Monday, February 13, 2017

Holiness and the Spirit: Part One (Galatians 2)

When was the last time you spoke TO someone ABOUT a difficult person? Maybe your supervisor spoke disrespectfully to you in front of your colleagues and during lunch that day you had several conversations ABOUT your supervisor instead of speaking WITH your supervisor. Perhaps you had a strong disagreement with your spouse and instead of working things out WITH your husband or wife, you hashed it out with a friend. Edwin Friedman calls this "an emotional triangle" - speaking ABOUT a difficult situation to an uninvolved person rather than speaking to the actual person in a way that could lead to resolution. These triangles form because we are uncomfortable with one another and this discomfort MUST work itself out in some way. In families, churches, neighborhoods, and businesses these "triangles perpetuate treadmills, reduce clarity, distort perceptions, inhibit decisiveness, and transmit stress." Triangles may feel good for a moment, but they are bad news. They will not make the situation better. In fact, triangles affect communities like a virus. They attack. They spread. They compromise the health of the entire system. Likewise, a virus was threatening the church in Galatia and Paul's letter is medicine that is designed to boost the Galatians' immune system so the virus can be eliminated. This virus was a distortion of the Gospel as it required Gentiles to submit to Jewish Law in order to be fully accepted members in the Christian community. Interestingly, in his book A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman argues that to remain immune to emotional triangles, what a leader needs is a healthy sense of self. This is exactly what Paul helps us build in Galatians - a Gospel sense of self that is rooted in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah (Galatians 2.162.20). This message speaks directly into our exploration of Holiness. We will realize a Gospel kind of holiness, only when it is rooted in the faithfulness of another, namely, Jesus the Messiah. Here's how Paul's message of Gospel holiness works.

The Gospel is about our sense of self.         

Peter's sense of self was wobbly and this is understandable. When we follow Peter's story in the book of Acts, we notice that Peter had a number of run-ins with Jewish leadership (see Acts 4 and 12). What's more, this conflict always surrounded how the Apostolic Gospel welcomed Gentile believers. Peter's conviction regarding the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God was rooted in the word of God that was spoken to him in Acts 10.9-16. Not too long (God had to say it three times!) after the vision, Peter visited a Gentile man named Cornelius.  Peter had this to say. 
You know it's forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner, but God has shown me that I must not call any person impure or unclean. That's why I came without any objection when I was sent for (Acts 10.28-29a, CSB). 
This was quite a transformation of identity for Peter who had previously responded when God was telling him to eat something that used to be considered unclean: "No , Lord! I have never eaten anything impure and ritually unclean" (Acts 10.14, CSB). It took a while, however, for Peter's identity (his sense of self) to be fully overwhelmed by the Gospel. Paul records Peter's struggle in Galatians 2.11-14. Peter was faithfully obeying the Gospel and did not have any objection to regularly eating with Gentiles (2.12). He wavered, however, when pressured by Jewish leaders who came from Jerusalem and objected to Peter's new found identity. In this moment, Peter forgot what the Gospel says about him and others and out of fear "he withdrew and separated himself." Because Peter's identity was not strongly rooted in the Son of God who loves Peter, who gave himself for Peter, and who was faithful unto death on Peter's behalf, Peter forgot who he was and listened to others' evaluation of him rather than the evaluation of God. Paul calls this heresy. Indeed they were deviating from the Gospel. Tom Wright's translation is helpful. He writes: "When I saw that they weren't walking straight down the line of gospel truth." Did you catch that? Prejudice and favoritism are gospel issues. RACISM IS NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE GOSPEL! Prejudice is a denial of orthodoxy! Brothers and sisters, may the voice of God drown out the loud competing voices that try to make us forget that the Son of God loves us (and them), that he gave himself for us (and them), and was faithful unto death on our behalf (and their behalf). What gospel consequences will God produce through this truth in our lives?

