Beyond Belief – How Can You Believe in Jesus and Science?

There is a common thought in modern western culture these days that is so pervasive as to be accepted as fact in many circles: religion is superstition, myth, or something contrived to aid simple-minded people in trying to understand the world around them. And what is the modern counterpart most commonly pointed to as the knight in shining armor that ushered in the golden age of enlightenment and which showed intelligent people that there is a better way to understand the world? Science. For example, Dr. Jerry Coyne, atheist professor, author, and evolutionary biologist, said:

Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.

Dr. Jerry Coyne

The trouble with assertions like this in modern culture is that they become accepted–without being challenged or even examined particularly carefully–into the vernacular as established fact. If you do challenge it in intellectual conversation, you are generally scoffed at because of your irrationality. The irony is lost on those people, though, that a failure to examine such assertions is itself irrational. I would be interested to know how much Dr. Coyne really studied the form of inquiry associated with religion. Did he do so with an open mind, willing to reshape his mindset if the facts supported a point of view different from his preconceived notion? I can guess the answer.

Here I should reiterate something I’ve stated previously. I am emphatically not saying that I have a problem with science or scientists. I am not here to prove that only religion is the source of truth or that science is the devil’s playbook. What I am here to do is to challenge the assertion that you cannot believe that both science and religion point to important truths in our lives.

First off, there have been throughout history, and there continues to be today, very intelligent scientists who have also been Christ-followers, from Blaise Pascal (brilliant 17th-century mathematician and philosopher) to Dr. Francis Collins (brilliant modern-day physician and geneticist who led the Human Genome Project and was head of the National Institute of Health). However, to be fair, and lest we fall into the same logical trap of Dr. Coyne and others who accept unchallenged assertions as fact, it’s also important to note that exceptions to an assertion do not prove it to be incorrect. In other words, no matter how many intelligent scientists I can point to who are also followers of Christ, that does not disprove Dr. Coyne’s assertion that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

Instead, we need to turn to science and religion themselves. I believe that there are at least 4 different scientific disciplines that are not only compatible with Christianity, but even go so far as to support and substantiate claims of the faith. Let’s take a look at those in the following sections.

Archeology

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, “Beyond Belief – How Can You Possibly Believe the Bible Is True?“, archeologist Sir William Ramsay actually set out to disprove the Bible, but ended up converting to Christianity after finding extensive archeological evidence supporting claims in the Bible. Also, in his 1959 book Rivers in the Desert, a History of the Negev, noted Jewish archeologist Nelson Glueck said:

It may be stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a single biblical reference. Scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.

Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, a History of the Negev

Since I have already covered this elsewhere, in the interest of time, let’s move on to the next one.

Cosmology

Cosmology is the science of the study of the origins of the universe. Referring to what has become a widely accepted belief by most scientists, that the universe had a single beginning at a point in time, Dr. Alexander Vilenkin, Director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University, stated:

With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past eternal universe. They have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.

Dr. Alexander Vilenkin

Why is this a problem? Well, it’s only a problem if you’re an atheist. If it’s true that the universe had a beginning–and science seems to be nearly unanimous in acceptance of this assertion–then there must have been something that started it. This logical argument has come to be known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which states:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause behind it.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Journalist and author Lee Strobel gave a talk describing this very well. What kind of force, he asks, can bring a universe into existence out of nothing?

  • It must itself be uncaused, because you can’t have an infinite regress of causes
  • It must be immaterial–or spirit–because it existed before the material world existed
  • It must be eternal because it created time
  • It must be smart and powerful because of the precision and power of the creation event
  • It must be personal and have a personal will, because it needed to make the decision to create

This is a pretty good start at describing God. Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Dr. Arno Penzias put it this way:

If I had no other data than the early chapters of Genesis, some of the Psalms, and other passages of Scripture, I would have arrived at essentially the same picture of the origin of the universe, as is indicated by the scientific data.

Dr. Arno Penzias

Moving on, then, to the next scientific discipline.

Physics

As Lee Strobel states:

The laws and constants of physics conspire in an absolutely unexpected and extraordinary way to create a world where life is possible.

Lee Strobel

There are about 50 different physical cosmological constants that govern our universe and our world–gravity, for example. Each one of those constants had to be fine-tuned to a very specific value in order for life to exist. If gravity were just a little bit weaker, everything trying to inhabit this planet would have just floated away; if it were a little bit stronger, it would have squashed everything that tried to come into existence. So with 50 different variables at work, there are trillions of different combinations of all of those values–but only one set of them would allow for this planet to exist, and for life to thrive on it. The precision required for this world and this universe to exist the way it does is beyond the realm of possibility that it could all have happened by chance.

As stated by Dr. Vera Kistiakowsky, former professor of physics at MIT and former president of the Association of Women in Science:

QUOTES BY VERA KISTIAKOWSKY | A-Z Quotes
Borrowed from azquotes.com: https://www.azquotes.com/picture-quotes/quote-the-exquisite-order-displayed-by-our-scientific-understanding-of-the-physical-world-vera-kistiakowsky-58-72-47.jpg

Let’s turn to the final scientific discipline to take a look at its cogency with a belief in God.

Biology / Genetics

Earlier I mentioned Dr. Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project. He wrote a book called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. And that’s exactly what DNA is–it is an intentional code, a language, that uniquely defines each of the 7+ billion people who inhabit this planet. To think that the way the 4 characters representing the chemical alphabet that make up our genes are combined in a unique way for every single person could have happened randomly is too far-fetched. Each of the 100 trillion cells in our bodies contains exactly the same sequence of those characters.

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer put it more concisely and accurately in his book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. A former geophysicist and college professor and current Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, he put it this way in the book:

With odds standing at 1 chance in 10164 of finding a functional protein among the possible 150-amino-acid compounds, the probability is 84 orders of magnitude (or powers of ten) smaller than the probability of finding the marked particle in the whole universe. Another way to say that is the probability of finding a functional protein by chance alone is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specified particle among all the particles in the universe.

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design

Now that’s a lot of trillions!

Conclusion

In conclusion, far from being incompatible with faith, we have seen several different scientific disciplines that seem to point to our Creator. Any honest, intellectually curious person willing to examine the evidence with an open mind and the scientific method should reach the same conclusion. Dr. James Tour, a leading molecular scientist from Rice University, said:

I stand in awe of God because of what he has done through his creation. Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science it will bring you closer to God.

Dr. James Tour

I’ll close with one more little story. Dr. Antony Flew was a professor at several universities, including Oxford, and a lifelong atheist. However, in 2004, he shocked the world when he reversed the beliefs he had held for more than 50 years. In 2007, he published a book called There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. In this book, he said:

I now believe there is a God…I now think it [the evidence] does point to a creative Intelligence almost entirely because of the DNA investigations. What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.

Dr. Antony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, borrowed from Goodreads.com

After reading this article, I hope you will understand why I and so many people like me believe there is a cogency between faith and science. It seems to be the only logical conclusion.

Let me close with two more quotes from Dr. Francis Collins:

Pin on Intelligent Design
Borrowed from interest
Francis Collins Quotes (54 wallpapers) - Quotefancy
Borrowed from quotefancy.com
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Beyond Belief – Is Jesus Really Divine?

Let me start today with a prayer that I will speak (write) respectfully and truthfully regarding a comment I received on a post I made a couple months back, earlier in this series on apologetics (explaining your faith to non-believers in a way that makes sense): Beyond Belief – What the Heck is the Trinity? Is God Three or Is He One? Some of the pastors at my church (New Life Church) pray before their sermons that God will allow them to get out of the way so that the words of their mouth reflect God’s truth, and that’s my prayer for the words of my hands here as well.

