Monday, December 15, 2014

The Promises of God Find their Yes in Him

For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.  (2 Corinthians 1:20)
On March 11, 1942 as the Pacific War raged in the months after Pearl Harbor, the  Philippine Islands were invaded by the Japanese.  Faced with overwhelming enemy resources, US General Douglas MacArthur was ordered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to leave his adopted home of Corregidor and transfer his base of operations to Australia.  

It was a heart wrenching journey for MacArthur, as he knew he was leaving behind hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Philippine citizens and 90,000 American troops to an uncertain fate. When he arrived at the US army base in Australia, a loud speaker was hastily set up for the tall imposing American general to address his troops and the world.  It was here that he first spoke the words that would later be immortalized in American folklore and in the famous Fallen Soldier statues on the Philippine Islands. He said with his patented authoritative voice, 
“I have left the Philippines but I shall return!” 
It wasn’t long before all of the Philippine Islands fell into the hands of the Japanese and 70,000 American troops were captured, most of whom suffered mightily at the hands of their captors, including over 6,000 who were tortured and killed. 

For two long years MacArthur would repeat those words over and again. He campaigned for the Philippine cause not just with the Joint Chiefs and the administration, but with the American people as well.  The American press began to publish emotionally charged stories of the atrocities of Japanese imprisonment on the Islands, including the horrific “Batan Death March” which resulted in 60,000 Philippine and American dead.  Finally the Pacific War began to turn as the American forces gained an upper hand at Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands and MacArthur received the go ahead for his long awaited plan to invade the islands and recapture his former home base.  

On October 20, 1944, after successful US campaigns in the initial invasion, MacArthur waded ashore the Island of Leyte in the Philippines and announced in a nation wide radio broadcast:
I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil -- soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed, to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring, upon a foundation of indestructible, strength, the liberties of your people.
As they say, the rest of the story is history.  MacArthur and the American forces did indeed liberate the Philippines and the war was won. 

The reason this story looms so large in American history is it captures a very important value.  The value of “promise kept”.  We all have great admiration for a man who stands in front of the world and makes a promise, and then focuses all his passion on keeping that promise. 

This brings me to the next important topic I want us to focus on as we continue our journey to discover the many ways the Old Testament points us to the advent of Christ.   In the Old Testament text.  The Lord God made a very important promise to His people.  The promise was not unlike the promise MacArthur made to the Filipino people on that fateful day.  The promise was in affect, 
“A day of liberation is coming!”  
The biblical story makes clear the desperate condition we are in. The enemy has established temporary control over our lost world.  This story line is emphasized over and again throughout the Old Testament text.  But within the text there is a divine promise.  

It is important to understand the meaning of that promise as we think about the reason that Christ came.  Because it is not just significant that many signs and stories point us to His coming, it is also significant to understand how His coming fit into the eternal purposes of God.  Those purposes were made clear in His promise.  That promise is alluded to several times in the biblical text and restated over and again in His covenants.  So Christmas is not just about a baby in a manger, it is about God fulfilling His promise that a day of atonement is coming.  The first advent is a celebration of that promised liberation.  And so in this way the Christmas season is about more than a miraculous birth, it is our way of declaring that "all the promises of God find their Yes in Him!" 

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Power of Stories

The following is an excerpt from chapter six of my new book, "The Long Expected Jesus, How The Old Testament Reveals The Coming Of The Eternal Son of God": 
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)
One thing I have learned through the years as one who makes a living as a public speaker is the power of a good story. In my teaching I could go on and on about this textual nuance or that historical fact, but if I go too long in that direction, people’s eyes start drifting away from my eyes and attention spans begin to wain. Believe me, I’ve heard all the jokes about preachers putting people to sleep!  My dad, who was also a pastor, used to say, “One time I had a dream that I was preaching, and then I woke up and realized I actually was preaching!”  

People get worn out by too many words. 

