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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Easter Worship

Is Easter a big deal? Of course it is, we say. To say anything else would be unacceptable in church, obviously. Yes, Easter is a big deal. Do our lives show this?

What requires the most preparation? Christmas? Valentine's Day? Mother's Day? April 15? The end of school in June? The start of school in the fall? Thanksgiving? How much time and energy do you spend getting ready for Easter?

What gets you so excited that you think about it weeks and even months before it comes? (Again) Christmas? The Super Bowl? The NCAA men's basketball tournament? The opening of hunting season? A longed-for summer vacation to the beach? The release of a movie that's been anticipated for over a year? How much time prior to Easter do we spend thinking about Easter?

I know a guy who planned an event for April 8. He's really excited about this because he'll be seeing people he hasn't seen in a long time and it is going to be fun. I don't blame him for eagerly anticipating a reunion with people he loves. His event has nothing to do with church. He had no idea he was scheduling it on Easter Sunday. He saw April 8 - an open Sunday. Only after it was on the calendar and plans were made did someone say, "You know that's Easter, right?" If you asked him, he would say he considered himself a Christian.

I am not in a position to doubt whether or not someone is a Christian. But how can a Christian not know when Easter is? It happens because many people who earneslty want to live faithful lives do not think much about Easter except when it comes. We think about our individual salvation. Am I going to Heaven when I die? That's important to people. But for a lot of people very concerned about that question, Easter is peripheral, only to be considered on Easter Sunday. And then, hats, new suits, lillies, and spring time get as much consideration as worship. "Let's get through church so we can get to our big Easter dinner."

Church isn't somthing we "get through." Church is the gathering of God's people for the worship of God, fueled by the filling of the Holy Spirit, and with special attention given to the Risen Savior Jesus. Gathering with the church family to exalt the resurrected one is what it is all about. Anticipation for Easter begins on Ash Wednesday, lasts 46 days, heightens in energy on Palm Sunday, in tension on Maundy Thursday, and in darkness on Good Friday. Then it explodes with vibrant worship on Easter morning. For a person whose greatest life priority is to faithfully follow and worship Jesus, no other day matters as much as Easter.

How is this reflected in our lives? I propose that we approach Easter worship in such a way that on Easter day, both in the 6:30AM sunrise service and in the 11AM worship service, our worship is more intense, energetic, and explosively joyful than at any other time. How do we get to the point that worship is like that on Easter Sunday? I don't think we will ourselves to intense, energetic, explosively joyful worship. So how does it come?

First, we pray. Prayer takes on many forms and during Lent our repentence and confession are focused as we renew our faith and ask God to cleanse us and make us new. Ideally prayer begins on Ash Wednesday and leads up to Easter day. But, if you are reading this only a few days before Easter and haven't been praying up to Easter, then I suggest you begin now. Everyday from now until Easter Sunday, take 10-15 minutes in your home when it is quiet and dark. Light a candle. Gazing at the candle light, quiet your spirit. Lay your sins before God and receive the forgiveness you have in Christ. Lay your burdens our and ask Him to lift them. And ask the Lord to ready your heart for Easter.

Second, we read. There are many excellent books about Jesus and about the resurrection. Philip Yancey's "The Jesus I Never Knew" is a good look the Savior. N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" is the best book on resurrection I have found. If you can, read a book about Jesus or specifically about his resurrection. Or, research Easter on the Internet. Of course doing this, you want to fact-check anything you read and if you have questions, you can contact Jonathan or Heather or me and we will help you understand what you're reading.

Third, worship. I recommend going to the website on Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and listening to the sermons of John Ortberg. Again, it's free and requires no log-in or password. Go to the archives and listen to his sermons from years past. And worship at our church. Even if you read this only days before Easter Sunday, if you come Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and pour your heart into the scriptures and songs and emotions of those nights, you'll be presenting yourself to God. The Holy Spirit will ready you to be fully present to God on Easter Sunday.

Fourth, invite. Treat Easter with such importance and excitement and anticipation that your friends know it matters because they hear you talking about it all the time. Invite those around you who do not have church homes to come with you on Easter Sunday.

I think through prayer, reading, worship, and invitation, we ready ourselves for the day that we glorify the resurrected one, Jesus, our Savior and Lord. Nothing matters as much as this in the life of one of his followers. If there is one thing we remember in this season of life, let it be Easter and our participation in it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Declared Innocent (Hebrews 10:1-10)

You’re in a tough graduate school class – the subject matter is really advanced and the professor has high expectations. There are numerous quizzes but the major portion of the final grade is determined by the three exams. You must make at least a ‘C’ in this class to earn your degree. It is a required course. Going along, you do alright on the quizzes, making 9 out of 10 most of the time. But you’re nervous on the day of the first exam and with good reason. It is comprehensive. Everything that was covered in the course to that point is on this exam. The professor is tough, remember?

