Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Sermon: The Battle Begins

 This is the sermon I preached on October 24, 2020 at Bethlehem Church. It is sermon 8 as we go through The Story.

Be the Evidence




Questions are an important part of having a conversation.

They help us find out more about the other person and they provide us with information that we didn’t have before.

If I am going to have a conversation about God, then certain questions are going to come up. 

Truth be told, while I am a pastor, I am not a “Bible Answer Man.” There are many things about Christianity, the Bible, and God I have questions about.

The process of answering questions helps us think through what we believe and provides us the opportunity to look at the world from a new perspective.

This particular question is a common one. It would be reasonable to assume that if God wanted everyone to know Him that He would make it easy for people to find Him. 

I think at the heart of this question is this statement: "God if You would just reveal Yourself to me then I would believe in You." They justify their lack of faith because God, if He even exists, hasn’t made it obvious to them.  

I can understand why this is a difficulty to believing in God. There are times in my life that I wished God would just prove His existence. Yet, I suspect that wouldn't impact my long term faith very much.

Think about two Biblical examples of people who experienced God in a miraculous way: 
  • The nation of Israel in Exodus. These people had experience slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. They witnessed God deliver them from slavery through the use of ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the miraculous provision of guidance and food through the wilderness. They saw how God revealed Himself to the entire nation at Mount Sinai. Moses went up the mountain, and when he doesn't return (forty days and forty nights) the people got antsy. They gather some gold together and made a golden calf to worship. In their worship they proclaimed this is the god who led them out of Egypt (Exodus 19 -32).
  • Jesus' disciples. These men heard Jesus teach, witnessed his miracles, and saw him over a 40 day stretch after his resurrection. As Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven he took these followers to a mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:17 saws; "When they saw him, they worshiped him--but some of them still doubted!" (NLT)  

It is amazing that Israel doubted God and disciples doubted Jesus after all they experienced. We tend to think if we were in their place and were able to witness miracles and see the risen Lord face to face that we would not doubt. I am not certain that would be the case.

These examples show us that a faith built on the evidence miracles is not a sustainable faith. Time has a way of eroding our experiences. Given enough time even the most awesome miracles would loose their impressiveness.

Aside from what theologians call general revelation (the evidence of God discovered in nature), God doesn't make Himself known to everyone. It might be impressive for God to reveal Himself in all His Holy splendor, but how long would that make an impression on people? At the very least it would be something He had to do every generation.

There is nothing God can do, except what He will do when Jesus returns, that will convince everyone that He is real.

That doesn't mean God keeps Himself hidden from people.
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”
So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27; NLT)

God created human beings in His image. To be created in God's image means that we are designed to be His representatives in this world, to demonstrate His character. In other words we are to be walking, talking, and breathing revelations of God. The world should know God because of His people.

This is why Jesus told his disciples: 

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35; NLT)

The world will know that God exists through the lives of His people. May we be the evidence people need.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Presidents and the Constitution


We are a week away from determining the president of the United States.

While there is always a big push to get people out and vote, there seems to be more of an urgency every 4 years when it comes time to elect a new president. 

This is sad. Not because I think more people should be voting, but because of the great emphasis put on this one position. 

The founding generation feared a powerful executive and tried to make it so one person did not have so much influence.

That reality has eroded over time.  

Now the president has so much power that every presidential election becomes about determining which direction the country will move.

Gone are the days when we should really be asking one question when it comes to electing a president: "What is he/she constitutionally allowed to do?"

Historian and author, Brion McClanahan puts it this way in 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America:
 

Is "constitutionally permitted to do" even a category we think about when it comes to evaluating presidents and electing new ones? Was that challenge even offered during the debates? 

The more power we allow presidents to have the more we move away from the constitutional republic created by the founders and closer we become to being a dictatorship. 

This is why it is crucial for us to know that Constitution of the United States, so we are able to point out when it is not being followed. Apart from that, it doesn't matter who becomes president, we will just mover further down the road to tyranny. 

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Keep Making Progress

 


This year has been, at least emotionally, the most difficult year of my life.

It started last November with a difficult situation within our church community that caused me to doubt my leadership abilities.