OK, so I know I touched on the topic of the divinity of Jesus in the aforementioned post on the trinity, but it is because of this comment that I want to come back to the concept in a little more detail. To give you some context, I originally thought I would post a response about this last week. After prayerful consideration, though, I felt like God was leading me to write the post I did. Further, I had 3 concerns about addressing this comment, which I’ll address one-by-one:

  1. Back to a previous post about pride, I was concerned that my motivation for addressing the comment was about me and my need to be right. God and my wife have helped me grow considerably in this area, but it has always been a thorn in my flesh. I didn’t think that was my motivation for wanting to respond, but I also originally thought it would be best to stay away from it just in case. Now, however, I feel like God has kept bringing me back to this topic, figuratively barfing me up on the shores of Nineveh the way he did to Jonah.
  2. I think one thing that may be turning non-believers away from the church and making them not want to even investigate the truth of Christianity is all the Followers of Christ behaving badly on social media and in everyday life–have you ever been cut off or even flipped off by someone with a fish symbol on their car (yes and yes for me, sadly)? The last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate that by being seen as arguing with someone over doctrine. However, what I kept coming back to over this week is that the divinity of Jesus is central to being a Christian. If this were about what happens during communion or infant vs. adult baptism, I would have left it alone. However, if you cannot accept the divinity of Jesus, then your faith is not a Christian faith. God reminded me this week how at the start of my faith journey, I was almost tricked by the evil one into becoming a Jehovah’s Witness–a faith that dances around the edges of Christianity, but never quite gets there since they do not acknowledge that Jesus is part of the Triune God. I will unpack this in more detail in this post.
  3. The comment was made by a blogger with the handle “belgianbiblestudents“. I looked at the blog, and it seems that this person or group of people are fairly well entrenched in their beliefs. Meaning, I felt like there would be little (if any) advancement of God’s Kingdom by rebutting the comment since it seems highly unlikely that my words will move him/her/them to change their minds. However, God brought me back to my situation. When I was exploring the truth or fiction of the trinity, there was no such thing as the internet, so it did not impact my investigation. However, today’s world is totally different. What God reminded me of is that it may not be for me to know if or how or when my words may impact someone. It could be that one of these students invites me over to Belgium (I wish! or maybe more possible, suggests we get on a Zoom call) so we can discuss our interpretations of the Bible. Or more likely, someone else next week or next month or 10 years from now is grappling with that very same problem and God leads them to this blog post, and through His grace, He opens their eyes to the truth. I don’t know, and it’s not for me to know.

OK, so here we go. First I will quote the comment, then respond to it.

You write about the Trinity “This is one of those aspects of Christianity that is both foundational and, at the same time, just beyond our ability to fully comprehend.” but it is something incomprehensible because such a false teaching makes no sense at all and contradicts the Biblical teaching that there is only one God Who is one and no man can see, while Jesus has been seen by several people and is not eternal and has been declared by God, who does not speak lies, as His beloved son.

God has never presented himself to mankind as Jesus, nor has Jesus ever demanded equality with God nor said he was God. Contrary, whilst God is an eternal Spirit, Jesus had a birth (a beginning) and really died (God cannot die) After his resurrection he clearly said he was no spirit (like his heavenly father is a Spirit).

In Scriptures is also clearly indicated that Jesus was first lower than angels, but Jehovah God was, is and always shall be the highest. Jesus is now sitting next to God, i.e. not on God’s throne, but at God His side. The Bible tells us also that Jesus is now a highpriest before God and the mediator between God and man. In case Jesus would be God he can not be those two previous mentioned characters.

You indicate that it does not matter to what sort of god we address ourselves. But it matters very much. We may only have one God. Jesus prepared the way to come directly to that God and as such, recognising Jesus act, we should come close to his and our God Who is One and not two or three.

Belgian Bible Students

The way I would like to address this is by unpacking what the Bible says about God and Jesus the Messiah, starting with the Old Testament (what God the Father said about this), the Gospels (what Jesus himself said), and the rest of the New Testament (what Paul and other people who knew Jesus said about him).

What the Old Testament Says

To begin with, one thing that some people point to when refuting the trinity is Deuteronomy 6:4, which is also known in Judaism as the start of the Shema prayer (one of only two prayers commanded in the Torah):

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV)

So if God is one, how can anyone sensibly think there is such a thing as a Triune God? Don’t those stand in conflict? No, not at all. For one thing, one of the most common words used for God in the Hebrew Testament is “Elohim“, which is a plural word, not singular. Also, going back to the very beginning of the Bible for another interesting reference to a God who is plural:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Genesis 1:26 (NIV, emphasis added)

Hmm, interesting that God is referring to Himself in the plural pronouns, “us” and “our”. If God is not also plural in nature, who is He talking to or about? Who else’s image besides the singular God would He be referring to?

Does this mean that the entire Bible must be false due to this apparent contradiction? No. It means that God is one in essence, but represented by more than one person.

Here’s a similar example from the Hebrew Testament:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Isaiah 6:8 (NIV, emphasis added)

We can also turn our attention to Hebrew prophesy, of which there are many examples that point to fulfillment in Jesus. Don’t worry, I won’t list them all, just this example, which helps substantiate the case from God’s word:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6 (NIV, emphasis added)

So wait a minute, Isaiah–are you saying that a child, a son, will be born, and he will be called Mighty God, Everlasting Father? How would that possible for those who will not acknowledge that God is one in essence but represented by more than one entity–a Father and a son in this verse? I could go on, but I am already running long here. Not to mention bringing the Holy Spirit into the equation–but the comment seemed to be more focused on the non-deity of Christ, so I will stay targeted on that. Let’s move on to the Gospels, taking a look at the things Jesus said about himself.

What Jesus Says in the Gospels

Jesus made quite a number of claims about himself, many of which were considered blasphemous by the Jewish leaders of his day–meaning they felt he was equating himself with God. Ultimately, this is why they had him executed.

The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:24-30 (NIV, emphasis added)

Here we see Jesus’s teaching style–he prefers that we grapple with tough issues and questions, so he rarely states anything bluntly or plainly. So let us not think that because he never directly says, “I am God,” that he does not mean that in other things he says. In this very passage, in fact, he says, “I and the Father are one.” Even though he is not directly saying that he is God, he is essentially making the same claim indirectly. There are many other such examples. Before I list some of those, though, let me address one place where some people–those who claim that Jesus never believed he was God–point out that they believe Jesus is stating that he is less than God:

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26

They say that since the Father had to send the Holy Spirit, Jesus is conceding that he could not send the Spirit himself. However, the Apostle Paul clarifies this in his letter to the Philippians:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his
own advantage
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:5-7

OK, I know I’m jumping ahead a little bit to the section where we review important things other Biblical authors said about Jesus, but I wanted to address this directly. Here we see the explanation from Paul that Jesus chose to assume a lesser human nature so he could walk alongside us into the mess of our lives. Ours is the only system of beliefs in which the worshipped god set aside his royal robes and godly powers to become one of us.

Now, back to other bold claims of deity Jesus made about himself (all references in NIV):

  • When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12. This is something a first-century rabbi would never have claimed about himself unless it were true, due to the blasphemous implication.
  • Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
    “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
    Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. John 6:32-35 (emphasis added). The second statement coming after the first one points to the fact that Jesus knew exactly what he was saying–he is the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
  • “Very truly I tell you,”Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. John 8:58-59. Why are they trying to stone him? Because he used the same words to refer to himself as God used when speaking with Moses through the burning bush (see Exodus 3:14).
  • Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9 (emphasis added).
  • Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
    “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” John 10:31-33. Yet another example where the Jewish leaders in Jesus’s time wanted to execute him because they understood clearly that he was claiming to be God.
  • Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
    “I am,”said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Mark 14:61b-62. Jesus here, being the Old Testament scholar that he was, was referring directly to himself in his quoting of Daniel’s prophesy in Daniel 7:13-14 (“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.”).
  • “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Matthew 28:19. Notice that Jesus does not say baptizing them in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Meaning that although they are different persons, they are collectively part of the Triune God, therefore they share the same name.
  • When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Luke 5:20. Jesus would obviously have known that only God can forgive sins.
  • Jesus declared his omnipotence by raising Lazarus (John 11:43). He declared his omniscience when he said to Peter, “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (Matthew 26:34). Jesus claimed his omnipresence by telling his disciples he would be with them “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He also would have known that these characteristics are only associated with God.

