Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reflections on the Weekend

This past Sunday, our church had the privilege of hearing from guest speaker Greg Laurie. He's the pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship out in California (one of the largest churches in the US), and a prolific evangelist. First we saw a short film that recounts his life story (after watching it, I'll be shocked if I don't wind up reading the book), then he gave a message from Luke 15 and gave an altar call. Here are a few of my thoughts...

1) Greg's story is really amazing. Without getting into too many details, it's hard to imagine a worse childhood - his mother was married at least seven different times (I believe he was from the 4th marriage, when she was still in her early 20's), she was a drunk, there was abuse, Greg had to stop one of her boyfriends from killing her, etc. With so many people blaming their parents/culture for their sins today, or believing that children always necessarily turn out as they are raised (good or bad), it's a good reminder that this is just a general principle, not an absolute rule.

Yes, the sins of the fathers are often visited on their descendants. Yes, good and godly parenting often produces good and godly children. But not always. Sometimes parents can do everything right, and the kid turns out to be a jerk anyway. And sometimes even with the worst parenting imaginable, God intervenes and turns the family around.

2) The way Greg was converted is truly convicting and awesome. He had become a hippie, and in high school he'd been doing some severe drugs. And he didn't care about God in the least. But he did have a crush on this girl who had become a Christian, and she'd gotten involved with the "Jesus movement" at school. So one day at lunch, the group was meeting out on the courtyard, and Greg sat close enough to keep an eye on the girl without being a part of the Jesus meeting.

Then the strangest thing happened. The leader started reading scripture, and explaining what it said. Greg wasn't paying attention, until something caught his ear: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Mat 12:30). Not a verse you're likely to find in any evangelistic material. But one that cut him straight to the heart and brought him to repentance. Within a matter of days, he went from pothead Christ-mocking rebel to vocal Christian.

And what brought that radical change about? Nothing but the word of God. Not a message dressed up in relevance, not an attempt to appeal to things he liked, not someone trying to infiltrate his culture, just a man faithfully proclaiming God's word. He just overheard one verse, and the conviction it brought completely changed his life. I feel like there's a lesson in there somewhere...

3) After his conversion, one of the other believers invited him to church. They went to a place called Calvary Chapel, led by a man named Chuck Smith. A lot of the members were converted hippies, youthful, rebellious, not trusting anyone over 30. And this is the guy who led them. That picture doesn't look too much different from the ones of him in the 70's - he was a bald, older dumpy white guy in a suit or polo shirt, with hundreds of long-haired hippies listening to him.

How? How is such a thing possible? After all, nary a day goes by without me reading about how if we want to reach a certain culture, we need to immerse in it. If we want to reach artists, we need to become artists. If we want to reach goths, it'll never happen unless we dress and act and talk like goths. Yet here was a guy who looked like everything the hippies would oppose, yet God used him to bring hundreds of them to faith and repentance. How? Here's a hint: in every clip of him that was shown, he was reading from his Bible. It seems that maybe, just maybe, the key isn't to become more 'relevant', but to faithfully preach the message that applies to all men everywhere at all times, that transcends all racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic barriers, and proclaims the greatest problem we face and God's perfect solution.

Nah. Never get a book deal like that. Who would believe that God's word is actually more imminently relevant than our hairstyles and musical tastes? I must be a crazy fundie or something.

4) Now, about the altar call and invitation. I know these things are controversial and all, but if done properly, they can be very useful and mitigate against the dangers (i.e. false assurance). So anyway, I remember the first time I was at Harvest for one, and frankly it should be its own "Why I Love James MacDonald" post. He was finishing his message and giving the challenge, and started like he was going to do the "every head bowed, eyes closed" thing... then stopped and said "Forget that - every head up, eyes open, look around. If you want to claim to follow Christ, you do it publicly and let everyone know!" Amen to that! No more of these 'I'll just slip my hand up while nobody's looking and I'll be covered' phony professions of 'faith', please. If you're even the least bit sincere, letting the people around you know is the very least you can do.

So anyway, this weekend Greg Laurie gave the invitation to submit to Jesus. He did the typical way, which would've been really disappointing had I not known what was coming. After that, the challenge was issued - if you professed faith, come on down! As he put it, "Put feet to your faith." If you are ashamed to come up front and be seen, that's a really good sign your faith isn't genuine and you can't believe you're saved. No doubt just that simple act caused a few false professors to drop out only a few seconds into their supposed new life in Christ. And no doubt they are better off for it - better to have your 'faith' proved phony right away rather than be deluded about it for no one knows how long.

