Ecclesiastes: Meaningless//Meaningful (new sermon series)

Ecclesiastes is probably my favorite book in the Old Testament. It’s a book that I love to turn to when life hits its speed bumps. It’s also a book that I have wanted to preach through for a while, but in sermon planning just never felt the time was right… until now.

Yesterday we wrapped our journey through John 13-21. This Sunday (4/30), I plan to start a 12-week (give or take, we’ll see how it shakes out) journey through Ecclesiastes. So, here is some information that might be helpful as we start:

Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon (1:1, 12-18) to his son (12:12). It is a treasure trove of wisdom from an older man as he reflects back on his life. He had done what he wanted and denied himself no pleasure, and his conclusion: Life is meaningless without finding meaning through God. Thus, I have chosen to call this series: Meaningless//Meaningful.

Parts of Ecclesiastes, especially at the start, can be quite depressing. And that is part of the point. It attempts to create in us a crisis of faith when we try to center our happiness on ourselves and whatever gains we have in life. Solomon reminds us that our consumption of the things of this world never satisfy. So, if we’re going to find true satisfaction and a lasting purpose, we have to look to God (and through our New Testament lens–what the Father has given us in Jesus).

When I think of Ecclesiastes and how to summarize it, what comes to mind is this prayer of Augustine from his Confessions:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.

This week, as we prepare for this series, I would suggest reading through Ecclesiastes and familiarizing yourself with Solomon’s work. At the very least, take time to read chapter one, maybe even more than once.

 

Christmas as Spiritual Warfare (pastor’s blog)

Note, this post first appeared on December 4, 2014 at sbcvoices.com.

Maybe it’s burnout from too many baby-in-a-manger scenes, but when it comes to the Christmas story I tend to be drawn to passages of scripture outside of ordinary thought when we think about Jesus coming to earth. In recent years, one of my favorite passages about our celebrations of the birth of Jesus has become Revelation 12. With a giant red seven-headed dragon it certainly falls outside the realm of typical manger scenes.

However, I think it communicates a strong point that we must keep in mind: Christmas is about spiritual warfare.

And, no, I’m not talking about whether the WalMart cashier says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Really, I don’t care if they say, “Have a great Kwanza,” it’s not the job of the WalMart employee to spread the gospel (it’s ours as the church) and “Merry Christmas” is not exactly a gospel presentation…but I digress.

What I am talking about is this: we need to remember that since the serpent, Satan, first appeared in the Garden of Eden the world has been immersed in a great spiritual battle. The Bible talks frequently about this, yet we seem to place it out of sight and out of mind (for us Baptists, dare I say, spiritual warfare terminology sometimes sounds too charismatic, so we cringe when we should be paying attention).

We have an enemy. He is deceptive. He is crafty. He is dangerous. This is why the Bible paints him as a great red dragon and as a roaring lion seeking to devour. This is why Jesus called Satan a liar and murderer. This is why the author of Hebrews talked about how apart from Christ, Satan holds us under the fear of death; and why Paul called him the god of this world.

He is the ultimate thief, looking to kill, steal, and destroy. If it works, he will devour through the tricks of a costumed shaman in the bush of Africa; and if it works, he will devour through the pride and comforts of being a self-made-man in the cities of North America. He rages in war, though defeated, and we are born into this war and we are born again into this war until Jesus returns and stomps out the enemy forever.

We see this all in Revelation 12 within the context of the Savior-King’s birth.

The Birth. In 12:1-6, John witnessed a vision of a woman in labor pains. This, however, is no ordinary woman. She is clothed with the sun, resting her feet on the moon, and wearing a crown with twelve stars. This is a great woman meant to rule. The woman represents God’s Old Testament faithful—his dedicated people from within the twelve tribes of Israel. People of whom God promised, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Kingdom of priests—a people meant to rule; this comes from a passage Peter later applied to the church of the New Testament after Jesus conquered death and ascended to heaven (1 Peter 2:9-10; the ruling language is also scattered throughout Revelation for God’s people, see: 3:21, 4:4, and 20:4, for example).

But here, this ruling woman is about to give birth to the male child who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5). This child is none other than Jesus (19:11-16), leaving the symbolic woman to be none other than God’s Old Testament faithful across the twelve tribes (twelve stars) who have longed for the Messiah to come.

