Monday, March 24, 2014

God's Design for Sex

The following is an excerpt from my sermon, "God's Design for Marriage" which I had given as part of my series on Nehemiah.  The topic in the text was God's prohibition against intermarriage between Jews and the surrounding nations. You can find the entire sermon in audio or PDF format at  

God’s Design for Sex
To understand the nature of marriage, we need to reflect at the beginning – the stories in the first chapters of Genesis.  In the beginning, God created.  He didn’t create because he needed to do so.  God has no needs.  He created simply for his own pleasure and as an expression of his nature.  God’s nature is one expressed in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, when God went to make man, the Scriptures say “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26).  Now within the Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – there is a sharing of life and eternal love.  Between the three Persons of the Godhead, there is eternal giving to each other.  You see that love beautifully expressed in Jesus’ life and especially in his prayer to the Father found in John 17.  Out of this sharing of life and love, God profoundly created man in his own image.  But at first, the man was alone.  That’s not good.  I mean, just imagine:  the dirty dishes piling up, the laundry not getting done, fast food every night.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…and accept my apology for being sexist. 

There are many good reasons to get married.  As I reflect back on my lonely years as a young man, I think the most compelling reason was that I wanted another person that I could give myself to.  And that’s what Adam was missing.  God, who by his triune nature, is eternally giving himself, had made man to do the same thing.  And so, he made a “helper” for him – from his own rib – so that the man and woman might give themselves to each other.  In establishing marriage as the foundation of human relationships, the Scriptures say, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

The passage continues, “…and they were naked and not ashamed.”  In their first state, Adam and Eve had no reason to be timid or ashamed.  No one was going to use or abuse the other.  They knew, obviously, that they were made for each other – to give themselves to each other and to become one flesh – an obvious reference to God’s blessing on sex. 

Do not miss the connection here.  We are made in the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three Persons sharing the same life of eternal self-giving love.  We are made as man and woman – two distinct genders and two persons – designed to give themselves in self-giving love to each other and in so doing, become one flesh.  Do not miss this profound truth and mystery!  When a man and a woman come together in sexual union, it is the joining together of two souls.  The two become one as a symbol of the oneness of three Persons in the Trinity.  And as God created life – don’t miss this – the fruit of the sexual union between a man and woman can also be the conception of new life as well.  I’ll put it as simply as I can:

The self-giving of sexual love within the covenant of marriage is a symbol of the nature of God.

The sexual union of a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage is the most profound image of God in humanity. 

Broken Sex
The world tells us that sex is just a matter of biology.  With contraception, it’s a way to have fun without consequences.  Those are the lies that Satan has been propagating since sin entered the world.  Have you ever thought about it?  As sex is the most profound image of God in us, Satan has twisted it to destroy people and serve his purposes.  Virtually all of the ancient pagan religions involved sexual activity of some sort.  It is also true of many modern pagan religions as well.  Why is that?  It is because sex goes to the core of who we are.  When the ancient pagan religions used temple prostitutes in their worship, they touched the participant in the depths of his being.  Solomon had 1,000 women in his palace for more than just political purposes.  Let’s not be naïve.  And by the joining of his body with theirs, he also joined his soul to their pagan religions. 

It is significant that after Adam and Eve rebelled against God and sinned that they recognized they were naked.  They were ashamed.  Their innocence was gone.  The image of God in them was diminished.  No longer would they give themselves completely in perfect love but they would begin to use each other.  They saw the other not as another soul to which they could give themselves, but they saw the other’s body as an object of their selfish desire.  They needed fig leaves to protect themselves from the other. 

And so this great gift of God became twisted.  Sex became broken.  It is not new, and the manifestations of broken sex are all around us.  In our culture, sex is not for giving, but for our own gratification.  Bodies are no longer the home for precious souls, but rather the objects of lustful desire.  The greatest tragedy of our sexual obsession is the objectification of people.  We have become less than human – we are dehumanized.  O the depth of tragedy of people made to symbolize the nature of God being reduced to mere objects and toys.  Think of the people caught in the sex industry by choice or by being trafficked.  Over and over again, their souls have been diminished by being joined with another.  And those who are caught in the web of participation with promiscuity or pornography have diminished their souls in the same way.  The veneer of our contemporary sexual carnival disguises a great unspeakable human tragedy.  Lord, have mercy!

Whole Sex
We have unwittingly done this to ourselves.  With the advent of contraception, we have bought the Devil’s pitch that there is such a thing as “safe sex without consequences” outside of marriage.  The Scriptures have warned us over and over again – Proverbs 5-7 are especially clear – that sex outside God’s designs is a path to destruction.  But we have laughed at God all the way to the gates of Hell.

Sex is not a toy.  It is not an occasional fling to make us feel good.  Sex is a precious gift of God that profoundly reflects our Maker, designed for the union of self-giving lovers within the covenant of marriage.  No marriage is perfect, but there is a profound joining together of two souls as one.  I see this all the time when I go to visit older folks in the hospital who are struggling with illness.  If they are married, the spouse suffers as much – though in a different way- than the one who is sick.  I always pray for both because the two have become one.  Talk with most widows or widowers.  The death of their spouse has deeply wounded their soul because the other half of their soul has been taken away. 