But the minute I start telling a story, people’s heads start popping back up and eyes start locking back in.  There is great power in a story. I believe that this is the reason the Bible is filled with one compelling story after another. God gave us stories to help us to understand what is most important in life.  He gave us stories to keep our attention. This is why it is so vitally important to study the underlying meaning of all of these stories.

The Bible is Not a Morality Play

But we also have to be careful with the stories. It is tempting to view the Bible and especially the Old Testament as a giant morality play.  As parents and teachers we are tempted to look to various stories within scripture and point out a particular moral to teach our children.  We look to Joseph as an example of how to resist temptation and to David for courage to face giants and to Joshua for leadership in crossing the Jordan and so on.  Although there is certain value in helping children learn valuable lessons from biblical texts, it is a big mistake to read the Bible as one would read Aesop's fables.  Aesop’s famous stories were written as a way to point children to particular values.  The stories themselves were fantasy but the value in them was to bring about a strong moral lesson.  In a similar way, some people see the Old Testament stories as nothing more than a good way to teach moral lessons.   The primary problem with this approach to reading the Old Testament is that it ignores the bigger issue each of these stories address and can point instead to a kind man centered religious moralism.  

The biblical stories are not fantasy but a historical account of God’s providential purpose.  Unless one sees that the entire Bible is the story of how God has fulfilled His redemptive plan and how that story will conclude in a final culmination of His work at the end of history then many of the stories taken individually would actually send a conflicting moral message.  Because after all, there is really only one true hero in the Bible, and that is God Himself. 

One of the most compelling things about the Bible is how honest it is about the main characters.  Adam was a passive husband, Cain was a murderer, Noah was a drunk, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were considered the fathers of Israel, and yet each of them had serious moral failures.  Jacob was a deceiver, Moses had anger issues, David was an adulterer, Eli was a workaholic and a terrible father. Jonah was a rebellious prophet who was angry with God while reluctantly carrying out God’s commands.  Reading the patriarchs and the prophets is a sordid tale of strange behavior and blatant disobedience even as God was using them to bring about His message of redemption.   

It is as if the Bible goes out of it’s way to show what sinful slouch’s men are and how gloriously forgiving and gracious God is. If there is a moral to each of these stories it is that man is a complete failure when it comes to obeying God. Though we can learn certain moral lessons from each of these stories, they all point us to a bigger story. The stories tell us something significant about ourselves and about God, but it is not your typical Aesop morality ethic.  Because in every story man is the problem and the only solution is found in God’s redemptive plan.

God’s Love Story

So instead of reading the BIble as a giant morality play, it is better to think of the Bible as the story of God’s love.  Each of the stories within the Bible point to the one overriding them of His plan to redeem His creation out of His great love for us. That is its meta-narative.  When we know the meta-narrative, or the underlying reason for the stories, they come alive to us in a much deeper and powerful way.  The great 19th century English pastor Charles Spurgeon put it like this:

"I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it."

As you read the stories of the Old Testament, you should always keep in mind that God has a story to tell and you and I are a part of that story.  How our story intersects with His is of ultimate importance to each of us.  In the following pages my hope is to show you how none of the wonderful stories we read in the Old Testament can be fully understood unless they are seen within the context of the greatest story of all. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


The following is the first chapter of my new book, The Long Expected Jesus:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”
(Luke 1:50-55)

As I look back at my life now I can think of those moments in time that have the greatest significance and clarity.  I remember like it was yesterday when my wife and I first learned that she was pregnant with our first child.  It all seemed so surreal, so exciting and yet scary all at the same time.  I was a relatively young man and she even younger and we both felt somewhat overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility.  Were we really prepared for this journey ahead?  It seemed as if in that moment something significant and powerful had changed in us.  

Of course, the biggest change would be in Teri, as she was carrying a new life inside her, but at the same time I was carrying something as well.  As strange as it may seem, when I first heard the news from Teri I could immediately feel myself changing with her.   I was not carrying a baby but I was carrying a new responsibility as a man who would support and take care of my wife and growing family.  Together, we would prepare for the coming of this child and plan out our lives ahead.  We began to prepare a room in our home and friends and family rallied around us.  

