Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Iran Is Now Nuclear - What's Next?

The past ten days have been interesting as one continues to observe the defiance of Iran to the demands of the rest of the civilized world. Suspense built last week as the Russians announced that they would begin fueling the nuclear reactor at Bushehr on August 21. You might remember that this was the nuclear plant that they began building in Iran nearly a decade ago. Almost immediately the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, stated that Israel would have to do something before those fuel rods were placed into the reactor. If Israel failed to launch an attack against the Bushehr facility, then the world would have to live with the knowledge that Iran had joined the handful of nations possessing the capabilities of having a nuclear weapon. Saturday, August 21, came and went. National news media showed pictures as the rods were placed into the reactor; Israel never sent its military aircraft to Bushehr. Had Israel accepted the fact of a nuclear Iran?

The answer came in an article written by Jeffrey Goldberg and published in the "Atlantic Monthly". He wrote that there was a better than 50-50 ;chance that Israel would attack Iran after next July, but that many Israeli officials believed a better solution to the Iranian nuclear threat would be an American strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Goldberg wrote that the Holocaust echo of "Never Again" will cause Israel to strike Iran, even without seeking US permission. The alternative would be the Iranian annihilation of the Jewish State. So, is Israel just biding time? As the pages of the calendar of 2011 begin to turn, we will learn the answer.

In the past few days Iran has been showing off its new military weapons. One was is the unmanned bomber aircraft that has been named "ambassador of death." It is capable of carrying up to four cruise missiles and has a range of 620 miles -not able to hit Israel yet. And yesterday (August 24) Iran tested a new version of its Fateh missile. With a range of only 125 miles, it is not a threat to Israel. But, hold that thought. According to Iranian sources, Lebanon has requested military hardware from Iran for its Lebanese army. This comes after the United States Congress ordered a halt to the $100 million in military aid pledged to Lebanon. The reason cited for this weapons cancellation was fear that American military hardware would come into the possession of Hizbollah militants, who form a good portion of the regular Lebanese army. So, now that 125 mile range missile becomes an immediate threat to Israeli security.

One final thought. September 2 will be an important day in the on-and-off peace-negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been invited to Washington to begin direct face-to-face dialogues. Also present will be Egyptian President Mubarek and Jordanian King Abullah. There will be lots of photo ops, but very little substance. The Palestinians are coming to the table only because the United States has told them to come. They want all construction in East Jerusalem and in Samaria and Judea to cease...Israel has said "that won't happen." In spite of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remark that peace can be achieved in less than a year, I wouldn't take that as fact. Both sides have been here before. And, in each instance, the Palestinians have walked away. But it will make for some interesting media events.

I keep reminding myself that God is in control. Almost daily I am drawn to that powerful statement declared by a formerly pagan King Nebuchadnezzar: "The decision is announced by messengers; the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men" (Daniel 4:17). It took this King many years before he came to understand that truth that God was in charge, not him. This fact changed his life. This fact gives me peace today. It is time that we begin preparing for the celebration of the King!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bonhoeffer's Challenge Now Becomes Ours

I have been listening to a dramatized story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer produced by Focus on the Family. It is part of their Radio Theatre productions. (By the way, these are excellent. The seven part series on the Chronicles of Narnia are outstanding!) Some of you probably have read, or are at least familiar with, Bonhoeffer's classic work "The Cost of Discipleship." This really should be required reading for every believer.

But what struck me this morning as I was re-listening to this story was the fact of what happened in New York City when Bonhoeffer came as a student at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-31. There he became part of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and grew in friendship with an international cadre of students and religious leaders. It was there that he was confronted with racial discrimination and was faced with the question of how one people believed they had the right to rule over another.

One day a friend asked him a question that would forever change Bonhoeffer's theology and his world. The question was: "Dietrich, if you are forced to choose between obedience to your government or obedience to the Scriptures and to Jesus Christ, whom will you choose?" At that moment in time events were already transpiring in Germany that caused many to fear as to Hitler's intents; but Dietrich waved them off casually as being just emotions of the moment. But still that seed was planted.

