AND SO WAS FULFILLED

Back in the late 1980’s, when George H. W. Bush (aka “Bush 41”) was running for president, one of the criticisms hurled his way concerned the circumstances of his birth. “He’s the child of up-east, old-money privilege and can’t connect with the common man,” was the gist of it. The fact that he was also a decorated combat hero of WWII and had made his own way in the hard-knock oil business after the war didn’t matter.

I love the way the future president handled that slam, “It’s true, I was born in Massachusetts,” he said. “I did that to be closer to my mother.”

That quote came to mind recently as I re-read the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. A repeating phrase (See 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23) rings like a chorus at the end of each element of the narrative: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet.”

Six hundred years before Messiah’s birth the prophet Isaiah said he would be born of a virgin, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred years before, the prophet Micah said Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred and fifty years before, the prophet Hosea said he would come out of Egypt, and he did.

Four hundred plus years before, many Old Testament prophets alluded that Messiah would be a Nazarene, and he was.

And just like Mr. Bush, the baby Jesus had no control over the circumstances of his birth. He “did it to be closer to his mother.” Yet everything about his first advent testifies to the earthly fulfillment of an eternal plan formed for our good by a loving heavenly Father.

I offer three conclusions from this that I hope will enhance your Christmas meditations.

First, know your Bible. Read it well and deeply. Each prophecy came from what, to us, might seem obscure references. Many of us wouldn’t know about Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and the rest of the prophets, were it not for the Christmas story. But they weren’t obscure to Matthew’s readers and they weren’t the only prophets he quoted. A similar refrain runs at least twelve times throughout his gospel, confirming for his Jewish readers that Jesus really was the fulfillment of all their messianic hopes.

Life often seems obscure to us. The better we know our Bibles the more things come into focus.

Second, trust God even when you cannot see the plan. No one, save perhaps the Magi, saw this coming. No one knew to combine the predictions of the various prophets in the way they ultimately accumulated in the person of Jesus.

The providence of God in the outworking of his plans is to us inscrutable. We can only see the beginning from the end, whereas he sees the end from the beginning. So trust him. Walk the path of faithful obedience and don’t try to figure out how he’s going to accomplish his plans.

Third, put your hopes squarely on the second advent of Christ. The specific fulfillment of all the prophecies surrounding Jesus’s first appearance points us to the reliability of all the other promises of his return. God was silent for four hundred years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. Then, in the space of three decades, the fulfilled predictions of Messiah piled up on one another in the person of Jesus.

God’s further promises will come to pass as surely as any we celebrate this December. Put your hope in him.

FLABBY-BRAINED BELIEVERS?

The bathroom scales hounded me back to my Nordic Trak last week with the words: “You are a middle-aged blob who eats too much and exercises too little!”

OK, it didn’t actually say that because it can’t talk. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it read either (I am vain that way). Let it suffice that I sweated through my first thirty-minutes in about a month on the twentieth-century torture tool and I’m headed back there today.

I wonder, however, if there was a scale for the Christian mind that could talk, what it would be saying to the people of God? I’m afraid it would report that many of us have flabby brains.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison, but far too many of us read nothing at all.

If you’re ready to get your mind back in action here’s a list of recommended reading that will equip you to think Christianly about life.

Suffering

SUFFERING AND THE HEART OF GOD: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, by Diane Langberg, PhD. Langberg, who has worked with Rwandan genocide victims, is a globally recognized expert on trauma, particularly that special evil suffered by sexual abuse victims. She is theologically solid, clinically expert, and personally compassionate. I’ve heard her speak and read her previous book, On the Threshold of Hope. I guarantee that if you do not already know a sexual abuse victim, you will and you will want to know how to help. Her books will help.

Marriage

SAVING YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE IT STARTS: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry, by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. The Parrotts are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. I’ve been offering per-marital counseling since 1995 and I’ve yet to find a better resource.

RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Healing for Troubled Marriages, by marriage and family therapist Dr. Jim Talley. Talley’s work became my go-to for counseling couples in crisis many years ago and remains so today. It is simple, clear, and concise. Read it five years into your first marriage and you probably won’t have a second. Find him at drtalley.com.

Giving Wisely

TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and how to reverse it), by Robert D. Lupton. Bob, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, moved his young family into inner-city Atlanta in the late seventies and stayed. He “has developed two mixed-income subdivisions, organized a multiracial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families,”[1] and is a friend of our family. He is also an excellent writer and teacher of the ideas he promotes. The book is an easy and useful read.

Biblical Worldview Thinking

HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE, is the late Chuck Colson’s and Nancy Pearcy’s magnum opus on biblical worldview thinking. If you have no exposure to the genre and five hundred pages doesn’t frighten you, begin here. It is compelling and easy to follow.

