Monday, November 27, 2006

The Why of Christmas. . .

Much of the beauty of Christmas is found in its sameness. The same traditions. The same food. The same hymns. The same biblical account of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem with shepherds and angels. Yet each Christmas is a little different. Sometimes that difference is dramatic. Sometimes it is subtle – delicate and quite and kept in our hearts to reflect on in times of peaceful silence.

This Christmas, I invite you to look at Christmas from a new vantage point. We’re all another year older and, hopefully, wiser and more mature in God’s Word. This year I want you to look past the story set in Bethlehem. Past the idea of the baby in a manger to the reason that God came to earth as that infant boy. Sure it was to ultimately suffer a grotesque yet passionate death on a rugged cross, but beyond that… Why did He have to die? Where did it all begin? I invite you to start at the beginning. Yes. The beginning. The Book of Genesis.

Genesis 3 is our point of origin. It is arguably the most important chapter in the entire Bible because it explains why the rest of the Bible was written. The entire Bible tells the story of redemption -- of salvation -- of deliverance from sin. Genesis 3 explains why the world needs this redemption.

It is impossible – and ridiculous to even try -- to understand the world. We’ve got people trying and supposedly coming up with solutions; but it is in fact impossible for humans to understand the cosmos, the ordered world of creation. It is impossible to understand the disintegration of matter. It is impossible to understand the collapsing world and universe and it is impossible to understand man’s behavior if you do not understand that everything that exists in the world today is a product of sin and that that sin is a result of what happened in the Garden of Eden.

The impact of the Adam and Eve’s sin – man’s fall -- has touched every part of the universe. It is accurate to say that absolutely everything wrong in our world is because of sin. When God made things he said, “…it was good.” (Genesis 1:31) But because of sin everything is very bad: from world wars, terrorism, mass murders, serial killings, plane crashes, auto accidents, fires, crippling and maiming of people because of accidents, nuclear reactor disasters, radiation poisoning pollution, cancer, heart disease, all illnesses, broken relationships, divorce, orphaned children, drugs, crime, dereliction in all forms, confusion, conflict, struggle, disappointments, anxiety, fear, guilt, depression, sorrow, failure, remorse, lust, selfishness, pride, hatred, covetousness, rebellion, murder, stealing, sexual immorality., irresponsibility, disobedience to parents and authority and gossip.

Now…why did Jesus come as a precious infant boy? Sure, it was to die on a cross. But why did He have to die?

- Pastor Mark

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Beginning of the End...

One of the most operative words in today’s society is "interactive." We’ve got interactive books and videos and computer software and educational curricula that permit us to interact with an issue or topic by adding our own ideas and answers and endings. It’s just part of our postmodern world; the kind of thing that would make our grandparents smirk. But as we look at the way Luke concludes the Book of Acts, he is showing us in very much the same way that we are to interact fully with its message. Luke wants us to continue the story…

Last week we left the shipwreck survivors on the island of Malta where tradition says they stayed from mid-November till about mid-February. Then Paul and the rest of the assengers and crew put out to sea again (Acts 28:11). Verse 14 reads, “…we came to Rome. Continuing, we find out that some Christians in Rome had heard that Paul was coming, greeted him and provided a reception and escort fit for an emperor. What an irony: Paul
the imperial prisoner makes a triumphal procession to the capital of the Empire! …Paul thanked God and was encouraged (Acts 28:15). Why? From our study of Acts we know that one of Paul's long-standing desires was to bear witness in Rome. Well, he finally got there – in chains, through shipwreck, and with significant obstacles behind him – and once there, he preached! As Luke concludes the Book, he reminds us again that Christians were denounced everywhere by the Romans. He tells again how Paul persisted in using the Law of Moses to teach the Jews that Jesus was indeed Messiah. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.” (Acts 28:24) Read Paul’s response in Acts 28:28 and then read Acts 13:46. And with that account, Luke's story is pretty much over.

