Monday, November 30, 2015

Let's Put the X Back in X-mas

X-mas was a term we didn’t use at our house. I remember asking my mother about it when I saw it on some wrapping paper she was using to wrap someone’s gift. She told me that some people use X because they don’t want to write “Christ” and she made it clear that leaving Christ out of “Christmas” was something I was never to do. Since that time, all this talk of leaving Christ out of Christmas has much more vitriol. Try saying “Happy Holidays” to someone and you can expect a lambasting on Facebook. When a manager at Walmart told a Marine that he would have to stand outside to collect Toys for Tots, the Internet lit up with people angry at Walmart. When I made the comment that Marines are trained to dress for the weather conditions, strangers began to call my intelligence into question. Another person, commenting on the same post, used a made up word to describe the people at Walmart that is a cross between a word meaning to have sexual intercourse and to have a mental disorder. These are among the people we see fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Something isn’t right, so let’s put the X back in X-mas.

When you look at where the X of X-mas originated, you discover that the X is actually the Greek letter Chi. It is the first letter of the word Χριστός, which is translated at Christ in English. But it isn’t enough to say, “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas.” The X of X-mas represents something else that is far more important. When many people talk about putting Christ back in Christmas, they seem content to have the word “Christ” in the name and to sing about the birth of a baby and some wise men who visited him. For many people, “Christ” is just another name for Jesus. As you go about your Christmas celebration this year, you may attend a Christmas program in which the names of Jesus are carried in on banners. You’ll likely see “Christ” on one of those banners, but “Christ” is not a name. That is why it is so important to consider the X of X-mas.

You see, X can be used for other things. It is used to represent death. In comic strips, when you see a character with X’s where his eyes should be, you know he is dead. X can also represent a cross. Without the cross, Jesus is not the Christ. The Christ is not just some baby born under mysterious circumstances. The Christ is not just some king worshiped by wise men. The Christ is not some thin version of Santa Claus. The Christ is God, who came as man, lived a sinless life, took on our sin, died on the cross, and rose victorious over sin and the grave, so that he could give us eternal life. That is the X that we need to put back in X-mas.

The unfortunate thing is that this talk of keeping Christ in Christmas is often just an excuse to criticize others for being less righteous than what we are. “That store owner is evil because he has his employees say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ I’m going to show that I’m better than him by not shopping at his store.” Isn’t that what we are saying? But let’s put the X back in X-mas. The Bible tells us that Jesus loved that store owner so much that he died on the cross for that store owner. The Bible tells us that Jesus loved that store owner so much that he instituted a church and commissioned that church to teach others to carry the gospel to the whole world, so that store owner would have the opportunity to be saved. Clearly, nothing fulfills that commission quite like the words, “I’m not shopping at your store because you didn’t say, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Even in our gift giving, I think we get it mixed up. We consider our gift giving and decide that it isn’t focused on Christ. Some have decided that they will give Jesus a bigger gift than anything they have under the tree. So, they see they have a $200 gift under the tree and they give $201 to their church’s benevolence fund. It isn’t bad to give to benevolence. When you go to church, you may well be sitting next to someone who is enjoying the warmth of the building, because they know they can’t afford to turn up the heat at home. But should we be basing what we give to Jesus on what we give to others? We owe him so much more and yet, it is also true that he is literally the person who has everything. What gift would be suitable for a person like that? A dollar more than our most expensive gift? I think not. What Jesus wants more than anything is fellowship with the people of the world. If you want to give Jesus a gift, put the X back in X-mas by sharing the gospel with people. Tell them that Jesus came to die for their sins. Don’t just pay some money so you feel like you are buying Jesus a gift. Tell the story of the cross. Let’s put the Cross back in X-mas.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The American Soldier Hasn't Done Enough

Within our society, we have certain groups of people that we revere more than others. Right up there at the top is the American soldier and the veterans, especially those who fought in a war. We revere policemen, who risk their lives on the streets each night as we sleep soundly in our beds. We revere firemen, who brave the flames. We revere teachers, who have committed themselves to teaching our youth. You need not look far on Facebook to see someone praising one of these people for their sacrifice. We see people highlighting our failings at supporting these people at the level we should and expressing a desire to help them before we help anyone else.

As the most revered of all of these, let us consider the American soldier, who has signed his life over to Uncle Sam, who may be called upon to die in order to protect American ideals. Of all the good things that a person might do, what could be better than sacrificing one’s life for the good of others? There is no doubt that we owe a great debt to the American soldier. And these others as well.

But as I think about all that these people have done for our country, there isn’t a one of them who has done enough to go to heaven. No American soldier, no policeman, no firefighter, no teacher. Not one of these much revered people have done enough good to go to heaven. That may anger some people. What audacity for me to say that the American soldier, of all people, isn’t worthy of heaven. But others will nod their head in agreement. Either way, it isn’t my desire to be critical of the American soldier or to say they don’t deserve far more than most of us. Yet, I say with certainty that I will enter into heaven and be welcomed like a man returning home after a long journey.

