Thursday, April 30, 2015

Blissfully Transparent

In this series, we’ve talked about spiritual disciplines.  These are exercises we do to put ourselves in contact with God so He can change us, gradually but inexorably, into the people we were created to be.  Every week, I’ve been challenging you to practice a different spiritual discipline. This week, we’ll talk about one we Baptists don’t discuss often: The discipline of confession.  To practice confession means we bare our souls, becoming completely, blissfully transparent, to at least one other person, as it says in our text, James 5:16.  I'll discuss those questions.  But first, I need to establish a foundation for confession:
The fundamental problem in our lives is sin.  There, I said it.  It sounds ridiculous from a modern, secular standpoint, but the Bible is clear.  Our sin separates us from God.  Since God and His love are the source of all that is good in our lives, to be separated from Him brings misery over time, and an eternity we don’t want to contemplate.  I want to illustrate this with a story that is silly, but true.  Years ago, I studied for a doctorate at New Orleans Baptist Seminary.  I lived in Pasadena, but I would travel to New Orleans for a week or two at a time, and those times were intense periods of class, reading, and writing.  One night in the Big Easy, I had a ton of writing to do.  I was eating supper in a mall food court, when I noticed that there was a Café Dumonde there.  In case you don’t know, Café Dumond makes beignets, and in case you don’t know, beignets are objective evidence of the goodness of God, disguised as fried squares of dough coated with powdered sugar.  I decided right then on my plan.  I would order some beignets to go, along with a large café au lait, and that would get me good and wired to write deep into the night. Back then, I was driving a pickup truck, and when I got onto the freeway, I ran into absolute gridlock traffic.  A five-minute drive to the hotel was going to take thirty minutes or more.  I sat there, not moving, and those beignets called out to me.  I tore into the bag…and found out the Café Dumond strategy for to-go orders: They put the beignets in the bottom of the bag, then filled the rest of the bag with powdered sugar.  In about five minutes, it looked like the DEA had exploded a cocaine factory in the cab of my truck.  My steering wheel was as sticky as flypaper.  And it was still that way when I got home.  My wife laughed so hard, she almost hurt herself.  Now imagine (this part of the story is not true) that when I got home, it had been our anniversary.  Imagine we had reservations at a nice restaurant, and Carrie was in a beautiful black dress, and that truck was our only transportation.  She couldn’t get into that truck without spoiling her beauty, and I’d be a jerk for not dealing with the mess.  My mess would keep me from enjoying a great night with the woman I love.

Enjoying some beignets with my daughter on a recent trip to New Orleans.

Now get this: The first time we sin, it does to our lives what that bag of beignets did to my truck.  And time passes, and we can’t clean that mess up by anything we can do.  And we add to it, because we keep sinning even more: So picture coffee and Coke spilled on the floor boards, discarded French fries scattered through the cab, and worst of all, spilled and melted ice cream.  It all bakes in the hot sun and gets putrid and noxious.  And there stands our God.  A God of infinite beauty and love who wants only to bless our lives and set us free, but He cannot enter into a life like that.  That leaves God with a dilemma He expressed perfectly to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.  There is a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction in the very character of God.  He must punish evil; otherwise, He is no longer righteous.  But He must forgive people, otherwise He is not loving.  How can He do both?  That question hangs over the entire Old Testament, like the world’s most significant cliffhanger.  Then it’s finally answered in Jesus at Calvary. When Jesus died on the cross, God’s love and justice met and were satisfied.  His justice was poured out on Himself, so that His love could be poured out on us; as Romans 3:26 says, He is both just AND the one who justifies us.  All we have to do is accept that gift, and He climbs into our car.  In fact, He takes the wheel.

Scripture is clear: Even after we are saved through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice, we still need to regularly confess our sins to Him.  Why?  It’s not because He won’t forgive us otherwise.  Think of it this way: Imagine you have a friend who is more true and loyal than any friend you’ve ever had.  Will you sometimes do things that hurt your friend’s feelings?  Yes, because you’re human.  Will your friend then stop being your friend?  No, because her friendship is true and loyal.  Do you still need to apologize for the sake of the relationship?  Yes.  That acknowledges the wrong you’ve done.  That makes things right.  And so 1 John 1:8-9 says, If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Notice it says “He is faithful and RIGHTEOUS to forgive.”  Why does it say “righteous” instead of “merciful?” Tim Keller explains it in a recent book.  It wouldn’t be just for God to punish us for a sin Jesus died for.  A righteous God wouldn’t accept two payments for one debt.  When we confess to God, we “cash in” the payment of Jesus for our sin.  But if God has promised to forgive us, why does James 5:16 tell us to confess to one another, as well?  We'll talk about that, and how we properly use the discipline of confession, this Sunday.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Simple Life