Then we moved into winter, that dark time of year that causes depression in many people, myself included. My heart, mind, and soul were heavy.

We all know what happened as winter began to turn into spring - pandemic and lockdowns. I was faced with trying to pivot and provide online worship and resources for people, while not being able to meet face to face to figure things out.

In May my right leg began to hurt. I lived with the pain for a week, trying to convince myself that it wasn't what I knew it was - a blood clot. This was my second clot and I knew that I would now be on blood thinners the rest of my life.

During this time came BLM and protests, and the added pressure of trying to figure out the right things to say about an important moment in America. One of the difficulties of being a pastor is the expectation to have a position or at least a thought about everything that happens.

As things began to open up we had the great mask debate and the discussion of whether our not churches should follow the lockdown orders. After all, I was told, President Trump declared churches as essential, so we should be meeting in person.

This was followed by several families informing me they were leaving. Which again had me doubting my ability to do this job as pastor.

Even during the summer, when I am usually depression free, I found myself sinking deeper into depression.

By the end of August, I realized I needed to make a change. Not only was I depressed, but my health was being affected. I was the heaviest I had ever been in my life, I was not sleeping well, and the simplest activities were exhausting me.

The change started with my wife Jenny telling me about an app from Ransomed Heart that was created in connection with John Eldredge's book Get Your Life Back (which I haven't read) called One Minute Pause. I started doing the app every day, usually more than once a day. It helped me to reorient my life back to God.

Doing The Pause app reminded me that through the Wild at Heart website John Eldredge has a resource of prayers. I began daily praying the Daily Prayer for the Head of Households. This practice helped me to start reading the Bible daily again.

After about a month of putting prayer and Bible reading back into my daily rhythm of life, I was ready to start focusing on my physical health. There were a couple of false starts as I tried to figure out the best way to implement what I knew I was supposed to do. Even though I knew the right things to do I was having trouble doing them.

That is when I found out about another app called Noom. This app/program is designed to help you make a lifestyle change so that you can live a sustainable healthy life. Last week one of the readings that Noom had me read dealt with understanding that there would be setbacks and struggles through this process. To combat that reality I was asked to write an "Oh well" statement that I could use when I stumbled. Mine is, "Oh well, I am still making progress." 

The next day I saw this Dave Ramsey tweet:




It is a wonderful thing that we can decide to make changes in our lives. We can make today the day that change begins. It is crucial to remember this.

I also think it is crucial to remember that change is hard. It doesn't happen over night and it doesn't happen just because you know the right thing to do.

Things like overcoming depression, losing weight, getting out of debt, or decluttering your house takes time. If we expect this change to go smoothly, for our habits to shift right this moment, and for our life to be perfect tomorrow we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Making these positive changes in our lives requires time and effort, and more than likely we are going to have a moment or two when we binge on Moose Tracks Ice Cream or put a shopping spree on the credit card, or do something else dumb that we have trained ourselves to do.

That is why we have grace. 

God is not expecting us to be perfect. After all He made allowance for repentance and confession. What God is after is our continued progress towards being like Jesus.

I believe in our quest to make changes in our lives the best thing we can do is to give ourselves grace and to remember that we will stumble along the way. Understanding this helps us to own up to our failure and move on by saying, "Oh well, I am still making progress."


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sermon: Wanderings

 This is the sermon I gave at Bethlehem Church in Austin, MN on October 18, 2020.

 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Following Jesus and Politics


Politics is very seductive. It promises the ability to direct the course of a nation. 

It is this feature that causes many people To get worked up around election time. The belief  we have is that if the right people are elected, then the United States will head in the right direction. 

As a result, followers of Jesus can get distracted by politics. 

Since we are passionate about seeing God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, we can tell ourselves that it is essential for our country to be influenced by God’s laws and will.

We see this on both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives will emphasis the need to have a country whose laws are based on Biblical truths. Progressives will emphasize the need to have a government that works to bring justice into the world. 

In both cases these Christians claim that their politics and the way they vote demonstrates their faithfulness to Jesus.


Our faith is not defined by our politics.

Remember, politics is about trying to rally support for certain candidates, policies, and causes. What inevitably happens is that half truths and distortions are used to convince us to support them. The politics of this world depends on propaganda for the support of people.

