Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Friday, December 16, 2011

Annual-- "How Well do you Know the First Christmas?" Post

How Well Do You Know the First Christmas?

There is so much in these birth narratives that we miss or read over because we think we know the story already or because our mind has been so cluttered by the popular depictions that we don’t study carefully what the text actually says. 

The birth narratives of Jesus are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

1. What is the traditional story of Mary & Joseph's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem?

The traditional picture has a tired and desperate Mary & Joseph trudging/rushing into Bethlehem. They are all alone, there’s no AAA Roadside Assistance, there’s no hospital, they know no one. All the Inn’s or Motel 6’s have No Vacancy and so thanks to the backhanded generosity of a sour innkeeper, Mary & Joseph are banished to the barn where she is already in labor and almost immediately has the baby Jesus. Then the Shepherds appear following a star because not far behind them are the 3 Kings bearing gifts. They all form a nice little huddle around the Manger and the baby Jesus.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture—it’s the most popular—but is it the most accurate to the biblical texts?

2. Were they traveling alone? What biblical evidence do you have to support they were not alone?

We get a few clues to suggest they were not traveling alone.

First, in Luke 2, since everyone had to travel to their own hometown to register—it’s safe to assume that other people had to do some traveling to register as well—including their family who also would have to go to Bethlehem.

Second, Bethlehem was full of travelers—they had to get there somehow—they would have used the same roads that Mary & Joseph used.

Third has to do with the time of year the events actually occurred which we’ll get to later—let’s just say that in order for them to get to Bethlehem, Mary & Joseph had to pass through Jerusalem (Bethlehem is about 5 miles South of Jerusalem whereas Nazareth is considerably north of Jerusalem)—Jerusalem was the center of political and religious life in Israel so pilgrims of all sorts were on the roads to Jerusalem all the time.

Fourth, most people traveled in family groups or with friends whenever possible. You see evidence of Joseph & Mary doing this just a few verses later (Luke 2:41-44) when Jesus was 12 years old. Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem when J & M left for home. They were traveling in such a large group, they couldn’t see Jesus and assumed He was running around with someone else.

3. When was the baby born?

a. Mary barely made it into town
b. The first night
c. Some time later

Luke 2:6 says “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. The implication of that statement is that M & J arrived in Bethlehem and sometime before they went home, Jesus was born. Luke was a very precise writer—and even though he’s giving a quick summation of some things—if there was a panicked rush to get to Bethlehem, he could have said so. The language is of a much slower series of events. So the idea that she was in labor as they ran into Bethlehem, desperately pounding on doors is not particularly accurate. So they may have been there for a few days or even weeks before she went into labor.

Given the later accounts of the Magi in Matthew—it’s obvious that J & M stayed in Bethlehem for a long time.

4. Does that change the nature of the location of Jesus’ birth if it happened some time later—in other words, couldn’t Joseph had found some other place after a while?

If they had been there for a few days at least, then the likelihood that Joseph couldn’t find any place to stay is a stretch. After some time, he would have been able to find something and they would not have been cast out to the animal pens. Why would they go there then? We’ll talk about that later.

5. Were Mary & Joseph alone while in Bethlehem? What is the likelihood that they knew anyone in town?

The traditional picture is them alone and afraid. But why were they going to Bethlehem in the first place? It was their family home. They both were of the line of David. Not all of the family would have moved away from Bethlehem. Some of them stuck around—and they would have had some good records or tradition of who is related to who and where they are in the line of potential successors for David’s throne. Family relationships and connections were important for that culture and Joseph or Mary probably had relatives that still lived there that they could have gone to and asked for a place to stay or help with the pregnancy.  With annual pilgrimages, they would have visited family often.
Yet if that were the case, why would they have to go out to the animals? That would be affected by several things one being the nature of the place they were staying.

First, let’s look at something that isn’t obviously related, but it is.

6. Luke 22:10-12—describes a room... what was this room like?

In this passage, Jesus is preparing for the Passover feast and He sends Peter & John in to find the right place—He says—“He replied, "As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, `The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' 12 He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there."

This “guestroom” was a large room that many houses had for family gatherings, meals, or visiting relatives—it was big, generally open and several families could sleep there at the same time.

If you didn’t know, Luke uses some of the best Greek in the New Testament, fitting for his life as a physician. He is precise in his words and this is important.

7. Back in Luke 2, the word “Inn” is the same as in Luke 22? How does this change the picture of the passage?

Interestingly, the word that Luke uses in ch. 22 translated “guestroom” is the same one used in ch. 2 translated “inn”. The problem is that “inn” carries many different connotations—our mind pictures something like a Motel 6—large building with many small rooms that you can rent for the night. If Joseph was there for an extended stay—at least 33 days according to Leviticus 12 for Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22) this would quickly become an expensive venture.

As shown by their sacrifice of 2 small doves in the temple and not a lamb—they may not have been well off financially—much less able to stay in a Bethlehem motel for several months.

But if the word is not translated “Inn” but guestroom, then the situation changes. If they really had family in town, then that would have been the place they would have gone for lodging. And if the family’s upper room/guest room was full—it was probably full of other family. There’s a reason why all those family members would have been there in Bethlehem, which I’ll get to in just a moment. But it’s very likely that these people were not strangers but cousins, aunts, uncles, and others who would be traveling to Bethlehem.

8. Typically we see Mary & Joseph as being banished to the stable. How could going to the stables have been a good thing for them?

The problem wasn’t that they were alone and desperate, or that there were cruel, heartless innkeepers who wouldn’t bother to find them a spot—the greater problem was that there was a lot of people—and even a lot of family and friends is no place to have a baby!

