“We Will Not Quit!”

The parable of Jesus in Luke 18:1-8 has been titled “The Unjust Judge” and “The Persistent Widow. Which is it? Is the parable about an unjust judge or is it about a persistent widow? It’s about both and if we put them together we catch the theme of this story: persistence in the face of injustice.

It is not unusual to give primary attention to the first five verses, but without verses 6-8, we will miss Jesus’ point. In those verses Jesus talks about avenging His elect and the coming of the Son of Man, both of which must factor into our understanding of what Jesus was teaching in this parable.

Luke gives a summation of the parable as he begins: we must continually pray and not give up praying. But this continual praying is focused on something bigger than simply an unanswered prayer in our individual personal lives. In verses 6-8, Jesus has a time period in view, namely the intervening time between his earthly ministry and his second coming (“when the Son of Man comes”). While waiting for His return, do not give up on prayer. It is the antidote for not losing heart; it is what keeps faith strong.

That Jesus talks about God avenging His own elect who cry out to Him day and night is a reminder of what this intervening time will be like for God’s elect. Circumstances will be such that the elect will cry out for deliverance and for vengeance (Revelation 6:10). Deliverance may or may not come, but God’s promise is that vengeance will come with the return of Christ. This end must be kept in view throughout this period of redemptive history. No matter how dark things become, no matter how pessimistic the outlook, no matter how difficult it gets, no matter how much Christianity seems to make no advance but is in retreat, no matter how corrupt politicians become, no matter how irreverent, divided and violent society becomes, no matter how faithless preachers become, no matter how far they stray from the gospel, no matter how many professing Christians walk away from the truth, no matter how many churches cave in to cultural pressures, no matter how many times our prayers for unsaved neighbors go answered, we cannot give up on prayer. Why? To give up on prayer is to lose faith, and to lose faith is to give up the hope of the coming of Christ.

During this intervening time, God’s elect will often be treated the way the widow is initially treated in the parable. She was seeking justice from an adversary. Given the characters and the setting, it is likely what she was seeking was something she was owed; perhaps a service or commodity had been provided but she had not received payment. As a widow, she was vulnerable—easily ignored and taken advantage of, with no social status, and no husband to stand up for her. The judge is a jerk who did not fear God or care for people. Who knows, it may have been one of the judge’s cronies who owed the widow because he ignored her plea.

In this period of time court decisions, legislation, executive orders, company policies, and school rules may be discriminatory and unjust against Christians. They certainly are in many places in the world and such actions are popping up increasingly in our society. We rightfully plead our case, we ask for justice, but it often falls on deaf ears. Even as I write, a prayer request is on my mind shared in our prayer group regarding a missionary who is in prison in another country on false charges and awaiting trial. If condemned, he may be looking at being in a foreign prison the rest of his life. “How long, Lord?”

The judge in Jesus’ parable finally relented because he realized he was risking his reputation and gave the widow justice. This sometimes happens for Christians, too; sometimes they win.  For example, after being unjustly treated by the governing authorities in Philippi, Paul charged them with violating his rights and insisted on them making amends, which they did (Acts 16:35-40).  But even it doesn’t work out that way, the point to observe is that this widow got her day in court because she continually asked for justice. She persisted until the judge gave in.

Jesus’ point: be like the widow with regard to prayer. This widow had to deal with an unjust and uncaring judge, but she still got her request because she wouldn’t back down. The elect have a Judge to whom they can appeal – God, who is watching over them and who deeply cares for them. If this woman got action from an unjust judge who cared nothing for her, do not for a moment think the elect will get no action from just God. He will certainly vindicate them in the end, and he will do it suddenly. The crucial question Jesus raises is this: will his elect remain faithful (and therefore prayerful) until He appears? Apparently, continual prayerfulness is a mark of that kind of faithfulness.

We struggle with the immediacy issue. We want justice now. But what if it doesn’t happen now? How many people have gone to their graves as victims of true injustice. What about them? They didn’t get justice before they died. That’s what we want. If someone lies about us, we want vindication in our lifetime. The trajectory of our world leading up to the coming of the Lord continually raises questions among God’s elect like, “When, Lord? Why, Lord? Do you not see? Why do you not answer? Why do you let them get away with that?” Questions like these are so prevalent the temptation (inspired by the Tempter) is to give up, to stop praying because it does no apparent good. “Prayer changes nothing!” he tells us.

