Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What An Historic Week!

Tomorrow marks an historic day for our Catholic friends as Pope Benedict XVI steps down and relinquishes his papal authority.  He has served the Church well since stepping into the footsteps of John Paul II after his death in 2005.  Perhaps not as popular a Pope as was John Paul II, Benedict XVI has struggled to lead the Roman Catholic Church through some of its darkest days since the Middle Ages.  Of primary concern has been the exposure of repeated immoral acts on the part of the priesthood over the years, acts often just shoved under the proverbial rug by higher authorities within the Church.  A second concern has been the tremendous increase in Roman Catholic membership within the third world in these past few decades; membership that surpasses that of both Europe and the United States. 

The papal enclave that will convene within days of Benedict's stepping down will wrestle with both those issues.  Will the next Pope be another European? To my knowledge, I do not believe there has ever been a non-European Pope ever in the history of the Church.  Can they find a papal candidate that has not been tainted with the sexual abuse scandal?  Will they look, once again, toward a younger candidate, remembering that Benedict was 77 when he was chosen back in 2005?  Rightfully, the attention of both Catholics and Protestants will be focused upon the Vatican these next few weeks, awaiting that puff of white smoke that will indicate that another papal successor has been chosen. 

Friday marks a turning point in our nation's history.  We are seeing evidence of a government so badly broken that those who have been elected to govern truly seem incapable of doing so.  We have witnessed a Congress that cannot even communicate with one another.  We have one chamber of government that has refused for four years to submit any budget plans for the other chamber to consider.  We have a White House that is more focused upon golf and the Oscars than upon the impending financial disaster that is only hours away.  All Washington talks but no one wants to step forward and lead.  And, as a consequence, the American people will pay for the inability of a broken government to act.  2014 might be another of those critical years for us - but not sure we can wait that long for leadership in Washington.

Someone asked me about how things were going in Israel.  I received an e-mail from my dear friend who lives in Israel after I had asked him the same question.  Things are not going very well for our friend Prime Minister Netanyahu.  He only has a couple of weeks left to form a coalition government.  By that I mean he needs to get the support of 61 members of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament.  (There are 120 seats in the Knesset, so a majority of 61 seats is necessary in order to govern).  As of today, the Prime Minister has 37 seats safely in his pocket.  He needs at least 24 additional seats, but 30 would give him a more comfortable margin.  Will he succeed?  Many Israeli editorialists believe that he will, but wonder how long such a coalition can strongly remain in place.  To further compound the Prime Minister's difficulty is the fact that President Obama will be making his first State visit to Israel on March 20.  That is only days after the coalition government must be in place.  And we know, from past experience, that the relationship between the Prime Minister and our President has been cool at its best.  Stay tuned, as this is going to get very interesting.

And, here in the great State of Minnesota, amid all the clamor for some type of taxation and fiscal reform, the center stage is being taken to make Minnesota a place that will recognize and grant homosexual marriages.  You might remember that last fall, during the intense debate over the Marriage Amendment here in Minnesota, that I said that should the Amendment fail, that would open the door for legalizing homosexual marriage.  Well, the Amendment was defeated and now the doors seem to be wide open that legalization will pass.  Just another continuation of the slide down the slippery slope we are descending. 

The other evening, while teaching a Class on the Psalms at a church within the Twin Cities area, I shared from Psalm 2.  There David writes, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the LORD scoffs at them.  Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, 'I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.'" (Psalm 2:4-6).  That passage has been deeply impressed upon my heart and mind since that evening.  God first laughs at the foolishness of men's actions.  Then He scoffs at them.  Then He rebukes them as He attempts to correct their behavior.  Finally, God terrifies them in His wrath because of their continued disobedience to His commands.  I remember sharing with my class that evening that I am fearful that we are long since passed the laughter stage and scoffing stage.  I wonder if we have even passed God's rebuking stage and have entered into His terrifying stage.  As with Israel of old, I believe the day is soon coming when God will say, "Enough is enough; I give you over to the depravity of your minds and actions."  Friends, such a day will not be a pretty one.  As those committed to the commandments of Jesus Christ, we will face challenges that will ask for incredible sacrifices from us, perhaps even our own lives.  Are we ready?  That is the sobering thought God has seared into my heart for 2013.  Are you ready?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Question of Lent

I was asked a question last week that I would like to address through my blog.  It concerns why so many Protestant  churches, especially evangelical ones, do not commemorate Lent as they do Advent.  It is a very important question. 

Most churches celebrate Advent - the first coming of the Lord Jesus; whether it is through a special Advent series of messages the pastor will preach or through a ceremony of lighting the Advent wreath on each of the four Sunday's before Christmas.  Many believers take time during Advent to pause and truly remember the "reason for the season."  And this is so important because Advent has become one of the most commercialized seasons of the year. 

