You are a Builder – (1 Corinthians 3:10-17)

The energy that is resident in the young adult stage of life – that time when you have a young family and are setting out on your own to get established – is really an amazing thing as you look back on it some years later. I am doing that now with my older boys who are all in the throes of wrestling with housing arrangements with varied homes and construction or renovation projects. It is exhausting to me to just look at.

But when I was in my late 20s, I was in that stage of life and did one of the more bold and crazy things I have ever taken on. My father-in-law and I built a 2500-square-foot two-story colonial home in New Jersey in a field very close to the elementary school I attended two decades earlier. When I say that “we built” it, I mean that in the most literal sense. Other than the poured foundation, the drywall, and sanding the hardwood floors, we did every last bit of it between us (frankly he did much more, since he was the one who knew what he was doing!). My own father was totally skeptical that this would work out; he thought we were crazy to attempt this. I now find myself looking back on that and understanding his point of view more clearly.

As we were nearing the end of the construction, I can very clearly recall several occasions of doing some finishing work inside the house while violent storms were raging outside. And I remember wondering to myself, “Is this place really going to withstand this? Did we build it appropriately and strong enough? I know we used a lot of nails!” (Actually, with 2×6 exterior walls, the place was a fortress!)

The proof of the quality of any construction project comes when storms arrive or time passes. Does it stand? What remains on the other side?

Paul picks up this analogy when talking to the Corinthians about the labors that Apollos and he and others were doing in the process of building the church of Jesus Christ. Just as in my NJ house, someone else did the foundation and we just built upon it, and Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church that others over time build upon through their labors. The quality of that construction may vary according to the diligence and care of the laborers and the composition of the materials. But a day comes when it will be revealed – a day that Paul pictures as one with fire, speaking of the Day of Judgment. There will be reward for excellence, while nothing but the smell of the fire on the clothing of those who escaped alone with nothing to show in terms of reward.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3 …

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

There are both sobering and comforting components in this communication. The business of the church is serious stuff, as it is the outworking of God’s plan of the ages. Those who are a part of it are a part of the big thing that God is doing in the world. And those who serve in teaching and communication of truth on all levels have a responsibility of doing it with accuracy in accord with God’s revelation.

A problem that existed even in the early years of the church was that of false teachers. Paul would reference this later as the preaching of “a different gospel.” (See the early verses of 2 Corinthians 11.)

On the other hand, there is great comfort in knowing that God sees and remembers our labors for him in the church of Christ. Though we may be forgotten and our efforts at advancing the truth of the gospel and the mission of the church may be lost to human memory, God does not forget nor fail to reward that service. The church universal is going to be successful. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. This is the winning team, and in teaching the Scriptures as we have opportunity on whatever level in the home or church, we are advancing God’s kingdom. We are growing our roots; we are watering the roots of others, and by the Spirit’s work we are a part of the fruit that never fades away.

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Behind the Christian Celebrity – (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)

The Christian celebrity movement has been around a long time, as we see today that it dates back to the early years of the church with characters like Paul and Apollos. I’m sure they were impressive in some way, being able to publicly handle the presentation of incredible truths detailing this relatively new message of the gospel.

So I guess it is not that incredible that there are still celebrities in church ministry, particularly of those who have visible successes like large congregations, media ministries and a shelf full of written materials.

One of the interesting experiences of ministry life in this generation is the opportunity to attend the vocational Christian college and seminary, both of which are a part of my background. On the whole, college and seminary were rich experiences for me, though I was pondering again just earlier today that the accompanying church experiences of that stage of my life probably marked me more and had greater educational and impactful influence.

Dallas Seminary in particular, along with my pastoral staff ministry in one of the primary churches connected to it, brought across my path some very interesting and well-known characters in the Christian movement worldwide over the past 50+ years. Some were on the faculty, while others visited as guests at our church. And now that 34 years have passed since my master’s graduation and 22 since the doctoral, some of my classmates have become well-known personages, even Christian celebrities. If you are familiar with Christian radio at all, or know of some pastors of regional multi-site churches, more than a couple of these names are guys who sat in the same classes with me.

I have not kept in touch with many of them, but here is what I can tell you about them: they are in reality nothing that special. In fact, personally, they are often rather boring people and loners away from the spotlight and podium. In reality, these guys are often introverts. They probably don’t have time for you unless you too are really important in some way. They really don’t have the time; it takes a lot of time to keep all the balls in the air of a big-time multi-faceted ministry.

