Monday, December 21, 2015

The fourth Sunday of Advent: Celebration

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: is the fourth in a repeat of a four-part series from 2013 that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point up to and including Christmas Day. I apologize for posting this one late.)

The incarnation -- God becoming man -- finds an appropriate response in celebration.

This is the response of two groups who hear the glad announcement on the night of the God-man's birth.

When an angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds a Savior has been born in Bethlehem, an army of angels gathers with him to praise God and declare in Luke 2:14:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.
The human beings who witness this joyful pronouncement do not hesitate. They find this baby who is God in the flesh wrapped in cloths in a lowly feed trough in Bethlehem and share with Mary and Joseph what the angel of the Lord has told them. In his last comment on the shepherds, Luke reports in Luke 2:20:
The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
A multitude of angels and a band of shepherds do what we all should do at this news: Celebrate.

God has become man. Let us celebrate. The Creator has become a child. Let us celebrate. The Son of the Most High has become a male infant. Let us celebrate. The Almighty God has become a needy baby. Let us celebrate. God is with us. Let us celebrate. God has come to show us what He is like. Let us celebrate. God has come to serve us. Let us celebrate. God has come to save us. Let us celebrate.

And in celebrating, may we follow the example of the angels and shepherds. How did they celebrate? By glorifying God, Luke says.

As we near Christmas, may we celebrate and glorify God for the most important development in human history that leads to the central event in redemptive history: God became man, a man who came to "save His people from their sins," as the angel tells Joseph in Matt. 1:21.

Because He is God in the flesh, the Savior, and the Risen and Ascended Lord, we await another advent. As we celebrate His first coming, may we encourage one another to look forward to His second coming -- an advent which will begin a celebration for His people that will last forever.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The third Sunday of Advent: Incarnation

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: is the third in a repeat of a four-part series from 2013 that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point up to and including Christmas Day. I apologize for posting this one three days late.)

The greatest development in human history is simple in its presentation.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
With that no-frills description, the Bible reports the incarnation. God comes in human form.

Hidden within the simplicity of the description is unfathomable truth. This baby is fully God and fully man. The Creator of the universe becomes the child lying in a feed trough for animals. This seems impossible. Yet, it is true.

J.I. Packer depicts the wonder of it this way in Knowing God:
[T]he Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.
This is what Christmas is about. God the Son humbles Himself to become a man. Yet, this embryo who becomes a newborn who becomes a boy who becomes a man maintains the deity He possesses as God.

The New Testament points to this reality:
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)
The incarnation -- God the Son willingly humbling Himself to become a man -- is for the purpose of a humiliation that makes Christmas all important. God the Son suffers and dies in the place of sinners that they might know His Father. He lives righteously as a substitute for us, then dies sacrificially as a substitute for us. It is a work He only could perform through His incarnation.

And as we anticipate Christmas and its truth of God putting on human flesh, we also look forward to His second coming -- when we will see Him in the glorified body which He now possesses.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The second Sunday of Advent: Declaration

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: is the second in a repeat of a four-part series from 2013 that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point up to and including Christmas Day.)

God not only makes promises and provides foreshadowings in many ways to build expectation for the coming of the Savior. He also declares His Son's incarnation when it is time for the expectation to become reality. He makes declarations to two human beings who are waiting expectantly for the Messiah but who have no expectation of how dramatically His coming will affect their lives.

To a young Jewish maiden who is betrothed but not officially married, He sends an angel, who declares:
Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end. (Luke 1:30b-33)
To a Jewish man who is burdened by the pregnancy of his betrothed one, He sends in a dream an angel, who declares:
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. (Matt. 1:20b-21)
Centuries of expectation are at an end. The hopes of the people in the promises of God are fulfilled. They are met in a divine embryo. The Savior of the world miraculously resides in a virgin's womb.

A poor Jewish couple awaits not only the delivery of a first-born son but the appearance of the only One who can deliver them. The world, largely unsuspecting, awaits the greatest moment in human history -- God will appear as a man. The baby now hidden will soon emerge the way others do, but He will come forth as "the Son of the Most High" to "save His people from their sins."

Joseph, Mary and the world await His first coming. We await His second coming.

Advent is a time for remembering the declarations of God regarding the coming of the Savior in His humble state long ago. It also is a time of remembering the declarations of God regarding the coming of the Savior in His glorious state over a kingdom that "will have no end."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The first Sunday of Advent: Expectation

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: is the first in a repeat of a four-part series from 2013 that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas Day. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, which begins today, but it can be used at any point up to and including Dec. 25.)

Human history is marked by the expectation of the coming of the Savior. This is made explicit in the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Even when the first man and woman disobey God and make sin a common reality for humanity, God provides hopeful expectation. In mankind’s darkest hour, He proclaims a gospel promise. It is known as the “proto-evangelium,” which means “the first gospel.”