How many women do you know that want to have a baby in a crowded room where everybody and their dog could watch. Sure, some have given birth on a plane, in the mall, but certainly that wasn’t their first choice!

So going to the room for animals—likely something built onto the house itself or even under the upper room—was a good thing, a helpful thing, a privacy thing. There, they won’t have to worry about people watching, kids tripping over them or all the other inconveniences a woman in labor would want to avoid. Not to mention all of the ceremonial uncleanness that a birth brings with it (I don't have time to look it up right now)

Similarly, since the birth didn’t happen the moment of arrival, I’m sure they had the opportunity to make sure the place was cleaned up or prepared for Mary to have a baby down there. Going to the stable was a good thing for Mary.

The stable would have given privacy, if they were really around family, then Joseph would not have been the only attendant Mary had, but other related women who had been through the process before themselves. They may even have known a local mid-wife to assist in the delivery.

9. Was Jesus really born on December 25th?

The likely time that shepherds would be out in the fields at night is springtime, while the lambs were being born. The shepherds were out to guard and assist their flocks in their deliveries. That would put Jesus’ birth closer to Passover.

In which case—the reason that Bethlehem was crowded would not have just been because of the census—but because of all the travelers going to Jerusalem for Passover. It would have made the roads packed with faithful Jewish men and women who were required to go to Jerusalem for the observance. So the image of the lone travelers is even more unlikely. It also makes the ceremonial uncleanness of the birth all the more significant--perhaps even excluding Joseph from assisting her if he intended to participate in Passover.

The census was taken over a period of time (even years from its issuing) so there was not a hard deadline for Joseph to meet—so presumably, he combined his registration in Bethlehem with his regular/annual trip to Jerusalem.

The other interesting imagery is the fact that one of the titles Jesus is given in Scripture is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. To participate in Passover, Jewish family had to sacrifice a year old male lamb. These sacrifices were to Atone for the sins of the family. The sacrifice only covered the sin—the unintentional sins. There was no sacrifice for deliberate sins and they certainly didn’t take away sin or it’s consequence. But that is what Jesus, the Lamb of God was promised to do.

The very lambs that the shepherds were watching born in front of them would be next year’s offering—but they were able to bear witness to an even better Lamb, that could do even more.

10. Why is it unusual for shepherds to be witnesses to this event?

Ironically, even though the shepherds provided the most important element of the festival, by this time, shepherds were not high on the social ladder in Jewish society. They were the fringe elements, not a part of the upscale, city community.
These were the elements called to be the first witnesses and first testifiers to the Messiah. Why them? In many ways, it was a call back to or a reminder of their roots. Shepherds may have been outsiders to the community, but they were the original foundation of the community. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob were all shepherds. As was Moses—as was the great King David.

To reject the shepherds was to reject their roots. The community had not grown past them, they still needed them and in many ways, needed the simplicity of faith and trust in God they represented, which the Jewish community had once had, but had in many ways lost.

11. How did the Shepherds find Mary, Joseph & Jesus?

The traditional nativity scene has M & J, the shepherds and the wise men all gathered around a manger. Often, when you ask this question, many will say the shepherds were guided by the star, just like the wise men. But as we’ll get into in the next question—they didn’t get there on the same night of the birth (for that to happen, the “star” they saw would have to have appeared months before Jesus’ actual birth—God could have done this, btw).

The shepherds were just told about the 2 signs—wrapped in cloths & lying in a manger. They didn’t get an address, a street name, or a general vicinity of where they would actually find the baby. There was no star mentioned in Luke that guided them to the right house.

So, how did they know where to go? At most Bethlehem was a few thousand people—maybe they listened for the cries of a newborn. Maybe they looked for the only ones with a fire still lit. Maybe God picked them on the side of the town that they would reach first. Maybe they tried several places before finding the right one.

Or, speculatively speaking, since this was M & J’s family town—what if these shepherds were relatives and merely went home first, or relatives who already knew they had a visitor who was expecting a baby. Shepherds returning from the fields probably would go into the animal’s room first. Interesting possibility.

12 How many Magi were there?

We sing, “We Three Kings” so it must be three, right? Tradition even gives us names. But Scripture never says how many Magi came, just that they brought 3 different types of gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Ancient depictions, stained glass and such—teaching tools with limited room depicted one person to hold a gift each representing the different types.

But again, by custom, most traveled in large groups. These were practically ambassadors and political representatives, as evidenced by the fact that they first went to Jerusalem and sought Herod. A small entourage, would not do for such dignitaries.

The amount of their gifts was not necessarily something one man could carry despite the many inescapable pictures that suggest otherwise.

I’m of the mind that there wasn’t only 3 representatives, but more.

13. When did the Magi arrive?

As mentioned, unless the star appeared months before Jesus’ actual birth, there’s no way they could have been there the night of. In the east, the wise men saw a star that pointed them to a King being born to the kingdom of the Jews. They would have to see it, interpret it, decide what to do about it, prepare for the journey and then make the trip up the Euphrates river, west along the fertile crescent, then south through Syria and the coastal territories—a several month long journey.

This would put Jesus a year old or more by the time of their arrival—they had to wait for circumcision, they have to wait 30+ days for Mary to be purified so they could offer their sacrifice. When Herod later gave the orders to kill any boy under 2 years—you’ve got to figure that this is an effort to cover His bases and not miss anyone.

