Thursday: How is Christ’s Death Remembered?

lastsuppermuralGod is into commemorating because we are into forgetting.

On Thursday of Holy Week, our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper, also called communion and the eucharist (which means thanksgiving). Scripture describes the scene: Continue reading

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Wednesday: What is Christ’s Death Worth?

Mary-Magdalene-Anointing-Jesus-stained-glassOn Wednesday of Jesus’ last week, he again told his disciples he would be crucified: “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:2, NKJV). They didn’t get it, or if they got it, they didn’t like it.

Two equal & opposite events immediately happened, side by side:

1. A woman anointed Jesus for burial from an expensive alabaster flask. The disciples were offended: “But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste [loss]? “For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.'” (Matthew 26:8, 9, NKJV). Jesus correct them, saying she had done a “good work” for him.

2. Judas bargained with the chief priests to betray Jesus. They settled on the standard price of a slave, 30 pieces of silver. And said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. (Matthew 26:15, NKJV).

What is Christ’s death worth? Continue reading

The Cross

iPad“Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you.  It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’  Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross.  All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary.  It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.”

[John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (London, 1968), 179.]

As a pastor, I tailor my instruction to the audience.

Sometimes, I’m talking to people who are broken and desperate. They need to be built up, as Jesus did for the woman caught in adultery. Continue reading

Three Myths about Grace

freight-train-rail-photo-0002

1980s: How are you doing? Fine, thank you.

1990s: How are you doing? Great.

2000s: How are you doing? Awesome!

2010s: How are you doing? Epic!!!!!!!

Over time, words lose their meaning. Like cars hooked together on a train, words carry freight. That freight consists of meaning and emotion (denotation and connotation, to be showy). Apparently, for some words, the freight leaks out. We use and overuse words to the point they have little meaning. If you tell me your day has been awesome or epic, I am sure you mean neither “that which produces jaw-dropping awe mingled with dread at powers beyond comprehension” or “worthy of universal acclaim and a big fat book like the Odyssey.” What you mean is “fine,” as our grandparents would say.

Word deflation. Continue reading

The Beauty of Being Irrelevant

hipster-trap

True story from seminary days:

I stick a Tootsie Roll in my lip,” he said. 

“A what where why?” I said. 

“Well, the guys in my community all chew tobacco, and I don’t. So the Tootsie Roll turns my spit brown. I can relate to them better that way,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

He was a young pastor in rural upstate New York — to a redneck tribe of pickup trucks and flannel shirts. And chewing tobacco. In the spirit of becoming “all things to all people,” my seminary roommate took up the Tootsie Roll habit, that he might better relate to the men he wanted to reach.

I love that spirit.

But I’m not so sure about that practice.

Aside from the risk of getting busted, “Hey Jimmy-Bob, got a plug of chew I could have?” “Nah, just Tootsie Rolls…” there’s a flaw in the thinking. Being relevant does not mean coloring your spit, faux-hawking what’s left of your hair, or sporting hipster glasses. It does not require LL Cool J on your iPod or misspelled Hebrew tatted on your forearm.

Being relevant means BEING YOURSELF, connecting with a tribe different than yours, and offering hope for a way out. If God has called you to cross cultural barriers (age, language, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, social status) for the sake of the gospel, then the people you’re reaching need three gifts from you: Continue reading

Why Boaz is NOT Ruth’s Kinsman-Redeemer

BoazSandalUnder the Bible’s laws for the Jews, there was a certain institution called levirate marriage. The laws of levirate marriage are found in Deut 25:5-10. These laws required that if a man died, his brother must marry the widow and produce an heir. Here you go:

“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. “And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. “But if the man does not want to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.’ “Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, ‘I do not want to take her,’ “then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.’ “And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal removed.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, NKJV).

Under the law, the child would the child of the brother who died.

The man who undertook such a marriage was called the kinsman redeemer. Continue reading

Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 1

An Unusual Interpretation of the Day Jacob Wrestled God

Jacob-Wrestles-with-God

“We tried to get into your church, but the ushers wouldn’t let us in.” Two high school girls from my youth group berated themselves for not following my church’s unspoken rules. “Some men at the door told us we couldn’t wear shorts in church. We’re soooo sorry!”

