What is a “Transforming Relationship”?

Here at First Baptist Conroe, we have a vision I am so excited about.  Over the next ten years, we will engage in 10,000 transforming relationships, working alongside the Spirit of God to bring peace to the chaos in our community, one heart, one family at a time.  It’s going to take all of us to accomplish this.  So we’re spending this entire year talking about it, showing from the Scriptures how God is constantly at work doing exactly this, telling stories of ways it’s already happening in and around us, and preparing all of our hearts to engage in these transforming relationships with our neighbors, friends and co-workers.  But some of you are asking, what is a transforming relationship?

First of all, here’s what it’s not: It’s not being part of a lifegroup, a Bible study, a choir or worship band, or even leading a ministry like that.  It’s not doing a random act of kindness for someone.  It’s not donating school supplies or raising funds or doing charity work.  It’s not even simply praying for someone.  All of those are good things, things that we as Christians should be doing.  But when we say engage in transforming relationships, we mean something different, something more personal.  We created the term transforming relationship to describe a relationship that is intentional and focused on a need.

When I say intentional, here’s what I mean:  When you choose to spend time investing in someone who no one expects you to invest in, that’s intentional.  I’m not talking about your relationships with family or people you are already friends with, as important as that is.  I’m talking about you choosing to invest in someone new, someone you wouldn’t choose to spend time with except for your desire to help them experience the love of Jesus.  So we’re talking about people you work with, your neighbors, the families of your kids’ friends, the lady who cuts your hair, the guy who works on your car.

When I say focused on a need, I mean more than just finding someone with some common interests and hanging out with them.  I mean seeing a need in someone’s life, and choosing to invest in them to see if we can help.  Here are some examples:

–Mentoring a child at a local school

–Visiting an elderly neighbor once a week, because you notice that their family doesn’t seem to pay attention to them.

–You and your spouse meeting regularly with a couple who are newly married or having a hard time staying together, just to pray for them and encourage them.

–Helping guide a co-worker to make a budget and get out of debt.

–A Christian kid choosing to be a friend to the kid everyone else makes fun of.

Here’s another way to look at it.  Most of us can think of someone outside our family who made a difference in our lives, who invested in us when we needed them, who taught us something that made us better or was there for us at a key moment.  That was a relationship that changed your life.  We’re challenging our members to be that person to someone else.  Someday, someone will say, “Because this person chose to invest in me, I am a better person.  I am happier.  I am on the right track.”

Some of these relationships will lead to opportunities for our members to tell people about what Jesus has done for us.  Some of them will be with people who are already Christians.  But all of them will be opportunities to bring peace to the chaos in the lives of people we know.

Over the next ten years, we as a church staff will do what we can to find pathways for these kinds of relationships.  For example, if you want to mentor a child in CISD, you can contact Project Mentor.  That pathway already exists (although right now, volunteers aren’t allowed on local campuses…we know that’s only temporary).  We will find others, and create some of our own.  In the meantime, we’re asking you to pray that God would prepare your heart, and would show you someone He wants you to invest in.  And pray that God would use us to bring peace to the chaos right here in Montgomery County.

Good things are happening

A little over a year ago, we took a vacation to Colorado.  My kids had never been to the mountains, so I carefully planned this thing out.  I found a nice little rent house at a good rate.  I scheduled our departure for the day after my son’s school year ended.  Hiking is virtually the only recreational thing that every member of our family enjoys, so I identified tons of trails in the area for us to hike.  Then I sat back and waited for the weeks to pass, and our trip to begin.

As it turns out, my well-laid plans were for naught.  Weird weather (including a freak snowstorm) and an illness kept us inside for most of the week.  But we learned a new card game, and spent hours around the table together instead of huddled over our separate screens.  We had some great food.  And we had an unexpectedly adventurous fifteen-hour drive home.  We have so many great stories from that week, stories that make us laugh today even harder than we did when they happened.

I am not saying my failed vacation plans are equivalent to the heartbreaking year we’re all struggling through.   By this time, many of us have had COVID 19, and its effects are no joke.  All of us know someone who has had it, and some of us have friends or loved ones who have died from it.  Add in the emotional trauma and economic devastation of a long-term shutdown, and the increased racial and political division in our country, and 2020 seems like the nightmare that won’t end.

Here’s where I’m going with my analogy: That failed vacation was this year in microcosm.  We’re smack in the middle of a reality we did not anticipate and cannot change.  But there are still good things going on all around us.  There are reasons to rejoice.  Here are a few I can see:

–In many families, parents have spent way more time with their kids over the past five months than they intended to.  Yes, I know it’s been difficult.  If you have small kids in your home, you’ve probably been at the end of your emotional rope for months.  But believe it or not, this extra time with them is something they will cherish.  It will benefit them for years to come.

–Some of the most underappreciated people in our society, such as nurses and teachers, now are viewed as heroes.  Who needs celebrities, anyway?

–Churches are starting to remember why they exist. For too long, we’ve seen the Sunday morning worship service as our primary purpose.  But it’s not, and never was meant to be.  Sunday morning worship was designed to equip us for the mission of God in the world.  I had a good friend and faithful church member say to me recently, “Now that we can’t expect lost people to come hear the Gospel in church, we realize we need to take the Gospel to them.” He’s right.  What’s more, that has been true for years…Pastors like me have been trying to tell our church members, “Lost people aren’t going to show up here on a Sunday morning.  You have to share the Gospel with them.”  Now, perhaps, we’ll realize it’s true.

–Speaking of churches, think of the number of congregations who now have video ministries, who never would have tried it in the past.  I read recently that in the United Kingdom, where less than 10% of the population attends church on an average Sunday, over 25% have viewed at least one online worship service during the pandemic.  I got a funny email from a church member a few weeks back; she knew I had trained for broadcasting before I got into the ministry, and wrote: “You’re finally on TV!”  Hallelujah.  We were already streaming our services before the pandemic (and I thank God regularly that Jaymes Brown is on our staff), but we’ve vastly expanded our media presence during this time.  Only God knows how many more people around the world will be exposed to the message of saving grace because so many churches have been forced to share the Word differently.

–Major League Baseball resumed a week ago, and the NBA tips off tomorrow.  But before that, we had months with no televised sports.  If you had told me in February that would be the case, I would have said, “Shoot me now.  Please.”  But frankly, I haven’t missed it all that much.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; I still intend to enjoy watching sports in the future.  But I have had more meaningful conversations with my family, have read more good books, and have gotten more stuff done because I haven’t been compelled to watch the BIG GAME every night.  Could it be that God is using this time to put the idol of sports back in its place?  Could it be He’s using this to wean you of your idols, too?

–And then there’s the stuff only God knows about.  In Genesis, we see a gifted young man named Joseph experience a series of tragedies that derails a promising life.  He’s betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual assault, sent to prison, and forgotten there by a person who had promised to work for his release.  Yet years later, when he is reunited with his treacherous brothers, he forgives them, saying, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to bring about what is now being accomplished, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20) God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to turn on him–the Lord never motivates people to sin–but when they did, He took their evil act and turned it into something good.  Because of Joseph’s many trials, he ended up saving thousands of people from starvation, including his own family.  My point is: If 2020 seems like a terrible year, that’s because it is.  But God is using every single setback and trial to accomplish something amazing.  Like Joseph, it may be years before we see the full story, but make no mistake, God is busy bringing peace to chaos all around us.

