Why I’m glad Jesus is gone

ascension

The Good News of Jesus is that He is crucified for sinners, dead, buried, and resurrected after three days.  But it is not complete without the fact that He has ascended to heaven.  The Ascension is an often overlooked piece of the Gospel account.  Not only has it given birth to many, slightly-comical, old paintings of Christ’s feet disappearing into the clouds; it also is source for incredible encouragement and faith.

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  Acts 1:9
We may not think of it as being a good thing that Jesus is gone from us. He left the disciple in order that His Spirit might be poured out.  He is also now in the presence of the Father, praying for us – which for me, is one of the most comforting thoughts.

But there is a reason that seems especially encouraging lately, given that it seems we are living in such discouraging times.

Jesus is raised up into heaven, far above all other powers and rulers, with all things under his feet.  That means demagogues, and ugly politics are under his feet.  So if the news cycle has got you down, remember!  Jesus is above it all.  And he is in charge and ruling over all things.  No matter how chaotic and unpleasant the world around us may be – He is over all.

That is Good News.

 

"see ya"

“see ya”

Advertisements

Listening Has Its Limits – Called to Speak

Listening to others is important.  Listening to others for the sake of God is important too.  Francis Schaeffer once said that if he had one hour in which to share the Good News he would spend 55 minutes just asking questions and listening.  To truly know how to share Christ in a “non-canned” way we must listen to the concerns, backgrounds, and objections of the people we want to communicate with.  We also need to have our ear to ground when it comes to the culture around us; individuals are not culture-less after all.  What are the objections?  What are the concerns?  What are the longings – both spoken and unspoken?  To be an effective witness of Jesus in the real world we need to be careful listeners.

But when does the listening stop?  When does it hit its limits?  The idea of not imposing, carefully listening, being merely “present” has been en vogue in Christian circles.  It has launched a 1,000 buzz words and mini-movements such as “emergent”, “missional”, and so on.  The result is that there is such an emphasis on listening to those around and seeking to be a “presence” in their midst, that we’ve forget what we’re supposed to say.  Or that we’re to speak at all.

“I’m finished listening and being a ‘presence’ to you. Now, if you’ll allow me, I have some Good News to share with you.”

John Stott, writing fifty years ago, had an almost prescient view of much of what is going on today.  He writes in his superbly compact, Our Guilty Silence: the Church, the Gospel, and the World:

Others are actually equating evangelism with silence. They are not altering the gospel, but asserting that there is no gospel. ‘We have nothing to say,’ they affirm. ‘Our calling is to sit down alongside secular man and let him teach us. We cannot aspire to more than a Christian presence in the midst of the non-Christian world.’ But this is to abandon evangelism altogether. The need to penetrate into non-Christian society is agreed, but what is needed is penetration with a view to proclamation, not silence. Nothing to say? When did the gospel cease to be ‘good news’ and the Church cease to be the ‘herald’ God has appointed to announce it?

So when all the listening, asking, and being present is at an end, when all our understanding of where people are coming from is completed, what are we going to say?  Do we still have a burden to ‘proclaim’?  Do we still have good news to tell?

Wrong Side of History?

They warn us that we are on the “wrong side of history.” They insist that we will be judged by future generations the way we today judge those who championed racial injustice in the Jim Crow South. But history does not have sides. It is an impersonal and contingent sequence of events, events that are determined in decisive ways by human deliberation, judgment, choice, and action. The future of marriage and of countless human lives can and will be determined by our judgments and choices—our willingness or unwillingness to bear faithful witness, our acts of courage or cowardice. Nor is history, or future generations, a judge invested with god-like powers to decide, much less dictate, who was right and who was wrong. The idea of a “judgment of history” is secularism’s vain, meaningless, hopeless, and pathetic attempt to devise a substitute for what the great Abrahamic traditions of faith know is the final judgment of Almighty God. History is not God. God is God. History is not our judge. God is our judge.

