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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Believe the Unbelievable: Matthew 1:18-25

Tonight was our second week in Matthew's gospel at Raiford Road Church. We took a look at the miraculous conception of Jesus in Matthew 1:18-25. Here are some highlights from the study.

An Unbelievable Truth (vs. 18-19)
The story begins with Joseph being confronted with an unbelievable truth. He finds out that Mary, to whom he is engaged, is pregnant and he knows that the baby isn't his. But the most unbelievable part of the story is that Mary claims that the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Literally, she is carrying the Son of God.

Perhaps it's because many of us have grown up in church, but most of us pass over how impossibly hard it would have been for Joseph to believe this story. And verse 19 tells us that he couldn't believe it. Of course, Joseph wanted to be nice about it, but he decided to separate from Mary, because in the end, he just couldn't trust her story.

A Series of Miraculous Events (vs. 20-23)
But things change for Joseph through a series of five miraculous or supernatural encounters.
  1. A supernatural messenger
  2. approaches him in a supernatural dream
  3. to reveal a supernatural conception
  4. that will result in a supernatural savior
  5. who will accomplish God's supernatural plan
Each of these supernatural encounters are specially designed by God to get Joseph to believe the unbelievable. They are a series of proofs to show Joseph that he can trust God.

Consider the progression. If God can miraculously reveal himself by an angel in a supernatural dream, then perhaps he can miraculously cause Mary to conceive. And if God can miraculously place his son in the womb of a woman, then perhaps, miraculously, that son can be the savior of the world. And if God can miraculously provide a savior, then perhaps he can miraculously accomplish all that he has promised.

The point is, each miracle is like a shining beacon that reminds us that God can do the impossible. Each miracle is God's message to us that we should believe the unbelievable.

The Appropriate Response is to Trust and Obey
After Joseph encounters God through this progression of miracles, he has a choice. Will he trust God or not? Matthew tells us that he does trust God, he doesn't send Mary away, and he names his Son Jesus!

As Matthew continues his gospel, he makes it clear that Jesus has come for people who realize that they need a miracle in their lives. The Scribes and Pharisees will reject Jesus because they believe they have it all together, it's only the people who realize they need a miracle in their lives who truly experience his saving power. In Matthew 9:12, Jesus says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick," Our story of the miraculous conception of Jesus reminds us that even if we are so sick we can hardly believe there is hope, Jesus can do the impossible.

Matthew 1:18-25 presents the supernatural beginnings of Jesus Christ to show us that we can have the confidence to believe the unbelievable concerning our salvation!

You can also find the sermon as a podcast on iTunes.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hope from the Genealogy of the Christ: Matthew 1:1-17

We have started our series on Matthew at Raiford Road Church on Sunday nights. Last night we started with the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17.

Here are some highlights from our study.

The Genealogy as a Recap Sequence
A lot of TV shows will begin with something called a recap sequence. The recap sequence is the part of the show that starts with "previously on ..." and then shows clips from the earlier episodes. These little clips are there to spark our memory. Their main purpose was to reignite our excitement, and they get us excited by making us think that some question might finally be answered or some mystery might finally be solved. And all of our excitement was based on a simple fact; that this new episode isn’t the beginning of the story.

The genealogy is Matthew’s version of a recap sequence. Matthew wrote it to remind us that this isn’t the beginning of the story. It’s Matthew’s way of saying, “this might be the beginning of my episode, but it is not the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ.” The full story of Jesus Christ starts in the Old Testament, and our ability to get excited about Jesus in the New Testament is at least somewhat related to our ability to recognize that his story begins in Old Testament.

The Main Idea of the Genealogy
I think we will find the keys to understanding this passage  sitting like bookends at both sides of the genealogy. Look at verses 1 and 17. Matthew 1:1 says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” And then Matthew 1:17 says, “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” In verse 1, the very first thing Matthew says about Jesus is that he is the Christ, and in 17, Matthew finishes his summary saying that this whole genealogy led to the Christ. So at either side of the genealogy you have this term, “Christ,” which stands like bookends that hold the rest of the section together. Everything in between has something to do with proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Matthew wants to show us that Jesus is the Christ, and he is going to prove it, or at least start to prove it, by showing that Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David. So let’s try to summarize the main idea of this text in a single sentence: “The primary purpose of Matthew’s genealogy is to whet our appetite, or to awaken a sense of excitement in us by showing us that Jesus is the Christ because he is the son of Abraham and the son of David.” Or, we can say, Matthew's genealogy was written to spark a hope in us that Jesus is the Messiah because he is the son of Abraham and the son of David.

