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!

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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)

 

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What if the worst does happen… then what?

Modern-day, western Christianity says if we really love God, if we have enough faith, we’re protected by a force field that nothing truly bad can penetrate. Should something terrible manage to get through, this fiction continues, we can pray it right out of our lives.

My real life experience has proven otherwise. Bad things happen. And sometimes the only way out is to walk through.

No matter how many crosses or garlic cloves actors use to ward off movie vampires and murderous mummies, in life there is no Christian talisman. The cross, after all, is synonymous with a torturous death that had to be endured before it could be overcome.

Jesus is frank:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.(John 16:33b)

Should we encounter a nightmare scenario, it won’t mean that evil has won. Those who trust God may have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but Christ walks with us to the other side.

Our relationship with God doesn’t have to crack under the strain of hard things. It can survive and deepen. Job is the Old Testament example.

By God’s own testimony, Job was blameless. (Job 1:8) Yet, God allowed this guy’s life to fall apart without warning and without cause. (Job 2:3) In a single day, he lost his wealth, his children. On some other day, his health was attacked. There had been a “hedge” of protection around his life. (Job 1:10)  Clearly, for reasons that are inexplicable beyond His Sovereignty, God sometimes allows the enemy to get at us.

We know that Job kept faith, though he had so many questions. God brought him to a deeper understanding of Himself and restored Job without ever explaining why things happened as they did.

God still causes His people to triumph through tragedy.

  • A friend’s only child, a son, was murdered. She endured the court trial, saw his killer convicted and jailed. Despite profound loss and grief, she somehow kept believing and trusting God. Decades later, she still says with conviction that “God is good.”
  • A family’s home caught fire while they slept and burned to the ground, a complete loss. Everyone escaped alive, including a visiting missionary couple later said to be accidentally responsible for the blaze. Think this family struggled with having missionaries set their house on fire? Still, their faith and their marriage survived a life in ashes.
  • A man who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer stood in church to proclaim that a year later he is cancer-free. A miracle to be sure. Yet he had not escaped suffering. He had endured cancer treatment and had, by God’s grace, prevailed.

In this Holy Week, when we Christians remember how Jesus Christ became our Savior, it’s worth noting that the captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering, the very thing most of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid.

Christ “tasted death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9), a torturous, humiliating, excruciating death. Nobody dragged him to the cross. He went willingly, drinking to the last drop the worst the world had to offer. Three days later, He got up fully alive, overcoming the very thing that sought to overcome Him.

No matter what happens from now on, Jesus Christ has fully prepared those who trust in Him for what happens next. “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

 

 

Your Jesus still in the manger?

It’s Advent, a time of Christian preparation for the coming of Christ. We’re fixated on the crèche: baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, haloed and lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds.

Babies are cute, cuddly, harmless, helpless, adorable. But babies grow up.

Despite Hollywood and Christmas card depictions, the wise men most likely missed the manger; Bible scholars say they arrived about two years later, where Scripture teaches they came into a house to greet Jesus as a young child.

Full story: Jesus kept right on growing into the God-man who died on a Roman cross to save sinners; He became a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, a Suffering Servant. He got up from the grave with all power in heaven and in earth in His hands. This same Jesus will one day come again — not as a baby, but as a conquering King.

Are you living like Jesus is still in the manger?

I get it. A grown up Jesus can be scary, awakening the kind of uneasiness sometimes associated with developmentally disabled children as they mature. Full grown, they aren’t so non-threatening; their non-conformity draws attention that can make us uncomfortable.

A baby can be soothed, silenced, ignored. A mature Jesus is not so easily managed.

Don’t be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy: Jesus has left the manger.

It’s time we who say we believe allowed Him to grow up or, to put it another way, to be “formed in” us. Strong’s describes the Greek word used for “form” to mean: a life and mind formed in us that is in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ. Gal 4:19 

This, beloved, is what Christmas is about.

