Jesus

Civic Holidays and the Church

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Churches all over the country are asking what they should do to honor veterans who have served in the U.S. military. Should we build the whole service around it? Should we give them a standing ovation? Should we say nothing? Let me share my perspective on how the gathered church should handle Memorial Day weekend and other civic holidays.

I’m an old Millennial (born in 1984), so I probably have different thoughts on this than pastors and Christians in the Boomer and perhaps even Gen X generations. Much of my perspective is born out of this generational influence—my generation sees the need for the church to be the church, not a political machine. (We are still recovering from the Religious Right movement in the 80s and 90s.) Also, much of my perspective is a balancing correction to my upbringing. This is not simply about my family life. The bigger picture is that I grew up in a politically conservative, Midwestern, dispensational evangelical environment which was just as staunchly “American” as it was “Christian.” I’m learning to unlearn this.

So take this post for what it’s worth (it’s free, by the way).

First things first: I think it would be wonderful and necessary for our churches to verbally thank those who have served in the military and affirm that it is a God-honoring calling (as is being an engineer, a teacher, a mom, a cop, etc.). Romans 13 gives us this perspective. Work is a good thing, and the government bearing the sword is good and right (Rom. 13:3-4). We could argue all day about what is just or unjust for a government to do, but we can all agree that simply serving as a solider (or other government official) is not an immoral or unethical thing in itself.

But churches often go further than this and that is where I get conflicted. For example, many churches will show a video or have special music as a tribute to soldiers or have them stand then give them a standing ovation. Let me briefly share two thoughts on why I think extended attention to America’s government or military during corporate worship gatherings is not a healthy thing for a church:

  • Our allegiance to Jesus, not country, is primary. As God’s new community, our first allegiance is to Jesus (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). I always want that to be the focus of a corporate worship gathering. The temptation that comes with showing a tribute video, like the one above, for example, is that the focus and allegiance of the gathering can easily shift from God to country (even if just for a few moments). Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful I’m an American (and in a sense I will always be one, cf. Rev. 5:9). But belonging to Jesus is infinitely more important because other nationalities belong to Jesus’ community as well (again, Rev. 5:9). Saying “God Bless America” sounds spiritual, but it isn’t the most biblically faithful thing to say, nor is it a loving expression for non-Americans to hear from a Christian’s lips.
  • Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, not soldiers. The video I linked above, quotes a very popular phrase: “We remember that they [soldiers] paid the ultimate price for our freedom.” While the death of U.S. soldiers did give me political freedom and continues to keep me physically safe, it did not ultimately set me free from God’s wrath, my flesh, the devil, and eternity in hell. Only Jesus’ death did that. North Korea is not my enemy. I was my own worst enemy and Jesus died for me (Rom. 5:8). Satan is my enemy and Jesus crushed him (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). He made the ultimate sacrifice: he was a righteous man dying for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-7), which is a a very non-American and non-human thing to do. Later on, that same video quotes Jesus’ words in John 15:13 about him laying his life down for his friends and then calling his disciples to do the same for others (“love others as I have loved you”). The context is Jesus’ death for the church and the church’s response to Jesus. But the video applies it to U.S. soldiers. Obviously, that is a significant misapplication of Scripture. Very often, on civic holiday weekends, churches can perpetuate soldier idolatry, which is a real struggle for many Americans. We should give honor to whom honor is due, but in the context of the corporate worship of the church, using religious language in relation to soldiers will distract people from the point of a worship gathering: honoring Jesus because of his substitionary sacrifice.

I realize you might think I’m being nit-picky, maybe even anti-American—and I’m okay with that. You might think this is a little thing and I just wasted 900 words on it. But it’s typically the little things, the slippery slope, that distract people from God and his gospel in favor of other gospels, in this case an “American gospel.”

This question of what we do in a worship service on a civic holiday is part of a bigger conversation which needs to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a peculiar and holy people who reside in this earthly country, yet are citizens of a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16)?” Other saints have had to answer it in their time, and it’s not going to be an easy question for my generation to answer. I don’t know the answer yet. Whatever our answer, I think it’s going to be much different than how American Christians answered in the past.

Preacher: Be Clear and Concise!

bible-podium

What makes for a good sermon? Sound exegesis? An understanding of passage’s place in redemptive history? Quality application? These are necessary, of course. But you can have these things and still be a terrible preacher because your communication is incoherent and your organization sloppy.

