Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why Preaching?

This coming Sunday (April 28) we will use a panel discussion format to talk about Colossians 3:20-21, Ephesians 6:1-4, and the subjects of Christian family and parenting. Even though the truths of the text will give shape to the questions, it is true that we will not hear a sermon preached (one person proclaiming the Bible in monologue form). This may lead some of us to ask the questions, “Why do we need sermons and why shouldn’t we sometimes replace sermons with programs, plays, cantatas, and the like?”

Let me give a few answers to this question.

First, though I would not want to do a panel discussion in place of a sermon very often for the following reasons, this format still has the advantage of being shaped by careful study done on the text in such a way that the biblical text still gives shape to the discussion and direction of what is said. So Scripture remains central and authoritative.

Next, the monologue proclamation of God’s Word (preaching) has the advantage over other mediums of helping us remember that the Word of God is the only ultimate binding source of divine authority for the believer (e.g. Mt. 15:1-9; Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Additionally, the medium of preaching is one of the most effective ways of allowing the one who is called to be a pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11) and given the gift of teaching (Rom. 12:7) to explain the Bible in a way that can lay an authoritative foundation for that church that can help guide that church in all other gospel and word ministry it does.

Finally, such preaching also lends itself to casting a clear unified biblical vision for a church that can bring us on the same page and guide us in a way that makes our times of other teaching and discussion most effective.

I am a firm believer in other kinds of teaching (including discussions, music, plays, skits, etc.). However, for the few reasons expressed above, preaching, i.e. the monologue proclamation of God’s Word, will always not only be needed, but also the main vehicle whereby we keep the Word of God central in the entire life of the congregation when we assemble together for our main times of instruction and worship.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Joyfully Confronting

Someone once wisely said that whoever claims to stand for the truth of God’s Word, yet fails to address with his generation those parts they are undermining through skepticism, does not truly measure up to his profession. I believe that pattern of thinking is also true of leadership. Whoever claims to lead others, yet fails to address with those around him the areas in which they need to grow, is not carrying out his full responsibility.

I have come to see recently that this is one of my greatest weaknesses. Of course, as I attempt to change course, the knee-jerk reaction is to do this as a jerk. “I can’t believe you are dropping the ball on this!  Why don’t you get with the program or we will find someone else who will!”  Of course, this not only does little good, it is not the approach that best serves the Bridegroom and his bride.

This week, as I was studying Luke 12:13-34, the way in which the Lord Jesus himself went about confrontation made me sit up and take note. As Jesus was teaching in the midst of a crowd, a man called out to Jesus and requested that he settle a dispute between the man and his brother over an inheritance. Unwilling to do this, the Lord instead warned the man, the crowd, and all subsequent readers of the Gospel against covetousness since “life does not consist in the abundance…possessions.”

To prove this point, Jesus told a parable of a wealthy farmer who was focused in his endeavors on simply amassing more things—thinking they would be the source of his satisfaction and joy. As he was preparing for an expansion project, he died an untimely death and met God in judgment before he was ready. Jesus concluded the parable by saying this is what happens with anyone who is trying to find their treasure and pleasure merely in the stuff of this life, rather than living to be rich toward God. The point he made, then, to the man, the crowd, the disciples, and us is this:  Don’t settle just for the stuff of life on this earth. Rather strive for greater treasure in God! Jesus implied that our perspective is changed not merely by seeing the danger of a sinful impulse or desire. Rather, it happens by focusing our affections on a greater source of joy.

Next, the teacher drove the teaching home with even greater force to his disciples, exhorting them not to be anxious about mere material things, but instead to trust in God, to believe he is our Heavenly Father, knows what we need, and will supply our needs, if we will seek first his kingdom. The reason we can do this is because the Father joyfully decided in eternity to give all of his little sheep the kingdom in full measure. What this means is that for all eternity the Father will lavish more and more on us than we could ever dream or imagine. With that certainty tucked into the pocket of our memory, we should, for example, grab our wallet out of our pant packet and radically give to those in need. The result will be riches far greater and infinitely more lasting than what we will have by merely living for self.

So, notice what Jesus does here with those whose hearts are nothing more than soggy embers before God. He blasts them not merely with warnings or a discussion of how bad “things” are or simply how dangerous covetousness is (although he does briefly cover that). He pours on the gasoline of promised future treasure and then lights it with the call to greater joy.

I know there is a lesson here for me! Rather than merely placing my focus on the fact that people aren’t getting in step with my ministry agenda, I should instead grieve for them since they are settling for something or someone so much less than the Savior, and I should cast vision before them of the greater joy they can have in loving Jesus and others radically.

