Monday, April 02, 2007

Hosannas Crucified!

This is Palm Sunday April 1, 2007 message examining the contrast between the Hosannas of the crown on Sunday and the calls for crucifixion on Friday.

Hosannas Crucified!

Hosanna! Hosanna! What a joyful exclamation!
How often do we use this word in the church? Really only on Palm Sunday, right? We don’t greet each other with it at the post office. It doesn’t really come up in conversation. It’s just this one day when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem at Passover. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
But what does it mean? Not just the word, I mean yeah, we do want to know that. But more than that, why use it in this situation? And even more so, what does Hosanna mean in the light of what we know to expect at the end of this week?
Well first, let’s talk about what the word actually means.
Hosanna Defined
Hosanna is a Hebrew word. Its literal translation is “Save, we pray.” The first place we’ll find it in the Bible is in Psalm 118 in the Old Testament. Save us we pray O Lord! Hosanna!
Later, Psalms 113-118 became associated with the Feast of the Tabernacles. The
Feast of Tabernacles was a season of great rejoicing. It was a saying amongst the Jews that those who had not witnessed it did not know what joy meant. In this way hosanna became associated with rejoicing. The same has to be said of the use of palm-branches. The last day of the seven-day feast was actually called “The Great Hosanna.” This was a day of great joy and waving palm and willow branches was a part of the celebration. Even the branches became known as hosannas. (The Catholic Encyclopedia Online as found at
Now hear it all again in English. “Save us we pray! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Kinda takes on a new dimension, doesn’t it? While we have a whole lot of years to understand who Jesus is and was, these folks are making a definitive statement here aren’t they? Right in the middle of Jesus’ life, these folks are recognizing who Jesus really is. Because in order for Jesus to save them, he had to have the power to save them.
This is what these folks were saying. Here is a man who can rescue us from Roman oppression!Jesus is the one that the Scriptures tell us will come to save us! Save us Jesus!
Now we have history to tell us that Jesus wasn’t actually the conquering king that they expected. But these people, gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, truly believed that this Jesus was their Hosanna. They understood that this Jesus was here to rescue them and become their new King. But, even though the multitudes were shouting His adoration, many of these people would be the same ones that would be calling for His crucifixion just a few days later.
Nevertheless, as they welcomed Him into Jerusalem that day, spreading palm branches and their own garments in His path, little did they know that they were fulfilling an ancient prophecy. The crowds were acknowledging Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of David, and the chief priests and scribes were not happy with this. But their unhappiness had also been predicted in the same Psalm: NIV Psalm 118:22-23 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes."
Hosanna Contextualized
Now one of my seminary professors said that text without context is pretext. Put more simply, context holds the key to understanding everything. So what did Hosanna mean in this context?
Well, common scholarship on this passage says that welcoming pilgrims to Jerusalem was common. There were welcomes like this all the time. Except that not too many folks got welcomed like Jesus did. His welcome was a bit grander, a bit louder than most.
Plus, Jesus’ entry on a donkey symbolizes that he comes as an ambassador, not as a king. So given the context of all this, what are the people really saying?
If one is willing to put the idea that these folks might be putting Jesus on aside, then they are affirming that this man comes as the one that will settle the dispute with Rome and set the Jews free again.
Unless the people welcoming Jesus are making fun of him, and there is no indication that they are then they truly believe that he is here to change their lives and their world.
No wonder they become disappointed by Friday. No wonder they are so easily persuaded by the scribes and Pharisees to call for his crucifixion.
Hosanna Crucified
And that’s exactly where this Hosanna is headed. He’s headed for a cross. Just like the palm and willow branches that were cut from the trees he is doomed for death and destruction. Oh sure, we all know that he’s going to overcome that death. But he’s got to go through the cross to get there.
Now this morning I’ve given you a little different palm. It’s a little more permanent than the ones you usually get. You see, the problem with palms is that once you cut the branches from the tree, they don’t live long. The problem with Palm Sunday is that the excitement of that crowd soon faded, and when Good Friday rolled around, many of the same voices who shouted “Hosanna!” were also shouting “Crucify him!” Their love for the Lord was shallow and based entirely on their hope of what exciting things he could do for them. (Tony W. Cartledge, “The problem with palms — A Palm Sunday sermon,” March 4, 2003, Retrieved October 9, 2006)
When he didn’t produce in an expedient manner, he suffered the same fate as the palms. Cut off from the source of life. Dried up and withered. But this is one palm that doesn’t stay dead. This is one Hosanna that, even when crucified, returns with love and mercy and compassion.
Which leads me to my challenge for you all today. Consider where you might have been in this crowd on that Palm Sunday morning. Were a joyous spectator? Were you part of the parade? Did you throw your cloak on the ground in front of him? Did you wave palm branches? And did you end up calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday?
I suppose that none of us really know where we would have been. But we do know where we can go with the knowledge of Jesus’ response and reactions. Jesus did what he knew he had to do. As unpleasant as it was and as it turned out to be, he did what God intended for him to do.
Can we do any less?
Can we honestly go through our lives and not seek God’s will for ourselves?
My challenge to you this week is one of intensive prayer. During this, the holiest week of the year, immerse yourself in prayer. Seek God’s will for your life. Ask God to give you a vision of what you can do for God’s Kingdom. Even if you are in the twilight of your life, as long as you still draw breath, you are useful to God. Go to god in prayer this week, every single day. And ask what you can do or how you can further his Kingdom.
And don’t be surprised when that answer comes, because it won’t be something that you already do. It’s gonna be a whole new Hosanna in your life.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Easter stuff and the next series

During Lent I've been preaching a series in 1 Corinthians looking at Paul's major themes in that book. Come Palm Sunday things are gonna change again. Palm Sunday's worship service is going to be highly liturgical. We will have a responsive opening liturgy and all the responses for communion will be sung. This is very different from our regular service, a change just for the experiece.
On Palm sunday evening the Hancock's Bridge church will be hosting a viewing of Mel Gibson's "Passion" movie followed by a discussion of the film with Rev. Emil Winkelspecht and myself. If you cannot make that viewing we will be hosting a second one at the Alloway UMC on Holy Thursday. Both viewings will begin at 6PM.
Easter sunrise service will be at the LAC softball field at 6AM Easter Sunday and our regular Easter resurrection celebrations will be at Hancock's Bridge at 9:30AM and at Quinton at 11AM.
Beginning on Sunday April 15 I will commence a new series of sermons that I hope many will find interesting and engaging. This series will be focused on family issues and how the Bible helps us to address those issues. The series will last ten weeks and will include special messages on Mother's Day and Father's Day. Topics that will be included in the series include "Keeping God in your Marriage," "Raising Godly Children," "Teens, God and Myspace," and "There's a Death in the Family God, Now What?" Please join us at either church for this series. Grace and Peace.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is Salvation Fair?

The last in a series of messages asking tough questions of God. Based on Luke 3:2-6 and John 3:16

