Rethinking The Race

I have never been the fastest runner. My soccer coach compared me to a freight train: slow to get moving, took a lot to keep moving, and hard to stop. Not only is that the likeliest explanation for my early transition to goalie, but perhaps it is also why an enduring visual memory from my elementary school days is of an out-and-back race. As I recall it, everyone was supposed to run out to a cone, run around it, and come back to the starting line. As I was lumbering up to my cruising speed, heading towards the cone, I began to see the faces of my classmates looking at me with triumph and pity as they raced in the opposite direction just inches from my left shoulder. They had already been to the cone, made the turn, and were heading back. And I was woefully behind.

I think that’s where Christ’s Church is at right now. We’ve spent the past two centuries getting up to speed, lumbering towards a wholehearted embrace of materialism and its attendant technology, and we are surprised to see that some of the irreligious masses we were running after have turned the corner and are looking at us pityingly as they speed back towards the numinous. But who said we had to go all the way to the cone?

When a friend shared Tim Dawson’s recent article in The Critic, this quote caught my eye: “Twitter and the twenty-four hour news-cycle is no place for a creature with a soul.”

I couldn’t agree more. We are creatures with souls and even irreligious Millennials are beginning to grasp the fact. The Church has much more to offer than modernism/individualism/escapism repackaged with a biblical twist.

I pray that the Church realizes that instead of running full-tilt after our culture, we could actually get ahead of the pack in an instant if we’d turn around now and go back to where we started.

I’d encourage you to read Dawson’s article here.

As a bonus, check out this article from Pew Research as well.

Why Do I Preach The Way I Do?

“Why do you preach the way you do?” 

When I was asked this question recently, I hesitated before answering. Not because I didn’t know my answer, but because I was unsure how to express my preaching philosophy in “normal” conversation. And I knew that the question arose because my preaching is markedly different from what is considered “normal” for our part of the country. So, I stumbled through what I thought was a confusing and meandering explanation. To my surprise, my friend said that it had been helpful and maybe I should write it down. So, (with significant editing for clarity) I did.

Why I Preach the Way I Do 

I want people to focus on Jesus

I generally don’t preach sermons with titles like “7 Biblical Tips for Handling Money” or “3 Goals for a Godly Marriage.” It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with such sermons or such titles, but I believe that a steady diet of such preaching gives the impression that the purpose of the Bible is to help individuals get ahead in life. That’s not what the Bible is for: it is intended to point us to Jesus. I want to avoid taking the focus off of Jesus and putting it on the hearer’s self-improvement. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that attempting to use the Word for any other purpose than seeing Him is futile and won’t produce the life God desires for His people: 

You don’t have his word residing in you, because you don’t believe the one he sent. You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.

John 5:38-40

Instead of preaching sermons that reinforce our culture’s obsession with the self, the supposed source of satisfaction, I want to preach sermons that counter-culturally put all of the attention on Jesus, the true and only source of eternal life. 

I want people to get wisdom from the Word of God

When I preach, I try to make the point of the text the point of my sermon. I try to communicate the author’s intent for his original audience in a way that makes it clear for my audience. I try to use illustrations that either come from the text or reinforce the text. Why? Because people don’t need one more guy with a big head expounding his brilliant ideas or sharing memorable anecdotes (they’re getting plenty of that from social media and cable news). Instead, we need today what God’s people have always needed: God’s Word. Isaiah points out the reason why: 

A voice was saying, “Cry out!” Another said, “What should I cry out?” “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever.”

Isaiah 40:6-8

I am grass; the people listening to me are grass. My wisdom, such as it is, is like a flower; the audience’s attention span is like a flower. What happens to grass and flowers? They dry up and disintegrate over time. But the Word of God never will. I want to preach what lasts, not what won’t. 

I want people to know the breadth and depth of God’s Word

You are what you eat. I know it’s been said before, but people don’t generally remember what they ate for lunch three weeks ago. But that lunch affected them, remembered or not. It was taken in and broken down into constituent parts. Some of it stayed to become fuel and raw materials for building up the body, while some of it was expelled as waste. It was unremembered but productive nonetheless. I view preaching in much the same way: people won’t remember my sermons but, Lord willing, they will be gradually transformed by them. So, I want to ensure that they are getting a well-balanced diet, not a steady stream of favorite treats. Potato chips are generally more appealing than celery sticks: it is tempting to concentrate on familiar and favorite texts of the Bible and ignore the large chunks that seem difficult or irrelevant. Acts 20 records a meeting that the apostle, Paul, had with the elders of the church at Ephesus. During that meeting, he says, “…I declared to you the whole counsel of God.”

I want to be able to say the same thing because I know that we need the whole counsel of God, not just the parts we like. Because I don’t want to give people just what is easy to hear or easy to preach, I do not generally pick and choose Bible verses. Instead, I start preaching at one end of a biblical book and preach all the way through it to the other end. That way, I am sure we are receiving a complete meal, i.e., eating our “veggies” and our “potato chips.” Not skipping around means that we will both be wrestling with complex ideas and reveling in comforting passages.  

I want people to experience heart change 

Preachers are often like parents: we know that outward conformity is not the same thing as inward transformation, but it’s tempting to push for what we can see quickly rather than what lasts but takes more time. I don’t want to give in to temptation: I want to challenge myself and the people to whom I preach to be transformed, not merely modify their external behavior. This desire means that I try not to demand particular responses from people but trust the Spirit of God to stir and direct their hearts. Put another way: I do not want to cajole people into doing what I want them to do, what tradition says they must do, or what anyone else thinks they should do: I want them to do what God wants them to do. So, I rarely call for specific external behavioral responses (“don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do”). Instead, I trust that they will, through the Word and the Spirit, “not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of [their] mind, so that [they] may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God,” as Romans 12:2 says. 

Transformation begins with a mind set on the things of God, not with legalistic attempts to look better than we are. Behavior does change, but only changes that begin with a changed heart and mind will last. 

I want people to move towards community

We live in an increasingly individualistic culture. The chief (and some would say only) tenet of Wicca is now the creed for many people from every walk of life, including many inside the church: “do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t keep someone else from doing what they want.” Social media, entertainment culture, and much popular preaching reinforce the idea that the purpose of life is to “self-actualize,” whatever that means. The Good News of God’s Kingdom is reduced to “living your best life now” and “going to heaven when you die.” I guess the thought is that you get to do whatever you want without interference now and then continue for all of eternity. A terrible side effect of this idea is that it inevitably drives people further and further apart until, in the end, they are left with themselves, by themselves, and with no idea of how to even reconnect with others. I don’t want my preaching to reinforce this individualism. Instead, I try to preach the community-creating aspects of the kingdom even louder. Paul, writing to the Ephesian church, expresses the gospel’s effect of bringing individuals into a community: 

So, then, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22

I am not the temple of God: we are the temple of God. I am not a foreigner and a stranger to you: we are fellow citizens and family members. My goal in preaching is to speak to and about “us” as much or more than I do to or about “I” or “you.”

I want people to wonder and be curious and ask questions

One of the most intriguing statements in Jesus’ teaching is found in Mark’s Gospel. He records Jesus giving his parable of the soils and then writes, 

“when he was alone, those around him with the Twelve asked him about the parables. He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables.”

