Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Not too long ago, I finished an interesting book entitled, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs. Far from a guide to Christian living, the book follows the author, who is a secular Jew living in N.Y. City, as he attempts to live out the commandments of the Bible as literally as possible for a whole year. The book caught my attention on many levels. One, it was fascinating to get a glimpse at an unbeliever’s view of the Bible. Second, I was curious to see if such an endeavor was even possible – there are lots of commandments in the Bible and many of those commandments don’t translate well to modern life. But most of all, I longed to see what might happen to a man’s heart, even a self professed agnostic, when he decided to take the Bible seriously. Would he move from unbelief to belief?

I don’t want to give away the story, so I won’t give you all the answers to my questions. Suffice it to say, The Year of Living Biblically provided me with quite a few chuckles. The quandaries that arise as Jacobs attempts to avoid contact with unclean people in N.Y. City, including sometimes his own wife, provide some of the funniest moments in the whole book. After reading all that his wife went through in putting up with Jacobs’ project, I’m amazed she didn’t kill him before it was complete (to keep it Biblical she could have borrowed from Judges 4). The book did more than make me laugh. It also softened my heart to the journey that folks must walk from unbelief to faith. It is not an easy journey, which is a truth that I, who grew up in the faith, often overlook.

My only criticism of the book would be this, Jacobs approached the Bible primarily as a rule-book. He’s smart enough to know that the Bible isn’t just a book of rules, but like many people, (both believers and unbelievers) he nevertheless sees the essence of the Scriptures as commandment. Ask the average person about what makes up the Bible and they’ll likely say, “A bunch of rules.” It’s true that the Bible contains rules for living. A person needs to look no further than the Ten Commandments to realize there are rules in there, but the Bible is not primarily about rules. God’s primary way of revealing himself through the Scriptures is not through commandments, but through the story. From the first page to the last the Bible tells us the epic story of redemption. Rule giving makes up part of the story, but the story can’t be reduced to rules. Any attempt to do so misses the larger message of God’s love for us.

When it comes down to it, the gospel is the story of God’s love for us, of our fall, of Israel's election, of the sending of his Son, of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of his return in glory some day. The miracle is that this redemption story is one in which we can have a part, not by keeping the rules but by trusting the author of the story, who made himself a part of the drama, Jesus Christ. I hope you’ll join us for worship this week (and invite a friend) as the Southland Music Ministry presents the redemption story once more in the form of the musical The Witness. Who knows what change of heart the Spirit might bring?

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel” 2 Timothy 2:8.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Taste and see that the LORD is good.

Deep into the evening on that first Maundy Thursday, Jesus offered a prayer for his disciples, in which he defines for us true, eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In his words, we discover that eternal life is not primarily about duration but relation. Knowing God is life. Notice Jesus doesn’t say that knowing God brings life, as if life is somehow secondary to the relationship. No, the relationship is life. But if knowing God is life – why are churches such lifeless places? Let’s admit it, churches, and sometimes church people, aren’t exactly known to be the life of the party. I think the reason lies in a simple mistake we churchgoers make. Knowing God is not the same thing as knowing about God.

A lot of people know about God, but knowing about God isn’t life, knowing Him is. J. I. Packer in his classic text Knowing God explains it this way, “We are perhaps, orthodox evangelicals. We can state the gospel clearly; we can smell unsound doctrine a mile away. If asked how one may come to know God, we can at once produce the right formula: that we come to know God through Jesus Christ the Lord, in virtue of his cross and mediation, on the basis of his word of promise, by the power of the Holy Spirit, via a personal exercise of faith. Yet the gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit which are the marks of those who have known God are rare among us. . . You can have all the right notions in your head without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer.”