As you might remember, Dietrich became a leader in what was known as the Confessing Church, that part of the Lutheran body in Germany that did not subscribe to the teachings of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer became active in helping others to know what the Nazis really stood for. He was arrested and tried for treason, and in 1944 was hung for his crimes. Yes, he had to choose.

As I listened this morning that question, asked of Bonhoeffer that day in 1931, became very real to me. Our nation seems to be as theologically and ethically confused today as was Germany in the 1930s. The Church's voice has been more silent than it has been vocal toward the ills that are pervading our society today. Accommodation and toleration has become the operative words. Yet, on the horizon lies the imprint of a radical homosexual agenda. Will I speak out and speak biblical truth if the government rules that I could be arrested and imprisoned because of those words?

Friends, these are sobering times. Times for each one of us to re-evaluate our commitment to Christ. Will you and I have the boldness of a Peter and John who stated enthusiastically to the Sanhedrin, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29)? Or will we quietly walk away and yield to the will of those who rule over us?

You might be saying, "It won't happen here!" But that is precisely what Bonhoeffer thought in 1931; yet it happened. He had to make a choice; his choice cost him his life.

There is a line from an old hymn that speaks so powerfully: "Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid/Your heart, does the Spirit control?" Powerful questions for today's Christians. How will I answer? How will you answer?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Warning from the Minor Prophets

For the past three months I have been spending two days a week working through the Minor Prophets. I must admit that as I began I had no idea of what God might teach me from these often forgotten final books in the Old Testament. To be honest, in twenty-six years of preaching ministry I had only preached through four of them: Hosea, Jonah (of course, everyone preaches this book), Habakkuk, and Malachi. And, although I teach Minor Prophets as part of our "Cover-to-Cover" Bible Survey, I still felt uncomfortable with many of these books which had been part of the Old Testament canon for over two millennia.

Because God always honors His Word, my heart began to get both excited and challenged as I read and pondered biblical truth. One of the recurring themes, I found, has tremendous importance for the evangelical world today. That theme: the perils of a false religion.

Now, I know what you will respond: "I go to an evangelical, Bible-teaching church. That is certainly not a false religion." Perhaps you are correct; if so, praise God. But, perhaps your worship has become as routine as that of ancient Israel. Perhaps it is time that we listen to the prophets.

Both Hosea and Amos were prophets in the days of the Northern Kingdom. It was the closing days of the reign of Jeroboam II, a competent king who brought prosperity and peace to his kingdom. If you read carefully the account in Amos 6:4-7 one gets the picture of a people who have too much money, too much idle time, and too little purpose for living.

One of the areas of alarm for these men of God was the watering down of religion. The term used is that of syncretization. It is defined as the union of something false with something true. It was the marrying of paganism with the worship of God Himself. Hosea expresses it this way: "They consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God" (Hosea 4:12). Yet these same people continued the pretense of offering sacrifices to God: "When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the LORD, they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them" (Hosea 5:6).

Amos expresses this same truth with even more defined language: "Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years. Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings - boast of them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do, declares the Sovereign LORD" (Amos 4:4-5). Bethel was the place where Jeroboam I had built his first altar to the calf-god he appointed to be Israel's god after the division of the kingdom. Gilgal, the place where Joshua led the people in a renewal of their covenant vows to God after crossing the Jordan River, had become a scene of mixed worship. Amos is declaring that the people performed religious rites so that they could boast about them: how wonderful their worship was, how many offerings were given on a particular day; how many people came. I wonder - don't we do something similar today? We meet with other ministry leaders and compare notes: how big is our congregation; what type of worship music do we use; how big is our budget; how many people we have on staff.