Two Gospel Consequences

First, the gospel will necessarily create hospitality in us toward those who are different from us. What is your posture toward those who are clearly different from you? What about the person whose yard hosts a political sign for a cause or candidate you do not support? What about the cashier or waitress who just seems too different from you to establish a connection? What about the person at work with whom you just experienced conflict this morning? What about your infuriating spouse? If we have truly been changed by gospel, we will find ourselves supernaturally drawn to connect with these people. This is why "welcoming the stranger" is one of the things that will distinguish between sheep and goats "when the Son of Man comes in his glory" (Matthew 25.31-46).

Secondly, we must return, again and again to who the gospel says we and others are. A good summary of the Gospel is found in Galatians 2.20. "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (NET). When the world seeks to name us - that is, when the world seeks to give us our core identity, we must remember that we are not who the world says we are. We are not first and foremost, American, Republican, Democrat, Married, Single, Divorced, etc. We are first and foremost the ones in whom Christ lives because he loves us and gave himself for us. One of my favorite films is The Help. In this movie, Viola Davis plays Aibileen, a Nanny to "little white girls" who are mostly neglected by their mothers. Aibileen loves these girls like her own and wants to "give them a chance." At pivotal moments in the story, Aibileen will repeat these words to these neglected children: "You is kind. You is special. You is important." Aibileen understands the good news. She grasps what Peter was failing to grasp and what had turned Saul of Tarsus' life upside down. In order to become what God has gloriously planned for us, we must have a Gospel sense of self. We must believe a different self-narrative than the world is giving to us. Beloved, if we are in Christ, we live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loves us and gave himself for us. Nothing else matters! Thanks be to God. 

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Holiness and Hope: 1 Peter 1

1 Peter 1 describes one primary way God develops holiness among his people. Hope. Hope is one of the principal means by which the Spirit of God does his sanctifying work. At this point, it is important to understand what the New Testament means by the word often translated, hope. Some difficulty is found in the fact that our English word, hope, does not carry the same meaning as the Greek word often translated, hope. In English, hope necessarily implies uncertainty. I hope New England doesn't win another Super Bowl. I hope the Bears find a good quarterback. I hope the milk isn't sour. I hope I find my wallet. In each of these sentences, uncertainty is assumed. In the New Testament however, the idea of uncertainty is NOT present in the Greek word. In fact, the standard New Testament lexicon defines our word as "The looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment" (BDAG). When we take a long drink of milk that doesn't quite taste right, and we respond: "I hope that milk wasn't sour," we are implying that there is a reasonable chance this experiment might not end well. This is exactly what the New Testament does NOT mean when we see the word, hope. Notice the element of confidence in 1 Peter surrounding the concept of hope.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:3–4, NIV) 
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. (1 Peter 1:13, NIV)
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:21, NIV)
Brothers and sisters, our hope is our confident expectation. It is an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. Our hope is guarded in heaven for us. The New Testament doesn't teach us to think Jesus will probably return, but he might not. No! The one who was raised from the dead will come back to earth and raise all who are in him. Beloved, this is our hope and we confidently expect it to happen.

What's more, the Scriptures teach that when we confidently expect Christ to appear again, this confident expectation makes us holy.
Dear friends, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure (1 John 3.2-3, CSB).
Did you catch that? When we confidently expect to see Jesus again, we will be like him and this hope purifies us. Expecting to see Jesus in the future and expecting to be transformed when we do, has a purifying effect in the present. The New Testament is calling us to imagine the holiness of Jesus, and the holiness we will then experience, and the Gospel promise is that we will begin to develop holiness now.

One of my first non-Chicago baseball memories was game one of the 1988 World Series between the Oakland A's and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Oakland was heavily favored to win the World Series and the lowly Dodgers weren't even expected to put up much of a fight. It was the bottom of the ninth and the A's were leading 4-3 with Dennis Eckersley on the mound, who was at that time the best closer in the game. With a runner on first and two outs, Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda rolled the dice and called Kirk Gibson to pinch hit. Kirk Gibson was the leader of that team, but was also dealing with severe injuries - a bum knee on one leg and a pulled hamstring on the other. With the count 3 balls and 2 strikes, Gibson launched Eckersley's back door slider into the right field bleachers to which Vin Scully responded: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!" Jack Buck's call was even better: "I don't believe what I just saw!" Oakland never climbed up off the mat and the Dodgers won the Series in five games. In an interview shortly after his iconic home run, Kirk Gibson described his approach. "I mentally imagined hitting a home run and it happened just like I imagined." Gibson had hope. He confidently expected success and success was his. Likewise, we are called to hopefully imagine the holiness that will be ours in the age to come and by the Spirit, holiness will become ours.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13, ESV)
Click here to download and listen to this morning's message, Holiness and Hope.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How Love Overcomes Evil: Luke 4.1-13