Is salvation fair?
After briefly flirting with church attendance, a certain TV sitcom character chalked up his experience as generally beneficial because "I finally learned what that guy in the end zone holding up the big card that says 'John 3:16' on it is talking about!" It may come as a big surprise to long-time churchgoers, Because we’re steeped in a biblical, Christian experience, And we’re accustomed to hearing religious-sounding words and seeing religious-looking symbols, but we now live in a genuinely post-Christian culture.
It is a fact that our society is defined more by all those who have no clue as to what that guy in the end zone is trying to say than it is by those recognizing the citation of a biblical chapter and verse. A post-Christian culture doesn’t mean that there is a lack of spiritual interest or that there is a loss of spiritual hunger. Actually, just the opposite, this postmodern, post-Christian age has recently awakened to the fact that it is spiritually starving – and the hunger pains are leading to a frantic feeding frenzy. Without the table of church tradition to offer them nourishment, spiritual seekers have snacked on a smorgasbord of what they hope will be soul-satisfying samples. There is a renewed interest in prayer. There is a new fascination with the state of the spirit in healing and in health issues. Native American, Indian, Asian and Eastern European traditions have been infused into the middle of suburban American culture in order to try to inject some new depth and meaning into everyday existence. Astro-physicists, genetic researchers and computer scientists studying artificial intelligence are increasingly introducing spiritual questions into their technological studies.
People in this modern culture are becoming more and more aware every day of their need for some higher connection, some spiritual reality in their lives. As the band Plumb sang, we’ve all got a hole in our spirits that only God can fill. That’s what salvation is really all about. It’s about achieving that spiritual connection with God for all eternity. It’s about filling that God-shaped hole with the only thing that will ever fit.
But is salvation fair? Is the concept of salvation balanced?
Well, first off, fair is a relative term, isn’t it? I mean, what’s fair?
For instance, a socialist once came to see Andrew Carnegie, the rich philanthropist and soon, this socialist was railing against the injustice of Carnegie having so much money. In his view, wealth was meant to be divided equally. He claimed that Carnegie having so much was just not fair. Carnegie asked his secretary for an assessment of everything he owned and at the same time looked up the figures on world population. He did a little arithmetic on a pad and then said to his secretary. "Give this gentleman l6 cents. That's his fair share of my wealth."
Do you want the simple answer to the question of whether salvation is fair? No. Now, I could end the sermon right there, but I think that would leave a lot of you scratching your heads. “What does he mean that salvation isn’t fair?”
Well, in essence, it isn’t fair. Salvation is not about what we deserve. In fact, if it were about what we deserve, it’d be called damnation not salvation. It’s not about what’s fair. It’s about God’s love, grace and mercy. But let’s put that idea aside right now. I’ll come back to that.
There are really two ideas that people are talking about when they claim that salvation isn’t fair.
The first is related to the idea that some folks have never heard about Jesus. Some were born, lived and died before Jesus existed. What about them? What about all those people who still live tribal, jungle lives? They might never meet a missionary. What about them? Is it fair that those people don’t go to heaven because they’ve never heard of Jesus?
In reality, the issue of those who haven’t heard is just a matter of interpretation. There are certain truths about this issue that the Bible makes plain. For instance, in John 14 Jesus says “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the only way of salvation. That’s plain, straightforward. Now lots of people think that this means that those who’ve not heard are automatically damned.
Truth is, we don’t know that for certain. While the Scriptures never explicitly teach that someone who’s never heard can be saved, we believe that they do infer as much. We believe that every person will have an opportunity to repent, and that God would not exclude anyone simply because of the accident of their birthplace or birth era.
In John 7:17 Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God's will, that person will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” In other words, it’s in doing God’s will that we understand God’s way.
Aside from that, Romans 1:20 explains how anyone, even those who’ve never heard explicitly, will know of God. Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that humanity is without excuse. It’s a fact that all of humankind can tell that a creator does exist, because the creation testifies to it.
We also know from the Scriptures that it is God’s desire that no one should perish. 2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God cares, even for those who have never heard and may never hear the Gospel. Even though we may not know how God is going to deal with these folks specifically, we know that God’s judgment will always be fair.
That fact alone should settle the question of those who’ve never heard.
But there’s another way of thinking that salvation isn’t fair. Have you ever heard that argument about the death row criminal who repents right before he’s executed? And you know how some Christians respond to that on, right?
How is that fair? I’ve been good all my life. I’ve worked hard to be a top notch Christian. I’ve denied myself and taken up a cross. I’ve suffered for my faith. I’ve tithed! How does this life-long criminal get to sit at my table at the heavenly feast? That’s just not fair!
Well, maybe for the first time since I started writing these mock rants, I agree with you. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that someone has committed heinous crimes for his or her whole life and then gets to go to heaven and sit with you and I at the table with Christ.
But you know what; nowhere in the Bible does it say that God is fair!
God is holy.
God is righteous.
God is just.
But God is not fair!
Now while that may raise your hackles a bit, remember the story that I opened with this morning about Andrew Carnegie. If God were playing fair, what we’d probably get would be something like sixteen cents.
But God doesn’t play fair. God plays grace. God showers us with the unmerited favor of free salvation.
We can’t earn it.
We don’t deserve it.
It is a free gift and it’s available to anyone and everyone.
Folks, grace is such an enormous concept in Christian theology, I could preach about it for weeks on end. It is without question, the biggest most important point to remember.
God’s grace is so wide that it encompasses the whole world.
God’s grace is so deep that we could never get so low as to be beneath it.
God’s grace is so amazing that we could never do or say enough to deserve it.
Is it fair? It’s fair to those who receive it. It was fair for each of us while we were still in our sinful state. Why wouldn’t it be fair for a truly repentant criminal? We should rejoice for that repentant soul, not gripe that they received the same gift that we did.
So I come back to the question, “Is salvation fair?”
If you’ve never received it, it certainly is! All are welcome in God’s Kingdom. And since God is making the rules, who are we to question?
Jesus taught Nicodemus that anyone who believed would be saved. John preached that all humankind would see God’s salvation
In the end, it comes down to this: Have we believed? Have we seen salvation? Fairness isn’t really the issue. Grace is.
I’d like to leave you with a story and a question this morning.
Lord Kenneth Clark, internationally know for his television series Civilization, lived and died without faith in Jesus Christ. He admitted in his autobiography that while visiting a beautiful church he had what he believed to be an overwhelming religious experience. "My whole being," Clark wrote, "was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy far more intense than anything I had known before." But the "gloom of grace," as he described it, created a problem. If he allowed himself to be influenced by it, he knew he would have to change, his family might think he had lost his mind, and maybe that intense joy would prove to be an illusion. So he concluded, "I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course." Our Daily Bread, February 15, 1994
Are you too embedded in the culture of the world to change course? Or has grace grabbed a hold of your life and taken control.
Are you plodding along with contemporary society? Or are you on a wild ride of mercy with God today?
As Led Zeppelin said in the song “Stairway to Heaven”: There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
Leave all those ideas about fairness behind, and climb aboard the grace train. We’re heaven bound!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Was Darwin right?

Sixth in a seven part series asking the "Tough Questions." Scripture passage is Genesis chapter one

