Thursday, December 23, 2010

And in other news ...

I got a call this afternoon from Kristin Nelson at WGHP FOX 8 asking for a comment about the threat of snow this weekend and how that might affect our plans for Sunday service, and what canceling a service means for a church's offerings. I thought it was a great question, and I responded by saying that our members' well-being is more important than the offerings, and we simply trust God to provide for what our church needs, even if we have to miss a Sunday from time to time. She asked if she could come by and do an interview on camera with me, and I agreed. She and the videographer with her were very pleasant and we had a nice chat in the sanctuary about these and other questions.

I reiterated in the interview much of what I had said over the phone. The point I wanted to make clear in the piece was that God controls the weather, and He is the one we trust to provide for us. Therefore, if the weather causes us to close for a Sunday, we don't believe that we will suffer financially for that. I hope that is what came across when the story aired. But I am not sure it does.

The frustration I have had with journalists over the years, and the reason why I usually don't grant interviews or return phone calls, is that the final product is in the hands of an editor. Like some preachers who take the Bible out of context to prop up a point that they want to make, so some journalists will cut and paste and splice a conversation to support the premise that they went into the story to advance. While this was one of my more enjoyable media encounters, there were a couple of misrepresented statements made by the reporter in the piece that aired. For starters, I never said that I was praying for little or no precipitation. I am not going to put God' response or lack thereof to my prayers on the hook for what does or doesn't fall from the sky. Personally, I love snow, and I love the idea of a white Christmas, but I confess that I do not look forward to having to make a weather decision for Sunday. Moreover, her voiceover in the piece in which she says, "...otherwise they'll have to cancel Sunday services and miss out on donations," reflects nothing of what was said in our interview. My point was precisely the opposite ... we don't mind canceling the service for the sake of the safety of our members, BECAUSE we trust God to provide.

I want to think the best of the intentions of those who put this story together, and not read anything into their motives, it does seem that there was a desire going into this story to paint a picture of a church that needs its people's money so desperately that the threat of bad weather instills panic in our hearts as we head toward the weekend. Where my statements failed to support that thesis, a voiceover had to suffice.

My desire here is not to begrudge or belittle hardworking journalists trying to put together a quality piece of news reporting. But I am disappointed in the finished product, particularly how it was edited to convey the exact opposite sentiment of what I said. If you are in journalism, please don't do this. Don't edit and voiceover in an editorialized way. But I am also reminded of the tendency that we all have to spin things the way we want them to be. I am certainly guilty of doing this from time to time as well I suppose.

Most of all, I am also reminded of the tendency that some have to do this with the Bible. When what it says doesn't correspond to the preconceived notion in our own minds, we may feel tempted to spin it, read something into it, insert a speculation or an opinion, omit certain key thoughts and words, so that we come away from it feeling like our presupposition has been validated. As frustrated as I am when this happens to me in the paper or on TV, I must think of the disappointment God must feel when we do the same to His word. If our opinions are not confirmed by the facts, our opinions need adjusting, but we mustn't spin the facts.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Fullness of Time

If you could be born at any time in history, when would it be? Perhaps we might say biblical times, or in the prime of some ancient empire, or during a period such as the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Victorian Era, Colonial days, etc. We might even look forward and choose the future, when perhaps there will be a cure for cancer, or even a better economy! Of course, though we can make many choices in our lives, we are not able to choose the time in which we were born. That was determined by the sovereignty of God. Acts 17:26-27 says, "He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God." According to that truth, God placed us when (historically) and where (geographically) He chose us to exist for His own purposes, namely that we might be most sensitive to Him, and seek Him like we would in no other period of time. But it is fun to imagine what life would be like in another time or place, isn't it?

What about Jesus? If you could determine the time and place for Him to be born, when and where would that be? When it comes to the exact day and year of His birth, there is much uncertainty. The story of how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25, and the year of His birth as Year 0 (Zero), is complicated and somewhat embarrassing. Most scholars are convinced that He was not born on this date, and many propose a more probable date of the fall season (perhaps in proximity to the Feast of Tabernacles), in the range of 4 to 6 BC. But, though we may never know this side of heaven (and it will hardly matter on the other side) the precise date of His birth, we know that when it occurred, it was the precisely perfect time in history. Just as God sovereignly determines our appointed times and the boundaries of our habitation, so He sovereignly determined the moment that the incarnation would occur. In Galatians 4, Paul says that God sent forth His Son "when the fullness of time came." It is as if all of human history was pregnant, and when it had reached full-term, the incarnate Christ was born to the virgin.

