Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Reasons to Attend Church this Summer

Summer’s here! The sun is out, the beach is calling, and our drinks are suddenly equipped with tiny umbrellas, which—let’s face it—aren’t going to do the drink any good if it starts raining, because they’re made out of tissue paper. Another summer trend that does no good is the downturn in church attendance that every congregation sees when the weather smiles on us.

I’m going to make a crazy suggestion here: you should attend church every Lord’s Day this summer if at all possible.  Are you traveling? You can probably find a church where you’re going. Got overnight company? I bet your home church would love to have them as guests!

Why do I bang this drum so much/so hard? Not because it’s a hobby horse I like to ride (well, not just because of that, anyway), but because the Bible emphasizes it.

Here are just a few (read: just a bunch) of the biblical reasons that Christians should attend church weekly:

It's a gesture of love toward God – Sure, we can love God wherever we are. And I can love my wife while we’re sitting on the couch binge-watching Friends on Netflix. But I still like to go to the trouble of getting a sitter and taking her out for a special night as one way of showing I love her. And this shouldn’t be just on our anniversary and Valentine’s Day. In the same way, if we truly love our Creator and Savior, we will not grumble about how difficult it is to get up, get ready, and head to His house to spend some special time with him in the midst of his people. 

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the LORD. Psalm 134:2

It honors the Lord's Day. When you read all those Old Testament rules about how to keep the Sabbath, it’s easy to see it as a big chore. But that shouldn’t even begin to color how we Christians view the Lord’s Day!  You know why it’s called "The Lord’s Day" in the New Testament? Because it’s the day Jesus rose from the dead! This is not a chore, but a reminder that JESUS IS ALIVE!
We just celebrated two birthdays in my house and, as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, we were basically congratulating each other for still being alive . . . which, I suppose, is impressive in its own way. But it would be more impressive if the birthday boy used to be dead and is now alive. And even more worthy of celebration if he died for you and me! Jesus rose from the grave for us. Let’s rise from the bed for Him.
 Because it is a sacrifice! The worship of God has involved sacrifice from the earliest chapters of Genesis. Today, we need not bring God the choicest of our flocks to kill on an altar, but we do honor him by bringing the choicest of our time and energy. As the author of Hebrews writes in chapter 13, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” 
“But I need a day with nothing scheduled, to decompress” is a common refrain among frazzled Christians. “ Or the kids do. They're just so busy...” As we overfill our lives—cramming every minute with an activity, or work, or racing from one thing to the next—if we let church go to the wayside to compensate, we're assuming (and teaching, if we have children) that the one thing that matters least is God! If your life is too full, perhaps it’s time to re-anchor the most important things at the center and lose some of those add-ons. God is worthy of our time and attention. 

Because we are forgetful.  When asked why he preached the Gospel every week, Martin Luther answered, “Because you forget every week.” Hearing the message that you are forgiven—spoken out loud to the elect with biblical authority—is a must for Christians, as is living the life of forgiveness together with others. 

It is a public affirmation of your commitment to Christ. The New Testament puts much emphasis on our affirming our devotion to Christ publicly (e.g., Luke 12:8). When we blow off worship for worldly comforts and pursuits, we are testifying that there’s nothing different about us.   

I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. Psalm 22:22   

To keep us from becoming spiritually isolated.  God told Adam, “It is not good for man to be alone.” That’s still true. Throughout the Scriptures, the idea of spiritually lone-wolfing it is roundly condemned. Why would we try and serve God, grow in grace and knowledge, and worship him in spirit and in truth all alone like a hermit, when we have the congregation of saints?    
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. Proverbs 18:1

Because Jesus did. In Luke 14:6, we learn that it was Jesus’ custom to gather together weekly with believers. And it’s a good custom for us as well. (Hey, look! Here's a sermon I preached on the topic!)

Because  Jesus assumed you would. It’s as if Jesus is giving us the benefit of the doubt that we wouldn’t waste the spiritual treasures we have in the local church when he seems to assume we’ll be involved in congregational life and worship (Matt 18:17, Rev 1:10-11).

Because the early Church did. And not just an hour a week. They seem to have been gathering together each Lord’s Day for a more formal service and gathering for fellowship in homes pretty much every day! (See I Cor 16:2, I Cor 1:2 Acts 2:42, I Tim 3:15)

Because we need to be spiritually strengthened. For a while, people were following Jesus because they heard it meant “free food!” (Remember how he fed thousands with just five loaves and two fish?)  Instead, Jesus offered himself as true food and drink. People were freaked out by this, but Jesus held fast in teaching that our flesh longs for one kind of food, but we deeply need another kind.

