Archive for the ‘Sin’ Category

I promise

The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines the word promise as “a statement telling someone that you will definitely do something or that something will definitely happen in the future.”  In Western culture, a promise is not something to be taken lightly (unless perhaps you’re a politician).  Anyone who has raised a child knows that a promise carries weight.

If you’ve ever planned to do something with a child—say a Saturday afternoon trip to the zoo—and subsequently had to cancel, then you have probably had a conversation like this:

Dad: “Sweetie I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to go to the zoo tomorrow.  Something came up at work.”

Child: “When are you going to take me?”

Dad: “How about next Saturday?”

Child: “Do you promise?”

Dad: “We’ll see.”

The “We’ll see” response is a rather hollow attempt at not having to break a promise the dad made to the child. No parent wants to break a promise made to their child.

There is a special kind of promise called a covenant.  Covenants typically entail a personal relationship between the various parties to the promises made.  If you’ve ever been a member of a home owners association (HOA), you’ve probably read, or at least heard of, the HOA covenants.  These are the rules and regulations that all home owners belonging to the association agree to follow.  Human covenants typically contain stipulations, a condition or requirement that is specified or demanded as part of an agreement.  For example, your mailbox must match the color of your house, or boats are not to be parked in driveways for more than 24 hours. For breaking or violating these covenants, there is usually some sort of penalty that must be paid.  In the case of a HOA, this is often a monetary fine.

For Christ followers, marriage vows are a form of covenant and a pretty demanding, “for better or for worse…in sickness and in health…until death do us part.”

The Bible contains many covenants.  While the exact number is a point of debate, there are five core covenants forming the foundation of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind through faith in Jesus Christ. These covenants were made with Noah, Abraham, Moses/Israel, David and finally the New Covenant of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Noahic Covenant God promises to never again destroy mankind or other living creatures. This covenant was without stipulations. Instead, God will fulfill the redemptive promise of Genesis 3:15.

 Abrahamic Covenant – God promises to make a great nation out of childless Abraham, assuring him that his descendants will outnumber the stars. Abraham is to forsake his land and follow God wherever he leads.  All the while, Abraham and his family are to walk blamelessly before God and to follow the practice of circumcision in every Generation.

Mosaic Covenant (with Israel) – God rescues the Hebrew people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and promises to make them his own people and a nation of priests.  In turn, the people must abide by the laws given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.

Davidic Covenant – God establishes David as Israel’s king. Through David’s royal lineage he will fulfill the promises He made to Abraham and Israel. In return, David and his lineage must remain faithful to God and obey God’s covenantal laws.

The New Covenant of Jesus Christ –   Jesus is the culmination of God’s saving grace for his people. Christ is, as John the Baptist called him, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This is a covenant of Grace without stipulations.

There is a major difference between the covenants of man and the covenants of God. People routinely violate the covenants, while God never breaks a promise.  The covenants of God do not replace the ones that came before—they build upon them, because it is impossible for God to lie or break a promise. Before the foundation of the world, our omniscient God made a plan for the redemption of sinful mankind.  Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of man’s redemption, which was planned out through the five covenants discussed herein.  Thanks be to God that his promises are faithful and true!

 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”  So, you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. –Galatians 4:4-7

What do you believe?

“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him; it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story.

—C.S. Lewis

I’m a member of a parish of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).  Each week during Sunday worship we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, a widely accepted collective statement of faith in the triune God. I’ve been reciting the creed for so many years that now it is memorized and literally flows effortlessly out of my mouth each Sunday.

I enjoy communal prayers, but with this form of prayer comes a risk—the words become so familiar they can lose personal meaning. The renowned Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said, “When we become advocates of a creed, something dies; we do not believe God, we only believe our belief about Him.”

This begs the question, “What does it mean to believe something?” I’ve provided two definitions above.  I prefer the second one. This leads to another question, “What is the difference in believing something and believing in something.”  Surely Satan believes in God, as he has seen God face to face.

