On Keeping and Saving….

Wednesdays are when I spend most of my day on sermon prep.  I usually go to my nearest second office (read Starbucks) and spend several hours reading and studying.  I can say with confidence that I am one of “those guys” who probably irritate the baristas because I spend a $1.65 to rent a table for a couple hours.  

Today was no different other than the fact that my wife and I are now running with one car.  We sold my dream truck–a T100–because it was beginning to fall apart.  I wept. Since that time, we have managed to use one car.  It has worked for the most part, resulting in a few days where I bike to work or Caylin is left stranded at home.  She hasn’t complained once. I have.

But today, like every Wednesday for the past two months, I WALKED up to the nearest Starbucks a mile or so away.  As summitted the small hill, which sometimes feels like a mountain, I noticed a young lady (early 20’s) standing with a gas can and a sign that read, “NEED GAS”.  I had just posted a small sermonette on our church network about Matthew 25.35-40, so I figured I couldn’t be a hypocrite.  God had set me up well. 

I approached the woman, talked with her about her situation, and waived at her “husband” sitting in the car–their home.  As always, they had an elaborate and emotional story about loss jobs, medical conditions, and a few other things.  I spoke with her husband as well who, comfortable in his car, was being careful to hide the I-Phone resting in his lap. Hmmm…..I could think of a thousand rational reasons as to why I SHOULDN’T help these people.  But all of them were overwhelmed by the one reason that I should: Jesus loved me when there were a thousands reasons not to.  

So, I filled up the gas can she was carrying and helped her fill the car.  Her husband never got out. I spoke with them briefly about Jesus, our church, then left wishing them well.  As I walked away, I debated in my mind whether or not I did the “right thing” with the money I spend.  God reminded me in that moment that I was simply his manager, that all I has was His, and that He thought it was money well spent.

One of our pastors spoke about money on Sunday.  I was reminded of how blinded we are to our greed–our love OF and security IN money.  No one ever believes they are “greedy” or “materialistic” because they can always point to someone else MORE greedy or materialistic than them.  The reality is, we all have a lot of excuses for not giving to our church, those in need, or others in our care.  I can’t be generous. I can’t  I can’t be intentional.  I can’t be cheerful.  And all of those excuses are not only sinful, but stark evidence of how much we love our own kingdom and how much we trust in a world that is all going to burn up in the end.  

Here is the simple truth:  When we breathe our last and stand before Jesus our Lord, Savior, King, and Judge, I am pretty certain among ALL of the things he might say, he won’t say:

I wish you would have kept a little more for yourself.

 

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A Hackneyed Gospel-Everything

If you are anything like me, I have grown weary of seeing the word “gospel” attached to everything. We have gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-community, gospel-doctrine, gospel-communication, gospel-marriages, gospel-everything.  There is nothing wrong with the word, but I fear its overuse will eventually make it meaningless…or worse.  I agree with what I believe is the intent behind the use of these compound words. Authors, bloggers, pastors, and teachers are all addressing heart motivation.  The last thing they want is someone to approach discipleship, marriage, doctrine, or any aspect of life, in a self-centered or self-reliant way–the very antithesis of the gospel.

I don’t argue we should stop using the word, rather, we should regularly remind ourselves not only of the facts of the gospel, but its implications. In other words, we need to stop assuming people understand the truth of what we are talking about just because we attach the word Gospel to it  Michael Horton in his aptly titled book, Gospel Commission, explains WHY the gospel transforms not only our lives but also our life as the church:

“Like our own lives, the church is gospel-driven.  Every new covenant command is grounded in the gospel.  We love God because he first loved us (1John 4.10,19).  We choose Christ because he chose us (John 15.16; Eph 1.4-5, 11; 2Thess 2.13).  We are called to holiness because we are already declared to be holy in Christ, clothed in his righteousness (Col. 1.22, 3.12; 1Cor 1.30). Because we have been crucified, buried, and raised with Christ, we are no longer under the tyranny of sin and are therefore to off up ourselves in body and soul to righteousness (Rom 6.1-14).  In view of the “mercies of God,” we are called to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12.1).    Great Commission, pg. 24

Monday Morning Preacher: Hope & Suffering in Ruth

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For the month of July, we are taking a pause from our study of the book of Judges and spending time in Ruth.  After 15 weeks of disturbing stories with disturbing characters, we get to spend four weeks in a short love story. But this is not your typical love story about a knight in shining armor finding a princess to save.  It is that, but much more.  In truth, the story pictures not only the salvation of a helpless widow, the the salvation of a helpless people.  It is the amazing, and somewhat confounding, story about a faithful God loving an unfaithful people, and rescuing them from their sin.

