Monday, October 16, 2017

Staying True in a Twisted World
Daniel 1:1-21

Staying Out of the Ditch
This past week, we had a lot of rain come our way, didn’t we?  I know my neighbor was happy.  He had just planted some grass and it is coming up nicely.  I’m happy because when I checked my basement, there weren’t any leaks.  But all the while the rain was coming down, I was thinking…good thing this precip isn’t white or my snow blower would be getting a workout. 

Now some of you are mad at me because you’re thinking I’ve jinxed us by saying the white “S” word and its only October.  Well, from where I’ve come from, snow is not unheard of at this point in the year.  Remember the song from White Christmas?

Snow…it won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow…
Snow…I want to wash my face, my hands, my hair with snow…
Snow…I long to clear a path and lift a spade of snow…


Ever have to drive a country road at night in a full-on blizzard?  I lived in South Dakota.  Talk about white!  That was the color of my knuckles as I gripped the steering wheel!  It happened a couple of times to me and it was frightening.  I couldn’t see ten feet beyond the hood of my car.  I didn’t have four-wheel drive and the thought of slipping off into the ditch was terrifying.  I’ve heard the horror stories of people freezing to death out in the storm.  And here’s the thing about driving in a blizzard.  There’s nobody else out there.  They all had the good sense to stay off the road!  I was fortunate never to end up in the ditch during a raging blizzard.  I slowed down to a crawl and kept my eyes on the reflectors on the side of the road to keep the car on the pavement.  A couple of times, I had to open the car door to follow the white line. 


Staying true to your faith in these days of moral relativism and occasional religious hostility is sometimes a lot like trying to stay out of the ditch during a raging blizzard.  What is to keep us true in this turning and twisted world?  The question is not so new.  It’s ages old, actually.  When the Jews were carted off into Babylonian exile, they had to face strong pressure from their captors to deny their faith and adopt a pagan lifestyle.  Most of the captives knew that they had been punished by God for their unfaithfulness, so it was vitally important that they endeavor to stay true to God in order to avoid further misfortune.  The stories found in the Book of Daniel are heroic examples of integrity in the face of intense pressure.  

Daniel 1:1-21 (NIV)
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that, they were to enter the king’s service.

Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”

Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

Excelling in Exile
The Jewish 70-year exile in Babylon was one of the most profound formational events in their history.  Psalm 137 captures the heart of their despair:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Both the books of Esther and Daniel were written during the exile and they exemplify Jewish wisdom and devotion while living in a hostile culture.  Both are relevant for the church today as we move from a period when Protestant Christianity was the default religion of our culture during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries to today where the church is increasingly marginalized.

There are many American Christians who act as if the sky is falling.  We observe broadened restrictions on prayer in schools and government where we used to have a place of unquestioned privilege.  Just this week, a judge in Wisconsin ruled that housing allowances for ministers are unconstitutional.  That ruling has been made before and appeals are pending.  But many in ministerial leadership believe that the ruling will eventually stand.  We’ve seen Christian businesses sued to bankruptcy for refusing service on the basis of conscience.  These are growing trends in our culture that will most likely continue unabated.  America has purposely never had an established state religion like Europe had.  The First Amendment of our Constitution prohibits the establishment of any state religion. 

But the historical fact is that Protestant Christianity has held a place of privilege ever since before the founding of our country.  The First Great Awakening, thirty years before the Revolution restored the moral compass and soul of the colonies in the 1740’s.  The Second Great Awakening in the early years of the nineteenth century pulled the frontier back from debauchery and cultivated the seeds for the abolitionist movement.  Galesburg, itself, was founded as a direct result of the Revival to be a spiritual light on the prairie frontier.  Fanny Crosby, the hymn-writer who wrote Blessed Assurance and 6,000 other hymns addressed Congress and was friends with every American president during her adult lifetime.  Consider the place of privilege and influence that Billy Graham enjoyed with every president from Eisenhower to George W. Bush.  America has never had a state church.  But Evangelical Protestantism was established as our default cultural religion for over two centuries.