Very few things - maybe even nothing is more important than knowing the love of Christ. Ephesians 3.14-21 serves as a hinge between the the two major sections of Paul's letter. In Ephesians 1.1-3.13 Paul tells us what is true. To over-generalize, his is the "doctrinal" section of Ephesians. Ephesians 4.1-6.20 comprises the "practical" section of the letter. In this portion, Paul tells us what to do. Paul transitions between what is true and what we must do, by praying in Ephesians 3.14-21 that we "may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (3.18-19). Did you catch that? The foundation upon which obedience is built, is knowing the love of Christ. The only hope we have for obeying the commands of Ephesians 4-6 is to comprehend the love of God in Christ described in Ephesians 1-3. This directly relates to this morning's study of Luke 4.1-13. Only because Jesus had absorbed the unconditional and affectionate words of his Father at his baptism (Luke 3.21-22), was he empowered to defeat evil in the wilderness. This is the same truth Paul teaches in Ephesians 3. Comprehending the love of God in Christ is the indispensable key to seeing sin defeated in our lives. What's more, we must believe God loves us before we begin to obey God in the way God desires. This is counterintuitive for most of us, because we accepted a false narrative about love. Indeed, we have reduced the definition of "love" to an emotion that is on display when Jerry Maguire says to Dorothy Boyd, "You complete me," to which she responds, "You had me at hello" (insert eye roll). Brothers and sisters, love is so much more than this sappy and emotional sentimentalism. It is love that gets a parent out of bed at 2:30am to comfort a feverish child. It is love that leads aged parents to rush to the side of their daughter whose husband has just suffered a major heart attack. It is love that drives an eighteen year old soldier to storm the beaches of Normandy. It is love that smothers a live grenade to save fellow soldiers. Beloved, the biblical concept of love is so much more potent than the fickle emotions on display in most romantic comedies. C.S. Lewis is helpful when he writes:
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
To love is dangerous. To love is to take a risk. To love necessarily includes pain. To love means your heart might be torn apart. And this is what God was doing in Christ on the cross. And thanks be to God this act of love defeated the Devil forever. May we never underestimate the evil-defeating power of sacrificial love.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Searching for the Unsafe Jesus: Luke 2.39-52

Near the end of C.S. Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he narrates this conversation between Susan and Mr. Beaver. 

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

This exchange captures the essence of what Christ was saying to us yesterday through the Scriptures from Luke 2.39-52. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ wisdom in this, the one story we have from Jesus’ childhood. In the Jewish world, wisdom can be described as the art of skillful living. In the Jewish Scriptures (a.k.a the Old Testament), we encounter an entire genre that is devoted to teaching us how to live a good and wise life. Some of the Psalms can be described as wisdom literature. Proverbs is the most common form. Other wisdom books include Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These books, in quite practical ways, teach us how to live well within the orders the Creator God has established in his world. The goal of wisdom literature is “to teach men and women these ‘orders,’ so they may know how to act in harmony with the world around them” (Elizabeth Achtemeier). 

