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Monday, October 28, 2013

Tithing - An Expression of Trust in God

The Tithe: A Statement of Trust (Malachi 3:8-18)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, October 27, 2013

            In 2008, Hurricane Ike traveled up the Gulf of Mexico and slammed the Texas coast.  Hundreds had to evacuate, many to the city of Austin.  The Austin Baptist Association called Brandon Hatmaker, pastor of Austin New Church.  The association learned of a pastor from Houston who had lost everything.  He and his family needed a place to stay.  Brandon and his wife agreed this displaced pastor could come and stay with them.
            When Brandon, who is Caucasian, says “family,” he is referring to his wife and five kids.  The Houston pastor, a Hispanic man, showed up at the Hatmakers home with 82 “family” members in need of food and shelter.  Hatmaker writes:
It was the best thing that ever happened to [us].  Instantly the church became “the church.”  Without prompting, people from Austin New Church and the community began to call and email to offer their homes as refuge.  People cleaned out Wal-Mart of sleeping bags and dropped them off.  Food was every-where, grill-outs were planned, events for the kids fell into place … it was beautiful.

And it was fun.  Not once did I feel personally put out.  Not once that week did anyone complain about their plans being canceled to serve those in need.  No one sent an email about Bible study not being “deep enough.”  No one worried about the children’s ministry sign-in process.  No one complained that they had to give money to help.  They just gave.  All they could.  They gave without coercion or guilt.  Smiles everywhere.  Joy everywhere. … Everyone was thankful for what they had been able to give.

In a world where we are constantly asking what went wrong, I couldn’t help but ask: what went right?  What made [it] so sweet?[i]

            I felt the same as this pastor when our church responded to the earthquake in Haiti.  We collected offerings.  We sent doctors and nurses there on mission trips.  We brought doctors from there to here, to show our love and support.  Our church enthusiastically gave – gave money and time, but while practical needs, the money and time represented something more.  Our hearts were stirred to help people in Haiti just as the people of Brandon Hatmaker’s church wanted to help their fellow Texans after Hurricane Ike. 
            Money and time reveal what we value.  In the case the horror of the situation in Haiti after the earthquake, our money and time revealed our love and compassion. 
            Pastor Hatmaker said he never heard the complaints that sometimes find a home in a pastor’s in-box.  There are gripes about the children’s ministry or this small group or that work project.  There are complaints about a sermon or the pastor failed to visit so-and-so or the music was too loud or too long.  Each grievance feels important to the individual person who brings it to the pastor’s attention.  But in the big picture, these things seem small.  As these small things pile up, they feel petty.  In the face of crisis, like an earthquake or hurricane, we forget our pettiness.  We commit ourselves to something bigger – the work of God.
            Pastor Hatmaker’s remembrance of his church responding to Hurricane Ike and my own recollection of our church’s heart in the light of the Haiti earthquake reveals something else.  We trust that God will do something with what we give.  We trust that God is real and God is there and God hears our prayer.  We trust God to multiply our offerings according to God’s purposes.  The money we give is a sure sign of how much we trust God.
            In the 5th century BC, trust in God was waning.  The people of God had returned from exile to a shattered country.  Israel was ruined by Assyria and then Babylon and from the West, ill-fated alliances with the new Egypt.  The country was increasingly becoming a door mat for ancient imperial powers.  After Babylon came Persia and then Alexander the Great and Greece.  He was followed by Antiochus and Ptolemy, and then Rome.  The great Exodus in which God mightily humbled Pharaoh and split open the Red Sea faded into distant memory.  The greatness of David and wealth of Solomon was gone. 
            Some in Israel fiercely held on to faith, but others fell into half-hearted religious practice.  A tithe, 10% of the farm’s produce, along with the fatted calf was expected as offering at the temple.  When people tithed, they stated their belief that God was the all-powerful Lord and only true God and they were his.  But in the 5th century the meager tithes coming into the temple communicated something else.  People no longer trusted in the power of God.
            A prophet called ‘Messenger,’ the meaning of the title ‘Malachi,’ came to remind the people that though they saw themselves and their God as small and not worth complete loyalty, their God was still awake, still in Heaven and simultaneously still with Israel.  To short shrift God was to rob God. 
            God does not “fit into our lives.”  God is our life.  God does not have a part of us.  God gets all of us.  Anything less turns our faith into a farce.  God is an all-or-nothing God.  When we try to follow God half-way, God makes life uncomfortable.  There are no part-time Christians.  We ask “How are we robbing God?”  God responds, in your half-hearted giving of tithes and offerings.
            When we gave of ourselves after the Haiti earthquake, no one was robbing God.  With what we gave, including money, we joined with God on behalf of suffering people.  God blessed our offerings as God always does.  HillSong is a compassionate church.  In our work in Ethiopia, we have given money, prayer energy, talents, time, and the willingness to go.  More examples could be named.  I am not on the topic of money today because we in danger of robbing God as the Israelites did in the days of Malachi.
            The topic matters because most of our lives, we live between huge disasters and inspiring mission trips.  Normal time involves uneventful days and dry weeks.  Individuals within the church family experience crisis or joy, devastation or triumph.  But as a whole, as a body, it appears not much is happening.  If you didn’t participate in the project to build a ramp last weekend or the neighborhood clean-up this weekend, can you get excited about it?  You didn’t give your time, and even if you tithed to the church, there are several steps from when your tithe goes in the offering plate to when money is spent on materials needed to carry out the local mission.  It is not as immediately obvious to see how you are part of God at work in the community.  We as a community can feel too relaxed, like nothing is at stake.
            Malachi accused Israel of robbing God by failing to tithe.  He accused the community of speaking harsh words against God when they envied the prosperity of the wicked.  We rob God when we don’t think our tithes are worth the effort, especially in normal times.  We speak evil against God when we fall into ignorance of His work through His church, and in our ignorance, we don’t participate.  We hold back our tithe or give only a part of it. 
            Questions naturally arise.
            What if the church does something I oppose or supports a group I don’t support?
            What if I am having a rough month financially and giving my tithe leaves me short?
            What does the church do with the money I give?

