What difference does the Resurrection make?

sunriseNote to reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 1, 2018 at University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene University, Ongata-Rongai, Kenya.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.

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Scripture reading: Acts 2:22-36 (CEB)

–prayer–

I. INTRODUCTION

Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed]. Several times today, we’ve repeated those words. But what would we say to a child who asks: “What difference does the resurrection make?” By the end of this messsage, we’ll know the answer to that question.

II. LIGHT ALWAYS FOLLOWS DARKNESS

Traditions have grown up around Easter that have little to do with the meaning of the day. The word “Easter” itself is of obscure origin. It may have come from an old English word referring to the goddess of Spring.

As a child, Easter meant wearing new clothes, a special outfit bought just for the day. Easter was also the day for the Easter Bunny who would deliver chocolates in a basket that we had to find hidden somewhere in the house. Or maybe there was an Easter egg hunt, children dashing about, looking for colored eggs.

These activities are fun for children but have little to do with the meaning of this day. And so instead of “Easter” we often now simply say “Resurrection Sunday.” For Christians, Resurrection Sunday is the surprise ending in a story that could have turned out much different, much darker. The joy and celebration of our living Christ is only meaningful when you linger at the foot of the Cross and behold the shame of a naked, lifeless Jesus. Only then does our Lord – clothed in glory and majesty, powerful and alive – stand magnificent in contrast. The bright light of Resurrection Morning is to us so precious because we have known the utter darkness of Holy Saturday.

And so here is the first answer to the question, “What difference does the Resurrection make?” It gives us hope that no matter how dark our lives may seem, light always follows darkness. The words of the song by Bill and Gloria Gaither ring true:

Hold on, my child!

Joy comes in the morning.

Weeping only lasts for the night.

Hold on, my child!

Joy comes in the morning.

The darkest hour means dawn

Is just in sight.

Christ is risen! [He is risen, indeed!]

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He cares for me: Stories of God’s providence

The old saying rings true: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than when discussing God’s providence. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “providence” as the “foresight and care which God manifests for his creatures.” This post will convince no skeptics, but for people of faith, you may find yourself nodding your head in agreement.

512px-WTC_New_York_1992_Sander_Lamme

On September 11, 2001, 2,763 individuals of various nationalities died when the Twin Towers collapsed following being struck by two commercial airliners commandeered by terrorists. Many have told stories of how they should have been there or on one of the commandeered planes, but for one reason or another, their plans changed that day. These included Patti Austin, who would have been on United Airlines 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, fought over by heroic passengers who stormed the cockpit. Instead, Austin had changed her flight to a day earlier when she learned of her mother’s stroke. Champion Australian swimmer, Ian Thorpe, was on his way to the observation deck of the World Trade Center when he realized he’d forgotten his camera. He took a cab back to his hotel to retrieve it, then turned on the TV to see the horrific news of the first jetturned on the TV to see the horrific news of the first jet slamming into the North Tower.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the intricacies of the Open Theism debate, of whether and in what sense God knows the future. (For those who are interested, a good place to start is Gregory Boyd’s God of the Possible). In most instances of God’s providence, it’s enough to believe that God has a comprehensive knowledge of the present, and an ability to see the trajectory of events. Even this knowledge is more than sufficient for our loving God to act in favor of human beings.

If we were to know every instance in which God acted to avert tragedy in our lives, we would fall immediately to our knees in gratitude. When it comes to divine providence,  God’s intervention resembles the iceberg, where only a fraction is visible and the rest is hidden below the waterline. But that tip of the iceberg – the providences that we know about – is impressive enough.

Often when people ask how they can pray for our missionary work, we’ve responded by asking for protection during travel. Not surprisingly, both of my stories of God’s providence have to do with traveling in a vehicle.

Our first home assignment was in early 1997. We’d left Kansas City and were making good progress on a three day trip to Seattle. Pulling into Nampa, Idaho – where we planned to spend the night – I noticed that the car’s left rear tire was mostly deflated, so I pumped it up again and fueled the car for the next day. Coming out of the hotel the next morning, I was frustrated to see that the tire was deflated again. The bright side was that the crew at the Chevron station was efficient. They found a nail in the tire, patched it up, and in 45 minutes we were back on the road.