You fail it badly! Now what? You have to have this class. Your score was so low, mathematically it will just about take a miracle for you to pass. Even if you ace the next couple of exams – and oh by the way the material is getting more and more difficult –you’re still not sure it will pull your grade up to a passing grade. And you cannot see how you will possibly ace the exams. Your performance to this point has made that prospect pretty doubtful. The failing grade sticks to you. It clings and won’t release you. The ‘F’ in the class, or ‘D’ if you’re lucky, affects your overall GPA. And you will have to retake the class and pass it to graduate. Even though you admitted your failure, admission is no help. You have to make up for it.

This exact scenario happened to one of my best friends in seminary. We were required to pass one semester of Biblical Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. The story is exactly as I laid it out. My friend made something like a 37 out of 100 on the first Hebrew exam. He and I had an emotional talk about him dropping out of seminary and giving up the dream of being a pastor. He knew he couldn’t pull that grade up. The professor knew it too, and he called my friend into his office.

My buddy was shaking in his shoes as he approached that meeting. He was a wreck. Surprisingly, this hard core academic professor was kind. He was pastoral. He said to my friend, “You’re averaging between 85 and 90 on your quizzes and you never miss class. If we get past the anxiety, I think you can get at least a ‘C’ on the next two exams. If you promise never to try to go into ancient languages as a specialty, we will not count the first exam against your final grade.”

My friend had no hope. But then, because of the professor’s grace, he passed. The failing on the first exam was washed away and not counted against him.

From Hebrews 10:10, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.”

Sanctified means made holy as God is holy. Sin is what makes it impossible for a human being to be holy. Made in God’s image, declared very good at the creation, we have marred what God has made by worshiping that which is not God, by going our own way instead of God’s way, and by doing harm to one another and to ourselves in large and small ways. We all sin. Most of us make mistakes and in some form or fashion disobey God every day. We cannot ever, ever be holy. We have no place in God’s new heaven and new earth. We will be banished from that place, sent to outer darkness, because our sin sticks to us. But, like my seminary friend who had the professor, a notoriously strict prof, mercifully forgive an awful exam, through what Jesus did on the cross, ours are forgiven and forgotten. As verse 2 implies, when we are in Christ, we no longer have any consciousness of sin.

I realize that saved persons still sin. We all do. Even though Hebrews says we are made perfect, we know that beleivers aren’t perfect. Churchgoers are not better than other people. But we are free from sin’s clutches and consequences. With the Spirit in us, we have help, so we can commit fewer sins and do more good things, acts that show we are God’s service as he works at establishing His kingdom. Because of His grace and mercy, we get to be part of what God is doing.

At the risk of declaring the obvious, one of the reasons we are acceptable to God is Jesus takes care of our sins by taking the punishment on himself. Now in the post-crucifixion/post-resurrection world, the sins of all who trust in Jesus are erased. Yes, we sin, but those sins don’t count against us in God’s eyes, and it is because of Jesus.

Looking at Hebrews 10, especially the first five verses, and several other passages, the great reformer John Calvin in his monumental work Institutesdescribes an important distinction he sees in the passage. “In the Jewish ceremonies,” referred to in verses 1-6, “there was confession of sin rather than atonement for them.” Yes, the sins of individuals and the community were acknowledged. But as he reads Hebrews 10, Calvin says that in confession which happened in the old sacrificial system, “there was no release” from sin.

The sin was named and passed on to an animal that was then butchered. But that act did nothing for future sins and did nothing to change the status of the person. He or she was still a sinner, completely unable to be seen as holy in God’s presence.

Imagine the scene. You and I and all of us here are seated along with all others we have ever known. The room is large, but one by one we are called before God to be judged for all we have done in our lives. How many times have we spoken rudely? Or shouted “God,”only not in prayer but as an expression of anger or surprise? That would qualify as taking the Lord’s name in vain. How many times have we despised another human being or looked down on someone? Do these seem like nickel and dime sins? Maybe we could throw in pre-marital sex or cheating on an exam or gossip or gluttony. We might be tempted to be appalled that God would condemn someone for such fluff. But is it fluff, as it piles up over the course of a lifetime, year after year? Greed, selfishness, drunkenness, lust, sloth – without going into $20 and $50 sins like theft, rape, and murder, we can see we are indeed sinful and over the years we build up a sin record.

So, then our name is called and it is that sin record we carry in before God. It is on that record we stand when it is time for final judgment – a judgment that is repeatedly forecast in the Old Testament and the New. What do we say? O Lord, I went on 10 mission trips! But God, I gave not 10% to the church and other ministries, but 12% and some years even 15%. Our good deeds don’t outweigh our sins and even if someone did more good than bad, the bad is still there. The mistakes and times of disobedience and moments when we decided our way was better than God’s way or we just weren’t into the ‘god-thing’ right then – it all continues to soil the good creation God has made. In the renewed earth and new heaven, there will be no soiling, no spoiling, no polluting, no profaning – no sin. With our sin caked on us, we must go away. We cannot enter the kingdom. God won’t have us. We are banished to an outer, lonely, dark, miserable place.