In this parable Jesus pushes back against that tempting lie and exhorts us to see the bigger picture and to derive hope and renew faith from it. That bigger picture is the coming of Christ, which will be in power, glory, and justice. But his coming will be preceded by difficult times. In that period of waiting, we cannot become weary, but must persist in prayer. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13), and to the Galatian churches, “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:9). Even if no one responds to our “doing good,” even though harassment for our Christian faith puts us at a disadvantage, don’t lose heart, don’t grow weary, don’t lose faith. Defy every urge, every temptation, every rationalization to give up on prayer.

There is a story from history that powerfully illustrates the overarching lesson Jesus was driving home in the parable. On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches in Parliament. He had been Prime Minister for less than a month, and it was a dark time for his nation. European nations were falling like dominoes to the Nazis, as country after country was either overrun or simply capitulated to Hitler. Everyone around Churchill was telling him to sue for peace. It was the only way, they claimed, that Britain would survive. One research organization reported that civilian morale was low and claimed everyone looked suicidal. The report indicated that only half the population expected Britain to fight, which means the other half expected surrender. This is a description of weary citizens who had lost faith in their ability to survive as a nation.

Churchill disagreed. He did not lose heart and he inspired his fellow leaders, and through them, a whole country to the same hope. On that June day in 1940, he stood before the House of Commons and spoke these rousing words:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Churchill’s lethal weapon against the enemy in those dark days was his oratory. Ours is prayer. As long as we can pray, we can fight.  Continual prayer is our declaration, “We will never give up!” until Jesus returns.

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“Nothing in My Hands I Bring”

The tan colored building is where Luther died on Feb. 18, 1546, Eisleben, Germany.

Martin Luther died a public death.  His death was not public in the same way as his hero John Huss’ death was 131 years earlier.  Huss was condemned a heretic by the Council of Constance, handed over to the civil authorities, and publicly burned at the stake just outside the Konstanz Cathedral.  Like Huss, Luther was a priest whose life was transformed when he discovered the Bible.  Like Huss, Luther was declared to be a heretic.  The Edict of Worms (1521) labeled him an “outlaw,” and no doubt, he would have been handed over to authorities for execution, except for the providential hand of God.  Martin Luther lived twenty-five more years during which he preached thousands of sermons, wrote books and pamphlets, continued his teaching at the University of Wittenburg, and translated the Bible into German.  He lived a full life (by 16th-century standards), dying peacefully in the same town where he had been born sixty-two years earlier.

Accounts of Luther’s death were quickly published and disseminated to the public.  Descriptions of his death are preserved in paintings (see here and here), a death mask (see here), and written reports, all of which testified that he died a “good Christian” death.  Dying such a death was important in his day.  How Luther died would either validate or contradict what he had taught.

Catholic propaganda sought to establish its own death narrative for Luther.  Because he rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church (such as papal infallibility, selling of indulgences, that justification was by faith and works), he was put on trial and told to recant his teachings.  Luther would not recant, and was excommunicated by the Church, cutting him off from all the means of saving grace (according to Catholic doctrine), for he could not receive any of the sacraments.  Catholicism teaches that excommunication is a “medicinal” action and not “vindictive,” a corrective measure to bring the exile back to the path of righteousness.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction.”

Because Luther was declared a heretic, his opponents made many attempts to portray his death as horrible, as opposite of a “good Christian” death as they could.  Eleven months before Luther died, a printed letter in Italian reported his death.  A copy of the letter came into Luther’s possession, which he translated into German and published with his remarks.  According to this supposed eyewitness account, the day after Luther’s corpse was buried, his grave was opened and no body was found, but rather a sulfuric stench arose that made people sick.  As a result, it was claimed, many who had followed him returned to the “holy Christian Church” (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church).  Luther was rather bemused and wrote, “I felt quite tickled on my knee-cap and under my left heel at this evidence how cordially the devil and his minions, the Pope and the papists hate me.  May God turn them from the devil!” (Theo. Hoyer, “How Dr. Martin Luther Died,” Concordia TheologicalMonthly, Vol. XVII, No. 2 (February 1946): 81-88).  Other accounts of Luther’s death reported hearing shrieks, seeing devils flying in the air, and a flock of ravens accompanying the corpse on its journey from Eisleben where he died to Wittenberg where he was buried.  Years later it was reported that Luther committed suicide.  These false narratives never took hold because so many witnesses were there.

