Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Sermon 2013: “Love Incarnate”

NativityTwo thousand years ago there appeared among us a new way of being, a new way of existing in the world.

To be sure, this way of being was already known in the world.  To be sure, all people and all cultures had elements and anticipations of this way of being in them.  They all showed that this way of being is written on the heart of man.  All people intrinsically know what is right and good and beautiful when they see it.  

What was new two thousand years ago was the clarity with which this way of being was known and expressed.  Among a group of people living in palestine there was suddenly a knowing of THE way to be in the world.  What was only known partially and imperfectly throughout human history was now known with a fullness and perfection that was truly new and unique.

They began to say things like:

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV).

And,

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 ESV).

And is says of them,

“and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:45 NASB).

This way of being was expressed in the breaking down of barriers heretofore seen as impenetrable.

They said,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female …” (Galatians 3:28 NKJV).

This from a man who all his pre-Christian life would have prayed thank you God that "Thou hast not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman."  As one commentator points out he takes that prayer and reverses it. The old distinctions were gone; all were one in Christ.” (William Barclay, commentary on Galatians).

Women, who had been excluded from participating in the synagogue service were now praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:5).  Women who had been seen as of little or no value when it came to such important things were now speaking to God on behalf of the congregation in prayer and were speaking to the congregation on behalf of God in prophecy.  Amazing!

Slaves, who in the ancient world were seen as less human than their masters, following the teaching of such men as aristotle, who said in the first book of his politics that there are “those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast ….[and] are slaves by nature.”

The best thought of the ancient world thought of slaves as being as different from their masters as is “man from beast.”  And yet in such a world there appeared among this people in palestine the idea that a slave should be received [quote] “as a fellow man and as a brother “ (Philemon 1:16 NIV).

What are we to make of this?  What accounts for this sudden appearance of love among us?  They said it wasn’t them doing and saying these things.  They said that they had come under the grip of another reality.  They called this reality “Christ.”

“I no longer live”, one of them said, “but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20 NIV).  They attributed their words and actions to one called Christ.  They said his spirit, his energy, his power, his reality gripped them and motivated them.  This new way was not their invention.  It was a gift that had found them and changed them.  It’s origins were outside themselves.

Indeed, they said it was so outside themselves that it had been embodied by somebody else.  Somebody else had embodied these realities in ways they could not.  They said that their embodiment of the new way, as profound and deep and real as it was, was nothing compared to the embodiment they found in this man.  They said their embodiment was partial and imperfect and flawed compared to that one who embodied the way perfectly.

They said that in Jesus of Nazareth they encountered love incarnate.  In Jesus of Nazareth they had encountered a reality so unlike any other reality in this world that they could only conclude that his origins were not of this world.  In the words of one of their prophets his origins were “from old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).  And then they painted a picture of his life, capturing in the gospel accounts the wonder of the man they had beheld.

As one person has said,

"Strange …  when we think of God we think of Him in terms of this man or He is not good. We may transfer every single moral quality in Jesus to God without loss or degradation to our thought of God. On the contrary, by thinking of Him in terms of Jesus we heighten our views of God. All those who have tried to think of Him in other terms have lowered and impoverished our idea of Him" (attributed to E. Stanley Jones)

This man also said, “I know nothing higher to say of God than that He should live like Christ.”

This is the reality we encounter in the gospels--a reality beyond any reality we find in this world.

To know Jesus is to know God, for God is love.  The law of our being is the form of being that took expression in Jesus of Nazareth and was so powerfully expressed in those who came under his influence.

To know Jesus is to know the holy, to know that which is truly worthy of highest devotion and highest respect.

Fall on your knees.  O hear the angels’ voices.  You are in the presence of the holy tonight.  Jesus is Lord.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by him, for he is in the bosom of the father (John 1:18 NASB).  He is the heart of God.  He is love incarnate.  More precisely, he is the God who is love incarnate.

And so you should surrender to him, surrender to the truth about him and what that truth says about you.  In his presence we realize the truth about ourselves, that we sin and fall short of his glory (Romans 3:23).  In his presence we realize just how unholy we are and just how holy he is, and yet we find in him not condemnation but forgiveness.  He offers us hope that one day we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is in all his beauty (1 John 3:2).  We shall shine like the stars for we shall be set free of all that keeps us from love (Matthew 13:43).

Surrender to him and find that even now his Spirit, his reality comes into you and you begin to know the new reality that has come in Christ (Acts 2:38).  Surrender to him and be born again, born from above.  Surrender to him and find that you have died and you no longer live but Christ lives in you.

Surrender to the miracle of Christmas.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Blogging a New Book

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Some time ago the publisher of What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology by Jon Mark Ruthven contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reading and blogging on the book.  I said certainly, and it’s been on deck for a few months now.  I’ve decided to start reading and blogging on it now in the wake of John MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” conference.

John MacArthur is a committed cessationist, meaning he believes the more “miraculous” spiritual gifts in the New Testament have ended.  I am a continuationist, meaning I don’t see the Bible distinguishing between “miraculous” gifts and the other more ordinary spiritual gifts. 

I agree with MacArthur that there is a lot of strange fire out there.  I’ve seen people all too ready to accept all kinds of questionable behavior in the name of not wanting to quench the Spirit.  But I’ve also known some rather solid people who’ve manifested the more extraordinary gifts in ways that were very credible, and along with these manifestations they’ve demonstrated tremendous love. 