A religion dependent on our ritual observance does nothing for us on that day. We’re only as cleaned as our most recent act of worship and even the admission of guilt does nothing to remove the guilt. Calvin juxtaposes the confession of sin that accompanied the worship rituals we read about in the Old Testament with the atonement Jesus achieves in his death on the cross. As Calvin holds side by side a sacrificial worship system and the sacrifice of Jesus, it becomes clear that Jesus’ death was a permanent solution whereas the sacrifice in the tabernacle or temple is only good until the person sins again.

Calvin says the people of faith from the Old Testament era were “partakers of grace” just as we are, but not because of their diligent worship practices but because of God’s love. God did not suddenly become loving and merciful. He has always been so. But the coming of Christ changed everything for everyone. Calvin’s point is not that Christians have a superior spirituality over Old Testament believers. His point is the sacrifice of one man one time – Jesus erases all sins for all time for those whom Calvin refers to as the elect. I believe – and I am sure I diverge from Calvin on this – any and all who turn to Jesus in faith are among the elect. God sent Jesus to die for the sins of all people. His grace is for all and all are intended to be elected by God. There is no limited atonement, at least not a pre-planned one. There is no irresistable grace. We choose to live in the election granted us when we bow before Jesus; we opt to increase our sin when we reject Jesus and thus reject God’s grace. God created us and sent Jesus to redeem us so we could be free from the sins we can’t shake even when we try. God chose us out of deep, deep love for us. When we choose to receive what God gives and live in faith, his Spirit fills us, we are born again, and we are free. We are free from guilt and free to live for God.

That means we are free to bask in God’s joy when we go on mission trips; we aren’t going to earn salvation. We’re going because Jesus earned our salvation and we know how good it is to be saved.

We are free to give our money and some among us experience God’s joy in a uniquely wonderful way when they give; all of us are freed and invited into the joy of sharing. We don’t give 10 or 12 or 20% of our incomes to earn salvation. We give because we have been saved and we want our financial gifts to empower the church and empower international ministries to carry the gospel of salvation to the world.

By God’s will, we have been sanctified – made right, made holy. Hebrews 10 takes us from the frustration of having to repeat worship rituals over and over to the declaration that we are made to be holy. Just as Jesus said before his death on the cross so we now repeat, “it is finished.”

The last day then is different than we previously imagined. Go there with me to the final scene, the very end. We’ve died, and in death, we’ve waited. In sort of sleep, or in a place called Paradise, we have waited for God’s final consummation, and it arrives – the final judgment when God sets all things right in the world. Along with all others that we know, we wait in a large room. Individual names are called, and one-by-one, we enter. Carrying the burden of a lifetime of sins, we know this isn’t going to go well.

Entering in fear, we are surprised to see Jesus himself, and even more surprised to see his smile as he welcomes us. Suddenly we remember a theological term – justification. In means the court rules in your favor, sees you to be in the right. Here, at your final judgment and mine, Jesus looks at us and rules in our favor. He sees us to be in the right. But what about God’s demand for holiness? What about our sins, our mistakes, and our failures? Jesus has it covered for us – all of us. Because he took on himself the penalty for all our sins and we put our trust in Him, we are sanctified and he declares us innocent.

It means we are free to enter His kingdom, inhabiting our resurrected bodies as we live in glorious relationship with God.

If we have confessed our sins and received Jesus into our hearts and acknowledged him as Lord, we know that’s how it will go. Obviously I don’t the specifics down, no one does. But at the judgment, because of what Jesus did for us, the verdict will go in our favor.

That future hope and future freedom frees us to live as Kingdom people, resurrection people, today. We are free from sin’s hold and death’s shadow. In the here and now, sin still hurts, but it doesn’t stick to us at all. We’re forgiven and made new. We are free to go on mission trips, give our money to God’s work, to invest our lives in loving people and sharing the gospel. We’re free to be completely sold-out for Jesus in every phase of life.

His verdict? Innocent of sin, holy before Lord. Knowing that, we are free to follow the Lord and do His work in the world right now.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Hebrews 9:27-29

I have thought recently about how to come alongside people as they walk through life. God calls us – “us” being the church – to walk alongside one another through the difficult times in life and to share the gospel of his salvation with those who don’t know him and to help one another when help is needed. Care; evangelism; compassion; prayer – we are called to these things.

Four of us, along with 12 others from other churches will go Ethiopia in April to tell 100 children about Jesus’ love. The participants on this trip are hard-working middle class Americans. Most Ethiopians who are employed and have their own apartments would be considered poor by American standards. Most among those in that nation who would be considered to be doing well – would be seen as impoverished in our nation. We are not visiting people who are doing well by Ethiopian standards. We are not even visiting those who are poor by that country’s measurements. We will spend a few days with children who have nothing, those at the very bottom of the latter.

What do we know about their lives? How can we possibly tell them what is good? We fly in on a big metal bird, rich people who appear for a few days and then leave. We want to answer God’s call and share the good news and carry his love. But it’s not easy. It is a struggle.

People around us are grieving: husbands die; fathers die; family members are sick with cruel, chronic illnesses. Some of these illnesses impose suffering on families for years before they finally end the sick person’s life. What good is the good news for a person who is in the middle of that?