At the time the woman was ready to deliver, the dragon stood before her and sought to devour the child. Satan’s attempts to destroy Jesus started around the time of his birth when Herod, jealous for his throne, ordered the slaughter of all the male children in the region aged two and under. They continued at the start of Jesus’ ministry when Satan tempted Jesus with comfort, power, and a supposed easy way to the throne. They culminated when Satan filled Judas to betray Jesus and see that the Messiah was nailed to a cross—a plan which others intended for evil yet God the Father intended for good (Acts 2:23).

After the crucifixion, though, came the resurrection. And then the ascension at which “her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (Revelation 12:5).

The Wars. In 12:7, John saw the vision shift. We’re not given a related time frame, but we’re told that Michael and his angels went on the attack against the dragon and his angels. The Bible doesn’t say much about Michael. Jude called him an archangel, which fits the description of leading a band of angels in war. Daniel wrote about Michael at the end of his book. There he is called, “the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1) and “one of the chief princes” (10:13).

Daniel leaves a lot open for interpretation, but the book seems to paint a picture that (at least in Old Testament times) as a part of the world’s spiritual warfare each nation had a spiritual ruler over it. Persia had a prince whom Michael had to help fight against. Michael, then, was the spiritual ruler over God’s people.

He struck the first blows; and though the dragon and his angels fought back, they were defeated and tossed from heaven. So Satan was thrown down to earth (Revelation 12:9). It is then that salvation is declared for God’s people as “the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come” (12:10). Before then, Satan was one who accused God’s people. After this, God’s people have overcome Satan through “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they laved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). Our victory is in Christ and our testimony that we belong to him and no one else, no matter what—he is Lord.

This strikes a major shift in the Bible’s story line. In the Old Testament we find stories of Satan able to come into the presence of God along with the angels, and we see him accuse—just as he did with Job in Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-8, and as he did with Joshua the high priest in Zechariah 3:1. Yet, when we come to Luke 10, Jesus sent out 72 of his followers to proclaim his coming to the towns and villages, and when they return and tell Jesus of all the great things that happened, Jesus said (quite cryptically), “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (10:18). Then in John 12, speaking about his impending crucifixion and the salvation of those throughout the earth, Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (12:31).

The war of Revelation 12:7 happened at some point in Jesus’ life and ministry, and the victory flag raised through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to his throne.

With Satan cast down to the earth, a loud voice from heaven both celebrated the victory of God’s people in Christ, but also gave a warning: “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (12:12).

Then, raging on earth, the dragon first goes on the attack against the woman but she is hidden in the wilderness; so he turns “to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). While undoubtedly there are differing views on the period called 1260 days or a time, and times, and half a time, this point is clear: whereas Satan once stood before God to accuse the saints and then tried to devour their Savior, now Satan can no longer accuse the saints before God (12:10-11, also: Romans 8:33-34) but he will try to destroy them in any way possible.

So it is (and again, passages with various interpretations), the war continues with the dragon waiting for the beast to rise from the sea so that the beast can go and “make war on the saints” (13:7). Yet ultimately the dragon and the beast will meet the cup of God’s wrath (14:6-11, 19:19-21, and 20:7-10); but God’s people who endure, faithful to Jesus, will find the blessing of rest after death (14:12-13).

Conclusion. Christmas is a celebration—a reminder of God’s gift of Jesus for the world’s salvation (John 3:16). But Christmas is also about war. Satan has always sought to accuse, deceive, and destroy. He even sought to devour the child born as our Savior-King. Yet Satan was defeated and tossed from heaven. He still seeks to destroy and devour us, but our victory is in Jesus who came and was born to die for our sins and our redemption.

God allows Satan to wreak havoc for a while longer. His time is short, but he is still dangerous. As we celebrate Christmas, therefore, we must also remember to be diligent in our faith, enduring and keeping the commands of Jesus as the days of our blessed rests approach, and we meet our Savior-King face to face.

Obey King Jesus, Honor Everyone (a pastor’s thoughts on the same-sex marriage ruling)

This morning news broke that is not surprising when given the direction our culture in the United States combined with previous Supreme Court rulings: same-sex marriage is now a right that must be legally recognized in every state.

