Pick Your Battles

In Matthew 17 the disciples came into Capernaum and the tax collectors asked Peter, “Does you Teacher not pay the tax?” Peter said “Yes.” And then we they were in the house Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” 26 Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

The kings of earth ought to take customs and taxes from strangers rather than squeezing their own people, thereby treating sons like strangers. The first century tax code was unjust, but what was Jesus’ point? Why are we told this?

“Nevertheless, lest we offend them…go pay the tax.” Jesus taught his disciples to know that there are some injustices worth fighting for, and some not. And there are some central injustices that when they are defeated, the lesser ones will be worked out. Jesus took this conversation indoors to his apostles, those who would listen, and taught them. He said pay the tax, it’s not worth offending them.

There are many applications from this story, but here are two.

Speaking of injustices, the political presidential season is upon on us and we must remember there are some issues that are bigger than others. There are many injustices but which ones are important, worth praying about, worth talking about? The right to life is important because human beings bear the image of God. This issue is front and center and should stay there. As you think about issues and candidates, let God’s Word inform your priorities.

And a second application on more personal level, there are many sins in the lives of those around us, and God tells us that love covers a multitude of sins. Most things are not worth bringing up, but worth covering in love just like God does for us. Where would we be if He didn’t? So let go of what isn’t important, challenge graciously what is important for the other person’s sake, and forgive as you have been forgiven.

The Called Out

As the church we must always remember that we are God’s summoned people. We are the ekklesia, the called out ones, drawn to the Father through the Son by the Spirit in relationship. As one big family we are brought together each week on the Lord’s Day to be renewed and blessed.

What we do in gathered worship is not like the Kiwanas or any voluntary association where we decided to have a meeting and therefore could decide to cancel it or not show up because we found something better to do. This doesn’t mean God calls us to meet with him against our will; if we are loving him, this becomes refreshing and our greatest joy. This is a weekly day of rest, rejoicing, fellowship, and covenant renewal with our creator and redeemer.

But we want to be disciples in worship, and remember that everything we do here is about God, and not us. We’re not the customer, nor are the unchurched. Everyone is welcomed and in fact also called by God to taste and see that he gracious—but God is the customer. He is the one we are trying to please.    Continue reading

The Giver Behind the Gifts

There is nothing we have that isn’t a gift, but God’s greatest gift is the one that enables us to see this truth—the giver behind the gifts. G.K. Chesterton got at this when he said, “We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

All day long we stand beneath a cascading waterfall of God’s grace, his unmerited gifts to us: life, health, friends and family, food and sunshine and rain and the pleasures we meet in immeasurable ways. Our duty is to receive all of these and then look at the source, the spring that it all flows from, and simply say thank you.

The prophet Jeremiah says the human heart is the epitome of deceit and desperately wicked–“who can know it?”, he asks rhetorically. And so we take the most obvious gifts and obscure their source. Jesus confronted the people that did this with the Bible in his day in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” Instead of meeting God through the book, they bowed down and worshipped the book. It’s like being given a fork to eat with but deciding instead to stick it in your eye.

God gives the us Bible, the liturgy, the Lord’s Supper, the sermon, forgiveness, one another, all of these things, so that we would enjoys the gifts and through them see and thank the Giver.

Assurance Isn’t In Your Bellybutton

The Hesychasts were a group of mystic monks that originated in the 14th century at Mt. Athos in Greece. They took on a practice that while laughable is an all too common approach to spirituality and assurance. They discovered that by holding their breath and staring at their bellybuttons, they could receive revelation from God, or rather what they thought was revelation. This is where the phrase navel-gazing comes from. Just stare at yourself, focus on your sins, or your virtues for that matter, and do this in a meditative frame of mind and God will surely show Himself to you.

The Bible teaches us the almost the exact opposite of this. If we want to understand ourselves and experience our Maker, we have to look away from ourselves: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus”, we’re told (Heb. 12:1-2). To understand ourselves, James says to look at the perfect law of liberty and then do what it says (1:25)—and it doesn’t direct us to our bellybuttons, but rather to do justice, show mercy, walk humbly, to love our God with everything we have and our neighbors as ourselves.

I said almost the exact opposite because Scripture does tell us to know ourselves. Paul says to “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5). It’s good to see if God has converted you—do you believe in his Son’s death and resurrection for your sins? Do you have godly sorrow that leads to repentance? God wants us to call on his name for salvation, and once we’ve done so He wants assure our hearts. But we’re not assured by constantly looking to our hearts much less our navels. C.S. Lewis noted if you ever met a humble man, you wouldn’t notice him being humble. You’d notice his interest in you, asking questions, taking care. God frees us from ourselves—all of our cares, concerns, burdens and sins–and calls us to look to Him and be overwhelmed by His grace and love. There we find everything.