I have spent time with people who are in the midst of tribulation. The father has left and the family is falling apart. Or, the police kicked in the front door of the home to arrest the oldest son. They are trying to make the neighborhood safe, but how safe does it feel when the police don’t protect her son; they violently haul him off in chains.

She just lost her job. At some point she’ll pull herself together, polish up the resume, get her name out, and move on. Right now, she’s devastated, hurt, and paralyzed by fear.

Jesus came to bring Heaven to Earth. In his first coming, He established once and for all the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where sins are forgiven, where there are but two rules – love God with everything that is in your and about you, and love your neighbor as yourself. It is a kingdom where God himself is in real relationship with human beings.

But she doesn’t want to hear about kingdom or forgiveness or relationship; she wants a job. That mother wants her son home, safe. That family wants to wake up and realize it was all a bad dream and daddy is still there. In the hospital waiting room, there is no desire for sermons, not usually. All things are a blessing from God. He’s gone on to a better place. How about this? How about healing? That would be a good blessing!

And those hundreds of kids in Ethiopia who experience multiple 30 and 40 hour famines not because of their spiritual discipline but because the school that feeds them has run out of food– what is good news for them? Kids, not only do you get fed, you get seconds.

I have been thinking about preaching and giving a witness in contexts where pain makes it impossible to hear the good news we have to share. I know that the answer is presence.

The best way to describe ‘heaven’ is not as a place but as being in the presence of God uninterrupted and without any obstacle. To be with God in physical, bodily form, knowing we are completely forgiven of sin, that’s heaven. I suppose there is a place called heaven. But mostly in the New Testament, the description is about presence. Revelation talks about a city and a river and an orchard – the images are piled on top of one another, superimposed. The images help us envision it. The bulk of the description though is implication with more weight being given to presence than some dreamy place. Our endgame is resurrection –these bodies, in some form, are raised to life just as Jesus was, and in resurrected form, we are with him.

That’s presence – God come to earth in bodily form in Jesus, and again in Jesus’ second coming, or appearing as it says in Hebrews 9. As we live between his appearances, between his coming and dying on the cross and rising from death– between that and his second appearing, our opportunity to talk about Jesus and share the Gospel comes through presence. We show love before we tell of it. As he showed what God is like, we show love before we tell of the redemption we have when we give our lives to Jesus.

I know this. I know the good news starts with just sitting at the hospital bedside for a few minutes or silently waiting in the waiting room, maybe for hours; listening as the pain is described. Listening and caring deeply, feeling the hurt along with the one who is hurting – this comes before words are spoken.

I don’t have to go through what you’re going through if I am willing to listen and let you tell me about it. You don’t have to know what your friend is suffering. You don’t have to have endured her struggle. Simply walk alongside her in it as she invites you. Be present, open, and filled with grace. Be persistent in love and care. I don’t need to know the specifics of going hungry to travel to Ethiopia and hug a child and hand him a simple care package and hug him again. I should educate myself about hunger and poverty facts. I should, as much as possible, know what I am stepping into – the airplane that takes me to the third world school compound; the metal detector outside the courthouse where I will sit with my friend throughout the custody hearings; the elevator that takes me to the ICU wing; the doorway leading into the broken home; the gates of the cemetery. I know as much as I can and proceed even with what I don’t know because as God was present in body in Jesus and is present in Spirit, we make ourselves a presence of his love.

We love until we are invited to share.

Ironically, the passage in Hebrews 9, about his absence, is a source of words for us when it is right to speak the Gospel, after we’d lived it.

“So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time.” He came and is coming – but right now, he’s not here. All I have talked about is presence. How does Jesus’ absence give us words of hope to share when we are present with people who are burdened by grief and pain?

First, his absence means he accomplished what he came to accomplish. He came to die! He died for the sins of the world and because he did, Hebrews 9 reports that when he comes again, it won’t be for the sake of sinners or for the purpose of removing sin. That’s accomplished. We can say with utter confidence that the Bible states emphatically that Jesus has borne the weight of the sins of the world. All who turn to Him for salvation and give their lives to Him are forgiven.

Second, the promise is clear here just as it is in Luke and throughout Paul’s writings. He who came and is now in Heaven at God’s right hand will come back. Jesus is coming back. We don’t know when. But just as we are completely ignorant of when, we are 100% assured it will happen. The one who came to save us and goes before God on our behalf and is himself God in the flesh inviting us to be sons and daughters of God is returning. We will see Jesus in his bodily, resurrected form. We will touch him as sure as touch one another in warm handshake or a firm embrace or an exchange of the kiss of peace.

Third, he who has paid the price for sin (it is accomplished) and is coming back (there is no doubt) will complete salvation. At His appearing, the new age will have begun. In these last days, between his departure and his return, the new age, the age of the Kingdom of God, is beginning. As we grow in our knowledge of the Holy Spirit and in our relationship with God, more and more, in our time we step through the last days and into the eternal kingdom. Salvation is being completed. When Jesus comes at the final hour, at the judgment, Salvation will be fulfilled.

