Have you found Jesus?

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
(Matthew 2:2 (ESV))

So, the Sayler house is decorated for Christmas.  The tree is up, with all of its trimmings (including brand new working lights – that’s another story).  The garland hangs from the fireplace mantel; the stockings are there too, awaiting a visit from jolly old Saint Nick.  I even managed to get the lights up outside before the wind and cold set in, which is saying something for living in NW Iowa.

Of all the decorations that we have out for Christmas, I think the little boys’ favorite must be the “Little People Nativity Set.”  It’s a little play set nativity, complete with Wise Men, Shepherd, various livestock, and of course, Mary and Baby Jesus (curiously, no Joseph – must have gone to the store for diapers).  The boys love to play with the figures of the nativity, right alongside their toy Superman, Batman, and other Super Heroes.  More than once I’ve seen the Son of Man, nestled in the manger, flying side by side with the Man of Steel – I’m so proud.

The one downside is, there are so many pieces, they tend to go missing throughout the day.  At lunch, supper, and bed time, we have a family search for the missing characters.  Recently, the most notoriously lost seems to be baby Jesus.  My house is beginning to sound like a Baptist revival.  “Have you found Jesus?”  “I found him, I found Jesus!”

Sometimes Jesus is hidden under the couch or radiator.  Other times he’s under the piles of Christmas Story books that get put out on the coffee table this time of year.  Then sometimes Jesus get hidden in toy baskets, under coats, and amongst the other clutter of the house.

As we were once again searching for the Christ child last night, I began to realize this was a great lesson for us as adults.  Is Jesus missing from your Christmas?  Have you found Him?  Are you even looking?  Did you even notice he was missing? 

Sometimes Jesus gets buried under the furious rush to find all the right presents, getting the Christmas cards written and mailed, and having the decorations just right.  Sometimes Jesus gets lost in all the busyness and chaos of a season that is supposed to be a celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace.  All too often, without even thinking about it, we just push Jesus off to the side of our celebration, “I’ve got too much going on to worry about all that religious stuff too!”

At the risk of sounding cliché, it is so important that we keep Christ in Christmas.  If we can’t keep Jesus at the center of our Christmas celebration, is it really Christ’s mass?  If we can’t spend the Advent season developing a longing and expectation for the return of our King, will we ever?  If we lose Jesus at Christmas, how will we ever hope to find him throughout the rest of the year?

My encouragement to you this Christmas, and anytime throughout the year, is keep searching for Jesus.  Watch for Him, wait for Him.  See where He is missing in your life, and search for Him as if your life depended on it.  Turn to the Scriptures to hear His word again; His word of life, of hope, of righteousness and peace.  Repent and confess of those things which you have put before Christ, which have kept you from the joy of obedience to your Lord.  Make worship, privately and corporately, a priority, so that you may find yourself where Christ has promised to meet us.

My prayer is that in all of your celebrations this season, you will find Jesus again and again.  That would really be a Merry Christmas.

SDG

Blessedness is…

“And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:”
(Matthew 5:2 (ESV))

Reading through the Beatitudes as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-12), I began to wonder, “Are these attributes that we would associate with ‘blessedness’ today?”  When we consider those qualities and characteristics that the world admires and endorses, we find a strikingly different list. 