Mark 4:10-11

I wondered about this statement for some time before a friend of mine, who led a college ministry and frequently took students through the Gospel of Mark, shared his insight with me: the secret of the kingdom is to be curious enough to ask Jesus for the answers. This insight led to me reexamining my preaching in light of Jesus’ example. I quickly realized that Jesus taught in a very open-ended style. He didn’t answer every possible question; indeed, he frequently seemed to introduce questions that he didn’t answer, all to get people curious enough to follow up with him. That doesn’t mean that I want to be intentionally obscure, but that my teaching should invite mature and ongoing conversation, rather than passive reception of my spoon-feeding the audience a perfectly blended and balanced puree that requires no further thought from them. Nor does it mean that I think I am the “jesus” who people should come to for the answers: instead, I want to go with them to the Word and work out His meaning together. 

I want people to leave on mission

The goal of my preaching is not to gather a bunch of people together to sit in front of me, entertain them so well that they’ll invite their friends to sit with them the next week, and repeat that until Jesus comes back. Instead, my goal is to see people move “from the seats to the streets,” as another preacher said. I do not preach to gather a crowd but to send out citizen-ambassadors to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom. In Romans 10, Paul shows the goal of biblical preaching: 

“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”

Romans 10:13-15

Paul is envisioning a circular sequence: Salvation is a result of calling on the name of the Lord, which happens when someone believes in the gospel that they have heard preached by someone who was sent as a result of having been saved by calling on the name of the Lord for salvation. 

I do not want to gather the same group of people each week to hear me opine about various topics: I want to preach to those sent to proclaim. Towards that end, a significant focus of my preaching is on the call for those who hear to go out and declare the truth that Jesus is King. I want people to be continually leaving the congregation I serve to go and take the gospel to places it has not been or has been forgotten. Going back to the beginning, I want the focus to stay on Jesus, and He calls His people to go, not sit. 

That’s why I preach the way I do. 

Dr. Todd Gray on Membership

There are certain people who, when they speak, I listen. Dr. Todd Gray is one of those people. His evangelistic heart, pastoral mindset, and servant leadership (not to mention his ability to say more in a 20-minute sermon than I can say in a 60-minute sermon) are an example and encouragement to me.

So his recent blog post caught my eye and I was struck by his list of seven of the responsibilities of a church member:

  1. I am responsible to attend the services of my church
  2. I am responsible to give financially to the work of my church
  3. I am responsible to pray for my congregation
  4. I am responsible to guard the unity of the church
  5. I am responsible to grow as a Christian
  6. I am responsible to serve according to my gifts and availability
  7. I am responsible to share the good news of Jesus

Needless to say, that’s a challenging list, especially because it’s not complete. And then this alliterative statement jumped out at me: “…a pandemic of personal preference.” He was identifying a problem in church culture and that line drove it home! I asked myself the question, “how often have I let my engagement in the Body of Christ be driven more by my preferences and “rights” than by the Word and the needs of those around me?”

I encourage you to read the full post here: https://toddgray.org/2022/01/31/members-or-owners/

7 Reasons Churches Shouldn’t Celebrate Pastor Appreciation Month

As far as months go, October really stands out. Fall colors in the trees, lots of crisp mornings and clear nights, the sudden availability of pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more.

Unfortunately, it’s also Pastor Appreciation Month. It may seem strange that I, a pastor, would lament that this month has been unofficially but nonetheless nationally recognized as “Pastor Appreciation Month.” And yet, I do.

I have read posts from other pastors, church leaders, and church members expressing the necessity of a month dedicated to appreciating pastors. I’ve read guides for how to give better gifts during this month. But I’ve read startlingly few pieces questioning whether or not we should actually have this weirdly-niche holiday in the first place.

Because I don’t think we should have it.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s biblical to appreciate pastors; I just don’t think Pastor Appreciation Month is the best way to go about it. I understand that I am probably in the minority. If your church still chooses to celebrate it, I don’t plan on fighting you over it. But here are seven reasons I think churches shouldn’t celebrate Pastor Appreciation Month:

1. It is artificial

Pastor Appreciation Month isn’t a natural holiday, like New Year’s Day. It’s not a civic holiday like July 4th. It’s not a religious holiday like Christmas.

It’s an artificial holiday. It was invented by a group of clergy in 1992, promoted by a prominent Christian organization in 1994, and bought into by Christian retailers throughout the country as a great way to unload their overstock of pastor’s office tchotchkes.  It’s not the only artificial holiday, nor does its artificiality mean it is automatically unworthy. (I mean, Valentine’s Day is a manufactured holiday, but ask a boyfriend or husband who has neglected it to his own detriment if it is a worthy holiday.)

But, its artificiality is a reminder of its dispensability. The church and its pastors survived for a long time without it, and we can do so again.

2. It is awkward for visitors

Imagine a scene with me: you have just moved to a new area. You’ve never really been a church-goer, but the new setting, loneliness, and curiosity have led you to “check out” the church down the street. You walk in, are warmly greeted, chat with someone you recognize from the office of your apartment complex, and sit down in a well-lit, comfortable room. A guy gets up and prays to start the worship service. A band plays songs that, while unfamiliar, tug at your heart and bring a few tears to your eyes. Then, another guy gets up, directs you to open the Bible you find under the seat in front of you, and shares a message that clearly comes from his heart and touches yours. He closes with a prayer, the band plays another song, and you are suffused with a sense of God’s goodness.

And then someone else stands up, grabs a microphone, and talks for five minutes about how much the pastor does for the church people, and how they should appreciate him every day, but especially this month, and that there will be an usher at the door with an offering plate, and everyone should give whatever they can so the church can buy him a nice gift.

How awkward is it for you, a non-church-going, non-pastor-knowing, first-time-visitor, to hear that announcement? What thoughts run through your mind as your contemplation of God is interrupted by it? Imagine what you’re feeling as you walk past that overeager usher pushing that plate in front of you?

Not good, right? Not only can it be a shockingly abrupt and uncomfortable intrusion, but it can also reinforce the lie that pastors are all about getting your money.

We are often tragically inattentive to the visitor amid our church gatherings, but even more so in our celebration of Pastor Appreciation Month.

3. It is awkward for church regulars 

Pastor Appreciation celebrations can be uncomfortable for church regulars, as well.

The typical bon mots about how hard pastors have it can sound a bit contrived to the ears of the single mom who serves in the nursery every week even though she works two jobs to make ends meet while she struggles to raise her kids alone.

The call to give generously in October can weigh heavily on the middle-aged man whose 20 years at the factory have him making a salary that’s half the pastor’s regular pay package.

The widow who struggles with loneliness may berate herself for the jealousy she feels when this person who has never even learned her name is praised as God’s gift to the saints.

Then there’s the false guilt that comes when someone forgets to organize a celebration or when they compare what their church did to what the bigger church down the street did or when the pastor seems ungrateful for what they did do.

Whatever the cause, Pastor Appreciation Month can lead to some awkward feelings and situations for those who are a part of the church but not a pastor.

4. It is awkward for pastors 

But it’s not just awkward for guests and church regulars; it is awkward for pastors, too.

Most pastors, myself included, really struggle with receiving compliments and gifts when it’s just one person giving them. We know that any good in us, any ability, any quality, is solely of God, not ourselves, so the compliment or gift ought to be directed at him and not us. And yet we don’t want to seem hyper-spiritual or falsely humble by denying the giver’s gift. So we stumble through a “thank-you” and feel like it isn’t enough and yet is too much, at the same time.

Now, compound that by 100, and you have the typical struggle of a pastor facing his congregation after they just feted him with a celebration dinner, had several church leaders speak about his excellencies, and handed him a generous financial gift.

What can he say, and how should he say it?

Or, the awkwardness can derive from another angle. Imagine a pastor who just accepted a call to his first church. He remembers October as Pastor Appreciation Month from his time as a church member. He thinks of the cruise that church sent the pastor and his wife on, the cards he made in Sunday School as a kid, the deacon chairman’s pat on the pastor’s back.

