The Iconic Venue

“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”  (John 14:2-3)

     

I’ve long been a baseball fan.  With zero athletic ability, I never played much, but as a boy I followed the game.  At night, I sometimes picked up games on AM radio stations in major league cities, and often listened to the games of our local Denver Bears triple-A minor league team.  I looked at box scores each day in the newspaper.  My brother and I collected baseball cards, and we selected teams and played a game with those cards and a deck of playing cards.  On Saturday afternoons as a boy, I often watched “NBC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week,” with announcers Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek.  This was before cable television, and since my city did not have a major league team then,  this was usually the only televised baseball I saw.  Those games were televised from different stadiums in different cities each week.

The major league stadiums that were in use during the era of my childhood are mostly all gone.  Places like Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium, and Comiskey Park have been torn down.  Even most of the multi-purpose stadiums built in the 1970’s and 1980’s have met the wrecking ball.   Three iconic baseball venues, however, remain in use – Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, built in the early 1960’s, and Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston, both built early in the twentieth century.

My wife and my son both enjoy baseball; our son played the game in high school, and baseball remains a connecting point between us.  He and I drove to Omaha for a couple of college world series games the year of his high school graduation, and the next year we flew to Arizona for a few days at Colorado Rockies spring training.  Last year, after some thought and discussion, my wife, my son, and I went to Wrigley Field in Chicago.  I still remember in my youth watching games that were televised from that stadium; I remember the names of many of the Cubs players from those days.  I carefully planned out the trip, shelled out the cash to buy airfare and tickets to the games, and we attended two games along with a stadium tour where we were able to go onto the field and stand in front of the unique ivy-covered outfield walls, and had most of a day to go into downtown Chicago as well.  Wrigley Field lived up to our hopes.  A modern scoreboard has been added along with a few renovations, but the stadium retains its charm.  It sits partially surrounded by an older residential area, and the footprint of the stadium is small; we walked all the way around it several times, along Waveland Avenue, along Sheffield Avenue, along Addison Street, and Clark Street, the main street in front of the stadium.  The Cubs won; the fans sang “Go Cubs Go.”  For a baseball fan, Wrigley Field is an iconic venue.  We’d like to go again.

Wrigley Sign

This year, we are going to Fenway Park in Boston.  After thought and research, a pile of cash even bigger than last year has been invested.  Tickets to two games have been purchased from the ball club and are in a drawer (yes, old fashioned paper tickets), along with documentation showing the  purchase of a stadium tour.  I’m not going that far without the proper admission documents in hand, and airline tickets were purchased only after baseball tickets were purchased, at a stadium where sell-outs are common.  A hotel a couple of blocks from the stadium has been reserved.  A day will be available for a visit to a couple of historic Boston sites.  We’ve  planned a great trip and visit to historic, iconic Fenway Park and hope it lives up to our visit last year to Wrigley.  We await the trip with much anticipation.

     

As a boy, I also learned of an Iconic Venue that far exceeds the grandeur of any baseball park.  The cost of entering this Place is incalculable.  But I learned that the Designer and Builder of this Great Place wants me to come, wants all to come, and so paid the vast cost of admission Himself.  While the requirement to enter was not something I could pay and it was paid on my behalf, nevertheless something was required from me.  I had to humble myself and ask; I had to acknowledge that I was unable to gain admission on my own merit but needed to request admission based on the immense price that had been paid for me.  That wasn’t too difficult for me as a boy, but that process of humbling oneself, admitting one’s inability to meet the entrance requirements, admitting that one has in fact no right to enter, proves a great obstacle to many.

And so, in my childhood – I don’t know the date – I came to believe the promise of the Great Designer and Builder of this venue, humbly asked Him, and received my entrance credentials.  I did not receive a paper ticket, but rather gained every confidence in my innermost being that my future entrance into the iconic venue is assured.  I believed the gospel, and the witness of the Spirit speaking through the Word.  I don’t know the future date or the circumstances of my eventual entering this place, but I know that the One Who has paid the price for me does.  By faith in Christ and what He paid on my behalf, I have lived in anticipation of one day entering this Place; in a way, in that innermost part of my being, in my mind and in my heart, I am already there.