Next, those who came forward were sent off to meet individually with various ministry leaders - some elders, small group leaders, pastors, etc. Somehow the wife and I were invited to participate as well. We basically met with them just to get a feel for where they stood, make sure they understood what they were doing and its implications, that sort of thing. The aim was to get the point across that this isn't just a one-time purchase of fire insurance. Coming to faith in Christ means submitting to his Lordship in all of life, as long as you live. I pray that this message came across loud and clear, and that these folks are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ gearing up for a life-long journey of sanctification and fruit-bearing communion. The last thing we ever want to do is give someone false assurance, that raising a hand or coming forward or meeting with a counselor, if that's where it ends, is evidence of genuine faith.

5) While I was writing this up, this article came across my RSS. It's James MacDonald's reflections on the news from this weekend, and in the process he lays some serious smack down on the "relevance is everything" crowd. Definitely worth a read. It brings to mind something Phil Johnson has often pointed out - strange how the only 'cultures' worth 'engaging' are the ones they want to be a part of. You never hear one of the relevance warriors talking about engaging the, say, chess team culture, or the Polish polka-dancing culture. No, somehow it's always the cool, edgy cultures that they just need to immerse in. How odd. It's almost like they're less concerned about actually reaching people for Christ, and more in finding a sanctified excuse to do what they really want to do. But.... nah, that couldn't be it. Could it?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Random Thought

By the time they're done, who will have told more different versions of their stories - Roland Burris or Alex Rodriguez? I currently have it at Burris 4, A-Rod 3.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Don't Be Like These Guys

I was reading through Exodus this past weekend, and came to a very interesting passage. There aren't all that many recorded instances of people getting the opportunity to see God, so every such encounter is worthy of close examination. This one rings an alarm loud and clear, and I pray we listen.

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

We need to know that seeing God is a tremendous act of grace. It's the great hope of the people of God for all eternity, the joy set before us - to see God in all his glory and beauty. For God to allow people on earth, still in their sins, to see him in any measure - that is unimaginable grace. It is such an awesome and wonderful privilege that, for instance, when God pronounces a judgment on King Solomon for turning away from God despite incredible blessings, the greatest imaginable blessing is that God had appeared to him twice. Greater than all his wealth, all his fame, all his privilege and wisdom and power, God had appeared to him, yet Solomon turned his heart away anyway. The weight of the indictment is shown by the majesty of the blessing: he had actually gotten to see God, and yet he worshipped idols.

God's appearing is an act of grace not just because of the infinite greatness of his presence, but also because of how anti-deserving the recipients are. Note that I don't say "undeserving", as if it's just something we haven't earned or we're just not good enough for. No, we're anti-deserving; we have proven ourselves not just to be unworthy of beholding his glory, but to be completely worthy of receiving his wrath. Throughout scripture, whenever people get even a glimpse of the divine, the reaction is one of overwhelming dread (this'll be its own post soon enough), and deservedly so. We are sinners, and the divine light reveals the depths of our darkness, making us keenly aware of how much we deserve wrath. This is intimated in this passage as well: they saw God, yet "he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank." Of all the miracles recorded in Exodus, perhaps none is greater than this. They saw God, yet he didn't kill them.

Now to really see the warning in this passage, we need to look at the background a bit first. This takes place in Exodus 24. What's been leading up to this? Short version: Israel was enslaved in Egypt. God sent Moses (and Aaron with him) to perform miracle after miracle, striking Egypt with tremendous plagues and bringing the nation to its knees. Finally the Egyptians have had enough and drive the Israelites away - not just letting them go, but piling money and goods onto them, begging Israel to loot them on their way out. Following this miraculous deliverance, God guides Israel through the wilderness, and when Egypt has a change of heart and decides to kill Israel, God again saves his people and wipes out the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Then God continues to lead Israel, providing miraculous bread from heaven daily, providing water when needed. He brings them to Mount Sinai, where God makes a covenant with them - they will be his people, and he will be their God. In Exodus 24 the covenant is confirmed and enacted. At the height of the festivities, after all these amazing blessings God has lavished upon his people already, he provides one more unspeakably great grace - he calls the leaders of Israel to the mountain, and lets them see him!

Among those who were chosen for this incredible honor: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu.