I think what Dr. Packer is getting at is the difference between knowing the recipe for your favorite dish, an actually tasting the mouthwatering cuisine. The scriptures invite us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” In relational terms, it’s the difference between knowing about someone you’ve never met, or knowing your best friend. Best friends are life giving. In my life, Alyson is my best friend. Knowing her provides me with life. Not the information of knowing her – like when her birthday is, or where she grew up, or what her favorite flower is – I know those things – but what gives me life is knowing her. It’s the interacting with her, of seeing her smile, of hearing her get excited over something the kids have done, of feeling her comforting embrace after a tough day. It’s the relationship, not the information that gives life value. If this is true for a friendship with one who is equally sinful, how much truer is it with God?

So today, take time to stop and taste and see that the Lord is good. You can do that by turning the radio off in the car and voicing a prayer. You can do it by finding twenty minutes to read John 13-17, the account of the first Maundy Thursday, that you may encounter again the Savior who in his love washes our feet. Or join us tonight at 6:00pm as we taste the bread that is his body and the cup that is his blood that were broken and spilt for us.

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” Philippians 3:8

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"What has not been assumed has not been healed"

I had a wonderful time yesterday preaching at the First United Methodist Church’s midweek Lenten service. I absolutely love it anytime we can get together as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. and acknowledge our more lasting identity as brothers and sisters in Christ. Gatherings like the one we had on Wednesday remind me that the family of God is larger than our individual expressions of it. Like any family, we’ve got our family discussions – things on which we don’t necessarily see eye to eye. Some discussions are pretty important, but many are not. In either case, we must remember that having the correct answer to any of the many discussions that separate us into denominations is not what make us a part of the family. John makes clear in his gospel that the Word, that is Jesus, who was with God and was God from the very beginning, became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And all who believe in his name, that is the name of Jesus, God gave the right to become children of God.

What a gift it is to be a part of the family of God! The wonder of that gift grows when we realize that before we could become sons and daughters of God, God Almighty had to first become a son of man. Left to our own efforts, we could not come to God, so God had to come to us. He has identified with us in every way (Hebrews 4:15). While he never himself sinned, he lived as one of us and submitted himself to all of the physical and moral consequences of our fallen humanity. Jesus knows what it’s like to be weary and to be in pain. He knows loneliness and rejection. He knows what it’s like to die. Because he knows, because he has experienced the depths of what it means to be human, he is also the one capable of rescuing us from our despair.

An Orthodox theologian, Kalisto Ware, explains the miracle of Christ’s action this way, “Jesus our Savior bridges the abyss between God and man because he is both at once . . . Who is God? Who am I? To both these questions Jesus Christ gives us the answer.” What does the incarnation say about humanity in general? About you in particular? What does it say about God? It says that God loved us enough that he left the safety and security of the heavens to be a part of our dysfunctional, sinful family called mankind so that we might be a part of his blessed, forgiven clan called the family of God. If you haven’t done so lately, thank God for the love that has made you his son or daughter.

Because God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” 2 Corinthians 5:21

Thursday, March 6, 2008

No explanations, only the promise of His presence

There are days when words simply fail us. Today is one of those days. Our community grieves the tragic loss of two of our young people. Our hearts and prayers go out to their friends, teachers and families. We once again find ourselves confronted with the reality of suffering in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Suffering has become shockingly personal. We want answers. We want explanations. We want there to be reasons for our suffering. Unfortunately, there are no answers that satisfy, no explanations that make the pain go away.

Instead, we cling to the promise of God that he will never leave us or forsake us. Dr. Paul Brand was a man familiar with suffering. A famous doctor, he spent most of his life ministering to lepers in India. He came to realize that God is not in the things that hurt us, but that God is in us, the ones who hurt. That is after all what compassion means, to suffer with. God suffers along side us – when we mourn, when we hurt – comforting us in our pain.

As God comforts us, he asks us to live by faith, trusting him even when we don’t understand why things happen. Faith has been described as “believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” So we encourage one another to keep the faith that his grace will carry us through the pain. To keep the faith that his love will outlast the suffering. To keep the faith that his kingdom of peace and wholeness will one day finally replace this world of strife and brokenness. May, today, we be a people who know his presence and trust his love.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is your faithfulness” Lamentations 3:22-23