Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Reading the Bible with Mind & Heart" (Exodus 20.4-6)

History is separated from pre-history by the invention of writing. In other words, students today distinguish what is considered the history human race by the beginning of writing in about 3000 bc. Before that is called pre-history by the fact that there is no written record of anything. Of course things went on but we can only know about them from unearthing the things people left behind.
Writing completely changed the human race — in fact it is one of three turning points that are often pointed to in the long story of the human race on the earth. Before writing every­thing is vague; writing ushered in a whole new way of thinking. Though it took about one thousand years, by 2000 bc, a new kind of elite has developed — those who could read and write. They could record and read what happened; now rulers could compare their accom­plishments to previous rulers. Religions could trace their development. Various subjects could be thought through as philosophers and physicians could record what they thought and future generations could compare and build on it.
That one ability — the ability to read and write — bore its rich fruit for 3,500 years, from about 2000 bc until about 1500 ad, just five-hundred years ago. Then a second, world-shaking invention changed everything. That was in the invention and wide-spread use of the printing press. With printing, reading and writing could no longer be limited to a class of learned people. Now it became available to everyone and the growth and development of human life and culture exploded. Now, anyone could learn to read and they could think for themselves. They could reason their way through written materials and develop in a vari­ety of ways. We are the heirs of that explosion — world culture as we know it now has developed from the printing press.
Many people believe that we are experiencing a third world-shaping invention — the com­puter. The computer can mix print (words) with pictures in such a way as to completely re-shape civilization. Books, in print on paper, are no longer necessary. Words are still important but in many ways can be either supplemented by or replaced by pictures. For example, why read through a description of how to bake a cake when someone can show you on YouTube? Why get out a map and labor through visually seeing the route when someone can speak to you and tell you where to turn?
I want to ask this morning, what does that mean for Christian faith? What place should the printed Bible (a big book with no pictures) have in our thinking when we have so many aids to help us visualize and understand the Bible? If someone who is more intelligent than we are and knows more about culture and history can tell us about the Bible on YouTube, that better than laboring through it ourselves?
Mary Kay just read to us an extremely important passage of the Bible — in an event of cen­tral significance in the Old Testament: the people of God stood at the base of a mountain in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, and they were called into a covenant with God. This may seem far away and long ago to us, but we are the heirs of those who stood there and trem­bled when they heard the law. They were the people of God in our childhood being intro­duced to relationship with God through a covenant which God initiated. We are the people of God in adulthood (as sons and daughters) through a covenant which God initiated in Jesus.
(Then) God called them into covenant with himself. They prepared for the establishment of the relationship. Moses went up on the mountain and God gave the covenant stand­ards, verbally, audibly — the Ten Commandments, which Moses later was given from God’s hand written on two tablets of stone. The people were so frightened that they begged Moses alone to hear the voice of God.
(Now) That experience formed the basis of what we are today as God’s people. What hap­pened in that passage is paralleled in the experience of the new covenant. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went up on a mountain (like Moses) and sat down and gave his law, the authentic, heart-penetrating exposition of the Ten Commandments that forms the basis of the new covenant.
So it is incredibly significant to ponder this event — is compared and contrasted throughout the Bible with Jesus Christ and what we possess today.
But I want to focus on one aspect of this passage because it relates to our subject this morning. We call it the second commandment—Exodus 20.4–6. Look at Exodus 20:
First, the introduction:
1And God spoke all these words, saying,
Then the prologue to the Ten Commandments, reminding the people of who is calling them into covenant with himself:
2“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Then the first command, the demand for exclusive devotion to the Lord:
3“You shall have no other gods before me.
And now, the second command, the second longest of all ten:
4“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing stead­fast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
In order to carefully note what is being forbidden here, the two sentences must be taken together: You shall not make an image of anything (v 4) to use as a means of worshiping God (vv 5–6). Israel made statues and pictures in the subsequent history; some of them, like the cherubim over the mercy seat, were commanded by God. What was forbidden was any physical representation of God or spiritual things which are treated as holding God or of being a window into the presence of God — that is forbidden.
The reason for this command is two-fold. First, any time you try to “image” God you reduce his majesty. If I gave you each a piece of bubble gum and said, “Chew this up and get it good and pliable; now let’s all take our bubble gum and fashion it into a miniature replica of what we think God is like.” You would say, “That ludicrous — how could the majesty of the all-powerful, all-knowing, creator-God ever be imaged in a piece of chewing gum? And that’s the point. God, as he reveals himself in his word, is far too great to ever be reduced to visible representation.
And, second and along with that, any time you “image” God, you reduce him to manageable form. That’s the whole point of idolatry — you make an image of God which brings him into your presence. In some forms of idolatry, the god actually is present in the image you put before you; in others, the image effectively represents God and allows you to come into his presence. As long as he carries his god with him the worshiper has control.
And those ideas weren’t simply common in the ancient world — they were universal. No one conceived of an unseen, eternal spirit, who was free from human control. No one thought God was unconnected to the major functions of life—birth and death; everyone saw him as responsive to fertility rituals or sympathetic magic or the like, because they assumed God was tied to these deep and mysterious concerns of human existence.
When those people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, these words were an unbelievable demand — no images of God, no pictures, paintings, statues small or large to bring God close to you, right into your home. Only words — like the Ten Commandments, first chis­eled on stone and then written in ink, dried on a piece of paper. That’s all. This command­ment required that these people become completely counter-cultural. Talk about not being like your neighbors!
In fact, later, when Moses was preparing the people to enter the Promised Land, God gave them a little more information about how to apply this:
1“These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, call the days that you live on the earth. 2You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12.1–4).