What they simply have is a God-given gift to understand Scriptural truth and package it in a communicative way that is compelling and, along with the Spirit’s power, helpful to listeners and followers. But at the end of the day, it is just a gift from God. Other people have other gifts. For Apollos and Paul … for any teacher of the Scriptures … they are servants …

5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Some plant, some water, but it is God who makes the seed grow. And that is the miracle – that growing in the life of the believer is the fruit of an eternal relationship with God through Christ.

So it is not about the messenger practically at all. It is about the message and what becomes of it in the life of the hearer as it takes root.

Speaking of Dallas Seminary, I remember a homiletics class (that is a class on how to teach and preach) where the rather well-known prof reminded us of the big idea about preaching. He said, “When have people really ‘got it’ when you speak … when have they actually ‘caught it?’  Is it when they can regurgitate your catchy three-point outline? Is it when they remember your stories and illustrations? Is it when they understand the full content of what you have said?  No!  It is when they have understood how to apply it in their lives and they go home and do it.”

That is another way of saying that people understand preaching, be it great or mediocre in terms of presentation, when it takes root in their lives through personal application and growth.

Beyond that, we are all teachers of the Word with our families and with people of whom we cross paths daily who need to know the truth of God’s Word. I love a good talker as much as anyone, but the core reality is the life-changing message of the gospel that is being preached, celebrity or not.

 

 

Being More Than Merely Human – (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

The primary passage of interest for us this week is found in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, a Scripture we will especially look at and comment upon tomorrow. But for this week, let us take that whole 3rd chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and study it again with its five natural paragraph breaks, as this will set the broader context for us.

Our “Rooted” theme this week is to talk about the role of teaching in the growth process of the seed of God’s Word being planted, tended and brought along to fruition in the lives of people.

The immediate risk we run is that folks will look at this passage and theme and say, “Well, there’s a Scripture that is for Randy, Chris and Tim … hope it speaks to them.”

But our point this week is to say that we all have a role to play in the process of seeing God’s Word rooted and growing, not only in ourselves, but in the lives of others.

The church in Corinth is well-known to us all for a variety of problems that form a list of topics for the Apostle Paul to address with them in this first letter. He begins in chapter 1 by diving right into a problem that has been reported to him …

that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

The feeling we get is almost as if it is primary season for a political party. Many of you have heard me talk and write about my five-year foray into the political world. Though there were worthy, valuable and honorable elements to that involvement, the major problem I saw (and that drove me crazy and ultimately out the door) was that there was never a true party unity. At every state convention, there were some offices up for election. And so there were always people campaigning for this or that position, replete with buttons and stickers and posters, etc. It was a continual context of division as groups had their favorite.

And that is what was happening in Corinth. Some folks liked the energy of Paul, or the university scholarship of Apollos, or the working-man’s populism of Peter … while some others saw themselves as more spiritual (at least in their own minds), forming a divisive group under the name of Christ.

What this did was essentially demonstrate that they were not rooted and bearing the good fruit of the spirit. And Paul clearly addresses the core issues …

3 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

At the end of the preceding chapter, Paul spoke to them of teaching about the “deep things of God” and about “spiritual realities.”  It was stuff that was to be spiritually discerned … beyond the understanding of basic natural conversation of this world. But the Corinthians were not really ready for this; they were not plugged into (or rooted) in such a way as to be nourished by this sort of teaching and instruction.

Surely we have all had experiences where we are around some folks who are talking about a topic upon which we are well-informed, being so perhaps because it is in our career field or in some area of special interest and study. And these folks, not knowing how much you know about the subject are talking in your presence like they are an expert on the topic. You can tell that they really see themselves as having a deep understanding, but the actual shallowness of their knowledge is abundantly obvious to you while being oblivious to them. It is sort of sad, as often you have to just smile and choke down the corrections you would like to give them.

Paul was tired of being polite and letting the Corinthians only think they were so advanced and fruitful in their knowledge and experience of truly deep spiritual realities. The Apostle rather bluntly drops the truth upon them. The party spirit that divided them was in fact evidence that they were “merely human.”

That doesn’t sound so bad to be “merely human” does it?  It is a common phrase to hear someone say, “After all, I’m just human!”