Today’s Beatitudes

  • Blessed are the financially secure
    Those who have no needs are the really fortunate ones.  They can stand on their own two feet.  They need no one’s help.  They possess their kingdom.
  • Blessed are the happy
    Happiness is a right, and nothing should infringe upon an individual’s right to be happy, however that may be experienced.  Sorrow should be avoided at any cost, for it is a sign that things just aren’t right.  If you are successful in life, you will be happy.
  • Blessed are those in power
    No one wants their lives to be out of control.  Those who have power, and are in control of their destiny are blessed.  They determine what they will do and when they will do it.  They have influence and authority over others.  They’ve got their lives well put together.
  • Blessed are those who are secure in their own morality and would never impose it on others
    We avoid the term self-righteous, it sounds smug and pretentious, but it reality we kind of admire it.  As long as your “self-righteousness” doesn’t’ infringe on my “self-righteousness” we should get along.  Each of us should be able to determine what’s right and wrong for our lives.  The only thing that we won’t tolerate in intolerance.
  • Blessed are the nice
    The greatest compliment that we can pay to someone today is that they are “very nice.”  They are polite, well-mannered, doing good for others, holding their tongue, socially acceptable.  The nice people don’t make waves, they don’t upset or confront those around them.  They’re just nice.
  • Blessed are those who find compromise
    It’s perfectly acceptable to have integrity and values for yourself, but compromise is the highest sign of sensibility.  When we can cross the aisle and embrace those who disagree with us, casting aside the peripheral matters, working our way down to the lowest common denominator, then we have achieved unity and maturity.
  • Blessed are those who can avoid conflict
    The world is full of conflict and war, struggle and oppression.  It happens on a global scale, but it also happens individually.  Fortunate are those who can go through life with little conflict, who can avoid having to confront the difficult problems of life, and can sleep well through the night.
  • Blessed are those who are treated well and are well-liked
    When you are treated poorly, perhaps it’s because you have acted poorly.  If you are persecuted for the things you’ve said and believe, maybe you need to reexamine your faith, or at least learn when to keep your mouth shut.  The world likes those who like the world.

Now compare that with what Jesus taught.

The Beatitudes

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
    Those who realize they have nothing of their own to offer God, but come empty handed, in desperate need of God’s help – theirs is the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is the promise of God’s presence and provision.  He will, and has, supplied our every need.
  • Blessed are those who mourn
    The sorrow that comes from an awareness of our sin and the brokenness of a fallen world drives us to seek forgiveness in the grace of God.  Such an awareness comes only from the Holy Spirit; this kind of righteous mourning leads us to true comfort in Christ.  The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our encourager, only in Him will we know the true joy of the presence of God.
  • Blessed are the meek
    The meek are those who recognize that power and control are actually an illusion, that God is in control, and we must learn to trust and obey.  The meek put aside their plans and agendas to serve others first, following Christ their Lord.  The meek long for the treasure that awaits us, and therefore are not preoccupied with the trappings of power and possession of this world.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
    To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to recognize that as bread and water are essential for life, righteousness (true holiness and justification before God) is the greatest need for the soul.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness then, means that our greatest desire is to be right with God, and to see righteousness in the lives of others.  When our greatest goal in life is to pursue the glory of God in righteousness, we will be truly satisfied.
  • Blessed are the merciful
    Mercy is different than nice.  Mercy is illogical, irrational, and uncommon.  It means not lashing out when wounded, but offering grace and forgiveness instead, showing compassion especially to an offender.  Mercy, like grace, is a gift that comes with no expectations of return.  It is loving the unlovable, forgiving the unrepentant, serving the ungrateful.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
    To be pure in heart means to have a heart that is undivided, wholly fixed and directed to one end.  Having a heart of integrity, directed toward God’s glory and goodness, is what God created (and re-created) us for.  Repeatedly we are called to direct our heart to the Lord, to serve him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  Such wholehearted love of God leads us to true unity and maturity as we grow in the likeness of Christ.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers
    Peacemakers are not those who avoid problems or difficult situations, but those who deal with them head on and work through them.  To be peacemakers in God’s kingdom is to proclaim the gospel, to teach, correct, rebuke, and train one another in righteousness.  Peacemakers proclaim justice for the oppressed, healing to the sick, freedom to the enslaved.  Born of a peace that comes from salvation in Jesus Christ, they are the sons of God.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted and reviled because of me
    If you have gone through this life never knowing the consequence of standing for your faith, perhaps your faith has been inconsequential in your life.  The persecution we face for believing in Christ, for contending for the faith, draws us closer to Christ.  Remembering Jesus’ words, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Friends, judge for yourselves which teaching you will follow, where you will find the true blessedness.  One shows you where the world would have you look to find happiness, the other where Jesus says happiness is found.  One would have you follow the ladder to success and empowerment, the other would have you take up your cross and follow your savior.  As Joshua said, “if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

