Christianity & Pop Culture Collide

In the past two weeks, the Christian faith burst into popular consciousness in a way it seldom does. And yet, remarkably, I hear people complaining. No kidding! On Facebook and the comments to this fine piece of writing, Christians are demonstrating a staggeringly short-sighted  understanding of the opportunity this exposure brings.

"Part of what we hoped to accomplish with the series was to show the Bible is not simply a collection of unconnected stories which are often discussed and analyzed in snippets with chapter and verse numbers. Instead, we wanted to show how the Old Testament connects seamlessly to the New Testament. How they are one sweeping story with one grand, overriding message: God loves each one of us as if we were the only person in all the world to love." Roma Downey and Mark Burnett in On Making The Bible

Two spotlight caliber events shined on our faith in the past two weeks and I’ll take them in turn:

First, Pope Benedict XVI resigned and his successor was chosen. Now, I understand that we Evangelicals have a peculiar glee in our rejection of papal authority. No harm there as far as I’m concerned. Jesus is head of the Church not some grandfatherly figure dressed like he just stepped out of 1430 in a funny hat. I get it.

But we must at least show some concern about who is chosen as Pope. Whether we like it or not, all Christian lineages go through the Roman Catholic Church. Do we agree on every doctrine and interpretation? No. But we do agree on much. And, if you haven’t noticed, it’s been a few centuries since Roman Catholics were the ones persecuting Evangelicals. The battle lines have shifted over the past 500 years. It’s time to start acting like it. Rome is our ally in the culture wars. Pope Francis I, from what I’ve read, has the potential to be a powerful one and his life shows it. Why should we reject him before he has a chance to prove himself as some are doing?

Second, the Bible has come to life on the small screen. Remarkably, I’ve seen Christian people complain about the History Channel series. Before we go any further, you need to know about my theory of genre.

The Nevins Theory of Genre is really nothing more than an arrogant attempt to slap my name on ideas other people dreamed up. (Hey, everyone wants to be remembered for something!) Here is is: If a movie (or book, or other piece of media) lives up to the rules of genre then it is good. For example, think of your favorite superhero movie. As long as Batman (or your own favorite tight-wearer) fights crime, uses cool gadgets, gets into a seemingly unsolvable pickle and still manages to save the day then I’m happy. The movie entertains and therefore serves its purpose.

The Bible series is similar. There is no way possible to include every little nuance in the 66 books of the Bible. Accordingly, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey included the broad strokes of the Bible. The editorial decisions they made serve the larger purpose of bringing the Bible to life. Here’s how Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey put it in a recent Huffington Post article:

It is our prayer that the same message of God’s love permeates The Bible series.

So, the proper way to evaluate The Bible series is to ask whether it serves its intended purpose. Is God’s love demonstrated throughout it? In my presently-indignant opinion, the answer is yes. Complaints, then, are needlessly damaging and useless.

Rather than being disappointed that the series didn’t include Jacob or Joseph, or a detail in a story you love, how about we be happy that the message of God’s love is generating so much interest around the world? How about we get off our lazy rear ends and seize with both hands the opportunity the Holy Spirit has afforded us these last two weeks to share the message of love which God so dramatically, amazingly, fantastically displayed in the cross of Christ?

Stop being so short-sighted and look at the potential harvest.

The Spirit is whetting the appetite of the world.

Are we ready to do our God-given part?

The Baby and the Faithfulness of God

Merry Christmas! Two days ago I had the privilege of preaching in a small, rural Iowa church. This post is an adaptation of that sermon. Hope it brings you joy as you reflect on the implications of birth of a little boy in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

I remember as a child the wonder of this time of year. School was winding down as the Christmas break approached. We made ornaments for our Christmas tree. We still have an ornament on our tree at home in Colorado that I made in second grade. Santa Claus used to call my house as Christmas approached to find out what we wanted for Christmas. It was a magical time.

Time seemed to march slowly. Christmastime seemed forever. As an adult I find time goes faster the older I get but back then it seemed to take awhile. I waited for weeks that seemed like years for Christmas. Slowly but surely presents would appear under the tree. There’s nothing like that, is there? A present under the tree with your name on it just cries out to be examined, rattled, shook, or steamed open. Do you remember that feeling as a kid waiting, anticipation building, until finally Christmas Day comes.