Being truly rooted in Christ and mature in faith and knowledge does not make one super-human. But it does establish a broad understanding of timeless truth that transcends the “mere” viewpoint of the natural man. That ordinary viewpoint is that we live, we die, and in between we fight for our personal ascendance in a sort of battle known as the survival of the fittest. Being rooted in Christ yields a viewpoint that transcends this world and connects a person to eternal realities and the Creator God. And a result of such spiritual knowledge should be a different way of living with one another.

So why be a “mere” anything when you can be a special something through rootedness in Christ?

Repent! (Luke 13:6-9)

“Repent” is one of those words that’s been lost in the noise of religious culture.  It’s a word you hear from sweaty-faced TV preachers pleading for your moral conscience.  It’s a word you see written on cardboard signs and held by self-appointed prophets at the stadium or the airport.  It’s a word you might assume to mean: “Better get your act together!”

We return now to Luke’s biography of Jesus.  Earlier we’d looked at the way Jesus challenged his audience by saying that just because tragedy happens, it doesn’t mean the victims “had it coming.”  We’d talked about how when we read tragic newspaper headlines—like the recent shooting in an Orlando nightclub—it’s tempting to think through who we can blame, or find ways to distance ourselves from the moral complexity of the situation.

Jesus tells his audience—then and now—that we are all called to “repent:”

6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

Even here we see the themes we’ve been discussing all week.  Justice is coming, but the greater aim is for restoration and mercy.

This parable underscores Jesus’ command in verses 3 and 4, earlier: “unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”

What does it mean to “repent?”  As we hinted at above, we might assume that “repentance” is about making a change in behavior.  We cease doing bad things, and we start doing good things.  We stir up a feeling of being really, really sorry for what we’ve done, with sour-faced promises to “never do it again,” as if we’re a pack of unruly middle schoolers and God is the principal, standing with his arms folded.

“Repent” means to change, to turn.  The Greek word was even used by the “college professors” of the ancient world to refer to the way a character would change his course in the middle of a story.

The same is true for the Christian life, but if we look at the total scope of Christian faith, we must conclude that we change not our habits, but our hearts.  “Our hearts are idol factories,” John Calvin famously wrote.  And he’s right.  We have the tendency to love things more than we love God.  Therefore, what the Bible calls “sin” is really just a form of dis-ordered love.  If I love money more than God, I may become a prisoner of greed.  If I love sex more than God, then I become a prisoner of lust.  And so on.

We can easily imagine how the posture of our hearts directly results in the actions of our hands, can’t we?  So it’s not enough to change the externals—we have to look at what’s underneath.

“Repent,” then, is about re-ordering our loves.  It’s about placing God back at the apex of our hearts; it’s about seeing his beauty, his goodness and allowing his character to stir our affections so that we are gradually transformed into the image of his Son.

Truthfully, this is a daily task.  As more things flood our attention, our hearts are constantly being shaped and molded into what Paul called “the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2).  The reason the Church has emphasized spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible study, etc.) is that these practices help us re-order our lives (and our loves).

This means that “repentance” isn’t just for the “lost” people “out there.”  It’s for all of us, all of those who seek to continually exult the name of Jesus, and see his kingdom as supremely valuable over every earthly empire.

Mercy and justice (Psalm 85)

Justice is something we typically want for others; mercy is something we typically want for ourselves.  If you’re married, you probably see this played out on a daily basis.  When faced with your spouse’s shortcomings—sometimes as simple as an unfinished task—the “law” comes out.  “The dishes aren’t done,” you might insist, or, “the lawn needs mowed.”  But when the shoe’s on the other foot, you expect leniency.  A friend of mine told me that he’d come to realize that “law for you, grace for me” had become one of the defining features of his marriage.  And it hurt.

Earlier this week we’ve observed that God gives blessings to his people, and we’ve also seen that it’s only natural for us to desire justice for wrongdoing.  How these two traits fit together is a thing of beauty, so much so that it’s been sung even in the ancient worship songs of Israel:

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
and righteousness looks down from the sky.
12 Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him
and make his footsteps a way. (Psalm 85:10-13)

The unnamed writer tells us that “righteousness and peace kiss each other.”  This same righteousness that demands justice for sin is unified with the peace of God’s salvation.

Nowhere do we find that more clearly demonstrated than in the cross itself, where God’s love and God’s fierce justice intersect on a hillside just outside the city.

