When we were kids, my grandparents bought my brother and me a go-cart. This was a completely out-of-the-blue gift, as I remember. It wasn’t near our birthdays or Christmas, and neither of us had asked for anything like that. But what a gift! We lived in the country, so we had plenty of room to ride around in safety. There was a long gravel road in front of our house, and I learned that it was fun to run that go-cart as fast as it would go, then suddenly hit the brakes and turn the steering wheel hard, so that the go-cart would swerve to a stop, spraying gravel all over the place. One day, I did this, and I saw something bouncing away from me, and realized it was my left rear wheel. That go-cart wasn’t designed for that kind of treatment. We had friend who was a welder, and my parents got him to weld the wheel back on. But I didn’t learn from my mistake. I kept driving that go-cart like a stunt car in the movies. As a result, it started to fall apart, more and more. One day, my dad told me that it wasn’t smart of me to tear up the go-cart like I was. This was a great gift from my grandparents, he said, and I ought to take better care of it out of respect for them. I have to say, that didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. I didn’t say anything to Dad, because I didn’t want to seem defiant, but what I was thinking was, “If it was a gift, it’s mine, right? I can do anything I want with it.”Now that I’m older and a little further along in my spiritual walk, I recognize that attitude for what it is: Pride. That is the attitude that we all have about life: “My life is a gift, and if it’s a gift, then I can do whatever I want with it.” We resent anyone telling us what we can or cannot do. The dominant view of personal ethics in our culture today seems to be, “If what I’m doing doesn’t directly harm someone else, I should be able to do it.” But the consistent message of Scripture is that the One who has given us the gift of life has a specific plan for how we are to use it. I mean more than just following the Ten Commandments. As Ephesians 2:10 says, you and I are God’s masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared beforehand. In other words, He had a plan for you before you were born. To follow that plan is to truly appreciate and enjoy the gift of life. This Sunday, we’re going to take a fresh look at a very well-known story from Scripture: The story of Samson found in Judges 13-16. This story shows us what happens when we choose to ignore God’s plan for our lives and live life on our own terms.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
"Some people pray for God to remove the burdens from their backs. Others pray for stronger backs to bear their burdens."
I can't remember where I first read that quote, but it has stuck with me for years. I remember that the author was making a point about American Christianity: Somehow we've gotten the idea that scary, difficult circumstances are the exception in life, and that if things are tough, we should just pray until God takes away the hardship. But nowhere in Scripture are we promised a pain-free existence in this world. In fact, we're promised the opposite: John 16:33, In this world you WILL have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. In those words, spoken the night before Jesus went to the cross (for us, by the way), He promised us that we could overcome our troubles by His power.
So what are you afraid of right now? Is it poor health, a financial setback, or the possible end of a relationship? Is there anything you know God wants you to do, but you're holding back because you're afraid of how it will change your life? The most frequently repeated command in the Bible is "Fear not." It doesn't mean God will take all the scary stuff out of our world. But it does mean He can give us courage to overcome our fears and accomplish His will. This Sunday, we'll look at how fear kept God's people from accomplishing His plan, and from enjoying the blessing He had planned for them. And we'll also look at the courageous people who finally overcame that fear.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
The continued existence of the Jewish people. Genesis 12 tells us that thousands of years ago, God chose a Middle Eastern chieftain named Abram, telling him, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you...and all peoples on Earth will be blessed by you.” 25 years later, when Abraham was 100, his wife Sarah gave birth to a son named Isaac. That was the beginning of the Jewish people. If you study the history of the Jews, it’s really the ultimate underdog story. There was one period of their history, the reign of Solomon, when the nation was prosperous and at peace. Otherwise, they had a series of enemies who preyed on them, including (but not limited to) the Philistines, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans. At two different points in history, the Jews had no country of their own; the second of these times lasted nearly 2000 years, from 70 AD to 1948. During those two millennia, the Jews were persecuted in virtually every nation in which they lived. The most infamous of these persecutions, of course, was the Nazi Holocaust, but there were countless other pogroms against the Jews. Yet the Jewish people still exist today. Can we say the same for any of the people groups in the Old Testament? When did you last run into a Hittite, a Philistine, or an Assyrian? Those and numerous other ethnicities have ceased to exist. They were conquered by other nations and assimilated into more dominant cultures. But the Jews are still here, in spite of all the odds.
