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Bad Problems Need Good Theology

            In my seven years as pastor of Gateway Community Church, I have seen many people robbed of the joy that Jesus provides due to a multitude of factors. But out of all these factors, the single biggest culprit has been anxiety.
            Anxiety is a strange thing. We can get anxious about things that happened in the past, problems we’re facing right now, or—most commonly—troubles we fear are just around the corner.
            The one thing I’ve learned, however, is that bad problems need good theology. So often, much of our anxiety is due to incorrect thinking or doubts about God and his role—or lack thereof—in our struggles. Doesn’t God care? Did I do something to deserve this? These are question that often plague us and contribute to our apprehension.
            So if you struggle with anxiety (and who doesn’t?), here are six theologically sound statements with corresponding Bible verses that you can keep in your Bible as a reminder whenever anxiety strikes:
 
1. God Cares About Your Anxiety “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).
 
2. Prayer is the Best Answer to Anxiety “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
 
3. You May Need to Repent “If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:15-16).
 
4. Then Again, You May Not “And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3, also see the book of Job).
 
5. God is Greater than Your Fears “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid” (Psalm 27:1)?
 
6. God is Not Distant when You’re Anxious “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:1).

Our Heavenly Warren

     During this sabbatical from preaching, I’ve not only been reading a number of different books but I’ve also made it my aim to look over some of my notes and quotes from other books I’ve read recently lest I forget them. And one of my favorite recent books is actually a children’s book called Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s a story of a group of rabbits led by a rabbit named Hazel who leave their comfortable but overcrowded warren (the name for rabbit burrows) to find a new home of their own.

     After a long, frigid, dangerous beginning to their journey through woods and past foxes and hawks, the rabbits were ready to give up the search. After days of journeying, they were giving up hope they would ever find a new home that would supply what a small group of rabbits need. Even worse, they started fighting amongst themselves biting and scratching one another.

     Then, finally, after Hazel had said, “Not far now” for the millionth time, the panicking rabbits arrived at a beautiful, lush, green field, and they all knew they had finally made it home. It says,

To come to the end of a time of anxiety and fear! To feel the cloud that hung over us lift and disperse—the cloud that dulled the heart and made happiness no more than a memory! This at least is one joy that must have been known by almost every living creature. Here is a boy who was waiting to be punished. But then, unexpectedly, he finds that his fault has been overlooked or forgiven and at once the world reappears in brilliant colors, full of delightful prospects. Here is a soldier who was waiting, with a heavy heart, to suffer and die in battle. But suddenly the luck has changed. There is news! The war is over and everyone bursts out singing! He will go home after all! The sparrows in the plowland were crouching in terror of the kestrel. But she has gone; and they fly pell-mell up the hedgerow, frisking, chattering and perching where they will. The bitter winter had all the country in its grip. The hares on the down, stupid and torpid with cold, were resigned to sinking further and further into the freezing heart of snow and silence. But now—who would have dreamed it?—the thaw is trickling, the great tit is ringing his bell from the top of a bare lime tree, the earth is scented; and the hares bound and skip in the warm wind. Hopelessness and reluctance are blown away like a fog and the dumb solitude where they crept, a place desolate as a crack in the ground, opens like a rose and stretches to the hills and the sky.

The tired rabbits fed and basked in the sunny meadows as though they had come no further than from the bank at the edge of the nearby copse. The heather and the stumbling darkness were forgotten as though the sunrise had melted them.

     I don’t know about you, but I find it impossible to read this description of the rabbit’s new home and not think of heaven. In heaven there will be an end of anxiety and fear. In heaven we who should be punished for sin will be forgiven. In heaven the war against sin, death, and Satan will be finished. In heaven there will be complete freedom from all the harshness of this life. In heaven all of our troubles and cares will be forgotten and will melt away.

     When we look around this world at all our many stressors and pains, we can say with the rabbits, “We need a new home.” And to that Jesus tells us, “Not far now. Keep going. It’s not far now.”