Jesus at the manger points us beyond Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost, to the God who supplies supernatural power to His people to deal with daily life in real time, where we’re confronted with spiritual wickedness in high places.

This is not Jesus lying in manager, not Jesus suffering on the Cross or wrapped in grave clothes in the Tomb. This is Jesus moving by His Spirit in the Book of Acts.

Risen from the dead and preparing to get back to heaven, Jesus told His core followers to wait at Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, who would guide them in truth, empower them to live as Christians and to do the work of ministry.

Folks, the manger was only Act One. History, some say His Story, has kept moving.

Baby Jesus was on a mission: born to die to save us and to rise from the dead, His Spirit enabling us to be His witnesses and become mature men and women of God who reflect His image in the Earth.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Could be we all simply need to fully unwrap the priceless gift we already have: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

~ Merry Christmas.

 

No magic: You can face Tomorrowland

2013-12-28 17.58.55 It’s Day No. 1 of a new year, and I am getting back to reality after a holiday sojourn at the Magic Kingdom. It was great fun, but truth is it wasn’t magic. I got tired walking through the crowds, irritated at standing in long lines and hungry for food with unbelievable price tags.

Disney runs on money – and the labor of a gazillion hired hands – not magic. And like those hirelings, I will be back at work in the morning to earn what I need to fund my everyday life. New year, but same old responsibilities.

I’ll be facing the same kitchen frig that needs filling, meals that need cooking and laundry that needs wash/dry/fold. I’ll return to the same work environment with the same personalities, to the same church drama,to the same school carpool schedule and to the same unending PTSA appeals to “write a check for… .”

There is nothing magical about getting back into the work/life groove after a summer- in-winter vacation filled with sleeping in and ordering off the menu. For me, this is where the message of Christmas gets real: Emmanuel, God with us.

Not God floating around in space somewhere. Not God waiting for me to die and be received on high. No, the Christian God, the Christ of Christmas, is God right here, right now in real time.

God with me in the I-40 traffic when some nut cuts me off and gives me the finger. God with me when the “Check Engine” randomly pops on after I’ve already dropped a few hundred with the mechanic. God with me when I arrive home exhausted and wondering what I can possibly make for dinner in the hour I have before soccer practice. God with me when people are talking to me a mile a minute and I’m already on system overload.

What I love about Christmas is that its real “magic,” if you will, doesn’t end when the ornaments are packed, the lights are unplugged and the tree is tossed. The power of Christmas is having Christ with me, in me, enabling me to deal with everyday stuff. My pre-holiday frustrations and troubles are unchanged. But so is my God. He is unmoved by the calendar.

Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

So as we head back to the office in the morning, let’s remember that God is with us right in the frustrating, irritating thick of everyday things. Because He lives, we can face tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Thought Catalog: Think About It

One of my children passed along a recent Thought Catalog installment entitled “Why I’m Not a Christian,” http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/why-i-am-not-a-christian/.

It’s the story of a self-described obedient, church-going adolescent who became a Bible-reading college student and decided to “renew his faith by ‘praying the prayer’” through Campus Crusade for Christ and to give his life to God.

Life was good, but he had an overriding desire: a wife. Wives, after all, are a good thing. (Proverbs 18:22) This is where the story takes a turn.

Overwhelmed with desire but realizing sex outside marriage is outside God’s plan, this young man struggled. He eventually fell into a cycle of Internet pornography, masturbation and guilt. He says he still prayed, believing God for the wife of his dreams.

While working at a Christian group home, he was convinced he’d found his wife, working right alongside him. Problem was, she wasn’t interested.

A year passed. The 25-year-old virgin met a woman on MySpace and flew from South Dakota to Alabama to meet her. They were “naked just hours after meeting at the airport.” The girl, however, was remorseful. By the time his flight landed back home, she had left him a phone message saying: 

 “what we were doing. It just wasn’t right. I need a man who is going to be a spiritual leader. He shouldn’t be going to bed with me so easily.”

That was the decisive blow. He now considers himself an atheist. He was a good boy, delighting himself in God. (Psalm 37:4) God didn’t meet his expectations, so He must not exist.