Quick survey: Raise your hand if you think you are as rich as you can be, if you say to yourself, “There is literally nothing in this world I want.”  No one?  A few weeks ago, I was reading a study about happiness.  One thing they discovered was that getting an extra hour per night of sleep makes the average human happier than if that same person made an extra $60,000 a year.  And my first thought was, “Hey, if they want to refine that study and they need someone to be in the ‘making an extra $61,000 a year’ group, I volunteer.  I am that committed to science and human flourishing.”  Then I remembered some statistics I read in a book called The Hole in Our Gospel, by Rich Stearns.  40% of the world’s population—that’s 2.6 billion people--lives on less than $2 a day.  15% live on less than a dollar a day—that’s 1 billion people.  The average American, by contrast, lives on $105 a day.  If you make $25,000 a year, you are richer than 90% of the people on Earth.  If you make at least $50,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of richest human beings on the planet.  By the standards of this planet, we are rich.  But we’re not content.  

We’re talking all through this Spring season about the process God uses to transform us.  It is a lifelong process.  And it takes spiritual discipline on our part.  You may not want to hear this, but there’s no way around it: As 21st century American Christians, our money and possessions are a problem in our relationship with God.  We cannot ignore that.  We can’t just pretend that reading Scripture, going to church and praying is going to be enough to change us, if we don’t deal with our attitude toward the stuff we own and the stuff we want.  That’s why, this Sunday, I’m starting my sermon with a look at a parable found in Luke 12:16-21; perhaps the most appropriate parable for our context in all of Jesus’ teachings.  We'll be talking about the spiritual discipline of simplicity: What is, why we should practice it, and how it works.  Don't worry; I won't be asking anyone to take a vow of poverty.  But this subject will address what may be the biggest spiritual issue most of us have.  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Stooping to Conquer

The high school I attended had an open campus, and sometimes I ate lunch at a little hamburger joint nearby called Dairy Treat.  One day, they had a special posted on the white board: Double cheeseburger, large fries, and a milkshake for $3.50.  Well, it would have been obscene to pass up a deal like that.  I ate it all, and it was good.  My last class of the day was athletics, and I was still full by that time.  I wasn’t worried about it; it was the off-season, which meant we could usually get away with not doing anything strenuous.  But on this day of all days, one of our coaches had decided that we were going to run a mile.  So I decided to jog slowly, so as not to jostle the heavy load I was carrying.  I knew most of the guys would be doing the same thing, so I wouldn’t exactly stand out with my lack of effort.  And when the race started, that’s just what I did.   Then I noticed a kid I didn’t much care for, a smart-mouthed little redneck, running several yards ahead of me.  I couldn’t let myself lose to him, even though I felt at that point like I had swallowed a bowling ball.  Long story short: I ended up beating the kid I hated, but lost my lunch 10 seconds after crossing the finish line.  

Why would I make myself sick like that?  Why not sit the race out?  Pride, pure and simple.  In sports, that’s a good thing, although I didn’t exactly win any medals that day.  But in life, it’s toxic.  We don’t like to lose, do we?  Even if it hurts us, even if it poisons relationships, we need to be first.  Yet Jesus says (Mark 9:33-35, among many other passages) that in order to be a true child of the Kingdom of God, we need to intentionally lose.  We put others first; that’s the way of Christ. 

We're in a series right now called "The New You," about how salvation means more than just forgiveness of sins and escaping Hell; it's a process of personal renovation.  God wants to change you into something better. A huge part of that change is taking away our prideful, self-centered vanity and replacing it with the servant-heartedness of Jesus.  That primarily happens as we practice the spiritual discipline of service. I say service is the most biblical, most important, most soul-transforming discipline of them all--even more so than Scripture reading and prayer.  It's also the hardest, even harder than fasting or silence.  This Sunday, I'll talk about why it's so important, and how we can do it well.   

