The Illusion of Familiarity

I recently read a book called The Everlasting Man by G.K.Chesterton.  Chesterton was an early 20th century English writer, journalist and (most importantly) a Christian.  His writing are chock full of all sorts of ideas and thoughts–sometimes almost too many for me to take in.  But I want to share with you one of those ideas–the illusion of familiarity.

It is impossible to imagine Western civilization without Christianity.  Our culture is so completely shaped by the teachings of the faith that no one can escape it.  Our modern languages were shaped and molded by the men who translated God’s Word out of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  Phrases such as “apple of my eye”, and “the powers that be”, words such as “peacemakers”, and “scapegoat”, and literally hundreds like them fill our daily speech.

Christianity was responsible for treating women as the equals of men, teaching that all human life has value, the establishment of public hospital, the abolition of slavery, the spread of public education and the concept of the value of the individual in the wider community.  And we could go on for a long time from here.  All of the things we value in Western culture can be traced directly back to the values instilled by the teachings of Christ and His followers.  Pagan culture was so utterly defeated that it is almost impossible for us to conceive of what it would be like to be a part of it.

Because of its prominence, almost everyone in our culture believes they know what Christianity is all about.  People believe themselves to be sure of what Christ taught and what those of us who claim His Name believe.  Unfortunately that is untrue of the majority of Americans.  They believe themselves familiar with Christianity, but it is merely an illusion because their exposure to the faith is probably less informed than their exposure to the lives of Hollywood celebrities.

Let’s think of an example.  It seems that almost every time someone is confronted with an accusation of immorality on their part, the immediate response is, “judge not lest you be judged”.  There you go–true Christianity must mean–has to mean–that we can all do whatever we want without any complaint from anyone.  In fact, Jesus meant no such thing, but many people will say it because they have an illusion of familiarity.

The really sad thing, though, is that many folks who sit in the pews of churches around the country also have an illusion of familiarity with Christianity.  This can be because they attend infrequently or because they don’t pay much attention while they’re there, or they might even go to a church where the faith is poorly taught.  But whatever the cause, far too many Christians have what I call a children’s Sunday School understanding of Christianity.  They’ve never matured in their faith.  They’ve never taken the time to actually study God’s Word to see what it truly says.  Way too often they mix up Christian teachings with their secular views about culture and politics–projecting their ideas onto Jesus rather than His teachings into their lives.

If you want to be a serious Christian–and I pray that you do–then you have to take seriously what Jesus taught the apostles and what they have taught us through the ages.  Your familiarity with the Bible can’t be an illusion if you want to hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant” when He returns.  God sends us His Word, we need to take it for what it is and walk faithfully in the pathways He leads us.

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Clogged Spouting

A member of my congregation called me recently to see if I knew anyone who could clean the spouting at her home.  We’ve had a lot of rain lately and when it comes down hard the downspout can’t handle the load.  I know from experience that when that happens you run the risk of getting water in your basement.

Well, that got me to thinking about how you and I can get our spouting clogged up and unwanted water in places where it doesn’t belong.  What do I mean by that, you ask?  Well, our lives in this world can get awfully clogged up with the garbage that infects our culture these days.  It’s really hard to avoid it.  Like rain, it falls both on the good and the bad, the faithful and the unfaithful alike.  An evening in front of the television can make pour all sorts of destructive stuff into our minds.  Sex, violence, smarmy-ness, and general unpleasantness seem to be the standard fare on the airwaves today.

Like the rain which overflows the downspouts, so this excessive flood of images and ideas can slowly but surely overflow into the place where our opinions and ideas are formed.  When this happens we very slowly begin to accept the unacceptable, we very slowly become hardened to that which is contrary to the Word and will of God and we begin to think the formerly unthinkable.

Think, friends, how your grandparents would react if you could somehow meet them and describe the culture and mores of 21st century America to them.  Do you think they would just say, well that’s nice?  I don’t.  I think they would be at least as appalled as I am when I look at the world around me.  I think they would be horrified by the evil around us–evil we don’t even notice anymore.

But just as our problems with the spouting have a solution–so also our cultural problems have a solution–the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us.  When we come to an assurance of our salvation through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit begins the process of our sanctification.  One of the most important methods He uses to bring about change in us is the reading and the proclamation of the Word found in the Bible.  There we can find what we need to know to live as followers of the Christ.  There we can find the “software” that will block out the evil Satan spreads in our world.  There we will learn discernment.  There we will find comfort.

Does your spouting need cleaning?  Are there things in your life that don’t fit with the path of a sanctified believer?  I bet there are–just as there are such things in my life.  And we need to let the Word guide and teach us the right path so that the evil of this present darkness does not damage the foundation of our lives.

