A Meditation on Peace

Today is the second Sunday of advent and so now is a good time to focus our hearts and minds on peace – and not just peace in the abstract – but the peace that only Christ can bring.

Peace, in the Christian way of thinking, is not simply the absence of strife. Peace is the presence of a contented, restful, goodness that pervades your life. Some of my readers will be aware of that great, Old Testament Hebrew word for peace – shalom. The word speaks of well-being and restoration. An oasis in the desert. It’s the kind of thing we all crave – the kind of thing we take vacation time looking for (and maybe only occasionally find it!) So unlike John Lennon’s definition of peace – as in “give peace a chance” – the peace that Jesus brings is not merely the absence of something – it is the presence of something. It’s a positive addition and not a negation. The peace of Christ is something that fills you up – like a newborn baby with a full belly of milk.

Whenever I read through Proverbs, there is one particular saying that always grabs my attention: “Better is a dry crust of bread where there is quietness than a house full of feasting with strife.” (17:1, NET). Who doesn’t resonate with that? Who hasn’t sat through an awkward family meal where there is underlying angst? We all have. But here we see the utter value of peace – to be together and to know the unity and joy of a settled and quiet home is worth giving up the turkey, the gravy, and even the dressing. The benefit of peace – peace in the marriage – peace in the family –  outweighs any other physical blessing. It’s better to receive wood blocks for Christmas and play well with the other kids than discord with a mountain full of gifts under the tree.

That proverb hits home. That’s why it grabs me. It makes me all emotional. We all crave that kind of peace.

And so, Scripture exhorts us: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace…” (Col 3:15 NIV).

The way to get real peace is to get acquainted with the Prince of Peace. When we bow the knee to Jesus – when we all bow the knee to Jesus – there is a sweet aroma that permeates our marriages, our homes, and our churches. That is what we are called to. That is what God the Holy Spirit works into our lives as we submit to Jesus. We need to strive for it. The place that starts is learning how to confess our junk – generally to those closest to us, to those who know us all too well.

Yet this Sunday is a time to look forward to the ultimate, coming kingdom of Jesus. That is the reason to “let” the peace of Christ “rule” today – because his peace will rule forever, not only in our hearts but over every square centimeter of Jesus’ new restored and transformed earth in the age to come.

We need to anticipate the peace of heaven this advent season. I heard a familiar carol, Away in a Manger, on the radio a couple days ago but they had changed the lyric. Instead of the original, “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.” They had “take us to heaven, to live with thee there.” Nope. Bring back the original.

(My guess is that this band felt that if they said God is “fitting” us for heaven then that must be teaching a form of self-salvation – some form of us proving ourselves worthy of salvation – pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Now, I want to affirm wholly that none of us, apart from the shed blood of Jesus, can be fit for heaven on our own. We need a Saviour. That’s the point of Christmas. Nevertheless…)

We do need to be fit for heaven. Hebrews 9:28 says we need to eagerly anticipate the new age right now: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The peace of heaven is intended for those who are living in peace today.

Our summons then is to anticipate that peace now by repentance – by turning our hearts to a place of reconciliation and peace with the Prince of Peace. That form of repentance also inherehntly involves pursuing peace with others “if it is possible…as far as it depends on you” (Rom 12:18, NET).

Even the smallest taste of that peace will make for a wonderful advent season – for there are few things better in life than the excellent combination of a big table full of food and a big heart full of peace. For indeed that is what is awaiting us in the age to come, for “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end…” (Isaiah 9:7, ESV).

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A Meditation on Hope

A few months ago I asked the teenagers I work with a question, and to raise their hands for the answer. I said, “are things getting better or worse in our world?” Nearly everyone put their hand up saying that things are getting worse.

That was interesting to me. I was somewhat surprised and saddened by that.

But I think it makes sense – we have North Korea and the US threatening each other. You have legal cases in our country imposing a new state-sponsored morality. You have Christians around the world facing immense persecution and death.

Yet today many of you are mindful that it is the first Sunday of Advent, which is also the first Sunday of the church year. Today is a time to reflect on the hope of Christ and his coming – that indeed, Christ, the light, has shone into the darkness and has not been overcome by the darkness.

