Sunday, October 31, 2010

We Shall Not Be Doormats

Here's the last bit of the sermon that I cut out.


Now, at this point, the question always arises, “What’s the difference between laying down your life and being a doormat? What about people who take your life away from you through some kind of verbal, physical, or emotional abuse?” Those are great questions that we need to reconcile with this core call of laying down our lives and not demanding our rights.

In those moments, my mind always goes to the scene from the Passion of the Christ where Jesus is talking with Pilate. He’s bloody and beaten, and Pilate asks him, “Don’t you know that I have the power to either crucify you or set you free?” And Jesus responds, “You have no power except that which is given you from above.” In other words, Jesus and the Father have agreed to this. You can’t take his life. He’s laying it down willingly. I think about that and I remember that Jesus was neither a martyr nor a victim. Nobody took his life from him; he wouldn’t have allowed that. He willingly laid it down.

Don’t be deceived. Agape is strong. Of all the loves, agape has the most backbone. It takes tremendous strength of will and courage to lay down your life. Agape is neither spineless nor gutless. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Agape talks back. Agape puts up the hand and says, “No. No farther. I will lay down my life for you, but you will not take it from me.” Remember, agape is a love that walks, not a love that lays down passively.

Agape forgives sins. Anyone who has forgiven the sins of another is no longer a victim, and agape frees us from the downward spiral of being a victim, always seeking revenge, always demanding more and more retribution. Agape offers the way out through forgiveness.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Make the Gospel True

Here is another bit of my sermon this weekend that didn't make the cut.


Is the gospel true in your life group? Don’t you want it to be? Don’t you want to be a part of a community where agape is active? Don’t you long for the gospel to be true in your church? The gospel happens when you walk in the light of a love that lays down its life. Do you want to impact the world for Jesus? Lay down your lives for one another, because that doesn’t happen in this world.

Several weeks ago, Andy Sieberhagen led the staff in a devotional where he took us deep into the mind of a long-term, overseas missionary. It was a terrifying experience! He told us that people go overseas because they believe that the Christian community they’re experiencing at home is worth giving to others and worth dying for. Friends, your life group and your church are only worth dying for if you are already laying down your lives for each other.

Dear friends, let us lay down our lives for one another, because this whole concept of laying down your life comes directly from God! And anyone who lays down his life for his brother and sister has been born of God and knows God.

Do you want to see God work in your life? Walk in the light of a love that lays down its life. Do you want to know God more? Lay down your life for your brothers and sisters. You can’t love God if you refuse to lay down your life for others.

What’s truly amazing is that when you walk in the light of a love that lays down its life, this whole thing that Jesus called us to actually works. It really works. Forgiveness happens, and you are set free from the cycle of victimization. Grace happens and relationships are restored and strengthened. Laying down your life for each other really does make you able to lay down your life for God.

I know that each of you wants to love God with all of your heart, but you can’t love God if you don’t love your brothers and sisters. You can lay down your life for your brothers and sisters because God has laid down his life for you.

What are you holding onto? What sin, what offence, have you not let go of? Who are you refusing to forgive? What right are you laying claim to that hurts others? What demands are you making of others—your friends, your family? Where are you refusing to die? What word is God speaking to you right now? Money. Shame. Hobbies. The Boat. Power. Free Time. Sleep. Where is God calling you to walk in the light of a love that lays down its life?

Jesus didn’t just walk in the light of a love that laid down its life, he is the light of love that laid down his life. Consider all that has been forgiven of you. Consider how patient he has been with you. Does that make you grateful? Does that make you want to sacrifice everything for him? Whoever sacrifices everything for God must also sacrifice everything for his brother. So how will you walk?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Gospel Opportunities

I'm preaching this weekend at church and had a lot of leftovers after I trimmed down my sermon. Here's a sample of what you won't here at Heritage this weekend.


We have a life group that meets at our house on Wednesdays. It’s this amazing group of almost 40 people, and I have heard some of the most unbelievable stories of God at work in their lives. I have seen the gospel happen there. I have seen agape in action in our life group.

But if you’ve been a part of a life group for any amount of time, you know that they’re not easy. Somebody’s going to get on your nerves. If you’re doing it right, there will be conflict. Now let me ask you something. If this is the Church, and life groups are where agape happens, and we all say we’re following Jesus, and we’re supposed to be walking in the light of a love that lays down its life, then why oh why, does it seem that at the first sign of conflict in a group it becomes, “Either they go or we’re gone! This person is bothering me so I’m just going to leave!”

We get hurt. We get angry. We get irritated. We get frustrated. So we withdraw. We leave. We disconnect from the group. Or we get snarky. We get vindictive. We get superspiritual. We form factions. We gossip. We assume the worst about others.

Are you serious? Pardon me, but I think you dropped your cross somewhere along the way. That’s not the gospel. That’s not agape. That’s not walking in the light of a love that lays down its life.