That’s when, as it says in Revelation, there will be no more tears, no more, pain, and no more dying. We are moving toward that. When Jesus comes, we will have arrived. That hope is what we share with those around who have fear, doubt, pain, grief, and struggle; and hunger. We share it after we have given the hungry bread, sat at the bedside of the one whose body is dying, hugged the brokenhearted, and invited the lonely into our homes.

Complete forgiveness of sins; promise of Jesus’ appearing; the fulfillment of salvation – this is Hebrews 9:27-28. We live this by being in the lives of people no matter what their lives are like. We inhabit one another’s lives walking alongside each other through good and bad.

Even then, there are days when it is hard to see the good news. N.T. Wright says, “The point of stressing ‘appearing’ [Jesus’ second coming] here is that, though in one sense it will seem to us like he is‘coming,’ he will in fact be ‘appearing’ right where he presently is – not a long way away within our space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven. This world is different than ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not the least in the inner lives of Christians themselves” (Surprised by Hope).

When we care and are present with those in pain, we are in those places where heaven and earth intersect. I don’t mean and N. T. Wright is not saying that we speed up Jesus’ appearing by reaching out to one another in love. Jesus is here in Holy Spirit and will come in bodily form in God’s time. What we are saying is in a life of caring, we set ourselves up for moments where we are blown away as we feel the power of heavenly hope. A lot of times, caring is just hard.

Right now, I know a family who is helping a woman in her late 80’s clean out her apartment. She has no family and she has never thrown anything away. She’s got an apartment that’s floor-to-ceiling full and in her weakened condition, she cannot empty. She’s already in the nursing home bed. This Christian couple I know in another town, they’re retired, and working harder than they did before they stopped employment. When I talked to them this week, they did not say anything about holiness or “thin places,” those places where you can sense Heaven’s presence. They just said they were exhausted.

They are entering this woman’s pain. They and she will see the hope of sins removed, Jesus coming, and salvation fulfilled. In their love, they’ll know heaven. That’s how it works. That is church. We are the church. We lock arms, we sing praise, we lift one another up, and together we eagerly await his appearing.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Eternal Salvation, Hebrews 4:14-15; 5:7-10

“Let us hold fast to our confession”(4:14b). There seems to be urgency in the words of the writer of Hebrews. What was the confession? The writer says it – “[Jesus was] the source of eternal salvation” (5:9). Why do we need to be saved? He states that frankly as well. Sin is ignorant. Sin is weakness. The author assumes all of us humans sin, and it is implied, and states directly elsewhere, that sin cuts us off from God. Life without God is the same as death. We need God, but sin cuts us off, and we all sin. That is not good, but Jesus came for us and has been found worth and is thus the source of eternal salvation for everyone who believes in him. That’s our confession.

“Let us hold fast to our confession.” Grip it tightly and no matter what, don’t let go. That confession is a statement of truth that is the difference between eternal life and being cut off from God. We don’t want to see this wrongly. This is not a choice of Heaven or Hell. People say Heaven or Hell, but the actual Biblical presentation is eternal life or being cut off from God. We want eternal life. Let us hold fast to our confession.

There must have been a worry that people in the church weren’t doing that. People in the first century let go of their heart confession of Jesus for many reasons, but possibly the main problem Hebrews was dealing with, is fear. People renounced or minimized Jesus because they were afraid to do otherwise. The Romans were the ones in power, and they did not care how many gods one worshipped. But they demanded that all under the power of Rome acknowledge that the Roman Emperor was a son of God and was the supreme ruler.

Christians did not do that. They did not say the emperor was Lord. Not only did they refuse to confess the emperor, they also said someone else was Lord –Jesus. Rome responded by putting sending Christians into exile. Rome made it hard for believers to get jobs. On at least one occasion, all the disciples of Jesus Christ were kicked out of Rome – expelled and forced to become refugees. Rome put Jesus’ followers in arenas to be torn apart by lions. Rome nailed Christians to crosses. The book of Hebrews is reacting to the fear that led Christians to think it might be a good idea to be secret Christians. They would believe in Jesus. They just wouldn’t say anything about it out loud, and for show, they might give a nod to the emperor.

Let us hold fast to our confession. It’s only a confession when it is spoken and maintained, even in the face of persecution. This mattered tremendously. Is it such a big deal for us? I don’t know anyone who because of their belief in Jesus has been put into a stadium to be eaten by wild beasts as a crowd of thousands watches. I don’t know of any crucifixions in American history. In this century, I don’t know of any crucifixions anywhere. For us, in the world in which we live, do we need to read Hebrews with the same urgency the first readers had when they read it?

We must maintain all we believe – public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God, savior of the world. Let us hold fast to our confession. Is there any danger we won’t do that?

