Thursday, December 17, 2015

He Rules the World with Truth and Grace

It’s not often that a news article brings me to tears, but recently I read one that did.  It’s by David Von Drehle of Time magazine, titled, “How Do You Forgive a Murder?”  It’s about the people who were victims of the shooting at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina last summer, and their families.  We all remember that event, we all remember the hateful racial views of the shooter, and we all remember how the survivors and families bravely forgave him.  But this story told me who those people really were.  It helped me see how difficult it was to forgive, and how their faith made it possible.  Felicia Sanders was in that room when the shooting started.  She was with her adult son and her little granddaughter.  The son, Tywanza, was a guy who Von Drehle says was so joyous and ambitious, “if life was a multiple choice test, his answer was all of the above.”  As he watched this stranger coldly mow down innocent people who had welcomed him into their small Bible study, Tywanza bravely approached him and said, “You don’t have to do this.”  The shooter said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go,” and shot Tywanza at close range.  Felicia Sanders saw her son die, as she crouched on the floor with her granddaughter.  She is certain that the only reason the two of them are alive today is that they both were so completely covered in the blood of her son, they looked dead.   Sanders forgave the shooter because she felt she had no choice.  If she didn’t, she was afraid the hate that shooter felt would invade her own soul.  She asked the FBI for the Bible her son carried that night. They said it was unrecoverable.  She said she wanted it anyway.  So the FBI’s high-tech lab in Quantico cleaned the Bible as carefully as possible, page by page.  This is how the article ends: “She has it now.  The pages are pink with blood that can never wash away.  But she can still make out the words.”  
We all want to believe that these were the actions of a mentally ill person, and that’s that.  But that same hatred is alive in all of us.  Every one of us, if we’re honest, would admit there is some group of people we take pleasure in looking down on.  Maybe it’s not a particular race, but people who look, think speak, dress or act differently than us in some way.  Prejudice happens when you take something about yourself that you find valuable, that gives you identity, and then look down on people who are different.  You take that difference and give it moral weight.  To give just one example: As a parent, I tend to look down on people who make different parenting choices than I do.  When I see a child running loose in a restaurant or yelling loudly, I think to myself, “We would never have let our kids do that when they were little.  We would have taken them outside.  Those must be really thoughtless parents.”  Do you see what I did there?  I made a moral judgment about someone without knowing anything about them.  I did it because it made me feel good; I am a better parent and a more thoughtful guy.  We all do this.  It just depends on what’s important to your identity.  People who are in great shape look down on people who eat bacon cheeseburgers and never exercise.  People who are hard workers look down on people who sleep late and don’t take care of their lawns.  People who are highly educated look down on people who use poor grammar.  But what if that group you look down on suddenly in some way becomes a threat to your way of life?  Then that smugness becomes hatred. Under the right circumstances, it can become violent: It's a guy shooting into a car full of teenagers because their music was too loud.  It's a tribe in Rwanda committing genocide on their own neighbors.  That prejudice is alive in all of us, ticking like a time bomb, dividing us from one another. So what is the ultimate answer?  Surely it isn’t religion, right?  After all, doesn’t religion divide us?  Throughout this Christmas season, we’ve been in a series called Far as the Curse is Found.  We’ve been talking about what God intends to do through Jesus in this messed-up world.  We’ve seen how Jesus will be a King who gives us the kind of leadership we’ve always needed.  We’ve seen how He will redeem the planet, the same way He has redeemed each of our individual souls.  But here in verse 10, we see something else Jesus will do: He will unite humanity.  How?  Come and get some good news, just in time for Christmas.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Devotional: Repeat the Sounding Joy

Friends, here is the devotional I shared during the worship concert December 13:

We’ve just heard “Good Christians All, Rejoice” and in just a moment, we’ll hear “Joy to the World.”  Some people think joy isn’t particularly spiritual.  I’ve been a pastor a long time, and I’ve heard a lot of people confess a lot of sins, but I’ve never had anyone say to me, “Preacher, pray for me.  I’m just not a joyful enough person. “   I’ve known plenty who should have!  I know that would surprise some to hear. I have a friend who says Christians are people who always seem angry because someone, somewhere might be having fun.  When we think of a righteous person, we tend to think of a fat, red-faced preacher screaming about sin and hell, or a severe old woman with her hair in a tight bun, whose face would crack if she smiled.  But get this:
·       Jesus was a man of joy.  It got Him into trouble.  His enemies accused Him
of being a “drunkard and a glutton.”  This wasn’t because Jesus got drunk or ate too much; both of those things are sins, and the Bible clearly says Jesus never sinned.  They accused Him of these things because they weren’t used to a religious teacher who seemed like He was enjoying life.  Jesus was a man of wit and warmth, a man who gave His disciples joking nicknames, who made some of His more spiritual points with humor, and whose personality was so magnetic, people would spend days just listening to Him talk.  He didn’t fit the profile of a “serious” religious teacher.
·       God is a God of joy.  Genesis 1:31 says that after God had created every thing,
He looked around at it and said, “it is very good.”  Psalm 104:31 says, Let the Lord be glad in all His works.  In other words, God enjoys the things He made.  In Isaiah 65:18, it says that God rejoices in His people.  And in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, Jesus pictures God as a father who throws a party when one of His rebellious children come home.  Imagine that: You bring joy to the heart of God!
·       In the book of Acts there are several stories of people becoming Christians.
In most of those stories, joy is mentioned.  Philip preached the gospel in Samaria, and “there was great joy in that city” (Ac 8:8).  The Ethiopian eunuch got saved in the desert, and “went on his way rejoicing” (Ac 8:39).  Paul and Silas led their jailer in Philippi to salvation, and he “rejoiced, believing in God with all his house” (Ac 16:34).  When Jesus comes into your life, He brings joy with Him.
·       Many times in scripture, we are commanded to rejoice.  We are told to enjoy
the food we eat (1 Ti 4:4-5), our friendships with other believers (Ph. 4:1), our physical relationship with our spouse (Pr 5:18-19), and most of all, our relationship with God (Ph 4:4).  We are even told to rejoice in times of trial (Ja. 1:2, among many others).  In Galatians, joy is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit.  In other words, if God is alive inside you, you should be a joyful person. That doesn’t mean you always need to be happy. There are times to weep, times to be serious, even times to be angry.  But joy means you have a settled state of joyfulness. It means your default setting is to enjoy life. 
How do we get there?  Treat it as you would any other shortcoming in your relationship with God.  Confess it to the Father.  Ask Him to teach you joy.  He wants you to have it.  Then allow the Holy Spirit to show you what is present in your life that is stealing your joy.  Maybe there is an area of rebellion against God in your life, and that is what is making you miserable.  Maybe you are spending too much of your time around people or influences that bring you down.  Maybe you need professional help.  God wants you to have joy.  Do what it takes to bring the joy of the Lord into your life.
There are probably people here today who have not yet accepted Christ as their Savior.  If you’re one of those people, it’s not surprising if you don’t have joy.  We were created for one thing above all others, and that is a relationship with God.  When we try to live our lives without that, it’s like putting an eagle in a tiny cage.  No matter how much good food, how many enticing distractions you put into that cage, they can’t stop that eagle from being miserable.  Eventually, that bird will die because it is prevented from doing the thing it was created to do: Soar.  As long as you live your life apart from Christ, you are slowly dying.  Perhaps you have found distractions that temporarily keep you from noticing, but you’re dying, just the same.  You can’t experience real joy until Jesus is your Lord.  I can’t say it any clearer than that.
               In the African nation of Ghana, the largest Christian group is the Presbyterian church.  It was started over a hundred years ago by Scottish Presbyterians, and when they would convert people to Christianity, they would tell them they had to act like, well, Scottish Presbyterians.  In other words, their worship had to be very somber, very serious, very reverent.  But somewhere in the last few decades, someone wised up and said, “Hey, these folks aren’t Scots.  They’re Ghanans.  Let’s tell them they can worship God like Ghanans.”  And the only thing they’ve changed is the offertory.  For the rest of the service, they’re somber, serious and reverent.  But when that offertory music starts, they get up.  They smile and clap.  And one by one, they dance—not walk, not run, but dance—down the aisle.  And they really get after it.  They don’t wait for the plate to come to them, they dance up to it.  I’m certainly not suggesting we start that tradition around here.  I’ve got no rhythm, and I doubt many of you do either.  Offerings would go way, way down.  All I’m saying is this: Isn’t it interesting that these Ghanans only smile and dance when they’re giving their money away?  Think about that.  I think that’s a lesson to all of us.  If you don’t have joy, maybe it’s because you’re holding something back from God.  When you give it all away to Him, that’s when the music starts, and your heart begins to dance.  Try it and see.  The reason we sing Joy to the World, the reason we can have joy in the first place, is because Jesus gave it all away for us.  Hebrews says He died for us “for the joy set before Him.”  The cross was bearable because He knew joy was on the other side of it.  That joy was knowing that His death meant spending eternity with you and me.  So we chase after Him, and we find joy along the way.  We live it, we shout it, we sing it, and we repeat the sounding joy of Christ to a world that desperately needs it. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