In this display case is the shroud that covered the casket of Martin Luther. (Martin Luthers Sterbahaus, Eisleben, Germany)

Some people expected that as Luther lay on his deathbed, he would recant his heresies and end his exile from the Catholic Church.  Surely he would want to make peace with God and the Church before death brought the eternal damnation of his soul.  Within a few hours of Luther’s death, five of the sixteen people who were present at his bedside wrote letters describing the scene.  Luther died without any of the trappings of Medieval Catholocism.  He did not request a priest to administer last rites.  He did not dress himself as a monk as some did in hopes of gaining favor with God.  When asked if he died faithful to the doctrine of Christ which he taught, Luther said, “Yes.”  As death drew nearer, he prayed and recited Scriptures.  It was reported that three times he quoted John 3:16.  So peaceful was his death that those with him thought he swooned and relied on the attending doctor to establish that he had died.  It was reported that when Luther died he was holding no consecrated objects like a rosary.  His hands were empty.

Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, monk, and friar was converted by the gospel truth that “the just shall live by faith.”  There was nothing he could do, nothing he could offer to remedy his guilty conscience and take away his sin.  It was Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.  The powerful message of Luther’s empty hands is expressed in a hymn written by Augustus Toplady, an Anglican cleric and theological descendant of the Reformation (he was an ardent Calvinist).  Luther loved music and was a hymnwriter who taught his church to sing.  Though written 231 years after his death, I can hear Martin Luther singing these words with his last fleeting breath:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee.

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Reflections on Church Attendance

It is no secret that Americans do not attend church as much as they once did.  Whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or Evangelical, attendance patterns overall are down.  Just over a year ago, The Pew Research Center published a report titled “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship.”  One piece of information gleaned from their survey showed that those who go to church less frequently than they used to overwhelmingly said “logistics” was the biggest reason.  The survey indicated that these “logistical” barriers included being too busy, having crazy work schedules, being too lazy, and not caring to attend church as much as they liked doing other things.  The research clearly suggests that people today view attending church as optional in a way it was not viewed in the past.

I grew up in the church tradition of attending Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening service, and Wednesday evening prayer service.  That is four services a week.  Additionally, I remember attending a Bible training hour prior to the Sunday evening service in one church, and in another I attended a Friday evening children’s Bible club.  Many people I know who were raised in the same tradition have cut their services attendance in half, and 4/4 Sunday mornings a month is becoming a rarer occurrence, even among the “faithful.”

A few observations.