Watch with a Clean Conscience & Clear Head

Imagine people preparing days in advance for a worship service. Throughout the week, last Sunday’s meeting is hashed out in every detail, all analyzed and understood, enjoyed and reflected upon. It builds to the next one. What will happen? What will we sing and pray? What will the preacher say about the text?

The roads can be crammed on the way to church so people plan: when they will leave, where they will park—no one wants to sit in the nosebleeds. They pay attention to how they dress because they’re meeting the king of the universe—it’s not about dressing for yourself as a selfish individual, but for God and his people, all cheering for him. Some guys have their shirts off and chests painted with their favorite psalms.

The event begins with much anticipation, people on their feet, heads clear, throats ready to shout amen and sing.  If only we were as excited about our god as America is about the Super Bowl! We’d be having a lot more fun and be a lot more blessed.

The Super Bowl is as close to religiously and culturally united our culture gets. Continue reading

The Issue of Our Generation

January 19th marks the 30th anniversary of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, which President Reagan designated on January 22, 1984, 11 years after Roe v. Wade overturned laws in every state opposing abortion. Since Roe v Wade, 41 years ago, we’ve had over 54 million abortions, the entire population of the Great Lakes region, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York, and the province of Ontario, over 17 percent of the current U.S. population.

This is the single most important issue of our generation. If a church in the segregated south didn’t insist that the image of God given to mankind of every race ensures equal rights, what would God say to that church?If a church in Rwanda in 1994 didn’t take a stand against the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus, what good would that church be? And in our day if a church doesn’t oppose the infanticide that happens in doctors’ offices for tens of millions of dollars of profit off those in desperate circumstances, that church has lost its saltiness. Our shepherds are cowards and the sheep are devoured. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6).

Opposing abortion isn’t the only issue of our day, but it is the most important, our calling to stand up for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Like any enormous injustice, the ways of repentance are many. It begins with fathers having the heavenly Father’s heart, sacrificing themselves for their wives and children, rather than using women and allowing their children to be sacrificed for them. It includes men and women repenting of murder for convenience. It includes the church repenting of her cowardice for not addressing this issue, and failing to disciple its own. Idols always call for blood. So does the true God. We are cleansed by the blood of Christ, and his grace is greater than our sin, including the sin of murder. This is our great strength and hope, the only way of deliverance.

Love Pervades

Paul says action without love is useless, but faithful love, true love, really does act.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  -1 Corinthians 1:1-3

Preaching the gospel in other languages, teaching the Bible, understanding the deep things of God, a faith to move mountains, generosity and even martyrdom, without love, are unprofitable for us.

Love is patient and kind, without envy or boasting or selfishness. But love isn’t passive nor simply an absence of sin. Love rejoices in the truth, bears, believes, hopes all things, and it endures. Prophecies go away, tongues cease, knowledge passes, but, he says, love never ends. Paul says when the perfect comes the partial will pass away. It’s hard to even guess what this will be like, when we love in full, but we know what to do now, how to love in part.

Love isn’t something we sprinkle into our lives as a separate category of action or emotion. Scripture says love is the fulfilling of the law. It is what we are to do. If anything we do is going to matter, glorify our Lord, and bless our neighbor and ourselves, it must be done in love. 

God’s Menu

The New Covenant is a time of vivid, concrete spiritual reality, not one of types and shadows. Before the death of Christ, the faithful were like a boy prince, governed by his tutor, waiting for his maturity so he could rule and grow the kingdom. Israel engaged in various training exercises, like fencing classes for the prince, that would prepare them for real battle with real weapons. Well, the people of God have grown up. We might even be in our 20s; we have yet a long way to go, but we have been entrusted with real weapons now, and a couple of them are right here on the table. The Westminster Larger Catechism asks “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?” And it answers “not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.” What is the work of the Holy Spirit but your faith? By the same faith God accomplishes our salvation whether it be by hearing the Word, or at this table having heard it, eating and drinking it. Bread and wine are the food of conquering kings as Abraham received from Melchizedek. The minor prophet Zechariah prophesied of the coming of Zion’s King, whose coronation we celebrate today on Ascension Sunday, and he said “On that day the LORD their God will save them…for like jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land…. Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women” (Zech. 9:16-17). You are the kings and queens, the royal people of God. Here is your bread and wine. We also include grape juice which we know God blesses. We don’t include it because we’re catering to taste preferences or because it doesn’t really matter what we consume. God set the menu, and the time of types and shadows have passed. We do this because it’s not just what we eat and drink, but how. And we don’t want to stumble anyone physically with the wine in the same way we don’t want someone who is allergic to eat the bread. Special bread, special juice, God understands. But if you can drink the wine, drink it. It’s potent and powerful, part of a dangerous gospel that requires us to grow in wisdom. Drink too much of it and it will mock you. Drink it here and in moderation as Christ delivered, and it will grow you up into his image. And if this whole meditation leaves you unsettled, don’t be. Take what you’re ready to take. We are all together working toward maturity.