Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Message of the Cross, Foolishness to Those Who are Perishing

[Below, you'll find the thought process that I turned into Sunday's sermon.  From the pulpit, I went off script a bit, thus, adding it here.  It was written to be preached the day after the false prediction that May 21 was the Judgement Day, and I've decided not to go through and alter the words for this later publication of it.] 

As of yesterday, another Judgment Day prophecy has come and gone.  Harold Camping, the 89-year old co-founder of Family Radio, used a complex mathematical formula he believed was present in the scriptures to determine that as the six o clock hour struck yesterday (all across the globe), massive earthquakes would ensue, and the rapture would occur.  While non-believers took it as an opportunity to mock and the vast majority of believers shrugged it off, there are a few scattered mostly throughout the United States who gave literally everything they owned, and all their savings, to prepare for and warn about this coming event, forsaking the clear biblical promise that, while we believe the end is imminent, no one can know the day nor the hour.  As of today, they are left with nothing but a lot of questions.  Pray for them.  As a matter of fact, let’s do that now.

I was moved this week by the response of a pastor here in town, Gene Barron of Valley View Christian Church.  In a pastor’s prayer gathering, we were discussing this prediction.  Gene recounted a conversation he recently had with a member of his church about this.  “I don’t know about it,” Gene said to the person, and then added, “but I hope he’s right.”

That statement gave me pause.  To be honest, I’m mostly frustrated by Camping’s prediction.  I’ve shrugged it off and went on with my life.  Camping added foolishness to the Gospel.  He didn’t need to.  A resounding message of the Bible – both the Old and the New Testament – is this: “live like it’s the end, plan like it’s not.”  To me, this is the message of Proverbs, and it is certainly the message of Jesus.  The concept of the end, without any specific predictions, is strange enough.  But we believe that when it happens, it will be the best thing possible.  That’s a little weird.

Check out 1 Corinthians 1:18-24.  

The gospel itself is foolishness to “those who are perishing.”  We spend a lot of time trying to dress it up so that it does not appear foolish.  But the story in and of itself is mind-boggling.  Let’s take a few minutes to remember the story that brings us together every week:

Beginnings: The Self-Existent, All-Powerful, Perfect Being and the Universe
A Self-Existent, All-Powerful, Perfect Being chose to create the universe.  The universe, for those who have forgotten a vast expanse of space, heat, light, and elements.  He created all of that with the goal of supporting a tiny speck (in comparison) floating around a medium to smallish star (we call it the sun).  The balance of every other item in that huge universe somehow made it possible for that one tiny speck to support his tiny and intricate creations on it.  He covered it with water, and then separated out the water so that there could be dry land – but made it so the water functioned in an intricate system of evaporation and redistribution to support growth of all manner of living things on that dry land. 

Beginnings 2: The Creation of Human Beings (Tiny in Comparison, but Imago?)
At the pinnacle of all this stuff which he made just by saying it out loud (“let there be light,” etc.), this Self-Existent, All-Powerful, Perfect Being created a comparatively miniscule entity.  He made this miniscule entity using the other elements he had already spoken into existence, and then he breathed life into this entity and named it adam, which means “of the earth.” The Self-Existent, All-Powerful, Perfect Being, after creating a universe that is at least 28 Billion Light-years (5.87 Trillion Miles = 1 light year… the earth is just under 25,000 miles around) in Diameter (that’s as far as we can see), full of stars and planets, declared that this single entity was the one thing in all of that which was designed to be an image of Himself. Originally, adam was one entity.  But, because adam was made in the image of the Self-Existent, All-Powerful, Perfect Being, he was made to be in community with equals (we believe this Self-Existent, All-Powerful, Perfect Being exists somehow as One Being with Three Persons who dwell in perfect unity and community forever). Therefore, the Self Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being used a portion of adam to create another being who was also in the Self Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being's image, yet was slightly different than adam. So, adam called this second entity ishshah, and said the ishshah was “bone of [his] bone and flesh of [his] flesh,” which is a Hebrew way of saying “the is the very best of all that I am (just like the “song of songs” is the best song, or the King of Kings is the best king). 

