Theological Thoughts

The Meaning of Lent

What is Lent? we may ask. Every year as we enter into this season, we need to look at it afresh. It’s a season of profound healing to many; a season filled with echoes of forgiveness. Lent is the penitential season of the Church. Lent is the purple of royalty. Lent is the desert before the promised land of the Resurrection. Lent is the wilderness prison for Israel and simultaneously the way out of the wilderness. Lent teaches of the incurable disease of sin and yet the cure for sin. Lent is the long wait Jacob endured for Rachel. Lent is the “Thus saith the Lord,” when the devil whispers, “Who said ye shall be like God?” Lent is the sacrifices of incomplete priests and the exile of a perfect man so that we might be set free. Lent is the love of injustice poured on a just Man. Lent is fasting with hope. Lent is giving up idols and turning to the true icon of God, Jesus Christ. Lent is finding joy in the midst of suffering. Lent is loving without expecting to be loved. Lent is death. Lent is death to us. Lent is repenting and being forgiven. Lent is exploring your weakness. Lent is judging yourself first. Lent is John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord with locusts for the unjust and honey for the just.

Lent is a pattern for redemption. Lent is God moving his people from desert to city, from ruin to a new civilization. Lent is obedience through sacrifice, love through death.

And in this season, we are called to do life together in these next 40 days not because we wish to earn Christ’s sacrifice but because Christ’s sacrifice took away our ability to earn him. If Jesus had not died, we would still be 2,000 years later seeking to earn the way to the Father. But we cannot earn what has been earned for us. If fasting or ashes or any such thing made us acceptable, Lent would be a wasteful experience. Lent is fruitful for us because Jesus has been fruitful and multiplied in his death.

Lent is active. Are we invested in destroying evil or being deceived by evil? Killing sin so that sin does not kill us? In actively seeking Jesus or sitting passively waiting for a mystical experience? In waiting to serve or seeking to serve? Pursuing righteousness or waiting for righteousness to bump into you? Lent is actively pursuing the relief of others. Lent is giving up childish ways and embracing the ways of Calvary.

Lent is contemplative. How often have we meditated on the truth that God is for us because of the cross? He is for us. Like a father is for his child; like a mother who praises her daughter; like a satisfied teacher with his student; yes, in those ways, but so much more. He is for us even though it cost his life; he is for us even though it would shake the very universe he created. He is for us even though we were not for him: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

Contemplate the God-is-with-us theme of Lent. For God so loved the world that he sent his son to be for us.

Why Lent? Because Lent takes away our arrogance. It instills a sense of need. It builds a habit of dependence. It prepares our wounds to be healed by Another. Lent is the power of Another to do what we cannot do for ourselves. We need Lent because without it Christ is no king, we are no people, and life is no gift. We all must take up our cross and follow the Christ of the cross. In Him we move, and live and have our being.

 

 

Exhortation for Communion

This table means that help has come; that we are not left to wander alone in agony and grief, but that Christ has provided a rich banquet for his people. The evil of Adam’s banquet is replaced with the good food of Christ’s accomplishments. In him we have freedom from bondage and deliverance through his blood. The bondage of the first Adam has been undone through the final Adam, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!

Poetry and the Birmingham Jail

Poetry and the Birmingham Jail

Poetic preaching filled with the romance of the biblical text has been substituted for laborious lectures fixed on the iotas of the larger story while losing the story itself. As one who speaks for a living, I ask one simple thing of other speakers: “Does the speaker draw me into the truth he is proclaiming?” The same can be applied to reading. I read a lot, but I love to underline and re-read lines that create a poetic resonance; like a refrain from a great hymn. As I read through Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I was reminded of this poetic treasure:

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

King’s use of Hebrew poetry and creational language cause this linguistic earthquake in the reader. It doesn’t take time to create long sentences and sermons; it takes time to put together beautiful words and create a memorable sentence. The job of the rhetorical revolutionary is not to give the world more words, but to give the world more meaning through words.

On this day, use words carefully, beautifully, and work to communicate gracefully. Opine strongly about a topic or cause you cherish, but articulate artistically for the sake of others.