            I am sure you could think of a dozen equally important questions.  The last one, what does the church do with my tithe, is easiest for to summarize.  We pay the light and water bill; we give money to on-going mission works and fund mission projects led members of our own body later in the year; we pay our ministry and support staff; we fund ministries in our church – small group ministry, youth ministry, children’s ministry.  Anyone who wants to can sit down go through the budget line-by-line and track every penny. 
            The other questions are more complicated.  The church is the body of Christ, but sometimes we make mistakes.  We fail to carry out the mission God sets for us.  We overlook someone.  We fail to visit someone.  We support an organization you oppose.  That will happen from time to time until the final inauguration of the Kingdom of God.  Until Jesus returns, the Kingdom is emerging but not fully realized.  Until then, the Kingdom is lived out in well-intentioned, but imperfect institutions.  We are imperfect as the temple was in Malachi’s day. 
            From Malachi for 400 years, faith eroded and failed, so that in the days of Jesus, the religious leaders seemed to be dedicated to self-preservation instead of the proclamation of the word of God.  And yet, when Jesus and his disciples visited the temple, corrupt as it was, they witnessed someone who held nothing back.  She was not one of those who robbed God.
Mark 12:41-44:
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

            The widow did not make a decision upon how much to give to the temple based upon her trust in the temple as an institution.  She did not decide to drop in those two coins because of her confidence in the priests.  She gave because she trusted God.  God would use her offering for God’s glory.  By giving, she was participating with God.  She may not have known what God was doing, but it did not matter. She was part of it.
            She also did not make her decision based on how much she could afford to give.  She gave it all.  She trusted God.  She believed to the point that her actions revealed her heart.  She believed God would take care of her.  She gave God what is God’s.  She gave God all she had.
            When we fail to do that, we rob God.  Malachi’s stinging prophecy might tempt us to search for a way to soften the blow but such an effort would be an affront to scripture.  To give less than all, we say to the Houston pastor, ‘we’ll handle you and four of your family members.  The other 77 are on their own.’  It is to say, ‘we’ll turn on the church’s lights and pay for the children’s ministry.  But staff salaries, water bill, and other ministries aren’t worth the effort.’  It is Malachi watching as the people cowed by the empires around them tithed sometimes, but just held back or only gave a partial tithe.  It is the difference between robbing God and living in His joy.
            Jesus did not say every follower had to drop every last cent into the temple treasury.  Turn to the end of the Gospels and read about Joseph of Arimathea.  He was a man of means who generously gave his own money so Jesus would have decent burial.  He gave much, but he was still affluent.  Turn to the opening of Luke 8.  There we learn that the disciples, fishermen by trade, along with Jesus, a professional carpenter, had given up their incomes completely so they could travel announcing that in Jesus, the kingdom had come.  They were financially supported by women who followed them and gave a lot.  These women did not give up all their money, but what they gave was enough.  They gave it because they trusted God to accomplish His purposes and take care of them.
            Where does it leave us?  I suggest church members give 10% of their income to the church.  Additionally I suggest that church members find other ways to participate in the announcement of the Kingdom of God by giving their time and their resources.  One can sponsor a child.  One can contribute to a Christian organization like Children’s Hope Chest or the Navigators.  One can go on mission trips or set aside time each month for local missions.  I could go on and on, but the key is to do both.  Make a regular, weekly or monthly gift trusting that God will work through the church, even through the church’s imperfections.  And, find special projects like mission trips or relief efforts.  Regular and special – give time and money generously to both because doing so puts you in the heart of God’s work. 
            Malachi speaks of those who revered the Lord.  After the prophet confronted the people, some took note and thought about things.  They weren’t defensive.  They did not attack the prophet or try to justify themselves.  They meditated upon the word and the Lord noticed them.
17 They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. 18 Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

            When Brandon Hatmaker thinks on the time his church helped 82 members of the Houston pastor’s family who had been displaced by the hurricane, he remembers amazing worship and joy that can’t be measured.  I have the same feeling when I think about the times I have been part of this church as this church has demonstrated Christlike generosity through giving.  “Test me,” God says in Malachi.  He says it because they did not trust him.  Do we?  I urge the church this morning to demonstrate radical trust in God through a sustained commitment to the tithe and a prayerful belief that God will work in and through this church in His ongoing pronouncement that in Christ the Kingdom has come.

[i] Brandon Hatmaker (2011) The Barefoot Church, p.34.

Monday, October 21, 2013


October 20, 2013

            It is the day of the funeral.  Your heart is filled with emotions, your eyes with tears.  You see old friends who loved him as you love him, and now he is dead.  The community gathers.  Hymns are sung.  Memories are shared.  Some are funny, and we laugh.  Others poignant and we feel a chill.  All who gather loved him, but he is not here.  His lifeless body is in a wooden box.  We drive in caravan to a cemetery and lower that wooden box into the ground.  He is gone.
            Where?  He could be husband or grandpa or brother or friend.  Whoever he or she is, whomever it is that we mourn, where do they go in that moment that the doctor pronounces them dead?  The body is right there and it is dead, but what about the spirit?  Where do our spirits go in that moment when breath leaves our bodies?
            In this series, we have examined some ideas about Hell.  We have given thought to the eternal destiny of people in the world who never hear the Gospel.  We believe people who put their trust in Jesus are with Him for eternity after the Judgment Day.  But what about between now and the end of time and Jesus’ second coming?  What happens in the moment when Christians die?