  1. Confusing church attendance and disciple making.  The church’s mission is not to get people to attend church but to make mature followers of Jesus Christ.  Some see attending church services as the equivalent of being a disciple though they have never once shared their faith with an unbeliever, or discipled a believer to maturity.  I remember one lady in the church I attended as a teenager who had the longest string of perfect attendance pins for Sunday School (I’m not exaggerating), and was quite proud of it, but had children who had no interest in church at all.  I have noticed a number of my contemporaries who grew up in a church environment like mine, and who have scaled back on their church attendance.  In some cases, it is a reaction against having to be at church every time the doors were open.  But let’s be honest and admit that the problem was not having the church doors open that frequently; the problem was not understanding why they were open.
  2. Fuzzy definitions of church.  This observation goes with the previous one.  In surveys like the one conducted by Pew, church is seen as a place you go on Sunday for a religious service.  That is not the NT definition of church.  The church is a redeemed people, called out of this world to God through faith in Jesus Christ, baptized into union with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and empowered to fulfill the mission of Jesus to the world.  The church is spiritual, but it is also human and visible, gathered in small, medium, large, and extra-large groups around the world in assemblies called local churches.  One of the things these local churches do is meet together to worship, and Sunday has been that special day since the 1st century, a day of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.  A few years back, Ed Stetzer (researcher, author, church planter, college professor, and missiologist) analyzed research on the church and concluded that the church in America is not dying but is in transition, and noted that “transitioning is not the same as dying” (read his article here).  Another church researcher, of a more liberal persuasion, dismissed Stetzer’s conclusion as an excuse and a convenient denial of reality (read that article here).  The fact is, Stetzer’s observation was based on a NT concept of the church.  He identifies three kinds of Christians in America: cultural Christians (Christian in name only by cultural definition), congregational Christians (who have a loose connection to a church), and convictional Christians (what I would see as NT Christians).  Stetzer observes decline in the cultural and congregational categories, but growth in the convictional.  That’s what he means by “transitioning,” and why he says the church isn’t dying.  Rather (and the Pew study supports this), there is something of a religious revival occurring on the devout end of the church-attendance spectrum.  The church is people, not a building, not services, and not programs.  The latter three are relevant to the church, but they do not define what a church is.  If a church has fewer attenders this year than last, but makes more disciples this year than last year, it is fair to ask the question, is that church dying or is it becoming healthier?
  3. Multiplication of options.  The abundance of church brands and alternatives has certainly contributed to the erosion of faithful church attendance among Christians.  Between online church, radio and television preachers, podcasts, and a multitude of parachurch options, the local church is hardly needed.  What does the local church offer that can’t be found through any of those sources?  The ease with which one can find great sermons, sound Bible studies, uplifting worship music, and prayer groups greatly diminishes one’s sense of need to actually gather faithfully with their church.  Even at our church, if you miss a Sunday you can catch the sermon on our YouTube channel.  All that to say, it is easier than ever to miss church but not miss it.
  4. Succumbing to “logistics.”  I want to return to this one because it was cited by the survey respondents as the overwhelming reason for their reduced attendance.  They were too busy, had crazy work schedules, were too lazy, or just liked doing other things instead of going to church.  I’m not going to comment on being too lazy unless the reason is staying out too late the night before.  That’s a problem.  I’m also not going to comment on crazy work schedules, unless that crazy work schedule is not required by the employer but chosen by the employee.  If chosen by the employee, that is a problem.  But I am most interested in the “too busy” and the “other things” reasons for missing.  From my vantage point, going to church has more competition than I ever remember.  It used to be easier to attend church because nothing competed with it.  Culturally, Sunday was a “protected” day.  But that protected status has been systematically eliminated.  Sunday is a free-for-all.  Schedules get filled up with work, sports, family, and leisure.  Other things more attractive than going to church are readily available.  Since salvation doesn’t depend on going to church and sanctification can’t be measured by a mere attendance figure, what’s the big deal to miss?  The “logistics” of getting to church are just more complicated these days.

I am not on a campaign to increase church attendance.  But I am committed to affirming the value of the church gathered.  At the church I pastor, we covenant as members to “sustain” the worship of our church, which means supporting it with our presence.  When the writer of Hebrews exhorted his Christian audience not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25), he meant literally together, which is what we call attending church (there is no figurative meaning in the Greek).  Don’t neglect it, he says, especially in view of the imminent return of Jesus.  Might it be that neglecting this exhortation is symptomatic of being too caught up with this present age?  How else could faithfully attending church become a “logistical” challenge?  As we move closer to the Lord’s return and all that means in our world, one thing seems clear — we don’t need less church.

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The Anger and Anguish of God

Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because he ministered during times that triggered painful emotions.  But Jeremiah was only reflecting the emotions of the God he represented.  Jeremiah’s anger reflected God’s anger.  Jeremiah’s anguish was God’s anguish.  God’s people, Israel and Judah, constantly rebelled against Him.  Their rebellion is pictured as a betrayal of lovers.  In her youth, Israel was like a new bride in love with her husband (Jer. 2:2).  But she had a wandering eye and adopted a seductive lifestyle as she pursued other lovers.  As the betrayed lover, God questioned His people as a perplexed lover would question their unfaithful spouse:  “What do you find wrong with Me?” (Jer. 2:5)  Perhaps more insulting is that, though God was Israel’s Father, they were saying to trees, “You are my father,” and to stones, “You gave birth to me.” (Jer. 2:27)  Think about a young adult saying to his father who conceived him,  loved him, provided for him, and protected him, “You’re not my dad.  That rock is.  It gave me life.  It loved me.  It provided for and protected me.”  How insulting and how sad.