What Other New Testament People Said

I will try to be brief here, but there is plenty of material to choose from (just read all of Paul’s epistles!). Let’s start with what his disciple, Thomas (usually referred to as “Doubting Thomas”), said about Jesus. The first time Thomas encounters Jesus after his resurrection, Jesus invites him to place his fingers in his wounds. In John 20:28, Thomas says to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus would have known that it would be considered blasphemous not to rebuke Thomas, but instead of doing that, Jesus commends him, saying, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Moving on to one of Jesus’s closest friends and followers, Peter. Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is. After they answered, he asks a more pointed question, which Peter answers. “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Mark 8:29.

Here are some other references (all NIV):

  • “…while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ…” Titus 2:13
  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
  • The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Hebrews 1:3
  • Paul consistently refers to Jesus as LORD, using the Old Testament reference “YHWH” (see Romans 10:13, 1 Cor 1:31, 1 Cor 2:16, 1 Cor 10:26, and 2 Cor 10:17 for a few examples)
  • Paul makes frequent references to the pre-existence of Jesus (1 Cor 8:6, 1 Cor 10:4, 1 Cor 15:47, 2 Cor 8:9, Galatians 4:4, to name a few examples)
  • Paul refers to Jesus as Creator in 1 Cor 8:6: “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

I know I have not covered every point made by Belgian Bible Students, but I think and hope that I have at least been able to address the central idea of the divinity of Jesus.

Now the thing I wonder is, how can you believe some of what Jesus says, but not all of it? You need to believe that Jesus was and is who he says he is–divine Lord who is part of the Triune God–or else you need to regard him as either a crazy person or an evil liar, so you should not believe a word he says. Jesus did not leave us any middle ground on this choice, nor did he plan to.

So what about you? Who do you say that Jesus is? May God bless your decision since it’s the most important one you will ever make, and the only one with eternal consequences. Choose wisely!

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Beyond Belief – Is There Really Life After Death?

With Christmas, New Year’s, and the associated celebrations now squarely in the rearview mirror, let’s return our attention back to the series on Christian apologetics (defending or explaining the faith in a way that makes sense to others who don’t have the background) we started last year. This time, I’d like to address the question of whether there really is an afterlife, or is this concept simply made up as wishful thinking? Is heaven for real, as the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent claims it is?

There’s something I’d like to point out as we get started that really applies to many of the topics we have covered and will cover in this series. There are people who do not believe in God or heaven because, they say, we cannot scientifically prove that they are real. And I know I have on occasion sneered at science as an ersatz god, but I should clarify that I do not have any problem with science (I do, after all, have a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science).

The problem comes when people revere science as the ultimate source of truth. In actual science (not what some people call science without actually understanding science or the scientific method), the burden of proof is bi-directional–if you cannot prove the “A” is true, it does not necessarily follow that this makes “B” true by default. You must prove that “B” is true on its own merits, or else you cannot conclude that it is true. In other words, while it’s true that you cannot prove that God and heaven are real scientifically, that does not necessarily mean they are not true, as some people assume.

Today’s culture seems to believe that the burden of proof lies with Christianity to prove that its claims are true, but people who buy into this fail to realize that they are ignoring the scientific method since you also cannot prove scientifically that God and heaven are not real. As a discipline, science is inconclusive on these topics. Thus, anyone wishing to perform an honest intellectual investigation into the existence of God and heaven must turn to other disciplines for answers, such as philosophy, theology, history, archeology, psychology, and so on.

Having established that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of heaven, let’s move on. As we all know, there are plenty of stories like that of 4-year-old Colton Burpo told in the book I mentioned above, Heaven Is for Real, in which someone is clinically dead, has an out-of-body experience, and is brought back to life. They often have stories to tell that include specific details that are difficult to explain away scientifically. But I’m not going to get into all that.

Instead, we’re going to look at the words of Jesus himself. In previous episodes, we’ve laid the foundation of the historicity and factualness of the Bible, that it’s more trustworthy than just about any other ancient historical document. We’ve also established several facts about Jesus, including his deity as part of the triune God.

This passage is found in Mark 12. A group of Sadducees, the most powerful of the Jewish religious leaders, had approached Jesus with a riddle:

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

Mark 12:18-23 (NIV)

These guys think they’ve really tricked Jesus with this one. But they don’t know Jesus very well. Here’s how he responds:

Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

Jesus, in Mark 12:24-27 (NIV)

I have to admit, the first part of his response is a bit puzzling, but I don’t want to skip past it just because it’s challenging (if that were the case, I would not have started this series on Christian apologetics in the first place!). But since this isn’t central to today’s message, let me try to explain it briefly, then move on. Here is my understanding of this. The Biblical purpose of marriage is to procreate, and that’s also the reason for the section in the Mosaic law the Sadducees referred to (to keep family lines going). In heaven, though, there is no need to procreate since there will be no death, so we will be like the angels in that we will not be married. However, I do believe that in heaven, we will continue to have (or resume) deep, close personal relationships with our spouses. So it will be like we’re married. Fair enough?

OK, so moving on to the part where Jesus corrects their understanding of the dead rising. He refers to the story of Moses speaking to God in the burning bush told in Exodus 3:6. You’ve gotta love his last two statements. God is the God of the living, not of the dead. Then, You are badly mistaken! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to end an argument that way!

So, according to Jesus, if you do not believe in life after death, you are badly mistaken.

Another thing I wanted to bring up here is a compelling observation from C.S. Lewis regarding the afterlife in Mere Christianity. There he says that many people may not really feel a desire for heaven because they have not been properly educated about it. Our education, he says, tends to fix our minds on things of this world. Thus, people may fail to recognize that some of the longings they have cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. They may try to fulfill those longings in multiple ways, but everything comes up short. Lewis points out that there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact and one right way.

The first is what he calls “the Fool’s Way”, in which the person feeling this emptiness puts all the blame on the things s/he tried to fulfill the longings with. If, for example, s/he had married a different spouse or pursued a different career, then he would not be feeling so empty. The person’s emptiness is entirely the fault of the person they chose to marry or the career they picked for themself.

The second is “the Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man'”, in which the person gives up on their longings and thinks it rather silly and childish that they had those longings in the first place.

The third is “the Christian Way.” Instead of trying to summarize it, let me instead include Lewis’ brilliant observation:

The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.’

Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (pp. 136-137). HarperOne. Kindle Edition

I have another thought along these lines. In my Bible study group this evening, we discussed Psalms 23 and 121, both of which state rather poetically and confidently how God will protect us from harm. One person in our group pointed out, though, that God does not always protect us from harm, so he can see how people would find this misleading. Sometimes Christ-followers die in random accidents, and some are even killed because of the work they are doing for God’s Kingdom. Where was God’s protection for them?

To me, this comes back to a difference in perspective.

From our worldly view, God was absent, or maybe distracted (running the universe must be a busy job, after all). This causes us to shake our angry fists at God–Where were You when my loved one died? So much for this promise of Your protection! This crisis of faith can, at best, cause a prolonged period of desert wandering for a Christ-follower or, at worst, even cause people to turn their backs on God altogether.

However, as I mentioned in a post almost a year ago (Gone Too Soon), God’s perspective is focused on eternity. While He cares about what happens to us every day, He cares infinitely more where we will spend our eternity. So if we have to endure pain and suffering and persecution in this life to direct us onto a path where we spend eternity in heaven, that’s OK with Him. He does not necessarily protect us from scrapes and bruises, or even from disease and death–but He does protect us from the evil one, who tries daily to tempt us onto the enticing, wide path that leads straight to hell. I know it may not be very comforting, but when you compare the relatively short duration of our lifetimes to eternity, this does seem to be the better choice.

