Thursday, December 5, 2013

Peace To Those On Whom God's Favor Rests (Luke 2:14; Ephesians 2:12-17; Galatians 6:16)

“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace to those on whom His favor rests.”  (Luke 2:14)

When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they proclaimed a message of peace - but not peace to the whole world. This is very specific: peace to those who have God’s favor. So what is this favor? And what is this peace?

The shepherds were probably watching a temple flock as they watched them from a tower called the Midgal Eder, the 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge close to Bethlehem for their flocks in case of attack.  The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls, and they carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb. The shepherds probably thought this angelic 'favor' was connected to their observance of the Law. Unfortunately, being ‘favored’  had not brought them the peace they were expecting.  There was hardly a more obvious reminder than the palace that cast a shadow over their tower.

Herod’s mountain fortress, the Herodian, overlooked the town of Bethlehem. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers to demolish one of the hills and level off the other.  He dug his palace into the top of the remaining hill. It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, countless apartments,  an enormous pool, and a 600-foot-long terrace. Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds. The Herodion literally overshadowed the surrounding villages.

Keep in mind what this represented to the Jewish people.  Herod made his name when he smoked out Jewish refugees hiding in cliffside caves, pulled them out with long, hooked poles and dropped them down a cliff. When he laid siege to Jerusalem, his soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children and chopped the soldiers to pieces.   When he saw that his death was near, he commanded his troops to execute other public figures when he died so people would mourn even if they did not mourn for him. 

It’s in this context that the angels proclaimed peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests. So the Jewish people were certain they were favored, but they sure hadn’t found peace. So what is this favor?  Where is the promised peace?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bearing The Mark of Christ (Galatians 6:17)

All scars tell a story. Some people are proud to display them; others want to cover them up. Either way, they tell a story – and it often goes deeper than the skin, and sometimes doesn’t show up on the skin at all. This is more along the lines of relationships, commitments, and ”bearing burdens.”  It's the hidden hardships, wounds, and brokenness that leave very real scars that nobody sees. John Connolly wrote of one character in The Reapers: 
“He was the kind who didn't like to turn away from another's pain, the kind who couldn't put a pillow over his ears to drown out the cries of strangers. Those scars he had were badges of courage, and Willie knew that there were others hidden beneath his clothes, and still more deep inside, right beneath the skin and down to the soul.”
So what do we do with our scars both seen and unseen? Show ‘em off or hide em? Are they symbols of failure or reminders of healing? More importantly, what does Christianity teach about our moral and spiritual scars? Are they shameful reminders of failure or abuse or tragedy? What does God think of them? Is he embarrassed? Does God hate our scars? (Because if he does, He probably hates us).

 When Jesus reappeared to the disciples after his Crucifixion and Resurrection, we read that "he (Jesus) showed them his hands and his feet." (Luke 24:40) Why would Jesus do this? He is in his resurrection body, right? He has been raised from the dead! Why were these particular scars worth showing off?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Backpacks, Burdens and Blessings (Galatians 6:1-10)

"If someone is caught in a sin, you who live in step with the Spirit should restore that person gently instead of ignoring or shaming them. But watch yourselves; you could get too close to the sin and be drawn in, or you could begin to feel superior and become proud. If either one happens, you will not be able to effectively bear the burdens of those around you. This is crucial, because it’s in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. This is fruit-bearing faith expressed in love."*

Christians are called to challenge people caught in sin with the goal of gentle restoration. We need to walk with the Spirit toward them…and then with them.  The burdened might not like the help at first. The Greek word here is a term to describe setting a dislocated bone back into place. To put a bone back in place will inevitably inflict pain, but it is a healing pain. It’s crucial that we are gentle and clear about what we are doing. We must listen, understand, empathize, care, and speak truth boldly and carefully.

If the sin becomes compelling, we need some distance. If we become proud because of how spiritual we are, we need to repent and take a good honest look at ourselves.

If anyone of you smugly thinks you are too spiritually pure or important to get involved, you are deceiving yourself. If you are tempted toward pride, refocus on your own life. If you are living well in the midst of trials and temptations, take satisfaction in your personal integrity.  Don't worry about comparing yourself to others. If you are honest, you will see that the load of your own life – circumstances, gifts, weaknesses, struggles –  is challenging enough. You might not have the burden your neighbor has, but your backpack has enough to keep you humble and gentle with others.  You don’t know what God has given others to carry. They may have more or less than you. Don’t judge; worry about yourself - but don’t live in isolation."

God has given each of us a different set of difficulties and opportunities, a different set of weaknesses and gifts: personalities, family of origin, economic reality, skill sets, right brain/left brain, introvert/extrovert, broken home/intact home, /math/sports/music, pride/low self-image, a particular area of sin that is a temptation…

 We carry this personal load by ourselves. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with someone who has done less than us (and feel conceited) or someone who has done more (and feel envy). If we see life this way, we keep our attitudes in check. We don’t know what their load is, or how well they are actually carrying it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Walking In Step With the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26)

“Sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

When we “indulge the flesh” (v. 13) in this way, it’s as if we “bite,” “devour” and “destroy” each other (v.15). We treat other people like commodities that exist only to meet our sexual, emotional, financial, and relational needs. Paul follows up this daunting list with a very sharp contrast:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:22-26)
When we are "in step with the Spirit" of God, we will have the passions and desire of God and God is not a consumer of disposable people. Our lives will reflect the heart of God as we serve each other in love (v.13). Though there are many ways this can be seen, Paul lists nine specific ways that our lives bear this spiritual fruit.*

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Inheriting the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:13-21)

Maps do several important things.* 

First, they show you where you are at the moment.  Being in the center of the Sahara Desert is different than being in the center of New York City. Knowing where you are affects your planning and decision-making.

