Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Truth about Wrath

When we were expecting our first child, we had to decide how to decorate the baby’s room.  We didn’t know whether our baby would be a boy or a girl, so we couldn’t get gender-specific; no footballs or kittens.  We decided on a Noah theme.  My brother, who is an artist, drew a great picture of Noah and the animals entering the ark, and other friends gave us books, paintings, mobiles, and assorted Noah paraphernalia.  One of these was a cloth book about Noah.  When Kayleigh was old enough, she wanted us to read books to her, and this is one of the books she often chose.  I remember the first line of the book (I should, since I read it to her at least 10,000 times).  It said,
“Noah was a good man.  He loved the earth and all the animals on it.” 
My wife and I agreed that there was a substantial difference between that and what the Bible actually says.  So when we read the book, we told her, “One day, people made God mad, and so He decided to drown them all like rats.  All except Noah.” 
No, not really.  But we did change that first page to say, “Noah was a good man.  He loved the Lord and all His commands.”

It’s interesting what we’ve done with Noah's story.  We tend to want to emphasize the cute aspects, like Noah building a big boat and filling it with animals.  But God’s anger at humanity was as much a part of the story as Noah and the animals were.  We don’t really know what to do with that, so we just sort of ignore it.  That’s what we tend to do with ALL references to God’s wrath in Scripture.  We’d rather not think about it, so we pretend those references aren’t really there.  We rarely hear sermons about the wrath of God.  In fact, I'd be willing to bet most Christians have never heard such a sermon.  But that’s a problem.  If you read the entire Bible, you’ll find that there are more references in Scripture about God’s wrath than about His love and mercy.  Some people say, “Well, it’s true the Old Testament has a lot of stuff about God’s wrath, but in the New Testament He’s much more kind.” It’s almost as if people think God used to have an anger management issue, but He got over it.  Read the teachings of Jesus from the Gospels, and you’ll see He had much to say about the wrath of God.  Or there's this nugget from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10: The Lord Jesus (will be) revealed from heaven in blazing fire…He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power on the day He comes to be glorified.  Trust me when I say there’s a lot more where that came from.
We get uncomfortable when we hear that stuff.  It makes us think God might be like some primitive pagan deity, who requires the sacrifice of young virgins to satisfy Him, or that He wants us to be like the stereotypical street preachers of long ago, standing on the corners yelling, “Turn or burn!”  But I’m here to tell you today that God’s wrath is one of the most wonderful things about His character.  We should thank God for His wrath.  This Sunday, I will tell you why.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The One Thing You Can Count On

My friend Joe McKeever was pushing his eight-year-old granddaughter in a swing one day, when she suddenly looked up and said, “I don’t want to have any children.  It hurts too bad.”  What he didn’t realize is that his daughter, this little girl’s mom, had been talking to her about childbirth, or as we used to call it, “explaining the birds and the bees.”  Joe is one of the wisest men I know, but even he had a hard time coming up with a response.  Finally, he said, “Yes, it does hurt.  But then you have this beautiful baby, and it’s all worth it.” She replied, “You’re a man.  What do you know?”


That girl is going to go far in life.  But her point is more true than she knows.  What do we (men or women) really know?  It’s funny in a way to look back at some of the predictions that experts made this past year.  They were convinced that it would be a record year for hurricanes, and it wasn’t. They didn’t predict a record year for the flu, and it is.  And they were certain that the Texans would be one of the best teams in football this year (No comment).  And those are experts!  It is a scary world we live in.  We don’t know what will happen tomorrow.  As a pastor, I counsel people all the time who suffer sudden, unexpected losses: They get a phone call from the hospital informing them that their child has been in an accident; they get called into the boss's office to hear that due to budget shortfalls, their position is being eliminated; they visit the doctor for their regular checkup only to find out that something is seriously wrong.  We fool ourselves into thinking that the man-made empires we construct are impervious, but they're actually houses of cards.  There really is very little we can be certain of in this life.     