Why does this matter? Because God’s word says that God has a plan for the Jews. They are His chosen people. That doesn’t mean that God loves them more than other people; He loves every person. But God chose the Jews to bless the entire Earth. They were created to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and a light to the nations (Is. 51:4). In other words, Old Testament Israel’s purpose was to show the world God’s love and holiness, so that they might all know Him. Then the Messiah, Jesus, came from the tribe of Judah and became the author of salvation. Even though all that has taken place, God still has a part for the Jewish people to play in His redemptive plan, according to Romans 11, esp. v. 26. You might argue that the Jews have survived because they were simply more resilient than other ancient peoples. But to me, it is an indication that God is preserving them.
The Bible: Yes, other religions have their holy books. So what makes the Bible unique? The Bible wasn’t written by one man, like the Koran or the Book of Mormon. Nor is it the collected teachings of a specific holy man, like the teachings of Confucius or Buddha. It is 66 different books written over a period of thousands of years in three different languages. It was written by Kings and priests and prophets, fishermen and shepherds, Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor. It contains historical accounts, poetry, laws, prophecy, and letters. And in spite of all that diversity, it tells one unified story: It is about a God who loved the world so much He’ll do whatever it takes to redeem it. The heroes of the Bible are all deeply flawed. What human being would invent a story in which the main heroes are cowards, murderers, liars and fools? Yet these are the people who God chooses in Scripture. When I read the Bible, God speaks through it to me. And as I apply its words to my life, I become a better person. No other book has ever done that for me.
Jesus: Quite simply, no human mind could invent such a compelling character. I have heard novelists say that it is far easier to write about a villain or an antihero than it is to write about a truly good person. Good people just aren’t interesting, they say. Yet in Jesus, you have the most perfect person who ever lived, and He is fascinating! The more I read about Him, the more I admire Him, love Him, and want to become more like Him. If He were a work of fiction, the person or people who invented Him would be the greatest literary and philosophical geniuses who ever lived. They would have invented the most compelling story, as well as the most winsome vision of the character of God, and also the most effective philosophy of life ever conceived. Yet they would also be fools, because they invented a character who told them to give up all their own rights for His cause. Who does that? No one could have made Him up. And if He was a real person, He was Lord. He made such audacious claims about Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life; He who believes in me, though He dies, yet shall He live.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Either He was a dangerous egomaniac, a cunning con man, or exactly who He said He was. I believe in Him, and it has changed my life forever.
The resurrection. Christianity is unlike all other religions in several ways. For one, the doctrine of God’s grace: God saves us in spite of our sinfulness, not because of our good deeds or our religious devotion. In other words, all our efforts to be good enough for God are worthless. Every other religion says “do.” Christianity says “done.” Then there’s the doctrine of the incarnation and atoning death of Christ. Some other religions have the concept of a god becoming a man, like the Hindu avatars. But the God of the Bible becomes a baby in the womb of a poor virgin. He lives a life of poverty, rejected by most people. And He lays down His life for our sins. He DOESN’T say, “Here is my version of the right way to live. Now live that way, and I’ll accept you.” No, He says, “You can’t pay the debt for your own sin, so I will pay it for you, even though it costs me everything.” But the most important distinctive is this: All other religions are a list of rules, a philosophy of life, and nothing more. You cannot refute the teachings of Muhammed or Buddha or Confucius; you can either accept or reject them. But Christianity is based on a historical event. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave on Easter Sunday, then Christianity is a sham, period. But if He did rise, then He is everything He said He was…He is our only hope for salvation.
So why do I believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead? There are so many reasons, but here is my favorite: I believe because of the testimony of the eyewitnesses. These were ordinary men and women, but they soon gave up their ordinary lives to go full-time spreading the message that Christ was risen. And this message got them into terrible trouble. 11 of the 12 disciples died a martyr’s death. Some might say, “Big deal. People die for their beliefs all the time.” Yes, but most martyrs die based on their belief in the teachings of another person. These men knew whether or not what they were saying was true. They were willing to die rather than deny Christ’s resurrection.