The weeks and months ahead were filled with anticipation and expectation.  Would the baby be a boy or girl?  What would he or she look like?  Would the baby have blond hair like Teri or brown hair like me?  Brown eyes or blue?  Olive skin or freckles? Teri and I would speculate about everything from the baby’s size and shape to personality type and intellect and athletic ability.  We obsessed over the details of taking care of a baby.  Baby showers reaped an abundant harvest of baby blankets, clothes, toys and diapers.  I remember the day the doctor looked at the sonogram and told us our baby was a boy.  How our hearts flooded with anticipation at the news!  To say that we were “expectant parents” was an understatement! 

What is true for expectant parents obsessing over every detail of the coming of a child can also be said to be true of the coming of Jesus.  But more than the joy and anticipation of Joseph and Mary, Jesus was anticipated on a much grander scale.  Jesus was anticipated from the beginning of time itself to be the One who would bring about God’s redemptive plan for all of mankind.   

What we will see in the pages ahead is that like obsessive parents preparing and anticipating the coming of a child, the ancient script written in ages past by the patriarchs, poets and prophets of the Old Testament pointed to the coming of the Anointed One.  Truly, He was the long expected Messiah, and the anticipation of His coming was written on every page.  

The Christmas hymn that inspired the title of this book was written in 1835 by Charles Wesley and aptly expresses that point in this way:

Come, O long-expected Jesus,
Born to set your people free;
From our fears and sins release us
By your death on Calvary. 

Israel's strength and consolation,
Hope to all the earth impart,
dear desire of ev'ry nation,
Joy of ev'ry longing heart.
Born your people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king;
Born to reign in us forever,
Now your gracious kingdom bring. 

By your own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By your all-sufficient merit
Raise us to your glorious throne.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Thanksgiving is more than a holiday

One of the most challenging passages to actually live by is in 1 Thessalonians 5: 
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
It is almost as if the scripture is commanding us to live in a dream world filled with fairy dust and unicorns- 

"Rejoice ALWAYS" -really?  "Give thanks in all circumstances"- seriously?  

I can think of many tragic events in life for which it would be difficult to give thanks.
  • Like my dad dying of stomach cancer
  • Or of the child of a friend who recently succumbed to a long and painful illness
  • Or of another friend and young father who recently found out he has ALS
  • Or how about the rioting in Ferguson or the beheadings in Syria or the Ebola virus? 
  • World hunger?
  • Orphaned children?
The scripture seems unrealistic if we apply it in the wrong way.  But what the instructions of 1 Thessalonians 5 are actually saying to us is that our lives should be captivated by the grace of Christ in spite of circumstances.  The Bible is teaching that as our hearts are transformed by the realization of God's love, we are to see life differently. It is saying to us that the reality of His great love and grace demonstrated on the cross is a truth that informs and instructs everything else.  We are to give thanks IN all circumstances, not FOR all circumstances.

So it is not DENIAL of reality that causes me to rejoice, but an AFFIRMATION of the most important reality of all-  that the God of the universe loves me and has demonstrated that love through the work of Christ. 

So in this sense gratitude is actually an affirmation of my faith.  It is natural discipline of the Spirit of Christ living in me.  And as such it has a transformative affect in my life. 

The more I give thanks, the better my attitude and the happier I feel.  

By the way, this has actually been proven in scientific experimentation.  In a November 2011 issue of Harvard Medical Review a study was cited in which it was found that individuals who wrote about things for which they were thankful each week were measurably more optimistic about life and more happy in general than another control group that wrote about things that irritated them.  The studies conclusion?  Thankful people are more optimistic and happy.  Perhaps this is the reason the scripture says that it is "God's will concerning you in Christ Jesus."  God wills us to be thankful and when we abide in that will, it transforms us spiritually and emotionally.  Thankful people are rejoicing people. 