In contrast, the way of Jesus is about truth. Followers of Jesus seek to speak truth into this world. This means we can’t just use the same talking points the politicians and their supporters use. We have to seek and speak the truth, even when it goes against people and policies that we may support.

Politics requires the use of force. The primary way the world seeks to gain compliance among people is through force. Every governmental policy and law is enforced through the threat of force. We can see this in the multi-tiered law enforcement agencies that exists: local, state, and federal. Without this extensive police force, the will of politicians could not be accomplished.

In contrast, the way of Jesus is the way of compassion and love. According to Jesus, we are able to be righteous people when we love God and when we love our neighbors. Our job is to teach people to do the right thing, not by threatening them, but explaining the wonderful love of God and serving them in their needs.

To choose the way of politics as our primary focus is to say that we don’t trust God’s way of bringing transformation into this world. It demonstrates that we are more comfortable with using the tools of propaganda and force to direct people’s lives than we are trusting God’s Spirit to bring transformation.

This is not to say that it is wrong to be involved in politics or to ignore voting. 

William Wilberforce is a great example of using the wheels of politics to bring about a much needed change in society by ending the slave trade in the British Empire. Politics, when used with wisdom and love, is certainly one of the tools available to Christians to make a difference in this world.

My concern as a pastor and disciple of Jesus are Christians whose entire Facebook page is filled with nothing but political posts, who condemn the other side as evil, and who proclaim that the only way to save the United States is to vote for the candidates of their party. This is dangerous for a Christian’s personal discipleship and it hinders the outreach of the Church.

Be mindful of who you vote for and what issues you champion, but don’t equate that with your faithfulness to Jesus. God has His own agenda and that is what we should commit our lives to supporting.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Marriage and Discipleship

 Recently I was scrolling through Twitter and saw that one of the people I follow retweeted the following:

Is this good advice for single people?

I don't think so:



Marriage is wonderful. 

I can't imagine my life without my wife and children. They are a wonderful addition to my life.

The reality is that I have lived the majority of my life not married. For most of my adult life I was a single pastor who sought to follow Jesus. 

One of my regrets is that I wasted much of my time of singleness, because I continually believed that marriage and family was the missing part of my life. Rather than seeking God and His Kingdom, I sought after marriage. 

My discipleship was stunted as a result.

Consider what Jesus said about marriage:
Jesus’ disciples then said to him, “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!” 
“Not everyone can accept this statement,” Jesus said. “Only those whom God helps. Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12; NLT)

 This does not sound like Jesus endorsed the advice to "get married soon" and "find a career." Rather, it seems like Jesus wants us to evaluate our lives and commit to a path that allows us to follow him. 

The path of singleness is a good but difficult life. Being single frees us from responsibilities that keep us from focusing solely on God's Kingdom and growing in holiness. It also creates the difficulty of being single in a world where couples and romance are celebrated and idolized. 

Being single is not easy, but it opens up the possibility of following Jesus at a deeper level than being married offers.

It is crucial that we do not offer up marriage as the perfect ideal for following Jesus. When we do we are in danger of turning marriage into an idol and making those who are single into second class citizens. 

Our marital status is not an indication of our discipleship. 

Our discipleship depends on our faithfulness to Jesus. May we continue to encourage one another, married and single, to remain faithful to him.


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Mutually Opposed

It is not uncommon to find two opposing desires residing in our hearts.

One of the most common experience of this is the desire to live life on our terms and the desire to follow Jesus. It would be nice if the two were the same, but they are not. The one desire is about maintaining control in our lives while the other desire is about surrendering that control to God.

The fact that we carry around these opposing desires doesn’t mean that we want to live some evil lifestyle. It does mean that we don’t trust God to do what is best.

John Eldredge in Walking with God writes about these two desires:
“I want two things that are mutually opposed—I want to live a nice little life, and I want to play an important role in God’s kingdom. And it’s in those times that I am trying to live a nice little life that I make decisions and choices that cause me in small and subtle ways to live outside of Jesus. The Shepherd is headed one direction, and I am headed another. Not to some flagrant sin—that’s too easy to recognize. Instead, I’m simply wandering off looking for the pasture I deem best.” (pp. 89-90)

I don’t want to speak for you, but I know this summarizes my life.

