Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Trajectory of Our Hearts, Part III (or answering Rob Bell)

This is part three in a series of posts taken from a sermon I preached on Luke 16:19-31 under the same title: "The Trajectory of Our Hearts". You can read part one here and part two here. Even if you haven't read the last two posts, this was my attempt to answer Rob Bell's objections directly from the text. While I assumed that most of my audience hadn't even heard of Rob or his latest book, I felt these were important challenges that needed addressed.

The Great Reversal


So both the characters kick the bucket and here’s where Jesus pulls the big switcheroo on his listeners. Everyone was assuming they had Jesus’ story figured out, and then the no-name dude that everyone picked for their old school Hebrew madlibs ends up in hell. That’s embarrassing.

Now hang on. I know some of you are probably mentally checking out at this point because I said the word “hell”. Maybe some of you don’t even believe in hell. My simple and short answer to you would be this: if you believe the things Jesus said about heaven, you have to believe at the same time the things he said about hell. Jesus was constantly talking about both heaven and hell in the same breath, with the same types of words, and to the same degree of urgency and gravity. It is intellectually dishonest to take Jesus literally when he talks about heaven but say it’s all allegories when he talks about hell.

But there are lots of bad and wrong ideas about hell out there. On one end, hell is characterized as a divine torture chamber, where God sics the demons on all the bad people. On the other, we have people (pastors and authors even) that say hell is temporary, or a metaphor, or a lie altogether. Interestingly enough, this very passage clears up some of the myths and wrong ideas people have about hell.

Myth #1: Hell is eternal punishment for temporary sins. This is a shortsighted view that makes the false assumption that all that matters--the only good or bad we can do--is in this life. It assumes that we only have five, ten, seventy-five, eighty years and then our poor next self is stuck dealing with all the bad decisions our ignorant selves made in this life (which, if you think about it, is really close to a reincarnation view). However, the Bible doesn’t divorce our physical selves and our eternal, resurrected selves like this at all.

Tim Keller, in his book The Reason for God, asks the question this way: “We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?” Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”

This makes sense to us when we think of our prison system. Nobody bats an eye at a lifetime prison sentence for a repeat offense criminal (perhaps a rapist, child molester, or serial killer) who is unreformed and certain to continue unless they are permanently incarcerated. No just judge would release a prisoner who only has a growing hatred for the judge and the community that put him there and a growing tendency to do the very things that landed him there in the first place. Hell, like prison, is both punishment for--and confinement of--evil for the good and flourishing of an eternal society.

So consider now the story that Jesus tells. Do we see any hints of the trajectory of the rich man’s soul in hell, any indication of his continued sin? In life, the rich man completely disregarded Lazarus because Lazarus had nothing to offer. The rich man’s functional god was his comfort and his status. In death, the rich man still considers himself so above Lazarus that he refuses to address him directly but doesn’t hesitate to ask Father Abraham to send Lazarus into hell to serve him. In life, the rich man’s idol--his god--was his own comfort and self-importance and it caused him to hoard money, use people, and see them merely as means to his own greater comfort. In death, he was no different. Quoting Tim Keller again: “Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity”.

Myth #2: Hell can’t exist if God is fair and loving. The idea of hell seems so contrary to fairness and love, that I thought it might help to quote a couple authors who have spent some time wrestling with this tension. Becky Pippert says, “God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”

Tim Keller also addresses this in The Reason for God saying “I always start my response by pointing out that all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love. If you love a person and you see someone ruining them--even themselves--you get angry . . . The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity”.

And in regards to fairness, Tim Keller says, “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that?”

Finally, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are only two kinds of people--those who say “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says “Thy will be done”. All that are in hell choose it.”

It is telling in Jesus’ story that the rich man never asks to get out of hell. He never asks to cross the abyss into heaven. And when Father Abraham addresses him, he doesn’t call him “you wretched sinner”. He calls him teknon, “child”! There’s pathos there, there’s pity, like a parent watching a grown child in a self-destructive cycle or addiction. Jesus’ story gives us little hints into the fairness and the love of God even in hell. There is another, infinitely deeper way that hell shows us the love of God, but I’ll address that later.

