Friday, December 31, 2010

The 2010 Highlight Reel

I was pedaling away in a spin class at FBC Fitness yesterday morning when, after a particularly grueling series of spin exercises, one of the ladies in the class said to the instructor, "I'm taking you off my list of the year's ten most influential people in my life." That got me to thinking. And so I did this: near the end of the class the instructor asked us to think of our top three blessings of 2010. So, after a day of reflecting on such things, I decided to run my 2010 highlight reel. There's no video, only words, but I see pictures in my mind when I run down these highlights. Here goes, and they are in no particular order, by the way.

1. The birth of our fourth grandchild, Macey Jo Parrish, on October 2. At one point, she was due on my birthday. That didn't happen, but she happened, and are there any greater blessings than grandchildren?

2. Bible-storying in Paris with men from Taiba, Senegal. Our church has been building relationships with the people of Taiba for three years now. We minister to them in Paris and in their village in Senegal. They are warm, hospitable people who give us as much as we give them. We've offered medical, dental, and eye-glass care for them. On our last trip to Senegal they allowed us to show the Jesus film. But Paris in October is the first opportunity we've had to engage them in spiritual conversations based on Bible stories. That is the beginning of an answer to many prayers, and it was a thrill to be a part of it. The fact that my son was able to be in on it too just made it all the more a highlight for 2010.

3. A man named Danny who came to know Jesus. Before they moved to a new state, Danny's wife and sons were a part of our church family. Danny played some softball on one of our teams and visited church occasionally, but labled himself as an atheist. Slowly, and on the wings of many prayers, Danny became a bit more open to Christ and His claims. I received an email from his wife earlier this week telling me that Danny made a decision to follow Jesus. What a great reminder of patient prayers and waiting on God!

4. My sabbatical. I get one of these every few years. The church allowed me to take off for the whole month of August. We traveled to see family. We visited Washington, D.C. for the first time. I got to watch the Baltimore Orioles (my favorite team in my childhood) in Camden Yards. And I actually got some rest—well, a little.

5. Insanity. No, not a mental illness; an exercise program. It's 63 days of the most intense cardio work I've ever done. I do a lot of intense exercise, but when I finished day 1, I told my wife, "That was the most intense thing I've ever done in exercise." When I finished day 2, I told her, "That was the most intense thing I've ever done." It is a butt-kicking, body-shaping, fat-burning, muscle-sculpting workout. It's insane. And I was so thankful to God and proud of myself that I actually finished. Who knows? I may do it again in 2011.

6. My son got engaged. After around three or four years of being single, my son popped the question to his longtime girlfriend. "Wilt thou?" he asked. And she wilted. She's a peach. She loves God. She loves our grandchildren. No date set just yet, but should be sometime in 2011. I'm thankful for God's grace, new beginnings, and promising futures.

7. The Razorbacks go to the Sugar Bowl. Only an Arkansas Razorback fan would understand how big this is for our fan base. We've been close so many times and just never seem to breakthrough. This year we broke through: our first BCS game. And our coach wants to stay with us a long time. Many of us feel like Sally Field when she won the Oscar years ago: "He loves us. He really loves us." Wooo pig sooie! Beat the Buckeyes!

8. Mike Pounders. Our church voted to call Mike Pounders to a part-time position as Administrative Pastor. He begins work on January 1. It's a joy to see him back in the vocational ministry. He brings so much to our church family: a love for God, a love for his family, a love for people, and very good administrative and pastoral skills. He's served so well in this wilderness time between ministry posts, but I think he's felt like he's been on the bench. Well, your back in the game again, Mike. Praise God!

9. FBC Fitness. Last spring our church started a fitness ministry. It's been touch and go financially, but we're seeing lives getting whole and healthy physically and spiritually! We've opened another door to Christ and the church and God is using it, and I'm grateful.

In spite of the fact that I could go on, I'm stopping there. Your job is to pick up where I left off and make your own list. Remember, reflect, and give thanks. At this point every year, I can't help but think of the third verse to a great hymn:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's a Boy!