THE GOOD LIFE, also by Colson with Harold Fickett, is much shorter and more about answers to the questions we all have, like: Why am I here; how can I find significance? But all of Colson’s works are infused with the worldview rubric and this one will challenge you to choose carefully.

Culture War

CULTURE MAKING: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, makes an excellent case that it is not enough to condemn culture, nor to stand aloof and critique it or naively copy it, still less to unconsciously consume it. If Christians want to return to the cultural influence that helped build Western Civilization, we have to create better culture. CULTURE MAKING is the best book yet on how to do that.

ONWARD: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a man who, like Albert Mohler, is an energetic, entertaining, and articulate defender of the faith. ONWARD is a quick, compelling read that roots our cultural engagement squarely in the Gospel and never strays from it.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t have time to read serious books.” If so remember World Magazine and World Radio, both of which will keep you up-to-date with the latest biblical worldview thinking in a highly portable format. Go to getworldnow.com for a free three month trial. The daily worldview update, Breakpoint, with John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas is also excellent.

Brains, like bodies, get flabby without exercise. What would our imaginary mental scales say about yours? Time to get to work!

[1] From the book cover.

HEAL ORLANDO: Helping the Hurting Without Losing the Gospel

Islamofacism marches on and carries the headlines with it as Istanbul reels from yet another Muslim massacre, yet the wounds of Orlando are still fresh.

Many churches have stepped up to help heal those wounds. One is less than a mile away in fact, DISCOVERY CHURCH’S (DC) Central campus. Website: http://www.discoverychurch.org/.

I spoke with DC Central’s pastor, Ralph Howe, this week to learn what they were doing and how we could help. As of Tuesday, he explained, ONE ORLANDO, the public fund established to help the victims had raised $8M. That money, according to Orlando’s WESH News (NBC affiliate), will be distributed through area non-profits after the groups convene with the Central Florida Foundation to assess the needs, how each group plans to meet the needs, and where they have gaps in funding.

Equality Florida, the LGBT advocacy group which has raised over $4M to date, will also be distributing funds to survivors and victim’s families via The National Center for the Victims of Crime Compassion Fund.

All of that takes time and will no doubt be linked to more LGBT advocacy, which is understandable. But those of us who follow Christ and want to help can do so immediately with the confidence that our gifts will be distributed quickly, with integrity to the gospel, by giving to support HEAL ORLANDO, DISCOVERY CHURCH’S fund.

Pastor Howe reports that HEAL ORLANDO has raised $14,000 to date, and some of that money has already been used to provide rental cars and hotel accommodations for victim’s families, many of whom are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One such family, unable to access aid from anywhere, was camping out in order to be near their loved one. DISCOVERY CHURCH members located them and got them into a hotel. Also, because of the way terrorism riders are written in insurance policies, many will find that their health insurance won’t pay and some of the survivors can expect to spend six months in the hospital. HEAL ORLANDO hopes to help with some of those bills.

Finally, DISCOVERY CHURCH recognized something that had gone unnoticed in the news. Area businesses within a three quarter mile radius of PULSE were stifled for a week as law enforcement officials cordoned the area off for their investigation. Many of these are small businesses with limited cash reserves and employees who lost wages due to the investigation. DISCOVERY CHURCH sent teams out to visit the businesses and, in some cases, helped to pay these employees so that they wouldn’t be victims as well.

WELL DONE DISCOVERY CHURCH!

If you would like to participate in this ministry DISCOVERY CHURCH’S HEAL ORLANDO FUND is located here:  http://www.discoverychurch.org/give.

GOD’S LOVE AND CHOCOLATE CAKE

“I love you,” I blurted out on one of the first dates with the woman who would one day be my wife.  I’ll never forget how she replied.

“I love chocolate cake. What does that mean?” She was skeptical of a guy who would say he loved her with so little understanding of who she really was.

The Bible says “God is love.” Few people would argue with that. But most folks think God’s love is no different in kind or strength than my wife’s love for chocolate cake.

It’s much more powerful than that.

An old song says, “Love is a many splendored thing.” But when it comes to understanding the love of God it is perhaps more accurate to call it a many splintered thing. God’s love has been cut from its frame of reference, hacked to pieces by well-meaning people and heretics alike.

So let’s try to put it back in the frame with a few key concepts.

First, God’s love is sacrificial. The Apostle John, who penned the words, ‘God is love’ spelled it out for us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:8b-9). John also wrote the very familiar, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).

That tells us that God’s love is sacrificial, but a sacrifice for what?