14. Why would Magi from a distant land care what was going on in Jerusalem?

For some reason, these Magi—practicing astrologers, interpreted their signs to point to the Kingdom of the Jews. But why would that sign have sent them off on such a long and uncertain journey? Hey, a new king in Israel… that’s nice… somebody hand me the remote. Why would they care so much about the goings on in Israel that they would go there?

It’s important to remember where they were supposed to be from. It is generally understood that these men from the east were in the Mesopotamian river valleys… between the Tigris & Euphrates rivers. What would have been prominent territories in the biblical kingdoms of Assyria, Babylonia & Persia. In other words, modern day Iraq and Iran

This is the general area and territory where the Jewish exiles were taken by different governments. Most of the Jews never returned home even after they were given special permission by King of Persia. They didn’t leave, but stayed with many keeping their faith, their traditions and even Scriptures. So there was an Old Testament witness and community where these Magi were from. If I’m not mistaken, even today some of these countries have a small Jewish population.

So if nothing else, these Magi would have had access or awareness of Jewish teaching and Scripture—making the homeland important. With the influences of people like Daniel or Esther in high government—some may have begun to take them very seriously.

Of course, another powerful possibility is that these men were themselves Jewish or had some Jewish heritage. In other words, their ancestors had watched other Jews pack up and go back to Jerusalem because they had a desire to be restored to God. I’m sure there were many who talked about it for generations, many who wondered what it would have been like if they had returned. In reading the scriptures, the psalms, the laments, the prophets and their heart for the land, the Temple, the Promise of God—even these Wise Men may have had their hearts wondering about the glory of the Temple.

If they were themselves Jewish—it is an awesome reminder of God’s call to come home.

Even though most stayed behind and didn’t return with the remnant, God still found a way to reach out to them—that hope that they had heard of, the promise of a Messiah for their people—was still something God would remind them of.

And so their hearts—longing for the fulfillment of God, longing for the homeland, wondering if God would still be faithful to His promise, wondering if God would still allow them to be a part of it—drove their hearts to make such a long and uncertain Journey.

15. Why did they go to Herod first?

It’s no wonder they went to Jerusalem first. Jerusalem was the center of religious and political power. A future king would more likely be born to the current king. But God doesn’t work the way we think He should—the obvious is rarely what He uses.

So they went to Jerusalem, alerted King Herod, gained further specifics from scripture—Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and continued.
But there’s something else interesting here. It seems the star that started their journey did not guide them all along the way. If so, they would never have stopped or turned aside to Jerusalem. Maybe they couldn’t interpret what a stopped guiding star would look like. But in any event, they were asked by Herod to make a careful search for the child. If they were relying on the star at that point, then why would they have to “search”.

But upon leaving Jerusalem, something changed—now the star was much more specific. In fact it led them and hovered over a specific house. This is no longer something high up in the sky unless it is using a powerful spotlight—but gently hovering over the exact place where they were staying.

Again, Mary & Joseph had to stay for a while in Bethlehem. This would be an expensive venture if they had to “rent” or buy a place to stay, but would be easily accommodated by family. But the star directed them directly to their destination.

This was the guidance of God they had hoped for.

But I’ve always wondered, were they the only ones who could see the “star”? Wouldn’t Herod or his officials seen it and followed it to the baby Jesus?

Which leads me to consider whether, at least this second, localized guidance was not a literal “star” but a manifestation of the Glory of God, perhaps the Holy Spirit alighting on the place like He did later at Jesus’ baptism, or possibly an angel. The original sight that started the journey could easily be too.

Which could mean that only the Magi saw it. They eyes of faith were needed as well as the choice of God and whom He chooses to reveal it to. There's a common phrase--some say they have to see it to believe it--but some things have to be believed to be seen.

Remember, those on the road to Damascus with Paul had a vague sense of something happening, but couldn’t really tell you much about it, whereas Paul’s awareness was very acute and specific.

But the Wise men were called home to Worship just as the Shepherds had been called. Both great and small were bowing before Jesus—God drew both the heritage and the remnant back to their Savior, the Messiah.

16. What is the significance of the gifts?

While I have seen several possible meanings of the gifts, I have a preference. This doesn’t mean the others are wrong or should be written off—after all, since the Scripture doesn’t itself assign meaning, it’s all an educated guess.

Remembering also that we don’t know the amounts of the gifts involved—the depictions of the men carrying a small box doesn’t seem to fit with travelers from such a great distance. I’m of the mind that 2 of the gifts declare WHO Jesus, and His role is and the third declares What He will do to accomplish the will of God in those roles.

Gold—a gift fit for a King. Jesus is called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the New Testament.

Frankincense—incense in the Old Testament was used in prayer and worship in the Temple—the smoke represented the prayers of the people. The one who administered this incense and smoke was the Priest. This is another aspect of His identity and role in the world. The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus is the Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek—greater than the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood—and able to enter the very Presence of God and grant us access in His Name.

Myrrh—was a burial spice. Many ancient cultures began preparing for their eventual death very quickly. The Pharaohs of Egypt began building their monuments immediately. But for this gift to Jesus, it signifies the death and burial that is in Jesus’ future in His role as Messiah—He will lay down His life on the Cross, shed His blood, take away our sin, and prepare a place for us in eternity. His death and subsequent resurrection is the fulfillment of God’s plan in sending Jesus in the first place.

Again, there is so much in these birth narratives that we miss or read over because we think we know the story already or because our mind has been so cluttered by the popular depictions that we don’t study carefully what the text actually says. If you’ve made it this far, I hope that you have benefited from this breakdown of the text and related cultures. 