At that time, there was an unprecedented spiritual hunger and religious upheaval in the world. Because of the scattering of Israel across the nations, the idea of monotheism was gaining traction among multitudes who had been previously devoted to the worship of many deities. In most of the world's major cities, there were synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and teaching from the Hebrew Bible. But by this time, most were making use, not of a Hebrew Bible, but a Greek one. Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Hellenization of the world (the spread of Greek language and culture), Greek was the lingua franca of nearly the entire world. By 200 BC, the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) had been translated into Greek (the Septuagint), so most of the world could read, hear, and know about this one true God whom the Israelites worshiped. Greek was also the language in which the New Testament was written, and the language by which the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus began to permeate the globe. To facilitate the spread of this message, God had providentially allowed the Roman Empire to unite the world under a common peace, the Pax Romana, and connect the world through an intricate system of roads and trade routes. So the time when Christ came was the ideal time in all of past and future times for Him to be made known in the world.

We might be tempted to think that the day in which we live would be more opportune for Christ to come. If Jesus was on the earth today, He could make use of the great technological advances that we enjoy today to spread His message. His birth, His teaching sessions, even His death and the events surrounding His resurrection could be simulcast via satellite all over the world. He could write a blog that could be read all over the world, and translated via Google services into almost any language. He could have a podcast that disseminated MP3s of His sermons globally. Can you imagine downloading the Sermon on the Mount onto your iPhone? He could have a Twitter account that would rival Conan O'Brien's in number of followers and buzz created. He could have a facebook page for all of His followers to connect on, and He could share pictures immediately. Think of it ... James could upload a picture of Lazarus coming out of the tomb! Peter could have uploaded video of the transfiguration to YouTube, or better, in High Definition on Vimeo! Surely God must see the technological tower that we have built for ourselves in this day and second guess His own timing of the incarnation! No, perish that thought. God's ways and His timing are always perfect, and when Christ came, it was the fullness of time.

When Jesus walked the earth, His message was heard by sometimes three, sometimes twelve, sometimes a few dozen, a few hundred, and at the apex, perhaps 20,000 or more. With the push of a few buttons and a few mouse clicks, today one can publish a message (like this one I am writing now) that can be seen, heard, and viewed by millions, if not billions! I maintain this blog which has been visited some 18,000 people on every continent since its inception. I have a facebook page with over 300 "friends," and a twitter account that is "followed" by 160 people, some of whom I don't even know. And my numbers are small compared to countless others who are far more important than me. But we, like all humanity, will be swept away in death one day. The keystrokes will fall silent; URLs will expire; a server will crash, something new will come along that renders the sites and services we use today irrelevant, and our words and ideas will turn to dust along with our decomposing carcasses. But, two-thousand years after Jesus walked the earth, He is still creating a buzz, though He made no use of any of these technologies.

These things should affect us deeply in several ways. First, we should become instantly aware of how unnecessary these things are. We are thankful for them, and we should steward them wisely, but God doesn't need them to carry out His task. Second, we should be reminded of both our own fleeting influence, and the ever-enduring influence of Jesus. Whatever splash we make in the world through our online presence and tech-savvy is microscopic (if that!) compared to the wake that continues to follow Jesus. Third, we must consider that God is able to work in "small things" perhaps even more than we imagine that He could in "big things." Our aim should not be for greatness in the world's eyes, but for the world to know the greatness of Jesus. If God could do that before electricity, internet, and air travel, He can still do it without us creating empires for ourselves today. Finally, we must be mindful to avoid what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery." We must not think that we live in a utopian age because of all of our advances, nor must we daydream of returning to a simpler society in which we shun all of these advances. While God did not need the printing press, we are certainly grateful for its existence and we have made much good use of it for the spread of the Gospel. The same could be said of the technology we enjoy today. It has arisen under the providence and common grace of God, and if we would use it well, we would use it to spread the glory and fame of Jesus, not ourselves. Christ is the Word made Flesh. Heaven and earth, and all who dwell upon the earth, and Google and Facebook, and Twitter and YouTube, and HDTV and Skype, and all the rest will all pass away. But God's Word will never pass away. And the Word made Flesh in Jesus will continue to spread His glory in all the earth until He returns.