 

A Sympathetic Priest

    One of the most famous quotes in history is “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” (I don’t know French, so hopefully I have it right) which is typically translated as “Let them eat cake.” This phrase was largely attributed to Marie-Antoinette around the year 1789 when the people of France were starving for lack of bread. When she learned they had no bread, she allegedly said, “Let them eat cake.”
    Most historians today don’t believe that Marie-Antoinette actually said this phrase. (In case you’re interested, if someone said anything like this it was most likely the Spanish princess, Marie-Therese, who married the French King, Louis XVI, in 1660. She was rumored to have said the French poor should eat “the crust of the pâté.”) But even though she likely didn’t say it, this didn’t stop her from losing her head during the French Revolution. As always, perception is reality.
    But even though she probably didn’t say it, the reason the phrase is so infamous is because it displays a total lack of awareness or worry for the struggles of the people. Either she didn’t understand or she didn’t care. If it’s the former, then it means she has so much money and food that she doesn’t have a clue what her people were going through due to poverty. “No bread? No problem. Whenever the bread runs out at my castle the servants always bring out cake.”  If it’s the latter and she just doesn’t care, then it’s a flippant remark meant to laugh at the struggles of starving people. Neither of these options casts Marie-Antoinette in a very flattering light.
    Throughout the years many have accused God of these same things. There are hurting people in this world. There’s unbearable circumstances and pain. Humans doing things that are unspeakably evil. How can God allow this? It’s hard to comprehend. Thus many have concluded that God, if he exists at all, must either not care or not understand.
    Of course answers  however, the Christian answer to this must start with Jesus. We know God cares about our pain because he sent Jesus to rescue us from it. Jesus died on the cross so we could live with him where there will be no pain--not physical, emotional, or spiritual (Rev. 21:3-4). The lengths he went to show that he absolutely cares.
    He also understands our pain. As someone who walked the earth he experienced illness, hunger, the loss of loved ones, unmet desires, and even death. He understands our weakness, even sympathizes with it, because he lived it. The Great High Priest who ascended to heaven gets us. And he cares. Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
    We can be confident that when we draw near to God in prayer or even in death that he will respond with mercy and grace because our High Priest cared enough to understand our weaknesses and die in our place.
 

The Centrality of the Cross

     A few guys from church and I have been reading The Cross of Christ by John Stott together. This is a great book to read during the Lenten season as we reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection.

     One point that Stott drives home is the centrality of the cross to our faith. If Jesus hadn’t died as our substitute, he would have been just another admirable person amongst many admirable people throughout history. But the cross is the place where God died for our sins. Without the cross we would have nothing but death to look forward to. Through the cross we have been given life eternal.

     When you read Scripture, you see that the cross is central not just to the Gospels, the four books chronicling Jesus’ life and death, but to all of Scripture. All of the Old Testament is crying out for a Savior. Israel needed a sacrifice that could truly atone for sins. A descendant from Abraham who would bless the nations, and a descendant of David who rule in justice and love. One who would put an end to the evil that had ruled humankind’s hearts since Adam and Eve. The entire Old Testament is a looking forward, a hungering for this Savior.

     On the other hand, the New Testament that follows the Gospels is constantly looking back to the cross. Not in a way that keeps them stuck in the past, but the cross was the motivation for everything the church was doing in the present and future. Because Jesus served us on the cross, we serve one another (Phil. 2:3-8). Because Jesus forgave our sins through the cross, we forgive others when they sin against us (Matt. 18:21-35). Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we have hope even when suffering (1 Peter 1:10-13). Every decision in the Christian life today is made in light of The Event some 2,000 years ago.

     In The Cross of Christ, Stott quotes an Anglican Bishop named Stephen Neill. He says, “In the Christian theology of history, the death of Christ is the central point of history; here all roads of the past converge; hence all the roads of the future diverge.”

     Everything in the Old Testament was resolved in the cross and everything in the New originated from the cross. The cross is the center of history. And so this Lenten season we remember that the cross that is at the center of history is at the center of our lives.

 

A Brief Introduction to an Amazing Christian: Fanny Crosby

    I recently read a short biography by Warren Wiersbe about an amazing woman named Fanny Crosby. You may know of her as the writer of some of your favorite hymns such as Blessed Assurance, He Hideth My Soul, and All the Way, My Savior Leads Me. But there are a few other things you should know about her that will help you grow in appreciation for her.

1. She was blind from the age of six months. As a baby, Fanny Crosby developed inflammation around her eyes. Due to carelessness by the doctor, who could never forgive himself, she was left blind after treatment. However, as she got older, she never grew disheartened by her disability. In fact, she saw it as a gift from God that would help her to serve him. Essentially, because she was blind, she could see things other people couldn’t. At just eight years old she wrote her first hymn saying,

Oh, what a happy child I am,
    Although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
    Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
    That other people don’t!
So weep or sigh because I’m blind,
    I cannot, or I won’t!

    Further, she had no ill-will toward the doctor who blinded her. In fact she said later in life, “If I could meet him now, I would say ‘Thank you, thank you’—over and over again—for making me blind.” For “I could not have written thousands of hymns if I had been hindered by the distractions of seeing all the interesting and beautiful objects that would have been presented to my notice.”

