The Burned Over Place

This is an illustration I used in a recent sermon that describes a Christian’s relationship to the Law in Christ Jesus. I first read this illustration in the book One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian.

We are a little like the duck hunter who was hunting with his friend in a wide-open barren of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up and he realized the terrible truth: a brush fire was advancing his way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. Then he emptied all the contents of his knapsack. He finally found what he was looking for – a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the brush fire to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near- and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt. They weren’t even touched. Fire would not burn the place where fire had already burned.

The point here is that the Law is like a brush fire that takes no prisoners. It cannot be escaped or extinguished. But if we stand in the burned-over place, where the Law has already done its worst, we will not get hurt. The Law’s power has not been nullified. Yet because of where we are standing, not a hair on our heads will be singed. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. The Law did its worst on Jesus. And so there we huddle, at the foot of the cross, barely believing, yet relieved. Christ’s death has disarmed the Law, and where there was once guilt, now all that remains is gratitude.

Thanks be to God!

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Free to Fail

graduationOn Friday, June 6, I had the great honor and privilege to address the 2014 graduating class of my former high school, Holt Lutheran (or St. Matthew Lutheran back in my day).

This is what I had to say…

It is good to be back! Mrs. Backus, teachers of Holt Lutheran Schools, Pastor Poellet, members of the school board, members of the congregation, families and friends of the graduates, and finally, the graduation class of 2014 from Holt Lutheran Schools, thank you for the opportunity to be here and to speak to you today. It truly is an honor and a privilege.

If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, I think he would probably say, “Help! Get me out of this coffin!” Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. That was a joke that I made in my valedictorian speech 12 years ago, and I just had to bring it back. As you can see, my judgment has not improved with age.

Yes, it was 12 years ago when I graduated from this high school which may surprise those of you who know me and can remember when I was just a little guy, and may surprise the rest of you who don’t know me but assumed I was still in high school because of how young I look! And let me get this out of the way as well. It has to be said. We all know that the only reason I was invited here to speak is because my dad is the head of the school board. So graduates, I guess that’s my first piece of advice. Sometimes it just pays to know people.

But in all seriousness, graduates, congratulations! You have achieved a great milestone in your life. Graduation is an appropriate time to look back on your past accomplishments and to take pride in them. You have worked hard to get to this point. You have turned in all of your assignments, passed all of your tests, and completed all of your projects and requirements. Teachers, if this is not true for any of them, speak now or forever hold your peace. (Whew!) Looks like you’re good to go!

You have certainly not made it to this point on your own. You have had lots of help and support and guidance along the way. Graduation is also a time to thank all those who have played an instrumental role in your foundation and education. You have your parents and other family members. Your classmates and friends have been through this journey with you. Your teachers have prepared you for this next step. Let me tell you, you will never have teachers who care about you as much as these teachers do, I promise you that. Ever since this school began, it has been blessed with wonderful, dedicated teachers who were committed to providing the students here with a quality, Christ-centered education. Thank you on behalf of myself and all past graduates and on behalf of these current graduates as well.

plansGraduation is a time to look back, but it is also a time to look forward in excitement toward the future. It is a time to dream and to make plans. What is in store for you next? Some of you have already made plans for your next step. Perhaps you are headed off to college next year and you already know what degree and career you want to pursue. Some of you are going to college and are going to figure out your career path once you get there. Some of you might be postponing any further education for now. You are going to look for a job and try to get some money saved up and get some real-world experience.

What about beyond the next 5 years? Some of you plan on getting married- you don’t know to whom yet (or maybe you do), but you would like to do that someday. Maybe you also want to start a family and become a mom or dad. Some of you have aspirations for a successful career, starting from the bottom and working your way up to the top. Maybe you plan to travel the world. Perhaps you would like to volunteer much of your time to serve the poor and needy. How many are planning on retiring by age 45 and moving to the Bahamas?

Whatever your plans are at this point… go for it! Dream big! Make plans! Work hard to achieve them! You have been given the tools to succeed in life- a great education, a strong family support system, a strong foundation in Christ. You have the freedom to shoot for the stars, to plan for great things. You have the freedom to work hard, to apply yourself diligently to any goal or task. You have the freedom to make plans and go for them!

You also have the freedom to fail. What do I mean by that? Let me tell you a story about Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson was a writer who lived in the 18th century, and he kept a diary in which he recorded his valiant plans and attempts fight sloth and laziness by waking up early in the morning to pray. These are just a few examples of his entries.