The Creator declares to Satan disguised as a serpent:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel. (Gen. 3:15)
A descendant of Adam and Eve would crush the tempter whose voice they had heeded instead of their Creator’s. That descendant, of course, is the baby born in Bethlehem who defeats the evil one through His life, death and resurrection.

The prophecies of Isaiah also point to the coming of the Savior.
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. (Is. 7:14)
For a child will be born to us; a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this. (Is. 9:6-7)
Yet, not just these prophecies and others build expectation of the coming of the Savior. The Old Testament in its entirety is pregnant with this expectation. The miraculous events of both rescue and judgment – such as Noah’s ark in the flood and the deliverance of Israel through the parting of the Red Sea – point to the Great Rescuer from sin. The worship by God’s Old Covenant people -- the tabernacle, the temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the priests, the sacrifices – point to the Ultimate Priest and Sacrifice through whom we worship God. The heroes – such as Joseph, Moses and David – point to the True Hero of all.

Advent is a time for remembering the promises of God regarding the coming of the Savior. And it is a time of expectation – not only for Christmas Day but for another coming. We await with expectation the Second Coming of our Savior, a coming in which His rule over all will be revealed.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Corporate worship prep 101

(This is the first in a series of posts I hope will encourage Covenant Community Church -- and others who may follow this blog -- toward a deeper understanding of and commitment to corporate worship.)

To worship faithfully with other Christians who are part of the same church family is a battle -- a battle we seem to fight with our culture and ourselves.

Some of us are old enough to remember when our society carved out time from business, sports and other enterprises in deference to Christians who gather to worship. That time is long gone. The church is not dependent on the culture for its help. The church must be the church. Sometimes that means doing things that are counter-cultural.

Increasingly, worshiping publicly with a church family is counter-cultural. By merely leaving our homes Sunday after Sunday to worship a crucified and risen Galilean, we are giving witness to the value of Jesus the Messiah in our lives.

Yet, we struggle with ourselves, it seems, to value that corporate gathering and to esteem our fellow Christ-followers the way the New Testament demonstrates we should.

Much of this battle within the believing community appears to be in how we regard Sunday's corporate worship in comparison, or contrast, to other activities that cry out for our commitment. Here are a few questions to ask yourselves that I hope will stimulate Covenant Community Church and others in considering how to think about the gathering of God's people on the Lord's Day:

-- Do I and the other members of my household consider Sunday's worship as a church the most important gathering we will participate in during the week?

-- Do I recognize God awaits and desires my presence to worship Him as part of His redeemed community?

-- Do I realize Jesus has rescued me so that I might be one of the "true worshipers" (John 4:21-24), including in the weekly gathering of the church He has founded and is building?

-- Do I regard my brothers and sisters in the church as more important than myself, recognizing my presence is a first and indispensable step in the New Testament charge to encourage and "stimulate one another to love and good deeds" (Heb. 10:24)?

-- Do I cordon off the time my church meets for worship to prevent other activities from intruding?

-- Do I schedule my Saturdays so that I will be rested for full participation in worshiping God with His people?

I realize there are exceptions to every general rule. This is not an attempt to establish rules for our church. Grace still rules in our fellowship.

Christianity is much more than corporate worship. But it is not less than faithful corporate worship.

* -- Photo attribution

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why do children of the Reformation retreat to Rome?

Since we are not far removed from Reformation Day, it might be a good time to ponder a question that puzzles me: Why do children of the Reformation retreat to Rome?

In other words, why do evangelical Christians convert to Roman Catholicism?

It happens periodically with well known evangelicals. During the last two decades, the list has included Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, author and Baylor University professor Francis Beckwith, young pro-life leader Lila Rose and, most recently, USA Today columnist and Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers.

You may be as perplexed as I am about why these switches occur. In a podcast two years ago, evangelical preacher and writer John Piper suggested four reasons these conversions take place. He said:
Many people of those who return to Rome are hungry for seriousness and are tired of the slapstick worship services that are normative in many evangelical churches.

Many are hungry for roots, a sense of history that they don’t feel in the new church plant down the street that seems to mainly want to hide its connectedness to any tradition.

Many are hungry for intellectual and artistic richness that worship services in jeans and movie clips and bouncing beach balls and the shrines of the drum set just don’t satisfy.

Many are hungry for authority and clarity and stability and sometimes it is just easier to let the church tell you what to believe and to be unburdened by the need to work it all out.
Piper's critique of the practices of some churches is strong but would appear to be on target in parts of the evangelical world.

He closed his assessment with this encouragement to evangelicals: "Let’s pour our lives into the true evangelical doctrines and grow churches that are strong and rich and serious and relevant and powerful and biblical and that overcome the weaknesses that have pushed some people away."

Fortunately, God has provided a fresh wind among evangelicals during the last two decades or so. Increasingly, churches are being serious about corporate worship, theology, expositional preaching, ecclesiology, and community. Young men are planting churches that demonstrate the same marks.