  “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” James 2:19 (NIV)

With all this in mind, I’d like to challenge each reader who calls him- or herself a Christian to examine your beliefs in the coming year. Do you believe God? If so, what exactly do you believe and what is the source of your beliefs? Let me preface the remaining discussion by confessing that I have many more questions on this subject than answers.   

A Gallup poll conducted in May 2017 indicated that a record few Americans (24%) believe the Bible is the literal word of God (Gallup poll). A 2020 Barna Group survey published by the American Bible Society indicated that “Mainline Protestant denominations had the largest proportion of unchurched adherents (50%) with one in every two members being unchurched, followed by 46% of Catholics, 37% of Evangelicals, and 36% of Historically Black Protestants.” (Barna Group Survey).  

Where do you stand on this?  If you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, do you read it frequently? If you answered “no,” why not? How well versed are you in the scriptures?  If the Bible isn’t the source of your Christian beliefs, what is?  If you profess to be a Christian and don’t regularly attend church, why don’t you?

The bottom line of my thought process can be summed up like this: “If you can’t articulate what you believe, how can you live what you believe?”  In the coming year, I challenge each reader to answer the following questions for themselves. Take time to research the scriptures and other authoritative sources as you formulate your answers.  Try to discuss “why” or “why not” in each of your answers.

  1. Do you “believe” God or do you “believe in” God?
  2. Do you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God or just a book of wisdom?
  3. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” What does it mean to fear the Lord?
  4. Do you believe the creation story in Genesis 1 is literal or figurative?
  5. Is Jesus the son of God or simply a great moral teacher?
  6. Do you believe in the virgin birth?
  7. What is sin and what is salvation?
  8. Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?
  9. Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
  10. Is Jesus the only pathway to God, as He said, or are there other paths?

Many people claim we’re presently living in a “post-Christian” era today, where Western cultures are increasingly embracing secularism and turning their backs on their original Judeo-Christian roots. More and more, we see Christians accused of being racists, bigots, homophobes, transphobes and a host of other slurs because of their beliefs. This is occurring both before the law, in the media, and in the court of public opinion. When your faith is eventually questioned by a non-Christian, as it inevitably will be, will you be prepared to articulate what you believe or will you silently submit to their accusations?

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.

Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.

This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

—Psalm 34:4-8 (NIV)

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. —1 Timothy 4:13-16 (NIV)

Pressing Towards the Goal

Pressing Towards the Goal

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  —Philippians 3:13-14

Aging provides a multitude of reality checks, reminding one they’re not the same person he/she used to be. These reminders come in many forms, for example waning physical strength, dimming eyesight, thinning hairlines, dental challenges, gaining unwanted weight, and a host of other complaints.  I recently received such a reminder when my Medicare card arrived in the mail. I started feeling older when people began automatically offering me senior discounts at restaurants and movies.  But a Medicare care? Yep, I’m getting old.

When young it’s easy to be carefree.  Just look at the videos of college students frolicking on Florida’s beaches during spring break 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Many of those interviewed in the media appeared to have no cares in this world.  Acknowledging one’s mortality is an important step in life. Realizing there’s an end in sight encourages people to take stock of what they’ve done and what remains.

Leaving a legacy behind is important. I believe my greatest accomplishment is having helped instruct my children in the knowledge of Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  However, I fear that when history judges me and my generation, we will be most remembered for abandoning Judeo-Christian values and leading the United States into the post-Christian era. These values shaped the great experiment we call America. As the values go, so goes the country.  The Christians of my generation have let our values be replaced by a cultural relativism that says “anything goes.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. –Psalm 5:9

The violence and rioting we’ve seen in many American cities in the wake of the George Floyd murder sadden me, because these acts will not lead to greater social justice. The most successful social justice movement in America was exemplified in the teaching of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated peaceful change.  The divisions in American society today are caused not as much by racial injustice as by sin. Today’s racial injustice is one of many symptoms of our sin. 