And so, God’s people became “the people of the book.” This required that everyone learned to read and so it became a custom that the local priest would teach the children of the town to read and write the law from earliest times. This is why, about two hundred years later (in 1300 bc) during a time of conflict, Gideon captured a young man from a small city in Israel and questioned him. And we are told:
“…he wrote down for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven men” (Judges 8.14).
Why do you think it is that the Jewish people are disproportionally represented among the Nobel laureates, or on university faculty, and so forth. They come from a culture that has taken this seriously for three-thousand years!
I’ve belabored getting to my point: Because God chose to reveal himself and his plans in words — rather than in pictures, symbols, or statues — we must read the Bible carefully, thoroughly and responsively.
Let me just underline this one more time! God could have given Israel the permission to make statues and paintings that represented their greatest historical events — a miniature sea with people look back as the water drowned the Egyptian army, a picture of a burning mountain for Sinai, a lamb being slain outside a home for the Passover and so on. Each of the physical representations could have been a visual way to put yourself right there when God was evidently at work, a way for the generations to identify with God’s saving acts.
But he didn’t. He forbid physical representations as windows into his presence, as means of worship. And he shut us up to the word of God as the only source of our clear knowledge about him. Jesus asked the Father on behalf of his followers: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” He invites us to come to the Father in our spirit, through the Spirit of the Father and armed only with what the word of God tells us, and tells us we will be received.
Remember this word came to us in our childhood at Sinai as a demand that was difficult to apply. It was completely against everything the world thought. We live in a world that is rapidly changing — but this doesn’t change. We are confined to get our knowledge of God from his word.
So here’s what we need to know: We must read God’s word carefully, thoroughly, and responsively.
Carefully. I have come to the conclusion that reading is the key that unlocks the Bible. The advent of the television in the 1950’s marked the turning point when, for the first time since about 1500, the reading level began to decline; the computer has accelerated that. In the last one hundred years, the English language has simplified, the active vocabulary has become much smaller. The end result is that most people aren’t reading at the level of a generation ago.
Now, I’m not content to say that the answer is we should use translations of the Bible that are written at a lower reading level to accommodate people reading level. Here’s why:  No study has ever demonstrated that providing a Bible at a lower reading level causes people to read the Bible more.
I have no problem with lower reading level Bibles. In fact, the difficulty of translating the Bible is that, in the original languages there are whole books that are written at a four grade reading level (the Gospel of John, for example) and whole books that are written at a very high reading level, like twelfth grade (Ecclesiastes in the New Testament or Hebrews in the New Testament). It would be difficult to translate the Bible exactly as it was written. But I think it’s hard to translate something written at a twelfth grade level at a fourth grade level.
To read the Bible carefully means, first of all, to read it. Reading is like a muscle — the more you use it the stronger it becomes. My plea is that, if God has truly shut ourselves up to this book, we need to read it.
For a little of the levels of reading and how they apply to the Bible, see the paper I wrote a few years ago called, “Reading the Bible with Mind & Heart.” It is on the Resource Wall in the South Wing and also can be printed off of the church website under the Resources tab.
Thoroughly. We should read the whole Bible. From beginning to end.  
I encourage people to start with the New Testament because that is the part of the Bible that is most immediately relevant to us as Christians. It is about the new covenant, under which our relationship with God is now experienced. However, you will find if you read through the New Testament that you need to read the Old Testament. I believe the Old Tes­tament and the New Testament together constitute God’s single revelation. They form one storyline and one is incomplete without the other.
Granted, reading the Old Testament raises all kinds of questions about, “How does this relate to the New Testament? Am I supposed to do these things that Noah was com­manded? Or Abraham? Or Moses?” The simple answer is “Yes” and “No.” And the only way to put it together is to read it and grapple with those questions.
But let me tell a story of two different men who attended our church—one was early in our history, one later. They never met each other. Both came with their wives originally and they made it clear to me, “I’m here for the family. I’m not interested in this religion thing.” In both cases I met with them personally and was able to talk to them about faith in Christ and encourage them to read the Bible. In both cases they told me they weren’t big readers. And, in both cases I gave them a Bible to read. Early on in the church’s history I was given a case of Bibles from the Gideons — these Bibles were not in the most readable version though it wasn’t too difficult but they were printed in a way that I felt made it more difficult to read. Everything was in bold print and each verse was separate so the very appearance I thought might be a little off-putting to someone who didn’t read a lot.
But both of them went home and did what I suggested. (Can you believe it!) In the next year, each one read through the entire Bible! And, to tie them together even more, at some point they asked to meet with me and they brought a written list of questions they had from what they read. Both became Christians, were baptized, and began following the Lord. One moved away and I don’t have contact with him; the other is still a part of the church.
Reading the Bible has little to do with level of education or reading ability — it has a great deal to do with conviction that it is important. And the whole Bible is important, every part. Yes, some are more relevant to our present situation but even those are shaped by every­thing that went before.
Carefully. Thoroughly. And, lastly, Responsively.  I’m not encouraging you to read the Bible because it shaped western civilization or it’s an important book to have some knowledge of. You should read it because tells us what God wants us to know in order to make our way through this world that he created.
Consider a young man, twenty-five, who meets a girl through his work. He has taken her out a couple of times and at the end of the second date, he tells that he is interested in her, he likes her, and would like to develop their relationship and see where it goes. The next time she sees him in the office she gives him an envelope with a note in it.
Before he opens it, he asks himself what it means. Most people don’t give written notes any more. Is this an easy way to let him down without having to face him or speak to him directly? He opens it and takes out the note...and he reads it. He doesn’t ask himself, “How can I be sure I understand and apply this note correctly?”  All he does is to read it. But how he reads it will make a great difference. He “auto­matically” goes through a number of steps in the following order:
·         He glances at the whole email to see how long it is—he sees that it is more than a sen­tence, two paragraphs, in fact (that’s good) She opens “Dear James” — hmmm. That’s better than not having the word “dear” but maybe it’s just perfunctory. He looks at the end to see how she closes—“thank you” it says—not sure what that means. But she signs her name. Neutral so far!