Longing for the Lord to Come Down (Isaiah 64)

Audio available here

A few weeks ago, I was at home alone, and decided to have a frozen meal for dinner. I opened the box and read the directions, and it said, “Microwave on high for five minutes.” And do you know what thought went through my head? “Five minutes?!? That is an awfully long time!” And instantly I caught myself in the midst of that complaint. Has it really come to this? Have the advances in our technology and society really spoiled me that much that a five minute wait seems unbearable? A couple of decades ago, that same meal I ate in five minutes would have taken hours to prepare. But today we live in a society of instant gratification, and I for one have grown impatient with waiting. Maybe you have too.

The Advent season has a lot to do with waiting. During Advent, we think back to the centuries that Israel waited for the coming of the Messiah who had been promised. Since the first sin of humanity, God had continually reminded His people that He would, in His own way, in His own time, bring about the deliverance of His people through the Messiah. Days, weeks, months, years, decades, generations, centuries, even millennia came and went, and no Messiah came. Some hardened their hearts in impatience, while others held onto hope that God would do what He said. They were longing for the Lord to come. And in God’s perfect time, and in God’s perfect way, He did not just send a Savior, but He became a Savior, taking human flesh upon Himself in the person of Jesus Christ to deliver humanity from the bondage to sin. He did this through His perfect life, His substitutionary death, and His glorious resurrection. During Advent, we look back and reflect on what it would have been like to wait with longing and expectation for the Lord to come.

But during Advent we also look ahead. The prophets foretold what the Messiah would accomplish when He came, and when Jesus died, there were things that had been promised which had not yet been fulfilled and still remain unfulfilled today. Jesus explained to His followers that there was more that would occur in the future. He spoke of a return, a second coming, in which the remainder of these things would take place. The Israelites who originally heard and read those Messianic prophecies did not understand that there was a first or second coming. It was all still future to them. It was like looking at a mountain range from far away, and you see several peaks in the distance. You don’t recognize until you get closer to them that they are miles apart. The Old Testament saints looked at the promise of salvation and the promise of final judgment that Messiah would bring, but they saw it from a distance as one thing, not two. It was not until His first coming did it become clear that there would be a second coming. So, though our longing for salvation has been satisfied in the coming of Christ into the world, still we wait for Him to return with that same sort of longing that they had. As we look at this broken world which is devastated by sin, we cry out with those Old Testament saints, “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down!” We cry with the martyrs of the book of Revelation, “How long O Lord?”

Today I want to focus on the first coming of Christ and the desire of Israel for the coming of the Messiah which had been promised and find in this text the reasons why there was such a longing for His coming. As we do so, we will also consider how the satisfaction of that longing in the coming of Christ affects us today as we live between the first and second advent of Jesus.

I. The coming of the Messiah means hope for the nations (vv1-4)
The second Psalm opens with a question concerning the state of global affairs that existed in ancient days: “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their their cords from us.’” Thousands of years later, we see that, in spite of all the changes in the world, this state of affairs remains unchanged. The nations continue to rage; tyrants continue to take bold stands and act aggressively toward one another, and conspire together to lead their people away from the will of God. They posture themselves as enemies of peace, enemies of justice, enemies of righteousness, which amounts to a warfare against the Lord Himself.

The longing of the people of God was that the Lord might come down from heaven and remedy this situation. Though they longed for judgment to come upon the enemies of the Lord “as fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil” (v2a), there was also a note of compassion in their longing. They understood that the reason why these nations were adversaries of the Lord was that they did not know Him. They longed for the Lord to come, saying in verse 2, “to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence.” While Israel had known and experienced the power of God, while they had received the promises of the Word of God and the blessings of God’s favor, the nations warred against a God they did not know. Verse 4 says that they “have not heard or perceived by ear, nor has the eye seen a God besides You, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.” It was not that they did not have gods of their own whom they worshiped and served. Every nation of the ancient world, just as every nation of our own day, had deities to whom they prayed and sacrificed and served. But their gods were false idols, figments of a depraved imagination, fashioned in attempt to quench their nagging spiritual hunger and their corrupted fancies. And it was with their gods’ seeming approval that they committed atrocities against humanity and blasphemy against the one true God. After all, their deities had not forbidden them from acting in such ways. They had not punished them for so doing. They had not warned them to change their ways. Their gods were of no help to them at all.