As I have written in the past, most people are repulsed by being called a sinner.  Yet sin is a condition we all live in. Martin Luther described it eloquently in a letter to his fellow theologian Philip Melanchthon on August 1, 1521:

Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.  We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.  We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.  It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.  Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins?  Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

I wish more of our church leaders would speak up about sin and forgiveness.  Rioting and tearing down statues cannot heal our country—prayer, repentance and turning back towards Christ can. President Mike Pence recently spoke at the First Baptist Church of Dallas.  He said, “Even when things don’t seem like they’re going the way we expected, they’re going a way [God] expected.” He continued, “if we will but hold fast to Him, we’ll see our way through these challenging times, we will restore our nation’s health, we will renew our freedom, and we will inspire people across this land with our witness of the love and compassion and strength that comes in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” 

While the past is important, what happens today and beyond is what matters the most in our lives. I pray that every Christian in America would strive to lead a Christ-like life—one reflecting the glory of our Savior. This is the surest and shortest path to healing the nation.  

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.  Psalm 71:17-18

Please see: Undermining Racism, a talk by English theologian N.T. Wright.

*All Bible quotes are NIV

Getting Right With God

Get Right With God

“Get right with God” is a popular saying often seen on t-shirts, bumper stickers, church marquees, roadside billboards and the like.  Grammy award winner Lucinda Williams even recorded a song with this title. If you ask someone what getting right with God means, it’s highly likely that if they have an answer at all it will center around trying to be a “good person” or living a “good life.”  However, any moral answer to this question that fails to address the issue of sin is incomplete.

Paul described sin as the bondage of humanity, not just the bondage of the individual. Sin is more than a moral lapse, more than a failure of the moral action of individual human beings, but describes the problem of a destroyed relationship—in the cosmic realm, sin is not an act, but a condition of separation from God that is a result of man following his own will instead of God’s.  Sin, in this case, is a form of idolatry where we become our own God. As the Psalmist confesses to God in Psalm 51, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement.”

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  –Romans 8:7-8

The Jewish Pharisees viewed sin in terms of moral misbehavior. Fearing a never-ending list of possible sins, Jewish leaders developed new laws containing prohibitions aimed at steering the people away from an immoral life. Jesus shook up the Jewish culture by continually going beyond moral laws and seeking relationships with people the Jewish leaders called sinners; instead of condemning such people, Jesus offered the communion of His healing and forgiveness. As He told the woman caught in the act of adultery in John chapter 8, “…go and from now on sin no more.” (John 8)

They criticized Jesus for his relationships with a tax collector, a prostitute, a Samaritan woman by a well, and a woman caught in the act of adultery just to name a few.  The reason for Jesus’ relationship seeking is because sin is centered on broken relationships—with neighbors, friends and family. More importantly, sin at the cosmic level is centered on mankind’s broken relationship with the Creator.  

Christ atoned for our personal sins by his death on the cross and glorious resurrection from the dead.  More importantly, however, He restored the right relation that God desired to have with us from the beginning. German writer Thomas Weißenborn in his book Das Geheimnis der Hoffnung: Einführung in den christlichen Glauben (The Secret of Hope: Introduction to the Christian Faith) said, “…if guilt and forgiveness are only understood personally, the cosmic aspect of the New Testament is lost.” One of Christ’s gifts, for those who confess their sins and accept Jesus as their Savior, is restoration into God’s eternal family; Christ offers each of us a chance to become a prodigal son or daughter (Luke 15). “By the giving up of His sinless life sacrificially, Christ annuls the power of sin to separate between God and the believer” (Propitiation – excerpt from Vines Dictionary of New Testament Words).  Only through Jesus Christ can we get right with God.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.                                               –Romans 8:38-39

Note: All Bible quotes are ESVUK.

A son is given: Christmas 2019

Annunciation-to-the-Shepherds-Berchem-Nicolaes-Pietersz-oil-painting-2-768x533

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Berchem Nicolaes Pietersz

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. Luke 2: 8-20 (KJV)

 

Holy Week

Triumphal Enter into Jerusalem - HosannaJesus entering Jerusalem

Traditionally, the week before Easter is called Holy Week. It starts on Palm Sunday. Holy week began today.  It is the last week of the penitential church Season of Lent. 