Then, his first October rolls around, and it’s crickets at his new church. Nobody says anything, does anything or acknowledges the occasion. His expectations weren’t met.

That’s awkward. But it could have been avoided if we simply got rid of Pastor Appreciation Month.

5. It cheapens pastoral ministry

One of the chief arguments for Pastor Appreciation Month seems to boil down to the fact that pastors have a hard job. But most pastors I know don’t need the reminders about how hard ministry is: they’re living that reality. But most pastors I know are still glad to serve. They didn’t get into ministry for recognition or an easy life: they did it to follow Christ’s commands. They don’t want to be singled out, they don’t want to be rewarded on earth: they’re looking forward to Jesus being exalted and joining with the saints in a heavenly reward.

Pastor Appreciation celebrations and gifts can give the impression, however unintentional, that the hard work of ministry can be rewarded here and now. That cheapens it. Pastoral ministry is not about what it gains the pastor in the here and now, and any pastor worthy of the title is not looking for such menial reward anyway.

These gifts can also be potentially manipulative or coercive. A church that gives a large Pastor Appreciation gift may be trying to keep a pastor in line. A pastor who receives such a gift may feel pressure to avoid saying or doing things that God’s Word demands of him for fear of offending his generous congregation. Either way, the ministry is diminished, changed from something that is God-directed to something that is financially-steered.

I understand that the same could be said for pastoral salaries. However, most churches provide a salary to free up the hours a pastor would generally spend working to provide for his family so that he can focus on his ministry. In such cases, the salary is not a reward, but a substitute designed to enable his service. The argument would stand, however, if a church or pastor viewed his salary as the bait on the hook for keeping him around or the stick for keeping him in-line or as payment for services rendered.

Regardless of your stance on that broader discussion, however, Pastor Appreciation Month doesn’t diminish the difficulty of the task; it cheapens it.

6. It reinforces the unhealthy clergy/laity distinction in our churches 

Frankly, I was torn on whether to put this reason first or last (the places where “science” tells us things are remembered most). I ended up not putting it first because it is too heavy a topic, and you would have quit reading. I didn’t want to put it last, because I wanted to not just be a Debbie Downer and actually give some positive statements about appreciating pastors at the end. So, here is where it landed and I hope you don’t forget it.

That October is Pastor Appreciation Month is one of the funniest ironies in all of Christendom. Why? Because it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther first posted his 95 theses. While this document was basically an extended argument against the pope selling salvation to the highest bidder, it sparked the widespread movement we call the Protestant Reformation. (Ok, the funny part takes a while to develop). One of the fundamental tenets of the Reformation was the priesthood of every believer. This was opposed to the Catholic Church’s insistence that there was a distinction between the clergyman and the layperson. (Still developing…). The Reformation sought to reestablish the New Testament principle that, while every believer is gifted differently to serve, every believer’s gifts are essential, and all believers are equal. Yet, in October, the same month that kicked off a movement that sought to abolish the clergy/laity distinction, we reinforce just such a division with our celebrations (Hahaha! Get it? Ok, maybe it’s not as funny as I first thought).

The point is that Pastor Appreciation Month can, by definition, reinforce the perception that the pastor is the “professional” Christian and that the “amateur” Christian’s job is to recognize and encourage him and be his audience rather than his co-laborers. This continues the Catholic error of separating out one class of Christ-follower apart from all the others and elevating it in importance. Pastors may have God-given authority for their flocks in Christ, but they are also still sheep in need of the gifts of their fellow flock-members.

7. It can be a substitute for biblical pastor appreciation 

Finally, celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month can serve as a substitute for what the Bible actually commands as pastor appreciation. It is so much easier to write a card, write a check, and write off the much harder ways in which Scripture calls us to express our appreciation for those who lead us in the faith.

Look at Hebrews chapter 13:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

“Consider their way of life…imitate their faith…obey…submit” so that they can “do this with joy and not with groaning.”

That’s much harder, but I assure you that every single pastor I know would find such a lifestyle of appreciation much more valuable than any once-yearly gift or public thank you.

If that isn’t enough, look at 1 Thessalonians 5:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

“Respect…esteem…love…be at peace” all the time, not just once a year.

Most pastors don’t ask for a month dedicated to appreciating them. But God does ask his people to live a lifestyle that speaks to an appreciation for their pastors, but that is ultimately devoted to Christ every day of the year.

What Now?

I don’t want to be the pastoral neighborhood curmudgeon, scowling and mumbling about confetti in my yard. I totally understand that most churches, church members, and pastors celebrate Pastor Appreciate Month with no intention of making things awkward, cheapening the ministry, or avoiding biblical commands. And many churches, either because they can’t pay their pastor enough, or because they love him so much, enjoy the opportunity to take up a collection and bless their pastor. And many pastors probably take what is given to them and use it to bless others. For these, and many more reasons, I hesitated to post this piece.

Still, for all the good that is intended with Pastor Appreciation Month, I worry about the perception of a money-hungry ministry, I struggle with the reinforcement of a professional ministry, and I long to elevate every Christ-followers’ ministry. The organizational declaration of a particular month dedicated to pastors isn’t helpful in any of those regards.

And, ceasing to observe Pastors Appreciation month in our churches in no way hampers individual Christians from expressing their gratitude for their pastors. In fact, it probably opens more opportunities, and more genuine ones, at that. If a husband only showed his love for his wife once a year, on Valentine’s Day, how do you think his wife would feel about their marriage? Just so, a pastor will feel more appreciated when he receives cards, calls, texts, conversations, etc. from genuinely thankful church members all year long, than just during the “official” holiday.

So, it is with genuine feeling that I’m asking us to stop celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month. Instead, I want to challenge us to prioritize a genuine “building-up” among the saints all year long.

With that in mind, here are some closing words for various readers:

Fellow Pastors: Sorry if I rained on our parade. And if I am in error in my views here, please reach out and correct me. (brandonmckayboone @ gmail.com, minus the spaces, is the best way to get in touch).

Personnel/Other Committee Responsible for Pastor Appreciation Month Plans: If you are in charge of coordinating your church’s corporate celebration of your pastor in October, consider going a different direction. Write a letter informing the church members of the church’s commitment to biblical pastoral appreciation. Encourage them to send individual cards to their pastors if they feel led. Point out the Hebrews and 1 Thessalonian passages and urge them to prayerfully consider how the Holy Spirit would lead them in response. Share this post with those who have concerns: blame me, if you need to. And feel free to email me at the same address I mentioned above in my word to fellow pastors if you have any questions.

Disgruntled Church Folks: Please don’t send this post to your pastor or others in your church on November 1st as a form of protest against their celebration of Pastor Appreciation Month. Be at peace with one another. Matthew 7 is still in the Bible. Don’t ignore your Lord’s commands. Don’t cause your pastor to serve with groaning.

Other Church Folks: Pastors are just like any other people. They love to be encouraged; they want to feel appreciated. But not only does Pastor Appreciation Month not check those boxes most of the time, but it’s also not sufficient when it does. Instead, look to the Word and seek to encourage your pastors by following Christ whole-heartedly all year long. If there is a message that is particularly helpful to you throughout the year, take time to let him know (be specific as to how it helped you if you want to be extra encouraging). If you see an admirable quality in him, write him a quick note saying how grateful you are for his Christ-like example. Appreciate your pastor, not just once a year.

Non-Church Folks: Why did you read these 2300 words, exactly? If you’re not committed to a local church and submitted to its leadership, there are no pastors for you to appreciate, once a year or every day. Find a local church, commit to it, submit to its leaders, and then figure out where you stand on the issue. Email me at the same address I mentioned above in my word to fellow pastors if you need help finding a local church.