2. She received a timely lesson of humility. As a teenager, Fanny became known and praised in both her school for the blind and community for her poetry. Worried that the praise would go to her head, the superintendent of the school called her into his office and “gently warned her to beware of pride.” He encouraged her to use her gift to glorify God rather than herself.
    Many of us would be insulted or discouraged by this kind of frank counsel, but she later admitted, “His words were bombshells, but they did me an immense amount of good.” If only we were all as open to advise and critique as Fanny Crosby was at such a young age!

3. She wrote about seeing Christ. Many of Crosby’s over 8,000 hymns include references to seeing her Savior. Warren Wiersbe notes that the best know reference appears in the chorus of her hymn Saved by Grace, which says,

And I shall see Him face to face,
    And tell the story—Saved by grace.

Sex, Power, and the Image of God

    Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, George H.W. Bush, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and now even Garrison Keilor. These are just a few of the high-profile men who have been accused of sexual impropriety (to put it lightly in some cases) by women in the past few weeks. Some of these men we probably never viewed as bastions of morality, but others are genuinely shocking.
    What are we to think in the midst of this national epidemic? What should we keep in mind when the next cascade of celebrities fall? I’m going to highlight some things we need to know about this issue as Christians.

1. This is more common that we know. Perhaps the only thing more disturbing that what we’re hearing about sexual assault and harassment today is the things we’re not hearing. In the general public, studies by the Department of Justice have found that 20 million out of 112 million women have been raped during their lifetime. Of these, only 16% of rapes are reported. (Statistics from the DOJ via Joe Carter on tgc.org.) If these are the shocking numbers for rape, you can just imagine what the numbers must be for the more common crimes of sexual assault or harassment! For women aged 18-24 alone, there are nearly 100,000 sexual assaults each year. And for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 344 are reported. All of this is to say for every story we have heard there are many, many more that remain unspoken for reasons of embarrassment, fear, or pressure from the perpetrator.

2. The root problem is even more common. At the heart of this problem, I believe, is not the abuse of power—though this is still an incredibly important discussion we’ll write about next week—but rather the objectification of women. And this is a problem, not just in Hollywood, but in most homes in the United States, and it starts long before someone does those things we’ve heard about recently on the news.
    Looking just at men, 97% of men have viewed pornography at some point I their lives. Over two out of three men (between ages 18-49) report that they view pornography at least once a month. The number only goes down to 50% for men between the ages of 50-68. Sadly, the number does not go down much, if at all, for Christian men. All of these numbers show that for all the progress women have made, the objectification of women is easier and more common than ever.
    And this, as I’ve said, is at the heart of the problem. Imagine a man who has taken solace in the fact that although he views pornography sometimes, he hasn’t done anything like Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer. But of course the question is what would he do if he had more power? What if instead of looking at that actress on his computer he controlled her employment? What if he had some leverage over these women that he could use to his advantage? Considering he already sees these women as objects for gratification on his computer, would it really surprise anyone if he saw them as objects in person?
    Until we stop seeing women (or men in some cases) as objects and start seeing them as people made in the image of God and died for by Jesus Christ, we will always have more “Harvey Weinsteins” in the world. As Christians, let us remember that each and every person is loved by God and should not ever be objectified. To do so is to reduce God’s wonderful, cherished creation to a disposable thing.

3. We hunger for justice. Just a decade or two ago Christians were up in arms about postmodernism. At the heart of postmodernism is the idea that absolute truth doesn’t exist. This, of course, undercut morals and the idea that something could be truly wrong or evil. Those categories go out the window.
    As we see the public reaction to these crimes and transgressions, we see the end of postmodernism. People hear these stories and say without hesitation that something wrong has been done. And people believe this so strongly that they want justice. They want people to lose their jobs and go to jail.
    Many people today have found the concept of a Judgment Day offensive. Considering the stats we saw last week about how many of these crimes go unreported, it is clear we need it. We need someone who not only knows and punishes what gets reported, but someone who knows all the things that don’t come out to the light and deals with them (eternally) according to perfect knowledge and justice.

4. Maybe a little repression isn’t so bad. For a long time people worried about the dangers of repressing sexual desires. The idea was that you shouldn’t hold them in. If you did it would lead to all kinds of frustration and even violent behavior.
    Sadly there are many women who wish these men had repressed their desires. Oftentimes we and the people around us are greatly blessed by a little repression. Whether it’s anger, pleasure, or the impulse to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, we need to rule over our desires rather than be ruled by them.
    This means telling ourselves the one word we usually don’t want to hear, especially if we’re rich and powerful… “No.” Not all the time, but when we need to hear it.
    Of course, God tells us in his word the appropriate ways to express our desires. He establishes the boundaries, and they are good.