In a 2005 poll conducted by Newsweek and Beliefnet, people were asked the question: “Do you believe that God created the universe?” 80 percent of those responding said the universe was created by God. It is interesting that after all the money and effort our universities and educational systems have spent on instructing people about evolution that 80 percent of people still believe that there is a God, and that that God created the world. Only ten percent taking the poll said the universe was not created by God. One percent said they did not believe in God.
Nine percent said they didn’t know.
Now, that’s all very interesting, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what people believe. If God actually created the world, it does not matter if 100% of the human race does not believe it, it is still true. God does not live and work by the results of polls. For instance, you are perfectly free to believe that the pulpit I am standing behind simply evolved over a period of time. Now, we all know that that is not true since it has a definite design, but you can believe it if you want. Someone with a name created this piece of furniture and it definitely exists. But, it wouldn’t matter if everyone in this room, or everyone in the world for that matter, didn’t believe this pulpit had a creator who existed, it would not alter the reality of the pulpit or its creator in any way.
Something deep inside all of us knows this, and that’s why I’m not bothered by the theory of evolution, and it’s why 80 percent of people in this country still believe that the world was created by God.
Right off: Science and the Bible are not in conflict. The conclusions of both are sometimes biased. But we have nothing to be afraid of by honest evaluation. Let’s first of all look at the claims of the bible about creation...Genesis 1:1 "In the beginning God created." Now, nowhere in the Bible does it say when God created. There is no time line. Jesus said in Mark 10:6 "But at the beginning of creation God ’made them male and female.’" Psalms 19:1-4 "The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies announce what his hands have made. Romans 1:20 "There are things about God that people cannot see--his eternal power and all the things that make him God."
All of these are wonderful passages about the creation of the world. But we have to remember a fact about the first eleven chapters of Genesis. These stories, creation, the garden, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, and the tower of Babel, were never intended to be factual historical accounts. These were parables, stories told in an effort to try to explain how humanity went from a perfect creation of a perfect God, to the fallen and broken world that we understand it to be. So we make assumptions about what the Bible means. But those who put their faith in evolution make assumptions too.
3 bedrock assumptions that evolutionists have given for our origins have all been shown to be on shaky ground. Let’s take a look at these three right now.
How did we get the conditions on planet earth that brought us our first one-celled animal from which all life forms supposedly evolved? For many years, evolution explained our origins by "spontaneous generation". Simply stated, this means that under the proper conditions of temperature, time, place, etc. decaying matter simply turns into organic life. This idea dominated scientific thinking until 1846, when Louis Pasteur shattered the theory. Under controlled laboratory conditions, in a semi-vacuum, no organic life ever emerged from decaying, nonliving matter.
Obviously, if spontaneous generation actually did take place in the distant past to produce the first spark of life, it must be assumed that the laws which govern life had to be completely different from what they are now.
But wait a minute! This won’t work either, because the whole evolutionary theory rests upon the assumption that conditions on the earth have remained uniform throughout the ages. Astrophysicists have found that there are over 60 criteria that are necessary for life on earth.
Life could not exist or form if any one of the following were true: Earth’s rotation was slower, or faster; We were 2% closer or further from the sun; Earth had a 1% change in sunlight; Earth was smaller or larger; the moon was smaller or larger; we had more than one moon; Earth’s crust was thinner or thicker; Oxygen/Nitrogen ratio was greater or less; ozone layer was greater or less.
This creates a dilemma. Because, to believe that life spontaneously emerged requires great faith in the impossible— no evidence— That’s the same accusation hurled at those who believe the world was created by an intelligent God.
Dr. George Wald, Nobel Prize winner of Harvard University, states it as honestly as an evolutionist can: "One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are - as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation." That statement by Dr. Wald demonstrates a much greater faith than a religious creationist can muster. Notice that the great evolutionary scientist says it could not have happened. It was impossible. Yet he believes it did happen. Why did he get a Nobel Prize? What can we say to that kind of reasoning?
If someone told you they could pick a winning lottery number and did you’d be impressed. The odds are 10(7). Suppose they did it twice in a row? One chance in a hundred thousand billion 10(14). Wow. You might wonder if something’s up.
The odds of evolution are like someone randomly winning thousands of lotteries in a row. Statistically possible, but also statistically absurd. The probability of a single cell forming by evolution through limitless time, particles and events has been calculated by a Swiss mathematician. Odds one chance in 10(160). Other scientists knock off a few zeros, but not many. That means 10 multiplied by itself 160 times, a number too large even to articulate. Statisticians point out that anything beyond 10(50) is beyond reason, essentially impossible or absurd. Evolution is a belief in spite of the fact that it’s statistically absurd.
Sir Frederick Hoyle, the famous British astronomer and agnostic said, "The current scenario of the origin of life is about as likely as a tornado passing through a junkyard beside Boeing airplane company and accidentally producing a 747 airplane,"
This proves that Evolution would have to be a miracle from God, wouldn’t it? In order to get that completely lucky, there’d have to be divine intervention wouldn’t there?
Second assumption: MUTATIONS
Another one of the backbone theories of evolution is the evidence of mutation. Mutation is where minor changes take place within animals. Every species has its own particular number of chromosomes which contain the genes. Within every human being are 46 chromosomes containing an estimated 100,000 genes, each one of which is able to affect in some way the size, color, texture, or quality of the individual. You are a result of those genes.
The assumption is that these genes, which provide the inherited characteristics we get from our ancestors, occasionally become affected by unusual pairing, chemical damage, or other influences, causing them to produce an unusual change in one of the offspring. Like having a child with 12 fingers, or one blue eye and one brown eye. This is referred to as a mutation. It is assumed by the evolutionists that through gradual changes wrought in the various species through mutation and over billions of years, the amoeba would eventually turn into an invertebrate, which became an amphibian, then a reptile, a quadruped, an ape form, and finally a man. In other words, the species are not fixed in the eyes of the evolutionists. Families are forever drifting over into another higher form as time progresses.
This means that all the fossil records of animal history should reveal an utter absence of precise family boundaries. Everything should be in the process of changing into something else – with literally hundreds of millions of half-developed fish trying to become amphibious, and reptiles halfway transformed into birds, and mammals looking like half-apes or half-men.
Now everybody knows that instead of finding those billions of confused family fossils, the scientists have found exactly the opposite. Not one single drifting, changing life form has been studied. Everything stays within the well-defined limits of its own basic kind and absolutely refuses to cooperate with the demands of modern evolutionists.
Ten times in the book of Genesis we read God’s decree concerning the reproduction of His creatures - "after its kind." Gen:1:25: And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creeps upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good." The word "kind" refers to species, or families. Each created family was to produce only its own kind. This forever precludes the drifting, changing process required by organic evolution where one species turns into another.
To put it the way my father would, "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"
And, this is exactly what the fossil records reveal.
Even Darwin confessed: "There are two or three million species on earth. A sufficient field one might think for observation; but it must be said today that in spite of all the evidence of trained observers, not one change of the species to another is on record." Life and Letters, Vol. 3, p. 25.
Charles Singer, who wrote "A Short history of Science in the 19th Century" said that "Evolution is perhaps unique among major scientific theories in that the appeal to its acceptance is not that there is evidence for it...!"
As one digs deep into the earth, one layer or stratum after another is revealed. Often we can see these layers clearly exposed in the side of a mountain or roadbed cut. Geologists have given names to the succession of strata which pile one on top of another. Descending into Grand Canyon for example, one moves downward past the Mississippi, Devonian, Cambrian, etc., as they have been tagged by the scientists.
Now here is the perplexity for the evolutionary theory: The Cambrian is the last stratum of the descending levels that has any fossils in it. All the lower strata below the Cambrian have absolutely no fossil record of life other than some single-celled types such as bacteria and algae.
Why not?
The Cambrian layer is full of all the major kinds of animals found today except the vertebrates. In other words, there is nothing primitive about the structure of these most ancient fossils. Essentially, they compare with the complexity of current living creatures.
But the big question is: Where are their ancestors? Where are all the evolving creatures that should have led up to these highly developed fossils?
According to the theory of evolution, the Precambrian strata should be filled with more primitive forms of these Cambrian fossils in the process of evolving upward. Dr. Daniel Axelrod of the University of California calls it: "One of the major unsolved problems of geology and evolution."
George Gaylord Simpson, the "Crown Prince of Evolution", summarized it: "The sudden appearance of life is not only the most puzzling feature of the whole fossil record but also its greatest apparent inadequacy." The Evolution of Life.
There was even a Time magazine headline about the problem “Evolution’s big bang!” Apparently, evolution happened rapidly. All at once. Sounds like creation to me.
The absence of Precambrian fossils points to one great fact, unacceptable to the evolutionists - a sudden creative act of God which brought all the major creatures into existence at the same time. The preponderance of the evidence in fossils indicates the creation of many species all at once, instead of any gradual process from one species to another.
Here’s the real point in all this talk of the possibility, or impossibility of evolution.
Evolution says Life is Chance.
Creation says God created with intelligence and design
Evolution says you’re just an overgrown ape.
Creation says you were made in the image of God.
Evolution can’t place any value on love.
Creation says God loves beauty, and love is meaningful.
Evolution says Jesus is a fraud.
The bible says he created us and wants to recreate us.
Some sincere Christians believe that God created the world by using the evolutionary process. They don’t believe the world is the result of random chance or an accident, they believe it was created, but that God used evolution in creating the world. Some Christians believe that God created the world in seven literal 24 hour days, others believe it was more like seven million years. It could have been seven seconds for all we really know, but the fact is that however God did it, using whatever method and time period God chose, God created the world.
This is ground zero for our faith. Everything we believe hinges on and grows out of this fact. Everything we understand about the world and life stems from whether we believe that God started all this, or that it is all an accident.
The whole scheme of redemption — God coming to the world in the person of Jesus to live before us and die for us — is ridiculous unless we are the creation of a God who tremendously loves us and will do anything to bring us back to himself.
And there’s three important points for us to grasp this morning about the importance of God creating the world.
The first way is: It saves us from living in ignorance.
If you understand that there is a God who created all that exists, you understand that there is a design and purpose to life, and your life in particular. You have the understanding that there is Someone who is holding all this together and is watching out for us.
One of the novels from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series is titled The Magician’s Nephew. In symbolic language it tells the story of the creation of the world by telling how Aslan the lion created Narnia by singing it into existence. However, there is one character who refuses to hear the song. Listen as Lewis tells the story:
“When the great moment came and the beast spoke, Uncle Andrew missed the whole point for a rather interesting reason. When the lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (“only a lion,” as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make himself believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing — only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. ‘Of course it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ And the longer and more beautifully the lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the lion spoke and said, ‘Narnia awake,’ he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl.”
We can choose to live in ignorance to God’s divine creative nature, or we can choose to see God’s revelation all around us, and search for purpose in this world and in our lives.
The second way understanding that God created the world helps us is: It helps us to understand that we are accountable.
Ah, here is the crucial point with many people who want to wish away God’s existence. The problem with believing there is a God is that it means there is someone who is above you. It means that there is a God, and you can no longer be your own God. You are answerable to someone. You are accountable for the way you live and the things you do. If there is a God, then the moral laws he has laid down apply to you. Right and wrong are no longer determined by what you think is okay. If there is a God, then your life does not belong to you. If there is a God, then the world is bigger than you, and you have to discover God’s purpose for your life and live out that purpose.
Last year, the London Zoo posted a sign in front of their newest exhibit, reading, “Warning: Humans in Their Natural Environment.” The so-called “exhibit” featured eight Homo sapiens, clad in bathing suits and pinned-on fig leaves. The human “captives” were chosen from an online contest, and spent their time sunning on a rock ledge, playing board games, and waving to spectators. The goal of the exhibit was to downplay the uniqueness of human beings as a species. “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals,” said Polly Wills, “teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.”
Many people are happy to think that they are not that special — that they are only another animal. It gives them a good excuse to behave like an animal. They want no moral boundaries, and no one to whom they are accountable.
Evolution is simply the attempt to explain the existence of the world given the presupposition that there is no God. It is a very convenient theory for those who do not want to answer to God. Many people actually prefer the thought that there is no God to whom we are accountable. They don’t want anyone restricting their freedom, even if it is God. For these people, the most disturbing scripture of all is Hebrews 4:13, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
But God is real and we are accountable to God’s plans for us.
The third way understanding that God created the world helps us is: It helps us to understand that God is in charge of history.
This is God’s world. There is a plan. We are not going around in circles. There is not only a design, there is a direction. The Bible declares, “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6).
Against the overwhelming pride of mankind comes the questions which God posed to Job:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — (Job 38:4-11).
The evidence for the design, and therefore a Designer, of creation is overwhelming. This Intelligent Designer is none other than the God who created the universe in love. You are not an accident, you are the result of a God who has loved you into existence.
So don’t live in ignorance of God’s creative loving presence.
Know that God requires you to be accountable to the plans he has for you.
And know that God is fully in control of history, even to this day.
There’s a plan and you’re a part of it.
And that’s no cosmic accident my friends.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A little diversion =>