Imagine someone you know finds out that you attend church and that you are a Christian. Imagine that someone says, “Religion is really quite silly. In light of all that has been discovered through scientific research and all that is known and has been developed, it’s just a joke that anyone with education would suppose there is God. How goofy is that? This is the age of technology. Belief in God is the same as belief in goblins and ghosts and fairies and witches.” No, this person you know doesn’t say this directly to you. He says in a group of people – your peers. He says it with you present. Everyone knows you are the churchgoer in the crowd. He says it to challenge you and all eyes in the group seem to turn your way.

Do you hold fast to your confession that Jesus is Lord, that you are a sinner, that you know you need God, that the only way to God and to eternal salvation and life everlasting is through Jesus? Or do you desperately try to find a way out of the room, hopefully unnoticed?

Our ancestors in Christianity, the original readers of Hebrews, were threatened, and they let go of their confession when their lives were in danger. We let go of our confession of faith in Jesus when our lifestyles and our reputations are in danger. This is not a comparison of who was more faithful, first century believers who received the first copy of this letter or 21st century believers who can go on the internet and read this letter in 50 different languages. I am not flogging us saying “see how much more faithful they were?” The word of God given to them was hold on, keep the faith, keep speaking the faith. That is the same word to us. Our situation is different, but just as urgent.

The tendency in our culture and our time is to let our faith become diluted. In attempts to market Christianity in a market-driven society, we see Christian versions of the most popular magazines, music, and movies. We see large Christian churches open food courts within their buildings. We see Christian movements that resemble self-help and self-improvement programs more than they look like the gospel the apostles preached. There is nothing wrong with Christians movies or churches having food courts or churches offering yoga classes and reading scripture in the place of sun salutations. That’s all OK. But it all comes together to reveal a 21stcentury faith that is trying to fit in in the world. We’re tailoring our Christianity according to the standards of our culture instead of determining our participation in that culture by the standards of Jesus. We let the world define our belief instead of our belief determining how we interact with the world. And thus, we let go of our confession.

Diluted faith makes the message of Hebrews essential. Is your faith diluted? Is mine?

Another threat that raises the urgency of the call in Hebrews is fragmentation. We live compartmentalized lives. At church, I am a Christian. At work, I am a professional. At the store, I am a shopper. None of those areas interferes with the other. The decisions I make with my money do not affect my job performance; my choices at work, including the tough ethical decisions I face stay at work and do not come with me on Sunday morning. And, God has no voice when I am on the clock Monday through Friday or when I am out on the town on the weekend with friends. I am describing a compartmentalized life. We become fragmented and we leave parts of ourselves all over. The only choice, when we decide to live this way, is to let go of our confession. We do not hold it. We do not make that confession and say in our life and our actions and our words and our relationships that Jesus is Lord. On the topic of Jesus, we are silent, except at church.

Let us hold fast ... but we don’t. We are silent and so, our own faith is weakened and maybe in jeopardy. Others, who are not in the church, don’t hear. They don’t see someone standing up and declaring the truth about Jesus. They who are outside the church, whether they were never in in the first place or they left, don’t see someone passionately making the statement about God’s love and people’s need for God.

We see the issue, but what then do we do? How can we hold fast? We know we need to but can we? On what authority?

We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, says Hebrews (4:14a). He can sympathize with us in our weakness because he is a human as we are. He knows what is like to go through what we go through. I think when it says he“passed through the heavens,” that is an allusion to something written about at the conclusion of the Gospel Luke and the beginning of Acts. The disciples are gathered and he tells them to take the message of his salvation to the surrounding regions and then to all people on earth, and then he is taken, rising, ascending. This is called the ascension and the image that comes to mind is of Jesus rising into the sky.

But, I don’t think anyone thinks Jesus is somewhere way out in space. So ascension might be a misnomer. He is with God and with God in bodily form. The risen Jesus invited Thomas to touch him. Mary Magdalene grabbed at his feet. He ate fish with the disciples. He did not leave his physical body behind, but it rose – he rose, changed. Resurrected. He is the one who goes before God on our behalf.

Hebrews says Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,”to God (5:7). Where the comment about the heavens, I believe, alludes to his ascension, this comment about Jesus’offering prayers with loud cries and tears alludes to the time he spent in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. Luke writes that when Jesus prayed in the garden, he asked God to remove the cup of suffering, and he prayed with such anguish that he sweat drops of blood and angels came to help him. He asked that the cup be removed, but for our sake it was not. Jesus obediently went to death for the sins of the world.

The ascended Jesus who goes before God and intercedes on our behalf and the agonized Jesus who obeyed God even though doing so was painful, this is the Jesus who makes is possible for us to hold fast to our confession.

Because he is for us, because we are born again in Him, we can hold our faith and name it no matter what. Whether we are killed or embarrassed for doing so, we hold our belief and we let everyone around us know that we belong to Jesus and our lives and our choices are determined by him. Because of Him, we are destined for resurrection. This world is going to be renewed– made new. Paul anticipates this in Romans. Revelation 21-22 talks about the earth and heaven being made new. Just as you and I in our sinful selves died in sin and were made new creations in Christ, the earth will be made new and all who are born again, who obey God as it says in Hebrews 5 (v.10) will have eternal life with Him.