Beginnings 3: The Cultural Mandate
These two were instructed by the Self-Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being to multiply, to fill the earth, and to subdue it.  He made it clear to them that he had provided everything they needed.  Their only instruction was that they were to trust the Self-Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being for right and wrong, and not to seek to be the decision makers about right and wrong on their own.  And for a time, we don’t know how long, Adam and ishshah, whom he named Eve, dwelt in this created place with joy and freedom.  It seems they interacted with the Perfect Being easily, freely, and intimately. Adam and Eve had all they wanted. After all, the vast universe was designed to support life on earth, and they were the crowning achievement of life on earth. They were human beings as every one of us imagine when we think of how our bodies, minds, and abilities should be – in perfect control, perfect comfort, perfect strength, perfect relationship, perfect dominion of the rest of creation.  They had no boundaries save one: trust the all powerful, perfect being for right and wrong.  Yet in Perfection, this being saw fit to give these two the opportunity to attempt to decide right and wrong on their own – this was represented by the fruit of a certain tree.  Its presence in their garden gave them an opportunity to trust him… and an opportunity not to. 

Beginnings 4: The Fall
In a moment of mistrust, Adam and Eve became convinced that they could be equals with the Self-Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being if they took the decisions for right and wrong into their own hands, so they ate from the tree.  We call this “the fall.”  The fall initiated a cycle in this tiny blue-green speck in the corner of the vast universe.  Many of Adam and Eve’s tasks continued – they were still to multiply and fill the earth, still to subdue it, but because they had attempted to find a right and wrong, a good and evil, outside of the direct revelation and direct provision of God, God did an interesting thing: he gave them their wish.  Adam and Eve, and their descendants, now had to work the multiply and subdue the land on their own power.  Childbirth became a painful and arduous process for the Woman, and submission of the land for provision became a painful and arduous process for the Man.  The direct revelation of God was no longer readily available, and so a longing developed in the first descendants of the man and the woman to please or appease God, but even that was wrought with difficulty and envy, and it resulted in the first major abuse of the God-Image abilities: one man took the life of another.  Oh, the story spins out of control here - chaos, murder, war, idolatry, adultery... all of it comes sweeping in. 

Redemption Through Israel: The People and their Book
The Self-Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being chose to continue to interact with a select few of the descendants of Adam.  These people recorded his interactions first through memorized spoken words, and then into writing – we call these recordings the Scriptures.  These recorded interactions and stories of the people of God began to weave a story that was building toward something: it was building toward redemption.  But in the strangest of ways: This Perfect Being chose one family line and said “these are my people,” while the rest of the people lived the entirety of their lives worshipping created beings. 

The Son and The Cross
Thousands and thousands of years after the Adam and the Ishshah ate the forbidden fruit, people like us look back on the story of these people and say “ahhhh, I see: God (the Self Existent, Perfect, All Powerful Being) intentionally allowed all of this to happen so that the maximal amount of worship from all of these Image-bearers would be given to himself, specifically to the Person of the Son.”  How, you ask?  Remember how Paul wrote that the “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”?  He wrote it because it is mind boggling.  The message of the cross is that God allowed every detail I’ve just described, plus billions more details in between, so that one of the Members of the Three-in-One God could shed his Divine power for a time to become a descendant of the Adam, live a life that was perfectly submitted in trust to the Self-Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being in every way (that is, he never chose to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, as everyone else does), and then to be accused of being a false prophet and dangerous rebel so that he would be publicly executed on a Roman Cross. 

So… what’s the Message of the Cross again?
All this was done so that this descendant of the Adam could be a new Adam, and initiate a new generation of descendants who would have the privilege of the initial perfect relationship with the Self-Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being and ultimately would return to the perfect physical state.  You see, after his execution on the Roman Cross, this man came back to life.  That’s the story we tell.  And this new Adam, according to the “message of the cross,” initiated a process whereby, eventually, all those who decided to bet their lives on the effectiveness of his public execution, would experience the perfect existence that was originally planned for the descendants of the first adam: that is, they would have perfect dominion over the earth and everything that grows in it, and they would dwell in perfect trust of the Self Existent, All Powerful, Perfect Being, who would be so pleased with his plan of sending his own Son to make a way that he would now be totally and completely present with all those who had chosen to give up on the behavior of the first Adam and put their trust in him for good and evil, right and wrong.  The rest would dwell forever in a place that, in comparison to that perfect existence, could be called torment – they would forever have exactly what they want: to be forced to figure out good and evil, right and wrong, on their own… and to be eternally frustrated by the resulting competition, labor, and decay.  Eventually, in eternity, this will have been the only reality, when the infinite dwarfs the finite.  Billions of years make thousands look like a mere moment.  

All that is the message of the cross. We believe that a man named Jesus, who was born to a relatively powerless people living in and around a city called Jerusalem (not one of the major cities of the world even at that time), was totally a human being and at the same time was the incarnated God of the universe, and that he chose to live such a life that through his sacrificial death we would be able to enter back into the perfect relationship with the Creator of the whole universe, where that Creator would completely enjoy our company and we would completely enjoy his, and in that for an eternity we will joyfully glorify him with everything we do, with total ease.  