The Air That We Breathe

Have you seen the pictures of how bad the air pollution is in parts of China?  Everyone seems to be walking around with surgical masks on and you can see, even in a photograph, particles floating in the air.  If you breathe that in, you are not just pulling in the life giving oxygen and other gases natural to the world, but the evil and potentially deadly result of mankind’s mindless misuse of God’s world.

One thing I’m pretty sure of–when Christ comes again and His people live for eternity in a remade world, there won’t be any air pollution.  Everything will be perfect and all of His people will receive nothing but benefit when we fill our lungs with the air of glory.

In a way, though, we sample that pure air when we come to a saving faith in Christ Jesus.  For at that point we aren’t standing in the middle of a smoggy metropolis, our feet aren’t searching for a foothold on soil made unproductive by the sin which distorts all of God’s good creation–for at that point, we are standing right on the dividing line between this world and the next.  As we breathe we breathe in a whiff of the pure air of heaven.  We smell, ever so faintly, the beauty of glory.  Our eyes see as in a glass darkly, but still we see the beauty of what God wanted for us.  God’s people walk, as the old hymn tells us, on the verge of Jordan and we see afar, but yet we see all we have ever hoped for.

 

 

The Cure of Souls

The title of this message is an old English phrase for what pastors do in the congregation.  In modern parlance, we would say the care of souls.  You don’t hear this much anymore and that’s a terrible shame.  You see the pastor’s primary responsibility is not luring more people into the sanctuary, being up on the latest cultural fads in order to be “relevant” or any of the 100 or so things that people seem to think it is.  The primary responsibility of any pastor is to care for the souls God has called him to serve.

A few years ago I was rather horrified to see an article listing the most popular topics pastors were reading about.  The first two were church management and leadership.  Theology was way down the last and soul care wasn’t even in the top 10.  It only solidified a view I already had–the Church in this country has lost its way and it won’t get back on the right track again until those called by God to be spiritual leaders get their thoughts straight about what a pastor is and what he should do.

Why do we need to worry about, talk about and pray about the state of people’s souls?  Because their souls, just like mine, are sin-sick and the only cure for that disease is Jesus Christ.  There’s an old spiritual that has the line in it, “there is a balm in Gilead to heal a sin-sick soul.”  And Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the Cross is that balm.  If it is not applied, and applied regularly, the pull of sin in our lives grows just like a virus in your body.  The pastor’s task is to find ways to apply this balm and  to bring to the people God has put under his care refreshing of their souls.

Friends, I want to ask you if you have that refreshing in your soul now?  Has Christ’s sacrifice washed you clean and can you tell the difference?  Are you now, this very minute, living with the assurance of your salvation and finding the peace that passes understanding?  If you’re not, you need to speak with your pastor and he needs to work with you so that the message of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for you sinks deep into your soul and changes you from creature that sin has distorted into the person God wants you to be.

God Himself instituted the office of pastor.  Men often mess it up.  But it’s God’s work we are to do.  Let your pastor do it for you.

Coming Home Sick

I was sick last week.  Really just a bad cold.  I got it while I was on a retreat weekend with about 50 other men.  I felt fine most of the weekend, but I woke up Sunday morning with a scratchy throat.  By the next morning I was sick.  I carried my sickness home with me.

One of the problems many of us have is thinking that sin is something we “do”.  In other words, if I gossip, I sin.  If I steal, I sin.  If I look with lust at a woman other than my wife, I sin.  You get the picture.  But sin isn’t really something that we do as much as it is a power over us–a power that comes down across time to bedevil every man and woman who has ever lived.

Not even our conversion can destroy the sin that daily nips at our ankles (and occasionally bites us in the rear end).  We are now and will be until we die under the power of sin.  Even as we move across our lifespans toward home we carry the sickness of our sinfulness with us. And when we come before God to be judged we come bringing the effects of sinfulness with us.

But Christ has borne the punishment for those sins.  The sickness of sin clings to us, but when the Father looks at us He does not see the pockmarks sin makes on our skin, the lesions that sin causes to spring forth on our bodies, the pus of our faithlessness oozing from our pores.  Nor does He smell the odor of decay that clings to us.  No, none of this stands between us and God because Jesus stands between us and God.  Jesus, the One over whom sinfulness could never prevail, the One who lived perfectly even as we live imperfectly, the One who kept the Law because it was His very Nature to keep the Law–He and He alone stands before God the Father, in the place of believers.

