Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Taste and See - Thoughts On Young Life Leader Weekend '09

This past weekend I went a few hours north and spent some time at Camp Timberwolf Lake for our area's Young Life leader training weekend. Apart from all the exciting things that always characterize YL camp (frisbee golf, volleyball, zip-lines, and a whole lot besides), we spent a lot of time hearing and thinking about what it means to articulate the gospel to a generation of teenagers in an ever-changing culture. For the unacquainted, Young Life is a non-denominational Christian youth ministry that seeks to lead middle through high school-aged youth into a relationship with Jesus; we pursue that mission by building relationships with kids (usually through schools), trying to create meaningful, loving friendships that help them see what real love and honesty and respect are like, and by trying to faithfully act as servants of Jesus who can set an example of what Jesus meant when he said "I came that they may have life, and have it to the fullest," (Jn. 10:10) an example that kids can see.

But doing that, especially in today's environment, is constantly getting harder and harder. The kinds of questions that kids are asking, and the kinds of priorities and expectations they have seem to be constantly evolving and shifting along with the standards of the society in which we live. What does it mean to articulate the gospel to young people who are becoming increasingly apathetic toward things "theological," things that seem to have no relationship to "real life"? This was our topic of conversation this past weekend, and we had this discussion in the context of what our theological views tell us - specifically, our views on the meaning of the atonement. First we posed the question of how we ought to understand the atonement itself; then, based on our answers, we considered the question more immediate to our task as Young Life leaders: how are we going to explain this to kids in a way that both makes sense to them and also accurately conveys the truth about God?

Part of the task lies in thinking about the questions that are being asked by kids: Who am I? Where do I belong? How do you know God is real? And if he is, what do you want me to do about it? Just sit and agree that he is? Not only with today's youth, but also generally, there is less of an interest in being told something that makes intellectual sense - in other words, what matters to kids today is less being asked to "just believe" something, and more about finding where that belief equates to a real, concrete change in a person's actual, ordinary life. Eric Kuyper, one of our speakers this weekend, made the observation (I believe while quoting the book, Colossians Remix) that "rather than being concerned with rational justification, the quintessential epistemological stance of a postmodern culture is 'Show me.'" The gospel is not a logic game of intellectual persuasion, especially to most kids today, but instead needs to be "shown" for them to know that it is real.

This attitude is so clearly present in some of the more specific questions kids are asking, the kinds of questions we get all the time when we ask them to write them down at YL Club and other events: Why do I have so much crap in my life? Does God know me and love me, and if he does, why doesn't he make things better? If he really exists, why is there so much suffering? How does God feel about my relationships with girls/boys, or about my parents' getting divorced? Is anything really going to change just because I believe in Jesus? The list could go on for quite a while, but it would simply continue to display the same general concern as all the others: What does God have to do with my life?

This is where we fall short if we only talk pure theology. Being able to explain the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross as an act of penal substitution, or of ransom, or of satisfaction, or of recapitulation, or of Christus Victor, or anything else may very well keep our thinking in order, but it doesn't go beyond the realm of intellectual acceptance immediately, until we start thinking about the implications of this great act for ourselves and for our lives. It means thinking about sin, about evil, about death in our own lives; it means thinking very personally about our distance from God and about God's love for us; it means thinking about what we are being redeemed for. If what Paul says in Ephesians is true, that "We are his [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10); and also that "we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life," (Rom. 6:4), then while our lives will certainly revolve around our intellectual acceptance of what Christ did on the cross, our lifestyles will also be distinctly different after that new birth has taken place. Kids want to know that substantive change will take place in their lives, change that proves what we are saying about God is true. That is by no means an unreasonable demand, provided we do not use it as a tool of escapism (making the un-scriptural claim that life will be devoid of all sadness once Jesus is a part of it).

So how are we preaching the gospel? Are we telling, or are we showing (and telling within the context of our showing)? Our speakers contrasted two commercials for us that can embody the difference between our evangelistic methods: first, the Slap Chop commercial (check it out - it's pretty funny). This commercial shows the basic approach of most commercials - that they must vigorously convince us that our lives will be better (much better) if we buy the product in question. Sadly, this is the approach of many evangelists today, a method rooted more in advertising schemes and methods of persuasion than in the biblical conviction that "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." (1 Cor. 3:6-7) Are we, as Young Life leaders, relying on our charisma and ability to "sell it" rather than relying on the power of God's Spirit to use our message and give growth?

