Every now and then God is particularly good. Of course he’s always good, but every now and then his goodness is lavished in our lives in such a way that we immediately sense how undeserving we really are. Our eyes are opened to who God truly is and we are left awestruck. A whole new vision is set before us and a fresh call is heard.
That was how I felt about 21 years ago when I stumbled upon a book that revolutionized my faith, ministry, and life. The book is entitled, The Micah Mandate, by George Grant. (Get this book!) It’s a marvelous, God-honoring study of what a biblical worldview is and how it should ignite those who hold it dear. Up to that point I had read every book around on the subject of Christian worldview, but those books seemed to only focus on the abstract and philosophical. Grant’s book expanded my world and broadened my horizons. He emphasized that worldview isn’t just something for the ivory towers of academia, but for all of life. Our worldview – our treasured faith – is for every sphere of life. I haven’t been the same since.
With that book's influence racing through my heart and mind, I began a weekly men's discipleship ministry about a year later. My hope was that a few men would gather together around God’s Word and be saturated and transformed by it. I prayed that men would be renewed and revived. I deeply desired that biblical, God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled disciples would be born – men who would change the world – beginning with themselves, then in and through their families, workplaces, churches, communities, the culture, and then perhaps, one day, the world. God honors such efforts. Reformation and revival happens in such ways.
My hope for the men’s ministry way back then, as it is today, was for God to penetrate the hearts, minds, and souls of our men with his Word, so thoroughly, that he would cultivate in their lives a framework (worldview) for viewing, interpreting, and applying their faith in every sphere of life. God has been pleased to work mightily in the lives of many of our men in such a way. May he continue to do so for generations to come. Soli Deo Gloria.
Grace and Truth,
Selected verses from Ecclesiastes and Luke 15:11-24
What Does God Have to Do with It?
Over twenty years ago I watched a television talk show that had a discussion I remember to this day. I don’t remember which of the world’s problems was being solved, but I do remember an exchange between the host and one of the guests. The host asked, “Don’t you believe in God?” to which the guest replied, “Yes, but what does that have to do with the way I live my life?”.
That may sound alarming for some, but the idea expressed by the guest is not all that unfamiliar – throughout history or in our own day.
George Barna, whose research group surveys the religious beliefs and attitudes of the American people, has written extensively on such topics and continues to discover that the beliefs a person professes does not necessarily impact the behaviors of that person.
In one of his books, Barna discovered that while 74% of those polled strongly affirmed that there is only one true God, who is holy and perfect, and who created and rules the world, only 47% strongly agreed that their faith in that same God was relevant to the way in which they lived their daily lives.
Rembrandt and Warhol
That attitude moved one writer to observe that in the 1660s, Rembrandt placed himself in one of his paintings of Jesus being raised on the cross, in an effort to show that he contributed to the need for Christ’s death. And in the 1960s, Andy Warhol painted Campbell’s Soup cans. In the writer’s opinion, the contrast in paintings reflected what he called, “the curious emptiness and meaninglessness of our modern culture.”
I’ll let art critics hammer out the merits of that writer’s interpretation of the paintings, but there has certainly been a lasting struggle in our world to find meaning for our lives. Some throw themselves into their families, pursue upward advancement at work, seek better health and social status, or fill their time watching sports and enjoying more and more leisure, just to name a few.
None of these pursuits is inherently wrong, but for many, they do point to what may be considered a bothersome emptiness that nothing seems to fill. This is the message of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. In it, he testifies to his life’s pursuit to find real and lasting meaning in his life.
He writes in Ecclesiastes 1:12-13,
"I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens."
He had been searching for truth, wisdom, and meaning in the many activities that filled his days, but his conclusion to these reflects only pessimism and discouragement. Verse 14 is Solomon’s summary to these pursuits. He concludes,
"I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
His feelings express the plight of poor Sisyphus of Greek mythology. You may remember that Sisyphus was condemned by the gods. His punishment? He was sentenced to roll an enormous boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll down the other side, and then to repeat the task again and again and again, without end.
His grueling labor did not solve a problem, create anything good, or enable him to grow as a person. Nothing beyond the task was accomplished by his effort. It was truly meaningless. It was the very definition of futility.
Solomon felt the same way Sisyphus must have felt. Solomon sensed an emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Throughout Ecclesiastes he continually asked, “is this all there is?”.
An Unlikely Candidate
Let’s remember who Solomon was. He was the wisest, richest, and most powerful man of his day. Therefore, when a person like him asks the sorts of questions we find in Ecclesiastes, we need to tune in and hear what he has to say.
Dismayed and discouraged, Solomon found himself unable to discover any real and ultimate point to all his effort. There didn’t seem to be anything that contributed lasting value to his life. Instead, he seemed to think that none of his accomplishments would even be remembered.
