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Good Friday

At the heart of what Christians believe is a central figure: a man who lived and walked among us within human history, a man who claimed to be God’s Son and God himself.

Awesome as they are, his claims to deity, if not true make him just another lunatic or liar in the vast history of such impostors.  Yes, he did claim himself to be God incarnate.  But we testify that his story is a true story, and as such his own claims, let alone the events of his life, make his life the most important in the history of the world.  He was foretold of in the Hebrew scriptures, and it is testified that he fulfilled all that he had come for.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…”

The life of Jesus culminated in his death via Roman crucifixion sanctioned by Jewish religious and political leaders.  This was the very reason he came.

Atonement: Jesus my Substitute

Atonement is payment for offense.  Who hasn’t been wronged?  Put wrongdoing by a stranger in one category.  But experience wrongdoing by someone close, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, let’s put in another category.   Wrongdoing breaks relationship.  If I value the friendship, something needs to cover and remove the offense for it to be restored.

Say we’re close friends.  But say I were to walk to your house, stomp in the front door, and with a golf club, break the fine china, the television, and any other expensive thing I can find. I’m going crazy on the mirrors and vases.  We’re very close friends and this comes to you as a great surprise, but because you really value the relationship with me you decide to understand and reconcile the rampage of vandalism and ruining of your home.  But for that to happen, some things need to be addressed.  First there’s the “what on Earth were you thinking?” questions.  Then there’s the fact I’ve done something to a friend even an enemy may not level to.  And then someone still has write a check for the broken china.  These things are necessary to cover the offenses for the relationship to be restored.  Questions need to be answered, apologies need to be made–a whole cleanup crew needs to come in.  Not until the wrongdoings are covered, can the friendship to be restored.  The whole event needs to be covered.  That’s atonement.  Atonement is the complete covering for sin.

What Happened in the Garden & the Day of Atonement

Our greatest wrongdoing is against our maker.  God had warned Adam that of all the beautiful and lawful trees of the garden, the day he partook of the forbidden tree that he would die.  His relationships would unravel and his body would give way to death.  And most importantly he would be broken from peaceful fellowship with his creator.

But even in the garden, when our father Adam’s sin resulted in shameful nakedness, God made a covering of animal skin for him, to cover his shame.  It was the first sacrifice, only doing the job partially, but it pointed forward to something better.

Later when the ceremonial law was given to the people of Israel, the highest day of the year, God made provision for covering for the sins of Israel.  On the ceremonial Day of Atonement, two goats were sacrificed.  The first was slaughtered the sins of the people.  The second was released to the wilderness.  Year after year, this was practiced.  The picture it painted was clear, something must die for your wrongdoing.  It’s just the blood of bulls and goats was simply insufficient to pay for human sin.  The slaughter of innocent animals pointed out that, yes, blood must be shed for sin to be covered, but animal blood was not enough.  Only human blood can atone for by human sin.

The Brutality of the Cross

The great symbol of Christianity is the cross.  It’s a paradox that the symbol of our triumph, our identity, is a picture of what one historian called “the most wretched of deaths.”  We, just like Christians through two millennia, have crosses in our homes and wear them on necklaces.  The irony is that this symbol is the modern equivalent of our lethal injection syringe, hangman’s noose, or electric chair: all symbols of execution.

Crucifixion was invented by the Persians around 500 BC and continues to be used as a form of execution even to this day.   But it was perfected by the Romans who used it as the most painful mode of punishment reserved for the most disgraceful of people (slaves, poor people, and traitors against Rome).

Iron spikes were used to secure a person to the cross which were driven into the arms and ankles.  Death occurred as the person hung on the cross, sometimes for days, the body suffocating under its own weight.  As strength gave way, the person would agonizingly push and pull against the spikes to allow air to enter their lungs.  It was not uncommon for people to slump on the cross to empty the lungs of air to asphyxiate and end their suffering quickly.

All this was done in open and public places. Crowds would gather to mock the victims.  Once dead, bodies often were left on the cross.  Scavenging animals would gather to pick apart the remains.  If a body was removed, it would be thrown into the dump unless the family took it.

Tens of thousands of people were crucified.  In one demonstration of Rome’s brutality, 6000 foreigners were crucified at once.  Their crosses were lined along 120 miles of road much like the distance from Orlando to Jacksonville.

