For the last three weeks of this season of Lent, we have been focusing on the need to reflect and repent in our lives. I have to admit, it has been a little difficult for me to walk through these very difficult passages of dying to self and Jesus’ challenge to the kind of Savior we want and the need to repent. Unfortunately this focus of the Christian life can easily slip into a self-congratulatory or self-justifying event. Consider the tendency throughout church history where believers needed to perform ornate expressions of devotion. I am thinking of the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where people crawl on their hands and knees. Hear one pilgrim’s account:

Some crawled for miles on their bleeding hands and knees. Others dragged cinderblocks and stones along the asphalt. Many arrived at the chapel exhausted and bleeding after excruciating treks barefoot, on their knees, or even dragging themselves along the ground. Many wore the traditional sackcloth of penitence.

Too often when we speak about repentance for our sin, we forget the beautiful motivating aspect of salvation. It’s repentance and faith. Faith is the motivating force for repentance. It’s the selling of all we have for the priceless treasure hidden in the field. It is the pearl of great price worth the price of great sacrifice.

Today in the midst of all this darkness and sadness and brokenness we ought to feel for our sin and rebellion, we see a bright ray of light. A piercing light that divides the dark. That provides hope to the powerless and strength to the hopeless. My plan is to highlight several aspects of our passage today and to trust the Holy Spirit to let various emphases land on your heart and change your life as a result.

As such, I am going to forego the translation we have in the bulletin and am going to offer my  own translation to hopefully draw out aspects of the text for us this morning.

Just as Moses also lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary that the Son of Man to be lifted up. In order that all those believing on him may not be destroyed, but that they may have life eternal. For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only-begotten Son in order that all those believing on him may not be destroyed, but that they may have life eternal. For God did not send his Son into the world in order to condemn the world but in order that the world would be saved through him. The ones believing on him are not condemned. But the ones not believing are already condemned, because they have not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.

And this is the condemnation: That the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness more than the light, for their works were evil. For the one who does evil works hates the light, and he does not come toward the light so that his works will not be exposed. And the one who does the truth comes toward the light so that his works will be revealed because they are worked out in God.

As you think about some of our favorite love stories, what are some common threads? Romeo and Juliet loved each other to the point of death. Bonnie and Clyde were fully devoted to each other. Leonardo DiCaprio or Bradley Cooper or Matthew McConaughey…in anything they ever played are generous, self-sacrificing, committed in spite of circumstances or difficulties. Every story of love is a glimpse, a shadow of the love that God has displayed in his Son Jesus. Indeed, whenever we get the feeling of love, it is meant to lift our eyes to a more perfect love. Because eventually the credits to these stories roll and the script is finished and these amazing stories end. The Honeymoon always ends and we are aways let with sinners who say I Do.

I am convinced that if you and I were more convinced and sure of the love of God for us our lives would be dramatically affected everyday. Every interaction we have. Every thought we have. Every word we speak would be saturated with grace and humility and a pointing away from our self-sufficiency and magnifying the worth of God.

Let’s start at the most well-known verse in the Bible, v. 16: For this is the way that God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son. God loved the world. He loves the world, without measure because he is infinite and without boundary. This is the word kosmos, which is where we get our word for “cosmos”. Consider the vastness of the entire creation.

We went to the Roper Mountain Planetarium a couple weeks ago. They had a telescope that could see out over 1,000 lightyears. 1 lightyear = 5.9 trillion miles. The most powerful telescope is able to see 13.2 billion lightyears away…and that’s just what we are able to see now. Let that consume your mind. The love of God is vast. You’re standing on the edge of the ocean and yet the love of God is more consuming. Were you to sail out a 100 miles and be dropped in the ocean and be surrounded and drowned in it. The love of God is deeper still.

God is not scowling. He is not in a perpetual rage. He is not constantly fuming with anger. As he pleaded with wicked Nineveh. As he pleaded with his own people who did not receive his Son but beckoned them to come under the shelter of his wing for comfort and protection. As he fed and watered a people who grumbled and complained about his grace.

Who does Scripture say that God loved?

Consider for a moment the “just as” Jesus references in v.14 from Numbers 21, the account that we just heard. “Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes on him may have life eternal.” Why was the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness? Because Israel had murmured and complained against God. They had despised his salvation. They had hated his way of healing them. While were yet murmurers, Christ died for us.

While we were yet sinners, while we were still weak, while we were in darkness…at that moment Christ died for us.

How does Scripture say he loved us? 

By giving. He did not merely give a gift. He loved his Son with an eternal love. A pure and holy love. My love for my children is a shadow of the reality of God’s perfect love for his Son. I have often said that part of me would die if I lost any one of my children. I can’t imagine life without one of them. I would die. Before the creation of the vast galaxies that cannot be measured by our greatest instruments. Before this, God the Father was delighting in an relishing the Son of glory. In this Trinitarian dance, the Father and the Son and the Spirit were in perfect and sweet communion.