King Jesus and the American Dream

Eliciting much sympathy for the American church is hard. It seems we have been blessed with more widespread freedom, leisure, and resources than any other geopolitically-defined group in Christian history. While brothers and sisters in Christ starve physically and endure persecution socially in places like North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia, and others, we sit, seemingly fat and fit.

But, while we are indeed physically fat, we are not spiritually fit. When the Christian best-sellers list is filled, year after year, with gussied-up, pseudo-spiritual, self-help titles in which a bible verse actually quoted in context is as rare as the Western Plains Jackalope, we’ve got a problem. When our chief spiritual export to the world is a false gospel that says to the less-fortunate, “if you have enough faith, God will give you the kind of life we enjoy by the accident of our having been born in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we’re sharing that problem. When both our pastors and the people they lead are more concerned with propping up a corrupt system of government than promoting the kingdom of Christ, we’ve crossed a line.

I know, I know: it’s not all bad. Incredible things are happening through various American churches, organizations, and individuals. But the primary weight of our collective Christianity is mired in a bog of spiritual apathy and ineptitude. The few still pulling us towards Christ are hampered, if not stymied, by that life-sucking weight.

What happened? How did all of our apparent advantages lead to this mind-boggling situation?

One reason is that we have an enemy and he convinced us that we could follow Jesus and live the American dream.

That Jesus could be our King and our lifestyle remain unchanged.

That so long as we prayed a prayer, sang some songs, and dropped 10% in the plate each Sunday, we could do what we wanted with the rest of our life.

That the needs of our brothers and sisters could be matters of prayer and not matters of sacrifice.

That our churches could glorify God even as they promoted their brand.

That concern for the poor is now the government’s job as we stuff our coffers and bedazzle our sanctuaries.

And it’s killing us. The lie that we can serve both God and money [or political power] is driving the American church over the cliff and into oblivion.

American Christians are certainly not the first in history to believe, erroneously, that we could have all the benefits of both this world and of the next. But we have mastered the art of trying.

We have stripped the call of Christ of its cost.

We have proclaimed the grace that saves while ignoring the fact that the same grace must sanctify.

We have dreamed up a discipleship full of instruction but freed from obedience.

More and more, I am convinced that the only hope for us, the American church, is to repent of our futile double-mindedness and return to the historical, biblical faith.

To recognize that,

“when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer

To proclaim that while

“faith alone saves, the faith that saves is never alone.” Calvin

To reinstate biblical discipleship:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…(and) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus

Let’s recapture the self-sacrificing, self-denying, others-seeking ethos of King Jesus and his kingdom and leave behind the self-promoting, self-satisfying, and others-ignoring lifestyle of our culture.

Let’s ditch the American Dream before Jesus ditches us.

Pray With Your Legs

“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Frederick Douglass

“Lift with your legs.”

Every weeknight, for a year, that’s the phrase I heard.

At the start of the shift: “Lift with your legs.”

After break time: “Lift with your legs.”

As I slept: “Lift with your legs.”

I worked as a part-time loader for a national shipping company and let’s just say workplace safety was important to them. We had group stretch before the shift, a safety briefing every night, and safety officers roaming the facility at all times.

“Lift with your legs.”

I resented it. As someone who grew up lifting hay bales, fence posts, and firewood with some regularity, I thought I knew something about working safely. I’d never torn a muscle, strained my back, or lost a limb.

So, I ignored the advice.

And, while you may have been expecting something different, I never had an accident at that job.

Nor at my next job, also one in which lifting heavy objects featured heavily.

“Lift with your legs” was advice for sissies. Or so I thought.

That is until about a year ago. Reaching for something small, I felt a twinge in my back. When I went to straighten up, the twinge became a stab as my lower back protested every movement.

Hot baths, a massage, lots of stretches, and about a week later I felt fine again.

The experience taught me a lasting lesson, however:

LIFT WITH YOUR LEGS!

See, I had made it 33 years ignoring that sound advice. And it hadn’t hurt me at any point along the way. But the cumulative effect of my idiocy was to make me more vulnerable to injury for the rest of my life.

If it was just my back, I’d shrug and move on, knowing that every body breaks down eventually. However, I see the same idiocy at work in my approach to spiritual things.

And that’s terrifying.

Prayer is a place where this is especially true.

Too often, I pray with just my head, engaged mentally. Or I pray with just my heart, engaged emotionally.

But, more and more, I am convinced that what I need is a spiritual safety officer standing over my shoulder reminding me: “pray with your legs.”

If you’re like me, you’ve heard that we should “carry our burdens to God in prayer and leave them there.”

Yes. That’s all well and good, but what if God wants us to do something about them?

One of the most fascinating examples of this occurs in Matthew 9 & 10. At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to the gospel need of the world around them. He uses the metaphor of harvest and harvest laborers:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

As a teenager, I took part in a 9:38 challenge. Every day, at 9:38 AM and PM, we prayed for the Lord to send laborers into the harvest. That challenge took seriously the need for disciples today to obey Jesus’ command to pray every bit as much as the original 12.

But what I somehow missed (not for lack of teaching by my pastors or parents) was that the end of chapter 9 is followed immediately by chapter 10. And in chapter 10 of Matthew, we read this:

And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction…These twelve Jesus sent out…

Do you see what I missed? The 12 who prayed for laborers to be sent out were the very ones sent out. They became, in essence, the answer to their own prayer!

That story is fascinating because of the lesson it teaches. We know God wants the Kingdom to grow and we know that Jesus told us to go. We feel the impact of the reality that there are still so many who have not heard the gospel.

And we pray out of that knowledge and that feeling. I’m afraid, though, that like young, foolish me ignoring the injunction to “lift with your legs,” we ignore the clear message of Kingdom prayer in the New Testament: pray with your legs. We pray for the harvest, we feel the need of the harvest, but we have no intention of joining in the harvest.

When we do the work of prayer with our heads and our hearts, but not with our legs, we set ourselves up for spiritual injury. Our souls begin to curve inwards, to atrophy, and to shrink. By not connecting what we pray with what we do, we eventually get to the point where anything can debilitate us: a sin over which we have no victory, a circumstance that causes us to shake our fist at God, and slight at church that causes us to leave.

It doesn’t matter how much knowledge we can cram into a prayer. It doesn’t matter how much feeling echoes through our words in prayer. If we don’t intend to do anything in response to God’s movement, we will be spiritual cripples eventually.

But if we take our knowledge and our feeling and then we engage our legs in what we pray, we’ll find ourselves equipped for a long, healthy spiritual life.

Our prayers have plenty of head and heart: let’s give them legs. Let’s pray for laborers to be sent and then let’s gladly go as the Lord sends us to be the answer to those prayers.

Let’s ask him to expand the Kingdom and then get out and start sharing the gospel with coworkers, and inviting widowed neighbors over for dinner, and giving sacrificially so a fellow disciple can move overseas. Let’s be the kind of people who give up hobbies, comfort, homes, possessions, and whatever else may be required to go take the gospel to those who’ve never heard.

The quote that appears at the top of this post is from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. A slave, Douglass prayed for freedom for twenty years, but as he said: “received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Douglass’s freedom required him to take action with his legs. His legs were the instrument that God used to answer his prayers.

As we pray for the harvest, I’m convinced ours will be as well.

Evangelism Shouldn’t Be Hard: It’s Just Telling People Good News

Evangelism Shouldn't Be Hard

Evangelism.
The mere word seems to send otherwise mature Christians running for the hills.
Potluck. “You know I’m in.”
Worship. “I hope we sing 10,000 Reasons again.”
But, “evangelism?”
“Uh, I’ve got something else going on.”