·         Now, he skims through the letter to try to quickly determine if it will make him happy or sad— is she turning him down or responding to his desire to get to know her? Does she share his feelings or is she standoffish?
·         And it’s positive! So now he reads it more carefully, ponder­ing each line as he reads that she “appreciates” his interest, she “looks forward” to getting to know him, and she “hopes” he’ll call her soon. And “thank you” doesn’t mean “thank you for not bothering me anymore” but “thank you for letting me know how you feel.”
·         Later, before he goes to bed, he reads and re-reads the note savoring each line and meditating on the words and phrases.
The Bible is a love letter from God to us. The storyline is the story of our rebellion and God’s relentless plan to call a people to himself. Unlike two paragraphs from a young woman, it is a long, complex, endlessly fascinating story of God’s love that invites us to put ourselves into. But like the young man we have to read — from the skimming that helps us try to understand the content of Old Testament and New Testament, to the careful reading of trying to take in each word and see how it builds the whole, with the heartfelt desire to reflect on it and make it our own. That’s what we, as Christians should do with our Bible.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"The Problem of Irreligion" (John 1.14-18)

Last week Paul talked to you about the problem of religion. Today I want to talk to you about the problem of irreligion.
The text I want to use was read to us this morning, but I just want to focus on two words that are used in verse 14 and again in verse 17: the words “grace and truth.” First in verse 14:
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)
And, again, verse 16:
16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1.16–17).
In Jesus Christ, we are given the full disclosure of God’s grace and truth. Some have thought that the contrast here is between the Old Testament and the New Testament: the Old Testament was a time of law, demand, standards and the New Testament is a time of grace. That is not the point of the passage: The Old Testament revealed both law and grace and the New Testament likewise reveals God’s law and God’s grace. It’s not that they are opposites; it’s a matter of the relative emphasis. When he says in verse 16 that in Christ we receive grace upon grace, or grace in place of grace (as in the footnote) it means that if the Old Testament revealed grace, the grace now revealed shines with greater power and greater clarity than it did then. And that is true.
The gospel, the Christian message, requires that we balance these two things that were fully revealed in Jesus Christ: grace and truth.
Religion and irreligion are both shown in the Bible to be inadequate, false ways of relating to God — both of them allow the person to avoid God and to keep control of their life. The religious person does this by being moral and religious. It is seen when a person says “I think God will accept me because I’m keeping the Ten Commandments.” After all, religion argues, God has told us how to live and I’m seeking to live that way. And, in the end, the religious person believes that God will accept him because he has been good and moral and obedient — religion exalts truth but denies the need for grace. After all, you don’t really need a Savior if you can do what God requires.
But Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees shows that religion is not a way to reach God — he saw their obedience as a way of keeping themselves from God.
Now if religion exalts truth at the expense of grace, irreligion does the opposite. It reaches the same goal by another route — the irreligious person denies truth but exalts grace and by doing so, he misses both truth and grace. By denying truth and promoting grace, the irreligious person avoids needing Jesus as Savior and maintains control of his or her own life.
Now, first, what do we mean by irreligion? The dictionary defines it as lacking religious feelings, beliefs or behaviors but that can take many forms. On one level it refers to someone “being bad” by community standards — it can be thought of as the person who is poking his finger in God’s eye, saying, “I will do what I want in life. I will be immoral, dishonest, offensive, I will talk dirty, dress provocatively, and be belligerent.” But it’s not always that.
You can think of irreligion as life without God. That may mean denying God’s existence (which we call atheism), or simply ignoring God (leaving him out of life), or it can mean misrepresenting God — giving him qualities and values he doesn’t have.  Life without God. All forms of irreligion have one thing in common: they believe in moral relativism. That means that there is no absolute truth, not in a philosophical sense, but in the area of behavior. Everything depends on the situation. This idea dominates the modern world — you and I are facing it every day on the news, in the neighborhood, at work, at school. It comes to us when someone says, “No one has the right to tell another person how to live. People should choose how they want to live without being told how to live by some religious person.” In other words, all lifestyle choices are up to the individual and are therefore acceptable.  
Irreligion is an attempt to exalt grace at the expense of truth. What do I mean by that? Let me say the first reason as a claim by an irreligous person. Here’s what they are saying:
Because there is no external standard by which I can be judged, I don’t need Jesus to save me.
Relativists are usually either not religious at all or they prefer what is called “liberal religion.” They are often, at least outwardly, very tolerant and happy at least more than religious people who are often uptight and demanding. They believe that everyone must determine what is right and wrong for himself. They are not convinced that God is just and must punish sinners — usually they may talk about God but they seem to view him as an impersonal being or as an extension of their own tolerance. They may talk about God’s love but since they do not believe people are sinful, God’s love costs him nothing.
A person who simply denies God’s existence has no need to explain how God feels about anything — he simply doesn’t exist and therefore he hasn’t revealed anything about how we ought to live our lives. If there is no God, there is no truth that is absolute. Whether it is God himself or some basic rules that God has given for life, they aren’t there.
But a small number of people will go there — more will retain a belief in God but determine that what the Bible teaches is not acceptable.
Let me give an example from contemporary issues — homosexuality and homosexual marriage. I recently heard a person on the news who was promoting gay marriage say this: “Anyone who says that God is against homosexuality or that he doesn’t condone gay marriage is not a Christian.” Let’s note two things about this:
First, in the snippet of the interview, the person gave no indication of his personal convictions — he didn’t say whether he was speaking as a Christian himself. But he made a claim to know who is in and who is out of the Christian community.