Yet, God, in his grace. In his love. Sent his beloved and one and only Son…not merely to be an example for us, but even more to lay down his life for us. For the unlovely. For the ungodly. He gave us God. He gave us his very life.

Notice to whom this offer is made.

All those believing on him. Anyone. Any person that bows their knee can be saved.

Are you discouraged by your sin? Are you without hope that the one you love the most is beyond the reach of God? Remember your own state in which God found you. He didn’t just make you a better version of your already good self. By confessing and acknowledging your wretchedness, God would remind you that he is able and willing to save anyone.

Our passage from Ephesians 2: But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.

It is only by one’s own pride that he will not come to this All-Sufficient Savior. Before Christ came to us, we loved the darkness more than the light. Our deeds. Our thoughts. Our words. The very orientation of our lives was crooked and small.

It is only by relying on our own ability to save ourselves that we will remain in destructive condemnation.

You were not saved by your strength. You were not saved by your works. You were saved in spite of yourself. You were saved. Saved.

Notice how this salvation is made real. 

All those believing on him. Belief. It is not the amount of belief we have. Jesus himself said that faith as small as a mustard seed could move a mountain. It is not the faith, but the one upon whom we place our faith. Are you downcast from something you said this morning. From something you did last night. Something you thought this week.

In the same way that Israel merely looked up to the bronze serpent to be saved, so also God is calling you to merely look away from yourself and look up to the Sufficient One who can cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Look to him. There is no strength you need to bring. You just need to look to him.

Look to the one who took the initiative in this cosmic redemption. Be overwhelmed by his deep affection for you. He did not wait for you to come to him. He sent his Son. He did not send him to condemn you. He sent him to draw you out of the miry clay out of the deep waters and save you.

It is not merely that God wants you to merely look to the Lifted up Son on the Cross. He’s not an unwilling king—as though you look to him and he extends his scepter because he is bound by some law outside himself. The love for you wells up from his own heart. For when you look to him, you are born again. You are made new. Your works go from serving your own wants and desires to being exploded and expanded to magnify the strength and beauty of the One who loved you and gave himself up for you.

Your evil deeds are converted into works done in God. v.21! He doesn’t hold his nose when you enter the room. He doesn’t turn his face away. He looks you full in the face and says, “I. Love. You.” He raises us with our Perfect King and seats us with him. We share all that Christ has with him.

By the power of the Spirit, God promises to make you who he intended you to be from the foundation of the world. From before the cosmos was made in all its expanse and immensity and gravity, God planned to come to you. To save you. To redeem you even today, if you will but come to the Light. If you will allow his saving grace to consume your darkness. To shine light on your deeds and convert them to Christ.

Are you burdened by your sin? Come to the light this morning. It wasn’t intended for you only when you walked down the aisle so many years ago. He bids you to come to the light. To receive the fullness of life. Of eternal and ever-full life.

Are you lacking courage this morning? He loves you. He traversed the expanse of the universe, the even greater distance between our sinfulness and his infinite purity. The light of his Star that shines even brighter than the Sun. He traveled such a distance that God became man to be near you. To love you. How can you not leap a wall of whatever fortress you have built around yourself? How can you not take up the feet of a deer and spring to the heights?

Are you lacking faith for the one you love? Know that all who believe on him, he will not cast out. He will not shrink from. He will embrace. Whatever station of life. Will you not draw near to that one and love them with the love of Christ?

Questions to Consider

  1. How easy or difficult for you to accept the proposition that God loves you?
  2. What is your view of God? Do you often see him as a distant king or one who draws near to you?
  3. How does courage and joy relate to understanding God’s love for us?
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What Is Sunday Worship?

I’m gonna keep this simple, but hopefully not simplistic. As you consider your corporate gathering of believers (typically on the first day of the week), there are three ways to think about it. You can think of it as an event, a participation, or a transformation.

The Event Model can take on two modes: emotionally-driven or cognitively-driven. The emotionally-driven mindset, of course, could baldly mean that you show up to hear some great music and hear a message. You go to watch and experience something. The cognitively-driven mindset could mean that you highlight the sermon so much that it becomes the point of your showing up. You hear this a lot in evangelical churches that the sermon is the most important aspect of the worship experience. The problem with such thinking, though, betrays an onlooker mentality. That is, I go to church to observe and consider and think and have my thinking changed.

