As a church family we just wrapped up our summer teaching series Forgotten Family highlighting some lesser known characters in the biblical story. We studied men and women like Uzziah and Deborah, Lydia and Philemon.
There is another character in the biblical story that is often overlooked. Someone who is mentioned on the very first page and the very last page of the Bible who is often overlooked or misunderstood. It is the Holy Spirit! There is even a book about the Holy Spirit titled The Forgotten God.
One of the most central, defining truths of Christianity is the belief in a Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God. Three Persons. But Christians often functionally binitarian — speaking, teaching, and living primarily as if God were only Father and Son. Or we operate with a different Trinity; the Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures.
In our teaching series The Story of the Holy Spirit we want to get to know the Spirit better. We want to follow His story through the pages of Scripture. We want to discover His work in creation, in giving new life, in giving gifts and empowering us for works for service and love on Sunday and Monday.
The only Christian life is a life that has been made new by the Holy Spirit, baptized by the Holy Spirit, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and filled by the Holy Spirit. If you have placed your faith and hope in Jesus, all of these things are true of you!
It is a bit like doing genealogical research and discovering that you are descended from royalty. That was always true of you even before you knew it or understood it. But now that you know it, it can change everything about how you view yourself and your story.
Together we want to know the Spirit more deeply and learn to live more fully in the life the Spirit gives. The Spirit’s story bookends the biblical story. But where is He in our story? Join us as we follow the Spirit’s story through the Bible and into our lives.
I love the moment of insight. The moment when someone — a friend, speaker, writer, artist — gives you fresh language, a more vivid metaphor, or clearer categories which help you make sense of the world and our place in it. Often insight is not even seeing something brand new but seeing something you thought you always knew in a new way.
This happened to me when I was reading Jay Stranger’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing. It is one of the best books I’ve read on the topic of addressing unwanted sexual behavior in your story. But some of the insights I gained can be applied much more broadly than to the specific issues Jay addresses in the book.
In the opening pages of Unwanted, Jay introduces the categories of “honor” and “honesty.” He explains that in the Bible people’s stories are always addressed with both honor and honesty. Think about Abraham or Miriam or David. Abraham is held up as the pattern of faith. He believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. But we are also told about his massive failures: lying about being married to his wife — twice, failing to trust God to provide a child through his wife and instead getting Hagar, an Egyptian slave pregnant. Miriam rescues her baby brother Moses from death at the hands of Pharaoh. She is a leader and prophetess. But she also rebels against Moses and as a result is afflicted with leprosy. David slays Goliath. He’s called a man after God’s own heart and is held up as the ideal Israelite king. We also know he is guilty of murder and adultery, and has some pretty massive parenting fails.
The Bible is honoring and honest in the way it tells these stories. Jay Stranger argues there is something here that we cannot miss. Writing in a 2018 article for Outreach Magazine, he makes this observation:
Many families and faith communities have embraced the lie that if we are honest, we could not truly honor, and if we honored someone, it would certainly come at the cost of honesty. When given the choice between honesty and honor, I find that most of my clients are naturally bent, to some degree, to be dishonest about what they have experienced in their families. They favor a type of pseudo-honor and present a rosier picture to themselves and others.
It is only when we can hold honor and honesty together that we can see the undistorted, unfiltered picture. It’s a bit like editing a photo on your phone. If you slide the contrast way up, some elements of the picture get clearer but the photo looks darker, more sinister. If you turn the contrast way down, the picture is lighter but also washed out and distorted.
If we are going to find healing in the gospel for our stories, we need to approach our stories and the stories of our history with both honor and honesty.
How might these categories of honor and honesty help us not only attend to what God is doing in our individual stories but also in our collective historical story as a country?
Can we, the church, model the practice of telling the stories of our faith family and national heritage with honor and honesty? Not papering over or ignoring the ugly parts, the sinful parts, the parts that need telling no matter how painful the telling. And can we do this while also honoring the good, beautiful, lovely, inspiring, praiseworthy elements of the story too?
It is too easy — and frankly intellectually irresponsible — to only do one or the other. We must do both.
In this cultural moment some of us may feel there is too much honor and not nearly enough honesty. Others of us may feel that the honor of the church and the country is being tarnished and discarded. Toward the end of his article, Jay asks us to reflect:
Who taught you that it would be better to honor someone than to tell the truth with kindness and strength? Who taught you that it would be better to tell someone a brazen truth than to bring truth with deep respect for the other?… A genuine mark of maturity is the ability to hold two simultaneous truths together at the same time. The writers of Scripture recognized that honesty and honor should never be separated.
As gospel people, Christians have the resources — in Jesus, in the cross and resurrection, in baptism and communion — to hold together honor and honesty. We can agree fully with John Newton, writer of “Amazing Grace,” who declared: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Honor and honesty. Fully known. Fully loved. Fully exposed. Fully forgiven.
The local church’s greatest vulnerability is the same as the greatest vulnerability of musk oxen in the Arctic. What? Stay with me. Recently my kids and I watched the National Geographic special The Kingdom of the White Wolf. It follows a pack of white wolves as they struggle to survive in the harsh arctic wilderness.
One of the most powerful scenes is the wolves’ attempt
to hunt a herd of musk oxen. At the first sign of the wolves, the musk oxen immediately form what is called a rosette — a defensive circle.
This rosette formation is impossible for the wolves to defeat. Each musk ox weighs as much as 10 wolves. On every side, all the wolves see are massive heads studded with sharp horns.
The wolves only have one strategy to defeat this impenetrable formation: fear and stampede. As long as the oxen stand firm together the wolves are helpless. The only way the wolves get a meal is if they stir up enough fear to start a stampede. Fear fragments the herd and causes chaos. As soon as the fear takes over, disunity sets in, panic grows, the herd divides, and the wolves eat.