If you really think about it, that ought to make you angry. I’ve sacrificed far less than the American soldier, but I claim that I’m going while no American soldier has done enough to get there. I claim to have a home in a city so wealthy that there is a street paved with the finest gold, but there are American veterans who have no home. Not only that, I’m ungrateful for what I have. Do you realize that, without the American soldier, I might not have a home in heaven? This is true, because were it not for the American soldier protecting the right to preach, I might never have learned what is needed to gain entry into heaven. But not one of them has done enough to go to heaven. Does that make you angry?

There has been much talk about who deserves to live in the United States and who deserves our assistance. I’ll be the first to say, not me. I don’t deserve to be a citizen of the United States; I was born here. Perhaps my Native American ancestry gains me a few bonus points, but no child deserves to be born to the parents they’ve been born to. Some are born into abusive homes. They don’t deserve that. I was born to good parents in the greatest nation in the world. I don’t deserve that. And if I don’t deserve to be born where I was born, I certainly don’t deserve a home in heaven, but I have one.

Jesus came and died for me. I had no right to ask him to. I’ve done nothing to deserve it. I couldn’t even pay a night’s rent to stay in my home in heaven, but Jesus gave it to me anyway. To make it worse, I was his enemy. And as if that were not enough, I am ungrateful. I can’t even fully comprehend what the Lord did for me and what he has promised me, but I tend to take it for granted, as if it is the most natural thing in the world for me to have the title deed to a home built in a city with skyscrapers so tall you can stand on the top floor and see the blackness of space. I seldom stop to appreciate that I can talk to the ruler of the Universe any time I want.

He didn’t come to save the deserving, but the undeserving. He didn’t come to save the citizens of heaven, but the aliens. He didn’t come to save the wealthy, but the homeless. Even with all the great things they have done, no American soldier has ever done enough to go to heaven. No policeman. No fireman. No teacher. No pastor. No nun or priest. When you think of the splendor of heaven, it is not hard to see that we are incapable of doing enough. But that’s okay, because Jesus did it for us. God, became flesh and lived among us. He died on the cross and rose three days later. Nothing we can do will add up to the value of what he has offered us. If he lived by our values, he would turn us away. I am thankful that he does not. He offers eternal life to us who do not deserve it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Terrorist In My Home

What are you willing to do for Jesus? That’s a question that I’ve heard many preachers ask during the last forty years. Of course, growing up in a preacher’s home, I quickly learned that the only correct answer is whatever he asks me to do. We agree that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross, daily, and follow me,” he was speaking of dying for him, or at least being willing to die for him. We agree that it is within his right to ask us to move to a foreign land, or take a job that doesn’t pay as well as we would like. He might call us to “labor unrewarded” as the song “So Send I You” suggests. But there in the back of our mind is that thought that we really hope he doesn’t. In time, when we haven’t heard his call to the foreign mission field or to pastor a church, we tell ourselves that he must have called us to something normal. Perhaps to give money to support others. “Whew! I was worried he was going to ask me to do something hard.”

But in recent days, I’ve been reminded of that call, “Take up your cross.” There is a fear that if we allow refugees into the US that we will allow terrorists in as well. That does seem to be a possibility and because of that, many have taken an us versus them mentality. “So,” they say, “if you’re in favor of bringing in the refugees, you’re willing to invite these people into your home.” The desire is to point out that since we aren’t willing to take the personal risk for ourselves and our family, then we shouldn’t be willing to let these people in. It has certainly given me much to think about.

As I consider this situation, what I am beginning to realize is that if I’m truly willing to do “whatever” for Jesus, then yes, the risk is worth it. I’m no more seeking a shortened life than anyone else and neither would I wish harm on my family and friends, but I have nothing to lose. What is the worst that could happen? They could kill me? They could torture me? I look at the way Stephen died, and imagine the pain of the stones striking him. Having been hit by a few small stones, it is a terrible way to die, but look what came of it. A radical Jewish terrorist named Saul heard him report that he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. That same Saul eventually accepted the gospel, became known as Paul, and wrote much of the New Testament.

Given a choice, it is difficult for me to decide whether I would rather die at an old age in my sleep, or to die like Stephen died. Of course, that isn’t likely to happen. If a terrorist were to get in, what is more likely is that they would strike a soft target. But even there, I can see how the Lord might use that. Imagine there is a Muslim family staying with a Christian family. They watch as the Christians pray and listen as they read their Bibles. They hear the gospel, but it has no meaning. Then the attack comes. A man claiming to be a refugee detonates a bomb, killing several Americans. The Muslim family expects the Christians to be angry with them, since that is the attitude that is on the news, but the Christians treat them with the same respect as they did before. It is at that point where the Muslim family sees the gospel in action. To take in a stranger in need is one thing, but to love your enemies is quite another.