Look at it this way: Imagine that I and my friends conspire to invent a religion. One of our friends has recently died, and we decide that we will make up some things he supposedly said, then start telling people he has risen from the dead. We dig up his body and hide it. Then we start spreading our new faith. But imagine that most people don’t believe us. We lose our jobs because of this radical, bizarre stuff we’re saying. Then the police show up, wanting to know why we dug up the body. Don’t you think we will very quickly admit what we’ve done, so that we don’t have to go to jail? Perhaps someone out there is crazy or desperate enough to believe our story, and to believe it so completely that they will get in trouble rather than renounce their beliefs, but not us: We know it’s a lie. If the first eyewitnesses were lying, they knew so. And if they were lying, why would they submit not just to ridicule and imprisonment, but death for their testimony? Those eyewitnesses changed the world. If you had been alive in 30 AD, and someone had told you that the Roman Empire would be dead in a few centuries, but that this rag-tag movement of Jesus-worshippers would last forever, and would one day number 2 billion people, you would have though t they were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened.
My own relationship with Christ. The old hymn says, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” If someone when I was a kid had asked me how I knew that my parents loved me, I would have said, “I just know.” Obviously, I couldn’t prove to some skeptic that my parents’ love was true. If they chose, they could believe that mom and dad were just keeping me well-fed in order to eat me for Thanksgiving Dinner someday, or to serve as slave labor. But I knew, because I lived with them.It’s the same with Jesus and me. I may not be able to prove His existence or Lordship to someone who doesn’t want to believe. But I am in the midst of a relationship with Him, and that is the most important proof I need…the only proof I need, actually. Christian author Philip Yancey tells the story of buying a multi-volume dictionary in one concise volume. The whole thing is there; but the print is so small it cannot be read with the naked eye. He has to use one of those swivel-armed magnifying glasses like jewelers have. When he puts that glass over the page, then takes a hand-held magnifying glass and puts it over the page as well, in the center of the circle where those two glasses converge, the print becomes crystal clear. However, the words on the fringes of the circle are blurry. Outside the circle, they are illegible. That’s what Jesus is like. When I focus my life on knowing and serving Him, life is clear. When I get on the fringes of religion, on all sorts of side issues, things get blurry. When I take my focus off of Jesus entirely, life makes no sense whatsoever. I urge you to focus your life on Jesus…and the things of this Earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
When I was 12 years old, I broke my arm. When I went to the doctor weeks later to have the cast removed, a man in the waiting room decided to have a little fun with me. He told me I needed to watch out for the saw that they would use to cut off my cast. “Usually it’s safe,” he said, “But if they get too close to the skin, you could get cut.” He pointed to a scar on his knee (which anyone with a brain would’ve known was a surgery scar) and said, “See what they did to me when they cut a cast off my leg?” Soon thereafter, they called me in. I sat there terrified as the nurse sawed away on my cast. When I felt something touch my skin, I nearly jumped out of the office.” “Oh, don’t worry,” she said, touching the saw to her palm, “This thing can’t hurt you.” I felt like a fool.
Intelligent people don’t swallow everything they’re told; they test ideas to see if they are worth believing. If you are a Christian, do you know why you believe as you do? Plenty of people grow up in a Christian environment, believing what they’ve been taught, only to abandon their beliefs when they get older. In truth, they never really tested what they believed, and when their beliefs were challenged, they had no answers. They felt foolish. So is that all your Christianity is? Are you simply believing what you’ve been told by others? It’s important as followers of Jesus that we decide why we believe in Him. Our faith must be based on something rational, or else it’s not real. I suggest Christians read books like The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, and The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. Discover the evidence for Christ. Then decide for yourself which evidences are most compelling.