Last week I came home sick and it took almost a week for that sickness to go away.  But when I go to my eternal home–when all of us who trust in Christ go to our eternal home–the sin sickness of our souls will be cured completely–immediately–and forever.

Right to the edge

I apologize to everyone for not writing anything recently.  After Holy Week and Easter my wife and I went on vacation for a week and now I’m preparing to go on a Via de Cristo retreat weekend for men.  Next week will be normal–maybe.  BTW, just what is normal?

Anyway, when we were on vacation we visited a church in Myrtle Beach where we were blessed with the pure proclamation of the Gospel and the rightly administered Sacrament.  The pastor of this congregation had an interesting message and I took several ideas away and have pondered them since then.  I’m going to share one of them with you now.

Have you ever wondered why it seems so easy to sin?  Certainly sin is what we are all best at–it is part of our nature, built into the genes if you will.  St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans (and to us) notes that sin is in reality a power–a power that brings us so very often into the place where we do not do what we want, but what we do not what–that very thing is what we do.  As has been said many times, we are all sinners.

But those of us who are Christians ought to be able to avoid sinning, at least a little bit.  Or at least it seems we should.  After all, are we not indwelt with the Holy Spirit and do we not now love the Law, which before served only to condemn us?  But still we fall over and over again.

Well, part of the reason is because we so very much like to get really close to the sins that tempt us.  We like to get just up to the line, far enough to feel sins breath on our cheeks, its warmth just over the line.  We want to get close, but then back off.  It’s kind of game for us.  Certainly one example of that would be a man who likes to look at provocative pictures of pretty girls–maybe in the Sports Illustrated “swimwear” edition.  But that man might find that looking a picture of a nearly naked girl is just enough enticement to get him to start looking at porn on the internet.

In the interest of gender inclusiveness, let’s look at what some women might do.  There was a book out a few years ago, and then a movie called 50 Shades of Gray.  And before that there was the popular TV series Sex and the City.  Both of these were written for women to “enjoy” vicarious adultery, just as most pornography is created so men can be adulterous.

We like to go right up to the line, but when we get there what we far too often find is that the line isn’t real.  There’s nothing separating us from the sin that entices us–whether it’s sex or money or gossip or gluttony or whatever is the bauble you want to hold–just for a moment.

If we are going to resist sin, we must resist going to the line.  We must avoid the situations and the places where we can be enticed to sin.  Those are going to vary from person to person, but the line is often the real danger.  Maybe Johnny Cash walked the line–but you and I need to avoid it as much as possible.

 

And So It Begins

This Sunday is Palm Sunday.  It marks the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Sunday before His execution.  It was the week of Passover and Jerusalem and the surrounding area had begun filling with the crowds that would soon find people from all over the Roman world congregating.  The crowds could be as much as 30 times the areas normal population.

As Jesus comes into the city He rides on a donkey–a symbol of a king who comes in peace.  Crowds of people wave palm fronds and shout for joy at His entrance.  The palm fronds were a symbol of the last Jewish monarchy which had been displaced by Herod and Rome.  They all believed something big was about to happen.  After all, this Man on the donkey had just raised someone from the dead and for many this no doubt reminded them of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones being knit together again, God breathing new life into Israel.

Of course, scarcely any of the people there that day understood what was happening.  Probably only Jesus truly understood what was going on.  The crowds thought He would lead them in a war to overthrow the Roman yoke.  The Pharisees and Temple leaders weren’t exactly sure what He would do, but they knew it would undermine their authority and so they were determined to stop Him.  Even the disciples closest to Jesus were uncertain about what their Master intended to do, despite His frequent references to His coming passion in recent weeks.  No matter except Jesus really knew what was about to happen.  And so it began.

Each year at this time it begins anew for Christians.  Each Easter we stand in awe of what happened that week.  The atmosphere in Jerusalem and especially in the Temple would have been electric.  Only the most dense people could have been oblivious to all that was going on around them.  The structure of the Church Year is to remind us of that week.  The texts we read from Scripture, the colors in the chancel area, the stripping of the altar on Thursday night, the plain wood on Friday.  All of the these things bring us again into the week that shook the world to its foundations.  And so it begins.

I can’t help but feel sorry for people who don’t have a sense of awe and wonder about this week.  Everything in the world changed that week.  Everything that men believed was reshaped–God had kept His promise and done a “new thing” in the world.  But many people–maybe most people–will not experience the sense of God’s power and working in the next days.  They’ll be worrying themselves about candy rabbits and gifts and home and garden supplies, oblivious to the might and power around them.

Sunday marks the start of the most important week in the year.  Let it be so for you this year.  For so it begins.