Saturday, June 10, 2017

All Roads Really do Lead to Heaven

    But who is waiting for us there? 

    If there is a heaven, there must be a heavenly being that created it. That means there is someone looking down on us from the top of the proverbial mountain we are climbing. We all have a divine encounter waiting for us, the moment after we die. When we have lived our lives to their entirety—when we finish climbing to the top of the mountain—we will be there, in the presence of our maker. Universalists have definitely got that part right, but it may not be the comforting truth they think it is.

   Who is this god that waits for us at the end of our life’s journey? Who is he whom we draw inevitably closer to with each climbing step, day by day? Will he love us and accept us merely for having made the climb, or is there some standard, some requirement of us before we can enter into that restful, joyous afterlife?

   If we accept that merely making the climb gets us into heaven, then that would qualify the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Bin Laden—men who went to their graves only after sending millions of people before them to theirs. Do we seriously want a god who would give these men everlasting paradise? I have a sense of justice that makes that thought untenable, and I doubt I am alone. There must be some standard by which we enter heaven. Justice would seem to require it.

   Is it the sincerity of our belief, then, that will get us to heaven?  If we make the climb firmly convinced and striving for the divine, even if our views of God differ dramatically from culture to culture, will it be enough to see us through? Unfortunately, this is a purely illogical view. There is no practical example of faith for faith’s sake alone being strong enough to overcome all obstacles. I can believe with all my heart that I can fly with the pair of cardboard wings I cut from a Wheaties box—but that faith is not strong enough to overcome gravity.

   We must also keep in mind that Hitler and Stalin believed firmly in their own manifestations of faith. No one was sincerer about his faith then Hitler when he made possible the murder of 6 million Jews. He was walking the talk of what he believed about religion and the Jewish people. The sincerity of our faith is just not a valid claim to heaven. Faith is only as good as what it is placed in.

   So what belief is strong enough to get us into heaven? Can we rely on our good works? If it is possible to get into heaven not on the basis of the sincerity of our faith but of our goodness, we would first need to describe what “good” is. Stalin thought his communism was an ultimate good, worth killing 20 million of his own citizens for. Hitler believed the Aryan Race was good. If “good” is left up to our own discretion, Stalin and Hitler still get to enter heaven. There must be some absolute code of right and wrong that transcends what us so often selfish, twisted humans can come up with. And since it transcends our own understanding, we must believe that the divine creator made it for us—and will hold us accountable to it. He is less like a fan cheering us up the mountain, and more like the referee holding us accountable to play by the rules. And since it is a foul and harms the other players in the game, our heavenly ref will throw us out of the game if we violate the rules. For the first time, the Hitlers, Stalins, and Bin Ladens of the world don’t make the cut. We're making progress!

   This view of God as our heavenly judge leaves us with only three religions to follow: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Islam and Judaism are works-based religions. They hold that you have what it takes to storm the gates of heaven and enter victoriously. Haven’t we already established, though, how shaky it is to believe that the human race can do good? What if not only are we incapable of establishing our own right and wrong, but we can’t even keep the right and wrong revealed to us by God? Have you ever lied, stolen, lusted, coveted, or taken God’s name in vain? Have you failed to keep the five pillars of Islam? Yep, you’re out.

   That’s the problem with works-based religions. We can never be sure we’ll make heaven, and what’s more, the evidence and an honest evaluation of our hearts seems to suggest we won’t make the cut. At this point, we’re in dire straits.

  Is there any hope in Christianity? Here’s the standard Jesus lays out for us to “make the cut”. He says in Mathew 5:48: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

   So . . . if we’re relying on ourselves to get past the gates of heaven, we’re done for.

   But that is where Christianity makes a break from all other religions. It doesn’t depend on us, but on what Jesus has done for us! He knew we couldn’t live up to the perfect standard it takes to spend eternity with our heavenly Father, so he came and lived a perfect life for us! He offers this life in our place, to pay for our sins. Where all other world religions say do, Jesus says done.

   The Lord is compassionate and gracious; He does forgive transgressions. But yet at the same time, because He is a righteous judge, He can’t leave the guilty unpunished. (Exodus 34:6-7) That is why Jesus had to die for our sins, the just for the unjust, so that he could bear the penalty we deserved and we could go free! That is how God can be both a righteous judge and a compassionate forgiver.