If you are interested in reviewing my notes for the sermon, you can access the manuscript here.

Or you can listen to the sermon below.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Marketing Failures in the Case for Religious Liberty

This week Arizona legislators tried to update their religious liberty bill with amendment SB-1062. The media quickly responded by labeling it the "anti-gay bill" or the "gay-hate bill" (e.g. CNN, BBC, USA Today, LA Times, MSNBC, NBC, Yahoo). Perhaps in response to this rhetoric, many within the Republican party sought to distance themselves from the bill, and yesterday, Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill.

Republican's desire to distance themselves from "gay-hate" is certainly understandable. No one, regardless of political party, should be comfortable with hateful or spiteful behavior. Still, I can't help but think this bill died from poor marketing, not because it promoted hate.

I think these three points, if discussed more fully, may have helped prevent the marketing catastrophe that killed SB-1062.

1. The bill is not directed towards homosexual people. We should at least admit that it is strange for the bill to be almost universally referred to by the media as the "anti-gay bill" when it never even mentions homosexual people or practices. When we see a bill referred to as something that it doesn't even address, we should be on the lookout for spin.

Of course, the bill is a response, at least in part, to actual instances where small business owners refused to participate in homosexual marriages because of religious objections. But the law would just as easily apply to the Muslim barber who refused to cut a woman's hair because of religious objections. I won't deny that people who hate homosexuals, and even people who hate women, may find it easier to discriminate against the people they hate because of this bill. However, this is not the same thing as promoting, or even condoning, that hatred.

The point is that the bill was written to address the rights of religious people. Perhaps one could argue that the bill gives religious people too much power. But to suggest that the bill was written to promote hate or encourage discrimination is unfounded.

2. Homosexual people are not the only victims. Homosexual people, and women for that matter, are often victims of hateful behavior. They have been mistreated, bullied, raped, and even murdered. Hateful people have sought out ways to target them and to ruin their lives. This behavior is wrong and we should not minimize that fact. But we should also recognize that hateful people have also targeted some religious people in order to ruin their lives.

Consider the vendors who have refused service because of their religious beliefs. Each of these vendors are small business owners. Though I don't have access to actual figures, I assume that most bakers, florists, and barbers are living on relatively modest incomes. These people weren't activists seeking to leverage power against those they hate. Nevertheless, they are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and, in some cases, jail time. With penalties like these, it seems clear that these vendors will lose their businesses because of their choice. Whether or not these vendors are right to refuse service, we should recognize that they are paying a very high price for their religious convictions.

3. This is not a win-win situation. No matter how this is resolved, someone loses. The question isn't if someone will be the victim of discrimination, the question is who is allowed to discriminate?

In each instance of discrimination, both parties believe they are victims of discrimination, and both parties are right. It's absolutely true that the homosexual couple is discriminated against when the vendor won't participate in their wedding. It's also true that the government is discriminating against the vendors when they are told that they cannot practice their religion in this regard. Similarly, it's true that women are being discriminated against when the Muslim barber is unwilling to touch her hair. But it's also true that he is being discriminated against by the government when it tells him that the cannot practice his religion in this regard. Both parties are victims of discrimination, I can't see a way out of this problem.

The question that this bill addresses is who can discriminate? Which form of discrimination is more troublesome? Are you content to live in a country where the government allows private parties to discriminate in an attempt to prevent itself from discrimination? The other option is a government that discriminates in order to prevent private parties from discrimination. Either way, discrimination will happen. The question is, whose discrimination are we more willing to endure?

