Monthly Archives: February 2013

On Faith: Life without Fear

On Faith is a series of “Talk Times” on Hebrews 11 I am giving every Thursday at our church’s After School program. The primary audience is Middle and High School Students. This week’s passage was on Hebrews 11:23-38

I want to live a life without fear.

When I was in High School and Middle School I feared a lot of things. I feared being lonely, being left out. I feared failure. I feared those around me I saw as being popular and powerful. I feared death. More specifically, I feared what would happen to me after I died.

Moses, the man of faith, learned how to live a life without fear.

The story in starts with Moses’ parents.

Moses’ parents did NOT FEAR unjust authority. Pharaoh, fearing what a large Hebrew population meant to the Egyptians, issued a command to throw every newborn boy into Nile. Moses’ parents rebelled against this unjust command and hid Moses. When they couldn’t hide him any longer his mother “got a papyrus basket for him… placed the him in at and put it among the reeds along the banks of the Nile.” Pharaoh’s daughter found him and raised him as her own.

Moses LEARNED to NOT FEAR disgrace: After Moses grew up he saw one of his fellow Israelites being mistreated. He came to his brother’s aid and killed the Egyptian who was attacking him. At this pivotal point in his life he began identifying with the people of God.

He still had to learn how to overcome fear. The next day he tried to interrupt an argument between two Israelites. In doing so, he learned that his own “crime” was already known. The text says “then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘What I did must have become known.’” He left Egypt to flee from Pharaoh’s wrath.

He fled to Midian where he met a wife, had children, and lived for many years in peace, that is, until the burning bush experience. God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and told him to return to Egypt, to Pharaoh, to call for the release of the Israelite slaves. Moses, unsurprisingly, had a few objections. But the command of God was too much and Moses eventually did return to Egypt to face an angry and powerful ruler.

Moses, if he had not identified with his fellow Israelite, could have lived in peace and prosperity in the court of the Pharaoh.  But, as Hebrews says, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as a greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”

Moses LEARNED to NOT FEAR unjust authority. Moses learned boldness before Pharaoh. Hebrews says “he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger…” This I take to mean the second time he left Egypt – victorious.

Moses LEARNED to FEAR God so that he did not have to FEAR DEATH. The final plague to strike Egypt was the plague on all the firstborn males. God provided a way out – the Passover – marking the doorposts of the house with the blood of a lamb. Those who responded were saved and it was this event that eventually led to Israel’s release. Moses led Israel with a “holy fear” and it was this holy fear that led to the obedience which gave the Israelites a way to escape the destroying angel.

So how can we, like Moses, learn to live a life free from fear?

Faith in God’s plan: Moses’ parents hid Moses because they “saw he was no ordinary child,” that is, they saw that God had a plan for his life. (11:23)

Faith in the future reward: “(Moses) regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (11:26)

Faith in the unseen God: “Moses persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” (11:27). As we have already seen, at the heart of faith is being sure of what we do not see. We are tempted to view the “unseen” as less real but Hebrews views the unseen as the source and cause of all that we experience in the physical universe. We trust, then, in our uncreated and unseen Creator.

Faith in the one who has conquered death: Just as the Passover lamb allowed the Israelites to escape death and be freed from slavery so Jesus, the perfect and ultimate sacrifice, suffered death (and the conquered it!) so that we could be freed him who holds the power of death – and thus be freed from the fear of death. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Why do we trust God with the cosmos but not with our personal circumstances?

I’m reading Draw the Circle to review for BookSneeze and one of the chapters/devotionals raises the issue of why we have a hard time trusting God with our daily lives: “You tell me which is more difficult – keeping plants in orbit or determining our steps? The truth is that we already trust God for the big things; now we need to trust Him for the little things…” In other words, if we can trust God with holding the cosmos in His hands and maintaining the entire universe, why don’t we really trust Him to be able to take care of us on a personal level?

I think there’s a relatively obvious answer to this question: What happens in the cosmos, like the revolution of the planets, is extremely predictable while what happens in our personal circumstances is often quite unpredictable. You simply never know when someone will get in a car accident, lose their job, develop cancer, or develop an addiction. Daily life is notoriously unpredictable, which is also what makes it so worrisome.
By comparison, the universe continues on like clockwork, with predictable stability.

Or so I thought…

Three events over the past couple weeks made me change my mind a little on that. (1) An asteroid had a near miss with the earth. (2) Coincidentally, on the same day as the asteroid flyby, a meteor exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia, shattering windows and injuring a more than 1,500 people. (3) I read an article about how the Higgs is apparently just the right size to make the Universe fundamentally unstable. Perhaps the universe is not as predictable or stable as I have been led to believe.

Of course, this could lead a person to worry about everything! That would be a problem.