What can you add to my list?  What are the beautiful things you can see happening in the midst of this bizarre time?

What we’re doing here is very biblical.  The most joyful book of the Bible, in my opinion, is Philippians.  Paul wrote that book from a prison cell.  A man who never sat still, whose tireless passion was planting churches and winning souls, was forced to stay locked up for months, not knowing if he would be released or beheaded.  Yet in the midst of that time, he wrote some of his most cherished letters.  If not for that time of imprisonment, he might never have slowed down long enough to write some of the most important words ever recorded.  The letter to the Philippians is one example.  In that letter, he commands us, over and over again, to rejoice.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!  

When we were stuck in that rent house in Colorado, we could have moped around, wondering when the snow would thaw, the weather would clear, and we would all get well, so things could be the way we planned.  If we’d done that, we would look back on that week as the worst vacation of our lives, a huge waste of money and time.  But instead, we found reasons to rejoice: We put bread-wrappers on our tennis shoes and trudged through ankle-deep snow, for instance.  How often do we get a chance to do that?

So here’s what I’m saying: Stop waiting for things to get “back to normal.”  I don’t know when we’ll be able to take off our masks, worship shoulder to shoulder, sit in a stadium cheering on our favorite team, or watch the news without hearing about coronavirus.  All I know is that good things are happening all around you.  Find them.  Enjoy them.  Tell others about them.  Fill your social media with stories and pictures of them.  And rejoice in the Lord for them!

Amen.

Christians and politics

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts here by my daughter Kayleigh, in which she and I argued that too much news (TV or internet) is toxic for the soul.  I stand by that.  However, I didn’t mean that we should completely disengage, go “off the grid.”  We have a responsibility to know what is going on in our world, so we can pray about it.  We should also be part of the public debate on the questions our nation is wrestling with.  We should vote in every election, and do so in a prayerfully informed way.  We are part of a distinct minority in world history: People who have the right to select our own leaders, to effectively govern ourselves.  We can’t afford to waste that opportunity!

But how does God want us to engage in public issues?  When I look at political debate in this country today, what I see is greater polarization than ever before.  There’s a win-at-all-costs mentality that says your opponents aren’t just misguided; they’re evil. I hear it when I watch political talk shows and read it when I look at social media: If you believe everything you read and hear, then everyone on one side of the political aisle is an ignorant fascist who rejects science and hates anyone who doesn’t look like them; and everyone on the other side is an amoral Marxist who hates this country and everything that made it great in the first place.  The sad thing is that I see no difference in the way Christians engage in these debates compared to non-Christians, aside from the fact that Christians might tend to use less profanity.  And when I call my Christian friends out on this, some say to me, “These are important issues, life-or-death stuff.  I don’t mind knocking a few heads in defense of what’s right.”  Are they right?  Should we be just as angry, just as manipulative as everyone else on these issues?  Or is there a distinctively Christian way to change culture?  First, let’s look at the history of how God’s people have engaged, and then we’ll extract some biblical principles.

The first Christians were citizens of a pagan empire.  They were a tiny minority, so they didn’t have much cultural influence, and they had no control over who ruled them.  The biblical writers, therefore, never address how a Christian should vote or debate public issues.  But they did give the early Christians a couple of principles that guided how they related to their political leaders.  We see one in Romans 13:1-2, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  It goes on to say that God uses secular governments to punish evil, even governments made up of godless people.  So the principle was that Christians should be known as good, law-abiding citizens who respect those in authority over them.  We see the other in Acts 5:29, during a moment when the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews who had sentenced Jesus to death, commanded Peter and the other disciples to stop preaching in the name of Christ: We must obey God rather than men!  So the second principle was that when we have to choose between obeying the law of the land or the command of God, we choose God, no matter the cost.  Over the next 300 years, Christians had lots of opportunities to put both those principles into practice. For the most part, they lived in peace.  But periodically, Roman emperors would look at this small but growing group of people who didn’t worship Caesar as a god and rejected their traditional Roman religions and wonder if it was the Christian’s fault that the army had lost a battle, or that a plague or famine had taken place.  So persecutions would break out.  Thousands of Christians were killed, but the movement continued to grow.  One early Christian leader said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Then in 313, the unimaginable happened.  Emperor Constantine for the first time made Christianity legal within the empire with the Edict of Milan.  Almost overnight, being a Christian went from being dangerous to being socially advantageous.  In the centuries to come, in most of Europe, most people were baptized into the Church at birth. So in their thinking, being a Christian and being a citizen of the nation were one and the same.  That meant that the Church gained incredible political and cultural power.  The only way to have a career in science, math, philosophy or other academic fields was through the priesthood, since the Church controlled the universities.  Kings were crowned by bishops and popes. There was no difference between the Church and the State, and that meant that ambitious people who wanted power would seek careers in the ministry.  History is full of horrifying stores of awful things done in the name of God during these years.  Starting in the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation brought people back to the idea that Scripture, not a church officer or council, has sole authority in matters of the soul, and everyone is free to study God’s Word on his or her own.  The Enlightenment followed, and people started to realize that Kings and Queens were merely human, and that there must be a better way to govern nations.

Two centuries later, our nation was born.  In the founding document, in the first amendment, our founding fathers included language intended to give true religious freedom: No one could be prevented from practicing their faith, and no church would have the power to compel people to obey.  They were determined to avoid the mistakes of the Church and State in Europe during the Middle Ages, but they didn’t want to banish the Church from the public square, either.  For most of our nation’s history, Christianity was the dominant cultural influence, and honestly, that was a mixed bag.  At times, we embarrassed ourselves by selectively reading Scripture to suit our prejudices (as some Christians supported slavery and segregation) or by overreaching (Prohibition, for example).  Still, when we think about what is best about our country, we hear echoes of Scripture.  The influence of Christianity on this nation’s culture and politics was, on balance, a blessing.

In the 1980s, a new kind of Christian activism arose.  Christians who were concerned about issues like the killing of unborn life through abortion, the removal of symbols of faith from the public square, the flouting of biblical morality in popular culture and the breakdown of the traditional family began to unify around these issues to become a voting bloc.  They talked about a war to take back our culture from the forces of godlessness.  Since that time, we have become one of the most powerful voting blocs in our nation.  But our cultural influence during that time has declined.  Although we’ve managed to sway some elections and influence some legislation, it’s hard to point to any way in which our culture is more biblical today than it was forty years ago, when this “Culture War” first began.

The public perception of Christianity has suffered, too. In 2011, a poll asked voters if they believed that a candidate who acted immorally in his personal life could still be an ethical leader.  Only 30% of evangelical Christians said yes, which was the lowest of any group.  Yet in 2016, on the same question, 72% of evangelicals said yes, which was now the highest of any group.  Many pundits said, “this proves that evangelicals will change their beliefs just to stay in political power.”  In other words, in politics, we’ve become just like everyone else.  It’s little wonder that when researchers talk to young adults who are leaving organized religion, many say it’s because “churches are too political.”  Isn’t it ironic?  Bible-believing Christians have been so focused on winning a war for the heart of American culture, we’ve driven away huge swaths of the next generation of Jesus-followers.