Myth #3: Hell will be full of repentant people whom God refuses to forgive. This again is based on the false assumption that people just need more time, more information, more proof and then everyone would repent, that when people see the truth of God and the error of their ways, everyone will have a fundamental change of heart. But the things that the rich man never says while in hell are as telling as the things he does say. Notice he never repents, he never asks for forgiveness! In fact, he never even asks to get out of hell, he only asks that Lazarus be sent into hell like a water boy! Notice also, that the man doesn’t address Yawheh God, he addresses Abraham. Even in hell, he is still trying to justify himself in the eyes of men! He’s still trying to save face, but this time it’s in front of the ultimate Jew, the uber Jew, Abraham.

And twice he tries to imply that he didn’t get enough information, and twice Abraham corrects him. Abraham says two important things that we shouldn’t miss:
  1. The message of the Bible is enough to point to God and to repentance.
  2. Those unconvinced by the preaching of the Gospel will be unconvinced even by the miraculous (“even if someone rises from the dead” Abraham says.)
Remember, Jesus was saying this to the Jews, he was preaching at the Pharisees. The Jews on one occasion even said “Tell us plainly if you are the Messiah, and we’ll believe in you!” and Jesus said “I did tell you, and you didn’t believe”. Jesus said that the Jews and all humanity don’t believe because of something deeper, something that blinds us to the truth and hardens our hearts to the Gospel. Let me state this as plainly as I can: no one will end up in hell just because they didn’t have enough time, information, or because they were born in the wrong country or century. No one! There is a fundamental rebellion that even giving more information and performing the miraculous cannot overcome. Even death and hell will not change this fundamental rebellion. Hell will be filled with people who are still justifying themselves and blaming God. This is one trajectory of the human heart.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Hipster Christianity by Brett McCracken

The collision of cool and Christianity. Most would not think there would be enough material there to fill a book. Or that said material could be intelligent, humorous, and thought-provoking.

Brett McCracken has proven most of us wrong with Hipster Christianity. Brett does an excellent job of taking what could easily be a wholly tongue-in-cheek topic and turning it into something theologically deep and challenging. While he seems to spend more time forming and asking questions than answering them, the questions he does ask are important ones. Consider:
Perhaps there is a third option—a much more insidious, countercultural idea: perhaps Christianity is hopelessly unhip, maybe even the anticool. What if it turns out that Christianity's endurance comes from the fact that it is, has been, and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating and exhausting drive in our human nature for cool?
This is not to say that the book is simply cold and academic. The research-paper-on-steroids feel is broken up by occasional humorous lists like: "Favorite Hipster TV Shows", "Reasons Why Calvinism is Hipster-Friendly", and the uncomfortably close to home "CCM Albums of the Nineties That Make Christian Hipsters Nostalgic". Brett treads the fine line in addressing a serious issue within Christianity with care, insight, and healthy dose of irony and wit. This is certainly something quite difficult to pull off and the fact that Brett does so with such seeming ease is a true testament to—dare I say it?—how cool he is. (See what I did there? Emphasized the point with a negative example.)

If you're not yet convinced, you can read a free chapter here.

If you're concerned, you can take the "Are You a Christian Hipster?" quiz here.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone interested in the pulse of Christianity, the dynamic of being "in but not of the world"

This book was a free review copy provided by Baker Books.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Trajectory of Our Hearts, Part II

This is part two in a series of posts taken from a sermon I preached on Luke 16:19-31 under the same title: "The Trajectory of Our Hearts". You can read part one here.

Profile: The Rich Man

So here in the second half of Luke 16 Jesus begins his story and, as he sometimes does, he pulls a bait and switch on his audience. We are introduced first to the rich man—a Jew, quite possibly a Pharisee, but certainly an upstanding member of Jewish society—and he does not have a name. He does, however, have wealth—and a lot of it.

How rich was he? Most of you probably know that purple was the most expensive dye to obtain in the ancient times, so whenever you hear someone wearing purple, it means they are wearing something expensive. But this passage goes even deeper and we miss it in our English translations. The word that is translated as “fine linen” in our Bibles actually means undergarments. Not only did he buy the finest coats, but even his Fruit of the Looms were expensive! This guy wore his riches on his britches.

A final clue as to this man’s wealth is also easy to miss in our English translations. The gate, the one that Lazarus is laid in front of, isn’t just some chain link fence with a swinging door in it. This word is the same word that is used for the gates of a city and even the gates of heaven in Revelation. Don’t think white picket fence. Think the White House. Think Michael Jackson’s Neverland or Elvis’ Graceland. Or for those of you who still live in your parents’ basement, think the gates of Mordor that takes two trolls to push the doors open. So this guy had a GATE.