            Luke 23:32-43

Contemporary English Version (CEV)
32 Two criminals were led out to be put to death with Jesus. 33 When the soldiers came to the place called “The Skull,”[a] they nailed Jesus to a cross. They also nailed the two criminals to crosses, one on each side of Jesus.
34-35 Jesus said, “Father, forgive these people! They don’t know what they’re doing.”[b]
While the crowd stood there watching Jesus, the soldiers gambled for his clothes. The leaders insulted him by saying, “He saved others. Now he should save himself, if he really is God’s chosen Messiah!”
36 The soldiers made fun of Jesus and brought him some wine. 37 They said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
38 Above him was a sign that said, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals hanging there also insulted Jesus by saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us!”
40 But the other criminal told the first one off, “Don’t you fear God? Aren’t you getting the same punishment as this man? 41 We got what was coming to us, but he didn’t do anything wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into power!”
43 Jesus replied, “I promise that today you will be with me in paradise.”[c]

            The temple leaders in Jerusalem have mocked Jesus.  The Roman soldiers charged with carrying out the crucifixion taunted him (23:10-11).  Now Jesus is on the cross with criminals on crosses alongside his.  On one side, the convict, himself suffering the agony of crucifixion, used his last breath to pile insults on Jesus.  “Save yourself and us while you are at it.” 
            His life was at an end.  This is no escape and no rescue.  With nails pounded through his hands and feet, the criminal’s suffering was unrelenting.  The accused were crucified in a public place.  If it was cold, then that discomfort was added to the other miseries.  If it was hot, sunburn was a part of the suffering.    They hanged naked for women, children, and all by passers to see.  The only relief from this horror was death.
            I wonder if such a sorrowful and painful ending brings clarity of thought.  It certainly is a defining moment.  How did the criminals handle it?
            Jesus, falsely accused, prayed that God would forgive those who injured and those who added insult to injury.  In this enormously hurtful hour, his heart still beat with love for people, even those who maliciously wounded him.
            One of the others, in this defining moment, stooped low.  About to discover exactly what happens to his spirit at death, he used his last breaths to get in a dig. He had no belief in Jesus at all.  The best he could come up with was an uncreative repeat of the insults others had thrown Jesus’ way.  He lived a life of shame, stupidity, and loss.  He died as ignominiously as he lived. 
            The other criminal, though, found something else in that last hour.  He saw the heart of Jesus in the face of the storm and raging of the people.  He saw the malice in the priests who condemned Jesus.  He saw the wickedness of the Romans.  He saw his own sin.  He knew that he deserved the cross on which he hung.  We all do.  He said to his partner in crime, “Do you not fear God?  We are getting what we deserve, but this man, Jesus, has done nothing wrong” (v.40-41). 
            In that moment, the criminal on the cross found faith.  He wondered as much as you or I would, what’s coming?  What will be next for me, after my body dies?  He decided he did fear God.  On the day of death, this is a good thing to understand.  It is far better not to wait for the day of death.  We don’t know when death comes.  We don’t all have hours of hanging on a cross to decide if we want to go out muttering cheap curses or if we want to go out with words of faith.  Go through the decision process now.  Decide now what you’d like your stance with God to be when the day of death comes. 
            The criminal on the cross had the opportunity, considered what he had seen, and put his trust in Jesus.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He believed Jesus would be resurrected in victory.  And he believed Jesus had the power to bring him along.  He did not have a detailed understanding of what it meant to say Jesus was God in human flesh.  The disciples did not have that yet.  Certainly this criminal on the cross was theologically limited.  But with what knowledge he had, he put his trust in Jesus.  He believed in a far-off future, Jesus would bring him to life in the end time resurrection.
            But it would not be a distant future.  Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  The New Testament is quite clear that at the last judgment there will be a resurrection, a bodily resurrection.  These bodies will rise to new life.  It does not matter if one is eaten by a shark or cremated or blown away by a bomb or decayed in the ground.  We will be raised in incorruptible bodies that are tangible and can eat and drink and embrace, but cannot be hurt or injured.  That will happen in the future.  What about people who die between now and then as most of us will?  Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
            The ancient scholars who translated the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Greek used the Greek word ‘paradise’ as a way of referring to the Garden of Eden.  The term is actually borrowed from ancient Persian and refers to an idyllic place, a beautiful, walled-in garden.   Do we suppose that immediately upon his death, Jesus went to a dreamy garden?  Or do we think he literally went to the Garden of Eden? 
            My own view is that the bits and pieces about life and existence we get in the New Testament are not enough for us to make very many definitive statements.  First Peter 3:19 says when Jesus died he went to speak with “the spirits in prison.”  First Peter 4:6 says the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.  These references show his mastery over death and his intent to share salvation with as many as who will receive it.  Is there a chance for people to turn to Christ after death if they died not believing?  My reading of the New Testament as a whole leads me to think choices made in this life matter and if we die saying no to God, God will honor that “no.” 
However, these verses from 1st Peter as well as many other references suggest there is much activity going on in unseen places.  And Jesus’ statement to the criminal, “today, you will be with me in Paradise,” suggests something other than a deep sleep that waits the final resurrection.  I do not think any of the New Testament authors intended to draw an Afterlife road map.  We should leave unsaid what the Bible leaves unsaid.  The story is that a criminal trusted in Jesus and Jesus promised him paradise.
            The story of the two criminals on crosses alongside Jesus is our story.  Each one of us will die.  Jesus did nothing to relieve the suffering of the one who spoke in faith.  When the criminal said, ‘remember me in your kingdom,’ Jesus did not miraculously pull him off the cross.  He did not heal the nail-holes in the man’s hands.  All Jesus gave him was a promise.  That promise is all we get. 
            Is it enough?  Do we believe?   Today, you will be with me in paradise
            Is it a ghostly spiritual existence, our bodies in the ground, our spirits floating with Jesus somewhere?  British scholar N.T. Wright thinks, “It is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ” while awaiting the final resurrection and judgment.[i]  I don’t know that much more can be said.
            When the doctor’s ability to help the patient is exhausted, the doctor tells the family, ‘there’s nothing more we can do.’  If the family is Christian, they may ask the pastor to come and represent the presence of God as the person passes from life. 
            I have been present these moments several times.  All are memorable, but one stands out.  Vicki Seng gave me permission to share this.  We were all present, her, David, her daughters and sons-in-law, and grandchildren.  Vicki’s mother was in the bed in the living room, unconscious.  Her family expressed their appreciation for her life and their deep love.  I said prayers and read Bible verses.  I don’t know what she understood, but the final words of this woman’s life were words of deep affection and the living word of God.
            At one point in our bedside vigil, Vicki asked, “Rob, what happens right at the moment we die.  Do we go to be with Jesus in Heaven or is there a waiting period.” 
            I said, “Vicki, I am not sure.  But I am sure that if we trust in Jesus, whatever comes is a blessing and there is no more suffering.”  It was OK for me to say, “I’m not completely sure.”  And Vicki was OK with that too.  All around her mother that night was a palpable sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Not all questions need answers.  One question then and now demands a response – where do we stand in relation to Jesus?  Vicki’s mom stood as His disciple and as a daughter of God.  That night is among the memorable and beautiful experiences of my life.
            In this series on the afterlife, I have thought about that experience.  I thought about my Dad reading Psalms to his Mother-in-Law as she passed.  “Where do we go in the moment we pass from life?”  I believe that our spirits go to be with Jesus in Paradise.  I can’t say much about what Paradise is like.  It is not the final resurrection.  That will be better still.  But Paradise is walking in Eden alongside Jesus.  That is what’s immediately next for all who follow Him.