So how can we learn from the mistakes of our past and, more importantly, obey God’s Word in how we engage public issues?  I think we should agree on the following principles:

People who disagree with us are not our enemies.  Believe it or not, Jesus died for people who believe the exact opposite from you or me.  He loves them just as much as He loves us.  This is no abstract concept.  It should make us profoundly different in how we engage our rivals.  It means we should treat them the way we want to be treated, not the way they treat us.  It means we should be more focused on winning people than winning arguments.  After all, you can insult someone or you can persuade them, but you can’t do both.  It means we should pray for them diligently.  I know, some of you are thinking, “But if we don’t fight as dirty as they do, we’ll lose.”  I’m not so sure that’s true.  But even if it is, consider this: Do you think such behavior, if it suddenly became the common practice for all Christians, would change the nature of political discourse in this country?  I do.  More importantly, it would go a long way to restoring the reputation of Christianity here.

It’s a mistake to put too much hope in any candidate or party.  Philippians 3:20 says, But our citizenship is in Heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. I had a friend several years ago who was angry about how a presidential election turned out.  She said, “I don’t understand how God could do this to us.” I pointed out that since we are free to vote in elections, we tend to get the leaders we deserve; so I didn’t see how this was God’s fault.  She was unconvinced by my comments.  I thought about it later, and it occurred to me that she had placed her hopes on the man she wanted to win that election.  When it didn’t happen, she was crushed.  There’s a word for placing your hope in anything other than God: Idolatry.

Too often, I see Christians bend their theology to fit their politics, when it should be the other way around.  Christians should be a prophetic voice in whichever party they inhabit.  Let me be specific: If you are a Christian who tends to vote Democratic, you should be a voice in that party for the sanctity of unborn life, or religious liberty, and for compassionately upholding biblical standards of sexuality and gender.  If you’re a Christian who tends to vote Republican, you should insist that others of your party pay more attention to poverty, racial inequality, and the humanity of immigrants.  We should hold our leaders accountable, not just to their policy decisions, but also their behavior and speech…especially the leaders we voted for.  Christians should never be seen as loyal soldiers to any political movement, a faithful voting bloc their party can count on; instead, Democrats and Republicans alike should see Christians in their ranks as a constant irritant, the way the Kings of Israel often saw the prophets of old.   

We shouldn’t be motivated by fearThe most commonly repeated statement in Scripture is “Fear not.”  It doesn’t mean that it’s sinful to be afraid; it means fear should not control us, should not steal our joy or keep us from doing God’s will.  Yet when I talk to Christians about politics, what I often hear is fear: “What’s happening to our country?”  “What will happen if they take over?”  The reason God doesn’t want us to fear is because it leads to self-centered decisions, which is the opposite of the way of Jesus.   So Christians should be the first to reject any politician who campaigns by stirring up fear and anger, who brings out the worst in people.  We should insist on leaders who have real ideas, specific proposals.  And we should not let current events steal our joy.  Here’s where yesterday’s blog post and today’s come together: If you find that you are anxious about world events, focused on them instead of God’s mission in the world, turn off the news and pray.  If you find yourself sharing stories on social media that amp up the anxiety of others instead of offering answers, stop it.  Take a social media fast.  You are doing more harm than good, to yourself and the world.

We need to be missionaries, not culture warriors.   For forty years now, we’ve been fighting a war to take back our culture.  I think it’s time to admit it hasn’t worked.  Again, that’s not to say we should stop voting, stop debating important cultural issues. These issues matter to God.  But people matter more.  Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He said, Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations.  Our calling as Christians was never to make America like it was in the 1950s again; it was to make disciples.  Here’s the thing about missionaries: They change the culture they’re in.  Before Christian missionaries came to India, for example, it was still common practice to burn widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.  Christian missionaries brought literacy, modern medicine, poverty relief and a whole host of other improvements with the Gospel.  In fact, according to sociologist Robert Woodberry, “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  Keep in mind, those missionaries were there to spread the Gospel, not to address cultural wrongs.  Yet the Gospel has a way of changing the entire environment for the better, like salt and light.  Wouldn’t it be great if the American Church returned to our real calling–loving people in Jesus’ name–and it changed our culture in ways our “Culture War” never could?

Remember, when we were lost in our sin, God didn’t send an elephant or a donkey; He sent a Lamb.  The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, died in our place so that we could be His.  He didn’t seek power, political or otherwise; instead, He gave up His power–emptied Himself, according to Philippians 2:7–to become our sacrifice.  That’s the extent of His love and grace.  That’s the kind of King He is.  And thank God, long after every election is a distant memory, He will sit on the ultimate throne…forever.

Turn off the news

I haven’t blogged in quite a while, but I was inspired today by something my daughter wrote.

If you are a member of FBC, you may have heard me say in the past that I believe Christians watch too much news.  By “news,” I mean the 24 hour news cycle on television.  I also mean the opinion shows we devour: Hannity, O’Reilly and their buddies on the right, Maddow, Sharpton and their ilk on the left.  And I mean the websites that funnel us stories that we love to read and share on social media (by the way, if you want to see where your favorite news site ranks in terms of bias, here’s an interesting graphic: Media bias chart).  The problems are two-fold: First, that they amp up our anxiety.  We think the world is coming to an end.  Second, and more importantly, they poison our spiritual lives.  Look at it this way: Most Christians I know would quickly turn off a TV show that contained gratuitous nudity, sex, or profanity.  They would say, “I don’t need to put this into my brain, because it won’t produce character qualities that are pleasing to Christ.”  And rightfully so.  But these shows and websites are even more damaging, in my opinion.  They cause us to fear and hate people who are on the opposite side of issues from us.  Jesus said one of the two most important commands was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Rather than help us fulfill that command, these shows and clickbait stories make us see people as enemies to be crushed, not neighbors to be loved.

I’m not saying you’ve sinned against God if you share something from Fox News or MSNBC on Facebook. And I am not saying you should completely unplug from current events.  I’m just asking you to be prayerfully self-aware.

But back to my daughter.  She wrote something this morning about this same subject.  After she showed it to me, I urged her to post it somewhere, anywhere.  It’s just so passionate and well-written, and it says what I was trying to say so much better than I could.  But she has ditched social media (can’t argue with that decision!), so she had nowhere to post it.  She gave me permission to post it here.  So if you won’t heed a middle-aged preacher, consider the words of a young woman in her early twenties:

I have taken a break from the news the past two days, and as suspected, I am all the better for it.  It’s interesting because whenever I do this sort of thing–either voluntarily or due to my circumstances, like the Israel trip–I find myself generally apathetic about the news I’m missing out on.  I justify reading the news with teh importance of “staying in the loop,” but once I stop reading, those concerns disappear.  I think it’s important to realize that the news itself is the biggest promoter of its own importance.  They need you to think that every story is breaking, every discovery is a bombshell, every minor irritant is an outrage.  Because if you didn’t think every day was apocalyptic, you wouldn’t read it so obsessively.  And they’d lose out on your precious ad revenue. 