I can't help but think that if people thought that this bill was not an attack against homosexuals, but simply an attempt to protect everyday people and an honest attempt for the lesser of two evils, it may have been more successful. What do you think?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Problem of Evil and the Goodness of God: Finding Help in Psalm 73

Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalm 73:1) 

The claim that God is good may be the most important thing we can say about God. Nearly every other characteristic of God flows out of this one. Whether we are talking about the holiness and justice of God or the love and compassion of God, in a sense, we are just trying to explain what it means to say that God is good.

But grasping the goodness of God isn't simply about being able to describe God, it's about being able to know Him. By itself, the power and majesty of God aren't altogether encouraging to us. We can't help but feel like Susan, who grew nervous about meeting the great Lion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is the promise of Mr. Beaver, that God is good, that gives us the confidence to approach the world's creator.
Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion." "'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver… 'Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.'” 
Paul recognized that confidence in the goodness of God was a sort of prerequisite to knowing God. In Hebrews 11:6 he explains, "for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." That is, if we want to know God, we must believe that he exists, obviously, but we must also believe that he is good. And how do we know that God is good? Because he rewards those who seek him.

Doubting God's Goodness 
Oddly enough, it has become en vogue to question God's goodness. In Christopher Hitchen's book, God is Not Great, he describes himself as an anti-theist, as opposed to a mere atheist. He laments that most atheists are simply ambivalent about the existence of God. He, on the other hand, is convinced that if God did exist, he must be evil. For Hitchens, who died in 2011, the evidence of evil led to an inescapable conclusion: "God is not great."

For many, like Hitchens, questioning the goodness of God is the first step along a path that leads to a denial of the existence of God. And as Psalm 73 begins, this appears to be the path that Asaph, the Psalmist, is walking. But as we walk through Psalm 73 together, we will see that he meets God, and in this meeting he remembers one very important truth; God is good.

Asaph's Problem 
In Psalm 73:2-3 we get a picture of Asaph's problem. He knew the message of verse one. He knew that he was supposed to believe that God was good, and that God rewards those who seek him. But, when Asaph looked at the wicked, the evidence just didn't seem to add up.

Asaph casts the problem a little differently than Hitchens and many of the modern skeptics. The new skeptics question why suffering exists at all. Asaph, on the other hand, is questioning why it isn't dealt out equitably. Why, for instance, would the wicked people not suffer as much, or even more, than righteous people? Asaph wasn't troubled with the fact evil exists, he was upset because God didn't keep it away from him.

In Psalm 73:4-12 Asaph seems to teeter between scorn and admiration for the wicked people. They are violent, arrogent, and proud, all the things Asaph detests. But at the same time, they are rich, fat (well fed), and generally not afflicted, all the things that Asaph wants. So, what does this evidence suggest? Could it be that Asaph was wrong? Maybe God doesn't really reward those who seek him. Maybe God isn't good after all?

The evidence of evil led Asaph to a crisis of faith. In Psalm 73:13-16, he admits that he lost his faith; his hope is gone. When he judged God in light of his circumstances, Asaph concluded that he "washed his hands" for nothing. He worked hard to make God happy, but his experience suggested only that he was afflicted and punished. He was on the verge of going public with his doubt. He was on the verge of letting everyone know that "God is not great."

Asaph's Solution 
When things seemed to be at their lowest, a miracle happened. Asaph encountered God. At this point in the story, nothing should strike us as less likely. Remember that Hebrews 11:6 tells us that in order to draw near to God, we must believe that God is good, but clearly, Asaph believed the exact opposite. As Asaph said in Psalm 73:2, his feet had almost slipped and his steps had nearly gone astray. But now, in Psalm 73:17, the unthinkable happens. He meets God and everything changes.

More specifically, when Asaph meets God his perspective changes in three distinct ways. For Asaph, these three perspective changes are the solution to his own personal problem with evil. They put his feet back on solid ground and they allow him to again draw near to God. For us, they are an example. Asaph’s three perspective changes are like pieces of a puzzle that help us draw near to God, even when we are staring in the face of our own personal problem of evil. 

Perspective Change #1: Asaph Sees the End of Evil 
Asaph’s version of the problem of evil was that evil wasn’t being punished. He couldn’t understand why wicked people prospered while righteous people suffered. But when he meets God he realized that this reality is only temporary. Seeing God reminded Asaph that evil has an end, and that end is destruction.