            But there is one thing.  Our God is eternal and unchanging.  Theologians call this the immutability of God.  Psalm 90:2 says, Before the mountains were born and you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.  Sometimes little kids will ask, “Who made God?”  It’s a great question; even a child understands that everything has to have a reason for being.  If you walk into your office and find a gift-wrapped box there, do you assume that it materialized out of thin air, or that someone snuck into your office while you were out?  When cosmologists talk about the origins of the universe, they talk about a big bang millions of years ago.  But they don’t ask the obvious question: Who made all the stuff that went “bang?”  Ultimately, there has to be an eternal first cause for all matter in the universe, and we know that first cause is God.  No one made Him.  He has always been.  Not only is He eternal; He is also unchanging.  This Sunday, I'll talk about what that means in practical terms, as well as the difference His immutability should make in our lives.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Inventor of Awesome

Take a moment to notice how often we use superlative words like "awesome" "amazing" and "epic" in everyday language.  "That movie was awesome."  "This steak is amazing."  Could it be that we are so lacking in transcendent experiences that we have to take ordinary things and make them seem "epic?"  If a meal or an amusement is "awesome," what would we think if we truly encountered God? 
We think too small.  That’s certainly true in the way we think about God.  I could cite any number of little anecdotes or statistics, but let me just say this: I think we all know that church attendance in our nation is lower than it has ever been.  But I think even a great percentage of those who come to church do so for the wrong reasons.  They come, hoping that sitting through an hour’s worth of religion will cause God to be impressed with them.  That way, He might overlook some of the selfish stuff we’ve done this past week.  And He might choose to protect our loved ones, ensure that our next doctor’s appointment goes well, give us a little advantage at work and in our bottom line.  Let me just say it clearly: God is not impressed with our church attendance.  You don’t get any extra credit for singing the songs, listening to my sermon, or even for contributing to the offering (I hope you still come anyway!).  We have such a transactional relationship with God.  In our minds, He’s like a small-time gangster in the old neighborhood; pay Him a little tribute, and He’ll take care of you…or at least, there will be one less thing to worry about.  Or, to use a less offensive illustration, He’s like taking vitamins.  No one can really tell that it’s doing any good, but they say it’s worth it, so we keep on popping those one-a-days, just in case it helps a little.  Our theology is cheating us out of so much.  God watches us practice our version of Christianity, and I imagine He wants to say, “Do you really think that’s all there is to knowing me?”        
That's why this year at Westbury, we're seeking to know God better than ever before.  I am preaching all year on the attributes of God.  We’re studying His holiness currently.  A big part of God’s holiness is His majesty and greatness.  We need to see how incredibly awesome God is.  In fact, He’s really the only thing in the universe that deserves an adjective like awesome.  He invented awesome.  Isaiah 40 is one of the great chapters in all of Scripture for reminding us how awesome He is.  When this was written, God knew that His people, the Jews, were discouraged.  They felt abandoned by God, and they felt like their lives were worthless.  So right there in v. 9, He gives the order: Say to the people of Judah, here is your God!  This Sunday, we'll discover what makes God so awesome. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thank you!

Mrs. Bland, my English teacher my senior year of high school, took an entire class period one day to teach us how to write a proper thank you note.  At the time, we all thought the old girl had gone batty; but today, I am grateful to her for this.  When someone has done something significant for you, they deserve the courtesy of a thoughtful note of acknowledgement.

               So today, I want to write a note of thanks to you, my church family.  Mrs. Bland would not approve of me using Microsoft Word instead of pen and paper, but if you don’t tell her, I won’t either. 

               Thank you, Westbury, for your generous giving to our recent World Missions Offering.  We set a goal of $25,000 and exceeded it by several thousand!  Only the Lord Himself knows the impact this will make on a world deeply in need of Christ’s love.

               Thank you for continuing to support our McNamara fund.  Through these funds, we were able to buy a Christmas gift for every teacher and staff member on the McNamara Elementary campus.  This is in addition to the many other generous things that you do individually and as Bible study departments for the kids and families of our adopted elementary school.

               Thank you for your faith, vision and encouragement as we start our new worship schedule this month, and as we continue to implement the proposals of Westbury 20/20.  I can’t tell you this often enough.  In fact, a new member of WBC told me he was listening to the recording of our WBC 20/20 presentation on our website, and he said it gave him chills. He was excited to be joining a church that was so committed to do whatever it takes to reach new people. 

               Most of all, thank you for simply being who you are.  It is a profound privilege to serve here, and I am excited about the future!  And now, to sign off the way Mrs. Bland taught me…