Here are some opening truths for us to remember: Jesus is still King, God is not surprised or caught off guard, Jesus will continue to build his church until his return, and he has tasked his church to be a continuing witness of his love and grace. With these in mind, here are a few of my thoughts:

First, this does not change how the church should view marriage. On the one hand, Christians have always (if imperfectly) held up marriage as a great societal good. In Genesis 2 it became the first pillar of society given by God. Yes, Genesis 3 tainted it as with everything else, but in Jesus there is a redemptive element to marriage.

The church should not simply be about trying to produce a bunch of heterosexual monogamous relationships under the banner of “marriage.” Instead, under this banner our goal should be to produce such relationships that provide a clear gospel witness. With Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Peter 3, and Matthew 22 in mind, we see several truths: (1) marriage between a man and a woman is a temporary, earth-bound relationship; (2) though we are to hold it in high honor, the greatest focus is to always be living for Jesus; (3) Christian marriage is to be a sanctifying relationship where the husband grows to mimic Jesus more and the wife grows in a greater love and relationship with Jesus; (4) so marriage is pointing us to a greater eternal reality of the relationship between Jesus and his church; and (5)we can never view Christian marriage as separate from discipleship.

Our one man, one woman understanding of marriage is not important simply because God created them male and female in the beginning (though that is part of it). It is vastly important because it stands as a gospel witness of Jesus and his church and is to bring us to greater holiness and Christ-likeness.

The nations of the world will define marriage however they desire. Always have and always will. Some cultures throughout the ages have and do view marriage as a sense of property ownership or as part of a political treaty. These are also not Christian and God-defined views of marriages even if between a man and woman. Regardless, we as the church are called to practice what the Holy Spirit gave us in scripture. This is our duty: we obey King Jesus and we hold marriage as a sacred relationship that helps us grow in Christ-likeness.

Second, we must keep looking at the world through gospel-influenced eyes. First Peter 2:17 says, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 says, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.”

Yes, biblically speaking, we are to see ourselves in the midst of a war but we are not to see any person or group of people as our enemy. Politicians, the Supreme Court, members of the LGBT community, our neighbors, our family, people spread out across the world—no person is our enemy.

What they are is the same as we were before we followed Jesus. What they are is how we are all born into this world.

They are people created in the image of God, meant to be significant, meant to reflect his glory to the world, but lost, broken, and held under the chains of sin. From the moment of our conception in our mother’s womb we are children of Adam. This means we are children of Genesis 1, 2, and 3.

The only thing that separates us and makes us different, no matter our gender, ethnicity, social class, or orientation is Jesus. If we are in Jesus then we have been redeemed, we have been reshaped, and we have been renewed. We are no longer bound by our birth identity in the flesh. We are no longer children of Genesis 3 but of Genesis 12: children of Abraham, children of promise, and children of God. We have been forgiven, adopted, and restored.

But none of that is because we were more righteous (Romans 3, anyone?). None of that because we were more special (1 Corinthians 1). None of it because of anything we did (Ephesians 2). It is only by the grace of God working in our hearts through the gospel that the Son, Jesus, has freed us (John 8, Ephesians 2). As God has lavished his grace upon us, so he has called us to take the good news of his wonderful grace to others, indiscriminately.

If they disagree with us on marriage, we are to go to them in grace and love and share the beauty of the gospel. If they disagree with us on the proper way to honor God, we are to go to them in grace and love and share the beauty of the gospel. If they disagree with us on ethics, we are to go to them in grace and love and share the beauty of the gospel. If they hold a gun or sword at us and say they will kill us, we are to go to them in grace and love and share the beauty of the gospel.

Yes, we are in a war, but not with people. And our weapons of warfare are not picket signs or bumper stickers about Adam and Steve or the power of legal force. Our belt is the truth of Jesus. Our breastplate is the righteousness of God covering our sin. Our shoes are the good news of peace in, through, and with Christ. Our shield is our faith rooted firmly in the finished work of Christ. Our helmet is the gracious salvation God has given us. Our sword is God’s word which is not to bludgeon but to declare the greatness, love, and righteousness of God in Christ. And it is all bound together with prayer.