Christians have been called prudes – killjoys – for our stance against sex outside of the marriage between a man and a woman.  Too often, though, we’ve focused on “don’ts” of sex without giving a vision and understanding of the glory of sex, seen from a biblical perspective.  My brother and I got into trouble when we were in elementary school because of some pictures we had drawn and hid under our beds.  My mom found them and made us get on our knees and beg forgiveness from God.  We didn’t know what we were doing.  At the time I don’t think I even knew where babies came from.  We were innocent, but normal boys.  I grew up thinking sex was dirty and bad.  No one ever explained to me God’s perspective on sex until Diane and I started premarital counseling. 

We need to do better.  We have to do better.  We need to give the world God’s perspective on sex.  Isn’t it clear, from all that has been said in this message, why promiscuity, homosexuality, and any sex outside of God’s design in marriage falls short of the glorious design he has implanted within men and women?  God designed sex to be exclusively enjoyed only within the bond of the marriage covenant because it is the joining together of two souls that become one. 

Invitation to Wholeness
I remember very clearly navigating the very difficult years of adolescence with my daughter.  To our great discomfort, most of her friends did not share our Christian moral values. I watched as most of them gave away their virginity to a young man, only to be devastated when he broke up with the girl within days.  It was a pattern that was repeated over and over again.  More than one girl was suicidal, with at least one, as I recall, winding up in the hospital.  Of course!  They had given their soul to another and it was ripped out. 

Too many people are wallowing in the pig-slop of sexual promiscuity thinking they are having a great time.  All the while, God invites us to a banquet of love.  The truth is, most of us are sexually broken at some level.  It’s part of the human condition, especially in our sex-obsessed culture.  No one needs to wag a finger at another in self-righteous condemnation.  We should all extend mercy because we all need mercy.

Sexual sin is perhaps the most damaging of all sins because it goes to the core of what it means to be human.  Those who have engaged a long time in sexual sin have greatly wounded and diminished their humanity.  But Jesus offers you healing. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone or how jaded you’ve become; Jesus can make you new again.  I am struck in the Gospels by how many sexually broken people Jesus encountered. There was the woman caught in adultery that Jesus spared from stoning.  He gave her grace and forgiveness.  He said simply, “go and sin no more.”  There was a prostitute who crashed a party at a Pharisee’s house and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears of repentance.  Jesus told her that her faith had saved her.  You see, with Jesus, there is mercy, forgiveness, and healing.

This morning, I wanted to give you a redemptive vision of God’s design for sex for you.  If you are living outside of that design, your pathway leads only to heartache and destruction.  Won’t you come and be healed?  God is not a prude or a kill-joy.  He desires wholeness and true joy for you.  With this vision of God’s design for you, you will find healing and fullness of life.  This morning, I urge you, by the mercies of God, to turn from your path of destruction to the path of life.   

Friday, February 28, 2014

I Don't Find Jokes About Worship Music Very Funny

This post is a second attempt on this topic.  The first was pushback on the cartoon above that a friend had posted on Facebook. It was lacking in grace.  I regret that but remain committed to my point. 

I have a good sense of humor.  I enjoy the satirical website, Lark News, and even my own copy of A Field Guide toEvangelicals and Their Habitat.  I can laugh at myself and my evangelical tradition.  But I don’t find jokes about worship music very funny.

Most of the time, it is contemporary praise and worship songs that are the target of the jokes and cartoons I’ve seen and heard.  There was a variation of Cows in theCorn several years ago that poked fun at hymns.  Nevertheless, the repetition found in praise and worship is the usual target.  It is my experience that people who don’t like the genre think the jokes are really funny. 

I don’t.  I never have.  Here’s why:

Praise and worship songs are different than hymns. That seems obvious, but the difference lies much deeper than music and text.  Generally speaking, hymns – especially the classic, timeless hymns (e.g. Holy, Holy, Holy; Immortal, Invisible; For All the Saints, etc…) – contain beautiful theology densely expressed in poetry.  Frankly, it’s good that we have hymnals.  The words go by too fast on the screen.  It would be good to pause and just read them.  The poetry in our best hymns withstands the deepest contemplation.  They are rich in content and meaning.  Such hymns typically challenge and speak to our intellect.  While the text and singing of hymns may spark intense emotion at times, the experience is generally cognitive because the texts are so rich. 

Gospel hymns, which hold a significant part of the repertoire for many evangelicals (especially older ones) are typically less dense in their theology.  These are the hymns with refrains and, as a rule, grew out of the revivalist tradition.  They are generally testimonial in nature, that is, they relate the experience of a Christian.  In the revivalist tradition, hymns and songs were sung in preparation to hear the sermon or in response to it (the invitation hymn).  They may be deeply emotional in their joy or devotion but their function was utilitarian.  They served as preparation or response to the Word.

