The Inconvenient Christ.  Part I.

The Inconvenient Christ. Part I.

I’ve heard it a lot over the years and even more so of late.  Divine name dropping.  Jesus is referenced.   The Bible is quoted.  The god of our making is inserted into conversation so that all will know the divine endorsement of our position.  After all, how can you argue with God?

When it comes to the person of Jesus, people usually bring Him into a discussion when they believe He can lend added weight to their argument. Socially and politically speaking, conservatives will bring Jesus up regarding a pro-life position, and liberals will enter the Jesus card to support their call for immigration reform or taking care of the down and out. Good Samaritan type talk.  Sure, it’s easy to like Jesus when he does what we want him to do and say.  But what about the passages where Jesus doesn’t always comply with our wishes? Do we cherry-pick the verses we like and find tools to rationalize away passages that make us uncomfortable?

Therein lies the tension.  Are we willing to take all of Jesus or only what makes us feel good? This is the ultimate question. Are we going to follow him totally, or not?  Are we going to force Jesus to fit into our worldview, or will we allow Him to change us and mold us into his Kingdom worldview?

In launching this question and series of posts, I’m thinking of one occasion where Jesus connected both the past and the future for a present truth we must all wrestle with.  In Matthew 24:37-39, Jesus drew up Old Testament history and connected it to the future judgment of those who refuse to repent of their sin.  Noah and the ark are the object of Jesus’ teaching, and he spoke of the account as though it was just as authentic as Caesar Augustus. 

In teaching on the end times and final judgment, Jesus went back to the Old Testament book of Genesis, treating it with the same authority of an actual history lesson.  Jesus taught that the flood account was the real deal.  In this context, Jesus was responding to the disciples who had asked about the end times and possible signs that might accompany them.  Jesus noted that just as people in Noah’s day had heard the message of God and rejected it, thus bringing judgment upon themselves, so people would similarly respond today and likewise perish.

People don’t talk about judgment these days.  The implication is personal sin and accountability to a Holy God, which is uncomfortable and inconvenient to our egos.  No, we like the gentle and gracious Jesus.  The God of which we must bow down to, well, that’s another story.

Yes, Jesus came full of grace. However, he came full of truth as well. Jesus also spoke of eternal punishment in Matthew 25:46, and Luke 21:27 records Jesus speaking of His second coming on the clouds with power and great glory. In describing the word picture of a grand banquet in Matthew 22:13, Jesus noted that there would be those on the outside being cast into darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  In a crescendo of conviction, the apostle John shares the end of all things when those who have rejected the grace of Christ are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death.

If we examine the facts of his resurrection and choose to call him Lord, we must also acknowledge the day of judgment.  To deny Noah and the coming judgment is essentially denying Jesus. The ramifications are enormous. Those who are outside Christ must wrestle with their need in great humility. For those who know the grace of Christ, the call to share his love with the world is paramount.  For the child of God, there is peace in knowing the day of judgment will finally bring an end to evil.  The day will indeed come when the King of Glory will settle the score and finally bring justice for those who have followed Him.

Yes, Jesus is love, gracious and kind. He is also Lord and we must reckon with this reality.  Because he is Lord, we have this assurance that he will come again someday for his children.  His lordship is both a convicting and an encouraging promise to take to the bank.

New Year with No Fear – Freedom from Fear. Part IV.

New Year with No Fear – Freedom from Fear. Part IV.

It’s been said so many times; “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over with!” I can feel the pain. But I’m also a realist on this occasion. The truth is that many of the issues that cause us angst may not simply go away with turning the calendar page. Yes, there are some promising signs with COVID vaccines. The political drama is really up for grabs depending on what your bent is on that one. Regardless of present feelings of hope, we just do not know the certainty of the next 12 months.

Along these lines, I am reminded of an outstanding documentary about the Civil War by Ken Burns. The connection here is with the narrator highlighting hope-filled words in late December of 1863 from people looking forward to the new year. But we know now that the war tarried on until May of 1865 with horrendous days they could not have imagined in those quiet closing moments of 1863.

Sure, it’s not a bad idea to pause and consider the journey into a new year. However, if we entrust our hope to external circumstances, we have no complete assurance that anything will be different. So how do we move forward?

Coming not only to the conclusion of 2020, but also to this study on fear, I want to give some hope. The starting block for the race begins in our hearts and minds – in our thinking. For those in Christ, we can and must choose to think differently. Those who are still circling the field on Jesus, consider how God has called us to live differently in His eternal Kingdom and ask yourself if that’s not how you would truly desire to live. While there are more, here are five quick pro-active ways we can shift our thinking from fear to faith and courage.