SDG

Meet the new Sin, same as the old.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ESV))

In reading George Marsden’s “Jonathon Edwards: A Life,” I came across something that surprised me.  Marsden wrote that when Edwards grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, passed away leaving him as the lead pastor of a church of 1300 members, Edwards faced three major obstacles.  The first was the issue of admittance to the Lord’s Table for Communion.   His grandfather had practiced a rather open table, allowing all who had been baptized to receive the meal regardless of whether their life showed evidence of true conversion.  There was great debate on this matter, one that plagued Edwards’ entire career, but Stoddard’s position was that there was edification and encouragement for conversion in the celebration of the Table.

Another pressing issue facing Edwards in his new church was a growing political divide.  This was the 1720’s, and already there was a growing divide between those who were loyal to the crown, and those who felt independence from the throne would lead to financial and religious prosperity.  It is fascinating the level of contention and divisiveness that political matters such as these had in the church.  Perhaps the reason was that in Edwards day, there was no Cable News to present the political ideas of the day, so the pulpit was the forum in which all ideas were disseminated. 

What struck me as most interesting, however, was what Marsden says occupied the majority of Edwards’ attention: the “indulgences of the young” (pages 130-131).  Marsden writes,

The most notorious result was amazing impurities tolerated among the young in recent years.  Not only was lasciviousness encouraged by nightwalking and similar frivolities, but New England parents allowed practices that are “looked upon as shameful and disgraceful at Canada, New York, and England.”  Everyone knew that he referred to the New England practice of “bundling” in which parents allowed young people to spend the night in bed together partly clothed.  “I believe there is not a country in the Christian world, however debauched and vicious, where parents indulge their children in such liberties… as they do in this country…”

Bundling, which was supposed to be a way of getting acquainted without sexual intercourse, did not always work as advertised.  Pregnancies before marriage were rising dramatically in New England.  Premarital sex was commonplace.  Even when it resulted in pregnancy, so long as the couple married, there was no longer much stigma involved.

Sound familiar?

Edwards noted that the indulgence on the part of the parents was most likely a reaction to their own very strict upbringing, but was increasingly discouraged by the behavior of the youth in his community.  The taverns were full of young men who were wasting their time and energy in worthless pursuits, delaying marriage and work, living with their parents rather than forging out and establishing themselves.  Sounds to me like Edwards could have been writing about 21st century youth as well.

“And there is nothing new under the sun.”  We hear today of the Culture Wars, and young men and women are portrayed in such negative light.  Parents decry “what’s wrong with the children today?”  We see the political divisions of our national leaders, the lack of concern for spiritual growth and maturity, and the erosion of any semblance of moral integrity and we think to ourselves, “Whatever happened to the good old days?”

The truth is, there were no good old days.  Edwards railed against the moral turpitude of the youth of his day; as did Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, and Baxter.  Sin has always and will always attack us where we are most easily tempted.  The youth are tempted with passion and lust; the elders are tempted by power and division, all are tempted to spiritual stupor and sloth.

What Edwards saw as the corrective to the moral decay of his time, the heart of true reformation, was a return to the Word of God.  Revival and reformation would only come through the renewal of the passionate preaching and teaching of the Word of God.  To awaken a people to a zeal for the Lord, to heal divisions within the community, to draw the youth from their immorality and sensuality, they must heed the call of Scripture.

And as we share the same problems as the people of Edwards’ day, we also share the same solution.  We must return to the Word of God.  We will only find revival and reformation in the renewing work of God’s Holy Spirit that comes from the passionate preaching and teaching of God’s Word.  That means that we need to be studying God’s Word for ourselves.  It means that we need to be leading our families in private worship and study of God’s Word. It means that we need to find ourselves in churches that faithfully teach and preach the Word of God.