Palm Sunday
In the Bible, Holy Week begins with a religious festival. People have flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and see the controversial prophet Jesus. Many come to cheer him on as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. They wave palm Branches and shout “Hosanna,” which means “save us,” a Jewish call of lamentation that has since become a call of praise. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a Donkey.  Jesus’ triumphal entry fulfills an Old Testament prophecy and is seen as a sign of humility. Some who cheer him that day will inevitably cry “Crucify him” only a few days later, so the memory of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem is a time of mixed joy and sadness.

Maundy Thursday
In the evening of this day Jesus met with his disciples for the last time before his death. Before the meal, he washes their feet, another sign of humility. During the meal, he prophesies that one of the disciples will betray him. On this evening, Christians are thinking of Christ’s establishment of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In many congregations, a worship service occurs in the evening, in which the congregants come together for a Eucharist meal, just as the first Christians celebrated it. Often after the communion, the altar is cleared, and left unadorned on Good Friday.

Good Friday
On Good Friday, Jesus was crucified. He was tortured and killed. His suffering is therefore at the heart of this day. But it also commemorates the suffering of mankind in general, because through Jesus, God has sided with the suffering. The day is quietly celebrated as Christians contemplate Jesus’ suffering and death. Together with Easter, Good Friday forms the centerpiece of the Christian message of good news: God is stronger than Death! On that day Jesus suffered all that a man can suffer to atone for the sins of mankind. Sin and Death did not have the last word. God raised Jesus as he will one day raise all believers who die in Christ.

Holy Saturday
On the evening of Good Friday, Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried. On Saturday, the Sabbath, that would not have been allowed. So Saturday is the full day that he was dead. In the creed, this means Jesus descended into Hell, or the realm of the dead. We aren’t sure what that is and what it is like there, but the message that Jesus was “resurrected on the third day” provides confidence that at the end of the age God will resurrect Christian believers.

Easter Night
The Bible doesn’t describe the physical resurrection of Jesus. On Easter morning, the women find the empty tomb and are told by an angel that Jesus was resurrected. That might have occurred at night, because in the Jewish Tradition the day begins with the night (“It was evening and it was morning, the first day”). Easter (Saturday) night belongs to Easter Sunday. The resurrection is celebrated on this “night,” mostly in the early hours of the morning, but in some places it is celebrated on Saturday evening. It is a celebration that, in its design, leads from darkness to light. At its climax many congregations light the new Pascal candle declaring “Hallelujah, Christ is risen; He is risen indeed.”

Easter Sunday
The women who discover Jesus empty tomb are the first to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection. In the course of this and the next few days many people meet Jesus and witness the resurrected Son of God. In the early church congregations met regularly for a common Sacrament the day after the Sabbath to commemorate the resurrection. In the Christian context, Sunday was thus marked as the most important day of the week and as a day of rest.

An invitation:
Easter occurs on April 21st this year. For readers in the Sioux Falls area, you are invited to attend an Easter Sunrise service conducted by Church of the Resurrection (www.resurrectionsf.com). The service will begin at 7a.m. at the McKennan Park bandshell. Bring lawn chairs. The service will occur rain or shine.

 

 

The Seven Penitential Psalms

 

Saint Peter in Penitence by El Greco

St. Peter in Penitence, El Greco, (ca. 1580)

We are currently celebrating the church season of Lent, a 40-day period before Easter when Christians reflect upon the passion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died as atonement for our sins, setting believers free from sin and death. Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the promise of eternal life for His believers.  Penitence, a solemn contemplation of one’s sins and request for God’s forgiveness, is foundational to Lent.

One Lenten discipline that I recommend is the prayerful reading of the Seven Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. These psalms (prayers) are generally attributed to David.  Psalm 51 is probably the most widely read of the seven. In Anglican and Catholic traditions, it is often recited by congregations on Ash Wednesday and at other times during the Lenten season.

