Monday, March 31, 2014

Heaven is for Real, part 2.

Few years ago I read the book Heaven is for Real.  I wrote about it for one of my earliest blog posts, which you can read here.  I was not a fan of the book and its premise, i.e. that we can  know heaven is for real because of the testimony of a four year-old who went there and was able to come back and tell us all about it.

Disclaimer one: I have nothing against four year-olds.  I have been the parent and grandparent of a number of delightful children of that age.

The problem I have with the premise of people making trips to heaven and then coming back to tell us what it is like is that I believe that the Bible gives us more than enough evidence of heaven's reality and purpose. This is true if the author is a four year-old, or an adult, such as Don Piper, author of 90 Minutes in Heaven, which I have also read.  There are a number of other books in this genre.  I have read two.  I don't intend to read anymore.  I think it is good read some things that a person likely won't agree with and in this case two has been an adequate ample size.

Disclaimer two: I am ordained and serve as the pastor of the Jicarilla Apache Reformed Church, Dulce, NM.  In practical terms this means that I pastor a small mission church on a reservation.  Theologically I am aligned with the Reformed tradition of the Protestant family tree.  In addition to my Bible I rely on the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort when sorting out things theologically.

So, why should I write on Heaven is for Real a second time?  Because the book has been turned into a movie that is being released in mid-April, and a few questions were tossed my way that led to a different reason for why I hold something that seems so well-intentioned in rather low esteem.

In general terms what these kinds of books and movies claim to offer their readers and viewers is compelling evidence of the reality of heaven.  They show the goodness and the beauty.  They show reunions with people we knew in life who have gone before us in death.  Those people we loved so dearly and long to see again?  We are assured that we will see them and be happily reunited. In the end all will be well.  So the books and movies would have us believe.

The Bible, by comparison, can seem a bit dry.  Glimpses of heaven are rare.  Those people we loved so dearly are not present in the Bible stories.  The books and movies stir the desires of our hearts for a sense of peace about the end of our life.  The Bible versions of heaven…not so much, so it would seem. 

Have you ever read C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters? It is a collection of radio talks Lewis gave during World War II.  In the talks a senior devil, Screwtape, gives counsel to his apprentice, Wormwood, in the various ways to lead a particular person away from God.  Virtually any tactic is fair game for the devils, and often something subtle is believed to be just enough to get the job done.  (I haven't read this for a while, so I am working from my memory of the book.  I do recommend it highly.)

I am not meaning to say that Heaven is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, or any of the other similar books are Satanically-driven books, purposely written in order to turn people from God.  I think that the authors of both books were basically well-intentioned in what they set out to do.

But what I do believe about these kinds of books is that they have the potential to subtly turn our attention to what seems to bring peace to our hearts and minds, and that they do this by taking our hearts and minds off of the One who is the only one who truly brings peace. 

The fundamental difference between the version of heaven in these books and the accounts in the Bible is that in the Bible, God, on His throne, is the dominant character.  He is the focal point of attention at all times.  He receives the worship and glory that is rightly His alone.

The books and movies about heaven seem to show God as more of an ancillary character, which diminishes the glory that He rightly deserves.  That may not be the intent of the authors or actors but it is certainly the effect.  It is the logic of Screwtape, applied to our time. 

So go to the movie or read the book and enjoy what you will of them.  But do so with this thought in mind: "We must recognize that the Bible tells its own story infinitely better than anyone else can tell it – Hollywood included. "

Those are the words of Albert Mohler, from his review of Noah, another recent movie with a biblical motif.  Given that our reservation is 90 miles from the nearest theater it is unlikely that I'm going to "go there."

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On the way home

Last week at Bible study we talked a bit about spiritual warfare.  We had been reading Exodus 17:8-16, where the Hebrew people, traveling from Egypt to their Promised Land, were attacked by the Amalekites.  God had delivered them from slavery and He was leading them to a land of milk and honey; that is, a land where they would prosper and enjoy God's goodness in numerous and delightful ways.  Yet on this journey, when things were looking up, a foreign people attacks them.

As we talked about this passage there were a number of things that we found in common with our own everyday experiences as Christians.  First of all, we have freedom in Christ.  The Hebrews had been set free from their bondage to the Egyptians, and we have also been set free from slavery to sin.  Paul writes about this in Romans 6, summarizing the fact of our freedom in verse 11:

"So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." 

So, like the Hebrews, our freedom as God's people is an established fact.

Secondly, as the Hebrews travelled they encountered a few problems, problems that they could not deal with on their own.  In Exodus 14, 15, 16 and 17 we see examples of challenges that they faced and the ways in which God provided for them. 

In a similar fashion, nearly every person who has been a Christian for any period of time can look back at their life and see places where God was present.  They can see places where the only way they could get from one place in life to another is because God, in His mercy, compassion and love, carried them.