Two final sub-thoughts with this: We must look for avenues of grace. Malachi 2:14 describes marriage as a covenant. At the core of the fight in favor of same-sex marriage is a remnant of a godly reality. Those of the LGBT community have fought for this because they desire to share in a greater bond; because at its core they still see something special about marriage.

This goes back to the fact that we are all created in the image of God. God is relational, he is eternally triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is also covenantal. We clearly see in scripture God making a covenant (a relationship built on promises, but something more solid than mere verbal promises) with Noah, Abraham, the people of Israel through Moses, and David, and then a new covenant through Jesus.

In our hearts we long for deep relationships, for covenant relationships because we have been formed in God’s image. Those in the LGBT community long for these things because they have been formed in God’s image.

I do not say this to diminish the reality and consequence of sin, ours or theirs. Rather, this gives us a point of contact. We all have the same longing, just expressed in different ways. We all have the same desire, just corrupted in different ways by sin. We must see the reality of this longing as an avenue to speak the truth of the gospel: no mere person in any relationship will make you feel complete and perfectly loved. Yes, relationships lived out in a God-honoring way can point us in the right direction, but it is only God himself through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit dwelling within that will complete you and bask you in perfect love.

Anyone’s desire for marriage is an avenue to point to the truth of the gospel, and our need for Jesus and his righteousness.

We must be people of prayer. We often hear 2 Chronicles 7:14 quoted in response to events like this: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” The thing is, though, God is not talking about the United States. The States have never been, are not, and will never be “my people who are called by my name.” There is only one Christian nation and that is the faithful church itself (1 Peter 2:9-10).

We do need healing. We need healing from our oft divisions, whether over music or personality clashes or lack of grace and love towards God, each other, and neighbor. We do need to turn from our Sunday-Christian mentality that has devalued through its non-practice evangelism and discipleship. We need to reclaim a daily passion for God and love for others.

So we need to pray. We pray to be the people that Jesus has called us to be: missionaries of a wondrous light in a world of spiritual darkness. And we pray that we might walk in the holiness and righteousness of Jesus, not to browbeat those who don’t but to be an example of God’s transforming love and grace.

This is not a day for us to lament our nation. This is a day for us to renew our hope in Christ. Politics, laws, and courts will never change a person, make a nation godly, or win the world for the gospel. The people of Jesus living for Jesus and declaring the good news of Jesus as the Holy Spirit works through them will.

It Started with Pizza (thoughts on discipleship and upcoming discipleship conference)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… ~ Jesus, Matthew 28:19

It started with pizza.

As a junior in college I had just moved into my new dorm at my new school, the University of Oklahoma. In the hall, I talked with my new dorm mates when all of a sudden another guy approached with a handful of flyers. “Hi,” he said. “I’m from the Baptist Student Union and we’re having a back to school pizza bash this Friday and would like to invite you to come. It’s free!”

“Do you have to be Baptist?” one of my dorm mates asked.

“Nope. In fact, I’m Catholic, but it’s just a great place to hang out and meet people.”

Friday evening came and I headed across campus to the Baptist Student Union. Fortunately, I met another guy going the same way to the same place. I don’t do crowds very well, and when we saw the parking lot it was packed with people (well over 500, and that’s just who registered their name that night) and lots and lots of pizza. If I had been on my own, I may have turned around.

The guy I met disappeared in the sea of bodies and found me later wondering around to introduce me to another guy (we were all in the same degree field), who eventually became one of my best friends. This new, new guy, Joe, told me more about the BSU, invited me to his church, and invited me to hang out with him and his roomies in his dorm.

Little did I know at that moment that everything was about to change.

The BSU proved much more than just “a great place to hang out and meet people.” It had been led for well over thirty years by a then skinny, old guy named Max Barnett. Max had one singular passion in life: to be a disciple of Jesus who makes more disciples of Jesus. Yes, he was the director of the BSU and an elder (pastor) at the church I was involved in for my three years at OU; but more than that he took time to invest his life in others, telling them the gospel, modeling Jesus, and helping them figure out how to live a life that honors Jesus in everything, including investing themselves in others as well.

Throughout the years, many of the people he discipled in that college environment grew up to go in all different directions (some as BSU staffers, some as missionaries and pastors, some as business men and women, some as scientists and mathematicians, some as homemakers, and the list goes on), but with the same singular passion: to make disciples.