Far from an original thought this may be, but I’m left wondering about the morality of an industry roooted in maintaining chronic rational anxiety.  A population that loves our neighbors doesn’t make headlines.  So what does?  Fear, fury, division, hatred, and furious anticipation for justice delivered.  Our country is monetizing the exploitation of our worst emotions…and we’re just okay with that.  

Why look for solutions when throwing a tantrum over the problem feels so much more satisfying?  Why take action when a like-minded mob to commiserate with is just a tap of the finger away?  Why hope for those in the wrong to see reason if that means losing an enemy you so desperately love to hate?  We scan the headlines each morning like Jonah surveying Nineveh, hoping deep down we’ll get to watch our brother and sisters burn.  We are so unworthy of mercy.  

Okay, so I know she’s my daughter, and every parent thinks his kid is brilliant.  But I think those three little paragraphs–just hastily written in her journal this morning, in longhand–are some of the most profound, challenging thoughts I have read.  The last two sentences especially are going to stick with me.  I just had to share them.

 

Love in the Time of Corona: Doing a Wedding During the COVID 19 Quarantine

There is a long list of big events that have already been postponed or cancelled because of the social distancing required by the COVID 19 pandemic: Sporting events (including the Olympics), film festivals, concerts.  But what about weddings?  Spring and Summer is a popular time for nuptials, so couples and ministers will have some difficult choices to make.  But with some frank conversations and perhaps a little creative use of technology, we can minister well in this crazy time.

I have had to confront this issue this week.  Our church’s Media Director had asked me to do his wedding in late May.  His brother is also on our staff as Associate Worship Minister.  The Media Director was engaged to marry the sister of our Associate Worship Minister’s wife.  I’m not sure about this, but I think that would make him his own brother-in-law!  More importantly, it would be a joyous weekend for two wonderful families and our church staff.  But late Sunday night, our Media Director told me that he and his fiancé—after much debate—had decided to just get married…the next day.  It was just too stressful (and possibly expensive) to plan a wedding in late May that might not even happen.

So it was that Monday afternoon, I opened our church sanctuary at 4 in the afternoon.  Bride and Groom were there, dressed nicely if not formally.  Our Associate Worship Minister and his family were there as well, sitting a safe distance away.  A laptop was setup on the front pew, with its webcam capturing the entire brief ceremony.  Members of both families watched on Zoom from all across the country, while we recorded the entire event using the same site.   We skipped the processional and recessional.  Bride and Groom simply stood in front of the webcam, and I stood a few feet away from them.  I read Scripture, then led them through the statement of intentions, vows, and exchange of rings.  I prayed for them, then pronounced them husband and wife.  And yes, he kissed his bride.  Zoom enabled the “audience” to cheer and extend well-wishes.  Afterward, we took a few pictures.  They plan to schedule a bigger ceremony later, when the quarantine is truly over.  But regardless, I thought Monday’s wedding was special.  All things considered, it was one of the sweeter things I have ever experienced in ministry.

Ministers, take a look at your calendars. If you have weddings scheduled in the next six months, I recommend you contact the couples this week and see what they are thinking.  See if they have an accurate understanding of how long this quarantine is likely to last.  Make them aware that, even after we are allowed to go back to work, enter restaurants, etc, there may still be a limit on large gatherings.  Help them to make a wise decision.  Offer to do a small ceremony now, and the big wedding at an unspecified later date (If you do not live close by, they may want to find another minister locally to do this for them).  For goodness sakes, DON’T ASK FOR AN HONORARIUM FOR DOING THIS.  This is our opportunity to help them out in a time of uncertainty and anxiety.

Ironically, on Monday night, after the wedding, I heard from another couple in our church.  They were hoping to do a small wedding, just something in my office, with someone there to record it.  They asked for a date in late May…the same date our Media Director had chosen earlier.  Only now, I was free to say yes.

Peace in the Pandemic

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: Hollywood has ruined the idea of courage for the rest of us.  Don’t get me wrong; I love movies, especially stories of heroism.  But think about how heroes in popular movies often behave: They show no fear as they leap across gaping chasms without a rope, or walk calmly into battle zones as bullets spray and bombs burst all around them.  We watch, and think, “That’s real courage.”  We feel like cowards in comparison.  But that’s not courage; it’s foolishness.  In real life, people who behave that way die within seconds.  Courage isn’t a lack of fear; it’s feeling afraid, but doing what needs to be done anyway.

I bring this up now because we’re in a time of uncertainty, which no doubt has many of us very anxious.  If that’s how you feel right now, or if you are close to someone who does, please understand that the answer to anxiety is NOT “Hollywood courage.”  Christians especially need to hear this, because we often misinterpret the biblical command to “fear not.”  For instance, many of us love to quote Philippians 4:6-7,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s a great promise, but we misuse it when we say, “Just stop worrying.  Pray instead.”  Quite frankly, most of us can’t stop anxious feelings from tormenting us, no matter how much we pray.  That’s especially true in our current moment, when we’re all living through a crisis like nothing we’ve ever experienced or imagined.  I heard an illustration in a sermon once that I’ve never forgotten.  The preacher said, “I have a challenge for you.  For the next ten seconds, I want you to not think about red monkeys.  Alright?  No red monkeys, for the next ten seconds.  Ready…go.”  Of course, no one could do it, because the harder you try not to think of something, the more certain that one thing–red monkeys–would pop into your mind.  His point was that trying to stop worrying cold turkey doesn’t work.  But there is an answer: Instead of trying to empty your mind of anxious thoughts, focus on filling it with other, better things.

Perhaps that’s why, just after Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, he writes these words (Philippians 4:8-9):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

I think what Paul is saying is that the God of peace doesn’t work through magic; He doesn’t make our fears go away.  Instead, He works through faith.  When we choose to think on the things of God instead of the things we are afraid of, we experience peace.  For example look at the phrase, “whatever is true.”  Anxiety prods us to think of possibilities that may never happen–“What if I get this disease?  What if someone I love dies?  What if I lose my job, and we can’t pay our mortgage?”  It’s only reasonable to be afraid of these things, but obsessing about them does no good.  But there are things we KNOW are true–“God is in control.  He loves us enough to die for us.  He will do something wonderful through all of this pain and anxiety.”  When we are focused on those things, those “true” thoughts push out the “what ifs” that drive us crazy.

But it’s not just about what we think. It’s about what we do.  As Paul says, “practice these things,” referring to the Christian life.  Paul is saying, “Live the way I’ve been teaching you to live.”  So read God’s Word, and put it into practice.  Every day you read it, there is something in there for you to work on.  Checking up on your neighbors, forgiving your enemies, being generous to those who have less, praying for those who are hurting, writing encouraging letters to people who are struggling…these are all things we can do even in a time of quarantine that will align our lives with the instruction of Scripture.  When we think this way and live this way, “the God of peace will be with” us.  In other words, God’s peace comes to those who obey Him.  He works through faith.