I’m not telling you to doubt your faith; I just think we as believers need to test it. We need to be ready to dialogue with others who do not believe as we do. I want to share with you my own seven most compelling reasons that I believe in Jesus. They may not be compelling or convincing to you. In fact, many of them are quite subjective. My point is not to convince a skeptical person, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what I believe is true. Instead, I just want to help you think reasonably, rationally and biblically about why you believe what you believe. Trust me, if you don’t test your beliefs, something (a negative circumstance in life) or someone (who believes differently) will. So here it is: The first two most compelling reasons why I believe. In a later post, I'll list the other five.
The existence of anything: Where did everything come from? What was here before it? Many people talk about the beauty and complexity of this world as compelling evidence for the existence of God. I had a professor in seminary (Dr. Bill Tolar) who would preach a sermon in chapel once every three years called Creation: Chance or Choice. In the sermon, he listed ten characteristics of Earth that make it uniquely hospitable to human life, including the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere, the distance from our sun, the tilt of our planet on its axis. If any of these ten characteristics were even slightly different, he said, the Earth could not sustain human life. The chances of one planet containing all of these characteristics by chance was infinitesimal. Wasn’t it more likely that Someone created this planet for the specific purpose of housing human life?
It was a very convincing sermon. But maybe that was only because I wanted to believe it. After all, plenty of people examine that same evidence and come away unconverted. They might say, “Look, it’s very simple. 13.7 billion years ago, the universe was very dense and very hot. Then came the Big Bang, when all that energy expanded rapidly. As the universe cooled, that energy formed into subatomic particles, which became atoms, which then formed stars and planets. All of this, of course, took millions of years. With billions of stars and planets, it’s not so hard to imagine that one would just so happen to possess all of the necessary characteristics to be the breeding ground for the evolutionary process that produced us today. You don’t need a god for such an event; you just need one of the billions of planets and stars to be able to sustain life, and enough time for that life to evolve into human form.”
Logically, such an argument is certainly plausible. If I wanted to believe that God did not exist, that is the theory I would have for the origin of life. There is a problem with that theory, however: If the Big Bang sent energy cascading through the universe, ultimately forming planets, stars and the cast of Jersey Shore, where did all that energy come from? To put it crudely, all the “something” had to come from “something.” Unless there was “Someone” who was able to make “something” out of nothing…what theologians call “Creatio ex nihilo.” And once the atoms formed into planets and stars, how did inanimate matter become a single-celled living organism from which all life evolved? No one really knows the answer to either of those questions. Well, actually Someone does…
Morality: My parents have two dogs, Cassie and Snuggles. They are sisters. But when my dad feeds the dogs, Snuggles will not let Cassie eat. She will literally stand guard over Cassie's food bowl, growling at her, until she goes away. Then Snuggles will gleefully eat the food in both bowls. If my dad didn’t interfere, Cassie would starve to death. And for all you cat lovers, have you ever seen your loving kitty when she has caught a mouse or a bird? She will keep the poor creature alive, playing with it, until she gets bored. Only then will she kill it. We call this behavior cruel. But where did we get such an idea? Genesis tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Unique among all the other creatures, we bear His likeness and reflect His glory. Part of what that means is that we have an innate sense that some things are simply wrong. So when you’re watching the news and you hear that a man has abused a little boy, and you feel anger, that anger is a proof of God’s existence. Why should you care what happened to some kid you’ve never met? You care because God made you this way. If He hadn’t made us this way, we wouldn’t be aware of our own sin. If we didn’t have that awareness of sin, we couldn’t be saved.
Again, that argument doesn’t convince everyone. Non-believers will point to moral codes among animals. For example, ants have a moral code, working together and sacrificing for the good of their community. Morality, according to this idea, is simply a list of instincts embedded in our minds because they’re good for the survival of our species, which is what makes evolution possible. And, they say, once our species had evolved this list of approved moral behaviors, we had to come up with a reason why these things were right or wrong. That’s where we came up with the idea of God and religion.But there is a problem with that argument as well. Plenty of our moral values have no biological necessity. For just one example, how do we account for a moral value like compassion? If morals are simply the manifestation of our instinctive desire to see our species survive, shouldn’t we be happy to see weaker people die off so that they will no longer be a burden on the rest of us? For that matter, why would we see cruelty to animals as a bad thing? Moral values point to the existence of a moral God.