As an evangelical church, it is good to remember the reasons for the Reformation that Martin Luther helped ignite when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. The truths the reformers championed -- scriptural truths that conflicted with the teaching of Rome -- are the same ones we, as evangelicals, must not forget. They are:

-- Scripture alone is our final authority, not Scripture plus an individual, council, church, tradition, experience or document.

-- Christ alone is our mediator with God, not Christ plus any human righteousness or accomplishment.

-- Grace alone is the way of salvation, not grace plus any human work or method.

-- Faith alone is the means of justification, not faith plus any human merit or infusion of Christ’s righteousness.

-- The glory of God alone is the purpose of life, not His glory plus that of any other.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Planned Parenthood, the church and the USA

It's hard to imagine a dark underbelly still could be uncovered in the abortion industry, but it's happened.

After all, abortion is the killing of a truly defenseless human being. And it has been legal in this country for more than four decades to destroy unborn babies even into their ninth month of gestation. In that time, the deaths of mothers during abortions, the killing of born-alive infants outside the womb, the development of the now thankfully outlawed partial-birth abortion procedure, and the disgustingly unsanitary conditions and practices in some clinics have been well documented.

What else could there be? Well, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) has shown us. Thanks to the work of some enterprising investigators at the Center for Medical Progress (CMC), undercover videos have lifted the veil on other evils that lurk within some PPFA clinics.

As Americans, we all could have known what Planned Parenthood does and what it stands for, but it is often difficult for people busily working, rearing their children and serving in their churches to keep up with such organizations, especially when the mainstream media refuse to report on them. For those who have been able to keep up, here is some of what we have known previously about PPFA:

1. It is the United States' No. 1 abortion provider, averaging more than 325,000 abortions a year or nearly one-third of the lethal procedures performed in this country.

2. Its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a eugenicist who sought to prevent "human weeds," as she called them. (She founded the American Birth Control League, which developed into Planned Parenthood.)

3. It receives more than $500 million annually in government grants, contracts and reimbursements.

4. It never met an abortion it didn't like, opposing even the mildest of legal restrictions on the practice, including bans on late-term and partial-birth procedures.

In the last six weeks of video releases by CMP, here is some of what we have learned additionally about PPFA and some of its affiliates:

1. They traffic in body parts from aborted children.

2. They sometimes manipulate the abortion process to provide intact organs for research.

3. They will cut open live babies outside the womb from which to harvest organs.

This is an important moment -- maybe a pivotal one -- in the life of our country. I believe the true church will remain faithful to the Scriptural teaching that every human being from conception to natural death is an image bearer of God. I believe the church will continue to work to bring an end to such atrocities, as well as legal abortion, while helping women in need.

How this country will respond is a far different matter. There do not seem to be enough lawmakers willing to cut off government funding of Planned Parenthood. Certainly, our president is not willing to do so. One major political party is almost totally sold out to the abortion industry. The other often seems squeamish about confronting it. While some pro-choice citizens have acknowledged these new videos have caused them to rethink their position, many continue an all-out defense of Planned Parenthood. And while many Americans have expressed horror at what the videos have revealed, too many likely have grimaced initially before going on to the next thing. A society that cannot cry out for justice in such a matter is ripe for a fall. For this alone, God has reason to bring a new level of judgment on this country.

What can we do as the church of Jesus? Here are a few suggestions that likely serve more as reminders:

1. Pray, of course. For the defunding of Planned Parenthood. For the conversion to Christ of PPFA's staff members, their allies, and their advocates. For the protection of the mothers and their babies who continue to enter Planned Parenthood's doors. For revival in the church. For an awakening in the country. For a common-grace, common-good understanding in society of the intrinsic value of each human being.

2. Engage senators, representatives and other government leaders who need input from their constituients.

3. Support pro-life ministries that seek to help mothers to choose life for their babies and receive new life in Christ.

4. Live out a sanctity of life ethic that treats every human being -- regardless of condition, development or characteristic -- as a person made in the image of God with sacred value.

* -- Photo attribution.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Helpful resources for addressing same-sex issues

The nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, the ascendancy of transgenderism and the growing acceptance of homosexual relationships likely are raising numerous questions for the church. As followers of Christ, we may be asking ourselves:

-- Can a Christian experience same-sex attraction?

-- How do I help a fellow church member who acknowledges his or her same-sex attraction?

-- How do I help my child who senses he or she is attracted to the same sex?

-- How do I befriend, love and evangelize a gay or lesbian person?

-- How do I respond if a friend or family member invites me to his or her same-sex wedding?

-- How do I talk to my children about these issues?

And those are only some of the questions we may be confronting or will confront.

While other Christian organizations have provided helpful resources, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has performed what may be the most beneficial service for Christians in partnership with The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas. It has collected many videos and articles at a central site: Equip: Same-sex Marriage and Homosexuality.