John Stott writes:

“It is the Judge himself who in holy love assumed the role of innocent victim, for in and through the person of his Son he himself bore the penalty that he himself inflicted. As Dale put it, “The mysterious unity of the Father and the Son rendered it possible for God at once to endure and to inflict penal suffering.” There is neither harsh injustice nor unprincipled love nor Christological heresy in that; there is only unfathomable mercy. For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy himself, God through Christ substituted himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.”[1]

At the cross we find both mercy and justice.  Justice, because Jesus paid the debt of human wickedness, and mercy, because this payment wipes our slates clean.  We therefore are released from the weight of our own shame, but we are also released from the weight of our social outrage.  That is, when we are confronted with radical evil—whether in the headlines or our own households—we look to the cross and recognize that true justice is found there, that when we demand blood God offers his own.

No matter the headline, no matter the circumstance, justice is ultimately found in the righteousness of God.  And so is mercy.  I don’t mean to say that there are no earthly consequences—as if God does not use such events even to discipline his own children.  But as Christians we extend mercy and grace to our brothers and sisters knowing their debts have been paid the same as ours.

 

[1] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 158-9.

The desire for justice (Romans 2:1-8)

When confronted by radical evil, or usual talk of tolerance and moral relativism slide right out the window.  Morals, we’re often told, are the products of social forces—certainly not the works of an absolute God.  But this kind of skepticism fails to equip us to deal with the sorts of evil acts that have confronted us in the news cycle even of late.

No one is calling out for mercy or tolerance of sexual criminals or drunk drivers.  Both nationally or locally, we have many people crying out for blood, for retribution, for justice.

Christianity tells us that there is true, lasting justice found in the character of God.  In Paul’s famous letter to the church in Rome, he writes:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking[a] and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:1-11)

If you’re a skeptic or simply new to the Christian faith, you may struggle with the idea of a God who expresses things like anger and judgment.  Those of us who grew up in the self-esteem movement have been assured—sometimes from birth—that we are a unique and beautiful snowflake.  Surely you and I are worthy of God’s love?

But again, the cries for justice are right and proper when dealing with human depravity.  In recent years, one of the most popular TV programs was Breaking Bad, a show that depicted a high school chemistry teacher who starts manufacturing illegal drugs to pay for his mounting medical bills.  At first you pity him, but as the story unfolds evil takes hold of him.  Viewers watch as this ordinary man becomes a man of extraordinary evil.  Why would such a show become so popular?  The show’s director explains that it has everything to do with our innate sense of justice:

“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished…. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”[1]

Christianity tells us that our desire for justice is right and proper—it’s just not broad enough.  It’s easy to see evil in the papers; it’s much harder to see it in the mirror.

But the Bible tells us that God is a God of justice, a God who is ferociously angry at anything and everything that defies the goodness of his character and his creation.  And that includes you and me.

For those of us that trust Christ, this brings us both the relief of having escaped God’s judgment (because Jesus took our place), and it brings us the hope of future, final vindication (because there will be a final resurrection and justice).

To paraphrase something often said by pastor and author Tim Keller, even if Christianity weren’t true, we should want it to be true.  All man’s attempts at justice are little more than cause-effect types of punishments.  Only the gospel promises final, eternal justice.  Are you angry?  Hurting?  Dissatisfied by the state of our hurting world?  Then we have only to look to the cross, look to the hope of God’s future, knowing that our destiny is as secure as God’s justice is swift.

 

[1] Segal, David (July 6, 2011). “The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad'”. The New York Times. July 25, 2011.

The uncommon goodness of common grace (Matthew 5:45)

Due to technical difficulties, this post got lost along the way, so we’re posting it a little out of order this week.  Enjoy.

Not terribly long ago I was thumbing my way through the catalog for a Christian bookstore when I ran across an advertisement for “Guitar Praise,” the Christian version of the popular video game “Guitar Hero.”  The game’s tagline read: “Solid Rock—Join a Christian band!”

The whole thing made my mind wander back to a poster I’d seen in youth group.  The poster was a long list of bands, broken into genres and sub-genres of music.  The left column featured a list of “secular” bands; the right column featured a list of “Christian” bands.