He Comes to Make His Blessings Flow

We live in a messed-up world, don’t we?  It’s hard to really decide what world problem to be most concerned about.  Obviously, there’s the worldwide threat of terrorism. There’s the devastation of civil war in places like Syria, Ukraine, and South Sudan.  In our own country, there’s a loss of Christian identity, as the Church and the Gospel we believe in seem to fade further from public consciousness with each passing day.  There’s racial inequality and justice for the unborn; there’s the spread of diseases like Alzheimer’s as our parents and grandparents get older, with no cure in sight, and also diseases like cancer and AIDS that afflict all ages.  But one Christian decided he knew exactly what to be most upset about.  He found out that Starbucks was releasing their annual holiday cups, and this year, they would simply be bright red, with no traditional Christmas symbols on them, like reindeer or snowflakes.  He released a video on social media that went viral.  He said this was yet another sign of the persecution of Christians in our culture.  Really.  So first, I have two things: One, it’s ridiculous for us to expect a for-profit business like Starbucks to proclaim the glory of Jesus. That’s our job.  Second, reindeer and snowflakes and Christmas trees have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or the Gospel He brought us.  And next, I want to steal a thought from John Ortberg: Imagine this gentleman standing in judgment before Jesus Christ, and seeing the Lord celebrating all the people throughout history who have paid the highest price for His cause: He’ll see Stephen, who was stoned to death, and Peter, who was crucified upside down, and Polycarp, who was burned alive, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis, and Jim Elliot, who was speared to death by the very people he came to share the Gospel with, whose killers later came to know Christ through the witness of his wife.  Not to mention all the untold numbers of other martyrs, including 21st century Christians from the Middle East who were beheaded for their faith.  Can you imagine him stepping forward and saying, “Hey, you guys think you had it bad?  I had to drink overpriced coffee in a cup with no reindeers or snowflakes.” I don’t think so. 

The Horror!!!

But there is one positive thing about that ridiculous anger.  It reflects something that is true.  We know that a King is coming; a King who will rule forever with justice and righteousness.  We know His name is Jesus.  And we know that when He claims His throne, He will be unchallenged.  And at that time, Philippians 2 will be proven true: Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  We’re kind of in a hurry to see that happen.  So what kind of world will that be, when Jesus is once and for all King?  As we continue to look at Isaiah 11 this Sunday, verses 6-9 will give us a glimpse of what we have ahead of us.