On the other hand, people who are always complaining and never thankful inevitably descend into darkness.  This leads me to another one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: 
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”
So on this week of Thanksgiving, at a time when life seems so crowded with bad news, it is a helpful reminder that for the follower of Jesus, the act of gratitude is not just an event, it is a discipline of the spiritual life.  For us it is not just thanksgiving, but should be thanksLIVING.  

Here are some suggestion on how to make thankfulness a lifestyle and increase your optimism and joy about life:

1.  Start your day by counting your blessings. 
2.  Write thank you notes to the people in your life who you care about and who have impacted you.
3.  Look people in the eye and say "thank you".
4.  Tell people about those things for which you are thankful- who knows, maybe you will start a trend! 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Meaningful Christmas Season Requires Intentionality

Now is the time to start planning how you will spend Christmas.  I'm not talking about a destination as much as I'm talking about a spiritual condition- not the state your will be in, but the state of mind you will be in.  This year why not make Christmas a season instead of just another holiday?

To accomplish this, you will need to be proactive and now is the time to get your reindeers in a row.   Here are a couple of things that will help you accomplish it:

1.  First of all, FOCUS.  It is important to embed the concept of a season into your heart.  To make this happen you will need to discipline yourself each day and TAKE THE TIME to reflect on what the season means.  When I say "take the time" that is literally what I mean.  You will need to aggressively take possession of your own time.  You will need to create space within your day to reflect on what is most important about life and do this without having any form of media within reach.

The internet immersion culture we live in is giving us all a dose of attention deficit disorder. For example, studies have shown that couples who are in close proximity to cell phones have less meaningful conversations with one another.  You only have a certain number of hours in your day and a certain number of brain cells to focus on what is in front of you.  Time and attention spent in front of a blue screen is time and attention away from the things that really matter.  Advent begins December 1 and ends December 25.  Within those brackets is enormous opportunity for change that could greatly impact your spiritual life.  If you force yourself into a season of reflection you can effectively reclaim some of the spiritual territory you may have lost as a result of spiritual priorities being sucked away by thousands of other less meaningful distractions.

A season is a period of time in which we intentionally remind ourselves of some aspect of our Christian belief. In the case of advent, we focus our attention on the incarnation event in which God Himself came to us in human flesh.  There are numerous aspects to this doctrine that should be continually emphasized in the Christmas season.  These themes are hit upon in the great Christmas hymns and sermons of advent.  Get yourself a good advent devotional that hits on these themes and take your family or community group through them (I just happen to know of a good advent devotional  here.)  Make the season a time in which you come to worship and involve your family and children in worship in your local church.

2. Secondly, it is important that you SACRIFICE in order to make the kinds of changes necessary to bring meaning into the season.  The only truly meaningful things in life are those things we gain through sacrifice.  The divine incarnate theme is one of sacrifice and humility. Again, this is a concept that runs against the grain of culture.  The mantra of which is that life is all about SELF.  We are a product-driven me-centered entitlement society that forces a consumeristic mentality into all of life. This way of thinking is deadly to the soul.  C.S. Lewis observed that a persons "hell" begins with a grumbling mood.  The more entitled we feel about life, the more lifeless we become.

As Christians, we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and are set free from the bondage of our sinful condition.  But that doesn't mean we are not susceptible to all the temptations of the culture we live within.

The only hope we have of breaking free from this bondage is the discipline of self denial.  Advent is a season to start giving things away and I'm not just talking about Christmas gifts.  We need to give away our time, our desire for more, our need for attention and affection.  We need to give away our selfish hearts, give away our anger, give away our petty demands and senseless expectations of others. We need to give away our desire for comfort and convenience that hold us back from meaningful ministry and new relationships.