What is it about this word?

“Evangelism” is a Christianese word, but it shouldn’t be scary. When the New Testament was written, the word simply meant “the declaration of good news.” It was mainly associated with news about the king. The birth of a prince was good news. The coronation of a new king was good news. A king’s victory in battle was good news.

In our Christian context, evangelism is merely telling people the good news that the King was born. The good news that He died on behalf of messed up people like you and me. The good news that He rose again and is going to restore all things to their original, good design.

Telling good news isn’t a special skill. People don’t get degrees in “Delivering Good News.” Little kids, with no training whatsoever, are some of the best at telling good news: “Dad, dad, dad! You won’t believe it: I found a quarter!” “That’s great.” “No, it gets better: I bought, wait for it, a gumball with it!”

Somewhere along the line, we shifted things though. Evangelism went from being simply sharing Good News, to formulas, memorized outlines, and asking terrifyingly awkward questions. Moreover, it went from being something natural, like a kid excited about finding a quarter, to something you had to have specialized training for, a unique calling for.

Somewhere in the course of Christian history, evangelism moved from being the joy of every disciple to being the responsibility of a few specialists.

Reset

We need to reset the dial, regain the joy of every Christ-follower being engaged in telling the good news about the King.

To do that, we need to be reminded why it’s Good News in the first place. Jesus himself gives us a sketch of the Good News in John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Such a familiar verse, but one whose message has been lost in our evangelism-averse era of the faith. However, if we can regain an understanding of evangelism as simply telling good news…well, there is all sorts of good news here for us to share!

1. God’s unearned love is good news

The fact that God loves the world is a massive dose of good news. It’s especially good when you consider what Jesus means by “the world.” When he says that God loves the world, he’s not saying that God loves the penguins, and God loves the pandas, and God loves the butterflies. When he says that God loves the world, he’s talking about you and me. He’s talking about humanity, sinful humanity.

God created everything and has the right of creation to outline laws for his domain. He says, “here’s the way you ought to live. Here’s this good world that I’ve created.” And we throw it back in his face and say, “no thanks. We’re going to do it on our own.” We rebelled, and we continue to rebel.

We’re not worthy of God’s love.

And this verse tells us God loves us anyway.

He loves people who reject him. He loves the world, the broken, sin-ridden, filthily-foul, curse-riddled mess that we call humanity. He’s not waiting for us to love him: he loves us and invites us to encounter his love.

So, God’s love is good news, not because we love him and then he loves us, but because we hated him and he still loved us.

2. God’s gift of his Son is good news

People throw out the statement, “God is love” all the time. And, based on the context, many people never try to define that love. It’s like, to them, God is this big, amorphous blob of love, just oozing out everywhere with rainbows and cotton candy.

However, God’s love is clearly defined in Scripture. God loves in a very particular and a very costly way. It’s all right here in John 3:16: “For God SO loved the world that he gave his only Son…”

So.

We tend to interpret that “so” as meaning “God loved the world so much” as if Jesus was merely emphasizing the size of God’s love. Nope.

It means, “in this way.” God loved the world. How do you know? He gave his only Son.

God did something very specific to demonstrate the nature of his love because we needed at least two things to recognize his love: we needed to know who God really is and we needed someone to solve our sin problem.

Jesus reveals the true nature of God by being God. His birth, teaching, life, death, and resurrection show us God’s character and attributes more clearly than was ever revealed before.

That’s an act of love because we were created to know God and be known by him. When we rebelled against him, we lost that knowledge and humanity has been stumbling around in the dark, desperately creating gods in our own image, hoping to find the relational satisfaction we were created to enjoy but always coming up empty.

And when the scales fall from our eyes, and we see Jesus, our hearts leap and shout: “Here is the one who made me, who loves me, who calls me! Now I understand!”

But if all Jesus did was reveal God to us, our hearts would cease their exulting as our minds caught up: “But he’s so perfect, so right, so true and I’m so flawed, so evil, so false: I’m unable to relate to him because my rebellion has dug a chasm between us.”

So.

So, God didn’t just send Jesus to reveal himself: he sent Jesus to heal us. Jesus shows God’s perfection and then dies for our imperfection. The punishment that our sin deserved, death, Jesus takes into himself on the cross. He dies in our place. And because the punishment for our sin is accomplished, the guilt of our rebellion is done away with. That chasm is bridged, and all who will may walk across, back to fellowship with their Creator.

That’s good news.

3. God’s grace is good news.

So how do we walk across the bridge? Because it’s not enough for us to know who God is, that there’s something in us that’s broken, that has to be fixed. Somehow, it actually has to get fixed.

It gets fixed by us believing in Jesus. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s only by believing that Jesus is who he said he was and confessing him to be the Lord he is, that we can be saved.

Not, “work as hard as you can and hope that I’ll make up the difference.”

Not, “do x number of good deeds, pray y number of times, and never wet the bed, and I’ll let you off the hook.”

None of that. Believe.

You can’t earn God’s love, you can’t earn the solution to your sin, you can’t earn anything from God. Earning suggest owing and God owes his creation nothing. However, he offers everything to those who believe.

“It’s too easy,” we think. “Surely there’s something we have to do. Surely there’s something we have to contribute.”

Jesus says, “no, no, believe in me.”

That is God’s grace. God’s grace says you can’t earn it, you don’t deserve it, and yet God offers it anyway. This is why Paul tells us that the gospel is foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews. We want the good news of God’s forgiveness to require something of us, up front. We want it to require us to be smart, to work hard, to earn it somehow.

However, we can’t, we don’t, we won’t. It’s grace through faith, a simple act of faithful obedience, not to a list of rules, but to the call of our Lord: “believe in me.”

That’s good news.

4. God’s offer of eternal life is good news.

Too many people, including the one writing this post, are tempted to think that this life is where we need to find our satisfaction, happiness, and joy.

And every single one of us is going to die disappointed unless we change our minds on that subject. Because the fact of the matter is that this life is too full of brokenness, too full of heartache, too full of disease and death and sadness to ever be what we need it to be.

Whether you have $2,000,000 in the bank or you don’t have two pennies in your pocket, you’re going to face hardship in this life. Money’s not going to solve the problem.

Whether you’ve got a spouse who loves you and completes you and is your soulmate, or you’re stuck in a marriage and think that getting out is the answer, or you want to be married and you can’t seem to find anybody, a relationship is not going to give you the life that you expect.

Money won’t. Relationships won’t. Stuff won’t. Fame won’t. Power won’t. None of it is going to outweigh the difficulty that inevitably comes by continuing to breathe. Humans live in a world that is marked by sin. We experience the effects of both our sin and the sin of the people around us. We deal with hard times day by day by day, and if this life is meant to be our fulfillment, we got a raw deal.

Jesus says, “Here’s the deal: you don’t have to believe in me. You don’t have to take the love that God offers. You can seek fulfillment in this life, and you may come close, but you’re not going to find it because, in the end, you’re going to perish.

But then he says, “Wait. Those who do believe in me will be given eternal life.” And not life like it is now: life like God intended things to be, forever. No more pain, no more cancer, no more dying, no more rape, no more starvation, no more brokenness.

That’s good news.

Tell The Good News

Evangelism is just telling people, “Hey, good news: this world isn’t all there is. It’s broken, I’m broken, you’re broken. But God wants to fix the world, and me, and you. So he sent his Son. Want to learn more about him with me?”

That’s not so hard. Evangelism, in the traditional, churchy sense might be hard, but telling good news: that’s easy.

So, let’s do it. Let’s start telling people the Good News.

John 3:16 is a pretty good place to start.