My child wanted to know what I thought about this. My answer: Everyone wants a Savior; nobody’s looking for a Lord. Jesus Christ, however, is both Savior and Lord. It’s a package deal.

If we accept Jesus as Savior, He also becomes our Lord. That means He decides what we need, when we need it and how we receive it. His goal is not necessarily to make us happy, healthy and wealthy. God is focused on making us holy, conforming us to the image of His Son. (Romans 8:29)

Our role is to submit to His will, out of love and trust, choosing to humble ourselves. It’s not a one-time event. Committed Christians make that choice over and over again, one decision after another for a lifetime. It can be tough to do, even for the most dedicated souls.

God sometimes asks us to submit to things we don’t like: denying a natural desire for sex until He provides the right mate; working for a jerk when we might be more capable; walking through chemo and radiation while knowing God has the power to miraculously heal without human intervention.

He sometimes allows us to be disappointed, to suffer. And He doesn’t always explain why. He doesn’t have to. He is God. He suffered much more on the cross to save us than we ever will in obeying Him.

We humans rebel against all this. We naturally resent any and all authority. We don’t want anyone telling us what we can and cannot do. We want to be equal partners in a neat “religion” where I do my part and God does His. Even seasoned saints can struggle deep down with believing we know what’s best for us: who we should date or marry, what job suits us etc. We get angry when God doesn’t follow our script and quietly accuse Him of “not meeting our needs.”

Like the Thought Catalog guy, we can make an idol out of our unmet needs. I know. I’ve been there, done that more times than I’d like to admit. I’m thankful that God forgives when we repent; and He grants “do overs.”

It may be hard to accept, but God is not in the business of granting wishes. He is about transforming us. (Romans 12:2). He molds; He shapes; He whittles – working all of it for our good. (Romans 8:28)

Consider these possibilities:

  • Suppose the Thought Catalog guy really didn’t want a wife as much as he wanted sex?
  • Suppose God “failed” to produce a wife on his time schedule because he wasn’t ready for one?
  • Suppose the wait was meant to reveal his need to grow in the fruit of the Spirit which is self-control or self-discipline? (Galatians 5:23)
  • Suppose the woman he quickly bedded was God’s choice for a wife had he been able to exhibit that self-control?

People who truly love God don’t serve Him for what we can get but because of what He already has given: Himself. Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are granted fellowship and communion with God, total access with an open invitation to come boldly to the throne of grace and find mercy and help when we need it. (Hebrews 4:16)

God Himself is our “exceeding great reward.” (Gen 15:1) Not a wife, not a husband, not a job or any other dream come true. That stuff is extra, like whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles topping a good mocha latte.

 When we’re in a relationship, it all comes down to love. Did the Thought Catalog guy – do we – really love God? Jesus says to His followers, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 NLT)

Christianity is a love relationship, not an obligatory transaction. (John 3:16) God is love, but He doesn’t assume love on our part. He says, If we love and If we want to follow. It’s our choice.

When we choose to go our own way, like the Thought Catalog guy, what we’re really saying is we just don’t love Him enough.

Think about it.

Asking the Right Questions?

Voltaire is quoted as having said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

Jesus asks a lot of questions. Direct, bold questions with seemingly obvious answers. I read them and think: why would He ask that?

  • He asks a man who has been sick 38 years, “Do you want to get well?” Could anyone possibly not want to get well after suffering for that long?
  • A couple of John’s disciples begin to follow Him and Jesus asks, “What do you want?” I thought Jesus wanted people to follow Him. The question sounds almost like a challenge.
  • The disciples are describing how other people characterize Jesus. Then He confronts them with this: “Who do you say that I am?”
  •  Jesus and the disciples are out on a mountainside with a crowd of hungry people. Jesus asks: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He is the Son of God, and He is asking them?

 Children ask questions the way most people breathe. Naturally curious, they want answers. Adults often ask questions because they want to debate.