We hold fast with our confession, we tell the truth about Jesus because he gives eternal salvation. In our daily life choices involving money, decisions about where and how to live, in our work and relationships, in our times of play, and in our homes, we hold fast to our confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Imagine someone you know finds out that you attend church and that you are a Christian, a true Christ follower. Imagine that someone says, “Religion is for the weak-minded. It’s out of date and doesn’t work and isn’t true. Jesus was a good man, but nothing more.” He says it knowing you can hear him. He knows you are a believer and he knows everyone in your circle is waiting to see how you, the one who follows and worships Jesus, will react. Everyone is watching.

Hebrews says, Let us hold fast to our confession. And there is this. Jesus is the one who saves. You know that. But this guy coming after you doesn’t. Someone in the surrounding group doesn’t know it either. Whatever you do in that moment probably won’t immediately lead someone, your verbal attacker or one of the watchers, to faith. If you back down and let go of your confession, it definitely won’t claim any ground for Jesus. But, relying on the strength he gives, if you lovingly, gently, stand your ground and declare your belief in Jesus and your belief that everyone including the guy challenging you needs Jesus, it just be the point where someone’s destiny turns. They see the fiery passion of faith in your eyes, and they, just a little bit start to consider whether the gospel might be true and Jesus might be the one. That moment, they start down the path to faith, because you told the truth in love.

Let us hold firm to our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the giver of eternal salvation.


As we respond in prayer and with singing, take this time to think of a situation in your life in which it is hard for you to stand fast and hold strong to your confession of Jesus. Pray for these next few minutes that God will empower you this week to hold fast to your faith and to tell that Jesus is Lord and gives eternal salvation.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fasting, or not

My church is doing a program called the 30-hour famine. In order raise awareness and money, teenagers and adult volunteers skip lunch and dinner on Friday and then breakfast on Saturday. The Fast is from 7AM Friday to Noon on Saturday.

The wear "30-hour" famine shirts to school and when asked, they explain the program to teachers and peers. Then, Friday night a group of churches gather. This year, 6 youth groups come together at our church. They play games, have worship (with some pretty loud, rocking music), and they sleep in cardboard boxes to get a sense of the experience of homeless people.

It is a good time of learning for the kids. And the money they raise through pledges and fundraisers goes to fight hunger in our state and around the world. In 2009 and 2010, most of the funds raised were sent to Haiti.

I have participated as a leader and as one who fasted in the past two years. This year, alas, I am just a leader. I will be at the church from 1-3AM Saturday, just monitoring. During those hours, the kids will be asleep in their cardboard cities set up all around the church. I will just be an adult presence watching over things and helping where help is needed.

Why did I decide not to fast this year? Well, I had been doing some fasting already as a part of my Lenten discipline. And this morning I worked out pretty hard at the YMCA. Knowing I was going to have much interrupted sleep tonight (on top of interrupted sleep throughout this week from my precious children), and knowing I have to preach Sunday, I decided to not be over tired and overly hungry. So, I'll just be overly tired.

I don't know how to think about it when I go into a fast, and the fail to keep it. Is that a spiritual failure. Am I failing God? I don't think so, but I think my culture tends toward legalism (both American culture and evangelical culture). So, if the rule is don't eat, and I eat, then I broke the rule and am a failure.

But fasting isn't supposed to earn gold stars next to my name in the lamb's book of life. It is supposed to draw me closer to Jesus. If all I am doing by fasting (on top of not sleeping) is getting cranky and mean, then to me, that is the failure, whether I keep the fast or not. I have had some real positive times of fasting this Lent. So, I am not too worried about the fruit and pizza I ate a while ago. I am just grateful for the blessings I have and grateful that Jesus loves me and allows me to serve Him whether it is as a father, as a citizen, or as a volunteer as a youth event.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hebrews 4:12-16

It’s time to pray! By pray of course, we mean talk to God and also listen to God. People sit down to a meal and say the blessing. Sometimes people say a prayer before bed –might be a formula or written prayer; it might be an individual believer praying a passage of scripture; it might be the individual’s own words, his or her own voice speaking to God. We participate in prayer when we come to church or go to a small group for discussion and Bible study. It’s time to pray.

Don’t be too casual. If we literally thought we were going to, with our eyes, see God in this space, we wouldn’t be “aw shucks” about it. We’d be stricken in awe and fear. Right here. God – so I can see Him with my eyes? Whoa! Love, joy, peace, emotion, intimate, fear, raw honesty, full confession over everything, kneeling on the ground, face planting in humble fear, exultant jubilation – all these are good ways to describe prayer. Listen to that list again, and as I go through it, add your own words … Love, joy, peace, emotion, intimate, fear, raw honesty, full confession over everything, kneeling on the ground, face planting in humble fear, exultant jubilation.

But wait! None of those words are words I’d use to describe prayer. I don’t know how to describe prayer. Sure, I come to church sometimes, and I like it. But, I don’t much about prayer.

Wait, we say. I’ve been in church all my life. But prayer – is nothing more than me saying words, desperately hoping someone, somewhere is listening, and all the while, I know that’s a fantasy. I pray, but without any expectations.