Wine Tasting Prayer

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Holy God, we celebrate the conclusion of another Christmas season. We thank you for these twelve days which cannot begin to exhaust the inexhaustible gift of the Virgin Birth of the World’s Messiah. We thank you that even now the world is being cleansed from the infestation of sin. We give you thanks, blessed Lord, that we have been incorporated into that glorious family of God where Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free are made on. We thank you for love, life, food, drink, Word, sacraments, rituals and fellowship. We thank you for the peace, yes, even the numerical growth you have given us at Providence. And indeed we know that growth can only be sustained as your Gospel and your peace prevails.

May we remember that because of the incarnation, we have life and life more abundantly. Bless our friendships; take joy, O God, in our joy for you created us to reflect the blissful harmony of the Trinitarian community: Father, Son, and Spirit.

We thank you for the wine we will be tasting, for the food we will be enjoying and the love we will share. In the garden, you gave us of all good things, and even though our first parents sinned, yet you continued to bless your righteous servants. We remember that Noah began a new world by planting a vineyard; we remember Isaac who believing he was blessing Esau actually blessed Jacob with “plenty of grain and wine.”

Our God, not only did you create wine, but commanded that it be included as a necessary part of the sacrifices that your people offered (Ex. 29:38, 40;Lev. 23:13;Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7). Wine was part of feasts (Dt. 14:22-26) and a prerequisite to “rejoicing in your presence.” The Psalmist declares that wine is given to gladden our hearts, and indeed may our hearts be glad, for enjoying your good gifts is what we are called to do in this world and for all eternity. Wine even gladdens your own heart, O God, which speaks of how much we resemble our Creator.

With thanksgiving we remember that the greater Noah, Jesus Christ saw fit to turn water into wine, and by doing so making wine the Christian drink in the New Creation. Grant us hearts filled with gratitude for you drank the sour wine at the cross, so that we might drink the sweetness of the wine in the new world you established by your resurrection. For this, we bless you and thank you for no man can take this joy from us, because of our King, Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin and now rules and reigns with the Father and the Spirit world without end. Amen.

 

Bathing Resolutions

If these resolutions have any chance of surviving beyond January, it needs to be bathed in the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus needs to be king over our resolutions. Our desire to do that which is good needs to be first and foremost a desire to do what is good for the kingdom. As we end this year, may we come boldly before the throne of grace for it is in bread and wine that grace is given and communicated to God’s people. If you are baptized in the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, you are invited to eat and drink with God’s people.

What I Learned from R.C. Sproul

What I Learned from R.C. Sproul

I recall meeting Dr. R.C. Sproul for the first time. He was sitting with his wife Vesta and a few other scholars at lunch. A friend took me there and introduced me to him. “How are you, young man?” he asked. I didn’t respond to his question. Instead, I uttered with all the courage I could muster: “Thank you for your ministry.” Indeed I was thankful and still am.

Dr. R.C. Sproul died on the 14th of December, 2017. He died the year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I have read the many tributes to Dr. Sproul in these last several days. Some of them written by people I know well and who worked closely with Dr. Sproul. Death provides a time of reflection. Sproul’s death at the age of 78 brought back many memories of my days in Orlando. His influence continues in my library. I have dozens of his books and an unending selection of Tabletalks magazines and almost a gigabyte of his audio lectures. His legacy will live on for generations to come.

Introduction to R.C. Sproul

I lived in Pennsylvania in the late 90’s. I had arrived to study a year in America. The evenings were cold in December. The only distraction I had at night was an old radio that worked half the time. One particular night, I turned on the radio to the sound of Handel’s Messiah. The lecturer was clear and poetic in his delivery. I listened intently for 20 minutes or so to a lecture on Augustine. “You’ve been listening to Renewing Your Mind with Dr. R.C. Sproul,” the voice concluded after each episode. I retired to my room early every evening to hear his talks.

Though my curiosity increased with each year, my commitments to my synergistic theology prevailed. I could not embrace a theology that took away my liberty to have a voice in my spiritual condition. The following winter I returned to Pennsylvania for Christmas. It was there that I read Michael Horton’s “Putting Amazing Back into Grace.” His brilliant analysis of John’s gospel pierced me and persuaded me to put down my lingering hesitations of Reformed Theology.

Returning to college after changing my convictions gave me a tremendous sense of liberty to explore and read unhindered by traditions. I immediately read “The Holiness of God” and “Chosen by God” and experienced the closest thing to a revivalistic episode. I was awed as Isaiah was in chapter 6. I cried with the new knowledge of a God who was far more glorious and powerful than I ever believed.