Christian tradition suggests several possible reasons behind the writing of these psalms. Probably the most widely accepted explanation is they were King David’s prayers of repentance for his sins against Uriah and Uriah’s beautiful wife Bathsheba. David’s sinful lust for Bathsheba drove him to conspire to have Uriah killed in battle. With Uriah out of the way, David took Bathsheba for his wife.  She conceived and bore a baby son, but the child died shortly after birth.  Recalling the words of condemnation delivered to him by the prophet Nathan regarding David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12: 4-7), David believed the baby’s death was God’s punishment for his transgressions. Nathan said to David:

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”  Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! (NIV)

Another Christian tradition associate’s the Seven Penitential Psalms with the Seven Deadly Sins. We first encounter the Seven Deadly Sins in the writings of Pope Gregory I around the year 600.  The sins are pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

The writings of  French Roman Catholic theologian Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420) associates certain spiritual virtues with the Seven Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6, fear of punishment; Psalm32, sorrow and confession for sin; Psalm 38, hope;  Psalm 51, love of purity and mercy; Psalm102, longing for heaven, Psalm 130, distrust of one’s own strength and hope for mercy; and Psalm 143: joy.

During this year’s season of Lent, I’ve committed to prayerfully reading the Seven Penitential Psalms daily as part of my morning devotion.  It has been a deep spiritual experience, one that I plan to make part of my future Lenten discipline.  I encourage readers to give this a try.  You can find the Seven Penitential Psalms online at the following URL:

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/seven-penitential-psalms-songs-of-suffering-servant.cfm

Lent: a Season of Penitence and Prayer

Lenten Journey 3

As an Anglican, I follow a Church liturgical calendar, celebrating each of its many seasons.  Very soon the season of Lent will be upon us.  Lent this year is the period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday (March 6th) to Easter Sunday, commemorating Christ’s 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, His final journey to Jerusalem, where He was crucified, and His last hours with His disciples before His crucifixion. For believers, it is a period of penitence and alms giving. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have their foreheads marked with ashes in the sign of the cross.  The ashes are often collected from burning the palm fronds used in the celebration of Psalm Sunday.

The Catholic and Anglican traditions regarding Lent are very similar.  In the Anglican tradition, which I practice, Lent is sometimes called the Paschal season (relating to Passover or Easter). It is a preparation time intimately connected to the most important Festival of the Church year, Easter, which marks Christ’s resurrection from the dead and His victor over sin and death. In celebration of the so-called Easter Triduum, Christians commemorates the passion (suffering), death, and resurrection of Jesus and thus the origin of the all Christian belief and the source of our faith and salvation. So, as Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert, Anglicans prepare for 40 days for the encounter with Him in the Easter celebration. Traditionally, the Easter season begins with Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, a day we recall Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and having his last meal with them before his crucifixion.  Maundy Thursday reminds believers of their hunger for God by refraining from food and intensifying one’s prayer life and charitable giving. 

In the Orthodox tradition, Lent is an invitation to learn the salvation story  by studying the death and the resurrection of Christ. It is an exercise in which believers partake of suffering and resurrection of the Lord. The cross and resurrection are daily realities: we die every day in all trials of life with Christ, but we experience our resurrection every day when we unite with him in faith and prayer. It is important in the Orthodox tradition to recognize that the cross is symbolic of the resurrection, not death. Fasting during Lent is an exercise of self-restraint, by which believers overcome their physical passions and win true freedom. It helps us to the internalization, especially when we pray. The believers should fast and avoid meat. They should intensify their prayer life and dig deeper into the scriptures than usual.  On Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, many Orthodox churches celebrate an evening service called “liturgy of the pre-sanctified gifts”. During these services, no elements are sanctified for the Holy Eucharist.  Instead, the bread and wine sanctified on the precious Sunday are used.  On these days, many Orthodox believers fast until evening.

Protestant denominations observe Lent in a wide variety of ways. Sadly, many traditional Protestant denominations barely observe Lent or the Church Calendar at all.  However, for some, fasting during Lent is a time for reflecting on the essentials of Christianity. The original purpose is to prepare one’s self internally for the coming of Easter. Many Protestants avoid certain things during Lent in a quest to learn the true necessities in life. They may deprive themselves of dependency-related risks such as alcohol, chocolate and other sweets, and even the consumption of social media. The Lenten season is a good time to reorder one’s life—restacking priorities.  