Biblical Christianity has a profoundly future focus.  For many who will one day enter this Place, those living under persecution or those living in difficult circumstances, going there is their daily hope and expectation.  Entrance into this great Place has a downside, however, at least to me as a prosperous, healthy, and happy American.  Unlike going to a ballpark or going on a vacation, one never returns from this place, and I am not anxious to leave my life in this world.  I have a great life, with many places to go, many experiences to experience.  My beloved wife and I have plans for a great future.  I enjoy my new grandchild; maybe there will one day be another.  As life here continues, perhaps the Designer and Builder of the Great Place will enable me to help someone in their life as they look forward to that Place, and certainly He wants me to encourage others to humble themselves and seek their own admission.  The Apostle Paul wrote (Philippians 1:21-24),

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell.  For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.  Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”

     

The great old sports stadiums are mostly gone, and those that remain will eventually be gone too.  The Great Place where I will one day go will last forever.  Many people expressing the ideas of folk religion might speak of “going to that great ballpark (or, great “fill-in-the-blank”) in the sky.”  Heaven is far more than that; it is the eternal home of believers who know Christ as their Lord and Savior.  I do not know exactly what one does, what one sees, or what one experiences, after entering this place.  I do know that it exists for the honor and glory of its Creator and He has designed it exclusively for those who have humbled themselves and asked for admission on His terms, and so we will worship and praise Him.  I know that, because He Himself has paid the inestimable price of admission for those who enter, He loves us greatly and will delight in our enjoyment of our life in this Great Place.  We will be free from the presence of sin and the results of sin; we will have fellowship with God.

God’s redeemed people should live in the perpetual anticipation of the eternal home He has prepared for us.  The American evangelical church seems to have forgotten this.  Pastors speaking to self-absorbed audiences talk much of topics like prosperity and success and happiness and better relationships and social justice, and imply that following Jesus is merely a way to have a better life in this world.  The church seems to try to reflect and conform to society as much as possible, incorporating current entertainment trends and current social topics in place of speaking clearly and often of the the gospel and eternity.  It has decided to meet human desires and perceived needs rather than calling men to faith and repentance, the necessary entrance requirement to enter eternal life.  Many churches avoid speaking of or singing of topics like salvation from sin, death, and the second coming of Christ.  This is a grievous error.  As in the past, sermons in sound churches today often concern heaven and how to get there, although unfortunately sometimes to excess and failing to remember to also speak of the important implications of the gospel in daily life now.  Hymns and gospel songs often remind us of sin and salvation, heaven, and the return of Christ.  The motivational talks of today’s seeker-sensitive church no longer feature such themes, and the contemporary entertainment that has replaced singing of hymns and gospel songs in many churches does not do so.  The gospel must affect every part of our life in this world, but we must never forget that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through,” and our real task is to offer the gospel so that others might believe it and come to live their lives in anticipation of their eternal home.  Christians live with the perpetual consciousness that this life can meet with disaster or even end at any time, but we have an eternal home awaiting us.  Further, Christ may come at any moment and bring the present evil age to an end.  This is our hope.

In Revelation 21 John wrote,

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.  Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

A Desire For The Pure Milk of the Word

Baby

Since my daughter’s maternity leave ended, I’ve had several occasions to watch my infant granddaughter for a few hours in the morning before my wife gets home from work to assume babysitting duties.  It has been a delightful experience.  This beautiful baby is as well-behaved as a four-month-old can be.  She has even been considerate enough to only soil her diaper twice when I’ve been on duty!  She sleeps, we play, we “talk.”  But almost on schedule, she gets hungry, and when she gets hungry, there is no other solution.  She wants her bottle of formula!  I give her the amount that I am supposed to per my daughter’s instructions, with the powdered formula mixed with the proper amount of pure bottled water, not watered down further, not adulterated in any way.  The baby is given just what she is supposed to have per her mother’s instruction in conjunction with her conversations with the pediatrician.  At this point, I don’t sneak in anything else – not a different brand of formula, no dairy milk or other snacks.  (There will be time later when Grandpa can sneak in a few unapproved treats!)

In 1 Peter 2:1-3, we read, “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby,  if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”  Just like a baby that has a single-minded focus on receiving milk, Peter reminds believers that we need to have a powerful focus on being nourished by the scriptures.   

     

Recently I traveled with my brother to the northern panhandle area of Nebraska to attend a memorial service for our cousin after her passing.  As we traveled, we listened to three recorded sermons by a noted Bible teacher and pastor, part of a series delivered some two decades ago entitled “Lessons From The Dungeon” concerning the Old Testament account of Joseph.  The story of Joseph gives us profound lessons about life, how we should live, how we should react to circumstances and to adversity, which was the emphasis of these messages.  This Bible teacher is a faithful expositor of Scripture; his thoughts are not only profound, but completely in accord with the passage from which he is preaching.  These messages are timeless and could be applied in any culture in any period of history; with little modification, they could have been delivered to an English-speaking audience a century or more ago, or a century in the future, or translated and delivered to Asians or Africans.  He compared scripture with scripture, teaching the principle that Joseph came to understand when he declared that “God meant it for good,” the principle of Romans 8:28, that God works all things for His glory and our ultimate good according to His wisdom and purposes.  This pastor has a sizeable church, and a following via radio and other media of people who are “hungry” for true and meaningful teaching from scripture.