I grew up in church. I sometimes even lamely joke, “Yeah, I started going to church nine months before I was born.” In the twenty years of my life up to that pizza party, I had heard many sermons and lessons. I had been in Sunday School and even spent time in the old “discipleship training / training union” programs of the Southern Baptists. Yet, I had never really seen discipleship like this—discipleship that is rooted in church (we do this in community) but continues far beyond the programs and worship gatherings within the four walls of a building.

For the first time, I came to understand that: discipleship is life. It is life because it’s what we’re to be about as Christians. Ours is not meant to be a religion or a few hours a week program that we tack onto everything else. We are followers of Jesus—every moment, every day. The question is: are we doing well to follow or are we stumbling, struggling, and finding ourselves face down in the dirt way too often? It is also life because it is what should define us no matter what we do. It’s not just a preacher thing, or a missionary thing, it’s not just a thing for college students who have some free time, it’s not a program for the spiritual elite.

It is a call for every single one of us: teachers, farmers, bankers, athletes, pastors, WalMart associates, retirees, factory workers, parents, authors, artists, etc.

Another old man at a conference I went to once said, “People used to ask me: what do you want to be when you grow up? Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to tell them, but I knew I was supposed to make disciples. Now here I am in my eighties and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I’ve been making disciples the whole time.”

That is the passion that Max Barnett inspired in many of us.

And I feel honored that we get to host him at FBC Adrian for a Discipleship Mini-Conference on Saturday July 18 from 3 to 8pm. You can find more information about the conference and a registration form by clicking here. He will also be preaching in our worship gathering on Sunday July 19.

Earlier I referred to Max as a skinny, old man, because he was. It’s been 12 years since I graduated from OU, so he’s a bit older now and a decade retired from the BSU. But he still has a great passion to make disciples who make disciples. If you’re near the Adrian, MO, area you will not want to miss the wisdom that Max has to share.

A Prayer for Memorial Day (pastor’s blog)

100531-D-9880W-192Beyond the grilling and trips to the lake, Memorial Day is a holiday set aside to remember fallen soldiers—those men and women who have lost their lives in various battles. For centuries, good Jesus-loving Christians have debated the Christian’s position on war and whether or not one should serve in the military, days like this are not for such debates. Yet one thing that we can agree upon regardless of one’s position is the need for prayer in response to fallen lives in a world plagued with war because we are plagued with sin.

So I offer up these suggestions to pray for Memorial Day.

First, pray for those who have lost loved ones in combat and also more generally for those who sit with the loss of loved ones heavy on their hearts no matter the reason. Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). No matter how it occurs, death is an enemy. Yes, through Jesus, it is a defeated enemy that no longer holds us bound under its fear. What was once a powerful cause for dread, God has made a servant for his people to usher us into his presence. Yet, in the now as we wait the glorious future, death still stings. We grieve it, rightly as we should (as even Jesus grieved death in John 11 knowing he was about to raise Lazarus from the grave). So we grieve along with those who have tasted the sting.

Second, pray for an end to war through the spread of the gospel and the return of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus is good news of peace (Ephesians 6:15). We have peace with God and that is to drive us to seek peace with others. Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Yes, the government does not wield a sword in vain—it is to protect its citizens (Romans 13); but our hearts should long for the day that wars cease.

Psalm 46 speaks of the nations raging, yet God is our fortress. The day is coming in the works of the Lord when “he makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.” Even if war is sometimes necessary, no Christian should desire war. We should long for peace. Also in Matthew 5, Jesus said to pray for our enemies. These would include enemies of the state. To pray for them—that they might taste the grace and goodness of God through the gospel—is part of our prayer for peace and an end to war.

Without war there would be no Memorial Day for there would be no casualties of soldiers. The gospel creates men and women who long for peace and an end to war and death. Jesus’ return will mark the day that the true King makes his kingdom shine forever and there will be no more need for war or its weapons. To quote a song, “What a day of rejoicing that will be.”

Third, pray for President Obama, your senators and representatives, and other leaders to make wise decisions. From the news channels to Facebook, our culture shows we like to bash people who disagree with us. This is one of many places that the Bible’s take on government is countercultural. Peter wrote that we should honor our leaders (flowing from the general command to honor everyone ~ 1 Peter 2:17). He gave no qualifications. There was no statement about honoring them if you agree with their policies or honoring them if you feel they are honorable. Nope. Just honor them.