Generally it was only men who were crucified.  Occasionally a man was crucified at eye level so that passerby’s could look him directly in the eye and mock him, spit on him, and cuss him.  If a woman was crucified, she was made to face the cross.  It was difficult, even for the ruthless Romans, to bear to see a woman in the agony of crucifixion.

Often before one was crucified they were scourged.  The victim was stripped and chained with their hands above their head to expose the back and the legs.  Many times the scourging was so brutal that the person would die before reaching the cross.  The person would be whipped with a series of leather straps.  At the end of some straps were metal balls which would tenderize the back.   At the end of the others were hooks made of metal or bone which would sink into the persons back, buttocks, or legs.  As the hooks sunk in, the execution would rip skin, muscles, tendons, and even bones off the victim as the person screamed in agony, shook violently, and bleed heavily.

It’s difficult to overstate the horrors of a Roman crucifixion.  The method of death is as brutal and humiliating as can be imagined.  The pain of crucifixion was so extreme that a word was invented to describe it—excruciating (literally meaning “from the cross”).  Of all form of punishment ever invented, only one could satisfy sufficiently the penalty for sin: the cross.  It was upon the cross that Jesus stood in our place, and became our atonement.

The Only Suitable Sacrifice

Seeing Jesus, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)  Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, our innocent substitute and covering for our wrongdoing, foreshadowed by scripture.

Jesus had to be sinless or his death would be just like any other of the thousands of others who died by crucifixion.  But Jesus, who lived without sin, gave away his life for us, as the only one suitable to make atonement for sin.  As the Scriptures state:

…his soul makes an offering for guilt (Isa 53:10)

Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)

…a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Heb 2:17)

But when Christ appeared as a high priest…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9:11-14)

The great and glorious truth of the cross converges here.  Because the cross was the sufficient penalty for human sin, and Jesus was the suitable sacrifice for human sin, then the atonement he made through that death on that cross was exhaustive.

The scope of offenses that mankind may make against God are covered at the cross.  The cross does not offer partial covering like Adams’ animal skins in the garden.  The cross does not look forward to some fulfilling event like Israel’s ritual Day of Atonement.  This atonement was final and full.

Jesus My Substitute

When we see the bitterness of our sins, we taste the sweetness of his atonement.  I can look back at the days before I was converted and come up with a heavy list of things I was.

  • drunk
  • substance abuser
  • thief
  • vandal
  • fornicator
  • rebellious towards authority
  • impure in my language and humor
  • unfaithful
  • untrustworthy
  • violent
  • filled with hate
  • lover of self
  • cowardice
  • dishonest
  • fearful
  • manipulative
  • backbiting
  • irritable
  • falsely humble
  • chauvinistic
  • anti social
  • religious in the bad way

 

And even now, many years after, I’m very aware (most days) of remaining sin.  I wrestle and fight temptation and see both victory and defeat against the very same struggles described above.  But like John says, Jesus is that lamb of that takes away the sins of the world.  It’s great news.  How unbelievable is that?  God himself came to be our atonement, that we would enjoy fellowship with him again.  He’s our substitute, our atonement.

 

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Loving Our Neighbor Pt. 4

Loving our neighbor is difficult.  Like I mentioned, many Americans do not even know their neighbors names.

But maybe that’s not the only difficulty.  Sometimes we make it difficult.  What if they don’t like you?  What if they take advantage of you?  What if they have an agenda?  What if we don’t connect?  What if I’m not good enough for them?  

The fear of things not working well prevents us from loving our neighbor.  

Sometimes is trickier than our own hangups.  We dislike our neighbor.  They have offended us.  They have been unjust with us.  They’re too concerned about themselves. They have committed criminal acts.  They don’t take care of themselves.    They have hurt us.

I’m thinking of friends in our neighborhood who just had a car stolen.  The car was found vandalized and with a lot of damage.  They are struggling with how someone could treat someone else’s property that way.

I’m not saying this is easy.  We live in a broken and fallen world that still requires locks on our doors, police forces, and courts of law.  And still the call to love our neighbors remains.

I think this requires us to walk in great amount of wisdom. But grace has the final word.  We don’t love our neighbors as we ought, but Christ loves us, his neighbor.

Take a look at the list of names Matthew gives us in 10:2-4.  I know this list gets special attention from the biblical writers as being set apart for special office in the history of the church–they are the Apostles.  But the biblical writers also give us some not so flattering details about these people, even right here.