The second commercial is far removed in its advertising tactics from those of the Slap Chop makers. Rather than blasting the viewers with force of rhetoric, shallowly insisting that simply having some piece of plastic will improve their lives dramatically, this BBC showcasing of the "Planet Earth" series makes no such claims. It simply strings together numerous segments of the footage on the show with a soundtrack. It is not a matter of "Buy this! It will fulfill you!" Instead, it is a non-verbal statement of "Taste and see..." (Ps. 34:8) It is far more effective than the Slap Chop commercial could have ever dreamed of being.

Why? Here is where the critical parallel between these commercials and our evangelistic methods must be observed. The makers of the BBC commercial knew that they did not need persistent, unrelenting, in-your-face rhetoric in order to interest people. They knew - that is, they really, truly believed - that what they had to offer was astonishing, and people would be astonished by it without their force of argument. That is precisely what we Christians must know and believe, especially those of us who are engaged in an organized, evangelistic ministry like Young Life. "For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word," as Paul says, "but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ." (2 Cor. 2:17) Our task, as disciples of Jesus making more disciples of Jesus, is not to manipulatively persuade people to accept the gospel, but in all things to show them that gospel in the way we live as well as through what we say. We need to show people a renewed lifestyle, one that gives concreteness to our evangelistic message when we do share it. And we need to work with people's questions in mind, not like salesmen who are afraid our product won't sell, but as people who simply want an opportunity to show men and women the glorious truth about God in Christ.

Now this comes back to the question of 'Just what are we showing them?' This meditation on evangelism began with a series of questions, and with the claim that our articulation of the gospel needs to have something to do with the questions kids (and people in general) are asking. As we discussed specifically this weekend, our understanding of atonement needs to be explained accurately but also applicably. Our speakers gave a definite "Yes" to the models of atonement I named a few paragraphs back, pointing out that these different conceptions (all scripturally sound) will make sense variously to different individuals, and that each is fundamental to understanding Christ's work on the cross.

However, they proposed that in order to bring home the meaning of the cross for Young Life's particular audience of modern American teenagers, it is helpful for us to take the meaning of the atonement a step farther. This is what our speakers described as the "Covenantal/Relational" conception of atonement. The atonement accomplished all these things, they said - the appeasement of God's wrath, the forgiveness of sins, the conquest of the fall's curse, and the defeat of Satan (as the other models say). In addition, it is also fundamentally a demonstration of God's love for us, and his commitment to our salvation. Salvation history, they observed, is an ongoing story of God's covenanting - unconditionally - with human beings. God pursues us in a saving relationship, and the cross is an expression of just how far God was willing to go in order to keep his promise that he would bless human beings and save them. He was willing to die for us.

This particular way of describing the cross seems more immediate to our present situation, and answers many of the questions that have been asked. Yes, there is a God... but specifically there is a God who committed himself both to destroying sin and to saving sinful human beings. That means that he sees us as we are - as people who make mistakes, who betray one another, who gossip, who lie, who become addicted to drugs and to pornography, who cheat, who hurt others to build ourselves up, who make all the wrong choices in friendships and relationships, who get divorced and who steal and murder; he sees all of this, and yet he comes to us as a man who embraced an instrument of torture and said "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34) - and in going on that cross he also said implicitly, 'They do not know what they are doing - but I know what I am doing... I am going to suffer and die so that all of the evils that fill their lives will not keep them from you forever.' What does this have to do with us? Everything! It means that God is committed to saving humans, and that he applies the forgiveness of Christ on that cross to us, and causes us to be born again into a lifestyle characterized by knowledge of God on the one hand, and love for God and neighbor on the other. This rebirth doesn't imply an immediate end to the problems of life, but it does promise a new mind in which to receive them: instead of being both perpetrators and victims, we are the forgiven children of God who have a heavenly Father with us in everything, a God who uses all of the things we face in life (and all of our problems that no one else seems to care about) to shape us into the people we are going to be for eternity. In this rebirth we find a perpetual newness, a spiritual spring of living water (Jn. 4:13-14) that gives us a deep satisfaction in God, who does not change among all of the uncertainties of life. This whole process (not simply our being forgiven) is what salvation is really about. It is about everlasting life that begins now; and when it comes to the kids to whom Young Life reaches out, this salvation is not something that depends on status or on a spotless record, on not having crap in your life or on "being good enough". It depends on the love of God, who died to forgive all of it.