But the first thing the author of this story wants to establish is just how HELPLESS we in fact all are.  The theme of Judges, which is the setting for this story, is that “without a King…men did what was right in their own eyes.”  In other words, the problem with the hearts of men (and women) is that they think they try to be LORD of their own lives, wrongly believing they are wise, strong, and invincible–anything but weak and in need of rescue.

The first chapter, therefore, is dark and depressing glimpse into just how desperately broken we are. The story follows the tragic experiences of one family who lose everything and have nothing.  Each of these people respond to their pain differently, moving all of us to consider how we might respond when, not if, tragedy strikes us:

One AVOIDS their pain, placing their HOPE in themselves.  

We cannot avoid suffering–it is a certainty in life that plays out in a broken world.   Blind devotion to avoid suffering, or get “out” of whatever difficult circumstance we find ourselves in, can easily lead to trusting the wrong savior.   If we fail to draw near to God in the middle of a trial, we will be tempted to compromise what God has said, put on the savior cap, and work to save ourselves.  Some asked why I was so “hard” to Elimelech who appears to doing his best to “save” his family–I would agree…he is doing his sinful best.  Let’s not forget that this is the time of the Judges–where men are unfaithful and self-reliant.  In other words, he does what is “right in his own eyes” not what is in fact RIGHT in the eyes of God.  The text makes it clear that he does not engage with God before he makes his decision.  And his decision is in fact contrary to what God has already said about life in land of Canaan.  No one in Israel is to leave when things get bad–they are supposed to repent and live in the land faithfully.  If there is any uncertainty, Elimelech’s intentions are made doubly-clear when his sons marry two pagan women, something God had told them not to do (Even if they are not directly listed in Deut. 7, Moabites are banned from entering the assembly of God in Deut 23; Neh 1).  They did what they thought was “right” too.

One RUNS from their pain, placing their HOPE in others gods.  

We cannot run from suffering, though most people try.  This is the most common and natural response to pain.  Even though this is the ordinary human response, that fact doesn’t make it right.   Even though the running FROM might be understandable, the running TO is unjustifiable. Sympathetic toward Orpah’s situation, some argue that Orpah is simply doing what she can to survive. Let us not forget, she is doing more than just making a pragmatic decision.  By marriage, she choose to become a part of Naomi’s family–now and forever.  In leaving, she is abandoning all of that.  When Naomi speaks with Ruth in verse 15, she indicates that Orpah has come home to “her people AND to her gods.”  The opposite is also true.  She has turned her back on God’s people and the one true God, Yahweh.  Instead of setting up a future with God, she is pursuing a future apart from God.  This is the most common response for those who experience something devastating without a genuine relationship with God.  They look for a new god and a new community that is not Jesus and not the church.  In their search for “freedom” from the pain, or distraction from the loss, these people begin to worship (i.e. sacrifice for, spend time with, find meaning, hope and joy in, etc.) a substance, a lifestyle, a person, a job, a hobby, or any number of things.

One SITS in their pain, placing their HOPE in nothing more than self-pity. 

For one character, the hardship completely paralyzes them.  They maintain a bitter existence whereby God is an enemy and not a friend.  Their anger controls them, they experience all of life through a filter of disillusionment.  They are governed by God’s “failure” to meet their expectations (even reasonable ones) and blinded to God’s graces in front of them.   They have forgotten that the story is not about them and that what they can see is not the only reality.  Make no mistake, this is not the same as mourning.  There is a time for sorrow–it is important an necessary to grieve.  This process can be very long, lonely, and emotional.  The only thing that will bring someone through a season of mourning, that will protect them from the paralysis of bitterness, is God and His people–often God THROUGH His people. In other words, a certain HOPE in the God of the Bible who is strong, good and faithful ensures that the time for mourning will come to an end.

One PRESSES into their pain, placing their HOPE in the one true God and His People. 

Then there is the last character, Ruth.  Ruth experiences the same suffering, but she responds completely differently.  She does not try to control, she does not run, she does not remain bitter, she in fact walks deeper into suffering.   We have to believe that she is just as devastated as Naomi–though she is not as vocal.  And yet, she commits to follow a bitter woman into a situation that will probably make things worse for her.  She is going with no husband, no family, no job, and little hope as a Moabite within an Israelite nation. Her journey begins with zero guarantees and the only expectations that she will be with Naomi, worship God, and probably die.  Some asked me why I didn’t focus more on Ruth’s powerful statement of commitment to Naomi.  I don’t know.  I guess I wanted to focus more on what she is actually doing, not just saying. In essence, her statement declares her utter HELPLESSNESS.  But her actions declare her HOPEFULNESS.