Perhaps what is most amazing about the dynamics of this toxic relationship is that God even cares.  Why would God subject Himself to this?  Why would He waste emotion on people who treated Him this way?  Anger is exhausting.  Sorrow is draining.  Why would God subject Himself to anger and grief over people who just did not care, people who continually insulted Him, and when confronted by Him said, “What did I do?” (Jer. 2:35)

The easy answer to the why question is, “Because God loves.”  His love is unfailing and limitless for all who come under its shade.  His love is fiercely loyal and, therefore, it is protective.  To mess with those whom God loves, as He does Israel, is worse than messing with a mamma bear’s cubs, even if those cubs are misbehaving.  Yes, the easy answer is God’s covenantal love.

But the easy answer is not a simple answer.  It is not a simple matter to contemplate a God who is absolutely sovereign, possessing both the authority and the power to do whatever He chooses to do, with accountability to no one, choosing to subject Himself to the painful emotions provoked by mere POCs (products of creation) like us.  God doe not have to be angry, does He?  God does not have to grieve, does He?  God could simply choose to not care, could He not?  I don’t grieve when I see a dead skunk in the road.  I turn up my nose and think, “Good riddance.”  A smashed spider or a dead snake are reasons to rejoice.  Even on a human level, one human being to another, I find it easy for people’s own self-destruction to not bother me — it’s their own fault.  But these things bother God.  They bother Him enough to stir anger, feel sorrow, and shed tears. (Jer. 8:21-22; 14:17-18)

Does God have to act this way?  Is He held hostage by His own emotions?  Or can He just turn them on and off at will, thus making the whole emotional reaction thing a bit of a sham?  I think the simplest answer is to say that God always thinks, feels, and acts in ways consistent with the totality of who He is.  He does not simply choose to turn on the anger emotion or the grief emotion and then turn it off.  God actually gets angry and He really does grieve.  He is reacting in a manner consistent with all that He is as God.

Such reaction on God’s part is not the same as me saying, after some emotional outburst, “That’s just the way I am,” which is my feeble attempt to justify my reaction.  That statement is more of an excuse than a confession.  It is an admission of being held hostage by my emotions, and thus unable to control myself.  The reason this response is not acceptable for me is because “the way I am,” isn’t necessarily good or right.  “The way I am” is often wrong.  “The way I am” still manifests brokenness.  “The way I am” is still being repaired by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.  This is not true of God.  The way God is, is perfect.  Nothing about Him needs to change because to change perfection is to produce imperfection.  God gets angry, not because anger controls Him, but because anger is His perfect reaction to the filth and degradation of sin.  God grieves, not because grief has taken Him over, but because grief is the perfect reaction flowing from a perfect God over people He loves, who reject Him and choose self-destructive ways instead.  He grieves, knowing what they are missing.  He is angered by that which stands in their way and robs them of Him.

God is not like the human sovereign who dares not express any emotion in public.  He is not emotionally detached from us.  God is passionate: passionately angry, passionately loving, and passionately sorrowing.  Why?  Because He genuinely cares.  But we should not make ourselves the ultimate object of such passionate emotions, as if we hold the power to trigger God’s emotions.  Above all, God is passionate for His own glory.  Anyone who robs that glory from Him will feel the blaze of His anger, but it will be sprinkled with the tears of His grief.  God knows the only place I can be who I was made to be, the only place I can be satisfied, and the only place I can find the delight my soul longs for is in Him.  Whatever keeps me from that will be the object of His anger and the reason for His grief.

What a God!

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Time-Out!