But that is no more.  We are in the process of being disestablished.  We no longer hold a place of privilege in American culture.  I, along with most other Christians, grieve that loss.  But it is what it is.  And the sky is not falling.  In our new reality, we have a critical new opportunity.   

The American church is being forced to grow into a more mature, rigorous, and biblical faith.  A Christian faith that is only engaged one hour a week on Sunday mornings will not stand in the pressure of our changing culture.  God is calling American Christians to integrate their faith into all of their life – at home, at school, at work, and when alone. 

Like Daniel and his friends, we are placed here in this time and this place for a purpose.  You and I will be challenged with pressure to embrace a culture that is increasingly hostile to our faith.  We have the opportunity and challenge to be counter-cultural and, in so doing, make God known in the world in which we live.  These are not bad days, friends.  They are challenging, yes!  But these are days of glorious opportunity.

For the Glory of God’s Name
God gave Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah a unique opportunity to demonstrate that the God of their faith – and our faith – ruled over the affairs of all people.  Indeed, God had put them in places of authority and privilege so that he might demonstrate his power.  But Daniel and his friends had to have the integrity and courage to exercise their faith in the face of life-threatening consequences.  You see, faith isn’t believing in spite of evidence – that’s just superstition.  Real biblical faith is found in action – in obeying in spite of the consequences.  And that’s what Daniel and his friends demonstrated.

The first episode of testing involved Daniel.  Old Nebuchadnezzar, the unreasonable and arrogant king, had a dream that really bothered him.  He demanded that his advisors tell him what the dream was as well as its interpretation.  That would be like me telling Diane, “I had a dream last night.  I know it was bad, but I can’t remember it.  Could you tell me what it was?”  Diane is pretty intuitive, but she isn’t a mind reader.  But the King demanded to know what his dream was.  (And you thought our president was bad…)  And when his advisors protested his unreasonableness, he ordered them all killed. 

The response of Daniel and his friends is instructive for us:
When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. At this, Daniel went into the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.

Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.
Daniel 2:14-19 (p. 1371)
When Daniel told the king his dream and the interpretation, notice what happened:

“Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”  (2:46-47)

God’s character and power were made known.

That’s the theme through all of the stories in the Book of Daniel.  When Daniel’s three friends refused to worship the king’s idol and survived the fiery furnace, old Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and responded:

“Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” (3:28-29)

Later, Daniel’s rivals convinced a new king, Darius, to make a decree that it was illegal to pray to or worship any god except the king.  They knew that Daniel was a man of integrity and faith and that he prayed regularly to the God of his fathers.  Knowing that he could not obey such a law, Daniel didn’t organize a protest in the streets.  He didn’t make signs or placards denouncing the injustice of the decree.  He didn’t approach the king for an exception, even though he enjoyed great favor at the court.  No.  He simply obeyed the Sovereign God of the Universe by disobeying the unrighteous law that had been made.  He went home, threw open his window towards Jerusalem, as was his custom, and prayed as he always had.  When God delivered him from sure death in the lion’s den, King Darius recognized the greater power of God:
“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

“For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.” (6:26-27)

You see, when we act with integrity, faith, and courage in the face of pressure, the power of God will always be manifested to the world.

Lessons from the Road
We live in a culture that is increasingly in opposition to the Christian faith.  There is rising pressure for us to wilt into the background and to compromise our faith.  We find that pressure in the media, at work, in the community, and especially in the home if it is not centered on Christ.  For those who are engaged in higher education as students, faculty, or staff, the pressure to compromise one’s Christian faith is enormous.  How do we stay true in an increasingly twisted world?  What are some of the lessons we can learn from Daniel and his friends to strengthen us in this day of challenge and opportunity?  I can think of four.