How does this support the case for the existence of heaven? If we look at God’s promise of protection from our earthly perspective–meaning, if this life is all there is–then you could only conclude that God is a liar and the Bible is complete rubbish. However, considering the preponderance of evidence we’ve seen that God is real and that He loves us, and that the Bible is trustworthy, we must search for a different logical conclusion. The only other option is that God is true to His promise of protection, but it must be in a way that looks different than what we would think. We look for physical protection, but what God offers is spiritual protection.

Let me close with this final thought: there is life after death, and it goes on through eternity. The question is, where will you spend it?

If you have chosen to live apart from God, He will grant you that into eternity and allow you to live in hell forever. That was your choice, not His. Hell is for real, too.

On the other hand, if you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, receiving the gift of grace and mercy and forgiveness He so freely offers, you will spend eternity in heaven. All of the best moments you’ve ever experienced in this life combined are only a shadow of what eternal life will be like if that’s the choice you’ve made. I’m so thankful to God that He dragged me, kicking and screaming, onto this narrow path. I pray you’ve allowed Him to do the same for you.

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The Choice for 2022 and into Eternity: God or Pride?

In today’s episode, I had planned to return in one way or another to the “Beyond Belief” series on Christian apologetics, but then over the course of the day, I became convinced that there was another topic I needed to cover before I do that. First, before church this morning, my wife and I got into a bit of a spat that I think I can attribute largely to me letting my pride cloud my judgment about our interactions. Next, for the sermon at church, Pastor Andrew Arndt’s message on prayer included the challenge to remain hungry for God even when things are going well, not just when our life is a mess. Finally, I’m rereading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and today I came to Book 3, Chapter 8, which is entitled, “The Great Sin”. You’ll never guess what that sin is–oh wait, you probably will. You’re right, it’s pride.

So I figured that if God, my wife, and C.S. Lewis all conspire to cause me to grapple with something, I really should pay attention!

OK, so let’s go back to the beginning and journey together to the point where I reach the assertion that this choice we make every day in this new year has eternal consequences. Regarding the situation with my wife this morning, I don’t need to write a lengthy explanation about whether I was right or wrong, or anything silly like that. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether I was right or wrong. Here are my biblical marching orders as a husband:

Borrowed from YouVersion

Pretty simple, right? Not easy, for sure, but simple. Now let’s look at how much Christ has loved the church, as described by the Apostle Paul:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8 (NIV), borrow from YouVersion

What this means is that, if I am to love my wife the way Christ loved the church, then I need to relate to her out of a place of humility, not pride. That’s why it doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong–that’s my pride doing my thinking for me. Humility puts my wife above my need to be right. Again, not always easy, but very simple.

Moving on to Pastor Andrew’s challenge to remain hungry for God regardless of the circumstances of our lives. Whenever things are not going well, especially in times of desperation, as followers of Christ, it’s natural for us to turn to God in prayer. And, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Then what’s the problem?

The problem comes when we drift away from God in times of plenty, when life is going well. The reason this is a problem is because God wants to be in a relationship with us–He doesn’t want us to treat Him like a genie in a bottle. That’s not a relationship, it’s a good luck charm. When I have a difficult request for someone I love, I will ask for that favor because of the trust we have established through our relationship. That’s like a prayer. But if I really wanted a red Ferari, and if I were superstitious, I might toss a coin in a fountain whenever I encountered one. That’s a wish, and it’s meaningless.

And yet we all have that tendency. When life is good, we are inclined to think, Look what I did! There’s even an odd little Bible story in Daniel:

All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Daniel 4:289-32 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

Although I don’t believe that every time any one of us feels as prideful as King Nebuchadnezzar, God will take everything away from us and turn us into vegetarians, I can’t help but wonder if God doesn’t occasionally allow challenges to come our way simply as a reminder or instigator to turn back toward Him. But whatever the case, if we take a moment to reflect on our tendency to lose our hunger for God when life is good, I think we will realize that the root cause of this is pride. We want to take the credit, not give it to God. Or, maybe worse, we just don’t even give God another thought, now that we have gotten our “wish”.

There’s another, even more frightening story in the Bible about the outcome for someone who was too prideful. Ezekiel 28 tells about how Lucifer, a beautiful and powerful angel, became so enthralled with himself that God threw him out of heaven, saying:

Your heart became proud
on account of your beauty,
and you corrupted your wisdom
because of your splendor.
So I threw you to the earth;
I made a spectacle of you before kings.

Ezekiel 28:17 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

Yikes! I definitely don’t want to be like that guy!

And yet, every time we say to God (whether we mean to or not), “I’ve got it from here,” our pride is directing us away from God and into the waiting arms of the evil one. Whenever people in our modern culture pity us for our outdated (so they say) belief in God, their pride is allowing them to believe man-made notions about God over God himself–another detour directly into Satan’s cold embrace.

This is why our decision between God and our pride has such eternal consequences for each of us. C.S. Lewis summed it up quite starkly:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, borrowed from GoodReads

The Way Out

This being a blog meant to encourage others, I can’t in good conscience end this episode on such a bleak note. Thankfully, God is always eager to shine light into the darkness for us.

So the question is, How do we avoid the pitfall of pride, which has sucked in the likes of angels and kings?

Well, one simple way to get started on the path around this dark pit is gratitude. When things around you are going well, thank God for your blessings! Do this every day in 2022 and your heart will be in a much lighter condition on this date next year than it is now.

As I mentioned in my article near the Thanksgiving holiday, there is really no point in expressing gratitude to “the universe” since it doesn’t care whether you live or die, let alone what kind of blessings you may receive. Expressing gratitude means acknowledging that someone apart from yourself–someone you are in a relationship with–is responsible for one or more of the good things in your life. And thanking God for the blessings He gives you is never a bad way to start a conversation with Him.

I have some shirts I really like that say “Life is good” on them. As much as I enjoy them, though, I wish I could modify them to say, “Life is good–THANK YOU, GOD!” instead!

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New Year, Same Old You?

Now that Christmas is over, another calendar switch is upon us. Toss 2021 (a year that was to be oh so much better than the one before it) into the trash bin, hang up a sparkly new year that is to be. Every time this happens, we allow ourselves to hope that this will be the year that we become the better versions of ourselves that we always dreamed we would be.

Given that my calling for this blog is to encourage others, you might find it strange that I am about to burst your bubble. But the thing is, none of us is really able to change our true selves.

At least, not by our own strength.

Sure, we might be able to change external attributes of ourselves, but then look the other way before we realize that these things are adjacent to our true selves, a safe zone of protection between harsh reality and the core of who we really are. Maybe we want to lose weight–diet and exercise–always a popular duo after a month of stuffing ourselves from the Thanksgiving turkey to the Christmas goose. Maybe we want to do a better job with our finances, so we kick a little more into our 401(k) or some similar investment vehicle. Or maybe it’s the hair–more hair, less hair, hair in different places, no hair coming out our ears, different color hair, etc. What about spirituality? More time in God’s Word, less time consuming Satan’s 6 o’clock news? Good ideas, but still external.

While these external changes may not be easy, they are mostly things you can control. And I apologize for sticking a pin in yet another bubble, but I think new year’s resolutions are actually a waste of time, free passes that we give ourselves for trying at something half-heartedly for a few weeks and then shrugging our shoulders when we couldn’t stick with it. If you really resolve to do something, then just make whatever adjustments are needed to make it happen. Easier said than done, I know, but there are several methods that have worked for many different people.

