Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Between Appearances

Last week I preached on Titus 2:11-15, which, as I wrote yesterday, is such an incredible passage you could preach it 8 different ways and still not exhaust its richness and depth. I wanted to spend some more time with some themes I touched on briefly, and perhaps put them a better, more understandable way.

According to the text, we live between two appearances: the past appearance of the grace of God, and the future appearance of the glory of God. Meaning, God has broken into our world in a significant way through the Incarnation of Christ, and his subsequent death and resurrection. This is the appearance of the grace of God. But God will also break into our world, again, in an equally significant, if not more magnificent, way when Jesus returns to judge the world and take his place as its rightful king. This is the appearance of the glory of God.

We live between these appearances, but that doesn't mean that we're just sitting around reminiscing about the past and waiting for the future. The middle isn't empty--it's full! Now is the only time and here is the only place we've been given to work out the past (the appearance of the grace of God) in the hope of the future (the appearance of the glory of God). It's in the middle that we are transformed by the power of the Gospel, of Christ working in us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

So what do we do? We prepare for the return of the king by ruling and reigning in his name and according to his purposes. This means that we take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, not merely to bring salvation to all people, but also to extend the rule and reign of Jesus the King to every heart and home on earth. We're not simply in the heaven-assurance business, we're also heralds of a new kingdom--a kingdom that is crashing against the kingdoms of the world. We are the ambassadors of this kingdom, endowed with authority by the king, and commissioned with a message of good news for all mankind.

As ambassadors of the king, then, we must see to it that his rule and reign is extended to every corner of our own hearts and minds, and that it is evident in every aspect of our lives. Not only are we heralds and ambassadors, we are also citizens of this new kingdom, and our lives must reflect this new citizenship. So, in all things, we surrender to the King who surrendered the benefits of divinity to become like us in every way, dying for our sins, and rising again in power.

He is coming again, so don't just wait around. The time between appearances is full of opportunity and challenge and adventure. I challenge you to orient your mind and heart between these appearances, and live accordingly, in the power of the Holy Spirit who is within you through faith in Christ.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ember Monday

What a week! I was so glad to get back to church last night after a week of family celebrations. It felt like a lot longer than 7 days had passed since we had church!

Last night I preached from Titus 2:11-15. This is a powerful text that could be preached 8 different ways. Some texts are too big to fit into one sermon, and this is definitely one of those passages. The sermon was called The Story of Your Life, and the basic premise was this: The Gospel is the controlling story of our lives. Only when we learn to find ourselves between the appearance of God's grace (the crucifixion and resurrection) and the appearance of God's glory (the return of Christ), will we learn to live with resurrection power and hope today.

We had a guest worship leader last night, as well. Garth & Kelly invited their friend Jason to come worship with us, and we're so grateful that he came! Jason did an excellent job for us, and we all agreed that he should definitely come back soon.

You can listen to the sermon on the sermon player on this blog, or you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes through this super-complicated process:
  • Open iTunes.
  • Click Advanced, then click Subscribe to Podcast....
  • In the box, type this address: http://sermon.net/EmberChurch/rss/.
For whatever reason, you can't find our podcast in the iTunes directory. I'll spare you the details, but if you follow those 3 steps, you'll be subscribed and it will automatically update.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Limiting the Gospel

This past week at church I talked about one of the ways that we tend to change the Gospel: We limit the Gospel by thinking it applies to everyone but us. "Sure," we think, "Jesus died for everybody's sins. Everybody but me. I still have to work my way back to God. God will only accept me today if I manage to commit little to no sin."

Do you do this? I do it. Many of the great saints of the past did this. It's easier to believe in God's love and grace for others than for yourself. Maybe we think that's humble, or noble. It's not. It's stupid.

You cannot earn the Gospel. The Gospel is a record of historical facts:

  • Christ Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.
  • He was buried.
  • He rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures.
  • He appeared to many.

You can no more earn the Gospel than you can earn the American Revolution. It already happened! All that you can do with the Gospel is receive it or reject it. You either receive it as it is or you reject it. Any twisting, limiting, changing, or adding to the Gospel is a rejection of the Gospel. It is disbelief.