But really, what made me drop my jaw was when I discovered that they also made a Christian version of the video game “Dance Dance Revolution.”  I already forget what it was called, I only remember the series of surprises that it elicited.  First, I was surprised that such a product even existed.  Second, I was surprised that my seminary bookstore carried and sold such a product.  And third, I was surprised that my seminary bookstore was sold out on the day that I first learned about it.  The school across the street was Southern Baptist, and you know those guys ain’t buying a dancing game (if you’re reading this as a Southern Baptist, I kid!  Those Gaither boys can really cut a rug…).

We are right, of course, to be cautious about the sorts of media we consume and the messages it contains.  I’m not objecting here to discernment; I’m objecting to labels.  It’s like the song from Derek Webb, where he asks: “Don’t teach me about truth and beauty…just label my music…I want a new law.”  Stuff like this only reinforces the wrong-headed belief that there is a “secular” world out there and we are safe if we only absorb “Christian” books, music, and movies.  But “Christian” isn’t an adjective; it’s a noun.  It doesn’t describe the quality of something; it refers to a follower of Christ.

In one of his most famous sermons, Jesus tells his audience that we can’t treat people differently on the basis of a simple division between “neighbor” and “enemy.”  Why?  Because God shows mercy and provision to all people:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)

In a society whose economy depended on farming, sunlight and rain represented the promise of blessing and prosperity.  The ancient rabbis believed that God showed blessing by sending rain on all people—even non-believers—by virtue of his loving character, and as something of the by-product of his love for his people, Israel.

But this sort of blessing is seen not just in God’s provision, but also in the way that he equips men and women with skills suited to the world they inhabit.  Listen to what God says through his messenger, Isaiah, roughly 700 years or so before the birth of Jesus:

Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
24 Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
Does he continually open and harrow his ground?

25 When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
26 For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.

27 Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.

28 Does one crush grain for bread?
No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it.
29 This also comes from the Lord of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.

(Isaiah 28:23-29)

Don’t miss what Isaiah is saying here: God is the source of all skills, all abilities.  If human beings are made in the image of a God who creates and shapes the world into order (Genesis 1:26), then it only makes sense that God created all people to create and shape the world into order.

Roughly 500 years ago, the reformers would dub this concept “Common Grace.”  Common grace has nothing to do with salvation—not directly, anyway.  Common grace refers instead to the creative and artistic gifts God grants to all people.  John Calvin would write:

“Whenever we come upon [truth] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.  If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole source of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself nor despise it wherever it shall appear….Those men whom Scripture calls ‘natural men’ were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things.  Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.”(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion)

What does this mean?  It means that we see God as the ultimate source of goodness, but we shouldn’t neglect the immediate evidence of this goodness in things ranging from books to movies to our favorite Eric Clapton riff.  The baseball player that swings for the fences is likewise reflecting the image of his Creator—even if the player doesn’t even recognize this.

What am I getting at?  Again, I realize there are plenty of examples of areas that demand thoughtful discernment.  But what if, just what if, we had a greater desire to celebrate our culture as sourced in God’s goodness rather than condemn it as another example of human wickedness?

This is important, because Christianity goes one level even deeper.  The Christian teaching of the so-called “end times” is really a teaching about God’s new beginning—a new plan for a new creation.  The very best things we experience now only point to a far, far greater fulfillment in this new world, the way that a budding flower hints at a greater beauty to come with the changing of seasons.  In one of his most celebrated sermons, C.S. Lewis talked about what he called his “inconsolable secret:”

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country….I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence…Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…But all this is a cheat….The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things…are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)

Art, music, sports, even the craftsmanship that goes into motorcycle repair—these skills and creations all point beyond themselves to a brighter and more glorious world.  We call it “Common Grace” now—but what lies ahead is an uncommon treasure.

 

 

Chewbacca masks and Gorilla moms (Luke 13:1-5)

If social media has taught us anything, it’s how rapidly public opinion can rise into a tidal wave of joy or outrage in blink of an eye.  And this shows us a little bit about how our society tends to function, morally speaking.

Exhibit A.  A young mom goes to Kohl’s and ends up walking out with a Chewbacca mask.  Once she gets in the car, she uses her cell phone to film herself putting it on and laughing hysterically at the sounds the mask makes.  After posting the video to the internet, the video “went viral,” as they say.  Within 2-3 weeks, the “Chewbacca mom” garnered the attention not just of social media users, but companies started giving her all sorts of gifts.  One college even awarded her children full college scholarships.  Time magazine estimated the sum of all her gifts to be well over $400,000.