 So Jesus said to the Twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?"  68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,  69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." John 6:67-69

Because Christ is present in a special way. Yes, God is omnipresent, and yet the Old Testament presents Him as present in a special (and frightening) way within the Holy of Holies in the temple. In the New Testament, God is present in a special (and comforting) way in the gathering of the saints. Not only in the Lord's Supper (I Cor 10:16), but in every aspect of our worship together. 

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." Matthew 18:20 (note that the context of Matthew 18 assumes an organized church with leadership and even discipline)

It provides fellowship with other believers… all kinds of believers, not only those who are just like us. Our society has become incredibly segmented. Church is one of the few places where five generations still gather together. Titus 2:1-5 assumes that, in the context of the church, older men and women will be teaching younger men and women how to lead honorable and godly lives. This fellowship also teaches us to love those who are different from us. Sure, I could get together with a few friends at a coffee shop and discuss spiritual things (and that would be great!), but according to Jesus, “even the pagans” greet and share life with their close circle of friends. We are called to a higher fellowship.

It supercharges our prayers.  Okay, maybe that’s a little sensational a wording, but our prayers do have multiplied strength when we gather together. Again, God’s plan is for us to work together in love.
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. - Matthew 18:19  

So that the church can bless you.  Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us that God gave us the gifts and offices of the church to equip us! Hebrews 10 tells us that a main reason for gathering together regularly is to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Gather with the saints and receive the words of life. Share your needs and be encouraged and prayed for! Know that you are not alone! 

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Romans 10:17   

So that you can bless others.  Is everything great in your life right now? Maybe you’re not feeling a pressing need to be blessed? That's spectac! But it's not going great for someone else! When we aren’t involved in our local church, we rob others of the gifts we bring to the table. Not to mention that we fulfill the new commandment primarily as we gather together. (John 15:12, 13:35—the way the world will know we are His is by how we Christians love one another.) We grow best when we grow together!  

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16  

God has commanded it.  Yeah, I saved this one for last. While Jesus assumed we’d gather together for worship, prayer, and encouragement, by the time Hebrews was written, some were apparently slipping. Hebrews 10:25 reads, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This was not something new, for God’s people have been setting aside one day a week for rest and a holy gathering since Moses, and before. (Leviticus 23:3a). We know God would have us gather together. I often hear people who don't attend church more than a couple times a year say, “Yeah, I know I should,” with a shrug.  But knowing we should doesn't make it better. In fact, whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. - James 4:17  

As we enjoy God’s wonderful gifts this summer, may we remember that he has given us the gift of the Lord’s Day and the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ. Let us open that gift with gladness each week, and gather together to bless and be blessed!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Off By One Degree...

There’s an old sermon illustration about an airplane leaving New York for some island destination hundreds or thousands of miles away. Only there’s something wrong with the aircraft’s navigation system and it winds up being off by one degree. Needless to say, when the pilot has logged the planned flight (or thinks he has), he looks all around and cannot see his destination anywhere because he has missed the mark by a considerable number of miles. It’s all open sea, and the pilot is in trouble.

I thought I might do a little simple math here to flesh this story out, but it turns out the math is anything but simple. Apparently, to figure out how far off one would be from the intended destination, you must divide the original angle by two, take the sine of the result, multiply that by the distance traveled, then multiply the result by two. So, yeah, I’m not going to do that. I had calculus in 1995, but I don’t remember what a sine is. Let’s just agree that if your course was off by one degree, you wouldn’t get where you were trying to go. And the further away your destination, the greater the error. And so, if you were trying to arrive somewhere a thousand miles away, you’d be further off than if you were only traveling a hundred miles. And if you were hoping to land somewhere infinity miles away . . .

Yet, despite this common sense/advanced math, this is exactly how we tend to arrive at an understanding of God. We point ourselves in his general direction (usually, like, up), nuance our flight path based on where we expect him to be, and put the petal to the metal. This continues to be the most popular way for people to try and encounter their Creator. And it’s even popular in the Church. This is what we call natural theology—starting with man and extrapolating our way up to God. It’s enduring and popular, partially because it assumes that God is basically like us. I often hear people say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who would ___” or “If I were God, I would never ___.”