But then Amos is particularly clear about how God views this syncretistic, all-inclusive, focus-on-me worship: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps" (Amos 5:21-23). As I read these verses and others from the pens of these ancient spokesmen for God, I began to ponder what Hosea or Amos would say from God about our worship today. How much of what we do on a Sunday morning is mere ritual, done so thoughtlessly? How many of our songs are mere noise to God because we merely sing with our lips instead of from our hearts? How many of our sermons are focused on helping people feel good about themselves, rather than challenging them to become what God would desire them to be?

Friends, I don't have easy answers to these questions. But I am concerned about the direction the Church is going. Michael Horton in his masterful treatise titled, "Christless Christianity," (this is must reading) stated: "Instead of ambassadors, heralds, reporters, and witnesses, pastors become entrepreneurs, managers, coaches, therapists, marketing gurus, and communication specialists. With this transition, the focus necessarily falls on what we do and Jesus' s role is reduced to an example." He continues, "This means that much of our ministry today is law without gospel, exhortation without news, instruction without an announcement, deeds without creeds, with the accent on 'What Would Jesus Do?' rather than "What Has Jesus Done?' None of us is immune to this indictment that we are losing our focus upon, confidence in, and increasingly our knowledge of the greatest story ever told."

So, let us heed the warning from the prophets. Before society can change, the Church needs to change. It needs to rediscover its purpose. It needs to rediscover the Gospel. It needs to redefine its purpose for worship. It needs a new awakening with God!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Heat Is On in Israel

The heat is really building in Israel these days. Yes, it is one of the hottest summers on record there. Drought conditions are beginning to take a toll on some of the olive trees and other crops. Water, which is always a precious commodity even during cooler days, has become a critical issue. How much lower can the Sea of Galilee drop?

But heat is building in another way as well. As you may have heard, although many American news media ignored the story or simply tucked it away in the middle of the paper, the IDF (Israel Defense Force) was involved in a firefight with the regular Lebanese army along the border yesterday (August 3). According to some Jewish papers, the attack was a well-planned ambush by the Lebanese army, accompanied by media. The attack began when the IDF attempted to uproot several trees within Israeli territory in order to remove the branches that were interfering with the electronic detection devices. In the firefight, one IDF officer was struck in the head and died; another IDF officer was hit in the chest and is in serious condition. When the IDF returned fire, three Lebanese soldiers and one media journalist were killed. David Dolan, a former CBS reporter and now a free-lance journalist living in Israel, reported that, as a result of this attack, the Israeli military was on high alert.

Not only was there an attack on the northern border, but on Monday morning (August 2), the Israeli port city on the Gulf of Aqaba - Eilat -was hit with five Katyusha rockets. Thankfully, they caused no casualties and little damage. However, one rocket did strike the Jordanian city of Aqaba resulting in the death of one individual. This morning (Wednesday, August 4) Egyptian sources admitted that the rocket attack was launched from within Egyptian territory in the Sinai. Many suspect that Hamas was responsible.

Finally, this morning (Wednesday, August 4), the IDF killed a Gaza terrorist and wounded two others as they approached the security fence in Gaza. Just last Friday (July 30), IDF planes struck a Hamas stronghold, killing a Hamas commander. This followed a Hamas rocket attack on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, just north of the Gaza Strip.

Are these attacks mere coincidences? Was this a coordinated plan? Could this be the beginning of the next Middle East War - a war I refer to as the Psalm 83 War? Are the Egyptians involved in that war? Yes. Are the Lebanese involved? Yes. Is the Gaza Strip and Hamas involved? Yes. Is war an option on the table? At least according to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the answer is yes. According to the Palestinian Media Watch (July 18), Abbas told the Arab leaders that "If you want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favor. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don't have the ability to do it."

Friends, keep your Bibles open these days because God is literally bringing many of the Old Testament prophecies to life. Can the return of the King be that far away? Can the sounding of the trumpet be near? Stay tuned as God continues to reveal His story.