One day we will give an account of all we have done and failed to do. Let no one suppose that we will make this accounting to some impersonal sequence of events possessing no more power to judge than a golden calf or a carved and painted totem pole. It is before God—the God of truth, the Lord of history—that we will stand. And as we tremble in His presence it will be no use for any of us to claim that we did everything in our power to put ourselves on “the right side of history.” ”  Robert P George

 

Also, here are three wise men also discussing the common trope of being on the wrong side of history:

Good News! The Good News is still good news for individual sinners!

A son down in the muck with the pigs.  Just one straying guy, who needs to be reconciled to his father.

A son down in the muck with the pigs. Just one straying guy, who needs to be reconciled to his father.

I just read a pretty out-there interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son.  (or lost son or two sons or whatever).  The author, who is deserving of immense respect*, quite confidently stated how the prodigal son was about the grand story of Israel coming back to God.  The lost son, you see, is not so much representing an individual person’s path back to God but the nation of Israel’s return for Exile.  The message of the parable – and of Jesus – is so much larger than just one person being able to come into relationship with the God who forgives them and accepts them upon no merit of their own.  So it is argued.  No only is this interpretation completely novel, it also tears down what so many have always believed about this telling of the Gospel message.  In essence, it is about the Big Story of Israel’s Redemption and not about little ol’ you or me.

There’s a trend in theology.  It is to minimize the individual side of salvation and the Gospel.  For the most part this is to be applauded.  There is a tendency to make Christian a kind of “just me and Jesus thing”.  But there’s more to it.  The Good News (and all it’s implications) is so much more than that.  It is about the Lordship of Jesus over all, the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny, the Kingdom of God coming into the world, and the future restoration of all things.  It is about non-Jews coming into the family, so to speak.  It is about God making a People for His Name.  It is about God’s purposes for the entire Creation.  It’s about so much more than you may first think. But… but… but…  Is it still about sinners coming to be forgiven by their Maker?

Contra the normal saying, sometimes we can’t see the trees for the forest.  The Gospel of Christ is so much more than an individual sinner coming into saving faith but it can never be less!!!  While the prodigal-as-Israel-coming-out-from-Exile may be intriguing as a grand theme we must remember that this parable is set up by two previous ones.  A shepherd leaves the 99 to find his one lost sheep.  A woman combs her house to find her one lost coin.  And the setting is one where Jesus is criticized for eating with sinners.  Individual sinners.  Individual souls who will not enter the coming Kingdom unless they repent and return to God.  And there’s joy in those two parables.  But what is the joy?  We’re told (twice) that there is no greater joy in heaven than over one sinner who comes to repentance.  Turns out the Gospel is still good news for poor sinners.

As a pastor I must never forget this is what people need.  As a normal disciple I can’t forget that this is what I have to share with others.  As a Christian who falls and fails and continues to sin against my Father, I can’t ever forget that He loves me and will receive me (me!) when I turn back and return to Him.

The Gospel must remain good news for individual sinners!

 

 

*  I read this in N T Wright’s voluminous tome Jesus and the Victory of God.  There is so much to commend in it that I can’t even begin.  But just because a man is a theological genius and is incredibly right about 95% doesn’t mean he can’t miss a simple truth that has been in front of his eyes since Sunday School.

No Picking and Choosing

Augustine by Champaigne (that's his own burning heart he's holding; what does your heart burn for?)

Augustine by Champaigne
He’s all in!

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”  St Augustine 354-430

 

As usual, Augustine nails it.  My wife used to ask people what they thought God was like. They usually just described themselves only bigger.  She would then reply, “well, you’re just following yourself and trying to be God”.  We’re always pre-disposed to do just that.

The Good News of Jesus has many implications.  That He is King for instance.  Or that He is Substitute for guilty sinners.  Or that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  Or that He didn’t just die for individuals but shed His blood for the Church.  Or that He has something to say about sex and marriage which is counter-cultural.  Or that He requires us to change our relationship with money.  Or that we are required not just to make a quick decision but to follow Him to the end.

We’re always eager to remake God in our own image.  That’s why we need to be constantly challenged.  If we read the Bible and never find anything that challenges us to change our lives or our views, then we can guarantee that we’re probably not following God but only ourselves.