Hope is an underrated virtue today. And the reason why is because we haven’t learned to see history the way God sees it. One thing Ravi Zacharias is quite famous for saying is that everyone has to answer a few basic questions and in particular we have to answer the question “where did we come from” and “where are we going?” The questions of origin and destiny. And what you find is that most people then have no hope by definition. If our origin is merely the blind process of evolution and chance and the story culminates in an environmentalist apocalyptic tragedy, then we have no basis for hope – no basis for a Merry Christmas.

But we have a tremendous story. The best story. The story of all stories. The story that is built on God’s decrees in creation and history and ultimately in the restoration of all things. God has sovereignly decreed that history gets worked out a certain way and that has implications for how we look at the future. And the more focused our lives are on that coming future, the more we will know the hope of the gospel.

As we prepare to celebrate communion we want to remember who Christ is and what he has done in coming and in dying and in being raised and in ascending to the Father and in ruling even now by the Spirit as his kingdom grows. So then I want to read a few passages to you to reflect on – passages for today and that are being fulfilled today by Christ and through the Spirit as the mission of God advances all around us and around our world. And if it doesn’t give you hope then I don’t know what will.

Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.’
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
”As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son [“Pay sincere homage” NET],
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

1 Corinthians 15:22-27: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”

Revelation 22:20: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Oh, and one final one:

Matthew 26:29: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

There is a kingdom coming and indeed it is already advancing and when it is ultimately here we will feast with our Saviour – whose body was broken and whose blood was shed so that too we might know the hope of eternal life in his presence.

When we read the news, as awful as it may be, we need to remember that right now Jesus’ enemies are being made into his footstool. Jesus is, right now, in the process of putting his feet up. He has won the victory. He has dealt sin and death the decisive blow. And now he is sitting back in his armchair.

We are in difficult times. We are facing new threats and challenges that we haven’t seen for a few generations. But the promises of God are still true. The kingdom is advancing – even advancing through persecution – and Jesus is subduing the nations; if we had a better perspective on things historically and globally we would see that this is resoundingly true.

So then if you are a friend of the king and not an enemy, I invite you to participate this morning as we celebrate his meal and declare his rule, his reign, and his return.

Burning Man: The New Fertility Religion

I have an old friend who recently encouraged me to look into Burning Man. I had never heard of it until a few months ago. So I asked a couple of my co-workers if they had heard of it and nearly all of them had. Huh.

Burning Man is, on paper, a big art festival in the Nevada desert. Every year there is something close to 80,000 participants. They create all sorts of art and music and spend time dancing and “gifting” their supplies to one another – there is no plumbing or cars allowed so you have to ride a bike around and use the out-houses.

But ask any “burner” and they tell you it is oh so much more than just an art festival. It’s something beyond your wildest dreams! 

Burning Man essentially exists to promote two massive thrusts: first, completely free self-expression, including nudity, body paint, etc., and second, a temporary sense of autonomy from any form of governance – it seeks to produce a “temporary autonomous zone.” They are also committed to leaving no trace of garbage behind, which is a noble goal of course, (except for the many tons of carbon they gratuitously load into the atmosphere after burning loads of their massive art structures).

My buddy told me that folks like me, who care very much about the global mission of Jesus, need to consider the spiritual draw of this sort of thing. According to him, it’s a substitute for religious participation.

Of course, he is right – not that it’s a viable substitute for the true community that develops around the life under Christ – but that people like me do in fact need to pay some attention to this sort of thing. That is my aim in writing this…

The first thing to say is that the stated aims and ideals of the event are inherently unworkable and contradictory. They are committed to developing a sharing economy by “gifting” their supplies to one another and yet you need to pay upwards of $400 to get a ticket in. They are committed to “inclusion” and yet the vast majority of people attending (perhaps who can afford to go and burn $400 for a few days’ fun) are white, wealthy people from the Silicon Valley. They are also committed to environmentalism and yet they burn loads of stuff needlessly. Moreover, they are committed to pursuing autonomy and an anti-establishment vibe, and yet every year they realize they need more and more rules to regulate fires, and land use, and medical concerns, etc. No kidding. Apparently, communities of humans need governance for the well-being of all. Right.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the whole autonomous vibe is just for sales, appealing to the deep anarchy that lies in the heart of the naive consumer. No – they are not autonomous at all, in fact, the whole festival rests on the good benevolence of the surrounding society. The land they meet on in the Nevada desert is land set aside as natural space. The roads they drive on to get there are American roads. And if there is ever a health crisis they can helicopter you to a nearby American hospital. So much for an autonomous zone. Seriously, movements like this don’t develop in places like Somalia – an actual autonomous anarchy. A parasite needs a host.