I started a daily trivia game for my friends and family. If you're interested, you'll have to sign up but it is free. Here's the link


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why do the wicked prosper while the good struggle?

Why do evil people prosper while good people struggle?

What is God’s definition of justice? How come evil people don’t seem to suffer the consequences of their evil actions? Instead, they look like they have an easier, more pleasurable lifestyle? And why is it that Christians often face the consequences of their sins right away? Does God get hurt too when he sees us, the ones he loves the most, hurting? Okay, that’s quite a few questions there. But they’re all basically asking the same thing: Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer?
Guess what, people have been asking that question for as long as evil has been in the world. In fact, King David probably said it best in the passage from Psalm 73 this morning. NIV Psalm 73:3-5 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.
That certainly asks the big question this morning. And, you’ll find verses like that throughout the Psalms. But you’ll find many more verses like our other reading from this morning: NIV Psalm 37:7-9 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret-- it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
What does it mean? Let me try to tell you what it all means by telling you a story I read this week. It’s a story told by a pastoral colleague. One night after church, he ran into a woman who somehow had the impression that he was walking home. She warned him to “be careful out there,” because “all sorts of bad things are going on nowadays.” He smiled and told her that he wasn’t afraid. After all, he said, he’s on good terms with the Management of the Universe, so even if something bad happens to him, it will eventually turn out all right.
These passages are telling us that by his nature, God is completely fair and just. He is not responsible for the sin and evil in the world.
In fact, sin is under God’s death penalty. According to Romans 3:23, we are all sinners. Therefore we all face the prospect of eternal spiritual death apart from our faith in Christ. God’s justice says that we must pay the penalty for our sins. But, His love and grace say that Christ has already paid the penalty on our behalf.
And yet we still struggle while bad folks seem to have it easy. Why? Why doesn’t God make us prosper?
Well, I think we have to understand the difference between prosperity and providence. Because not all of us may prosper, especially in this world. But all who claim the name of Jesus Christ as savior, all who call upon the Lord will experience the providence of God.
Now, I am no stranger to hard times. I have faced adversity, I’ve had my share of troubles. So I find that people who suffer hard times find me a helpful person to talk to and I’ve come to realize that God gave me hardship as training so that I could serve His people who are in distress.
Right now these are good times for me, I must say that I’m in one of the best places I’ve been my whole life. But even in hard times, if I’ve had my wits about me, I have always been confident in God’s providence. I have always known that God was looking out for me. I rely on Psalm 37. That passage says that godly people will have bad times and suffer days of famine. Surprisingly, that is something which I find very reassuring, because if I do face adversity, trial, and hardship, it doesn’t mean that I have fallen out of God’s favor. God won’t grant me an exemption from hard times, but God will give me dignity in those hard times.
And I bear witness in my life that this is true: because at no time during any adversity in my life
was I ever debased by anyone other than myself. I’m my own worst enemy. But those around me have always been supportive and loving. And at no time did I lack anything that I truly needed, except maybe in my imagination.
This kind of leads me to that other thing we’re talking about this morning, but that doesn’t bother me any more. It’s about when a person triumphs through evil.
You all know what I mean: A competitor is convicted of fraudulent trade practices and is still able to win a sale from under your nose. An office adversary stabs you in the back and is rewarded by a promotion. A thief breaks in and steals a gift you gave a loved one and you can’t replace it. You work and slave behind the scenes, while the lazy loudmouth gets public credit for your work.
Most of us have had some experience like that. These things have all happened to me, too. I used to be furious with God about those kinds of things, and God and I used to have it out in loud fights.
Yes, you heard me correctly. I said that I’ve had fights with God. You see, someone once told me that if I was mad at God, I should find a place where I can’t be overheard and have a good knock-down, drag-out fight with God. Yell and scream at God, she said, give Him a piece of your mind and don’t let Him off easy. She said that if my relationship with God was so fragile I couldn’t have a little argument now and then, my spirituality was too weak to do me any good anyway.
At first, I thought this was mucho crazy and a little dangerous, but then I had weekend hospital coverage when my pastor went out of town. A very sweet lady from the church had Parkinson’s disease. She also needed a knee replacement. She was admitted to the hospital and had her knee replaced. She was doing well after the surgery on a regular floor, when she was found after lunchtime having aspirated a bit of food, in cardiac arrest. The crash team came in and she was brought back and admitted to ICU. Unfortunately, her strength was just not enough and she passed away the next day.
God and I had words that very day. We had a knock-down-drag-out, we did. And I can bear witness to you that even though I have lost every single argument with God, I never had an argument with Him where I didn’t learn something. God returns every distress and care with a deep, abiding peace.
You know, I used to laugh at how silly it was for Adam to wear a fig leaf in God’s presence; now I realize how silly it is to wear a fig leaf of propriety before God in my private prayers.
Don’t fret yourself over the one who prospers, or the one who succeeds in evil schemes. Refrain from anger, leave rage alone.
If I am overwhelmed by anger and rage, I try to take it out on God rather than on people, because unlike people, God can handle it, defuse it, and remove it. I’m not always perfect on that but I try. If I am stressed and troubled, I talk it out with God. If I discuss distressing rumors with people, the rumors grow and lead me to evil, but if I discuss my troubles with God,
nothing bad will happen to me, because nothing I give over to God can succeed in leading me to evil. I don’t pretend that I have mastered this in my daily life, but I do admit that I strive daily to submit all things to God.
Folks, as Christians, it may seem that we experience the consequences of our sins right away. But that’s because God loves us like a father, which of course he is. Would you let your children get away with their sins? Or, would you love them enough to correct them and sometimes even punish them? Why would our heavenly Father do anything less with us? Those who do not know God as Father don’t experience this because they’re receiving all the reward they’ll ever get right now.
I’ve heard it said that an evil person is as close to heaven right now as he or she will ever get. But a believer in Jesus Christ is as close to hell right now as he or she will ever get. For us it will never get worse. For them it will never be better.
So maybe right now something in your life hurts. Maybe you’re dealing with stress and anxiety and pain. And even is that trouble chases you for your whole remaining life, it’s still only temporary.
Yes, God hurts when he sees us hurting. God is compassionate. But God also loves us too much to let us try to continue to live in our sins. Wicked people don’t know how to live any differently than they do. But as children of God, we do. It’s incumbent upon us to live differently as an example to the wicked and the “bad” people. It’s our God-given responsibility to be the model of righteous living to the world.
Regardless of how rich or poor, regardless of power or prestige, we are blessed by God. And God has provided for all of our basic needs in this world. So don’t fret those who succeed without faith. We already have treasures and assurances that they may never know. We are blessed by God.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why so many denominations?