The praise and worship genre, however, is meant to be a different sort of experience.  It is essential to understand that P/W comes from the Charismatic Movement.  While the strength of hymns is their cognitive richness and the gospel hymns are good expressions of testimony, P/W is best understood as an affective experience.  Affect, of course, means the emotional part of us.  While modern people are suspicious of emotion, affect is an essential way of knowing, just like cognitive knowing.  Imagine a marriage without emotion.  It wouldn’t last long.  Emotion is vitally important in the relationship that we have with God expressed in worship.  It helps us to engage spiritually beyond the black and white of doctrinal truth.  A.W. Tozer once defined worship as “to feel in your heart.” 

Most P/W songs seek to primarily engage the affect of celebration or contemplation.  That is why you will find frequent repetition in these songs.  They are not meant to engage our intellect as much as our emotion.  This is an essential difference between P/W songs and hymns. 

We have problems and misunderstandings when we unconsciously equate P/W songs with hymns or gospel hymns.  If your worship language has primarily been hymns or gospel hymns, the repetition of P/W songs will be confusing and off-putting to you.  The lack of textual depth in comparison to hymns may easily cultivate disrespect in your mind for the genre. That’s why the jokes seem funny.  You cannot sing a P/W song the same way that you sing a hymn.  You cannot compare P/W to hymns on the same criteria.  Depending on which genre you prefer, the other one will always lose.  (There are, of course, a large number of people who don’t like or disrespect hymns for the same reason: they don’t appreciate their value.)

For the value of a P/W song to be fully understood it has to be experienced.  The worshipper has to risk releasing themselves emotionally into the song.  The experience of P/W often includes the lifting of hands, dance, or of even prostrating oneself.  The risk of embarrassment by engaging the body is symbolic of the emotional engagement of the worshipper in the song.  When the worshipper is engaged emotionally in the song, repetition is a help rather than a hindrance.  But if the worshipper is unengaged emotionally, the repetition is like nails on a chalkboard.  (BTW, repetition in worship is biblically endorsed.  Check out Psalm 136 or the practice of the four living beings in Revelation 4:8 who do not cease to cry, “Holy, holy, holy…) I strongly suspect that those who do not like P/W and are averse to the repetition have never really released themselves into a song.  They sing P/W songs just like they sing hymns and are generally disappointed.

There is, of course, a great danger to emotional worship.  Like Eros in C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, emotion “needs to be ruled.”  We worship in spirit and truth.  P/W songwriters have an obligation to be true to Scripture in their lyrics.  While problems remain, I have observed much greater depth and richness in P/W texts in the last ten years.  Worship leaders, too, have an obligation to avoid emotional manipulation.  With worshippers released into emotional engagement, it would be very easy to turn up the heat with musical effects that are intrinsically known to musicians.  Worship leaders must be mature and discerning.

Nevertheless, I believe P/W is a great gift given to the church in the last 40 years.  As a worship pastor, I have tried to introduce the songs and the experience to the congregations that I have served for over thirty years.  In the same way, I have also held up the richness and necessity of our hymn tradition in the same churches.  It hasn’t been easy.  I am very passionate about having the church experience the fullest spectrum of worship that they can.  Not surprisingly, people are reluctant to grow beyond their own comfort zone and experience.  Hymn lovers have constantly harangued me about repetition and the loudness of the band – even when I’ve measured the decibel levels equal to or less than piano and organ.  Contemporary P/W aficionados suggest that I’m over-the-hill and irrelevant if I don’t constantly give them the playlist from KLOVE. 

This has been my calling – my vocation for the last 30 years – to broaden the experience and understanding of worship in the congregations that I have served.  Frankly, the wounds I’ve suffered from people who are unwilling to grow run deep in my soul.  I am war-weary.  That is why I do not find these jokes to be funny.  For the person who does not like P/W, it expresses their ignorance of and lack of true experience in the genre through condescension.  It isn’t funny.  It’s divisive.  Still, the jokes get a lot of laughs and traction with a certain set.  Though I carry battle scars, my calling remains the same.  I want the church to grow and embrace the fullest and richest worship experience they can.  I will, from now on, push back whenever I encounter these condescending jokes.

No apologies. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Reflection: Born to Save

The Wonder and Paradox of Christmas
No one knows the exact day that Christ was born.  It’s really not important.  December 25th is the day that the Church has chosen to celebrate his coming.  But we do know that the true meaning of Christmas has been under attack for quite some time now.  I don’t want to rehearse the stuff about whether or not we should say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or whether or not public schools should sing Christmas carols.  It does seem a bit hypocritical to me that we can use the word “Christmas” and sing the carols to draw big audiences and sell products in our culture, but to actually believe the story and the Bible from which it came is deemed somehow bigoted and uninformed.  The limitations that the world imposes on the Gospel aren’t fair.  But when has the world ever been a friend to God? 