    Actually, they would have really come in handy for some men who found themselves in the news recently.



 

A "Grace-Alone" Church Part I

     The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is right around the corner (October 31st). As we reflect on this momentous occasion, it's worth asking "What would a "grace-alone" church look like today?" Carl Trueman wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition (tgc.org) looking to answer this very question. We don't have room to include all ten of his points (even if we look at them over two weeks), but here are some key excerpts. He says that a grace-alone church...

1. Takes sin seriously
     Grace is not simply a sentiment or attitude in God. It is God's concrete response to human sin. This means a proper understanding of grace depends on a prior, proper understanding of sin and the human predicament.
     If we attend church to feel good about ourselves or to learn some tips on how to live better, we are missing the point. Such attitudes indicate that we see the human problem as one of human psychology or a lack of real knowledge. We fail to see where the real issue lies. Until we see sin as the problem, we won't understand the nature of God's prescribed solution. No grace-filled church will be unclear about the problem grace is meant to address.

2. Takes Christ seriously
     
If sin is the problem, grace is not simply God's benevolent decision to ignore it and pretend the fall never happened. Grace in the Bible, and among the greatest exponents of grace in the history of theology, is embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is God's action to deal with sin, in Christ and in the application of Christ to the individual by the Holy Spirit.
     A grace-alone church will not just talk about grace; she will talk about Christ. If we speak of grace without speaking the name of Christ, we are not speaking biblically of grace. In the Bible, grace is so intimately connected to Christ that Christless talk is graceless talk.

3. Takes corporate worship seriously
     
For the Reformers - as for the early church and medieval fathers - the gathering of the visible church was important. In fact, we can say it was the most important thing for them. Certainly, it was so important for the medievals largely because of their high sacramentalism, something the Reformers rejected. But even so, the Reformers believed that the church is God's creation, and that it is the place where grace is found through the proclamation of God's Word and the administration of the sacraments. 
     We live in an age in which church is often regarded as an optional add-on to the Christian faith, or as a place we go to learn the Bible, to make some good friends - a context for social interaction. A church that takes grace alone seriously knows that while all those things may be true, the primary reason we go to church is to receive God's grace through the Word and sacraments. It is with the gathering of saints on the Lord's Day that we receive what we need, strengthening us to go about our daily callings for the rest of the week.

Soli Deo Gloria

     "A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God."

     For many years, it was believed that there was a stiff separation between the sacred and the seclar. Priests, monks, and nuns could serve the Lord by doing "Spiritual work," but the average, everyday person was thought to be doing merely "temporal work," while those who did lay jobs were doing worldly work.

     It's not hard to see which is more valuable.

     But Luther turned all of this on its head. He read verses like 1 Peter 2:5, which says, "You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." From this he taught that each Christian, whether he or she is a Pope or a painter, is a holy priest. Luther wrote, "There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, exept for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests have the same work to do."

     The takeaway is simple: everyone can and must serve the Lord in whatever their vocation. You don't have to preach sermons or go to seminary. Everything, from writing computer code to pounding nails, can and should be done "to the glory of God alone."

     God is simply honored when work is done well. Colossians 3:23-24 says, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ." All work can be done for God and his glory.

     One man who serves as an example to us all is Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was a strong Lutheran born 167 years after the reformation. It was customary for a composer to initial the bottom of each composition. But instead of the J.S.B. you would expect, Bach would sign each composition, "S.D.G." Soli Deo Gloria! Everything done to the glory of God alone!

     May everything we do in our work be stamped "S.D.G." Every diaper changed, every order delivered, every email sent is done for God's glory.

     Lord give us eyes to see our work in this way!

 

Fellowship

    I enjoyed cooking for about one month of my life. I was a young wife, confident that marriage would suddenly transform me into someone who enjoyed baking homemade bread and roasting chickens. But once I started my first teaching job--a demanding course load at a school that was over an hour away from our apartment in Eau Claire--my enthusiasm faded fast.

    I made meals rather grudgingly for many years, until my imagination was stirred by The Supper of the Lamb, an unusual theological cookbook by an Anglican priest. Robert Farrar Capon caught me by surprise with his enthusiasm for food. He spent an entire chapter of the book contemplating an onion, describing how the paper-thin layers of dry and brittle onion-skin do not prepare you for the unavoidable assault on your senses that occurs when you discover the watery juices inside. He saw every food as a reflection of God’s delight in creation and his generosity towards us. Capon taught me how to appreciate an onion, and indirectly, how to reconsider all the common ingredients I was getting tired of storing, preparing, consuming, and replacing.