The art of communicating the sermon—homiletics—is just as vital as focusing on exegesis and theology. As I try to hone my preaching, I’m working on two simple homiletical elements: being clear and concise.

Clarity
First, ensure you are being clear. Have you ever heard a preacher begin a sermon by meandering for ten or even twenty minutes in an attempt to set up a tension (or try to be “relevant”)? The problem with this is that a congregation want to know why they should listen. Tell them–very often in the first sentence of the sermon! This is simple a big idea, a “thesis” that makes it clear to the congregation that this sermon has one main point. The thesis is clear and memorable. It’s a simple, one-sentence summary of the message.

A second aspect to being clear in preaching is to lay a road map for where the sermon is going. Good preachers build a framework for what’s coming. This may or may not mean having points in the sermon, but it at least means presenting the passage logically. Preaching is not a magic act that’s designed to surprise people. That’s entertainment, not preaching. Providing a road map will only help the congregation’s attentiveness and retention.

Conciseness
A second homiletical skill to sharpen is being concise. You want to preach for an hour. So do I. But if we want to go long, we need to master short. Why? It’s much more difficult to say something meaningful in a short amount of time. Therefore, this makes me more selective in my preparation with what I want to bring out of a text. It also makes me more selective with my words during the act of preaching. Being concise makes words matter more, not less, even though you will use fewer words.

While it may seem very short, I’m working on getting my sermons down to 25 minutes. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s so short! My introductions are ten minutes!” (That’s the problem—let the reader understand!) Twenty-five or thirty minutes, however, isn’t so short when my intro is my thesis statement, a few other sentences to build a tension, and then a roadmap of where I’m going (90 seconds tops!). This will be liberating for you, and it will help you practice not saying everything about everything in every sermon. Remember, master short before long means you will not always preach for 25 minutes. It means you will master 25 minutes and then incrementally speak longer. If I am not faithful with a few minutes, how will I be faithful with many?

These things do not make for fool-proof sermons. There will always be some people who reject God’s word and fail to believe and obey as God calls them to no matter how well a sermon is delivered. Homiletics do not change hearts. God does. It is the word of the cross, not human eloquence, that has power.

Nevertheless, this truth is not a free pass to slouch in our communication. Preacher, do everything you can by God’s grace to hone your craft in order to remove unnecessary obstacles to someone hearing and believing the gospel! The point is not slick communication in order to impress. The point is to be helpful to your hearers. So, for your hearers’ sake, be clear and concise!

Divine Irony on the Way to Emmaus

In Luke 24:13-35, Jesus takes a seven mile walk with a few disciples. The passage drips with irony. Irony, as a literary technique, occurs when the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character. In Luke 24, we readers get to eavesdrop on Jesus talking with a couple clueless disciples. Luke—and ultimately the Holy Spirit—wants to turn our attention to the blindness of the two disciples and the truth that spiritual sight only comes when we see the all the Scriptures as a testimony to Jesus.

  • Irony 1. Verse 18: Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” Jesus lived what happened.
  • Irony 2. Verse 19: And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” Jesus is more than a prophet; he is the Messiah.
  • Irony 3. Verse 21: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Jesus death did redeem Israel.
  • Irony 4. Verse 22: “Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.” Jesus himself predicted he would die and rise after three days.
  • Irony 5. Verse 24: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” They see—yet don’t see—Jesus who walks alongside them. 

The climax of this exchange is, of course, this:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (vv. 25-27). 

Only when Jesus interprets the Scriptures in light of himself are the ironies blown away. The disciples eyes are opened (v. 31) and their hearts burn within them (v. 32).

Why is irony so effective in getting our attention? Can you find other ironies in the passage that I missed?

Heaven is for Real and I don’t need a 4-year old to tell me

Full disclosure before you read: I have not read or seen Heaven is for Real, and I probably will not in the future.

Today, the feature film Heaven is for Real hits theaters across the country and it will, no doubt, make a box-office splash. The film is based on the book of the same title—a book which is the #1 selling so-called “Christian” book of the past decade. Everyone, including Evangelicals, are going ga-ga over this movie. “Finally,” some think, “something’s gaining traction that shows heaven and God are real!”

No, it is not evidence. This is not good for the church or the culture.