In Psalm 73:17-20, Asaph spends time dwelling on the end of the evil people he had just described. When it is all said and done, their wickedness will be like the foggy recollection of a dream. All their evil will be forever wiped away.

Asaph saw the oppressive power of wickedness in people, but for many of us, it comes in other forms of suffering. Certainly, devastation is often caused by the selfishness and evil actions of others, but I have been just as hurt watching friends and family suffer through cancer, strokes, Alzheimer's, and countless other illnesses and diseases. But though the source of the suffering is different, the promise is still the same.

Revelation 21:3-4, provides us a glimpse of this promise. It beckons us to imagine the day when God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death will no longer exist, and grief, crying, and pain will be no more. The future eradication of all evil is a great hope. It doesn’t mean that our suffering is insignificant, but it does change the way we handle our suffering. Our grief is mingled with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), and it is precisely because we know that God is good. Evil may have its day, but God is good, so that day must come to an end.

Perspective Change #2: Asaph Sees His Own Error 
When Asaph judged God in light of his circumstances, he thought, "perhaps God isn’t good." But when Asaph judged his circumstances in light of God, he realized that it was himself who lacked goodness. Asaph's second perspective change teaches us how foolish and wicked it is to question the goodness of God.

In Psalm 73:21-22 Asaph explains, "When I became embittered and my innermost being was wounded, I was a fool and didn’t understand. I was an unthinking animal towards you.” We can turn again to Elisabeth Elliot to see the error of judging God.
God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that he act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice. It is the same spirit that taunted, “If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, “God has no right to do this to five men unless"… 
Elliot’s rebuke is strong, but important. We cannot question God’s goodness without simultaneously asserting our own goodness as the higher standard. As Jesus reminded the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:17), “there is only One who is good." It’s not us.

Perspective Change #3: Asaph Sees that God is the Good 
Perhaps the most drastic perspective change is the third. In Psalm 73:25-28 we see that Asaph radically changes his view concerning what good is.

In the first half of this Psalm, Asaph makes it very clear what he thinks good is. Good is all the things the wicked have and he doesn’t. Good is health, food, and money. Before his great change, the good Asaph sought was a secure and happy life. But after he steps into God’s sanctuary, his definition of good changes. Once he meets God, there is no one in heaven and nothing on earth he desires but God. Once he meets God, God is his portion, the only thing that will satisfy him. After he meets God, he concludes, “But as for me, God’s presence is my good” (Psalm 73:28).

The ultimate solution to our problem of evil is not to change our view of evil, but to change our view of good. We relentlessly pursue lesser goods and vilify God when we do not find them. The rapper Shai Linne includes a sample from John Piper to help demonstrate our love for lesser goods.
Would you be satisfied to go to Heaven, have everybody there in your family you want there, have all the health and restoration of your prime, and everything you disliked about yourself fixed, have every recreation you've ever dreamed available to you, and have infinite resources and money to spend, would you be satisfied... ...IF GOD WEREN'T THERE???
Most of us, if we are honest, will have to admit that our greatest love isn't God, it's God's gifts. We have become infatuated with the lesser goods, and we ignore the greatest good: the Father of lights who gives these goods in the first place (James 1:17).

This is a serious problem, in part, because devastation caused by suffering becomes insurmountable when we are seeking after lesser goods. How can we make up for the loss of the lesser goods, when to us, they are our greatest love. This is why the solution to the problem of evil must include changing our perspective of what is good.

This is the point of Jesus' parable in Matthew 13:44
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
And this is Paul's perspective in Philippians 3:8-11
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. 
The problem of evil, or the problem of suffering, is finally vanquished when, in our hearts, we recognize, not only that God is good, but that he is the good. All other goods pale beside him. To lose everything, but to find Christ, would be an happy trade. This is true, not simply because God is good, but because he is the good.

I have written this post with a single goal; to warn us against questioning the goodness of God. The Christian has no hope in the face of evil without an unwavering commitment to the goodness of God.