   This the amazing good news that we as Christians get to share with the world! If you confess Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved! For those of us who already have confessed Jesus as Lord, we are called to be trail guides to others following behind us up the mountain! We need to stop worrying that we will be called “close-minded” or “intolerant” (Check out this post, btw, for a true definition of tolerance), and stand unashamedly for this good news! There’s still some people standing at the crossroads. They’re asking for the ancient paths, they’re asking where the good way is; they want to walk in it (Jeremiah 6:16).

   Can we help them find it?

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me”. John 14:6

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Horror of Lot, a Righteous Man

 Lot would be a lot easier to understand if it wasn't for 2 Peter 2:7-8.

Reading the Old Testament account of his life, Lot, Abraham's nephew, appears to be a cut and dried case of an apostate (someone who has left faith in God). When Lot and Abraham had to part ways due to their quarreling shepherds in Genesis 13, Lot moved into the Jordan valley. He was drawn to that lush, fertile valley, but the problem was, that's where Sodom was. Lot drifted closer and closer to that city, where "the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord". By Genesis 14:12, we learn that Lot was living in the city of Sodom. That's when the first round of calamity fell upon the city thanks to a war. Lot was taken captive by a couple of warring kings—a perfect time to cut ties with Sodom, wouldn't you say?—but when Abraham providentially came to his rescue, we find that Lot returned to Sodom!

He was captivated by that city of sin. It lured him back into it's culture, and when the Biblical narrative returns to Lot in Genesis 19, we find that Lot was sitting in the city's gates. The gate of the city in those times was the hub of commerce and official affairs. Lot had not only moved back to Sodom, but he had become a prominent member of it!

We learn just how much the culture had affected him later in the chapter. When the depraved Sodomites catch site of the handsome angels that pay Lot a visit, they gather with mob-like force in front of his house. They call on Lot to bring out the newcomers so that they may have sexual relations with them. Lot's response to this lewd, disgusting request is almost as horrifying, though! His reasoning is exactly as follows in verses 7 and 8, "Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly. Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof."

How absolutely corrupt must a city be that the moral option was to let two virgin daughters be gang raped. Or at least that is what Lot believed, because the licentious worldview of Sodom had deeply permeated his thoughts. The ugliness of Lot's life doesn't stop there either. Later, on two consecutive nights he is driven to a drunken stupor and lies with a couple of girls without thought—habits we can assume he learned in Sodom. Those girls, though he didn't know it in his drunken state, were his daughters. In Genesis 19:36, it says "Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father."

Lot's story is so horrifying that I am sure a lot of pastors would rather skip over it then preach about it in their churches! Some might wonder why it is in our Holy Bible in the first place!

And that is why 2 Peter 2:7-8 is so confusing:

"And if he rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds)."

Righteous? Seriously? Lot the righteous man seems to be the absolute epitome of a contradiction. And yet there we have it. It's like Peter was making a point out of calling Lot righteous; he uses the word three times in that short passage to describe him. So Lot, we must conclude, though allured and drawn into the culture of Sodom, hadn't quite accepted the sinful lifestyle its residents had dove headlong into. Rather, he played at the edges of Sodom's culture, flirting with their worldview, but yet somewhat repulsed by it at the same time. Trying to enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin without being the sinner. Enjoying life in Sodom, but trying not to get burned by it.

Well, he avoided being burned--but only because the two angels sent to warn him about Sodom's impending doom literally drug him out of the city. Genesis 19:15-16 "When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, 'Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.' But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city."

We are repulsed by this "righteous man", as well we should be, but just how hypocritical is our repulsion, I wonder? Are we, in much the same way, soaking ourselves in a culture that has turned from God? Are we content with this culture? Are we even enjoying it?

Modern America's culture is this Godless culture. We have denied God's law and have propped up our own. Divorce is opted for 50% of the time. Premarital sex is the norm. Pornography traps most every guy in destructive habits, but is largely unlegislated. Ripping apart precious new life in a mother's womb is fiercely defended and advocated for. Same sex relations are openly encouraged and accepted. Mutilating your body to become the opposite sex you were born as is praised as "realizing yourself'".