    Then I followed that book by reading Tim Chester’s A Meal With Jesus. Chester taught me to look at the Bible again and recognize how central food and eating were to the story God unfolds. The Bible, I realized, begins in a garden and ends with a marriage feast, and in between there is food all over: manna from heaven and a passover lamb and miraculous surpluses of fish and loaves (not to mention the Last Supper.)

    Chester celebrates how important food was to Jesus’ ministry--how he multiplied bread to show his power over creation and how he broke bread to demonstrate his willingness to fellowship with tax collectors and prostitutes. I was transformed by Chester’s call to see food as “gift, generosity, grace.” Jesus reclining at the table of friends is such a shocking picture of grace. God, the gracious host of our planet, receiving hospitality as a guest. Jesus, the righteous and eternal one, with feet that need washing and a belly that needs filling. The Son of God at the table with the least of these. What a surprising way to envision our Lord and Savior.

    I’m probably still better at writing about food than I am at cooking it. But I get excited when I remember that we can have so many of our physical and spiritual needs met at a dinner table.

    All that to say, I hope you’ll take advantage of our Three for Three fellowships this fall. We long to see everyone at Gateway grow in grace through fellowship, and often times the best friendships begin over a shared meal. Something powerful happens when we come to the table with gratitude and generosity.

    I can imagine all the reasons you might use to excuse yourself from signing up: the time and energy and expense it takes to prepare a meal worthy of guests is intimidating, and the effort it takes to align schedules can be daunting. But I hope you’ll lay aside all of the excuses when you consider how much there is to gain from our time together in fellowship. (If you do feel there’s something that would truly prevent you from participating, let us know as we can almost always find ways to accommodate!) We all have much to learn both by giving and receiving hospitality, and much to gain from time spent in the company of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Following Nabeel's Lead

    In today’s sermon we’re going to hear a bit about the testimony of Nabeel Qureshi, a man who converted from Islam to become a follower of Christ. The process was long and painful, but as he persistently studied the evidence for each belief, he came to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the Son of God who died and rose again. As you would expect, this completely changed his life, but it also forever changed how he saw others. Listen to the moment when he first saw someone in a new light; perhaps it will help us to see people the same way. He said:

Then I saw something that I had seen countless times before; a man walking down the sidewalk toward the medical school.
       
But that was not all I saw. Though I had no idea who this man was, I knew he had a dramatic story, replete with personal struggles, broken relationships, and splintered self-worth. Taught by the world that he was an outcome of blind evolution, he subconsciously valued himself as exactly that: a byproduct of random chance, with no purpose, no hope, no meaning except what pleasure he could extract out of the day. Chasing these pleasures resulted in guilt and pain, which caused him to chase more pleasure, which led to more guilt and more pain. Burying it all just beneath the surface, he went about his day with no clue how to break the cycle, hoe to find true hope.
    What I saw was a man who needed to know that God could rescue him, that God had rescued him. This man needed to know about God and His power.
    Did he know? Did he know that God loved him from the foundation of the earth? With a power far exceeding the immensity of the cosmos, He turned all His attention to creating that man and declared, “You are My child. I love you.”
    Did he know that God made him exactly how He wanted, knowing each hair on his head and each second of his life? God knew full well that the hands He gave to this man would be used to sin against Him, that the feet He gave to this man would be used to walk away from Him. Yet, instead of withholding these gifts, He gave him the most precious gift of all: His own Son.
    Did he know that God entered into this world, to suffer in his stead? Received with slaps and fits by the very people He came to save, He was scourged until His skin fell off in ribbons, only to be pierced through both arms and feet, nailed naked on wood for all to ridicule? He scraped His skinless back on splintered wood with each rasping breath, His last breath finishing the task of rescuing us, securing our eternity with Him.
     
Did he know? Of course not. We have to tell him.
     
While I was wallowing in self-pity, focused on myself, there was a whole world with literally billions of people who had no idea who God is, how amazing He is, and the wonders He has done for us. They are the ones who are really suffering. They don’t know His hope, His peace, and His love that transcends all understanding. They don’t know the message of the gospel.
    After loving us with the most humble life and the most horrific death, Jesus told us, “As I have loved you, go and love one another. “How could I consider myself a follower of Jesus if I was not willing to live as He lived. To die as He die? To love the unloved and give hope to the hopeless?
     
This is not about me. It is about Him and His love for His children.
     Now I knew what it meant to follow God. It meant walking boldly by His Spirit of grace and love, in the firm confidence of everlasting life given through the Son, with the eternal purpose of proclaiming and glorifying the Father.
     
Now I had found Jesus.

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