But let’s pry a little deeper. What is the real driver for this festival? Why does it get people, oh so jazzed?

Burning Man is a substitute for religion precisely because it is a religion.

Burning Man is essentially an orgiastic fertility rite, like those of the ancient Canaanites. The two notable institutions of the festival that I have left out are the “temple,” where people are encouraged to go and get spiritual about stuff, and then also the sex booth, where people are encouraged to go and get…you know.

And that of course is nothing new. Throughout civilization, pre-Abraham and post-Abraham, people have been worshiping around the throne of Hedonistic Sexuality. Anyone who has taken even a basic introductory course in Old Testament knows this. The constant temptation for all Israel was to turn to Asherah, and Baal. Without getting too vulgar, these were massive sex cults – the Asherah pole was a priapistic symbol. And I’m supposed to believe burning man is the real Avant Garde thing. There is nothing new under the sun. At its root this is all just the same demonic garbage masquerading as “the in thing.”

What is more demonic that the climax of the event where everyone gathers around to watch a massive statue of a man burn. Symbols have meaning. What’s the meaning here? Is it not that the imago die is a curse that needs to be burned off of us? Demons always rejoice in the marring of that original image. And the sad news just this week is that one man literally threw himself into the flames. But isn’t that what we would expect? He is symbolizing what a generation is doing presently in their devotion to these sorts of destructive rites. Further testimony to the age-old truth that you become like what you worship. And the second that goes with it, that you are always destroyed by your idols.

This sort of fertility religion is exactly what Jesus came to do away with. And like King Josiah who ground the Asherahs to dust in pursuit of God’s blessing and revival (2 Kings 23:6), so Jesus also grinds to dust the idols that would turn us back to dust. Jesus builds lasting community in a kingdom that will never diminish, lasting life for those who repent of their wickedness and folly, and lasting fruitfulness to those who would acknowledge him as Lord. When Burning Man leaves dust in the ears and armpits, Jesus brings water in the dusty wilderness.

Jesus builds a lasting community in a kingdom that will never diminish, lasting life for those who repent of their wickedness and folly, and lasting fruitfulness to those who would acknowledge him as Lord. When Burning Man leaves dust in the ears and armpits, Jesus brings water in the dry places – water flowing into the paradise of God.

 

 

 

 

The Conquering Lion-Lamb (Revelation 5)

(Read Revelation 4 and 5)

In order to help us reflect and ponder the wonder of Jesus and his cross as we prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper, I thought it would be fitting to have you turn your attention to Revelation chapter 5.

Bringing This Book Back Into Our Bibles

I am convinced that we need, basically, to bring this book back into our Bibles. At the start of this book, it gives a blessing to those who have read the whole thing out loud, but many of us have never done that. Of course, it is a challenging book full of symbolism, but it is the textbook to teach us what it means to worship God. The entire book is all about worshipping God and standing for him in evil days when our society wants to pull us away from the worship of the Triune God – that is a message that the church desperately needs to hear today. We need to rediscover this book – and we need to ask the question, the whole time through – what would all of this symbolism mean to the original recipients of this letter – these seven churches in Asia Minor?

Jesus in The Throne Room 

Revelation chapter 4 gives us a magnificent picture of God’s throne room, and then Revelation chapter 5 focuses all of our attention on Jesus, at the centre of God’s throne room in the heavenly realm. On that throne is one seated with a scroll in his hand – a scroll with seven seals on it. And these seven seals represent God’s appointed periods of history as they unfold on the earth. These are times of both God’s judgment and his salvation – and it is only Jesus, the lionlike-lamb, who is worthy to open up these times and seasons.

The Lion-Lamb
This is the amazing and multifaceted imagery of Revelation: Jesus is seen here as a lion and a lamb. The Lion is one who conquers. Jesus has conquered sin, death, Satan, demons, and hell and he conquered them in the cross – and that victory was the victory of a king – all the hope that was wrapped up in king David and his kingly line was realized in the cross of Jesus, the ultimate king – the King of kings and the Lord of lords – the one coming on the clouds with power and glory.