[i] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (2008), p.172.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

He Descended into Hell

The backdoor, where people exit the sanctuary into the hallway (foyer) and then into the parking lot, is becoming quite interesting for me.  I am a pastor and at the end of our worship time on Sundays, stand at the backdoor and greet each person who has come to worship that day.  It does not present the opportunity for lengthy conversations, but it gives me a chance to touch our church family.  I have my role in the family and a crucial part for me is to be connected as much as possible to everyone.

So there I stood, at my backdoor post, and one of our faithful members said, “A visitor just asked me a question: does the pastor believe Hell is a place?”  Then she looked at me expectantly.   I was to give an answer she would relay to the visitor.  I immediately thought this visitor wants a “right answer.”  But, I don’t know what that is.  Even if I did, I would have to give my honest answer, not what she thought was the “right” answer.   If she did not come back because of disagreement over my views of Hell, so be it.  I have to say what I truly feel.

What bothered me that day was my own lack of certainty.  I was not 100% sure what I believed.  That took me and our church down the road of a 7-part sermon series on the Afterlife.  Now, we are several weeks in, past the ‘Hell discussions,’ and it happened at the back door again! 

One of our elders said, “I was really hoping you’d talk about the creed where it says, “And he descended into Hell.”  He smiled and I smiled.  He is a man full of grace and if I just leave this alone, I know he’ll leave me alone.  But I have come to believe God is speaking to me through these backdoor conversations. 

Our church does not say the creeds and I am so unfamiliar with the Apostle’s Creed that I could not recite it from memory.  But I was already aware of that line.  I had been asked about it before, years earlier in my work as a pastor.  I really did not know either when I was asked in previous years, or this past Sunday.  On the face of it, it does not make sense to me that Jesus, sinless as He was and victorious over death, would have descended to Hell.  But, things are not true based on whether or not they make sense to me.  Did Jesus descend to Hell as the creed states?

It is important to note that as powerful as the creed is, for Protestants, it is post-canonical.  This means it is not on the same level of power or authority as scripture.  One can read and pose the question, does this in any conflict with the Bible?  This is a legitimate exercise. 

The results of an internet search are varied.  As with any Google search, there is a lot of material out there, but I did find an article in a source I trust – Christianity Today magazine.  The author is Millard Erickson, theology professor at Truett Theological Seminary.  [i]

Erickson reviews several possible interpretations of the line “he descended into Hell.”  First, it may simply be a way of stating Jesus was fully dead.  According to the cosmology of the day, Hell was literally in the earth or “under” the earth.  If Jesus was buried, where else would He be but in Hell? Erickson says this view seems to be supported by Acts 2:31.  This view is along the lines of thought offered by Luke Timothy Johnson in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (2003).[ii]

Another view described by Erickson is that the descent comes in the pre-incarnate form of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, speaking through the prophets, specifically Noah.  Erickson cites 1 Peter 1:11 for support.  There it says His spirit was in the prophets.  And 1 Peter 3:18-20 indicates that Jesus “went and preached to spirits in prison” and these were those who were “disobedient in the days of Noah” (3:20).

Thus from Erickson, two views stand out.  That Jesus “descended” simply means he was fully dead; or, he went to the world of the dead, referred to as “Hell,” in order to preach.  Does this allow for post-death conversation and salvation?  Not necessarily as there are numerous nuanced explanations for what it means that Jesus descended.  Besides that, Erickson and other sites refer to many other possibilities for what it could mean to say Jesus descended to Hell.  One suggests his time in Hell is his time of suffering.  Only in this was can he take the place of sinners in death.[iii]

In addition to the references from Acts and 1st Peter and the allusion to Noah, other Bible passages sought out in this conversation include Luke 16:19-31; Philippians 2:5-11; Ephesians 4:8-10; and readings from Job and the Psalms.  But, there is no uniformity of thought.  And to take any of these passages or any combination of these to reach conclusions requires several hermeneutic steps.  It is a worthwhile process, but for me it is unresolved.