1738: He wrote, “Oh Lord, enable me to redeem the time which I have spent in sloth.”

1757: (19 years later) “Oh mighty God, enable me to shake off sloth and redeem the time misspent in idleness and sin by diligent application of the days yet remaining.”

1759: (2 years later) “Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth.”

1765: “I purpose to rise at 8 because, though, I shall not rise early it will be much earlier than I now rise for I often lie until 2!” (Sounds like your summer plans, doesn’t it?)

1775: “When I look back upon resolution of improvement and amendments which have, year after year, been made and broken, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because reformation is necessary and despair is criminal.” He resolves again to rise at 8.

1781: (3 years before his death) “I will not despair, help me, help me, oh my God.” He resolves to rise at 8 or sooner to avoid idleness.

I love his never quit effort. And I know that if I kept a diary of all my plans and resolutions, it would like a lot like Samuel Johnson’s. That’s life. Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. You are going to accomplish your plans at times. You are going to miserably fail other times.

What I also love about Samuel Johnson is that despite his failure to defeat sloth, he knew that God’s approval of him and God’s love for him was not dependent on his efforts. His failures, or successes, in life had no effect on his standing with God. God’s approval of you has nothing to do with your successes or failures either, but has everything to do with Jesus’ success on your behalf. That’s why you have the freedom to fail.

jere 2911 1The class verse that you chose is Jeremiah 29:11 which reads, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is a popular verse for graduation and other milestones. You might find it on some of the cards you receive or the trinkets you receive as gifts. But this verse isn’t really talking about God’s plans for your immediate future: not your college plans, or your career, or your marriage. God certainly does know what is in store for you, although he does not promise to prosper you in this life.

This verse is really looking at the bigger picture. As with all the Old Testament, this verse is pointing us to Jesus. In Jesus, your future is secure- your eternal future. In Jesus, you do have hope. In Jesus, you will prosper, not necessarily in this life- but in the life to come. Your eternal welfare is secure.

God knows that plans He has for you, and he has already accomplished part of that plan by sending Jesus to this earth to suffer and die on the cross and to rise again from the dead. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has defeated your enemies and set you free from your own efforts to try to please God. One day, God will send Jesus back to this earth to complete his plan. Jesus will return and resurrect the dead and give eternal life to all who believe in him. That is your future, graduates and all who are gathered here today. That is why your Christian education is so important because your teachers have not only prepared you for your future in this life but also for your eternal life by teaching you about Jesus. You can have hope for the future because God does not fail when he makes plans.

Because your eternal future is secure, you have the freedom now in this life to make plans. You have the freedom to work hard and try to achieve those plans. And you have the freedom to fail and then to try again, knowing that God’s love for you has not changed and neither have his eternal plans for you.

So dream big! Make plans! Work hard! Do all things to the best of your ability, knowing that even though you will fail, God’s love never fails. His promises never fail. He knows the plans he has for you, graduates, plans to give you hope and a future- for all eternity. I pray that you would believe this good news your whole life.

Thank you again and congratulations!

Family Ties: Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

I interrupt my previous series on “Bible Verses Taken Out of Context” to bring you the sermon I preached this last Sunday, August 18, 2013. I will pick up the series at a later date, but I have been a little too busy as of late to write an original blog post. New babies will do that to you! I hope this satiates your appetite!

“Family Ties”    Based on Luke 12:49-53

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

This passage in Luke 12 can be a little jarring to our ears at first. Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? Um, yeah, Jesus. That’s exactly what we think. Aren’t you supposed to be the Prince of Peace? In fact, Luke himself seems to communicate that quite clearly in the rest of his gospel. Luke 1:76, 79 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  Luke 2:14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! Jesus himself says in Luke 7:50 and 8:48- Your faith has saved you; go in peace. To the 72 he sends out, he says in Luke 10:5-6- Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. The crowds hailed Jesus as he entered into Jerusalem as a bringer of peace in Luke 19:38- Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! And finally, after Jesus rises from the dead, the first thing he says to his disciples in Luke 24:36 is this: Peace to you!

So what is going on in chapter 12? Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! Kind of a conflicting message, isn’t it? Maybe this is one of those contradictions in the Bible that the critics are always trying to point out. Maybe they are right!