Exhibit B.  A mom takes her child to the zoo.  Somehow, some way, the child ends up in the gorilla pit, forcing the zoo to kill the gorilla in an effort to save the child.  And once again, on the internet, the crowds went wild.  Only this time, not as a cheering section, but as a lynch mob. People were irate over the “Gorilla mom’s” apparent negligence.  Why should an endangered animal have to die just because she can’t be a parent?  Online petitions were circulated, demanding justice for the fallen gorilla.

So there we have it.  Sit in the car in front of Kohl’s and you can be an internet hero.  Let your child fall into a pit and you become tabloid trash.

I know, I know, I know; there’s something to be said here about parenting skills and protecting your child from doing something stupid (and risky).  It’s just that when things like this happen everyone leaps to assumptions and accusations, as though we all possess a perfectly-tuned moral compass and the needle’s pointing toward the Chewbacca mom and far, far away from the gorilla mom.

When tragedy comes, the natural thing to do is look for a cause.  If we can ascribe blame, then maybe we can prevent the tragedy from ever happening again.  And maybe—just maybe—blame can help us feel better about ourselves.  We like a world that’s neatly divided between the Chewbacca mom and the Gorilla mom, because it feels good to associate ourselves with laughter and to distance ourselves from perceived negligence—and tears.

We find a similar collision of values in Luke’s portrait of Jesus:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

There are many times when Jesus’ biographers detail historical events that we can find evidence for elsewhere.  This isn’t one of those times.  We know nothing of these two incidents save for what we find here.  First, there had apparently been a time when Pilate had killed a group of Galileans when they were offering their sacrifice—most likely Passover, the only time when non-priests would make such sacrifices.  The temptation that Jesus’ admirers faced was to assume that God had caused this to happen because these guys deserved it somehow.  Jesus will have none of it.  He reminds them of another, previous incident, where a tower fell and killed eighteen people.  But, Jesus asks, are we really willing to say that these people deserved it while others did not?

The Chewbacca mom and Gorilla mom debate goes chillingly deep.  When more severe tragedies strike, it’s tempting to try and separate the world into black and white categories of right and wrong—and of course we’re on the right side.

After his release from a Russian Gulag, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn found himself wishing for such a gap to emerge.  “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us…But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”[1]

The famed writer is onto something.  The line between internet sensation and tabloid trash has nothing to do with Chewbacca masks or gorilla pits.  The line slices right through the human heart.  By God’s grace, we experience the exhilarating joys of life, and by our weakness, we taste all the bitterness life can muster.  The gospel shatters our weaknesses and replaces them with God’s strength.  Our feelings of inferiority and superiority wither when we recognize that we will be measured not by what we’ve done, but what has been done for us.

And as Christians, it’s up to us to make that message go viral.

[1] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulad Archipelago.  (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 168.

The Seed Ain’t the Problem (Mark 4)

IMG_1150Over the years of growing gardens, I’ve become disappointed often with the results. Sometimes I am amazed at how much did grow, but many other times I’ve found myself saying, “That’s it? That’s all I’m getting out of this effort?”

Some of the problem here in Maryland is the soil where I have more recently had the garden, though it is far from terrible (even if it’s not New Jersey soil!). More of it has had to do with the location that is too shaded too much of the day.

But one thing I know I can’t do, and that is to blame the seed. There is nothing wrong with that; it is a soil condition and location issue that has thwarted more recent efforts. Or failure to nurture and water appropriately.

In the parable we have been looking at in Mark 4, the seed speaks of God’s Word, and there is nothing wrong with that. Where there was no fruit, the past three days we have detailed the soil conditions that contributed to the absence. And now today, even with fruit being produced, there is a variety to the amount of yield. Jesus told the story like this …

Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

In the later interpretation in verse 20, Christ said …

20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

It was 40 years ago that I remember a sermon on this passage being preached in my home church by a new assistant pastor, a man who came into ministry out of being a regular attender in the pews of the church. He introduced it by saying that, in his early months of serving and working with the congregants he often asked our older, long-term pastor why it was that some people seemed to “get it” and move ahead, while others heard all of the same stuff but never appeared to be impacted. And our senior pastor would just answer, “Read the parable of the sower and the seed.”

It is so true, and I’ve lived to see it now over the past 40 years of ministry. Some people come and look interested for a time, but they’re gone almost as quickly as they came … something else caught their attention. Others hang around longer before some life event, good or bad, drives them away. And others produce fruit for a while, even good fruit, but they don’t sustain it over the years and the thought that changing their garden location will make all the difference leads them up the road or down the road … often over and over.