The vein in my left temple throbbed as I told them I was the one who should be sorry. Our youth group had been praying for two seventeen-year old girls who had just joined the group and had never attended church anywhere. They came—on a hot, muggy Chicago Sunday. Two ushers-turned-bouncers stopped them dead. “Oh no. You can’t come into church looking like that.”

The girls turned away crestfallen, and told me their story at youth group. They blamed themselves. They felt guilty for not measuring up to God’s standards.

Score one for legalism.

Anthony snorted and laughed out loud during my sermon, and later apologized for disrupting the service. He reacted to my mention of a chapel in Italy that contained the Scala Sancta. The “Sacred Stairs” were reported to be the very steps on which Jesus climbed to stand trial before Pilate. As the story goes, St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, commanded them dismantled, shipped to Italy, and reassembled in Rome.

I explained that, for centuries, faithful pilgrims climbed up those stone stairs on aching knees, pausing to pray on each of twenty-eight marble steps. To this day, no one may stand on the Scala Sancta. Pilgrims climb up on their knees, and exit via another stairway on their feet. For this act of contrition, penitents are promised a plenary indulgence—full pardon from the temporal punishments due all unrecompensed sins to date.

That’s when Anthony snorted. He later explained that he’d grown up in Italy, and his grandmother made him climb the Scala Sancta every week. He told how she stood by weeping, wringing her hands, and praying for his eternal soul.

I admire her dedication, but can’t agree with her theology. Score another one for legalism.

Every Christian is a recovering legalist. We come from a long line of legalists, all the way back to Adam and Eve who sewed fig leaves to cover their shame. Instead of approaching God as empty-handed charity-cases, legalists approach him as religious success-stories who, through their hard work and sacrifice, have earned a spiritual paycheck. “Come on, God. Pay up.”

God has a way of knocking the legalism right out of us.

Case in point, Jacob. Genesis 32 tells the strange story of his wrestling match with God. Is it true that we must win a contest with God before he gives us what we need and want? Or is this story a biblical case-study on God’s way of delivering a knock-out blow to legalism? Let’s see.

The Context: A Personal Judgment Day

Jacob is about to collide with the brother he cheated years ago. He’s frantic, thinking Esau is out for blood. He dreads the heavy hammer of retributive justice – well-deserved – and scrambles for a solution.

He does so in a schizophrenic way. His first approach to deliverance is through grace. In v. 9, he appeals to the goodness of God, who “promised to prosper” him. The Hebrew word tob, translated “prosper” refers to God’s settled disposition to do good this his people.  Then, in v. 10, he confesses, “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness [hesed] and the faithfulness you have shown your servant…” The word hesed refers to God’s policy of bestowing benefits on those who don’t deserve them and haven’t earned them. Hesed is a part of the Hebrew vocabulary of grace. Jacob prays a grace-based prayer.

Too bad he didn’t stick with grace. Jacob immediately shifted into legalism mode and, by his actions, undercut everything he just prayed.

The Human Solution: Paying the Price Ourselves

Jacob’s second approach to deliverance is through blatant bribery. He sent ahead treasure-laden caravans to buy his brother’s forgiveness. He offered goats, camels, rams, bulls, and donkeys.

We might laugh now, but how many times have we done the same thing? How many times have we sought divine deliverance through caravans of offerings, rituals, good behaviors, self-sacrifice, and religiosity? How many times have we expected God to answer our prayers on account of a week’s good behavior? Every time we try to pay our way out of judgment or into a blessing, haven’t we stepped into Jacob’s dusty sandals?

Legalism thrives in the dank atmosphere of self-atonement. We may not climb up stairs on our knees, and we may not believe in religious penance, but legalism degrades our Christian walk into a moment-by-moment penance. We so easily take onto our shoulders the hulking burden of paying for guilt—a burden than only Jesus Christ can and did bear in full on Calvary’s cross.