Do you know Peter’s story?  Peter’s impulsive, doesn’t think before he speaks, and when the pressure’s on melts like butter in sunshine.  But there he is, Peter-the first.  What about Matthew?  He was a scammer, a national traitor, aligned with Rome.  The worst toll booth guy you want to come across.  What about James and John?  Brothers bent on holding power.  Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to his death, even Judas makes the list.   

It’s funny the people Jesus chooses to love.  But when you go back a look closely at what he is doing in his ministry, it makes perfect sense.  “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Harassed and helpless are more literally translated “flayed open and turned upside down.”  The language Jesus uses is shepherds language.  It referred to sheep who had run through a thicket, lacerating themselves on the thorns and others who had fallen, who life was upside down and incapable of turning itself back onto its feet.  Harassed and helpless, “flayed open and turned upside down” like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep, who himself was “flayed open and turned upside down”.  The shepherd who substitutes his life for sinners.  Who loves us, his neighbor.

And this is the amazing thing, the same ones he has compassion on, who receive his compassion by faith, are the same ones that give it just as he gives it.  Those who get grace, give grace.  They are called from the crowd and commissioned back to the crowd because Christ has loved them.

The crowd is already around you.  You don’t need to escape your ordinary world to find it.  The crowd is the neighbor God has given to you in your vocations, family, employee, citizen, and church.  Christ calls us, he commissions us, and loves us.  May we call on him to give us eyes to see the harvest as he sees it, and send us out into his fields.  

Loving Our Neighbor Pt. 3

Parts one, and two.

We have a God-given longing for the harvest but at the same time, we don’t always love our neighbor as we ought.  We’re not always working for their good.

But God’s grace can and does change us: The love of Christ compels us to love our neighbors.

Why?  Christ calls us by demonstrating the need, and then he commissions us for the task.

One of the contributions that Martin Luther and the other Reformers made was to overturn the idea that there are distinctions between Christians; that some are elite and advanced before God while others are simply ordinary, lesser believers.  This idea was spurred on by communities of monasteries, who believed being a monk was a higher calling that being an ordinary baptized Christian.  

Nevertheless, the contribution the Reformers made is to help us understand that all Christians in all walks of life have a vocation, and that vocation involves the fulfilling of our baptism. What matters in life? “(1) That we are baptized into Christ, united to him by grace through faith, and (2) that we embrace the callings God gives us in life as opportunities to live out our baptism by living with faith toward God and active love toward our neighbors.”

Immediately after telling his disciples to “pray for laborers for the harvest,” he answers the prayer.  “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” (Matthew 10:1) Jesus is doing exactly what the reformers had discovered: summoning the ordinary to himself, and sending them out in his name.  

But there’s something else he does besides summoning them to himself.  We see Jesus supplying them with authority and ability.  It says Jesus, “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.”  These people were given the very same authority and ability that we see Jesus himself exercising.

To be perfectly honest, this is a little perplexing.  Jesus clearly is giving the disciples the same authority and abilities he has.  But it’s not been my experience to see these exact kinds of things happening on a regular basis with all Christians.  What are we to make of this?  Are these exorcisms and healings something we should expect to frequently see as we labor for the harvest?  I think this text pushes us to think about this a little deeper than we’re accustomed to and challenges our faith a little more than what is comfortable.  Should we really expect to see the same kinds of things happening in our lives?  Yes.  We should.  We should be praying for them to happen.  That we would have authority over unclean spirits to cast them out, and to heal every disease and affliction, in the same ways we see in the passage.  

But at the very least this is what it means for us: that through the gifts of the Gospel in our lives, we have authority over what is spiritually untrue, false, impure, dishonorable, and unjust.  It is the gospel that is true–that Jesus Christ, son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the third day he rose again from the dead.  This is true.  Though lost and condemned, he has redeemed us.  He has purchased us and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.  It is in this truth, we have authority.  And in this truth we have been supplied with the weapons that break down strongholds, and authority to cast out what is spiritually unclean.  Through the gifts of the gospel, in Christ, we are supplied with authority.  

And secondly, with ability to heal every disease and every affliction.