For some exciting material regarding the Star, try watching the "Star of Bethlehem" video with Rick Larson or check out his website at www.bethlehemstar.net

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ephesians 3:16 - His Glorious Riches v. Riches of His Glory

Here is a good example of how translation can impact how we understand a verse.  This came up in The Pursuit College class a couple of Sunday mornings ago. 
When you read Ephesians 3:16 in the NIV it says: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being”
The NIV is a “dynamic equivalence” translation, which means it is not a strict word for word but tries to convey the meaning or “thought for thought” concept.  But this is an example where that effort misses the mark.
Many other translations render this phrase: “according to the riches of his glory”
Now the English grammar nerd comes out to analyze the sentences—and it makes a difference.
·         His Glorious Riches
o   Modifier: Glorious
o   Object: Riches
·         Richness of His Glory
o   Modifier: richness
o   Object: Glory
In the NIV translation the focus is more on riches to which we tend to focus more on the value or the wealth connected with the word “riches” since it is the primary noun.  Some have abused this and similar passages to talk about God’s blessing in material terms—riches here on earth.  His blessing is for us here on earth, but it is His Glory that is the blessing—it is His presence in our lives that brings an abundance and power to overcome.
But the more literal translation has the focus of the sentence on God’s Glory.  God’s glory has no limits, His glory radiates from Him.
His Glory carries with it a rich understanding from Scripture and in the minds of Paul’s readers.  His glory shines from the burning bush—without consuming or destroying it.  His glory descends on to Mt. Sinai  in cloud and fire and is awe-inspiring to the point that the Israelites are afraid to set foot on the mountain (Exodus 19:16-19, 20:18-21).  God’s glory is too much for us to behold (Exodus 33:19-23). 
Not even Moses was able to look at God’s glory head-on less it overwhelm and kill him.  Hidden in the cleft of the rock, I’m sure Moses had enough of an awareness to know not to press his luck—I’m sure peeking was not an option.  Not even Raiders of the Lost Ark could do this dangerous glory justice. 
Moses was able to see God’s glory as it “passed by” or was receding from him.  His glory is awesome, inspiring, overwhelming.  Just the presence of God was able to change Moses complexion to the point that it disturbed people.  They requested that he wear a veil until that glory faded (Exodus 34:29-35 & 2 Corinthians 3:7-18)
God’s Glory shines forth—God is light in Him there is no darkness at all.  In the end of time, not even the Sun or the Moon will be necessary because God’s glory will be enough to live by—there will be no more night (Revelation 21:22-26)
In our understanding, anything that gives off light (glory) requires some sort of power source or fuel.  If the fuel/power runs out, so will the light.  But since this is God’s glory—He is the source—He is the power and it is a power that will never fade or diminish—it will be forever shining—there is no end to the power that makes it shine—so too there is no limit or end to the power that is available to you and me as believers in Jesus.  The strength that God desires to pour in our hearts, based on His love, to make us more like Him is limitless. 
The power pours out of His Glory, not His Riches.  Since His glory is limitless, we have no limit to the power available to us, thus no real excuse to live as we are called to live.  This power is out of His glory, For His glory.
How firm a foundation—we are rooted and firmly established in love and empowered to live for Him and to Know Him.  Though He cannot be measured or quantified beyond our comprehension—He still desires us to Know Him and fill us with His presence.  His Glory is in our inner being.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cults, Mormons and Political Correctness

By labeling Mormonism a “cult” and Mitt Romney a “non-christian”, a firestorm has erupted.

I think much of the problem comes from the negative connotations associated with the word “cult”.

When we hear it, we tend to think of something like a midnight bonfire in the woods with people in black robes sacrificing animals or children.  Or we think of Jim Jones or David Koresh—a maniacal leader with brainwashed followers who will commit suicide. 

Connotations aside, that is not what the word really means.

A cult is typically defined or understood as an offshoot of another established religious system. 

This typically includes at least 3 elements (there are a few others but these are the basic:
  1. A new leader—attracting a group of followers from within a system who have many of the same foundational positions/assumptions but separate out of it 
  2. A redefining of major doctrines— that distinguish the new cult from the old system 
  3. A new set of scriptures—that highlight the differences and hold an equal/greater source of authority than the previous scriptures.  The previous scriptures are still held as valuable but are often overruled by the new revelation
With this basic definition, here are some examples of  cults:
  • Christianity is a cult (derived out of) Judaism 
  • B’Hai is a cult of Islam 
  • Buddhism is a cult of Hinduism 
  • Mormonism is a cult of Christianity--along with others from the 1800’s like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science
By no means is labeling something as a cult intended to imply that the people currently involved are evil or immoral.  It is a label that highlights the fact that this new group is not the same as the old.

This is exactly what Mormonism claims for itself. 

To be fair, Mormons would probably prefer terms more like, “restored Christianity” since from the very beginning, Joseph Smith considered the orthodox Christian church to have apostatized its beliefs and deviated from the truth. 

This is much the same way Christianity would claim to be “fulfilled Judaism” in the sense that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah that Judaism was looking for.