The facts of what God has done in the past (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) indicate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God loves you right now. (Unless you go to Mark Driscoll's church, in which case God hates you...at least according to Mark Driscoll.) So quit trying to be noble and self-sufficient, and quit feeling sorry for yourself. The Gospel has happened! Receive it, and let it be the defining story of your life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Summary of My Take on the Rapture

I've written extensively about my disbelief in the rapture, so I don't want to belabor the point too much. The only reason I'm writing about it again is because I mentioned my disbelief at church this past Sunday, and I know that alarmed some folks.

Here are two of the principles that guide me as I study and teach the Scriptures:
  1. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.
  2. If we don't understand the Scriptures in their historical context, we'll never understand them at all.
God wrote the Scriptures when he did, through whom he did, for his own purposes and according to his sovereign choice. In other words, if Paul, John, Matthew and Jesus didn't believe in a rapture, then there is no rapture. And if they did, then there will be. We don't get to come along and change the meaning of any biblical text for any reason thousands of years after the fact. My contention is that there is no rapture in Scripture. So let's look, briefly, at the relevant passages.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

This really seems to be the perfect description of the rapture, but as I've written here, a little bit of historical context will help us to understand what Paul is writing about here. In order for this to be the rapture as we popularly understand it, the second coming of Christ must pause halfway between heaven and earth, somewhere in the sky. Then, all believers will fly up to meet him and stay with him there, in the sky, for either 3 1/2 or 7 years. But Paul calls it "the coming of the Lord", so we know that he won't turn around and go back into heaven. He is coming here. There must be a better explanation.

Thessalonica was a Roman colony at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Christians there. Whenever a high-ranking Roman official, or even the emperor himself, visited a colony or a city, the inhabitants of that city would go out to meet him and escort him back into the town. In other words, they didn't wait until the emperor got to the city walls to throw open the gates. They're not going to make him ring the doorbell. How much more will we do the same for Jesus, when he returns from heaven? Surely we will go up to meet him (which means we'll be able to fly! Awesome!) and escort him back to earth, where he will take his place as the rightful king of creation. This, not a rapture or a half-return, is what Paul has in mind in this passage.

Matthew 24:36-41

Okay, this one is obvious, right? Well, as I've explained here, no. In this passage, the controlling metaphor is the great flood, where all who suffered the judgment of God were "taken away". As it was in the flood, so will it be at the return of Christ. In fact, it may not even be a literal "taking away"; Jesus may just be using the language of the flood to talk about the punishment of the judgment of God. Regardless, being taken away is not being rescued from tribulation, but being fully judged by God apart from the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

John 14:2-3

I never thought of this passage in John as a rapture passage, but a friend of mine did, so I commented on it here. It's a bit too complicated to break down briefly, but I highly recommend you read that post to get a sense for what is going on in this passage.

I believe that I've demonstrated that there is no rapture in the Bible. This was an unfamiliar concept to every NT author. In fact, each one of them was intimately familiar to suffering within the various tribulations of their lives. You might even say that suffering, not escape from it, was one of God's most assured promises.

So much of what drives our belief in the rapture is fear. We are terrified of the Great Tribulation, and we want desperately to escape it. So when someone offers us a rapture out of suffering, we greatly rejoice. But we are not promised escape from troubles. Jesus didn't get it. Paul didn't get it. Millions of Christians today aren't getting it. The power of Christ is most clearly seen in us when we persevere through the suffering caused by trials and tribulations.

Now let me say a word about the book of Revelation.

The book of Revelation is not simply about the future; it is about the past, the present, and the future. Let me put it this way: There have been thousands of antichrists and Great Tribulations, there are presently thousands of antichrists and Great Tribulations, and there will be thousands of antichrists and Great Tribulations. The book of Revelation is about the Great Tribulation that Rome inflicted on the Church, but it is also about every tribulation and persecution that has been waged against the Church because it presents Christ Jesus as Cosmic Victor and us, his Church and Bride, as victorious in him. The book of Revelation was written to encourage all persecuted believers, in every place and in every time, to persevere under the weight of their persecution because, in Christ, we are eternally victorious over the forces of Satan and his antichrists.

You're not meant to be taken out of the arena; you're meant to win the fight, kill the beasts, and overcome your opponents because that is what Christ has already done, and what he will do fully when he returns. A rapture would undermine everything. A rapture would surrender the earth to Satan. God has no intention of giving any ground to hell.