However, the truth is, when faced with the reality of suffering in our lives, we often find that our faith in the goodness of God does waver. Like Asaph, like Christopher Hitchens, and like many others, we walk through intense suffering and we wonder, how can a good God allow this? But, though this may be common, it is not healthy. As Asaph remarks, it is a slippery path (Psalm 73:2)

In the midst of suffering, our hope is the same as Asaph's: we want to experience God. With whatever faith we have left in the goodness of God, we must draw near to him. God is good, and he promises that as we draw near to Him, he will draw near to us (James 4:8). In fact, it is most often in the throws of suffering that we will learn to say, like Asaph;
Who do I have in heaven but You?
     And I desire nothing on earth but You.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
      but God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever...
But as for me, God’s presence is my good... (Psalm 73:25-26, 28) 

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Problem of Suffering and the Answer of Faith

"'If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy, therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.' This is the problem of pain in its simplist form." - C.S. Lewis 

This argument, described as the problem of pain by C.S. Lewis, and the problem of evil by others, is perhaps the most common argument raised against Christianity. The first time I heard the argument raised was shortly after my own "great awakening," and, as an infant in the faith, I must admit, it caught me off guard.

My Experience
I was working as intern with Norfolk Southern railroad in Roanoke, and every day I would take my lunch break in a corner booth in a little restaurant on Market Street. Five days a week I would sit there for about 45 minutes with my nose in a book. One particular lunch break stands out because another employee had joined me for the 10 floor descent on the Norfolk Southern elevator. He noticed the book in my hand and asked about it.

The book I was reading was, and still is, one of the most exciting biographies I have ever read. Through Gates of Splendor, is the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, along with a team of several other families who were missionaries in Ecuador focused on reaching a tribal village known as the Auca indians. Jim Elliot, and four other men were famously and brutally murdered by this indian tribe in October 1957. These five men are probably still the most well known Christian martyrs of the modern era.

I told my co-worker this story, describing Jim Elliot as one of my heros, and his response caught me off guard. Rather than joining me in my admiration for the Elliot's sacrifice, he asked me how I can believe in a God that would allow that to happen. He asked how I can believe in a God that would let anyone be savagely murdered by indians. Even worse, in his mind, was the idea that I followed a God who might require my health, wealth, family, and even my life, in service to him. How can I possibly believe in a God like this?

That conversation happened about 15 years ago. Since that time, the problem of suffering has left the pages of a book and has become more than a casual conversation on an elevator. I have watched many of the people I love and respect the most walk through intense suffering, and many of my friends and family are in the middle of inexpresible suffering as I am writing this post.

Because of all this suffering, we are faced with a great temptation. If we aren't vigilant, we will begin to understand God in light of our suffering, rather than understanding our suffering in light of God. Our suffering will tempt us to deal with the problem, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, by believing that God lacks either goodness or power.

A Model of Faith
I intend, at some future time, to write about how we know that God neither lacks in goodness or power. But that is not my goal here. Certainly, knowing these truths and dwelling on the Bible’s presentation of them is an important part of walking through suffering. But before laying the foundation, I want to look at someone who has already walked upon this foundation. I want to look at Elisabeth Elliot, the woman whose husband was brutally killed in service to God, and see how her unswerving commitment to the goodness and power of God served her and steered her through this unspeakable suffering. My hope is that watching this saintly woman who has walked before us will stir our hearts to pursue God and to know Him as she has.

I will pick up Elliot’s thinking where she addresses the temptation to find justification for God in the circumstances rather than trusting that the circumstances are justified because of the nature of God.
We know that time and again in the history of the Christian church, the blood of martyrs has been its seed. We are tempted to assume a simple equation here. Five men died. This will mean x-number of Waorani Christians. Perhaps so. Perhaps not…. God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that he act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice. It is the same spirit that taunted, “If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, “God has no right to do this to five men unless…”  
Those men had long since given themselves without reservation to do the will of God... For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996. God did not answer Job’s questions either. Job was living in mystery — the mystery of the sovereign purpose of God — and the questions that arose out of the depths of that mystery were answered only by a deeper mystery, that of God Himself.
I believe with all my heart that God’s story has a happy ending. Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of the thing shall be well..." But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive... 
Elisabeth Elliot models the type of faith that I long for. She doesn’t try to justify God. How could she? He is the just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). We are the ones who need to be justified, not Him. How arrogant must we be to ask God to step into our courts?