Second, they will help you accomplish a goal. If, for example, you are in New York City and you need to be in Charleston, South Carolina, the map will help by showing that you must travel in a southwesterly direction.

Third, they will help you to identify obstacles such as mountain ranges and major congested cities.  A
good map will also help you maximize advantages such as timesaving freeways and bypasses around bottleneck areas. In both cases, knowing these things will impact the effectiveness and enjoyment of your journey.

Paul writes in Galatians in 5:17, “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.” 

There are only two natures descriptive of mankind – the first is our fallen, sinful nature and the second is a regenerated, Spirit-led nature. We are all born into the first category and remain there unless we humbly repent of our sinfulness, accept the forgiveness provided by Christ’s death on the cross, are reconciled to God, and receive His Holy Spirit within in us as a guiding influence.  

Now, it would be nice if, at the moment that this happens, our old nature would just curl up and die.  But that does not happen. What happens, scripturally speaking, is that we now have options.  Now we need a map, because (as Yogi Berra noted),  if we don't know where we're going, we might end up somewhere else. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Only Thing That Counts (Galatians 5:1-8)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.” (Galatians 5: 1-8)

We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector.  If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching.  It's just business. It’s entirely conditional.  If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.

This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses:“If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good.” It’s a consumer approach to relationships.  It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on.  

The Gentiles were coming from a religious system in which their gods were consumer gods. They basically said,  “If you please me, I will reward you.” They had to impress their gods constantly so that the product – in this case, the worshipers – pleased them. If Zeus tired of them sufficiently, he would dump them and move on. Even worse, they weren’t entirely sure what pleased the gods, so there was the tremendous insecurity, which lead to desperate work to please as many gods in as many ways as possible so that they would be rewarded.

Paul had told them that God does not relate to us as a consumer God. We are not obligated to earn God’s blessing. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Judaizers was leading them back to their old way of thinking about God. Something about their understanding of God was flawed even though they were building from the Old Testament. To correct this misunderstanding with both parties, Paul needed them to understand what it means that God is a covenant God.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Living In Freedom (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

Like most Greeks and Roman citizens, the Galatians  grew up worshiping the gods of the local pantheon. Three aspects of their worship provided a foundation from which they built an understanding about how people were supposed to relate to the divine.
  • Votive offerings. The people gave gifts to the gods who then gave them gifts. The fundamental idea was that if you were nice to the god, the god was nice to you. God was a cosmic slot machine: you put your spiritual money in, pulled the lever, and hoped you won.
  • Competitions. These were the first Olympic Games. Nothing mattered but first place. To win, of course, you had to compete with everyone else. The gods would both notice and favor the winners, while the other competitors dropped off the radar until they did something to get noticed again.
  • Processions. These parades for the gods involved a lot of pomp and pageantry. People showed off how much they were willing to give, how far they were willing to walk, etc. Everyone around them could see how much the gods must love them.
In Galatians 4, Paul reminds the new Christian converts what they had put behind them - but not completely:
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable spiritual principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9)
While it is easy to equate idolatry with idols, idolatry is far more complicated than merely the statues to which people bowed. It’s the “weak and miserable spiritual principles” that live in the heart of idolatry. It's the worship of something other than God  - the giving of ourselves completely in the service or slavery of a particular thing that we think can fulfill our deepest longings or ease our greatest fears.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Slaves, Students and Sons (Galatians 3:15-4:7)

In the beginning of Galatians, Paul makes clear that we are saved and made righteous because of the work of God, not our own effort. Our merit is insufficient to ever make us good enough. How, then, do we best understand the existence of the Law?

Paul said he "died" to it – all those rules and regulations were not where the spiritual action is. Paul "came alive" in Christ when he was filled with the Spirit.  That sure sounds (on the surface) like the Law is no longer part of the discussion at all.

On the other hand, Jesus himself said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it. Jesus clearly was not anti-law. He was, however, opposed to the way in which His people had misunderstood and distorted its purpose and use.

So were Paul and Jesus contradicting each other?  Do we have to worry about trying to be good? Is the law of no use? In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul talks about three ways we can experience the law: as a slave to a Law that feels like a jailer; a student to a Law that feels like a tutor; a son to the Lawgiver himself, who feels like a true Father.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Substitue Saviors (Galatians 2-3)

Peter began a ministry to the Gentiles after God had sent a vision showing him why the Old Testament ceremonial law was finished. This vision revealed that animals formerly off limits for being unclean were now clean: “Kill and eat … Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 11:7, 9). Peter realized that this was not just a message about animals: “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him” (Acts 10:34-35).