Stop Treating Church Like The Olympics!

Ahh, the Olympics! That great quadrennial celebration of dedication, fortitude, drama, and patriotism!

I love the Olympics.

Unfortunately, I have not had much time to watch them this year. I did, however, get to have a conversation last night, though, that got me all caught up on what’s been going on.

But it also got me thinking, which is dangerous.

I began to think of the ways that members of the American church tend to treat church like we treat the Olympics. And, as much as I love the Games, I wish we’d stop using the same approach for our life as the Bride of Christ.

Viewing Worship As A Spectacle For Our Entertainment

The Olympics are entertaining. Most of us are mesmerized by the national pageantry, the dedication of the athletes, and the great human interest pieces the networks put together. We watch the Olympics because we are entertained by them.

And that’s ok.

But what about when we treat the church’s worship the same way? As a spectacle for our entertainment?

That’s a problem.

Don’t think we do it?

Have you ever gone out to eat with someone after a Sunday service? It seems that conversations over these meals inevitably includes at least one of the following statements:

“The atmosphere was so good today at church! When they did that spoken word breakdown in the middle of “My Chains Are Gone” I got goosebumps!”

“The music team was a little off today and I wish they wouldn’t do that one song.”

“Today’s message was so good! Pastor’s story about the fish and the donkey was hilarious!”

While there’s nothing wrong with talking about the service, the music, or the message over lunch on a Sunday, there’s a terrible temptation to evaluate those things on whether or not they “moved us” or whether or not we “got something” out of them.

But church worship isn’t supposed to entertain us: it’s supposed to glorify God and further his purposes in and through our lives. Reducing the worship service to something we evaluate on its capacity for amusing us is to imagine that it occupies the same space as the Olympic broadcast in our lives: something we watch rather than something we engage in.

Leave the Work to The Professionals

Which leads to a second way we treat church like the Olympics: we leave the work to the professionals.

Just like Joe the Plumber doesn’t compete as an Olympic figure skater, the average church-going person in the USA doesn’t serve in the church.

In the American church, we have predominantly accepted a model of ministry that draws a line between “normal” Christians (those who show up to events, throw a few dollars in the plate, and go home) and “professional” Christians (those who get paid to plan, advertise, and pull off church events).

But church is not defined in the Bible as a package of programs put on by professional pastors for the passive masses.

Just look at what Peter writes regarding the church:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10, CSB)

He’s talking about the church as a gathering of people redeemed by God, not as a group of plebes sitting on the one hand and watching a group of pastors work on the other. The church as a whole is to be engaged in the task of representing, praising, and declaring the glory of God in the Gospel.

In the same letter, he later writes:

“Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God.”

The assumption in Peter’s vision of the church is that everyone is engaged, everyone is serving, and that such service is stewardship of God’s grace.

Leaving the work to the professionals is poor stewardship. Every member of the church actively engaged in the ministry of the church is the biblical ideal.

Something That Has No Lasting Impact On Our Lives

Finally, it’s often tempting to treat church as something that, like the Olympics,  makes no lasting difference in our lives.

We’ve all been there: sitting there in front of the TV, munching on our potato chips, watching these lean, controlled, wired athletes accomplish seemingly superhuman feats. Then, it hits us: we’ve got to get in shape. We commit to sitting in front of the TV less, to eating fewer chips, to exercising more.

And then, four years later, we have the same thought as we sit in front of the TV again, eating our chips.

Too many Christians slog through their church years, listening to sermon after sermon, going to Bible study after Bible study, and yet there’s never a tangible difference in their lives. They still hate the same people they did when they started. They still have the same foul mouths they did before. It seems they never change.

Let’s be honest: sometimes “they” are “us.” Sure, we get inspired sometimes. Sure, we make promises of change. But, somehow, we never get around to it.

But church is supposed to be a radically transformative experience. As we interact with brothers and sisters and the Word and the Spirit, we’re supposed to start looking different.

Like the Olympics, so long as church is something that happens around us, in front of us, but not to us and never involving us, we’re never going to change.

The Solution

In all these ways, and more, we treat church like we treat the Olympics. But there’s a better way: get involved. Engage. Plug in. Do something.

Don’t view worship as a source of entertainment. Instead, view it as your joyous responsibility in Christ. Sing loudly, pray fervently, listen expectantly, give joyfully, and wait patiently.

Don’t see ministry as the exclusive domain of professionals. Rather, see it as an opportunity for you to showcase God’s glory through the gifts he has given you. Don’t know where to start? Just ask where you can serve. And even if it’s just by cleaning toilets or rocking babies, give it all you’ve got.

And don’t expect church to not make any difference in your life. Instead, expect your engagement with brothers and sisters to be continually transforming you to look more like Jesus. Expect change, help others change, and allow yourself to be changed.

Let’s leave spectating for the Olympics and jump into being the church with both feet!

Image by Roman Grac from Pixabay

Waiting For God’s Man

“It doesn’t take long for everything to go wrong.”

You could be forgiven if that is your initial thought when reading the Bible and starting in Genesis. It is a thousand-page book and everything is broken by page three.

It was off to such a good start, too. Genesis 1: God creates everything and everything is “very good.” Genesis 2: Mankind is given the tremendous privilege of filling the earth with more of God’s goodness and love. Genesis 3: Mankind listens to one of the beasts they are supposed to be reigning over and rebel against God, breaking everything for everyone.

It’s a tragedy and not a very long one.

The Promise Given

Or, it would be a tragedy if not for a promise that God makes in the midst of speaking his judgment against the snake, the woman, and the man.

In Genesis 3:15, a verse it is tempting to merely glance over as we read, we see a ray of hope for the future:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (ESV)

It’s tempting to read that and interpret it as a vague antagonism between women and snakes, and between humans and snakes. Except for the last clause: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” That is a singular, masculine pronoun.

And that is important. God is making a promise that one day, a man will come along who will gain victory over the serpent. To be sure, the serpent would get his blow in and bruise the man’s heel. But the man will bruise the serpent’s head.

The implication is that the man will suffer, but that it will not prove ultimately fatal. The blow to the snake’s head, however, will lead to his demise.

Hope!

See? We may merely glance at the statement, but it is pretty important: God is giving humanity hope! When Adam and Eve heard this promise, they understood that while the serpent’s deception had led them to lose everything, God’s promise would one day restore everything.

As they were clothed by God in animal skins, they understood that God was going to make a way for their lives to be redeemed.

As they were driven from the Garden of Eden, they understood that God would someday grant them safe passage back into his presence.

They understood these things because of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15.

Looking For God’s Man

How do we know? Because of what follows. In Genesis 4, we’re introduced to Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is born first and Eve’s reaction is telling: “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (ESV)

Why did it matter that she had gotten a man? Did Eve, a woman, believe that a man was inherently better than a woman? Maybe, though God had created both man and woman in his image. Did she merely rejoice because a man would be more useful in the labor of daily sustenance? Maybe, but not necessarily as women can be just as resilient in providing for their families.

It is far more likely that Eve was remembering God’s promise of a coming male offspring who would break the curse of sin by triumphing over the deceptive serpent, Satan.

But Cain wasn’t the promised one. Nor was Abel. We know that because of what happens next.

We see them worshipping God by each giving an offering to him. Abel’s offering to God is in line with what God had revealed in Genesis 3 by killing animals and clothing Adam and Eve: a blood sacrifice. Cain’s offering is the fruit of his labor in the fields: vegetation.

Both worshipping God. Both making an offering. But God accepts Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. There may not have been anything wrong with Cain’s offering, but we quickly see that there was something wrong with his heart.