               Jeff Berger

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The One

Quick mental exercise: Imagine you had to describe yourself to someone who has never met you.  How would you do it?  What adjectives would you use?  Would you focus on your outward appearance, your personality, your skills, your career, your hobbies, your political persuasion?  This exercise says a lot about who you are. The way you describe yourself reveals what is most important to your sense of identity.  If that's true of you and me, how much more true is it of the words God  uses to describe Himself? 
All this year, we are studying the nature and character of God. We want to cut through all the man-made notions about God and know Him better than we’ve ever known Him before.  Fortunately, God is not shy about revealing His true character to us.  The Bible is God’s letter to people who don’t know Him (that’s us), so that we can answer the question, “Who is this God who created us, watches over us, and will someday judge us?”  More importantly, God tells us who He is in the Bible so that we can know Him, and by knowing Him, have eternal life.  So that means that the names and adjectives God uses in His Word to describe Himself are incredibly important.  God isn’t like us in using certain words just because they sound cool.  We like to say “awesome” “amazing” and “epic” all the time, even when we’re describing perfectly ordinary things: “That ice cream was awesome.”  “This video game is epic.”  But God doesn’t use words cheaply.  Everything He says about Himself matters.  So how does God describe Himself?
 There is one adjective God uses more than any other when talking about His character.  That is the word holy.  That word, or some variation thereof, is used over 900 times in the Bible.  It is the word most frequently ascribed to God in His Word.  Obviously, the word “holy” is important to God.  But what does that tell us about Him?  God’s holiness is a tough concept for us to wrap our minds around; we can understand His power, His love, His mercy…but what does it mean that God is holy? 

Starting this Sunday, we'll look at God's holiness from a variety of angles.  We'll see what makes Him The One...a God like no other.  This Sunday, I will kick things off with a sermon entitled, "Our God is Not User-Friendly."  I will try to define that word "holy" and what it means for us. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Who is this God?

Several years ago, a hotel night clerk named William Young had an idea for a story that he hoped would teach his kids about God.  He decided to write the story down and give it to them as a Christmas present.  Several friends read the story and encouraged him to publish it.  Eventually, he did self-publish the story.  Somehow—no one ever really knows how these things happen—his story was “discovered” about a year later.  It became a publishing phenomenon, selling over 10 million copies, and was the number one fiction paperback on the NY Times bestseller list for a year and a half.  The name of Young’s book was The Shack.  It is the story of a man who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy, and then unexpectedly meets God face to face.  God in the form of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit spend a weekend with this man, helping him come to terms with what has happened in his life.  I am no publishing expert. I cannot tell you why some books sell and others don’t.  But I strongly believe that the success of The Shack had little to do with William Young’s literary abilities, although he is a fine writer.  It certainly wasn’t because of any strategic decisions on the part of publishing companies.  I think this book, whatever you think of it, exposed a hunger in our hearts to know God personally.  We all have different dreams and goals for our lives.  But almost everyone I know, no matter what their values, beliefs, religious affiliations or lack thereof, wants to know more about God. If they knew they had an opportunity to spend a private moment in the flesh-and-blood presence of the One who created them, knows all about them and controls the universe, they would put that at the very top of their bucket list. 

That’s what we will do this year at Westbury; we’re going to meet God.  We won’t just spend a weekend with Him.  We will spend this year getting to know Him better than we’ve ever known Him before.  The theme of my preaching this year is “Who is this God?”  I’m going to spend a year talking about His attributes, what God is really like.  Along the way, I am going to tackle some tough topics: We’ll talk about God’s wrath and His justice.  We’ll look at the doctrine of the Trinity and we’ll study the book of Revelation.  Yes, as a preacher, I am going where angels fear to tread.  But even if you attend every service, and even if I knock every sermon out of the park, it won’t be enough.  Knowing God isn’t something you can do by listening to a guy talk.  It’s not like a biologist studying a new strain of bacteria or a historian studying Alexander the Great.  You can’t approach it as a merely intellectual exercise.  You have to decide to set aside your own agenda and devote yourself to chasing God.  It’s an experiential process; you have to taste and see that the Lord is good.  So this Sunday, I hope to convince you to do just that.  I'll be starting this year's emphasis with a sermon called "Chasing God" based on Isaiah 55:1-6.
It's a new year, and most of us have made resolutions of some kind.  It's great to attempt to lose weight, to stop smoking, to exercise more, etc.  All of those can change your life in positive ways.  But why not make a resolution today to do something that will change eternity for you and for countless others who come in contact with you?  Why not resolve today to seek after God with all of your heart? 

Here are my planned sermon series for the year:

The One: God’s Holiness (January and February)

The Man Who Changed Everything: The impact of Jesus on the world (February through Easter)

Exclusive: God’s jealousy and our struggle with idolatry.  (Late April through May)

The Love You’ve Been Looking For: 1 John 4 (Late May through mid-June)

Accessible Glory: A study of the Holy Spirit (June through August)

The Long-Awaited Return: The Book of Revelation (August through October)

What is So Amazing About Grace? A study of salvation (October through November)
To Us a Child Is Born: An Advent Series on Isaiah 9:1-7