I hope that what I've presented here both reassures and encourages you. Whether you're convinced or not doesn't matter much to me. This is my view. Ember Church takes no official stance on this issue. People of all eschatological persuasions are welcome! But whether you believe in the rapture or not, I want you to hear this: Do not fear the end. The end is glorious. The end is victory for all who are in Christ. The end is bliss. Make sure you get there. Don't try to escape your trials, but persevere through them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ember Monday

Last night at Ember we continued our series on Titus, called Further the Faith. I spoke out of Titus 1:10-16, and the message was called Black Hat. (I'll upload the message later today.) The basic idea of the sermon was that anyone who adds anything to the Gospel wears a black hat--is a bad guy. Paul charged Titus to "silence" the group of people who were disrupting the churches on Crete by preaching a false gospel. They were "Judaizers" who demanded that Gentiles convert fully into Judaism in order to be saved.

I asked some tough questions in the sermon like: "Can you be a Christian and believe in evolution? Can you be a Christian and not believe in hell? Can you be a Christian and be gay?" These are difficult questions because they challenge our understanding of the Gospel, and quite possibly reveal some of the things that we have added onto the Gospel, like certain doctrinal, religious, or behavioral tests.

Then I dropped a bomb on the church when I mentioned that I don't believe in the rapture. This can be hard to hear from your pastor, I know. I'll try to clarify and summarize my position on the rapture later, but for now, you can go here to see everything I've written on it. I apologize for any extra snark in those posts. I was a jerk before I became a pastor. ...Was...

The music team has been slowly but surely adding new voices and talents into the mix, and last night was the first time that Evan Staggs joined the team. Yay, Evan! It was also the first time that Garth was not on stage, so of course he was running the sound board. The response time was really powerful, for me anyway. Heather Noble did a fantastic job of leading us in a slow, but powerful, version of Jesus Paid It All. I know I say this a lot, but I really, really love the music at Ember.

I also love the ideas that people bring to the table. When the band was rehearsing, they mentioned that Charlie could play Taps in honor of Veteran's Day. I hadn't even thought about doing anything for Veteran's Day, but they convinced me it would not only be awesome, but appropriate. So Charlie went into the back hallway at the start of the service, we closed the sanctuary doors, and he played a moving rendition of Taps. I love my church. Sunday nights are my favorite time of the week. Come join us next Sunday at 5!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel | Part 3

I've been working my way through Scot McKnight's book, The King Jesus Gospel, here on the blog for the past couple of days. I want to recap what I've learned in the first four chapters.

  • We evangelicals have mistaken the Plan of Salvation for the Gospel.
  • We have traded in a gospel culture for a salvation culture.
  • Our evangelism focuses exclusively on bringing people to a point of decision.
  • As a result, we do a poor job of making genuine disciples of Jesus.
  • The biblical gospel is the Story of Jesus, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

What is most impressive about this book is how clearly and concisely Scot paint the American evangelical landscape. His putting his finger on some things that have been brooding beneath the surface for a long time. So how did we get here?

Chapter 5: How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel?

The early creeds were the Church's attempt to work out the Story of Jesus, the Gospel. They served to create a gospel culture that survived, though didn't always thrive, until the Reformation. "The singular contribution of the Reformation...was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility. ...The Reformation said, in effect, that the 'gospel' must lead to personal salvation." (71)

The Reformation did not create this salvation culture immediately, but it set into action processes by which the old gospel culture was discarded, and the new salvation culture was embraced. "The Story of...Jesus became the System of Salvation." (72) Now we have a Christian culture that is obsessed with salvation, which is merely one of the many benefits of the gospel. The fact that we can go to heaven when we die is good news, but it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, it comes to those who believe the gospel, and in that belief, order their lives by it.

My next post on the book will cover the final two chapters, with a particular emphasis on how we create a gospel culture today. I'm skipping the intervening chapters, not because they aren't any good, but because I feel as though I ought to leave something for you to discover when you read the book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel | Part 2

Yesterday I began writing about Scot McKnight's excellent new book, The King Jesus Gospel. I covered the prologue and first 3 chapters, and I've written his basic thesis this way: The Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, and by mistaking the former for the latter we have created a salvation culture that misses the deep truths of the gospel, emphasizes decision over discipleship, and, as a result, fails to make true disciples of Jesus. This insight is crucial for us to understand, and we evangelicals need to make the switch from a salvation culture to a gospel culture if we want to fulfill the Great Commission, which was to "make disciples", not "make converts". Because of the way we (mis)understand the gospel, and the methods we use to present it, we are doing an excellent job of making converts, but we are no better than the Catholic Church at making disciples.