I played basketball in high school.  I remember the conditioning we went through, including stair-laps around the gym and the infamous “killers,” which were sprints that began and ended with jumping.  I remember our coach timing those and making us continue doing them until the whole team came in under a time designated by the coach, and yes, tenths-of-a-second counted.  In those practices we always worked on the basic skills of dribbling, passing, shooting, and moving without the ball.  Every practice ended with us taking foul shots and recording the outcome with the coach.  Practices also consisted of intra-squad scrimmages so we could apply our skills in a setting more like that of a real game.  When practice was done, we hit the showers and headed home.  But practices weren’t what the season was all about.  Practices were about the game.

During the game, coach called time-outs.  He did not call time-outs during practices because coach could interrupt the practice whenever he wanted to instruct or strategize.  However, during a game, he had to use a time-out for that purpose.  Time-outs were on the clock and he only had so many to call during a game.  He called time-outs for various reasons.  Sometimes our opponent had a series of  fast-breaks and piled up some quick scoring, so coach would call a time-out to interrupt their momentum, to allow us to catch our breath, and to regroup.  There were times, he would call a time-out so we could set up an in-bounds play.  I can remember times when he called a time-out to chew us out for a series of bad plays, whether it was not thinking, laziness, or unsportsmanlike conduct.  Other times he called a time-out to encourage us to hang tough and keep our heads in the game.  No matter the reason, when the time-out was over, we headed back into the game.  Though we needed the time-out, the time-out wasn’t the game.

Sunday worship services are like time-outs.  They are a time to regain focus on God; to remind each other of the gospel; to exhort and encourage each other not to drift, but to hang in there.  Any given week, the enemy will run fast-breaks and pile up points against us.  The events of any week can exhaust us emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  We constantly face decisions both large and small.  We make mistakes.  We get lazy and distracted.  We sin.  We lose sight of the goal.  A Sunday worship service is like coach calling, “Time-out!”  In the presence of God we catch our spiritual breath as we think, confess, and recommit.  When the time-out is done, we don’t go sit on the bench.  We get back in the game.  When the worship service is done, the worshipper is not done, because the worship service itself is not the game.  The true worship of God recharges us to get back in the game, hearts ready, hands and mouths prepared to serve God.

It goes without saying that worship is not contained to a worship service.  But it does need to be said that the goal of the believer is not attending worship services.  The goal of the believer is being sent forth as a worshipper to be a witness to the world.  Worship stirs an inward desire to declare God’s glory and tell others about Jesus Christ.  It was Isaiah’s worship encounter that led to his confession, “Here am I, send me!”

The most important thing on a Sunday morning is not whether you get pumped up by the music or stirred by the sermon.  The most important thing is whether your worship sends you forth as a witness, declaring God’s greatness to others.

I hope you’ll take a time-out this weekend, and then get back in the game!

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Why Is It So Hard?

Why is it so hard to reach religious people with the gospel?  I’m talking about good, upright, moral, people?  Perhaps you can recall times you engaged one of these individuals in conversation, and the door opened to share the gospel.  But in the end, nothing happened.  They said they have always believed in God all their life, and some even say they believe in Jesus.  They do not express assurance of salvation like that of which I speak, but they seem to have enough to convince them they’re okay.  Why is that?

Yesterday morning I stopped at a convenience store to buy a cup of coffee.  I grabbed some change in the car (so I wouldn’t end up getting more change).  I poured a small-sized coffee and headed to the checkout.  I put my cup of coffee on the counter and reached for my wallet but came up empty since I had forgotten it at home.  No wallet meant no cash or credit cards.  I had a $1.29 cup of coffee and I couldn’t pay for it.  I was embarrassed.  I fumbled a bit and said I would have to go home and get my wallet.  There was the cup of coffee sitting there and I didn’t know what to do with it.  Just as I was going to ask the cashier if she would hold it there while I drove home to get my wallet, she said, “It’s on us.”  I looked at her quizzically and she said, “The coffee is on us.”  What that meant, though it took a moment to sink in, was that I did not have to pay for it.  She was giving me the cup of coffee.  I was pleasantly surprised, but it still left me feeling awkward because I knew the reason she was giving it to me was because I didn’t have enough money.  Then I had this thought: “I wonder if she thinks I’m one of those people trying pulling one over on her, the old ‘I forgot my wallet’ routine to get something free.”  So, I quickly gave her the 45-cents in my hand and said, “Here, take this, and thank you.”  I insisted on doing something to prove I wasn’t a con man.  I left the store, went home and got my wallet.  I thought about returning to pay the remaining 84-cents, mostly to make myself look good.  That is when it hit me — the cashier had said me, “the coffee is on us.”  It was a gift that I was reluctant to accept because I felt like it made me look bad.  But you know what?  You don’t repay gifts, only debts.  When she said, “It’s on us,” she was erasing the debt and giving me a gift.  Yet, my first response wasn’t to accept it because I felt “too good” about myself to do that.