He ate with the Gentiles despite criticism from the formerly Jewish Christians (Acts11:2); he defended the Gentiles as being “purified [made clean] by faith.” (Acts 15:7-9). God had called him to minister to a particular group of people that many had considered (in a sense) unclean. God ordained his ministry, but others did not necessarily approve.

In Galatians 2, we read Paul's opinion on a new development: because of pressure from his Jewish peers, Peter had changed his stance on how he should interact with Gentiles. Not only was he drawing back, he was claiming that they needed to undergo circumcision in order to be "clean" and acceptable to God. Paul realized that a lot was at stake:
When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because what he did was wrong. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 
In Judaism, circumcision symbolized the covenant between God and Abraham and God and the Jews. It also showed that a man had become a member of the Jewish community. Spiritual and communal identity were on the line.

But Peter had received a clear message – the people you thought were outsiders to God are tied to Him now the same way you are. One does not have to be a Jew to be one of God’s children. But in spite of a specific calling God placed on him, Peter was intimidated by those who thought that being a Christian meant meeting their non-essential standard of holiness.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #9: Why Are God's People Such A Problem?

There is a growing question in our culture: why do God’s people do so many bad things in his name?  Christopher Hitchens wrote the book that captured the overall sentiment ( God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), but plenty of other voices have chimed in. How do we respond in a way that is both truthful and kind?

First, we need to own up to the fact that Christians are capable of hurtful, mean, hypocritical and even evil actions. Scott Smith calls this The Problem of People.

We see them on the news constantly: Westboro Baptist picketers, TV preachers who make thoughtless comments, pastors who preach purity while carrying on affairs, churches that cover up scandals. It may even be the Christian neighbor who talks about controversial social issues without compassion. It may be us. No matter the situation, it's a problem that must be acknowledged humbly.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #8: Why Does God Allow So Much Pain?

Two Arguments against the existence of God

#1. The Logical Problem of Evil

The LPE claims that the existence of both God and evil are logically incompatible. If God were all the things Christians claimed, there is no way he would allow the world that we have. If God is all-knowing, this wouldn’t have happened. If he is all-powerful, he could prevent it. And if he is all-loving, nothing would keep him from doing so. Therefore, God (at least as Christians understand God) does not exist.

In response, Christians typically talk about free will. The Free Will defender argues that it was good for God to create people who had genuine choices. Humans were created to be able to make ethical choices in a morally significant way, and this ability makes this world more valuable than a world that does not contain free action.

Much of the suffering in this life is our own making, either directly or indirectly, and the only way God could prevent us or our ancestors from disrupting the order he created would be to take away our free will. We have a dilemma. Which is more important: risky freedom or coerced happiness? A world in which nothing we do matters because there are no consequences, or a world in which everything we do matters, sometimes to the extreme, precisely because there are consequences?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #7: Do Miracles Happen?

Miracles matter a lot to followers of Christ.

The heart of our faith is the Resurrection. That miracle must have occurred in order for our faith to be valid. For a Resurrection we need an Incarnation – and that’s a miracle. For the world in which the Incarnation occurs, we need a Creation – and that’s a miracle. For the new life the Christ offers to all of us – we need yet another miracle.

Christians embrace the supernatural as an explanation for many events throughout the history of the world. Skeptics often see this as a giving up too easily in a search for knowledge, or trying to find places for God to fit in a world where science makes God unnecessary. So how do we respond to those who are skeptical of miraculous claims?

As always, it will be important to define terms accurately. Merriam-Webster defines a miracle as "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs." David Hume used a more pejorative definition: they are "a violation of the laws of nature." Christian theologians have phrased the definition in a number of ways, but the overall opinion is that a miracle is a supernatural interaction with the world in which an event that would not have otherwise occurred does occur.

There are at least three classic objections that have been raised in response to miracles.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #6: Is God A Monster?

"God’s actions as seen in the Bible are incompatible with his character as described in the Bible (with genocidal wars, etc). Either he doesn’t exist, the Bible is hopelessly muddled, or God is a monster.”

Richard Dawkins famously wrote: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

That kind of accusation makes sense coming from someone who wants to discredit Gd and the Bible. However, it's not just the atheists who struggle with the Old Testament. I was raised in a pacifist Mennonite community, and there were just large sections of the Old Testament that nobody talked about in polite company. We read the story about David and Goliath with as much detachment and inner condemnation as we could. We wondered how much we should cheer for David’s mighty men, who were the elite forces of their day. We cheered when Sampson brought the temple down, but with some guilt.  So what do you think we did with all the God-ordained wars in the Old Testament?


We loved Jesus when he said “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek,” but God? God in the Old Testament was sometimes treated like the crazy uncle who shows up at family reunions. Nobody really knows how to interact with him or explain him to others.

From a Christian apologetics standpoint, this issue is important. I think many Christians remain as confused as I was. But this is an crucial topic to address because those outside the faith aren’t letting this one slide – and rightly so. How could God be “good” if he commanded so much evil? This is the question we must be prepared to answer.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #5: Was Jesus Just A Myth?