Every conflict in your life group is an opportunity for the gospel. Every conflict in your life group is an opportunity for each party to walk in the light of a love that lays down its life. Every conflict is a chance for the world to see that we work through our tough stuff instead of just walking away! Every conflict is a chance to become more committed to one another than we were before.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sufjan Stevens | The Age of Adz

A couple days ago I bought Sufjan Stevens' newest album, The Age of Adz. I had read some reviews beforehand and knew that it was going to be different than Michigan and Illinois, which gave me some hesitation about buying it. I really like the folk stylings of those albums (as well as Seven Swans), and I wasn't sure how I was going to deal with change. And now that I have the album...well, I'm still not sure.

The music is actually right up my alley, even more so than the folk music I had so much fallen in love with. It's a mix of orchestration, electronica, pop, and vocal effects that somehow manages to stay true to Sufjan in the process. He doesn't get lost in the technology, like I had feared would happen when I heard about the change in musical direction he was taking. He has such a distinct sound and style, and I thought that might disappear. Fortunately, it isn't.

The lyrics are, well...I'm not sure what Sufjan is trying to tell us. Some people think he's struggling to reconcile his homosexual inclinations with his Christian faith. Other people think he's telling stories from the perspective of multiple characters in his music, and some of those characters are females. Or is the whole album about Royal Robertson, the artist whose art and life inspired it in the first place? I don't know how to interpret the lyrics of The Age of Adz because I'm not sure what perspective he's writing from.

Is Sufjan gay? I don't know. Is he a Christian? Yes. Is he a talented artist who has managed to take his music in an entirely new direction and still create something both amazing and true to himself? What a ridiculous question. Of course. Do yourself a favor: Get real, get right with the Lord, and buy this album.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Making Disciples

Just before he ascended to the Father's side, Jesus commanded the eleven disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations...". I am a Christian because they were obedient.

Those guys didn't have a book to read on discipleship. All they had to draw on was their three years of walking with Jesus, of seeing how he built into their lives, how he turned them from doubters to disciples. And I think the trick of discipleship is that there is no trick. There is no program. There is no fast-track. It's just life together.

The reason you can't speed up the discipleship process is because you're making disciples out of humans, and despite the speed of our culture, humans move at a very slow pace. We take years to learn simple lessons. We don't get things until we get them, if you know what I mean; and nobody can tell you how or when you're going to grasp it. This is life. It happens as it is happening.

Jesus is leading the process. This is why I don't like to set goals or have benchmarks with others. I'd much rather hang out in the presence of Jesus and see what happens, all under the assumption that he will speak the words he wants us to hear. Who am I, after all, to have a plan for your life? Jesus is much better at making plans, and he'll reveal them when he decides to reveal them. There is no destination in discipleship other than full Christlikeness (which we will never reach in this life), and the joy is in the journey of pursuing him together. Anyone who genuinely and wholeheartedly seeks to become a disciple of Jesus will not fail to become one.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Would God Allow...

It seems like all the most difficult questions of faith fall along the same general line: How can a good God allow evil to exist? Why would God allow natural disasters? Why did God let so-and-so die? Underlying these questions is another one: Is God really all-powerful? Is he truly in control? If he's not, then we desperately need to rethink our conception of God. But if he is, then how can he possibly be good?

These are difficult questions. The deists thought they had found an answer when they created a God who was omnipotent but disinterested. But when God becomes disinterested and distant, everything else--Creation, sin, the Incarnation, the cross, resurrection--falls apart. You may as well be agnostic.

Part of the difficulty of these questions is the way we understand the term "allow". Or, to put it in more theological terms, what we mean when we say "God is sovereign", or "God is omnipotent". We assume that, because God is sovereign and omnipotent, then he must give his approval to everything that happens in the world. On any given day a certain number of proposals cross his desk, and he rubber stamps some APPROVED and others DENIED. Those proposals which are approved, like Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian Earthquake, actually occur, and those which are denied do not.

I hope that seems silly to you, because it is utterly ridiculous to me. God doesn't have a desk or a rubber stamp. He is not the bouncer standing at the gates of the earth. He is the King, and his kingdom is in rebellion against him. God created an ordered paradise (Eden) and gave a tremendous measure of power to human beings, who then used that power to turn on God, which resulted in the loss of order and paradise. More accurately, our sin resulted in the loss of God's direct sovereignty over Creation, because if he were to exercise his power in all its fullness, there would be no more Creation. Now, in order to spare our existence, God exercises his power in humility.

Evil, sin, natural disaster, and death are not exceptional. These are normative for a world in rebellion against its Creator. They are not punishments, they are simply the natural course of events that follow from the overthrow of God's direct sovereignty over Creation. None of these exist within paradise. But outside, east of Eden, they are inevitable.

The real "allow" question, the one that doesn't make sense, is why would God allow his son to leave the throne room of the castle and come, unarmed and vulnerable, into the rebellious kingdom. Why would God allow his son to live east of Eden, where evil, sin, disaster and death are the norm? It can only be because he loves the rebels so much that he wants to save them from the foolishness of their own rebellion.