Fourth in the "Tough Questions" Series

NIV Matthew 16:16, 18; Ephesians 1:22-23 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Why so many Denominations?

Why are there so many Christian denominations in the world? I mean, really! Does God care if I’m a Baptist or a Methodist or a Catholic or a Pentecostal? How many times have you heard that question? Maybe you’ve brought it up yourself. It’s a good question. It’s a fair question too. Because it’s a question that really gets at the heart of who we are as human beings, and who God is and what God means in our lives. But in order to understand the answer to the question, we’re going to have to understand the history behind the splits in the first place.
So let’s first take a look at all the church splits down through history and why they happened.
The first one I want to suggest to you, you won’t find in any history book. It took place before the church was officially called the church. Look at those first followers of Jesus, twelve men with different ideas about who Jesus was. Before they ever got to “graduation.” Before Jesus’ ministry on Earth was finished, one of them split off from the rest. Judas had his own ideas about what Jesus was supposed to do and who Jesus was supposed to be. When Judas’ ideas were not realized, he split from the rest of the disciples. In essence, Judas was the very first split in the church. And it was exemplary of almost all of the church splits that would follow, because it was about the misunderstandings between humans and what God’s intentions for us are.
But let’s get into the divisions that took place after the initial formation of the church. We commonly acknowledge that the church was born on Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples and many new members were taken into the faith. From there the church grew across the known world primarily by the missionary journeys of Paul and some of the other apostles. Over hundreds of years, Christianity went from a new religion on the fringes, to a religion for which one was persecuted and martyred, to the official faith of the Roman Empire, to an established faith in the entirety of the Western World. And while there were controversies during this time of growth and development, none of them actually split the church like those that were to come.
In 1054 we find the first major split in the church, what is now referred to as the Great Schism. It split the church East ad West, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The primary cause of this split was over power and control of the church. (Anybody surprised at that?) The Eastern Orthodox Church would experience its own divisions, (Russian/Greek/etc.) but let’s continue to focus on the Western Church.
The next major split in the Western Church took place in 1517 when a Catholic Monk named Martin Luther published his 95 theses of protest against the practices of the Catholic Church. Luther and others were particularly concerned with doctrines concerning purgatory, indulgences, devotion to Mary, the sacraments, and the power of the Pope. Because of the nature of Luther’s statements, protest, this new movement was dubbed the Protestant Reformation.
Four prominent church traditions arose from the Protestant Reformation, Lutheranism, the reform movement led by John Calvin which became Presbyterianism, the Anabaptist movement, and the Anglican Church, otherwise known as the Church of England. Let’s look at each of those a little bit and see where they lead us.
First, the Lutheran Church.
The Lutheran church has certainly had its share of controversies and divisions, but overall, it remains rooted in the teachings and reformed doctrines of Martin Luther. Lutherans celebrate communion every Sunday and believe that the communion elements are actually the body and Blood of Christ. Lutheran churches also baptize infants. In fact, doctrines aside there is not a great deal of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church.
Let’s look at the Calvinists and Reformers
John Calvin also began the reformed theology movement in the sixteenth century. Calvinism and reformed theology are probably best known for the doctrines of predestination and election. I spoke a bit about these last week, so I’m not going to recover that ground this morning. Suffice it to say that reformed thinkers primarily believed that “man is incapable of adding anything from himself to obtain salvation and that God alone is the initiator at every stage of salvation, including the formation of faith and every decision to follow Christ.”
As concerning communion and baptism, the reformed churches including the Presbyterians again, differ little from the Catholic Church. They practice infant baptism and Holy Communion.
So let’s look at the Anabaptists
The Anabaptist movement also began in the 16th century. The term "Anabaptist" comes from the practice of baptizing individuals who had been baptized previously, often as infants. Anabaptists believe infant baptism is not valid, because a child cannot commit to a religious faith, and they instead support what's called believer's baptism. Today the Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ are the most common bodies referred to as Anabaptist. And apart from believer’s baptism, the Anabaptists also have a different view of communion. In these churches, communion is often seen simply as a memorial meal. It is celebrated as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, nothing more.
Which leaves us with the Anglicans
The Anglican Church or the Church of England has much deeper roots than other Protestant denominations. It is believed that the English church began sometime in the 5th or 6th century with missionaries from Scotland and Ireland. It remained a part of the Roman Catholic Church until the 16th century and King Henry VIII. Because the Catholic Church would not allow Henry to divorce, Henry decided to declare that the English crown was the only supreme head of the Church of England. This action made the Anglican Church officially separate from the Roman Catholic church. The Anglican Church is the parent of such denominations as the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist church. And again, Anglicans of all manners celebrate infant baptism and Holy Communion. In most Anglican based churches, communion is celebrated as a Holy Mystery wherein Christ is present in the act in a way that is not wholly understood.
Now in all honesty, this is a very very brief overview of how we’ve moved from one Church to many church denominations. I have not touched on many of the controversies that caused these splits. I haven’t looked very much into the differences in doctrine and sacraments. I’ve really only scratched the surface. If I were to go deep on the subject of Church History…. Well, suffice it to say that it is a full two semester course in seminary. I couldn’t cover it in the space of one simple sermon.
And that’s not really what my intentions are today anyway. Because in looking back at our history, the question resurfaces: Why are there so many denominations? Why can’t we all agree on the tenets of the faith? Isn’t this whole Church thing about something more?
Yes, it is about something more.
But first I’d like you to consider something important. For all its value, for all its importance in the world, the Church is a man-made institution. It is run by human beings. It is governed over by human beings. And just like any other human institution, it is a mess. I suppose it’s a matter of our fallen, sinful nature, but we cannot even take an institution ordained and started by God incarnate and not mess it up! I guarantee you folks, it was not God’s intention to have all these splits in His church. God knows it’s not a very good witness to our unity of faith to come from so many different perspectives. I can tell you this morning without a doubt in my mind God does not want us to divide over our differences. God wants us to unite over our commonality.
We are not called to many little bodies of Christ. We are called to be the whole body of Christ for the whole world. The Christian Church is not just a human organization: Its strength and authority come from Christ! Jesus Christ came to earth to give us an insider’s view of the Father’s love and to establish our personal relationship with Him.
When the time came for his return to the Father, he made provisions for bonding his disciples together in a special organization. This organization came to be known as the Church. It is a collection of those who are called out from the secular world to serve Christ. Jesus told Peter that the Church would be built on his confession of faith. As the big C church, we are more than the sum of our parts. The Church is not a building, it meets in buildings. The Church is the entirety of believers, all who confess Christ as savior.
Christ is the head of the church: We are the hands and the feet of Christ called to do His work here on earth. In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote: We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." Very plainly, Paul sees the Church as the people of God, not the institutions and structures that humanity has placed on the practice of Christianity.
Jesus also came to earth to establish the Kingdom of God. His life and ministry focused on building that Kingdom. What is a kingdom? Well, we often think of landmass, a monarch or a castle. But a kingdom is none of these. Rather, it involves people subject to a ruler. So the Kingdom of god exists anywhere you find people who give god control of their lives. That’s what we mean when we pray the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that says: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking God to do his will in our lives as fully as it is done in heaven. The Church then manifests the Kingdom of God on earth. Every group of believers, every denomination, is a branch office.
Critics often look at the church with its flaws and its problems and conclude that it has drifted far from its roots. Not true! The Book of Acts and most of Paul’s epistles document all manner of problems with the early church. Anytime a group of imperfect people come together, problems soon follow. As one evangelist once said: “The only way to have a perfect church is to throw out all the current members and don’t take any new ones in.”
The genius of the Church is not that it is trouble free but that the Holy Spirit works to resolve our problems. The world should see a difference in the way we live. And I guess that’s where I’m really going this morning.
We’re not perfect. But we are forgiven. We are called to work for unity in the Church and in the church. So I’d offer you some food for thought this morning.
How can we be more unified as a church?
And, how can we be more unified with God’s church in the world?
I know that right now there are rumors that our denomination might split over a controversial issue. And what kind of witness to the "United" nature of the United Methodist Church are we if we cannot avoid a split over controversy?
How can we work toward keeping our unity and our unified witness?
What will it take for us to be the complete Body of Christ in the world?
Can we do it?
Can you do it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