I love the Facebook page “Did Abe Lincoln Really Exist?”  It’s a satirical page that takes the same arguments people use to claim  Jesus was a myth and applies them to the life and record of Abraham Lincoln. It’s funny, but it highlights a serious topic: Did Jesus exist?  Movies like Zeitgeist, The Da Vinci Code  and  Religious have really pushed the idea that Jesus either didn’t exist or was just another mythical god. In order to respond well to this question, there are at least three key claims that deserve a clear answer.

CLAIM #1: Jesus Never Existed

Even though atheists like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins seems very excited about this claim, this idea is simply not taken seriously. Rather than cite a host of Christian scholars who obviously take issue with them, I will let Bart Ehrman respond. Ehrman is a  biblical scholar who is also an outspoken Scriptural critic. He does not believe Jesus was God, and he is highly skeptical about the reliability of Scripture, but on this issue he wrote:
“With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life… Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind 

Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus' life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus' closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it…  
Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. 

The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus…”
Ehrman does not conclude that Jesus was the Messiah, but he clearly makes the case for his existence. In an entry called “Christ Myth Theory,” even Wikipedia (which has received a lot of criticism for having a somewhat hostile view toward Christianity) notes:
“The hypothesis that a historical Jesus figure never existed is supported only by a very small minority of modern scholars… biblical scholars and classical historians now regard theories of non-existence of Jesus as effectively refuted.”

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #4: Is The Bible Reliable?

The Da Vinci Code put the criticism of the reliability of the Bible on the cultural map by embedding several controversial claims into the public square:
  • The accepted history of Christianity is a lie.
  • The Gospels are remarkably inaccurate.
  • Constantine got rid of other competing gospels.
  • Judaism and early Christianity were actually religions of goddess worship.
  • Jesus was clearly not God.
DVC had a huge impact on the public perception of the Bible. For some, it confirmed their disbelief. For others, it caused them to doubt the reliability of the Bible, and they scrambled to come up with a way to cling to Jesus while explaining away the Bible.  Of course, we learn about Jesus through the Bible, so the reliability of the Bible is kind of a big deal. As a way of thinking through some of the claims, here are some minimal facts about the Bible that it would be helpful to know.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #3: Do All Roads Lead To God?

Religious people generally choose one of four different positions when talking about God: exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism or universalism. 

  •  Exclusivism (particularism). There is one true religion. An exclusivist follower of Christ claims Christianity is the only true religion, and salvation is impossible without explicit trust in Christ. 
  • Inclusivism. Others can experience the benefits of the one true religion in spite of following a false religion. An inclusivist follower of Christ claims there is no salvation outside of Christ, but God will extend grace to those who have partial or distorted knowledge and implicitly – perhaps unknowingly – believe in him. God can be sought and found in other religions in spite of their flaws, and that will be salvatory.
  •  Pluralism. All religions are capable of leading to God (think Life of Pi). This is the basic idea behind the imagery on bumper stickers like “CoExist.”
  •  Universalism. Eventually, all will be saved no matter what they believe.
The claim that all roads lead to God is a pluralist position, though some forms of inclusivism may claim this as well. There are two basic claims that the religious pluralist makes: All of us are right because we know something about God, and what we see will be sufficient to lead us to God.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #2: Can Truth Be Known?

In Acts 17, the Greek philosophers told Paul he had some “strange ideas” about God because he talked about Jesus and the Resurrection. Paul responded by giving them this classic speech in which he quoted their poets and writers and while making a general case for the God’s existence before arriving at the conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, God.
Last week we took a similar approach by asking how we can be effective ambassadors for Christ give reasons for the existence of God. This week we will be looking more closely at issues involving truth – specifically, what do we do when we engage with someone who is agnostic; that is, skeptical that truth can be known.  John records the following conversation when Jesus was taken to Pilate for trial:
“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. (John 18:37-38)
This was not an unusual response from a man who was probably greatly influenced by the skeptical philosophers around him. One famous saying at the time (from Pliny) was, “The only certain thing is that nothing is certain.”
We as Christians will eventually make the claim that not only can we know Christ in the sense that we can experience him; we can know Him in the sense that we can gain some sort of objective knowledge about him. In a world full of voices that increasingly sound like Pilate and Pliny, how can we navigate in a conversation with an agnostic from Point A (Skepticism or Agnosticism) to Point B (Truth) and eventually Point C (Truth about Christ)?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ambassador Challenge #1:Does God Exist?

Christian theologians often cite three classic reasons for believing the Christian God exists. They do not claim that these arguments lead to final, complete truth, only that their cumulative impact (through the use of abductive reasoning) presents a reasonable, compelling case for God’s existence.