Luke’s literary artistry had certainly come full circle. Paul’s entrance into Rome is just the beginning of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8 -- that the Gospel would be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. Why does Luke end the Book of Acts so abruptly? The book is not so much about the life of Paul, but about the spread of the gospel. Now that the gospel had been established and preached in Rome - the world’s center of trade and government - it would definitely spread to the ends of the earth. It simply wasn’t necessary to write anything else about the continuing history of the Church. We are the Church. We are writing its history today. We are interacting with the message! Look at Luke’s final words in Acts 28:30-31: “For two whole years Paul…welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and unhindered he preached the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Despite all the obstacles and the Roman government's attitude toward Christianity, Paul was unhindered. This message (the part where we are supposed to start interacting) is framed by one of Luke’s very last words: akolytos, “unhindered.” Paul was unhindered in his witness. It’s no different today. We’ve got obstacles. We’ve got a government that is more-or-less indifferent (often hostile) toward Christianity. Despite our postmodern world, things are still pretty much the same. But, as Christians, we’re called to be bold and unhindered as we interact with and continue the story. Where are you in this interactive story?

– Pastor Mark

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Shipwrecks of Life. . .

Have you ever been so immersed in a storyline that you just had to see it to its conclusion? I hope today’s message is every bit as good as the last great television plot you followed. It is after all the conclusion to a great series. If television producers created TV programs based on New Testament history, the depiction of the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck would make a great reality series.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the story. Paul has been in prison for two years in Caesarea. He has appealed his case to Caesar so he is sent to Rome by ship. The final two chapters of Acts describe this journey. Everything seems to have gone wrong for Paul in these last two chapters. As a missionary, he couldn’t do too much preaching as a prisoner; and the journey to Rome was an utter catastrophe. Let’s look as Luke’s vivid chronicle of the journey:

“…the winds were against us. (27:4) We made slow headway for many days. . . (27:7) Much time had been lost and sailing had become dangerous…(27:9) A wind of hurricane force called the northeaster swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind. (27:14-15) We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw cargo overboard. (27:18) The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners, so that none would swim away and escape; but the centurion commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard and get to land.” (27:42-43)

There’s an old saying that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. We, too, have shipwrecks in our lives – our careers, marriages, families, and hopes. So do those around us. We can draw enormous help and comfort from this story, because Paul demonstrates a God-honoring and practical way to respond to our own shipwrecks and the trials of those around us.

Paul was perfectly aware of the calamity around him, yet there is a quiet confidence, even joy, in his words and actions. Paul told the crew, “I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.” (27:22) And we read in verse 36 that “they were all encouraged.” Paul provided HOPE.

Up to this point, we’ve seen Paul’s leadership as an evangelist and a missionary. And while a shipwreck is not exactly the right time for evangelistic services, Paul looks for every opportunity to talk about his faith in God. When he ate food, he “gave thanks to God in front of them all.” (27:35) And in announcing that there would be a shipwreck, he explains, “I have faith in God that it will happen just as He told me.” (27:25) In the shipwrecks of life we, like Paul, can provide APPROPRIATE WITNESS.

During these nightmarish fourteen days, it’s very likely that most of the passengers were desperately seasick. Paul told them, “I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive.” Paul provided PRACTICAL ADVICE.
The lesson for us? Paul combined spirituality with sanity. Faith with works. He was a man of God and of action. A man of the Spirit and of common sense. We cannot avoid the shipwrecks of life. What we can do is use our circumstances to glorify God. We can stay the course and develop character. We can rest in God’s promises!
- Pastor Mark

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Search For Church...

It's a simple childhood game taught by Sunday School teachers. It was an “interactive learning experience” before anyone had ever spoken that phrase. Standing before the class, a teacher would ask children to fold their hands together, interlocking their fingers. “Here’s the church,” she would say as two- and three-year olds looked curiously at their folded hands. Then, pointing the forefinger of each hand skyward, she would say, “Here’s the steeple.” Children would giggle as their pudgy fingers formed the shape of a spire pointing to the heavens. There would be a moment of anticipation as the teacher turned her folded hands toward the class and nodded toward her thumbs, which now formed the shape of a door underneath the finger steeples, and said, “Open the doors,” while turning her hands just the right way to make the previously hidden fingers visible, “and see all the people!” Across the room there’d be gasps of pre-school amazement and gleeful giggles.

I am always thrilled to see children learn the Biblical truth that the church is the people of God and not a building or a social agency or an historical institution or a even a babysitter! I’m even more thrilled when adults grasp it. I mean really grasp it. Sure, people make up the church, but people also make up the Chamber of Commerce and the Boy Scouts. The Church is a living, breathing, divine body made up of people who have surrendered their lives to Jesus – its head! Sadly for some, finding the Church can be a life long search.

