Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

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Most of us are too busy living to spend time contemplating death and dying, but avoidance is not a long-term strategy for dealing with death.

Death has a way of intruding without warning, commanding immediate attention. We drop everything, travel, make phone calls, send flowers and cards to acknowledge that someone loved has gone. Though life goes on, death has left its calling card.

Death is constant; we notice only when it touches us. As I write, the World Death Clock ticks steadily at the rate of 1.8 deaths every second, an estimated 32 million deaths this year so far.

Three weeks ago, I got an early morning call that a family member had died suddenly. Not yet 40, he left behind a wife and two young children. Days later I sat in a church two states away reviewing the life of a dear man I knew only by proxy.

The grief was palpable. Death was front and center, open casket on the big screen. Fast forward: cemetery, repast, flights home, resume life. No disrespect. It’s what we do. Keep it moving lest death get in our heads, touch our hearts.

Fencing out Death

A church on my daily commute recently decided that death should take a holiday, at least visually.

This one-church-in-several locations congregation, the kind that sends out colorful postcards with hip slogans, merged with a declining mainline church. The merger of people, buildings and grounds included a neat, century old traditional cemetery with flower-topped, granite grave markers in various sizes and shapes.

Apparently, a cemetery with looming gravestones didn’t fit a “life is good” image. Church leaders summarily hid the grim reminders of mortality behind a substantial wooden privacy fence – with gated access for those wishing to pay their respects, of course.

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

The subsequent unflattering publicity revealed that people whose family members are buried in that cemetery didn’t want their graves behind a fence. Driving home this week, I noticed the privacy railings have been removed. The reality of death has come back into public view between open horizontal slats.

It’s a good thing. Death is as much a part of life as sunrises and sunsets. The writer of Hebrews said, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

Fear Not

A cemetery is a reminder that, despite all distractions and protestations to the contrary, “A man’s days are numbered.” (Job 14:5) Nobody lives longer than the time God has set.

Understandably, death gives people the creeps. Nobody wants to die. The church’s mission is to help people face this uncomfortable reality with biblical faith.

Like Jesus Christ standing at Lazarus’ tomb, the church must confront death by teaching people that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son. (1 John 5:11)  Jesus conquered death, dying in our place and rising from the dead. Likewise, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is the hope of the gospel.

Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV)

Resist fear in all its guises and embrace faith instead. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hedge against death and opens the door to a whole new life!

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’ Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

 

 

 

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Some through the fire, but all through the blood

 

As I visit churches in different Christian denominations with varied worship styles and sermons that swing between topical and expository, verse-by-verse teaching, I am often struck by the one thing most  have in common: the absence of the presence of the divine.

In our sanitized version of Christianity, we do church as though we can waltz into God’s presence by means of fine-tuned worship, hip videos and carefully rehearsed prayers. Jesus, our home-boy, is going to show up to give us all a high-five. No blood necessary.

Not so. Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice is central to the faith and key to coming into the presence of God. But you will almost never hear that from a modern pulpit.

We moderns have almost lost sight of the centrality of Jesus “in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:14)

The church once preserved this trail of blood that runs from Genesis to Revelation in the old hymns of the faith: “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “I Know it was the Blood,” “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” can wash away our sins.

God, on the other hand, puts blood front and center in worship.

In Leviticus the priests begin their service by presenting an array of specific bloody offerings and burnt sacrifices. Unblemished goats, oxen, rams, lambs, kidneys, livers, hides, flesh, even heads, are reduced to ashes.

The priests slaughter these animals, piece by piece, burn the fat, pour blood around the altar. Clearly, they had to be covered in blood head to toe by the time all the sin offerings and peace offerings were done.

The priesthood was a bloody business. The blood is about dealing with sin before approaching God.

“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be made ‘clean’ with blood. Without the spilling of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)

The priest had to present an offering for his own sin before going to God with an offering for the sins of the people.  “This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Lev 9:6

We 21st century Christians are reluctant to admit our sin so it follows we are not eager to embrace the blood that as its remedy. Every week somewhere in America, uncleansed and unforgiven priests and people routinely gather for choreographed “worship” without ever seeming to notice that our God who “is a consuming fire” does not show up. (Hebrews 12:29)

In contrast, the Levitical priests ministered by way of the blood and “fire came out from the presence of the Lord” (Lev 9:24) and consumed the sacrifice. The people saw His glory and fell on their faces.