I’ve been a Christian for decades, yet still I catch myself undercutting the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. I know it’s stupid, but I have a mental closet crammed with fig-leaf garments I’ve sewn together to cover my guilt and shame. The essence of legalism is humans by human effort seeking to merit the blessing of God.

It’s time for God’s loving whack upside Jacob’s legalistic head.

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Should we wrestle God for answers to our prayers? What was Jacob thinking? What do you think God was thinking? What have you heard about this story? How has it been interpreted for you? 

(Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 2)

Not About Worship

At a coffee meeting some time ago, I met with a young man who said his gifts and passions were to lead God’s people in worship. (The young man was not from my church by the way, so no guessing.) He went on to say others have told him he had “an anointing” for leading worship.

I like this guy. He is passionate. Eager. On fire. Likable. A ton of cool tattoos.

“That’s great,” I said. Then I leaned across the table and said, “Quick — give me ten attributes of God.”

He was stumped. My question came out of the blue. His eyes grew wide. He stammered a few words, and smiled. “I guess I can’t.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “Give me ten names of God and their meanings.”

Again, no dice.

“But the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits. (Daniel 11:32b, NKJV).

You will keep him in perfect peace, Whose mind is stayed on You, Because he trusts in You. (Isaiah 26:3, NKJV).

The young man had a teachable heart, and I went on to share one of my passionate beliefs with him: WORSHIP IS NOT ABOUT WORSHIP. WORSHIP IS ABOUT GOD. 

A “worship leader” who has not made God the focus of his/her studies is like a doctor who hasn’t studied anatomy or a mechanic who doesn’t know a catalytic converter from a flux capacitor. Master the craft of music, yes. Master the craft of assembling and leading teams, and putting together a service that flows, of course. But DO NOT FAIL to devote your heart to the knowledge of God.

We will worship with our hearts, and with our understanding also. In spirit AND truth.

Dear Anointed Worship Leader: put muscle on your anointing by deep meditation and study of the names of God, the attributes of God, and the Triune Nature of God as revealed in Scripture. Please saturate your MIND and SPIRIT in a God who has graciously revealed himself on the pages of Scripture.

You are a specialist in worship; great. Now be a specialist in God. Lead God’s people into a transcendent vision of a God bigger than your current emotional state. A God whose name is exalted above the heavens. Do not expect a maturing congregation to be excited about cliches and platitudes, even if the music behind them is good. You can tell us to sit, stand, kneel, clap our hands, celebrate, and dance, but if you have not painted on the canvas of our minds a picture of a God worth dancing over, you have only succeeded in cajoling us over the mechanics of worship, while ignoring the true subject of worship, our Glorious God.

Tozer was right: what comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

What thrills the heart is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comprehended in their multifaceted dimensions.

  • Does the worship song declare that God is GOOD? Amen! What is the goodness of God? What does that mean? (Hint: in theology it is called BENEVOLENCE, and has a rich depth of meaning… can you lead us into that?)
  • Does the worship song declare a God who is HOLY? Amen! What is the holiness of God? What about MORAL HOLINESS? MAJESTIC HOLINESS (to use Erickson’s terms)?
  • Does the worship song call us to CONFESSION? Amen! Why? What is the biblical basis of it? What is its effect? What next?

Aren’t we supposed to love God, not only with our whole heart and body and spirit, but also with our whole MIND? When Martin Luther had the church sing, “Lord Tsabaoth his name / from age to age the same / and he must win the battle,” would that have meaning to you? Are we substituting subjective experience, and emotional highs, and “passion” for the deep things of God? I hope not. I’m all for a heartfelt response to God. Let’s just make sure it’s a response to DEEP TRUTH about God founded on Scripture. Otherwise, it risks being just manipulation.

My church is blessed to be worshipping with a worship pastor (the fantastic Tim Hawkins) and a great leadership team eager to know and grow in the knowledge of God. Teachable. Diligent in their own growth. Hungering and thirsting to grasp God in his riches and depths. I am so blessed to be worshipping with these young leaders, and our church is blessed because of them.

Let’s remember the heart of worship: worship isn’t about worship. It’s about God.

What are some of the most precious names and attributes of God to you? What is Scripture saying to you lately about who God is? I’d love to read your comment…