But with the basic definition of a cult—an offshoot of an established system, Mormonism qualifies.
  1. It has a New Leader—Joseph Smith – while he points people back to Jesus, the main figure of restoration is through the life and teaching of Joseph Smith—without him, the movement would not exist. 
  2. It Redefines Major Doctrines—Joseph Smith thought the church of his day was apostate and in error on its doctrines so he proposed to change/restore them.  Major doctrines he changed are not limited to the following: 
    • The Nature of God – Mormons do not believe in the Trinity in the orthodox sense but three distinct beings, Elohim/God the Father has a body of flesh and bones while Orth. Xity understands God as Spirit (see John 4:24).  Mormons also believe that Elohim was at some point a man on a different planet that has been exalted to godhood for our planet—He was once like we are now 
    • The Person of Jesus—not co-equal to the Father or co-eternal in a Trinitarian sense but a created being 
    • Future of Salvation—Mormons believe in 3 levels of salvation, the highest of which allows someone (by faithfully following and participating in Mormon life)to progress to be a god for their own planet 
     3.  New Scriptures—Mormons have 3 books of new Scripture
a.     The Book of Mormon
b.     The Pearl of Great Price
c.      Doctrine & Covenants
Most of the variant theology is found in D&C and PoGP
d.     The Bible—the Bible is a source of faith but has been corrupted.  Some examples:
"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. . ." (8th Article of Faith of the Mormon Church).  
"Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God," (1 Nephi 13:28)

Some people have argued that the Protestant Reformation from the 1500’s also fits this definition in its breakaway from Roman Catholicism but I do not believe it does. 

First, Martin Luther’s motive was first to reform R.C., not leave it. 

Second, Luther and the reformation did not propose new scriptures, rather a return to the scripture—getting away from the added layers of church tradition—sola scriptura—was one of the highly emphasized tenets. 

Third, Protestants and Catholics still share most of the same theology—upwards of 90-95%.  The nature of God, of Jesus and the universe are largely held in common. 

The elements and gaps that divide us are miniscule compared to the gulfs between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism.  While there are elements within Catholicism that I believe makes salvation more difficult (veneration of Mary/Saints, emphasis on works, etc.), it is not impossible.  I do consider many people within Catholicism to be my brothers & sisters in Christ.

In regards to the current political debate, I’ve known several Mormons over my life and I have always enjoyed their company and conversation.  Typically, they have a greater understanding of their faith and a willingness to talk about it than most Christians (we are far too spiritually lazy).  Many of the converts to Mormonism are coming out of orthodox Christian churches, particularly Southern Baptist churches.

The pastor was right when speaking about Mitt Romney’s beliefs being aberrant to orthodox Christianity.  As a pastor, he does need to speak clearly to that and not try to blur the great differences that exist between them.   

Early Mormon history also did not try to blur the lines at all b/c they considered what they were leaving to be apostate.  I will say this has shifted, since the 1980’s LDS commercials and missionaries as a public outreach effort have tried to minimize them to appear as just another denomination.  Considering this current discourse, they have been successful.

Thankfully, in America, we have no religious test for public office.  Mitt Romney is not prevented from running because he is a Mormon.  But any individual considering any candidate should consider their religious beliefs (among other factors) and how they may impact their governing philosophy.  I do this with every candidate. 

In the 2008 election the theology of Barak Obama’s church and pastor Jeremiah Wright became an issue.  I believe the media largely failed to investigate and inform the country of those beliefs.  I believe this was because the media in large part favored his candidacy.  Had a conservative candidate gone to a church with similarly racially charged beliefs the media would have been all over it and it would have won the election for the other guy. 

His religious affiliation was enough for me not to seriously consider him as a candidate for President.  It was not my only reason, but it would have been enough by itself.  I will continue to do that with all of the current candidates.

As for the Pastor from Dallas; a Pastor should be able to answer a religious question.  And if he is a pastor worth anything, he will answer in such a way that is consistent with his beliefs and not be concerned with whether it is politically correct or popular.

The discourse in our country has for too long tried to pretend as if differences do not exist.  It would be a mistake for pastors, Mormon, orthodox Christian or anyone to start pretending and talking as if we were all the same just to score some political points.

Because I for one am of the opinion that Beliefs matter.  If the candidate does not take his or her beliefs seriously, live by them and allow them to influence their decisions, then any claim to faith is mere window dressing and that kind of hypocrisy is evidence of questionable character.  If he or she does take them seriously, then those beliefs should be examined and considered.

The Pastor in question recently answered some questions on this issue.  He can speak for himself.

The Mormon Puzzle is a good video that gives a basic introduction to Mormon history and theology.  While there are some parts I don't like, the best is when LDS representatives from their universities speak very candidly about their beliefs--by far these interviews are the highlight.  Wish I could find a hosted video online, but the link gives a sample.

Al Mohler has an excellent blog on this controversy.

Another video that is very interesting to consider.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mixed Signals - Why Don't We Question Anymore?

Update 10/12/11 -- I just found this article from The Christian Post regarding the popularity of Vampires, Werewolves & other such stuff.  Worth reading and considering.

This was originally a sermon from a few years ago.  I've updated a few stats and a couple other things.

Mixed Signals

I am going to make a few proposals to change some of the famous public service ad campaigns you’ve seen in the last decades and I want to ask how many of you think these sound like good ideas? What kind of message do you think they send?

Noting a shift in the youth mindset and America’s value systems, many of the old government, public service announcements have been retooled. Gone are the outdated “Just Say No”, “Don’t Drink & Drive”, “Don’t Play with Matches” campaigns. Maybe you’ve seen some of the new ones.

">Smokey the Bear<"—longtime spokesman for the National Park Service has come out with a new commercial series concerning playing with fire—“Only You can prevent forest fires, but if you really want to start a fire or play with matches—be sure and only start small fires at home.”