In his excellent book, The God Who Loves, John MacArthur points out that God’s wrath is also part of our frame of reference. “We have forgotten that “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “We do not believe in that kind of God anymore.”[1]

We can decide not to believe hurricane warnings either, but that won’t keep them from coming ashore.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” [2]

Ever been party to the suppression of the truth? Anytime? Ever? I have. All of us have and are deserving of wrath. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3:23.

The love of God cannot be understood apart from the wrath of God. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact neither one can be fully appreciated without the other. God’s hatred for sin and evil is the back side of the coin of his love. He wouldn’t be loving if he didn’t hate evil, including the evil that is inside each one of us. Only the power of his love could overcome our sin and absorb his just wrath against it.

God’s love is sacrificial because it absorbed the wrath that we deserve.

If you’ve looked for a job lately you know that the benefits are almost as important as the salary. We know we’ll be paid. But will we be covered?

That’s another piece of the frame.

Psalm 103 says that God’s love ‘has us covered’. “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”— Then the Psalmist lists the benefits and the first on the list is: “who forgives all your sins…”

God’s love is not only sacrificial; it is also beneficial in that it makes us guilt free.

Guilt is the great crippler. Guilt stunts God-given potential. Guilt saps courage, binds us to the past, and alienates us from God and one another. A guilty mind can’t think with power. A guilty heart can’t love with abandon. Even if there was such a thing as an insurance policy for sin, a guilty soul could never do enough to cover its own deductible.

But the Psalmist says, “Praise the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins…” God’s love frees us from guilt.

If you are feeling burdened by guilt remember, God loves you so much that he’s paid the debt, absorbed his own wrath against our evil, and removed our shame. Take your sins to him and ask for forgiveness. He will give it. He’s got you covered.

[1]MacArthur, J., F., Jr. (2003, c1996). The God Who Loves. (10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Ro 1:18–19). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

RISEN: Something Good Out of Hollywood

Based on Bible stories made into movies of late, the Nathaniel’s among us would be justified in paraphrasing the dubious disciple’s first question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Hollywood?”

Noah, in spite of my initial enthusiasm about it, turned out to be a theological mish-mash and a box office disappointment. The trailers for Exodus: God’s and Kings, revealed such an obvious hack job on the original story that I, along with many others, didn’t waste my time or money on it. Roma Downey and Mark Burnette’s 2015 television hit, AD, also left me disappointed by the middle of the series.

Not so with Risen, the Sony Pictures release now playing in local theaters. Instead of trying to make something more or something different than the original Easter story, Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified, and Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is good. The plot is believable, the film is well paced, and even though it’s obvious that special effects were relegated to the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have a few weaknesses. One actor is glaringly amateurish in the two short scenes he inhabits. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t so strategically placed. And those of us concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just prior to the ascension. But these things are minor and offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an otherwise excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar. That actor should win an Oscar.

Far more important however and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. Every man who feels the cynicism of Pilate creeping up on him in mid-life will identify with Clavius’ quest for truth. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

ALPHA: The Anti-Sales-Pitch Gospel

It is called the Rule of Seven and it was developed by marketing expert Dr. Jeffery Lant. It is one of the reasons that Christianity has become so distasteful to so many people in western civilization.

The Rule of Seven states that, “to penetrate the buyer’s consciousness and make significant penetration in a given market, you have to contact the prospect a minimum of seven times within an 18-month period.” My dad, who sold life insurance among other things, summarized it thus: “It takes six NO’s to get a YES.”

I can remember my seminary professors making similar statements regarding evangelism. I don’t fault those men. They were simply trying to obey Christ’s command to make disciples with all the energy and expertise they could muster. But their methods, so closely modeled on the most effective sales strategies of the twentieth century, only alienate people today. All of us are so tired of being “sold,” so fed up with being approached as prospects with Pay Pal accounts, instead of people with problems and needs, that anything that smacks of marketing, anything that treats us like just another “YES,” is insulting. We mute commercials, hang up on phone solicitors, mass delete our inboxes and even slam the door when the Girl Scouts come cookie calling. (OK, that’s hyperbole. I don’t know anyone who isn’t a sucker for a seven-year-old selling Slim Mints).

Add to that the political stench that follows evangelicals like the dust cloud around Charlie Brown’s friend Pig-Pen, and one wonders why anyone would ever be interested in the message of Jesus.

The Alpha Course is the antithesis of those things. That’s one of the reasons the church I lead is offering it for the fifth time since 2011. First, The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community. Learning is a process that happens best when we learn in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. If you’ve been a church member all your life, you will enjoy it. If you’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity, you will enjoy it and come away enriched with new understanding and new friends.

Find an Alpha Course near you by visiting http://www.alphausa.org.