person I married?!" Tripp explains how he approaches marriage with the gospel:
My whole approach to marriage is the Gospel, because I’ve got to understand that marriage is about a flawed person living next to a flawed person in a fallen world, but with a faithful God. So, I can’t look to my husband or wife to be my own personal messiah. No one is ever married to the fourth member of the trinity. There’s three seats and they’re well taken. So, I can’t ask for my husband or wife to give me identity, or meaning and purpose, or inner sense of well being. The minute I do that I put a pressure on my marriage that it can’t bare. Thousands of couples are doing that.
I’ve heard a hundred wives say, ‘All I ever wanted was a man who would make me happy.’ Oh my goodness! He should love you, but if you’re looking at that man to be the source of your happiness you’re in big trouble, because he’s a flawed human being. So, you can’t understand marriage without the Gospel.
Though our marriage is broken, it nevertheless is beautiful because it has again and again pointed us both to our Faithful Bridegroom who alone can bring us true and lasting wedded bliss.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Approaching evangelism from another angle

For a number of years now, I've been trying to re-emphasize the importance of outreach at the church I pastor. More specifically, I've been trying to move everyone toward engaging in evangelism. Whenever I bring up the subject, I hear someone say (sometimes audibly), "Oh no! Not evangelism!" The word conjures up images of street preachers or door-to-door witnessing that has all but been abandoned by everyone except "cult" groups. Perhaps another approach is needed. We can start by defining what evangelism is. What I mean by evangelism is simply speaking about the gospel of Jesus Christ--everything from "preaching the gospel to ourselves" (as Jack Miller and Tim Keller put it) to bringing up God (or more specifically God's work for us in Christ) in conversation with those who are disinterested or curious or in open rebellion against him.

There has been a mixed response to my attempts at getting us back to this essential part of the mission. Some seem wary of engaging in evangelism. Most feel guilty about not speaking more about Jesus to others. Others have misunderstood what I mean by gospel discipleship. There has even been some strong vocal opposition to what I believe the Bible clearly teaches; i.e. that all Christians are called to be obedient to the Great Commission. By any objective measure, we haven't made much progress in this area.

Tony Payne, author of The Trellis and the Vine, has written a very helpful, well-written two-part series of articles addressing the topic of  personal evangelism. Here are some highlights:

Over the past couple of decades, various evangelicals have contested the idea that every Christian should be taught and equipped to understand the gospel, and to be able to share the gospel personally with others. Perhaps this resistance has stemmed from a desire to preserve the importance and position of the ‘Evangelist’ as a singularly gifted and commissioned individual; or it may have been motivated by a desire to avoid placing an undue burden on everyday Christians, or to avoid making them feel guilty for not being Billy Graham.

Whatever the motivation, the ensuing debate has been dissatisfying and largely counter-productive. Often the question was framed as: “Is every Christian an evangelist?” I remember John Dickson (the ‘no’ case) and David Mansfield (the ‘yes’ case) debating this question in the pages of Southern Cross in the 90s. John made the legitimate point that ‘evangelists’ were special people in the New Testament, and that there was no explicit command anywhere for Christians to be evangelists or even to evangelize (using those terms). He concluded that it was therefore unreasonable to place this burden on Christians when the New Testament didn’t. David responded, also quite legitimately, by asking how as a matter of love Christians could not feel a burden to evangelize, given the plight of those around us and the saving news of the gospel that we have in our hands.There was a palpable sense of two brothers both keen to see the gospel spread, but speaking past one another. 

But not only were debates like these usually without resolution, the consequences have been damaging. It is difficult, of course, to trace cause and effect in these matters—but it is hard to deny that the urgency and effort to train every Christian to be eager and equipped for personally sharing the gospel has dwindled over the past 15 years. It’s simply not on the agenda for most churches.

I suggest that a better way to think about the whole question is to understand that all Christians have been liberated to speak of the word of God, by being filled with the Spirit of God. Our goal with this Spirit-speech is to seek to move those around us towards Christ, and to maturity in him.