In Matthew B. Redmond’s book, The God of the Mundane he tells the story of Candace, his dental hygienist.  Matt is a writer and one day in the middle of a writing assignment, he was abruptly reminded by his phone of a dental appointment he had scheduled but forgotten.  Matt raced across town to make his appointment.   Arriving at the dentist office just in time, Matt takes a seat in the waiting room in front of a coffee table with months old editions of Sports Illustrated and Motor Trend.  Billy Joel plays softly in the background.  It’s only a few moments before Candace comes to get Matt.  “Are you ready?” she says and takes him back to the treatment room  Once in the dental chair, Candace gets to work poking and prodding about Matt’s mouth, all the while making friendly, but very one-sided conversation.  All Matt can do is nod.  Finally getting moment to say something, Matt asks Candace a question: “How did you decide to become a hygienist?”

“I don’t know,” Candace says, “when I was a little girl, I was terrified of the dentist and threw up every time I had to go.  The whole experience scared me.  When I graduated from high school, I figured I had to do something.  So I studied to do this…And then I used to have this little boy who came to me.  And he would throw up every single time he came.  And I would never finish cleaning his teeth.  One day I decided along with his mom, that we were gonna just clean him up and sit him right back down in this chair and finish.  So we did.  And he never threw up again.  I suppose I’m doing this cause I know what it feels like to be scared of the dentist.”

As Matt states, “When sin and death came into the world through Adam’s fall, along with it came death and pain.  Also, it ushered in plaque and tartar, cavities and abscesses, root canals and gums that get damaged.  And children full of fear to the point their stomachs do violence to the whole room.  Candace’s hospitality, smiles, digital picture frames, and skills are pushing back Adam’s Fall, day-in, and day-out.  When she wields the weapons of mouth destruction she is not just fighting gum disease and the need for a filling, she is fighting against the effects of sin.  As a follower of the King, she is taking on all that wars against His rule and reign.”

In the same way, we are sent out into our vocations, supplied with authority and ability to push back the effects of Adam’s Fall through the gifts of the Gospel.  At the intersection of the world’s need and our desire to meet it, God summons us to himself, supplies us with authority and ability, and sends as laborers into the harvest.

Loving Our Neighbor Pt. 2

We have a God-given longing for the harvest but at the same time, we don’t always love our neighbor as we ought.  We’re not always working for their good.

But God’s grace can and does change us: The love of Christ compels us to love our neighbors.

Why?  Because Christ calls us to love our neighbor.

Picture yourself on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It is the height of rush hour and the swarm of bodies pushes past you like a solid mass of humanity wearing a thousand different faces. Some are expressionless. Most seem to project feelings of frustration, fatigue and above all, anxiety. It’s almost impossible for you to stand still amidst the motion of the masses. You feel they could easily sweep you away but you hold your ground. If you could rise above the crowd and look in any direction you’d see what appears to be an endless river of people.

What are you feeling right now? Overwhelmed? Perhaps threatened? Anxious to get away from the crowd? If you’re not accustomed to the big city, the throngs of people can be downright intimidating. Nevertheless, ask yourself the question:

How would Jesus feel?

As Jesus is going about the cities and villages of Galilee, his heart is moved as he sees the crowds, harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Along with Jesus are his disciples.  Like the farmer who knows the time is right. he says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the Harvest to send our laborers into the harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38).

What does Jesus see?

We know exactly what Jesus sees from the earlier chapters of Matthew.  A leper, a man with a fatal and incurable skin disease that alienated him from meaningful participation in society (Matthew 8:1-4), a foreign soldier with a beloved, but paralyzed servant (8:5-13), one of his disciples mother in law, sick with fever (8:14-15), those who were demon oppressed (8:16), the sick (8:16), the blind (9:27-31), the mute (9:32-34).  He sees Matthew the tax-man, and calls him to be his follower.  He sees the fear of his own disciples in the middle of a storm, crossing the sea of Galilee.

The Scriptures tell us, “But when He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  Jesus Christ, the one who made the world, is moved with compassion for his broken creation.  What does he see?  He sees the crowds, harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

How does Christ call us?

The crowds are the people God has placed around you.  We don’t have to go anywhere special to find them.    As Gene Veith says, “God does not tell us to love humanity in the abstract, but to love our neighbor: the actual tangible human being He calls into our lives.”    

They are people in our families, our children, our parents, our siblings.  In our places of employment they are our coworkers, associates, employees, and supervisors.  They are our customers and those we contract with.  In our schools they are classmates, our educators, and school officials.  We are citizens of a city, a state, and a nation–they are our public officials and our fellow countrymen/women and fellow city residents.  They’re all around us.  They are the people on our street or in our apartment complexes.  They’re in your church, your brother and sister in Christ, your pastor, and any who would darken the doors of your sanctuary.