1.     Engage the culture with grace.  Daniel and his friends were always respectful.  Jesus treated his accusers with respect and grace.  There is no reason to be obnoxious and disrespectful when confronting opposition against your faith.  To act in that way would bring dishonor on the name of Christ rather than make him known.  Courageous people of faith in the Bible and throughout history have always engaged those in authority over them with grace and respect.
2.     Know that God is sovereign and that he will always have the last say.  He will vindicate you if you stand for him.  Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah believed that and acted on their faith in spite of threatening circumstances. They were convinced that God would demonstrate his power and that is what gave them the strength to stand with integrity.
3.     There is a simple model for biblical discipleship and growth.  The more you know God, the more you love him.  The more you love him, the more you obey him.  The more you obey him, the more he reveals himself to you.  And so, the cycle continues.  Daniel and his friends knew God intimately and they saw his incredible power manifested in their life.  Do you want that for yourself?  Do you want to see God at work in your life?  Get to know him in his Word and through prayer.  Then you’ll love him more.  Your love for him will be demonstrated in obedience.  It is when you and I are obedient to God that we will see him work in ways we would have never imagined.  (Repeat the model responsively.)
4.     Finally, you were born for such a time as this.  Carpe diem!  Seize the day and the opportunity!  God put you here today, in the place that you are in, so that you might show the power of God to the world.  We are on the threshold of new challenges, yes, but also of great possibilities.  Let the word of God to Joshua – another man of integrity who faced great challenges and possibilities encourage us today:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:9

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Level Ground

A few days ago, I took a trip up to Davenport to visit a friend who is the president and CEO of a food bank that services Knox County.  It was great to reconnect after 12 years and catch up on life.  He asked me if we were enjoying living in Galesburg… (and you’re all waiting to hear what I said…)  I told him the truth: that we are enjoying living here very much.  We moved from the West Coast to the Midwest twenty years ago.  One of the significant differences between West Coast and Midwestern culture is the stability of the population.  In California, long-term residents of virtually any town or city are in a small minority.  People come and go in California.  Not so in the Midwest.  Lots of folks have deep generational roots in the town in which they live.  I believe that is one of the great strengths of our community. 

But there is some advantage to having moved around quite a bit as well.  I have a wealth of diverse experiences and adventures in the different places that I’ve lived.  Perhaps the coolest place I lived was in Oxnard Shores, a beach community about fifty miles north of Malibu.  We lived there for five years while I was in junior and senior high school.  A lot of the homes there were weekend homes for people in LA.  Word was that Sonny and Cher had a house on our beach, though I never saw them.  Our home wasn’t right on the water; we were several blocks away.   

We were far better off. 

I don’t know what it is about Californians.   They always want to build where Mother Nature throws temper tantrums.  The expensive homes in LA are built on hillsides with great views and subject to the inevitable wildfires or mudslides.  I can’t imagine what their insurance rates are, not to mention their mortgage.  And the expensive homes on the water are built right on the shoreline where big storms churn up enough surf to chew away the beach.  You’ll see it every few years on TV where houses in Malibu drop into the surf.  Where we lived further up the coast, I saw lots of homes totally destroyed when the violent surf ate away the beach.  My younger sister’s friend lived in a house that was built on a concrete slab on the beach. When the violent surf eventually came, their living room just dropped into the waves.  Imagine that!

Your life – my life is like a building.  It needs a firm and level foundation upon which to stand.  You don’t want to build your life on shifting sand that will wash away when the storms of life come.   Of all the building materials that we have to make a sure foundation for life, integrity – honesty with yourself, others, and God – is perhaps the most important of all.

Text – Psalm 26 
 Vindicate me, Lord,
    for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the Lord
    and have not faltered.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
    examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
    and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

I do not sit with the deceitful,
    nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
    and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
    and go about your altar, Lord,
proclaiming aloud your praise
    and telling of all your wonderful deeds.
Lord, I love the house where you live,
    the place where your glory dwells.
Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
    my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
    whose right hands are full of bribes.

I lead a blameless life;
    deliver me and be merciful to me.
My feet stand on level ground;
    in the great congregation I will praise the Lord.

Search Me, O God
I have always loved the psalms.  But as I have aged and matured the psalms seem to have become more precious to me every year.  They are the honest prayers of a soul laid bare in pursuit of God. 

But Psalm 26 seems strange in our ears.  It’s like the psalmist is saying, “Look at me, God!  I’m a good guy!”  But a closer look reveals a much deeper cry from the heart.  The psalm immediately preceding this one asks God to deliver from sin and from shame.  But Psalm 26 is a cry for God to search the soul and vindicate the writer who asserts his integrity. 