1. We must Remember Past Victories

It’s easy to fall into despair when surrounded with sorrow.  The problem is our focus, though.  The antidote to the fear pandemic begins when we deliberately turn our attention from the worldly situation to something above. The first step is to remember what God has already done in the past. We can take courage when we remember the past victories that God has already carried us through. David noted in Psalm 77:11 that, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” In seasons of anguish, the psalmist encouraged himself by recounting and thanking God for his past provisions.

Praising God for past victories is also something Paul picked up on in Philippians 4:6, where he urged the first Christians to “not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”  It is so easy to forget and come to God only with our asking. Yet, in our deliberate remembrance of God’s past faithfulness and thankfulness for them, we are encouraged to keep on going forward.

There is an old appropriate church hymn that carries a refrain of, “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your many blessings and see what God has done.”

2. We must Reprogram our Thinking

At first, this may seem redundant. But the point is to purposefully and regularly monitor what is going through our hearts and minds. Paul notes that we must not “conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind.” We are constantly bombarded by the “pattern of this world” due to the 24/7 news feeds available to us through our modern media. The constant negative feed from these sources is a superb breeding ground for fear.

By contrast, the call is to pursue the positive deliberately.  Again we can learn from the scriptures which, state that, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” One practical option here would be to daily write out 5 to 10 things that are indeed grand and glorious in our lives whether that be something in nature to the simple smile of someone who loves us.

3. We Must Rely on the Team

The blessing I have in life, next to Jesus, is that of being committed to a local church family and some brothers in Christ, all of whom are committed to me. God created us for community, and we need each other. The answer in this mix, though, is not so much what encouragement we can get from others, but what encouragement we can give. Again, going back to the old apostle Paul, he urged the first church to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as you are doing.”

By team, I mean the local church family. A great example of how this plays out is a football team. The difference between a football team and a track team is their interdependence on one another. Regardless of how well a quarterback throws the ball and how fast the wide receiver catches the ball and runs, they are doomed to defeat unless they unite with the other players who are all working together.  When they function as a team and encourage each other, they run the ball down the field together and win the victory — kind of unlike what the Dallas Cowboys did this year.

4. We must Resolve to Do

Action is the principle here. It is easy to clinch one’s fist and shout at other people, policies, and forces that stand against us in this life. It is quite another thing to get up and do something to help others. This is especially true when no one sees what we are doing. Serving with no attention. One verse that I have submitted to memory this year is Romans 12:21, in which we are urged to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Imagine what 2021 would look like when more people are concerned with helping others rather than expecting others to serve them.

5. We must Recognize the Big Picture of Eternity

I don’t want to come across flippant on this one, but the harsh truth is that we will all die sometime. The ancient scriptures noted in Hebrews 9:27 that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The text tells us two firm facts. The first is that death is inevitable and we need to face it, and the second is that there is something after death. Yes, Heaven and Hell are realities. What we do now has eternal ramifications when our hearts stop beating.

So the better question deals with the manner of our life rather than preserving more time on the planet.  If there is no eternity, then people rightly should fear death, dangers, and dreads of this world. After all, there is nothing left. Paul got that and even noted that if there is no resurrection, then Christians are to be pitied above all people. Yet, because Jesus did rise from the grave proving not only his divinity, but the veracity of all he said, we can cling to what the Bible shouts about eternity as well.

So many times this past year, I have been drawn back to the first followers of Jesus.  The original Christians in the book of Acts and those in the early centuries come to mind.  Quite often in the Roman Empire, while others fled the plagues of death, many Christians remained behind to serve those who suffered. They physically and practically overcame the evil around them by doing good.

Is that not what we need more of today? Regardless of what 2021 brings, how can life not be better when regular folks, like you and me, live with faith above fear in our sphere of influence?

For me, yes, I am looking forward to 2021 and am attempting to map things out on my wall calendar with hope. However, real hope is with Christ ruling in our hearts regardless of what is unfurloughing around us. Yes, there have been many reasons for fear in 2020, and there will probably be many more to come.  But we can live differently, and that is my hope for you and me.

As we wind down this study on fear, I am reminded of another Civil War illustration.  While fear reigned in so many during those years, one General stood out as an example of courage. His troops began to refer to him as Stonewall after one early battle because he would not flinch in the face of danger.  Thomas Jackson was from the south though not a supporter of slavery.  He was a man of deep faith, which influenced every area of his life.  Shortly after the battle of Bull Run, where his courage shined, an adjutant asked him for this source of bravery.  The short exchange went as such:

“General, how is it that you can keep so serene with a storm of shells and bullets raining about your head?”

Captain Smith, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all men would be equally brave.”

Wow – that is the way all Christians should live. When our hope is placed first in Christ, we can live differently from the world around us. The Bible notes that perfect love casts out all fear. There is no greater love than what Jesus did for us on the Cross.  Because of that, we can indeed journey into 2021, turning our fear into faith. That is my hope for the new year. So be strong, my friend, be strong!