I believe that the lack of a unifying theme means there are realities we will not know this side of Heaven and we may never know.  I do not think that because the Apostle’s Creed states “He descended into Hell,” we can conclude Jesus spent time in a fiery abyss being tortured either by God or by Satan.  Nothing in the Bible indicates that narrative.  However, nothing in the Bible completely rules it out either.  The fact that the Bible clearly indicates that Jesus claimed victory over death to me rules against the thought of Jesus in some kind of Hell.

The Creed is an ancient one. Even the English translation is quite old.  To say “Hell” does not mean what we mean when we say “Hell.”  Our study of Hell has been of a future punishment. Whatever Jesus experienced on the day of crucifixion and until his resurrection, it is not akin to a future punishment for sin.  Thus, whatever the Creed means to say, I cannot affirm that Jesus suffered helplessly in Hell.  In all places, He is Lord.  Demons cower before Him. 

I am happy to state that the Bible does not point us toward speculation.  Rather, the Bible assures us that if we are in Christ then we will become new creations and together, we stand on Judgment Day as the church, the spotless bride of Christ.  We face an eternity with him.  Hell is something we’ll never experience.   Even though this conversation is not about that, it is a fitting last word.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

God in the Neighborhood

This is the way Numbers 35:34 is rendered in the New Revised Standard Version:

You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the Israelites.

Do not defile this land God has given you, Israel.  God is making His home with you.  Act as if God is present even when you don’t see Him, because God is always with you.

I like the way the verse is rendered in The Message:

“Don’t desecrate the land in which you live. I live here, too—I, God, live in the same neighborhood with the People of Israel.”

The incarnation is similarly described in The Message rendering of John 1:14. 

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

We Christians, we humans, must always live as if God is watching us.  No, Bette Midler had it wrong.  God is not watching “from a distance.”  We live as if God is with us.  God lives in the neighborhood.

Is there an environment where a human being is more in his element, more natural and less affected than in the neighborhood?  That is where one’s norms are established.  Everything else in life is measured by the pace, volume, and sense of life as experienced in the neighborhood. 

If you neighborhood is in the city that never sleeps, in the middle of constant traffic and masses of humanity in constant motion, you would find the country arrestingly quiet. 

If you live in a small town where all the houses have huge yards and farms are seen beyond the town’s outskirts for miles and miles in every direction, you’d be appalled at the cramped quarters in an urban suburb, like Arlington, VA.  There, people pay top prices for .25 acre plots.  Half the money would get you 2.5 acres out in the country.  But the country folk find the city too crowded, too congested.  It’s too unlike their neighborhood.  The city people would find the country too quiet and a bit dull.  It’s not fun and hopping – like their neighborhood. 

In Israel, God made Himself at home among a particular people.  Whatever they imagined to be their neighborhood norms, God was at the center.  In Christ, God makes Himself at home among all peoples.  God settles right in the wide open spaces.  God is just as comfortable in the sensory-overloaded city. 

Do we live like God is the norm in our own neighborhoods?

I don’t think my neighborhood would feel comfortable with the thought of God being in the midst of everything.  Rarely do my neighbors and I talk about God.  Most know I am a pastor.  Out of respect, I try not to force religion onto people.  I find they will be more receptive conversation partners if they bring up spirituality or theology or evangelical Christianity. 

Usually when I bring it up, I feel a couple of things.  First there is the apology.  “I know, I know – I should go to church more often.”  I may not have said a word about church.  I may have tried to invite God into a conversation or make the conversation about God.  But quickly, my neighbor switches to a safer topic – church.  From there he acknowledges he “should go to church” the way people should brush their teeth or call their moms once in a while.

Another response is the buffet.  You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.  In this posture, absolute truth is an unwelcome subject.  God is an option, not an actual, living, personal reality.  I could say what I felt like saying about God, but the response is always some form of “I am glad that works for you.”

A third reaction to me raising the notion of God is very similar to the first.  My conversation partner will refer to some church in town as “my church.”  I know that last weekend that person went to the beach, and the weekend before they were at the mountains.  Prior to that they referenced being in the grocery store when it was empty, 10AM on Sunday morning.  Knowing this person as I do, and knowing their Sunday habits, I wonder when they ever actually attend “their church.”  I am convinced they have attended once or twice and it becomes “their church” because when you’re talking to an overly zealous pastor or especially to preacher, you have to be able to reference “your church.”  Otherwise that preacher might not leave you alone.

The far worst response when I try to raise topics like faith or religion or Christianity or spirituality is the non-verbal wall.  The person’s face loses expression.  Nonverbal cues indicate that defenses are going up and a counteroffensive may be in the works.  The other seems bothered, even offended to the point of hostility, that I would dare raise the idea of God in a friendly conversation.  They will most likely shut down the conversation and things will not be friendly again until this encounter is completely over and we talk in a few weeks. 

All these responses – the apology, the buffet, the fake “my church,” and the nonverbal wall – make it clear that most people do not want God to be at home in our neighborhood.  But in the Pentateuch, in the book of Numbers, God is not asking to be invited.  God is not asking at all.  God is commanding.  “Do not desecrate the land.  I live in the neighborhood.”

Christians cannot control the neighborhoods in which we live.  But we can make decisions about how we live.  Maybe I’ll use another post to ponder ways around the apology, the buffet, the fake “my church,” and the nonverbal wall, although I will say right now I don’t have any secrets. 

In this post I simply suggest that the ways of God should be what is normal for a Christ-follower.  We know that in Christ, God moved permanently into the neighborhood.  Not only that, but God declared that the neighborhood belongs to Him.  We should acknowledge that, respect it, and live with our lives pointed toward Him.