Let’s lay that aside.  We get ourselves sometimes so worked up over the cultural battles that we can be distracted from noticing our own shortcomings as Christians.  We like the warm feelings of Christmas.  The words and sounds of the carols bring back wonderful memories.  Seeing Mary and Joseph and the baby in the crèche reminds us of the “reason for the season.”  But if we’re not careful, our “reason for the season” becomes the protection of our sentiments rather than a deep reflection on the wonder of the Incarnation and what response this day demands of us.  We can be our own worst enemy by being content with just recapturing “that Christmas feeling.” 

Christmas is disturbing.  It should make us tremble with deep awe and wonder.  I have a good friend who blogs several times a day.  I really don’t know how he does it.  And he is quite edgy in his topics.  He’s no twenty-something radical pushing against his upbringing.  He’s a sixty-something pastor who thinks and prays deeply about the things of the Lord.  One of his blogs to day was called “Violent Night.”  OK.  That’s upsetting.  But he’s right.  Christmas was the day that God himself invaded Satan’s domain to engage the darkness in cosmic warfare.  So much for warm, fuzzy feelings.  Christmas has to be more than mere sentiment.  Lawrence Hull Stookey insightfully observes:

Christmas commemorates the appearing of that Eternal Word in our midst.  To settle for the romance of a displaced mother giving birth in a stable, to argue about how a virgin can conceive a child, is to bring profundity to the brink of ruin.  Christmas is the enfleshment of God, the humiliation of the Most High and divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited.  Divinity takes on humanity, to restore the image of God implanted at creation but sullied by sin.  Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God.  God accepted death that the world might accept life.  The Creator assumed temporality to redeem creation from futility.[1]

Christmas is the hinge-point in history.  It is when God became man to bring man back to himself.  Jesus was not merely born – he was “sent” from God.  Christmas was when the King came to be the Servant. 

Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God and there were many who wanted to get in on his program.  They were excited and they began to talk about what place in the hierarchy they would have when Jesus finally inaugurated the Kingdom.  They were in for a surprise!  Those who would be first would be last and those who would be last would be first.  And then Jesus reminded them why he came:  “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus – the little baby in the manger – was born to die.  He was born to save us.

Diane and I are fortunate this year.  Our son, Wes, has come to share Christmas and spend a few days with us.  Last night he and I watched “Les Miserables” (the musical) on DVD.  I wanted to see it at home because when I saw it last year in the theater the guy behind me was talking and the guy across the aisle was loudly munching on his popcorn.  Les Mis is a deeply moving story and I wanted to experience it again without the distractions.  (I seem to fully engage myself emotionally into those kinds of movies.)  The most profound moment in the film is when Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway bares her tortured soul in the song, “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Fantine’s life tragic.  She had a child with a man who deserted her.  She works in a factory to pay room, board, and care for the child.  When she loses her job for unjust reasons, she is forced onto the streets and eventually prostitution to support her daughter.  She has sold her beautiful hair and her body is wracked with tuberculosis. Her situation is truly pathetic.  Symbolically, she sings her song from a coffin.  I don’t know if there is a more profound moment in all of film history.  I can’t think of one.  For that performance, she won the Oscar last year.  

"I Dreamed A Dream"

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong
I dreamed a dream in times gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid

No song unsung
No wine untasted
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame
He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came
And still I dream he'll come to me
That we'll live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed

There is hardly a better description of the broken world in which we live.  Some of you have lived or are now living a similar hellish dream.  Fantine was wrong.  There was a ransom to be paid because we deeded the whole world over to Satan and the forces of darkness years ago in the garden. 

But now, Christ has come.  He was born to die – to give his life as a ransom for you and for me.  You cannot separate the cradle from the cross.  Let’s clear the fog away.  Christmas is not about Hallmark moments, White Christmas, and religious sentiments.  It’s about God becoming man to save you and me from the darkness and brokenness of life.  So let’s not impoverish this day with just warm feelings and nothing more.  Bow in wonder and awe.  Most of all, believe and receive “this little child” as the Savior, born to die for you. 

[1] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar:  Christ’s Time for the Church,  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 106. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Spiritual Power of the Choral Experience

I’ve been a senior pastor now for over a year.  It’s been at least fifteen months since I last directed a choir.  While I know I am exactly where God has put me, I confess that I do miss the choral life.  Two current experiences are catalyzing this reflection. 

In two weeks, Grace Chapel, the former First Baptist Church of Lancaster, CA will hold its centennial celebration.  Part of the celebration is the reunion of a remarkable youth choir that flourished roughly between 1965 and 1975.  The director during most of those years was Don Swanson.  To read the Facebook posts and scan the pictures leading up to the reunion, you can’t miss the fact that Don, or “Swanold,” as he was called, was deeply loved.  Regretfully, Don went home to be with the Lord in 2000.  I never sang in the “Real Life Chorale.”  I missed out.  I was a band guy at the time and, in fact, didn’t start attending First Baptist until my senior year in high school.  But most of the people involved in the reunion are my contemporaries and I had the privilege of returning to my home church and being the Pastor of Worship from 1988-1991.  That’s why I’ve been privy to their posts.