1) The Cosmological Argument

Why is there something rather than nothing? Cosmological arguments have to do with the origin of the universe. Not the universe as in planets and stars, but the universe as in everything that is. It is often presented in this simple syllogistic style:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause 
  • The universe began to exist 
  • The universe has a cause 
In short – something outside of the universe caused the universe. As Greg Koukl likes to say, “a big bang needs a big banger”.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Being an Ambassador For Christ

When Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, he told them to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The Apostle Paul would later make the analogy of ambassadorship: we are all representatives of Christ. In order to represent him well, we need knowledge (an accurately informed mind), wisdom (an artful method) and character (an attractive manner).*

Wisdom (an artful method) 

“The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” (Proverbs 16:21) 
“Therefore, we are Christ's representatives, and through us God is calling you.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)
If Christ is calling people to himself through us, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness, it’s probably important to think about how to make a compelling presentation about Christ and the Christian worldview. Here is where both character and knowledge play an important role.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Your Body Follows Your Mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

“I went to high school on the other side of town—to the Booker T. Washington High School. I had to get the bus in what was known as the Fourth Ward and ride over to the West Side. In those days, rigid patterns of segregation existed on the buses, so that Negroes had to sit in the backs of buses. Whites were seated in the front, and often if whites didn’t get on the buses, those seats were still reserved for whites only, so Negroes had to stand over empty seats. I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind up on the front seat. And I said to myself, ‘One of these days, I’m going to put my body up there where my mind is.’” - from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In an article entitled “Ironman champ: Train your brain, then your body,” Chrissie Wellington, a four-time World Ironman champion, noted: “If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. Keep your head up, and your body is capable of amazing feats... All the physical strength in the world won't help you if your mind is not prepared.” In order for Chrissie to keep her head up, she does a number of key things.
  • She has a mantra and/or a special song to repeat, because what you repeat you believe. She has “Never Give Up” on her water bottle and on her race wristband; she carries a copy of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem ‘If’ everywhere she goes.
  • She keeps a bank of positive mental images, because what brings you joy or hope matters. For her it is family and friends, previous races, of beautiful scenery, or a big greasy burger. These help when she thinks,  "I am tired. I want to stop. Why did I enter this race? I must be mad!"
  • She run the race beforehand, because thinking about her game plan matters. She goes through each stage of the race one step at a time -- mentally imagining performing at her peak and overcoming potential problems.
  • She break the race up into smaller, more manageable segments, because believing she can succeed matters. She thinks only about getting to the next aid station, or lamppost or Porta Potty. Once she achieves it, she sets another goal.
  • She trains until it hurts, because she needs to know she can handle adversity. She pushes her physical limits in training sessions so she knows she can successfully endure pain and discomfort.
  • She gets people to support her, because she needs to believe that other people are for her. She advises: “Invite friends, family or pets to come and cheer you on. Have them make banners, wear team T-shirts and generally behave in a way that would get them arrested under normal circumstances.”
  • She remembers inspirational people, because she needs to remember that transformation awaits on the other side. She recalls people who have all fought against adversity to complete the Ironman. They prove that anything truly is possible.
  • She races for a cause that is bigger than yourself, because knowing her role in the bigger picture matters. She runs for charitable causes. It puts the race in perspective and inspires her.
Our bodies follow our minds. What we think matters.

Monday, May 20, 2013

GIving Until We Feel It: The Boundaries of Generosity (2 Corinthians 8 and 9)

(Part One: Giving Until You Feel It)
The important thing is to be willing to give as much as we can—that is what God accepts, and no one is asked to give what he has not got. Of course, I don’t mean that others should be relieved to an extent that leaves you in distress. It is a matter of share and share alike. At present your plenty should supply their need, and then at some future date their plenty may supply your need. In that way we share with each other, as the scripture says, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack’.

Let everyone give as his heart tells him, neither grudgingly nor under compulsion, for God loves people who give cheerfully. After all, God can give you everything that you need, so that you may always have sufficient both for yourselves and for giving away to other people. As the scripture says: “He has dispersed abroad, he has given to the poor; his righteousness remains forever." 

He who gives the seed to the sower and turns that seed into bread to eat, will give you the seed of generosity to sow, and, for harvest, the satisfying bread of good deeds well done. The more you are enriched by God the more scope there will be for generous giving, and your gifts, administered through us, will mean that many will thank God. For your giving does not end in meeting the wants of your fellow-Christians. It also results in an overflowing tide of thanksgiving to God.

Moreover, your very giving proves the reality of your faith, and that means that people thank God that you practice the Gospel that you profess to believe in, as well as for the actual gifts you make to them and to others. And yet further, people will pray for you and feel drawn to you because you have obviously received a generous measure of the grace of God. Thank God, then, for his indescribable generosity to you!”  (2 Corinthians 8:12-15; 2 Corinthians 9: 10-14)

There are a number of things that are meant to be found in the midst of "giving until you feel it": A deeper relationship with Christ (8:14-15); a satisfying, sacrificial love for others (9:10); a maturing character in us (9:11); and a compelling witness in our city (9:13)

I wonder how many of us experience generosity in this way? If this happened all the time, wouldn’t we just always do it? Here’s the reality: Generosity is challenging because we don’t always experience these things. To experience the joy of generosity, we need a supporting cast of other virtues so that we truly flourish when we do this. There are “companion plants” that go with generosity. So, what do we need to plant with generosity so we can flourish in the midst of even the most sacrificial giving?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Giving Until We Feel It (2 Corinthians 8:1-9)

“Now, my brothers, we must tell you about the grace that God had given to the Macedonian churches. Somehow, in most difficult circumstances, their joy and the fact of being down to their last penny themselves produced a magnificent concern for other people. I can guarantee that they were willing to give to the limit of their means, yes and beyond their means, without the slightest urging from me or anyone else.
  In fact they simply begged us to accept their gift of supporting their brothers in Christ. Nor was their gift, as I must confess I had expected, a mere cash payment. Instead they made a complete dedication of themselves first to the Lord and then to us, as God’s appointed ministers.