Don’t worry! They aren’t. They never are. What we have going on here in the gospel of Luke is two different kinds of peace.

peace btw god and manYou see, the peace that Jesus comes to bring is peace between God and mankind. Jesus does bring peace on earth for those who are members of God’s kingdom. This is why Jesus came- to reconcile God and man. This peace between God and man is made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross. On the cross, all of God’s wrath against mankind, against you and me, because of sin was poured out on Jesus. And this is what Jesus is talking about in verses 49-50 of Luke 12. I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! The fire that Jesus casts on the earth is God’s judgment and wrath. Jesus came to consume and destroy sin. But he doesn’t cast fire against sin by destroying sinners. Again, God’s wrath and judgment against sin, the fire that he casts, is placed solely on Jesus on the cross. When Jesus wishes that it were already kindled, he knows what his ultimate destination is: the cross. And he is expressing his desire to do what he came to do. The baptism that he is to be baptized with is a bloody baptism, again referring to the cross. Jesus knows the pain and anguish and distress that he will undergo to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. Jesus would undergo a brutal and agonizing death to satisfy God’s wrath and bring peace between God and man.

You and I have that peace. You know that peace. It is yours through Christ and through your baptism which marks your entrance into God’s kingdom of grace, mercy, and peace. The benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection are yours and so is the peace that surpasses all human understanding. All of those passages about the peace that Jesus brings are about the peace between God and mankind which is yours because of your faith in Jesus as the One who took your place on the cross.

people dividedHowever, the peace that Jesus brings between God and man actually causes division on this earth between man and man. Jesus’ death on the cross might bring peace to you from God, but it causes division in this world. You will be hated by the world because of me, Jesus tells you. Paul refers to the cross of Jesus as a stumbling block for many, foolishness to the world. You will be reviled and persecuted and killed for Jesus’ sake. The same cross which brings peace will also cause division.

coexistNo doubt, you all have seen the popular bumper sticker which reads “COEXIST” and is made up of symbols of many of the world’s major religions. The implied message behind this bumper sticker is “Can’t we all just get along? All religions are equally valid. They all lead to the same place. Just stop trying to convert me and everybody else and let me live my life in peace.”

But Jesus makes it quite clear that this kind of thinking is impossible. Not that we can’t get along with everybody in the world, but the idea that all religions are equally valid is not only false according to Jesus, but it is also illogical. They can’t all be true because they are all opposed to each other. Jesus makes it quite clear that there is one way to peace with God, and it is through him. There is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus. You either stand with him or against him. He is either your Savior, brother, and friend, or he is your enemy. It’s black and white, and so you can see why Jesus causes division in this world.

You can see the evidence of Jesus causing division in his own life. While Jesus brought peace and healing to many people, the religious leaders grew increasingly opposed to Jesus and his message. The division between Jesus and his opponents became so great that they conspired to kill him. And they succeeded. Jesus tells his followers that they can expect the same kind of opposition. And the division that the cross of Jesus causes among the people of this world can be extremely painful, especially when it occurs in your own family.

For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. This is difficult for you and me to swallow because I am willing to bet that each one of you have experienced division in your family because of your faith. This is a reality for each one of you.

Many of you parents and grandparents know the pain of a child or grandchild who has rejected Jesus and his church. You may have sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, close friends, distant relatives, who do not know the peace that Jesus brings through the forgiveness of sins. And this tears you apart. You often don’t know what to do about it. So you pray. You try to bring it up when the time seems right. At times, you get scissors_cutting_threadbare_rope-290x193angry and say things you shouldn’t. You have experienced the anger and rejection from an unbelieving family member or friend who tells you to mind your mind own business and to let them live their life in peace.

But that’s just the thing. There is no true peace without Jesus and faith in his death and resurrection. There is only one way to true peace, eternal peace, and in your deep desire for everyone you know and love to experience that eternal peace, peace with God, you have experienced division and heartache here on earth.

When Robert Short, the author of The Gospel According to Peanuts and Parables of Peanuts, spoke at Concordia Univ. in Seward, Nebraska, he disclosed that as a high school student in Texas, he became an agnostic, although he had been raised in a Methodist home. He became president of the science club, whose activity caused such a stir that the high school principal complained to his parents. He remembered sitting across the table from his mother as she spoke to him. Tears were running down her cheeks as she said, “I thought we raised you right. I never thought it would come to this: our son an agnostic.” During his college years Robert Short, through contacts with a campus pastor, repented and was renewed in his relationship to Jesus and decided to become a minister! He went home to tell his mother about his decision. They were sitting at the same table. Again tears rolled down her cheek, this time tears of joy, as she said, “I never thought it would come to this: my son a religious fanatic.”