This is not seen in how holy we act.  Prayer, Bible reading, and church participation are all important things, vital life practices.  But, our orientation toward God is seen when we treat our own families with love and grace.  Our God-lives speak when we are filled with joy.  Our witness is energized when everyone in the neighborhood knows we are people of love and they know our love is linked to our faith.  If we can establish that witness, it won’t mean all our neighbors feel at home with God.  But they will know that someone in their neighborhood has God in their home.  That is a start.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Muslims and Christians

Voice of the Martyrs is an organization that tracks pockets of extreme persecution of Christians, by Muslims (  One of the features of the organization is a weekly email that calls for prayer for specific situations.  I receive the emails on Fridays and part of my Friday prayer is for Christians who undergo violent persecution all over the world.

In many of the cases, the story is of Christ-followers in predominantly Islamic regions.  The persecution runs from job loss to eviction to beatings to imprisonment to loss of life.  The website does not report on incidents of Christians committing acts of violence and evil against Muslims.  I believe that happens and in the name of balance, I wish that the website would not make it appear as if Christians were thoroughly innocent.  However, VOM data aside, I believe that more violence between the two religions occurs from Muslims attacking Christians than vice versa.

That is the current state of affairs.  In the past, during the Crusades, Christian violence against Muslims was hideous, sinful, and a complete violation of the way of Jesus.  What we see in the world today is not an indication that Christians are more civilized or less hateful than Muslims.  I wish to emphasize that Christians are no better than Muslims.  We are all human beings and this means two things.

First, it means we are all made in God’s image.  There is much good about us.  We have conscience and we have creative capacity.  We are self-aware.  We have the capacity to believe and to love; all of us. 

Second, because we are all humans, each one of us has inherited the legacy of the fall.  Whether you believe there was a literal Adam and Eve or you believe their story is a type-story, an origin story, either way, you have inherited a tendency to sin.  So have I.  We sin and when you take a life-time of sins combined with the lifetimes of billions of other sinners, you get a world with wars, prostitution, addiction, sexual sin, greed, and deception.  It happens among individuals and among nations. 

But all of this is just to say, Muslims and Christians are people.  I think the best bet for people is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and that in Him, God came to earth and the Kingdom of God was inaugurated.  My Muslims friends will disagree.  They will call Jesus a prophet who is secondary to the supreme prophet, Muhammad.  We should be allowed to talk about our disagreements in an atmosphere of peace and love.  The conversation should happen at a neighborly table where there is plenty of bread and tea and no guns are allowed.  People should be free to assess the truth claims of a religion and then select the path they will walk.

I appreciate this report from Voice of the Martyrs this past Friday.  It is the story of an Indonesian Muslim Cleric who left Islam to follow Jesus as Lord.  His Father-in-law threw him out and he lost all his possessions and his home.  It is a story of dispossession.  However, it does not end with the man begging as a vagrant.  A Muslim friend took him in.

This is extremely important.  His friend practiced the faith he had abandoned.  He was a Muslim.  The man who had converted to Christ was now put out, and this Muslim, out of friendship, took him in.  Christians need to recognize that within the various Muslim groups, there are kind-hearted people looking to do good, helpful things.  The Indonesian convert’s story is an example.  A dispossessed Christian was given hope when his Muslim friend extended hospitality. 

Stories of violence always get told.  They make the front pages.  The stories of hope, of people helping each other, slip through the cracks.  I invite my Christian friends to seek out stories of Muslims doing good things.  If people in these two groups will extend themselves to tell each other’s most positive stories, it has the potential to counteract all the negativity that dominates the media and colors our views of each other.  

The Laugh of Faith

How does the enemy, the father of lies, the devil assault followers of Jesus?  However he can.  I am not one to see demons behind every problem.  I think the biggest struggle for Christians is their own temptation to sin.  Our weakness in the face of temptation makes Satan’s job easy.  I believe that most of the time, we fall in sin without demonic involvement.  But, I am not against recognizing spiritual attacks, and I definitely pray against evil and against the evil one.

This weekend, my wife flies to Ethiopia.  Candy is going on a mission trip to visit kids in the Hope Chest program in Kombolcha.  Our sponsors (people who financially support these kids) go on trips every spring to visit the care point.  On those spring trips, we do a Bible camp, pass out care packages, and heap affection and love on the kids.  This fall trip is different.  Candy (not a medical person) is taking nurses and doctors to give all the children physical exams.  Her team will visit our care point and another, one in the capital city, Addis Ababa.

This is important, good work.  Those children are beautiful, talented, strong, and internally resilient.  They just lack the opportunities that enable kids from more financially stable families to succeed.  We hope our sponsorship program will empower these young people not only to better their lives, but also to bless their families and their nation.

We know that by investing in them, we are blessed.  Every time I go, the team, the kids, and the Ethiopian adults, all Christ followers, help me grow closer to Jesus.  That will happen for Candy and her team these next two weeks.  In the context of providing (food, school uniforms, and with Candy’s team, medical examinations) Hope Chest shares the gospel with these children and their families.  We are part of an evangelistic, discipling work.

Satan hates that.  So, to help Candy prepare, Satan, or Satan’s minions have been busy in our family.  Candy has bronchitis.  Merone has croup cough.  Henry lost his first tooth and had to report on it in detail at 3AM.  We’ve had a flat tire.  All these assaults on health and sleep interrupt Candy’s preparation.  Her work is doubled.  She is getting herself ready to leave and our household ready for her absence.  I am trying to be helpful, but spontaneity is a strength of mine.  Prep is a weakness.  Candy is gifted in preparation.  She works hard at it.  So by the time we get up at 3:45AM Saturday morning to get her to airport, she will be exhausted.  She will start her work worn out and possibly weakened by illness. 