The second experience that has caused me to reflect on the power of the choral experience is that I’ve been recently listening to music that I prepared with the choir of First Baptist, Sioux Falls for a concert in November, 2011.  It is great literature.  There’s Vaughn Williams’ Old Hundreth, complete with brass and organ, Heinrich Schutz’s Shout and Be Joyful,  a delightful, but challenging double choir psalm setting, Jane Marshall’s standard, My Eternal King,  and an incredibly beautiful new Advent anthem by Heather Sorensen and Craig Courtney, The Yearning.  I’ve listened to it, rehearsed it, and performed it countless times.  It never gets old.  That’s the way it is with great art.  It is timeless.  Good choral music begins with a profound text that is skillfully matched with melody, harmony, and rhythm that transcends the pedestrian mechanics of 95% of most music.  That’s why it never grows old. 

Why is it that the Real Life Choral alumni are so anxious to be together again after forty-plus years?  Why am I still moved by a CD that is almost worn out? 

There is a spiritual power in sacred choral music.  Mature and sensitive conductors who interpret the music both spiritually and musically are fulfilling a pastoral role.  I never really sang in choirs until I went to Biola University.  My spirituality was deeply formed as I sang under Loren Wiebe in the Biola Chorale.  For four years I participated in rehearsals and performances of timeless music.  The texts were biblical and deep.  The musical settings pushed the textual truths through my intellect deep into my soul.  Though he may not have known it, for four years, Mr. Wiebe was one of my most powerful spiritual mentors – a pastor, in effect.  

I was a church choir director for nearly forty years.  During that time, I was able to form deep spiritual bonds with the people that I’ve had the privilege to direct.  I always viewed my role and calling as pastoral.  My preferred title was “Pastor of Worship” rather than “Minister” or “Director of Music.”  Swanold was also pastor to all of his Real Life Chorale singers.

I believe that the quality of the literature sung will directly impact the depth of relationship and spirituality of the group.  The most beloved pieces for my choirs were the ones that they had to work the hardest to be able to sing.  Typically, those were the “timeless” pieces.  They invested a lot of time and emotional energy to be able to sing them.  In a way, I believe the piece “mastered” them as much as they mastered it. 

I no longer have the privilege to pastor people through choral music.  My means are now more traditional:  sermons and, most profoundly, pastoral care.  I do miss it.  But now, I believe, I more deeply appreciate it.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

God Knows


God Knows
Psalm 139:1-6
August 18, 2013

I’m not a fan of “chick-flicks.”  Of course, I’ll watch one from time to time with Diane.  I can tolerate and even enjoy romantic comedies.  But movies based on novels by Jane Austin?  I’m sorry.  I’d rather eat lutefisk.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have any romantic sense.  In fact, did you know that August is National Romance Month?  At least I know that!  (Thanks, for the email reminder.)  OK.  I’ll admit that I’m quite clumsy in romantic matters, but I do have a heart.  I well remember, as I suspect many of you can, those adolescent and early adult years that were miserable in their loneliness.  I was very unsure of myself and shy.  How many times did I die on the inside because I didn’t have the courage to risk rejection? I was scared to death to initiate conversation with any girl I liked.  Diane says I ‘m still reluctant to initiate communication with her! 

I think that, deep down; every one of us yearns to be known as we truly are and to be understood.  During our adolescent awakening, we began to sense our own identity and pull away from our parents.  Our emerging independence often put us at odds with them.  My mom used to accuse me of tuning her out.  Of course, that was before we had remotes:

What is the cry of every teenager?  “You don’t understand me!”  With hormones raging, most of us began our adolescent journey to find a life-partner who would genuinely know, accept, and love us as we truly are.  To find that soul-mate is to fill a deep need in our life.  The only problem, even in the best of marriages; there is still misunderstanding. 

No human being can completely know and understand you.  And how many of us carry around the guilty sense that if people really knew who we were – if they knew all the dirt – we fear that we would be rejected?  It is the universal pain we all experience.  We want to be known, understood, and accepted for all that we are.

There is One who knows us completely – even better than we know ourselves!

Psalm 139:1-6
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

God’s Omniscience
To say that God knows everything is to say that he is omniscient.  Job is challenged to consider the wonders of “one perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16 NASB).   The New Testament, too,  affirms that God knows everything.  Theologians offer this definition of God’s omniscience:  God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.[1] 

God Knows Himself
To say that God knows himself, as an unlimited and infinite being, is simply an amazing statement.  The Apostle Paul recognizes the power and wonder of God’s limitless knowledge as he writes, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him.  So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (I Cor. 2:10-11).  He needs no counselor or shrink to figure himself out.  Unlike us, he is not maturing or growing in his self-awareness.  God knows the fullness of his infinite and limitless self.