A few hours later, driving the south-north highway through eastern Oregon, conditions grew treacherous from a snowy winter whiteout. Authorities closed the highway, and we took shelter from the storm in a small diner. When the waitress came to take our order, we asked what was going on. “They closed the highway because of a pile-up,” she confided. Around 21 cars and trucks were involved, victims of the poor visibility and slippery roads. Upon further questioning, we discovered that the accident had occurred less than an hour ago. Suddenly, my nail in the left rear tire didn’t look like a curse; instead, it looked like a Godsend.

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Some years later, in 2002, we were on vacation in northern Togo. It’s a hilly part of the country, with steep grades in the road and treacherous drop-offs. While there are guardrails, they wouldn’t stand up to the rapid descent of an out-of-control truck or car. As we navigated yet another sharp turn coming down a mountain, I commented to my wife and sons:

This is one place you really wouldn’t want to lose your brakes.

A few minutes later, now on a straight-away, I tapped my brakes and was suprised when the pedal went to the floor! Gearing down, I managed to roll to a stop, then got out to see what was happening. The Toyota Forerunner’s brake line was ruptured, and the last of the brake fluid was bleeding out on the ground. It turns out (unbeknownst to us) that we had just completed the last of the sharp downhill curves. If my brakes had gone out 5 minutes earlier, who knows what sadder outcome might have been?

Jesus taught about God’s care for his creation. God clothes the grass of the field (Matthew 6:30) and knows when a sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), so how much more does God care for us? The Lord even speaks of angels who watch over children (Matthew 18:10) and an angel of the Lord freed Peter from the jail where he awaited likely execution (Acts 12:6-19). These are just a few examples from Scripture of God’s loving care for his own, of his provision and protection.

One song that speaks eloquently of God’s care is Jimmy Owens’ “He Cares for Me.” The chorus reminds us:

His power is great and will ever endure.

His wisdom is peacable, gentle and pure.

But greater than all these glories I see

Is the glorious promise, that He cares for me!

Watch Daniel Choo sing a guitar cover of this song by clicking here.

What stories would you like to share of God’s care for you? Add them in the comment section.


 

Image credits

World Trade Center: By Sander Lamme (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tire: By Md.Mijanur rahman Mijan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

God’s plan for marriage and sexuality

rings.jpgGenesis 1:27, 2:24

I. INTRODUCTION

The amazing thing about the Bible is that it addresses nearly every area of human life. Money? It’s in there. Death? There’s plenty about death in Scripture. Sickness? The Bible talks about it. Joy? Sadness? Friendship? Salvation? God talks about those, too. Today, let’s talk about a biblical topic that preachers often avoid. Today, let’s talk about marriage and sexuality.

II. MARRIAGE AND SEX: THE ORDER MATTERS

The first thing you’ll notice is the order. I could have said “sex and marriage” and that’s often how people address it. Sex first – our world says – and then maybe we’ll get around to marriage. But God’s plan is the other way around. Marriage is to precede sex.

In the Bible, the Song of Solomon is a celebration of sexual love. But notice it’s sex within a covenant, within the bond of marriage. It’s a bride and a groom longing for each other. Some want to overlook the obvious and make that book a parable of Christ’s love for the church, but I think that is reading the Bible backwards, imposing the New Testament upon the Old. Instead, the Song of Solomon should be seen for what it is, a long poem celebrating the God-given physical aspect of married love. So today, the Christian ethic draws on the Jewish ethic, and affirms that God made sex very good, so good that it is worth protecting as something sacred, and that’s exactly what the covenant of marriage does.

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Loving the world, forsaking the world

worldBurt Bacharach crooned: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

Jesus would have agreed. At the last supper before his arrest and crucifixion, he taught his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, NIV).

The Lord was only asking them to do what his Father had already done. It was because God “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus (John 3:16). And Jesus in turn showed his love for the world, laying down his life for the world (John 1:29). It follows that what the Father and Son have done, we are called to do, loving the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet there’s an interesting tension in the New Testament books attributed to John. While there is a positive love of the world that fuels our service to God and others, there’s a negative kind of “loving the world,” one that chokes off our zeal for God and withers our concern for others. John warns:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them (1 John 2:15, NIV).