Indeed, the Bible has much practical advice that we would call, “Wisdom.” However, when Jesus comes into the world, we learn even more about God’s wisdom. Paul, who never really got over meeting Jesus (see  Acts 9), writes to the Corinthian Church that Jesus has become to us, “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1.30, ESV). Did you catch that? Jesus is the wisdom from God. He is the “order” to creation. He is the arc of the universe. He lived in complete harmony with the world, not as it is, but as God intended it. The problem is, we sinners have messed up the order and so twisted the arc that it is no longer recognizable as God's good design. The good news, however, is that God loves us twisted and twisting sinners, so he sent his Son to live in harmony with what God had designed and his life’s mission was to straighten things out. This is why Jesus’ life was a battle. It was no easy task to restore the world to his Father’s original vision. But that is what love does. Love suffers to give the beloved what the beloved needs. When we treasure Jesus, not only as Savior and Lord, but also as Wisdom, he will teach and lead us toward what life was supposed to be. Jesus’ life is the life we are called to imitate. His life establishes what the good God always intended for us. Jesus is the wisdom of God.

This is where Mr. Beaver’s words to Susan ring true. Because Jesus’ work of restoration is not yet complete, it can feel quite dangerous to literally follow Jesus. To really follow Jesus means we might have to increase in humility. Most of us can say from experience that learning to grow in humility is never pleasant. To really follow Jesus means we might have to be generous to those who might take advantage of our generosity.  And who enjoys losing stuff to ungrateful people? Furthermore, to really follow Jesus means we might have to walk with him directly into the face of danger. But the good news is that Jesus promises by his Spirit, to walk with us and that he will never take us to a place he has not gone before! Indeed, Jesus possesses the experience and the power to defeat hell itself, because after he walked to the cross and stared death in the face without blinking, he rose from the dead on Easter and began to reshape the arc of the universe so that all its inhabitants would always be humble, generous, and never afraid. Brothers and sisters, Jesus is the true wisdom of God. His life is good and beautiful and worthy of imitation. Please follow him. Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you. Thanks be to God.

Click here to download and listen to our message, Searching for Jesus 

Click here to download and listen to our New Year’s Day message, Consolation 

Click here to download and listen to our Christmas message, The Message of Christmas.        

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent Week Four: A Fire in the Belly of God

What motivated the Triune God to come to this dark world to win it back to himself? What was God seeing when he looked at the world prior the incarnation of his only-begotten Son? What was God feeling when he looked at the world? The first thing God sees is his creation, but not as he intended it. This world was created by a self-giving God to be a Temple where God dwells with us to give us life. As sons and daughters of Adam, however, we have refused God’s gracious presence and his gift of life. This is called sin. How does God respond to what he sees? Again, his response is to give himself because this is what God is like (see Philippians 2.5-11). C.B. Kruger writes: “In marked contrast to the gods of human imagination, the Christian God is not self-centered, not a taker at all, but a giver.” This generous, self-emptying nature of God is on display, not only the Story of Creation (Genesis 1-2), but also in the Story of Christmas (Luke 2). This self-emptying love motivated God to send the Savior. Remarkably, the labor pains that lead to the birth of Jesus, point to the fire in God’s belly that is an unquenchable love. This love stoops in humble service to absorb and exhaust the consequences of sin so that we might be raised to God. “Here in Christianity, we have a God who stoops, writes,” C.B. Kruger, “who wants to be united with us and who is prepared to humble Himself and even to suffer to accomplish such a union.”
An unquenchable love in the belly of God is the theological rationale for the Incarnation. It is the love of God come all the way down to us that we celebrate at Christmas. Thanks be to God!
Click here to download and listen to our message, Christmas and the Undoing of Adam.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17, ESV)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent Week Three: The Tender Mercy of Our God

“Love is the fundamental divine attribute in that God is love apart from the creation of the world, love characterizes God. Love is the eternal essence of the one God.” These words from the late Baptist Theologian, Stanley Grenz, capture the central truth of the songs that come from the lips of Mary and Zechariah. Jesus’ mother and his uncle declare that the saving deeds of God are driven by the inward compassion of God. Let’s take a closer look at the central section of Zechariah’s prophecy. 

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76–79, ESV)

As Zechariah holds his promised firstborn son in his arms, he declares over him the plans our promise-keeping God has for him. Zechariah’s son will be the Most High’s prophet whose preaching will prepare God’s people to receive what the Lord is giving them. According to Zechariah the Lord is offering two gifts. First, the Lord is giving salvation. This salvation, announced and embodied by Jesus, includes an announcement of forgiveness. In other words, our debt has come due, but God is paying it it on our behalf. Secondly, the Lord is giving light. We who are rendered helpless by darkness and the shadow of death, are being given the Light of the world. What’s more the Light of the world came into the darkness but was not overcome by the darkness (John 1.5-9)  To summarize, the God of Christmas is a generous Giver who gives himself. 

