Thursday, January 31, 2013

When Our Faith is Unpopular

In a scene in a recent, major motion picture, a presidential candidate, during a debate, is asked about his religion.  He says, “I'm not a Christian. I'm not an Atheist. I'm not Jewish. I'm not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in is called the Constitution of United States of America.”  That happened in a movie, not real life.  But it illustrates a key fact about our culture.  This nation was founded on the concept of religious freedom; that is, the freedom to worship any god we choose in whatever way we choose, or the freedom to worship no god at all.  But from its founding, our national culture has tended to strongly favor Christianity.  And the reason should be obvious; since the founding of this nation, Christians have comprised the vast majority of this country.  Many here can probably remember a time when it made good business sense to be involved in a local church.  In fact, some banks would ask a person who applied for a loan, “Are you a member of a church?”  When my parents were growing up, their school—a public school—cancelled classes the day the movie “Ben Hur” was released.  This was done because Ben Hur was a movie in which the story of Jesus played a major part, and it was assumed that for kids to able to see the film with their parents was more beneficial than a day of education.  To this day, most government meetings, from County Commissioners’ Court to the US Congress, begin with prayer, and it is almost always a Christian prayer. When a president takes office, he places his hand on a Bible to be sworn in.  The line of dialogue from the movie I mentioned highlights the fact that no one has ever been elected President of this nation who didn’t at least put on a show of orthodox Christianity.
            In short, we Christians are used to having things our way in this country.  So we often forget how unusual that is in this world.  After all, our movement began with the unjust execution of our founder.  Most of His original disciples were martyred for their faith, and there is a long line of names to add to that list of Christian martyrs.  Today, in places like Iran and much of the Middle East, as well as China and North Korea, following Jesus can be a death sentence.  We as Americans have never faced that sort of persecution for our faith, and given the tolerant nature of our culture, we probably never will.  But it’s easy to see that Christianity’s favored status within our culture is fading.  Again, it’s pure mathematics.  The fastest growing religious group in our country today is those who have no religious affiliation.  Many of those people—often referred to as the “nones”—come from a Christian background and continue to believe in Christ, pray and try to live out their faith.  But an increasing number see religion as the problem, not the solution.  Spend some time around irreligious people and solicit their thoughts on the institutional Church.  Whenever there is an article online about a religious topic, take the time to read the comments below.  What you read will be enlightening, to say the least.  Ask some of our high school or college students about some of the comments they get from kids who find out they attend church.  In the eyes of an increasing number of our fellow Americans, we are the bad guys.  I’m not here to talk about better PR for Christianity, because that’s not important.  And I’m not here to talk about fighting to maintain our freedom of religion, even though that IS very important.  The question I want to consider this Sunday is this: How can we effectively represent Christ among people who disrespect our faith?  Because—I’ll just say it bluntly—if you don’t know anyone who has negative feelings about the Church, you need to get out more.  They are all around us.  They aren’t going away.  Jesus loves them.  What can we do?            
            I think our starting point is to look at how Jesus and His disciples responded to far worse treatment.  Peter is a great example: Here’s a man who was beaten by the ruling council of his own people, then commanded not to preach any more in the name of Jesus.  Later, he was arrested and sentenced to execution, only to be rescued by an angel in the middle of the night.  Ultimately, according to church tradition, he was crucified upside down in the vast persecution of Christians under Nero following the burning of Rome.  He wrote to fellow believers who were surprised at how poorly they were being treated by their non-Christian neighbors.  In 1 Peter 4:12-19, he gives them--and us--instructions on how to respond when under pressure.  We'll take a close look at three instructions from this passage this Sunday.   

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In the Marketplace of Gods

This year, I’m preaching about Representing Christ in a Non-Christian Culture.  Last year, I asked you to tell me the hardest things about living for Christ these days.  Here at the start of the year, I am taking those obstacles you mentioned and asking, “What does Scripture tell us about this?”   One of the things you said you struggled with was relating to people of other religions.  Many of us grew up in a very Christian-dominated environment.  I might be an extreme case, but I didn’t know anyone who was of a non-Christian religion until I went off to college.  Today, our culture is more religiously diverse than it has ever been.  Many of us have close friends or relatives who are members of Non-Christian religions.  Most of us have neighbors, co-workers, or acquaintances who are of a different faith.  And all of us regularly pass by synagogues, mosques, temples, Kingdom Halls, and other buildings of Non-Christian faiths.  And that diversity will continue to increase.  We’re nice people, and we want to get along with our neighbors of other faiths.  We’re also Americans, so we treasure the freedom to worship as we see fit, and we don’t want to do anything that would infringe on that.  But most of all, we’re followers of Christ, and our obedience to His call should trump everything else.  So what instruction do we find in His Word about relating to people who worship other gods? 
This Sunday, we'll be looking at Acts 17.  Paul lived in a world even more religiously diverse than ours.  At one point, he found himself in Athens, which was, more than any other city (even Rome) where cultural thoughts and trends were formed.  In that sense, it functioned much like New York or LA does in our culture.  Athens was a city of many gods.  There was an ancient proverb that said, “In Athens, there are more gods than men.”  V. 16 says that Paul’s spirit was provoked within him as he saw all these gods.  The Greek word that’s used there has an implication of anger, even rage.  So what did Paul do?  We'll talk about it Sunday.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When Moral Standards Are Collapsing