So the Hebrews have their freedom and God consistently provides for them so that they can continue on their journey home.  And still they are attacked.  Things are going well and yet they are violently threatened.  This is a place of spiritual warfare.  God has claimed a people as His own and He is shaping their character as He leads them home.  And God's spiritual enemies, working through the Amalekites, attack. 

The battle that the Hebrews are in is a part of the larger, unseen battle, raging between God and those forces opposed to Him.   Paul writes about this in Ephesians 6:12, saying,

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places."

Often, when things seem to be going so well in our lives, circumstances quickly change and chaos seems to be all around us.  Satan, God's enemy, often knows our character better than we know ourselves.  He knows our weaknesses and attacks them when we aren't expecting it. 

Easter will be here in a few weeks.  It is a time for us to remember that while battles often rage in our lives, the final victory has already been won. Spiritual warfare is a real thing but it is ultimately without power, because in the death and resurrection of Jesus all enemies of God are defeated.  The cross looks like defeat but the empty tomb proves victory.  Like the Hebrews, our journey will not be easy, but our Savior will, without any doubts, lead us home.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Never alone

This morning I preached from Exodus 17:1-7.  The gist of the story is this: The Hebrews are on the way from slavery in Egypt to the land that God had promised to them as the heirs to the covenant promises made to Abraham.  They are on the way to the Promised Land.

They come to a place without water.  They complain, loudly, and fear the worst.  Their complaint has three parts to it and the crux of the issue is that they wonder if God has abandoned them.  The closing words of the passage are these:

"Is the Lord among us or not?"

At the time those words appear in the text the question itself is rhetorical, because in verse 6 God has proved that, without any doubts, He is with them.  The three parts of their complaint were that God didn't provide for them, that God didn’t protect them, and that God had abandoned them.

These people are God's chosen people, being led to their promised home.  In the act of bringing water from a rock God answered their complaint, leaving no part of it standing.  God did provide for them.  God did protect them.  And God most certainly was present with them.  He was always present with them.

And He is always present today.  We want to seem so much more enlightened than the Hebrews of the Exodus.  We want to believe that our faith is so much more "advanced," for lack of a better term.

But we aren't.  Things go awry and we worry.  We panic.  We despair.  All too quickly we find ourselves asking the same basic question of the Hebrews.  "Is the Lord among us or not?"

We ask the same question, and we receive the same answer.  God is present.  He is never absent from those He has called and gathered as His people.  His ability to provide and protect us is greater than we can imagine.  And He does all of these things most perfectly in Christ Jesus.

We closed worship this morning singing this hymn, O God Our Help In Ages Past.

God is our help, in ages past and in ages to come. 

Is the Lord among us?  The answer then, and now, is a resounding "Yes!"

Without question God is with us, now and forever.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Geology, theology and glory

On vacation this week we spent a day at the Grand Canyon.  It is the second time my wife and I have been here and the first time our youngest daughter has seen it.

Before our earlier trip  I had told my wife that I had seen the canyon from the air, being roughly 25,00 feet above it.  She said I had to see it up close.  And she was right.  The canyon is vast in its dimensions.  It is long.  It is wide.  It is deep.  And it is beautiful

Geologists teach that the canyon itself is roughly 5 million years old.  As we climbed down into it we went through layers of rock that were laid down 285 million years ago.  This week marked 38 years since I joined the Navy. I can grasp 38 years.  285 million years is much too large of a number for me to wrestle with.  It is large.  It is gargantuan.  And ultimately it is unimaginable to grasp in a meaningful way.

On one of the displays we saw in a museum at the canyon, the processes that created it were put into a rough mathematical formula.  When water meets rock, given sufficient time, water always prevails. 

And that is what people see at the Grand Canyon.  Water working on rock, day-by-day, year-by-year.  It is a process that continues today, deepening the canyon by the thickness of a single sheet of paper each year.

Theologians, depending on their persuasion, would have a different take on the creation of the canyon.  Some would have no problem in accepting the geologist's account of the canyon's creation.  Others would beg to differ.  Just last week I read a an account where a Bishop Ussher, in Ireland during the 17th century, dated the earth's creation to a precise day approximately 6,000 years ago.  Using his date of creation, then how does something that appears to be so old come into being if the age of the earth is, relatively speaking, so young?  The answer is that it is because God made it that way.

For a person who believes that the world came into existence through the action of God, then it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that God, who created the world, could have created all manner of things within it, making it to look however he thought best, no matter what the working of logic on our minds may think of the results.  God, after all, is God, and he possesses the freedom to act, in all situations, in whichever way suits his purposes. 

Geology and theology can differ on their understandings of many things, the Grand Canyon being just one example.  My understanding of science is not developed enough to fully grasp the geologists arguments on the age of the earth and the processes of creation. 