When was the last time you saw that in your assembly?

The path to the presence of God is paved in the blood of Christ, to which the blood of lambs and rams looked forward. No matter how educated our preachers or how great our programs: No blood, no glory!

Is your preacher, preaching?

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Spent some time in church on this Lord’s Day? Maybe you heard preaching. Maybe not.

Preaching is important.

The Bible teaches that “it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21)

So what exactly is “preaching”?

  • Is it just “God talk” by somebody standing in front of a congregation?
  • Is it “hooping” in the black church tradition?
  • Is it an academic lecture steeped in the Hebrew and Greek?

Biblical preaching is more the message than the method. This is what Jesus had to say about the message:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-48)

A lot of what passes for preaching these days is motivational, inspiring, even entertaining. It makes people feel good, but it’s not preaching. It doesn’t bring people closer to God. It requires nothing. It doesn’t share the Good News: our sins can be forgiven because we have a Savior in Jesus Christ. He died so that we might live. Real, biblical preaching introduces us to that truth.

I seldom hear preaching that mentions sin or the need for repentance. My question: if there’s no sin, what was the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Why do we bother with church? God is not some adornment to our lives so that we can be the “best version of ourselves” (I actually heard some preacher use this phrase!) In Christ, we are a new creation, crucified so that it’s “no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

The Apostle Paul instructed his protégé Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2) What “word”? Paul’s answer: “The word of faith, which we preach.” (Romans 10:8) What did Paul preach?

Now brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15: 1-4)

Paul declared preaching to be both gospel-centered and Holy Spirit-empowered. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” (I Corinthians 2:4)

God uses preaching to save people who believe and to grow them up in the faith. It is a supernatural thing. If that’s not happening where you worship, consider the source and find a place where it is.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

 

Escape Sin’s Paradox

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I am ever learning but never coming to know the truth.

I am sampling all the world has to offer but am empty still.

I am ever seeking new experiences but never finding joy.

I am free to do what I please and enslaved by my own choices.

I am the constant critic who is blind to my own shortcomings.

I am the instigator of wrongdoing and the accuser once the deed is done.

What am I?

I am “the paradox of sin.”

I am pleasure and punishment rolled into one.

Sin is pleasurable for a season. When the season passes, sin’s beauty is ravaged; and we are left with its ugly reality.

We’ve all had our conversations with sin, heeded its voice and inevitably encountered its diabolical duality.

Sin promises freedom but everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

Sin twists our desires, compels us to seek fulfillment in self-destructive ways. Sin drives us to run after a nameless something that is always beyond our grasp.

When I survey the landscape of my own soul, I see sin’s stillbirths: dead hopes, dead dreams and dead relationships. Eventually sin turns on us, confronts us with our guilt, reminds us of how we’ve failed, whispers that we deserve to die.

In truth, we’re all sinners. The wages of sin is death. There is none righteous, not even one.

Yet, death was never God’s plan.

Man was created in God’s image, an eternal soul with free will, freedom to choose. God planted a garden and put Adam, this man He created, in it. The garden was filled with pleasant trees, two of which are identified by name: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God gave but one restriction:

Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die. (Gen 2:17)

We know the story: the serpent persuaded Eve to eat of that tree, insisting there was no death in it, that it was the source of godlike wisdom. She gave it to Adam and he ate. Why weren’t they drawn instead to the tree of life?

We human beings are forever tempted to taste a freedom that results in our own bondage. Given a choice, we gravitate toward death not life. Look at your own choices and say it isn’t so.

Fortunately, God has provided a way of escape.

The last Adam, Jesus Christ, has released us from the paradox of sin. His death and resurrection has broken sin’s power over our lives. We don’t have to obey the siren call of our own sin nature. We are free. Sin reigned in death. Grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:19-21)

 “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Are you Somebody?

“Do you know who I am?”

The question is usually asked by someone who isn’t getting what they expect and consider themselves entitled. After all, they are Somebody: a person of status, position, social standing and/or means who expects to be treated accordingly.