Christmas is a beautiful story—especially if you don't give it a lot of thought. Stop and think about it for awhile and the perplexities are enough to drive you nuts. It's not an easy story to understand. Remember, Christ didn’t get His start in Bethlehem. He has existed for all eternity. Wrote John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn. 1:1). This Bethlehem child was no Jesus-come-lately; He was the eternal Word made flesh to dwell among us. As the poet George Herbert put it:

The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestick robes of glorie
Resolv'd to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

Though Herbert wrote in the lofty metaphor of the poet, he was more earthy than he knew. "Undressing all the way" was right. Not just in the sense of stripping Himself of the full benefits of deity, but more earthy yet—this baby Jesus was born like you and me—in his birthday suit, as naked as a jaybird. And He was born not in the birthing room of a modern hospital, but in a cave-like stable amid dusty straw and the steaming dung of beasts.

Does that not bother you—even a little? Couldn't God to better than a stable? I did better for my kids and I'm not even God. And to come as a baby? Angels from heaven made grown-up appearances, scared the bejeebers out of people, impressed their socks off. People took note of angel's appearance. And yet who will take note of baby's appearance, except the immediate family and those who are annoyed by a baby's cry in the middle of the night. And what about the fact that God cast His own Son our our mercy. God trusted His only Son on history's most important mission with a couple of young folks who had zero parental experience—zero. What was God thinking? Do you suppose this is where Edgar Rice Burroughs got the idea for his Tarzan series: a baby raised by apes in the jungle? Hmmm.

It just doesn't seem very God-like. Now sending plagues and splitting seas, crushing city walls and humbling kings—that's God-like. But showing up as a baby? Even though the prophet predicted it, would he have even believed if he saw it: “Israel, behold your God!” (Isa. 40:9). And what do they see but a little bundle in a teenage mama's arms. His eyes can't focus. He cries, He whimpers, He fusses, He even messes his diaper. And if left alone with no one to care for Him, He'd die in no time at all. Israel, behold your God? You can see why it took the cross and resurrection before anybody made much of Christmas.

And maybe that's why we can be too quick to rush past the manger to the cross and the empty tomb? Though perplexing in their own way, those things, especially resurrection, feel so much more like God's doing. But I don't want to run past the manger this Christmas. I want to linger there a while and, like Mary, ponder what is going on there—to think my way through the perplexities to a deeper faith and a wider worship.

See Him there in the manger. In the manger. Not a palace. Not a comfortable home. Not even an Motel 6. But a manger. When Christ emptied Himself to come down and save us, He didn't just do it halfway. Jesus checked His pride at the door on the way down to earth. He didn't say, "I'll go so far and no farther." He didn't say, "I draw the line at a stable." He didn't say, "I refuse to be born in that dump." No, Jesus was willing to do whatever it took, willing to reach as low as He had to go, willing to make His beachhead on the earth in a musty stable in Bethlehem. Jesus came all the way down. Now, no one can say, "Jesus, didn't stoop far enough for me." No one can say that—not the poor, not the outcast, not the man without a home. Born as He was in a stable, Jesus demonstrated total commitment to go as far as He had to go to seek and to save humankind.

And to come as a baby. Why not just beam Him down like an angel? Why not step out of heaven and into Jerusalem as a grown-up Christ ready to accomplish His mission? Why not execute what the military calls a surgical strike? Move in quickly, execute the mission, and get out before people know what hit them. Why come as a baby? Why risk the Son of God to a couple of bumbling parents? Jesus was their first child, you know. They had no experience. Jesus would be a guinea pig of sorts as they tested their parental skills. Why put the Son of God in the care of others? Would it not have been a safer course to send Jesus at an age when He could have cared for Himself? And why risk the Son of God to adolescence and the temptations that come naturally to changing bodies and racing hormones? What if Jesus gave into temptation even once? What then? This Lamb of God would have been blemished and His sacrifice unacceptable. Why did God send His Son as a baby? Why this route, this risk, this way?

Because God loves us, that's why. If Jesus was going to save us He would have to be one of us. His ministry needed context, roots, and history. He needed to know us from the inside out. Now Jesus understands us completely. Now Jesus knows our temptations and our struggles and overcame them every one. Instead of acting the role of a TV meteorologist who tracks a tornado on radar from the comfort and safety of a studio, Jesus moved right out into the storm—seeing the twister with His own eyes, feeling the wind in His face, dodging the debris, experiencing the sense of danger that comes from being in the thick of it all. And He did it from birth to death; from the crib to the casket; from the womb to the tomb. He did it without sin so that He could bear our sin on the cross and kill its power and penalty once and for all. And He did it all to a T—perfect in every way. Pretty darn amazing if you ask me!