But there are people, lots of them, who are what I called in this week of soul conditions the “producers,” who regularly bring to fruition a good yield in the life of ministry and service. Yet even here, there is room for us to ask if we are producing at the level we should, given the gifts and skills the Lord gives to each individually.

So be a producer, don’t settle for tasting, dabbling and seasonally treating church and faith like a hobby.

And we conclude this theme by asking, “How is your heart? How is your soul?”  What can you do to become a producer, or to produce at a higher level?

Treating Faith as a Mere Hobby (Mark 4)

IMG_1148Weeds are a curse. I mean really, they are. In the first breath of God’s curse upon man because of Adam’s sin, God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3:17-18)

I’ve often when pulling weeds in a garden said aloud into the air, “Oh Adam, how could you do this to us?”  Of course, I’ve heard that women in childbirth have had some choice words for Eve as well!

The third type of soil that Jesus spoke of in his parable was that filled with weed seed as well as good seed. From Mark 4:7 …

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 

Dealing with weeds growing with grain is a persistent agricultural problem as can be seen everywhere in grain fields right now. As in the picture, we can see the tire tracks of the device called a “high boy sprayer” – those tractors with the giant, thin wheels and long arms … spraying both weed killer and fertilizer. I often think sadly about all the grain that is smashed, though I’m assured that the net positives outweigh that negative.

But really, just think about how much more of a difficulty dealing with weeds must have been in the first century world of Jesus and the disciples, a time without chemical treatments.

Jesus gave this interpretation of the third soil (and hence the third type of soul) in verses 18 and 19 … IMG_1151

18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 

This third type of soul is what I have called “the hobbyist.”  I have had lots of seasons of life where I had varied hobbies. At the time I was into them, I would have told you that these were interests that I would have and carry for a lifetime. But many have come and gone. I was into muzzle-loading antique, historic guns for a while and even built a replica. I have not had it out of the closet in 20+ years. I was very into woodworking, and our home is filled with things I built years ago. Now, doing anything like that is a terrible chore.

Other interests I’ve stuck with throughout life … like baseball, family, pursuit of Scriptural knowledge applied to life, writing. What you really value will stay with you and inform your life.

And so it should be about the Word of God. It should not be something that is a seasonal interest or hobby, not something to think about only in terms of if it serves you well at this stage of life.

If we have not been guilty of this ourselves, we have all seen the person who gets very excited about the Lord and his Word, like after some sort of retreat or conference. But over time, the enthusiasm does not stick with them. Other events or people come along to crowd their attention.

Some of the “cares of the world” that take us away from God may be good things in their proper place, but be also out of an appropriate line of priorities. And they can become those things that consume us rather than us consuming them.

Jesus speaks of three items in the passage …

  • “The worries of this life” – making a go of it, financially and relationally. This can become consuming.
  • “the deceitfulness of wealth” – I know that we all find ourselves believing that if we only just had a nice chunk more of financial resources our lives would be so much easier. I’ve often told you about the one little season of my life of living with the wealthy in Texas. And I can report that they really weren’t happier, and they had to spend so much of their time worrying about what to do with it and how to protect it from a dozen dangers.
  • “the desire for other things” – we all have stuff we find interesting that we’re going to get someday or do someday. Diana and I, on the whole, are rather boring people; but we have this interest in returning to Europe to see more of that continent. But we never get around to it, though we could make it the defining thing of our lives, dropping everything else.

Don’t make faith a hobby, merely something you do or use when you really need it like a tool in the garage, or a car you take for a Sunday ride. Being a person of faith, and doing faith with other people (called the church) is a way of life, not a hobby.

But I have seen decades of hobbyists in my various churches, people for whom life is going pretty well right now. Some previous crises have resolved, and coming in and enjoying what goes on around here fits their schedule nicely. Their evaluation of a church – be it this one, or any other one where they’ve given some time here and there – is honestly by the criteria of “what do I get from it, and how does it serve my interests and needs right now?”  The issue is honestly not “how can I serve God here?”

So don’t just be a hobbyist about faith. Don’t just make it a seasonal convenience that can get trumped by other interests … like the summer. Like the old song goes, “Will I see you in September, or lose you to the summer moon above?”