However, God is revealing blessing in beautiful ways.  First, there is Candy’s indomitable spirit.  She has this little affected laugh she does that perhaps only a husband of more than 10 years can appreciate.  It is a forced laugh, but it communicates several things.  When she does that laugh, she is acknowledging that what is facing her is very hard.  But she won’t back down.  And she won’t be discouraged.  And she won’t quit.  And, most importantly, she’s given to whimsy in the face of tough odds.  It is a pleasantly disarming thing.

A second blessing is family.  My parents are coming for four of the days she will be gone.  And my Aunt Jane is taking the kids for the first couple of days.  Instead of us juggling preparation, parenting, 4AM, and the airport stress, Jane will have the kids.  Parenting will be off the table.   The bags are already packed – three days ahead.  We see God working through us to ready us for what is ahead.

I know you could point to all this and deny any supernatural involvement.  Bronchitis?  Croup?  Flat tires?  Those things happen.  All in a week leading up to a major trip?  Sometimes.  You could chalk it up to coincidence.  I would not argue.  But, I know God is providing and blessing and carrying us.  Whether God is equipping us to deal with normal inconveniences or God is bolstering us to stand against evil, however subtly evil approaches, God is with us.  It seems simple to say it, God is with us.  But when it is seen as truly real, then it becomes enormously significant. 

Candy knows it.  She names the problem in ironic terms.  Laughs.  Then carries on.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Eternal Fate of those who have Never Heard the Gospel

            Dawson McAlister has answered the anxious phone calls of teenagers for almost 40 years.  In his career, he has seen youth ministry go from record albums to cassettes to CD’s to MP3 files.  He has been on radio shows and run hotlines where teens can call when they are in crisis.  But sometimes the calls are questions, not emergencies. 
He received this letter:
“Dear Dawson, I know the Bible says that knowing Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. But there are people in remote parts of the world who may never get a chance to hear about God or Jesus. What happens to them when they die?”[i]

            Popular pastor and author John Piper received a similar contact and he responded with the following words.
Dear [Sarah], You asked what happens to people who live far away from the gospel and have never heard about Jesus and die without faith in him.[ii]
            It’s really an age-old question.  These are examples of teenagers posing this question to Christians leaders.  But the same query might come to you or me.  How we would respond were we sitting in the seat of Dawson McAlister or John Piper?  What do we say when we are asked what is the eternal state for someone who dies having never known about Jesus?
            We might think of the uneducated peasant in North Korea, someone who never goes to school, never has access to media, knows nothing about the west and is told by oppressive government forces that religion is evil.  Or, perhaps we think of a woman in an extremist country where women are not permitted to get education and are not allowed to know about the world.  How could individuals in these situations know they are to surrender their hearts to Jesus?
            There are adults who have such extreme mental disabilities that they are not able to care for themselves.  Do they stand before God accountable for themselves?  Our courts take a person’s mental state in mind when rendering a verdict.  Is God as merciful as that?  Or, what about children?  We don’t like to say it, but sometimes, children die.  If a child dies and has never expressed faith in Jesus and never been baptized, does that child go to Hell?  I have heard people say a child is not guilty until the age of accountability.  I don’t know where that thinking comes from and I certainly don’t know what the age of accountability is.  I know I received my first spanking by the time I was 2 year old and I certainly knew when I was being naughty. 
            One other category of person I consider here are those who have been taught by abusive pastors or parents.  If the person who tells you to love Jesus is the same person who hits you or violates and rapes you, repeatedly, are you going to be interested in the Jesus that person is offering?
            This is a conundrum for Christians trying to come up with a neat salvation formula.  There are some who don’t fit the categories.  Or, if they do fit the model, then they fit on the side of those who don’t have the gospel, have not responded in faith, and are thus bound for a godless eternity.  Another way we refer to a Godless eternity is Hell.  But if someone never has the chance to receive Christ, then that’s horribly unfair. 
            When we admit that there are a lot of people, probably in the billions, that have no opportunity to know Jesus, then we have a problem with our salvation model. 
            There is a video on You Tube in which Pastor David Platt sticks with the model.  He’s standing in India and he talks about being surrounded by hundreds of millions of Buddhists who are lost for eternity because they don’t know Christ.  His angle is that because we know so many are destined for Hell, we must evangelize with urgency.  Now before I disagree with Platt, I will say a couple of things.  First, I agree evangelism is of the highest importance and we are called to it.  Second, I think he does some good work and I recommend his book Radical.  It is excellent.
            However, on the notion that if we don’t evangelize then billions will go to Hell, I have to disagree.  First, it makes God look bad.  I know Platt and numerous Christians who believe as he does will respond by saying that all people are sinners and all people deserve Hell.  I know Romans 3 says all have sinned (v.23).  Romans 6 says the wage of sin is death (v.23).  Note it says death, not “Hell.”  I know those passages and I absolutely believe all are sinners.  Yet, to take that and say it is by grace that God saves some is still grossly unfair and unjust. 
What kind of tyrant is God to say He’s going to punish us all in Hell because we deserve it, but then He’ll rescue a few if they respond to Jesus correctly?  But to the rest, they don’t even get that chance.  This makes God look callous.  The God of this scheme is not a God of perfect love; limited love, maybe, but not selfless, agape love. 
This thinking is an assault on God’s character.  It also calls into question God’s power.  As we read in 2 Peter 3 two weeks ago, God wants everyone to be saved (v.9).  Is David Platt saying that God is depending on the success or failure of evangelistic Christians to achieve his desire of salvation of people?  Platt may forcefully deny that his is implying this.  Most of the time pastors who take such an approach find the implications distasteful.  But it is unavoidable.  To say we must evangelize because people will go to Hell if we don’t is to put the eternal life of others on our shoulders.  My shoulders aren’t that strong.  God wants me to work with Him – but not like this.
Paul never reduced salvation to a formula or a scheme.  Paul says salvation is worked out with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).  Salvation is something we discover and rediscover throughout our lives.  It is 100% Jesus-dependent, but it is not built on us reciting a creed or having a great testimony.  Salvation is about the work He does on the cross and the places He occupies in our lives.  It is about receiving his forgiveness. 
Having said and having critiqued David Platt’s position, and let me re-emphasize how much respect and appreciation I have for Platt, I have to acknowledge we are still left with the question.  What about people who don’t know Jesus and never hear about him or lack the capacity to express what some call “saving faith”?  What about those who want nothing to do with church because they have only heard Jesus’ name come from the mouths of those who deeply wounded them? 
I reject the idea that we can be assured that they are Hell-bound because such a process makes God look callous and puts too much emphasis upon our evangelistic success.  But, I reject it for an even bigger reason.  This scheme is a failure to trust God’s goodness. 