This year, President Obama invited an Atlanta pastor named Louie Giglio to pray at his second inaugural.  Giglio is the founder of the Passion conference, which brings as many as 60,000 young Christian adults to Atlanta every year.  Moreover, he is a major figure in the fight against modern-day slavery, and since this year is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Louie seemed like a great choice (To show you what a small world this is, years ago Louie Giglio served as a collegiate intern at my wife’s church, where he met and married a friend of Carrie’s family).  But a website called Think Progress found a sermon Louie preached fifteen years ago, in which he cited biblical references that call homosexual activity a sin.  The website urged people to protest his inclusion in the inaugural event.  Last week, Louie withdrew from the event, saying, "It is likely that my participation and the prayer I would offer will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration." This all comes less than a year after “Chick-Fil-A-gate,” in which the president of Chick-Fil-A caused great controversy by stating in a magazine interview that he and his company supported “the biblical definition of marriage.”  Here’s why this is important: Not so long ago, perhaps as little as ten years ago, such statements wouldn’t have caused even a ripple in the media.  It shows us how much things have changed in our culture, and how quickly that change has happened.  It shows us that there is a wide gap between evangelical Christians and an increasing number of our fellow citizens when it comes to certain moral issues.   
            This is not going to be a sermon about the political issue of gay marriage.  I’m preaching all this year about representing Christ in a non-Christian culture.  Here at the start of the year, we’re looking at some of the main obstacles we face today.  In this message, I want to see what Scriptural principles we should put into practice when the moral standards of our culture change.  My prayer is that I can do this with great sensitivity and precision, knowing that this is a very personal issue for many people in our church, as well as people we love outside the church.  So here is the question we’ll be seeking to answer Sunday: In a culture where an increasing number of our friends, co-workers, classmates, and fellow citizens, including the media, think that our views are backward or even dangerous, how can we conduct ourselves in such a way that we represent the name of Jesus so well that everyone we meet is drawn closer to God just by knowing us, and some actually become reconciled with God?  Pray for me, that I would share the Word of God effectively, and for us, that we would represent Him well. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Job Description that Changes Everything

On July 4, 1854 in London, a condemned criminal ironically named Charles Peace was being led to the gallows to be hanged.  An Anglican priest was following behind him, reading from the Book of Common Prayer.  Believe it or not, in the prayer book there was a ceremony to be read at the execution of a criminal.  The priest read the following line: “Those who die without Christ experience Hell, which is the pain of forever dying without the release that death itself brings.”  At these words, the criminal stopped, whirled around, and shouted to the priest, “Do you believe that?  Do you believe that?”  The priest stammered, “Um…I suppose so.”  Peace said, “Well, I don’t.  But if I did, I'd get down on my hands and knees and crawl all over Great Britain, even if it were paved with pieces of broken glass, if I could rescue one person from what you just told me.” 
It’s amazing how sometimes unbelievers have a better grasp of the full implications of the Gospel than the people who preach it.  That man who was about to die for his crimes identified something that most law-abiding, church-going Christians never seem to grasp: If we believe what we say we believe, it should change everything about the way we relate to other people.  In fact, that should be the primary identifying mark of anyone who truly follows Jesus.  You will know Christians not because they go to church on Sundays or because they abstain from cussing and adultery and getting drunk on Saturday night.  You’ll know them by how they handle their relationships with others.
This Sunday, we'll look at the most succinct and challenging job description you'll ever read, found in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.  It's Christ's expectation for you and me.  Let us not simply walk through life, mumbling our pre-digested prayers and tending to our religious duties, while our culture shambles along to its demise; let us be ambassadors for Christ, ministers of reconciliation between God and man. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Simple Plan to Change the World