Several days before our trip, I had heard a very different teaching based loosely on the account of Joseph.  Via a YouTube video, I listened to a “sermon” from one of the more prominent megachurch pastor/entertainers in the broad evangelical sphere.  He speaks to a few thousand people each weekend at his main megachurch campus plus many more watching at satellite campuses.  In a talk entitled “The Danger of a Dream,” there was a reading of Genesis 37:5, “Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more,” relating Joseph’s divinely-given dream that he told to his brothers causing them to reject him.  This speaker used this as a pretext for an upbeat and energetic talk about developing a “dream” from God, about having a good idea and a  “dream” that will make one’s life different.  I noted that he spoke much about himself, but nothing of Christ or the gospel.   Minus the verse, this would have been a great talk for a Silicon Valley company’s corporate event.  The development of a personal vision or dream is popular in such megachurch circles, and there is of course nothing wrong with and everything right about developing purpose and direction.  But there is everything wrong with a supposed evangelical church substituting such themes for those found in scripture.  His talk would have been preceded by a generationally-focused contemporary christian pop concert; any mention or hint of Christian themes in the performance would have exceeded the biblical content of the speaker’s presentation.  He is a deception.  He is giving his audience of mostly younger people who are hungry for something not “the pure milk of the word” but grossly watered down, aberrant teaching.

Joseph is not memorialized in Scripture because he did amazing things when he dreamed big.  For most of his life, he lived a nightmare, not a dream.  Nor is he remembered because he added the wisdom of the Hebrews to the wisdom of Egypt.  A type and foreshadow of Christ, Joseph is memorialized in scripture because he was a man of great faith and belief, because he obeyed God, manifested the highest of character, and did what he knew to be right, because he remembered and lived out the principle of “God meant it for good.”  The faithful Bible teacher got it right; the other guy got applause almost on cue from his audience, but in truth he gave them nothing.

     

Christians need to exercise good judgement in selecting a church and in selecting teachers who they read or to whom they listen.  More importantly, we must have a disciplined, healthy feeding on the Word of God.  We must regularly read and study the Bible; we must have a strong desire for it.  There is no other way to progress in the Christian life.

My healthy granddaughter takes in her formula and grows.  She makes no effort; she simply follows her natural desire and is nourished and continues to grow.  Here, the analogy begins to break down.  We must make an effort to make the time for fellowship with God, to exercise discernment, to take in the Word and to grow as a result.  Mere knowledge of the Bible isn’t the end.  In the 1 Peter 2:1-3 passage, Peter wrote, “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby,  if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”  The context of maintaining this desire for the Word is behavioral and attitudinal change.  We take in the truth of the Word, we pray, we put the Word into practice, we lay aside sin, we experience the grace of the Lord, and we grow to maturity.  Then, whether we live a dream, or sometimes live a nightmare, we can bring honor and glory to God and declare His grace to those around us.     

 

Observing Communion

The church in which we hold membership observed communion on a recent Sunday night.  We’ve been present as the ordinance has been observed a few times since we began attending the church, and these services are substantive and meaningful.  For whatever reason, I was reminded of the contrast between this Lord’s Supper service and a time a couple of years ago that we attended a local megachurch on a Saturday night to observe, and they had communion.

          

Entering the megachurch’s expansive venue, I noted on the hand-out that they were going to have communion at the end of the event.  They were having a global outreach month, as I recall.  The speaker that weekend was a thirty-something who was involved with a project in Mexico, and must have had an ongoing relationship with this megachurch.  The topic for his talk centered on the value of remembering Jesus as our friend.  He was an able and articulate speaker, but I began to wonder if there might be any use of the Bible before he referenced a few verses well into his talk.  In the end, I wasn’t sure what his purpose might be for his mission or ministry.  He did not really mention anything of the Gospel; I wondered if perhaps his concern was primarily social or benevolent.

At the end of the sermon, the lead pastor returned to the stage, and he and the speaker sat for a few minutes and chatted; I don’t recall much of the topic of the conversation, likely related to the value of the concept of Jesus as my friend.  At the end of their chat, the pastor indicated that the communion elements should be distributed, and he reminded the crowd to remember the similarity between “communion” and “community.”  I assumed that when the distribution of the elements was completed, the pastor would return, and there would be an explanation or discussion of the meaning and purpose of the ceremony.  The band began to play a bluesy version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” as volunteers circulated buckets of pretzel chips and individually-packaged communion juice.  A few people soon got up to leave, perhaps in a hurry, I thought.  Then, as more people began to leave, I had an almost visceral reaction, as it occurred to me, this is over!  These people in a supposedly evangelical church, designed to attract people who might not like “church,” have participated in a communion ritual without hearing anything of the Gospel, nothing about what the elements might mean.  Volunteers at the doors collected the empty juice containers.  I remarked to my wife that it would have been better to skip the communion elements and just distribute granola bars at the door at the conclusion of the chat.