 Now this had made us ask Titus, who has already done so much among you, to complete his task by arranging for you too to share in this grace of generosity. Already you excel in every good quality—you have faith, you can express that faith in words; you have knowledge, enthusiasm and your love for us. Could you not add this grace to your virtues? 

     I don’t want you to read this as an order. It is only my suggestion, prompted by what I have seen in others of eagerness to help, and here is a way to prove the reality of your love. Do you remember the generous grace of Jesus Christ, the Lord of us all? He was rich beyond our telling, yet he generously became poor for your sakes so that his poverty might make you rich." (2 Corinthians 8:1-9)

 The word charis ("grace" or gift) appears numerous times in the first nine verses of chapter 8. Paul used it in 1 Corinthians in the classic passage on spiritual gifts, and he uses it again here to discuss the concept of generosity.

Generosity is a blessing from God to others through us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

There are at least three principles we learn in this portion of 2 Corinthians about what it looks like when people inspired by the Holy Spirit are generous.

1. The Macedonians gave as much as they were able  - and beyond.

In the Bible, power and resources are always meant to be used for the good of those who are weak and powerless.  Paul says that the Macedonian's lack of resources became a motivation for giving. They understood poverty. And because they understood, they had to do something. The sense is that they determined what they could comfortably contribute -  and then went beyond this figure.

·     Charles Spurgeon once received an invitation to preach at his rural church as a fundraiser to pay off some church debt. The man who contacted him told Spurgeon that he could use one of the man’s three homes (he had one in the country, the town, and by the sea). Spurgeon wrote back, "Sell one of the places and pay the debt yourself."

When we realize that others are in need, and we have the resources to alleviate that need, we should generously and joyfully do so.  It is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. 

God does not prosper us so we can indulge ourselves; He prospers us so we can extend the gift of generosity to others.

Of course, it will cost something. King David said, “I will not give God sacrifices that cost me nothing.” Generosity and Grace are costly, not cheap. After all, Jesus gave His life. The more we extend a costly generosity – the more we give our lives -  the more we will understand the cost of the grace God extended to us.

·    The story is told of a man who was giving money for a good cause, and he said to a friend, “I think I can give $10 and not feel it.”  His friend said, “Why not give $20 and feel it?” The more we feel it, the more we truly understand the beauty of generosity.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

God of the Pressed (2 Corinthians 7:5-11)

For even when we arrived in Macedonia we had a wretched time and were troubled all around—wrangling outside and anxiety within. God, who cheers the depressed, gave us the comfort of the arrival of Titus.” (2 Corinthians 7:5-11)
The Greek word for troubled means "to press," like grapes after a harvest. That's how Paul felt. People had been trying to kill him, the churches he started were floundering, and life in general was really beating him down.  
So what does Paul say we do when we are troubled outside and inside? Look to God, who cheers the depressed. How does God to this?  In this case, through the arrival of TitusOf course, God comforts us directly through His Holy Spirit. Jesus himself said,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)
But we can't overlook the fact that sometimes the comfort He brings finds its power through the presence of others.
After the Boston bombing marathon, a number of moving pictures showed the survivors being helped and comforted by others. The same is true after every large scale event - hurricanes, tsunamis, shootings, fertilizer plant explosions.  

We don't have to go any farther than our own neighborhood. When we hear that a friend or family member died, we reflexively ask, "Who is with them right now?"  Whenever there is a tragedy, we know that the presence of others is important. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

In It, Not Of It (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

I grew up in a church community that took John 17:14 seriously. (“The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world”). We retreated from the world. They hated us anyway (Jesus said it, right?).  Heaven was our home, not this place. It was just a bad rental. The best we could do was quietly try to fly under the radar, live in a church bubble, and pray the world passed by our community without leaving any traces it had been there.

Yet Jesus went on to say: “I do not ask that you [God] take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)

The prayer of Jesus was not that we get removed from our context, but that we will be kept safe from spiritual destruction in the midst of a fallen world.  The world may not have left much of a trace on the  community in which I was raised – but we didn’t leave much of a trace either.

As Christians, we are to be in the world, but not of it.  We are citizens of heaven, but we are also residents of earth. 2,000 years ago, Jesus showed God’s plan on how to change the world by moving into a neighborhood that needed cleaning up – a very Jewish Bethlehem, under the authority of a very pagan Rome.  Jesus didn’t show his people how to circle the wagons; he showed them how to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.

Here we are, 2,000 years later, and the world still needs saving.  Jesus is not here, but the Spirit of God is within those of us who have committed our lives to Christ.  The world needs a city crowded with followers of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, who move in, build houses, settle in, and change the neighborhood. That can be hard.  The line between “in” and “not of” can be difficult to discern.

Friday, March 29, 2013

From Death to Life (2 Corinthians 5:16-19)

I find great comfort in the characters who appear during the course of the Resurrection narrative.

The Bible does not surround Jesus with superheroes.  His followers included people who were once possessed by demons and employed by the world's oldest profession; Jesus' friends and family wept in despair when he was crucified; the disciples hid in fear after his death (and Peter completely disowned him during Jesus' arrest). So why does this list of failures bring me comfort?