But, second, what he is claiming is historically inaccurate — that God expresses disapproval of the homosexual lifestyle and does not condone homosexuality is evident in the clear statements of the Bible; it is written into the historic confessions of every church whether Catholic or Protestant, and it has been the firm belief of generations of Christians.
But here’s what the person is saying: They are all wrong — the Bible, the confessions of faith, the beliefs of generations of Christians — they are all wrong. God does not think that way. How do I know? Because I don’t think that way, God couldn’t be loving and think that way. We know (says the relativist) that God is gracious and accepting so obviously he wouldn’t believe that someone’s lifestyle choice is sinful.
Now unfortunately, gay people have often experienced one of two things: Either being ‘bashed’ or being accepted. I want to note later that there is an alternative, the gospel response.
But the point is that he is willing to change the truth that has been revealed — he denies the Bible, the gender arguments based on the revelation God has given us but he exalts God’s grace — his tolerance and acceptance of everyone.
The end result is that such a person has avoided the need for a Savior — after all, grace doesn’t mean anything if there is no truth. If grace is just God’s acceptance of everyone regardless of their feelings, beliefs or behaviors, if he would never condemn anyone then “grace” is just God’s welcoming nature and the fact that, after all, we aren’t so bad.
If there is no external standard by which I could be judged and the only standards are what I set up for myself then I don’t need a Savior. Jesus, they think opens his arms wide to embrace the whole world and he embraces it. We don’t need to repent and turn from anything because there is no sin to repent of. Irreligion exalts grace but denies truth — and in the end, it leads the person to neither grace nor truth.
Consider a second claim of moral relativism:
Because I determine right and wrong, I am in control of my life and I don’t need Jesus to rule me.
Jesus came to offer himself to us as both Savior and Lord — he wants to both forgive us and to guide our lives. If the moral relativist acts and thinks in such a way as to avoid needing a Savior, he also acts in such a way as to maintain control of his own life.
Here’s how it works: If there is no external standard, then  am responsible to set up an internal standard for my life. Each person must determine right and wrong for himself, at least when it comes to personal behavior. The only standard is whether something hurts another — that’s wrong. Anything else is right if it’s right of me.
Rather than an external standard for behavior as in the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus the relativist proposes another standard: Do not hurt people. The contemporary idea is that we shouldn’t do anything that endangers the safety, happiness, or comfort of another person. The problem is that it is a standard that can’t be applied in a realistic and uniform way. It doesn’t define what “harm” looks like.
We have to note that this standard is one the Bible also teaches. The golden rule says: “Do to others as you would have others do to you” (Matthew 7.12). But the Bible doesn’t only say that, it doesn’t make that the only or even the central standard for all decisions about behavior for the simple reason that what it means to do “good” to others requires some definition — it is not always obvious what the “good” is…if we don’t have some external standard the defines the good.
Consider raising children. As a child grows up, she moves toward independence — God has designed life this way. But the desire for independence and the demand for independence doesn’t always match the preparedness, internally or externally, to be independent. At age fifteen, she may want freedom to live a certain way — to go where she wants, to be with whom she wants, and to do what she wants. And she will have that (the desire is not sinful). But she’s not ready to accept the responsibilities and the demands that go along with making all of those choices. So her parents hold her back. And, in a normal family, that will cause some tension — it’s only the strength of the relationship that was built in childhood that will sustain the assault. On that relationship, she’ll angrily submit…most of the time. Later, she’ll look back and say, “I’m glad I waited.”
At the time, does she feel good? NO! She feels stifled, controlled, held back, suffocated… harmed. But her parents — at least in their best moments, at least in their intentions — only want what is best for their daughter. In addition, she needs a standard outside of herself and her experience — one that is bigger, older, more authoritative — in order to move into adulthood in a most healthy way. Her internal standard is not informed by enough experience.
The moral relativist says, “I decide what is right and wrong for myself.” The difficulty is that without some information coming from a source that is outside myself — bigger, older, authoritative — I don’t have the capacity to come up with a standard that will be enough to get me through life in this complex world.
That source, of course, is God and his revelation to us given in Scripture. But as long as I can convince myself that I alone am responsible for my life, that I am in control of my life I won’t need Jesus to guide me.
But the relativist believes he is in control of his life so he doesn’t need what Jesus offers. Jesus’ gracious invitation falls on deaf ears, when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28–29). The relativist feels no relief at this offer of Jesus, because he has made himself unconscious to his need.
And that’s the problem with irreligion — life without God. It is always based on a denial of any lasting standard for behavior; it involves a commitment to making up the rules for behavior as you go along — it makes the standard internal feelings and it uses a vague commitment to not harming others that is difficult to apply. It works to avoid God in two ways:
The irreligious person can avoid needing Jesus as Savior, and
The irreligious person can avoid needing Jesus as Lord
So that the gracious invitation of Jesus in the gospel is effectively bypassed.
Religion and irreligion end up at the same place by two different routes:
Religion says, “I’m doing what God wants and therefore I don’t need Jesus to save me or rule me.” Irreligion says, “There is no external standard except the one I decide on so I don’t need Jesus to save me or rule me.”
Religion exalts truth and denies grace — and thus misses both. Irreligion denies truth and exalts grace — and thus misses both.
There is a third way — it is called the gospel. The gospel involves something completely different from either religion or irreligion because it balances both grace and truth.
God, your holy creator, has given you an external standard for life in his word — he tells you how he wants you to live. This is the “truth” the moral, religious person speaks of and the relativist, irreligious person denies. But there’s one more element of the truth, religion ignores: God tells you that you can’t keep his law. His demands on your life are just but you can’t meet them because of your sin. Your sinful condition is worse than you think, much worse than the religious person imagines because it means that you can’t save yourself by your obedience no matter how sincere.