Many of us have heard the quip, purportedly uttered by a successful CEO, “You better enjoy your position while you have it, because after you retire, they don’t return your calls anymore.” That’s what Solomon was afraid of. His outlook in Ecclesiastes revealed a life that was highly invested in temporal attainment and fame, and not a life that cared much about God’s eternal perspective.
He mourned over the meaninglessness of his existence and he had reason to, because for Solomon, his “great accomplishments” had been built on sand. And after several decades, Solomon began to discover that his foundations were beginning to crumble. But he was honest. He admitted this. And he asked the hard and honest questions.
Many in our day, perhaps even you, shy away from the tough questions - large, overarching world-and-life-view questions, such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? How should I live my life? What’s my ultimate destiny?
As one writer put it,
“To be utterly lost in the woods is unfortunate. To be absolutely unconcerned about it is unreasonable.”
It is indeed unreasonable for us to walk aimlessly through the woods of life without knowing why we’re there or where we’re headed.
Encounter with a Pigpen
The parable of the prodigal son sheds light on this for us.
In the parable, the younger of two sons takes his inheritance and leaves his family and responsibilities to go off to a “far away country.” Why did he want to leave? Adventure? To find himself? Independence? Pure pleasure? Perhaps a little of each. Whatever the reason, it seems he didn’t believe he could pursue those things while he lived under his father’s roof. Perhaps he believed that the freedom of living on his own would enable to him to become who he wanted to be.
Yet it was the result of that pursuit in which he lost his inheritance and found himself living and eating with the pigs, no better off than those who served his father. Worse in fact. His experiment failed miserably. His quest for freedom resulted in enslavement. He was imprisoned by his unbridled desires, passions, and ambitions. In a peculiar reversal of fortune, he became the least free person he knew. He completely lost himself. I can only imagine that, as he sat in the pigpen, eating leftover pig food, he must have asked, “How did I get here?”
Perhaps that’s what Solomon was asking himself? He had been given unequalled wisdom, wealth, fame, and power, and he squandered it on building an empire to himself. Solomon must have been asking similar questions as the prodigal son: “How did I get here?” “What’s life all about?”
The prodigal son found himself not only in the position of a hired hand, but now treated worse than those who served his father’s family. Thus, it was as he sat there in his misery among the pigs, that he realized what he had given up when he left his father’s house. He came to understand how good he had it when he lived at home. Perhaps he even came to appreciate that true freedom is not the absence of responsibility but fulfilling it. To live according to one’s true identity and calling.
The Good Father
When the young man decided to return home, he did so with the hope of becoming like one of his father’s hired hands, for he knew how well they were treated by his good father. What the prodigal son would soon learn was that his good father is much like our good Father. He doesn’t merely accept us a servant, but restores us as his sons and daughters, with all the inheritance he graciously promises and provides for his children.
It’s only as we gain this understanding of what true meaning is, and where it comes from, that we can begin moving toward becoming all God created us to be. Our quest for self-fulfillment and personal freedom, detached from our identity in God and his calling in our lives, leads to meaninglessness and pigpens. Solomon confessed at the end of Ecclesiastes that it is only as we return to the Father that we truly find ourselves. He summarizes his findings in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14,
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
We are able to live the lives we were created for only when we are in a right relationship with God and align our lives with his will and character. And that kind of relationship and life come only through faith in Jesus Christ, the very Son of God.
That is our response to the guest’s question on the talk show: “Yes, I believe in God but what does that have to do with how I live my life?”
Our response: Everything!
Life is genuinely meaningful and significant only when we find true, abundant, and eternal life in Jesus Christ. As one author concluded,
“If we fail to see find it, we miss the whole point of our existence. We might make a great name for ourselves in the world, we might lack nothing in material goods, and people might bow before us. Yet we will have failed to find the true meaning that God desires for our lives.”
When the father embraced his son, the young man had not only found his way home, he had finally found himself.
Thanks be to God.
Here's the video of this morning's sermon. There are things in the sermon that aren't in the manuscript. And, there are some things in the manuscript that aren't in the sermon . But the key ideas are the same.
The Fellowship of the Burning Heart
by John Wesley -
But the most common of all the enthusiasts of this kind, are those who imagine themselves Christians, and are not. These abound, not only in all parts of our land, but in most parts of the habitable earth. That they are not Christians is clear and undeniable, if we believe the oracles of God. For Christians are holy; these are unholy; Christians love God; these love the world: Christians are humble, these are proud; Christians are gentle; these are passionate; Christians have the mind which was in Christ; these are at the utmost distance from it. Consequently, they are no more Christians, than they are archangels. Yet they imagine themselves so to be; and they can give several reasons for it: For they have been called so every since they can remember; they were christened many years ago; they embrace the Christian opinions, vulgarly termed the Christian or Catholic faith; they use the Christian modes of worship, as their fathers did before them; they live what is called, a good Christian life, as the rest of their neighbours do. And who shall presume to think or say that these men are not Christians? – though without one grain of true faith in Christ, or of real, inward holiness; without ever having tasted the love of God, or been “made partakers of the Holy Ghost!”