Paul wrote we are to pray for them. Paul didn’t say to pray imprecatory prayers hoping bad things would befall them. But rather pray supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings—pray for them. The purpose is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). The hope of such prayers is our peace, which would include peace for the soldiers who act upon the will of these leaders.

So this Memorial Day, whether you are remembering fallen friends and family, spending time with family at the park or the beach, or staying at home and resting—whatever it is you do with this day, remember to pray.

Father, let your comfort and grace be upon those who grieve. Protect those who serve and find themselves in danger. Bring the lasting peace that only comes from you as the great and good King and Father. Turn hearts to Jesus through your word and Spirit. And grant wisdom and your favor upon the men and women who lead in this country, that we might see days of peace as we wait for the Prince of Peace to return. Amen.

Saying ‘Yes’ in a World of ‘No’ (pastor’s blog)

noRecently my town decided to graffiti its own Main Street sidewalks with the message: no bicycles or skateboards. I’m sure the intention is safety. People walk in and out of the shops and storefronts, and you don’t want anyone young or old to be taken out by a person on a bicycle. But it made me think of two things: (1) perhaps there is a better way to state the message, like a nice looking sign that reads for the safety of others, please walk your bicycles or skateboards on these sidewalks; and (2) how swift we are to shout No! even in church, and maybe we shouldn’t be.

Of course, we get no ingrained into our minds at an early age. Children learn to talk by mimicking those who talk to them. Often no is one of the first words a child learns to say, in part because we yell it at them so often. And again, our intentions are noble—we want our children to be safe and not running into the road or pulling books from the shelf down upon their heads or sticking fingers or other objects into the tempting little holes that deliver electricity to us.

The Bible even has plenty of no. If you read the Ten Commands in Exodus 20, eight of them contain the phrase “do not.” Yet something changed whenever a certain expert in the law asked Jesus about the greatest commandment. Jesus didn’t quote a do not, rather he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40, ESV).

Jesus turned the do not into a do—negatives into positives. This isn’t to say that when you read through the New Testament you won’t find not and no scattered throughout various commands. You do, but you tend to find them couched heavily within a whole bunch of do (take Romans 12 or Ephesians 4, for example).

The ethic for the Christian is that we are free from sin and the law and free to live for God. We still have to have the occasional not thrown in because our old nature of sin still clings to us kicking and screaming and trying to drag us down with its last gasps. But with hearts free to love God, we are free to pursue and free to follow and free to do.

Sometimes people talk about the church and Christians being known more for what we’re against than what we’re for. Perhaps this is because we get more caught up in running from the old than running towards the new. It’s time that we change that.

Take Galatians 5:22-23 for example: “But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here there is no conflict with the law” (NLT).

May we be known for love—for self-sacrifice, serving others, and seeking their best. May we be known for joy—for true happiness that rests in God, his goodness, and his grace. May we be known for peace—for seeking to reconcile people to God and to each other, being voices of grace and unity when we face bitterness and division. May we be known for patience—for setting our own wills and timelines aside that we might encourage others along in the journey with Jesus.

May we be known for kindness—for reaching out to others to extend to them grace in friendships. May we be known for goodness—for reflecting God’s character in everything we do. May we be known for faithfulness—for staying true to God and being there for others in a world where it’s so easy to walk away and not look back. May we be known for gentleness—for reaching out to the hurting and troubled and offering a hand to those in need. May we be known for self-control—for keeping ourselves in check by delighting in the ways of God above the passions of the flesh.

May we be known most for our yes to God and not live lives of constant no.

A ‘Culture of Grace’ (pastor’s blog)

I was reading an article recently detailing the fall of a megachurch pastor. In the midst of it, the author made the point not to ascribe one man’s sins to the group. In other words, big church doesn’t equal big ego. The author pointed out another megachurch pastored by a man of humility and grace. The author said, one of the reasons for the pastor’s success without egotism was that he worked to create a “culture of grace.” Then the article moved on.