But, in his sinless life, Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law in your place; and, on the cross Jesus fulfilled the penalty of the law in your place when he died for your sins. God, who could rightly condemn you for breaking his law, has given himself in Jesus to save you.
The gospel tells us that we are so sinful that we can only be saved by grace. To accept the gospel means to stop seeking to justify ourselves and rely only on Jesus’ record to forgive us and bring us into relationship with God. To continue to walk down the gospel path means to continue to repent of your self-righteousness and your stubborn determination to rule your own life and prove how good you are.
The Christian is the person who realizes that his relationship with God is a faith-miracle. Nothing but God’s intervention could have turned him from his self-salvation and self-determination to rely on Jesus.
So the Christian starts to look at all of life differently and see that a new response is possible to all of life’s demands.
Let’s consider the response to the homosexual in our society.
The gay person is used to two responses: The religious moralist condemns him for breaking God’s law; the irreligious relativists accepts him and commends him for living by his own standard. These are the two options society seems to hold to.
There is, however, another option that would involve loving but not approving; accepting the person as a fellow-sinner but not approving of the form his sin takes. And it would require pointing in another direction than either disapproval or approval. This is the Christian position.
The Christian sees him as a fellow human being who is both infinitely fallen (lost in sin) and infinitely exalted (made in the image of God). Precious and yet flawed.
The Christian knows that before he trusted Christ, his best deeds and his sins were both ways of avoiding Jesus as Savior and Lord. He knows that the gospel is not a call for bad people to become good by simply changing what they do; and the gospel is not a message that makes irreligious people religious. As he repents of his self-righteousness, he sees that his salvation is God’s way of transforming the whole person — in feeling, thinking, and acting.
The Christian does not relate to the homosexual as a moral superior but as a forgiven sinner whose self-righteousness took a different form. But he has been electrified and transformed by the gospel — though he is worse than he imagined, he is more loved and cherished by God than he ever dreamed!
So the Christian invites the homosexual into the same experience of grace and truth. It may involve pain, loss, self-denial as it does for all Christians, but it also involves the experience of eternal acceptance and empowerment to live for God.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"The Problem of Meaning" (Ecclesiastes 6.10-12)

All of us at some point spend a few minutes on vacation looking up at the stars and won­dering, “Who am I? Why do I exist? Is there any meaning to life? Does it matter what I do?” We all know what it’s like to feel small in a huge universe and wonder if our little life makes any difference.
Most of the time, thankfully, those deep questions get swallowed up in the activities of daily life. We can’t ponder ultimate meaning very long.
Yet, modern life has been described as a crisis of meaning. This is the most serious issue of our times.
Human beings at one time, it is often asserted, understood their place in this world — now we don’t.
For countless generations most people lived their whole lives within a twenty square mile area. They were locked into a place, a location, which they found it difficult and frightening to change. Now we can travel anywhere in the world.
For countless generations, communication traveled as fast as a horse; now it is imme­diate, visual…and frightening.
For countless generations people’s understanding of the world was small, local, pro­vincial, bound to their own culture and religious views. Now it is global, enormous, and confronts us with cultures, religions, and views we have no way of evaluating.
The global community is a hard place to live. Social scientists ponder whether the explosion of emotional problems, like anxiety, depression, anger and addictions has been intensified by this crisis of meaning. The incredible upsurge in social problems, especially family breakdown, crime, and isolation also seems to have a factor in the confusion about meaning in life.
So let’s think about meaning of life for a few minutes. We first have to distinguish meaning in life on three different levels:
MEANING = comprehensive meaning; the ultimate purpose of all things
meaning = personal meaning; the meaning of my life
meaning = daily meaning; the activities that give our lives short-term meaning
Is it true that modern life is a crisis of meaning? Does the Bible have anything to say about this problem? How does the gospel provide meaning, or at least, point to meaning in a way that can lessen the pressure we feel of living in a modern, confusing world?
The place to look is to book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is the hardest book in the Bible to interpret. It seems to affirm things that believing people know are true but mix them with statements that affirm things we know are false. It is an extended reflection on life, drawing conclusions that are uncomfortable and mixing them with words that encourage faith and hope in God.
Before we look at it, I need to point out an interpretive key the book provides. Beginning in the third verse of the book and repeated twenty-six times throughout the book is the phrase “under the sun.” This key phrase refers to life lived in this world with a horizontal perspective, life without reference to God above this world. “Under the sun” is the evalua­tion that we human beings make in this vast and confusing world, it refers to the practice of looking at life without ascribing any meaningful involvement to God or any outside revela­tion of our place in this world.
With that it mind, I want to explore the message of the second half of the book, beginning in chapter six and verse twelve:
For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? (Eccl 6.12).
Here’s the message: The human mind, pondering life “under the sun,” is incapable of detecting any ultimate meaning to life OR of seeing the purpose of any individual life.
This is God’s word to us: Solomon says, “I pondered life deeply ‘under the sun’ and I found no meta-meaning, no universal, comprehensive meaning or purpose to existence!” Period.
Why? What does he mean? How does he bear this out? Let me just note three reasons:
First, both adversity and prosperity are outside our control. We worry about the future, because we do not know whether it will bring good or bad to us.
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl 7.14).
In other words, the future is determined by God but it is unknown to us. Nothing we do can guarantee what will happen — good or bad — in the future.
Secondly, Why can’t we discern any ultimate meaning to life in this world? Because justice does not always prevail in this world. Look at Ecclesiastes 8.14
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
In this world, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. How can you make any sense out of that?