And it is experienced in so many ways through the love of others, which is where Young Life leaders come in. We call Young Life an "incarnational" ministry because in so many ways we are simply trying to model Christ himself in our work with kids (the same can be said of anyone who is actively evangelizing). As Jesus came into our world and gave us fellowship with God, so we enter into the world of teenagers, show them unconditional love, and share the truth about God with them. We create a secure bond (as our speakers this weekend called it, a "space of Shalom"), a friendship in which there is trust and peace. And in this context we find ourselves showing the truth about God and the reality of his salvation. It is within that place that we are ideally equipped to share the gospel. "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." (1 Thes. 2:8) And then we are able to say, "Really, now. All of this good news about Jesus has really happened, and if you aren't convinced, here: just have a look.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Sermon Text - 9/13/09

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And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Part of the beauty of Paul's letter to the Ephesians is the way in which it demonstrates God's sovereignty over the affairs of the world generally, and over the affairs of his Church specifically. What God accomplishes in the world and in history is all "according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1:9-10) Everything that happens around us, whatever it may be - all of it is leading toward the eventual consummation of God's purpose for this world. Yet this is something we seem to remain largely ignorant of. Preaching this text today, Pastor Roeda observed that we so often remain ignorant of the greater realities of life; in this way we are like a fish who doesn't know what water is. Our minds are very self-contained, and we live our lives aware, perhaps, of what is going on in them, but not at all aware of what our lives are or where they are ultimately going. This is as true of Christians, it seems, as it is of anyone else - we do not live in a constant awareness of the grandeur of God's plans for us, nor of the depths of his love for us, nor of the heights of his power over our lives. Paul spills much ink in this letter to wake us up into our true reality, and chapter 2:1-10 centers in on our individual situation, which (it turns out) used to actually be quite dire:

Paul tells us something very startling about our former lives before we came to faith: he says that we were dead in our trespasses and sins, and because of this we were following the course of this world. Like a stream, Pastor Jack observed, we by nature move with the currents of the world we live in - of our culture, our society, of everything that surrounds us. In America today, the course of this world seems to be, simply, unbelief. Belief in something, perhaps, but mostly in general and little in particular. There is a laziness about our culture, a throwing up of the hands in defeat and a settling for simple, indifferent agnosticism. This is the pattern into which we are so strongly compelled to fit by our society, and the mold to which we are expected to conform.

And in this conformity there is a kind of deadness, Paul explains. In our modern context, there is a kind of deadened lack of responsiveness to God, because as agnostics we sit as static objects, thinking whatever we may want about God but not really knowing him (for that, we say, is impossible). It is not a physical deadness that Paul discusses here, but a spiritual one. A spiritual lost-ness that renders God beyond our reach. Here is a verse that few people really spend time with, to consider its implications. What does Paul mean when he says that we "were dead in our trespasses"? (Eph. 2:5) He depicts our natural relationship to God in terms that seem quite frightening: we are like a corpse, laid out before God on an operating table. There is no life in us; we are utterly unresponsive to God in this state and are incapable of hearing, seeing, feeling, and thinking about him. This is the state of every human being (not physically, but spiritually) because of sin. Do not mistake me - it is not that we hate God, or that we are as bad as we possibly can be, as some preachers give the impression of our being. No - we are dead to him. We are unresponsive. This is the state of every human being who lives in ignorance of God - there is no vital relationship occurring, no interaction or exchange. It is like Ezekiel says: we by nature possess a heart of stone, and we can know nothing of God's will or his ways until he gives us a heart of flesh. Or to use the operating table metaphor, we cannot have a saving relationship with the Lord God until the Lord God first shocks our hearts back to life, and gives us the ability to know him.

That is the fundamental reality in which we Christians are to live. Paul says, "You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air [the Devil], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobeidence - among whom we all once lived... But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved." (v.1-3a, 4-5) That is salvation. And if you are reading this and are not a Christian, keep this in mind if a Christian ever tries to explain to you what salvation is - if he or she tells you that salvation means going to heaven when you die, you are being given only a bare fraction of what the picture really is, because salvation is not simply about destination. It is a state of being, which is enjoyed right now! It means being alive to God, being in a living relationship with him and knowing him through Jesus Christ as a loving Father who has adopted us as his children. This, more than having eternal life as something in itself (which can be described without reference to God), is what it means to be saved.

