Friday, February 24, 2012

The Right Stuff

I knew a guy, long ago, who we’ll call Rick. Rick was a handsome, successful, single Christian man. Therefore, every young, single Christian woman in the area had a keen interest in becoming Mrs. Rick. There was a series of courtships, all ended very suddenly by Rick, all resulting in broken hearts. So one day, one of Rick’s friends sat down to ask him why this kept happening. Rick informed his friend that he had compiled a list of the spiritual, emotional and physical attributes he was looking for in a woman. If he dated a woman and came to realize that she fell short of one of his standards, it was only logical to break off the relationship at that point. After some coaxing, the friend persuaded Rick to show him the actual list. He read through each criterion, then said, as only a male friend can say to another male: “If you ever actually found this woman, what makes you think she’d want you?”

All of us know the pain of finding out we don’t meet someone else’s standards. For some it’s missing out on a job, a school, a scholarship or a promotion, or being told by this person you’ve fallen in love with, this person you thought was “the one,” that they no longer feel that way about you. For others, it’s a memory of trying out for a team, or auditioning for a play, or entering a big contest, and falling short. I know that it seems like there are people who are just born with that unique set of physical characteristics and financial advantages and special skills and good connections that lead to them always being “on the list.” The bad news is that there is nothing I can say that will make you one of those people. The good news is that those people are going to get old and die someday just like you and me! But the really good news is this: God has a plan for your life; it’s a plan to accomplish amazing, eternally significant things. God’s plan is so much bigger and better than making that team, getting that job, or keeping that boyfriend. And the set of characteristics we need in order to accomplish His unique plan have nothing to do with the way you look, how much money you have, or the mistakes of your past.

The myth that our world tries to sell us is that we can be anything we want to be, if we just put our minds to it. Not true. But the far greater truth is that we can accomplish everything God has planned for us. And the attributes it takes to make sure we follow God’s plan are things we’re not born with; we can acquire them if we want them badly enough. This Sunday at Westbury Baptist Church, we'll look at the story of two men who had The Right Stuff, and how God used them, found in Numbers 14. It’s also a story about what happens when a family or a church or (in this case) a nation chooses the easy way instead of God’s way. It is the story of a pivotal day in the life of Israel.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Why is the God of the Old Testament so mean?"

Several years ago, a friend of mine was reading the entire Bible for the first time. This woman was old enough to be my grandmother, and is one of the finest Christians I have ever known, but like so many of you, she had never ride the Bible from cover to cover. One day she asked me a very difficult question: Why is God in the Old Testament so mean? This woman had spent most of her life studying Jesus, which is a great thing to do, by the way. And of course, she knew lots of stories from the Old Testament, and the Ten Commandments, and Psalm 23, and other familiar passages. But now that she was reading the whole Bible, she saw some very disturbing things. She saw Nadab and Abihu, sons of the High Priest Aaron, go into the tabernacle to offer fire to the Lord, and because He didn’t like the way they did it, fire came out from God and burned them alive. She read about God raining fire and brimstone on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And most troubling of all, she read in Joshua about how the Lord commanded His people to go into the Promised Land and kill every single human being that lived there. She loved Jesus and felt like she knew Him well, but this God didn’t seem like Jesus. Have you ever felt that way? This is a complex theological issue, but let me just say four quick things about it.

First, let me just affirm that the God of the Old Testament is the same God who took on the form of a man named Jesus, died for our sins and rose again in the New.

Second, God’s wrath is a key part of His nature. It’s not popular to say this these days, but God hates sin, evil and injustice, and is constantly at war against those forces. Because we rarely hear about God’s righteousness, His holiness, and His wrath against sin in sermons and Bible studies, it shocks us when we read the Bible for ourselves and see so many examples of it. Believe me, you don’t want to live in a world overseen by a God who DOESN’T hate evil. It would be like living in a country that doesn’t enforce the law. Someone would murder your loved one, and the state would simply say, “That’s a shame, but there’s nothing we can do. Let’s hope he sees the error of his ways and changes someday.” God’s wrath means, among other things, that people who are oppressed will get justice someday. That’s why this squeamishness about God’s wrath only happens in prosperous societies like ours, among people who’ve never experienced oppression. I promise you that slaves in this country 150 years ago were glad that God was someday going to bring judgment on their slaveowners.

Third, we see wrath in Jesus. I know it’s popular to think of Jesus as being nothing but loving, kind and gentle. And He was indeed all of those things, but we tend to make Him into some sort of cross between a hippie and the lead singer of the Wiggles. Appealing, but soft, bland, and most of all, non-judgmental. But if you actually read the words of Jesus in the Gospels, He said a lot of things that made people angry (mostly religious people). After all, bland nice guys don’t end up nailed naked to crosses.