They are the crowds, harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

And so Christ calls us into the harvest, not just by giving us the demand, but by demonstrating the need.  He enlists us in his mission by engaging our hearts. Look around.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  His heart is moved as he sees the need.  He calls us to share in his mission of meeting it.

We don’t always love our neighbor as we ought, but the love of Christ compels us to love our neighbor.  The love of Christ calls us to love our neighbor.

 

 

Loving Our Neighbor Pt. 1

There’s something really great about the sights and smells of the farmer’s market.  Just recently my wife and I were on a short trip to New York City over Valentine’s day weekend.  As we strolled the city in the frigid February air, passing through Madison Square park, we crossed an intersection and into our view from around a towering office building, came the sight of a sprawling farmer’s market, bustling with vendors, New Yorkers, and probably a lot of people like us–tourists.

What makes farmer’s markets so great? It’s the goods.  The fresh flowers and foods.  But at a deeper level it’s something more.  It’s the harvest and our participation in it. Human beings have a primal urge to sow and reap, to gather a crop, to bundle the fruits of their labor. To a farmer, the harvest represents a year’s worth of planting and tending, of watching and waiting and wondering. When the last sheaf is bundled and the storehouse is full, the farmer feels a sense of satisfaction and gratitude.

Most people are not farmers, so wandering the farmer’s market, selecting and bagging our purchases, or just taking in the sights, is as close as we come to bringing this kind of harvest home. But that part we play in gathering the crop is itself an expression of our God-given longing to do something with our lives: to sow and reap a harvest of significance. When we come to the end of a year, or to the end of our lives, we want to have something to show for our efforts. We want to gather the fruits of our labor, and we hope for an abundant harvest.

We may not be farmers, but this same kind of primal longing for the harvest, this innate urge, exists in us in a different sense.  Our neighbor is the harvest.

No matter where we live, we have neighbors, even if you live in some remote area.  And the reason is our neighbors are the people closest to us.  Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, very famously called our spouse our “first neighbor.”  And Jesus says that to “love our neighbor as yourself” is the summation of the Law.  But we don’t always love our neighbor as we ought.

We are to honor our parents.  Be faithful to our spouses.  Submit to authorities and look out for the welfare of our employees.  We are to help and improve our neighbors possessions and protect their reputations.  We are to defend the “poor and the widow.”  God richly and daily provides all our needs.  He gives us house and home, possessions and employment, devout spouses and children.  He richly and graciously provides all we need and does so out of Fatherly divine goodness.  If we are to be holy as he is holy, we must do the same for our neighbor.

But according to one recent survey of Americans, “Very few say they know their neighbors’ names.  Even fewer report interacting with them on a daily basis.” There’s data that shows that “only about 20 percent of Americans spent time regularly with the people living next to them. A third said they’ve never interacted with their neighbors.

They arrive home, tired from a day’s work, turn the key to their locks, and shut the door.  They live in proximity to us, but we never experience their presence beyond a wave of the hand.  You probably have neighbors like this.  How can we love people we never get to speak with?  

Two things are true.  We have a God-given longing for the harvest but at the same time, we don’t always love our neighbor as we ought.  We’re not always working for their good.  

But God’s grace can and does change us: The love of Christ compels us to love our neighbors.

Why?.  My next several posts here will explain, but here’s a sneak peak.  Be sure the check back or click the subscribe button to be notified as soon as its posted!

    1. Because Christ calls us to love our neighbor
    2. Because Christ commissions us to love our neighbor.
    3. Because Christ loves us, his neighbor.

 

 

Why the Church? The Church is a Place of Hope

 

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Part one, part two, and part three ask the question, “Why the church?”  If the church is full of sinners, and there are plenty of other Sunday morning “sinner-included” options, why do we commit to showing up from week to week?

The Church is a Place of Hope

In 2007 my wife and I were pregnant with our first child.  We had gone on a missions trip and after we returned, Jackie began to have complications with the pregnancy.  Eventually, we ended up being admitted to the hospital.  We were being told she would need to finish the pregnancy under care because there was something wrong.  While Jackie stayed at the hospital, I began to settle back into a routine of school in the day and work in the evening, returning at night to the hospital at the end of my work shift.  One night not long into the stay, we were having some problems.  The doctors assessed the situation and said words the words we’ll never forget, “We’ve got to go, you’re having this baby.”