Bottom-line, as a joyful follower of Jesus I should practice joyful confrontation. Pray for me that I can remember this and I will pray for you to do the same in all those situations when you have to light a fire among impossibly soggy hearts.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

My Vision For Myself And the Minden Evangelical Free Church

All of us have some kind of thoughts or imagination about what will happen in the future, what our life will be like in the days, months, and years to come. This can include many different kinds of emotions, some negative (such as fear), but some will also be positive and these will most likely make up either our expectations or our hopes. These latter imaginations tend to uncover for us what it is we really think will make us happy, will satisfy us, will make our years on this earth count. In other words, these dreams help us see what it is we really think should be our ultimate purpose.

What I would like to do in this post is to share with you what my vision is for the rest of my life. As I look to the future, I know I probably do not have more than 20 years of full-time vocational pastoral ministry left. Even if the Lord does not return in the near future and even if he does not take me home earlier, I am over half way done with pastoral ministry. This realization has made me think a great deal lately about zeroing in with laser-like focus upon what is most important, what it is that ought to get me out of bed each morning, what it is that will keep me from wasting my life, what it is that will please my Lord. My desire in sharing this is also to call you to this same vision.

There is one text in the Bible that especially sets forth my dream for the future: Psalm 96. Let me guide us through this heart-pounding text.

1. Our Ultimate Purpose Is To Glorify God By Enjoying Him Now And Forever. 1-2a
John Piper begins his book, Let The Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy Of God in Missions, with these provocative words: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't.” That is quite an opening line for a book about missions, yet we know it is true because of what the psalmist writes here. Notice how he begins in verses 1-2a: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!”

A “new song” sung to the LORD is not necessarily a song that has never been sung. It is a song sung that highlights praise to him about what he has done new and fresh, what he continues to do to carry out his salvation of us. After all, as the author of Lamentations reminds us (3:22-23): “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” Here not only is Israel called to sing unto the LORD praise, but the entire earth is. This worldwide praise is something that God deserves. After all, God created all things and all people that they might glorify him (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16). The creation does glorify him (Ps. 19:1) and men are commanded to do all to his glory as their ultimate purpose (1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31). This is why the Psalms (a collection of poetry-set-to-music that reveals authentic, intimate, and passion communion with God) regularly call us to praise God and to sing to him (e.g. Pss. 95:1; 97:1; 98:1; 100:1; 103:1; 104:1; 105:1-2; 113-118; 146-150). Music is a great gift God has given to us whereby we can more intensely convey our affections and emotions. In these calls to sing to the LORD, what is foremost is that we express gratitude (e.g. Ps. 105:1) and joy (Pss. 67:3-4; 97:1; 100:1). In fact, the Psalms command us to delight in (Pss. 37:4) and to be glad in the LORD (Pss. 32:11).

We are reminded here what honors God and what puts on display his greatness more than anything is our intense joy and gladness in him. The Apostle Paul exemplifies this in Philippians 1:20-23 where he expressed his desire that Christ be honored in his body, whether by life or death. How was this to be accomplished? Mainly by his showing his desire for and satisfaction in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, more than even life itself. This is what has led John Piper to say that, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

Experience helps us see how this works. Consider, which honors a country more, a mercenary who dies in battle or a soldier who entered battle because of the love of his country and gives his life?  What honors a wife more, a husband who gives an anniversary gift out of mere duty or one who does so out of joy, gladness, and gratitude?  The answer in both cases is obvious.

What we are being called to in this psalm, then, is to have great joy in and affection for God. We are to think about who he is, what he has done, and his attributes. After all, we are commanded to say good things about, to bless, to praise, his name (v. 2). This will be part of our eternal joy and pleasure in God (Psalm 16:11), we will get to praise him. Consider Revelation 4:8-11:
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!” 9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

What is more, in the age-to-come how we have honored the Lord will be put on display by God, which will ultimately result in his praise and glory (Is. 54:17; 62:3; Mt. 25:21, 23; Rom. 2:29). For all eternity we will have the great joy of knowing we were involved in the greatest purpose, the most lasting work, the most significant cause in all the world, and this all for the one who has loved us with the greatest love, which leads to him being the one we must love more than all else.

If in one lifetime we were to discover a cure for Aids and one for cancer, if we could win a championship in our favorite sport, if we could be the hero on the battle field, and if we could know the greatest and most intimate of love relationships, all of this rolled up into one will not even begin to touch the glory, the ecstasy, the pleasure we will have in our God because of his saving work in us and because of what he does in us for others.

Whatever other purposes we have in life, they should all serve this ultimate one. Our ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God by enjoying him now and forever. This is my life’s passion, it is the end to which this psalm calls us, it is the vision I have for our congregation, and it is the goal I pray you will take up for your life.

