Thursday, January 28, 2016

Killing the Old Man

            I want to teach you a new word today.  Mortification.  It’s an old, old word, rarely used anymore.  If it sounds familiar, it’s because we use some words similar to it.  We sometimes refer to a funeral director as a mortician, someone who works with the dead.  If something embarrassing were to happen to you, you might say, “I was mortified.”  In a way, you’re saying, “I was so humiliated, I wanted to die.”  Mortification has to do with death, or more specifically, the process of something or someone dying. We get the term from the writings of Paul originally.  In Romans 8:13 he wrote, For if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  Paul pictures our sin as a cancer.  You can’t decide to peacefully coexist with cancer.  You either deal with it aggressively--cut it out through surgery, poison it through chemotherapy--or it will consume and kill you.  That’s the way it is with sin in our lives.  We have to say, “It’s either you or me, sin, and I’m not going down without a fight.”  In Colossians 3:5, he gets more specific: Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.  Paul was following the teaching of Jesus, that to follow Christ means to be born again, to become a new person.  If we want to enjoy this new life, we have to do away with our old lives.  That isn’t something that happens overnight; it’s a lifelong battle.  In the old King James version, “put to death,” was translated, “mortify,” and theologians started using that term.

            Why do I bring this up?  Two reasons.  First, because we’re talking here at the start of a New Year about Making Progress, becoming better people in real, lasting ways.  The hard truth of Scripture is that you can’t make true progress without ruthlessly attacking areas of your life that are out of God’s will.  Second, because in the letter of 1 Peter that we’re basing this sermon series on, Peter actually talks about mortification.  He doesn’t use the same term as Paul, but that’s what 1 Peter 4:1-5 is about.  And I want to warn you: Mortification is messy and painful.  Think again about the idea of cancer treatment.  If a doctor told you, “I think it would be a good idea if I put you to sleep and cut out some parts of your body, then have you ingest poison once a week for a few months,” you’d run screaming from his office.  You would only allow him to put you through it all if you were sure you’d die otherwise.  There will be pain involved in attacking your sin; it’s my job this Sunday to convince you that pain is worth it. 

            I want you to think about a sin that you commonly struggle with.  Maybe it’s a part of your personality that you wish you could change, or a habit you wish you could break, or a mistake you keep stumbling into.  Perhaps you’ve never really called it sin; but it’s something about yourself that embarrasses you and may hurt others.  Now think about what you would need to do in order to put that sin to death.  The woman who holds grudges knows she could start praying for the people who hurt her.  The man who can’t stop looking at porn knows he could set up filters on his computer, could invite some trusted male friends to monitor him.  The woman who drinks too much has thought about entering rehab.    The guy with a bad temper knows he could get counseling, or avoid the things that make him angry, or just exercise some self-control.  Most of us, if our lives depended on it, would do something drastic to change.  Whatever that something is, why haven’t you done it yet?  We make excuses: It’s not that bad.  Anyone else would have done it.  I can stop anytime.  They had it coming.  Nobody’s perfect.  This Sunday, I want to show you from Peter’s words three realities which, if we understand them, will motivate us to do what it takes.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Redeeming the Ridicule