 

For Freedom Christ set us free…for free

So, there are a lot of things that Christianity has become defined as…and as I have talked to different people, I have learned one thing that it IS NOT understood as, one thing that all of those TV shows, individuals and churches have in common, is that for some reason, people do not see that the gospel of Jesus Christ is FREEING.   They see religion.  They see control.  They see oppression.  The concept of being set free is, in many ways, the last thing that comes to mind for non-believers—and perhaps even a lot of believers.  Regardless of the truth, regardless of what the Bible teaches, regardless of what Jesus’ himself taught, for some reason, Christianity is viewed as something designed to restrain their happiness; and the church  as the great moralistic prison that people actually choose to enroll in.  And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

Though the Bible has much to say about freedom, it is difficult to convince someone that they are in fact “enslaved”, especially those whose lives seem like they are going along splendidly.  What do I mean by slavery?  I mean that your life decisions, perspectives, and attitudes are GOVERNED, CONTROLLED by something.  You are in its service whether it be a person or a thing.  We all have ONE thing controlling us—it is your master.  Who is your master?  We all have one thing guiding our decisions, giving us meaning, one thing in which we set our hope, whether it is our money, our family, our happiness, a relationship, success in our job etc.  You are a slave to it because in it, just like a master, we find everything we need to put meaning into our lives.  One conversation with nearly anyone will reveal their thing fairly quickly. Who is your master? Romans 1 says it’s either creation or the creator.

In other words, I’m here to tell you that you that all non-Christians, and many Christians are not FREE.  I’m not saying that you’re NOT HAPPY—many people have learned to convince themselves that they are.  How would you even convince someone of that?  You’re not happy.  Yes I am.  No you’re not.  There are a lot of SLAVES that are happy because THEY DON’T KNOW ANY DIFFERENT!  They accept what they have because it is all they know and have ever known!  But it is not freedom we have through faith in Jesus Christ.  By grace, through faith, Christ sets us free so that we will actually live as if we are a people who believe it.  This is not better stated than in Galatians 5.1.

For Freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

I preached a sermon on Galatians 5.1 in the first year of our church plant.    Below is an excerpt from the back half of the sermon, reminding us of exactly what freedom in the gospel means.

CHRIST SET US FREE FROM LAW TO GRACE

You can stop working. You have been freed from unsuccessfully striving to achieve your own righteousness. You can stop striving to earn favor with God. You can stop working hard to have God accept you. You have freedom from the law that set a standard you could not meet. The most it could do, and quite effectively, was show how in need of a savior you are. There were many in the first century who saw the way of salvation as keeping the commandments of God. This was commonly urged among the Jews, and some of the first Christians seem to have taken up the idea from them. After all, it seems so obvious: if we lead good lives, we will be all right with God.

The problem is that the law is too high of a standard. It requires perfection. Christ did not die for the way of the law, he died so that we might live by faith. We are to accept, without deserving, believe without earning, the free gift of grace. We cannot put our justification in front of our sanctification. Meaning, our acceptability to God is not based on what we do, but only what we accept. Our sanctification is, in fact, based on our justification. Being a good person is about God completing his work within you and not you working hard to complete it yourself! Ephesians 2.8-9 says, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast. In other words, it is all about God. That is the greatest freedom there is. God does not expect me to jump and reach him knowing he is too high. He comes to me. He makes a way through Jesus and he gives me the faith to believe the foolishness of the story.

But you don’t hear that in a lot of churches. You might hear about the free gift of Jesus, but that is not what you really see! What you see is a bunch of people in a Christian club telling you to do XYZ so that you can be acceptable to God. Stop smoking. Stop drinking. Stop dressing like that. Stop using those words. Stop seeing those movies. Stop playing those games. Stop talking with those people. All you hear is LAW LAW LAW LAW. Where is the freedom of grace! Why do churches feel like they have the responsibility to change people when God hasn’t given them the power to do so! We are free from work…we need only believe. Acts 16.30-31 9 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

CHRIST SET US FREE FROM SLAVERY to SIN

The Bible is quite clear, as is the world around is, left to themselves, people cannot defeat sin. And this is a fact of life of which the modern world affords ample proof. We may earnestly desire to do good, but evil is too powerful for us. We cannot do the good we wish to do. And, minus a few Dr. Evil’s here and there, we do wish to do good. But we can’t. It is not that we do the worst we possibly could, but we don’t know what is right. Our natural desires are in fact to do what that which is not God’s. The Bible describes us as men of flesh, natural men, even dead men who are controlled by the powers of this world. Our hearts and our minds are veiled. Our lives are governed by one of three things…all of them sin. 1John 2.16 16 For all that is in the world— xthe desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. Of course, if you don’t believe me, then just stop sinning.

That’s what you’ll hear in a lot churches. It will be something like, “well, stop sinning and Jesus will love you.” I’m here to tell you that you can’t. You can’t stop sinning. You are evil. You are selfish. You are a sinner. If you don’t know Jesus, you can’t stop sinning. Decide to believe Jesus and he’ll help you stop sinning. For those who do know him, you are free too. In Christ, you are new. You are transformed. That old self is dead and buried and now you are alive to live freely for God. Romans 8.1-2 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.1 2 For the law of hthe Spirit of life ihas set you2 free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Deliverance is somewhat a negative concept, though a positive result is clearly implied.