But I must add one more thing: There are people among us (more than you may know) for whom anxiety is a daily struggle, even in good times.  If you are one of them, I hope you are getting help from a mental health professional.  There is no shame in that; anymore than a person with a stomach ulcer should be embarrassed to take an acid-blocking medication.  But for the rest of us, how do we comfort our friends and family members who struggle with anxiety?  Pray and listen.  Pray for them to experience peace. And listen to what they say.  Ask them, “What specifically are you afraid of?”  Then sit and listen, without judging or trying to “fix” their issue.  For instance, a friend may say, “I can’t stop thinking about what might happen if one of my kids gets this.  I am just terrified.”  You can certainly tell them that this disease seems to be much harder on the elderly than the young, especially kids.  But even knowing that may not “cure” their anxiety.  Just listen.  If, when they share their anxieties with you, you can show them that you care, it is a great way of bearing their burden.  Their load gets lighter, because they finally feel that someone else understands what they are going through.

At First Baptist Church, we have a vision to bring peace to chaos in our community through transforming relationships.  There is no better time to pursue that vision than now!

 

Regarding the coronavirus

Most Christians know that the most frequently-repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not.”  It doesn’t mean that it’s a sin to feel afraid.  After all, Jesus clearly expressed fear in the Garden of Gethsemane.  God knows we can’t control how we feel, but we are responsible for how we act when we are afraid.  “Fear not” means we can’t let fear control us.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot in these days when coronavirus dominates the news.  One of the main reasons the Gospel spread so fast in the ancient world is that those first Christians refused to be overcome by fear.  The sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a book called The Rise of Christianity, in which he sought to understand how the Jesus movement, lacking in resources, social standing or religious freedom, and in spite of periods of intense official persecution, became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by the Fourth Century.  One reason the Church grew was that, during the great epidemics that would sweep through ancient cities, Christians stayed, tending to the sick, while the rest of the populace fled for the hills.  Why would they do this?  Two reasons: First, they took seriously the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves.  They couldn’t consider themselves true Christ-followers if they didn’t step up when their neighbors were dying.    Another was that they did not fear death; in fact, they welcomed it as a promotion to a better world, where they would be face-to-face with their Savior.  As Paul wrote from literal death row, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  In a time when Christianity was known as a religion for slaves, the courageous faith of those ordinary believers opened a door for millions of Roman citizens to encounter the Gospel.

I am not saying the coronavirus is going to be anything like those epidemics of old; I certainly hope it won’t be.  But I am praying that, no matter what happens, we modern-day Christians would not driven by fear.  Can we be honest?  In my lifetime, we haven’t done so well at this.  In the early 1980s, for example, when most Americans first became aware of the existence and rapid spread of AIDS, when no one knew what caused the illness, and people who had contracted it were treated as lepers by most, American Christians, by and large, were just as fearful as the rest of the country.  What if we had behaved like those early Christians instead?  What if we had been the ones to minister to AIDS patients, in spite of the risk, driving them to doctors’ appointments, tending to them in their beds, weeping with them and holding their hands as they died?  Don’t you think our ability today to share the Gospel of Jesus with homosexual men and women would be different?  Don’t you think our cultural credibility in speaking truth in love would be enhanced?  We had an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and we blew it.

For another, much less serious example: When people were in a panic over the so-called Y2K crisis, when some speculated that power grids would shut down at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, leading to the collapse of world economies and rioting in the streets, were we the voice of reason?  Did we exhibit calm in the midst of anxiety?  Not exactly.  I knew some Christians who preached that everyone should buy their own cow so that they would have a source of dairy products when all the grocery stores were no more.  Once again, too many of us were driven by fear.

Let me say it once more: I don’t know what will happen with this disease.  I have great hope that bright scientific minds will find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment very soon.  I am praying toward that end, and so should all Christians.  But don’t stop there.  Pray that we would not let fear control us.  That means we will not pass along hysterical rumors.  We won’t obsessively watch the news, and we won’t believe everything we read on the internet.  Factcheck.org is among many great websites to use in checking rumors you hear, or just call your local doctor’s office.  Heed the instructions we receive from medical authorities.  Right now, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control recommend good handwashing, and seeking treatment if you feel sick.  Most of all, pray along with me that God would allow us to rise to the challenge of whatever comes, that this time we would be the people of God that our community needs.  Pray that, if our worst fears about this disease are realized, we will act like those early Christians, loving our neighbors and refusing to fear death.  Pray, and wait for an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Thoughts from the Holy Land

Image may contain: 4 people, including Kayleigh Berger, Jeff Berger and Carrie Thacker Berger, people standing, sky, grass, outdoor and nature
Atop the Mount of Olives, with Jerusalem in the background

We returned from an 11-day trip to Israel this past Saturday (February 22).  I wanted to share a few thoughts and memories, while they’re still fresh.

I first went to Israel in 2014.  It was a trip led by a teacher in my uncle’s church, an American man who has a lot of experience and expertise in the Holy Land.  I didn’t know anyone in my group before the trip started, but enjoyed getting to know them (many were from the same church, but welcomed me).  We did it as cheaply as possible, staying in a hostel and preparing some of our own meals.  We woke up every morning very early and were out the door before dawn, walking fast from site to site.  I got lots of exercise, very little sleep, and I saw tons of great things.  I never thought I’d have an opportunity to return.

This trip was quite different.  This time, I wasn’t simply a learner; I was leading a group from my own church.  Our tour company brought my entire family along with me, so my wife and kids were able to experience Israel too.  It was beyond amazing to share this with them.  We stayed in hotels, so I slept pretty well, and ate waaaaaaay more than I should have.  We didn’t cover as much ground as our group did six years ago, but we spent more time in some locations, and saw some things I didn’t see before.  Our guide, Aviv, was wonderful.  He’s a young guy, but very passionate about making sure people have a great experience in his homeland.  His knowledge of Scripture and doctrine, along with his excellent communication skills and care for our group, made the trip amazing.  George and Diane, our hosts from the tour company, went above and beyond the call of duty to take care of our group as well.  I didn’t know if it was possible before, but now I can definitively say: This time was even more special than the first.

Here’s a brief look at our itinerary:

Days one and two: We landed in Tel Aviv at night.  Aviv was there to meet us.  The next morning, Moshe our bus driver took us to Caesarea, where we explored the city Herod built to impress the Romans (He named it after Caesar, after all), with its aqueduct, bathhouses, theater, palace built on the shore of the Mediterranean, and the harbor from which Paul sailed to be tried in Rome.  This was the city where the Gospel was first preached to Gentiles, by Peter.  We ate lunch at a restaurant run by a Druze family.  We visited Mt Carmel, where Elijah took on the prophets of Baal.  We made it to Nazareth just before sundown, so we could enjoy a look over the city from a nearby hill.

Day three: We drove to the Sea of Galilee, where we visited the traditional site of Sermon on the Mount, walked through Capernaum and Magdala, and took a boat ride (more on that later).  Our lunch was fish, naturally.  We ended our day at the Jordan River.

Day four: We had a walking tour of Nazareth, including the Church of the Anunciation, the Orthodox Church, and a visit to a shop in the marketplace, where the owner shared stories with us of life as an Israeli Christian.  My family and I had some amazing kebabs for lunch, then we all went to Nazareth Village, a recreation of what the city was like in biblical times.

Day five: We left our Nazareth hotel and journeyed to Jerusalem.  Along the way, we stopped at Megiddo and Beth Shan.  In Jericho, Moshe pulled over for a bathroom break, and several people (including my wife) paid $5 each to ride a camel.  That wasn’t on my bucket list.  We got to the Old City in the evening.  My family and I decided to do some exploring.  We made it to the Western Wall, which is spectacular to see by night.