Somebodies don’t follow protocol. They don’t stand in lines. They don’t wait.  And if they do, there is hell to pay.

If you are the impatient type, as I am, perhaps you’ve been tempted to be Somebody.

Happened to me when I went for a dental cleaning. The practice has been sold and most of the people are new. I, however, am a long-term patient, accustomed to prompt and skilled service. Things have changed. First, they called last minute to ask if I could arrive early to an appointment scheduled six months earlier. That would be a No. I rescheduled.

I waited nearly 15 minutes to be called back. As I waited, my husband sent a text saying I should consider the visit a “test.” He reminded me that I’d be representing Christ while there and should keep my behavior in check no matter what happened.

I needed the reminder.

I waited 45 minutes before a hygienist touched my teeth. Bitewing films were taken by someone who needed help turning on the machine. When the hygienist arrived, without apology for the delay, she promptly dropped an instrument with a loud clank.

She then kicked it aside, joking that I needn’t worry. She had plenty and would not need that one again.

If I could have spoken, I might have dropped a verbal bomb on this woman who apparently didn’t realize she should suction as she worked.

Instead, I sat there battling the urge to ask “Do you know I am”

  • a paying customer
  • a longtime patient
  • a witness to the first dropped instrument in decades at a dental office

It came to me that the more important question is whether I know who I am: Nobody special, just another human being whose faults, frailties and outright sins Someone died for. I should take my cue from Christ who “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:7) even though He was Lord of all. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of enduring death on a cross.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (Phil 2:9)

A real Somebody is willing to become Nothing. They are not provoked, remaining calm under pressure. Christians are called to be Christ-like even in unreasonable circumstances.

For a moment, I considered that my inexperienced hygienist – whose framed degree revealed that she’d graduated less than a year ago – might have had a string of late appointments before me and I had walked into the perfect storm. Maybe she was doing the best she could and I should just relax and show some mercy. (Luke 6:36)

I took a deep breath and let her finish without a word of criticism and managed to leave the office without making a scene. Test passed.

Next time I’m tempted to pull the Somebody card, I hope I choose to be merciful instead. To quote Shakespeare:

 The quality of mercy is not strain‘d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest… It is an attribute to God himself. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)

No Labels!

 Someone said in conversation this week that they consider me a “liberal” Christian, which I suspect means I practice “Christianity Lite.” This amused me. My husband is convinced I’m a natural conservative!

Actually, I’m neither. I listen to the pulpit. I think, ponder, pray, debate and study the Scriptures to see if those things are true.

So how’d I get a liberal label?

Maybe because I resist the idea that everything in the Christian faith is black and white. Obviously, the essentials of the faith are unambiguous and non-negotiable. But there also are things that are less clear cut. Not “gray” areas but things requiring wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as to life application.

Or maybe because I’m a vocal critic of the nonsensical behavior of self-proclaimed conservative Christians:

  • Randomly cold-calling strangers at their front doors with the three spiritual laws
  • Standing outside “women’s health clinics” with bullhorns and poster-sized pictures of shredded babies shouting that abortion is murder
  • Arguing with queer theory people about whether sexual identity is fixed. (Note: Please don’t take me to task for referring to homosexuals as “queer.” My college-age insider assures me the LGBQT community now embraces the term as a means of self-identification.)

I’ve seen people do these things, and I’m pretty sure it brought no glory to Christ.

Christianity lived well, it seems to me, is not a matter of leaning left or right but of holding love and truth in a balanced tension. This is accomplished only by walking in the Spirit, something every believer is instructed to do.

We struggle because living this way requires reliance on God rather than hard-fast rules for human interaction.

I will admit that, over time, I have become more liberal in extending grace. Not because I have become soft on sin, but because I have learned this:

There is a wrong way to be right.

Nothing in Scripture instructs Christians to categorize ourselves as liberal or conservative. We are told:  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthian 13:5a)

THE faith is historic Christianity; not the modern-day version that is speculating about whether Jesus married and had children or rewriting gender references in hymns and Bible versions or redefining the nature of man as “basically good.”