           

The recent service at our home church was decidedly different.  It was neither somber nor cheery.  The congregation sang joyful and reverent songs appropriate to the occasion, songs about salvation from sin, songs about the body and blood of Christ that the elements depict, songs about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as payment for our sin.  The pastor didn’t preach, but worked through the Gospel of Matthew, following Jesus’ movements that ended with his death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  The elements were distributed by the deacons after the pastor spoke, and prayer was offered.  Congregants were invited to stand and offer public prayers as we held the bread and juice and reflected on the symbolic meaning of those items before taking them together.  The Gospel was declared, and God was worshiped as we participated together in this remembrance, as we considered the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the atonement for our sin, just as believers have for two thousand years.  My thoughts went to I John 1:9, the joyful promise that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

 

 

The Importance of History To A Nation And To The Christian

I recently read “The Pioneers,” a new book by noted American writer and historian David McCullough.  Subtitled “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” the book recounts the story of early settlers in Ohio following Britain’s ceding of the Northwest Territory lands and the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance by the American congress in 1787.  At the end of the book is a short section called “Why History,” an excerpt from the acceptance speech McCullough gave for an award in 1995.  He remarked,

“We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.

The situation is serious and sad.  And it is quite real, let there be no mistake.  It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at our national memory.  While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of sight and out of mind.  We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.” . . .

“Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education.  Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.” . . .

“History shows us how to behave.  History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for.  History is–or should be–the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.”

To the extent that education occurs in the government school systems today, there is a critical failure to emphasize important academic subjects such as literature and language, civics, and history.  Professional and technical subjects are often the focus; we hear much of STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math.  Other liberal arts subjects are often thought of as not interesting to today’s students, not relevant, not practical to their daily life.  The study of history has increasingly been replaced by all sorts of studies thought to appeal to aggrieved groups and that in reality are nothing more than the advancement of progressive agendas.

The loss of an understanding of and an appreciation for American history has brought us to a dangerous point.  American exceptionalism is denied and even ridiculed by many, if not most, in academia, the media, and in the political sphere.  The brilliance and heroism of the Founders is ignored and denied.  The founding documents of the nation are not appreciated for their unique value and the wisdom they contain.  Our national heroes are dismissed for their perceived imperfections.  Recent immigrants often seem to expect immediate equality of outcome, attributing failure to achieve overnight success as racism, rather than understanding that America has never guaranteed and cannot guarantee equal outcomes, only a degree of equivalence of opportunity.  My own ancestors, descended from legal immigrants from Europe in the early nineteenth century, benefited from the Homestead Act as they moved West, but otherwise knew nothing of guaranteed outcomes or public welfare.  They and their descendants endured failure and backbreaking labor for decades before achieving any degree of success.  But they enjoyed the benefits of freedom and opportunity.  The United States has many blots on its history, not to be ignored or minimized, but that does not change its exceptional role in the world.  One notes that immigrants continue to seek entry into the country, but few choose to leave.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Recently he wrote,

“In their radical progressive view—shared by billionaires from Silicon Valley, recent immigrants, and the new Democratic Party—America was flawed, perhaps fatally, at its origins.

Things have not gotten much better in the country’s subsequent 243 years, nor will they get any better—at least not until America as we know it is dismantled and replaced by a new nation predicated on race, class, and gender identity politics agendas.

In this view, an “OK” America is no better than other countries. As Barack Obama once bluntly put it, America is only exceptional in relative terms, given that citizens of Greece and the United Kingdom believe their own countries are just as exceptional. In other words, there is no absolute standard to judge a nation’s excellence.

About half the country disagrees. It insists that America’s sins, past and present, are those of mankind. But only in America were human failings constantly critiqued and addressed.

America does not have to be perfect to be good. As the world’s wealthiest democracy, it certainly has given people from all over the world greater security and affluence than any other nation in history—with the largest economy, largest military, greatest energy production, and most top-ranked universities in the world.

America alone kept the postwar peace and still preserves free and safe global communications, travel, and commerce.

The traditionalists see American history as a unique effort to overcome human weakness, bias, and sin. That effort is unmatched by other cultures and nations, and explains why millions of foreign nationals swarm into the United States, both legally and illegally.

These arguments over our past are really over the present—and especially the future.

If progressives and socialists can at last convince the American public that their country was always hopelessly flawed, they can gain power to remake it based on their own interests.”

Partly as a result of a lack of appreciation of our past, American society is in decline, dangerously so, and is deeply divided.  Professor and author Walter Williams noted in a recent article in “The Daily Signal” that

“A society’s first line of defense is not the law or the criminal justice system, but customs, traditions, and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly imparted by example, word-of-mouth, and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error.  Police and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct.  At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society.  Today’s true tragedy is that most people think what we see today has always been so.  As such, today’s Americans accept behavior that our parents and grandparents never would have accepted.”