When we were kids, my brother and I loved watching movies with our dad.  To my mother’s consternation, there were certain movies we liked watching over and over again.  One of these was The Magnificent Seven, in which a Mexican village is continually attacked by a ruthless gang of bandits.  So the villagers approach a gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner (the Eastern European gunfighter, a very big deal in the Old West), to defend them.  The gunfighter then recruits a team of righteous outlaws to help him overthrow the forces of evil, men like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but The Magnificent Seven is actually a remake of a Japanese film, The Seven Samurai.  That same theme has been repeated over and over again in movie history; an elite team of heroes is assembled to use their various skills and cunning to rescue the helpless and destroy evil—think of The Avengers last summer.  And so it was that when the God of the Universe wanted to rescue this world, He formed a team of His own.  Only He could redeem us from our sins, but He chose twelve men to form the most significant movement in human history, an army who would take the saving message of redemption to the uttermost parts of the Earth.  Luke 6 tells us that Jesus chose them after spending an entire night alone in prayer.  This was no casual decision.  He wanted only the right men on His team.  Today, we know those men’s names well.  We name our sons after them, as well as cities, universities, and hospitals.  And we are part of the movement they began, a religion that claims up to 1/3 of the world’s population.  Christianity has changed our world more than any other human movement.  For a very simple example, think about what year it is: It’s 2013 years since the presumed date of Jesus’ birth.  Christianity gave rise to concepts that are key to the way we live, such as the university system, public education, hospitals, and ideas like the responsibility of a society to care for the weak, and the full personhood of children.  As Christians, we believe Christianity’s greatest contribution to mankind has been spreading the saving message of Jesus Christ so that millions are experiencing eternal life today; but even if you don’t believe that, you have to admit that the world is a better place because of what began with those 12 men chosen by our Lord.

But there’s still pervasive evil in our world.  What is God’s plan?  The plan hasn’t changed; He continues to assemble His team.  In every generation, He seeks men and women who will follow in the footsteps of those original Twelve to penetrate the darkness with courage and compassion, rescuing the world for Him.  That’s us.  We are His elite team.  Jesus is sending you and me out today to do what those first disciples did.  Someday, each of us is going to stand in judgment before Him.  And thank God, our salvation is not in question; that has been settled at the cross for all who believe.  But as Jesus said in the parable of the talents, He our master has left us with certain opportunities, and when He comes back, He’ll want to know what we’ve done with those opportunities.  I don’t want to be the one who buried my stuff in the ground and lived for myself.  I want to represent Him well.  That’s what I’ll be preaching about all this year: Representing Christ in a Non-Christian Culture.  About mid-way through last year, when I started to think this was the direction we needed to go in 2013, I started asking you and some Christian friends outside of WBC “What are the main obstacles we face in trying to represent Christ well?”  I got some great feedback.  Then I spent the better part of a week alone in a house Carrie’s sister owns in the Hill Country.  Brutally suffering for Christ, in other words.  I spent those days studying the people in Scripture who represented the Lord well in times of moral uncertainty and rampant unbelief.  What were the characteristics that God used in their lives to enable them to change the world for good?  What do we need to do in order to live out those same characteristics, to live in a way that is compelling and transformational to everyone we see?

I came up with a preaching schedule for 2013 called Mission Impossible: Representing Christ in a Non-Christian Culture.  This Sunday, we'll kick it off by looking at what Jesus required of His original 12 disciples...and what He still requires of you and me.  Here's a basic outline of the rest of the year's schedule:

1-13: The Job Description that Changes Everything. 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.    

1-20: When Moral Standards Are Collapsing, 2 Timothy 2:24-25, 1 Corinthians 6:19-21.     

1-27: In the Marketplace of Gods, Acts 17:16-34.   

2-3:  When our Faith is Unpopular, John 15:18-21, 16:1-3, 1 Peter 3:15-16, 4:12-19.    

2-10: When We Doubt Our Own Beliefs, Matthew 11:1-15. 

2-17: When We Feel Weak and Discouraged, 1 Kings 19:1-18. 

(Mid-February through March) Call on His Name: A Study of Prayer in the Names of Jesus.

(April through early May) Boldness: Storming Hell with a Water Pistol

(Late May through June) Irresistible Holiness: A Study of Colossians

(July) Unshakeable Faith

(August through early September) Hope: What the World is Looking For

(Mid-September through early November) Be the Church: A Study of Rev. 2-3
(Mid-November through Christmas)Wisdom: Being Good at Life