And saved is a fitting term, because it is not something we do ourselves - this is also what Paul makes very clear in this passage. We are saved, rescued from something; that is, from death, both physically and spiritually. The spiritual salvation is enjoyed right now in our lives of faith and knowledge and love of God, and physical salvation is enjoyed in the future in our eventual resurrection from the dead when the kingdom of God arrives on earth (with Christ's return). Yet all of this is something God does in us, and is not what we do in ourselves. "Even when we were dead," Paul says, God "made us alive together with Christ." He "raised us up with him," (vv.5-6) demonstrating a critical idea in Paul's thinking, that when Christ rose from the dead, we were raised along with him - both in soul (by the giving of faith and a relationship with God), and eventually in body (by the raising of the body from the dead; see 1 Corinthians 15). Our salvation is inseparable from Christ's resurrection. And like Christ's resurrection, it is something God causes to happen in us, not something that we cause. We are saved (passive) we do not save (active) ourselves. It is as though God the great and omnipotent spiritual surgeon has shocked the heart of his patient back to life, and so we are the recipients of salvation, not the initiators of it. To use a biblical illustration that fits in perfectly with this passage, we are like Lazarus in the tomb. Christ calls our name, and we respond (see John 11:1-44). But the response cannot come - Lazarus cannot walk out of the tomb - until Christ's words have first raised us (in the story, Lazarus) from the dead.

So we do not do it, but we do respond to it willingly as Lazarus did. Therefore Paul says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9) We are not saved by faith (that is, by virtue of our faith, as though having faith is what earns salvation). We are saved by grace... through faith. Faith is the means and the method by which God's grace is applied to our lives. To distill all these critical thoughts into a single sentence: We are not saved because we have faith, but instead we have faith because we are saved.

Faith is not what saves us. Grace is what saves us, and it does so through faith, by creating faith as a part of our lives, and in doing so, raising us up from spiritual death into spiritual life. This is why Paul emphasizes, "And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (v.9) If salvation is something we have gained or, you could say, earned, simply because we "have faith," we would have grounds for boasting before God. We would have grounds for saying, "Well, at some point in my life I'm glad I had the good sense to give my life to Jesus. Too bad not everyone else is as smart as I am..." No. If you are doing that, you have not understood your own salvation properly. It is the gift of God, and it is not because of you. God made you alive; God raised you up with Christ; and God did this because of his grace, and he did it through your faith. This is not your own doing - that is, salvation by grace through faith is not your own doing, but is the gift of God. All of it, down to the finest detail, is God's work within you to create life and joy and peace in him.

And this is not simply an arbitrary decision on God's part. He is saving you for a purpose. For his purpose specifically, "his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1:9-10) So after he tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, Paul goes on to say, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (2:10) God saves us not so that we can simply have comfort in life and in death (though we do), but so that we would live renewed lives, different lives, lives that glorify God by loving him and by loving our neighbor. Just as I said earlier that salvation is a state of being more than a destination, so salvation is still more than just a state of being - it is a state of doing. And the doing comes from the being. What I mean is, God gives us this relationship with him that we call salvation not just to have an impact on us, but to also have an impact on the world through us. We are his "workmanship," to use Paul's word, and we were, in a sense, "created" in Christ Jesus as new people who would do "good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (v.10) God saves us by filling our lives with faith and knowledge of him, and then proceeds to use us in the world to show what the kingdom of God looks like. We are saved for a purpose; one that lies outside ourselves. What a magnificent joy to be a part of God's plan for the fullness of time, a plan that he has had from eternity!

If you are reading this and have never believed in Jesus, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about what Paul is saying here, both about God and about us. Read Ephesians 2:1-10 thoroughly and look carefully at your life. When you look at yourself, do you see living as the best word to characterize your relationship to God? Do you live in an awareness of his constant love for us, shown in his coming to be with us in Jesus Christ? Is there a vital relationship there that you depend upon, in which you relate well to a God you know, as you would know a friend or a parent? Paul tells us that this God is available to us, and we know him by faith. And by faith we eventually come to realize that we know him by faith because he has revealed himself to us by grace. As the old poem says,

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew,
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I who found, O savior true,
But I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thine hand and mine enfold,
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea.
'Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee,
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul.
Always thou lovest me.