2. Our Ultimate Purpose Should Move Us To Overflow With A Passion To Love And Make Disciples. 2b-3
Behind this psalm is the understanding that people do not naturally worship the true God, even though God has given them a knowledge of him (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:19-20). Yet, what should happen when a person is full of joy in God is that this joy will be expressed to others. In fact, part of the joy is sharing our delight in God with others. Think about what we want to do when we first meet the love of our life, get that new job we wanted, or purchase our first home. We want to share this with others. So, it should be with God, as we see in Psalm 96:2b-3: “tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”  Of course, we might think that the focus upon “the nations” and “all the peoples,” here in this Old Testament text means only Gentiles Gentiles don’t naturally worship the true God. Yet, we also know that Israel did not naturally worship the true God truly either (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).

What the psalm at this point calls us to do is to fulfill the oldest recorded commandment given to man by God, namely, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with worshipers, that is, God-glorifiers (see Gen. 1:16-28; Ps. 8:5-6). This is why at the heart of following God in the Old Testament was not only taking his word into one’s own heart and worshiping him rightly, but also telling of his glory and salvation to the next generation so they also would follow him (Dt. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; Pss. 34:11; 78:4).  And, elsewhere, this call to tell others also extended to telling the nations (Psalm 105). In fact, the pattern is set that a chief reason God’s people are blessed is so that we can proclaim God’s way and saving power among the nations so they can praise and be glad in him (Ps. 67:1-4).

We should not be surprised, then, that Jesus Christ commanded the New Testament Church to make disciples of all nations (or people groups) in Matthew 28:18-20, that this is exactly what the disciples did in the early Church (see the book of Acts), or that part of the reason God has made the New Testament Church his own and brought us into existence is “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

To put this into biblical context, because we have received freely and lavishly from God, we should want to give freely and lavishly to others (Matthew 10:8), because God has loved us with such a great love, we should love him first and also love others (Mt. 22:37-40; 1 John 4:8, 19). This means both that we will desire others to worship God out of our love for him, and we will also know that true life consists of knowing, loving, trusting in, and serving God (Dt. 10:12-13; 30:6-20) and so we will desire not only to do good to both believer and unbeliever (Gal. 6:10; 1 Thes. 5:15), we will also carry out one of the greatest acts of love for God and others and that is to proclaim his salvation and to seek to make disciples at home and abroad. Certainly, we will not overlook the physical needs of people, if we love them (James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:17-18). But, we also know that at the core of loving people is proclaiming to the gospel, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18). So, Christians should be the most zealous people to engage in all good works for others (Mt. 5:16; Titus 2:14), but especially evangelism and missions. And, because of Jesus’ call to make disciples of all people groups (Mt. 28:19), we should also have a passion for taking the gospel to unreached people groups—those who have no access to the gospel.

3. The Greatness Of God Should Be A Key Motivation To Make Disciples. 4-6
What kind of motivation does the psalmist give to us to make disciples when it is hard? He calls us to be propelled forward by the greatness of God. He writes: “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.” The true God, the triune God, is great and worthy of our praise. Every other philosophy, religion, or god is merely a worthless idol. Yet, this true God created all. In the Old Testament, when a person was part of Israel and came in faith to the dwelling, the sanctuary of God, and approached him rightly, there was great splendor, majesty, strength, and beauty. Now that the Son has come into the world to die for sinners and he is the new tabernacle, he is the way to have God’s presence (John 1:14), every person who trusts in Jesus Christ as Savior has the sweetness and glory of this communion with God (cf. John 17:3; 2 Corinthians 13:14).

So, the more we get to know our great God, including both what he is like and how he gloriously saves, the more we should be unstoppable in our missionary zeal—even when such ministry is costly.

What I want for my own life, what I want for our congregation, what I want for you, is that we would so grow in the knowledge of God and a desire to glorify him through our enjoyment of him that we can say with the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:24, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

4. Both The Vehicle And Outcome Of Our Disciplemaking Should Include Gospel Communities Under The Authority Of God. 7-13
In the rest of the psalm we see what it looks like when people come to know the true God and then they become proclaimers of the glory and works of God. What we see are people in communities who are in right relation to God, worshiping him, under his authority, who place their trust in him to make all things right, and who sing of his praises to others. Here is what the psalmist writes:
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! 8Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts! 9Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth! 10Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
 Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.” 11Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.

So, my vision for my life and our congregation in summary is that we would infuse within the congregation a powerful love-producing joy in God that overflows with a passion to make disciples at home and abroad, and to equip gospel communities to that end.  Having this as a vision means that merely having a nice church, merely living the good life, merely having a moral life, merely raising a good family are not sufficient visions for the Christian. We should desire to be a congregation with a passion for evangelizing those near us and also for global missions. We should be a congregation full of people who want self, children, disciples, all who are part of our church to have a heart to make disciples. I pray this vision will drive planning and leadership among our elders, it will guide the direction of our ministries, and it will shape how we approach marriage and parenting. I pray this vision will be what I give my life to for whatever time God allows me. I also pray you will join me in this!