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Silencing the noise

Years ago when we lived in a little town, we had a good friend who told us a great foot-in-mouth story.  Some mutual friends of ours were having a baby.  The first time my friend saw this little girl, he said to the dad, “Well, Joe, she doesn’t look anything like you!”  The room got quiet, and my friend wondered why everyone suddenly seemed uncomfortable.  Someone reminded him later that this couple had been briefly separated and shortly after they got back together, she announced she was pregnant.  In that little town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, people were doing the math in their heads to see if it was possible that they had conceived that baby after they got back together.  My friend had forgotten about all of that, and he felt horrible.  But there was no way to un-say it.  I am happy to tell you that the couple in question is still married, and I did their daughter’s wedding a few years ago.  I also must confess that I have many, many stories in which I put my own foot in my own mouth, but they are all so embarrassing, I chose to throw my friend under the bus.  At least I didn’t use his real name! 

We all have foot-in-mouth stories.  We all say things we later regret.  This happens in particular times:  When we try to be funny, like my friend.  I have told my son, who will be entering middle school next year, “It’s far better at your age to never try to be funny.  Just let funny happen on its own.”  If all middle school boys took that advice, the world would be a better place.  Actually, that may be pretty good advice for all of us.  When we offer opinions that aren’t backed up by knowledge, we embarrass ourselves as well.  When we share juicy information we just heard, we destroy the reputations of others, and often are the willing transmitters of falsehoods.  In plain English, that makes us liars.  When we “blow up.”  We all have stories of times we spoke in a blind rage.  Very few of those stories are funny.  Many of them created wounds that have never fully healed.  Some destroyed relationships forever.   When we complain. At another church, a woman was very upset about not being able to get in touch with a lady who was on our staff.  I said, “Oh, she’s on vacation.  She’ll be back next week.” The woman grunted and said, “Must be nice!”  The thought that passed through my head was, “Woman, you’re retired.  Your whole life is a vacation!”  Thank God, I didn’t say it.  If blowing up is the nuclear warhead of bad speech, then complaining is the toxic waste.  It usually doesn’t hurt anyone directly, but it just builds up and poisons the atmosphere. 

I believe the discipline of silence is the answer.  I don't mean taking a vow of absolute silence; but learning to discipline ourselves in the way we speak.  Proverbs has a lot to say on this subject, especially in our text for this Sunday, Proverbs 17:27-28.  I'll be talking about the discipline of silence; what it is, and how it can set us free.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Green Mile and Resurrection Eve

               This time of year, we believers in Jesus think about what He has done for us.  We think about the incredible love and justice that were revealed at the Cross.  But this morning, I found myself wondering how Jesus felt.  I thought about how we see Jesus in our minds as a carefree, gentle teacher.  But Isaiah 53 calls Him a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  John Ortberg once said something that resonated with me.  He pointed out that prophets often seemed cranky.  Perhaps the reason for that, Ortberg said, was that they were like people with perfect pitch in a world full of people singly loudly off-key.  Imagine knowing how a song is supposed to be sung, and living everyday around men and women who sing it incorrectly, intentionally or out of ignorance.  It would be an excruciating existence, like a never-ending headache. The prophets had a connection to God unlike anything you and I experience; they knew how God felt about the violence, suffering, injustice, and spiritual rebellion in this world.  The sorts of sinfulness that you and I are easily de-sensitized to must have driven them crazy.  If that is true of the prophets--and I think it is--how much more true must it have been of Jesus?  After all, He didn’t have a special connection to God; He was God!  Never before had God possessed human frailty, including emotions that could be wounded, but now that was His reality. 
               It reminds me of a scene near the end of The Green Mile.  John Coffey, the Christ-figure of the story, who is falsely accused of a horrific crime and who has shown an ability to heal awful suffering by absorbing the pain into himself, is about to be executed.  His chief guard, Paul Edgecomb, knows John is innocent, and is afraid God will send him to Hell if he allows Coffey to die. 

John Coffey (The late, great Michael Clarke Duncan)

Paul Edgecomb: On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?
John Coffey: You tell God the Father it was a kindness you done. I know you hurtin' and worryin', I can feel it on you, but you oughta quit on it now. Because I want it over and done. I do. I'm tired, boss. Tired of bein' on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we's coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I'm tired of people being ugly to each other. I'm tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There's too much of it. It's like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?
Paul Edgecomb: Yes, John. I think I can.