I found an approach that really resonated well for me, as described by James Clear in his easy-to-read book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (Note: this is an affiliate link to the book on Amazon, but it doesn’t cost you anything to follow it). This book helped me make several positive changes in 2021. There are many other choices as well. Bottom line: if you are serious about making positive changes around the periphery of your core self, don’t just resolve to try harder this year and then give up after a few weeks–find an approach that helps you make the small tweaks to your daily routine required to achieve your goals, and then make them.

But here’s the thing: as nice as it would be to make some improvements to these external aspects of ourselves in 2022, if all you do is improve some of those things, you’ll still be living with the same old you at this time next year.

Why?

Because these things are not central to the core of what makes you you. That’s why you are able to change them yourself, in your own power. For these things, it’s like we are swimming in a pool or calm pond–as soon as we decide to, we are able to swim to safety.

But what about excessive anger? Selfishness? Blaming everyone but yourself for bad things that happen? Worrying too much? Greed? Addiciton to alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, food, working, shopping, watching TV? Hatred, racism, or other forms of putting yourself above others? Spreading darkness by the things you post on social media, the way you treat others, the way you drive? The list is nearly endless.

Ouch, ouch, and ouch! Trust me, I’m not casting stones here, I’m wincing along with everyone else.

These demons are closer to the center of our beings because they feel like part of who we are–a bad part, but a part of us nonetheless. No matter how much we try, we just can’t seem to break ourselves out of the spell they cast on us. The swimming analogy here is that we’re in the middle of a large lake or ocean surrounded by rough water, waves crashing all around us. No matter how hard we try or how strong we are, we can’t seem to swim to safety.

A drowning person cannot save him- or herself. It is for these things that we need to reach to someone outside of ourselves to be rescued. This is where God will come into our stories to save us, to the extent that we let him. And while at times, the outlook from the midst of these challenges can be bleak, it is also where hope can shine as a bright, brilliant silver lining around the gray–God has rescued many others from similar messes.

All you have to do is ask him to rescue you. But be aware that if you really mean it, you are also handing him a hammer and chisel, asking him to cut away those extra parts of you that he never intended to be there.

Yes, this can be a painful and scary process–a process because it almost never seems to happen overnight. This is most likely because we keep grabbing the hammer and chisel back from God–out of fear, or because it hurts too much, or because it’s hard for us to trust God enough to believe that his outcomes will be better than what we had dreamed of. As the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Ephesians:

Borrowed from YouVersion

It’s worth noting that we tend to pray for specific outcomes that suit us, whereas God has grander, more eternal purposes in mind when he answers our prayers. In other words, his answers often do not look like what we asked for, which can cause us to sit back in judgment of God, deciding that he does not answer our prayers after all. We should always try to resist this subtle ploy of the enemy and instead use these opportunities to deepen our trust that God knows what he is doing, again echoing Paul’s words:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

And since I’m on a roll quoting Paul, let me close with this shining beacon of hope:

Borrowed from YouVersion

So it is that this post can be encouraging after all: as soon as you realize that you can’t make yourself into a better person out of your own strength, and you invite God into the equation, you can begin the rewarding (albeit slow and sometimes painful) journey toward becoming the version of yourself that, little by little, resembles our beautiful, loving Creator.

Happy New Year! Blessings for an awesome 2022!

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Advent – One of Us

Today I’m going to hijack the most unlikely of songs to become a Christmas song. I mean, why not? Everyone else does it. Yesterday I was listening to one of my Christmas playlists and the song “Seasons of Love” (from the bleak musical, “Rent”, and which has nothing to do with Christmas) popped up, sung by Idina Menzel (who is Jewish). Although the “religious” side of me is troubled by the commercial aspect surrounding this “holy day” (the origination of the word “holiday”), I try not to be “that guy”. And also, throughout history, God has used the most unlikely of people–some of whom did not even know God was using them–to advance His Story (a convenient respelling of “history”). So if someone who does not believe in Jesus or celebrate his birth sings a non-Christmas song beautifully and puts it on her Christmas album, I need to remind myself not to judge that. Who am I to assume that God is not planning to use that to reach someone at just the point in their life when they need it? Even though neither the singer nor the songwriter may have intended it for that purpose, that is such a small obstacle for God. He can use that–or anything–to reach someone, to enable His Light to break into their darkness. In fact, it’s entirely possible that nothing else would reach that person at that moment in their life when they most need it. How many non-believers listen to Christian music? Or listen to Christmas songs with the birth of our Saviour in mind?

So with that background and context in mind, let me introduce you to the newest non-Christian Christmas carol: “One of Us“, written by Eric Bazilian and sung by Joan Osborne on her debut album in 1995. No, not the Abba version <here I deleted a rather funny editorial comment about Abba because probably not everybody would have thought it was as funny as I did, and my wife might have have thrown a shoe at me>.

In this version of the song, the singer and songwriter challenge us, the listener, with the question:

Eric Bazilian, “One of Us”, Lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc., borrowed from Song Meanings & Facts

I have enjoyed this song since it came out (yes, I am that old…and then some!). Since that time, I have wondered about the background of the song. Was it intended to be religious? Was it an acknowledgment of God? A tip of the hat to the struggle we all must face, grappling with questions of truth, the meaning of our existence, etc.? It has some very compelling lyrics that have gotten my wheels spinning over the years:


If God has a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?

Eric Bazilian, “One of Us”, Lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc., borrowed from Lyrics.com

And also:

If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see if seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?

Eric Bazilian, “One of Us”, Lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc., borrowed from Lyrics.com

So, here’s the thing, and the reason why I’m declaring this an unlikely and unintentional Christmas song: Christmas is a time to celebrate the fact that God became one of us. God does have a name: Jesus. God does have a face: this baby in a manger. This baby, crying and pooping his pants, so utterly dependent on his human parents for survival. This baby, who grew up to be a slob like one of us. And yes, seeing the face of Jesus forces you to decide between Light and darkness, between Truth and deception, between accepting that Jesus was and is who he says he is or believing Satan’s lie that Jesus was just a great moral teacher.

Here’s God’s version of declaring that He is one of us, which ends up in some actual Christmas songs:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means God with us).

Matthew 1:23, referring to the prophesy from Isaiah 7:14 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

As I was doing some background research into this song and the lyrics, in one place I found some reader comments about the analysis of the lyrics. As you would expect these days and in this culture, it didn’t take long for the exchange to turn ugly. One follower of Christ commented that the song somehow resonates with his faith, which of course led to a long string of responses full of vitriol and intellectual snobbery along the lines of, “How could you possibly make the connection between your (misplaced, foolish) faith and this song when the article clearly states that the songwriter is not religious and had no religious intent when he wrote the song?

I’ll point out again that God does not need for something to have been done for His glory in order for Him to hijack it and use it for His purposes. In the whole strange story of Moses and Pharaoh and the 10 plagues told in the book of Exodus, for example, God was working through Pharaoh to achieve His purposes–establishing a foundational faith in Himself throughout His chosen people–even though Pharoah did not know he was being used by God, nor would he have willingly done so if he had known.

So, even though neither Eric Bazillian nor Joan Osborne intended for “One of Us” to be a religious song (let alone now a Christmas song!), it is entirely possible that God moved in and through them to create a work of art that would challenge people to think about Him. What if God really was one of us? Wait, maybe he was…?

And now here we are, my friends. Christmas is almost here, a time the world has been eagerly anticipating. A time to gather with loved ones. A time to celebrate with gifts. A time in which many people allow the Light to break into their darkness, even if only for a day or two. A time of occasional glimpses into what the world could look like if everyone allowed love and peace and joy and hope to fill their hearts in place of hatred and judgment and bitterness and intellectual snobbery.

This is why so many people love Christmas, even if they don’t yet love Christ. And that’s OK. Even if they see all these other trappings as central to Christmas and miss the real point, the truth is that God is one of us, and that’s what matters. Through this baby, in the most unlikely invasion story in the history of human conflict, God has entered into our mess, the mess we have made, to show us how much he loves us. To help us clean it up, not shake his head in disappointment or wag his finger in admonishment.