If God knows all, where's free will?

Third in the "Tough Questions" series looks at the dynamic between predestination and free will.

Romans 8:29-30, Ephesians 1:5, 11
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between predestination and free will. Things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions. But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. "Who sent you here?" they asked. "No one sent me," he replied. "I came of my own free will." "Free will!" they exclaimed. "You can't join us! You belong with the other group!" So he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, "When did you decide to join us?" The young man replied, "Well, I didn't really decide--I was sent here." "Sent here!" they shouted. "You can't join us unless you have decided by your own free will!" (Today In The Word, August, 1989, p. 35)

Free will versus predestination. It’s one of the stickiest subjects in all of Christian theology. In layman’s terms it sounds a little like this:
If God knows everything, then he knows everything I’ll ever do. He knows whether I’ll choose salvation or not. My choice is an illusion if God already knows what I’ll choose.
Well, first let’s set some definitions in front of our discussion.
We all understand free will, right? It means that we’re not puppets. It means that God does not control our actions, we choose what we want to do and don’t want to do.
Predestination is a little different. The best definition that I’ve come across concerning this word is as follows: Predestination means to work out beforehand. In theology, predestination is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God. John Calvin interpreted predestination to mean that God willed eternal damnation for some people and salvation for others. As far as being marked out beforehand, well, there’s been a whole lot of discussion and disagreement over the course of church history concerning just what that means.
Some say God pre-selects those who are invited to receive salvation. And that pre-selection is seen in two ways.
One says that all people deserve to go to hell, but God in his infinite mercy chooses some to go to heaven. Theologians call this single predestination.
The other explanation says that he chooses some for heaven and some for hell. It sort of says that God makes up two lists. Theologians call this double predestination.
Those teaching pre-selection views base their views on two assumptions.
First, they emphasize God’s sovereignty. God’s omnipotence. God’s the boss. He can do anything he wants to do. Second, they say Christ died on the cross for those whom god selected, not for everyone. Otherwise they say, God’s plan failed if Christ died on the cross for people who would never accept him. So, since God’s plans are perfect and cannot fail, God obviously didn’t plan for those people to be saved in the first place.
Both assumptions are faulty. Because both of these views leave free will out of the equation. If God makes the choice for us, if we are either chosen for heaven or chosen for hell, then where is our free will?
Without question, God is sovereign.
Without question, God has power over all of creation.
Without question, God knows all.
But the reality is that God has chosen to limit himself at the point of our free will. God does not mess with the free will of humanity.
You can see this illustrated very clearly in a film that came out a few years ago. When God gives Bruce (in Bruce Almighty) his powers, he tells him, “You have all my powers. You can do anything you want, you just can’t mess with free will.” This is demonstrated very clearly later on in the film. After Bruce uses God’s powers to selfishly set his own life right, he loses his girlfriend Grace. Bruce shows up at the school where Grace is a teacher in order to try to get her back. When she rejects him again he tries to use his God power to force her to love him. It doesn’t work. She just looks at him and asks what he’s doing.
No doubt God could disregard our freedom if he wanted to. But God doesn’t treat us like hand puppets or chess pieces. He respects our freedom to serve him or to choose not to serve him.
Look at Luke 2:10! Angels announce to the shepherds in the field “good news of great joy that will be for all people.”
Look at John 3:16! “God so loved the world that whoever believes in him shall not die but have everlasting life.”
Look at Matthew 24:14! Jesus tells his disciples to preach the gospel throughout the world and make disciples of all nations.
Good news for all people.
Whoever believes.
All nations throughout the world.
The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for everyone. Obviously, that’s not what predestination is all about. There’s a better way to understand this concept.
First, consider that God is not constrained by time like we are. God does not live a linear timeline like we do. In fact, it reminds me of something from a book I once read.
In “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut there is a race of aliens who are not limited to linear time. Instead, they explain that they can hold up time like a film and look at any scene at any time. This didn’t change the content of the movie and they didn’t change the movie. They simply knew what would happen.
God is much the same. God can look at any moment in time. That doesn’t change what will happen in that moment. Our free will is not thwarted by the fact that God knows what we will do.
Instead, consider that predestination does not determine who is picked for salvation, but what happens to those who do choose God’s gift of unmerited favor. Everyone who has faith in Christ, everyone who simply trusts Him for salvation, is guaranteed a place in heaven. Remember that God offers salvation as a gift. But he does not predetermine or force our choice.
Think of it this way.
Where I grew up in Palmyra the NJ Transit bus stop was a block from my house. The 9A bus stopped there several times every weekday and a few times a weekend. The sign on the front of the bus read “Center City.” It ended at Broad and Race Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. Now that bus driver didn’t carry a list of who could ride the bus. Anybody with the fare could ride to Center City. Nor did that driver just go wherever he wanted each day. He had a predetermined travel plan that took that bus to Center City. If I chose to get on that bus, NJ Transit guaranteed that I would end up at Broad and Race. Now I’m not forced to stay on the bus to the end. I can pull the cord over the window and get off at any time. But if I choose to stay with my original decision, I will get downtown, sooner or later.
That’s the way predestination works.
The bus of salvation passes by our heart. Jesus Christ sits in the driver’s seat. The sign on the front reads “Heaven.” The driver doesn’t have a predetermined list of riders. He invites everyone to come aboard. If we choose to get on and stay on the bus, God guarantees that we will end up in heaven. We can get off anytime we want. But if we choose to stick with our original decision, we are certain to make it to heaven someday.
So then what do we do with all this newfound information?
Well, I’d like to offer you a suggestion that I saw at the end of a movie the other night.
The movie is “Back to the Future part III.” In the second movie, Marty’s GF Jennifer picks up a fax in the future that Marty had received from his boss. There are two words in very large type on the sheet, “YOU’RE FIRED.” Toward the end of III, Marty avoids an auto accident that would have broken his hand and kept him from pursuing his dream of being a musician. When Jennifer looks at the paper after the accident, the words fade from the page. Shortly thereafter they encounter Professor Brown, the inventor of the time machine. Jennifer says: "Dr. Brown, I brought this note back from the future and now it's erased." Doc replies: "Of course it's erased." Jennifer: "But what does that mean?" Doc: "It means your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you."
So I offer you Doc Brow’s advice this morning.
Your future is not set.
It’s whatever you make of it.
So make it good!
Live well.
Serve one another.
And love your God with all your heart soul mind and strength.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Isn't Good good enough?