Historic Christianity is the faith first delivered to the apostles and affirmed in the Christian creeds. A sampling:

One God, the Father, Creator and maker of the heavens and earth. Man a sinner in need of a savior whose name is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Foretold by the prophets, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, rose bodily on the third day, ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God to one day return to planet Earth to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It’s possible to give mental assent to all that and still be a hard, graceless person. It’s equally possible to be a kumbaya personality dedicated to the social gospel while conveniently forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven and we await a savior from there.

The Jesus of Scripture is neither. He eats and drinks with sinners. He visits their homes and welcomes tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, the blind, and the lame – basically, all the undesirables — into his company. His message is frank, powerful and uncompromising. Yet, He is loving, compassionate and forgiving.

He heals people who don’t even know His name. He pardons the guilty. He’s upfront about the price to be paid for following Him. If people choose to walk away, He lets them go. There’s no coercion.

I don’t know anybody else like that.

Jesus doesn’t do liberal or conservative. He came to save every kind of sinner, from the inside-out. Jesus only had issues with Pharisees, the religious conservatives of His day, who didn’t think they needed saving. Their beautiful labels spoke of life, but Jesus said they were whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.

Labels can be misleading. Intel had it right. It’s what’s inside!

 

Are you sure God’s Not Mad?

God Is Not Mad at You.” That’s the catchy title of the 100th book recently published by Joyce Meyer. It caught my eye while strolling the aisles of Walmart.

My first thought was, “Really?”

Psalm 7:11 says something quite the opposite:

 God is a just judge,

And God is angry with the wicked every day.

So whose report will we believe?

I’m not hating on Joyce Meyer. I’ve listened to her teaching, been to her conferences, bought her tapes. I even own a leather bound signature Amplified Bible translation from back in the day when her ministry was known as “Life in the Word.” (The ministry now broadcasts as “Enjoying Everyday Life.”)

The truth is whether God is angry at you depends on you. Romans 8:1 tells us there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us. We don’t need to wallow in guilt and shame.

If we happen to be disobedient, unrepentant, and rejecting God, however, the unvarnished truth is that God is angry. The Bible clearly says so.

I know the idea of an angry God is not good marketing strategy. We live in the age of “God is Love,” where even Christians try to make God look good by sometimes shading the truth. An angry God, after all, doesn’t play well to crowds. An angry God is dangerous.

Listen to Jeremiah 15:6 “You have rejected me,” declares the LORD. You keep on backsliding. So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back.”

Personally, I think a holy fear of an angry God is a good thing. There was a time when Americans were moved to repentance to know that God was angry at sinners. The great preacher Jonathan Edwards, preached a now famous, unemotional sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that prompted many to seek salvation.

Today, in our desire not to offend, we sometimes give people a less than accurate impression of God in an attempt to make our message more palatable. Scripture explicitly warns us not to add or subtract from God’s word. Unrepentant sinners are guilty before God and should be ashamed. God hates sin; and He will judge it, if we do not repent. It’s an uncomfortable truth.

The central message of Christianity can be summed up in John 3:16, which simply states that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save us. Ephesians goes on to say, “By grace you have been saved…”

Ever ask yourself, just what is it that we Christians are “saved” from?

The Bible answer is that we are saved from “the wrath of God.” The Book of Revelation, in which the long withheld judgment on an unrepentant planet is finally unleashed, makes particular reference to “the winepress of the wrath of God,” and to “bowls full of the wrath of God” being poured out on the disobedient, the unrighteous, the unbelieving.

God is not one-dimensional. He is both a God of Love and a God of Wrath. By definition, wrath is “extreme anger.” It is God’s great love that, for a time, restrains His wrath. “He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

We can’t fully appreciate God’s undeserved love toward us until we acknowledge the very real wrath that He will one day justly unleash on those who reject His offer of rescue. Paul, writing to Christians in Colosse, admonished them to “put to death sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”

When Christ returns to Earth, He is not coming as a meek, suffering servant. He is coming the Second time to “rule with a rod of iron” and to “dash in pieces” the wicked.  

We can escape the wrath of God to come by accepting His gift of love today. John 3:36 says: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

As Jonathan Edwards said in one last appeal to listeners of his famous sermon, “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”