Why do you suppose Jesus asks questions? He’s the God of the universe, maker of all things, knows what is in us intimately, our very thoughts and intentions.

And yet, He bothers to ask.

Obviously, Jesus is not trying to learn something. His questions, I think, are meant to teach us something. Could be we have all the right answers to the wrong questions.

Maybe better questions would include:

Do I ‘Want To’?

 In life, we sometimes assume too much. For example, we assume that a sick person wants to get well. Jesus assumes nothing. He asks: Do you want to get well?

Maybe what happened to this guy was directly related to his refusal to stop sinning in some area of his life; (later, you’ll notice that Jesus warns the guy to stop sinning lest something worse happen to him.)  Maybe Jesus was really asking something like, “Do you finally want to get well bad enough to let that thing go?”

It all boiled down to this guy’s willingness to obey God. Jesus said, Pick up your bed and walk. The guy obeyed; and as he was doing it, he found that he could do it.

We whine about what we can’t do, blame other people for our impotence, for being stuck. But what it really comes down to is: Do you want to? When push comes to shove, we can obey God – if we want to.

What Do I Want?

When we come to Jesus, what are really looking for? What do we want from Him? If we are seeking something that is out of character for Him, not in sync with Who He is, we’re going to be disappointed. That’s what always comes with wrong expectation.

In Jesus’s day, people followed Him for many reasons. Some wanted deliverance from Roman rule, a Hebrew king. Others wanted a Healer to bind up their broken bodies and make them well. Still others were just looking for a Magic Chef who would produce a miraculous meal to fill their empty bellies; they never really discerned the supernatural, eternal value of Christ’s message.

We moderns have the same tendency to think materially rather than spiritually, often coming to Jesus with “A Shopping List” that begins with make me wealthy and ends with keep me healthy.

Jesus never promised His followers lives of wealth, health and ease. Instead, He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) Historically, Jesus’ disciples have been persecuted: fed to lions, sent to prison, into exile, tortured and executed in unimaginable ways, according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Jesus didn’t heal all the sick while He lived and the ones He did heal eventually departed this life. Even Lazarus — whom Jesus famously raised from four days dead, buried and stinking — died again.

Obviously, Jesus cares about real pain, need and human suffering. His real mission, however, is dealing with the root cause of all our misery: sin. We sinners who come to Jesus should be looking first for a savior. The very name “Jesus” references His primary role:  “You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)

What Do I Say?

In our “Talking Heads” generation, we’re accustomed to cable news and talk radio offering constant comment about what “they” said and what “they” should do. Commentators tell us what people around the world are saying about how every problem can be solved by some anonymous, collective “them.”

When the spotlight is on “them,” I become a mere observer with no personal responsibility for outcomes.

Jesus, however, makes everything personal. He always brings the conversation back to “us.” It’s all very well to talk about what Mom, Dad, my neighbor, my co-worker think about Jesus. But what they say really has nothing to do with me.

Jesus is a personal God who wants me to make a personal decision. What I say about Jesus – believing in my heart and confessing with my mouth — is what counts. (Romans 10:9-10)

Who Do I Rely On?

 In the middle of nowhere with no grocers or food stand for miles, Jesus asks where they are going to get food for a crowd of 5,000. The disciples must have thought, “Good question.”

I am equally sure that Jesus did not expect them to provide a real answer. It was a test. (John 6:6) How would they approach a problem that was so obviously beyond human means to solve?

What most of us do is: a) completely give up because we focus on the impossibility of our situation or b) try to come up with a solution on our own. When neither approach works, we come to Jesus with that original problem and whatever mess we made while trying to solve it.

Jesus wants us looking to Him as our solution source. When we face some beyond-human-ability issue, God is not asking us to solve our own problem. He wants faith in action, our bringing what we have to Him as inadequate as it may be – like five loaves and two fish for feeding 5,000+ — and trusting Him to figure it out.

We are all about answers. Jesus starts with the right questions. Maybe we should follow His lead?