Why The Mocking Shouldn’t Be Shocking
It should be a bit refreshing to us, with all that in mind, that for the last couple days our whole culture has connected all those who believe what we believe with this man, Harold Camping, and to have mocked the foolishness of the story he was telling. His details and his methods were very wrong.  That ought to be a lesson for all of us who believe this book, the Bible, is totally authoritative for all of life – if we really believe that, we ought to really know what it says.  But the overarching message from Camping and his followers was nervously right: Jesus himself taught that the end, which included the great day of Judgment, was imminent, and that we should live with an urgency and expectancy of the end in light of that fact.  He appointed everyone who believed his message and worshipped him as Lord to become a herald of that very news: the only way to enjoy the fullness of Human Potential is to entrust one’s life to Jesus himself.  And when that day comes, to Pastor Gene’s point, it will be the best possible thing, because it means that God is satisfied with the number of those who will dwell in his perfect presence, and has decided to move the story of this little blue-green dot to it’s final, intended purpose.  For that, our hearts were made to long.  Judgment Day is to be the greatest celebration the world has ever known for believers, for it is the completion of all the justice and redemption that we only see glimmers of today.  

The Message of the Cross is that we are in the in-between time, that the suffering is only for a “little longer” and that there will be a joyful conclusion that far exceeds anything we can ask or imagine.  The message of the cross says to all those who believe it “hold on! Endure!  It will be worth it!”  Not only that, but the message of the cross says “You are now empowered to live in the way God intended for you to live, but the world has not yet been totally redeemed, so you must enjoy the spiritual reality and await the physical manifestation of it.”  That means the original instruction to the first Adam and Ishshah applies to those who believe: multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.   That means people who believe this whole story I’ve told also believe it is our responsibility to bring every part of this world – all the resources, all the stuff, all the animals, all the governments, and especially all the people – under submission of the NEW ADAM, who is named King Jesus. If more people understood the message of the cross, many who think they believe would stop believing, and those who hear it and but don’t believe it would mock it. They should laugh just as the world gripped its collective belly and gave a long hard laugh at Harold Camping and his followers last night and this morning.  That’s the sort of response believers are supposed to expect when we assert our message on the world. 

Were you embarrassed by the blogs, the tweets, the facebook posts, the articles, the talk show hosts, and the conversations on the street?  I was.  I’ve spent the last several months since our church administrator first told me about the billboard on 285 being frustrated, angry, and embarrassed by Camping and his fallacious prediction.  It’s true: he made a mockery of the Bible.  He didn’t need to do that.  He didn’t need to dig deep and apply some crazy formula to it.  The message the Scriptures tell, if you step back and look at them in whole, is wild enough.  It is full of hope and mystery. It attempts to explain how things got here, why things are the way they are, and how all the wrong that everyone can see with all of it can be fixed.  We call that the message of the Cross.  We call that message, as strange as it is, good news.  

Do you believe it? Have you traded your attempted independence for a radical, earth-shaking dependence on the Message of the Cross, and everything it means?   Or, perhaps you’re hearing it told this way for the first time, and realizing that you’ve been trying – perhaps believing you were a Christian all along – to figure out right and wrong on your own, maybe even to imitate this God, when instead all you needed was the power of the Cross applied to your life.  Believers, in this world we understand trades – trading is at the heart of how we interact and provide.  We trade services for goods.  Well, this is that, only it’s a total trade: you apply the message of the cross by giving up.  Trading everything you’re carrying around for a life of submission and trust in this God.  You can walk in that trust by believing that the way he’s given us to live is a better way of subduing the creation than what we were trying before.  It is a total surrender to his priorities, loving what he loves, hating what he hates, trusting what he has revealed, constantly depending on him to empower you to live, and therefore navigating this creation in the rhythm and plan designed by the Creator, which involves being unswayed by  pain, suffering, and disappointment, letting those only feed and fuel our hope all the more in the great story he is telling.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Generosity that Pays

"Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full." Prov. 19:17

"Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.  A generous person will be enriched and one who gives water will get water.  The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it."  Prov. 11:24-26

Last Sunday, the ideas that come from these two passages formed the core of the sermon I preached.

Here are some conclusions and suggestions.

1.  Giving to the poor, to those who may never be able to pay you back, is the wisest possible use of your money.   Apparently it's just good business... on an eternal scale.

2. Riches and poverty (that is, suffering want) are much more about mentality.  Jesus called the poverty mentality "worshipping mammon."  We call it "Materialism."  The short form of this mentality is the lie that there is never enough.  Try globalrichlist.com for some perspective.  Here you learn where your income ranks on a global scale.  Minimum wage in Colorado, working full time, yields 15,300/year.