I always woke up early and went to check things out before anyone else if I could. My sister was an early riser so she beat me sometimes. One Christmas I found a train set under the tree all set up. I grabbed the remote, squeezed the trigger, and around the track the train went through the maze of packages and stockings under our family tree. I played with that thing forever. Or until time to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Christmas was finally here! At long last I opened my presents and enjoyed them.

A.W. Tozer said “What you think about God is the most important thing about you.” What you think about God when His promises seem to go unfulfilled is especially important.

Now I want you to imagine something with me. We have four kids and for Christmas I plan to give them gifts. What would happen if, in all the excitement of Christmas with all of its anticipation and waiting, I were to take one of my kid’s presents and wrap it up nicely, with a bow, and put it under the tree? What if I told them this pretty package is for you but you cannot open it? They might be disappointed but still excited to see what it is. The next day they come and ask again, “Daddy, can I open it?” What if I said no? Then same the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. On and on.

How long do you think it would take before they started to wonder what was wrong? How long do you think it would take before they would start to wonder if they had done something wrong? How long do you think it would take, being promised the package but denied its blessing, before they would wonder if I was a good enough dad to give them the present at all?

You see, when it comes to the promises of God, you and I are a lot like that. When we think God has tarried even a little bit in keeping His promise it doesn’t take very long before we start to wonder why. How we answer that question if vital. A.W. Tozer said “What you think about God is the most important thing about you.” What you think about God when His promises seem to go unfulfilled is especially important.

To illustrate this, I want you to read through Matthew 1:1-17. Yes, I know it’s full of names you can’t pronounce and rather repetitive. Read it. There’s a lot there that I promise you’ll find very helpful as we go along.

Did you read it? You did? Great! Here we go…

Right out of the gate Matthew gives us the main point. He says Jesus is (1) the Messiah, (2) the son of David, and (3) the son of Abraham.

When Matthew calls Jesus the Messiah he is saying one thing: Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham and David.

The birth of Jesus proves God’s past, present, and future faithfulness. You can trust God to keep his promises because of a baby who was born of a virgin 2000 years ago in Bethlehem.

It’s really as simple as that. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One sent by God to deliver His people. God, finally, has fulfilled the promises. If you were a first century Jew that’s exactly what Matthew’s first sentence says to you.

The genealogy of Jesus as it moves along shows just how unlikely his birth was. A quick glance through the lineage gives you an idea of how tenuous the situation was sometimes.

Let’s just take Abraham, for instance. Abraham, of course, is the Father of the nation of Israel. When God called him out of Ur Abraham had no idea where he was going or how God would keep his promise to give him a son. Can you imagine how ridiculous the idea of having children must have seemed to him when he was 75 years old? And yet…he believed God.

So everyday for twenty-five years Abraham woke up and wondered if today was the day God was going to give him a son. At their age it was extremely unlikely. If you’ve ever known anyone who tried to have children but could not you can get an idea of how frustrating and painful it must have been.

When God first called him in Genesis 12 Abraham was 75. He waited for God to reiterate the promise several times, sometimes decades apart and by the time Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac, Abraham was 100 years old. That’s 25 years of waiting, believing that God would keep His promise. Twenty-five long years.

And finally, finally Isaac is born! Abraham has descendants and God’s promise is fulfilled.

You ever wonder what Abraham learned from that experience? There’s a fascinating story in Genesis 22 that tells us. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Now, how would you react if God suddenly asked you to sacrifice everything you waited 25 year to receive? Abraham didn’t miss a beat. “Abraham, sacrifice Isaac to me.” “Yes, Lord. Boy, get some wood.” He didn’t even blink. Why? It’s because Abraham learned something during all those years of when the likelihood of God keeping his promise to give him a son seemed slim.

Abraham knew that our circumstances do not limit God’s ability to work in history.

How do I know that’s what Abraham knew? Hebrews 11:19 says: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” Abraham believed that no matter the circumstance God would keep His promise to give him many descendants through Isaac. Even if Isaac died, Abraham believed God could do the impossible!

The question for you and I is this: What circumstances are you letting keep you from believing God is working in your life? Or we could ask it this way: What is God calling you to that you cannot do because…? What is it? A missions trip that you can’t find the funds for? A big dream that you don’t have the experience for? A marriage you’re not sure is worth fighting for? What is it?