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the period of 40 days until Easter.  (Actually it is 46 days, but the 6 Sundays are not included in the 40-days of Lent).  Ash Wednesday begins the time of preparation for Easter with a time of mourning.  Traditionally ashes are placed upon the foreheads of those who attend Ash Wednesday services.  Now, in the Bible, ashes were a sign of mourning and repentance.  We read in Job 42: 3-6: "You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?'  Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  You said, "Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.'  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.'"  This is the same Job who, just a few chapters previously, had stated that he wanted his two minutes with God so that he might get some things off his chest.  Well, in chapters 38-41, Job had more than his two minutes with God and what was the result? Job was humbled and he showed his humility and repentance for his arrogance by putting ashes upon himself.  In Jeremiah 6:26, the prophet admonishes the people of Judah: "O my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us."  Ash Wednesday is a time for serious reflection about sin and our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, you may ask, why the period of forty days?  Is that biblical?  And the answer is "yes, it is."  The example used for the creation of Lent was that of Jesus' time in the wilderness as He was tested by the Devil.  We read in Matthew 4:1-2, "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry." The number 40 is a reference to a time of preparation

Traditionally, Lent will close on the Eve of Easter.  For some churches, Lent will close with the Maundy Thursday services.  Those are the times when we remember Jesus' final meal with His disciples there in the Upper Room and His later struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane and His betrayal by Judas.

Lent is an old celebration of the Church.  A reference to it is found in the writings of Irenaeus to Pope Victor I late in the second century.  The Council of Nicea, held in 325, recognized the 40 days of Lent.  Church historians can state with accuracy that the celebration of Lent was an established part of the church year by the end of the fourth century - with its two primary purposes being prayer and fasting. Many Christians today observe the fasting aspect by denial of something.  I remember my grandmother gave up ice cream for Lent.  Others have given up sugar, or candy, or eating out.  The denial is good, but only if by the denial we can focus upon the seriousness of our relationship with the Lord.  If they are not coupled together, then the denial becomes just something else we do in the absence of meaning.

It was during this 40 days of prayer and fasting that those who desired to be baptized were examined.  One simply did not raise his or her hand and say, "I want to be baptized."  Baptism was not something done spontaneously.  It was done with intentionality and a deliberateness.  Baptism was then conducted on Easter Sunday morning.  What a glorious way to remember the resurrection.

So, should believers today celebrate Lent?  Excellent question.  I believe that we need to take our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as seriously as we do our preparation for Christmas.  I believe, whether we take 40 days or 4 days or 4 hours, we need to prepare our hearts to remember anew the great sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on our behalf.  For myself, during Lent I want to read at least one of the Gospel accounts of the Passion of our Lord.  I may also read Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 and reflect upon what His suffering was like.  I believe such a discipline can truly prepare us for the glorious news on Easter morning, "He is not here, He is risen just as He said He would!"

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

America's Campuses - Upside-Down

If you have been a reader of "Christianity for Today" over the past several years, you will know that I strongly believe that we live in a world that is upside-down.  We are a current illustration of the truth that the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isaiah 5:20).  In Isaiah's day morality was upside-down.  Truth was based, not on any foundational principles, but upon personal opinion.  Black became white; white became black.  What had been considered right was now considered wrong; what had been considered wrong was now considered right. 

Let me relate a story that Fox News reported on January 31, 2013.  The subject of the story was the treatment of an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship chapter on the University of Michigan campus.  "The University is accused of kicking the IVCF chapter off the campus because that group requires its leaders to be Christians - an apparent violation of the university's non-discrimination policy."  Those who desire to be leaders in the IVCF chapter, that had been located on the campus, were required to sign a statement of faith, which the University said was a violation of the University's non-discrimination policy.  Sara Chang, an Inter-Varisty staff member at the University of Michigan, told Fox News, "For us, there's no other option than to hold to the tenets of our faith.  We want to model a lifestyle of integrity,  Holding the Bible as the inspired, divine word of God and seeing the commands for us to choose leaders who have a vibrant faith in Jesus - is obviously something very important that we want to continue to uphold." 

So, let's assume that the University's non-discrimination policy is the correct one.  I am a student at the University of Michigan and I, an evangelical Christian, would like to not just join but be a leader in the on-campus affiliate of CAIR, a Muslim-based organization.  What do you think my chances would be to included and obtain a leadership role?  You know the answer already!  There is a double standard today established with Christians.  Do you ever hear that Muslims are intolerant of other people's religious faiths?  No, but it is certainly said that Christians are intolerant. 

The Fox News article goes on the cite what happened a year ago on the campus of Vanderbilt University where 114 Christian groups were banned from campus because they refused to comply with Vanderbilt's non-discrimination policy concerning leaders within their organization.  Greg Jao, IVCF Field Director said of the Vanderbilt situation, "They prohibited all other registered student organizations from co-sponsoring events with our groups.  It's pretty punitive.  We're a little bit of a pariah. ... We feel that the religious voice on campus is being marginalized." 