In his opening summary Ruthven says Protestant theology has been about “endless information” and “knowing about God” versus “knowing God”.  I think this is true in many cases, but I’m also wary of Ruthven’s heavy emphasis on “direct” communication with God.  The danger of conservative Protestants of MacArthur’s stripe is an emphasis on Scripture that loses sight of the living Christ manifested in the Christian community.  I discern a possible opposite danger in Ruthven, a seeking of a relationship with God that is very loosely tethered to Scripture, that sees the real relationship with God happening in direct communication apart from the Bible.  We’ll see if that assessment holds. 

(For what it's worth I hold to the early Protestant focus on Christ mediated through the Scriptures as the way to knowing God. Spirit experience grows out of this encounter and leads one back to encounter Christ anew in the prophetic-apostolic witness. The living Christ of the Spiritual gifts is embodied by the church that lives from this encounter with Christ in the Scriptures. Baptism and holy communion signify and seal his presence and finished work.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What We Have is a Portrait

“The Bible… is the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospels are the Figure itself in the portrait. The Old Testament is the background leading up to the divine Figure, pointing toward it, and absolutely necessary for the composition as a whole. The Epistles serve as the dress and accoutrements of the Figure, explaining and describing it. And then, while by our Bible reading we study the portrait as a great whole, the miracle happens! The Figure comes to life! And, stepping from the canvas of the written word, the everlasting Christ of the Emmaus Story becomes Himself our Bible teacher to interpret to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

Christopher Chavasse quoted in Donald G. Bloesch, Holy Scripture

Friday, October 11, 2013

Praying to be filled with the Spirit

“The indwelling of Christ, is a thing of degrees.” 

“Any Christian may pray for the presence of God, and what is his indwelling but the manifestation of his presence?”

Charles Hodge, Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-19

It is biblical to pray for the gift of God’s presence in your life.  We should pray each and every day to be strengthened with the Spirit in our inner being, to have Christ dwell in our hearts by faith, and to be filled with all the fullness of God (see Ephesians 3:14-19).

What’s more we should pray the same for other believers (according to the apostolic example given in Ephesians).  We should pray each and every day that our church be filled with members whose lives are being filled with the Spirit. 

A Spirit-filled community is a Christ-filled community which manifests Christ to each other and the world.  Luke says his first book, the gospel that bears his name, was about all that Christ began to do and teach (Acts 1:1).  His second book, Acts, is about all Christ is still doing and teaching through his body, the church. 

Look at the manifestations of the Spirit given to the church as described in 1 Corinthians 12.  Are not these manifestations a continuation of Christ’s ministry in the world?  Christ spoke words of wisdom and knowledge.  Christ manifested gifts of healings and miracles.  Christ spoke prophetically.  Christ is still doing and teaching today!  He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18).

As Charles Hodge points out, however, the presence of Christ is a thing of degrees.  People and communities can be more or less Christ-filled, more or less Spirit-filled.  The way to receive God’s presence in greater degrees is through prayer (according to the Bible’s explicit teaching and by the example it gives of the early church).

A spiritually alive church is a praying church!  There is no other way.  Even as Naaman had to do it God’s way (dip seven times in the muddy Jordan River, 2 Kings 5) so we have to do it God’s way.  If we don’t we will miss out.  The Bible is clear, “you have not, because you ask not” (James 4:2).

112. Why is prayer necessary?
Prayer is necessary because God will give his grace and his Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of him and render thanks unto him (Evangelical Catechism).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The God that Does Not Exist

“The Protestant emphasis on sola fide, only through faith, denies the efficacy of other approaches to God, even as respectable an alternative as the way of reason.”

George W. Forell, The Protestant Faith, 23

I’m working on my sermon for Sunday.  The lectionary text is 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c.  It’s the story of Naaman the leper.  A major element of the story is the importance of humbling oneself before God in order to experience God’s presence in one’s life.  There’s simply no other way to the knowledge of God.  Naaman does that and sure enough, he finds God.  He says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15 NIV).

There’s simply no other way to know God.  The God that can be found through reason alone simply does not exist.  Using arguments in the attempt to reason people into faith is futile because that God is not real.

George Forell writes,

“Proofs of the existence of God tend to place God in the same class with the objects of proof in the realm of mathematics and thus reduce Him to one object in the same class with others” (The Protestant Faith, 24).

Forell’s point is that the God argued for in proofs is not the God of the Bible.  It is a different God, and that God, an object we could grasp by our reason alone, does not exist.  Arguing with someone about that God is a sheer waste of time.  Better to simply agree with them that such a god doesn’t exist and move on to some subject that is grasped by reason alone.  The time spent will be much more profitable.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Never Neutral With Regard to God

"Human beings are never neutral with regard to God. Either we worship God as Creator and Lord, or we turn away from God. Because the heart is directed either toward God or against him, theoretical thinking is never so pure or autonomous as many would like to think."

- Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Life of Real Impact

“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking , but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval” (Romans 14:17 NIV).

Mere religious externalism is empty and trivial.  God has something more for us.  He desires to give us his very presence (his in-breaking reign in our lives through the Spirit).

Such spiritual reality is attractive (“receives human approval”).  People know a vital, living thing when they see it.  (They know emptiness and death too.)

How do we receive this presence?  The gift of God’s presence comes through Jesus Christ.  He is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.  When we look to him as savior we are reunited with God and God’s presence comes back into our lives.

If we ask God daily to give us his presence he will do it.  We have his word on it (Luke 11:!3).  And when we act on the promptings of this new presence in our lives we’ll find that our lives are having an impact on those around us (just as Jesus said they would).

City on a Hill