The Hebrew Bible indicates that this psalm is “of David.”  In all that we read in Jewish history about Israel’s greatest King, the psalm is certainly consistent with his character.  It is very possible that David wrote the psalm during his son, Absalom’s, rebellion when he had to flee his capital for his own safety.  David was not perfect.  He was an adulterer and a murderer.  But the Bible also says that he was a man after God’s own heart and this psalm reflects that. 

The psalm opens with a cry for God to test him.  Our translation says “vindicate,” but a better word might actually be “judge.”  “Judge me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life.”  Have you ever been in a situation where your integrity is called into question?  If you live long enough, you’ll probably face that challenge sometime in your life.  It wasn’t too long ago that I faced that very trial and I remember praying over and over again, “What did I do wrong, Lord?  I’ve tried to be above board in everything related to this situation.”  There are times in life when you will rightly question yourself.  The writer of Psalm 19 rightly wonders: “Who can discern his errors?  Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).  Ever been there?  When you’re not sure…?  That’s the intense yearning for the person who strives to walk rightly with God.  It’s the cry of a heart of integrity.  That’s exactly the sense of this psalm. 

But it is not self-righteousness that the psalmist is depending upon.  Notice verse 3: “For I have always been mindful of your unfailing love and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.”  Godly integrity is not sinlessness.  That isn’t possible.  Godly integrity is faithfulness and reliance upon God’s promised goodness and faithfulness to you.  Knowing God intimately and trusting him is the key to living a life of honesty and integrity.  You know that God will reward faithfulness.  And so, you can be honest with yourself, others, and God.  Depending on God’s mercy and grace is a safe place.

The middle part of the psalm, vs. 4-8, is the psalmist’s testimony of integrity.  It is no coincidence that Psalm 26 uses the same words that we read this morning from Psalm 1:1: “Blessed is the man who dies not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the way of mockers.”  He leads a blameless life.  The King James Version says, “I have walked in my integrity.”  He doesn’t sit with the wicked or the deceitful.  And he is standing on level ground.  The three words, walk, sit, and stand are very important.  They refer to a total lifestyle and are very similar to the essential words of our D6 program where we are to integrate our faith “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:7).

And he loves to worship!  There is nothing in the Jewish law that requires worshippers to go around the altar proclaiming God’s praise and testifying of all the wonderful things that he has done.  You won’t find that listed in the requirements of the things that ministers are supposed to do in worship.  But David’s always breaking the rules in worship.  He’s extravagant.  He’s loud.  He makes a fool of himself…

May God give us more Davids.

This is a person who loves God more than anything else: 
“Lord I love the house where you live,
the place where your glory dwells.”

He prays that he will not be swept away by the evil influences of the world that are all around him.  A person of godly character is always aware of his own propensity towards wrongdoing.  Such a person isn’t arrogant in his righteousness.  We are all prone to wander.  It is only by the grace of God that we stand.  

Integrity is Foundational
C.S. Lewis described integrity as “doing the right thing even when no one is looking.”  Integrity – honesty with ourselves, others, and God – is essential for a Jesus-follower.  It is the only way to build a joyous, fruitful, and secure life.  Navigator’s former president, Jerry White tells the story about the integrity of baseball legend Ted Williams.  When he was forty years old, the slugger suffered a pinched nerve in his neck that brought his batting average below .300 for the first time in his career.  That year, he was the highest paid athlete in any sport.  But when the Red Sox offered him the same $125,000 contract the following year, he refused it because, in his mind, he didn’t deserve it.  He ended up cutting his own salary by $31,000.  That’s rare integrity.  But, on the other hand, Williams didn’t have to live with the burden that he wasn’t playing up to the level that the Red Sox wanted to pay him for.