 

 

2 Kinds of Good News

You have to have two kinds of Gospel.  No, that doesn’t mean that there is more than one Gospel.  There’s only one great story of Christ the King and His saving work for sinners.  But…  Sometimes there are different ways to of telling it.  The Good News is rich and has lots of implications.  Every situation is different.  Every hearer and speaker is different.  Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time.  But that’s ok, there is encouragement for that.

Looking in to the Book of Acts we can see several different apostles Gospelling at different times to different people.  The way and setting in which the Good News is communicated differs, even if the mulit-faceted message is always the same.

"Hey man, we've got some time, let me explain all this to you"

“Hey man, we’ve got some time, let me explain all this to you”

In Acts 8:26-40, Philip meets up with an Ethiopian official traveling on the road.  He’s got some Bible background.  He’s actually reading the Bible right then and there.  He’s asking questions.  Philip is invited to sit with him in his chariot and we can assume they’ve got some time.  He can talk with him and unpack the Gospel at leisure.

Maybe you’ve been blessed with opportunities like this.  The Good News is so rich and has many parts to explain.  It’s wonderful to have long conversations about Jesus – Who He is, what He’s done, and what that means for us and the world.  It’s important to know that embracing Christ is not just a simple formula.  To come to know Him is to see how He fits in with  everything else in the world.  You may have to do a little apologetical stuff (that doesn’t mean apologizing for the truth!)  You may have to show someone how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy.  You may get to tell how He’s changed your life.  You may get to unpack how Christianity is important not just for individuals but for the entire course of history – it has changed civilizations after all.

But all of that takes a lot of time.  It is a blessing to be able to have long conversations.  I personally love long Philip conversations.  It is important t know, though, that sometimes you just don’t have that kind of time.  To reflect on that, we can look at another scene from Acts.

 

 

"Look buddy, we don't have a lot of time here.  I'll get right to the point."

“Look buddy, we don’t have a lot of time here. I’ll get right to the point.”

In Acts 16:25-31, the Apostle Paul is given a great opportunity to share the Good News.  He’s in prison with Silas, their giving good testimony by singing in the midst of their hardship.  Then there’s a miraculous earthquake and they’re freed. The jailer is freaking out and asks:  what must I do to be saved?  There is no way to know how much this guy knew and how much he understood.  It’s not like Paul couldn’t expound with the best of them – he’s known to have taken a long time to explain the Gospel.  But Paul, not having much time gets right to the point:  Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…  Granted later he gets more teaching but in that moment, the jailer gets the elevator pitch.

Sometimes, especially as we learn more about Christian faith, we make it harder to enter into it by complicating it.  There’s a lot more to know than what the jailer first heard, but the basic call to Repent and Believe is there.  It is actually a great test to be able to communicate the Good News is just one or two minutes.  It’s ridiculous to say that you can say everything, but the constraints help to focus.  If you only have 5 minutes with someone – do you get bogged down in Old Testament prophecy for example?

It is important because there are many opportunities to share Good News and they are not all the same.

What gets Paul mad?

What gets the Apostle Paul mad?  He had different groups of critics that both said nasty things about him and slandered his ministry.  But he reacts differently to them.  Why does he fly off the handle when he writes to the Galatians?  Why does he shrug off his opponents referenced in Philippians?  The difference is the message.

To the Philippians he references some critics of his that are grieving him.  They are preaching out of rivalry and are seeking to afflict Paul.  But he’s relatively cool about it.  Basically he says:  no problem, I rejoice because at least they’re proclaiming the Gospel.

But to the Galatians he references another group of critics.  But this time he says they ought to be accursed.  Why?  Because the difference is not personal, it is about the heart of the Gospel.

The “Galatian” opponents were saying that to be saved:

1)  First a man believes in Christ,   2)  then he keeps God’s law as best he can,   3)  and then he is justified (made right before God)

 

The “Philippian” opponents were saying that to be saved:

1)  First a man believes in Christ,   2)  then he is justified,   3)  then he proceeds to keep God’s law

 

Do you see the difference?  Do you see why in one case he shrugs and the other he blows his top?  Do you see why it is so important to get this part of the Gospel right?

*  This is paraphrased from J Gresham Machen’s classic Christianity & Liberalism, pages 19-21.  Not a single observation is my own.