It would be far better to reason, as Jesus recommends, from small to large. Consider the sparrows (Luke 12:6-7), the ravens (12:24), and the flowers (12:27-28). Each of these is subject to decay and experiences the unpredictability of nature and yet receives the care and provision of God Himself. Since we are more valuable than each of these, we can expect God’s care and provision, even though our lives are also obviously subject to decay, suffering, and tragedy. Despite that reality, we trust that God will bring good out of suffering, even if we can’t see it in the moment.

It also makes sense, as Draw the Circle recommends, to move from large to small. After all, the fact that Jesus sustains the universe by His powerful Word (Hebrews 12:1-4) – and the experiential reality that the universe by and large is stable and predictable, ought to give us hope in God’s masterful design and sustaining power.

On Faith: Rube Goldberg Machine

I struggled for a while on how to teach Hebrews 11:20-22 to the Attic After School kids. The first challenge was to figure out what in the world these verses had to do with faith. Before this we saw great acts of faith from Noah and Abraham – guys who really went out on a limb to please God.

These verses are about Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph doing something that by comparison, seems a lot less daring – giving speeches before they died. Isaac is blessing Jacob. Jacob is blessing Joseph’s sons. And Jospeh is giving instructions about his bones. Bo-ring.

As I considered it further, though, I realized that, while admittedly less daring, these actions still required considerable faith – faith in what God was going to do in the future after their death. They weren’t just giving speeches, they were prophesying. They weren’t just prophesying based on particular knowledge (well, maybe Joseph was) but based on the promises of God – specifically, the promise made to Abraham.

These men didn’t just have faith that God could work in their life individually, but that he was working in history, from generation to generation.

Once I figured that out, the next challenge was to figure out how to communicate it to the Attic After School kids. The challenge was this – how do I help them understand that they can have faith that God is BIG, that his plan is BIG, and that we can trust Him with that whole plan, not just what happens in our lives individually? 

Then I thought of a Rube Goldberg Machine where each part plays a small (but essential role) in the whole process. Rube Goldberg Machines are characterized by meticulous design. Every part needs to work exactly right at exactly the right time. Standing alone, no part makes sense, together, it is fascinating to behold.

So I did a little YouTube search and, viola, this awesome video from OK Go. I’ve seen it before and it’s pretty incredible, along with many of their other videos. It’s a great example of a Rube Goldberg Machine and I’m excited to show it to the kids this afternoon.

Final note: All metaphors breakdown and this one does too. A Rube Goldberg machine is an impersonal, deterministic process but God fulfills His plan in a personal, dynamic way – all the more reason to trust in His goodness.

The Path to Self-Knowledge

Calvin, from The Institutes, on how to gain (accurate) self-knowledge (emphasis mine):

“It is evident that man never attains to true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem ourselves just, and upright, an wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustices, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself.

In other words, if we want to understand ourselves correctly, we need to see ourselves in relationship to God, otherwise we will be prone to self-deception.

Also, for the Christian attempting to communicate the not-so-popular concept of “sin” – begin by communicating an accurate picture of God.

On an unrelated note, after quoting from Kuyper last week, and now Calvin, it is clear to me that somebody needs to hand me a book by Wesley!

Book Reflection: Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World

I offer this not as a book review, but as a personal reflection. The book in question is Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt. It’s a how-to guide for building a following (particularly a blog following) for your brand, idea, or product. 

Here are some of my reflections:

I felt dirty just reading a book about self-promotion. Calling it a book about self-promotion is not quite accurate. It’s about building a platform – a stage on which you can get a message out to a large number of people, not necessarily a means to make you look good or make you famous. Nevertheless, that often feels like self-promotion – probably because I’m projecting my own (sinful?) aspirations on it.

I realized I don’t have a “wow” product. Part 1 of the book is about developing a “wow” product. I don’t even have a product, let alone one that “wows” anybody. I hope to maybe, someday, write a book for a broader audience, but right now, all I have is a collection of half-formed ideas – and mostly ones somebody has said better than me.

But then I realized I do have a wow idea, at least as much as any other Christian has one. I have been entrusted with the message of the gospel. Why wouldn’t I want to make Jesus’ name great, and on a big stage/platform, too? Did this solve the problem of feeling dirty?

No quite, because just because I have the message of the gospel doesn’t mean the world is best served by me setting myself (or attempting to set myself) above the crowd, especially when there are so many other able spokesmen on the internet. Perhaps the cause of Christ is better served if I draw attention to others who are more able. This is quite likely. Perhaps I will attempt to post more links to well-written blog posts in the future.

But is there still room for my voice? Is it still legitimate for me to write (and promote) my blog? Here is how I justify it – I hope that my motives are pure.

(1)    Writing helps me clarify my thoughts so I consider writing as an opportunity to improve my teaching at my church. You’ll notice I had two recent posts about my last sermon. Both were attempts to disentangle my own mind.