               On this Resurrection Eve, I wonder if Jesus felt that way about His own death.  We know that He was full of sorrow and anxiety about taking on the sins of the world--and the wrath of God that came with it (Matt. 26:38).  We know that He was full of joy at the salvation His death would produce for us (Heb. 12:2).  But could it be that He also felt a sense of relief, that His time of suffering in this awful world was almost done?  This much we know: When He breathed His last breath, He said, “It is finished.”  Our Savior left nothing undone. Because He died and rose again, we can look forward to living in the New World He is creating, a world of perfect pitch, perfect harmony with God and each other.  And every day we follow Him in THIS world, we become more like Him, learning to see life as He does, transforming the world around us a little more. If you’re like Paul Edgecomb, and you can understand the weariness Jesus must have felt, remember His words: Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden…and I will give you rest. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Come to Him

I got to go to Israel a year ago for the very first time.  In Jerusalem, there are two sites that people believe may be where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.  One is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This ancient church is over 1500 years old.  Kings have been anointed there.  Don’t think of it as an evangelical church, with pews and a pulpit; it’s more like a shrine.  There is a hole beneath an altar, where tradition says the cross of Christ was anchored.  Not too far away, there’s a small grotto where Jesus was supposedly buried and rose again.  And there is also a smooth slab of rock, known as the anointing stone, where it’s said Jesus’ body was laid while Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea anointed Him for burial.  Pilgrims flock to the church.  Many bring scarves, crosses or pieces of paper and rub them on the anointing stone.  

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection

The altar under which the cross supposedly rested.

Pilgrims kneeling at the stone of anointing

The other site is known as the Garden Tomb.  In the 1800s a British army officer named Gordon was visiting Jerusalem and noticed a hill outside the old city that looked like a skull.  Scripture says Jesus was crucified in a place called Golgotha, or Calvary in Latin, which means, “place of the skull.”  Archaeologists working near that skull-shaped hill found an olive press that dated to the first century, and a tomb cut into the nearby limestone.  We know Jesus was buried in this sort of tomb.  You can even see the groove in the rock where the stone that sealed the tomb would have rested.  Our guide at the Garden Tomb was a retired British pastor who grew up in Liverpool.  We asked him if he knew the Beatles.  Yes, he said, in fact he went to school with them.  As a teenager, he played hooky one day to see them play at a local club.  He showed us the hill, the olive press, the tomb.  We had a short communion service there.  He told us, “I don’t know if this is where Jesus died, was buried, and rose again.  The important thing is that it did happen.”  

"On a hill far away..." This is the skull-shaped hill Gordon saw, which led to the discovery of the Garden Tomb.  Note the two "eyes."  The "nose" and "mouth" have since been covered by Palestinian construction.  

The entrance to the Garden Tomb.  
The interior of the Garden Tomb, with three chambers for bodies.  As I stood in this spot, I wondered if Peter had stood there, looking at the discarded graveclothes of Jesus.  

I felt very sure that the Garden Tomb, not the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was where my salvation was purchased.  I felt sorry for, and a little superior to, those superstitious pilgrims who had traveled untold miles to smell the incense and see the relics and rub stuff on some questionable slab of rock.  And then our guide said something that put me in my place.

He told us that sometimes in the early mornings, he liked to go the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and watch the pilgrims.  Many of these people have come from thousands of miles away, from Eastern Europe, India, or Africa.  Many are very poor; making this trip of a lifetime cost all the money they had.  They probably don’t know as much of the Bible as you and me, he said.  They don’t have the access we do to the Bible and good biblical teaching; they may not even be literate.  So there is much in their theology he would like to correct.  But he said, he thinks about the woman who came and anointed Jesus while the Lord was in the home of the Pharisee.  She didn’t know much about theology, either.  And her lifestyle certainly wasn’t admirable.  But Jesus commended her, and insulted the theologically correct Pharisee.  It seems God loves a heart that is desperate to come to Him.  Those pilgrims may not know much theology. They just know their lives are broken, and only Jesus can fix them.  

So let me ask you: When is the last time you came to Jesus?  I’m not asking when you last came to church, or when you last prayed.  I’m asking when was the last time you said to Jesus, “I am broken, and only you can fix me?”  This Sunday is Easter, and I'll be preaching on John 21:1-19.  I hope it will be a message that inspires people to come to Jesus, as Peter did.