Wait … I don’t hardly ever come to church. Today, I am checking things out. I may or may not come back. I think there’s God, sure. I wouldn’t come to church if I didn’t. But I don’t know about words like joy, fear or jubilation. Would you really describe prayer that way? Intimate? I can’t see it.

I hope today as we go through Hebrews, we will be able to see it. Whether you are a long-timer in the life of church, this one or other churches, or you feel unfamiliar and maybe uncomfortable in church, I hope we can together look at Hebrews 4 and see How God wants us to approach prayer. I have an overarching goal that applies to every message I give, it applies in small groups when I am leading and participating, and it applies when I am talking with people one-on-one. I want to be a help – helping people see their lives as story and the Bible as God’s ultimate story. Together we walk the road that is our stories. We walk until we come to that place where the road that is God’s story intersects the road that is our own.

Today, that intersection comes at Hebrews 4:16, “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.” Most of the Biblical description of God’s throne and throne room is found in Revelation. The action from the throne room takes off in Revelation 4 and goes to the end of the book, Revelation 22. But, that’s not the only place where the throne is mentioned. It is mentioned here, in Hebrews 4:16, and it is a throne of grace. We do not enter as John did, in a vision, when he wrote the Revelation. So how do we get there? In prayer. We can come before God with boldness.

Now that phrase about entering in boldness is not the only word in this passage. It’s the final word, but some other images jumped out at me as well, and these precede the invitation to enter in boldness.

Verse 12 – “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Think on that verse – chew on it. [Leave this on the screen a moment] Think of what stands out to you from that verse. How would you explain it if you were asked by someone else to describe the message there?

Now, verse 13, “Before him [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” [Leave this on the screen]. Again, look long and hard at these words from God’s word. What is being said? What is God saying to you in this verse?

“The word of God is living and active; …it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

“Before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

“Let us … approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

There is much more in these verses to deal with, but for this morning, I thought we should focus our attention here. So, keep Hebrews 4 open before you.

At this point in our church service, three people share testimony. I did not preach any of the text that followed the testimonies. The testimonies were so emotionally gripping and obviously supported by the Holy Spirit, we made the decision to go right into the response time. I did not get the permission of those who testified to post their words on the blog, so here on the blog, you get the sermon I wrote.

The word of God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Because of this, before God, we are completely exposed. The word ‘naked’ is used and it sounds very provocative. Those physical nudity elicits tremendous response – excitement, shock, disgust – we are more vulnerable when our souls are completely laid bare. Even if someone can force us to strip, in other words, violate us, we can lock them out of the soul. We can’t lock God out.

The word judges, we are exposed, but, and here’s the twist, we are invited to approach God with boldness. When we get exposed, it means our sins are exposed. It means our petty jealousies are known. Our pride, in all its self-serving ugliness, is on display. Our egos, so weak and needy, are revealed. Our hatred and prejudices come to the surface. All that is in us that rejects God’s goodness comes out, and yet – and this is HUGE “and yet” – and yet, we are invited. “Let us approach the throne with boldness.” Let us approach … God

Jesus is the glue that holds all together – all that has been said. The reason we can move from being exposed as sinners laid bare before a God who hates sin to being in a love relationship as children of that same God –the reason we can approach God is Jesus. He’s the connecting point.

And here is something to note in the presentation of Jesus in Hebrews 4. Mostly when Christians think of Jesus and what he did for us as sinners, the cross comes to mind. Jesus took on himself the punishment for sin when he died on the cross. Songs croon about how when “he was on the cross, I was on his mind.” I don’t know that I agree that Jesus specifically thought of Rob Tennant, separate from God in his sin, when he was crucified. But I absolutely believe that Jesus’ death was affective in covering my sins, so I would not be punished. But Hebrews 4 does not mention the cross.

Yes, Jesus carries us from the judgment to the throne of grace where it says we receive mercy. But, the writer of Hebrews didn’t think to talk about the cross, but rather the ascension. That refers to time after the crucifixion. Jesus died, then rose from death, and then went to Heaven. Hebrews says he who went through the Heavens is the one who is for us and who makes it possible for us to receive God’s grace and love and forgiveness. It all depends on Jesus because he was fully God and fully human.

It’s described this way in another translation of the New Testament. The meaning is consistent with what we’ve read to this point, but it is worded differently. This is Hebrews 4:14-16 in a translation that is called The Message.14-16Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let's not let it slip through our fingers. We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.

The invitation this morning is for us to walk right up to Jesus and receive what he is ready to give – blessing. It doesn’t matter what your experience with prayer has been to this point. If you’ve have great times of prayer in your life where you truly connected to God, this does not negate that. If you have no idea what prayer is, that’s OK. Jesus is the one opening the door. We’re invited to walk in –in our minds, in our hearts, in the spirit; we are invited into God’s chambers to sit with him and pour our hearts out – all the good, all the bad. He loves us and in Jesus, He understands us.

So, come. We are all invited to come. Let’s walk right up to God and receive his mercy, his grace.