Take hold of Christ, I invite you, and find in him a God who has, in fact, first taken hold of you. And may that knowledge preserve you in faith, and comfort you in salvation - not a salvation that is far removed to only the distant future, but which is present at this very moment, in your love and trust in God. May God give you grace to come.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Power at Work Within Us - Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith - that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

Part way through his letter, Paul stops to say a prayer for his readers, that they would be strengthened by God and granted fullness in Christ. He begins with "For this reason...", turning us back to the preceding verses in which he says, "Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace... to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things... This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him." (vv. 7-9, 11-12) He is praying for the Ephesians because this is his role, ordained by God, and given to Paul "according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power." (v. 7) This a fitting way for Paul to describe his call to ministry, which came about in an experience unlike any of us have ever had (see Acts 9) - through a blinding vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And when the disciple Ananias was told to go to Paul and heal his blindness and he objected, "the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.'" (Acts 9:15-16)

So Paul was a divinely designated person, called out to fulfill part of God's special purpose for the Church of Jesus Christ. This sounds astonishing, and one may wonder at the notion of being such a person, set apart specifically by God to play a special role. The truth is, according to Paul's theology, that is exactly what every believer in Christ is! Paul makes this clear in the opening of this letter to the Ephesians when he says that God "has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him." (Eph. 1:3-4) Every believer, not simply the apostles or prophets or overseers of the early church, has been specifically chosen and set apart by God from eternity. So when Paul is praying for the Gentile churches as one specifically set apart by God to do so, he also recognizes that his audience (which includes us) is part of the same body along with himself, established by God and built on the same foundation in Christ.

That is something of an aside, but it is important to note how Paul is fulfilling his role as a minister to the Gentiles here by praying for the Ephesians, and how the nature of that calling is the same as our own, even if the specific roles we fulfill differ. So Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles, prays for the Ephesians, "that according to the riches of his [God's] glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being," (Eph. 3:15) "so that" four things may happen, and happen consecutively: first, "so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." (v.17) This is the fundamental role that the Spirit plays in the lives of believers, and so it is fitting that Paul mentions this first - it is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that sinful humans possess faith in Christ. It is by the power of the Spirit that Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, and this is central to everything else a Christian may do in his or her walk with Christ.

This faith that the Holy Spirit kindles in the hearts of believers doesn't simply grant us belief and serve no other purpose however. Paul asks that the Spirit would dwell in our hearts by faith, "that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (vv.17-19) So, Paul asks that the Holy Spirit will dwell in our hearts by faith in order that 1) Christians would comprehend the "breadth and length and height and depth" (more on this in a moment), 2) know Christ's love, 3) and be filled with all God's fullness.

When we read this, we ought to apply this to ourselves just as surely as we would apply Paul's prayer to his original audience. The hope of Christians is that the renewing power of God's Holy Spirit (through which Christ dwells in our hearts) would give us (for one) understanding. When Paul talks about the breadth, length, height, and depth, he is referring to the full measure of God's revealed being and the vastness of his plan for the ages (of which we're a part). Christians are supposed to be knowledgeable people, who have a passion for God that is grounded in their understanding of who God is. And without that understanding, our emotions about God - whatever they may be - will contain very little truth in them or reason behind them, because their source will not be in God as he truly is, but in ourselves as we prefer him to be. They will be less reflections of God and more reflections of ourselves.

Finally, Paul wants us to know Christ's love for us, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. (v.19) When I say that our emotions about God should be grounded in our true knowledge of God, that may sound a little frigid and, frankly, emotionless. But the most important part of the knowledge we are supposed to have about God, and about God in Christ, is his love for us. What w
e know about God fluidly translates into what we feel toward God, and it cannot work the other way around.

Now, as Paul makes very clear, there is something of a mystery to all of this, which is the source of his very curious hope for the Ephesians (and for us), that they would "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." (v.19) 'What?' we might ask. It's a very striking statement, and a comment in the ESV study bible on this verse puts it very simply and beautifully: "To know what surpasses knowledge is the sublime privilege of the Christian." We often speak of God as ultimately incomprehensible, a being who can never fully be known by us in his infinitude. But nevertheless it is possible to know him (though never entirely), and we are to order our lives around that knowledge (though limited) of something that surpasses knowledge. And as Paul writes, we do so in order that we "may be filled with all the fullness of God." So in these verses Paul unfolds for us a very precise and yet very thorough look at the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of believers. The Spirit strengthens us in our inner beings (v.16), and in doing so kindles a loving faith in our hearts, roots and grounds us in love, (v. 17), gives us a comprehension of the God who is incomprehensible (v.18), teaches us how dearly we are loved by Christ (and by extension, by God through Christ), and in all of this fills us with all the fullness of God (v.19). If we are thinking of the Holy Spirit's work purely in terms of "gifts of the spirit" (such as tongues, prophecies, healings, and so on) as many Christians today seem to do, we are missing what the bible says is the most important thing the Spirit does - that it generates in our souls a life of faith and a knowledge of the eternal God who loves us and sent his Son to die for our sins. Faith is a miracle of the Spirit; salvation is a miracle of the Spirit; love of God and neighbor are miracles of the Spirit, and these are infinitely more important than the ability to speak in a tongue or to touch someone and heal a disease, as good as those are. When a Christian looks into his own soul and perceives faith in God there, that Christian is sensing nothing less than the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. How small a view of the Spirit we have if we think that it is only with us at times when we are working miracles!