The resources at this site include 20 brief videos of answers from Sam Allberry on questions related to same-sex attraction. Allberry is a British pastor who wrote the book Is God Anti-gay? and has acknowledged he deals with same-sex attraction. The site also features one-on-one interviews with other pastors and specialists, as well as videos of speeches and panel discussions from the ERLC's conference in October on the gospel, homosexuality and marriage.

Here are some of the best resources to help you get started:

"How to Care for Your Gay Neighbor" -- Rosaria Butterfield, converted to Christ from a lesbian lifestyle, gives advice on loving homosexuals.

"Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert" -- ERLC President Russell Moore interviews Butterfield in a conference session with the same title as the book about her conversion.

"What Does It Mean to Be a Same-sex Attracted Person Who Is Also a Christian?" -- Allberry briefly provides a biblical answer.

"How Can Christians Minister to a Same-sex Attracted Member Who Is Experiencing Loneliness?" -- Allberry explains the importance of friendships within the church, especially to a same-sex attracted Christian.

"Is It Okay to Be Gay? A Candid Conversation on Christians and Same-sex Attraction" -- Moore interviews Allberry, Butterfield and two others in a conference panel discussion.

How Should You Talk to Your Children About Same-sex Marriage?" -- Moore provides counsel to parents in a blog post.

"Here We Stand: An Evangelical Declaration on Marriage" -- This is a statement from a coalition organized by Moore in response to the Supreme Court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Seven truths as we face a new day as the church

While many have said much about the Supreme Court's June 26 decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, it is important for the church of Jesus Christ not to be silent in the wake of this grievous, barrier-breaking ruling. I introduced yesterday's sermon on I Peter 2:11-12 -- a passage that was providentially appropriate for the occasion -- by declaring seven truths on behalf of Covenant Community Church and our Lord and as a reminder to us as a congregation. Here they are, based on my manuscript, with a few tweaks and, in the seventh point, an additional sentence:
1. God is still sovereign. We may find it difficult to grasp the reason why such a ruling can come forth from five Supreme Court justices who live under the providential rule of the holy God. Yet, we know God does not align Himself with evil. This action did not soil God’s perfect character, but it did occur within His absolute control of all things. God is not without purpose in His sovereign rule.

2. God’s Word is still authoritative. Where the Bible speaks, God still speaks. The Bible has not been reimagined or reinvented to fit the fickleness of a frequently shifting culture. It still judges “the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” Heb. 4:12 says.

3. God’s design for marriage and sexuality is still in effect. The Supreme Court can decide what the governments of this country must recognize as marriage, but it cannot define what marriage is. Marriage was God’s idea. He defined it as only one relationship. The first chapter of the Bible tells us when God made human beings in His image He made them male and female. He gave the female to the male for them to be distinctive and complementary partners. God has made marriage to picture the gospel, and only a man and a woman can portray the Bridegroom and the bride who are the parties in the gospel. So much has happened in the last four weeks, it is difficult to remember what occurred on the first day of this month. Then, the most famous transgender transfer so far was unveiled, when Bruce Jenner appeared on a magazine cover looking like a female. The sexual revolution is bearing bitter fruit its proponents of 50 years ago likely did not imagine. These truths remain: God has made each human being permanently as either a male or a female; He has designed marriage as only between a male and a female; and He has given sexuality as a good gift only to be expressed by a male and a female within marriage.

4. Jesus is still the only Lord and Savior. As has always been true, the Son of God and His life, death and resurrection in our place are the only hope for sinners, and that includes each of us. Whether a person considers himself heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transgender, no new marriage, no new gender identity, no acceptance of a new sexual orientation will deliver from the guilt, condemnation, shame, penalty, power and presence of sin. Only Jesus will.

5. We are still ministers of reconciliation. As with all our neighbors, no matter where they live, we remain ambassadors of Christ to them. The lesbian or gay in a same-sex union and the transgender person are not enemies to be reviled or avoided. They are fellow image bearers of God to be loved and served. We have the message of reconciliation with God to share with them. As Russell Moore has pointed out, same-sex marriage will produce great disappointment in many who find it does not satisfy, and we need to be prepared to love, serve, evangelize and disciple these “refugees from the sexual revolution.”

6. We will face new challenges. We should not minimize this reality: This is a new day for evangelical Christians in this country. We are in a strange land for ministry and liberty. We must prepare ourselves, our families and our church for friendship with and ministry to same-sex couples and the children of same-sex couples. We also must prepare ourselves for the intolerance to come. A winnowing is coming. We will face pressures of various kinds to bend the knee to a culture and likely a government that will brook no dissent. Many of us, if not all, will suffer harm. This is our heritage. Our faith sprang up amid hostility, and we have the privilege of joining the suffering saints who preceded us in this great cause.