We need only to look at the book of Job to see that the life of the righteous is in the hands of the Lord. Nothing can harm us without the Lord’s permission. But if that is what the Lord calls me to, I’m ready. Kill me and I will go to see my Lord. Let me live and I will tell you of Jesus, who died for your sins and mine. My death may encourage a sinner to accept Christ. The very worst that a terrorist can do to me is to give me the thing that I desire the most.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Gospel in Hard Times

Last Sunday, Dr. John David Smith reminded us that the gospel advances only in the face of hardship. The gospel is spreading in parts of the world where Christians face hardship, but in countries like the United States, where it is easy to be a Christian, it is on the decline. Why? What is it about hardship that causes Christianity to grow?

I can think of a few things that might cause this. For one thing, uncomfortable people are more willing to work. Suppose you wake up and hear it raining outside. The covers are nice and warm and there’s nothing requiring your attention. It would be so easy go back to sleep for a while. But suppose you wake up and feel droplets of water landing on your forehead. You can feel that the pillow is wet. Within moments, you are out of bed and looking for a bucket to catch the water. Discomfort causes us to take action.

But churches in the United States are often quite active while still not seeing many people saved. Hardship also provided contrast. I encounter many atheists who are antagonistic toward all religion. For some reason, they take it upon themselves to troll the Internet, arguing with anyone who posts something favorable to God. No argument will persuade them and they will make fun of any argument made. Though it is their sinful nature that causes them to make fun, I think many find it difficult to believe that Christians actually believe what we teach. Think about it. We teach that a man was born to a virgin, that he died, was buried and he rose three days later. We teach that he ascended into heaven and will someday return from heaven riding on a white horse. We teach that that those who put their trust in him will be raised from the dead, even if our bodies have turned to dust. In light of what we have been able to accomplish through medical technology, it sounds ludicrous. Since (in the eyes of the atheist) no sane, intelligent person would believe something like that and many Christians appear to be both sane and intelligent, it is logical to conclude that Christians are lying about what they believe. Hardship and suffering prove otherwise.

No sane, intelligent person would continue in a lie if that lie causes them suffering. People lie because they believe doing so will benefit them in some way. Sure, a person who is dying of cancer might speak of heaven because they don’t want their loved ones to mourn, but there is no benefit to lying if a man is about to kill you if you don’t renounce your faith. I’m sure Paul must have thought about that when he saw Stephen die. There was not benefit to Stephen to lie about seeing Jesus standing on the right hand of the Father. It only helped to seal his fate.

Another reason the gospel spreads in hardship is because the hardship is not limited to Christians. We see that with ISIS. Certainly, they desire to kill Christians, but they also desire to kill Jews, and anyone else who disagrees with them. They will even kill other Muslims. What sets Christians apart is the hope that we have, even in the face of an enemy that wishes to kill us. Those of other religions compare their own reaction to that of Christians and they realize that Christians have something special.

We don’t like to face hardship and we shouldn’t seek it out, but there are things about hardship that will open doors for us to win the lost that we do not have without it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Making Friends for Jesus

Have you ever stopped to think why you are friends with the people you are friends with? And why was it so much easier to make friends when you were in school than it is now? It is sad, but one of the reasons many Christians struggle with the idea of soul winning is because they don’t know any lost people. O, sure, they might know their lost neighbors (they might) or they might encounter a lost person working the checkout at a grocery store, but what are the chances of success with people who are barely more than strangers?

I’ve been thinking about the concept of repeated spontaneous contact. It seems that friendships are not particularly mysterious; we make friends with the people we spend time with. Those people you hung out with in the hall in college before class? It wasn’t hard to be friends with them. If you want to make friends, you need repeated spontaneous contact. But how do we do that?

Some people are looking into changes in the way we do housing to achieve this. Maybe there’s something there, but it seems a little drastic. Creating walkable communities is a good idea, but that isn’t a solution for sharing the gospel with the whole world (just to the rich folk in walkable communities). Also, people in rural communities have repeated spontaneous contact just because there are fewer stores and entertainment options.

People who are involved in church have repeated spontaneous contact. By “involved” I mean that they are working in some ministry or participating in something like choir. Just attending church won’t do it. But people in choir are friends, just because they see each other frequently. But again, that doesn’t translate well into preaching the gospel. We expect that the people involved in church have heard the gospel many times and the people we want to reach are those who have not. We need repeated spontaneous contact with people who are lost.

Public schools are a great place for that. Ironically, that is why many parents choose to homeschool or enroll their children in private schools. They don’t want their children associating with lost children and teachers. But even if it is just a few minutes waiting round to pick up the kids from practice, parents have opportunities for repeated spontaneous contact with teachers and other parents.

For those of us without children, or who have reached the stage where they have moved out on their own, spontaneous contact becomes much less repeated. The question becomes, what can we do to make it more frequent? I don’t have a good answer. I only know that I need one. I get out and ride my bicycle in my neighborhood. While I don’t really know many of my neighbors, there are several that I see out and about every evening. There’s a lady who walks her dogs that I’ve spoken to once or twice, but I couldn’t tell you her name. There’s a guy who rides his bicycle at about the same time as I do. One guy keeps telling me he’s going to ride with me, but he never has. It is repeated spontaneous contact and it is friendship of sorts, but not enough. We must find a way.