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Consisting of Bible study, cultural engagement, worldview analysis, spiritual direction, and pastoral care, the goal of this podcast is to help you better understand the Christian faith and how it should holistically impact the various spheres of your life. If you want to learn how to grow and flourish in your faith and life, this podcast is for you.
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This is the seventh lesson on the Book of James in our series, "Living Wisely in Turbulent Times." In this lesson we discuss James 1:22-27. In particular, we take a look at how we can deceive ourselves by going through the motions of empty or useless religion instead of enjoying the fruitful and flourishing life God intends through both the hearing and doing of his Word. Please enjoy this week's lesson and then make sure to share it with a friend.
Romans 1:21 - For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Much has been made over the last few years regarding the emergence of militant atheism’s evangelistic crusade to rid the world of ignorance. Specifically, these crusaders want to enlighten the minds of the masses who still believe God exists. For these spokesmen for atheism, belief in God is intellectually unsustainable and should by all means be abandoned. Not only that, these atheistic evangelists believe a person’s commitment to belief in God is actually harmful to children as well as to civilization as a whole.
Thankfully, their charges have been sufficiently answered at every turn by faithful Christian apologists. The atheists are getting all the press, but their arguments are unable to stand up to the Light of Truth.
A More Dangerous Breed of Atheism
Yet there is a more prevalent form of atheism that lurks in our land. Indeed, it can even be found in the church. It is what Cornelius Van Til called, “practical atheism.” A practical atheist is a person who professes to believe in God, and yet the God whose existence is professed does not seem to make any meaningful difference in that person’s daily life. His beliefs, values, morals, and actions are not prioritized by his supposed belief in God’s existence. Put another way: If this person was to wake up one day and decide he no longer believed in the existence of God, his life would change very little. This is practical atheism.
In Romans 1:21, Paul describes the person who has suppressed the truth he knows about God. Paul says that, in truth, all people know God exists. In fact, they even know things about his power and majesty. Yet, in order to maintain a certain way of living, they alter their belief system to accommodate their lifestyle. Like the hard atheist who formally declares there is no God, practical atheists deny God by the way in which they live their lives. Paul teaches us that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…”
God at the Center
We glorify God when we seek to live purposefully and intentionally for him each day. We glorify God when we live to please, honor, obey, love, represent, bear witness to, and imitate him. That’s what a God-glorifying, God-informed life looks like. It’s also a life that is grateful to God for his goodness. This is more than tossing out a “thank you” every now and then at the beginning of a meal. Instead, it’s more of an all-encompassing attitude of gratitude. It becomes pervasive in one’s personality. This attitude glorifies God because it exalts God as the One who is worthy of such affection and appreciation.
How are you doing with this? Are you seeking to glorify God and be thankful to him in all things? Of course, none of us is perfect at this. We can all get fairly self-absorbed and self-centered in the goings on of our lives. We all, from time to time, become too preoccupied with lesser interests.
Yet the One who should be our greatest interest has told us we are to have no other gods before him. We are called to seek him first and foremost. We are instructed and encouraged to be holy because God is holy. His existence, in other words, should play a profound role in the lives of those who profess to believe in and follow him. He should be our ultimate influence and his influence should saturate every sphere of our lives, for his glory and our good.
Heavenly Father, the whole of creation testifies to your existence. It’s truly amazing what we have to go through to deny that you are there and are not silent. And yet, you are the God who is not to be merely believed in. Instead, you are the Triune, personal God who calls us into a relationship with yourself. You first loved us, not because we were so good, but because you are. You are our loving Father who is worthy of our love and devotion. Indeed, to know and love you is to seek to become increasingly like you and obey your commands. In my own strength I will fall short of this. Therefore, loving Father, I humbly ask you to please fill me with your Holy Spirit and spur me on to greater and greater love for you. And, I pray, this love for you will influence every sphere of my life so that, one day, my whole life will be a shining testimony of your glory. In Christ I pray. Amen.
Ping Pong Champ
I was quite the ping pong player when I was in high school. I was really good. I held many tournaments in my garage, most of which I won. You would have been impressed with my ping pong prowess. I certainly was.
And that’s why I signed up for the big Ping Pong Tournament for incoming freshman during my first week of college. I thought the least I could do was put my skill on display to impress everyone.
I got beat 21-8 in the first round.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”
On a more significant note, this Thursday, October 31st, will be the 502nd anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation. 502 years ago, an obscure German theology professor and former monk, wanted to talk about some concerns he had with the Roman Church, to which he belonged.
And so, he did what was often done, he wrote his concerns down on paper and nailed them to the church door for folks to read. It was sort of a modern-day bulletin board.