About twenty years ago somebody left this poem on my desk. I really like it. It's simple. It's to the point. And it's the truth:

A cave, a birth
A cry, a song,
To praise a King expected long.
To heal with love,
To give with joy.
A star above,
It is A BOY!

Monday, December 13, 2010

God With Us?

In spite of the fact that I have so much Bible to work with, one of my favorite texts is this Christmas one: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:22-23). Immanuel is two words stuck together as one: immanu (immanent) which means present, near, with us, and el which means God. He is God present, God near, God with us.

And notice there are no exception clauses in the word. God with us means always, all the time, no matter what, and in spite of the evidence. We forget that. We tend to equate God with us to the good and happy times of life—to the there’s no cancer, I passed the test, I got a raise, she said yes, I escaped without injury, kinds of times. Here’s a classic example: you see a picture of a mangled, twisted car, you hear the driver escaped with only scratches, and you say, “God was really with him.” But if you look at the same picture and hear that the driver was paralyzed or even killed, my guess is the phrase, “God was really with him,” never comes to your mind. See what I mean? I don’t think most of us intend to leave God out of the hard and trying times, but we are pretty quick to do so.

And that’s why we raise this question in our difficulties: “Where is God in this? Where is God when the diagnosis is ALS? Where is God when the baby is born with birth defects? Where is God when I lose my job and can’t pay the rent? Where in the world is God?” Such a question rises out of this bad theology: God is with us in the blessings; God is absent in the trials.

But here’s the truth: God is with us always, always, always—when we can see Him and when we can’t, when we win and when we lose, when the cancer is cured and when the cancer takes our life. When we know Christ, God is with us, period. That’s His promise. That’s who He is: God with us.

Back in 1981 as I was preparing a sermon on this text, God gave me a story. I’ve told it numerous times across the years. Let me tell it one more time.

A man was facing heard times. His wife had left him, his job was in jeopardy, his security was threatened. He truly needed help. He thought for sure that God had abandoned him. If God was really with Him, things would be better, right? He sought the counsel of his pastor who tried to assure him that God had not left him, but the man was not convinced.

That night he went to bed. As he struggled for sleep he kept asking over and over: "God, where are you? God, where are you? Why can't I see you working in my life?" Finally, he drifted off to sleep and fell into a dream.

He dreamed that he lived in Palestine many years ago. He dreamed that he was searching for God. Everywhere he went he asked people if they could tell him where he could find God. "Check the temple," they said. "God lives in the temple." He looked in the temple but did not see God there. Disappointed, he journeyed on. Then, one night as he was warming himself by the fire at his campsite, a group of shepherds came passing by. "What's all the commotion?" shouted the man to the shepherds.

"We're off to see the Lord. Angels have made known to us that the Lord is in Bethlehem. Would you like to come along?"

"Would I?" exclaimed the man. "I've been looking for the Lord."

So off they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they arrived, all they saw was a mother and a father and a baby in a crude little stable. Disgusted at another faulty lead, the man said to a shepherd, "I thought we were going to see God."

"Look at the baby, man!" said the shepherd. "Look at the baby!"

"The baby? I didn't come to Bethlehem to see a baby; I came to see the Lord." And the man stormed out of the stable and into the darkness.

He decided to give up his search for awhile. A person can only endure so much frustration and disappointment. His dream fast-forwarded many years and he was encouraged when he began to hear reports of a miracle worker from Nazareth who claimed to be God. He followed these reports, but he was always a day or two behind.

Finally, his journeys took him to Jerusalem during the Passover. He got there on Friday. It was unusually dark for that time of day and there was much commotion. The man stopped a passerby and asked him what was going on. The passerby said that the commotion centered around a particular Nazarene. The man asked, "Would this be Jesus of Nazareth – the one who claims to be God?"

"That's right," said the passerby. "That's who it is."

"Where can I find Him?" asked the man. "I've got to see the Lord."

"Oh, you can find Him outside the city on Skull Hill. Go look there."

The man raced to Skull Hill, but when he arrived all he saw were three men being crucified. He grabbed a spectator and asked, "I was told God was out here on this hill. I've got to see Him. Can you tell me where He is?"

"Why sure," the spectator mocked, "that's Him on that middle cross. There's your God."

The man looked at the middle cross only to see in silhouette a dying, suffering figure of a man in the midst of common criminals. Disheartened and discouraged, the man kicked the dirt, walked away, and mumbled to himself, "I came here to see God and all I see is a man on a cross. God can’t be here. Will I ever get to see Him?"