Fourth and finally, in the Old Testament, we see God's grace in abundance. This Sunday at Westbury Baptist, we'll see an example of this in a sermon from Leviticus 25 about the Year of Jubilee. If you can't make it Sunday, the message will be posted on our website in text, audio and video form. As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Sermon preview--Jubilee

Have you seen the Lord of the Rings movies? (I'll admit I never read the books). At the start of the first film, Frodo the hobbit agrees to destroy the Ring of Power, thereby putting an end to evil. To do this, he must travel to Mordor and throw the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. He and 8 friends embark on this long journey. For the rest of the three films, they walk hundreds of miles, experience incredible hardships, and narrowly escape death countless times. At the end (spoiler alert!), Frodo and his friend Sam climb Mount Doom, while the other seven friends are part of an army fighting the forces of evil nearby. Just when it seems like the armies of good will be defeated and Frodo and Sam will be consumed by the fires, giant eagles appear, rescuing the good guys and carrying them to safety. I love happy endings! But then one has to wonder if Frodo and Sam asked themselves, "Hey, why didn't we just let these giant eagles carry us all the way here in the first place? We would have completed the whole journey in a day!"

I suspect that many of us, at the end of our lives, will wonder something similar. God had a plan for us, for the journey of our lives. But instead of following that plan, we took a harder road. That's not to say that God's plan gets us out of any hardship; in fact, trial is part of God's plan to shape our character. But when we follow God's plan, we experience freedom, joy, and purpose. GK Chesterton once said, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried." This Sunday, we will look at Leviticus 25, at a rather radical idea God had at the foundation of the nation of Israel, an idea He called the Year of Jubilee. We'll talk about how this idea should shape the way we live today. Have you tried living the life God has planned for you?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sermon preview--The Day of Atonement

Funny thing about human nature: When we’ve done wrong, we never want to own up to it, take responsibility for it. We always want to cover up, run away, or blame someone else. All of our attempts to mitigate our own guilt only make things worse. Think about it this way: I borrow your phone. While I’m using it, I lose my temper and fling it thirty yards, breaking the phone. There is now a breach in our relationship. It will cost you $200 to replace that phone. To put our relationship in economic terms, it will cost me $200 to make things right between me and you. I can pay that money, or you can say, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll just buy a new one.” Either way, someone has to pay. The act of paying that debt is what he Bible calls atonement. Either you or I have to bear the atonement. But let’s say that instead of paying the debt, I make excuses. I can blame the person I was talking to, who made me lose my temper. Go bill them, I say. Or I can blame Apple for making such a flimsy phone. Or I can blame you for not buying one of those expensive protective cases. Or I can just say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a phone.” Then I don’t just owe you $200. The debt between us begins to grow. And just like the interest on my credit card, the longer I evade responsibility, the more excuses I make, the bigger that debt grows.

But what if it was more than a phone? Imagine I did something to hurt your child, your parent, your spouse, your best friend. There’s no amount of money I could pay to make things right. There is a debt between us now that I can’t possibly atone for. You could choose to forgive me, but then you would be paying the cost of atonement. You would be denying yourself the opportunity for revenge, for justice…even if that only means the satisfaction of hating me quietly for the rest of your life. That's the cost of forgiveness, and it's a cost only you--the victim--can pay. But if I deny any responsibility for what I did, if I cover up or run away or blame someone else, the cost of that atonement grows exponentially. The longer I wait to seek your forgiveness, the less chance there will ever be reconciliation between us. Now here’s the bad news, in fact, the worst news you’ve ever heard: Every one of us has that kind of debt, multiplied by infinity, standing between us and God. Every time we’ve done something that varied from His righteous standards, it was as if we had harmed Him personally. And in His righteousness, each sin produces a breach even greater than what occurs between you and me if I hurt your loved one. If you’re anything like me, on your best day you sin at least a handful of times a day. Let’s say you’re very good, and you only sin about five times a day, on average. If you’re 41, as I am, that’s 75,000 sins and counting. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about breaking a friend’s phone anymore. We’re talking about tens of thousands of incidences that stand between us and the One who holds our lives in His hand, who alone will decide the eternal fate of our souls. And every day we live, those sins continue to mount up, and the interest on them compounds.

The good news is that God has a plan to make things right. And the ironic part is, we find it in the book of Leviticus. This Sunday, we'll talk about how to read this very difficult book of the Bible. And we'll walk through the holiest of days to an Israelite--the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16. We'll see what that Day must have been like...and what it means to us today. My prayer for this sermon is that it would be more than information; I pray that it would bring freedom to people who are crushed by guilt and shame.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Reading THE LAW

If you're participating in the Radical Experiment with us this year, and you're keeping up with the Bible readings, this week you're entering one of the more difficult portions of the Bible. In the second half of Exodus, just after the Israelites escape Egypt, God begins to give them the Law.