Heaven is for Real (and books and movies like it) are not helpful. They are harmful and discourage people from trusting God’s word in Scripture. Now, hear me on this: I am not saying that these people know they are portraying a fanciful account as reality. They very well may have seen or experienced something. I can’t say one way or the other on that. But what I do know is that they have not died and been to (the real) heaven (or hell) and come back to tell about it.

How can I say this?! Isn’t their experience valid? Who could deny an experience? If Christians are going to uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, then we must validate our experiences based on Scripture, not validate Scripture (or add to it) based on our experience. Scripture is an objective standard outside of me. Everything must be judged by it, not the other way around.

The question is then, does the Bible have anything to say about this? There’s not much, honestly, about near death experiences and trips to heaven, but what it does say is incredibly insightful. Let’s start with the Man who came from heaven.

Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, describing what it means to be born again, and he uses an earthly illustration to describe a heavenly reality (i.e. the work of the Spirit in the new birth is like wind, which you can’t see or hear). But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. In saying, “No one has ascended into heaven…,” Jesus’ point is that while Nicodemus doesn’t comprehend heavenly things, Jesus does, because he has a unique qualification to speak on heaven. Theologian D.A. Carson comments, “Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things…But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth and then descended to tell others of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place” (The Gospel According to John, 200-201). Jesus has authority to talk about heaven. We do not.

There’s another place where Jesus speaks to this issue. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, he says that the testimony of people who have come back from the dead is useless. In the parable, the rich man begged Abraham to send the deceased Lazarus to his family’s house, for he reasoned, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). But Abraham responded, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). This is an secondary point in Jesus’ parable, but it’s still a point: if someone neglects the testimony of the prophets in Scripture, then the testimony of a dead man is pointless.

In the rest of the Bible, there are only four men who were given glimpses of heaven: two prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and two apostles, Paul and John. Here’s a glance at what they saw and heard:

  • Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne, hears a voice that shook “the foundations of the thresholds” (Is. 1:4), and his conclusion is, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” (Is. 6:1-7). (John later notes in his Gospel that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory; see John 12:41).
  • Ezekiel sees a vision of heaven (Ezek. 1:1), and sees “awe-inspiring crystal” (1:22) and fire and brightness all around (1:27), and he hears the terrible “sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army” (1:24). He concludes, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28b).
  • Paul is given a glimpse of heaven in a vision and he uses massive space to tell of it—three verses (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Hesitating to boast of his experience, he writes in third person: “And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (12:4). Paul later says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (Notice that Paul was given a messenger of Satan for humility, not a book and movie deal.)
  • John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and upon seeing Jesus he “fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17). In chapters 4-6, John sees a vision of Jesus on the throne, and all he sees and hears is glorious singing to the One who lives forever and ever (4:8-11; 5:9-14). John’s vision is radically centered on Christ, the Lamb who was slain and is now “worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:5-6, 12).

There is extreme consistency in these accounts, and several similar themes arise. Let me mention four main themes. First, each of these men saw visions of heaven. They did not have near death experiences in which they went to heaven and were brought back to earth. (Sidebar: One could argue that for God to actually take someone to heaven (as in a near death experience) and then send them back to earth would be quite a cruel thing.) Second, these men labor to describe what they saw—Ezekiel and John reach to the boundaries of their vocabulary to paint the scene; Isaiah and Paul labor in that they are nearly left speechless (Paul, as I mentioned, is essentially told not to say anything about what he saw). Third, each of them express a sober and appropriate sense of awe, fear, and unworthiness because of the vision. Fourth, they are all fixated on God’s glory, holiness, or majesty—not family members, beautiful landscapes, or other incidentals. As John points out at the end of the Bible story, Jesus and his glory is the main focus. Heaven is, to be sure, Christocentric. If it weren’t, then it would not be heaven.

Books and films about near death experiences and trips to heaven are nothing like these visions. In fact, as one author noted, the books themselves do not even agree with each other on the details of heaven. These type of stories fail to draw people into adoring the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Instead, they draw people into conjecture, speculation, and exalting subjective experience and away from trusting the Scriptures. If you want to know if heaven is for real, then put down the popular book you picked up at the bookstore and read what God has written in his word. Heaven is real, and it is glorious—much more glorious than any so-called near death experience makes it out to be.

In the next few days, I hope to write a follow-up post about how the Bible describes heaven and, more importantly, how we can know if we are going there.