Friends, our greatest threat in 2021 is disunity fueled by fear. When the church stands together in unity it is an impenetrable fortress against the Evil One. But the moment we allow disunity to creep in, we are deeply vulnerable.
There are only two options for us this year: fall apart or stand together.
Option 1: Fall apart in division
Let’s look at the first option: fall apart in division. This is Satan’s goal. He is a roaring lion looking for church communities to destroy (1 Peter 5:8). He knows his only chance to feast on the vulnerable of the church is to cause disunity fueled by fear and suspicion.
The church has always faced challenges of division — over which teachers and preachers they like best (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), over culture, ethnicity, theology and missiology (Acts 15:1-41), and over interpersonal conflicts (Philippians 4:1-3) — to give just a few biblical examples. And this past year we could add to the list: masks, elections, economics, vaccines, and whether baby Yoda eating those eggs was adorable or horrible!
This past year I have watched disunity fueled by fear threaten the mission and witness of the church at large, and yes, even at times threaten Christ Community.
How do we respond to this threat? How to keep from succumbing to fragmentation and chaos? How do we stop the lion?
Option 2: Stand together in unity
We stop the lion the same way the musk oxen stop the wolves. We stand together in unity. Not in a diversity-erasing uniformity. No. We stand together in a division-healing, enemy-reconciling love. Listen to these words from the Apostle Paul who is calling the Ephesians (and us!) back to ourselves, back to the unity we have in Jesus because of the cross:
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6 CSB 2017)
That gospel oneness then empowers us to stand together against evil. Look at what Paul writes later in Ephesians chapter six. Note that Paul is addressing the church as a whole, not just speaking to an individual. The commands are plural.
Finally, (you all) be strengthened by the Lord and by his vast strength. (You all) Put on the full armor of God so that you (all) can STAND against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. For this reason (you all) take up the full armor of God, so that you (all) may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your STAND. (You all) STAND, therefore, with truth like a belt around your waist, righteousness like armor on your chest, and your feet sandaled with readiness for the gospel of peace. (Ephesians 6:10–15 CSB 2017)
So how do we stand together in 2021? I believe there are three key ways. We stand together in…
- Humble dependence. Standing together begins by recognizing we need one another. As long as we live life as though we don’t need one another, that we are fine on our own, disunity will triumph every time. Unity is based on a shared identity with Jesus born of a humility that recognizes our deep need for Him and one another.
- Spirit-empowered effort. Standing together is not passive. Several years ago I got a standing desk, which I love! But you quickly realize that using a standing desk takes effort — a lot of effort. Sitting is passive. There’s a reason Paul doesn’t say, “Sit, therefore, with truth like a belt around your waist…” Standing takes work. Unity takes effort. A lot of effort! Paul tells us to make “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The good news is this effort is empowered by the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
- Patient persistence. Time is on our side. The victory has been secured. The enemy is doomed. The wolves will leave every time if the musk oxen will just wait, just stand firm together. It is when in impatience and fear the herd loses its steadfastness that the stampede starts. The oxen are so much more powerful than the wolves if they stand together and don’t give in. So are we.
Bottomline: musk oxen fight and win by standing firm and so do we. So, Christ Community, in 2021 let these words of blessing from Romans 15 be our prayer for the church:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6 ESV)
Happy New Year, brothers and sisters! Let’s be like the musk oxen and stand together.
How could anyone not want to go to heaven? That was the question blaring in my mind as I sat across from a five year old girl that morning in Sunday school. When I was in middle school, I volunteered in the five year old Sunday school classroom. I don’t remember much about that class, but I do remember that day when the pastor’s daughter declared loudly and emphatically that she did not want to go to heaven.
When I asked her why, she said something about being bored and not liking having to go to church all the time. I tried talking her into the idea of liking heaven. But I found myself at a little bit of a loss to say anything more substantive than heaven was better than the alternative and surely it would be better than she thought. I don’t think I convinced her.
I continued to think about that conversation for a long time. Of course wanting to go to heaven was “the right answer,” but if I was honest with myself I had the same thought as that five year old: What if heaven was boring? There is so much I want to do here and now. For many of us I suspect this Far Side cartoon captures our expectations about heaven pretty well:
But maybe we haven’t been willing to admit to ourselves that we just aren’t that excited about heaven. I guess kids—and Gary Larson—are just most honest about that sort of stuff than a lot of adults.
It wasn’t until over a decade later that my imagination for “heaven” was rescued from the eneminc “…Wish I’d brought a magazine” caricature to the full-blood biblical vision of the New Heavens and New Earth. Two things happened. First, I was utterly captivated by N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. Wright helped me at last see what was in the Bible rather than just importing vague ideas I picked up from pop culture, classic art, and homespun theology. Second, I took a class on C.S. Lewis from professor Christopher Mitchell. I’d never met someone who had thought with such detail and clarity about the reality of the New Heavens and New Earth—or who lived with such contagious anticipation of them.
This Advent season, we are going to take an imagination-baptising look at what the Bible promises about heaven. We’ll address questions like…
- What will heaven be like?
- Will I have a body? What will it be like?
- Will I know people in heaven?
- Where is heaven?
- Why believe in heaven?
- Is believing in heaven escapist? Does it distract us from the work of here and now?
…and many more.
From the earliest days of the Christian church, Advent has been a season of waiting and preparation. It was a time to prepare for the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ first coming. Now kids make paper chains counting down the days until they can open the presents under the tree, and we mark the time with Advent calendars.
It is also a time to remember and look forward to Jesus’ promise that He would come again and make all things new, to unite heaven and earth. But what is heaven? And when we wait for heaven, just what exactly are we waiting for?
This Advent season let’s look together at what the Bible says about heaven, about what we are waiting for.