3. If kindness to the poor is the best kind of generosity (so says Prov. 14:20-21, 31; 17:5; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9, 16, 22-23; 28:8, 27; 29:7; and 29:14), then we must open our eyes and learn who the poor are (try worldvision.org).

4. Imitate God.  He showed generosity to the poor by adopting us (Rom. 8:12-17).  Seriously and prayerfully consider adopting a child.

5. If adoption is impossible or unwise, then sponsor as many children as you can.  You can sponsor children through these excellent agencies:
fh.org (food for the hungry)

6. Generously and sacrificially support gospel-centered, strategic efforts to care for the poor.  Groups like world vision are incredibly skillful at stretching dollars to impact lives.

7. Go back and see #4 again.  I was and am serious.  It is terrifying that Christians in this country consider it a better use of money to spend on luxuries when there are hundreds of millions of children in dire need of a stable home.

This coming Sunday, I intend to present Proverbs' perspective on provision - especially provision through the wise lifestyle of faithful, committed, WORK.  This is God's means of provision for his people.  And he provides so that we can be like him and provide.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Grateful Thoughts on Tithes and Preachers

Last Sunday, I preached on the topic of honoring the LORD with our stuff - particularly our "first fruits" and our "substance" (which is connected to the tithe).  The Old Testament indicates in several places that by virtue of God's salvation (the exodus for Israel, the crucifixion for all), he has laid claim to the first and the best of what we produce or earn in this world.  Because God spared the first-born sons of Israel by virtue of a lamb's blood, and because God spared the remainder of his elect by virtue of his Son's blood, he has required that we imitate and honor his sacrifice by giving our first and our best.

In the OT, God indicated that he because he had spared the first-born sons, they were all to be dedicated to his service.  Eventually, he allowed the entire tribe of the Levites to replace the first-born sons, but the other 11 tribes were called upon to provide the provision and substance the Levites required in order to maintain the Tabernacle (and later, the temple), and in order to meet their own needs.  The Levites, then, were called upon to tithe out of what had been given to them from the rest of the people's tithes.  In other words, no one is exempt.

This is the source of the concept in which churches use a portion (sometimes a large portion, if it's a smaller church) to provide for their Pastors.  Paul's instructions to Timothy in 1 Tim 5 suggest that the church is to take special care of those elders tasked with teaching the gospel and the scriptures.  In light of this whole topic, I would like to share some observations, and a special note to the body of LCC:

The first weekend in May was one of three annual meetings of the Presbytery of the West, which the regional community made of up the EPC pastors and elders. On the first day of gathering, we approved the change in call for one pastor who was joining the official staff at a church as an associate pastor.  Because that church was in difficult times financially, and because her husband made an adequate income for she and her family, she and the church had agreed – and were proposing to the presbytery, who is responsible for the wellbeing of the pastors – that she would not receive a salary for her role there.  This warranted significant debate.  There are many pastors, myself included, who have voiced dreams that one day we could serve the bodies to which we are called for free; much of this is inspired by Rick Warren, who, because his book The Purpose Driven Life sold so many copies, not only leads his church without a salary, but rumor has it that he recompensated Saddleback all the money they had paid him before the book came out.  Dreamy. Nonetheless, this had me thinking about all that.  The reality is that the vast majority of pastors are not able to do that and will probably never be able to do anything like that.  Instead, here we are, this community of people who teaches, prays, leads, and counsels – and we are compensated out of a percentage (sometimes very high, when there’s not a lot coming in) of the money people give as an act of worship and obedience.  We all have to grapple with the issue that so much of scripture is instructing the believing community to support the needs of the poor, the orphan, the widow.  I hope this makes more pastors than just me uncomfortable.  And yet, there are a couple places in the NT that expressly instruct the body of believers to support their elders, especially those who are among them teaching (1 Tim 5:17-22).

That night at Presbytery (Friday), we had a small worship service, in which one a candidate for ordination, Matt Hartman, delivered the message.  He simply walked us through Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses, and explained why that Psalm has been encouraging and instrumental to he and his wife, as they currently prepare to move their family to the Czech Republic, obeying a call of the Lord to go on the mission field (bunny trail: Matt “had it made,” in terms of ministry.  He was the youth pastor for 10 years at Cherry Hills Community Church, and could have stayed there forever – and yet, fear would have robbed him the fullness of Christ if he had let that keep him from obeying the call.  I believe God is calling more of us than we think to behave similarly). 