Another way of saying this is that the basic Christian response to almost any situation is simply to speak the truth in love, to speak “such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).

Now as we do this we are fellow workers with God in his plan to see people from every nation come to Christ and grow to maturity in him. Our involvement in this extraordinary activity is, like every aspect of the Christian life, both God’s work and ours. It can only happen as the Spirit gives us utterance; but it is also something that we should be zealous to pursue and be trained in.

How should that training take place? What does it look like?

We often think of Christian ministry training like this—as purely a matter of instructing and training someone in a particular skill or competency, such as how to share the gospel with someone, how to follow-up a new Christian, how to read the Bible one-to-one with someone, and so on.

And certainly, this aspect of ‘training’ is valid and important. Sometimes all a Christian needs to gain confidence and get started in engaging in a word ministry to others is some simple tips, frameworks and tools to practise and then to use.

However, not all ‘training’ is purely a matter of competency or skill. Medical ‘training’ is a long and comprehensive process, taking years. At the end of it, the student has not simply gained medical skills, but has ‘become a doctor’. They have mastered a massive array of knowledge, and a set of mental models and frameworks to apply that knowledge to whatever diagnostic situation presents itself. They have imbibed the culture of what it means to ‘be a doctor’; a set of values and practices and traditions that is more than textbook knowledge, and also more than a set of practical skills.

Christian growth and ‘training’ is more like this. It involves not only the gaining of competencies or the ability to do certain things, but the convictions that drive those practices, and the character that infuses and shapes them. Training for Christian living and ministry is about gaining knowledge, being convicted of that knowledge in our hearts, seeing the character form that springs from that conviction, and then putting into practice the daily actions and behaviour that result.

It’s like the older woman in Titus 2 who is to train the younger women in godly living. Paul is insistent that this ‘training’ is a direct consequence and outflow of the teaching of “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). A certain gospel or doctrine will lead to a certain way of life; the two are inseparable. And so the older women are to “teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3b-5). It’s one complete package: true doctrine, resulting in a godly character, along with practical outworkings in daily life.

Training in the New Testament is the thoroughly practical imparting of doctrine and character, in the context of personal relationship. It is the kind of spiritual parenting that Paul showed to the Thessalonians, as he prayerfully taught and modelled the gospel in their midst, like a gentle nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7) and an encouraging, exhorting father (1 Thess 2:11-12).

Now if speaking the word of God to others is the privilege and role of every Christian—if it is, in other words, a facet of Christian growth and godliness under the power of the Spirit—then training someone in an aspect of word ministry will be part of an ongoing training of them simply to be Christian. It will encompass Bible teaching or study, personal example, character formation, along with practical help with the how-to details of putting it into practice.

To read the complete articles click on the links below:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Habit of Thinking

"The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from the past was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack of Rome, the triumph of Attila, or all the barbarian invasions of the Dark Ages. It was lost after the introduction of printing, the discovery of America, the founding of the Royal Society, and all the enlightenment of the Renaissance and the modern world. It was there, if anywhere, that there was lost or impatiently snapped the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking." 
G. K. Chesterton