                 We’re in a series called Making Progress, talking about how we can actually be better people in 2016 than the people who woke up on January 1.  We’re studying 1 Peter, and last week we saw God’s plan to use us to change the world.  I hope you found that as inspiring as I did.  But even if you did, it’s very likely you left here and pretty quickly saw and heard things that brought you back down to earth.  Let’s face it, outside the walls of a church, we don’t find much encouragement in our walk with Christ.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say we’re more likely to face ridicule for our faith now than at any time in our nation’s history.   America has always been a land where people were free to believe anything they wanted; our founding fathers wanted to separate us from the old country, where state churches had the power to dominate public life.  But, culturally if not legally, the Christian faith always had a home-field advantage in this country.  Politicians knew that, in order to win election, they had to at least make a show of religious piety.  Movie studios often made big-budget, biblically based films Major corporations would refuse to advertise on a TV program that might offend Christian sensibilities.  Of course, there has been a long tradition of poking fun at religion in America, with people like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis pointing out hypocrisy.  When I was growing up, reporters and talk-show hosts loved to expose the flaws of televangelists.  But even as they did so, they were drawing a contrast between wing-nuts and con men on the one hand, and sincere, devout believers on the other.  We could all agree with them, to a certain extent. 
            We’re in a new day now.  More and more, we see people publicly ridiculing not hypocrites or religious con men, but the very idea of faith in Christ.  Perhaps you’ve encountered this through the media.  Recently, I saw the story of a policeman who pulled over a man who was speeding.  He noticed the man crying, asked him why, and found out the man’s daughter had cancer, which had recently taken a turn for the worse.  The policeman decided not to give the man a ticket.  The man then asked, “Can you pray for me?”  Right by the side of the highway, the cop knelt on the pavement and prayed for this man, then promised to have his entire church pray as well.  It was a beautiful story that brought tears to my eyes.  Then I clicked on the public comments.  Most were positive.  They were from readers who were touched just like I was.  But I also saw comments like this: “Any cop who brings superstitious nonsense to the workplace needs to be fired. This is disgusting and an effort to force his indefensible, cultish credo on people who have no choice but listen.”  And “It would (make me angry) if he tried to pray for me.  I don’t need an invisible sky fairy.”  But for many of us, our encounter of this attitude is more personal.  We’ve met ridicule for our faith from someone close to us: A classmate, a co-worker, a neighbor, a teacher, even a family member.    
            The people who first read 1 Peter were in a similar situation.  Like us, they weren’t yet experiencing any physical persecution for their faith.  But their beliefs were misunderstood and ridiculed widely.  In 1 Peter 1:11-12, Peter writes…so that, in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil… Christians were accused, for instance, of not being patriots because they didn’t worship Caesar or the Roman gods.  In Ephesus, a riot broke out led by people who made their living selling little idols; they said if people turned to Jesus and away from polytheism, it would wreck the economy.  For us today, we tend to be accused of ignorance and intolerance, two of the few remaining sins our culture is still willing to condemn.   So what should be our response when we face ridicule?  Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that…they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation. Peter is saying that our response to ridicule should be so outstanding, it changes the lives of our critics.  How can we do this? That's what I'll be talking about on Sunday.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Nabeel Qureshi's memoir was a pleasant surprise for me.  Qureshi is an excellent writer; I listened to the Audible edition, and he makes a very effective narrator, as well.  But, having read and heard many Christian stories of conversion, I found Qureshi's story more moving than most.  He spends a good deal of time early on telling us about his upbringing in a loving, devout Muslim home (The Qureshis are Ahmadi Muslims, a branch with which I was not familiar).  Nabeel's father was a Pakistani-born officer in the US Navy; he was descended from Muslim missionaries, and Nabeel was raised to rigorously defend his Islamic faith in the "Christian" west.  This part of the book did two things: 1) It helped me understand what it's like to be Muslim in America as well as how foreign-born Muslims view American culture (which they see as "Christian" culture).  It was heartbreaking to realize that, although Nabeel had many religious conversations with self-professed Christians during his upbringing (most of which he initiated), no Christian ever attempted to befriend him or his parents, until he met one genuine Christ-follower his freshman year of college.  2) It helped me feel the emotional turmoil of a young Muslim considering faith in Jesus.  With our individualistic Western mindset, we see the choices of a college-aged person to diverge from the views of his/her parents as a natural part of growing up; but for Nabeel, leaving Islam wasn't simply a personal choice. It was a profound insult to his parents, and brought incredible shame to his family among their peers.  Qureshi's storytelling is so skilled, I felt that tension, and while as a Christian I was thrilled every time he took another step closer to faith in Christ, I also felt deep sadness for the pain that his choice would inflict on his loving family.

Qureshi also does a fantastic job of recreating the long intellectual journey from committed Muslim to faithful Christian.  He includes recreations of several deep theological conversations, debates, and even arguments with his Christian friends.  He had to overcome several intellectual barriers: The idea that the Bible had been changed by church authorities over time, and was nothing like the original writings; that Jesus was merely a human prophet and not divine; that the idea of the Trinity was blasphemous.  Once those barriers were broken down and he was willing to consider the claims of Christianity, he then had to research his own Islamic faith, and see if the things he had been taught about Muhammed and the Quran were indeed true.  These sections of the book are intellectually deep, but Qureshi makes them highly readable, and includes enough personal detail to bring you along for the emotional ride.