Freedom from Fear. Part II.

Freedom from Fear. Part II.

Excitement gushed from the faces of my two sons as we pulled into our high elevation campsite years ago in Yosemite National Park. Anticipation built until they were finally released from their unpacking and set-up duties to explore the world around them. By the end of the day’s adventures, they had more dirt on them than in the campfire ring. They were filthy, and they couldn’t care less. Their experience brought joy to my heart.

I love to see little children running around without a care in the world with all the energy the world has to offer. You get the feeling they’re not afraid of anything, and to some extent that is probably true. I read once that the only two fears children are born with are darkness and loud noises. If that is true, then just about all the fears we experience in life are either taught to us by someone or learned from negative experiences.

The Hinton Boys camping during the summer of 2006. I think!

So, what are the origins of fear? The theological answer is found in separation from God and His goodness. I find it interesting that in Genesis chapter 2 before sin entered the world, the man and the woman were both naked, yet experienced no shame. Everything changed, though in chapter 3, in connection to their rebellion against God. The text tells us that they were hiding in the garden because they were afraid of God.

Did you catch that? They went from no shame to a place of fearful desperation in almost a heartbeat. There is something to that. The demise of peace in Genesis 2:25 to the terror of heart in 3:10 has something to do with the attitude of mankind toward God. It was in the condition of rejecting God and being estranged and alone from God that fear arose.

Maybe a first step in discovering the origins of fear is to unpack exactly what we are talking about as some fears are reasonable. Considering children, I want them to have a “healthy fear” when it comes to electricity so that they don’t poke a key into a power outlet.

The Bible speaks of many kinds of fear. Some are healthy, and some are harmful. We can see an excellent form of fear when we look out over the Grand Canyon or look into the endless sky at night. Maybe the word “awe” is descriptive, and there are times in the Old Testament when fear is translated that way.

When you see something that is powerful and awesome, there is a respect in the heart for whatever this profound thing is. The Bible also refers to this type of awesome fear as reverence and is applied frequently to God himself. Awe is a good form of fear, and various texts in the Old Testament teach the value of this attitude. One such passage is Proverbs 9:10, which notes that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

The implication is that before their sin, Adam and Eve experienced some form of a healthy reverence toward God. After their rebellion though, this fear turned into dread, which is where most of humanity lives today.

The problem with our first parents in Genesis and all of us is that when we lose that reverence of God, we begin to elevate ourselves above God. The change leads to a wrong fear of the world of which we will unpack in our next post.

Addressing fear in our lives is both a quick and also a life long journey. The opening move from fear to faith is to see the connection between the perfect holiness of God and the love of God wedded in the cross of Christ. God’s holiness and love are mainly seen in 1 John 4:18 when the aging apostle noted that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The holy reverence of God demands punishment for sin. The perfect love of God is demonstrated by Jesus taking that punishment on the cross for whoever would receive his grace and forgiveness. When I grasp that reality and step over the line, giving my life to Christ, then I can rest in the care of God regardless of what is going on in the world around me.

Moving forward in the daily journey occurs as I set my heart toward God with a hopeful trust and a reverent fear. As I grow in this realm, I can push past the fears of the world. God has provided his great love for me, and thus the assurance of his care for me.

In conclusion, Jesus himself gave the encouraging words of “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” and those same words apply today to those who know him.

Yes, there is much we could fear. But in Christ, we need not live that way, but rather in faith. Be strong my friend, be strong!

Freedom From Fear. Part I.

Freedom From Fear. Part I.

If you’re looking around these days there is plenty to be afraid of.  We have experienced unprecedented circumstances with COVID19 which has caused fear of the actual virus and ripple effects to the economy and countless personal ramifications around the country and globe.  The past few weeks have brought news images of racism, riots, heightened political saber-rattling and the list goes on.

Looking beyond the present panic though, fear is something that has plagued many people as far back as they can remember which affects every part of their lives and those closest to them.  Why are some driven by fear while others can face it and rise above it?  Why are there times when even the bravest among us are stymied by inner struggles?

Throughout the Bible we hear the voice of God calling out to his people to not give in to fear somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 times.  One powerful occasion is the Lord speaking to the leader, Joshua, with the call to “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Yes, when we look at the divine connection we can see the fear in a different light. On the other hand, if we are merely the accidental byproducts of evolution with no eternal and divine purpose, then people may be right to fear. After all, the honest conclusion is that it is all about the survival of the fittest in this life alone.

However you cut it though, there is an element of fear in the hearts of mankind that we must deal with.  Questions arise such as: Where does fear come from? How does fear affect us and how can we move past it?  Those are the questions that I will address over the next three posts.