Before I get into the content of the next chapter, I'd like to give some of my own reflections on his book thus far. I believe that we evangelicals have created a salvation culture because we undervalue (or even disdain) life on earth. The temporal pales in significance to the eternal, we say, as though the two were pitted against one another. But this life and the life to come are intimately bound up together within the life of God, which is both infinite and eternal. The life we live on earth is a small but significant part of eternity. The temporal is within the eternal. Salvation is not merely for then; salvation is for now.

We are also simultaneously terrified of and fascinated by hell. Though the most common biblical command is, "Fear not", we use fear as a motivator to get people saved. So much of our evangelistic strategies are built on the motivation to escape hell, and we certainly prey on people's fears of eternal damnation. There may be a time when that is appropriate, but the fear of hell is not what drives the Gospel.

Perhaps both of these lines of thinking could be fleshed out more, but this post is supposed to be about Scot McKnight's book. So on to chapter 4 and a definition of the Gospel.

Chapter 4: The Apostolic Gospel of Paul

If the Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, then what is? How do we define it? The natural place to begin would be in the Bible. But where do we look? The answer might surprise you. We don't start in Matthew, or Mark, or Luke or John. We start with Paul, and we go to 1 Corinthians 15.

1 Corinthians was probably written before any of the Gospels were written--sometime around 53 AD or so. What we find at the beginning of chapter 15 is "the oral tradition about the gospel that every New Testament apostle received and then passed on. ...This passage is the apostolic gospel tradition." (46) Scot breaks the relevant portions of chapter 15 into three parts: v. 1-2; v. 3-5; v. 20-28. The fundamental gospel, though, is found in the second part:
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
This is the Gospel. "If we begin here, we take the first step in creating a gospel culture." (48) This was the Gospel that drove the early church, but we have forgotten it.
The authentic apostolic gospel, the gospel Paul received and passed on...concerns these events in the life of Jesus:
     that Christ died,
     that Christ was buried,
     that Christ was raised,
     and that Christ appeared.

The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ. Instead of "four spiritual laws," which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four "events"...in the life of Jesus Christ. (49)
The Gospel is not, first and foremost, about getting to heaven (or escaping hell). It's not driven by fear. In fact, it's not even a proposition that can be driven by anything. It's the Story of Jesus--his death (for our sins), his burial, his resurrection, and his appearances. The Gospel is not the Plan of Salvation. "Salvation--the robust salvation of God--is the intended result of the gospel story about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament." (51)

So what? What's the big deal? Isn't it more important that people go to heaven when they die than that we understand what the Gospel is or isn't? No, it's not. Jesus didn't die so you could go to heaven when you die. He died for your sins--the ones that plague you in the here and now and turn your world, at times, into a living hell for yourself and those around you. Here's the warning:
When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off [from] the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation. (62)
We are not saved by a plan. We are not saved within a system. We are saved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

How have we gotten where we are? How have we replaced the gospel culture with our salvation culture? More on that tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel | Part 1

I've worked my way through the first three chapters of Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel, and I am both challenged and impressed. This is the "wrecking ball" that Rob Bell thought he was writing in Love Wins. Scot is deconstructing the nature of the gospel within evangelicalism, and calling us to a more faithful, more biblical reading of the gospel. Because the chapters of the book are so short, and so dense, I'd like to interact with this book on a chapter-by-chapter basis, rather than write a general review after I've read it.