Speaking of what is happening on America's campuses, The University of Minnesota plans to hold an event this spring to help its female undergraduate students achieve more and greater orgasms.   The article, posted at the website, continues, "Whether you want to learn how to have your first orgasm, how to have better ones, or how to help your girlfriend, Kate and Marshall cover it all."  And did you know that $3,406 from the taxpayers in Minnesota will pay for this seminar? 

Friends, I read news like this and I become increasingly more convinced that my role as a pastor is to help the Dads and Moms, the Grandmas and Grandpas, the Uncles and Aunts in my church pour Scriptural truth into the lives of their children, their grandchildren, their nephews and nieces.  This has to be our top priority.  It is time to quite playing games.  It is time to take Ephesians 6:10-18 more seriously.  We need to put on the whole armor of God because the war is heating up.  Dads, don't just drop off your kids at Church, go in with them.  Dads, that extra hour for a business call can wait until you have prayed with your children before sending them off to bed.  If we don't claim our own children and grandchildren for Christ, I truly wonder who will? 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Conference with No Regrets

On this snowy afternoon here in Minnesota - yes, we have had snow every day this month so far; I am beginning to feel like a character in Narnia during the reign of the White Witch, "It is always winter and never Christmas" - I would share with you something different.  Yes, I know there are a lot of news stories out there that we could focus attention upon: the commercials on the Superbowl - most were hardly worth watching; the continued riots in Egypt - will the people topple another government?; the announcement that President Obama will be traveling to Israel in March - one wonders about the timing of the visit, due to the weakening of Prime Minister Netanyahu's position due to recent Israeli elections; and of course there is always the dialogue about the economy.

Over the past weekend our church was a host site for the "No Regrets" Men's Conference that originated out of Elmbrook Church near Milwaukee, WI.  This was the first time we had ventured forth into a simulcast conference of this nature.  We had over 100 men who attended with several decisions for Christ and recommitments as the conference concluded.  The speakers were outstanding.  But, what really grabbed my attention were two things.  First, each of the speakers spoke of the fact that we are now engaged in a war with our culture.  Culture is moving quickly away from those principles that so many of us grew up with.  One just had to look at the Superbowl commercials to realize that morality has evaporated from society.  It is getting increasingly more difficult for Christian parents to guide their children into the paths of righteousness.  Pressures from schools, pressures from peers invade the lives of our children.  One of the speakers spoke of the need for the local church to be the place where people come for military training.  That really resonated with me.  Am I, as a pastor, truly equipping my flock to engage in a war against our culture, against the forces of evil that have been accepted as normal today?  Am I engaging the young dads in my church to truly disciple their boys and girls into the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong?  Am I providing them with tools that will help them to contend, along with their wives and children, for that faith that was once for all delivered to the saints?  One speaker spoke so powerfully from First Corinthians 16:13 - "act like men!"  I believe God is looking for men who will lead their families in a godly way.  We call it at our church, "Swimming Upstream."  It is never fun, but it does help to build character into the lives of our children. 

The second thing that grabbed my attention was the number of dads who brought their teen-aged sons with them.  I had wished I had had my own grandson with me that day.  These young men need to hear these strong words.  They need to know that what they hear from the lips of their own fathers is indeed truth.  If only one or two of those young men present this past Saturday commits himself to be a man of God, then one or two families will have been formed that will continue "swimming upstream." 

I would strongly encourage you, men, to contact your church about becoming a host site for the "No Regrets" Men's Conference on February 1, 2014.  You will have "no regrets" in doing so.

I have been asked if I would share some brief thoughts regarding Joel Richardson's newest book, titled "Mideast Beast."  The book has rocked the prophetic world in a new way.  The premise of the book is Richardson's belief that the Antichrist will be Islamic and come out of the old Islamic Caliphate.  I know what you are immediately thinking, as I had similar thoughts.  It can't be.  The Antichrist is coming out of a reconfigured and resurrected Roman Empire, therefore, he will be of some sort of European descent.  Yes, I have grown up with those arguments, in fact, I have spent years in studying the prophetic texts and could find nothing that would argue against that position.  Until now.  I have to say that Richardson's book has intrigued me.  It has begun to call into question all my previously held beliefs about the rise of the Antichrist.  Am I ready to fully endorse Richardson's argument?  Not yet, but I can't dismiss it...even though I would like to.  Such a dismissal would be easy to do.  But, he wrestles with those favorite passages and begins to unfold them in ways that cause one to say, "Hey, I think this makes sense."  Shocking - yes I know!  This is definitely a book that I will be re-reading and hopefully finding a small group to interact with during the re-reading.  If Richardson is correct, then that position truly changes the way we must look at End Times events.  I would be delighted to hear from any of you who have read the book.  What were your conclusions?  Has your position changed any?  Why or why not? 

Whether Richardson is right or wrong, of this we can be absolutely certain - God is still in control and we can place our hope and confidence every day in Him.  On that Rock I will stand until either the trumpet blows or the Lord calls me home.