On the one hand I want the life I want to live: a nice life that is safe and comfortable. On the other hand I want to be part of what God is doing in this world: a life of faith that takes me out of my comfort zone.

My flesh always pulls me towards the life I want, which I believe is the life of my dreams.

What is frustrating, and I would bet that you have been there too, is that the life of my dreams never really becomes a reality. It always seems to remain just out of reach. And if by chance we have a few moments when we think we have achieved it, it doesn’t seem to be everything that we had hoped it would be. It feels unsatisfying to us.

As long as we live here on earth we will be pulled in these two directions. We are either going to use our time and energy to create the life we think will make us happy, or we will sacrifice our desires to devote our lives to following Jesus and discovering the life he created for us.

I want you to think about what the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians:
So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better. (Colossians 1:9-10; NLT)
We need to God's will and to have spiritual wisdom if we are going to live a life that honors Jesus.

To receive this knowledge we need to pray. Notice that this is part of Paul's regular prayer for the Colossians. We al need to spend time in the Bible. The Bible is God's word to us: it contains the wisdom and truth that He wants us to know.

Remember, it isn’t enough just to know and understand God’s will.

The key is to be obedient to God’s will. The way God’s will makes a difference in our lives is when we adjust our lives to it.

If we aren’t willing to obey God, then knowing His will doesn’t make one bit of difference in our lives. This requires that we make a commitment to do God’s will, no matter what the cost will be or where His will takes us.

Our desires to have a nice little life and to live the life God created us to live are mutually opposed (though I should add that when the first is our goal we will never achieve it, but when the second is our goal we will have a life that is so much better than what we had dreamed), and if we are going to follow Jesus we will have to lay down our dreams and desires in order to pick up His desires for our lives.

The life we really want, true life, isn’t found in what we can create for ourselves. It is found in the life God created us to live.

Seek out God’s will for your life, and then live out His will. That is how we truly live life.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

A Mark of Maturity

Author Dallas Willard in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines wrote; “Here as always—whether in our natural life or in our spiritual life—the mark of disciplined persons is that they are able to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.” (p. 151)

It is the disciplined person who is able to come through in the clutch and does not allow the pressure of the moment to rattle him/her from accomplishing what needs to be done.

It was the discipline of shooting thousands of baskets that enabled basketball legend Larry Bird to be such a great clutch performer. Without the hours of intense practice Bird would never have been able to hit as many last second shots as he did. It wasn’t about having good intentions, but it was about training his body to respond in a certain way, and that is what made it possible for him to be so great.

We understand the importance of discipline in the arenas of sports and music, but often we neglect it when it comes to living a life of faith. 

Somehow we have told ourselves that what matters are our good intentions, and if we are willing to follow Jesus then that is good enough. The problem is that when the chips are down and life is stacked against us we often fail. We can’t come through in the clutch because we have not trained our bodies to respond in the right way.

Let’s face it; many of us are undisciplined.

I would guarantee that if we examined the lives of people who are considered to have a mature faith one thing they all would have in common is discipline. Granted they may not call it discipline, but they would have certain activities that they were devoted to doing which expressed their commitment to Christ Jesus.

A verse that has come to mean a lot to me the past few years is Acts 2:42. In this verse Luke shares with us four activities that the earlier church devoted themselves to doing.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (ESV)
As the Church exploded on to the scene the Apostles made sure that the new Believers were involved in activities that would encourage these new disciples and would help them mature in their faith.

Being disciplined is essential if we are going to be mature disciples of Christ.

Consider what the apostle Paul wrote about who he lived his life:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; ESV)

Paul compared his walk with Christ to an athlete preparing to compete in the games. The athlete is disciplined in his/her practice so they are able to perform to the best of their ability and when the prize.

According to Paul, the athlete is an illustration for how we are to live our lives: we are to discipline our bodies and learn to control them.

Maturing in faith isn’t just a matter of knowing more or having the proper intentions. Rather, it is about training our bodies to respond to the good desires of our new hearts. We are to discipline our bodies so we can respond in love when others respond in hate, so we can respond with joy for another person’s success rather than being jealous, or so we can give generously rather than greedily horde what we have.