Some of you have experienced the first half of that story with a family member or friend and are desperately hoping and praying for an outcome like the second half of the story. Your own family is broken and divided and it tears your heart apart. You may even get angry at God for allowing something like this to happen. What can you do, where can you turn, when your own family ties are severed because of Jesus?

heal brokenheartedYou turn to him. You ask for his forgiveness when you have lashed out in anger or said something you regret to someone you love who has lost their way. You receive his forgiveness over and over again, experiencing the peace that comes from his cross and empty tomb. You rest in His mercy and grace, and you listen to his promises: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3 “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.” “My peace I give to you.” You thank God for your baptism and your inclusion in His kingdom of grace, mercy and peace.

You remember the joy that is yours because of the peace you have from God. An English officer once told this story: “In Belgium I met a man who had converted to Christianity from Buddhism, and whose confession of Christ had cost him everything. No sooner had he been baptized than his possessions were taken from him, and his friends deserted him. “Are you able to bear your troubles?” the officer asked him. “Many ask me that,” he answered, “but they never ask me whether I am able to bear my joys; for I enjoy a happiness in my heart since I know that Christ has forgiven me that nobody has been able to take from me.”

What else can you do? You pray. Pray continually. You pray for your family members who are believers that they would remain in their faith. That certainly is my desperate prayer to God for my children and my whole family. You ask God for strength and wisdom when dealing with family members who do not believe. You pray that God would soften their hearts, that they would recognize their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. You pray that they would repent and believe in the Gospel. You pray that God’s will be done in all things for his desire is that all people would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. God desires not the death of a sinner, but that all would turn to him and live.

You proclaim the Gospel. Only the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, is able to change hearts and create peace with God. God promises that His Word will never return empty. Never stop talking about Jesus and what he has done and let God do the rest. It is ultimately up to him. I planted the seed, Paul says, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth. Plant the seed and let God do the rest.

Finally, when your family ties are broken and divided, you rely on your other family, the family of God, your church. We are family. Jesus illustrates this truth in Luke 8:19-21. Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus has provided you with another family, the body of Christ, united under him. The Church is a family of unconditional love and acceptance because of the love and acceptance we have received from God in Jesus. We are family, and we are called on to support each other in good times and in bad. Weeping when others weep and rejoicing when others rejoice. Praying for each other and supporting each other, especially when our earthly families let us down.

The family of God is blood related! We are joined together as brothers and sisters through the blood of Christ.

The family of God is blood related! We are joined together as brothers and sisters through the blood of Christ.

In Jesus, you and I and all people in the church are blood related. We are connected by the blood of Jesus which washes away our sins and makes us sons and daughters of God. Look around you and see your brothers and sisters in Christ, your family, and thank God for them. While our earthly families may be full of division and heartache, God has provided you with a family that will last forever. The Church may not be perfect, but it is a family brought together and united by Christ, and together we have the peace which surpasses all understanding through the forgiveness of our sins.

May God strengthen his family, the Church, that we would support and encourage each other, forgive each other, grieve with each other, rejoice with each other, and spur each other on to love and good works through faith in Jesus. In his name, Amen.

A Family Resemblance

A church in town has a marquee sign over their front entrance. This is not significant in and of itself. Many churches have marquees, and like most churches, this church (which shall remain nameless) tries to put clever and inspiring phrases on their sign.

The phrase that is up on this particular church marquee is not especially funny or clever. It might not even be that thought provoking for you. It just happened to inspire some thoughts in me, namely some thoughts about Law and Gospel. Anyway, let me just get to it.

The church marquee reads “A child of the king should bear a family resemblance.” Like I said, this is not anything that deep or clever. It is simply a statement that, I believe, is trying to urge Christians to act more like Christ. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. But something always bugs me about this sign.

This statement is law. There is no doubt about it. This statement is addressed to the Christian. There is no doubt about that either. Those who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for them and are baptized have the privilege of being called children of God. I am a child of the king. Therefore, this sign continues, as a child of the king you should act like it. You should look like it. You should not dishonor the family name. These are all true statements.