                                                                                  

Remembering American history is critical to our nation.  Perhaps more importantly, we as Christians need to remember our history.

It has been suggested that the evangelical church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament.  We need more of the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, nothing of the Ten Commandments, it is argued.  Increasingly, evangelical churches feature TED talks and motivational speeches referencing a Bible story or verse in place of preaching and teaching from Scripture.  Many churches no longer talk of doctrine and eternal truth, emphasizing topics like relationship advice, achieving prosperity, success, love, acceptance, and affirmation.  Church services feature contemporary entertainment in place of distinctively Christian congregational singing of music that centers on doctrine, sin and salvation, Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ.  Children are entertained and taught benevolence and environmentalism, not the Bible.  After all, the church needs to be “relevant.”  We must give people what they want and think they need if we are to attract them and help them to have a better life.

But for the church to truly be the church, to do what we have been commissioned to do, to present the gospel and disciple people, to teach them how they should live in light of the gospel, we must systematically preach, teach, and adhere to the Bible.  All of it.  And that of necessity is a study of history.

The Bible, though recorded over several centuries by a number of human authors, is a unified story of the Divine plan for humankind from creation to the end of time.  The Bible tells us where we came from; it teaches us about creation and our origin; it answers the questions as to the meaning and purpose of life.  It teaches why God created us and it shows us Who He is to the extent that we can understand Him.  The Scriptures tell us of the origin of sin, God’s offense and righteous anger at our sin and rebellion, and help us to understand why things are the way they are in a world after the Fall.  The Scriptures explain the necessity of salvation and tell us the story of our redemption, the unfolding of the divine plan for human salvation from the Fall through the centuries culminating in the Cross.  And it tells us how we can each individually enter into eternal life through the atonement Christ has made for our sins.  He did not live merely give us a lot of really good philosophy and advice.  In space and time, in history, God in Christ entered into the world and endured torture and death on a real Roman cross and bodily rose from a real grave as the One perfect and acceptable sacrifice for human sin.

The events recorded in both Old and New Testaments are real, historic events.  They happened in space and time, and it is important to remember this and consider the context that this gives to all that Scripture teaches.  The Bible is not merely a book of musings, a collection of inspirational writings.  We are not asked to empty our minds in esoteric contemplation or meditation; we are asked to fill our minds with Scripture, thoughts and words rooted in history.  The Old Testament gives us an important context for understanding the life of Jesus and his teachings.  When we understand the Judaism of Jesus’ time and the history of the Jewish people, we can better understand the New Testament.  When we remember these things and understand something of the Roman empire and the world in which Jesus and the disciples lived, we can better understand the books of the New Testament.  The New Testament and the Old Testament are writings inspired by God, and they are also rooted in history and record events that really occurred.

The pastor of the church I attend preaches Scripture, systematically, in context.  He does not deliver motivational speeches propped up with out-of-context passages from the Bible, designed to appeal to a particular demographic, designed to attract people looking for something inspirational and relevant to their perceived needs.  Currently, he is preaching an extended series on Sunday mornings, preaching the book of Isaiah.  But while he is preaching the book, he is not merely teaching a course in history.  He is teaching vital truth, relevant to the timeless needs we all have.

The ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote some eight centuries before Christ.  During Isaiah’s lifetime, the apostate northern Jewish kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria was conquered and destroyed.  Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, was repeatedly threatened, and knew periods of decline as well as periods of revival and faithfulness to God.  In the background was the ancient superpower of Assyria, who conquered Israel as well as other kingdoms in the region and repeatedly threatened Judah.  If one is a typical prosperous American looking perhaps for a little religious inspiration, entertainment, or life coaching, the response might be, “So What?  Who Cares?”