Second in a series of messages answering tough questions non-Christians ask about God and Faith.

Ephesians 2:8-9

You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve said it. It usually sounds a little like this:
I’m a good person. I treat people right. I don’t steal or kill or anything bad like that. I know that God will see that and wouldn’t keep me out of heaven. After all, being good is good enough, right? Well, let’s look at that.
There is a story of Billy Graham when he was visiting a city for one of his crusades. He had finished writing a letter and began to look for a place to mail it.Walking around the city for a while, he came across a young boy. He asked the boy if he knew how to get to the post office. The boy gave Billy Graham the directions and before leaving, Billy said to the boy, “Come on over to the arena tonight and I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.”The boy looked at him and replied, “How can you know how to get to heaven? You don’t even know the way to the post office!”
Today I want to tell you that I do know the way to the post office, and more importantly, I know how a person gets to heaven, because the Bible tells us how. But I want to take a different route to that same goal, by focusing on how to NOT get to heaven.My purpose today is really to discuss the various ways people think they can go to heaven, and why those things do not work to bring us to heaven. I have a feeling that if you’re here to hear the answers to some tough questions, you may find yourself in one of these camps.Ready, here we go.
The first way to NOT get to heaven is…. Trust your good works. I once heard a story about a businessman who was once asked if he knew if he was going to heaven and why God should let him in. He replied, “Oh yeah, He’ll let me in. I give turkeys to poor people every year at thanksgiving, and other stuff, too.”
I wish our reply to that could be, “Congratulations! You made it into heaven! Way to go!” Unfortunately, that’s not what God says. Look at this verse with me: Ephesians 2:8-9 says:God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.And we’ve already talked about this at the open of this message.
You see, folks, there is no amount of charity, no amount of community service, no amount of kind words that will ever add up to be enough to get you into heaven.
I am not saying we should never do good works. In fact, we are commanded to do them. Let me read you the next verse, verse 10: For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.Just because we do not get to heaven by good works does not mean we should not do them.
In fact, as we can see from this verse, we are to do them all the more. They simply don’t get us to heaven.
And there’s a certain reality that needs to be understood here. Because God does love us. God doesn’t want us to perish. But God is also completely holy. And nothing that is not also completely holy can be in the presence of a completely holy God. So we need to be holy for this God. And yet we’re not. How can we be holy? I’ll get to that later.
So if you want to NOT get to heaven, trust in your good works to get you there.
The next way to NOT get to heaven is…. Trust your traditions.
I like traditions. I’m a big fan of traditions. Some of my favorite traditions are things like singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at baseball games. Actually, I like singing the national anthem at sporting events. Another favorite tradition of mine is the All-American Sunday afternoon nap. In fact, I’d put that up there with breathing as one of my favorite things to do.
But what I’m talking about here is mainly traditions of a religious nature. We will be talking in more general terms about religion in a bit, but I want to talk in specifics for a moment. As I’ve just mentioned, I like traditions, but if we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. In their desire to serve and please God, they added to the law of Moses hundreds of other laws. And it came to the point that these guys were putting all their faith in these traditions. Jesus had some things to say about this.Matthew 15:6 - And so, by your own tradition, you nullify the direct commandment of God.
“We’ve always done it that way!” becomes the rallying cry of the traditionalist. “Don’t bring that new Bible translation in here. Don’t bring them new-fangled ‘worship choruses’ here. If Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace were good enough for Jesus, they’re good enough for me!”
Tradition can get in the way of knowing what is behind the tradition. For instance, many churches say the Lord’s Prayer at every service.That’s a good tradition. But saying that prayer can become just a matter of rote if you don’t remember why that tradition was started.
I’m reminded of a story of a young newlywed couple. The bride decided to bake her groom a ham. But just before she put it in the pan, she cut off both ends of the ham. Her groom asked her why she did that, and she answered, “That’s the way my mother did it.” So the next time the groom visited his mother-in-law, he asked her about this. “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham before you baked it?” Her answer was the same as her daughter’s, “That’s the way my mother did it.” Well, this got the young man even more curious, so next time they visited his wife’s grandmother, he posed the question to her, “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham before you baked it?”Her answer was straightforward and simple, “Because my pan was too small, and that was the only way it would fit!”The tradition started out with a good reason, but it was lost over time.
Tradition, no matter how wonderful it is does not get you into heaven. So if you want to make sure you do NOT get to heaven, just trust your tradition.
Closely related to this is the next way to not get to heaven.... Trust your religion.
“What do you mean, Preacher? That’s why we’re here, isn’t it – to be religious?”
We come here to give God honor in worship and to listen to His Word so we can be better servants for Him.
Too many people come to Church three times primarily. They’re baptized, they get married, and they have their funeral service at the Church. The first time they throw water on you, the second time they throw rice, and the third time they throw dirt! (Mark Hensley – Sermon Central)
Folks, you cannot trust your church to get you to heaven. You cannot trust your denomination to get you to heaven. You cannot trust your baptism. You cannot trust your taking of communion. You cannot trust your Bible reading.You can’t trust any of that.
When you put your trust in your religion rather than a relationship with Christ, you run the danger of becoming a hypocrite. Hypocrites are religious on the outside, but still corrupt on the inside. They follow religious tradition and man-made teachings instead of the Word of God.
Jesus had something to say about these types as well.Matthew 15:7-9: You hypocrites! Isaiah was prophesying about you when he said, ’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.’"
You see, there are lots of people who think that because they go to church on Sunday, or because they were baptized, or because they take communion, or whatever,they are okay with God and can go to heaven. Unfortunately, that’s not what God says. In fact, God says that the righteousness we bring on our own is nothing but filthy rags in his sight. We have nothing in the way of true religion on our own to offer God.
So trust your religion if you want to be sure to NOT get to heaven.

How to get to heaven:
We have looked at a number of things that people are trusting in order to get them to heaven, but the truth is that none of these will give us favor with God allowing us into heaven.
None of these will make us holy. And one of the things I have been stressing this morning is that God says we can’t trust these things.
Now, it’s easy to trust a minister, because we think that ministers know it all. Then again, most of you know me well enough to know that’s just not true, amen? So one of the things I have challenged you to do over the last couple of years is to get into the Word of God. The main reason is that because God’s Word is perfect. I am not perfect (no amens from peanut gallery), so you need to be in the Bible to make sure I am communicating truth to you.
A person once asked me why we should believe the Bible instead of the minister who contradicted the Bible. My answer was, “If God’s Word isn’t good enough, what is?” If you can’t trust God’s Word, than how can you trust a man’s word? The key to this is to see what God says about stuff, and particularly about what God says about going to heaven, because you will spend way more time in eternity than you will spend on earth. Get the idea?
So what can we do to get to heaven? Only one thing: Trust in Jesus.
Romans 10:8-10: Salvation that comes from trusting Christ – which is the message we preach – is already within easy reach. In fact, the Scriptures say, "The message is close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart." For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved."
This is the absolute grace of God. That our creator would give up His only son to set things right between himself and his creation. And this is how we are able to be holy and thus be in the presence of that holy God. You can do nothing except trust the work that Christ has done for you. We need to trust in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
How do you trust Christ? You call out to Him, believing that He has done everything necessary for you to get to heaven. The Bible says that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. So you are going to have the opportunity to do that this morning.
I hope that if you have never done that before, that you will take advantage of this time to make sure you have a home in heaven. Remember, you can’t get there on your own. Your only hope is the Lord Jesus Christ, and trusting Him as your Lord and Savior. I am going to lead us in a prayer. I want all of us to pray together.
Let’s pray.
(Lead a sinners prayer)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Where was God at Nickel Mines?

First in a seven-week series of sermons asking and trying to answer tough questions about God and faith

October 2, 2006, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A gunman holds an Amish schoolhouse hostage. Charles Carl Roberts IV has devious plans for ten little girls but is foiled before he can bring his plan to fruition. In the end he takes the lives of five little girls and himself. The last of the survivors of this tragedy returned home three days before Christmas.