Psalm 115 says that “their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes but the cannot see; they have ears but they cannot hear; they have noses but they cannot smell; they have hands but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.” Isaiah 44 says that they cut down a cedar, and they take part of it and make a fire to bake bread and warm themselves, and the other part they craft into a god and worship it; they pray to it and say, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” Isaiah 45:20 says that “they pray to a god who cannot save.” Isaiah 46 says that they hire a goldsmith to craft gold and silver into a god, and they bow down and worship it. “They lift it upon the shoulder and carry it; they set it in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; it cannot deliver him from his distress.”

Why do they do this? It is because they have not heard of the name of the one True God; they have neither heard nor seen of Him. And they devote themselves therefore to hollow idolatry which cannot help them here and now, and which leads them into the pursuit of their sinful desires, and which will ultimately lead them to the destruction of judgment and hell. Now, in Israel’s cry of longing, there is a subtle confession, an indictment if you will. What they are crying for the Lord to come and do, God had already commissioned them to do! Surely it is accurate to say that Israel was God’s chosen people, but the question must be asked, “Chosen for what?” Israel was never chosen that they alone may the participants in the gracious favor of God in His covenant! They were chosen to be a light to the nations, that all nations may hear and know of this God who saves as Israel lived and testified before them. But they failed in that mission. They kept God to themselves, and they were surprised to find the nations resorting to idolatry, when in fact the nations simply did not know any better.

Christ has come into the world now, and in His life and ministry, He demonstrated that God is concerned for the nations as much as He is for Israel. Our longing for the coming of the Lord has been satisfied in Jesus, and He has brought hope for the nations. Yet today, of the world’s 11,588 people groups, more than half of them (6,426) are considered unreached, having less than 2% of their populations as evangelical Christians. Some 3,724 of these people groups are considered unengaged, that is, there is no access to the gospel at all among them. If we were to cry out like Israel did, “Oh Lord, that You would rend the heavens and come down!” it would mean destruction and judgment upon those nations where Christ has not been named. He has already come to bring hope to the nations and to bring the message of salvation to them. He will not come again for that purpose, but to bring judgment. But He has entrusted the mission of sharing the hope of His promise of salvation with the nations to His church, to you and me.

All over this world there are entire nations of people warring against God and against His anointed Christ. We see it on the news – the acts of terror and aggression that demonstrate no concern for humanity, no recognition that mankind bears the image of its Maker. We see images of idols to which people who can scarcely afford their basic life necessities make costly sacrifices. And they do this because they have no knowledge of the God who is there and the Savior we have in Jesus Christ. We say, “Oh Lord, come that these nations might know You!” And the Lord would respond to us, “I have come. You celebrate My coming for this purpose every December. But what have you done to share that message with these who are lost in ignorance of My saving power?” If the nations would know of the hope that the coming of Christ brings, it must be us who do something about it! We must pray! We must give to support the spread of the gospel! We must sacrifice luxuries and comforts so that the world may know of Christ! And we must be willing to go to the hard places, to send our children and our grandchildren when we cannot go ourselves, and to make Christ known among these nations who will otherwise never have the opportunity to know of Him before they stand before Him at His second coming in judgment. The coming of the Messiah means hope for the nations, but it is up to us to share that hope with them.

II. The coming of the Messiah means salvation for those who believe. (vv5-11)
As the Israelites cried out with longing for the coming of the Messiah, they did not just have the nations in view. They were also thinking of themselves. For the nations, there was a cry for judgment, but also an awareness of the ignorance of the nations concerning the Lord. But when they looked into the mirror and saw their own spiritual condition, they realized that, even though they were aware of the Lord and had received His blessings and His promises, they were also deserving of judgment. If God would come to bring judgment upon the nations who sinned because they had no knowledge of the Lord, what would He do to those who knew of Him and yet persisted in sin? Surely, verse 5 states a fact when it says, “You meet Him who rejoices in righteousness, who remembers You in Your ways.” But Israel was aware that these words did not describe themselves. “Behold,” they say, “You were angry, for we sinned. We continued in them a long time.” And so the question on their mind as they considered the promised coming of the Lord was not just, “What will You do to the nations when You come?” but also, “Shall we be saved?” (v5).