The two men in the last century who caused the deaths of more human beings than anyone in history — Mao Zedong, the dictator of Communist China and Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union — both died in their beds; each was, to use a biblical phrase, “an old man and full of days.” Justice does not always prevail in this world. We can’t predict it.
Again, why can’t we discern any ultimate meaning? Thirdly, because we have no assurance that our life’s work will endure past the day of our death. We may be one of those grave­stones in a cemetery that hasn’t been tended for years; no one thinks about the person or remembers him. All that remains is an overgrown headstone.
That is God’s word to us. That is what scripture affirms: The human mind, seeing life “under the sun,” is incapable of detecting any ultimate meaning to life OR of seeing the purpose of any individual life.
That is a truth that calls for a life response. In other words, that affirmation that we are incapable of discerning an ultimate, comprehensive purpose for existence, demands a response. How you and I live in this world must respond to that truth.
Here is one response, the “postmodern” response. This is the dominant worldview of our generation. It goes like this:
Life has no ultimate meaning.
That is the conclusion drawn today. It has been drawn by philosophers and other intellec­tuals for about one-hundred years. But it has made its way into the classrooms of this world — from kindergarten on. There is no meaning to life — life is just the combination of time and chance.
Note that it is a conclusion, one that scripture doesn’t draw. There is a difference between affirming that we can’t understand the meaning of life and affirming that therefore there is no meaning of life. The Bible simply affirms that we can’t understand it. It gives two rea­sons.
First we can’t understand ultimate meaning because simply of our creatureliness.  We are dependent, created beings, a part of the vast purposes of God; how could we understand the comprehensive purpose of the Creator?
But, also, we can’t understand ultimate meaning because of our fallenness. We have this bent away from God, a rebellion against him, like a fatal flaw in the human heart.
But, the modern mind draws this conclusion: There is no ultimate meaning or purpose to the universe. Second, they conclude:
I must create my own meaning (life-meaning, not daily meaning).
But, the biblical argument holds: How can you create life meaning if there is no ultimate meaning? And if it is true that we can’t control the future, and justice does not prevail, and we can’t even guarantee that our choices will make any difference to anyone how can we create a meaning.
Let’s add a third note to the conclusion:
With no assurance that my life will make any difference.
This is the dilemma of modern life. This is the crisis of meaning that people talk about.
On the other hand, here is the biblical view. Let me note the conclusions which Solomon draws from his treatise. Ecclesiastes 13.13–14:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his command­ments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Here are the conclusions the scripture draws from this search for meaning:
Life has an ultimate meaning…even if I can’t detect it or understand it.
This, of course, makes all the difference. I can use a computer without understanding how it works — as long as I acknowledge that there is a meaningful, rational way that it functions. I can drive a car without understanding anything about the internal combustion engine…as long as I believe the engine will work. And I can live my life in a confusing universe even if I don’t understand how it will all work out in the end…if I acknowledge that there is a pur­pose to existence. I can rest in all the things I struggle with in this world — children dying of dread diseases, people taking their own lives to the deep and lasting pain of others, mis­treatment of minorities, even Islamic terrorists beheading innocent people…if I know  that God has a purpose whether I can understand it or not.
My life can contribute to God’s ultimate purpose…even if I don’t experience it now.
If I will fear (acknowledge his right to rule my life) and obey God.
“This is the whole duty of man.” In other words, this is what God requires from people in this fallen, confusing, and confused world. To acknowledge his right to rule over life by obeying him.
I knew a woman, an older woman, a very gifted woman whose life hadn’t worked out the way she wanted. When she was about fifty years old, her husband’s mother began to exhibit the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Because she and her husband were not very well off and her mother-in-law had no money, this woman quit her job and took care of her at home. Over about twelve years, she dressed her, fed her, changed her diapers, and cared for her until she died. She had planned to work during that time, and she loved her job, in order to save money for retirement but she missed that opportunity. Less than two years after her husband’s mother died, her husband came down with Alzheimer’s disease. She spent the next ten years nursing her husband until he died. Now she was seventy-five, not well set financially, and facing her declining years.
That’s how her life unfolded — she didn’t write the script. But, because she believed that there is a script — a grand, comprehensive, universal narrative that God is unfolding in his­tory and because she believed that the script makes ultimate sense; it is a script in which every loose end will be tied up, every plot twist presenting a new problem will be resolved, and every act of evil in this universe will be adequately consequence, she chose to play her part. Painful as it was, it was also glorious to know that God will hold her accountable for the meaning of her life.
Your life will unfold differently. It may be easier than the woman I knew; it could be harder. But scripture affirms that God has a purpose for existence and that we can be a part of it when we choose to walk through this world acknowledging that our lives are simply a combination of time and chance. We find meaning in submitting to God and obeying him.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Equipped for Every Good Work" (2 Timothy 3.16-17)

In 2007, a secular Jewish man wrote a book entitled, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” He describes trying to put into practice some of the more difficult commands in the Bible as well as interviews with serious Jews and Christians about what they did with those verses. What could have been an attempt to show how really irrelevant and out-of-date the Bible is, became mostly a thought-provoking look at how people actually try to obey it. As a serious Bible student, I would say that some of it involves attempts to put into practice things that were never meant to be taken literally in the first place. And others involve seeking to apply Old Testament practices that are no longer in operation according to the New Testament.
But the book raises a very serious question which thoughtful Christians must face: Can we really live by the Bible’s teachings today? Are Christians serious when they say that the Bible is relevant to life in the twenty-first century?
You might say, Well, some parts are: Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself?” That sounds like something people ought to do. But even on that…Really? as yourself? your neighbor? How are you doing at that?
But what about stoning witches and adulterers, not wearing clothing of mixed fibers, or not eating pork or shellfish?