For Paul in this passage it is not about the power we think we can work, but it is about "the power at work within us," (v.20) the power of God who through the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts the flame of love for God and his creation. Do you, if you are a Christian, realize how reassuring it is that God's power is at work within us, and is that something in which you trust? If you are reading this and you are not a Christian, have you ever given any thought to what is the deepest motivating force in your life? I invite you, if you do not believe in Jesus Christ, to consider Paul's prayer for the churches of Ephesus, how he describes the working of God's power in the lives of believers. That same power may well be at work in you, and may God give you grace to receive Christ, and find in him "boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him" (v.12) - boldness with confidence to live in the presence of the God who created the universe with love and joy. "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Eph.3:20-21)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Sermon Text - 9/6/09

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Psalm 16 (Read)

An expression that has always troubled me is the phrase, "Life is good." Usually when I hear it said, it is something of an afterthought, and usually is merely a casual statement that really means "at the moment, I'm happy enough." Have you ever thought about it when you hear people say it? I find myself wondering at the statement, because it has also been my experience that most people, including those who repeat this phrase, actually spend most of their time in a great deal of discontent with the way things are going and with how life is playing out. And what do we hear the Psalmist say in the text that was preached at my church today? "I say to the LORD, 'You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.'" (Ps. 16:2) On this labor day weekend, we ought to be asking ourselves: what is it after all that we are working for? Or as our pastor put it, how should we "define and illustrate a worthwhile life?" That's a question to which our society offers many, many answers, few of them of real value.

The life of the psalmist here is, simply, a life that has a home in God. God is his "refuge" (v.1), his place of safety and of rest. A refuge is a place where one can go when all other bets are off and there are no options left - a storm or bomb shelter. It is a place to be protected when one is not strong enough to protect himself. My experience in life has been that this is the case most if not all of the time. Pastor Jack mentioned two ways in which the psalmist could mean "I have no good apart from you," both of them perfectly valid. First, he means that God is the source of all that is good. He is at the root of all our blessings, and he orders the universe so perfectly and providentially that "for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose," (Rom. 8:28) even the things we find unpleasant while they are taking place.

Second, and at a deeper level (in Jack's words), "apart from you, all that I have is mere tinsel." Apart from God, all of the things with which we adorn our lives are ultimately empty and of no eternal significance. Life without God, the psalmist means to tell us, is simply vanity. We may busy ourselves; we may fill our lives to the brim with activities, interests, hobbies, relationships, money, sex, drugs, gossip, food, drink, and anything else our heart desires, good or bad, but in the end it equates to nothing, because "Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not... a man dies and is laid low; a man breathes his last, and where is he?" (Job 14:1-2, 10) Everything around us and indeed we too are dying, and without God there is no absolute truth beyond this undeniable reality, the reality of death. Calling all our possessions "mere tinsel" apart from God is so fitting, because it captures perfectly the way in which all our additions and pleasures that we append to our lives are ultimately decorations on a thing that will one day rot and wither, not matter how green it is for the time being. It is a somber reality with which the psalmist is asking us to come to terms. But if we can do that, we find the same joy that he does - joy in the eternal God, who will not let his saints see corruption or decay (v.10).