Integrity gives a man peace.  Dishonesty and deceit, on the other hand, are a vicious cycle that will ultimately undermine a life and bring destruction.  Think about it.  Every time you lie, twist the truth, or act deceitfully, you have to put on an act to cover your trail.  And the further the lie goes, the deeper and deeper you go into moral indebtedness and risk.  Think of those who went in deep and were finally found out:  Richard Nixon, Kenneth Lay, Jim Bakker, Dennis Hastert…the painful list of destroyed lives goes on.  How much better to be a person of integrity in every situation than heap up destruction for yourself.   Instead of destruction, godly integrity promises a life of abundant fruitfulness:

            He is like a tree planted by streams of water
                        Which yields its fruit in season,
            And whose leaf does not wither.
                        Whatever he does prospers.
                                                                        Psalm 1:3

Walking with God
Enoch, born six generations after Adam in the Book of Genesis, was a man of godly integrity.  It’s interesting.  But he wasn’t always that way.  The Bible says that he lived for sixty-five years and then he had a son called Methuselah.  After that, the Scriptures say, “he walked with God.”  Funny what having a kid will do to you.  It makes you look at life differently.  And the fact that it wasn’t until he was sixty-five that he started walking with God tells the seniors among us that it is never too late to begin with God. 

But after Enoch walked with God for 300 years (things were different back then; they didn’t have McDonalds) the Bible says that he didn’t die.  God just took him.  It’s one of the strangest verses in the Bible: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen. 5:24).

The life of Enoch reminds us that being human doesn’t keep us from being virtuous and godly.  We can’t justify ourselves by saying, “I’m only human!”  Sure.  Nobody is perfect.  But God calls and we can live lives of righteousness. And it wasn’t easy for Enoch, either.  He lived during a time that the Bible says was exceedingly wicked and violent.  But Enoch remained steadfast and even boldly proclaimed God’s judgment on the ungodly (Jude 14-15).  Enoch is a sterling example of godly integrity.

Psalm 26 closes with a simple prayer and a profound statement:

I lead a blameless life;
    deliver me and be merciful to me.
My feet stand on level ground;
    in the great congregation I will praise the Lord.

The Hebrew word that is translated as “level ground” can also be rendered as “uprightness” or integrity.  Godly integrity does not mean that a person is perfect.  We all fail from time to time.  But a person who walks in integrity – like an Enoch – will be a person who knows God and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him. 

What kind of person are you?  Do you find yourself frequently covering for the sneaky little things that you are doing when no one is looking?  That’s shaky ground.  It will all come tumbling down sooner or later.  And the longer you play the charade, the more painful your downfall will be.  Or are you a person of integrity – honest with yourself, others, and with God?  Friends, God is a good Father.  He knows your weaknesses.  Our sins may be many, but his mercy is always more.  Be honest with God.  You are safe with him.  And when you can be honest with him, you will find that you can be honest with others as well. 

Be honest with God. 
You are safe with Him.

Choose level ground.  Be a person of integrity.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hold On!