For those readers who have no set way of observing Lent, I urge you to consider adopting a Lenten tradition.  One simple way to begin is to read a daily Lenten devotion.  There are many available on the web, but my favorite is published by Lutheran Hour Ministries.  Beginning March 6 you will be able to find the devotions at this link:  https://www.lhm.org/lent/.

“…special (church) holidays give rise to various liturgical calendars that suggest we should mark our days not only with the cycles of the moon and seasons, but also with occasions to tell our children the stories of our faith community’s past so that this past will have a future, and so that our ancient way and its practices will be rediscovered and renewed every year.” 
         ― Brian D. McLaren,  Finding our Way Again: The Return of Ancient Practices

 

 

Transformed not Conformed

Parthenon

The Parthenon (Temple of Athena) Athens, Greece

The lines between right and wrong are growing increasingly blurry in American society today.  Modern culture encourages us to be more accepting and inclusive. Our elected officials have passed many laws at the national, state and local levels that conflict with a Christian world view. Americans are bombarded with modern culture images, messages and social mores in the broadcast, cable, print and web news sites, as well as on the ever-increasing social media and other Internet websites.   

Despite the rapid social changes and pressures to conform, for matters of Christian faith and living the deciding question remains “what does the Bible say?”  When the Apostle Paul and Silas visited the city of Berea on a missionary journey, Paul preached the Gospel in the local synagogue, where it was received with great enthusiasm. Acts 17: 11 (NIV) says that the Berean Jews “…received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The Bereans recognized the authority of the Scriptures. Acts 17 goes on to tell us that as a result of Paul’s preaching there, many Berean Jews believed, as well as many prominent Greek women and men.

My wife and I are currently participating in a small group study examining the collision of Christian, Jewish, Roman and Hellenistic cultures during the ministry of the Apostle Paul.  Hellenistic culture was the pervasive Greek culture that influenced the entire Mediterranean region during Paul’s time.

Paul’s journeys led him to Corinth, a flourishing, modern Roman colony that Julius Caesar had intentionally populated with second rate Roman citizens, most of whom had failed in life while living in Rome. In Paul’s day, the city was wicked and corrupt, filled with prostitutes, crooks, swindlers and lowlifes. Corinth had a Jewish synagogue and Paul was eager to share the Gospel there.

Paul arrived in Corinth with only the possessions he was carrying.  Shortly after arriving, he met a Jewish, Christian married couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade and they owned a business in Corinth.  They took Paul into their business and invited him to live in their home, where Corinth’s first house church was established. 

Paul frequented the synagogue in Corinth, but met with much resistance from the Jewish leaders.  Growing weary of Paul’s message, these leaders eventually drug him before the local Roman proconsul Gallio in AD 51 and brought a series of charges against him. When Gallio learned that the dispute was about Jewish law and that Paul had not violated any Roman laws, he refused to judge the case and told the Jewish leaders to settle the matter themselves. Paul’s attempt to convert the Corinthian Jews failed.

After this, Paul turned away from the Jews in Corinth and took his message to the local gentiles.  Subsequently, many converted to the faith.  These converts included a high-level Corinthian leader named Erastus. The NIV translation of Paul’s epistle to the Romans refers to him as the “Director of Public Work” in Corinth. After Paul’s eventual departure from Corinth, he wrote to the Corinthian church, telling them that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). What a concept for people surrounded by pagan shrines and magnificent Greek and Roman temples!

Paul also journeyed to Athens hoping to spread the Gospel.  Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a city full of temples and idols.  There Paul had the opportunity to preach to the Areopagite Council (or Areopagus), a powerful, court-like body made up of Athenian aristocrats.  Despite Paul’s immense knowledge of the Scriptures and his skills in persuasive speaking, he failed to persuade the Areopagus. Paul failed to establish a church in Athens and departed the city in disappointment. 

Like Paul, Christians today will not always succeed against the tide of negative cultural change and influences, but they can remain steadfast in their beliefs without succumbing to cultural pressures. Paul succeeded in forming churches in some places and failed in others, but his approach was always based upon the same foundation—a deep knowledge of the scriptures; reliance upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and living in a manner that glorified Christ.