Jonathan Silas Hauer was born later that morning. At 28 weeks he was 3 months premature. The events took us by complete surprise and Jonathan’s condition was seriously compromised.

We hurt. We already had so much love for this child. What kind of life would he have?  Would he even make it?

We were confused. How did this happen? Was it something we caused?

And all of a sudden, we felt very alone. As much as friends and family want to comfort and help, and we have some great friends and family, when something of this magnitude happens, only the person or people going through it fully know what it’s like.

Those first days a section of the book of Isaiah stood out in an unusual way to us.  We both had been reading the same thing on our own without the other knowing it.

For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”  Isa 55:10-13

We didn’t know what was happening to us and our newly born child.  But there was something that remained with us through every bad report, every surgery, every “he won’t ever…”, all 98 days we spent in the neo-natal ICU with him.  For over nine years, it’s carried us through countless tough times and continues to do so.

For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace…Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”  Isa 55:10-13

You want to know what makes the church a special place, one of the most unique things that is happening anywhere?  The church is a signal of hope.  Every week the people of God gather to have this story rehearsed to them.  Brokenness is not how this world will end.  Sin and death do not win.

What is the word that will cut through the darkness and confusion of a premature birth, an unexpected death, troubled times, or tragedy?

Instead of the thorn, shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.  Instead of the divorce, shall remain the marriage covenant.  Instead of the division, shall come up the reconciliation.  Instead of the wars there shall be peace.  Instead of the homeless, there shall joy in the city of God.  Instead of the darkness, there will be light.

It’s not positive thinking.  It’s not self-help.  It is the word of hope that comes through the gospel.  In Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself.  This is not all there is.  We aren’t alone.

We don’t find it anywhere else.  There are plenty of other Sunday morning options.  But where can you go to find hope?  God has a meeting place for that every week.  It is the church.  It’s full of sinners, just like you and me, but it’s full of hope as well.  

Why the Church? God is Speaking

 

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Part one and part two I started by asking the question, why the church?  If the church is full of sinners, and there are plenty of other “sinner-included” options, why do we commit to showing up from week to week?

It’s where God is speaking.

“Incline your ear, and come to me;  hear, that your soul may live.” -Isaiah 55:3

His Ways are Higher than our Ways

When I think about God, I used to think about his holiness, sovereignty, his unmatched power, and his highness.  These things make sense to us.  

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” -Isaiah 55:8-9

God is in a league of his own.  God is the KING.  What doesn’t make sense is this God’s lowness, his humility, and dare we say, his weakness.  God’s don’t die.  God’s don’t tolerate unfaithfulness.  God’s don’t pardon their enemies–they annihilate them.  This just doesn’t make sense.

What kind of god dies naked on a cross?  What god forgives, not just minor offenses and mistakes, but heinous sins? That is so un-god-like.

But this is the God of the Scriptures.  It’s not just the highness of God’s ways that are not our ways.  It’s the lowness of his ways that are not our ways.

It’s the lowness of God, taking on the same humanity we have.  It’s the nothingness of a birth to nobodies, Mary & Joseph, in a nowhere town, Bethlehem, celebrated only by other nobodies, shepherds and gentiles.  It’s the death of God, Jesus Christ crucified, between two thieves, that doesn’t make sense.  That’s not the way we would do it.  But this is who he is.  And this is his word to us, the word of Christ:

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:6-11 ESV)

His ways are not just the word or the Law, which says “do this” and it’s never done, but the word of Christ which says “believe this” and it’s done already.  At church, on Sundays, through a preacher, God is speaking these words.  And where God is speaking, God is working.

The Word Does the Work

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” -Isaiah 55:10-11

Most know Martin Luther as the protestant reformer, but Luther was a Catholic monk who did not want a split or to divide the Catholic church.  In 1515 while preparing a lecture on Romans 2, the phrase “The just shall live by faith” captured his attention and caused him to reexamine his understanding of the Scripture.   Just two years later, 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses to the Wittenberg door in Germany, disputing the practice of “indulgences” the payment for a dead relative’s release from purgatory.  Luther was asked to recant, but could not saying “here I stand I can do no other.”  Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic church, but continued to preach and write and the protestant reformation was ignited.  Luther knew it wasn’t his work:

“Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.” -Luther’s Works

This is how God’s word works.  Like the rain that falls, watering the earth:

“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

We come to church because it is where God is speaking, he speaks both Law & Gospel.  Where God is speaking, God is working.