So it is not until the tree of our life is evergreen with God that the tinsel decorating it can have any meaning or lasting beauty. With God, all things are granted meaning, and become sacramental in their nature. That means simply that God created everything, and that therefore everything points back toward him in some way. Until we see that and realize that everything filling our lives is a gift from him, we will find neither security nor contentment in this life. "The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply," the psalmist tells us (v.4), and this is true in every way to this day. As preachers and theologians are often fond of pointing out, idolatry did not end in the west along with polytheism, because idolatry means so much more than the worship of false deities. Idolatry is simply the failure to place the eternal God before all else and failure to recognize, as the psalmist does, that "in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." (v.11)

John Piper, a Reformed Baptist pastor of great popularity, makes the statement in one of his books that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." This reality is visible in this last verse of the psalm, in which the psalmist voices the thing that binds him and God in such an unbreakable bond: "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." In God is the path of life - we don't search for it and find it, but he makes it known to us. All human philosophy and effort spent for the past millennia to find meaning and purpose in the cosmos has often remained ignorant of the fact that the God who created it all has manifested himself to us, and has "made known... the path of life." All good philosophy as Christians understand it is ordered around the basic presupposition that our eternal creator God is and can be known.

And not only that, but he can be loved, worshiped. The Psalmist understands this very well, and we would do well to see things as he does. We would do well to see through the veils of stereotypes about Christians, Christianity, and religion in general that have accumulated over the years. It is not about cold, empty observance; it is not about sitting in church and "getting to go to heaven"; it is not just about being "a nice person" and trying to find a solution to all the difficulties life throws in your way. Christianity, first and foremost, is about finding as the first and and greatest source of joy in your life the eternal God, so that you may glorify him and enjoy him forever. It is about delight, about joy and life and peace. "In your presence there is fullness of joy," the Christian realizes. "In your right hand are pleasures forevermore." It is quite scandalous, in fact. Why do we love and serve God? Because it is in God only that our hearts find true delight and real life as it was meant to be lived.

Do you have this joy in your life? If you are reading this and have never known Jesus Christ, I hope the psalmist's thoughts engage you and compel you to see things a bit differently. What is religion as you understand it? Is it about the rigid observance of rules toward the goal of getting into heaven? Or is it the practice of finding joy and peace in a God who is love? (1 John 4:15-16) Where do you seek joy in your life? When you consider the limits of your own mortality, do you find the things that fill your life of ultimate worth? In God there is fullness of joy, we are told, and the motive of Christians seeking to share the gospel should not be to "claim another soul for Christ" in order to add another mark on the evangelistic tally sheet. It is to encourage others to discover in their lives a greater joy than any the world has to offer, and to live in that joy for eternity, even during the trials with which our lives are filled. May God give you grace to find your joy in him, and may he make known to you the path of life, so that like the psalmist you too can say "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you." (Ps. 16:1)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The God Who Brought Us Forth - James 1:16-18

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:16-18)

James provided the text of the sermon I heard on Sunday (see the last post), and since then I've been reading it quite a bit. Here's a book that has always been one of my favorites, but which I've neglected in the last few years usually because I was focusing so much on Paul. What a treasure I've ignored! This book is rightfully considered to be the "Wisdom literature" of the New Testament (for that of the Old Testament, see Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms). It is strikingly practical, and the whole letter is filled with insights into both the 'how' and 'why' of the Christian life.

Here we see something of the 'why.' James has been talking since verse 2 about endurance under trial, insisting that we should "count it all joy" when we "meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (1:2) He picks this up again in verse 12, when he points to the reward of that steadfastness: "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." Trial, we find, is a gift from God, though it is not God himself who is doing the tempting (v.13). It is a means by which a) our faith is strengthened, and b) we receive an inheritance from God as a reward for our obedience. Because of these two outcomes, we understand our struggles in a whole new way - every bit of difficulty we encounter in life; every trial, decision, conflict, and even every failure, is a small stage in a God-controlled process, one of sanctification and growth. It is quite remarkable to consider the fact that God is altogether dead-set on making us into better people. Nothing can stop it, not even our failures! Because of this our trials are a gift, and not only a gift
, but one in which we take delight (hence, "count it all joy," in v.2), precisely because we know it will ultimately lead to a) our faith growing stronger, and b) our inheritance in God's kingdom.

It seems like such an odd bit of advice to most, and I'd say I know very few Christians who truly delight in the testing of their faith. It is invaluable to do so, however, because when you are facing trials with joy above all else, you find yourself better prepared to face the trials themselves. Do you face your struggles with joy, with delight? And do you endeavor to look at every twist in the path God places before you as a gift from him? What radical trust this calls for!