The man hung around Jerusalem for another day or so. He got up to leave early on the day after the Sabbath, and as he was leaving Jerusalem he passed some very excited women. He thought he overheard them say something to the effect that they had seen the Lord. He stopped them. "Did I hear you right? Did you say that you have seen the Lord?"

"Oh, yes! He's alive. We have seen Him with our own eyes."

"Where? Where did you see Him? I’ve got to see Him too!"

The women pointed in the direction of the tomb and said, "We saw Him there … in Joseph's garden."

The man sprinted to the garden. He looked and he looked but found nothing. All he saw amidst spring flowers was an empty tomb with some grave clothes left upon the slab inside. Having had it up to here with frustration, the man wept and pounded on a large stone adjacent to the tomb, "I came to see God and all I see is an empty tomb. How come I never see God? Where is He? Where is God?"

Our Matthew text tells us exactly where He is: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel – which means 'God with us.'" Where is God? He is with us; that's where He is.

The manger shows us that no situation is too degrading, no experience too humbling what that God, in Christ, is with us right in the midst of it.

The cross shows us that no struggle is too great, no grief too deep, no suffering too intense, not even death itself is so awful what that God faces it with us in Christ.

And the resurrection assures us that because Jesus rose from the dead and lives today, He is able to send us His Spirit so that He truly can be with us and in us everywhere, all the time, and in every situation.

You may not always see Christ, and you may not always feel Him. But be of good cheer! The witness of Scripture is true: His name is Immanuel—which means “God with us”! God – with – us! Always and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John the Baptist: Desert Storm

Every Advent John the Baptist makes his often unwelcome appearance. He’s not going to win any popularity contests when he shows up. To many, John is like your crazy Cousin Eddie who shows up every Christmas uninvited, unwanted, and seen in general as an embarrassment to the rest of the family. To others, John is like opening a day on your Advent calendar and instead of finding a delicious piece of chocolate behind the little door, you get a punch in the gut. He’s different. It shows in his dress. While most religious leaders dressed in their finely tailored clothes from Dillard’s, John got his stuff off a rack at the outpost. While most ate a diet filled with rich foods and expensive meats, John ate locusts and wild honey. While most religious types lived in community among people, John lived like a hermit in the desert. Strange, eccentric, and odd are all terms that you could hang on John.

And after years in the desert, He heard the stirring, the prompting, the voice that called him out of the desert to prepare the way for Messiah. His message was simple: “Repent! The kingdom of God is here! Turn from your sins. Clean up your life. And get yourself ready for Messiah!” He baptized those who did as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness. He made quite a stir. The common people loved him; the religious leaders didn’t know what to make of him. Was he a prophet or a crackpot? Anyway, they were his biggest obstacle and harshest critics. But he preached on, getting people ready for Jesus.

So I got to thinking—what would John have to say to the American church in this Advent season? And you’ll find below what I think his message might be. I’m casting it in the first person, as if John was doing the preaching. Fasten your seatbelt; it might not be easy to hear.


“REPENT!! Repent of your sins!! The kingdom of God is near. Take stock of your life. What sins are you harboring? What sins do you feel entitled to? Well you’re not entitled to a single one. Repent! Be relentlessly honest with yourself. Name your sins and repent! Do you gossip? Do you cheat? Do you lie? Are you filled with lust? Are you greedy and envious and covetous? Do you seek to do the will of God or do you do your own thing without thought of God’s will for your life? Do you share faith? Do you reach out to those in need? Are you prayerless? Are you self-righteous? Do you sit in judgment on others? Repent! Do you think God doesn’t notice your sins? Do you think God doesn’t care? He notices. He cares. That’s why He sent me. So repent! Turn from your sins and get ready for the coming of Christ.

And in this Advent season you need to repent of sins that are particular to this time of year and to the American church.

Repent of worshiping Christmas instead of Christ. Don’t love the season; love the Savior. To get caught up in the trappings of the season is a trap for your soul. Don’t you realize that most of the stuff that occupies your attention in this season is man-made not God-made. Repent of such nonsense and turn your attention to Christ. Christmas cannot save your soul; only Christ can save your soul. Worship Christ, not Christmas. Repent!