And remember, in the minds of the Jews, this also means he had the approval of God. How many of you remember Madlibs? The short stories with all the blanks in it so you can personalize it and come up with a funny story. Well, add this all together for a man with no name and you’ve got yourself a killer round of old school Hebrew Madlibs. Everyone listening and playing the game puts their own name in there: “There was a rich man [your name here] and his wealth showed that he had the approval of God and man”. At least that’s the way everyone—especially the Pharisees—heard it and they’re already identifying themselves with the rich man in Jesus’ story.

Profile: The Beggar Lazarus

And while everyone was identifying with the rich man in the story, no one was identifying with the beggar. First off, he’s got a name, so in your game old school Hebrew madlibs, this blank’s already filled in (something I’m certain Jesus did intentionally). But beyond that, if the rich man’s wealth implied God’s approval in the hearers’ minds, then of course Lazarus’ poverty implied God’s judgment. And to add insult to injury, the name Lazarus means “The one whom God helps”. Jesus’ listeners are probably chuckling to themselves, assuming that Jesus is just being ironic.

The verb “laid” here is the same one that Jesus uses in other stories to describe fishermen casting nets, throwing pearls, sowing seed, and being cast into prison or hell. So the poor beggar didn’t just sit down and think “This looks like a good place to panhandle”, and he wasn’t laid there, he was cast/thrown/sown/tossed there probably involuntarily. In fact, he’s so helpless that it sounds like he can’t even prevent the wild dogs from licking his sores. This state of helplessness virtually guarantees that he will remain in a state of perpetual poverty. So not only is he broke but he is going to stay broke because he is infirm, immobile, helpless, and without any means of making money.

So Jesus’ story is not just a contrast between poverty and wealth. It’s a contrast between infirmity and health. It’s a contrast between discomfort and comfort. It a contrast between wild dogs licking on you like a meat lollipop . . . and not.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review: Long Story Short by Marty Machowski

The phrase "gospel-centered" is an easy label to tag on a book these days to sell a couple extra copies. Long Story Short, however, is the last book that could be accused of such a move.

This book, from beginning to end, is about Jesus in the Old Testament and it's perhaps the coolest family devotional I've even seen (or been subjected to). The layout is attractive and the structure is simple.

Every week presents an Old Testament passage, studies it, and then connects it to Jesus. As the author himself says, "Long Story Short connects each story to God's larger redemptive plan. Every lesson answers the question, 'Where is Jesus in this lesson?'"

Machowski spends an entire 1/3 of the book on studies from Genesis, so don't expect every inch of the Old Testament to be covered. However, this book has 78 weeks (or a year and a half) worth of material in it, so nobody's getting short-changed here. The simplicity with which these studies go back and forth between Christ and the Old Testament should impress parents without confusing kids. This is not always an easy thing to do, but Marty pulls it off!

Now my only question is: how young is too young to start going through this with my daughter?

Westminster Bookstore currently has the best price I can find online for Long Story Short, $13.39.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Families

This book was a free review copy provided by New Growth Press.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: Jesus In the Present Tense by Warren Wiersbe

It is seldom that a book's cover grabs me so firmly that I am compelled to read it, whether I know anything of the author and content or not. This was the case with Jesus in the Present Tense by Warren Wiersbe. The book covers all of the "I am" statements of Jesus in the Bible, including a couple most people would probably forget to include.

Warren opens with "Moses Asks a Question" (of course, the answer to that question is "I AM") and ends with "I Am Jesus", the self-revelation that took place during the confrontation of Saul on his way to Damascus. In between we find all of the expected ones: the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine.

Strengths

I have to admit, I thought the premise for the book was inspired. While the cover art work piqued my interest, the direction of the book was compelling.

Warren Wiersbe demonstrates a wonderful grasp of the Old Testament and it's foreshadowing of—and later fulfillment in—Jesus. There were times when Warren reminded me a bit of Tim Keller in this respect.

Weaknesses

My main critique is one of structure. Unfortunately, the book felt a little like a devotional to me. The chapters were lacking a flow one to the other, and even thoughts within the chapters seemed to be lacking a sense of direction.

There were also times when the author lost me in stretching an analogy just a little too far (the thin flakes of manna like frost on the ground= "white" speaks of purity and "small" speaks of humility, both which describe Jesus).