Prologue: 1971

Scot begins with the story of his first encounter with personal evangelism--it's a story that many young evangelicals can resonate with. The extreme discomfort. The awkwardness. The insecure silence. Evangelism is a horrible and terrifying experience for so many because we can't help but feel as though we're on a high-pressure sales call, and we're the ones making the pitch! Evangelism, in evangelicalism, is about bringing people to the point of decision. This, Scot argues, represents a break from historical Christianity. "Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples." (18)

There are dire consequences for our decision-oriented evangelism. "Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and...aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at discipleship slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles." (18) We are "distorting spiritual formation" through our decision-aimed evangelism because we are diminishing the importance of discipleship. Scot has strong words for us: "There is a minimal difference in correlation between evangelical children and teenagers who make a decision for Christ and who later become genuine disciples, and Roman Catholics who are baptized as infants and who as adults become faithful and devout Catholic disciples." (20) In other words, we're no better than the Catholic Church at making true and faithful disciples, and much of the blame for our failure can be laid at the feet of our perception of the Gospel and our aims in evangelism.

Chapter 1: The Big Question

The big question facing evangelicalism is this: What is the gospel? Scot claims that we are in a fog regarding the gospel, and I think he's right. For most evangelicals, the gospel is vague. We can't define it concretely, much less biblically. To demonstrate this, Scot offers three exhibits.

Exhibit A is from an emailer who asked the question, "What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?" Exhibit B is John Piper's assumption that justification is the gospel. Exhibit C is a pastor who shared Piper's view and flatly asserted that Jesus did not preach the gospel because "no one could understand the gospel until after the cross and the resurrection and Pentecost." (26) Scot concludes "the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about 'personal salvation,' and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making 'decisions.'" (26)

I think he's absolutely right about this, and I think the view that justification is the gospel is very prevalent due, in large part, to the popularity of the neo-reformed preaching of John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, David Platt, and others. What is more, pastors like Steven Furtick have taken the gospel as "personal salvation mediated through a decision" to its logical extreme, with more than 10,000 "salvations" in the short life of his church. And now we get to the key distinction Scot is making in his book.

Chapter 2: Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture?

Have you ever considered that there might be a difference between the two?
Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really "evangelical" in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here's why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. ...When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) "salvation." We are wired this way. But these two words don't mean the same thing. (29)
We have replaced the gospel with personal salvation. Maybe it's because we're so pragmatic, but all that seems to matter to us evangelicals is where one spends eternity. Salvation is our number one priority, and the only way to be certain of one's salvation is if one has made a personal decision to accept Jesus. "When did you get saved?"

But a salvation culture is not a gospel culture. Think about it. Do you need to be a disciple in order to be saved? How do you answer that question? How might Jesus answer it? The fundamental problem of the salvation culture is that it doesn't require discipleship, and so discipleship doesn't happen. And this is why so many people live nominally Christian existences, blindly ignorant of the Scriptures and the primary tenets of their faith, and ultimately trusting, not in Jesus, but in the decision they made at Christian Summer Camp between 6th and 7th grade--a decision from which they have failed to progress or build upon in the decades following. But "the gospel of Jesus...which created a gospel culture and not simply a salvation culture, was a gospel that carried within it the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who wanted to be 'in' to be The Discipled." (33)

Chapter 3: From Story to Salvation

Before he can define the term gospel, Scot lays out four important categories for understanding the gospel: 1) The Story of Israel / the Bible; 2) The Story of Jesus; 3) Plan of Salvation; 4) Method of Persuasion. To fully understand the gospel, he argues, we must begin with the Story of Israel, which finds it's natural fulfillment in the Story of Jesus, from which we derive the Plan of Salvation. Then, understanding our own context well enough, we create Methods of Persuasion. This is the proper orientation of a gospel culture.

However, in our salvation culture, we have flipped the order. The first question we ask is: "How can we get people saved?"
Our Method of Persuasion is shaped by a salvation culture and is designed from first to last to get people to make a decision so they can come safely inside the boundary lines of The Decided. (43)
So we begin with the Method of Persuasion (4 Spiritual Laws, Alpha, Evangelism Explosion), incorporate the Plan of Salvation, and take bits from the Story of Jesus--mostly about his atoning death. The Story of Israel gets lopped off completely. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most evangelicals don't think you need the Old Testament to share the gospel. "One reason why so many Christians today don't know the Old Testament is because their 'gospel' doesn't even need it!" (44)

Now for the most important point of the book thus far. The Plan of Salvation is, essentially, this: God created humans to be perfect, but we rebelled against him and brought sin and death into the world. We are separated from him, forever. But because he loves us so much, he sent his Son to die on a cross for our sins, as the ultimate atoning sacrifice. Now we can be saved if we believe in Jesus! This is all true, wonderful, and great in every way. But it is not the gospel.