In this model, there is an I-Thou expectation of the worship service. I go to that. I consider that. I am separate from and participate in that. In other words, this kind of approach to the corporate gathering is apart from who I am. I go to there. I leave from there. Sure, we talk about taking the message home with us…but come on! You and I both know we forget what was said within 10 minutes of leaving the building. When we are confronted with traffic on the way to the buffet. And then, we get bored. Bored with our lives. Bored with our faith. We find greater joy in our team winning the game than in our eternal salvation won at the cost of the Son of God.

The Participation Model is a little bit better than the event model. This puts the onus on the believer to come to the service seeking to be engaged in other people at church. For all the talk about this being a need in churches, and people nodding their heads in agreement…this does not happen in reality. People cognitively ascend to this truth, but they don’t fully grasp this truth.

If they do grasp a hold of this participation model, it often devolves into judgmentalism (others aren’t as serious about their faith as you are) or complacency (I asked someone how their walk with God is going and they gave me the cold shoulder). So what’s the problem with this model? Write simply it remains in the realm of I-Thou. That is, I bring something to you. I come to serve you. I am apart from and wholly different from you. At its root, it is simply another (albeit more spiritual rendition) of the event model. 

The third, and I believe more biblical model (of course!), is the Tranformational Model. This way of approaching the Sunday morning gathering sheds itself of the event. It doesn’t come in judgment of the service–I didn’t like that song. I liked the sermon. I really engaged with God this morning. Wow, what a wonderful time. Instead, it views Sunday morning as another step in my being conformed into the image of Jesus. It does see it as an event you come to. It is something we participate in. But preeminently it embraces the fact that over time we are being changed by the service itself. 

What does this look like? Well, it understands that every time we attend an event or participate in a service, we are slowly changing. You are much more different from the fifth football game you attended, than the first. You understand the language, the traditions, the cheers. 

So it is with a church service…and this is where it gets a bit thorny. With the typical evangelical liturgy (and it is a liturgy) of two fast songs, two slow songs, a sermon, and dismissal, we are slowly becoming consumers. Or better put, our already-ingrained consumer mentality is reinforced as we observe (and maybe participate). We watch the stage. We critique the songs–or what the song leader was wearing. We sit down and hear someone wax eloquently–or not. 

I fear that much of the problems we see in modern evangelicalism stem from us offering goods and services to people and not inviting them into be transformed. This fact is betrayed in much of the assumptions underlying decisions made on how the liturgy ought to roll. For example, since we need to be engaging and winsome in our communication of the Gospel, we need to play this popular radio song and do a Jesus juke to talk about how real love is only found in Jesus. Of course I’m not saying messages and songs ought to be fuddy-duddy and boring! Stop putting baby in the corner. 

What I am saying is that churches ought to be very clear in what they are shaping their people into becoming. We ought to understand that we are in the business of transformation–from one degree of glory to another. Not filling seats. Not being entertaining and relevant at the cost of depth. 

This is why at Christ the Redeemer, we have been intentional in our liturgy. We believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering is the transformation of people. We have an explicit order to our service that follows the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation. Over time, people’s being is changed. It unwittingly becomes easier to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” because you are trained to confess your sin every week. You more readily accept forgiveness because you are trained to hear God’s Word of Forgiveness to you after confessing. You more readily come to fellowship with God in spite of and because of your sin because you are trained that at the Lord’s Table you find satisfaction and rest for your souls.

Yes, Sunday morning is an event. But not merely so. It is something we participate in. But not merely so. It is preeminently another step in our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The primary goal of Sunday morning is our transformation through intentional liturgies.

Sanitized Christianity

Below is a letter I just sent out to our church. I believe it might encourage and enliven your own faith, and share it with you to that end.

Redeemer,

What a gift yesterday was as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday. As I shared in my opening comments, it is a sad state when the Church doesn’t even know about the glorious celebration of the Spirit’s filling of believers. This is not to chastise other churches. Rather, it is a stiff reminder of why we do what we do when it comes to the church calendar and liturgy. It roots us deep in the rich history of the church. While so many believe they are searching for the new and fresh, it is actually the firm and tried forms the church has been practicing for millennia. Surely, there are dead expressions of this beautiful liturgy. Therefore, we want to know what and why we are doing what we do to safeguard from form without substance. We want to have the skeletal work of the liturgy with the breath of life (read “Spirit”) and muscular reflex (read “walking in the light”).
With that said, as I was preaching I was struck by the beauty of considering the utter power and creative work of the Spirit. As I looked out on our fledgling congregation, it was as if I could see the small band of disciples at Pentecost—only eleven. Yet, being filled with the same Spirit who created the world. The same Spirit who filled the Apostles to speak fervently and with full conviction. This same Spirit lives within us! Have you considered the sheer magnitude of that? Your life is not a mere appendix to the story of redemption. It is a continuation of this magnificent work to go and tell other to come and see. Every conversation you have is alive with opportunity and grace. Every glance. Every moment is resplendent with the glory and presence of God. What would our lives and our world look like with a band of disciples whose lives and decisions revolve around Jesus? Not around vacations and job promotions and being thought highly of by those we so diligently seek approval from.
So much of our Christianity in Greenville is sanitized. That is, we put the Spirit’s work in a box or in a moment. We minimize him. We relegate him to private moments. In fact, he is constantly at work. He gives us every breath we have (remember Psalm 104.29-30?). What our city needs is less concern for our preening and being made much of in the eyes of others. What our city. What our world needs is Christians who really believe, and who live in accord with that belief, that Jesus is always enough. He’s enough for our pain and suffering. He’s enough for our excitement and comfort. He’s enough for my job. He’s enough for my neighbors. He’s enough for my family. He’s enough for me.
May God fill our church with his Spirit so that the watching world will indeed say, “See what way they love one another!”
May the Lord open your eyes to the beauty of his work this week,
Matt