Because they are us. 

Jesus died and rose to save people who really needed saving. That's great news in itself, but the even better news is that this offer of salvation wasn't limited to just those folks.  I recognize myself in the story. I, too, am in need of a Savior who can take all my messy sinfulness and make something better and new.  I'm thinking of something like this:
"In Christ [we] become new people altogether—the past is finished and gone, everything has become fresh and new. God has restored our relationship with Him through Christ—not counting our sins against us —and has given us this message of reconciliation. We are now Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were appealing direct through us…’” (2 Corinthians 5:16-19) 
Paul is writing this. Paul, cold-blooded killer. Paul, who fit very comfortably in the company of the sinful and broken. But this man who once killed the followers of the Risen Christ becomes the voice of the Resurrected, the face of the Restored through whom God wants to spread the Good News of New Life to the entire World. 

Jesus was dead; now He is alive. And if the physically dead can truly live again through the power of God, certainly those who are dead in other ways can find hope. Tragedy can kill our spirit; betrayal can destroy our trust; sin can deaden our soul.  But because of Jesus, we can find all kinds of new life through Christ.
  • The cowardly can become bold. 
  • The used can become worthy. 
  • The broken can be mended. 
  • The grieving can find comfort. 
  • The despairing can find hope. 
  • The sinful can be restored.
This is the power of the Resurrection.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Unveiled Glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-18)

Paul makes a remarkable claim in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He writes that we are able to see and reflect the glory of God in such as way that we can increasingly display His splendor throughout our life.

Considering what I know about myself - and what I've seen in others - that seems like a very counterintuitive observation.  But if Paul is correct, there is a principle here that can take us from merely what we are to what we can be.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Truth About Repentance

As previously noted, forgiveness is mandatory for Christians. When we talk about forgiveness, we often note that it’s really hard…but really good.  Life is beautiful on the other side of forgiveness. In the same way that forgiveness is mandatory, so is repentance:
 “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations...” (Jesus, in Luke 24:45-47) 
“They… glorified God, saying, ’God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:18) 
“The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation…”(2 Corinthians 7:9-10) 
'Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first...” (Revelation 2:5)
Though God uses his Word, his Holy Spirit, and sometimes his people to move us toward repentance, we must remember our limitations. Repentance is primarily the work of God. We cannot change hearts; only God can do that. Repentance ultimately comes from the Holy Spirit’s transformation.

So, what is necessary to experience genuine, healthy repentance?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Truth About Forgiveness

At the time I wrote my last letter, I was suffering terribly. My eyes were full of tears, and my heart was broken. But I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I only wanted to let you know how much I cared for you. I don’t want to be hard on you. But the man who caused all the trouble hurt you more than he hurt me. Most of you have already pointed out the wrong that person did, and that is punishment enough for what was done. When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them. I also wrote because I wanted to test you and find out if you would follow my instructions. If you forgive someone, so do I. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did in the presence of Christ for your benefit. I have done this so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not unaware of his intentions.                                                                                                    (2 Corinthians 2:4-11)                                                                                                      
     The man to whom Paul is referring ( see 1 Corinthians 5:1-2) had damaged his relationship with God, his family, the community within the church, and the witness of the church in the city of Corinth. The church’s discipline had accomplished the purpose of humbling him and bringing him to repentance. Now, Paul gives them the ultimate goal: forgive, comfort, and keep him from the despair of a broken spirit.
   As an idea, the idea of forgiveness sounds really good.  It’s a principle that we really want other people to grasp. But what if we are the one damaged by sin?
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  -C.S. Lewis 
     What is Paul actually asking of Christians here? Is this "forgive and forget"? Do we have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do we have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Are we supposed to move on and act like nothing happened? Let’s look at some principles of forgiveness as we see in this situation and in the rest of Scripture.

1) Forgiveness of those who repent is mandatory.  The Bible is clear that if you want to be forgiven by God, you must forgive those who wrong you.
“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.”  (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)
2) Forgiveness comes from the forgiven. Paul wrote elsewhere,
“For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)
I was in the dominion of darkness. So were you. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us so that forgiveness is available to us.  We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis

3) Forgiveness requires honesty. We have to be honest about the nature and depth of the offense.   Sin leaves a mark on individuals and communities, and we minimize its true nature at our peril.  Those who harm others need to understand the price they are asking others to pay in order to forgive them.
     If someone says, “I’m sorry,” we don’t have to just say, “That’s okay. It was nothing.” It wasn't okay (though it might be eventually); if it were truly nothing, it would not need forgiveness.

4) Forgiveness does not cancel accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and forgiveness are not enemies.
  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like. 
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the promised land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.
      We have a tendency to think that the offended person should just get over it and move on, as if somehow the fact that our actions had consequences has now become the other person’s  problem.
     But life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We hurt them. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture. Consequences are a gift; they make our path clear.  Circumstances  may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.