How is this accomplished?  How do mere mortals learn to sacrifice in this way?  The answer of course is to rely on the grace of God and the work of His Holy Spirit within us.  But a sense of awareness of that grace has to wash over us in order to bring about so radical a change.  In this regard, I agree wholeheartedly with Tim Keller:
Humility is only achieved as a byproduct of understanding, believing, and marveling in the gospel of grace. But the gospel doesn't change us in a mechanical way. Recently I heard a sociologist say that for the most part, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate our lives are so deeply embedded in us that they operate "pre-reflectively." They don't exist only as a list of propositions, but also as themes, motives, and attitudes. When we listen to the gospel preached or meditate on it in the Scriptures, we are driving it so deeply into our hearts, imaginations, and thinking that we begin to instinctively "live out" the gospel.
I guess the major point I am making in this post is that a meaningful Christmas season is something that has to be nurtured.  You have to seek it to find it and knock for it in order for it to be opened. These things may not be the whole answer to a meaningful season, but certainly focus and sacrifice are a big part of the answer.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pray for Christians in the Middle East

The horrible stories of persecution of Christians by the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have reminded me again of how Christian communities in that part of the world are evaporating at an ever increasing pace.  It is a tragedy of epic proportions that the very people groups that are the blood descendants of the members of the earliest church are losing their homes and their lands to the degree that in the not to distant future they may completely disappear unless the Lord intervenes.

For this reason I want to repost at blog I wrote in March of 2008 after a remarkable visit I had with some pastors from the Gaza Strip:

"Rami was just a few days short of his 29th birthday," his pastor in the Gaza strip told us. Our new friend had had come to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, to meet our group and to pray and fellowship with us. He speaks with good English, obviously very well educated and polished.

"He had talked to one of our church members just minutes before they kidnapped him. He called his family about an hour afterward and told them, 'I will be with this group for a couple of hours. If I am not back after that, I will not see you for a long, long time.'"

Rami Ayyad was beheaded about 5 hours later. "The group gave him a choice- deny his Christian faith and convert to Islam and live- or deny Islam, and die."

The pastor takes some time now to regain his composure.

"For him the choice was already made. The saddest part of all is that his little boy George at 4 years old still doesn't understand what happened to his daddy. Every time he sees his picture on the computer screen, he goes to the screen and hugs the computer."

Although no one claimed responsibility for Rami's death, it is widely believed it was carried out by the "Righteous Army of God", a radical Muslim group that just a few weeks before had blown up Rami's book store. Rami was a very popular and dynamic young Christian leader.

We sit in silence for awhile.

"It is very hard" He says.

As our conversation unfolds it is very clear to me that I am in the presence of a different kind of Christian. Here is a man who studied in the states, receiving a doctor's degree, and yet chose to return to Gaza. He pastors a church of about 150 believers who are living out their faith in possibly the most hostile environment on the planet.

"We are having to learn forgiveness all over again", he says.

Our group gathers around him and lay hands on him and pray. It is very moving. I am standing behind this man with my hand on his shoulder crying out to God for His continued work and strength in his life while his 2 year old daughter rests in his arms.

And yet I know that tomorrow I am going home to a very comfortable existence, and this man is going back into a place that is plagued by hatred and despair, poverty and starvation.

Here is a man who gives to people who have nothing to give back. He is not in it for acclaim, for applause, for material gain. He silently and lovingly pours his life out for others.

His is the applause of heaven.

The church in Gaza is gathering children out of the slum and putting them in school and taking care of their physical and emotional needs. They give them clothes and blankets and textbooks. They show them to unconditional love of Christ.

But the church is not just proclaiming the gospel, it reaching out to the terrible physical needs and with the help of Christians from the states, meeting those needs when they can.

"When the Christians give, they give without condition", one of the Gazan church members tells us a little later, "but when Hamas gives, there are always strings attached. It makes a big difference in the way Christians are perceived."

This is just one of the many remarkable stories we have heard in the past few days in Israel and the West Bank. There are so many I would want to tell you.