There is nothing new under the sun.  The sins we face today are the sins that have been with us since the fall. 

There is nothing new under the sun.  Our savior from sin is Jesus Christ: always has been, always will be.

A Knowable Truth

“Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth.’”
(John 18:38 (ESV))

What is truth?  Sometimes we really don’t want to know.  “Tell me the truth, honey…”  A guy hears that and he knows he’s in trouble.  We don’t like the truth that the mirror tells us every morning.  We don’t like to hear the truth when the doctor comes in to give us bad news.  We look for truth in reporting and advertising and in government accounting and always come up shy.  “Truth is all a matter of perspective.”  Or as Obi-Wan said, “What I told you was the truth, from a particular point of view.”

And so we’ve become so jaded and burned by the lack of truthfulness in the world.  “Truth” has become a suspect word.  Those who say that know the truth are ridiculed as either simpletons who couldn’t possibly understand the complexity of truth in any given situation, or arrogant know-it-alls who want to impose their way of thinking on everyone else.  “What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me” so we say, and truth becomes a subjective thing that we define from our own experience. 

This carries over into all aspects of our faith and life.  The Westminster Confession is famous for its often abused principle of the Freedom of Conscience.  The famous quote, “God alone is Lord of the conscience” is heralded by every progressive movement within the church today.  The way it’s used goes something like this, “Only God can tell me what’s right and wrong.  No church council, no pastor or committee, no cultural ethos.  If I am convinced that it is right, I will do it.”  So from the Westminster Standard, “God alone is Lord of the Conscience,” we have deteriorated into the most anarchic of thoughts, “I am Lord of my conscience, I will do what I think is right.”  In this way of thinking, there is no real truth, it’s all open to interpretation.  There is no authority, everything is subject to my understanding, even the very Word of God.

This abuse of the Standard is a result of the neglect (intentional or otherwise) of the rest of the statement.  To quote in full:

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.”

God is the Lord of the conscience.  We are not the lord of our own minds.  Rather, our minds, our consciences, are subject to the authority of God’s Word.  The very last phrase, “in matters of faith and worship” some would say are just the matters that pertain to the church.  In reality, faith and worship, what we believe and what we do with our lives as living sacrifices in spiritual worship (Rom 12), entail every aspect of our being.  Everything that we are – the food we eat, the games we play, the way we dress, and what we say – is subject to, bound by, the Word of God.

The Word of God is authoritative because its author is God.  With God as the giver of the Word, the Word of God is without error, and it will effectively bring about the purpose and will of God.  The wisdom and glory of God are contained and revealed throughout His creation, but never more clearly than in His revealed Word.  To know Him, we turn to the Word.  To know ourselves, we turn to the Word.  The Word of God is the source of all truth. 

As the world continues to ask Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” the church stands ready to show the one who was full of both grace and truth (John 1:14).  We make Christ known, and in Him we find the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  As the maddening crowd clamors for something to believe in, some solid ground on which to stand, holding to the Authority of Scripture gives us a firm foundation. 

There is truth, it is knowable.  We do not define the truth, it defines us.  The truth of God is not subject to our interpretation, it is not relative to our point of view, it is objectively true, unchanging, and powerful.  May you know the truth, and may that truth set you free.

“Cat-Herding” & “Whack-A-Mole” Ministry

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season… do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
(2 Timothy 4:1-5 (ESV))

There are a lot of ways to describe pastoral ministry.  Even the Presbyterian Church has spilled a lot of ink to describe this job.  we are “teaching elders” as opposed to “ruling elders.”  The Book of Order for the Presbyterian Church, restoring the language of the 1789 Presbyterian Government, described the role of minister in its various capacities saying:

As he or she has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he or she is termed bishop. As he or she feeds them with spiritual food, he or she is termed pastor.  As a servant of Christ in the Church, the term minister is given. As it is his or her duty to be grave and prudent, and an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he or she is termed presbyter or elder.  As he or she is sent to declare the will of God to sinners, and to beseech them to be reconciled to God, through Christ, he or she is termed ambassador.  And as he or she dispenses the manifold grace of God and the ordinances instituted by Christ, he or she is termed steward of the mysteries of God.