God Knows All Things
Our definition also says that God knows every bit of actual knowledge.  He cannot learn or discover anything.  He is never surprised.  Consider the wonders of the created world. God knows the farthest star and creatures that reside in the deepest canyons of the ocean.  The wonders of the molecular world are not a mystery to him.  Science cannot discover one thing that God does not already know.  Not now.  Not in the future.  While that assertion violently assaults our arrogant modern minds, the Scriptures affirm boldly affirm it.  

·         Jesus said that God even knows the number of hairs on our head (Matt. 10:30). 
·         All creation is subject to God’s knowledge:  “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). 
·         That he knows the future is implied in his eternal character and is the basis of all prophecy:  “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish my purpose” (Isa. 46:9b-10).
·         And then there is our text from Psalm 139, reflecting on God’s intimate knowledge of every detail of our lives – before we were born and even the words we say, even before they are formed on our tongue!

God Knows Every Possibility
God also knows every possibility, even when they do not happen.  For example, Jesus condemns unbelieving Jews, declaring that Sodom would not have been destroyed had they seen the things that Jesus had done (Matt 11:23).  In the Old Testament, God told David that his enemies would take certain steps against him if he followed the course he was on.  David changed his plans accordingly and those things did not happen, even though God knew they were possibilities (I Sam. 23:11-13). God has created an incredibly complex universe, alive with countless possibilities.  God knows every one. 

God knows all things, actual and possible. 

God’s Knowledge is Full at All Times
God has no need of a calculator or Google.  He does not need to count the grains of sand on the sea shore.  He already knows their number.  He is not subject to dementia or forgetting nor does he need to recall.  He does not need to focus or compartmentalize. God has no need for any of the mental disciplines we require.  God knows all things completely - at all times -  forever. 

Questions about God’s Knowledge
There is probably no other attribute of God that raises more questions than his omniscience.  For example, didn’t God promise to not remember the sins of his people?  (Isa. 43:25).  His promise to forget our sins provides a good example of properly interpreting one verse in the light of the rest of God’s revealed truth.  Scripture cannot contradict itself.  And sometimes, language can be an imperfect vehicle for explaining God’s ways, especially in our modern translations.  Scripture establishes the truth that God’s knowledge is limitless.  Within his own character, it is impossible for him to forget.  What then, did the prophet mean when he delivered God’s word of forgetting the sins of his people?  It must mean that God will not let the knowledge of their sins play any part his relationship with us.  We do the same in our relationships when we have forgiven someone.  We can remember the incident, but through forgiveness, it no longer has any impact on our relationship with the person.  This interpretation is fully consistent with the rest of the biblical message. 

Another objection to God’s omniscience is found in Jeremiah 7:31:  “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”  The horrific circumstances of the verse is somewhat obscure, but is easily addressed when the original language is considered.  The word translated “mind” is leh, and it is better rendered “heart” as the KJV and NASB do.  The full sense of what God said could be translated, “nor did I wish for it, intend it, or think of it in any positive way.”

The most serious challenge that God’s omniscience brings is in relation to the question of whether or not we have any real freedom of choice or action.  If God knows the future completely, then are we not hemmed in and our future already determined?  The problem is difficult enough that some theologians, even within evangelicalism, have denied God’s full knowledge of the future.  They hold that God cannot know certain things that cannot be known – namely the choices and actions of free moral beings.  But such a contention flies in the face of the whole revelation of God.  It is an issue not easily solved.  Evangelical theologian, Wayne Grudem, admits, “If God knows all our thoughts, words, and actions long before they occur, then there must be some sense in which our choices are not absolutely free.”[2]   Within that limitation, however, God has given us the power of “reasonable self-determination.”  We do make choices and they really do determine our future.  Perhaps I’m not smart enough or I’m intellectually lazy.  But I affirm God’s omniscience according to the Scriptures and take seriously my responsibility to make choices that will honor him and determine the outcome of my life.  It seems to me, both are taught in the Bible and though I can’t fully reconcile the tension, I will embrace it by faith. 

What Difference Does It Make?
God knows everything: every actual thing and every possible thing.  Everything in the past and everything in the future.  So what?  What bearing does God’s omniscience have to do with the way I live my life right now?

God knows everything about you, from the mosquito bite on your back that is driving you nuts to the latent disease cells that are circulating in your blood stream.  He knows your heartache and your wounds.  He knows all about the emotional scars you carry from your childhood and adolescence that you have learned to hide so well.  What may have been said or done privately to deeply wound you is no secret to God.  He knows the pain that still remains when certain cues refresh that awful memory in your soul.  He knows.  And he has compassion and empathy for you.  Jesus Christ entered this world to take on and experience your suffering.  He knows. 

God also knows your deepest thoughts, from the loftiest to the lowest.  He knows your good intentions, even when you are misunderstood by other people.  God knows the good things you have done in secret and yet you remain unrewarded and unrecognized.  He knows. 