Day six: We walked through the Old City, visiting the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the pool of Bethesda, the tower of David, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Day seven was a free day in Jerusalem.  My family chose to visit the Herodian Quarter, which contains ruins of a neighborhood near the Second Temple in Jesus’ time.  We also found St Mark’s Syrian Orthodox church, one of two possible sites of the upper room, and walked atop the walls of the Old City (Will’s favorite thing of the week).

Day eight: This was our only bad weather day…it was cold and drizzly.  We drove up the Mount of Olives, two miles outside the walls, where we saw the traditional site of Christ’s ascension, and an olive grove that may have been the Garden of Gethsemane (some of the olive trees date back that far).  We drove to Bethlehem, stopping first at the Shepherd’s Field church outside the city, and then visiting the Church of the Nativity.

Day nine: We drove to the Dead Sea, where we stopped at Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, then took a cable car up to Herod’s mountain fortress, Masada.  We finished the day by soaking in the Dead Sea itself.

Day ten: Our last full day in Israel, we spent in the Old City again, visiting Mt Zion, David’s tomb, another presumed site of the Upper Room (where a group of charismatic Christians held a spontaneous worship service).  We visited the Garden Tomb, where we shared communion.  We tried to witness worship at an Armenian church, but just missed it.

I could write paragraphs about every single experience and location, but here are a few highlights and thoughts:

The Old City: Jerusalem is a modern major city with all the trappings you expect: Culture, shopping, diverse neighborhoods, traffic.  But inside that metropolis is a walled city that has existed for thousands of years.  I’ve just about decided it’s my favorite place on earth.  The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian.  Each has its own unique personality.  On Friday, we saw Muslims shut down all their shops and walk to the noon prayer service, then a few hours later, saw Jews gather at the Western Wall, singing and dancing at the beginning of their Sabbath.  We saw people from all over the world there: We met tons of Koreans, including in our hotel.  Once they left, a group of Italians took their place.  But what I love most is the history.  It’s a small enough area that you can walk across it in twenty minutes, but I feel like I could spend months there and never see it all.

Nazareth: Six years ago, I spent a few hours in the city where Jesus grew up.  This time, we spent three days there.  Most Nazareth residents today are Arab, not Jewish, including a significant Christian minority.  Like everywhere else we visited, most speak English, and they are extremely hospitable. The Nazareth Village that we visited is run by a Christian ministry.  Our guide was a young British man who is married to a Palestinian Christian.  The presentation was so well done, we took up a collection and purchased a brick in the church’s name to help with their future plans for expansion.

The Sea of Galilee: We had a memorable time on our boat tour.  It was already a windy day, but when we got out on the water, it started to gust.  At times, the water would sweep over the side and spray us.  Our captain was a Jewish Christian who was sharing his story with us through music, but he had to cut it short.  He handed me the microphone at one point. I hadn’t expected that, so I asked everyone to imagine Jesus stilling the storm.  I said, “Peace!  Be still!”  It didn’t work.  No one was surprised.  Nor did anyone attempt to walk on the water.

Beit Sahour: That’s the name of the village where the Shepherd’s Field church is located; it means “House of Shepherds” in Arabic.  Because Bethlehem and Beit Sahour are in territories governed by the Palestinian Authority, Aviv wasn’t allowed to serve as our guide.  Instead, he turned the mic over to Rafa, a resident of Beit Sahour and a Christian.  From Rafa, we learned not only about what life was like for the shepherds long ago, but what it’s like for Christians like him today in the West Bank.

Magdala and Masada: These were two places I didn’t see last time.  Magdala was a prosperous village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time.  We assume it’s where Mary Magdalene was from.  The ruins of the city were found ten years ago by accident, when a church tried to build a guest house on the site.  There is a synagogue there where, quite likely, Jesus spoke.  Masada was Herod’s clifftop fortress overlooking the desert.  Going up that cable car, I had to suppress my fear of heights, but it was worth it.  Standing up there, you get a sense of Herod’s insecurity and paranoia, and his tendency to show off his wealth.  In the last stages of the Jewish war with Rome, in the lifetime of most of the apostles, a gang of Hebrew rebels made their last stand here against the Romans (some of us are old enough to remember the mini-series about this, starring Peter O’ Toole).

Tourism is booming in Israel.  When I scheduled this trip, I knew it would be cold, but I thought it would also be fairly quiet, since the peak season is March-April.  But everywhere we went, we saw huge tour groups.  It was a little annoying at times.  Sites I had enjoyed six years ago as quiet, contemplative spots were now packed (The Garden Tomb was a perfect example).  Aviv confirmed that tourism has grown in Israel lately.  There has been a long stretch of peace in Israel (the last major violence, the Second Intifada, was nearly twenty years ago), and he thinks that has something to do with it.  I’m happy to see that people are visiting Israel in greater numbers today, even if it made our visit more hectic.

Politics here are complicated, but people are good.  If you watch the news, you may think you understand the political situation here, but you don’t.  Americans, both on the right and the left, have a tendency to see things here in terms of good guys and bad guys, but after hearing from both Aviv and Rafa, two men on different sides of the racial and religious divide, we know it’s more complicated than that.  Are there still tensions?  Absolutely.  Aviv let us know the places in Israel that tourists should not visit.  When we were on the Temple Mount, we had to follow strict rules to keep from offending the various groups who hold that site as holy.  There is still a wall between the West Bank and Jerusalem, and still plenty of rifle-bearing soldiers patrolling the Old City.  But we encountered nothing but kindness from Jews, Muslims and Christians.  Many in our group were unaware that most of the Christians in Israel are Arab, but thanks to our Nazareth shopkeeper and our Bethlehem guide, we now know two.  The politics here are definitely complicated, but we learned there are good people on both sides of that wall.

Israelis love fried chicken: In Nazareth, we passed a building with a long line of people waiting patiently to get in.  Was this some holy site?  Not exactly.  It was the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Israel.  I can only imagine how much they would love Chick Fil A.  By the way, if someone reading this decides to start their own Chick Fil A in Israel, I want a percentage of the profits!

Most Christians will never go to Israel…and that’s okay.  I feel extremely blessed to get to visit Israel, especially twice.  I felt a bit guilty about it, in fact.  Most Christians will never have that chance.  Few have the time, the money, AND the health for it (Much of Israel is very hilly and not wheelchair-accessible).  If you possess all three, then I recommend you go.  If, for instance, you are trying to decide whether to visit Hawaii or Israel, by all means, go to Israel.  But if not, remember this: We call Israel the Holy Land because it’s where so many biblical events took place.  But it is not “holy” in any spiritual sense.  Islam has a teaching called hajj, in which visiting Mecca is part of one’s duty to God.  There is no such doctrine in the Bible.  In other words, God is not more present in Israel than He is in Conroe.  Wherever you are, if you seek Him you will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13), and that makes wherever you are potentially The Holy Land.

And don’t forget, my Christian friend.  When Jesus returns, there will be a New Earth.  Even if you never visit Jerusalem in this life, you will have all of eternity to visit the New Jerusalem in the next.  Hallelujah!      

 

Looking for a good book?

I had big plans to write this a month and a half ago, as a “My favorite books I read in 2019” post.  Then life happened.  So here you go…the best books I’ve read in the past year.

Fearfully and Wonderfully, by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand.  Yancey is my favorite Christian writer, a former journalist who walked away from God as a young man, then came back.  Brand was an orthopedic surgeon who did pioneering work with Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy) in India, then in Carville, Louisiana.  The two men wrote two bestselling books together in the 1980s about how the intricacies of the human body tell us about our God.  This is a combining and updating of those two books for a new generation of readers.

Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brian.   Both these men served overseas on the mission field, which helped them see things in the Bible that we tend to miss or misunderstand.

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell is a terrific storyteller.  This book, abut the dangers of trying to communicate with someone we’ve never met before, uses  stories ripped from the headlines or the history books as its examples.  In many cases, I thought I knew what had happened, only to learn something new.  This book inspired me to rethink the assumptions I make when I am talking to someone I don’t know well.

Meet Generation Z, James Emery White.  His previous book, Rise of the Nones, helped me understand the growing number of Americans who choose “none” as their religious preference.  This book helped me better understand the children, teens and young adults of today, the post-millennials who are the most irreligious generation in American history.  White’s church is reaching them for Christ, and he has good insights.

Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others without Sacrificing Conviction, Caleb Kaltenbach.  The title is attention-grabbing enough.  This memoir is written more for regular Christians than for pastors and scholars.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson.  Peterson died last year, so I thought it was finally time to read his much-loved series of essays on the Psalms of Ascent.  It was well worth my time.  The man could write so lyrically, and inspired so much love for our Father.

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson.  This one is now a movie, starring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx.  I haven’t seen the movie, but the book is well worth your time.  Be warned: It will shake you up.  It’s the story of Stevenson, a Christian attorney who chose to devote his life to representing criminals on death row, focusing on one man who was unjustly convicted.

Bruchko, Bruce Olson.  People hand me books all the time.  I hate to admit, I just can’t read them all.  But two different friends loaned me this one, and months later, I finally took the time.  This is a story that seems unbelievable.  Olson, only 19 years old, decided to travel to South America without training, resources or backing, to reach people who had never heard the name of Jesus.  His story is harrowing at times, and too real to be made up (not everything that happens in this book is happy), but ultimately miraculous and inspiring.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.  Yep,  I read it.  Originally, I read this one because I knew a movie version was coming out and I thought it would be good to take my wife and daughter to see it.  We still haven’t made it to the theater, but I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would.  And I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit it!

 

Tough Questions: Why Did God Curse Children?

At another church, we tried a Wednesday night visitation program for a few years.  We never got a lot of participation, and we found that most people didn’t like being visited in their homes.  One night, there were about four of us there, and we were dividing up visiting assignments.  I read out the name and address of a man who had visited our church and filled out a visitor’s card.  Immediately, one of the guys there, named John, said, “Oh, I can’t go see him.”  The other three men in the room looked at him for a few awkward seconds, then John sheepishly said, “I beat him up once.  It was a long time ago, before I got saved, but yeah, I beat him up.”  Right then, Dale spoke up, “What was the guy’s name again?”  Dale was the human resource guy for one of the refineries in town.  When I told him the name, he smiled and shook his head.  “You fired him, didn’t you?” I asked.  “Yes,” he answered.  “Well, actually, he sorta fired himself.”  John piped in at that point, “Well, he sorta beat himself up, too.”

That story was funny precisely because it was so unexpected.  We were in church, after all, where people usually pretend to be nicer than they really are.  It’s a little bit shocking when some of the raw truth comes out.  One thing about the Bible: It’s not afraid of the raw truth.  Today, we’ll talk about a very raw story, from 2 Kings 2:23-25.  This one shows us a side of God we would rather not even acknowledge.  In fact, we rarely mention stories like this in church these days.  But hiding from this doesn’t make it true.

 

23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

So does this story mean that it’s a sin to make fun of bald-headed men?  Or that people who don’t respect preachers will meet a bad end?  (Actually, I sort of like that second one).  No, I think both of these stories say something fundamental about who our God is…and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about in our sermons or sung about in our songs.  It doesn’t fit with our common conception of God as a doting, approving Grandpa in the sky.  He is a God of holy, righteous wrath.

This event took place during a time of spiritual crisis in Israel. The King was a man named Ahab.  1 Kings 16:30 says, Ahab…did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.  What did he do that was so bad?  Well, first he married a woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel was one of the true villains of the Bible, as we shall see.  Jezebel came to Israel with the express goal of converting the Jews to the worship of false god named Baal. It makes sense:  She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Sidon in the land of Phonecia.  Ethbaal’s name meant “Baal exists.”  One of her first actions was to round up all the prophets of the Lord and have them killed.  If not for the courageous action of a man named Obadiah, who risked his life to hide 100 prophets, they all would have been massacred.  Then she persuaded her husband to build a massive temple for Baal worship in Samaria, the capitol of the Northern Kingdom, and also a statue of Asherah, mother of Baal (apparently Baal needed his mommy nearby).  So Israel, which had been for centuries a nation that was unfaithful to God, now became a people who were outright opposed to Him.  Their idolatry led them into terrible injustice.  1 Kings 21 tells the story of Ahab and Jezebel conspiring to have a man named Naboth executed under false charges just so that they could take possession of his land.

Into this terrible time, God sent Elijah, a hard-nosed prophet with the kind of power that hadn’t been seen since the days of Moses.  Elijah did things like stopping the rainfall, and calling down fire from Heaven, to show the Israelites that God’s judgment was coming on His people if they didn’t repent.  He boldly stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, even at the risk of his life.  Then one day, God took Elijah away in a whirlwind. Along with Enoch in Genesis 5, he is one of only two humans we know of who never died.  That left Elisha, a man who had left great wealth to follow Elijah.  For years, he had been doing that; now it was up to him to stand up for God in a land that had still not been spiritually revived.  This story takes place right after Elisha begins this new ministry.  As Elisha travels back to Bethel, 42 young men come out to mock him.  It’s not clear exactly how old these boys are.  The King James Version calls them “little children,” while some other versions call them “youths,” which is more indicative of teenagers.  The Hebrew term is used in both ways in other parts of the Bible.

Some scholars believe when they called him “baldhead,” it was because Elisha had shaved all or some of his hair as a sign of his new role as a prophet, like a monk’s tonsure.  Some also believe that in saying “Go on up,” they were making fun of the idea of Elijah going up to Heaven.  In essence, they were saying, “Why don’t you go on up there too?”  We don’t know for sure if either of those interpretations are true or not.  But scholars agree that the punishment from God came because they attacked Elisha’s authority as a prophet.  Elijah had been around for years, and pagans in Israel had learned to fear him.  Now he was gone, and these young men felt free to mock his assistant.  They didn’t realize the power came from God, not Elijah, and God hadn’t gone anywhere.

There are other stories in Scripture where the wrath of God comes down in sudden and shocking fashion.  In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan and Abiram tried to convince the Israelites to stop following Moses, and instead go back to Egypt with them.  The earth opened up beneath them and swallowed them whole.  In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah was one of two brothers who were transporting the Ark of the Covenant on an oxcart.  The Ark was the object that symbolized God’s presence, and it had been in the possession of the Philistines for years.  Now it was finally going home to Jerusalem.  What should have been a joyful day turned to tragedy when an ox stumbled, and Uzzah instinctively reached out his hand to steady the Ark.  He was struck dead on the spot.  And then in Acts 5, a Christian couple named Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of land, kept part of the money for themselves, but told their church they were giving all of it.  When Peter confronted them separately with their lie, they each dropped dead.  When we study these stories, we see some common threads.  What do they tell us about God?

He is a God of absolute righteousness.  God’s wrath is a function of His righteousness.  In other words, God becomes angry when His righteousness is offended.  In short, God hates sin.  God’s wrath is not like human anger.  It is not self-centered, cruel or vindictive.  It is always righteous and just.  Our anger changes us; we make stupid decisions when we are mad.  God’s wrath does not change His character in the slightest.  God can be angry with us, and still love us just as much as He always does.  My own behavior as a parent illustrates the difference between God’s righteous wrath and my petty anger.  If I get angry with my son because he wants to watch a movie and I want to watch football, and in the course of my anger I throw his movie away, that is selfish, cruel and vindictive.  That does not make me a good father, and it doesn’t help Will become a better child.  On the other hand, if I don’t allow him to watch the movie because it has content that would be harmful to him, or because that is the best discipline I can think of to teach him an important lesson, then that is wrath that is motivated by love and a concern for righteousness.  That is the wrath of God.  It is always motivated by righteousness.  It is always redemptive.

When we look at these stories through the lens of God’s righteousness, it helps us see them in a different light.  So for instance, when Korah, Dathan and Abiram went against Moses, they were trying to persuade the people to go against God.  Remember, Moses had proof that God was leading Him.  When Uzzah touched the Ark and died, he was explicitly disobeying the instructions God had given the Israelites for how the Ark should be transported.  It was supposed to be handled in a religiously appropriate way, not treated like a common load.  In the same way, these boys weren’t just mocking a baldheaded man.  They were mocking God’s authority in their lives.

You might say, “But God should have been more merciful.  These stories make Him sound like a short-tempered monster.”  I have three things to say to that.  First, we’ve mentioned four stories out of 66 bibilical books and several thousand years of history.  Examples of God’s sudden, deadly wrath are extremely rare.  Second, if God is who the Bible says He is, a God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our own, isn’t it possible He could have a morally defensible reason for doing something that we can’t possibly understand?  Third, we act as though dying is the worst possible thing that could happen to a person.  What if God’s taking of these people’s lives was an act of mercy?  What if He was stopping them from heading down an even darker path, and leading others in that direction as well?  You  may say, “Well, that’s giving God an awful big benefit of the doubt.” Yes it is, but I think that’s appropriate.  I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

His wrath comes when we don’t take His righteousness seriously.  In the stories I told earlier about the people who caught the bad end of the wrath of God, those people had one thing in common: They all claimed to be people of God.  Even though the young boys who mocked Elisha were probably idol-worshippers (like most of Israel in those days), they surely considered themselves part of the chosen people.  We should see these stories as warnings; God will bring our hidden sins into the light.  Hypocrisy never wins in the end.  The Bible scholar and preacher D A Carson once befriended a man from French West Africa.  Carson grew up in Canada speaking French fluently, so they hit it off, and would often eat together.  Eventually, Carson found out that his friend often visited prostitutes.  Carson knew the man was married, and that his wife was studying at a medical school in London.  He asked, “How would you feel if you found out your wife was doing the same thing you’re doing?”  The man said, “I’d kill her.”  Carson said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a double standard?”  The man responded, “In my country, it’s expected that a husband will have many women, but wives are expected to be faithful.”  Carson said, “You were raised in a missionary school.  You know how God feels about adultery.  How can you do this?”  The man smiled and said, “Ah, God is good.  He is bound to forgive me.  That’s His job.”

Probably no one here would be so blithe about adultery, but what about the sins we struggle with?  Don’t we rationalize them, minimize them, and take for granted the mercy of God?  Isn’t all sin reprehensible in His sight?  I am not trying to be dramatic, and I certainly hope no one here goes home today and drops dead.  I just want us to be aware that God’s wrath is real and if we call ourselves God’s people while unrepentantly sinning, we could find out personally how real it is.

We are supposed to fear Him.  Now that term has always bothered me a little.  The Bible often says we should fear the Lord.  And that term means more than just respect, no matter what people tell you.  It bothers me because I was raised with the belief that God loved me with an everlasting love, that I was the apple of His eye, and that He longed to have a personal relationship with me just like a daddy with his child.  And all of that is absolutely true.  But think about that relationship I just mentioned.  A father and his child may love each other, but that love does not make them equals.  If the father is a good one, and the son is obedient, there will always be an element of fear.  It won’t be a trembling, cringing sort of fear, because that would mean the father was an abuser.  But even with the most loving dad, the son will be afraid to cross certain boundaries.  Otherwise, the son is making himself equal to his dad, and that is not the way God created family relationships.  In the same way, we should love the Lord.  We should pray to Him personally.  We should consider Him our most intimate and warmest friend.  But we are not His equal.  We should continue to acknowledge that there is mystery and holiness about God that we cannot understand this side of heaven.  Otherwise, the relationship is not what it should be.

This is not a comfortable topic to talk about, or to hear about.  How can we possibly approach a God of such awesome righteousness, when we are all so full of sin?  Believe it or not, God faced the same dilemma with us.  He looked down on these people He had created, His children, the apples of His eye.  He saw that we were full of sin and unable to come to Him, when coming to Him was life to us.  In His righteousness, He couldn’t write off our sin…couldn’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter.”  But in His love for us, He couldn’t let us die.  And so He came.  He became a man named Jesus who lived for the express purpose of dying.  Here is how Romans 3:25-26 puts it: 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood… 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  At the cross, both aspects of God’s holy character were perfectly represented.  At the cross we see His incredible wrath against sin; so awesome and fierce, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus at that moment wasn’t just suffering the physical pain of crucifixion.  He was bearing the accumulated wrath of God against the sins of billions of people. We cannot comprehend that kind of suffering.  At the same time, we see in the cross God’s amazing love for us.  Jesus became our atoning sacrifice.  The literal Greek term means, “propitiation.”  That’s an old word that means, “that which turns away wrath.”  It’s the picture of a man who pushes us out of the way of an oncoming truck and takes the hit Himself.  That is what God did for us at the cross in the form of Jesus.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

So earlier when I acknowledged that I am giving God a huge benefit of the doubt in all these stories, that’s why.  If you were a young woman, and your new boyfriend stood you up on a date, you might assume he didn’t really care about you.  Perhaps he was even with some other woman.  But if instead of a new boyfriend, it was a husband who had spent years proving his love to you, your assumptions would be different.  You would say, “Something must have happened.  Maybe there was an emergency at work, and his phone’s battery was dead.  I know him too well to think that he’s done this on purpose.”  We can give God the benefit of the doubt because the cross proves His love is true.  We can read stories like the ones we talked about today and say, “I don’t know exactly what happened and why, but I am choosing to believe that God’s love is real, because of what He did for me at the cross.  Therefore there’s an explanation for this story that I will understand in the right time.”  The cross changes everything.