Songs worship this culture. Movies picture it for us. We are asked to like it on social media.

So as Christians, are we distinctly different from this Godless culture? Would we have to be dragged from it like Lot, hesitating to leave the pleasures of Sodom? Unfortunately, in my own life and the lives of many, many of my Christian friends, the answer would be "Yes". Oh sure, we are against the "big stuff". We may stand strong for the rights of the unborn and the Biblical definition of marriage, but how often do we flirt with or are allured to join the more "acceptable" facets of our worldly culture? How often we justify that one sex scene because the rest of the movie is "good". How often do we nod along to that catchy song, that same song that extols behavior that falls solidly in the list of worldly vices rather than fruits of the Holy Spirit? Do we even expect anymore what we consume of the culture to be pure, honorable, or lovely?

Again, are we becoming more and more like Lot? Are we like the proverbial frog in the kettle who can't sense the slowly rising temperature of the water he is soaking in and doesn't know to jump out even as it boils him? It saddens me so much to see this willful conformance by Christians to our increasingly depraved culture. When will we draw the line and say "enough is enough"? When will we make a clean break with our culture and accept abundant ( if radically alien) lives living for Jesus and Jesus alone? Is a clean break even possible anymore, or are we too saturated?

Come out, I beg of you, any righteous Christian. Come out, come out, come out! Don't be consumed by our culture. Don't get burned by it. Don't live your life with one foot in Christ and one foot in the world. It isn't possible to serve two masters, and it is miserable for you to try to do so, isn't it? Will angels have to come for you on your dying day and literally drag you to heaven away from the world you tried so persistently to hang on to?

I'm preaching this to my self as much as you, friends. There's so many pleasurable sins I justify and hold on to. But no longer. Christ wants all of me, and I want to give all to Him! I picture my Christian life right now like an explorer cutting his way through thick jungle underbrush with a machete. There are so many sins that so easily entangle me, but relying on God's strength within me, I want to cut myself free of them! Will you grab a machete and join me?

Maybe it is that secular radio station you need to stop listening to. Maybe it is that song on your playlist that insinuates premarital sex. Maybe it is that movie that presents a destructive message but is just so fun to watch. Maybe it is finally getting filters and accountability software on your devices. Can you see the ways you have been permeated by sin? Can you dam up these channels of filth flowing into your mind, and replace them with streams of refreshing, living water?

The amazing grace of the Gospel--what makes the good news the really good news--is that though we are sinful like Lot, God views us as perfectly righteous through our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is how Peter could view Lot as righteous, because Lot, for all his failings, still retained a faith in God. It is an incredible relief to know that if we have accepted Jesus as Lord, there is nothing we can do to lose our salvation. Like it says in the very next verse after the passage of 2 Peter 2:7-8, God knows how to keep the righteous from judgement. Still, I don't want to leave behind a terrible legacy like Lot's. I don't want my life to be a sad record of wasted potential, How terrible to think that Christians years from now might be horrified by the way we went along hand in hand with this culture! God has given us all we need to be different—to live incredible, devoted, faith-filled lives that will leave the world in awe of our great God. It's time to be transformed. It's time to make a break from the pattern of this world and live for Christ!

Let's make a clean break from this culture that is increasingly becoming more like Sodom, without having to be drug reluctantly from it. I am of course not saying we should isolate ourselves completely from the world; Jesus left us in it for a reason! I am only saying that though we are in the world, the world doesn't need to be in us!

I am ready to offer my life as a living sacrifice to God, no matter what that means for my culture choices. "Here I am, Lord, do with me what you like!" is my prayer. Will you pray it with me? And don't just say "yes", please. Think long and hard about it for a moment, because praying this prayer will play out practically in a lot of decisions to limit cultural intake. It will look like visiting the theater way less. It will look like sifting through the scads of admittedly bland contemporary Christian music to find those great, faith-based songs to make a new playlist from. It will look like different lifestyle choices that will place you solidly in the camp of the monks and nuns in the eyes of the world. But what may look like a puritan, "holier-than-thou" lifestyle in the eyes of the many is in reality that abundant, joy-filled life in Christ!

I have given you fair warning, so now that you know what I am asking . . .

Will you join me?

 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1-2