And how about all the questions the Bible doesn’t answer: Stem-cell research, nuclear war, sex-change operations, gay marriage, and all the other contemporary questions that weren’t even being asked when the Bible was written?
Can we seriously believe that people can and should live by the Bible’s teachings today?
If I could, I would convince you that the answer is “Yes.” The Bible gives us guidance to answer those questions and any other questions that could come up in a complex world. But I’m not sure I’m going to come through on that desire — for one, I’m not sure I could speak well and clearly enough to convince you. For another it requires a rather thoughtful and nuanced answer, more than I’ll be able to give this morning. But instead, I would convince you that this is why we have designed our preaching, and our community group topics, and our seminars this year in the way we have. If you are a Christian, you need to have confidence in the Bible. You need to be motivated to devour it in order to draw from it what you need to live and stop thinking, “I’ll get to that someday… when I have time.”
2 Timothy 3.16–17 is our text:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
This text reveals that we are not equipped as we need to be for life in this world and it tells us how God equips us.
The first thing the passage tells us is that we are not equipped for everything we face in this world. In the context of the paragraph in which these words are recorded, it referred first to Timothy himself, Paul’s younger co-worker who needed to confront false teachers and their false teaching in the churches in which he was ministering — he is the “man of God” to which Paul refers. But it’s easy to see that this has application to every Christian person, anywhere, and at any time. In this world we do not have everything we need to carry out every responsibility given to us, to take advantage of every opportunity we are given or to answer every question and resolve every issue we can face in life. We are not equipped for everything we will face in life, and so God gives us his word. 
From God’s perspective, we humans are not adequately equipped for life in this world because of two important factors:
We are not equipped, first, because of our sinfulness. As individuals we carry the seed of sin inside and it grows up and bears fruit in many ways in our thinking, feeling, and behavior. We need something that will counteract that and give us right information.
And we are not equipped secondly, because of our world’s brokenness. Sin does not only affect, like a disease, the individual human heart. It also affects society in the way we relate, in the structures we create that are built with a fatal flaw.
In order to understand what I mean, you have to consider the difference between Natural Revelation and Special Revelation. Those aren’t words you probably use every day but the concept is simple.
Natural Revelation refers to everything in the material world — everything God has revealed to us in nature. This includes the vast universe outside of us; it also includes the vast universe inside of us which scientists have only recently begun to see in depth with the mapping of the human genome.
Special Revelation refers to everything else God has revealed — all that is not material. The words are usually used to refer to God’s word: This means three things — his words to the prophets (like Abraham), his word in living form, “Jesus Christ,” and then the written record of those two things in the Bible.
When we say that we are not equipped to live and face everything that we face in this world it is for two reasons. The first is that Natural Revelation only provides us with the tools but doesn’t instruct us in how to use them.
Natural revelation only tells us what is and what is possible; it doesn’t and can’t tell us what should be. Natural revelation cannot answer any question of “ought.”
Imagine that you had a beloved brother whose heart gives out and the only thing that will save him is a heart-transplant of a healthy heart. The doctor assures you both of your brother’s need and of the fact that she can do such a thing — medical science is able to take a living heart from one person and give it to another. But imagine the doctor tells you that no such heart is presently available and your brother will most likely die before his name comes up for a transplant. But, she says, I can take a heart from a mentally impaired person who is living in a home and has no living relatives and give it to your brother.
Science can only tell us what exists and what is possible — it cannot answer any question about, “Should we do this?” You may feel revulsion at the thought of taking the life of a mentally impaired person and giving it to a heart-transplant patient. It raises all kinds of questions about ethics. But the natural world doesn’t provide ready answers to ethical questions. That ends every political argument that says some decision must be left between a person and his or her doctor.
Natural revelation only tells us what is and what is possible; it doesn’t and can’t tell us what should be. We can state it this way: Natural revelation gives us the tools we need to live in the world; Special Revelation gives us the information we need in order to live as God intended.
But, secondly, Natural Revelation only tells us that we live in a complex world; it doesn’t tell us that we also live in a fallen world. Natural revelation only shows us what is, it doesn’t reveal to us why it is that way. The Bible tells us, however, that we live in a world stained by sin and that affects the way we experience the natural world; we need that information to know how to live. Natural revelation is accurate, as far as it goes. We certainly live in a world of incredible complexity, so much so when new theories are produced that explain complex phenomena we can count on their being altered in the next generation.
The natural world doesn’t tell us how to respond to many circumstances we might face in life. It doesn’t tell us what to do if our husband is unfaithful, if our child rebels, if we lose our job without cause. It doesn’t inform us how to respond to drive-by shootings, terrorist beheadings, wars, racism and injustice against women and children.
This text — 2 Timothy 3.16–17 — was written to let us know that we don’t have all the equipment we need to live adequately in a fallen world.
The second this text tells us is that God equips us for everything we can face as we live in a fallen world through his word.
God’s word equips us “for any and every issue we might face” as we move through life. Note that the passage ends with these words: “…that the man of God might be complete, equipped for every good work.” God calls us to do good works. That means that every event he brings in to our experience and any difficulty or question it raises, God gives us the resources we need to live for him in it.
How does the word of God equip us. Well, first, God’s word provides a standard for life outside of ourselves.
This is found in the word, “God-breathed.” Older translations say “inspired by God” but that’s not exactly right. The word used by Paul here is only used here in all ancient Greek literature — Paul may have made it up to communicate what he meant. It means to “breathe out” but the word inspire means “to breathe into something.
Sometimes people think the Bible is inspired in the same way that Shakespeare was inspired or Homer was inspired. They had this voice of inspiration inside of them that found an outlet in the wonderful literature they produced.