Here's the point: The Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, and by mistaking the former for the latter we have created a salvation culture that misses the deep truths of the gospel, emphasizes decision over discipleship, and, as a result, fails to make true disciples of Jesus. Upon closer examination, we see that the situation is dire. We must get back to the biblical gospel. But what is that? And where do we find it?

More to come...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ember Monday

Last night at Ember we started our new series on the book of Titus, called Further the Faith, with a message called The 'A' Word. The passage we dealt with was Titus 1:1-9, where Paul outlines the requirements for church leaders. There are 17 of them, and almost of them are qualifications of character, not skill, talent, or competency. We also introduced the Pastoral Care Team to the church, which is comprised of the three men who lead and shepherd Ember Church.

We had a lot of folks join us for worship for the first time. One couple found out about Ember because they saw someone wearing a t-shirt, checked us out on the web, came to the Trunk or Treat last week, then came back to church this week. So for all of you who have an Ember t-shirt, wear it with pride! You never know what God might do. Another couple came because a friend of theirs saw our sign (which only stays up for about 5 hours on Sunday) and told them about us. As someone who doesn't really believe in church marketing, I am blown away! So if you don't have an Ember t-shirt yet, make sure you talk to me and I'll get you one, for free!

We're getting ready to launch small groups soon. The start date hasn't been determined--the holidays certainly complicate matters. But I'm personally excited to see Ember becoming a more complete church. We're slowly, but surely, working our way into doing this, and I love how it's coming together organically.

On a personal note, I'm continuing to learn and grow at a fast pace. God is deconstructing and reconstructing what I know about him. It's a painful process, at times, but worth it. He is faithful, and he comes through for me in ways that I would never expect. I am firmly planted in his story, and I'm learning and growing into the role he has given me. It's such a privilege and honor to be a pastor. Ember is a good church, and there's no where else I would rather be than living in the heart of God's story with these people, in this city.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Review: King's Cross

Tim Keller's book, King's Cross, is the compilation of his sermon series through the Gospel of Mark. The book is divided into two parts, corresponding with the major shift in Mark 9: Part 1 is "The King: The Identity of Jesus", and Part 2 is "The Cross: The Purpose of Jesus". In this work, Keller has truly mastered the art of turning a sermon series into a single book. (I should say that he has given me hope that, one day, I too could write a book from a sermon series. But that's a journey for another day.)

King's Cross "is an extended meditation on the historical Christian premise that Jesus's life, death, and resurrection form the central event of cosmic and human history as well as the central organizing principle of our own lives." (x) His aim, which I believe he accomplishes, is to show that the life of Jesus (and his death and resurrection) explains our lives. This theme appears again and again as, in each chapter, Keller brings the reader around to the love of God we find only in Jesus. If you've read any of his other recent books, you know that this is vintage Keller.

The book is truly an exegetical sermon on the Gospel of Mark. Keller never deviates from the text, but walks slowly through Mark's Gospel with an insightful and engaging style. This is not an academic book, but as we've come to expect from Keller's books, you will be intellectually challenged and emotionally broken. He has a way of speaking to both the heart and mind that is extraordinary, and is one of the marks of a truly great preacher. In fact, young and aspiring preachers would do well to study Keller's style and work, learning from him all that they can. His books have taught me to, above all, remain Christ-centered in my preaching, no matter the text. If all of Scripture points to Jesus, then so must all of our preaching.

King's Cross has also inspired me to preach through the Gospel of Mark from Christmas to Easter, even though there is no birth narrative in his Gospel. Shoot, I may just stand up and read a chapter a week! (Just kidding, that would be plagiarism.)

If you want to understand Mark's Gospel or if you want to get to know Jesus much, much better, you should read King's Cross. I would also highly recommend this book to those who don't know Jesus, but are curious about him. While it's not the shortest book in the world, Keller's style is very accessible to people from all walks of life.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Our Refuge & Strength

If you started the M'Cheyne reading program on January 1, and then had a baby which set you back about two weeks, today you would have had a scheduled reading that included Psalm 46.
God is our refuge and strength,
     an ever present help in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
     and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
     and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
     the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
     God will help her at break her day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
     he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

YHWH Almighty is with us;
     the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what YHWH has done,
     the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
     to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
     he burns the shields with fire.
He says, "Be still, and know that I am God;
     I will be exalted among the nations,
     I will be exalted in the earth."