Over the last few months, we’ve been on a journey through the Book of Acts. We’ve uncovered the beginnings of the New Testament Church and walked in the footsteps of the first missionary. We’ve discovered this living organism known as the Body of Christ. Unfortunately there are countless people living among us who still haven’t experienced church as the Body of Christ! They still only understand it as a New Testament narrative. As a pastor, I observe it every Sunday morning. I catch sight of it in the community everyday: People who have never been able to see and experience what the Body of Christ is really designed to be. As a result, some believe the church is irrelevant. Others decide to attend other churches that will, obviously, be better than what they have experienced in the past and will better fit their current needs. Others resign themselves to a spiritual stagnation and become content with the empty ritual of simply “attending” church instead of experiencing a vibrant relationship with God and His Family. And God is grieved.

Over the last (almost) eighteen months we’ve been on another kind of journey. A journey known in church circles as a “building phase.” We’ve been planning and constructing and waiting. And waiting. And the search for our church building is almost over! Drive near the 1100 block of Ninth Street NE and our new church building is instantly recognizable! Within weeks we’ll watch as that much-anticipated steeple rises into the sky and fine-tunes the skyline of Austin. I’ll probably be there. With a camera! See, as I’ve driven through Austin over the last few weeks, I’ve wondered to myself, “Will the steeple be visible from here? How about here? At what point on Interstate-90 will I see it? ” Have you done that too? Don’t get me wrong. I am just as excited as anyone else about our new building. It’s very important to have an attractive and functional building. People are far more likely these days to attend church in a nice building. Outward appearance is important. But . . . News flash! The church is not the building! Do I sound like a broken record? Good. If our new building defines Crane Community Chapel for you, perhaps you haven’t fully grasped that childhood game.
. . . Are you searching for Church?

- Pastor Mark

God's Will vs. Bad Counsel

Beginning in Acts 21, we come to the “home stretch” of the Book of Acts. It’s here that Paul enters Jerusalem against the advice of many fellow believers, including his traveling companions. He is falsely accused, nearly killed, and then arrested (and thereby rescued) by Roman authorities. Sounds like quite a plot for a movie! But this isn’t Hollywood. No. We’re dealing here with the greatest missionary of all time, thus it was an occasion for Paul to -- once again -- proclaim the Gospel!

Paul had resolved to go on to Jerusalem while he was still in Ephesus, and along the way he met and fellowshipped with fellow believers. One would imagine these meetings to be very similar to what took place in Miletus. As they departed each city, they knelt together and prayed and said tender and tearful goodbyes. We’re also told in Acts 21:4 that “they repeatedly told Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.” But Paul pressed on, rejecting the warnings, convinced that his suffering was the will of God. He is not only willing to suffer, but also to die for Christ. I don’t know about you, but I read this account with great admiration for Paul. I am amazed to find that some godly scholars have reached the conclusion that Paul was wrong, in his decision to continue on the Jerusalem.

Nowhere in Scripture are we told that Paul did wrong. The remaining chapters of Acts do not indict Paul for wrongdoing; they honor him for his faithfulness! And Paul’s words to Timothy strongly imply that he had not departed from God’s will, but that he had fulfilled it:

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
… there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me at that day…
II Timothy 4:7-8

Here’s the scene once Paul arrives in Jerusalem: He’s falsely accused of a high Jewish crime, resulting in a riot in which he is nearly put to death on the spot. He’s placed under arrest. He shares his testimony with the some Jews. This results in another riot. In Chapter 23, we find Paul standing before the Sanhedrin. Realizing that there will be no justice here, Paul identifies himself as Pharisee, thus resulting in even more tumult. Paul is then confined to the military barracks for his own protection until they can decide what to do with him. (Talk about conspiracy!?) That night, Jesus Himself stands beside Paul and speaks:

Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome. –Acts 23:11

These are not words of rebuke. These are words of commendation. Paul, like Jesus before him, set out toward Jerusalem, knowing full well the turmoil awaiting him. (Compare Luke 9:51 and Acts 19:21.) So why does Luke record all the warnings from other well-meaning believers? Well, Scripture is full of advice on not taking advice from evil people. Luke’s account might just be telling us that bad counsel can come from those who deeply love us too. Our most intimate and trusted friends might be giving bad advice. Are you close enough to Christ – are you mature enough in your faith - to discern God’s will from bad counsel? Read Paul’s words in II Corinthians 1:3-6 and 4:17-18 before you answer.

- Pastor Mark