On a similar note—the Illinois Department of Transportation is coming out with a new ad campaign, getting rid of the “Designated Driver” idea, instead, they could offer special training classes for the frequent drinker. The new slogan is—“Protect the Streets—Drink and Drive successfully by Practicing Often.”  Or better yet, parents, take away the need for driving by providing the beer and alcohol for your underage kids.

“Just Say NO” and other warnings against gateway drugs like alcohol and marijuana have been replaced. Local elementary, middle and high schools can offer after school training and free samples to students so they can find out which drugs they prefer and how to take them correctly. After all, they’re going to do it anyway. “Just say ‘Once’”.

What kind of message do these ads send? Mixed Signals. Mixed Signals in this sense are things that are confusing to our kids. We parents say one thing, then at some point, contradict ourselves and the kids cannot be sure which one they should follow, which one they should believe?

Is it wise for us to say 364 days of the year that something is bad, something is to be avoided, something is dangerous, and 1 day of the year, give them permission to participate in what we’ve been saying is bad all the other days.

This is a month in which many believers will send mixed signals to their kids, their neighbors and friends. Some of it won’t be by design or decision, but by the decision of others. Some may be because you may not have noticed or given it a second thought in some time.

Let me ask you, how many of you, your friends, or your kids have seen more about death, about witchcraft, about evil and murderous and demonic forces lately?

If you haven’t yet, drive by the front of Wal-Mart, watch TV this month, ask the video store what type of videos are most rented this month.

I am concerned how we adults and parents tend to tolerate, even send mixed messages about death, the occult, witchcraft or the demonic during the month of October as we get ready for Halloween.

These messages are inconsistent with our faith the remaining part of the year and typically, we would steer our kids away from such things. But this month adults and parents seem to be leading the mixed signals. We don’t even question our participation anymore.

Here’s some stats from the last couple of years.

This year, the average person plans to spend $66.54 on the holiday, up from $64.82 one year ago. Total Halloween spending for 2008 is estimated to reach $5.77 billion.*

This year, consumers will spend an average of $24.17 on Halloween costumes (including costumes for adults, children, and pets). People will also be buying candy ($20.39 on average), decorations ($18.25) and greeting cards ($3.73).

National Retail Federation

2010 Popular Costumes

Kids:                                                     Adults:
1. Princess                                            Witch
2. Spider-Man                                      Vampire
3. Witch                                                Pirate
4. Pirate                                               Nurse
5. Disney Princess                                Wench/Tart/Vixen
6. Action/Super Hero                           Cat
7. Ghost                                              Zombie
8. Pumpkin/Vampire (tie)                     Fairy
9. Batman                                           Athlete/Batman (tie)
10. Star Wars Character                     Dracula

It’s hard to say how these mixed signals are contributing to the spiritual climate in our country. But let me share this with you.

According to Information collected from 1990 to 2001, The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- a Neopagan religion that is sometimes referred to as Witchcraft. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months.

14.1% do not follow any organized religion. This is an unusually rapid increase -- almost a doubling -- from only 8% in 1990.

These beliefs, once largely ignored or dismissed in America are increasing in our population and becoming more and more accepted; real to the point that now the military is required to have wiccan chaplains and burial rites.  I'm not saying we have Wicca in America because of Halloween, but many factors contribute to the growing interest and acceptance of it and Halloween is a contributing influence.

When the Israelites began entering the Promised Land, they were given several warnings regarding the religious practices of the surrounding peoples and how they were not to be like them. For them such beliefs were a reality, a competing belief system that was a lure to be unfaithful to God.

Deuteronomy 18:10-14--10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells [notice good/bad, white/black isn’t mentioned], or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God. 14 The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so.

Isaiah 8:19-20—“When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.

I believe God knew what He was talking about when he called His people to stay away from those things because they are dangerous to us spiritually.

The other nations practiced these things so they could gain control over or knowledge of the future, they would worship the created thing, rather than the Creator—ultimately these beliefs and practices keep people from an authentic faith in God based on worship in spirit and truth—so these are deceptions intended to prevent us from truly knowing God—so they function as lies and are demonic in their origin.

While many of us dismiss the occult or demonic, I and others can speak from experience—see my testimonies here

I hope you believe the Bible when it talks about the dangers of the demonic and the occult.

I hope you believe that Jesus had very real confrontations with the demonic, as did Peter, Paul, the other Apostles and the church—and you don’t write those accounts off as psychological conditions or some other medical phenomenon.

I hope you are not telling your kids that the occult is wrong, it’s dangerous, and totally opposed to God while at the same time saying, “we’re going to let you dabble with it for a little while, just once a year.

We tell ourselves… “It’s Harmless Fun” – maybe it is most of the time, but are you sure? Are you sure that putting your kid in those circumstances cannot affect them?

We’re going to buy dark, occultic decorations for our house, we’re going to encourage playing with witchcraft by putting the black pot in the lawn, we’re going to trivialize death and the demonic with cute cartoon figures and costumes that desensitize you to the real thing.”

That’s like saying:

Playing with matches is bad and dangerous, but let me show you the right way to strike them, let me give you a few things to burn.

You shouldn’t drink kids, but let me buy you a six pack for your birthday and let you drink it at home.

Hey Kids, there is a real spiritual evil out there trying to corrupt your soul and keep you from God, you must Resist the devil—but let me buy you a 10 horned demon mask, a witch or serial killer costume.

That is not a consistent message. It gives parental permission for something we normally wouldn’t want them playing with.

John tells us that he wrote the book of 1 John to warn us “about those who are trying to lead you astray”—1 John 2:26. John warns us in 4:1 to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God”.

It is my conviction that many Bible believing Christians have stopped “testing the spirits” when it comes to how we participate in Halloween.