Freedom is more than deliverance from something bad or evil. You now walk in the power of the Spirit and produce fruit like a tree reborn! You OBEY, not out of some sort of religious obligation, not out of penance because you feel bad for all the crap you did, you obey because you delight in the law of God in one’s inmost self. The person who is truly free no longer acts from constraint but serves his God willingly, with cheerfulness of heart. We are slaves to righteousness…governed by righteousness… Romans 6.18 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the pstandard of teaching to which you were committed, and, qhaving been set free from sin, rhave become slaves of righteousness.

CHRIST SET US FREE FROM THE APPROVAL OF MEN

Our world is all about the approval of men. We act, speak, even think in terms that are most innocuous, most tolerant. Will this offend? Will I hurt someone’s feelings here? I should probably do this because it’s what expected? There is personal image. I have to look a certain way in order to be accepted. I have to speak a certain way in order to be accepted. I have to get a certain level of education—it is hard to be approved in this world. It’s even harder in the church. My gosh, I can understand how people do not sense FREEDOM in anything we preach—it often looks like a bunch of prison guards keeping everyone one in line at the local jail! That is religion. Religion, as opposed to genuine faith, is built on the approval of men and the compare game. We live our lives governed not by thoughts and opinions of all the eyes that we know are watching us. We do not act ourselves for fear that people will think us less righteous or unholy. What does this look like? It looks like a church full of people who are more worried about ‘appearances’ than they are about being themselves. It’s a group of fake people who put on a beauty pageant every Sunday or any other Christian gathering, to prove who is more righteous.

There is no freedom in that. There is no freedom to be your true self. Because of your preoccupation with the approval of men, we do not say what we think, we do not express doubts, and we are in now way “REAL” with one another. As a result, we learn an entirely new culture, a church culture, where we create a “safe language” and “safe behaviors” where we can identify those who are in the club and those who are not. Forget what the Bible might say about all of this, we want people to think much of us because its all about looking good, clean, and healthy. Christ died so that we would find our value you in him. We are freed from having to impress anyone. We live for an audience and approval of one. If we believe in Jesus, we are fully approved. Not sort-of-approved, not conditionally approved, but approved and welcomed into the family. It is from God, not man, that we take our identity. Galatians 4.4-5 God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law (FREE), so that we might receive adoption as sons.

CHRIST SET US FREE FROM LIVING IN FEAR to LIVING IN JOY

“It was for FREEDOM, that God set us free.” We are to live a life of freedom. A life of liberty is not al life of licentiousness but it is also not life of self-imposed deprivation. A life of legalism saps life from you…unless you make really good legalisms! True liberty, is a life of freedom where “looking good” is not the primary influencer of thought and motivator of action. Being freed from a life governed by the slavery of moralism is not a life that is not moral. It is a lifestyle covered in the acceptance of God and led by the spirit of Christ versus one dominated by men’s approval and man-made tradition. It is a life that has a clear understanding of what sin is but also what righteousness is.

It becomes a life of joy because we do not fear missing the mark by perfectly obeying. We accept that fact that we cannot live a perfect life but Jesus did for us. We accept the fact that we have already missed the mark but Jesus has imputed his righteousness to us.  We do not fear that our salvation, and really God’s love for us, is predicated on our perfect obedience therefore we do not get prideful when we obey or despair when we fail to.

It becomes a life of joy because we do not fear rejection. Our father loves us and cannot lose us.

It becomes a life of joy because. We do not fear suffering. We recognize that suffering must have a larger purpose, that we often cannot understand. We see our savior suffering, without complaint, for something not deserved or his fault. He teaches us to see God’s hand even in suffering. We do not embrace suffering, but we do not avoid it.

It becomes a life of joy because we do not fear death or judgment. We see that Jesus overcame and conquered death. Therefore, death no longer has a sting for us. We know that with our death we are freed from this natural world to see Jesus. We also know that when we stand before God, he sees Jesus, just as he does this very moment!

It becomes a life of joy because we do not fear culture. We do not fear the world, in fact, we understand it. We understand what sin has done to the world and now approach it with gospel eyes. We do not flee from it, rather, we immerse ourselves in it and preach the gospel into all corners of it. We take back those things that have been perverted and through them glorify God!

We live a life of joy because Jesus has taken away all the fear. To be freed from fear is an amazing thing. Without Jesus, lives must be governed by fear. • Am I good enough? • Am I strong enough? • Am I acceptable? Do people like me? • I’m scared to hurt? Who is there? • What happens when I die? • How can I be safe in this world?  But we are free.