So which is it: Should we love the world or not? The answer is: BOTH.

Make no mistake: Our call is to love the world – all that God has made – wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in order that the world may be reconciled to God. We long for the day when heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21:1-5). God has a loving concern for creation, the cosmos. What God has created, God longs to salvage and to renew. To this task God calls us, to partner with heaven to redeem the earth, including humans who have rebelled against God. If we do not love what God loves, how can we cooperate for its restoration?

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The Jesus question

768px-Circle-question-blue.svgThere are many intriguing questions in Christian theology, but one matters most. It’s the question Jesus asked his disciples:

Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15, NIV).

Simon Peter replied that Jesus is the “Messiah,” the “Son of the living God” (v. 15, NLT). This simple fisherman saw in Jesus of Nazareth the One anointed by God, the Christ. This confession of faith – Jesus as the Son of God – is the rock upon which Christ builds his church (v. 18).

It’s the Jesus question.

In math class, our teacher taught us to simplify fractions. Instead of 4/8 – she patiently explained – find the largest whole number that divides into both the numerator and the denominator. The anwer is 4, and when divided by that number, 4/8 becomes 1/2. It’s easier to work with simplified fractions.

What is true for fractions is true for theology. The Jesus question keeps us from getting lost in a maze of valid but ultimately less important questions; it simplifies things.

The Jesus question is helpful both corporately and individually:

Corporately — It’s a church, but is it a Christian church? Look past more complicated issues and determine what they think about Jesus. If a given church teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, if they believe that he is the Savior of the world and is himself God, that he died for our sins and rose again to reconcile us to God, then they clear the minimum bar. But if Jesus is in some way demoted or held to be a great teacher or prophet but not himself God, that church may be many things, but it is not Christian.

Individually — The Jesus question confronts each of us. Jesus wasn’t content to just know what the crowds were saying about him. He turned to his disciples and to us:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 15, NIV)

We must decide who exactly this Jesus is, not only for others, but for us. Peter concluded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then he moved beyond words to action. He continued to follow Christ. For many of us, to respond positively won’t be a continuation of a journey but the beginning of a new one. To us and to all, Jesus says: “Follow me.”

Christian theology asks many questions. Theologians offer a wide variety of answers, but on the question of Jesus, voices unite. Only he is God’s eternal Son, God’s anointed, our hope for this life and the life to come. How have you answered the Jesus question?


 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Unusual Things About the Incarnation

Gospel_of_Luke_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Note: I preached this short message in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya) on December 13, 2017. Thanks to Chalé Atikonda, a BTh student at ANU, who heard the sermon and later suggested a further point, i.e. “an unusual task,” which I’ve added to this revised version.


Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38

All Scripture citations are from the Common English Bible.

INTRODUCTION

“How should a King come?”

Jimmy and Carol Owens penned these words to the popular Christmas song:

How should a King come?

Even a child knows the answer of course;

In a coach of gold with a pure white horse.

In the beautiful city in the prime of the day,

And the trumpets should cry

And the crowds make way.

And the flags fly high in the morning sun,

And the people all cheer for the sovereign one.

And everyone knows that’s the way that it’s done,

That’s the way that a king should come.

And yet the Gospel accounts of Christ’s coming to earth make it clear: God’s ways are not our ways. Today, let’s look at 7 unusual things about the Incarnation, based on Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to a son.

 

FIRST, GOD SENT AN UNUSUAL MESSENGER.

The appearance of angels was hardly an everyday occurrence. This is implied when Gabriel says to Mary: “Fear not.” People aren’t afraid of everyday events, but when they’re rare, they might give you a scare. Here was God’s messenger coming to deliver stupendous news. The name “Gabriel” means “God is my strength.” Here was an unusual messenger, a mighty being sent by God, and Mary took notice.

SECOND, THE ANNOUNCEMENT CAME IN AN UNUSUAL PLACE.

If Nazareth were a Kenyan town, it might make the top 100 list, but somewhere at the bottom, nestled between Nambale and Tabaka. Then again, Nazareth might not make any list, for at the time, people said: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46). Wouldn’t it make more sense for a King to come to Jerusalem, the Nairobi of its day, the main commercial and economic hub? But God’s ways are not our ways.

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Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons