Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Truth on Trial"

          I hate going to court.  There are many things that I love about being a pastor, but going to court to testify on behalf of a church member is not one of them.  I have done it many times, and I’m sure I will do it many more.  When you’re subpoenaed, you have no choice.  Now, I’ve never been called as a witness to a crime, but I have been required to go to court as a character witness, either in custody cases or in cases where a defendant is hoping to have their pastor speak positively about their character.  When you take the stand, you’re supposed to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”  You used to have to place your left hand on a Bible, to remind you of divine authority over you, but you don’t have to do that anymore.  You do still have to raise your right hand.  Ever wonder where that practice comes from?
          According to NW Sidebar: The Voice of Washington’s Lawyers and Legal Community, the practice comes from seventeenth-century London.  Convicts were branded with a mark on the thumb of their right hand.  Since the brand fit the crime (“M” for murder, “T” for theft, etc.), the poor soul bore a permanent criminal record on his body.  Raising the right hand in court was a way of making the judge aware of any prior convictions.  NW Sidebar says, “This indelible ‘criminal record’ was thus a sort of pre-cursor to the ‘character evidence’ of today.” [i] 
          Of course in an ideal world, people shouldn’t have to prove their authenticity by a show of hands.  However, the truth is that the truth is hard to come by.  According to a recent Barna report, “One-third of all adults (34%) believe that moral truth is absolute and unaffected by the circumstances.  Slightly less than half of the born again adults (46%) believe in absolute moral truth.[ii]  With that few people actually believing in real truth, one must wonder why the rest of the population would think it important to tell the truth at all.  And, of the rest who still believe that there is such a thing as Truth with a capital T, how many actually stick to it, when they are pressed?
          In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, we read about Peter and John on trial.  They’ve been arrested for the crime of healing a lame man in Jesus’ name.[iii]  The event created such a stir that a crowd gathered, providing the perfect preaching opportunity for Peter.[iv]  It also provided the perfect excuse for the Sadducees, who did not believe in the afterlife at all, to lay hands on the apostles.  They spent the night in jail before they could have their trial before the high priest.  This gave Peter another opportunity to share his faith, saying to the high priestly family, “He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”[v]
          What would you do, if you were brought on trial for your faith?  You’ve heard it asked before—if you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  I wonder, would you put up a defense?  Like Peter had on the night of Jesus’ arrest, would you say you never knew Him?[vi]  Standing up for the truth is hard, especially when there are negative consequences if you do so.  Yet this time, determined never to deny Jesus again, Peter used the opportunity.  He never backed down from the truth, and presented the Gospel to people who never might have heard it, had he not been arrested.  In fact, two thousand people came to Christ because of the testimonies Peter gives in these chapters.  This brings the total Christian population up to five thousand.
          Finally, the rulers decided to threaten Peter and John, and let them go—but they command them to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus.  Yet, the apostles remained steady, saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;  for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”[vii]
          Sometimes the truth gets put on trial in your life.  Like Peter and John, you might get backed into a corner where it seems like lying your way out is the best and easiest solution.  Will you stand up for the truth, even in times like that?
          There’s a story about a drunk husband who went up the stairs quietly so he wouldn’t wake his sleeping wife.

He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he'd received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he'd pulled one over on his wife. 
When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. "You were drunk last night weren't you!" 
"No, honey."
"Well, if you weren't, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?" [viii]

          The truth is that the truth is always the best way—because your lies will find you out.  Once you start a lie, it takes more and more lies to cover up the earlier ones.  Telling the truth is much easier, and it’s much more pleasing to God.  Yet, we don’t lie simply to get ourselves out of trouble, or to keep from losing.  Another reason why we lie is to gain something—whether that’s money, prestige, position, or whatever.
          The Bible story continues with the wild growth of the church.  After such demonstrations of divine power, powerful preaching, and the stalwart examples of disciples who would not back down when the truth was on trial, church growth was explosive—so much so that the disciples wondered how they could financially afford to keep the new believers (who were Pentecost pilgrims) in Jerusalem for some training in the faith before sending them back home.  So they shared whatever they had.  People like Barnabas were selling property and other goods to raise the money to sustain such a large crowd.[ix] 
Following Barnabas’ example, Ananias and Sapphira did the same thing, presenting the proceeds to the disciples.  Yet, they had something to gain by their gift.  They wanted notoriety for giving the full price of the land to the church, yet they wanted to keep some of it for themselves.  Now, don’t get the wrong idea—the money was theirs to do with whatever they chose.  God never demanded that they give any of it—yet, if they were going to give it, the Lord would rather they were honest about it.  Pridefully and publicly they declared that they were giving the full amount of the sale to the church.  With two separate lies they stuck to their story, and with two separate strikes of divine retribution they died for their crime.[x]  It’s not every day that God strikes someone dead for lying, but it does give you pause, doesn’t it?  Why did God do it?  To set an example—one that I hope we’ll learn from.  It’s not okay to lie, either to get out of trouble or to gain something.  A story is told that:
At the county fair a distinctively dressed Quaker offered a horse for sale. A non-Quaker farmer asked its price, and since Quakers had a reputation for fair dealing, he bought the horse without hesitation. The farmer got the horse home, only to discover it was lazy and ill-tempered, so he took it back to the fair the next day. There he confronted the Quaker.
"Thou hast no complaint against me," said the Quaker. "Had thou asked me about the horse, I would have told thee truthfully the problems, but thou didst not ask." 
"That's okay," replied the farmer. "I don't want you to take the horse back. I want to try to sell him to someone else. Can I borrow your coat and hat awhile?"[xi]

            Sometimes people use deception to try to make themselves look better than they are, so that they can gain something—or, in this case, to regain something.  Religious people are the worst at that.  I remember buying a vehicle from a used car dealer who was also an ordained minister (now, there’s a combination for you!).  He had a big Christian fish displayed on his sign as if to say, “Trust me!”  But beware of snakes that smile too wide.  Watch out for people who say, “Trust me,” because if they were really trustworthy they wouldn’t have to say it.  We’ll just say that the car situation ended badly for all involved—mainly because of the dishonesty of a man who dressed like a Quaker so he could sell a bad horse.
            Despite our efforts to be good, it’s easy for us to be tempted to do the same thing, isn’t it?  What do you do when you want to sell a used car?  Do you lie about its flaws so you can make the sale?  What do you do when there’s a twelve-and-under discount for your child who just turned thirteen?  What example do you set for them, when you take that discount?  What do you do when truth is on trial?  I pray you’ll be more like Peter and John than Ananias and Sapphira.  I pray you’ll pass the test.  The human temptation is to lie, either to get ourselves out of trouble, or to gain something for ourselves.  It’s the way of the world—the bedrock upon which our society is built—remember, only a third Americans believe in absolute truth.  Like Peter and John, let’s say, “We must obey God rather than men.”  Let’s tell the truth at all times.  Let’s remain faithful to the truth rather than giving in to the lie. 

[i]Meredith, Michael.  NW Sidebar: The Voice of Washington’s Lawyers and Legal Community .  “Why Do We Raise Our Right Hands When Testifying Before the Court?”  October 21, 2013.  April 25, 2015.
[ii] Barna Group: Knowledge to Navigate a Changing World.  “Barna Studies the Research, Offers a Year-in-Review Perspective.”  December 18, 2009.
[iii] Acts 3:1-8
[iv] Acts 3:11-26
[v] Acts 4:11-12
[vi] Matthew 26:74
[vii] Acts 4:19b-20
[ix] Acts 4:32-37
[x] Acts 5:1-11

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Power and Witness"

I love watching magic shows­­.  Sleight of hand and illusion fascinate me.  But the one kind of act I hate to see is an escape attempt.  That’s probably because when we were kids, my brother and I used to tie each other up and time each other, to see how long it would take us to get out of the knots.  I remember the frantic feeling of being stuck and helpless and unable to get out.  When you’re with your brother, though, you know you’re safe.  But what if you’re alone?
This is how the disciples must have felt after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Afraid for their own lives, we find them hiding behind locked doors.  Surrounded by both Jewish and Roman threats, they are immobilized by fear and a feeling of abandonment.  But then Jesus appears in their midst, giving them His peace and resurrecting their hope.  For forty days He continues to appear among them, restoring their faith and promising them power.  The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus’ promise, “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high (24:49[i]).”  Then as He is speaking, He ascends into Heaven.
In the book of Acts, Luke picks up where his Gospel leaves off.  But the main character of Luke’s second book isn’t Jesus.  Most people call this book “The Acts of the Apostles,” but perhaps a better title would be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  While the human characters change throughout the narrative, the Holy Spirit remains the central character as He does His work in the church.
Just as Jesus promises power in Luke 24, He does so again in Acts 1:4-5.  “Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”  The disciples think He is going to inaugurate His millennial reign at that time, but He tells them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (vv. 7-8).”
In place of the panic that the disciples felt in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus gives them His peace and promises them His power.  And then He leaves them.  Again, Luke tells the story of the ascension (Acts 1:9-11).  Jesus is taken up into the clouds, never to be seen again.  But this time, instead of feeling alone and vulnerable, the disciples are filled with hope because of Jesus’ promise.  You see, Jesus always keeps His promises.
We are not so good at keeping our promises.  We offer something and then make good on it when or if it’s convenient.  Throughout the Bible, we are told to keep our oaths, yet we find this easier said than done.  This is why Jesus and His brother James both said it’s better not to promise anything, but to simply let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ be ‘no.’[ii]  But God, on the other hand, cannot lie.[iii]  He is not slow in keeping His promises.[iv]  What He says He will do, you can trust.  From that day of the ascension to this, Jesus has not physically walked on earth among His people.  Yet we do not feel alone, because we know that we can trust His promises.  Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”  In Matthew 28:20, just before the ascension, Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  We are not alone.  He continues to be with us in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Trusting in Jesus’ promise, the disciples do not disperse, but gather together in the upper room.  They are “all with one mind…continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (Acts 1:14).”  “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting (Acts 2:1-2).”  Tongues of fire appear on the heads of the believers, and God grants them the gift of miraculous speech.  God grants the disciples the gift of tongues so that an international crowd is able to hear and understand the preachers who swarm out of the upper room.  Languages that the men never studied stream from their lips.  In one wondrous speaking engagement, the disciples cover the continents as thousands of visitors from Africa, Europe, and Asia all put their trust in Jesus.  On Pentecost, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the remotest part of the earth are reached in an instant, and the church is born with this arrival of the Holy Spirit.
After His resurrection, Jesus knew that His disciples were fired up—but passion alone could not fuel the fledgling church.  They needed His presence in the person of the Holy Spirit.  They needed God’s holy fire to ignite their zeal and empower them to witness to the world.  God who never leaves nor forsakes His people[v] wouldn’t simply give them a mission and then leave the earth never to be heard from again.  In John 14:16-18, Jesus had said, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”  Pentecost is the fulfillment of that promise.
Today in the Word has something to say about this infilling of the Holy Spirit:

Speaking to a large audience, D.L. Moody held up a glass and asked, "How can I get the air out of this glass?" One man shouted, "Suck it out with a pump!" Moody replied, "That would create a vacuum and shatter the glass." After numerous other suggestions Moody smiled, picked up a pitcher of water, and filled the glass. "There," he said, "all the air is now removed." He then went on to explain that victory in the Christian life is not accomplished by "sucking out a sin here and there," but by being filled with the Holy Spirit.[vi] 

This is what happened on that first Pentecost—the Holy Spirit filled the disciples and emptied them of themselves.  That same Holy Spirit is available to all believers to trust Jesus as their Savior.  Jesus may have physically left the earth, but His Spirit remains with us, filling each believer’s heart and guiding our steps.  The book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit is the story of the first generation of believers—their struggles, their faith, and their adventures.  But the story doesn’t end in chapter twenty-eight.  The Holy Spirit continues to fill every believer, to set us on fire for Christ, and to energize our mission.  I hope you’ll trust the Holy Spirit to empower your witness, and that you’ll be bold and declare God’s truth, and that you’ll know that through His Spirit, Jesus is with you always.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NASB.
[ii] Matthew 5:37; James 5:12
[iii][iii] Titus 1:2; Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18
[iv] 2 Peter 3:9
[v] Deuteronomy 31:6
[vi] Today in the Word, September, 1991, p. 30.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"All Things New"

 “All Things New”
Easter Sunday – Bethel Baptist Church, Scottsburg VA
Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23

Recently, I read a couple of articles in Baptist press about the American fascination with vampires and zombies (and I’ll add ghosts to the list).  All you have to do is turn on the TV or show up at any random movie theater and you’ll find these stories in abundance.  The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta last year offered a breakout session, led by professor Curtis Freeman, on the church’s relationship with this genre of entertainment.[i]  The popularity of zombies and vampires in our culture is an indication that despite our abandonment of traditional religion, we’re still interested in issues like the afterlife and the decline of civilization.
Everybody loves a good horror story.  There’s something about them that makes our lives—no matter how dismal— seem not so bad.  Every year, Jesus and His followers would celebrate a horror story called Passover.  Yes, it was about the glorious rescue of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  But it was also about plagues and pestilence and a destroying angel brining death to the firstborn.  They had to remember the dark things in order to celebrate God bringing them through it. 
On one particular Passover, the disciples not only remembered a horror story—they lived one.  Jesus had predicted it, but nobody had believed it.  But the impossible had happened.  The religious leaders that the disciples had trusted up to a few years ago had arrested the Master, charged Him with blasphemy, and turned Him over to the Romans for a further charge of treason.  Jesus had been brutally tortured and crucified.  The sky had turned black, and there had been an earthquake at His passing “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many (Mt 27:52-53[ii]).”  Jesus was buried, leaving the disciples with nothing but fear and regret.  Fear that the Romans would come after them next.  Regret because though they had sworn to stick by Jesus, nearly all of them had failed Him.
Even though it was Judas who had betrayed the Lord, the disciples had to be asking themselves, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”  Judas, of course, had added to the horror story by his own suicide, so great was his remorse for the terrible thing that he had done.  Both Jesus and Judas had been their friends.  So, as often follows suicides, the disciples had to be asking themselves that classic question, “How could we have prevented this?  Is Judas’ death on our heads, just as Jesus’ death is?”
Regret gnawed at them with sharp teeth.  They had told Jesus that they would go to their deaths for Him, yet when things began to fall apart, they had failed.  Peter, James, and John had fallen asleep during Jesus’ most desperate hour in Gethsemane.  Judas concealed enmity with a kiss.  Three times Peter denied even knowing Jesus.  Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea failed at defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin.   The disciples all scattered—only John followed Jesus to Golgotha to stand at the foot of the cross.  In a day, all the horror stories they had ever heard became real.  Guilt and shame ate at them—then something worse happened.  Jesus rose from the grave.
Yes, I said that this was even worse.  From our perspective, we think of the empty tomb as a magnificent thing—but the disciples didn’t share our perspective.  Peter and John had found the grave opened and Jesus’ body gone.  Had somebody stolen the body?  Their women had told them that they’d seen the risen Lord—but that was impossible, wasn’t it?  Of course, Jesus was Master of the impossible.  But if He had come back, what would He do to those who had betrayed Him, abandoned Him, denied Him, failed Him?
So, Luke 24:36-37  says, “While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be to you.’  But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.”  You have to remember—Christians have been taught about the resurrection for two thousand years.  But they didn’t know what this thing was that stood before them.  The dead don’t just come up out of their graves and walk around.  But they’d heard horror stories before—tales of ghosts coming back to haunt people who had hurt them in life.  This is why they were frightened when they thought they were seeing a spirit.  Jesus was back—and what would He do to them now? 
This is why the Lord’s first words to them were so important: “Peace be to you.”  He saw them shaking in their shoes.  He knew they were wondering what kind of retribution a spectre might bring against those who had failed Him.  So He said, “Peace.”  “And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts (Luke 24:38)?”  Jesus reassured them that He had not returned like some undead creature from the crypt.  Neither was a ghostly apparition or figment of their imaginations, the product of indigestion, “more gravy than grave,” as Scrooge once said.  No—Jesus was alive.  Fully alive.  So alive that He could show them His scars, invite them to touch Him, and sit down to eat with them.  Jesus was alive, and He was real.  Everything was okay.
Perhaps like the disciples, you feel like you have betrayed, abandoned, or failed the Lord.  You too have lived out a real-life horror story that is more scary than you’d like to tell.  To you, God has become more a phantom to be feared than a Lord to be loved or a Brother to embrace.  Today, God speaks the same words to you that He did to His disciples after the resurrection.  “Peace be to you.”  He knows that you’re troubled, and that doubts arise in your heart—but He loves you anyway, and wants to give you His peace.
John chapter 20 records the very same appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, but He adds some more detail.  Still, in the midst of their fear, Jesus shows up and gives them His peace.  But He then sends them on a mission of peace.  “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you (verse 21).”  Peace is to become their new lifestyle, their new purpose, their new profession.  He gives you the same commission.  Jesus doesn’t want you to be at peace.  He wants you to bring peace to others.
But you can’t do this on your own.  God isn’t fooled.  He knows that you are troubled, and that doubts arise within your heart.  So He gives you the same gift He gave the disciples.  His Holy Spirit gives you access to God’s supernatural peace, then equips and enables you to share it.  But it doesn’t stop there.
In John 20:23, Jesus tells the disciples that if they’re going to receive His peace, and go on a mission of peace that’s empowered by the Holy Spirit, they must start by first extending His peace within their own body.  After all that had happened, they had a lot of forgiving to do.  They had to extend God’s forgiveness to one another, and receive it for themselves.  Only by moving past the past could they move forward.  Jesus tells you the same thing—you’ve got to start within, forgiving others and receiving God’s forgiveness yourself.  Otherwise, you’ll just keep reliving the same old horror story over and over again.  Only when you do this can the resurrection make any sense in your life.  Steven Cole tells the following story:

A little boy visiting his grandparents and given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma's back yard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead. The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the wood pile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.

After lunch that day, Grandma said, "Sally, let's wash the dishes." But Sally said, "Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn't you, Johnny?" And she whispered to him, "Remember the duck!" So Johnny did the dishes.

Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing., Grandma said, "I'm sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper." Sally smiled and said, "That's all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it." Again she whispered, "Remember the duck." Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally's, finally he couldn't stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he'd killed the duck. "I know, Johnny," she said, giving him a hug. "I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you."[iii]

Jesus died a horrible death, proving that humanity is capable of the worst of sins and atrocities.  But then His resurrection proves that God’s glory eclipses even the worst sin.  He speaks peace and mission and blessing and forgiveness, because He wants to end our horror story and give it a good ending.  The problem is that every time we relive our sins, we let Sally make a slave of us again.  Each time we choose to live in the past, holding onto fear and unforgiveness, we let the devil win. 
Jesus rose so that we could rise above these things.  He defeated death so we could live in victory.  For this reason, our horror story becomes the Good News: Christ is risen (Christ is risen, indeed)!

[i] “Session explores churches and zombies in post-Christian age.” Jeff Brumley.  June 30, 2014.  April 4, 2015.  See also: “Many Americans find meaning in vampire, zombie tales, Baylor prof says.”  Jeff Brumley.  March 16, 2015.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NASB.

[iii] March 30, 2015.