God also knows the evil and dark intentions of your heart that you would never reveal to anyone.  And yet they are there.  God knows the bad things you have done - the things which would horrify you if they were ever made public. The book of I Samuel tells the story of a king who took the wife of one of his generals and had relations with her.  When she became pregnant, the king tried to arrange it so that it would appear the woman’s husband would be the father.  When that failed, he had the man murdered.  King David thought no one knew.  He thought he got away with it.  But God saw and God knew.  God knows everything; even your deepest, darkest secret that you keep hidden. 

God knows.  He knows all about it.  And yet he still loves you completely without any reservation.  I remember the first time I realized what I have just asked you to consider.  I was reading Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy on the omniscience of God.  I was sitting on a chase lounge in the pool area of the Tropicana Apartments on Rosecrans Avenue in La Mirada, CA.  God spoke to me with such a powerful affirmation of his love that I wept for joy.  It was one of the most incredible moments in my spiritual life.  I will never forget it.

God knows everything about you.  He knows you better than you know yourself.  (“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” I John 3:19-20). God himself is the destination for your search to be known and understood fully.  And he loves you completely without reservation. 

Let’s return to our text:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

Friends, God has revealed himself to us this morning in his Word.  And his revelation requires a response from you and from me.  In closing this same psalm, the writer prays,

“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    And lead me in the way everlasting.”
                                                Vs. 23-24

Let that be our response this morning as we come confidently before the God who knows us completely and yet loves us without reservation. Let us come, confessing our sins and our needs, knowing that our God is rich in mercy and in love.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 190.
[2] Grudem, p. 193. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

No Shadow of Turning

One of my favorite movies is The Patriot.  Admittedly, it’s not a film for everyone.  The violence of war is graphically depicted.  But the themes of courage, patriotism and redemption make it a very inspiring movie for me.  I usually watch it every year sometime around Independence Day to remind me of the cost of freedom.

The story centers on Benjamin Martin’s experience during the Revolutionary War.  The Mel Gibson character is loosely based on a real American hero, Francis Marion, the so-called “Swamp Fox” who terrorized British troops in South Carolina during the war.  The film opens with Martin’s confession, “I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me, and the cost is more than I can bear.”  He is a widower with six children and a dark past.  How is he to raise his family properly in such an uncertain world?  Martin and his children look to the memory of their deceased wife and mother for moral guidance.  She was called their “North Star.” 

People on a journey, whether it is geographical or a path of life, need a fixed point of reference in order to determine where they are and in what direction they should go.  Celestial navigation has a long history for those who travel by sea or by land.  As a Boy Scout, I was taught to find the North Star at night in order to determine my general bearings.  Ships that traveled the sea developed complex mathematical formulas to determine directions without landmarks by using only the sun and the horizon. 

We need something that is immovable and permanent in order to gauge our progress through life.

But the Scriptures say that even the stars in the heavens are subject to change.  There is only One that remains the same forever. 

Psalm 102:25-27 (Quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12)

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.


The Doctrine of the Immutability of God
The attribute of God in which he is known as unchangeable is his immutability.  Unlike some of God’s attributes that we have considered like his holiness or his self-existence, immutability is easier to grasp.  The one constant in our lives is change.  Because of our experience, we can grasp the opposite – that which never changes.  Theologian Wayne Grudem defines God’s immutability in this way:  God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations (Systematic Theology, p. 163).  In the latter part of the definition we observe that God acts and responds as a personality – indeed, all of Scripture reveals God to be personal.  In this message, however, I want to deal only with the first part of the definition:  his unchangeable being, perfections, purposes and promises. 

Scripture is full of declarations that God does not change:

·         His mercy and patience are not exhausted:  “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”  Malachi 3:6
·         God is the eternal source everything good: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17
·         His purposes never change: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever.” Psalm 33:11
·         God’s promises never change:  “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.  Has he said, and will he not do it?  Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

Scripture declares the unchangeableness of God, His character demands it, and human reasoning may deduce it.  God is holy and perfect in all his ways.  If God were able to change, then he would have to change in one or any of three ways.  God cannot improve or get better.  If that were possible, then he would not be perfect now.  For God to somehow become less holy and to allow only one small evil intention to enter into his being would be to open the door to unspeakable horrors.  If God could get worse, there would be nothing to stop him from continuing to digress until he became totally evil.  An evil sovereign God is an unthinkable terror.  God cannot become better or worse.  Neither can he somehow “mature” or grow in his person.  Such a God is not the one revealed in the Scriptures. His holy perfection forever rules out any possibility of change.

I know theologians can be stuffy, wordy, and boring.  But occasionally, one will say something we can understand and it clarifies our notions of God:  “All that God is He has always been, and all that He has been and is He will ever be.” (Anselm, (1033-1109) quoted in Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer, p. 50)  In God, there is no shadow of turning.

Contrasting with the Mormon Doctrine of God
It seems to be the nature of things that there are always counterfeits – people or things that attempt to deceive and replace the valued original.  Ever since the invention of printed money, someone would try and make similar copies in order to gain the value of the original.  Bankers and those dealing directly with currency have been trained to identify the fake by thoroughly learning the qualities of the valued original. 