Because when God rejects Cain’s offering, it reveals jealousy and rage that drive Cain to kill Abel. God deals with Cain, but we need to see his mother’s response to understand, again, how Adam and Eve understood God’s promise. Genesis 4:25 records Eve’s reaction to the birth of her third son, Seth: “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” (ESV)

Eve was still looking for the promised “offspring.” She trusted God and knew that Abel couldn’t be the promised one because he was now dead, unable to strike the blow to the serpent. And she knew that Cain, though he was still alive, couldn’t do it either: he had sullied his hands with the blood of his brother and was no longer worthy to spill the blood of the snake. The promised one would have to be pure, unstained by the lies of the serpent and rebellion against God.

But she had another son, by God’s hand, so she had hope.

But Seth wasn’t the promised one. Nor was his son Enosh. Nor was his grandson Kenan.

But mankind kept looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise. That’s what the genealogies in the Old Testament are there for: to help God’s people, those who trusted his promise, in their search for the promised one.

Generation after generation, name after name, there was hope for humanity because God had made a promise. And God always keeps his promises

Some stand out from others. A descendant of Seth, named Lamech, thought he had the promised one identified. He said about his son, in Genesis 5:29, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” (ESV)

That son was Noah. Noah was important and God used Noah to preserve the human race through the judgment of the flood, but Noah wasn’t the promised one. His deliverance of humanity from sin didn’t last: he himself fell into drunkenness after the flood.

The promised one would be like Noah in that he would provide sanctuary for all who would take refuge within his protection, but he would have to be better than Noah.

So, the search for the promised one continued. It zoomed in on the land of Ur, on a man named Abram. God called Abram to leave and to move to Canaan. God promised to bless the whole world through Abram and renamed him Abraham. But Abraham, for all his obedience, struggled with letting God’s promises come about in God’s way: he continually manipulated the situation to try and bring about the promise on his own. So, Abraham wasn’t the promised one, merely one through whom the promised one would come.

The promised one would be like Abraham in that he would do whatever the Lord told him to do, but he would have to be better than Abraham.

At least the scope of the search was narrowing: the promised one would be Abraham’s descendant.

But it turned out not to be Abraham’s son or his grandson.

Years down the line, however, Abraham’s descendants found themselves slaves in the land of Egypt. And God called one of them, Moses, to lead them out of slavery and out of Egypt and back to the land of Canaan. But Moses had a problem with his temper: he killed an Egyptian and disobeyed God in leading the people towards Canaan. He wasn’t the promised one.

The promised one would be like Moses in that he would lead God’s people out of captivity, but he would have to be better than Moses.

God’s people make it into God’s promised land, but the promised offspring doesn’t appear. The people get into a cycle of ignoring God, falling into the hands of their enemies, repenting and being rescued by a judge raised up by God to save them, only to ignore God again as soon as they were safe. Each of these judges had potential to be the promised one in the eyes of the people. One, Shamgar, killed 600 enemies with no weapon but a wooden ox goad. But his victory didn’t last and God had to raise up another judge after him. So, Shamgar wasn’t the promised one.

The promised one would be like Shamgar in that he too would use an instrument of wood to conquer his enemies, but he would have to be better than Shamgar.

Eventually, God’s people grew tired of the never-ending cycle with the judges. They asked God to give them a king. God warned them that they wouldn’t like it, but they insisted. The first king, Saul, didn’t work out very well, but the second king was promising. His name was David and the Bible tells us that he was “a man after God’s own heart.” Surely, he was the promised one. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. David failed to keep himself pure, committing adultery with a friend’s wife and then arranging to have that friend killed. David wasn’t the promised one.

The promised one would be like David in that he would truly be a man after God’s own heart, but he would have to be better than David.

And on and on. God’s people, those still clinging to his promise of the coming one who would be God’s man, grew weary of watching, weary of waiting. A hundred years was a long time to wait, but thousands were passing. Every time a potential promised one appeared, he failed.

A Man Was Required But A Man Wasn’t Enough

It was becoming clear: no one was good enough. The best and the brightest of humanity had tried and failed. If God’s promise was going to be kept, God was going to have to do something remarkably different than what people had seen before.

One group of God’s people realized this quite clearly. The Sons of Korah were servants of God and helped to write some of the Psalms that we find in the Bible. These were worship songs, sung by God’s people as they praised and trusted him. In Psalm 49, the Sons of Korah realize something very important: the promised one couldn’t just be a man. In verses 7-9 of that Psalm, they write, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” (ESV)

The Sons of Korah looked at this dismal record of failed promised ones and recognized something vital: a mere man wasn’t going to be enough to fulfill the promise. In order to ransom humanity from their enslavement to evil, the promised one would have to be someone who wasn’t under the curse, who wasn’t bound by the lies of the Father of Lies, Satan, that old serpent.

But in order to fulfill God’s promise, the promised one still had to be the woman’s offspring. In other words, he couldn’t be merely human, but he had to nonetheless still be human.

The Sons of Korah suggest a solution, whether they recognized it or not, in verse 15 of Psalm 49: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” (ESV)

They recognized that a mere man could not ransom another man, but they rightly discerned that God could, and would, be able to ransom them.

God’s Not Surprised

God knew that too. All the “failures” that happened along the way weren’t God’s: he allowed the hope to build and his people to look expectantly at each new candidate. People may have been surprised by the failures, but God wasn’t. God wasn’t crossing his fingers as David’s eyeing Bathsheba, thinking, “Man, I hope he doesn’t do it!” God wasn’t biting his fingernails as Moses is standing in front of the people at the rock, whispering, “Please, oh please, don’t hit the rock!” Their failures aren’t God’s failures. God knew that they weren’t the promised one, he knew they weren’t good enough. But he was preparing us for the one who would be. He was preparing us for the GodMan.

See, God’s promise could be fulfilled only if the promised man was also God.

The Promise Fulfilled

Many missed it, but that’s exactly what eventually happened.

After thousands of years of delayed hope, of waiting and watching kings and prophets and judges, of praying for the promised one, God sent his promised one.

He was a man, born to a young peasant girl named Mary. His birth was just the same as every other human’s: messy. His first breath was like every other human’s: a prelude to a newborn’s squall. He grew. He learned. He got hungry and he ate. He got thirsty and he drank. He got tired and he slept. He was human, an offspring of the woman.

He was also God. In the beginning, he was with God and he was God. Before Abraham was, he is. He is the creator and sustainer of all things. He is the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega. He receives worship as God and does not correct the worshippers. He is God, able to ransom us from sin and death.

God’s man is the GodMan.

Jesus Christ is the only name given among men by which we may be saved because he is the only offspring of the woman who is also the one who created the woman.

Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man in order to finally fulfill the promise of God and reconcile mankind to himself.

Jesus Christ was the only one who could fulfill Genesis 3:15. He was wounded by the serpent, dying on the cross. But he struck the serpent’s head by rising through the power of his divine perfection.

Jesus Christ opened a way for humanity to return to the presence of God, not by setting a good example for us, but by bringing the presence of God to us and taking the punishment we deserved.

Time and time again, we fail. But the GodMan, Jesus Christ, invites us to put our trust in him, in his incarnation, in his life, death, burial, and resurrection.

Will you trust him? Will you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead?

Because that’s the only way that you can see God’s promise fulfilled in your life. That’s the only way that you can be redeemed from sin and death: trust in God’s Promised One.

Put simply: trust in God.

Incarnation God Man Jesus Christ

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Five Fiancés, One Bride, And A Wedding

“Why do you even let people see you with that drunken whore!”

The exclamation burst from taut lips with an explosive, yet strangely precise, force: like a demolition charge carefully placed to produce exactly the intended destruction and no more. The eyes above the lips flashed intensely in the harsh white light of the study hall, unrelenting in their glare.