My misgivings about this church marquee phrase are not because this statement is law. The Law is good. The Law is necessary. The Law still has a place in the Christian’s life. It lets us know what sin is. It tells us what a good work is. It is a guide for the Christian life. However, the primary function of God’s Law is to point out our sin. The Law acts as a mirror. It accuses us. When we read “You should not bear false witness against your neighbor,” we should immediately be struck with the realization of all the times that we have broken that commandment. How do I measure up? Ooh! Not so well. The mirror that the Law points at us shows us our sin and our failures. The Law inevitably does this. Theologians have a Latin phrase for this function of the Law. Semper lex accusat- The Law always accuses.

So when I read the sign “A child of the king should bear a family resemblance” I am immediately accused. How do I measure up? Ooh! Not so well. Now again, this is not a bad thing. The Law is necessary. The Law is good. We need to hear the Law over and over again so that we can realize our sins and failures and repent and run to the cross.

However, while the Law has many functions, there is one thing that the Law cannot do. The Law cannot save lives. The Law cannot offer salvation. The Law cannot transform a life. The Law only condemns.

But too many Christian pastors and people misuse the Law. They tend to teach that once one becomes a Christian through the power of the Gospel, well then, the rest is up to you. It’s now up to you to train that sinful flesh through the Law and through good works. You need to grow in your faith, and you do that by becoming better and better at following the Law. Christians who are deceived by this kind of thinking will read the sign “A child of the King should bear a family resemblance” and think, “I can do that. I just have to try harder.” The Law has ceased to accuse them. Self-righteousness has sneakily taken the place of the Gospel in the life of the believer.

But even as Christians, we cannot keep the Law. Christian growth isn’t defined by a 12 step program of improvement. As Paul matured in his faith, he didn’t claim that he was getting better and better as a Christian. He called himself the worst of sinners. The Law was doing its job. It was accusing him.

Our sinful nature cannot be tamed or trained. It must be killed over and over again. It must be put to death. And the Law must be put in its place as well. [Paraphrasing James Nestingen] The law is like a wolf that we try to train as a guide dog. It appears to offer good guidance and protection but… it’s only a matter of time, it always turns on you.

The only thing that can continually transform a Christian’s life is a steady dose of the Gospel. Christian growth isn’t about getting better and better at following the Law. It’s about letting the Law do its work and condemn us. It’s about daily contrition and repentance. It’s about returning to the cross of Christ over and over again. The Gospel does not cease to be important once we come to faith. The Gospel is the sustaining food for the Christian throughout our lives. As John the Baptist said about Christ, “I must decrease. He (Jesus) must increase.” Christian growth is all about humbling ourselves that Christ would increase.

So when it comes to short, catchy phrases on church marquees, I am always going to prefer statements of Gospel over Law. Again, not that there is anything inherently wrong the statement over the particular church I mentioned, but here is how I would have put it: “A child of the King does bear a family resemblance.”

Just a one word change, but it makes all the difference of the world. Instead of accusing Law which can often be misused for self-righteousness, this is a statement of grace. As a child of the King, baptized into the faith, saved by God’s grace through the blood of Jesus, you do look like the King. You are holy, righteous, perfect. You are royal. You are an heir of God’s promises because He has called you by name. You are His. Sure, you may not act like a child of the King all of the time. You may dishonor the name of Christ. But you are still a child of God. You are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. You have the privilege of calling God, the King, your Father. You have the ear of the King at all times through prayer.

Now that’s inspiring. I could go on and on with the Gospel promises. The Gospel is what transforms lives. The Gospel is what inspires us to live godly lives and keep God’s Law. The Gospel is what makes us Christian. The Gospel is what keeps us Christian.

Hercules! Hercules!

From the website Liberate:

As Christians, we still need to hear both the law and the gospel. We need to hear the law because we are all, even after we’re saved, prone to wander in a self-righteous direction. The law, said Luther, is a divinely sent Hercules to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness–a monster that continues to harass the Redeemed. We need constant reminders that our best is never good enough and that “there is something to be pardoned even in our best works.” We need the law to freshly reveal to us that we’re a lot worse off than we think we are and that we never outgrow our need for the cleansing blood of Christ. In other words, we need the law to remind us everyday just how much we need the gospel everyday.