7. We still win. No matter what happens, victory is assured – not because of any achievement of our own but because of the absolute triumph of King Jesus. We “overwhelming conquer through Him who loved us,” Rom. 8:37 says. We will reign with Him. This calls for humble trust, not haughty triumphalism. While we await that day, may we be joyful soldiers. May we reject fear, anger, frustration and depression. May we practice humility, gentleness, compassion, courage, holiness, faith, hope and love as we follow our Captain, and may we do it together.
It will be helpful to remind ourselves of these truths, and more, as we live as the church and walk united in truth and grace in the days to come.

* -- Photo attribution.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Lessons from a long airport wait

Last Sunday, Linda and I spent nearly five hours waiting to fly out of Dulles International Airport, most of that time in the terminal but some waiting on the plane at the gate and on the tarmac. The experience prompted some observations, as well as some applications for the church.


1. There is something exceptional and wondrous about a gathering of the nations, including in an airport terminal.

2. A common cause during difficult circumstances produces an atypical camaraderie.

3. Some people serve sacrificially during difficult circumstances to help the needy.


1. All the nations will be represented eternally in the exceptional and wondrous gathering around the throne of God.

2. Our common Savior and common cause -- the discipling of the nations -- produce a unique fellowship.

3. All of us have the opportunity to serve sacrificially like our Servant Savior to help the needy.

* -- Photo attribution.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How to respond to Bruce Jenner and transgenderism

Monday's unveiling of Bruce Jenner with a new appearance raised the transgender issue to a previously unknown level of cultural consciousness. There are a number of questions Christians face on how to respond to this growing phenomenon, but we must first get the basics right.

Last summer, I preached a sermon series titled "Gender, Sexuality, and the Purpose and Power of God." I addressed the transgender issue in that series' first sermon, which was on Genesis 1:26-27. In that text, the Bible says, "God created man" -- which is the word for human being -- "in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."

Here are excerpts from that sermon's manuscript that relate to transgenderism:
Man, as used in these two verses, consists of both male and female. Both are made in God’s image. Both have a responsibility to rule over creation.

Yet, they are different. And there are only two kinds of them – male and female. There is purposefulness in this distinction, a purposefulness by God that is fleshed out in the verses that follow. . . .

God has not changed His pattern from creation. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates a revision in this truth – human beings are male and female. There is a distinction between the two. Each of us is whom God made us to be. And a vital part of who we are is our gender. We are either male or female. That is a reality to be embraced by each of us. A male should embrace the fact he is a male. A female should embrace the fact she is a female. It is God’s purposeful design in our lives. . . .

[H]ow should we respond? With truth and grace. In addition to embracing our gender and thanking God for making us exactly the way He has:

(1) We should not be shocked that such misguided thinking as that of transgender people is found in human beings. They, and we, live in a fallen world where the sin nature blinds us and causes us to believe lies. But we also should not surrender on this reality of Scripture and creation: God has made us male and female.

(2) We should not see those who have what is described as a gender identity disorder as monsters, mutants or freaks. They, like all other human beings, are made in the image of God.

(3) We should love, care for, serve, evangelize – and hopefully – disciple them. They, like all other sinners, need the gospel. And once they have received the gospel of Jesus, we should help them see that part of repenting and following Jesus is not rebelling against their Creator but accepting the gender they were given by God.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Five things to recognize in a 'Fifty Shades' culture

The record-breaking reception for "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- including in the South and Midwest -- provides an occasion for us, as Christians, to consider what it means "to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27b).

That was the topic a group of brothers and sisters who are part of Covenant Community Church in Fredericksburg, Va., considered the evening of Feb. 15. The discussion came during our monthly care group meeting.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is the movie about the sadomasochistic relationship between a billionaire and a college student that opened with a domestic box-office haul of more than $94 million, breaking the record for a President's Day weekend. The movie is based on the first of a trilogy of books released three years ago. It took only two years for the series to sell 100 million copies worldwide.

There is a lot that could be written about the popularity of the books and movie. The books have been labeled "mommy porn," apparently because of the primary makeup of their readers. Their popularity with women apparently carried over to the film. An estimated 68 percent of the opening weekend audience was female.

But our concern in the care group discussion was what it means for followers of Christ in light of the definition in James that "[p]ure and undefiled religion" in God's sight includes keeping ourselves unstained by the world. Here are some conclusions I came to with the help of that conversation:

(1) We should recognize we increasingly are going against the current of our culture. The popularity of books and movies such as "Fifty Shades" reminds us of this reality. When a fictional account of the torture of a woman is this popular, we can surmise our culture has passed over a previously uncrossed line of public morality. As followers of Jesus, we progressively find a culture that increasingly worships at the altars of many aberrant forms of sexuality in conflict with the standards of Scripture and the holiness of God.