But the book of Isaiah contains much that is completely relevant to the real, timeless needs that we all have.  The divinely inspired prophet Isaiah spoke many prophecies that were fulfilled in his lifetime, prophecies that were fulfilled in the following decades, and prophecies of the Messiah that were fulfilled centuries later in Christ.  We learn that we can trust Scripture when we observe these fulfilled prophecies, and we understand that just as these events happened exactly as Isaiah predicted, so will events still future be fulfilled just as Isaiah foretold.  We learn that God is sovereign, ultimately in control in the affairs of man, and we thus learn that we can trust Him in our life.  Isaiah warned the kings and people of his day against sin, exhorted faithfulness to God, and reminded them of the results that would follow; and just as he foretold, repentance brought deliverance, sin brought judgement.  We would be wise to learn and heed this principle.  Isaiah warned Judah against alliance with surrounding kingdoms in a bid to stand against Assyria, and records both the pronouncement of doom and the fall of those kingdoms.  Even powerful Egypt suffered defeat at the hands of Assyria, confirming the words delivered by the inspired prophet.  We would do well to remember that our hope is not with the petty solutions and worldly wisdom that might appeal to us, but when an overwhelming circumstance threatens us, our help comes from the Lord.  Old Testament history records an amazing deliverance by God when an Assyrian army threatened Jerusalem.  Tens of thousands of the invaders died in their sleep; the surviving army was forced to return to their homeland.  The Assyrian empire ultimately fell just as Isaiah prophesied, replaced by Babylon just as Isaiah prophesied.  Judah ultimately was unfaithful to God and fell to Babylon, just as Isaiah prophesied, Babylon rose and fell just as Isaiah prophesied, and the Jewish remnant returned to Jerusalem, just as Isaiah prophesied.  God preserved the Jewish nation through whom Messiah would come; God was faithful to His ancient promises.  Secular history confirms and aligns with these events recorded in Scripture.  The accounts and sermons of the Old Testament prophets are powerful, timeless, and supremely relevant.  Keep the motivational speeches and inspirational talks and entertainment; I prefer to listen to the timeless lessons of Scripture that are firmly rooted in verifiable history.

When Jesus bodily rose from the grave, he taught his followers for some forty days before ascending into heaven and declaring that one day he would return.  His disciples began to declare the gospel to their world; the story of Christ and the gospel began to spread and was widely believed.  Luke, Paul, John, and others under inspiration penned the New Testament books, which record verifiable history that helps give context to the theology, doctrine, and teachings conveyed in those writings.  For some two thousand years, the gospel has been declared, shared, believed, studied, and loved by millions.  The world has been completely affected by Christianity and by Christians who have been transformed by the gospel.  History confirms this.  The sacrifice of martyrs–from the Twelve and other early disciples to those in our day who still give their lives–to those who have lived under persecution or who still live under persecution, are the historic heritage of the faith.  Some heroic, most anonymous and ordinary, history tells us of countless individual Christians who have lived their faith and left us stories of great inspiration and example.  We do well when we study the history of the church.  It is our heritage, and we profit from knowing it as surely as Americans profit from knowing, appreciating, studying, and learning from our national history.

Development of a Christian worldview is supremely important, and we do that through knowing and understanding the Scriptures.  They are our foundational documents.  The Scriptures record for us the truths, doctrines, philosophy, and the timeless information God has given us for life.  In churches and individually, we must be committed to the Bible.  It is “malpractice” and worse when a church does not teach Scripture.  It is sin when believers do not read, study, believe, and practice the teachings of the Bible.  Through the Bible, we are inspired, comforted, challenged, instructed.  The Scriptures are “the words of life,” giving us the gospel and giving us the plan and purpose of God for our lives.  We cannot fully understand the Scriptures until we understand that they are true in total, recording real events, and we are prepared to learn from that history.  We must constantly remember them as our founding documents, and remember above all our allegiance to Christ the Founder of the historic orthodox Christian faith.

 

 

Crossing An International Border

My wife and I recently visited Niagara Falls for a quick vacation.  We flew to and from our destination, and both times we presented documentation and were screened before we were able to board the plane.  It was inconvenient, but in the age of terrorism not unreasonable.  From the New York side where we stayed, we crossed into Canada twice, once with our rental car, and once on foot.  We paid a small toll at the bridge, and both times we presented our passports and were briefly questioned by border patrol agents on both sides of the border.  This is exactly what should happen when one crosses an international boundary; crossing without proper documentation should be allowed only rarely for limited reasons and with intense scrutiny.

The Canadians were happy to have us as American tourists.  I am confident we could have stayed in that country for an extended period of time if we wished to do so and followed Canadian law.  Every time we might make a financial transaction, we would pay taxes and support an employed Canadian selling us a product or service.  Should we have required emergency medical care, I am confident we could have secured it.  Beyond that, I have doubts as to our eligibility to receive Canadian welfare-state benefits or “entitlements” at the expense of the Canadian taxpayers.  I have not investigated it, but I am confident that I could not secure employment there without some sort of additional documentation or work permit.  I doubt that I would have been recruited to vote in the next election.  Canada is a sovereign nation of which I am not a citizen.

Meanwhile, hundreds of undocumented aliens pour into the United States each day, from who-knows-where, for who-knows-what reasons, carrying who-knows-what contraband.  Most are simply poor and uneducated and seek to come to a place of affluence.  They are not scrutinized, almost welcomed into the country, and recruited to claim their “entitlements” from the American taxpayers, settling into sub-cultures that continue to divide society.  Most remain in the country permanently to bear or father children who will be financial wards of the American taxpayer.  The social and economic costs are enormous.  Progressive politicians seem to favor open borders, almost as if they wish to profoundly change the country according to their vision, through a flood of illegal immigrants.  Progressive religious leaders seem to be in favor of this as well.