And then once we are re-crushed by the law, we need to be reminded that “Jesus paid it all.” Even in the life of the Christian, the law continues to drive us back to Christ–to that man’s cross, to that man’s blood, to that man’s righteousness. The gospel announces to failing, forgetful people that Jesus came to do for sinners what sinners could never do for themselves–that God’s grace is gratuitous, that his love is promiscuous, and that while our sin reaches far, his mercy reaches farther. The gospel declares that Jesus came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it–that Jesus met all of God’s perfect conditions on our behalf so that our relationship with God could be unconditional.

Cross Connections

Yesterday, at the closing of our Wednesday night school, I invited up three students who had spent part of the night playing outside and put them on the spot. I asked them what games they had been playing outside. The three answers were: Jackpot (or 500), basketball and tag. I then challenged them to make a connection from the game they were playing to their faith. In other words, what concepts from tag, or Jackpot or basketball could they transfer over to their Christian life.

With a little bit of coaching on my part (It was a difficult task since they didn’t know it was coming) this is what they came up with. The basketball player was able to draw a connection from playing as a team in basketball to the body of Christ. We are all in this together. We need to encourage each other and treat each other fairly. I asked the student who played Jackpot what our jackpot is as Christians. He replied, “Eternal life.” I then commented that we don’t have to go chasing after God’s jackpot and hope that we catch it. Rather, God places it in our outstretched arms as a gift. Then we moved on to tag. I asked the student, “In our spiritual lives, who is chasing us?” She had the right answer: “God.” “That’s right!” I replied. “God chases after us with His Word and with His love. He goes chasing after us even when we try to run away from Him.”

Let’s call all these examples “Cross Connections.” These are situations of everyday life that can be used to made a connection to God’s Word and the message of Christ crucified. I gave all the students a challenge for the week to open their eyes to other “Cross Connections.” What kind of Christian themes can they pull out of ordinary circumstances?

This is actually a great activity to try. I find myself doing it all the time throughout the day. Many times, it is because I am trying to find a great sermon illustration. I know of a Director of Christian Education who asked kids to bring in random objects for his children’s messages. He would then pick an object (without seeing it beforehand) and make a Cross Connection. It became quite a fun game for the kids as they tried to find something that he would struggle to connect. For example, a kid might bring in a small, random object that was a piece which belonged to a larger object. That one was easy, he claimed. Every Christian is also a small but important part of the Body of Christ. There’s your Cross Connection.

But you don’t have to write sermons or give children’s messages in order to look for Cross Connections. It is a good habit to pick up especially when you are reading a book or watching a TV show or movie. I am admittedly very wary of anything that is labelled as “Christian,” such as a Christian book or Christian movie or Christian music. As others have noted, “‘Christian’ is a good noun but a terrible adjective.” A Christian movie, while it is certainly clean often grossly misrepresents Christianity and portrays Christianity as a moral way of life and never mentions Jesus, the cross and resurrection, or the forgiveness of sins, which are the true marks of Christianity.

However, a good practice to get into is look for Christian themes in books, movies, TV shows, music, and everyday life. Something does not have to be labelled “Christian” for it to have Biblical themes. Look for examples of unconditional love, sacrifice, service, forgiveness, redemption, second chances, good versus evil, etc. Parents, this is a great way to engage your kids in faith conversations. After watching a movie together, discuss it. Ask them what they saw and make some Cross Connections.

I recently read the Hunger Games series. I have not seen the movie yet. But I’ll use it as an example. Obviously, you aren’t going to take little kids to see the movie or even have them read the book, but many teenagers have done both. So what kind of Cross Connections are in the Hunger Games? How can you start a faith conversation after you finish watching the movie with your friends or children? Probably the most obvious connection (Spoiler Alert!) is when Katniss (the heroine) voluntarily takes the place of her younger sister in the Hunger Games even though she knew it meant that she would probably be killed. Hmmm….sound familiar? Who else was a voluntary substitute in our place? Katniss fought the fight so her sister wouldn’t have to.

This theme of sacrifice comes up again as Peeta is ready to sacrifice his own life in order to protect Katniss in the Games. You can also talk about love, compassion, freedom from oppressors, or good versus evil (a standard theme which can be turned into a discussion of the ultimate good versus evil battle). Suddenly, you’re talking about God in a way that is easily relatable.