But James is clear that such trust is very well-placed. "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers" (v.16) - he doesn't want his listeners to misunderstand the nature of the trials they are facing. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (v.17) We can have confidence in a God who tests us because this God is the same, always. This sameness is the grounds of the assurance James wants to offer us in the very next verse: "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." Here is a place where things grow tricky for many Christians, because this last verse forces us to re-examine the way in which we understand our salvation. How do you understand it? According to James, God "brought us forth." Salvation is his act in us, not our act in ourselves.

Do you see the way in which that gives us assurance? James is telling us that this God, the God "with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" is the same God who saved us, who "of his own will brought us forth by the word of truth." Or, as Paul puts it, "we are his workmanship, created ['brought forth,' you could say] in Christ Jesus for good works" (Eph. 2:10). Both James and Paul are affirming the very biblical doctrine, that "Salvation is of the LORD." (Jonah 2:9) It is "not of ourselves, lest anyone should boast." (Eph. 2:9)

C.H. Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century, said it like this: "Salvation is the work of God. It is He alone who quickens the soul 'dead in trespasses and sins,' and it is He also who maintains the soul in its spiritual life. He is both 'Alpha and Omega.' 'Salvation is of the Lord.' If I am prayerful, God makes me prayerful; if I have graces, they are God's gifts to me; if I hold on in a consistent life, it is because He upholds me with His hand. I do nothing whatever towards my own preservation, except what God Himself first does in me."

Do you understand your own salvation? Have you ever considered what it means that God "brought us forth by the word of truth" (the gospel of Jesus Christ), and that this happens "of his own will"? (v.18) It is not a concept fit for someone who is determined to be his own master! Not only that, but it also speaks volumes about who God is and how he feels toward those whom he saves. Imagine it, and ask yourself if it could be true, that God so loved you, simply because he wanted to, that he chose you in him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and that because of the great love with which he loved you, even when you were dead in your traspasses he made you alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved! (2:4-5) If this is true (and I'm inclined to believe it is), I can think of no greater news the world has to offer.

What this also implies, beyond the love God has so absolutely for his children, is that if we have faith in God, nothing can keep us from him. If James is right and our salvation depends not on ourselves but on God who "brought us forth by the word of truth" and did so "of his own will" (v.18), and if he is also right that this is the same God "in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (v.17), what is the formula we end up with? The God who is unchanging and unalterable has brought us forth by the word of truth, and nothing can stop him from doing it - what remarkable assurance! Paul discusses this in Romans chapter 8, in a passage many hear preached in churches regularly, but usually hear it offered without the full context. "And we know," says Paul, "that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:28) This is essentially the same thing James is saying when he writes that "the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." Everything, even the darkest trials, contribute to the sanctification and growth of believers in Christ. All things - even bad things - are working together to build us into what we are going to be for eternity.

Paul goes on: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son... and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." (Rom. 8:29-30) There is an unstoppable process by which God is going to "bring us forth by the word of truth," and nothing can thwart it. This is exactly what Paul says in conclusion: "What then shall we say to these things [this process from foreknowledge to glorification]? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (v. 31-32)

God brought us forth by the word of truth according to his will, and if that is so, what can put a stop to it? Nothing! Paul and James are in perfect agreement here, and this argument provides the basis for the end of Romans 8 that is so often quoted: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35, 37-39) What remarkable news, and what good reasons we have for believing it! Our unshakable God has brought us forth by the word of truth, and nothing will stop him from saving us, because even those things that try so hard to harm us ultimately contribute to our growth, our strengthening, our endurance, our steadfastness.

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (James 1:2) What trials? The very trials Paul discusses - tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, height, depth, and anything else in all creation that may try to separate us from God. They fail to separate us; in fact, the sufferings accomplish exactly the opposite of what they intend - they make us flee to God for refuge, lean on him to give us rest, and in doing so produce the steadfastness of a faith that relies on God utterly. What a magnificent God we must have, who can bring us safely through whatever the world serves up for us (as he did for people like the Apostle Paul, who suffered nearly every trial on that list).

If you are reading this and have never believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, I invite you to ponder the assurance that these promises offer. James tells us, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." (James 1:5) Come to Christ - ask God for wisdom to receive him, and you will look back and realize that in fact God of his own will has brought you forth by the word of truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be a new creation through faith. It is something you may lean upon always, because it is the eternal decision of a God who is the same always. He is always love, always sovereign, and always at work for those of us who have faith in him. May God give you the grace to ask, and receive.