God is here! He came to be one of us, to save us, and show us the way to usher in the new heaven and the new earth: to love Him, and to love others the way He has loved us. This is the Christmas story.

Merry Christmas, my friends. Peace on earth, and Joy to the world! Hope is renewed!

The Light has crashed into the darkness of our world!

Our Saviour reigns! Amen and amen.

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Advent – Restore To Me the Joy of Your Salvation To the World

In case it doesn’t make sense, this week’s advent title is a mashup between Psalm 51:12:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/PSA.51.12/662?version=111

and the title of the Christmas carol “Joy To the World,” written by Isaac Watts in 1719. Some of the verses upon which it is thought he based the lyrics (and probably the song title) include:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Psalms 96:11-12 (NIV), borrow from YouVersion

and

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music

Psalms 98:4 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

So let’s unpack these ideas today, starting with this: Why is the birth of a baby to a poor, insignificant Jewish family in the filth of a stable in a nothing town a cause for celebration? I mean, why do we even care about this 2000+ years later? Why does this (or should this) bring joy to the world?

All good questions (if I do have to say so myself).

For one thing, a reason to celebrate is the fact that we do not have a distant God, reclining on his throne in heaven and shaking his head at the mess we have made of his world and of our own lives, and ordering us to clean it up.

I have three grown children, and for anyone who doesn’t know, kids are messy. Maybe a little less so when they’re grown up (or maybe not–maybe they make fewer messes, but when they do, the messes are a lot bigger!). But anyway, as we were raising our children, we would periodically reach a breaking point at which we couldn’t tolerate their messy rooms any longer (as it had been with my parents when I was a messy child). This inevitably resulted in an edict, either from my wife or from me, that they couldn’t leave their rooms until they were cleaned up. Then we would walk away and wait for them to have their tantrums, calm down, and actually clean up. (Side note: oftentimes, “cleaning up” really amounted to transferring the mess from the floor of their rooms to the closet; how symbolic that is of our adult lives sometimes…).

But God is a better parent than I am; as much as I love my kids, God loves us even more. Instead of walking away, telling us, “You made the mess, you clean it up,” God the Son left behind the glories of heaven and the intimacy with God the Father and God the Spirit to come down into our mess. He came here to help us clean it up. He also came here to experience the gamut of human emotions first-hand. He was born to a poor, oppressed family, so he knows poverty and oppression. He had a very close band of brothers, who lived and traveled with him for 3 years. Not all of them believed in him during his earthly ministry, so he gets that it is difficult for us to come to terms with who he is. He understands the treasure of friendship, laughter, and loyalty, but he also knows the burning pain of betrayal. He experienced it all so we would see that we have a God who is close to us, who understands us. Who came here and still dwells among us to help us clean up our messes.

Budha’s last words can be translated “Strive with earnestness” or “Strive without ceasing,” but Jesus’s last words from the cross were, “It is finished,” meaning, “I have done all the striving for you. You have a clear path to God, through me.”

Is that a cause for joy? You bet it is!

Let’s probe a little deeper into another reason why Jesus is such an amazing gift and cause for celebration. This season of advent is about commemorating the waiting for Jesus’s birth–awaiting his first arrival on earth. But where we are in history right now, we know how the story of his earthly ministry goes. So to truly appreciate what a precious gift that baby in a manger is, we need to fly past the stable, past the first 30 years of his life spent in obscurity, past the next 3 years of his ministry on earth, and through the cross. We pause for a moment here to reflect that Jesus was dead. Hope was lost. Jesus claimed to be God, but he was executed for making that claim. If he really was God, he could not have been killed. Right?

Could it be? Is God dead?

But wait.

We move on to see that a couple days later, God breathed life back into Jesus’s lungs and he walked out of the borrowed tomb. The ultimate, later-than-last-minute comeback!

As followers of Christ, the reason we can and should celebrate and proclaim joy to the world is not only because of the miracle of the virgin birth, but also because of the miracle of the resurrection.

Why? What does this mean to us?

The Apostle Paul put it simply and succinctly (which is a bit unusual for him):

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/ROM.6.23/254?version=111

In my younger days, I used to willingly participate in triathlons–not Iron Mans, “just” the Olympic distance (1.5k swim, 40k bike, then 10k run). I wasn’t particularly good at them, nor did I especially enjoy them, but I did them to see if I could, “because it’s there”. Just so they didn’t have people like me flailing about and getting in the way of the professionals doing the race, they let the pros go first, then released the rest of us in waves after that. This meant that just as I was about to start and as I was convincing myself that I was going to be able to do it, the winning pros were crossing the finish line. I sometimes felt like punching them, if I could catch them (which I couldn’t). Here I was psyching myself up for this unpleasant experience, and there were people who had already gone through it. OK, I never would have actually punched anybody, but I was definitely jealous that they were already done.

That’s nice, but what’s that got to do with Jesus?

Well, the way I’d play this out in my imagination is this: Picture me dressed like a seal in my wetsuit, getting ready to dive into cold water to swim a mile, then slog through the other two legs of the race. I probably looked like I was ready to barf because I didn’t really want to put myself through all that. And just as I’m about to take off, Jesus comes running up to me, even though he just got through the whole thing. Tired and a little out of breath, he hands me my race sheet and my number, which he was wearing instead of his own. Breathlessly, he tells me I don’t have to do the race because he just did it for me. I would have hugged him for sure, and probably offered to buy him breakfast.

In more religious-sounding words, Jesus took on our sins and died as punishment for them, but then came out the other side, walking right out of the grave alive and well. Because he did that, he is in the position to offer us the free gift of eternal life. Well, of course, nothing is free, and neither is this gift–but Jesus paid for it so we don’t have to.

He offers this to us, this precious gift. Some people are suspicious of this, not trusting that it’s really free. There must be strings attached.

I’ll have to clean up my act, but I don’t really want to do that.

I’ll have to go to church on Sundays and I don’t really want to do that.

I’ll have to love people who don’t look like me. I’ll have to feed people who smell bad. I don’t really want to do any of that.

I’ll have to give up control of my life, and I don’t really want to do that.

Ouch.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to do any of that.

If you believe you do, then you believe you can save yourself, meaning you don’t really believe in the God who is–you believe in a god who you want him to be, one who enables you to work your way into salvation.

Here are the requirements to achieve eternal life, plain and simple:

  1. Believe that Jesus is who he says he is
  2. Receive him as Lord and Savior, which is to say that you receive the gift he offers you

That’s it. It’s simple, but certainly not easy.

We want rules. And we want to know that if we follow them, we’ll get into heaven. In our society of rugged individualists, we want a list of things we have to do in order to earn our salvation.

But we cannot work our way into heaven. The only thing we can do is accept the gift.

Here’s another poisonous thought pattern that Satan has infected many people with: if God knew me, there’s no way he would let me into heaven.

God does know you, and he knows me. He knows that in our fallen state, there’s not a chance any one of us could stand in his Holy Presence. And this is exactly why he gives us the gift of His Son. This is why salvation is such a spectacular and alarming gift. I have a house, so if you gave me a house, it might not be as precious of a gift to me as it would be if you gave it to someone who was homeless.

There are many variations to this excuse that people give for not accepting the gift…

But what about my anger?

The answer is Jesus.

But what about my addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or money?

The answer is Jesus.

But what about the hatred I feel toward this person or that people group?

The answer is Jesus.

But what about…?

The answer is Jesus. Jesus covers all of our brokenness. Jesus has taken all of our ugliness upon himself.

Here’s the thing: God loves us enough to take us just as we are, warts and addictions and all. And he loves us enough to not leave us there, wallowing in our mess.