And boy did people read it! In fact, some folks took Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the local printing press and printed many copies for others to read as well. What should’ve been an ordinary exchange of ideas ended up turning much of the world upside down. Sort of like Facebook.
Among Luther’s concerns was this question: How can a person be made right with God?
He wanted to know how a sinful person could be made righteous before a holy God. Was the answer good works? That is, if you did enough good works, could you earn your way into heaven? Or was it something else? Luther wanted to discuss it.
That’s the very question Jesus addresses in our Scripture: How can we be right with God, or put in a right relationship with God?
A Tale of Two Men
Two men went to the temple to pray: One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisees were well known for their “strong commitment” to keeping God’s Law. They were experts in the Law and very disciplined in how they lived.
Tax collectors on the other hand, were considered traitors by the Jews. They worked for the Roman government. That, and their “excessive profits,” created a lot of hostility between them and most of the Jewish population.
Therefore, Jesus tells his audience, many of whom would’ve been Pharisees, a parable.
Luke even tells us why Jesus told it. Take a look at verse 9…
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for their showy piety. He accused them of hypocrisy - doing all the right things on the outside but having the wrong motivation on the inside. According to Jesus, they didn’t obey out of a desire to glorify God but to look good to others.
Both men go the temple to pray. But that’s where the similarity ends. What did the Pharisee say in his prayer?
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
He addresses God, and then makes the prayer all about himself. Four times he says, “I.” I do this. I do that. Just look God at all I do.
No humility. Just self-exaltation (like a certain freshman ping pong player). No dependence on God, just self.
In my Sunday School class we’ve just started working through the Beatitudes, which are in the first 12 verses of The Sermon on the Mount. The first three Beatitudes focus on this issue of our posture or attitude before God. Read what Jesus says in these verses…
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
The poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek, all focus on acknowledging our spiritual poverty before God. Why? So that we’ll fully depend on God’s grace, and not ourselves.
The Pharisee showed God his spiritual resume. It was all about him - his holiness, his efforts, and how glad he was that he wasn’t like those “sinners” out there. There was no sign of grieving over his own spiritual poverty which brings humility of spirit and complete dependence upon God.
You’re not likely to cry out for mercy and grace when you’re so full of yourself. Jesus hammered this point home to the Pharisees, and all his listeners, again, and again, and again.
Some of our youth are going through confirmation right now and will be confirmed in a couple of weeks. And one of the theological ideas they’re learning about is grace. Every confirmand learns that grace is, God’s unearned and undeserved favor and blessing.
Those who are spiritually broken, heart-broken over it, and humbled by it are called blessed by Jesus. They are the ones who understand their need of God’s unearned and undeserved favor and blessing. It wouldn’t even occur to them to try to show God how good they are.
The Sinner’s Prayer
We find that very attitude in the heart of the tax collector. There was no pretense that he was righteous. He knew himself. He knew the God he addressed in prayer. Even his physical posture showed remorse before God. Look what the text says…
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast…
This is the posture and attitude of true repentance in the Old Testament. Jesus knew his hearers would know that. And then the tax collector cried out with what we might call the original “sinners’ prayer.” He prayed, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
This is the prayer of a person who is spiritually broken, heart-broken over it, and humbled by it.
It’s at that point Jesus says these important words…
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What a role-reversal! The Pharisees in his audience must have been fuming. Others must’ve been confused. Still others must’ve been celebrating, because they saw themselves in the tax collector.
All About Jesus
Martin Luther wanted to know how a person could be justified, that is, how a person could be made right with God (brought into a right relationship with God). Jesus knew, even as he told this parable, that he came to save sinners. He knew the Cross awaited him, but also his Resurrection.
On this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb we cry out to God by placing our faith in Jesus. By depending on and trusting in his work on our behalf, and not our own righteousness. When we do, we too will be made right with God.
Jesus tells us the way up, is down. That those who are spiritually broken and mourn over their sin are blessed. That those who humble themselves will be exalted.
It’s all about the attitude of your heart. It’s about being God-dependent and not self-dependent. But more than that, to be right with God requires we cry out to God in faith - for his mercy and grace offered to us through his Son. And when we do, then we can know that 1 John 1:9 will be true of us…
9 If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Just as God did with the tax collector.
And what’s true of the tax collector can be true of each one of us as well. If you’ve never cried out to God before, then he’s calling you to do so, to reach out to him in faith, to put your trust in Jesus Christ. And to do so today.
And if you already have, then he’s calling you to remember to walk by that same faith, each and every day.
Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy. Amen.
This is Lesson 6 in our series in James called, "Living Wisely in Turbulent Times." In this lesson, David and I discuss the differences between righteous and unrighteous anger, and how we can tell the difference in our own lives. This is a very timely topic and God's Word has a lot to say about it.
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