On the cross, Jesus says to sinners, “It’s on me.  You don’t have to pay.” But most people still think they do.  Why? Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31).  Healthy people see no personal need for a doctor.  Jesus went on to say, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).  Those who are righteous have nothing for which to repent.  Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).  If you don’t think you’re lost, you see no need of being found.  That is why it is hard for good, moral, responsible people to be saved.  It is not impossible — look at the example of the Apostle Paul.  It’s just not easy.  A $1.29 gift reminded me of how difficult my own pride made it to accept a simple gift.  Why would I think it would be easy for a good person to acknowledge their sin and need for help?

I am grateful for the kindness of the cashier.  I plan to stop in and purchase a large cup of coffee as a way of showing my appreciation for her kindness to me.

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A Nativity of Imagination or Reality?

afa-p-fuucb2The Gospels provide two nativity scenes. Luke’s gospel tells of humble shepherds heeding the instruction of an angel and worshipping the Christ Child as He lay in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel tells of reputable magi following a star to Bethlehem and worshipping the Child in a house.  But I would like you to imagine a different nativity scene. Picture the brightest, strongest, most creative, most charitable people you can think of who have tried to solve the world’s problems — people like professors, philosophers, religious leaders, composers, authors, artists, scientists, generals, business executives, entrepreneurs, and kings, prime ministers, and presidents; think of Nobel prize winners. Think of the wise, powerful, and noble of this world. Can you picture such an assembly? Now, picture them on their knees encircling the manger, worshipping the newborn king. Wild imagination? Currently yes, but ultimately no. What this assembly of people have valiantly tried but miserably failed to do, this Child will accomplish.

Such a scene reminds me of an incident from the life of Jesus. One day His disciples were arguing over who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you know anything about The Twelve, it is surprising that any of them thought they would be that person. Perhaps they had in mind fleeting glimpses of some of the kinds of individuals listed above — people who do great things. Jesus’ answer showed how unlike the world’s system His system would be. He said, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then to press His point further, “He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (Mark 9:35-36).  A child silences the argument over greatness.

Imagine a nativity scene in that light — a Child placed in the midst of the “great” of this world, each of whom has either fought for or earned a place in the annals of human greatness, yet each having ultimately failed to stop the curse or stem the tide of human misery and depravity with words, armies, or wealth. That is what this Child came to do.

Imagine that collection of brilliant and creative minds, ingenuity, eloquence, and shear power, kneeling before an infant who cannot even speak, but whose unintelligible sounds come from the same voice that said, “Let there be . . . and it was so;” the same voice that cursed the serpent and cursed the ground because of rebellion. The most powerful of this world cannot reverse what this Child has already done. Their only hope is to bow in worship and to believe this Child who is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Surrounded by such human brilliance and greatness, this Child appears weak and insignificant, but “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

What an imaginary scene this is in our contemporary setting where the collective strength, wisdom and wealth of worldly man defies God and acts like King Herod (Matt. 2:3). But this imaginary scene will happen one day (Phil. 2:9-10; Rev. 21:24). Until then, be comforted by the remembrance that those who actually did gather at that nativity so long ago were not the wise, powerful, and noble. They were people like us — the foolish, weak, insignificant, and despised by the measuring tools of this world. The beauty of that is this — in the nativity of Jesus only One gets the glory because all glory belongs to Him, but we get the benefit.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

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