The world especially loves this approach. Problem is, it’s ridiculous on every level. I mean, in an attempt to discover the mind and character of an infinite, eternal, omnipresent God, I start with me and my values and preferences, which are largely determined by the rather arbitrary variables of where and when I happen to live? Think about how many sins of fifty years ago are now considered okay, or even worthy of celebration. Or how many criminal acts in one country are vanguards of freedom and free-thought in another, even today. When we set our divine-navigation systems from the ground up, they are calibrated largely based on what little speck we happen to inhabit in the vastness of space and time. And then, based on that set of circumstances and my own personal proclivities, I make my way up infinity miles and there I find “God,” who just happens to be the best version of me I can imagine (again, based on the shifting sand of my particular mind in my particular time and place).

This is foolishness to the Nth degree. You and I would never board a plane if the pilot were using this approach, even for a flight of a couple hundred miles. And yet, not only in the world, but in the Church, this is standard practice. The result is a god who changes with our own whims and our society’s values (rather than a God who is unchanging, who can help us establish our own desires and our communal values), and looks increasingly like a hype-man and enabler for human kind.

...and a good hype man is hard to find.
Sounds kind of hopeless, doesn’t it? I mean, how could we ever hope to know God if we can’t start with what we find in our own sinful hearts and work our way up to him? Well, that’s the good news! Instead of us lamely trying to grope our way up to him in the dark (which is impossible, Rom 10:6), he came down to us, shining as light in the darkness. He came to reveal God to us directly. This is the only way we can truly know him, his character, his will, or his plan. And yet our culture continues at every turn to insist that we dictate upward to God what he should be, what he should command, what he should value, what he should think—and continues to mock those who cling to God’s self-revelation, rooted in his coming down. They don’t even mind that this would make God the most fickle, indecisive, unprincipled, spineless follower to ever exist. They’re just happy that it comforts them with false assurance that God is indeed most concerned with affirming fallen men and women—not saving them, and certainly not demanding that they deny themselves and take up a cross..

Yes, God is an ever-changing being by this way of thinking, even bleeding into the church visible. Sure, we acknowledge that God has revealed himself, but then we accept the parts of his revelation that we like and bounce back up the stuff that doesn’t work for us, along with orders on how he needs to adjust to meet our felt needs and conform to our sophisticated sensibilities. As we waffle back and forth, condemning A and affirming B (or vice versa), we think we can upload these preferences back to God, sort of updating his firmware.

We all have this tendency within us, to re-make God in our image, instead of pleading with him to remake us in his. When we find this in ourselves—when we find ourselves thinking, “God wouldn’t do that or say that or command that because I wouldn’t,” where we tend to subconsciously think of God as growing and evolving with usrepent and abandon those thoughts. Such a god would not be worth knowing and certainly not worth following, as he would himself be a follower. In fact, he would be our creation, not the other way around.

Let us recommit to knowing God on his terms, listening and obeying, and trusting an infinite God’s navigation system to be infinitely more accurate than ours.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Chop 'em DOWN! (This Week's Sermons)

Gideon is about to undertake a great act of faith with international ramifications! But first, he has to start by purging his own home of idolatry and his own heart of pride. In our eagerness for revival, do we often skip the most important steps?

Sermon on Judges 6:25-32,
“Cleaning House”

(Click here to download this sermon as an MP3.)

Sermon on Judges 7:1-14,
“Soli Deo Gloria”

(Click here to download this one as an MP3. As always, you can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)



Monday, June 1, 2015

Why, It's a Major Award!

On the Gut Check Podcast, we sometimes coin phrases. That's a thing we do. And one of them is, “Not to blow my own shofar, but . . . ” We do this (coining the phrases) because it is objectively funny. Also, feel free to use the phrases. You’re welcome.

Anyway, not to blow my own shofar, but I recently learned that my book Playing Saint was on the shortlist in the suspense category of the Inspy Awards. I’d be lying if I said it didn't feel pretty darn good having my book up there with Ted Dekker and Steven James. I was tickled when I learned it had been nominated, and ecstatic to learn that it was on the shortlist. Not expecting any more pleasant surprises, but who knows?

I was also happy to learn last week that some of my author friends have been nominated for Christy Awards, which is a huge deal. Tracy Groot's civil war novel The Sentinels of Andersonville is up for the historical fiction award and Carrie Stuart Parks’s A Cry From the Dust and Creston Mapes’s Sky Zone are in the running for suspense.

Oh, and Playing Saint has been nominated for a Carol Award too, but that is nothing to brag about since Carol Award submissions must be done by the author. Still, though, I was touched by my willingness to box up those books and ship them off to Colorado. :)