Making Cross Connections is a valuable skill in evangelism as well. If you can start with common ground, you can then start leading that person to the message of the cross. If you’re having an in-depth conversation on the nature of zombies, you can talk about death and resurrection. If you’re friend is obsessed with watching Teen Mom, you can talk about the gift of life, the nature of forgiveness and the love of God our heavenly Father. The Cross Connections are out there. Ask God for the wisdom and guidance to recognize the relevance of His Word to the current world and culture and for the skill to connect people to Jesus and the Gospel.

In the comments section, please share some Cross Connections that you have made recently. We all see situations differently and can hopefully contribute to expanding each other’s repertoires.

 

Don’t Look At Me!

Alright, this is my last post reflecting on Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus+Nothing=Everything. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as evidenced by the four posts dedicated to it. It was neat to read how a popular Evangelical pastor rediscovered the true Gospel message and how it has changed his life and his ministry. Many of the people who influenced him in his journey were Lutheran theologians, and as I read his book, I could see the Lutheran influence in his discoveries. (The only thing he is missing is Lutheran sacramental theology, but I can’t ask for everything.)

Tchividjian’s main purpose in this book is to recover the true message of God’s Word from a person-focused center to a Jesus-focused center. He recognized that much of popular evangelical theology focuses on what Christians must do and how they can improve instead of focusing on God and what He has already done through Jesus. Tchividjian refers to this teaching as “performancism” which is just another word for “legalism.” Legalism has been present in the church ever since Bible times. One of the temptations in legalism is to read yourself into all the Bible stories and make them about you.

For example, in the story of David and Goliath, a “me-focused” interpretation would be to place myself in David’s shoes and talk about how I can defeat my giant enemies with God’s help. To take it even further, the five stones all represent some sort of spiritual attribute that I can use to knock down giants. A proper, Jesus-focused interpretation of this story recognizes that David defeating Goliath points forward to Jesus’ battle with sin, death and Satan. Like David, Jesus stands in the place of His people and takes on the enemy that we could never defeat by ourselves. David caught off the head of Goliath. Jesus crushed the head of Satan. Just as David was chosen and anointed by God to be the leader and king of his people, Jesus was chosen and anointed by God to be our Savior and King.

A proper understanding of Scripture means that we will come to realize that the Bible is not primarily about me and what I must do, but rather it is about God and what He has done and continues to do for me. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn anything about ourselves and the Christian life through stories like David and Goliath. But these stories are first and foremost about God, specifically God the Son, Jesus Christ. Tchividjian gets at this in his book:

The gospel doesn’t take you deeper into yourself; the gospel takes you away from yourself. That’s why Paul reminds the Colossians (and us), ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The gospel frees us to realize that, while we matter, we’re not the point…The gospel causes us to look up and out, away from ourselves. It turns our gaze upward to God and outward to others, both to those inside the church and to those outside it. The gospel causes us to love God and to love others, which of course is how Jesus summed up the entirety of the law.

And some more from Tchividjian:

Reminded of the gospel, we’re reminded that sin enslaves by making us big; the gospel frees by making us small. Our self-esteem culture would have us believe that the bigger we become, the freer we’ll be. But the gospel turns that on its head- the smaller we become, the freer we will be. We begin to decrease; Christ begins to increase. The world says the more independent you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be; the gospel says the more dependent on God you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be.

This is true freedom. A proper understanding of the Gospel means that we do not have to be plagued by guilt as we look inside ourselves and see, not moral improvement, but sin. The gospel points us away from ourselves and toward Jesus. Legalism and “performancism” leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy because we point to ourselves and pat ourselves on the back at the improvement we have made. When we grasp the true Gospel message, we can take comfort in the fact that it isn’t up to my performance. We can tell Satan who wants to accuse us in our sin through other people “Don’t look at me! I am not the standard. Look at Jesus! I am perfect because of Him only.” And when God looks at you, He sees you through the lens of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t see your works or your lack thereof; He sees Christ’s works, his life, death, and resurrection, for you.

What a great promise! I encourage all of you to read Tchividjian’s book and rediscover the Gospel message for yourself. I will leave you with one last quote.

Now you can spend your life giving up your place for others instead of guarding it from others, because your identity is in Christ, not in your place. Now you can spend your energy going to the back instead of getting to the front, because your identity is in Christ, not in your position. You can also spend your life giving, not taking, because your identity is in Christ, not in your possessions. All this is our new identity- all because of Christ’s finished work to us in the gospel.