As I sat there and listened to him share about Psalm 90, it struck me: I realized this kind of depth in the word is only possible through extensive time and study, and through the strange humility of people to listen to one person speak for an extended period of time on it.  Conversations are powerful.  But there is something about preaching that is supernatural: The Spirit of God allows us to reach depths through that practice that are simply not available otherwise.  Every word of the Bible can be explored like a tropical forest – you may see a lot of trees, but when you stop, you find yourself surrounded by thousands of plants and animals – each tree an ecosystem in itself, supporting literally billions of living organisms, each square foot of soil providing enough data to occupy the whole of a scientists’ life.  That is scripture.  And that is why it is essential that the body of Christ carefully choose and allow certain people to explore it.

I am one of those people who has been allowed, by the body of Christ, to search the scriptures and explore their depths through the medium of preaching.  In the midst of this conversation on giving, I would be utterly remiss if I did not stop and tell the body at Littleton Christian how overwhelmingly grateful I am that you have allowed me to be among you as one who spends the better part of my time searching and studying the scriptures, praying, learning, and attempting to bring that before this body for the edification of us all.  When it happens, it is an act of the Lord, and it is because you have freed me to do it.  Thank you.  I don’t take your radical generosity for granted.  May the Lord be honored in all of our behavior with what he has given us, including myself. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

God vs. Money

On Sunday, I re-entered the teaching series that is exploring the book of Proverbs with an introduction to the last major Proverbial topic we'll cover: Riches.  You can hear that message here.

As I prepared last week, I read a very helpful blog by another pastor named Kevin DeYoung, who also happens to be preaching through the book of Proverbs, and happens to have recently touched on the topic of money.  His blog pointed out how easy it is to use the Bible to prove just about any theory on money.  Spend time with some of the Proverbs that promise material blessing for faithful living, or look at the life of Abraham, or Solomon, or even Job (when all is said and done), and it's not hard to figure out where the "prosperity gospel" preachers get their ideas.  Then again, spend some time reading the words of Jesus, the ideas of Paul,  or the celebration of suffering in 1 Peter, and you'll find out exactly where those believers who recoil from riches and opulence get their ideas.  DeYoung states, and I agree, that the whole of Proverbs is a great place to go if you are actually going to seek a fully biblical perspective on money, possessions, work, and all the related topics.

Jesus makes it the most clear: you cannot serve both God and money (he uses the word Mammon there, but it is commonly translated money and with good reason).  Money can be a tool; that's clear from the words of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Solomon - but the second it begins to assert itself as the thing worth worshipping, pursuing, serving, and seeking... it is an idol.  And idols must be smashed.

I said on Sunday that Proverbs does not teach that it's bad to be rich.  Let me complete that thought here (that's the purpose of this blog these days): Proverbs does not teach that it's bad to be rich UNLESS riches are taking the place of wisdom, or honesty, or healthy relationships, or personal wholeness, or your good name, or (most importantly) a right relationship with God (aka, righteousness).  If that's the case, the most gracious thing God could do for you is bring about financial crisis in your life.  He is the same God who did not abide idolatry with his people Israel.  When we enter into Christ, we leave the kingdom of idols... but we can still choose to serve them.  God's grace will then work to destroy them.  Which is painful for us.  It involves suffering.

It is not bad to be rich.  But if your riches (or your desire for riches) overwhelm the Godly goods in your life: worship of him, love in your family, integrity in your behavior, and so on... then it is bad.  It is idolatry.  

Here's the thing: we were created to enjoy luxury and to desire unlimited resources.  We were made in the image of God, who has no financial burden, no want, no need.  If the images of the New Jerusalem, Heaven, Paradise, the Father's House with its many rooms, and more do not shout wealth, riches, and luxury, I don't know what does!  We fall into the trap of attempting to imitate heaven rather than recognizing that which Jesus has won for us on the cross and simply enjoying heaven - no matter what our earthly finances look like.

I have seen Godly men and women fall into the trap of trying to position themselves in such a way that he'll rain down the financial blessings on them, or on their ministry, or whatever.  When natural things occur and those ministries or churches or individuals do become rich... I wonder if that's not actually one of the most dangerous positions possible.  The tempter of our flesh has pulled the ultimate heist when that occurs.   You see, God knows our hearts.  And he knows that riches will never satisfy us - we'll always think there's more to be had, more that's needed.  He is better.

It's just so stinking hard to believe.  This idol is powerful.  And if we don't gather the courage to smash it... he will do it for us, eventually.  God have mercy.  Make your name Holy among us.  Let your Kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  We want to want YOU.