But this kind of faith is about something bigger than avoiding arrogance, it’s about finding joy. It is about knowing that regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can trust God. We can be confident that, when all is said and done, he has our best interest at heart. Beyond that, we believe that He is able to bring about the greatest good that He has intended.

In another book, Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot again reflects on the years following the death of her husband. She says,
Years after the end of the Jim Elliot story, my mother said something to me about my “suffering” during those waiting years. It came as a surprise to me, for though I would never have denied that the trail was a bit rugged, I had not thought of it as suffering. Shipwrecks, floggings, physical pain, yes those I would call suffering, but not my aching heart. However, it is no use trying to measure suffering. What matters is making the right use of it, taking one’s thoughts to God. Trust is the lesson. Jesus loves me, this I know — not because he does just what I’d like, but because the Bible tells me so. Calvary proves it. He loved me and gave Himself for me. 
This is the kind of faith I want. This is the way I want to deal with the problem of evil when I find it in my life. Jesus loves me this I know, not because my life is free from suffering, but because the Bible tells me so. I believe that this unswerving commitment to the goodness and the power of God is the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. More than that, it is the source from which we can do something that is uniquely Christian; find joy in all of our sufferings.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hark the Herald Angels Sing... To Shepherds?

The Christmas season is in full swing again this year, and Christmas music is playing around the clock on Mix 101.5. If you are fortunate enough to have a station dedicated to Christmas music, you will probably hear the classic, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Here is the Amy Grant version, which I think is the one most radio stations play.

This song celebrates the amazing event recorded in Luke 2:8–20, when the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. I imagine the scene was beyond amazing. A slew of paintings have tried to capture the moment, but I'm sure they all fall short of the impressiveness of that sight. A host of herald angels announcing the coming of the king, how could you capture that in a painting?

One question that stands out to me is, why waste that kind of show on shepherds? Even Aladdin knew that when your heralds announce you as king, it needs to be impressive. Not impressive to a bunch of nobodies, impressive to the other kings and other people of power. But Jesus does the exact opposite, he brings the most impressive heralds that anyone could imagine and displays them to meager shepherds. Why would he waste his big announcement on people who are of such little importance?

The Humble Jesus
The most common explanation I have seen for Jesus' big show for the little shepherds is that it highlights Jesus humble origins. After all, Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, a relatively insignificant clan in the nation of Israel. Considered in light of this evidence, presenting Jesus to the shepherds is just another example of the amazing humility of Jesus, who, as Philippians 2:6-7 says, although "he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

We certainly can't deny that Jesus' birth, and even his proclamation to the shepherds is a great demonstration of his humility. Still, I think that Luke records the angels' message to the shepherds to point out something else as well. I think Luke's purpose is to help us see what the angels meant when, in Luke 2:11, they announce that Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus the Christ.
The first thing we should point out is that Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name. It wasn’t Joseph Christ and Mary Christ who had a little baby named Jesus Christ. Christ isn’t a last name, it is a title.

The word Christ is actually the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah. In fact, the Holman Christian Standard Bible translates verse 11 as, “today, a Savior who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” And this is a fine translation because both Messiah and Christ mean the same thing. But using the Hebrew word instead of the Greek word isn’t really helpful if we don’t know what either of them mean. So why call Jesus the Christ or the Messiah?

If you look up the word Christ or Messiah in a dictionary you will probably see it defined as “anointed one.” Throughout the Old Testament, we see God anointing certain people, and sometimes even certain alters, to accomplish certain tasks. It is a way of showing that these people are specially chosen by God to carry out certain tasks. For instance, only anointed priests could bring the sacrifices into the temple (Leviticus 4:4-6). Or when God chooses a king for Israel, like Saul or David, He anoints them to mark them as specially chosen people (1 Samuel 10:1, 2 Samuel 5:1-3).

When we read the Old Testament, we actually see several examples of “anointed ones,” or messiahs. But these messiahs are all imperfect and temporary. They are all little messiahs that are looking forward to the final Messiah. The entire Old Testament, whether it be through pictures and examples or through promises and prophecies, is preparing us for the ultimate Messiah, or the Christ, who will finally make all things right.