Of course, this change doesn’t usually happen overnight. But if you surrender your life to Jesus, he lovingly shapes you into the person he designed you to be. Through that transformation, you’ll find yourself wanting to go to church (if you find a good church, that is) to praise him. Over time, you will find your brokenness healing, slowly but surely. You’ll find yourself wanting to clean up your act–not because you have to, but out of gratitude for what God has done for you, and because you know that not doing so does not honor the sacrifice Jesus made for you. You’ll find yourself loving people because God does, not because you’re so great or those other people are so great. You may even find yourself trying really hard to surrender control of your life to God. (Gasp!) That’s definitely not easy, but that’s why it comes later in our maturing process.

Confession time: I used to go to church because I felt like I should. What I believe now is that if Jesus were standing at the door of my church, he would look at me and, knowing what was in my heart, tell me to go back home and not to come back until I was there because I wanted to be. I looked around my church this morning during the worship set and what I saw was not a group of people who had it all together, but a collection of broken people who were celebrating this gift we’ve all been offered and some of us have received. Rejoicing at this gift of salvation, of eternal life. This gift of Jesus. It was a party, not a funeral.

This gift from God is not a judgment, but an offer.

Dave

Joy to the world, the Lord is here!

P.S. I realize I didn’t really address the Psalms 51 portion of the title mashup (“Restore to me the joy of your salvation), but I was already running long. I will address that in a separate post at a later date, especially since an earlier verse in that Psalm asks God to “Create in me a clean heart,” and I certainly do not want to rush through that topic! But I still like the mashup in the title, so I’ll leave it there as a teaser for a future post.

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Advent – Prince of Peace On Earth Be with You

On this second of four Sundays in Advent, I wanted to start with a title to this post that will hopefully make you think a little bit–a mashup of three different sentiments about peace. We are probably so familiar with each of these as to possibly have become desensitized to their implications in our lives and our world, so I invite you to journey with me as we explore these thoughts with fresh eyes eagerly seeking new insight into the greatness of our God.

As I mentioned last time, the prophet Isaiah foretold many specific aspects of the coming Messiah approximately 700 years prior to Christ’s arrival in a feeding trough in Bethlehem. One of the things he wrote about were the names or titles that would be given to the Messiah:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/ISA.9.6/1183?version=111

Obviously, part of what we’ll be covering today is that last one: Prince of Peace.

This past week I read a great little book called Searching for Christmas by pastor JD Greear. In it, Greear mentioned that he had asked an atheist once what it would take for him to believe in Jesus. He said the man had answered that he would believe in Jesus when there is peace on earth.

So what’s this all about, this thing we call peace? And is it part of the human condition–do we experience “peace on earth”? Will we ever?

Well, let’s just get this out there: if God’s goal in sending his Son to dwell among us was to bring peace on earth, he’s not doing a very good job of it. But was that really his goal?

Well, maybe, but not in the way you might think.

The way God usually works in the world is not by broad-brush miracles–one wave of his magic wand and voila, now we have peace on earth. I know that some people have this expectation of God–to magically end wars and famine and human trafficking and all the other evils in the world. But those people don’t know God. They are looking for a genie in a bottle, not God.

God means to bring about peace on earth one follower of Christ at a time. But before we can be instruments of God’s shalom in the world, I believe he wants us to enter into his peace individually.

To explain what I mean by that, let me use this illustration. When God made me, he made me good at some things, but one of them was not running. Oh, I did it for quite a few years to try to stay fit and healthy. But it barely ranked higher on my enjoyment scale than riding a merry-go-round or visiting the dentist. And the older I got, the more it seemed like various random body parts were going to become detached from the rest of me. I did not feel at peace with running because this wasn’t the way God made me. Then I worked with a giant Ukrainian man named Slav (although, with his thick accent, it always sounded like he was saying “slob” when he said his name). One day when I was going out for my run, he said the only reason to run is if someone is chasing you. There was a certain logic to this. But it took me breaking my leg before I finally traded in my running shoes for hiking boots. Now I hike or walk every day at least as far as I used to run, but now I thoroughly enjoy it. I used to have to run but now I get to hike. I think God made me for hiking, so when I do that, I am living into his design for me. When I run, I struggle because I’m doing something that he didn’t really design me for.

That’s also how it works with experiencing God’s peace individually. But there’s more to it than just doing things that come easily to you, although that’s part of it.

Another part of it is recognizing one of Jesus’s other titles: King of kings. This means accepting him as king over everything, including your life. This may sound easy, but it’s really very challenging, especially in our western culture, where individualism is prized above almost everything else. As devoted followers of Christ, we may think we surrendered control over our lives to Jesus when we accepted him as Lord, but many times we are actually trying to manipulate God more than we are submitting to him.

If you’ve ever said (like I have) something like “God, if you’ll do this thing for me, I’ll do <insert great feat> for you,” you are trying to control God, not submitting to him. Submitting to God looks more like ending a prayer with “nevertheless, let you’re will be done.”

If you’ve ever said (like I have) something along the lines of, “I’m a good person (or s/he is a good person), so why do these bad things keep happening to me (or to her/him)?” you are trying to manipulate God, not submitting to him. Submitting to God looks more like asking him to comfort you through difficulty and to help you learn what he wants you to learn from it so you can bless others from your experience.

I’m not saying this is easy or that I’m good at it, just that it’s part of my faith journey. It should be part of all of ours. Because to the extent we can do this, the more we can experience God’s peace because we are living into the design our Creator has for us and not fighting against it. We are hiking or walking instead of running. Or going to the dentist.

I know people overflowing with anxiety and worry who would benefit greatly from knowing God’s peace. I know people who are nervous to the point of being twitchy. They are looking for peace in all sorts of false gods of our culture, but for various reasons, are unwilling to explore the only true source of peace.

And here’s the thing: we don’t have to be good at surrendering control of our lives to Jesus in order to experience God’s peace. Since none of us is perfect, our faith journeys are all similar in that we should not be discouraged by failures to allow him to be King of our lives. Instead, when we catch ourselves doing that, we should repent and then receive the forgiveness he promised would always be forthcoming. And honestly, this is the ongoing cycle that characterizes my journey: I have an idea what I should do, but I don’t usually do it all that well, so I repent and ask for forgiveness and help to do it better next time, then I receive the forgiveness and help with gratitude. But then I screw up again, and the cycle starts over.

OK, I’m running long, so I’ll move on briefly to the bigger picture of “peace on earth”. It is true that God wants to achieve some form of peace on earth by working through each of us, but one challenge is, nobody on earth really knows exactly what that looks like or how we should get there. Only God knows. That’s why we each need to live at peace with God by surrendering ourselves to him, allowing him to work not only in us but through us (there’s that theme again, which I touched on last week).

This includes treating people the way Jesus treated did. This means seeing others as people who Jesus saw fit to come to earth to meet and try to enter into a relationship with and die sacrificially for. This is easier with some people more than others, but we don’t get to choose who we treat in this way.

Having said this, I also recognize that there is evil in this world–there always has been. And because of this, we probably won’t see peace on earth until Jesus returns, bringing the new heaven and the new earth that Jesus showed the Apostle John in Revelation 21:1. Then there will be peace for followers of Christ, those who have said to God, “Your will be done,” and have done their best to live into that. For everyone else, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s summary, God will say to them, “Your will be done,” and grant them the eternal separation from him that they struggled to maintain their whole lives.

As believers, we are called to resist evil, both within ourselves as well as in the world. But how are we to discern between treating people the way Jesus did, as I mentioned a couple paragraphs earlier, and evil that we need to fight against? Well, that’s when we go back to the part of the discussion about submitting to God. If we live in that way, he will help each of us sort it out.

God never promised that this would be easy, or that it would always make sense! But he did promise to be with us through it all. And he also promised to give us peace–he left heaven to come to earth to give it to us and show us how to live into it. So, may the Prince of Peace on earth be with you this week, and every week after that!