If we are going to live like Jesus, then we need to discipline our bodies to respond to the new heart He has given us.

Erwin McManus in his little book Stand Against the Wind wrote:
There is a process in our becoming all that God created us to be. This is the human side of divine change. Transformation is both the miracle of God and the stewardship of man. Godliness is a result of both divine activity and human action. God promises to do what we cannot do for ourselves, and He commands us to do that which He will not do for us. There is both miracle and responsibility. God entrusts us with His resources, and then He holds us accountable for what we do with them.” (p. 46)
Foundational to what I am saying is that our transformation and salvation are miracles of God. 

We cannot achieve true transformation, a total change of heart, without the initiative and action of God. That is where it all starts, and so I am not advocating some form of humanism here, but rather I want to point out that we have a responsibility to nurture and grow this wonderful gift that God has given to us.

To be disciplined means to be good stewards of the miracle of salvation God has done for us.

What disciplines do we need in our lives in order to be good stewards of the new life we have in Christ Jesus?

I think a good place to start, because it comes right out of the Bible, are the four activities of Acts 2:42.

 I want to point out that the third activity, the breaking of bread, means the Lord’s Supper. This is a debatable issue, but in my study I have come to believe that is what it the phrase means in this context. One of the reasons I want to emphasis this is because it is important for us to have a way to re-commit our lives to God’s Kingdom after we have stumbled and sinned.

If we are going to mature as disciples of Christ Jesus then it is essential that we have in our lives certain disciplines that help teach our bodies to live by faith.

This is why one of the marks of mature Christians is their commitment to certain activities that help them stay connected to Christ. If we are to follow their example then we need to have similar activities as a part of our lives.

Isn’t it about time that we live a disciplined life?

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Violence is not the Answer


I originally wrote this three years ago. Given what is happening in some of the major cities here in the United States, I think it bears reposting.

Ever since the tragedy of Charlottesville there has been something that has bothered me.

My great concern is not the presence of Neo-Nazis, but the acceptance of aggressive violence as the means to silence other people.

Most of you know that I am a libertarian. Contrary to what most people believe, libertarians are not “fiscally conservative and socially liberal”. As far as my personal preferences go I am fiscally conservative and socially conservative, because I believe that is the best way to live.

Libertarianism isn’t about finding a middle ground between Democrats and Republicans, but about the proper use of violence. As the great libertarian thinker Walter Block states:
"Libertarianism is solely a political philosophy. It asks one and only one question: Under what conditions is the use of violence justified? And it gives one and only one answer: Violence can be used only in response, or in reaction to, a prior violation of private property rights." 
In other words violence can only be justifiably used in self-defense. This ethic applies to both the State and individuals.

Not only am I a libertarian, but more importantly, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus taught that his followers are to love and pray for their enemies. He forgave those who crucified him. He overcomes, not through violence, but through self-sacrifice. This is the example I am called to model. 

To follow Jesus means I can’t respond with violence to people I disagree with, even when what they are advocating will harm society in the long run.

For me the idea of non-aggression is not some nice idea, but fundamental to who I am. It is a key part to both my political philosophy and my religious belief. God's kingdom is not enlarged nor is liberty expanded through violent aggression.

Know this: if you advocate punching Nazis or Communists or White Supremacists simply because of their beliefs, you are living in opposition to the way of Jesus and you are an enemy to liberty. 

Violence is not the answer and that is why I am equally opposed to Neo-Nazis and Antifa, who both advocate its use to promote their political philosophy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

After Thoughts Ep. 2: A Clearer Picture of Jesus

Who is Jesus?

One of the challenges for Christians is to have an accurate picture of Jesus. We tend to create Jesus in our own image, rather than allowing Jesus to mold us into his image.

In this episode I expand on my sermon, A Clearer Picture, as he looks a three portraits of Jesus found in Revelation.

Music is Eyes of Time by Danosongs


 

The Discipleship Road: Providence

 I am preaching a sermon series called The Discipleship Road  at Bethlehem Church. The series is loosely based on Eugene Peterson’s book A L...