I’m not saying that that a real Christian will not participate in Halloween.  I'm not questioning your salvation.

I’m afraid that we no longer question it or even care whether what we do, or whether how we celebrate is “from God” or not, that we no longer consider the spiritual impact of HOW we participate.

We have already accepted the idea and we’re no longer asking—is this wrong—we have made that decision—we not looking to Scripture to give us guidance.

When challenged, many believers react defensively even with anger regarding Halloween. It’s a very emotional reaction.

I believe people react that way because on some level, people are uncomfortable with Halloween but they talk themselves or justify themselves into doing it anyway—for the sake of the children or some other reason.

To me, that is extremely dangerous for the People of God.

We can reason and justify anything. And I find it inconsistent to “do it for the children” when they are the ones most at risk and dependent on adults to make the Spiritually discerning decision.

The demonic packaged up as “harmless fun” is still demonic and in reality that makes it more dangerous and deceptive.

2 Corinthians 11:14 warns us that, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light”. In other words—he puts on a costume trying to convince everyone he is a cute, harmless, misunderstood guy. He wears a costume to hide who he really is and hopes that you’ll invite him in for a visit.

1. Playing with the Occult is Dangerous—Saul in 1 Samuel 28:4- was so afraid of the Philistines, that after trying to ask God what to do about it and getting nothing—more likely b/c his heart wasn’t faithful and his attempts were more insulting to God than inspiring.

He then sought out a “medium” (the title of a recent TV series, BTW) to consult the dead prophet Samuel. He wore a costume to do it— vs. 8 lets us know that he wore a disguise to meet with this woman. And while most biblical scholars disagree on exactly what happened when the spirit of Samuel appeared, was it really him, was it a delusion or a demonic deception, they all agree that something happened. Saul had to take her word for it because he apparently could not see the vision for himself—vs. 14.

Saul is playing with fire—he is doing something God commanded not to do, something he knows is wrong & tried to get rid of at one point by expelling the mediums earlier in his career.

He is dabbling, thinking he is exempt, thinking that it won’t hurt him, thinking that it’s not really a big deal, but he’s about to find out it is a big deal that there are consequences.

2. Playing with the Occult has Consequences
1 Chron. 10:13-14—“Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, 14 and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.

a. Even non-Christians are beginning to recognize Halloween related consequences for children.

b. A study conducted of six- and seven-year-olds by Penn State psychologist Cindy Dell Clark found that most parents underestimate just how terrifying the holiday can be for young kids.

c. “Halloween is a holiday when adults assist children in behaviors taboo and out of bounds," Clark writes in the anthropological journal Ethos. "It is striking that on Halloween, death-related themes are intended as entertainment for the very children whom adults routinely protect."

3. Dabbling In The Occult is not Compatible with Biblical Faith

a. Acts 19:13-16—The demonic is real and dangerous. You and I must not dismiss it because there is a very real spiritual battle going on; a real demonic power. While most of what we see in America today, like the astrology, the wicca, the psychic hotlines, is fake—it is not always fake. And the Believer should know better than to try and live in both worlds.

b. Acts 19:17-20—Believers Got rid of their old way of life. Some of them had practiced sorcery in their previous way of life—but Jesus changed all of that. They may not have felt convicted to get rid of it in their lives, but they eventually saw the need, no matter how valuable the items were. Sorcery, witchcraft, the occult, idolizing death are not compatible in the lives of those who love God.

Whether you celebrate or participate in Halloween activities is a decision between you and God.

I’m not questioning your salvation if you have a pumpkin at your house or if you give out candy.

What I do want you to do is question how or why you participate—don’t decide as a parent today, based on the pleasant memories you had as a child.

Examine everything by your faith.

1. Test the Spirits to see whether they are from God.
a. Test the things your kids are exposed to—
Halloween is now more than just one day—many kids are looking forward to it all month just like they do Christmas—it’s hard to walk into Wal-Mart with all the decorations all over the stores.

Books, TV shows & movies, cute cartoonish characters try to convince your kids that witchcraft, magic, monsters and death is all harmless fun—

Through stories they try to teach that we should and that God sees a difference between a bad witch and a good witch, between black magic and white magic—and there is none.

b. Test the costumes they want to wear

kids, let your faith guide your decision.
Adults, make the decision whether something is appropriate for your kids—offer alternatives because it’s not too late.

c. Test the decorations of your house

kids open your eyes to what you see at home and ask what message it sends to your friends of your faith.
Parents, re-examine your plans—make your home a place of light and hope that does not glorify dabbling in darkness.

d. Test the decorations of houses as you walk around—don’t go to those houses that glorify the occult

e. Remember that Kids can’t always distinguish between the Real and Unreal.
They don’t think like adults logically, emotionally—as the study I mentioned found—the scary, death, occult themes affect them more than we realize. Make a commitment to Protect them and not Confuse them or send conflicting messages

f. Reclaim the day—don’t let this day be controlled by the dead in your house.

Try to promote life by handing out tracts with your candy, by carving Christian images in your pumpkins, by inviting all you know and recognize to church, or by reminding your house and your guests that Oct. 31st is the day Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses on the door of the Cathedral back in 1517 that started the Reformation. On Oct. 31st, he began a revolution of faith that we are living in today.

g. Embrace Philippians 4:8—“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What is Lacking in Our Prayer

I believe one of the greatest weaknesses in the church today is our prayer. Many of us lack power in prayer as individuals and as corporate bodies.