Something is not right here.

                                                                          

There is no illegal immigration into the Eternal Kingdom of God.  All who enter God’s kingdom are immigrants.  No one is born a citizen, and entrance into eternal life is not universal.  All who enter into God’s kingdom must submit to the One who is Sovereign over that Kingdom and enter in by the manner He has proscribed.  Jesus said, recorded in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  The body of Scripture affirms this.  Peter spoke, as recorded in Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Romans 3 spells out the necessity of faith and repentance, predicated by God’s grace, made possible by the atonement that Christ has made for us.  The gospel – the good news of eternal life – is that Jesus has atoned for the sins of all who acknowledge their sin and inability, repent of their sin and call out to God for salvation.  And the Scriptures tell us that He wants us to come.  He seeks us; He has commissioned the church to actively proclaim the gospel and take it to all the world, near and far.  But without the proper “documentation,” if you will, we are not citizens of God’s kingdom and cannot enter into eternal life.  We must enter on His terms.   

The American church is forgetting this message.  There is much talk of God’s love, much about health and happiness and about what He wants to give us in this life.  We hear from liberal churchmen of the universal fatherhood of God but not much of the unique fatherhood of God toward those who believe.  This is a deficient message, leaving out a biblical view of the saving gospel.  The same liberal post-christian religion that seeks to facilitate illegal immigration into the country deceives people into believing that they can enter into an eternal kingdom of God that is without borders, with no entrance requirements.  Increasingly, this message is permeating evangelicalism.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 11,

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

Abortion, Conscience, and the Church

I recently read an editorial page piece in my local newspaper, reprinted from The Washington Post.  Titled “When I Needed It, Abortions Weren’t Illegal,” the author shares, “I had an abortion in Alabama when I was 14.  If the state’s laws had been the same then as they are now, my whole life would be different.”  The article was written in response to recent pro-life legislation in that state and at least two others.  The author relates her story of that abortion experience, aided by her mother and an aunt who “wanted to inform and empower me,” although it was opposed by her father.  Of the abortion experience, she notes, “The doctor was kind. While taking the ultrasound, he said that I could look at the screen if I wanted to – that, in fact, it might make me feel better. I’d had little in the way of sex education and could barely conceptualize what was happening in my own body. Was there really a baby inside me?  What I saw was gray and cloudy, a barely perceptible swirl of cells. That simple encouragement has stayed with me to this day. The doctor knew that an abortion was a routine medical procedure — he wanted to reassure me, to give me a sense of normalcy, to inform me about what was happening in my own body.”

What really caught my attention were two statements later in the article.  She goes on to note, “Today, I live in Texas with my three children, where in my spare time, I volunteer to drive people seeking an abortion to and from their appointments,” and later, “From my own experience, having two more abortions after I became a mother, and from my volunteering, I know the reality of the procedure.”  Although I know that this attitude is commonplace, I was stunned at the almost celebratory and militant attitude toward the subject.  The article, obviously, remained in my mind, enough so that I was moved to pray for this woman, and her living children, when I prayed the next few mornings, rather than being merely angered.

Later, I happened across a piece entitled “The Epidemic of a Seared Conscience” on the internet site News With Views, authored by Dr. Mark Spaulding, a Calvary Chapel pastor, a portion of which reads,

“What has happened to a great number of men and women in America is that their conscience has become seared. Their mind is in a state of depreciating ability to grasp morality personally and interpersonally. They have become incapable of moral reasoning and logical analysis that lead to guilt or shame related to their thinking and behavior. They are being turned over to the darkness they crave and prostitute themselves to and on behalf of.

Depending on the severity of the behavior, psychologists call this psychopathic or sociopathic behavior. The difference between the two is that a psychopath has no conscience remaining. The psychopath’s conscience is completely seared and devoid of any emotion of shame or guilt associated with their behavior. Ironically, Hollywood glamorizes this behavior, giving tacit approval to the violent and murderous results of psychopathic people.

The sociopath has a small amount of conscience remaining. This person might still feel a twinge of guilt but not enough to stop their evil behavior. Both the psychopath and sociopath are dangerous to others with which they interact and especially those with whom they disagree.  Courtrooms across this nation are filled with cases involving the egregious behavior of people with little to no functioning conscience.

All of the examples above demonstrate varying states of the inability to reason morally. America is well down the path of being wrested from its moral foundations by psychopaths and sociopaths whose faculties have been impaired by evil. What can be done to correct this development? We must first understand what we are dealing with.