The phrase struck me, though. After all, egos (inflated or wounded) are not found only in large churches, nor are they only found among pastors. Exalting ourselves above others and God is a deeply ingrained flaw in the human race post Genesis 3. Yet, a culture of grace is needed in all churches at all times.

So… How might we go about creating such a culture? For the answer, I turn to Paul’s letter to Titus:

11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. ~Titus 2:11-14

First, for a culture of grace we must offer unconditional acceptance. One constant theme in the Bible is: reliance on our own efforts will fail us. Paul spoke of the grace of God bringing salvation. He offered no prerequisite to this. There is only one condition ever given in the Bible to receive God’s grace through Christ: faith—we believe what God says and we believe that his solution is THE solution. I am a hopeless sinner but in turning to Jesus alone I will have salvation and life.

reaching_outThis is good news of great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10). There is no pre-scrubbing, no wiping off the dirt, no self-changing needed before we come to Jesus. In fact, we can only come empty handed and receive.

Practically, this means that we are to love and welcome all: young, old, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, American, Iranian, etc. The message is the same: the treasures of the world are passing, death is coming, but we can have the greatest treasure and true life by turning from self and sin and turning to Jesus in order to receive his love. Which leads us to…

Second, for a culture of grace we must keep pointing to Jesus for life and transformation. Grace accepts us where we are at, but grace does not affirm us where we are at. Grace assumes that no matter the specific issues of the heart, we are all born into this world with the same problem. Our sin. We have hearts that long to walk their own ways and not the ways of God. We will accept the parts of his word we like but rationalize away the rest. We wear the badge of rebellion and the stench of death.

Yet, if we receive the grace of Jesus, he will transform us. Grace trains us to turn our backs to what is slowly killing us, and walk in the better of the Life Giver. His grace frees us to do this.

The phrase has grown trite and is now almost a bit campy, but I still hear some variation of it on occasion: the church is a hospital for the sinners not a showcase for the saints. There is truth here in that with a culture of grace we find no room for self-righteousness. But let’s not stop at this phrase and glorify the fact that we’re a bunch of messed up people.

After all, we don’t go to the doctor or the hospital in order to remain sick. The same is true with coming to the Great Physician. And in Jesus we are saints, we are sinners made perfect and righteous meant to display God’s glory to the world. But there’s the balance—we’re made perfect and righteous; we’re meant to display his glory to the world.

The church, then, is a place for sinners to come and find the cure and to showcase the life transforming healer who is Jesus. Grace does not leave us trapped in the midst of our sin. Grace is when God plucks us from the mire and darkness, and sets us in the kingdom of his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). And yes, the light exposes our crevices of darkness to ourselves and before others, but the light is also what allows the dirt to be cleansed and the darkness to be driven out (John 3:16-21).

This means… Third, for a culture of grace we must constantly seek one another’s good. Our passage starts with the short little word for. It is the foundation of what Paul wrote in 2:1-10. Within that he told Titus to be an example of godliness (aka grace applied to the sin-stained life). He also told the older men and older women to model godliness and train younger men and women to live godliness as well.

In a culture of grace, people take responsibility for one another and receive guidance from one another. We help each other learn and apply the truths of God’s word and grace. We help each other see Jesus exalted. And when a person stumbles back into the darkness, we chase after them with the light and help them see afresh the realities of the Cure.

Paul also spoke about being a people zealous for good works. Grace is healing. We are to be people who seek to bring the healing of Jesus everywhere brokenness exist. We pray for the hurting. We feed the hungry. We clothe the naked. We befriend the lonely. We bring medicine to the sick. And we do this with eagerness and joy. We are to be zealous. Grace realizes our hopelessness without Jesus and the greatness of life and love in Jesus, so we work with zeal wanting others to share our joy.

Finally (fourth), for a culture of grace we must keep looking forward to the greater. Grace is predominately forward looking. We long with hope for the return of Jesus, because that is when the greater—indeed the best comes. That is when all wrongs and harms are forever healed. That is when brokenness is no more.

This isn’t hoping in theories of what might be. This is longing for what will be. If we belong to Jesus, we are agents of his kingdom. His kingdom is one of perfect peace, joy, health, and righteousness all bound up with satisfaction in God. Though enemies of Jesus and his word will remain until he returns, we are to go boldly with his grace, bringing a taste of his kingdom everywhere we set foot.