“If you could only…” He started but was cut off by another directed explosion…

“…see her like you do!? I know, you’ve told me that before. It’s like you don’t even care what people might think of you! For that matter, what they might think of me! I’m trying to be reasonable here, but she’s making it incredibly difficult! All that, ‘It’s all cool, just walking the path, enjoy the journey’ mumbo-jumbo! Does she even know how to read? Does she understand how important it is to use even a little bit of logic? Could she, just once, say something clearly?”

He sighed. She was so hard to deal with when she got like this. “It’s like she knows everything without knowing anything, all at once,” he thought again. For the millionth time.

“Well, just give her a chance, you’ll come to love her, trust me.

“That’s highly unlikely! Face the facts: I am the only one smart enough for you!”

With this final outburst, she spun around and stalked off, the close, white walls echoing the staccato rhythm her heels beat out on the polished floor.

“Look, I don’t know why you waste your time with her. I mean, she’s obviously too stuck-up to ever, you know, get it.”

The words dripped out of lips slick with liquid sheen from a recently sipped IPA.

He started to reply, but the far-off glint in her eye told him she was just getting started. He stopped.

“It’s like she thinks she’s better than everybody. You’re not like that, you know, you’re more like Jeff who works down at Daily Grind. You know him…the one with the cool half-sleeves. Yeah, he’s the one that started the Bible study I’m going to. But don’t worry, he’s totally legit – he does a lot of community service work too. He’s trying to be incarnational and all that. I’m really into what he’s got going on.”

He seized his chance to break in on her ramblings: “Well, maybe you’re being a little too hard on her. I think if you two had a chance to sit down and talk, you might have a lot in common.”

The sip his interruption made possible was almost spewed by her raucous laugh.

“Her!? Talk to me!? No way she’d ever do that. Not sure if I’d even want to even if she did. I mean, how many people has she hurt with all her rules and stuff. No thanks, I’m good. And hey, I’ve got you and what more could a girl ask for. And for that matter, you’ve got me and you know I’m cool.”

She tilted the bottle up for another taste but stopped with the amber liquid just short of her lips. Lowering it slightly but still talking around the bottle she asked, “On another note, you want one?”

“I heard you went and saw that shameless hypocrite again.”

The words dripped with acid and accusation.

“Don’t you see that she’s all fake? Don’t you know that she’s just an empty shell?”

The rigid certainty in her words is backed up by a stern glare. Her eyes bore into his.

“Don’t judge her so quickly. Remember that everyone starts somewhere.”

“But she shouldn’t set up camp and stay there. It’s like she doesn’t even care about anything other than just looking good. How she fools everybody is beyond me. Give me a few minutes with her, I’ll set her straight.”

He tried to be gentle, “You already tried that, remember? You said hello and then proceeded to yell at her for like ten minutes straight about proper dress, proper behavior, proper everything. She just laughed. Remember?

“Yes, I do. And that’s all the more reason for you to stop associating with her. Did you know I heard that she was friends with that gay guy? You know, the one who’s always going on about it. Yeah, apparently she thought it would be a good idea to ‘have a conversation’ with him. And you associate with her!? I’m not sure I should even associate myself with you if you’re going to insist on this continuing.”

The silence between them stretched awkwardly.

Finally, she turned to leave:

“You know what you need? You need to wake up and recognize that I’m the only one good enough for you!”

“Gah! Quick, close the door.”

After a rushing gesture, and a cautious glance around the door frame, she leaned back inside the office and sighed.

“Seriously! How many times have I told you not to show up dressed like that – Don’t you care about what people will think? You can’t wear that and expect people to follow. You’ve got to dress for success. You’re dressed for work or something but not for success.”

Now it was his turn to sigh.

“Look, I know I embarrass you sometimes, but you need to unders…”

“You embarrass me? No! Although I will admit that I make you look good when you let me. No, you don’t embarrass me – that buttoned-up schoolmarm you go hang out with embarrasses me, that’s what embarrasses me.”

“I know she doesn’t look exactly like you would want, but…”

He didn’t speak quickly enough. Her next barrage started up:

“Doesn’t look like me!? Man, she couldn’t look any less like me! Seriously!? Look, I make this work. Look at these heels! Take a guess at how much they cost?

“I don’t want to know, do I?”

“Let’s just say a lot. But it’s worth it! You know why? Because when people see that what I’ve got looks good, they want it too. I am an inspiration to millions! That’s more than corpse-face can say. She can barely find her clothes at the store, they’re so out of date. Why anyone, you included, would want to be seen with her is beyond me. So embarrassing!”

With a clearly rehearsed motion, she slid a hand onto his shoulder.

“Admit it: I look good and I make you look good.”

“Look, I’ve had it up to here with all this nonsense!”

The force in her words, though expected, still came as a bit of a shock.

“Why she can’t just leave well enough alone is beyond me. Constantly fiddling about, spouting off about some new theory, some new insight. It’s so pointless! It’s like she thinks she’s impressing someone by rattling off all her facts and theorems. But what she’s really doing is messing everything up.”

“I know we’ve had this conversation before, but…”

She cut him off.

“Yes, we have had the conversation before and that’s just the point: why continually make up new stuff? It’s not just silly, you know it’s dangerous. She could influence others who will start spouting off the same crazy ideas. It’s like she can’t let things be, she’s always trying to restate and innovate and it’s going to lead to trouble, mark my words.”

“But she makes some really good points and she’s got lots of new information.”

“No she doesn’t and I’m getting really nervous with you taking up for her like you are. She’s trouble. Look, why can’t we just go back to the way things were? Wasn’t that simpler, hmmm? Wasn’t it better? Why waste your time with this new whats-her-face when you’ve got me?”

She twisted the engagement ring on her left hand wistfully.

“I just wish you’d leave well enough alone. Why can’t things just stay the same between us?”

He turned to leave. There was a big day to prepare for and he knew all of this noise would soon fade.

He stood at attention, eyes expectant, heart thrumming in his chest.

This was it, the culmination of more days than he cared to think about, the chance for everyone to see his love for his bride on full display, to celebrate with him this crowning achievement.

The anticipation, heightened by the long wait, was building to a crescendo when the music shifted.

Every eye turned to the back of the room.

There she was, in a white dress so brilliant it made everything behind it seem dull.

He knew it wasn’t traditional, he knew the bride typically came to the groom, but he couldn’t wait any longer!

He ran.

The room was so large, but he ran.

The crowd was vast, but he ran.

The dignity of the moment was swallowed up by the pure joy and ecstatic love he felt and he ran.

He reached her, his bride, his beautiful bride, and he clasped his arms around her and drew her to himself.

They embraced.

Then slowly, with eyes full of love and pride, he carefully placed his hands on her shoulders and stepped back to arm’s length.

“Let me look at you, my bride.”

Her eyes lifted and met his and he saw everything in that moment…

The flashing eyes revealing that keen and curious intellect…

The shining lips smiling for the sheer joy of it all…

The firm set of her jaw, steadfast and resolute…

The radiant perfection truly realized in her beauty…

The timeless features, a testimony to her endurance…

All of them were there and she was stunning.

This was his one and only bride and this was their wedding day!

A voice from the front of the room called out in resonant tones, “Let the wedding feast begin!”

He took her hand and led her joyfully towards the source of the sound.

They reached the table, stretching for miles it seemed, spread with the richest feast imaginable.

He stood together with her for a brief moment of wonder.

Then, with a flourish of his scarred hand, he pulled out a single seat and beckoned her to sit.

His bride was his and his bride was whole.

Church Wedding Day