Knowing he couldn't directly coax or command them out of it, he sent his son to be just like one of them and to die at their hands. And then the King did the most amazing thing ever--he raised his son from the dead! And by raising him from the dead, the King said to the rebels, "I forgive you for all of your rebellions and your sins. See, here is my son, whom you killed, but whom I have raised back to life! Look to him and have hope that evil, sin, disaster and death don't have the final say, but that the last word belongs to me. Behold, everything is being made new!" The one act of evil that God did allow in this world--the death of his son--is the one act by which he is remaking the world and is restoring all things to a new and glorious paradise.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Church's Greatest Threat

If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard the alarmists warning of the imminent demise of the Church. We are in a culture war, they say, and nothing less than the existence of the Body of Christ is on the line. Threats from without, compromise from within—the threats are increasing and the pressure is mounting. We have to do something or the devil will win!

Now I’m no alarmist, but I do believe the Church faces a serious threat today. But the greatest threat to the Church does not come from liberal theology, secularism, materialism, any political movement, or even Islam. No, the greatest threat to the Church today is that most people who call themselves Christians have no idea how to read the Bible.

Far too many Christians never pick up their Bibles; and what’s worse, when they do, they misunderstand it and have no clue how to apply what they read to their lives. We are biblically illiterate. We think “God helps those who help themselves” is one of the treasured promises of Scripture. The Rapture has become one of our most beloved doctrines! And when a skeptic confronts us with a so-called contradiction in Scripture, we panic and our whole world comes crashing down.

The saddest thing about our current state of affairs is that it is entirely avoidable. This shouldn’t be happening. We have more access (in America) to the Bible than any culture in history. We have more translations, more publishers, more authors, more supporting materials than ever before! Of all the books in the world, the Bible should be the one book that, by now, we know quite well. And yet it remains a mystery to most.

I don’t believe that the Church is on the verge of extinction because of this. But we are immeasurably weaker. We are easy prey for false teachers. We are ignorant of the promises and commands of God. We don’t know the story of how we came to be who we are or where we are going. We are wispy. Our faith is thin.

The solution is to engage the Bible with our minds—to learn how to read the Scriptures well. This takes work, time, and focus. We can’t just pick up the Bible, open to a random verse, and read until something hits us in the face anymore. We have to pay attention to the other 99% that we usually skim over. We have to learn how to ask the right questions of the text.

Because I’m so passionate about this, and because I love to see people learn to understand the Bible, I offer a class called Understanding Scripture that equips you to read and study the Bible well. But if you can’t take my class (or a class like it at your church), there are still many resources available to you. Two books I recommend are Grasping God’s Word by Duvall & Hays, and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee & Stuart. You don’t have to be intimidated by the Bible anymore. You can engage with it. You can learn to know it well, and to apply it to your life. Learning how to read the Bible well is the best answer to the greatest threat facing the Church.

Monday, October 4, 2010


God has been teaching me so much lately, but the most important lessons I'm learning are the ones that seem most basic, but are the hardest to put into practice in my life. They are the lessons of agape love.

Agape is a love that lays down its life. We see it most extravagantly at the cross of Jesus Christ, where the Son of God laid down his life to atone for the sins of all humanity. Agape is also a love that refuses its rights. This doesn't mean that we are spineless doormats, it means that we are strong enough to not become victims when someone else sins against us.

The hardest part about living a life of agape is dying to myself in all the tiny moments of the day. Just a few hours ago I was at a gas station, trying to use the air machine to fill up my tires. Somebody was parked right in front of it but not using it, so I waited patiently. When they moved their car, I started backing up. But then some other guy zipped around me and parked right in front of the air machine, only to let his wife out of the car to go buy something in the store. He wasn't even using it! I was so furious! I desperately wanted to hop out of the van and give him more than just a piece of my mind, but I drove off, cursing him under my breath.

Honestly, I can't even tell you what it would look like to have agape for a total stranger like that, but I'm sure it doesn't look like my passive-aggressive anger. But I can imagine that, if I had died to myself in that moment, and politely asked him to move so that I could fill my tires, he probably would have agreed. But I chose to be offended. I chose to be a victim.

In the tiny moments of your day, before you get angry, or offended, or choose to be a victim, take a second to consider what agape would like. Ask yourself, "How can I live a love that lays down its life?" This is what it means to walk as Jesus walked.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Spiritual growth happens when we obey God. In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to obey his commands, to "walk in" them. Walking in God's commands is a way of saying that your whole life is characterized by obedience to God.

The Hebrew word for "walking" is halakah. Jewish teachers came to use this term to describe a life of obedience. The halakah was a life lived in obedience to God's commands, and therefore it was the best life that one could find.

For some reason, we Protestants (Evangelicals particularly) don't often think that obedience is a necessary component to a spiritually healthy and vibrant life. Maybe it's the ideal of American individualism, or postmodern anti-authoritarianism, or a misunderstanding of salvation by grace alone, but we just don't think about obedience. We don't have a well-defined halakah.

But I can't think of any better way to grow spiritually than to obey God. Obedience often demands that we risk a step of faith or that we die to ourselves in some way. Obedience is active faith, and any time we take a step of faith, we walk with God.

If you're frustrated with where you're at spiritually, and you feel like you're not growing, it's probably because you're refusing to do something God is telling you to do. You need to take that step. You need to do that thing God is urging you to do. Only when you step out in obedience, when you live the halakah life, will you begin to see the transformation of character you're longing for.