For the original audience reading this in Asia Minor, this would have been a massive encouragement. The pains and headaches of a rag-tag, persecuted band of Christians are answered in the victorious death of Jesus, the Lion of Judah.

But right as we expect to see a lion coming into the centre of the throne room, what we actually see is a lamb who has been slain – a bloodied, slaughtered lamb. And the whole throng and host of elders and angels start praising this lamb, in the very same way that they were praising God himself in the same throne room earlier.

What is the main thrust of their praise? “You are worthy because you have purchased a people from all the people’s and tribes and tongues!”

A Purchased People

I love this word “purchased.” Your Bible may have the word ransomed, but the most basic sense here of this word is purchased. The lamb has paid the price for you in his very own blood. You have been bought. You are Jesus’ possession. His death has purchased your freedom and your hope and your joy.  The transaction is already done. Your debt of sin is completely paid off – it’s not like a student loan or a mortgage that takes a few years to pay off. It’s a done deal – once and for all – and you can’t add to it or take away from it.

The Lamb’s Supper

This is a wonderful reminder as we turn to the Lord’s Supper – the Lamb’s Supper. We celebrate the victorious lion-lamb who is Jesus our Lord. And as we participate in this meal, we, in a very true and real way, are worshipping him in his throne room because he is worthy of all our praise.

So in a few moments, we will pass out bread, to symbolize the broken body of Jesus. Then we will pass out the juice – the fruit of the vine – to symbolize the blood of Jesus.

And this meal is for the people of the lamb. It for genuine believers who have placed their trust in Jesus and who have decided to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.

The Politics of Life and Death

Nietzsche said God is dead, but notice how quickly that has become “death is god.”

The legislation and ethos of our day are nothing short of a death cult. We are obsessed with the politics of fruitlessness. In the wake of Neitzsche, we have seen the acceptance of no-fault divorce; the proliferation of any and all forms of birth control and a declining birth rate; the acceptance and celebration of so-called same-sex marriage (which is, by definition, a fruitless union); the acceptance and romanticization of assisted suicide; and now we distribute abortion around the globe as the glad tidings of the false gospel around which we worship.

But the gospel of Jesus is that he has overcome the grave. Jesus beat death. In his death, death has died. The more this truth is worked out in our lives, marriages, homes, and legal systems, the more we will know the joy of worshipping the God who is alive, the God who grants birth and new, spiritual birth; and then we will ultimately taste eternal life in him whose presence is the path of life…fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11).

God’s Story and Your Story

The world God made is one that has a plot line.  That is to say, all history is going somewhere. We live within that great story – we are characters in God’s narrative.

When we turn to God’s Word we get a glimpse into just how incredible the story is. It starts with Creation, with God standing over and against all that he has made, and yet relating to it intimately, particularly in his relationship with people made in his image. Mankind was to be a co-ruler with God – spreading his presence and glory to the ends of the earth. But man fell from God in Adam’s sins and rebellion, which was our sin and rebellion. In time though, God would slowly put his grace to work and overcome all the rebellion of man with its cursed consequences, like a patient farmer tilling the soil, planting a crop, and tirelessly pruning and weeding the ground before a great harvest. The climax of the plot is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the God-man, who stepped in where we failed, and as the second Adam, became the new representative and leader for the new humanity. The great narrative concludes at a wedding feast in a new paradise on a new earth, where every song, every taste, and every face is a witness to the glorious consummation of God’s earlier promise: “they will be my people, and I will be their God.”

God’s story then is creation-fall-redemption-restoration. It is the story of all stories.

The tragedy for those who reject God, however, is that they need to substitute their own great story. In very generalized terms they might go something like this:

  • For the atheist, the story is something like nothingness-angst-hedonism-nothingness.
  • For the Marxist, the story is resources-inequality-fairness-peace.
  • For the Muslim, the story is power-rebellion-submission-glory.
  • For the environmentalist, the story is matter-pollution-stewardship-harmony.
  • For the Eastern religious thinker, the story is oneness-disintegration-actualization-integration.

Everybody is living out their days along some plotline, some narrative that speaks of some form of salvation from some ultimate crisis or evil.

When we come to terms with this, we have discovered a powerful insight into the human condition. We are all in some story; we are all trying to find deliverance from some original sin; we are all motivated by some form of ultimate hope. Take it a step further: we are all worshipping some deity – some Great Deliverer.