(2)    But why publish to the world? Because it’s an added incentive to get my thinking right. Opening it up to criticism makes me more careful.

(3)    Also, I hope it will be an additional teaching tool with which the church can be built up.

(4)    It gives me an opportunity to explore some of my ideas, and to submit them to public critique, which will hopefully lead to more refined, and more useful, ideas.

What do you think? If you blog, why do you do it? Is it narcissistic to check your stats?

P.S. I do have a quick two-second review: It’s a good, easy to read, easy to understand, practical book.

Five Dangers to your Faith

This past Sunday the sermon was on Hebrews 2:1-4. Check here for a preview. This is a brief (and selective) recap.

There are many dangers, internal and external, to your faith. These five share a common theme: they are each the result of simple neglect.

#1 Forgetting that your sins were forgiven: This is both the cause and result of neglect. Those who do not consistently reflect up the cross and the price paid for their salvation soon become self-righteous (“I was never such a bad person, the cost was not too great”). And the self-righteous rarely make any attempt to grow in grace and virtue (See 2 Peter 1:3-11).

#2 Neglecting God’s word: James 1 describes two kinds of things the grow inside believers: (1) Sinful desire which gives birth to sin which grows up into death and (2) The word of truth which is planted in us and gives us life. Sin comes to us naturally (no outside force required) but the Holy Spirit works through the word – something to which we must look intently… and obey (See James 1:13-25).

#3 Neglecting your mind: Romans 12 admonishes us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The only other option is to be conformed to the patterns of this world. Be careful what comes in. Avoid mind rot. Challenge yourself to learn and think biblically (See Romans 12:1-2).

#4 Settling for a form of religion: It is possible to get so caught up in the practice of religious activity that we forget that we are called to love God and love neighbor. Forgetting our first love (see #1 above) we settle for a shell. Eventually we see the shell for what it is, futility, and either run back to Jesus or give up completely.

#5 Giving up on church: Life in a local church is messy, but life apart from a local church is, for all practical purposes, a life apart from Christ. Where else do you receive the regular ministry of the word, the constant reminder of salvation through Jesus, the opportunity to think through life biblically, and the environment to practice pure religion? (See Hebrews 10:19-25)

Advice for college students

This Sunday I’m preaching on Hebrews 2:1-4. Consider this a brief introduction.

My College life…

My first year of college was a positive experience (and so were my second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.) It was a time for me to gain a greater sense of self-identity and to reaffirm and “own” my childhood faith. I didn’t know it at the time but it was also a perilous period of my life. Since that time I’ve seen how the failure to engage with a Christian community in college can seriously damage a college student’s faith.

I don’t think many young Christians head off to college with the desire to lose their faith. Instead, they take it for granted, encounter challenges (internal and external) for which they have no answer, and eventually find themselves adrift. This is easy to do, in fact, it’s not about what is done, but about what is not done.

Hebrews 2:1-4 and the Drift…

Hebrews 2:1-4 is the first of several “warning passages” in the book.[1] Each passage contains a specific sin (or set of sins) and a warning of judgment. As I studied these together, I noticed that the sins addressed seem to escalate. The warnings in Hebrews 6:6 (“To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”) and 10:20 (“who have trampled the Son of God underfoot, who have treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who have insulted the Spirit of grace”) are particularly severe. By comparison, Hebrews 2:1-4 is tame, although the warning of judgment still has bite to it: “how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?”

The warning in 2:1-4, however, isn’t again some sinister activity, but against inaction. “We must pay careful attention,” it says, “so that we do not drift away.”

The first recipients of this letter lived in a world where popular opinion was decidedly against Christianity. These early Christians needed to be intentional about their faith. Negligence would inevitably cause them to drift away, along the current of popular opinion, which would lead eventually to a heart hardened against God’s word and filled with unbelief.

As we enter into a new post-Christian society, our condition is not so different. This reality isn’t unique to college students but, for many, especially those in the enclave of West Michigan where I serve, college opens young people to a broader society they may never have experienced in full.

Advice for college students…

There are many things believing college students can do to thrive spiritually in college. In fact, there’s a whole book on this topic . However, if I were to give just one piece of practical advice it would be this: Get involved in a community of faith; a local church and a Christian organization on campus. If you are away from home, it is especially important for you to be part of a campus organization, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Why is a community of faith so essential? Well, the key for any Christian is to keep your eyes on Jesus. Except for a minority of contemplatives this doesn’t come naturally apart from a community. The local church provides all the tools necessary to do this; the preaching of the Word, worship, prayer, encouragement (and correction), and the opportunity to make use of the gifts God has given you to build others up. And, on top of all that, if we really to keep our eyes on Christ, what better way than being part of the body of Christ.