The Christ in Micah 5
I believe that Luke was especially thinking of a particular promise in the Old Testament when he wrote this story. In fact, when we look at the relationship between Luke 2:1-20 and Micah 5:2-5, I think we will gain a deeper understanding of why Jesus' heralds would have announced their news to the lowly shepherds.

Micah was a prophet and he wrote this book around the 8th century BC. He is writing for two basic reasons. The first is to warn the nation of Israel that God is about to judge them for their sinfulness. But the second reason is to promise them that even though God will judge them for their sin, he also desires to save them. So throughout a book in which Micah is condemning Israel for their wickedness, he peppers in promises of a future salvation in hopes that the people will repent and return to God. Micah 5 is one of those places where Micah peppers in a promise of future salvation. It’s a reminder that even though God will allow other nations to attack Israel as a penalty for their sins, He also promises that he won’t forget them. He promises to bring them a savior. That's where our passage comes in.
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
   who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
   from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
   to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
   in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure,
   for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
5 And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5)
Micah is giving us a list of things to look for as we wait for the coming Christ. We are looking for someone who is from Bethlehem. He is going to be a king, or a ruler. In verse 3 we see that he will be born of a woman (she will be in labor), but in verse 2 we see that he will be coming from "of old" and will be from "ancient of days." I am sure that one was confusing. In verse 4 we see that this king is called a shepherd, he is a shepherd king. And finally, in verse 5 we see that the Christ will be his people's peace.

As Luke is writing the second chapter of his gospel, it almost seems like he has Micah 5 opened up beside him. The Christ will come from Bethlehem, Luke 2:4. The Christ will be a king or a ruler; he twice mentions that Jesus is of the line of David in Luke 2:4. He will be born of a woman, Luke 2:6-7. But he will also be of "ancient days," thus this baby's messengers are the very messengers of God, the "Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9)."

And then we look to see if he will be the shepherd king. And that, I believe, is why the angels announced Jesus birth to the shepherds. God sent the angels to shepherds as a way to proclaim that this boy, lying in a manger, is the shepherd king. God sent the angels to the shepherds to let us know that Micah's promise was being fulfilled. God's promised one, the one who will bring peace to all who will follow him, is finally here.

The Old Testament is written to teach us to sing "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel." It tells us that the Christ is coming, but we didn't know when. Plenty of kings had come and gone, each time reminding us that the perfect king would one day come. But when Luke announces Jesus, he is saying that this king is different. He is the king from Bethlehem, he is the shepherd-king, and he is the one who will bring peace to all who follow him. That is why I believe we sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." It is because their song teaches us that Jesus is the one we have been waiting for. They teach us to sing, "glory to the newborn King!"

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Church's Job is Everybody's Job

My Dad once told me, "if it's everybody's job, then nobody will do it." I was reminded of his sage advice today when I ran across this little story.
There is a story about four people. Their names are Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. The story goes that there was a very important job that needed to be done. Everybody was asked to do it, and Anybody could do it, but Nobody actually did it. Somebody got angry because it was Everybody's job to do. Everybody thought that Anybody could have done it, and Nobody realized that Everybody blamed Somebody for not doing the job. Still Nobody did it. The arguing got worse and finally Nobody would talk to Anybody and Everybody blamed Somebody.
The moral of the story, at least as my Dad tells it, is that I must recognize that everybody's job is my job.

The Church's Job is Everybody's Job
I think this story is particularly challenging because the Bible gives the job of the church to everybody. More precisely, the job of the church is given to the entire church body, not just to the church's leaders. Mark Dever made this point clear in his book, What is a Healthy Church? He explains,
It is for pastors, yes, but it's also for every Christian. Remember: that's who the authors of the New Testament address. When the churches in Galatia began listening to false teachers, Paul wrote to them and said, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ" (Galatians 1:6). Who was the "you" that Paul called to account for the false teaching in their churches? Not the pastors alone, but the church bodies themselves. You'd expect him to write to the churches' leaders and say, "Stop teaching that heresy!" But he doesn't. He calls the whole church to account.
If Dever is right, and I believe he is, then the church's job isn't just the pastor's job. It's every Christian's job. It's my job and its your job. So the next question is "what is the church's job?" What does the church exist to do? What tasks did God give to everybody that I need to do?

