Monday, December 23, 2013

Allan R. Bevere: The God of Christmas Is an Embarrassment

Found at Allan R. Bevere: The God of Christmas Is an Embarrassment:

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. The God of Christmas is an embarrassment. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has no self-r...

NT Wright spanks RC Sproul and Al Mohler

An excellent interview that sums up our understanding of Genesis 1-3 and how your interpretation will affect your eschatology and anthropology.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sticky Faith 2

This chapter is titled "The Sticky Gospel".  The thing that stuck out to me the most was the concept of a faith based on only sin management.  If your faith is built merely on a list of do's and don'ts in order to please others and fit in, I can see how that could easily fade away especially when one goes off to college.  

So the primary lesson in this chapter is to model and instill that faith is about ultimately trusting God to do what he said he would do in our lives.  A strong trust in God will help us through up's and down's.  It will also help us to be obedient to Christ.  But if our faith is based on a set of rules, then we have gotten the cart before the horse.  When we try so hard to "do" Christianity all to often we are taking away the very thing that is ultimately the job of the Holy Spirit - to change us from the inside-out.  We need to allow the Holy Spirit to do his work in our lives, and our teens' lives, by developing our trust in God's continuing work within us. 

With all that said in this chapter, it is not the easy answer that I had hoped for.  I still find that I want the 10 easy steps to perfect Christian teens in my house and in my youth group.  

The other thing that really stood out to me was the importance of unconditional love no matter what.  Teens will make mistakes.  Teens will wander away from the faith.  But if they sense judgmental, harsh, critical attitudes, they will stay even farther away.  Instead, if they receive grace, love, acceptance and forgiveness there is a much greater chance of them embracing their faith and reconnecting with God.  Granted there are always consequences to our actions and as parents or small group leaders we need to let them feel those consequences both good and bad, but mercy and grace can always be our response.  

Favorite quotes:

At the heart of Sticky faith is a faith that trusts in God and that understands that obedience is a response to that trust, in everything. p. 34

the Sticky Gospel reminds us that our focus is to trust, and God promises to work within us at every stage of the process - by strengthening our trust, by giving us peace and patience as we wait for our lives to be transformed, and by actually changing us from the inside out. - p. 35

To help our kids discover and grab hold of a sustainable long-term, and vibrant Sticky Faith, we must stay true to the words of Jesus and heed the council of Paul: trust in the one the Father has sent, and live convinced that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love. - p. 36

In life and in faith, growth is a process. Our job as parents throughout this process is twofold: First, we help our kids learn to trust God and create the kind of environment where they are able to explore faith and trust while practicing their freedom to respond in love.  Second, we model an unconditional, nonjudgmental, and ever-embracing love in which our kids can do nothing that jeopardizes or even lessens that love. p. 37

The greatest gift you can give your children is to let them see you struggle and wrestle with how to live a lifetime of trust in God. . . . As you trust the gospel, and the Lord who saves, your Sticky Faith will help your children discover their own Sticky Faith. - 46-47

Sticky Reflection and Discussion Questions

1.  Dallas Willard describes the "gospel of sin management" as dealing only with sin and its effects, instead of the real life we live. In what ways is your faith as experience of the gospel of sin management?

I think that to some extent this was true of my faith when I was a teenager.  Feeling judged by others pushed me farther down the rabbit hole.  Today, I think I struggle with a guilty conscience if I am not practicing certain spiritual disciplines.  It is hard sometimes for me not to see God as judgmental also.

2.  What is the biggest obstacle to helping your son or daughter understand that the primary call of the Christian is to trust Christ? Describe where this is a difficult concept for you, and where it lines up with what you already believe and practice.

I believe that this can be a hard thing to teach to teenagers.  It is so easy to just trust yourself or your gut instinct without thinking about trusting in God first.  I think that we demonstrate this not only through teaching the principle, but also, living into it.  Whenever life presents its challenges it is important that we fall back on trusting in God.  It is also important to start each day with acknowledging our dependence on Christ.  This can be done with prayer and the reading of Scripture.  That is what I try to do.  

3.  We stated that "obedience is the response to trust." Why is it better to begin with trust and then respond through obedience? Is it ever good to go the other direction: obey first and hope that trust follows? Have you ever experienced either of these in your faith journey? If so, what was it like, and what happened?

I wonder if obedience and trust is more cyclical rather than linear.  Sometimes I know that in order to form a good habit I need to force the obedience in myself and then the trust grows.  But then trusting more causes me to be better at obedience.  Sometimes I do my spiritual disciplines out of a heart of trust and other times it is out of a sense of obedience.  I believe that when children are young it is important to obey their parents and as they grow, their trust develops.  As teenagers, it is better for them to trust you first, or God, in order for there to be any type of obedience.  Without a foundation of trust they will most likely disregard why they should obey.  

4. How do you see your child's faith in light of this chapter? Where do you see them growing in what it means to trust Christ, and where do you see them living out of the do's and don'ts of Christianity?

I think we can do more for our teens in talking about trusting in Christ especially for the bigger questions that come up in their lives as they come through high school.  I think that ways that teens "do" Christianity is through mission which is good.  But we can also raise the level of trusting in Christ through our mission experiences.  It is important that we wrap our minds around the concept that the Holy Spirit changes us from the inside-out.  Religion and the law tries to change us from the outside-in.  And as we know from the Old Testament, that didn't work out so well.  

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Sticky Faith 1

As training for my youth ministry team, we are reading through the book "Sticky Faith" by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark.  Chapter 1 sets the stage for what this book is trying to accomplish.  Powell describes a story of a teen who came through her youth group only to fade away towards the end of her Senior High years.  A few years later Kara finds out that the girl is now pregnant.  Kara was able to reconnect with this former student in the hospital after giving birth to her new baby.  Kara Powell explains a look between her and the teenagers' father that I completely connected with.  I often have wondered what can we do to help teens stay connected in the faith.  All too often I see specific areas where we tend to loose some kids:

1.  The transition from Confirmation into youth group
2.  The transition from Junior High to Senior High
3.  The transition from early Senior High into later Senior High (jobs, car, social life)
4.  The transition from High School to College

I have seen some 7th grade classes that were huge in number fade down to a core group of a much smaller size by the time they were Seniors.  And this doesn't even factor in the final transition which appears to be the toughest one of them all.  One one hand, with this book, I feel a sense of relief that this is not just my problem or my church's problem. Rather it is a national problem within the global church.  But after taking that sigh of relief, it still doesn't help within my local context.  I still have a righteous anger over why and how faith seems to take a back seat with some teens as they grow up.  Enough negativity.

Another observation that I made was in the importance of the relationship of the parents to the teens.  The most influential people in a teen's life is their parents.  This fact alone sets a priority for us as youth leaders (who are mostly parents of teens), and other parents of teens within our church to understand the importance of parenting.  What we model at home and live out day to day will have a huge impact.  This is one of the main reasons that I feel like, at times, when a teenager fades away, it is sometimes beyond anything I can do to keep them active.  If the parents don't demonstrate an active faith and make their faith a priority in their own lives, how then do I expect a teenager to excel above and beyond the most powerful influences in their lives?  So how do we help parents to live out an active and robust faith?

Finally I want to answer the questions at the end of the chapter:

1.  When people decide to read a book, usually they are trying to solve a problem. What problems are you hoping to address by reading this book?

My hope is that we discover ways in which we can help teens live into their faith through each transition in life.  My heart's desire is that we retain more and more teens to stay active in their faith from 7th grade all the way up into their adult years. 

2.  How would you define sticky faith?

A faith that sticks through all the transitions in life, all the good times and bad, all the challenges both expected and unexpected.  

3.  How does it make you feel to think that you are the most important influence on your child's faith?

I actually feel good about that.  Sometimes it is easy for a parent to doubt their influence and wonder if they have lost control of their teens' faith.  But I also understand that it takes a village and I am deeply grateful for all the other adults in my church and in my family who have had a significant impact on my kids and have affirmed all that I and my wife have tried to teach them.

4.  As you think about how you've parented thus far, what have you done that has contributed to your kids' faith? What do you wish you had done differently?

I believe that loving and caring for my kids through good times and bad times have been instrumental.  I have also been honored to be their "youth pastor".  But I also know that they would be the first to sniff out any hypocrisy or inconsistencies if I acted differently at home than I do at church.  

I wish I would have made more time for us to enjoy dinner around the dinner table.  All too often I feel like we are all running in different directions and eating on the go.  There was a time when they were younger where we would have family prayer before everyone went to bed.  I really liked that.  

5.  What do you think of the suggestion that parents trust the Lord with their kids and beg the Lord to build Sticky Faith in them?  

This is a great step 1.  The authors demonstrate a humility in admitting that this is not a book with "all the answers in 10 easy steps".  The fact is that we need to be constantly in prayer over our kids and acknowledging the importance of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  To be used of God to help in the transformation of people is the greatest thing ever, especially with your own kids! Let's make sure we are lifting up our teens, small groups and our own kids in prayer on a regular basis.   

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Misreading Scripture

I have been reading a lot of books lately just trying to get through a large stack that I have been staring at for way to long.  But then along comes a book that was good enough for me to write a blog post covering it.  "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes" was an excellent read. It helped to bridge the gap between Western culture in contrast to Eastern culture.  All to often we read Scripture through our cultural lenses without even realizing how we are distorting Scripture.  We have to be constantly reminded that these writings are thousands of years old and from an entirely different culture than the one we have become a costumed to.  All to often we distort the true meaning of Scripture because we read it so easily through our own cultural lens.  For many of us we don't even realize that we are doing it.  This book helps us to understand ourselves and the context we bring with us when we read Scripture.  The authors do much to encourage the reader to take into consideration the ancient eastern culture that Scripture originated from before we filter in our own experiences and cultural context.  They also do a great job in dissecting American / Western culture and some of the traps that cause us to misinterpret Scripture such as understanding the difference between individualism and collectivism; honor/shame in contrast to right/wrong; and how different cultures view such things differently like time, rules, relationships, virtue, vice and living in to God's will.    

And now for some of my favorite quotes:

If we're not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church as something like a health club. We're members because we believe in the mission statement and want to be a part of the action. As long as the church provides the services I want, i'll stick around. But when I no longer approve of the vision, or am no longer "being fed," I'm out the door. This is not biblical Christianity. Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become - permanently and spiritually - a part of the church. We become part of the family of God. p. 107
Many evangelicals describe our standing before God in terms of forensic justification. While there is nothing wrong with the doctrine, it casts our connection to God in terms of rules, not relationship. . . . grace and faith are relationship markers and not forensic decrees. Paul used these terms to define a relationship, not to explain a contact or a court ruling. Likewise, holiness is a relational and not a forensic term. p. 172-173

Western Christians, especially North American Christians, tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us - to each of us and all of us individually. More to the point, we are confident that us always includes me specifically. . . . This misreading of Scripture arises from combining our individualism with a more subtle, deeply hidden and deeply rooted aspect of our Western worldview: we still think the universe centers around us. p. 193

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sermon on Galatians 1:11-24

Title: God Gave You A Brain!                                                                  June 8/9, 2013
Galatians 1:11-24 (NIV)
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.

Galatians 1:11-24 (The Message)
13-16 I’m sure that you’ve heard the story of my earlier life when I lived in the Jewish way. In those days I went all out in persecuting God’s church. I was systematically destroying it. I was so enthusiastic about the traditions of my ancestors that I advanced head and shoulders above my peers in my career. Even then God had designs on me. Why, when I was still in my mother’s womb he chose and called me out of sheer generosity! Now he has intervened and revealed his Son to me so that I might joyfully tell non-Jews about him.
16-20 Immediately after my calling—without consulting anyone around me and without going up to Jerusalem to confer with those who were apostles long before I was—I got away to Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus, but it was three years before I went up to Jerusalem to compare stories with Peter. I was there only fifteen days—but what days they were! Except for our Master’s brother James, I saw no other apostles. (I’m telling you the absolute truth in this.)
21-24 Then I began my ministry in the regions of Syria and Cilicia. After all that time and activity I was still unknown by face among the Christian churches in Judea. There was only this report: “That man who once persecuted us is now preaching the very message he used to try to destroy.” Their response was to recognize and worship God because of me!


Well it is that time of year that is like Thanksgiving time for youth pastors! Why you ask? Because one fourth of your teenagers have graduation parties that I get invited to!  Every weekend, for about 3-4 weekends in a row, it’s a Thanksgiving feast celebration for one graduate after another.  Of course, this is the way we youth pastors pack on the carbs and extra baggage to make it through mission trip season. 

I remember, as a student, always looking forward to being done with finals.  That nice long sigh of relief that I have survived another semester of classes, projects, tests and finals was always a great feeling.  Of course, when it came to turning on the radio I could always expect 2 songs in particular to put a big, giant grin on my face.  Do any of you have a guess about which songs I might be referring to?

Well the first was more of a rebellion towards my teachers by listening to Pink Floyd wail out that “We Don’t Need No Education”. We don’t need no thought control.  Of course I never fully lived into this song.  I knew deep, down inside that an education was a good thing. But I sure did I love jamming to this song once I finished with a semester.

But the ultimate song that is so much fun to crank up as you are driving away from your school after finishing your last test is the classic Alice Cooper song “School’s Out”! Some of you get to sing loudly that “School’s out for Summer!”  Others of us get to sing even louder the lyric that says “School’s out For Ever!”

If you were here last week you know that we just began a new series.  Doug kicked us off as we began picking apart the letter of Galatians.  Doug explained to us that this is Paul’s angriest letter to one of his church communities because they were trying to impose additions to God’s salvation received through grace alone.  There were those who believed that Paul’s explanation of salvation through grace was just too simple and easy.  It made more sense to some of those in Galatia to add on some extras to make salvation more worthy of attaining. In order to be an exceptional Christian and stand out from the others you needed to jump through certain hoops to turn you into a super-Christian! 

Now based on what we learned last week we know that Paul used very strong and angry sounding language to oppose this line of thinking.  But as we look at the rest of this chapter I find it interesting how Paul helps us to understand how we are to think. 

After attacking those who are trying to add to God’s grace, Paul takes a breather and goes back to his past to help understand what happened to him personally that transformed him from a “law-abiding” and “law-promoting” Pharisee to a grace-filled Christ follower

Paul explains that he was one of the best of the best when it came to receiving his religious education.  He was so passionate about his beliefs that he would vigorously attack and persecute Christians.  But then something dramatic happened.  And it is important that we understand the difference between what Paul knew then in contrast to what he knows now.  All of a sudden, Paul received knowledge of God’s grace through the work of Jesus Christ. 

What I want us to wrestle with is what does this do to the knowledge Paul received prior to becoming a Christ follower?  This is why it is important for us to get this.  Is Paul advocating an anti-knowledge agenda here? Does education help us or harm us? There are some in the 21st century who have tried to attach the label of ignorance when it comes to Christians.  Some even say we are anti-science.  Is there truth to this claim?

Let’s consider Paul here.  I do not believe that Paul is rejecting his formal education.  Instead he is promoting a new way of interpreting the body of knowledge that he has been brought up under.  He has the education that he received in the past but now it has been transformed through his relationship with Christ!  The old grid of Judaism has been replaced by a new mental grid in which the work of Jesus reinterprets all that he has come to understand.  So it is not a repudiation of knowledge more than it is a process of transforming knowledge through a new grid.

And Paul makes it very, very clear that he did not run off to a different school and sit under other teachers to come up with this new way of interpreting life.  His formal education in the past was under some of the great teachers of his time.  But Paul makes this point, that this transformation that happened to him was specifically NOT a result of a new book or teaching that hit the stores.  Instead, it was an act of God that took everything he already had and reinterpreted it through a new and transformed way of understanding.   

There is no way that we would have the depth of wisdom and theology in all of Paul’s letters if it were not for his intense education in Judaism.  Just a quick reading of the letter to the Romans one will conclude that the writer is extremely knowledgeable and highly educated.  Granted, I do believe that the writings of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit but that inspiration could have equally been involved in the intense training and education Paul received beforehand as well as in the moments he sat down to write out his letters. 

There are 2 things I want us to capture in this passage that Paul concludes with. The first thought that Paul leaves us with in this passage is that the transformation of his thinking had a dramatic effect on transforming his actions!  The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”  The knowledge that inspired persecution has now been transformed to knowledge that inspires the proclamation of the faith! 

Now, why does this matter?  We are gathered together on this weekend to celebrate our graduates.  Many of you are also celebrating the end of a school year and the beginning of your Summer break.  But as we look to the near future, many of you are heading off to colleges and universities to specialize in a degree through intensive learning in a particular field of study.  Receiving knowledge and applying that knowledge to life is not necessarily a bad thing.  But how we process the knowledge we receive and then apply it to our context could potentially be good or bad though.

Let me demonstrate. When I first got out of seminary and got my first job as a youth pastor I was so excited to use the education that I received and start applying it to my first major ministry.  Now, in the field of youth ministry, back in the early 90’s, only a few colleges recognized youth ministry as a field worthy of study.  Many in youth ministry were people who just loved teenagers but had no formal education in youth ministry. 

This one and only time in my youth ministry career I was convinced to do a mission trip to the city of Pittsburgh.  As a Cleveland fan I have always known that there were a lot of pagans in Pittsburgh, but to go there and save them!?!?! My immediate plan was to jump in a boat and travel north up the Cuyahoga River to escape that fate only to have a large fish swallow me up, then swim over to the Ohio River and spit me up at the three rivers crossroads that is the heart of Pittsburgh.  But God did not have to do that because I went willingly! 

As I was there I had one of my adult leaders acting up a lot.  He would drink several energy drinks and then be bouncing off the wall.  In my highly-educated way I tried to have an adult conversation with him expounding on my vast knowledge of adolescents and how he needs to act more like an adult rather than a Junior Higher (no offense Junior Highers).  In this conversation, I could tell he sensed that I was pulling out the “education card” on him because his defensive response to me was “Do you think you are better than me because you went to college?”  And I can say with all honesty that deep down in my gut I wanted to yell back with much emotion, “Yes! That is EXACTLY what I am saying! I am much better than you in understanding youth and mission trips because I got an education and YOU DID NOT!”

There were also times in which I sensed some strange vibes from my adult leaders as I tried to lead them with the vast resources of wisdom that I had in adolescent development and ministry to teenagers.  They sometimes seemed to act smugly towards me because they actually were in the process of raising teenagers in their own households, whereas, I had perfectly adorable little children that all the teenagers wanted to babysit and play with.  I could see these adults’ piercing glares and their judgmental attitudes as I know that they thought “You just wait Russ until YOUR kids are teenagers! Then we will see who thinks they know sooooo much.”  But I equally would give those leaders the side glance of skepticism as I would think, “Oh yeah, well I have spent more years studying everything there is to know about teenagers than you have had in just raising them so there! Plus your teenagers think I am cool and you are not!”

Well as some of you seasoned parents know, there is nothing like personal experience being your teacher.  You can read all the books you want, but when it comes to raising your own, it is easy to feel completely clueless about how to parent in all the various and interesting situations that arise throughout these years.  It is in these years where you see the importance of relying on God and trusting in his promises so that you don’t make a big mistake in parenting and you are able to help your kids grow up in a reasonable healthy way – spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally.  Books and knowledge can only take you so far.  With the wrong attitude towards our ideas of parenting we can add so many unrealistic expectations that our teens end up not doing well.  Or we could use all that we know, pass it through the grid of God’s grace and love, and trust that God will use you in the right moments to be an effective parent. 

I use this illustration as an example of how we must understand Paul’s approach to his education.  At one stage of life, prior to coming to know Jesus, he used his education to judge, divide, and persecute others.  He used it to inflate his ego, expand his pride, and make a name for himself among the elite in his field of study.  Once he encountered Christ, the grid in which he interpreted all he came to know, changed!  Now he reinterprets his education in light of God’s grace, mercy and love!  Instead of having a judgmental view of people who did not believe like he did, now, with his new worldview, he is compelled to reach out and include as many people as possible in knowing Christ as their Savior.  This is not a repudiation of his education, more than it is a reinterpretation of it.

Students, many of you have just finished another year of school.  You have had teachers pour into you all the truths of their particular fields of study.  Some of you are going to be taking the next step in your education soon by going off to college.  You will encounter some teachers and professors who are believers and you will no doubt have some who are most vocally not.  The fact of the matter is this, all truth is God’s truth, no matter what the worldview of the teacher might be.  The question becomes how do you interpret these truths?  Allow the knowledge that you gain to pass through the grid of God’s love, grace and mercy.  Allow God to redeem everything you learn in order to use it all for God’s glory. 
And finally, I want you to notice the reaction of the people to Paul in the last statement of this passage.  It stated,
There was only this report: “That man who once persecuted us is now preaching the very message he used to try to destroy.” Their response was to recognize and worship God because of me!
The way in which Paul previously used his education and knowledge produced persecution and fear among people.  They knew he was out to destroy them.  But now that Paul has been changed through Christ, the people’s response was to recognize and worship God because of him. 
May this be true for each and every one of us.  As we use the brains that God gave us, may we come to know him more, and be in awe of his vast wisdom and knowledge that he has designed for us to discover all throughout his creation.  May the knowledge we gain through formal education or the school of experience, be redeemed through the work of Christ as we become vessels of God’s grace, love and mercy to a world that is suffering and longs to know God.

May it never be said of us that we allowed our education and experience to enslave us into stroking our ego, or building our own mini-empire, or separating and dividing people who are not like us.  This is what Paul was attacking in the Galatian church.  Instead let us live into the freedom of seeing and experiencing the world through the grid of God grace, mercy and love, knowing that he has empowered us to continue the work of Christ right here and right now.  May we be the people of God of whom when others looks at us they are compelled to worship God for all that He is doing in and through us.  May we be a blessing to our families, our church and our communities.  And finally, May it be said of us that we use our education and experience to glorify God in all we do. Amen.

Sermon on John 20:19-31

Scripture:  John 20:19-31
19-20 Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side.
20-21 The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”
22-23 Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
24-25 But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”
But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”
27 Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”
28 Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”
29 Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”
30-31 Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

Well, I would like to welcome you all to the weekend services AFTER Easter: otherwise known as Clergy By-Pass Sundays.  This typically involves the Sunday after Christmas too.  Youth pastors around the world get their crack at the pulpit. 

I have a confession to make.  I love FEAR.  I always have.  I enjoy scary movies.  The movie that scared me to death as a child was the old Steve McQueen movie called “The Blob”.  And I always had a cross by my bed to ward off any possible vampire attack. I can have a fluent conversation in a wide spectrum of horror movies from zombies, to the demon-possessed, to monsters of the likes of aliens, predators, vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein, mutants, Godzilla, King Kong, and on and on.  I could talk about some of the most notorious villains in film from Hannibal Lector, to Freddy Krueger, to Jason Vorhees, to Michael Myers, to the villains of Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Indiana Jones, the Star Wars universe, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond. 

In fact if you think about it, the greater the fear in any given story the more intense and rewarding is the climax that eventually overcomes the fear with victory.  

I have always been one to play on people’s fears.  Ever since I was a little boy I would be so excited to wait around a corner of a room for one of my parents, preferably my mom, to come around so I could jump out and scare her.  Of course, if I got my dad I always knew the revenge would double back on me and I would be scared silly waiting for his retaliation move.  But, still to this day I do this now to my own kids.  If I am home when they get off the bus, I am always tempted, and willfully give in, to run to the door and hide so that when they come in I can scare them. 

But I will have you know that I, Scott Russ, do so have an arch-nemesis right here in Loveland.  When you see the picture of this person you may be shocked, but I tell you as Sigorney Weaver warned in the Aliens movie “BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID!”  BEHOLD THE FACE OF FEAR!!!  I know, I know.  This young little girl looks very innocent and sweet.  This little girl goes by the name “Nayomi”.  She goes to pre-school and then gets dropped off at the church at around noon on the weekdays.  She has this uncanny ability to catch me deep in thought and unaware of her presence and then shrieks like a banshee right behind me as I am walking through the offices.  And here is the thing that really, really irks me to no end.  I, being in the nature of who I am, feel this overwhelming need to seek revenge.  No one can ever “one-up” me.  In fact I have made it my mission to never be “even” but to always be one-up on any of my arch-nemesis.  So I deploy the same exact tactics on Nayomi to scare her.  What does she do? She pouts and cries to the office staff and then I am the big bad guy!  I get sent back to my cave down in the youth room for scaring a sweet, little girl.

Anyhow, the kind of fear that I am talking about is manufactured fear.  For the past 8 weeks I have looked forward to Sundays more so than usual.  Is it because I get to see all my favorite teenagers throughout the day? Is it because I get to hang out with the coolest adults ever who lead our small groups? Well, yes to all that but these past 8 weeks I was also able to look forward to getting home and turning on my TV at 9PM to watch the latest episode of “The Walking Dead”.  Now that season 3 is officially over I promise to be a good pastor and watch “The Bible” series now.  It is on my DVR.  But people, my March Madness has been “The Walking Dead”.  This show provides great story telling with occasional zombie attacks.  Perfect television for me.  Just imagine how much better television shows would be if they all included random zombie attacks!  The Bachelor? Dance Moms? What many of you don’t know, for those of us who are really insane fans of The Walking Dead, is that there is another full, one-hour program right after called “The Talking Dead”.  For one hour, they dissect the story line and all the events that just happened.  I love it!  But a part of the benefit of this program is that you realized how they manufacture fear.  You get to see how they shoot certain scenes.  What they use to make blood and guts.  How they turn an actor into a zombie.

Now let’s try to transition into our Bible story.  We just celebrated Easter.  Jesus faced death on the cross, he took on the weight of the sins of the world, he overcame temptation and defeated Satan.  But the story did not end with the cross.  He rose again and defeated death once and for all.  He established his kingdom here and now.  Victory is his. Now he is taking back the territory that the devil thought he owned.  Where does he begin? With the very people who abandoned him at his arrest. 

As our story begins it is very important to recognize just where exactly are the disciples.  They are hiding.  Behind closed and locked doors.  They are afraid.  This is not a manufactured fear but a real fear that they have given themselves over to.  They are afraid of the religious leaders who were so zealous to work the crowds against Jesus and bring about his crucifixion.  They were afraid of the Roman government who seemed to cave to the demands of the people in order to maintain their control.  They were afraid of the common people who might recognized them and point them out to others who might feel free to persecute them.  They were in fear for their very lives.

But then, all of a sudden, Jesus appears to them.  They knew his body was not in the tomb, but at this moment they weren’t sure what to think.  Now with the doors locked, Jesus all of a sudden is there.  Are there new properties to Christ’s physical resurrected body? It is very possible.  But I think the bigger lesson here is that no locked door is going to prevent Jesus from entering in.  Because the disciples chose to hide in fear, they missed the greatest event ever, the resurrection of Christ!  Their fear of the world prevented them from seeing what God was doing so as to be a witness to His resurrection. 
And I also find it interesting what Jesus says to them over and over again.  I remember learning in seminary that often times in Scripture when you see something repeated 3 times it is very, very important!  Jesus three times says, “Peace to you.” 

The first time Jesus says this, it helps the disciples to understand who the source of peace ultimately is, Jesus.  All the disciples just went through an experience that was anything but peaceful.  They were in fear for their lives.  They were afraid of a gory, horrific, agonizing death just like they knew Jesus went through.  But now Jesus stands before them alive!  As painful as all that was, Jesus ultimately defeated death!  He was a visible demonstration that there was no longer any reason to fear death.  He defeated it!

The second time points the disciples in the direction of where they are to take this peace: “Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” They are all hiding behind closed and locked doors.  They have disconnected themselves from the outside world.  Jesus was there to bust open the door and send them out in many directions as a visible demonstration of God’s peace and love.

And the third time is to help them understand that even in the face of doubt, there is peace.  We trust in the accounts of those who were there and wrote about it.  But as we live our lives in the 21st century it is easy to be just like the disciples and hide in fear and doubt when we look at the world.  It is easy to cave into the divisions and dissentions that stoke fear in people.

In case you haven’t noticed lately, the very things that we enjoyed in science-fiction stories as kids are now becoming reality as adults!  Han Solo and Chewbacca saved the Rebel Force on the planet Hoth by attacking the Imperial drone that was scouting out the planet.  Now we hear stories of drone technology, robots, war machines and Google glasses that will be able to track our every move.  There are even those who are celebrating the year 2045 as the date of the Singularity.  Computer technology will be so advanced that you will be able to take all the information from your brain and put it onto a computer chip, then when your physical body dies you put the chip into a synthetic body and live forever.  Then all our brains can be connected into one collective consciousness.  This is the futurist’s idea of eternal life through science!  It sounds like another horror movie to me.  It increasingly is becoming a strange, strange world that we live in.  Technology is moving so fast that we don’t even have the time to ask ethical and moral questions as to whether we should or should not be pursuing this.

We live in a culture that is just saturated in fear.  People are buying up guns and ammunition like crazy because of fear; either fear of a made-up bad guy that they imagine, fear of the government (who by the way has science-fiction type weapons now!), fear of the unknown, and there are even people who truly believe in being prepared for a zombie apocalypse.  Of which any zombie expert would know that guns would only make the matter worse because the sound would attract even more zombies.  You need a good sword or crossbow to quietly defend yourself against roaming zombies! Duh!  There are many understandable reasons why a person may buy a gun but when the driving force is fear, we really need to be honest with ourselves that that really does say a lot about the nature of our faith, our culture and our society.

We have good Christians around the world who have to deal with fear all the time due to persecution.  I am not talking about some lame “war on Christmas or Easter” as if the American Church is being persecuted.  I am talking about the Christians in Egypt, India and Iran; the Christians all throughout the Middle East who suffer and face death for their beliefs.

The fact is that we live in a world that at times seems to be going completely insane.  Do we give into that insanity? Do we allow the fear to penetrate our hearts and control our thinking?  Do we hide behind closed doors with locks thinking that we are sheltering ourselves from an evil world out there? 

Jesus told his disciples to take his peace and open up that door and go out into the world and be visible demonstrations of God’s peace.  The church is called to be counter-culture when it comes to fear. 

I will be straight up with all of you.  I do not want to die.  I want to live a full life and then have Jesus return so I do not have to deal with a physical death.  But the fact of our faith entirely hinges on one event: THE RESSURECTION!  Jesus defeated death.  He triumphed over sin.  He empowers us to be his kingdom people.  Come death, disease, war, terrorism, or even a zombie attack, through the power of the Holy Spirit, death will not have the final say, but one day I will live in God’s Kingdom with a resurrected body.  It is in knowing this power, this outcome, this victory that helps us understand how to live in peace when there is so much around us that screams out just the opposite.

Many of the disciples were transformed when they finally understood this.  They lived lives of courage and conviction spreading the message of God’s love and peace wherever the Holy Spirit directed them.  Many of them died a martyr’s death just like Jesus.  They overcame their fear with a peace that transcends all understanding. 

 In closing let me remind you what Paul said to the church at Philippi who must have been struggling with this very thing.  He says to them in chapter 4, verse 7:  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The grand and mighty peace of God, that transcends our puny little, limited-knowledge-filled minds, this all-encompassing peace will guard our heart, the center of our emotions, and our minds, the center of our intellect and rational thought, and keep us focused on Jesus.
For Lent I gave up something that was an important part of my morning.  I regularly would watch Good Morning America.  But I was beginning to realize just how much negativity was in the news and it would always start off my day focused on all of the fearful issues that made headlines.  I wanted to push all that aside for 40 days and give up the morning to focus more on Bible reading and prayer.  It definitely helped me be more focused at the beginning of the day on Christ instead of the latest crisis. 

Do not let the insanity of our world out there rob you of the peace that can only come from God.  Do not let your self-worth be determined by cultural standards.  Instead, realize that God has invited you into His Story.  He is sending you out to show an insane culture that it is possible to live in love and peace despite the latest news headlines.  Our inner peace will not be provoked by the constant stream of news.  Our peace will not allow us to run and hide behind things that give us some false assurance that we are safe.  Our peace comes directly from God who is the author and finisher of our faith.  He has defeated death and now offers eternal life to all who believe in his one and only Son.  Do you have that peace? Do you want to have that supernatural peace in your life? If so, give your fears over to God and open your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit’s power to transform your fears into peace.  Amen.

God's Story: The Church

God’s Story: The Church

1: We spent the whole year looking at God’s Story.

2: It began with a perfect creation

3: humans living in perfect love with God

4: Then sin entered into the world and changed everything

5: God did not give up though

3: He found a way

1: He began by calling out Abraham to follow him

2: From Abraham came the nation of Israel and the Law given to Moses

4: But sin always had a way to keep people separate from God

1-5: UNTIL

3: The Son of God came to do what all of us were unable to do

2: Live a perfect life

4: And give himself as a sacrifice once and for all for our sins

1: Jesus died, but then rose again, defeating death

5: He empowered his followers to continue the work that he began.

1: He told them,

2: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

3: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,

4: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

5: and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

1: And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

5: At another moment with his followers he spoke to them saying

4: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;

3: and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,

2: and in all Judea and Samaria, 

1: and to the ends of the earth.”

3: Wait one minute! Why doesn’t he just stay here and do this?!?!

4: I would think that people would be more inclined to follow him rather than ME!

2: Then before all his followers Jesus ascends into heaven promising to return one day.

1: Now WHAT?!?!

5: Well, Jesus did tell us to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

2: Pentecost came and so did the Holy Spirit.

3: Miracles happened.

4: People spoke in different languages spreading the message of Christ rapidly

1: Peter gave his first sermon to the crowd.

5: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

3: Over 3,000 people accepted Peter’s message.

2: Believers began meeting together.

4: Through these communities they were able to devote themselves to

1: teaching

2: praying

3: eating together

4: helping each other out if anyone had need

5: praising God and enjoying the favor of all people. 

3: But eventually persecution broke out.

4: Steven was murdered for his beliefs

2: Saul began hunting down Christians and putting them in jail

1: But then Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus

5: Saul converted

4: He changed his name to Paul

3: Everyone heard about this but were afraid

2: This is just a trick to get Christians to come out from hiding!

1: Don’t trust him!  It’s a trap!

4: But one person showed him grace.  His name was Barnabus

3: His very name means “Son of encouragement”

2: Paul and Barnabus worked together on mission trips to start faith communities

1: What started in Jerusalem spread all the way to Rome

5: People’s lives being transformed by the Spirit of God

2: For 20 centuries so many people have come before us to continue the work of    Christ.

4: Christianity spread throughout the Middle East

3: Christianity made its way through England and Africa

1: And eventually the message of Christ made it to America

2: Many people have given their lives to spread the message of God’s love

3: Many sacrifices were made to see this truth get into the hearts and minds of all   people

4: Christians have been persecuted

5: Some have been executed

3: Some have been marginalized as ignorant, stupid and dangerous.

1: But now this precious message has been handed down to you!

2: The message and mission of Christ has been carefully handed down from generation to generation

3: And now it is given to you!

4: What does this mean? 

5: How does this affect who you are?

3: Consider what the Bible teaches us about our identity in Christ!

1: In Christ you are…

2: Godʼs beloved child (John 1:12; Ephesians 1:5)

3: Christʼs dear friend (John 15:5)

4: Declared perfectly righteous (“justified”) (Romans 5:1)

5: Free from condemnation (Romans 8:1; Colossians 2:14-16)

4: United with Christ, “one spirit” with Christ (I Corinthians 6:17; Ephesians 5:31)

3: A member of Christʼs body (I Corinthians 6:15, 12:27)

2: The Temple of God (I Corinthians 6:19)

1: Filled with the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19)

2: A “holy one” [saint] (Ephesians 1:1)

3: Blessed with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3)

4: Holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4)

5: Bought with an infinite price and forgiven (I Cor. 6:20; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)

4: Bathed with wisdom and understanding (Ephesians 1:8)

3: The recipient of an eternal, infinitely rich, inheritance (Ephesians 1:11, 18)

2: Possessed with the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16)

1: Inseparable from Godʼs love (Romans 8:35-39)

2: One who will NEVER be abandoned (Matthew 28:20)

3: The beautiful bride of Christ who “ravishes” the heart of God (S. of S., 4:1, 6:4)

4: One over whom the Lord rejoices, sings and claps his hands (Zephaniah 3:17)

5: One for whom the Lord throws a party (Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:7-10)

4: A recipient of Godʼs own peace (John 14:27)

3: Filled with the peace and joy of God (Romans 14:17)

2: One in whom Christʼs joy is fulfilled (John 15:11)

1: Given direct access to the Father by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18)

2: Seated with Christ in heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6)

3: The writer of Hebrews reminds us of all those throughout history who have come before us

1: Those who continued the work and mission of God to bring it to this point and time

5: And then the writer tells us

2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,

4: All of those believers who have come before us,

3: let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.

5: Don’t get tangled up by sin but have the discipline to say no to those things which will hurt me.

1: And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 

3: the spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint.  We must pace ourselves for all of life.

2: fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

4: So many things try to divert our attention. We must stay focused on Christ

5: For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, 

1: and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

4: What appeared to be the defeat of Christ at the cross,

2: God was able to bring victory through his resurrection.

3: And now all authority has been given to him.

5: Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

4: The Christ-filled life is not always easy.

3: Our loyalty to Him will be challenged

2: People will often let you down

1: Life can just be really hard sometimes

3: But God has not left us alone

5: We have the same power within us that Jesus had throughout his lifetime

1: The Holy Spirit can transform us to be more and more like Christ

2: The Holy Spirit can use us in ways we could never have even imagined

3: The Holy Spirit can forgive us when make mistakes

4: The Holy Spirit can give us gifts that can be a blessing to so many people

5: The future of the church rests on our shoulders

3: The mission of Christ has been entrusted to you!

1: You have been invited to be a main character in the continuing saga of God’s Story!

2: What will the newest chapter look like? How will you make a difference?

4: Let’s Pray

PASTOR: Dear Lord.  We thank you for writing such a beautiful story, a story filled with your love reaching out to us.  We thank you for making a way for us to be invited into your story in such an amazing way.  I pray that we would fully give ourselves to your love.  I pray that we would see ourselves as you see us – as the full expression of Christ to this generation.  Help us all to fully live into our faith.  May we be given the same power that you had to change the world.  I pray that you would raise up from this youth group pastors, teachers, musicians, missionaries; a community of people full of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.  May our actions and the way we live our lives attract people to you!  Give us a global vision for how we can change our world beginning with right here, right now. Amen