When sharing our faith in Jesus, one of the things we need to try to do then is to graciously but sternly confront the false narratives we find that others hold to. That is because the resurrection of Jesus is ultimate reality and the ultimate climax of history.

In other words, “Our God is alive – and yours is dead.”

But then we need to confront the false salvation narrative at the personal level.

We may have a certain philosophical narrative we are holding to, but it may or may not be what we are personally and experientially holding to. For example, many Christians believe in the resurrection but think that the real deliverer from trouble is money. Likewise, many atheists believe that there is no ultimate saviour, but their functional deliverer is a romantic relationship.

If you are a Christian, God’s grace has gone to work in your life in a different way than it has gone to work in mine. Of course, we all share a common salvation for God has saved us by faith (and is saving us) and has given us the same Spirit and the same baptism. Yet the particular sin and struggle that Jesus is overcoming in your life is different than the particular sin he is overcoming in mine. For this reason, we need to consider our “testimony” at a deeper level. What is God saving you from right now, present tense? Maybe you were a poser now finding your true identity and confidence in Jesus. Maybe you were a womanizer now finding true and lasting beauty and pleasure in Christ. Maybe you were an addict now finding true freedom in Jesus.

Maybe like me, you suffered from a success-motivated, status-driven perfectionism that God is changing into deep joy and contentment in any circumstance.

Consider God’s grand story.

Consider how God’s story is working out in your story.

Consider how that intersects with the stories of others.

That’s the first place to start.

“Win the man, not the argument”

1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (ESV):

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

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

In this passage, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the absolute importance of having love as your driving motivator in ministry. The same is true, especially, when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death and hell with people in your life. That good news of Jesus’ accomplishment is what makes guilty sinners like us righteous before the Holy God and Creator of the universe. It overcomes our greatest need, which is to be saved from death, and it fulfills our greatest desire, which is to be truly known and fully loved by God. 

This will be the second post, of four, on sharing faith. The big idea in this one is that all our proclamation, argumentation, and conversation needs to be coloured by the love of Jesus.

I heard an old line that originates I believe from Jim Wilson, who said when declaring the gospel the goal is to win the man and not the argument.

Of course, the point is not to downplay the importance of the argument. God’s word indeed tells us to be ready to give a defense for the faith in 1 Peter 3:15: “…in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (ESV). The word there for “defense” is apolagia – it is the word that we get “apologetics” from. We need to do apologetics. We need to use arguments and we need to seek to persuade. Truth matters.

However, we must remember that the goal is not to win the argument – the goal is to win the man (or the woman). We have already won the argument. The resurrection of Jesus is an event in history – the Christian worldview makes sense rationally and logically but fundamentally we are asserting a historical reality of a God who died and was raised. It’s not primarily a philosophical argument as much as it is a statement of fact that demands a response. Christ is presently reigning at the Father’s right hand whether you agree or disagree, believe or disbelieve. For this reason, even when people reject our arguments, there is no reason to get hot under the collar. You don’t need to try to be right. You already are right. The resurrection has already proven you right – so let God confirm the soundness of your words in the quiet whisper of their heart. Or let him harden them through their continued rejection of the good news.

Genuine love, that is confident and bold, must drive our engagement with people. This means letting  go of a debating spirit; letting go of cheap shots or snide remarks; and, for example, refraining from using words like “pagan” or a “heathen.” Yes – non-Christians are the sons of disobedience and the children of wrath, but how helpful is it to call them pagans? I’ve seen this language a fair bit lately. Sadly, some evangelists so deeply demonize the unbelieving man that even if their arguments are won, the man hasn’t been – he now wants nothing to do with you and even if he comes to saving faith in Jesus, he certainly won’t be coming to your church or home group.

Speak in love, show genuine respect and acknowledge any good or true points they make in the discussion, and then unpack the gracious confrontation of the gospel – there is a way of confronting people with the truth of gospel without being “confrontational.” That is what it means to win the man. We need to remember then that we are ambassadors of Christ and his love and grace (2 Cor 5:20). That doesn’t mean that we won’t deliver hard words, stern rebukes, or bold warnings, but fundamentally we need to get to the point where, in love, we truly want to accept and welcome this unbelieving man into the kingdom.

So win the man, not the argument.