(2) We should acknowledge the temptations that surround us in a hyper-sexualized culture. Sex is a wonderful gift from God in the context for which He designed it -- marriage between a man and a woman. It also is powerful, and that is a good thing in marriage. Outside of marriage, its power is dangerous. This is nothing new. The apostle Paul warned the Christians in Rome to avoid "sexual promiscuity and sensuality" (Rom. 13:13). John Mark Yeats, associate church history professor at the undergraduate arm of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently said of the early church, "During the first couple of centuries, any Christian living in an urban environment would have experienced an all-out assault on Scriptural standards for morality. From sexual exploitation in public baths to sexual rituals as part of worship ceremonies in pagan temples, believers were assaulted with every form of temptation and visual stimuli. Yet the Christian's firm grounding in the Word gave a stronger foundation to the family. Virtue became a clear defining principle of the early church. As the social units of the broader culture continued to collapse and struggle, the clear claims of the Gospel stood in stark contrast. The church truly was a city on hill that couldn't be hidden." While our culture flaunts sexual immorality almost ubiquitously, we have an opportunity to demonstrate by our flight from temptation the overcoming power and love of Jesus.

(3) We should value Christ above all. If we would resist the Siren call of sexual temptation, we should find value in the One who is supremely valuable. If we do not treasure Jesus as "our life" (Col. 3:4), we are setting ourselves up to be seduced by a false god. No idol may be more enticing in our culture than that of biblically forbidden sexuality.

(4) We should realize we are in an ongoing fight. This battle against the pull of immorality in a hyper-sexualized culture is a daily one. It requires alertness and perseverance. We must spend time reading and learning from God's Word, as well as in prayer. We must constantly remind ourselves of the truth about God and His gospel -- and what He has accomplished for us in the cross-work of Jesus that gives us true and lasting life, meaning, satisfaction, joy and peace.

(5) We should help one another. We would do well to acknowledge we are all soldiers in this battle. The skirmishes may differ somewhat from disciple to disciple, but we are in the same war on the same cultural battlefield. That calls for prayer for one another, encouragement of one another and accountability to one another. If we would be the true church in this culture, we would graciously support one another as fellow warriors who are dependent on Christ and blessed by His body.

So thank you -- Scott, Rob, Donna, Bob, Di, Jim, Christian and Linda -- for the great conversation and the important contributions to thinking about what it means "to keep oneself unstained by the world."

* -- Photo attribution.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A lesson for the church: Avoid 'culturalization'

One of the assignments for any true church is to make certain it resembles the called-out community of God more than the world out of which it has been called.

I addressed this issue during last Sunday’s sermon in my preaching series through the book of Judges. It came during a review of where we were in Israel’s history as we looked at Judges 11. The four-part cycle – God’s people commit evil; God disciplines His people; God’s people cry out to Him; God delivers His people – described in the book does not leave Israel at the same place spiritually after several repetitions. Instead, by Chapter 11, God’s people are in a “plunge,” as Old Testament scholar Dale Ralph Davis calls it. Another writer, Daniel Block, says what we are observing in this book is the “Canaanization of Israel.” In other words, God’s people look more and more like the pagan culture in which they live.

As I said Sunday, it is a lesson for the church in any age. If we, as the church, look and live like the spirit of the age we have been delivered out of, what good are we? We are no longer a distinctive people. We are just baptized idolaters.

It’s like the German churches in the 1930s and ’40s that could sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” while bowing to a Nazi madman and his nationalistic fervor that liquidated six million Jews.

It’s like the churches of the American South in the 1950s and ’60s that could sing “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and “When We All Get to Heaven” while embracing a legal system that enforced the idea that fellow image bearers of God were inferior and unequal because they had a different skin color.

It’s like our church in this day singing “You Are My King” and “The Power of the Cross” while endorsing lifestyles and unions that violate God’s created order or while welcoming to the Lord’s Supper table open fornicators and adulterers.

The fact is the church in any country can easily be prone to “culturalization” in various ways.

For instance, American “culturalization” of the body of Christ could include adopting practices in corporate worship that mirror our popular, celebrity-enthralled society rather than the picture offered in the New Testament – practices that seem to focus on performance and performers on stage rather than to incorporate the entire body of believers as they participate in the worship of God.

May we not be infected with American “culturalization” as a church. Instead, may we look to the Word and the Spirit for the shaping of a community and culture that reflect Christ and glorify God.

* -- Photo attribution.

Friday, January 30, 2015

While we wait and the sanctity of human life

Our church followed last Sunday's sermon by singing "Glorious Christ" as the congregational song of response. What a glorious song, and what a glorious way to close that time of corporate worship. The final line of the final verse says: "And all will be made right when You appear."

It was a wonderful truth to proclaim and to remind ourselves of after two weeks of sermons on how we are to live as Christians in an age that does not embrace the sanctity of all human life. Abortion, racism and human trafficking will all "be made right" when King Jesus appears.

But in the "already/not yet" tension of Christianity, those evils continue to exist and wreak havoc on countless human beings. So we have responsibilities as ambassadors of our coming King to bear and share His name, His truth and His love while we wait for the day when "justice [will] roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).