But the emphasis here is not on the human writers; it is on the produce produced. When I talk I must breathe out my words, air must pass my vocal cords to produce sound and provide meaning to those who hear. In the same way “Scripture is God’s word written,” to quote the accurate phrase from the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.
The Bible is a record of everything that God wants us to know about life as he intended it to be lived in a fallen world. He communicates to us everything we need to know about how to live for him.
It doesn’t give us everything we need to know — it tells us less about plumbing, or medicine, or engineering that we need…but we have those things given to us in the natural world.
But it teaches the plumber, the engineer, and the doctor how to use the knowledge they gain from the natural realm to live for God. It reveals how they should use their knowledge as they live in this world for the purposes God intended.
We need a standard outside of ourselves because otherwise we have no objective standard. God provides that standard in his word.
All societies virtually agree that murder is wrong. But murder has to be carefully defined. By murder, we mean “the unjust taking of a human life with malice aforethought.” Unjust means without due process of law. Malice means desire to harm. Aforethought = premeditation.
But modern thought is based on the idea that our cultural values have no objective, universal truth. Murder is only wrong because most people think it is wrong. That may sound good in a classroom but no one wants to live in a society in which majority vote decides when murder is wrong.
But God provides a standard for life that is outside of ourselves and our wavering cultural ideas. From the Bible’s perspective, the Ten Commandments are God’s moral will for all human beings at all times in all places and the answer to every ethical question finds its root in one of the commandments.
Through his word, God provides an eternal, external standard of right and wrong. Secondly, through his word, God equips us to live for him in a fallen world.
Note what it says:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3.16–17).
How does he provide us — four ways:
Teaching: It provides sound instruction in the gospel for God’s people. “Cut the Bible anywhere and it will bleed the blood of Christ.” After all, the Bible is simply the written record of the Person and Work of God’s living word, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reproof: It is capable of exposing the errors of false teachers and their false teaching. This is what Timothy needs to deal with what he is facing; it is what we need today to expose the false thinking that dishonors God today.
Correction: It is capable of pointing out proper ethical behavior. This is a softer word. It is like a child learning to write his letters and there’s one he just can’t get the feel of so you take his hand and trace the letters with him — you are correcting his actions, putting them right.
Training in righteousness: Like having a trainer at the gym who puts you through the different aspects of a regimen designed to improve your health and fitness, God’s word trains us in how to live for God.
This text reveals that we are not equipped as we need to be for life in this world because natural revelation tells us only what is and what is possible but it doesn’t tell what ought to be. We’re also no equipped because it reveals that we live in a complex world but it doesn’t reveal that we live in a fallen world.
And, since we’re not equipped to live as God intends in this fallen world, God gives us the equipment we need through his word —the Bible.   
You might think that all I’m saying is that the Bible provides us with answers, in principle form at least, to any one of the myriad complex moral and ethical questions that can be asked. It does that, but it does so much more.
Let’s end by thinking about 1 Cor 10.31 (page 958). This passage ends a long section of the letter in which Paul is answering a question about whether it is permitted for a Christian to eat meat that has been offered in sacrifice to a pagan God. You might think, “That question is about as far as you can get from my life today!” But the real issue of the chapters is how do we grapple with the gray areas of life and behaviors, places where we don’t see a root to the answer in the Ten Commandments. He ends the whole section, however, with the statement of a general principle so wide that it covers everything we do:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
Let that sink in. “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Here is something Natural Revelation could not tell us — well, I actually think it would in an unfallen world. In an unfallen world, we would deduce from the created order that an eternal God of supreme power rules and that we were made for his glory. We would know that in an unfallen world.
But in a fallen world, infected by remaining power of sin within, we will not deduce this from creation. So God gives us this clearly in his word, “Do everything in life for the glory of God.”
Imagine a man wants to get married. He knows two attractive Christian women. Bright, serious, gentle women who love Jesus. He knows what many don’t know today (because they don’t soak in the word of God)
    that God commands him to marry a woman who shares his faith;
    that God instructs him to marry a woman whose faith is sufficiently strong that she will seek God herself and not just want to live a Christian life if he does;
    that God instructs him to marry a woman to whom he feels attracted and wants to be with;
    and that God instructs them to make a serious, life-commitment of fidelity to each other.
He knows that whatever woman he pays attention to, is likely to marry him. So, having prayed about it, and following these principles, he makes a decision and her pursues one of the women and marries her.
Now imagine that ten years later, he has found marriage to this woman to be difficult — it hasn’t been easy. It’s not that she isn’t a Christian or doesn’t love Jesus, but what he thought would be a harmonious agreement on all things marital, has turned into frequent disagreement and mutual disappointment. He looks back on life and wistfully wonders, “Did I make a mistake? Would I have been happier with the other woman? And what should I do?”
This world, left to itself has no way to answer that question. Well, it can try. It can appeal to birds and animals that don’t mate for life and calling on some evolutionary principle of doubtful application say, “It’s time to move on.” Or it can look to genetic studies that have identified the “wandering” gene. Or he can go to a counselor who tells him, “You’re supposed to be happy, aren’t you. If you’re not happy, make a change.”  
But he reads this verse: “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” And in this case, he has sought to follow God’s principles so he cannot conclude he made a mistake. He can only conclude that, while God’s ultimate purpose is to make him happy, his immediate purpose is to make him faithful and dependent. And what it means to be married to the glory of God is to live out the message — Here’s how a Christian lives in a difficult marriage to the glory of God.
I’m telling you this morning, you need God’s book. You can’t go through life without it. O, you can muddle through, but you can’t live in any way approximating what God intended unless you immerse yourself in God’s special and unique revelation of his will for your life. So you need to read it. And you need to read it and talk about it with your family. And you need to try to answer life’s questions by it.