Repent of preparing your house but not your heart. Ask yourself a question: do I spend more time getting my house or my heart ready for the coming of Christ? Do I spend more time in stores or in the Word, more time wrapping gifts or worshiping the gift of Messiah Christ? Be honest with yourself—the well-being of your soul is at stake. Quit fussing about your house and start fussing about your heart. Reflect on what God has done for you in Christ. Give praise that the Word who was with God in the beginning and who is God became flesh to dwell among us and bring us salvation and life. Spend time thinking about that. And spend time thinking about the second coming of Christ. Are you ready for that coming? What if it were today? Would you be prepared? Would you be ready? To heck with your house and your tree and your shopping and all that jazz; prepare your heart for the coming of Christ. Repent!

And repent of giving your best gifts to others instead of Christ. You say, “We give gifts because the Magi gave gifts.” The Magi gave their gifts to Christ not to each other. Do you think it is consistent with the Spirit of Christ to go into debt giving presents to people who already have everything they need? Please!! This is the season in which you celebrate the truth that Christ left the riches of heaven and became poor on earth so that you could become rich in the things that matter. He didn’t come so that you could be rich in sweaters and shoes and jewelry and gadgets. He came to make you rich in the giving, serving life on earth and the eternal life He has prepared for His people in heaven. Quit being so foolish by giving a bunch of extra junk to people who have what they need. Give your best gifts to Christ—to missions, to the poor, to charities that serve those in real need. These are the gifts that matter. These are the gifts that make a difference. These are the gifts that carry Jesus’ name on the tag. Repent and give your best gifts to Christ.

Jesus is coming. And when He comes He will have a winnowing fork in His hands and He’ll do the great sorting out. If you know Him, if you have repented of your sins and followed Him, then you have no doubt produced fruit in keeping with repentance and have lived a Christ-filled, Christ-centered generous, gracious life. You He will gather you into the place that He has prepared for you in the Father’s house: a place of life and peace and fellowship and joy!

But if you do not know Him and if your repentance is only word-deep instead of heart-deep (and Jesus knows the difference), then He will scoop you up with His winnowing fork, pitch you into the fire like so much useless chaff. And nobody will ever extinguish that fire.

You say, “That’s not very pleasant talk here at Christmas and all.” No, it’s not. You’ll never see this message on one of your Christmas cards. It’s not sophisticated. It’s not nuanced to fit your tastes. It’s not polite conversation. You know what it is? It’s the truth. So repent! The kingdom of God is near. Jesus Messiah is on His way! And you better be ready for Him when He comes.


Ouch! But thanks anyway, John … I think.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

O Little Town of Bethlehem

It’s Advent season once again, and early in the season it’s customary to think through some of the prophecies of Jesus’ first coming. The Old Testament is full of them. Matthew cites five of them in his telling of the Christmas story in Matthew 1-2. One of those citations concerns the place of Jesus’ birth.

It comes from Micah. In the midst of Micah’s prophecies concerning God’s judgment on Israel and Judah, we find this word of hope for God’s people: “But you Bethlehem …, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Matthew alters this prophecy a bit when he cites it in Matthew 2:6. But he cites it as the clue that enabled Herod’s priests to tell the Magi where to find the baby king. That’s the key thing in both Micah and in Matthew: Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

Why is this important? On the prophetic level it’s important because Bethlehem is David’s town and Jesus was to come from the line of David (Isa. 11:1-5). On a theological level it’s important because this prophecy hints at Jesus pre-existence: “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” And on a practical level it’s important because it reminds us that God works in history, in particular places and through particular people at particular times for particular purposes.

The Christian faith is rooted in history. Yes, God is transcendent and above history, yet God is also immanent (Immanuel—which means “God with us”) and works in history. God’s plan was to send His Son to earth to be born in Bethlehem. So when the time was right, God called a particular woman, Mary, to bear His child, and a particular man, Joseph, to provide a dad and a home for Jesus—both of whom were in David’s line. God then prompted Caesar Augustus to call for a tax registration (Luke 2:1-3) which got Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and get to Bethlehem just in time for Jesus’ birth. You see it, don’t you? God works in time and history through particular people in particular places to accomplish His particular will for our world and our lives.

And the good news in that for us is that God also chooses to work in your particular life in your particular place to accomplish His particular will in and through you. He knows who you are. He knows where to find you. He knows how to work in and through your life right where you are. Are you open to God’s work in your life this season? Are you listening for His call?