In these two sermons, I pointed to two primary themes of Rom. 12:9-21:

1. Loving others made in the image of God begins in the church;

2. Blessing others made in the image of God extends to all people.

As we saw in this passage, we do not genuinely love if we do not hate evil. At the same time, we are to bless and not call down condemnation on those behind evil. They also are made in the image of God. So the unborn babies killed, the women trapped as sex slaves and the people oppressed because of their skin color or ethnicity are image bearers of God, but so are the abortion doctors, the human traffickers and the racists. God will mete out justice, we saw in this passage. Our responsibility is to bless our enemies and persecutors and let God act justly in His time and His way. Because He is merciful toward sinners, He will save some out of their evil ways. In all cases, He will punish evil -- either in His judgment on sinners or His judgment on His Son in the place of sinners.

The first proving ground for true love on the sanctity of human life issue is the body of Christ. Paul tells us in Rom. 12:10 we are to "give preference to one another in honor" or to value one another greatly. Even in a small church like ours, our fellowship increasingly demonstrates diversity. With it, we have a growing opportunity to show to one another and the world that every brother and sister, every human being, is valuable. By the way we live together, we can attest to this non-negotiable truth: Each human being – regardless of location, development, age, gender, size, mental or physical condition, ethnicity, religious belief, social standing, appearance or popularity with the ruling government -- is made in the image of God.

Being a pro-life church means loving one another.

* -- Photo attribution.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A future America and the sanctity of human life

(Today is the 42nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. That ruling ushered in a culture of death that not only has taken the lives of 57 million unborn children but looms over the beginning of life, the end of life and the span in between. Below is my look at what kind of America we may live in a few decades from now. I used this, with only a couple of slight differences, to introduce a sermon in 2009 about Christians living in a culture of death.)

It is April 19, 2041. I am 89 years old, and today is the day I will face the last enemy, as Paul describes it in I Corinthians 15:26. I am rolling down the hospital hallway in a wheelchair. A pleasantly acting young woman is walking beside me, and an equally pleasant young man is pushing my chair.

I should have known better than to come back to the hospital. I should have just stayed at home and waited there. It was foolish of me to think I could go to the hospital and come out again. After almost nine decades of life, I am saddened to say I am still doing foolish things. Well, at least this appears to be the last foolish thing I will do. I don't have to go in a wheelchair, but I don't want to walk voluntarily, as if I agree with the system. Besides, my lungs are so damaged I'm not sure how far I could walk. And I sure couldn't run far, if I wanted to make a dash for it. Of course, 89 year olds don't dash anyway.

There's no deliverance for me at this point, unless God miraculously intervenes. I realize that. My family realizes that. My lungs are shot. The doctors can't explain it. This is the way it is.

This time when I entered the hospital for therapy, word came from the Board of Responsible Care that further treatment for me could not be justified. No more treatments, no more oxygen, certainly no transplant. This is life in an age of rationed health care. Caring for me would take away treatment from someone younger and more capable of benefiting society. I am no longer a productive citizen, the board says. I am no longer of use to others.

So we roll on. We reach it. Above the double, sliding doors are the words: Life Passages. I am rolled into a reception room that may be the most inviting I have ever seen. A few others are already there. I pass on the punch and cookies. Others follow me into the reception room. Most are in wheelchairs. Most have family members with them. I don't, because my family and I oppose this whole regime, and the people in charge don't want anyone in here making a scene.

Soon someone else is rolled into the room without any family -- someone I know. She's a fellow member of Covenant Community Church, someone I've shared Sunday worship and a church covenant with for more than 30 years. She's 10 years younger than me, but she has Alzheimer's. I greet her, but there is no indication she recognizes me. Then, behind her, another person I know is pushed in. He's a 22-year-old member of our church, the victim of an automobile accident that left him severely brain damaged. They say he's in a persistent vegetative state. After all these decades they still haven't come up with a more accurate name for it. They probably haven't tried -- makes it easier to do what they're getting ready to do to my young friend. I think about their families and mine, and ask for God's grace for them.

Soon, all 20 of us are gathered. We are told it is time, and they begin moving us toward the doors at the opposite side of the reception room. We enter a huge, circular room with a high ceiling. Twenty chairs that look like the ones in the dentist's office face outward toward the wall in a circle. I am helped into the chair, and I assume everyone else is. We have three options -- take a pill, take a drink or take an injection. I have chosen the injection. I don't want to start being cooperative now. They say it works slowly, taking about 5 to 6 minutes.

I look to my right and my left and realize I can't see the person on either side, though each is only 15 feet from me. They are viewing the scenes they have chosen to be the last images on their minds. I can't tell what they are seeing -- maybe waves soothing the sand on the seashore or majestic, snow-capped mountains. I don't know how they do it, shooting images onto thin air. I'll never know. They are listening to the music they have chosen as well. There is a little bleed-over. I can hear some faint strains. Me, I don't have a scene or any music. It's that resistance thing again. Besides, I couldn't find any music I liked on the list anyway.