These laws are hard for us to read because they seem so irrelevant to our lives. After all, Jesus in Mark 7:19 told us that we are no longer bound by the dietary restrictions (and all God's people who love bacon say..."Amen!"). Paul went much further in his letters, particularly Galatians, in saying that the Law of Moses had its place for a time, but that time is past. We now relate to God through a New Covenant based on grace, which includes a personal relationship with Him without a mediator, without blood sacrifice, and without fear...Hallelujah.

So why read this stuff? Quite simply, because the point of the Bible is NOT to get relevant instructions for our daily lives. The point of the Bible is to teach us who God is, what He has done for us, and how we can live in a way that honors Him. In order to truly study Scripture, we have to set aside the self-centeredness that demands a "little encouragement for me today." We have to come to His Word with a focus on knowing Him better.

As we read these laws, we see certain things about His character which are still true today, even if the laws themselves no longer apply:

1. He brings order out of chaos. The Israelites had never had a nation. They had no centralized government, no police force, no social services or infrastructure. They were just a wandering band of ex-slaves making their way through the desert. Yet God, in a few short chapters, gave them a system of government that would make them the most blessed nation on Earth...if they had the faith to obey.

2. He takes care of the helpless. Throughout the Law, we see God tilting the scales in favor of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the slave, the unloved wife.

3. He wants His people to be different from the world. Scholars believe many of the odder-sounding laws were specifically designed to counter religious and cultural practices of the pagans who lived in the Promised Land. God was getting His people ready to conquer that land, and didn't want them to be seduced by their false gods.

4. He is always thinking ahead to redemption. In so many facets of the Law, we see hints of the coming of the Messiah--especially in the sacrifices.

One of the most important things to remember when reading the Old Testament is that the New Testament helps us see the full truth of the Old. If you were in church with us yesterday (2-5-12), hopefully you saw how Paul's commentary in 2 Corinthians helped us better understand Exodus 33-34. In a similar way, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) gives us a new layer of understanding regarding the Law. Some of my early spiritual mentors phrased it this way: "Let Scripture interpret Scripture." Of course, if this is your first time reading the Bible, you may not know yet what the New Testament says about the Old...but that will come, in time. Keep on reading, and draw closer to Him than ever before.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sermon preview--Glory

I want you to imagine a tribe of people who live their lives in total darkness. Imagine that sometime long ago, this group was so fearful and primitive, they went into a dense forest to escape their enemies. They went deep into the forest, where the trees were so tall and thick, they virtually blocked out the sun. They stayed there so long, their eyes adjusted to the darkness and they built a village in which to live. They stayed there so long, they forgot how to get out. And they were so full of fear, and unwilling to admit they were lost, they told their children that the whole world was dark and cold and damp, like that village in the forest. And so after a few generations, no one was still alive who had ever seen the sun. But an interesting thing happened. There were still people who believed in light. They would say, “There must be light somewhere. How else would all these trees grow? Sometimes when I look up into the trees, I think I catch a glimpse of it. I believe in something beyond this forest. I believe in the sun.” These people were ridiculed, persecuted and sometimes killed for their beliefs, but the leaders of the village could never quite stamp this heresy out.

One day, a small group of these heretics decided to do what no one had ever done before; they would leave the village and go seeking the light. The more they walked, the more light they saw, and so they kept going. Eventually, they came stumbling out of the forest and into a light so blinding, it took hours for their eyes to adjust. Once they did, they saw things so amazing, colors so beautiful, they never wanted to go back. But they knew they had to return and tell the rest of the village about it. And so they did. They came back to the village and resumed life as before, with only two changes: First, every day, they would leave the village and spend some time in the light. Somehow, that made living in the darkness bearable. They wondered how they had ever lived without the light. And second, they began talking about the light, unafraid of what others might think. At first, people didn’t believe their story. But then some began to notice that these people were different since they had left the village. They didn’t just talk about the light; they seemed to bring it with them. Whenever they were around, things seemed brighter, warmer than before. And so, one by one, others started joining them on their daily trips into the light. There were still many who scoffed, and some who threatened violence, but more and more people were coming into the light. That village was slowly transformed, not because some people believed in light or had seen the light, but because they brought the light back with them.

You’ve probably figured this out on your own, but in that parable, the forest represents the world, the sun represents God, and the darkness represents the way things are now, where most of humanity is separated from God. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be the people who found the light and brought it back with us? That is actually what Scripture commands us to do. If you’ve ever wondered what your purpose in life is, let me tell you. As followers of Jesus, our purpose in life is to reflect the light of God’s glory to a world lost in darkness. What does that mean? How do we do it? We’ll take a quick survey of two chapters you’ll read next week in your Bible reading (Exodus 33-34), and then jump over to a passage in the New Testament that explains those two chapters (2 Corinthians 3:7-18). That’s a lot of ground to cover in one Sunday sermon, but since we’re talking about the purpose of our lives, I’d say it’s worth it!