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Miserable Ones

There are many fans of Les Misérables in the world. I am one of them. My wife and I have seen the 1980 musical, the 1998 dramatic film, and now the musical that is currently playing in theaters. We've been moved to tears each time we've seen it. Reactions to the film have been fascinating to hear and read. Most people are buzzing about the music, the live recordings of the vocals that were used and have become a rarity in films. Most were stirred, even stunned, by the performances, though many panned Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert. There have been a good number shocked by the crass vulgarity in the film (Rated PG-13). Bob Bixby, on his blog Pensées, had this reaction:
I was bemused by the many Christian lovely ladies in the blogosphere who were scandalized by the Lovely Ladies song (and Master of the House). Haven’t they ever listened to the actual words of that song? The lyrics are famous. The movie did not falsely advertise itself. It was a screenplay of the famous musical. What movie were they going to see? And what did they expect? “Hungry for a poke” doesn’t mean a Facebook poke, for crying out loud. And a “thick one” is not talking about a French baguette… It’s crass. It’s rude. It’s ugly. It’s sailor talk.
Les Misérables means ‘The Miserable Ones’ and I think the film, like the book, successfully depicts how miserable humanity can become. I wonder if those who were offended by scenes in the movie have ever read through their Bibles. There is a menagerie of miserable ones found in its pages. See the book of Hosea for instance, Ezekiel’s portrayal of the whore that Israel had become (Ezekiel 16 and 23), and the like. The Bible doesn’t sensationalize sin, but it doesn’t shy away from it either. Neither does this film. Again, Bixby comments:
[Director] Tom Hooper didn’t give anyone an opportunity to sympathize with the sex-crazed sailors and foul-mouth thieves. He showed it and we were all led by his artistry to recoil in hasty disassociation from the wanton lust, greed, injustice, and bawdy humor. In a packed theater there were no laughs at the crass jokes. Nobody wanted to identify with them. There was comic relief when the master of the alehouse pretended to love Cosette and laughter erupted then, but during all the crass singing prior to that it was relatively subdued. Humanity embarrassed by humanity.
Then Bixby takes a somewhat unexpected turn, when he compares Javert to the elder brother from the parable of the Prodigal Son. Those who are appalled by the depiction of the “miserable ones” fail to see their own “miserableness.”
Javert was the “elder brother” from Jesus’ parable. He was not that bad, bad prodigal. He honored the law, did his best, and believed that mercy threatened justice. He did not realize that mercy is the handmaiden of justice. The priest who forgave Valjean was the only one who could give mercy because he was the only one justly offended. But in Javert’s world it was a law that knew no mercy… He relentlessly pursues good, exactitude, and righteousness. He’s chafed when mercy is shown. He believes it’s a sign of weakness to refuse to exact the punishment called for by the letter of the law. He believes that he will never need mercy.

In the end Javert exacted justice on himself, committing suicide, unable to find mercy because he had been cursed with the affliction of always being on the right side of the law, therefore never needing mercy. Because mercy is for broken people. It’s for people who find themselves outside of the camp, outside the lines, outside the safety of acceptance, and hunted by the law. Javert dutifully sacrificed and served the law, and because he failed the law by not bringing Valjean to justice he dutifully killed himself.
Earlier in the film, Jean Valjean, is a vivid portrayal of mercy. Later in the film, Javert is a disturbing picture of justice. The law will kill. When you insist on denying mercy to others, you cannot accept it yourself. It just wouldn’t be right. But the law is not meant to show us we’re right. The law is meant to show us our need of mercy. Again, Bixby explains:
[As good as it is, the story remains] only a teaser. Without a clear understanding of the Gospel of Jesus’ mercy to sinners, they grasp at an ideal of mercy that can never be realized until they know the terror of the law. And they can never know the terror of the law until they know that, according to the Bible, they are les misérables. 
Only les misérables find mercy.

One Baptism

Over the Christmas holidays, my parents came down for a visit. We had a wonderful time celebrating Christ's birth. For me the highlights were having my mom and dad in our Christmas services. During one small group class we went through Ephesians 4:4, 5--"There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism." I knew our discussion would be interesting.
You see, I'm a Presbyterian pastor. My mom and dad are Baptists. Christians have disagreed about the proper mode and subjects of baptism since the early days of the church. We all agreed, however, that "one baptism" here refers to the baptism of all believers into one body, which is the result of the Holy Spirit bringing us alive in Christ. Baptism is an outward sign of the inward reality of the believer being in Christ as the result of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. All genuine believers who are "in Christ" are spiritually united. We have "one faith" in "one Lord" irrespective of denominational differences. So my parents believe only believers should be baptized. I baptize believers and their children. My parents recognize immersion as the only proper mode of baptism. I'll dunk or pour or sprinkle depending on what's available and appropriate at the time. (See this video for the wonderfully inventive method they use at The Crowded House in Sheffield, England.) Both my parents and I would like to see more people come to faith in Christ and baptized. In this we are united.