The crew of the Endurance on Elephant Island

Life is a marathon.  Finishing does not go to the fast, but to the faithful.  Victory is had only by endurance. 
The story of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic expedition in 1914 to Antarctica had a profound impact on me when I read it several years ago.  It is a tale of incredible survival and endurance.  His family motto was, “By endurance we conquer.”  Indeed, that was the name of his ship.
The Endurance became stuck in the ice when they were only eighty miles from the Antarctic continent.  Unable to free the boat, it was crushed by the ice pack and sank ten months later.  In 1914, there were no cell phones and there were no radio stations on Antarctica.  Shackleton and his crew of 27 men endured violent hurricane-force winds, temperatures below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an extreme diet of penguin and seal meat, dangerous ice flows and flagging hope in a seemingly impossible situation.
But Shackleton never allowed his men’s morale to sink.  When they finally arrived on the desolate Elephant Island they still had no hope of rescue.  Leaving 22 men on shore, Shackleton took five crewmen and sailed eight hundred miles to reach civilization.  Against impossible odds, the crew and their small 22-foot boat made it to the whaling station at South Georgia island. 
We can only imagine the thoughts of the men who were left as they watched their leader sail away from Elephant Island.  Though Shackleton promised to return with a rescue party, it was likely he would not make it.   The Southern Ocean has the worst seas in the world with converging currents of the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Waves are typically over fifty feet from crest to trough and winds can howl over 100 miles an hour.  Navigation was nearly impossible with the sun rarely visible and if they missed their destination, they would be swept out into the vast Atlantic Ocean with no hope of return.  The crew on Elephant Island knew all of this.  In their quiet moments, we can only imagine the thoughts of despair and madness they wrestled with.
The stranded crew had to wait another four months on the desolate and inhospitable rock before they were miraculously rescued.  Not one of them perished. They had overcome by standing firm and holding fast to the promise of their captain’s return.  Through it all, they survived the horrible ordeal with enduring hope. 
Sometimes, I think we must feel like the stranded men on Elephant Island.  We wonder, “What is to become of us and our world?”  We see things getting worse and worse.  Is there any hope for the future?
The ancient world in which the church was born was not unlike ours.  The church in Thessalonica had been taught that Jesus would return and set everything right.  But some false teachers had come to them and said that Jesus had already returned and that they had somehow missed it.  The Apostle Paul, who had planted the church, wrote to them to correct their thinking and to dispel their fears...
         The twenty-two men who remained stranded on Elephant Island after Shackleton departed could have wallowed in their desperate conditions.  But they didn’t.  The kept doing what the Boss had told them to do.  They had come a long way. They had endured incredible hardships.  They stood firm in the character they had acquired through their trials and they held fast to the promise of their rescue.
So, friends, stand firm in the spiritual maturity to which God has brought you.  Hold fast to the truth that has been delivered to you.  We will endure tough times in the midst of a world that is in rebellion towards God.  Stand firm and hold fast because your reward is glorious: "He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 2:14). 
(From the introduction and closing to a sermon delivered to the First Baptist Church, Galesburg, IL. 7.23.17  II Thessalonians 2:1-17)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Aliens in America

I Peter 2:1-17

Aliens in America
I Peter 2:1-17

Introduction – How Did We Get Here?
It has been a very interesting week on social media and in the blogosphere.  The Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage the law of the land on Friday, June 26th has sent shock waves throughout Bible-believing congregations.  Not that we didn’t see it coming.  Our culture has been headed this way for a long time. 

But how did we get here – to this day – where sin is celebrated and institutionalized in same-sex marriage?  I think we must begin with understanding that the Devil is in the mix leveraging our fallen nature.  Beyond that broad understanding, we need to recognize that the factors that brought us same-sex marriage a few days ago have been at work a long time in our culture.  We have benefited greatly from modernism and humanism that has its roots in Europe about the same time our country was being founded.  The modern age has given us wonderful things like our democracy, the industrial age, modern conveniences like electricity, cars, and computers.  But at its core, modernism has elevated man over God and given us secularism, Darwinism, Communism, and militant atheism.  Into this secular, man-centered worldview, we added the ingredient of the sexual revolution in the late fifties and early sixties with the Pill and Playboy Philosophy.  Sex was no longer considered the sacred physical union between a man and a woman, as the Bible teaches, but it became solely a means for self-gratification.  In biblical marriage, where sex is an act of self-giving love, with the advent of the Sexual Revolution, it became a source of getting, rather than giving. 

That was the beginning of the destruction of marriage in our culture.  We furthered its demise by instituting “no-fault divorce” making it easier to break up what was promised to be “till death do us part.”  The proliferation of pornography during the same time and especially with the advent of the internet has further weakened the uniqueness of the marriage relationship and the sacredness of sex.  The entertainment industry, of course, jumped in all this and reflected what was happening in culture with its celebration of sex outside of marriage. In all of this, the church has not been innocent.  Our divorce rates and use of porn is not much different than those outside of the church. 

It wasn’t long, then, that media and our society began to celebrate homosexuality.  Why not?  Marriage had been diminished.  If the primary purpose of sex was self-gratification, then why not ignore what God revealed in his word.  You remember the shows.  Will and Grace.  The Ellen Show.  American Family.  And countless episodes of TV dramas and comedies that seem to always normalize and celebrate what the Bible calls sin.  It has been a non-stop onslaught to normalize sinful behavior.