5) Forgiveness does not delete history. Paul didn’t unwrite his first letter to the church in Corinth; I don’t get the impression that anyone in the church was trying to act as if nothing had happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a biblical command for us.  Have some survivors of the Holocaust forgiven the prison guards?  Of course. Have they ask for the Holocaust Museum to close? Absolutely not.
     Forgiveness is meant to fully bring repentant people back into fellowship with Christ and healthy fellowship in church community.  If this process requires memory loss, we will not fully appreciate the power of forgiveness and grace.

(Read Part Two, "The Truth About Repentance")

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Countering Critics

Christians have not always defended the cause of Christ in a productive manner. Yes, we are all ambassadors; no, it’s not a skill that develops automatically. As a result, we often respond poorly when our faith is attacked.

Some Christians retreat into a Christian subculture where they just stop engaging with anybody or anything outside of their comfort zone. But that’s hardly the best way to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

Some Christians attack, fighting fire with fire. They get angry, defensive and hostile whenever their faith is questioned or challenged. Perhaps they remember how the disciples once asked Jesus to demolish a town because the people didn’t welcome him (Luke 9:51-56). But Jesus rebuked them, and I think He would rebuke those who have the same desire today.

Neither one of these approaches bears good fruit.  Fortunately, the Apostle Paul's letters have left a legacy that can inform how we respond to the critics of Christianity today. Though he was an apostle, Paul was often put in a place where he needed to defend himself from his detractors.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Know Pain; Know Gain (2 Corinthians 1:1-10)

“No Pain, No Gain” is a great slogan when it comes to sports. If you have ever played or trained, you know there is truth in this. You can’t relax your way to greatness. If you learn to see the pain as something that is forming you into an athlete, the pain can be a motivation. It's a sign you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, maybe even beyond what you think you can do. It hurts, but you are new and better on the other side of it.

I recently read a poster that said, “Pain doesn’t tell you when you ought to stop. Pain is the little voice in your head that tries to hold you back because it knows if you continue you will change.”

Physically, you won’t be transformed without commitment and sacrifice. It’s a principle embedded into the fabric of the world. No pain, no gain.  It will always cost you something to reach your goal.

The Apostle Paul begins 2 Corinthians this way:

“This letter comes to you from Paul, God’s messenger for Jesus Christ by the will of God, and from brother Timothy, and is addressed to the church of God in Corinth and all Christians throughout Achaia. May grace and peace come to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the source of all mercy and comfort. For he gives us comfort when we think there is no escape from our trials, so that we in turn may be able to give the same sort of strong sympathy to others in theirs.

Indeed, experience shows that the more we share Christ’s suffering the more we are able to give of his encouragement. This means that if we experience trouble we can pass on to you comfort and spiritual help; for if we ourselves have been comforted we know how to encourage you to endure patiently the same sort of redemptive suffering that we have ourselves endured. We are quite confident that if you have to suffer troubles as we have done, then, like us, you will find the comfort and encouragement of God.

We should like you, our brothers, to know something of what we went through in Asia. At that time we were completely overwhelmed, the burden was more than we could bear, in fact we told ourselves that this was the end – we had been sentenced to die. Yet we believe now that we had this experience so that we might learn to trust, not in ourselves, but in God who can raise the dead.”  (2 Corinthians 1:1-10)
“Trials” that bring pain here are not the death of a loved one, or a broken marriage, or poverty, or abuse. The Bible has something to say about all those things, but that’s not the focus here. Paul is referring specifically to the hardship that comes from being a follower of Christ.

If we are serving Christ, we will encounter hardships. Jesus taught his disciples that all who would come after him must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34). There is a transformation that takes place when we commit to Christ, but there is another ongoing transformation that takes place as we commit ourselves to the hard work of following Christ.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ambassadors For Christ

A Labor Foreign Secretary (1966-68) named George Brown got this response from another guest at a diplomatic reception“I shall not dance with you for three reasons. First, because you are drunk, second, because this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem and third, because I am not a beautiful lady in red; I am the Cardinal Bishop of Lima.” 
Barbara Bush once attended a lunch with Emperor Hirohito at Tokyo's Imperial Palace. In spite of her best efforts to start a conversation, the Emperor would only smile and give very short answers. She finally complimented Hirohito on his official residence.
"Thank you," he said.
"Is it new?" pressed Mrs. Bush.
"Was the palace just so old that it was falling down?"
“No, I'm afraid that you bombed it."

It’s embarrassing when a leader or an ambassador makes a fool of themselves, especially when they represent something of which we are a part. Politicians are not the only ones who do this. It could be someone who is trying to convince people all over the world to take up bicycling….or to root for Notre Dame football

The Apostle Paul wrote to the first followers of Christ:
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20
We are His ambassadors to a world that is not our home. We represent another King and another Kingdom. We are going to the Kingdom of the Earth on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven, and things of eternal import are at stake.

We represent Jesus whether we like it or not. We don’t stop representing Christ … ever. We will be an ambassador – for better or worse. People can’t see God, but they can see us. They can be drawn to or pushed away from the One we represent based on how we, as ambassadors, represent God.  Here is the broader context for Paul's message about ambassadorship:
“ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17- 21)
I am indebted to Grek Koukl at Stand To Reason for a lot of teaching on three characteristics of a good Christian ambassador (and I am slightly paraphrasing): KNOWLEDGE, TACT, and CHARACTER.