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone interested in a devotional study on the "I am" statements of Jesus

This book was a free review copy provided by David C. Cook.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Trajectory of Our Hearts, Part I

Hello, CiC readers. I apologize for my virtual absence recently (in both senses of the word). My pastor ran a marathon this morning, so most of my free time for the past couple of weeks has been devoted to preparing my sermon in his absence. But there is a silver lining! I figured since I wrote the whole thing out, it's a ready-made post series. Read Luke 16:19-31, Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus and enjoy!

Some of you may be familiar with the story of Matt Chandler, an exceptionally successful pastor in Texas. Last year on Thanksgiving morning without warning, at age 35, he suffered a seizure and collapsed. At the hospital they found an aggressive form of malignant brain cancer. Before his seizure, Matt felt perfectly healthy and exhibited no symptoms of the tumor slowly growing inside his skull. But that is the way it is with most terminal illnesses, isn’t it? They often incubate for years in our bodies without symptoms and we rarely catch them until something serious grabs our attention.

I apologize to all you hypochondriacs out there, but this is going to get worse before it gets better. Sin and guilt before God, like a cancer, is subtle and hides under the surface so that we can miss its symptoms if we are not properly diagnosed. When Jesus showed up on the scene, the Jews, and especially the Pharisees, were misreading their symptoms, and Jesus tells this story to literally get to the heart of our well being before God. All of life tests our hearts and eternity hangs in the balance.

In fact, it may not be a parable at all. Consider:
  1. A parable by definition is a fictional, earthly illustration that represents a spiritual truth. This story presents the spiritual truth directly without an earthly metaphor.
  2. Jesus never gives any of the characters in his parables a name. He does so here.
  3. The Gospel writers often state when a parable is being told. Not so here.
  4. Jesus typically explained his parables. No explanation follows.
There is a debate among biblical scholars as to whether this story is actually a parable or not, but either way, I think Jesus was doing something intentional here by deliberately setting this story apart from his other parables.

This story is completely unlike any of Jesus’ other parables (in fact, many scholars don’t even consider it a parable). While the characters may or may not be fictional, he intends to teach concrete spiritual realities in a straightforward manner without a parable. Whether this is a parable, historical fiction, or a retelling of something that actually happened, Jesus is making a few things plain: hell is as real as heaven, earthly wealth and status are deceptive, and all things will be sorted out at death.

Now Jesus was constantly picking on the Pharisees. I mean, these guys could not catch a break (not that they deserved one). But the Pharisees weren’t the only ones Jesus was targeting with this story. If we read the first half of Luke 16 (or if you remember Lee’s last couple of sermons), Jesus has been challenging the popular religious teachings of the day. One of those supposed that your state in life was directly related to your (or someone else’s) sin. We see this in other cultures around the world that are stuck in a rigid caste society, especially those that subscribe to the idea of reincarnation. If you’re down and out, well, that’s just because you were a bad person in a past life. And the worse your situation is, the worse of a person you were.

But this view wasn’t just held by the Pharisees, it permeated the Jewish culture of that time. Even Jesus’ own disciples weren’t immune to the idea. John 9:2 tells us that when Jesus passed a man blind from birth “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” So they assumed that bad behavior brought on this man’s bad situation. In other words, they wrongly believed that misfortune in life shows God’s disapproval.

And the opposite was equally common in the Jewish mind. After the rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to get eternal life, Jesus said “‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’" Notice their assumption. If this rich kid, so obviously in good with God, will have such an impossible time getting into heaven, what chance do we have? In other words, they also wrongly assumed that fortune in life shows God’s approval.

We know that this popular teaching was being spread by the Pharisees because earlier in Luke 16 Jesus says “You cannot serve God and money." Luke goes on to explain that “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And [Jesus] said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” The Pharisees were trying to justify themselves, trying to show that they were righteous! And how? By showing their wealth, by wearing it on their sleeve, they were trying to prove that they were right with God. In fact, if you consider what we know about the Pharisees, there were two things that Jesus continually tore into them about, their love of money and their love of the praise of man.

But notice where Jesus says the problem actually lies, he said “God knows your hearts”. The Pharisees were continually obsessed with the external: looking good, upright, godly. Material wealth was just another means of looking like they were in good with God in the eyes of men. But they were failing the test at the heart level. And Jesus wants us all to look deeper. God’s approval isn’t won merely by external behavior. And God’s approval isn’t shown merely by external blessings. If you buy into either of these lies--if you focus on mere externals--then when you evaluate your life and your standing before God, you will stop before you reach your heart. And this would be tragic because “God knows your hearts”. You would be making the same mistake the Pharisees did, and Jesus tells this story for you.