Abiding in Christ?

How do you abide in someone you can’t see or touch or audibly listen to? When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, was it merely for them or is it something we are called to emulate?

To the first question, Jesus most certainly expected his disciples to abide in him despite not being able to touch him and hear him and see him. After all, John 15 (where the speech comes from) is right before his crucifixion. Too often our faith is wedded to too much wooden-ness in understanding. We veer toward, “Yes, but…” Like Thomas who would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side, so also our faith is not expansive enough. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe–which leads to the second question.

Jesus prayed not only for his disciples in the Garden, but for all those who would hear the Good News from his disciples testimony. When he responded to Thomas that those who have not seen and yet believe are makarios (“blessed”), he had you and me in mind. What we see unfold in Scripture after the Resurrection is the kind of effulgent life he wants us to live…and abiding life.

So how do we abide?

I would suggest three ways.

Keeping His Word

Throughout John’s Gospel and his epistles, Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commands. Like a father who loves his child, like an older brother looking out for his younger brother, Jesus tells us how to navigate God’s world. Do we trust him enough to actually follow his steps?

This explicit teaching is what is called the Revealed Will of God. While God is constantly working in his world for his own purposes, part of that working is his condescension to tell us how to understand his world. That is, unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh determined to tell his people how to live. His Law is gracious and kind to reveal his ways to us.

All the Law hangs on Jesus’ admonition to love God and people.

Throughout the New Testament we see what it looks like to abide in Christ when we hear the Apostles telling people to put others before their own whims and preferences. We see this worked out as the Spirit comes at Pentecost and the Church extends to the uttermost parts of the world.

Led By the Spirit

It is no accident that John 16’s (continued) discourse on the preferment of the Spirit’s coming follows on the heels of Jesus’ command to abide in him. While the Law is gracious and good, we botch it up with our self-seeking and short-sightedness. We need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.

As I shared in my sermon on Sunday, there are three witnesses: water, blood, and Spirit. The first two speak to the doctrinal clarity and objective reality of who Jesus is. The third is the subjective application of these truths into the life of the believer.

Unfortunately the Spirit is equated with emotionalism and awkward and outlandish activity by those claiming to be Spirit-led. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, indeed. While the Spirit blows where he will, and does things outside our meager understanding, this does not necessarily mean that his working in incomprehensible or outlandish or alien (more on this in the third point).

What are some ways we can be led by the Spirit?

Well, he inspired the text of Scripture and has clearly spoken there. Go there.

In Ephesians 5.18, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. How? The participles that follow this command tell us how: Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Spirit is guiding and directing God’s people. Go there.

It would be good to reflect on each of these four participles and consider how you might be filled with the Spirit in ever-increasing measure. Are you speaking God’s songs over people? Are you singing to soothe the angst in your own heart? Are you grateful? Are you putting others’ needs before your own–considering them more significant than yourself?

Being Attune to God’s Working

One of my charges as a pastor is to help us see God’s continual work in the world. It is easy to wax on about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence but to deny his power and that this means right here right now. He is not all these characteristics merely in heaven. While you may say, “Obviously!” In fact, many of us affirm these aspects of God yet we live life as though he is not at work in the mundane stuff of life. We talk about him and his superintendent work int he world…but we fail to see his work in my making coffee or standing in line or talking to a stranger.

The shift in our lives happens when we see him always at work. Always. In the mundane. In the suffering and pain. In the exciting. That is God working and shaping you.

Every conversation. Every. Conversation. Is opportunity to hear God speak to you. For him to shape you. Every appointment is a “divine appointment.” He graciously guides our footsteps. The person in the checkout line needs to hear of God’s grace. Your co-worker needs to know that God loves him. The annoying neighbor needs to see God’s mercy. Your family needs to experience peace in your words and actions. These are all God’s ever-present work. His beckoning us to abide in his word and his world.