That's because too often, our prayer consists of a list of who is sick that week. And that's it--we don't ask God for anything else. We don't go any deeper.

But when we read through Paul's letters--that's not how we see him praying. If we do believe in the Inspiration of Scripture, then the Holy Spirit would have been the One motivating Paul to write them down. That's because there is something even in those prayers that was for more than just his immediate readers. There is something in those prayers for us. Meaning, if Paul was living and writing today, you would see him praying for us in much the same way addressing many of the same issues and needs in our life and the life of the church.

Below are most of the instances where Paul is writing down his prayers, his needs or talking about prayer. I recommend reading through all of them and take notice of the kinds of things he prays for and asks for prayer for himself. Couple what you see in those prayers with the Lord's Model Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13

Philippians--1:3-11, 4:6-7
1 Thessalonians 1:2-4, 3:11-13, 5:23-25
2 Thessalonians 1:3, 11-12, 3:1-5
Ephesians 1:17-19, 3:14-21, 6:18:20
Colossians 1:9-14, 4:2-6, 12
1 Timothy 2:1-3
Philemon 4-6
Jude 24-25

1. God’s Name to be Exalted & His Kingdom Expanded—Matthew 6:9-13
a. Hallowed Be Your Name
b. On Earth as it is In Heaven
c. In the Church
d. In our hearts
e. Around the World
f. 2 Thessalonians 1:12

2. To Know & Experience God & His Will
a. Eph. 1:17
b. Philippians 1:9-10
c. Colossians 1:9
d. For God's will to be done on earth--His people need to know what His will is since we are often times the agent He uses to accomplish His will. This is also more than just knowing or facts, but also experience and being an active part of. "Not my will but Yours be done."

3. Oneness with God & Love for Each Other
a. Unity with Christ
b. Unity of the Body
c. Oneness in Mind/Purpose
d. Beliefs & Actions out of Belief

4. Full & Mature Awareness of the Grace & the Greatness of Salvation
a. Eph. 1:18, 3:16-19
b. The only way we can half-heartedly live the Christian life is when we don't really understand just how much God has done to redeem us.

5. Raise Up Mature & Empowered Leaders & Workers for the Harvest
a. Luke 10:2
b. Realize that when you are asking God to send workers--He may fill you with the knowledge of His will which may include "You're just who I had in mind" and we are then given the choice of Isaiah to say, "Here am I, send me."

6. Empowerment, Opportunity & Boldness to Fulfill the Mission
a. Eph. 1:19, 3:20-21
b. Colossians 4:2-5
c. 2 Thess. 1:11
d. Ephesians 6:19
e. Remember that when Paul wrote Colossians & Ephesians, he is in prison. In Col. 4 he doesn't ask for doors to open for his release, but doors of opportunity for the Gospel and boldness and wisdom in those opportunities. He would be speaking before judges & officials--who could free him, kill him or even come to faith.

7. Fruitfulness in the Mission
a. Phil 1:11
b. Col. 1:10-11
c. 1 Thessalonians 3:12
d. Philemon 1:6
e. Fruitfulness expands the kingdom--but too often we are doing things in our own strength and power, thus lacking results. We need to ask for God's power to do the hard work of growing the fruit. And if we know His will, we'll be doing what He wants and serving how we should serve.

8. Power & Discernment to Resist Satan & Temptation
a. 1 Thess. 3:13
b. James 4:10
c. Personal Holiness
d. Holiness in the Church
e. Protection
f. Resist Temptation—1 Corinthians 10:13
g. Recognize False Teachers & Teachings—Matthew 24:4-5, 1 Peter 5:6-7, 2 Peter 2
h. This is a big topic. Realize that Ephesians 6 is greatly directed toward the spiritual conflict. And when we are tempted, God will provide a way of escape. But we also need to realize that when we "submit to God" we have the true ability to "resist the devil" and as a result of the power that comes from submitting to God, the devil "flees"--the devil runs from the power of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

9. Confession of Sin & Repentance
a. 1 John 1:9

10. Thanksgiving
a. Phillippians 4:6

11. Specific People for Salvation or Restoration
a. Ephesians 6:18
b. God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance. And this is a major part of the mission we are here for--we are a part of His rescue mission. Even when we as His children wander away--God will discipline (Hebrews 12) but that discipline is always with the hope and intention of restoring relationship and bringing someone home.

12. Specific People for Health & Comfort
a. 2 Corinthians 1:3-6
b. 1 Timothy 2:1
c. This is where our own experience of God's comfort can overflow to serve and minister to someone else.

13. Prayer for Government & Officials
a. 1 Timothy 2:2
b. 1 Peter 2:13
c. Romans 13
d. Whether you like those in the position of power or not. Remember, the gov't these men were dealing with was far worse than any political party we know today. After all, it executed Peter & Paul and blamed the Christians for burning Rome (oh wait, maybe we're getting closer...)

14. Christ’s Return, the Peace of Jerusalem and the Future of this Congregation
a. Revelation 22:20
b. Our future is in His hands and our hope is and should be always looking forward to His return. In all the lessons of the 2nd coming, we need to keep in mind three basic things:

Be Watchful--anticipating and looking for His return

Be Hopeful--not afraid of what may be coming or how "bad" things may get first. "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."--Hebrews 11:1 that goes along with 2 Peter 3:3-4-"be aware of this: scoffers will come in the last days... saying, "where is the promise of His coming?"

Be Faithful--be doing what we should be doing in the meantime--seeking His power, doing His will, fulfilling His mission--

This is by no means an exhaustive list--but please add these elements to your prayer--we have not, because we ask not.