If you’re letting circumstances get in the way your God is too small.

God is Able

God is not only determined to accomplish His purposes in history, He is able to accomplish His purposes in history. That’s why you see example after example of God’s people in jam after jam and God comes through in the most unlikely of ways. Isn’t that what all the great stories in the Bible are about?

Noah and his unlikely boat. Ruth and her unlikely kinsman redeemer. Esther and her unlikely favor in the king’s eyes. Nehemiah and his unlikely permission to build the wall. David and his unlikely win against Goliath. A virgin with child. Our circumstances do not limit God’s ability to work in history.

I love how Paul puts it in Romans 4:17 – “As it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations,’” speaking, of course of Abraham, “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” What’s this tell you about God? Not only is God powerful enough and sovereign enough to accomplish anything He wants in history, He loves doing it! He loves making bad situations miraculously good.

Here’s the good news: Because a baby was born of a virgin 2000 years ago in Bethlehem you can be sure that your circumstances do not limit God’s ability to work in your life. Whatever God is calling you into, you can do with confidence He will make a way through even the unlikeliest of circumstances.

God’s Amazing Faithfulness

When you were reading the genealogy (you did read it, didn’t you?) did you catch some interesting names in there? Rahab. What is she doing here in the lineage of Jesus? Rahab was the prostitute who helped the spies at Jericho. Other interesting situations come up, too, like in verse 6 where it says “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…” Adultery and murder in the line of Jesus. What about Manasseh in v. 10? Do you know how the 2 Kings 21:16 describes him? “Moreover, Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end—besides the sin that he had caused Judah to commit, so that they did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

What do these have in common? They prove that our faithlessness does not limit God’s faithfulness.

Because a baby was born of a virgin in Bethlehem 2000 years ago you can be sure that our faithlessness does not limit God’s faithfulness. It says it right here. Look at the people God used to bring Jesus into this world!

This is incredibly good news!

Here’s what I know about you: if you, like me, are not careful you can easily get sucked into thinking that God’s faithfulness to you depends on your faithfulness to Him. It’s the strangest thing. We somehow get the idea that the grace to get in the door is free but the price to stay in the club is perfection. It’s as if God’s love was enough to send Jesus but not enough to forgive all our sin.

Don’t get me wrong. We should all strive for holiness but hear this: God will still be faithful to keep his promises to you even if you sin against Him. This is true because His love is based in His character not on your ability to earn it. If it were we’d be in trouble. Aren’t you glad God’s not fair? Aren’t you glad He is better than fair to us? If God can use Rahab, he can use you and me.

Isn’t this the message you’ve heard? Eph. 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” The baby that was born of a virgin in Bethlehem 2000 years ago grew up and died on a cross a sacrificial atonement for your sin and mine. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

That is truly great news. God loved us before we even knew it.

God is Always Working

Something really interesting happens in the lineage after the Exile. Before that scholars point to the historical books in the OT that Matthew was likely drawing from. But after the Exile the historical records dry up. For that matter, so did God’s revelation and use of prophets. Israel entered this period of about 400 years between the last prophet and John the Baptist with no words from God. Silence.

Each generation was born, grew up, married and had children, and finally went to the grave all the while passing on the stories of the promises of God. God who promised to bless all the nations through Abraham’s descendants. God who promised that David’s descendent would rule in Jerusalem forever. We skip from Malachi to Matthew with the flick of a page. They lived entire lives never knowing whether God would finally fulfill the great and precious promises He made.

And yet, Matthew records the lineage of Jesus right down to Joseph and Mary. While God was silent He was not inactive.

This leads us to our last principle today: Our perception does not limit God’s activity.

If you’re a brand new baby Christian you really need to hear this point because a time is coming when God will not seem as close as He is now. If you’re here and been a Christian for a while, maybe decades you know what this is like. St. John of the Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul.

Times come when we wonder if our prayers are heard. Or tragedy hits and we begin to wonder where is God?

I do not know the answer to these questions but one thing I do know. My perception does not limit God’s activity. He works in mysterious ways and it remains to be seen what He will do in and through this dark time.