The same is true in spiritual matters.  It is vitally important that Christians understand what the Bible teaches about the nature of God.  There are plenty of counterfeit religions that masquerade as the church, but indeed are not the church because their understanding of God is radically different from what Scripture and the church has historically taught. 

One of those counterfeit groups is The Church of the Latter Day Saints,” better known as the Mormons.  I’ve seen their missionaries traveling in pairs on the streets of Aberdeen many times.  Mormons are probably some of most moral people you will ever meet.  They have very strong family values.  Their sense of excellence and beauty, most evident in the Temple at Salt Lake City, is of the highest caliber.  They sing many of our most beloved hymns.  Much in their statement of faith, on the surface, sounds evangelical. 

Their similarity in many ways with us is seductive.  But they are counterfeit.  Their doctrine of God is one of many points of departure.   Their founder, Joseph Smith, once declared, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” (King Follet Discourse.)  The god of the Mormons is ever changing, ever growing.  He is not perfectly holy because he has not yet arrived at what he will be.  This god is not the God of the Scriptures or of the Hebrew people or the historic Christian church.  I have seen too many Baptists converted to Mormonism because they were seduced by surface goodness and their ignorance of the glorious God of the Bible.  “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Let us not be deceived because we do not know the truth about God.

The Doctrine of an Unchangeable God is our Rock
Of what value is it to me to know that God never changes?  To know that God never changes is no esoteric tidbit of knowledge that musty old theologians ruminate on in their crowded studies.  No.  The immutability of God is essential understanding.  We are all on a journey of sorts throughout our lives and there are difficulties and dangers around every corner of our adventure.  Like the navigators of old, we must have a fixed, immovable point of reference to keep us safe and on track.  The unchangableness of God is our Rock that does not move.  It is the credit of God’s credibility and the source of our eternal hope. 

We began this message with a few verses from Psalm 102.  Let’s return there and observe how God’s immutability affects a believer’s life: 

Psalm 102 (ESV)  Comments in italics.

Do Not Hide Your Face from Me
A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.
Do we not all find ourselves, from time to time, in that kind of situation?  It is when we are afflicted when we know whether or not our faith is real.  It is when we are deeply troubled that we need a Rock to stand on - a God who does not change.

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
    let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me
    in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
    answer me speedily in the day when I call!
For my days pass away like smoke,
    and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;
    I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
    my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
    like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake;
    I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
All the day my enemies taunt me;
    those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

I love Jewish spirituality.  It is not afraid of offending God by complaining about their circumstances.  No faking it there.  This is real life and we can learn from our Jewish forebears. Some have suggested, and I believe it may very well be the case that this psalm was written during the exile in Babylon, looking for and longing for God’s promised deliverance and return to prosperity in Jerusalem.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
    you are remembered throughout all generations.

Virtually every psalm of lament has this kind of language.  The conjunction, “But you, O Lord…” is the onrushing of faith.  “My life is terrible, my life is horrible,….blah, blah, blah…BUT YOU, O LORD.  This is a strong statement of faith in the midst of troubles.

You will arise and have pity on Zion;
    it is the time to favor her;
    the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold her stones dear
    and have pity on her dust.
Nations will fear the name of the Lord,
    and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion;
    he appears in his glory;
he regards the prayer of the destitute
    and does not despise their prayer.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height;
    from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die,
that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord,
    and in Jerusalem his praise,
when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.

The psalmist makes these statements because his faith in Yahweh is strong.  And his faith is strong because God’s promises are sure.  And God’s promises are sure because God never changes.  Back to the complaint…

He has broken my strength in midcourse;
    he has shortened my days.
“O my God,” I say, “take me not away
    in the midst of my days—
   you whose years endure
    throughout all generations!”

There it is!  The psalmist has faith because he knows the quality of God’s character.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
    their offspring shall be established before you.

Why?  Because God never changes.

The Distinction Between Creator and Creation is that we do change
We were reminded a few weeks ago that God is God and we are not.  God never changes.  The fact that we can change is not only a distinction between us as creatures and God as Creator, it is also, for us, a wonderful grace.  While God’s immutability is our security, change in our lives is our basis for hope.  Imagine if you could never change.  You would be stuck with your many imperfections at this very moment.  What you have is what you will always have.  What you are is what you will always be.  There would be no hope for tomorrow.  Change, for us, is a grace.  It works for us rather than against us. 

Change is at the heart of the Gospel.  Repentance is required for salvation. It is the action we take to change our behavior to align with God’s purpose and plan.  We are also saved to a changed life.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature, old things have passed away, behold, all things have become new” (II Cor. 5:17).  We are in the process of change – of being transformed into the image of Christ.  “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18). Charles Wesley put it this way:

Finish then Thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation, perfectly restored in Thee:
Changed from glory into to glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Praise be to God, in whom there is no shadow of turning, who through his everlasting mercy, has given us hope to be transformed through the life that he has given us in Jesus Christ.