Who is this generous God who gives himself? If we were to ask Zechariah to peal back the layers in search of the most fundamental essence of this generous God, he would show us the tender mercy of our God. This is similar to what Paul says in Romans 11.32. After exploring the mystery of Israel’s unbelief, the gracious in-grafting of Gentiles into God’s one vine, and the thorny issue of divine hardening, Paul states rather clearly, “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (ESV). The story of salvation is intended by God to display his mercy. This is who God is and what he wants to be known for. Jesus’ uncle proclaimed the tender mercy of God. Jesus’ mother sang the mercy of God. Jesus’ servant, Paul told the story of God’s mercy. 

Against the backdrop of God’s mercy we are prepared to understand the judgment of God, or more forcefully, God’s wrath. The most basic thing that can be said about God is: “God is love.” “There is no God but the Father and the Son throughout eternity bound together by love, a relationship concretized by the Holy Spirit” (Grenz). The answer to every question that starts with, “What was God doing” (Before creation? Before sin?) is experiencing divine love. Furthermore, the purpose and goal of creation is the formation of one human family to share in the eternal love of God. Sin (see Genesis 3) enters the scene and love demands a response. This is what we call the wrath of God. It is the loving response of God to preserve, protect, maintain, and avenge that which threatens his relationship with his beloved. Brothers and sisters the Bible has much to say about God’s wrath, just as it says much about his love. We must believe all that the Bible teaches about God’s love and God’s wrath. However, we must also speak the way the Bible speaks about God’s love and God’s wrath. With the Bible we must assert that the love of God is primary. The wrath of God is secondary. The wrath of God is temporary. The love of God is eternal. Brothers and sisters, if we are asked to describe what God is like, and if our answer claims to be biblical; we must declare without qualification that God is love. Love is God’s most basic disposition. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent Week Two: The Incarnation

Probably my favorite English speaking theologian is Thomas Torrance. His writing about the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity never cease to stimulate within me deep thought and sincere worship. Incarnation refers to the eternal Son becoming human, for us and our salvation. Referring to this incarnation, Torrance writes:
"The very fact that God became man in order to save us, declares that the humanity of Christ is absolutely essential to our salvation … The virgin birth tells us that here in the midst of our humanity God is recreating our humanity as an act of pure grace." 
Theologians call what Torrance is describing the hypostatic union. This ten-dollar word describes what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Jesus is "the miraculous bringing together of humanity and divinity in the same person, such that he is both fully divine and fully human" (Stanley Grenz). Brothers and sisters this is the beautiful miracle of Christmas. Jesus Christ is God coming all the way to us.

Jesus Christ is God coming all the way to us. 

Jesus is fully God. He is one with God in his God-ness. He fully possesses the divine essence. These statements attempt to declare what the Bible teaches. Jesus is visible display of the invisible God. 

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. ...  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Colossians 1.15, 19, NIV). 
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. ...  
But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom (Hebrews 1.3, 8, NIV).

Jesus Christ is God coming all the way to us.

Jesus is fully human. He is one with us in our humanity. He fully possess the human essence. These statements describe what the Bible teaches. Jesus fully possesses the human nature we possess.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1.14, NIV).
For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2.5, NIV).
Brothers and sisters, this is the theological reality that Christmas is. The baby in the manger is eternally begotten of the Father. He is fully God. This same baby, however, is a human descendant of Mary. From the Father he eternally receives his divine nature and from his mother he received his human nature. Jesus Christ is what God has planned for humanity forever - oneness between God and mankind forever. Joy to the world! The LORD has come.

Listen here to our exposition of Luke 1.26-56 in which we hear the narrative of the announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the eternal Son of God.

Here's what I'm reading. The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story by Brennan Manning.