When Qureshi's story is done, we are left with a blend of satisfaction and sadness.  He has dedicated this book to his parents, who remain devout Muslims.  It's clear that his conversion is still, and perhaps always will be, a barrier to their relationship.  But even more so, we are filled with a yearning to reach out to our foreign-born neighbors with the genuine love of Christ.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

God's Building Project

Remember when Kevin Costner was this young?

Remember the movie, Field of Dreams?  A baseball-loving, ex-hippie corn farmer in Iowa is struggling; he has regrets about his relationship to his deceased father, and he’s about to lose his farm.  Suddenly, he hears a voice from his corn field saying, “If you build it, he will come.”  Somehow, the farmer interprets this to mean that he needs to build a baseball field in the middle of all his corn.  It’s never quite clear until the end of the movie how doing this will heal his heart or save his farm, but he does it anyway.  Here’s an interesting side note: The real Iowa corn farmer on whose land the field was built kept the baseball field.  He never charged for admission, but he did operate a little souvenir stand on-site.  Until he sold the field in 2011, 65,000 people a year visited.  People often look at the world in all of its evil and injustice and violence and pain and say, “What is God doing?”  The answer is that He’s building something.  And that may not make a lot of sense to us, just like building a baseball field in the middle of a corn farm doesn’t make sense.  But this is the project of redemption, the story of humanity, and this Sunday we’re going to talk about what God is doing, and how He expects you to be a part of it. 

At the beginning of a New Year, people often make resolutions.  We feel like we have a chance for a fresh start; we want to be better in some way than we were before.  We want to make progress.  That’s what our series is about, how to make real progress in life.  For most of us, we want to make progress in our physical fitness or our financial status.  Those are good things, but not the most important ways for us to improve.  It’s like car maintenance.  If you wash and wax your car and change the oil when you should, that’s smart.  But that car will eventually wear out, anyway.  I hope some of us do get into shape this year, but these bodies won’t last forever, no matter what we do.  I hope some of us do get out of debt, or get a better job, or reach some other financial goal this year, but we can’t take any of that stuff with us when this life is over.  The kind of progress I am talking about is becoming the person God created you to be; that kind of progress doesn’t just make your life better temporarily; it can change the lives of everyone you know, and can produce rewards for you that last eternally.  We started two weeks ago by talking about how having hope--a focus on eternal things--will help us make progress.  Last week, we saw how God has invested so much into us, we shouldn’t settle for being like everyone else.  We should strive for more.  This Sunday, we’ll look at another way to make progress: We need to realize that we are part of the story of how God is redeeming the world.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Making Progress

My father-in-law used to tell us a story about the time when he was a young man--maybe a teenager--and worked at the refinery his father ran.  The way I remember it, he was hanging out with other guys his age, and they were all talking about their fathers.  They were being rather disrespectful, calling them “my old man.”  Dick spoke up and said something about his “old man.”  Right then, one of the old roughnecks who worked at the refinery came up, grabbed him by the collar, got right in his face and said, “I’d better never hear you say anything like that about your father again.”  I’m sure there were some other choice words included.  I always found it interesting that the roughneck didn’t say anything to the other guys, only to my father-in-law.  The message there was, “Think about who you are, boy.  You should be different from these other losers.” 
Here at the start of 2016, we’re looking at 1 Peter, a letter written to a group of people much like us: They lived in a culture that thought their beliefs were ridiculous, but Peter was giving them no excuses, telling them their lives should be making consistent progress in the right direction.  Are you making progress in your life?  Are you becoming a better person in ways others can see and appreciate?  At the start of a New Year, we often think of ways we want to be better: We want to lose weight or get out of debt, for instance.  And those are all good things.  But they are temporary things.  Our bodies and our bank balances aren't forever.  I am challenging you to do something this year to make progress in your soul.  Last week, we saw how our hope of eternal life helps us make progress.  This week, as we study 1 Peter 1:13-25, we’ll look at how our present identity motivates us to grow.  A big fisherman named Peter has just grabbed you by the collar and is saying, “Think about who you are!  You shouldn't be ordinary.  You should be different.”   In the rest of this message, we’ll answer two questions: In what way are we supposed to be different from other people?  And why?