August 29, 2005, Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orleans head on. Almost 1,700 die and many thousands are left homeless. One year later, less than half of those displaced by the hurricane had returned to the city.

December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean. A devastating tsunami caused by an underground earthquake, wreaks havoc on coastal communities in Southeast Asia. 230,000 people die in the floods and the aftermath.

September 11, 2001, New York City, NY, USA. Muslim religious extremists hijack four passenger planes in American airspace. One each is flown into the tallest of the buildings of the World Trade Center. A third is crashed into the Pentagon in Washington while a fourth is overtaken by the passengers and ditched in a field in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. In all, almost 3,000 people lose their lives in the most tragic and disturbing day in American history.



Massive loss of life.




What in the world is going on here? Why so much? Why so many people? And good people too!Why do these kinds of bad things happen to good people? Why do we have to suffer loss and pain?

Well before we get to the whys and the what to dos, let’s talk a little about suffering and loss and pain.

First of all, suffering is real.
There are people of a philosophical bent that says that pain and suffering are all in the mind. They’ll tell you that you can just get over it. That you can just “think your way out of it.”
You want to know that suffering is real? Just look at Jesus on the cross. God incarnate yells out in pain. God in the flesh cries in anguish as he suffers on the cross. If you need definitive proof that pain and suffering are not illusory, look to Jesus.
Second, suffering and pain are universal.
We all experience loss and pain in our lives. Every one of us here today has lost a loved one or a close friend. Each of us has been sick or injured in a way that scared us. And even if you’ve not had any of these experiences, you’ve lived through 9/11. You’ve watched all of those other dramas unfold in the last few years. There really is no way to escape the pain and the suffering that happens in this world. It’s a part of life. It’s part of what it means to be human.
Suffering has two other traits.
It is in the world because of humanity’s fall from grace.
And it provides us opportunities to be in ministry to one another.
“The world God created was perfect and the life God created for humanity was perfect. Part of that perfection is that God did not create people to be robots. Instead, God gave us free will so that we’d make choices for ourselves and so that we would truly live free.
But human history makes it painfully clear that we have chosen to use our freedom and our free will in ways that bring pain to others. We have chosen to exercise our freedom to live selfishly.
And so nations have warred against other nations always with innocent civilians taking the worst hits.
And then there’s Adam. The first man. And Eve, the first woman. They chose to use their freedom in order to sin, to assert their will over God. The Bible tells us that this is when suffering entered into the world.In Romans we read: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned- Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.This first decision to live selfishly was the root of all future decisions to live selfishly.
Selfish living in this world causes suffering in this world, period. So we can understand that suffering came into the world, not because of God, but because of human sin and human rebellion.
That is what we find in the Bible.We see in Scripture that even natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina are linked to the human condition:In Romans 8 we find: The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the onewho subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.Katrina and Rita groaned and acted out and inflicted serious damage on the Gulf Coast.”
“Why does God allow suffering?” Matthew Parker as found at
Undersea earthquakes shook the sea floor and induced tidal waves that groaned across the face of the planet.
All confirming that these things happen in our world because of the fact that God gives us free will and we’ve used that will to mess up God’s creation.
But one last thing about this suffering and loss and pain before we move on.Because there is opportunity in our strife. When someone hurts, when a friend experiences grief and loss, It’s an opportunity for us to be in ministry. It’s a chance for Christians to be the Body of Christ.
And I won’t tell you that you need to look for the hidden meaning in something bad happening.
I do not believe that God allows bad things to happen, Or evil to exist so that God’s plan might be fulfilled.
But you’ve been around people who do this right? You’re hurting. You’ve lost a friend or family member, maybe even tragically, And someone asks you what God’s plan is through your pain.
Not terribly comforting is it?
I tend to refer to folks that do this as Christian terrorists. They’re not really helping the situation. They're really just making you feel worse.
Let me assure you folks, when we’re in pain God hurts. When we weep over tragedy, God weeps too. The loving God that I know doesn’t wish any of this on us. Nor does that God plan these things to somehow make us better people. God hurts with us when we hurt.
And in our hurting is an opportunity. When others around us hurt, we have the opportunity to witness to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. When we love one another and care for one another, especially in our grief and pain, We are, without doubt, doing what Jesus would do. When we comfort one another, we are demonstrating the presence of God in our lives.
So let’s look at that Scripture passage:
Romans 5:1-11 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Now here’s a passage that certainly talks to us about suffering.
suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us
Paul is telling us to rejoice in our suffering. Now I don’t know about you folks, but I can’t really fathom being happy about being in pain. I cannot remember a time when I rejoiced in my suffering. And yet, Paul tells us to grow through that suffering. Because the hope of God will not ever fail us. Our real hope in all our trials and tribulations is found right in this passage.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!
There’s the real rub in our lives. There’s our hope and our salvation all in one neat little package. Christ died for us while we were still living in a sinful state. Everything else is just a distraction from that reality.
Which really leads me to the big question of the morning.
What do we do about it? What does it mean to our daily lives? Where was God at Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania?
I want to get to that answer by offering you some suggestions for living in a troubled world.
These suggestion come right out of this morning’s discussion and, like any good sermon, there’s three of them.
First, don’t lose hope.
We do live in a troubled world. We live in a place where no one is immune from pain and suffering and grief and loss. But the apostle Paul assures us that persevering through our troubles leads us to hope. Don’t let the world rob you of your hope by offering you the quick fix for your troubles. Persevere. God is with you.
Second, take care of one another.
This is the most powerful witness opportunity we are likely to get as Christians. When one hurts, we all hurt. And nothing demonstrates the love of our God better than our actions when one is hurting. Take care of each other. Minister to each other. And reach out in Christian love when others are in need. Living out your faith in real life is powerful, powerful witness to the presence and providence of God in the world.
And finally, keep your eyes open and be discerning.
Now this is where we really get to where God was at Nickel Mines. Because it’s hard to imagine that God was even close to a situation like that. But I’d ask you to think about how that situation panned out and how those involved acted and reacted to it.
First, think of that gunman.
We’ve heard that he apparently had a plan that involved more than just killing those little girls.
There is evidence that he plotted some very unsavory things. And yet, he called the police himself and they arrived before he could carry out the worst of his plans. What do you suppose compelled him to call the police on himself? Was God at work? I’d call that very likely.
Think about one particular girl that was in that schoolhouse.
Marian Fisher was 13 years old. She had her whole life ahead of her. And yet, when faced with the prospect of almost certain death, Marian did something incredible. She offered herself to the gunman in an effort to get the other girls in that classroom released. Published reports state that Marian Fisher asked that she be killed first and that the other hostages be let go. Was God a motivating force for Marian? Probably. But more importantly, Marian is an awesome witness to the sacrificial nature of our salvation. Jesus offered himself up for our sins so that we would not have to suffer that punishment. Marian Fisher demonstrated that very same sacrificial love by her actions that day.
And consider that entire Amish community.
Without hesitation and down to the last person, they offered forgiveness. There were no responses of rage or anger or vengeance. There was certainly great grief in that community, But there was also an enormous outpouring of grace and forgiveness. Consider that the grandfather of one of the slain girls went to the home of the gunman’s family that very evening to offer forgiveness. Consider that many of the people affected by this tragedy attended the gunman’s funeral. Consider that a portion of the money that came in to help the Amish, Was set aside by the very same people to help pay for college educations for the shooter’s children. Folks, that’s forgiveness! That’s the kind of Grace that comes from God.
I gotta tell you, I don’t know if I could do that. I do not know if I could be that forgiving if it were my child. I’d like to think I could, but I just don’t know.
Where was God at Nickel Mines?
God was present in the actions and the reactions of some of those involved.
God was saving those girls from unspeakable cruelty.
God was demonstrating sacrifice and forgiveness through people of faith.
And God was weeping with all of us who wept over this tragic loss of innocent lives.
Friends, I don’t believe that we can do any less than our Amish brothers and sisters.
As you go out to live your lives in this world, consider how your life is a witness to the reality and the providence of God.
Persevere through your pain and suffering, you’re not alone.
And never lose hope that god is with you always.