Many people know what became of Aaron barely even a month later. Moses and Joshua head up the mountain to meet with God again and further understand the covenant, leaving Aaron in charge of the people down below. The people got antsy, so Aaron - who had been involved in all these miracles and had just seen God - took gold from them and made them a calf idol to worship. (Favorite line from that story - when confronted by Moses, Aaron tries to deflect blame to.... the fire? "So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.") It was barely over a month since he had seen God, and he had performed miracles, and he could look up and see the cloud/fire of God's presence while eating the manna God was miraculously providing - yet already Aaron was turned to idols.

No doubt fewer people know the story of Nadab and Abihu, seeing as how it's nestled there in Leviticus, and it's not a shiny-happy story to teach. You won't find many Nadab and Abihu flannelgraphs, that's for sure. Basically, it's not that long after the golden calf incident. They are freshly appointed priests, among the very first batch of priests ever appointed in Israel. They had been told in great detail how they were to make sacrifices, and warned about the consequences of sin. Yet possibly from even the first sacrifice they offered, they screwed around and offered "unauthorized fire". So God struck them down immediately, and they died.

Now what is the warning here? Consider. Aaron saw God, knew the truth about God as well as anyone at that time possibly could have. Yet Aaron abandoned the true God for a false god, commanding people to worship a silly statue instead of the glorious God he had just seen. Nadab and Abihu saw God, and knew that it was only by his mercy that they or anyone could come into his presence. Yet they were so frivolous, careless, and/or rebellious about the sacrifices they offered in the presence of God, that he struck them dead instantly. These men all had seen God, and they knew the truth about him, and should have had a righteous fear of him. Yet they were careless and rebellious, and they paid the price for it.

Now consider what we know, and how we should respond to such knowledge. We have seen the glory of God in the person of Jesus, in the work of the Spirit, and in the majesty of his word. We see the eternal plan of redemption, the revelation of mysteries kept hidden throughout the ages. We see evidence (much more than any previous generation could) of his infinite greatness revealed in his creation. We have clearly proclaimed for us the hope of eternal joy in knowing God, being clothed in the righteousness of Christ, being forgiven of our sin and blessed beyond our capacity to imagine.

So what do we do with this knowledge?

Are we like Aaron, casually tossing it all aside as soon as things get difficult? Do we exchange the glory of the immortal God for what we know to be insufficient imitations? Or are we like Nadab and Abihu, treating God casually like a plaything despite knowing he is capable of destroying us at any moment (and would be perfectly just in doing so!)? Have we become so accustomed to receiving God's grace that we take it for granted and presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance?

This is serious business. Life or death doesn't even fully capture the significance; we're talking about heaven or hell. Do not presume that you can play with God indefinitely, or turn away from him whenever his demands are inconvenient. You do not know when his mercy will give way to justice, and your time will be up. As Hebrews exhorts and warns over and over, pay more careful attention lest you drift away. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

The day is coming. Be ready. Stop playing around, and be ready.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Dual Conviction

In the past few weeks I've been convicted in two major areas where I've been a slacker. First, yesterday at church the sermon (by guest preacher Crawford Loritts) was based on 1 Thessalonians 5:17. No doubt you can figure out where this part is going. Anyway, what really hit me more than anything was in the introduction, when he made the point that prayer is an acknowledgment of our total dependence on God. There is an inverse relationship between prayer and sinful, self-satisfying pride; the more prideful we are, the less we will pray.

The second area I've been really challenged in has been the study, and especially memorizing, of scripture. As my incredibly awesome wife has described, the importance of scripture memory has been hammered home to her, and she's been doing an incredible job of it (in just the past few months, she's memorized Hebrews, 1 2 and 3 John, several Psalms, and is now working on Colossians). So I've been inspired by how quickly she's been able to do this just by working at it in a disciplined manner. She's quite amazing, you know.

But what really brought the point home was seeing this. Adorable kid, and absolutely convicting. Just by listening to the same chapter every day for a few weeks, he was able to recite it basically word-perfect. And he's only four! I don't know how many times I've heard people use the excuse that they just can't memorize scripture (yet learning song lyrics or fantasy football stats never seems to be a problem) - well, this just blows that excuse completely away, doesn't it? As for me, I doubt anyone who's known me longer than a few minutes would ever buy that excuse from me anyway. No, the reason I haven't memorized long passages or whole books like that is sheer laziness.

So guess what I'll be making a lot more time for from now on.