They recognized that they were radically corrupted by sin. Notice the description in verses 6-7: unclean, taken away by iniquity, no one who calls on the name of the Lord. Even their efforts to do right, they recognized, were totally corrupted by their sinfulness for they say, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” And their sin had corrupted not only themselves but their surroundings. Verses 10 and 11 speak of how the holy cities had become a wilderness and Jerusalem a desolation; the temple burned by fire and the precious things ruined. God had not preserved their cherished places and things while they continued in sin. Israel’s own sin that made their surroundings desolate. In such a pitiable state, the best that Israel could do as they called out for the coming of the Lord was to plead for mercy, and this they did in vv8-9. “We are the clay, and You our potter.” That indicates that they are aware of His sovereignty; they are aware that God can and will do as He pleases with them. But they pray, “Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever.” This is not what they deserve, but it is what they desire, and if God chooses to show mercy upon them, they may be saved.

Friends, in these words, we find a description of our own true condition. Like them, we too are radically corrupted by sin. It has affected us to the core, such that the best we can do is still filthy rags, unacceptable before a perfectly holy God. Our sin has corrupted our lives, our relationships and our surroundings. We are at the mercy of a sovereign God who can do with us as He pleases. And what has He been pleased to do? He has become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from our sins. He united our human nature to His divine nature in the virgin birth; He lived the sinless life that He requires of us but which we are powerless to live; He died the death that we deserve because of our sins; and He conquered death through His resurrection. As a result, our sins and their penalty have been dealt with fully and finally in this Christ whose coming we celebrate at Christmas, and we who believe upon Him have been covered in His righteousness. Thus, the great gulf that separates us from God has been bridged by Christ, and we who believe upon Him have been saved because He has come. The angel said to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “You shall call His name Jesus (a name which means “salvation”), for He will save His people from their sins.”

The first coming of Christ into the world means good news for sinners. For those who persist in pretending that they have it all together, and do not need saving, those who would rather stand before God and boast of their own merits and their own righteousness, Christmas is a meaningless holiday. But for us who are willing to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, we can rejoice that God in His mercy has rent the heavens and come down to save us.

III. The coming of the Messiah means that God’s silence has been broken (v12)
“Will you keep silent?” That was the question on the hearts of the Israelites as they considered their own state of affairs and that of the nations surrounding them. This world is in a mess; we are wrecked by sin. Oh God, will you keep silent in the midst of all this? God had not been silent before; He had sent His prophets calling His people back to Himself from their sins, but they had neither listened nor responded in repentance. And so came the final Old Testament prophet Malachi, and when God had spoken through Him, the heavens fell silent for centuries. Sin continued on in Israel and among the nations, but there was no new word from God – only silence. Four hundred years came and went with heaven being silent. But that silence was broken with the coming of Christ into the world.

The words of John’s Gospel are very familiar to us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And in Jesus Christ, we are told, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The writer of Hebrews said that God had spoken in the past in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us in His Son. The coming of Christ is the shattering of heaven’s silence as God spoke salvation to the world in Jesus. The longing of all the nations and every generation to hear a word of grace and mercy from God, to hear a word of promise concerning redemption and salvation, was satisfied in the coming of this child into the world, for He would not only speak salvation, but would accomplish it through His life and through His death.

And so today, when we look at our lives and the world around us, we too may ask, “Oh God, will You keep silent?” And the answer from heaven is a resounding “No!” God has spoken. And the Word He has spoken is Jesus. There is no need for us to wait for another Word to be spoken. The final Word is Jesus. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us; the incarnate Word of God has borne our sins to the cross and conquered them forever. Heaven is not silent! Heaven and nature sings the name of Jesus, and the entire cosmos repeats the sounding joy, for there is salvation in no one else and no other name by which we must be saved than this final Word that God has spoken, the name of Jesus.

The long expected One has come. In Christ, Immanuel has come, God with us. He is the joy of man’s desiring, the satisfaction of all our longing. Humanity cries out to God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and the come down,” that the nations may have hope, that Your people may be saved, and that the silence may be broken. And in Christ God has done just this. He has pronounced hope to the nations. He has spoken salvation to those who will call upon Christ to save them. And at Advent we remember that He has come, and that He is coming again. So our lives are lived between these two divine bookends of time. And we must live these days in the reality of His first coming, that we might be prepared for His second coming, and we must tell of His coming far and wide so that all may hear and believe, that all may be saved when He returns. That begins here, should there be anyone present who has never received the Lord Jesus as Savior. Will you this day receive the Christmas gift that God has given to you in the person of Jesus – salvation from sin, the covering of Christ’s righteousness, and life abundant and eternal? And it continues as we leave here. If you have received Christ, will you share the good news of His salvation with those whom you know, and will you do what you can in prayer, in giving, in going and in sending to make this news of Jesus known among the nations?