And that has brought us, not surprisingly, to today.  Homosexuality and transgender lifestyles are now celebrated and considered a normal and healthy option in our culture.  All week long, I’ve read blogs and FaceBook posts fearing backlash against Bible-believing Christians who still believe that homosexual acts are sinful and same-sex marriage is an abomination of what God intended.  There is talk about loss of free speech and tax-exempt status for churches and para-church ministries. I believe the risks are real.  There is a lot of fear. 

May I suggest to you: this is not a time for fear.  It is a time for courage and clarity.  This is a time for the church to truly be the church.  What should we do?  How should we act?

Friends, the church of Jesus Christ has always been counter-cultural.  In fact, we have been at our best when the world has been against us.  That was certainly the situation when Peter wrote his first letter known as I Peter.  Rome was no friend to Christians, and Peter calls the recipients of the letter “exiles” and “aliens.”  Though they lived in the Roman world, their primary citizenship was elsewhere.  It is a good word for us today as American Christians.

The Word – I Peter 2:1-3
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

This is where we must begin.  We cannot complain about the world around us and live just like those who do not know God.  The sins that Peter lists are relational sins:  the way that we live and talk with other people.  We who call ourselves Christ-followers must live as the Lord taught us. 

And I love the picture that Peter offers in the second and third verses.  A newborn baby is dependent on its mother’s milk for survival, health, and growth.  In the same way, we are to earnestly long for what Peter calls “the pure spiritual milk.”  Some very good translations render it as the “milk of the word.”  Certainly, God’s word is central to what is necessary for our health and growth.  Other elements are important, too:  prayer, a sense of God’s presence in one’s life, and deep fellowship with other believers.  The important point that I want to make here is, if you have known the grace and goodness of God, then you will want to grow.  Your passionate desire for God’s word and work is evidence that you are spiritually alive.  Peter continues:

“As you come to him, (you’re coming to him, remember, because you long for “pure spiritual milk”) a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

“A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”  (vs. 4-10)

Jesus is the key – the Cornerstone.  He always is.  It’s true today, as it was nearly 2,000 years ago when Peter wrote this letter.  If it seems the world is against us it is because they are.  They have rejected Jesus.  If we are following Jesus, they will reject us.  Jesus said it himself:

If you find the godless world is hating you, remember it got its start hating me. If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you.  “When that happens, remember this: Servants don’t get better treatment than their masters. If they beat on me, they will certainly beat on you.
John 15:18-20a (The Message)

So why are we surprised?  This all comes with the landscape of following Jesus. 

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (vs. 9-10)

We can whine and complain.  In a democracy, it is quite appropriate to let our voice be heard. But let’s not perpetuate the thought that the sky is falling.  God is still on the throne and Jesus is Lord of all.  In the midst of our concern, let us not lose hope or perspective.  We are citizens of another kingdom.  We are shaped by another culture.  We are God’s people, his holy nation.  We are to proclaim the greatness of God in our words and actions.  Look at the specifics of Peter’s statement!  We have plenty to be thankful for – every reason to be confident.  God called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once we were lost, with no hope and no identity.  But now we are God’s people.  Once we were destined for destruction and judgement, but now we have received God’s overflowing mercy. 

Let’s put fear and complaining aside.  We are God’s people. 

Aliens in America
We are aliens in America.  Hear me carefully.  America is not a Christian nation any more than this building is a church.  (That’s worth tweeting.)  Of course, that all depends on how you define “Christian nation” and “church.”  In this place, we gather and worship and pray and fellowship together.  But according to the Bible, this building is not the church.  We, the people are.  In the same way, America was established by mostly godly people who understood the wisdom of biblical principles.  And those biblical principles inspired and informed them as they were writing our founding documents.  (

We have much to be grateful for.  Biblical principles guided the founding fathers.  For many years, America has been blessed because those principles have been acknowledged.  We grieve because they are more and more being pushed to the side, resulting in the moral slide of our culture.  Nevertheless, we are not, nor have we ever been a Christian nation.  There is only one Christian nation, and that is you – the Church.  And the Scriptures make it very clear that God’s nation will always be counter-cultural to the world.  Finally, Peter continues with very specific teaching for us as to how we should live as aliens in America:

For Such a Time as This

Peter continues, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor”
(vs. 11-17)