In Romans 1, Paul identifies people who have never heard any scripture.
18 From heaven God shows how angry he is with all the wicked and evil things that sinful people do to crush the truth. 19 They know everything that can be known about God, because God has shown it all to them. 20 God’s eternal power and character cannot be seen. But from the beginning of creation, God has shown what these are like by all he has made. That’s why those people don’t have any excuse. 
            Within us, part of being created in God’s image, is an innate sense of the holy.  We see this in Psalm 19.
                The heavens keep telling the wonders of God,
    and the skies declare what he has done.
Each day informs the following day;
    each night announces to the next.
They don’t speak a word,
 and there is never
    the sound of a voice.
Yet their message reaches all the earth,
    and it travels around the world.

            Through nature, through the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and through the hard work of evangelists and missionaries and Christians sharing their stories, God reaches people.  But it is not only through missionaries.  Missionaries do not “take God” to the lost.  God has always been with the lost.  Missionaries and evangelists and witnesses, you and me, we help people understand the truth about the God who has always been with them, speaking through the created world around them.
            When Jesus speaks about the end, the final judgment, he says,
13 But if [we]keep on being faithful right to the end, [we] will be saved. 14 When the good news about the kingdom has been preached all over the world and told to all nations, [then] the end will come (Matthew 24:13-14).

I take this to mean that the Gospel is going to reach the world.  I don’t believe anyone will die and be sentenced to Hell without a chance to respond to God’s grace. 
            In his response to the girl who asked about the eternal fate of people who don’t know Jesus, John Piper said people would not be condemned for knowledge they did not have.  They would not go to Hell for rejecting Jesus.  He also said they would not be saved without knowledge of Jesus.  His conclusion to the letter writer?  He invited her to pray for missionaries and consider becoming one when she got older.
            His answer is not bad, but I like Dawson McAlister’s better.  Like Piper, he invites the questioner to pray for missionaries and consider becoming one.  However, he adds,
We can be assured that God, who is loving and just, is in control. God is sovereign, and he will always do what is right. God is an awesome God, and nothing will stop him from getting the good news to even the most remote parts of the world.[iii]

It may sound too simple, but there are times when we are called to trust God.  He will accomplish salvation. 
            Jesus offers a somewhat stern example of the principle of trusting God after the resurrection.  Peter had denied knowing Jesus prior to the trial.  After the crucifixion and resurrection, three times Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?”  Three times he says, “You know I love you, Lord.”  Three affirmations come for Peter’s three previous denials.  He is reinstated as an apostle, but then Jesus intimates that he will die a martyr’s death. 
            Uncomfortable with this, he wants to know if the same fate will befall the Apostle John.  Listen to the dialogue between him and Jesus:
20 Peter turned and saw Jesus' favorite disciple following them. He was the same one who had sat next to Jesus at the meal and had asked, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw that disciple, he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus answered, “What is it to you, if I want him to live until I return? You must follow me.” 
            Follow me.  That is His command to us.  It is not for us to know who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell.  As I said earlier, I enthusiastically support David Platt’s stance that there Christians must evangelize and do so with urgency.  But the reason I feel this way is not because God needs us to rescue people from Hell.  I am an advocate for evangelism because people are living without Jesus.  I cannot imagine that. 
            If you don’t think Jesus is so awesome you could not imagine life without him, then your biggest need is to discover how wonderful Jesus is.  Not a far off, hopefully-we’ll-see-Him-in-Heaven-someday-Jesus; that is not what I mean.  I mean Holy-Spirit-in-my-life-right-now.  In the Great commission, Matthew 28:19-20, he sends us.  We are to go to the world to make disciples.  We’re not on a mission to rescue people from Hell.  We are out inviting people to life.
            As for those who never hear the Gospel, I don’t know.  I am agnostic, without knowledge regarding their fate.  That is up to God and I am glad it is.  For a second week in a row I have said to you, I don’t know.  Last week, I admitted I do not know if Hell is eternal torment or temporary torment followed by annihilation.  I don’t know and I do not know what happens in eternity to those who do have never the opportunity to hear the Gospel.  I am grateful to leave that to God.  I know God is good.  I am happy to share the words of Anglican Bishop Rowan Williams.
We’re very reluctant, we Christians, to leave things to God to sort out.  We have, often, a vague feeling that God hasn’t read the right books.  And we need to be rather protective toward him and make sure he knows the right policy. 
I find [Williams continues], and I speak only for myself, that I am very content to let God be the judge of how far anyone outside the visible family of faith is related to Jesus or has turned toward the Father. 
Bishop Williams speaks for me also.  I am very content to let God judge people and determine their eternities.  God is fair and better yet, God is merciful.  God’s mercy is far superior to my sense of fairness.  
            I do have a job to do.  We all do, as Christ followers.  We are to announce His Kingdom in the world.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And we are to make disciples.  He does the work and in His mercy, God invites us to join Him at work in the world.