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Advent – Light Invades the Darkness

This being the first Sunday in Advent, I felt God leading me to keep the pause button on the “Beyond Belief” series on apologetics (defending and explaining our faith in a reasonable and logical way to those earnestly seeking Truth). Instead, I’m feeling called to spend the next few weeks reflecting on various aspects of this season as we pick up speed heading toward Christmas and the end of the year.

Having said that, though, I also feel called to suggest that we keep our apologetics thinking caps on. The Christmas season tends to be a sentimental and emotional time for many people, especially those of us who recognize Christmas Day as commemorating the birth of the Saviour of the world. There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with sentimental and nostalgic feelings, but as we have seen in the “Beyond Belief” series, God also encourages us to think about our faith and its foundations so we don’t get knocked off them when life doesn’t go our way. So let’s keep that in mind as we wander through this detour back to where and when it all began.

So here we are. Advent begins. Rewinding 2000+ years, we see that the world was steeped in darkness. To all appearances, the forces of evil seemed to have defeated God. Even Israel, his chosen people, hadn’t heard from him in 400 years. Where was he? Had he given up on humanity, walked away to leave us to wallow in the wickedness we generally seem to gravitate toward?

No, of course not. That’s not the kind of God he is.

He was waiting for just the right moment in time to launch his invasion.

He was not troubled by the darkness of the world, for it is not unusual for an invasion to begin under the cloak of darkness.

But, as with so many things God does, the invasion looked nothing like what I or anyone in the world would have expected. Not even Satan.

I guess I shouldn’t say it looked nothing like what I would have expected. I mean, God got the legions of angels part right. In spite of their cute and cuddly appearance in Christmas plays, they must actually be quite menacing–every time someone in the Bible encounters them, the first thing the angel does is tell them not to be afraid, not to mention the passage in 2 Kings 19:35 where an angel kills 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night! So yeah, if I were planning an invasion, I’d start with legions of angels.

Except–get this–they’re singing?!? (Luke 2:13-14)

And why are they singing? Because a baby was born.

Yay. OK, who cares? Babies are born all the time.

Oh, but this isn’t just any baby. This is the baby that starts the invasion.

Wait, what? Angels are singing while a baby is left to gain a foothold against the forces of darkness on Fortress Earth? This makes no sense!

It makes no sense to us, but it’s perfectly logical to God. Why? Because God chooses to work in and through us–yes, through broken people–to achieve his objectives. Throughout Scripture, it is far more common to see God working through people than through angels or miracles. And even then, oftentimes when miracles are recorded, there is at least one ordinary person who has to participate with God in order for the miracle to be worth recording. Who would care about the Red Sea parting unless Moses and the Israelites were there to run through it as they fled for their lives from Pharaoh and the Egyptians? And would water have come gushing out of the rock in the desert if Moses hadn’t struck it with his staff?

So instead of angels, God used a virgin teenage girl. She carried his baby. God used a humble carpenter (not a soldier) to protect and raise that baby. When that baby grew into a man and that man was ready to start his ministry, God used uneducated fishermen, a thieving tax collector, a political activist, and other misfits (not scholars) to study under him and carry his message into the darkness of the world. Instead of perfect, well-qualified people–those are in short supply–God uses you and me. Or maybe it would be better to say that in addition to the one perfect person, God uses you and me.

Nothing really seems to make sense from our perspective.

I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out, nor do I feel appointed as a spokesperson for God, so let me say it this way: my observation is that God does this because he is working in us even while he is working through us. In other words, while we are serving him to change the world in great and small ways, we also find that he is changing us in great and small ways as well. For example, if you write a blog to try to encourage people you don’t know who may be very different from you, over time you may come to realize that God loves them just as much as he loves you, and if he doesn’t allow his love to be clouded by their political leanings or sexual preferences or country of origin or any other differentiator, then neither should you.

Here’s the thing: God has intended that each of us should be a light in the darkness of this world. This thought has pervaded my prayer life in recent years. For a few years, I traveled to New York City for my job. Each day that I was there, as I walked to the office in Manhattan’s Financial District, I would pray that I would be a light in the darkness there. Every time we have a baptism service at church, when dozens of people commit their lives to Christ, I thank God for each redeemed soul that they are another light in the darkness.

Since this is the Christmas season, let’s try this metaphor: every person on the planet is like a bulb connected to one really long string of lights. One of the newer strings that stays lit even when bulbs are out. God the power source runs through every bulb, even the ones that don’t light up. For some that don’t light up, if they get adjusted a bit, they are able to tap into the power source and become radiant. Others, however, are unable to tap into the power source for a variety of reasons. They may seek power from other sources because they don’t realize there is only one true power source. They may try to illuminate themselves, but no matter how hard they work at it, they can never quite make it happen–they don’t understand that they were made only to tap into a power source outside of and greater than themselves.

The power source is available to all and would prefer that each bulb receive his power and light up. If that were the case, there would be and could be no darkness. But until that happens, those of us who are illuminated are called to be a light in the darkness for those bulbs around us that are not lit up.

Let me close with some Biblical texts about light and darkness, among other things. These have inspired me in my thoughts about us being called to illuminate the darkness of the world. The first set of verses were written by Isaiah, a prophet who predicted Jesus’s birth over 700 years before that first Christmas.

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light
;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LordAlmighty
will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:2,5-7 (NIV, emphasis added)

These passages were written by Jesus’s beloved apostle and friend, John.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 

John 1:4-9 (NIV)

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.

1 John 2:9-10 (NIV)

Unil next Sunday, may God bless your week. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Whom Will You Thank?

This being the Sunday leading into Thanksgiving week, I felt God leading me to pause our series on apologetics (“Beyond Belief“), at least for this week, to reflect on this upcoming holiday, particularly focusing on thankfulness and gratitude. Let’s start with the Psalmist’s view of what it means to be thankful:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Psalms 100 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

This song makes it clear that we should enter this week with a posture of gratitude. But wait–does he actually say anything about this week, or a particular day this week? Hmm, I don’t see it. What are we to make of that?

Perhaps that we should have a posture of gratitude every day.

But shouldn’t we really do this only when things are going well?

That makes sense, but I don’t see anything about that either. This Psalm makes it seem like we should be joyful simply because we know that the Lord is God, because he made us, and because we are his people.

Now let’s reflect for a moment on thankfulness. A good friend of mine who does not believe in God told me last year at this time that he and his wife had adopted an attitude of thankfulness for the blessings in their lives. While I appreciate the sentiment, I wondered to myself (since I’m not an “in your face” kind of guy), To whom are you thankful? Whom do you think gave you those blessings?

Here’s the thing: “Thank” is what is known as a reciprocal verb, meaning it’s something one does to someone else. Here’s a definition of “reciprocal verb”:

Reciprocal verb: verb that describes something that two people do to or with each other, for example the verb ‘meet’ in the sentence ‘We always meet in the park’.

macmillon dictionary

So you have to thank someone. It doesn’t really make sense to thank yourself, nor does it make sense to thank nobody. Some secularists (like my friend) may say they are grateful to “the universe”. But the fact of the matter–actually, even the science (their cheap replacement for god)–is that the universe doesn’t have the capacity to care about any of us in the slightest way, let alone give us blessings.

By all means, we should be thankful this week, of course we should. But so should we be thankful next week, and every week after that. Every day.

But as we assume the appropriate posture of gratitude, I have to ask the question I chose not to challenge my friend with: Whom will you thank?

Also, I wanted to pass along my own reflection on thankfulness and how it led me to this same question:

Gratitude is foundational for joy, hope, peace, and fulfillment.

Miracles abound,

beauty hides in plain sight,

if you have eyes to see them.

There is much to be thankful for.

Lift your gaze above the fray and you will see.

And then, whom will you thank?

May God continue to bless you richly this Thanksgiving week and Thanksgiving day–which is every day!

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