Can you see how relevant Peter’s words are to us today?  Part of the bad rap against the church today is our own hypocrisy.  We must live above reproach so that the world will have nothing to leverage against us.  I read a blog just the other night by David Brooks of the New York Times.  (  Now normally, I wouldn’t read, much less cite, the New York Times.  Brooks was suggesting that socially conservative Christians give up on our moral culture war.  We’ve lost.  Well, I don’t buy that.  We’ll keep standing for life and for traditional marriage.  But I did appreciate what he suggested in its place.  We are postured to really make a difference in the lives of hurting people in our culture.  It seems that our biggest reputation is based on what we are against.  Friends, we need to turn that around.  We need to stand for life and morality.  But I believe the time has come for us to use our significant resources, imagination, and the power of the gospel to reach hurting people in our homes and on our doorsteps.  Let our reputation be changed.  We will not change our stand on moral issues.  But friends, let’s get about the business of changing lives through acts of love, mercy, and justice in the name of Christ. 

Along with changing our reputation, let me add a few more practical things that we can do that align with God’s word.

First, Honor the government.  Do you pray for those who govern us more than you criticize them?  I suggest that before we criticize them, let us obey the word of God and first pray for them.  Be thankful that you are blessed to live in America.  Be a good citizen.  Vote. 

Second, We must be Christ-like.  Love people, including LGBT.  Jesus loves them.  He spent a lot of time with sinners and society’s outcasts when he walked on earth.  Pray for them.  (That will help you to love them.)  Just like you, they need Jesus. 

Third, We must live like the church.  Honor marriage.  We must stop winking at our own sin.  If you’re having sex with anyone, either virtually through pornography or in reality, you cannot condemn practicing homosexuals without condemning yourself.  We cannot bemoan same-sex marriage and ignore other sinful sexual expressions outside of marriage. 

Finally, we live in challenging times.  The world is becoming more and more antagonistic against Christians.  God knew that you would be alive in 2015 when the Supreme Court of the United States mocked the Supreme Lord of All by making same-sex marriage the law of the land.  You were born for such a time as this.  We can’t play games.  We can’t play at this thing we call “church.”  We can and we should pray for revival.  But we need to do our part.  We need rigorous discipleship and an understanding of what it truly means to be a Christian and follow Jesus.  That’s why our mission statement is not only helping people find Jesus, but to follow him, too.  Our lives need to reflect Christ in all that we do.  We need to vigorously pursue our vision.  We are not holier-than-thous.  We are not spiritually elite.  We need the grace and mercy of God just as much as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders.  “We are ordinary people, being transformed as Jesus-followers through the power of the Holy Spirit, changing our families, our community, (our country) and the world for the glory of God.” 

Do not despair.  We are aliens in America.  But we are citizens of God’s holy nation. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Baptism – More Than an Event

As Baptists, there are several things that I believe we get right about Christian baptism.  New Testament baptism was always for those who personally embraced the faith through belief and repentance.  While I respect those traditions who baptize infants, I remain, and will always remain firmly convinced that believer’s baptism is the New Testament norm.  Furthermore, immersion was the mode practiced by the New Testament and early church.  In contrast to sprinkling or pouring, immersion is the most faithful to the original Greek word used in the Scriptures, baptizō - meaning “to dip.”  Perhaps even more importantly, immersion is a richer symbol representing dying and rising with Christ. 

But as Baptists, we’ve also had our weaknesses in our baptismal theology – at least in practice.  We’ve tended to consider Christian baptism as a necessary step of obedience (it is) and a public declaration of our faith (it is that, also).  But that is where we’ve often stopped.  But such an understanding isn’t nearly deep and rich enough to capture the full meaning of what the New Testament teaches about baptism. 

The Apostle Paul taught a baptismal theology that impacts the believer’s life every day:  “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  Today, we will baptize four people.  But you will be brought into the experience as well as we “remember our baptism” together.  The new reality of the baptized life as taught by Paul gives us power for living in victory over sin.  It doesn’t matter how long ago you followed Christ in baptism.  It was more than just an event.  It is the new reality in which we are to live.