In considering the plague of fear, I am reminded of the differences in how the first two kings of Israel faced evil and danger in 1 Samuel chapter 17 which occurred around 1000 BC.  At the time, Saul was king and he and his entire army faced off with the Philistines and their champion, Goliath.  The text tells us that Saul and the army of Israel were “dismayed and terrified” as they looked at the evil and danger.  David, who would later become king himself, focused his eyes and heart above the fray onto God and declared that it was not “by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”  With that, David charged the danger head-on and won the victory for Israel even though he was no match physically for the Philistine warrior. 

Instead of looking around at all the potential fears of this realm, David looked up to the creator of the world and overcame it.  I want you and me to live that way as well. God wants us to live that way.  Paul exhorted the young evangelists, Timothy to not fear because “God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.”  Because of Christ, we can move from a life of fear to a life of faith.

My Hope After Lockdown!

My Hope After Lockdown!

Dread is probably too tough of a word.  But I am a little concerned about my first day back at the gym when everything opens up again from the COVID19 lockdown.  I’m trying to do some exercise now, but it’s not the same and when I finally make it back to the weights and inclined treadmill – I think it’s going to kill me.

Anticipation is the right word though when I think about the first Sunday morning back with my church family.  Like many churches, we are doing what we can with technology to share my sermons and stay connected, but it’s not the same. Yes, life has been different the past six weeks and thus people have been forced to take stock of what’s important and remember deeper truths.   I hope that when we move out of this dark valley we will see central truths about the church as well.  Though there are more, here are five of those truths about the authentic church I hope people will see.

1. The True Church is the People.  

Are we closed or open for business?  If church is merely a Sunday morning gathering club, then yes, we’re quite closed right now.  Yet when we unpack the word, church, it identifies the people of God who are called out of the world to himself. The church is the people and not the building or program.  I hope we will see that while we may not be able to meet together in large numbers, we are still called to live out our mission for Christ and those around us.

2. The True Church is a Team

Christian work is not reserved for the professional leaders while everyone else does their worldly job and merely shows up on Sunday morning to be taught spiritual mysteries.  Rather, Paul notes in Ephesians 4:11 that the role of leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Coach and player might be the right feel here.  Every Christian is filled with gifts and talents needed to advance the ball down the field as we work together.  I hope that when this is done every follower of Jesus will see their unique and essential role in the Kingdom.

3. The True Church is a Family

“God’s Family” is the actual phrase Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:10 and I have loved seeing some of that play out in my local church.   I have seen our church family checking on and supporting each other, continuing to support the mission financially, and the numerous little acts of love like when a team of volunteers went out to sing from the sidewalk to seniors who cannot get out at all.  We are loving each other the way God intended for us to do and I hope that this will continue with an even greater fervency in the future.  People need a family and that is what the church is.

4. The True Church is a Life-Saving Station.

After the resurrection of Jesus, he gave the first believers what we now refer to as the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  Here he called them to make disciples the world over.  Some will suggest that this commission was meant for the first disciples or professionals in ministry.  But the context of the New Testament does not lend itself to such an interpretation.  On the contrary, the apostle Paul referred to everyone in the church as “Ambassadors of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:20.  As an ambassador, our mission is the mission of our king.  Jesus declared his mission in Luke 19:10 as one of seeking and saving those who are lost. I hope that we will see that when Christians leave the church assembly on Sunday morning they are truly leaving the lifesaving station to go out into the world to reach the lost just like the Coast Guard leaves their shelter in a perilous storm to save drowning sailors.                                

5. The True Church is not to be Taken for Granted.

Historic closed door leading to Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens, Greece

The first gatherings will be exciting when the lockdown is lifted. The question though will be the following months as life yawns into routine.  It’s sad, but how often do we decide to attend, or not attend, the local assembly based on how we feel that day or what we may or may not get out of it for ourselves?  When we do this we forget the purposes of the true church.  When we do this it becomes less important and is eventually dropped to the bottom of our priority list. This has been the case many times in history dating back to the first century where the author of Hebrews exhorted the first Christians to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another.” In thinking about our time apart, maybe we can remember that in some countries, today and throughout history, Christians have been forbidden by atheistic or Muslim governments from gathering together. When this season passes, I hope we can see how much of a blessing the weekly gathering of the saints is and work to never take it for granted again.

At this writing, I don’t know when the restrictions will be lifted.  The opening may be gradual and I’m sure new safety efforts will be put into place.  But it is my hope that whenever and however we return, it will be with a renewed passion and energy for the body of Christ.  Jesus built the church and the church is his bride.  God’s heart is for the church and I hope that when this season begins to draw to a conclusion, your heart will be drawn closer to the church as well.