Like the story of the Arab pastor in Haifa who leads a Messianic Jewish congregation. His church is growing rapidly with several worship services and home groups. "The Messianic movement in Israel is just now taking off" my friend in Haifa tells me. The church is made up of Jews and Russians and Ethiopians, who each have a worship in their own language.

Or like the story of the 25 year old Israeli Army officer I met who is a former Druze and is now a dynamic follower of Jesus. He is right now in the middle of an intensive 3 month discipleship course in which he will actually travel to the different places where Jesus taught and learn about His teaching in a very intense way. He is very bold in his witness. One of the ways he trained younger Israeli soldiers in his unit was to teach them about Christ.

Or the story of the Palestinian husband and wife who are committed to ministry in the West Bank. They are providing blankets and food and clothing and are meeting the physical needs of the impoverished people of the West Bank and Gaza. They risk their lives every day to show the love of Christ to the people around them.

After lunch with them and the drive back across the line and through the huge concrete walls that now separate Israel and the West Bank, I think of my new friends. One a dynamic and focused believer an Israeli Army officer who has fought for his country in Gaza. The others are Gazan believers whose lives have been so devastated by the affects of that same war. They are worlds apart. And yet they are one.

There is also the story of the American family that lives here who are committed believers and who work for a Christian ministry. A few years ago their oldest daughter was killed by a suicide bomber. Her grief stricken parents and 4 sisters made the decision to not leave Israel- but to honor her memory by investing the rest of their lives here. Recently a high school student in Israel made a film about this family- about their love for Israel and their love for Christ. Each one in the family was interviewed for the film. They shared their joy and their desire to serve the Israeli people, both Jew and Arab. The final scenes showed pictures of their daughter who was killed and details of the bombing.

When the film was over, the entire school- parents, teachers and students stood to their feet in thunderous applause.

I can't help but think that it is nothing compared to the applause of heaven.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Most Miracles Heaven Applauds We Never See

I'm convinced the really beautiful and significant things God does in and around us He does in quiet ways.  Most miracles heaven applauds we never see.

Take Tamara Ellis for instance.  Tamara is a 17 year old PCO student in our group. Several months ago she was checking out the Mission of Hope Haiti website to get more information about our trip when she learned she could sponsor an orphan for 35 bucks a month.

Most teenagers Tamara's age would have passed over that knowledge without giving it a second thought.  Thirty-five bucks a month is a lot of money for a high school kid whose only income is babysitting.  But something stirred in Tamara's heart when she saw the picture of a cute little orphaned girl named Rosalinda.  It was in that moment that Tamara made a fateful decision.  She decided to set aside 10 dollars every time she received baby sitting income so she could sponsor her.

So for the past several months Tamara has turned her babysitting business into a missional enterprise to impact orphans.  She did it all on her own without any fanfare.  In fact, Tamara is so shy and unassuming none of us had any idea of what she had done.

The first time Micah found out about it was when we drove onto the Mission of Hope campus and disembarked from the bus last Saturday.  A staff member walked up to him and told him she was looking for a "Tamara Ellis".  Micah was surprised and asked her why?  The staff member told him Tamara was sponsoring a little girl in their care and that they would like to arrange a meeting for the next day.  Micah was shocked, Tamara was thrilled and arrangements were made.

So Monday morning when the rest of our group set off to paint houses, Tamara took the little teddy bear she had packed for Rosalinda and went to meet her.

The Mission of Hope staff told us later that when Tamara arrived at the school to meet Rosalinda something completely unexpected happened.  When they told Rosalinda that her sponsor had come to see her, she jumped out of her seat, ran outside and directly to Tamara and jumped into her arms.  The children are normally not nearly that demonstrative, the staff explained to us.

It was a connection that had been several months in the making because of quiet unassuming obedience to the Holy Spirit.

It was all the reward Tamara could have ever hoped for.  And one she had never meant to publicize or call attention to.  And that's what makes it so beautiful.