Last summer during my month-long study break in Cambridge, Kurt and Lyndse Felsman came to see me. We were out for a walk together after a nice meal, and I turned to Kurt and said, “I’ve been thinking about preaching through the Psalms next summer. I’m going to call it God Songs; what do you think?” He said, “It sounds like God has been doing some things in your heart.”
Writing to the Galatians, Paul is, in his own words, “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (v 6-7). It’s not a foreign god or idol turning the hearts of these Galatian Gentiles [people who were not Jews]; it’s a bunch of Jewish teachers, who have introduced the rules and regulations of the old covenant to these new believers. They have said, in essense, You have received Jesus, that’s good! Now you need to follow these dietary laws, keep these rules, and also get a special surgery [circumcision] so you can stay right with God. They were persuasive and many of the Galatians followed along.
All around us are constant reminders that our world needs renewal. Terrorist attacks, security concerns, civil war, the refugee crisis, and a political process gone haywire. Our own lives are far from perfect either. Sickness is a reminder that the world is not as it should be. I picked up a tropical fever on a recent trip to India and Nepal. It’s pronounced deng-ee fever (Dengue Fever), but my wife and I call it the Dang Fever. My wife has been recovering from surgery and that has been a long process. My compassion for the sick and suffering has soared in recent weeks! Physical suffering is only a small part of the pain we feel though. There is all the broken stuff in our lives too. Discouragement, depression, and disappointment. The hurting of family and friends. The reminders of grief and mourning.
I love starting a new journey. Whether the trip is taking me to a place I’ve never been before or follows a familiar path trod a thousand times, I love the freshness of taking that first step toward something delightful and good. This week begins a new adventure through the book Acts, the next Bible book that we are going to explore verse by verse. There are 28 chapters in Acts so you may be wondering how long exactly it’s going to take to get to the end of this journey. The simple answer is about a year, and that includes a detour through another of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Let me explain.
An illusion has formed in our collective subconscious that if we just had a little more, we would finally be satiated. Full. Satisfied. Instead, we are, as a culture, more anxious, frustrated, and stressed than we have ever been. Easterbrook wasn’t just guessing when he baldly announced we aren’t any happier with our piles of stuff; he was looking at studies, surveys, and data that confirmed it.
What are the marks of “real Christians”? What should followers of Christ really look like? These are important questions because nominalism—being a nominal Christian or being a Christian in name only—is a problem in the church today. Here a couple of statistics that I find both interesting and revealing:
We cannot assume that “everybody knows well what Christianity is.” Even in the church, many people are paying lip service to the key points of Christian dogma (I’m going to explain that word in a moment), but they aren’t thinking about what those words mean or driving those beliefs down into their hearts.
In his classic book, The Screwtape Letters, Oxford writer, C. S. Lewis, imagines a conversation between two devils about the best way to tempt humans. In one letter, the veteran tempter, Screwtape, tells the novice tempter, Wormwood, that he needs to take it slow. Letting his human charge commit some spectacular wickedness too soon could awaken him to the real condition of his heart and bring him to repentance.
It is no coincidence that we begin Philippians, a book written by a man who truly found joy, during a season of the year when joy permeates songs and greetings. For all its hopefulness and good feeling, the Christmas season sometimes draws into sharp relief how little joy we seem to experience. We sing, “Joy to the World,” but there is so much misery. As Christians, we are to be a people marked by joy, but so many of us struggle to find it. Even when we resolve to fight for joy, as we often need to do, we wonder how to grab hold of it when our lives are so far from perfect. We’ll explore those topics in this series, but the answer lies in the very person we’re celebrating during Advent, Jesus Christ.
Anderson Cooper, Oprah, and Lady Gaga are talking about sex and romance. Your kids’ friends are talking about it (parents, don’t be naïve). The Disney Channel is talking about it. It’s on Youtube, iTunes, TV commercials, and billboards. We are not going to get away from this topic, and that’s okay because we need to be talking about it. God does. There is sex in His book! While we’re NOT talking about it, marriages are being destroyed, singles are living in guilt, and teens are struggling. Our silence is deafening.
Jonah's is one of those stories that most people think they know. He’s the man God told to go to Ninevah and preach, but who ran away instead. He’s the guy who was swallowed by a fish, gave in to God, and got a second chance to preach. That’s the story I often heard in Sunday School growing up. It wasn’t until seminary that I finally understood this book, and then I sat in class thinking, How did I miss this? How did I not see that Jonah was a book about God’s grace?
James is probably the oldest book in the New Testament, the first to be written after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was penned by James, a brother of Jesus, who was the pastor of the first church in Jerusalem. He was writing to the people of God who were followers of Christ, “the twelve tribes,” scattered all over the world. His is one of the few letters not addressed to a particular church in a particular location. All of the wisdom in this book is easily applicable to the whole church.
Sometimes work can be difficult. How many of you recall the Florida DJ who locked himself in the studio and repeatedly played the song “Take This Job and Shove It” by Johnny Paycheck? He told his audience that he was mad at his employer and he was going to keep the doors barred and play the song over and over again until they agreed to give him a raise. Absolutely hilarious!
One of my favorite places in the world is the National Gallery in London. I like art, and I can get lost in a beautiful painting. In fact, whenever I can arrange a layover in London on my way to some foreign destination, I do just that. I hop the tube into Central London to look at art. I was there 2 weeks ago and saw the same works I always visit. I saw something else I always see: crowds of people staring.