I believe the church's job description can be summarized into five major categories. I know that other authors have offered lists, some that include a few more points and some a few less. Nevertheless, I believe the following five points succinctly and effectively summarize the church's job description. As I list them, I will try to think through how we can do the job of the church, even if we aren't the pastor.

Proclamation of the Word
Proclamation of the Word of God describes the church’s task to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through the preaching of the Word of God, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. These tasks are special means by which God continually communicates the gospel to our hearts.

Perhaps more than any of the other tasks, this one can strike us as someone else's job. Of course, we recognize every member of the church should be baptized and regularly take the Lord’s Supper. But what about the sermon? Certainly that is the pastor's task, not ours. Well, not really. We are called to be what Thabiti Anyabwile calls "expositional listeners." That is, we are to actively listen to the message like the people of Berea, who received the message eagerly, and then examined message in light of the Word of God to see if the things being said are reliable (Acts 17:11).
(Acts 17:11; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Timothy 4:2; Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:19-20)

Worship refers to the obedient and joyful response of the Christian and the church to the glory of God, especially as it is seen in the gospel. Worship includes making a joyful noise to the Lord through music and singing, but extends further into every aspect of the believer’s life. Worship happens through the renewing of our minds so that every aspect of our lives can be lived as a worshipful response to God.

Obviously pastors, or music leaders, can lead us in the worship service, but there is a reason we call it corporate worship. Worship is something that the entire body should do together because we impact each other when we worship together. John Hammett explains, "The primary purpose of worship is to honor God, but as worship is portrayed in the New Testament, it also serves the purpose of edifying believers and evangelizing nonbelievers." This means that you, me, and the entire church body must work together to create an atmosphere of worship and to invite others to join us as we worship God.
(Psalm 95:1-2; John 4:23; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Ephesians 5:19- 21; Philippians 3:3; Colossians 3:16; Revelation 4:10-11)

Fellowship refers to a sense of unity that is derived from a common salvation shared by all believers and is worked out through love and service for one another. The development of community among the body is in view, as is meeting the spiritual, relational, and physical needs of individuals within the body.

Perhaps we find it easy to agree that the burden of fellowship belongs to the entire body. Yet, if we are honest, many of us still tend to think of fellowship as the task of everybody... else. We are more aware of how many people greeted us, than we are of how many people we greeted. We expect the church to visit us in the hospital, but don't volunteer to be the visitor. Meeting needs and building relationship is everyone's job, but we must make it our job first.
(John 13:34-35; Acts 2:42-47; Ephesians 4:1-6; Hebrews 10:24-25) 

Discipleship refers to the training of the body to fulfill the work of ministry. It includes cognitive development aimed at helping the church develop knowledge that is key to Christian growth and practice. Discipleship also seeks to influence the affections of the church body, developing a deeper love for God and joy in the salvation He offers.

This task of training begins with the pastor who is given specific teaching and shepherding roles within the church. However, older women are called to teach younger women and older men are called to teach younger men. Fathers are given a discipleship role in their families and mothers work with their husbands to disciple their children. Thus discipleship is a task that must be accomplished by the entire church body. Each and every one of us should seek to develop ourselves for the work of ministry, which includes training our friends, family, and fellow believers to do the work of ministry along with us.
(Ephesians 1:16-23; 2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 2:1-14; Titus 3:14)

In addition to ministry to the body, the church must seek to minister to the entire world. The church is to be a “city on a hill” that proclaims the truth of the gospel and the glory of God to those who are outside of the church. This task is accomplished through acts of service and through proclamation of the gospel. Through service and proclamation the church acts as Christ’s ambassadors, imploring men from every tribe, tongue, and nation, to be reconciled to God.

God's mission, to call people who will worship him in every tribe, tongue, and nation, is too big for any one person to accomplish. It is a task that requires everybody. Not the kind of everybody that assumes someone else will do it. It requires you and me to be ambassadors. We must tell our family, our neighbors, and the entire world about the salvation offered in Jesus Christ.
(Matthew 5:14-16; Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 10:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21)