Here’s what I believe: Because a baby was born of a virgin 2000 years ago in Bethlehem I can trust God when my perception of His work in my life is nonexistent. He worked through time to bring about that baby’s remarkable birth.

A birth that angels glorified…shepherds marveled over…and wise men worshiped.

Why? Why were they all struck with wonder and awe?

Because the birth of that baby proved God’s past, present, and future faithfulness.

I love the way the Apostle Paul puts this very idea in 2 Corinthian 1:20:

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.”
Here’s what that means:

You see your circumstances and we hear no.

The budget says no.

The calendar says no.

Your education says no.

Your perceived ability says no.

Your experience says no.

You see your faithlessness and hear no.

All the ways you fail say no.

The sin you just can’t shake says no.

That addiction you can’t break say no.

That bitterness you’ve been harboring in your heart for decades says no.

You hear the deafening silence of God and you hear no.

You see tragedy and you hear no.

Here is the blessed, wonderful, Christmas message God has for us today: God, because of a baby born of a virgin 2000 years ago in Bethlehem named Jesus, says “Yes!” to you.

Will you say yes to Him?

A God Worth Thanking

Thanksgiving. Here. Already. Who let that happen?

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. James 1:17-18

Impervious to my state of alarm, the year is beginning to wane and I find myself growing reflective. I think about all the things that I have and have not accomplished this year. The goals I had and the lessons I learned. The victories and defeats. The sorrows and joys of life.

For me this begins annually around Thanksgiving. Like many of us, I have much for which to be thankful. A good and growing family. Plenty of food…perhaps too much food (that’s an entirely different post). A nice place to live. A job that, well, it’s a job which is saying something in this economy. Common reasons for thanks, all.

But there is something else that should capture our attention. Or perhaps I should say Someone else.

While we are right to be thankful for the blessings that usually come to mind like health, family, provision for our needs, we have Thanksgiving to remember that all of it comes from a good Giver. If we lose sight of Him we lose any reason for giving thanks.

So here’s a list of qualities of the Giver of All Good Gifts:

  • Exodus 34:6-7 -And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
  • Isaiah 6:1-4 – In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

    “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
        the whole earth is full of his glory.”

    At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

  • Lamentations 3:22-23 – Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
     They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
     I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

     The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
     it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

  • 1 John 4:8-10 -Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Is a God like that worth thanking, today? I think so.

As you feast today, remember the Lord. Remember that His love is deep and wide and rushing and the reason you have any of the things for which you give thanks today.

 

The Morning After Election 2012

This, clearly, is not the post I thought I’d be putting up today. I fully expected to have a new President-elect. It was not to be. This post is a bit disjointed but it contains my reactions sobered in the morning light.

It turns out the silent support was on Obama’s side. What were all those people voting for?

Obamacare stays. How is this possible? The law is still deeply unpopular and yet the people, when given the chance, did not choose those who would eliminate it. Should it have been a bigger campaign issue? Yes.

Status quo. It’s the one result I never expected and no one could afford.

Religion never came up. It will be interesting to see what Evangelicals did.

In fact, the analysis of the electorate will be fascinating.

I predicted the election would end up with one candidate over 300 electoral votes. I was just wrong about which candidate it would be.

Romney was classy in his concession speech. I regret that we’ve lost him in the public sphere. We could use some class.

I didn’t watch Obama’s speech. I stopped listening to him a long time ago. Not going to change now.

I actually thought Romney had a chance in PA. Not going to make that mistake again in 2016.

What was the result of the hurricane hiatus? No way to tell for sure but it sure seemed like Romney lost steam after that.

Benghazi will not go away. Obama’a send term will be plagued by the growing scandal of a dead American ambassador and three others. Investigations, Congressional committees, and the inevitable trials will still dominate headlines for much of the next two years (or so…these things take forever). We’ll  see executive privilege claims and partisan defensive tactics. Just bank on it.

Election themes I will not miss: oddly weighted polls, Libya as a campaign issue, the term “lady parts,” war on women, the 47%, “likability” as a measure of a man, impugning of character instead of policies and media advocacy for one candidate. We’re probably stuck with that last one.

Finally, one thing will always remain true: God is in control. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, my hope is in Him not in the powers that be. That rubber hits the road now. The hard part is living it like you believe it. But so we shall endeavor to do.