And while I have a deep interest in theology, particularly it's systematic and biblical branches, I study them to nurture my ability to apply theology pastorally.  I want to bring theology to the real-life situations of the people I preach to on Sunday.  The people I visit in the hospital and nursing homes.  The people I pray with in the community.

And in that regard the Grand Canyon, however it was created, is evidence of the glory and majesty of God.  For me it brings to life the words of Paul, in Romans 1:20, where he writes:

"For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."

The Grand Canyon also brings to life the words of the Psalmist, from Psalm 19:1:

"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork."

Not just the heavens, but also the ground below proclaims his handiwork.  To my eyes the Grand Canyon clearly proclaims the handiwork of God.  I don't know if it is 5 million years old, or 6 thousand years old.  What I do know is that ultimately it is the creation of a loving and holy God. 

It is a work of beauty that is virtually beyond my ability to comprehend.  Which leaves me with only one fitting response.  Glory. 

Glory to God in the highest, for his beauty and majesty in creation.  

And glory to God in the highest, for being a God who could create something so wonderful as the Grand Canyon, and yet also be so generous to me, who is so insignificant in terms of time and space.  For he has given me salvation, a most precious gift from his Son, my Savior, Christ Jesus. 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Facebook theology, part 2

This is the second of an irregular series, where I reflect on something seen online, usually through a post on Facebook.  Yesterday I saw this:

"Jesus doesn't care how many Bible verses you have memorized.  He cares how you treat other people."

Two statements, linked together.  Of the first you could say that it is both true and false.  And also of the second, it is both true and false.

Does Jesus care how many Bible verses I have memorized?  Probably not, although I can't be certain of that.  I have a number of verses marked in my Bible that I am trying to memorize, and I'll be honest and admit that I haven't been working at them with any diligence lately.

But here is the rub.  If I don't take the word of God into my mind and let it dwell there, it won't take up residence in my heart.  If I don't continually drink from the depth of God's word I won't be able to live any part of my life in a manner that is pleasing to him.  I won't know how to care for other people in ways that please God unless I am standing on the firm foundation of God's word.  That foundation is built on my continually dwelling in his word.

Which is where the second statement comes in. God may very well care how I treat other people, but it is not God's desire that I treat people merely in some sort of way that makes me feel good about myself.  God wants me to treat people in ways that honor and praise him. 

Like my efforts to memorize Bible verses, I fall short here too, but I have a good understanding of what my behavior towards others should look like, and I know that when I err, and I do so often, that God is gracious in granting forgiveness. 

In 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul writes these words about how Christians are to treat other people:

"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

Another response to the Facebook post are the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:36-39:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

In these verses Jesus points us to God's word to nourish us, and then to take that nourishment and live it out in the world.  To His eternal glory.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

More than dust

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I led worship for our congregation in the evening.  Lent is a 40-day period of reflection, repentance and penitence in preparation for Easter.  Some churches gather for worship on Ash Wednesday and some don't.   We gathered for a short service of prayer and reflection.

Most Christians who gather for Ash Wednesday receive the mark of the cross in ashes on their forehead during the worship service, as an outward marker of an inward attitude of repentance.  The pastor often says something like "From dust you were created and to dust you shall return" when applying the ashes.  The words are derived from Genesis 3:19 and Ecclesiastes 3:20 and are meant to remind one of the transient nature of life on earth.  Yesterday, as I was looking at a number of things online related to Ash Wednesday, I read some interesting thoughts about Lent, in general, and Ash Wednesday, in particular. I also saw some pastors make somewhat inevitable links to the song by Kansas, Dust in the Wind.

I suppose it could be as simple as that, to recall our place before God as sinners, living for a brief time on this earth and then passing off into dust.  Even the song by Kansas recognizes that.  It could be that simple, but for this particular pastor, that would be selling my congregation short.

One of my favorite passages of scripture is Ephesians 1:3-14.  Paul writes:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory."

Powerful stuff.  God's sure and certain promise to everyone who calls on Christ in faith. 

Here are the last two verses, broken into their phrases and words. 

"In him…you also…when…you heard…the word…of truth…the gospel of your salvation…and believed…in him…were sealed…with…the promised…Holy Spirit…who is…the guarantee…of our inheritance…until…we…acquire…possession…of it…to the praise..of…his glory."

Read the words slowly.  Chew them over.  Taste their goodness.

From dust…to dust…I suppose, but why, even during a moment of community repentance remain, with that thought?  

Why not also look towards the glorious end, an end that will be more beautiful than anything I can imagine?

So these are the words that I spoke as I used ashes to place the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those gathered from our congregation:

"Remember that you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."

This is the gift of all whom to Christ in faith.  Dead to sin, forever, and eternally alive in Christ Jesus, to the praise of his glory.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.