I'm starting to get tired, my eyelids heavy. Then I hear a voice I recognize but have not heard in a long time. It's my friend, my sister in the faith. And she's singing. Maybe the drug made her lucid. Maybe God is going to let her go out singing. It's a song I know, one we have sung as the church of Christ many times over the years. I join in with her. Then I get too tired even to sing. Yet, she goes on. The last thing I hear is her voice, like balm to a weary soul. The last words I hear are: "One with Himself I cannot die; my soul is purchased by His blood; my life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Savior and my God."

* -- Photo attribution

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'Selma' and the sanctity of human life

Linda and I saw "Selma" in the movie theater yesterday. There is much to be said about it: It is disturbing, yet inspiring; the Christian roots of the civil rights movement come through; the courage of downtrodden people in the face of great evil shines; David Oyelowo gives a powerful, multi-layered performance, portraying Martin Luther King Jr. as a brave, sensitive, flawed leader with doubts who received needed encouragement from others.

But "Selma" also is a pro-life movie. It is a movie about the sanctity of human life. It is a movie that demonstrates the truth made known by God's words in the first chapter of the Bible -- every human being is made in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). Here are some ways the sanctity of human life is reflected in the movie:

-- The focus of the movie -- as with the focus of the civil rights movement -- is that all human beings "are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," to put it in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

-- Dr. King and his fellow leaders are portrayed as being unwilling to compromise their movement's core principle that every human being, regardless of the color of his or her skin, is equal in value to every other human being.

-- MLK is shown reacting in pain when black men and women are beaten for peacefully protesting and with deep grief when people are killed by racists for their willingness to stand courageously for equal rights.

-- He is depicted as deeply concerned about the lives of those marching with him by being unwilling to lead them into a possible ambush.

-- Dr. King is characterized as being committed to live with the "fog of death" that engulfed him and his family in order to uphold the sanctity and equality of black human beings -- and therefore all human beings.

In His providence, God raised up Martin Luther King Jr. and used him, despite his sinful failures, to proclaim in a long-lasting way this reality -- every human being is made in the image of God.

* -- Photo source.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A missed opportunity on Christmas eve

We had the privilege of all being together as a family for Christmas. We were all in one home in Montgomery, Ala., for most of Christmas eve and Christmas day.

One of the highlights of our 30 hours or so together was to participate in Christmas eve worship at a local church. The church our son and his family are part of did not have a service that evening, so we gathered with a full house of others at a nearby, gospel-centered church. It was an unprecedented opportunity for all nine of us to be together on the same pew. It was a blessed experience to sing some great songs of our faith about the coming of our Savior and to hear Christ exalted from the pulpit.

And yet, one element of the service fell short of what it could have been. A family -- father, mother and five children -- gathered around an advent wreath and candles at the front of the auditorium. They lit the four advent candles, as well as the Christ candle in the center. The father then read about the lighting of this final candle. It was good. It was meaningful. But it was a missed opportunity.

I have nothing against families observing Advent by lighting candles. We did it in our family when our children were much younger. And I think it was good to have such a ceremony at the beginning of a church's Christmas eve service.

But a different group of people gathered around the Advent wreath would have made the ceremony far better -- and would have far better symbolized what the church was doing in worship. This was the family of God gathered, not just a nuclear family gathered. The church was together as those who are united through the life, death and resurrection of the One whose birth we were gathered to celebrate.

How much better it would have been to have a group something like this gathered together to light the candles -- a young married couple, a widower, a single mom, a middle-school boy, a college-age female and a 40-something, mentally impaired man. A mixture of different skin colors and ethnicities among these seven believers would have made this sight even more beautiful.

The church is not a collection of blood-related tribes. The church is the new, peculiar people united by the gospel that cuts across families, genders, ethnicities, ages and social classes. We are the family created by Jesus and His finished work. This is who the church is, and this is what we should remember as we gather together each week.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Praying God's words back to Him

One of the things I have not done well is incorporate God's words into my prayers. Don Whitney appears to be doing the church a great service with a new book scheduled to be released in July. The book from the professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is titled Praying the Bible. I hope to read it. If I do, I am sure I will benefit from it.

For a change, however, I did pray God's words back to Him today. I am using a Bible reading plan this year that consists of reading from a different genre of Scripture each day of the week. Wednesdays are for Psalms.

Since this is the first Wednesday of 2015, I read Psalms 1 and 2, as called for in the reading plan. Here are the first three verses in the English Standard Version of the first psalm:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, not sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
I had not planned on using my Bible reading in prayer this morning. But when I read these first three verses, I began petitioning God. I prayed something like this:
God, please don't let me walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers, but help me to delight in Your law, in Your Word. And help me meditate on Your law, Your Word, day and night. Please help me to bear fruit and prosper, becoming more like Christ.
May this kind of Scripture-infused prayer be more common in my life. May it be so in all of us who are following Jesus. We can have strong confidence that the prayer that originates with God has power with God.