The late J.I. Packer said concerning conscience that:

“An educated, sensitive conscience is God’s monitor.  It alerts us to the moral quality of what we do or plan to do, forbids lawlessness and irresponsibility, and makes us feel guilt, shame, and fear of the future retribution that it tells us we deserve, when we have allowed ourselves to deny its restraints…Satan’s strategy is to corrupt, desensitize, and if possible kill our consciences.  The relativism, materialism, narcissism, secularism, and hedonism of today’s Western world help him mightily toward his goal.  His task is made yet simpler by the way in which the world’s moral weaknesses have been taken into the contemporary church.”  (J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness)

Packer identified the real crux of the issue. Conscience is a God-given warning system that has been deliberately turned off today in a large number of Americans. An alarm cannot warn of danger if it is not connected to a power source.

Slowly and over time the innate ability of Americans to determine right from wrong has been strategically and with malice corrupted. The constant drive to remove and even erase Christianity from the public mind and memory has borne the rottenest of fruit culturally speaking.

How can a culture sustain moral uprightness from generation to generation when even the Church, that instrument of God meant to inform and when necessary, correct culture, begins to emulate the culture? When a society becomes seared in conscience, when a critical mass of people begin to think and advocate for evil under the guise of good, and exchange light for darkness, their minds become seared as with a branding iron and the resultant scar tissue renders them incapable of returning to correct thinking and behavior absent a radical surgery.

The Church is meant to be God’s scalpel, guided by His hand to make perfect incisions to remove the cancer of evil, the scar tissue of a seared conscience, and in so doing, restore right thinking and behavior to all individuals. When the Church refuses to do that mass deception is allowed to congeal and that environment creates hostility toward the truth of man’s precarious condition and toward the only solution to his dilemma.”

The woman in the editorial is a demonstration of the observation that “When a society becomes seared in conscience, when a critical mass of people begin to think and advocate for evil under the guise of good, and exchange light for darkness, their minds become seared as with a branding iron and the resultant scar tissue renders them incapable of returning to correct thinking and behavior absent a radical surgery.”  Again, I was moved to pray for her after reading her story.  She needs to believe the Gospel and come to Christ by faith and repentance, just as all humans do.  She needs to realize her true guilt, as we all do as part of the human race in rebellion against God, and find freedom from that guilt and sin at the Cross where Jesus died as the One Perfect Sacrifice in atonement for the sin of all who would believe.

There is no moral social consensus currently concerning abortion.  Some states have recently passed legislation to make abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy, even suggesting that if a late-term abortion results in a live birth, it is permissible to let the child die without medical attempt to save the child.  The Empire State Building was lit up in celebration of the passage of New York’s extreme abortion bill.  Statistics tell us that repeat abortions, abortions after a mother has already had an abortion, are common.  It is regarded merely as a form of birth control, a minor medical procedure, almost akin to having a tooth pulled.  The New York legislature is, meanwhile, considering legislation to stop the declawing of cats.  The ancient prophet Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness: Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

I am ardently pro-life, and perhaps only somewhat comprehend the complexity of the issue.  We have two adopted children whose birth mothers could have, I suppose, chosen to abort them.  We were recently blessed by the birth of a granddaughter, who we saw for the first time via ultrasound before her birth.  I understand that situations are different, and many women with unplanned pregnancies agonize over their situation.  An unplanned and unwanted pregnancy can be devastating.  Recent legislation in at least three states is solidly pro-life; I have no doubt that the progressive left judiciary will not allow these laws to stand.  Without a societal consensus, legal restrictions on abortion will have only minimal effect.

The American religious community in many ways fails to effectively address this issue.  Some pro-lifers do not realize that threats of violence and hateful rhetoric do not aid their cause.   Liberal progressive denominations not only do not oppose abortion but in many cases support it.  The Evangelical community broadly is ineffective in addressing moral issues as well, sometimes through silence, but perhaps more importantly by diverting away from emphasizing the need for believers to grow in their faith and develop a truly Christian perspective so they can effectively live out the Gospel.

Evangelical churches in twenty-first century America often seem to be caught up in post-modernism and focus on attracting adherents through motivational speeches and pop psychology and prosperity theology and trendy contemporary entertainment and love and acceptance without mentioning sin and forgiveness.  But when the Church fails to rigidly adhere to Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Gospel and its ramifications for all of life, it will not have an impact.  Churches must be committed to the job of “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12)” so those mature believers can effectively minister to people and have an impact on their communities.  Again quoting Dr. Spaulding, “The Church is meant to be God’s scalpel, guided by His hand to make perfect incisions to remove the cancer of evil, the scar tissue of a seared conscience, and in so doing, restore right thinking and behavior to all individuals. When the Church refuses to do that mass deception is allowed to congeal and that environment creates hostility toward the truth of man’s precarious condition and toward the only solution to his dilemma.”