Beautiful, right?!

I, in my 10 years of ministry experience, have come up with two more analogies that I think are helpful in getting sharing the idea of what it’s like be a pastor:

As he is called to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching, he is called “Cat-herder.”  As he is called to confront heresy, he is called “Whack-A-Moler.” (I’m sure these were also considered back in 1789, but accidentally omitted in the final record.)

The greatest exercise in futility is the attempt to train a cat.  People don’t own cats, they share houses with them, they are tolerated by them, they may even call their cats cute names, but they certainly don’t own them.  So the idea of actually training a cat to do anything that it didn’t already want to do is ridiculous. 

Are we the same way with church?  Please know, I do not have the church I’m currently serving in mind, but I think we all have this attitude toward the church now and then.  We come to church with our established ideas about what church should be, what God expects of us, and how long the service should last.  The pastor shares the church, and may even be tolerated for a while, but watch out if he should try to lead in a direction that we don’t already want to go.  The pastor may exhort and encourage in the life of discipleship, but only if we are already inclined to go down that path.

As the pastor is called to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), he is called the “whack-a-moler.”  You know the game; there you stand, soft mallet in hand, beating down the moles as they keep popping up all over the board.

For a pastor, this seems to be a daily routine.  I have to admit, there are times when you wish the office of minister came with a padded mallet for moments of gentle rebuke and correction – but alas – it’s not to be.  But the moles are definitely there.  One heresy rears its ugly head and you smack it back down, only to have two more spring up elsewhere.  Either it’s a theologically vapid book that captures the attention of your congregation, undoing 5 years of preaching in 2 days reading, or it’s the pastor of the church your congregation member has attended who taught on Sunday that it really doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus as long as you have a relationship with him. 

Sigh.  There are days when truck driving school seems really enticing.  Then we come across Paul’s encouragement to Timothy.  This is Paul and Timothy here.  These were the All-Stars of Pastoral Ministry, the trailblazers who set the standard; and Paul says, “Listen, Tim, you’ve got to just keep on preaching on.  People aren’t going to listen to you, just like they wouldn’t listen to me, just like they wouldn’t listen to our Lord.  They will keep looking around until they find someone who teaches them what they already know, who says what they like to hear.  You can’t help that.  But you can keep preaching.  Keep teaching.  Keep doing the work that God has called you to, keep doing what the Spirit has given you.”

I don’t know, I guess it’s kind of encouraging.  This struggle against stiff necks and recalcitrant hearts has been going on for a while now.  There are no new heresies under the sun, just a repackaging of the same old stuff.  If Paul and Timothy, Peter and James, and all the rest had to struggle against these things, I’m not alone in the fight.  Even the sin I struggle against in my own life, that old creeper who keeps dragging me down, isn’t that what Romans 7 is all about? 

I don’t have to wage the good warfare or stand firm in my own strength, neither do you.  Rather, we can rest in the power of God’s Spirit, rely on His truth to prevail.  And so we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:1).  It may be that you’ve begged your husband to come to worship with you, and he just won’t budge; keep praying, be encouraged, stand firm.  It may be that you’ve wrestled with that sin before, and it’s frustrating that it keeps coming back to haunt you; keep praying, be encouraged, stand firm.  It may be that you’re tired of teaching again and again about how freedom in Christ is not freedom to sin and you want to throw in the towel; keep praying, be encouraged, stand firm.

In the famous words of uncle Mordecai, “who knows, but that you were born for such a time as this.”  This is your calling, fulfill your ministry. 

The Lord be with your spirit.  Grace be with you.