YHWH Almighty is with us;
     the God of Jacob is our fortress.
God is bigger than your problems. God is stronger than your enemy. God is mightier than the nations. God is wiser than the schemers. With him, you have nothing to fear. With him, you need never be afraid because, in him, your fate is secure. Though your world waste away, your God will never fade, tire, or leave. YHWH Almighty is with you. Run to him, for he is the only sure refuge! Hide in him, for he is the only true strength!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

God's Will For You

My devotional reading brought me to 1 Thessalonians 5 today. Here is what struck me:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.
Is this even possible? Aren't there times when rejoicing or giving thanks would be inappropriate, like in the wake of a natural disaster? Is it reasonable to command people to be in constant prayer? What would that even look like?

I don't know if any of these are possible, but I think there's a deeper principle at work here, and it's this: Your character can exceed your circumstances. Don't let the circumstances of your life bring you down to the pit, or shut your mouth from prayer, or make you embittered and ungrateful. No matter what comes your way, the way you respond is entirely up to you. Rejoicing, prayer, and thankfulness are always a conscious choice. You don't just fall into those responses by accident; you do them on purpose.

It is God's will for you that your character be determined by the power of Christ in you rather than on your instinctive reactions to the various circumstances of your life. You might say that your natural response to your circumstances is what is true, and to force yourself to respond another way is hypocritical. Not so. If you follow Jesus, what is truest about you is Christ in you. Jesus Christ is what is most true of you. Not your sin. Not your past. Not your temper. Not your attitude. Not your instinctive reactions to your circumstances. Through faith in Christ, you are no longer a "natural" person, but a "becoming-supernatural" person by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The old is gone, crucified with Jesus, and the new is here, resurrected with Jesus. You are new, through faith in Christ.

You have power, in the Spirit, to rise above your "natural" reactions and instincts. I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not saying you can change overnight. But you can learn to walk in the Spirit--and to rejoice always, to pray continually, and to give thanks no matter what--the same way you learned to walk as a toddler. By falling down a lot, and getting back up.

I'm a pastor, and I'm still learning to walk. It's hard. Sometimes I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, which really just means I'm choosing to be a frustrated, mean-spirited, downcast jerk like I am today. I don't always remember these things, but that doesn't make them any less true. My character can exceed my circumstances, but only as I lean into the power of Christ within me through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The same goes for you. And be encouraged, because you'll learn to walk someday.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New Sermon Series: Titus

This week at Ember we're launching a new sermons series on the book of Titus called Further the Faith. Titus is a very short letter, written by Paul to his friend Richard Titus, who was ministering on the island of Crete. As far as books in the Bible go, this one is about as different from the book of Jeremiah as it gets. While I thoroughly enjoyed our long series through the long and dark book of Jeremiah, I'm looking forward to the new challenge of preaching the short letter to Titus.

Titus had a difficult job in front of him. Paul left Crete after being there for only a short time, so there was much work to be done. His charge to Titus is found in 1:5, "The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town as I directed you." For whatever reason, Paul was not able to see the work on Crete through to the end. In fact, it seems as though the work was just getting started. The Gospel had been preached throughout the island, and some had converted to Christ, but there were not yet leaders in every town. Titus's task is to further the faith by setting things in order in all the churches, and by raising up leaders in each town.

Our task, at Ember, is similar to Titus's task on Crete, albeit on a much smaller scale. We have intentionally been very simple about the way in which we have begun the church. We don't have any extra events (besides the Trunk or Treat). We don't have small groups. We just have our weekly worship service. But, as you know, that is not all that a church is, nor is it enough to sustain the lives of individuals or a community. So we have to "put in order what was left unfinished", and one of the things we're going to do is small groups. Ember was born out of a small group, after all, so it's kind of in our blood. We'll be talking about this more in the coming weeks, with groups starting up soon.

So we approach the book of Titus, expecting to see God move in our midst, furthering our faith to others and deepening it within ourselves. God has something for you here; I am confident of that. Come further your faith at Ember Church.