As Christians living in modern American society, we can learn a lot from Paul. We live in a culture filled with idols—people or objects we value more than God.  We may not literally bow down to these idols, but we worship them all the same.  Rather than existing as statues and shrines, today’s idols are more likely to adorn the covers of gossip and fashion magazines, make movies, play professional sports, or work in politics, i.e. modern cults of personality.  Some people idolize inanimate objects like money, expensive cars, exquisite homes, extravagant vacations, or their jobs. Others make idols of wealth, drugs, alcohol, cell phones, social media or Internet porn. I shudder to think what negative effects the advent of the sex robots will have on our culture. 

Today, in a world that’s filled with idols, Paul’s warning to the church in Rome is more relevant than ever:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good,  pleasing and perfect will.  Romans 12:2 (NIV)

J.B. Phillips’s, author of the bestselling book Your God is Too Small, paraphrases Romans 12:2 like this: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity”

Christians must let God’s spirit shape their lives, not the influences of modern culture. Let Colossians 3:12 (NIV) be your guide:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,  clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Christians in the early Church influenced the culture around them because they loved one another and cared for the sick, the homeless, orphans, widows, lepers and other disenfranchised members of society.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity didn’t occur through power and intimidation, but through weakness and self-sacrifice. Think about these words from Paul:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults,in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV)

Christians in America cannot stem the tide of the negative cultural influences that constantly collide with our lives and Christian world view, but we can focus on the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to shape our hearts and minds. In this politically charged era, we still have certain obligations to our laws and government that we must adhere to as the price for living in this great nation; but as  Jesus said, we must “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”  We must obey the laws of the land and work to change those laws when necessary, but we must not allow our Christian beliefs to be conformed to modern culture. In every situation, remember to ask, “What does the Bible say?”

 

 

A New Beginning

new-years-resolution

The New Year has arrived and for many it’s a time for making resolutions and new beginnings—trying to set aside bad habits and/or adopt new, beneficial routines. Unfortunately, for most people it’s nearly impossible to succeed in such endeavors. 

A Forbes Magazine article published in January 2013 reported on a study conducted at the University of Scranton. It indicated that only about 8 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions achieve their goals. Looking at this a different way, 92 percent fail!

Despite the slim chance of succeeding, many will continue to make New Year’s resolutions year after year.  I confess that I’m guilty.  Last year I made a resolution to lose 10 pounds—I now have only have 15 pounds to go (sigh).

The Bible is full of promises and stories about new beginnings. (all citations ESV)

  • Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
  • Ezekiel 36:26 – “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
  • John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
  • Ephesians 4:22-24 – “…the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
  • 1 Peter 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
  • Revelation 21:5 – “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’.”

Fortunately for us all, God makes new beginnings and he never fails if we will simply let him do His work.  His greatest new beginning was foretold in the Old Testament, described in the Gospels, and recounted in the Epistles. It was God’s gift of His son Jesus to save us from our sins.

Christ’s salvation of mankind was completed over 2,000 years ago through Jesus’ crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead on the third day is evidence of Jesus’ victory over Sin and Death.

Jesus died to cleanse all mankind from their sins.  For those who don’t already know him, that salvation is like a beautifully wrapped present sitting beneath a Christmas tree.  The present has no owner until someone opens it, takes what is inside, and makes it their own.

St. Paul describes how to do this in his epistle to the Romans. There is no long list of do’s and don’ts.  God’s plan of salvation is beautiful in its simplicity, requiring only confession and sincere belief.

“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  Romans 10:9-10

Martin Luther wrote about what it means to be “justified” before god, saying that justification is a “… righteousness that God gives freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own.”  Even though those who have accepted Jesus’ gift of salvation will continue to sin, because of Christ’s sacrifice they remain righteous in the eyes of God.

It is my hope that you have already received this free gift.  If not, however, please consider making it your own today!

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there
will be no end, on the throne of David and over his
kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice
and with righteousness from this time forth and  
forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

                                                                                            Isaiah 9:6-7