In his 1986 book, Lifeviews, Sproul began with these striking words: “We are all missionaries.” Throughout the book, he labored in thorough style to make a case for the Christian involvement in society. R.C. was an old-fashioned Kuyperian. God created every atom, and therefore every atom had God’s creative tattoo on them. This insatiable hunger to proclaim the exhaustive nature of God’s sovereignty drove much of R.C.’s ministry, and I delighted more and more as I sat under his teaching from afar.

My Time in Orlando

After I had finished college, I had already drunk deeply of the Reformed well. I was attending a PCA church deeply influenced by Dr. Sinclair Fergunson. I had the luxury of sitting under some of the finest Reformed thinkers alive. The Church had an abundance of wealth, and they used that wealth to educate the congregation with the best scholars alive. It was there where I engaged Dr. Jerry Bridges on numerous occasions (may he rest in God’s peace) and many others who were kind enough to talk to a zealous student.

As my time to choose a seminary approached, my church encouraged me to attend a seminary in Philadelphia. But by then I had already consumed a significant portion of R.C. Sproul’s material. I intently listened to the lectures available and was convinced I wanted to study wherever he was. At the time, it happened to be in Fort Lauderdale. He was an adjunct professor, as I recall. I eagerly began the application process to Knox Theological Seminary, and the day I was to turn in my application two things happened: first, one of Knox’s most accomplished Old Testament professor, Dr. O. Palmer Robertson, decided to go to Africa to do mission’s work. I had heard him speak at my PCA church and very much wanted to sit under his teaching in South Florida. But the second, to my great sadness, was that Dr. R.C. Sproul had a stroke. The stroke signaled his shift from the academic world to something closer to home.

These two coinciding news led me to dismiss my interest in Knox and look elsewhere. I had already visited Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and decided not to attend because they were committed to Van Tilianism. As I mentioned, my academic allegiance was for Sproul, and Sproul a Van Tilian was not. I had read Classical Apologetics twice by then and had virtually memorized the conversation at the end of the book between a classicist and a Van Tilian. I had used it many times against my Presuppositional friends.

The one seminary I had not considered– perhaps it remained hidden because it was so close– was Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Once I learned Dr. Sproul had situated himself in the Orlando area, I thought I could have the best of both worlds: attend a world-class seminary and sit under R.C.’s preaching. And so I did initially. We visited St. Andrews in Sanford, and I began my journey at RTS. For a variety of reasons, we decided to find a closer church. Still, we made the drive to Sanford for every special occasion at St. Andrews and whenever Sinclair Ferguson was speaking. R.C. referred to him as the “Braveheart of our generation.” Still, everything we did had Sproul’s imprint. My wife taught at a classical school started by R.C. Sproul. We attended a PCA church started by R.C. Sproul. The churches we visited early on had pastors influenced by R.C. Sproul. So, I found myself among friends.

I needed a job to help with some of my seminary bills, so naturally, I applied for a position at Ligonier. It was my first official job interview after college. I put on my best tie and drove to the Ligonier headquarters. The interview was bizarre, and the questions were so hypothetical that even one of the interviewers began to laugh. I did the best I could, though left uncertain of my future. It was only four weeks later that I decided to call them back and ask about the job. They told me they were not hiring at the time. I was truly disappointed. My dream of working in the same building with my theological hero fell apart.

The Providence of God

As a good Calvinist, I knew that all things were in God’s hands. I got a job elsewhere and invested myself wholeheartedly into my academic studies at RTS. It was there I was confronted with the awkward charm of Professor John Frame. Frame’s genius did not come through his teaching style. I don’t think anyone would say Frame was/is a captivating communicator. It was, instead, his thorough approach to philosophy and apologetics that drove the point decidedly home. Frame slowly and surely undid my classical apologetics and brought me to the methods of Cornelius

My theology at the time was harmonizing, and the classical apologetics didn’t fit any longer. Little by little Frame was dismantling my sense of neutrality and replacing it with a robust Creator/creature distinction. In other words, the fallen man was incapable of reasoning to God apart from special revelation. The classical arguments brought probability and not certainty. While everyone knew of R.C. Sproul’s Calvinism, most engaged students also knew of R.C.’s severe discomfort with Presuppositional apologetics. It was the first time I began to drift a little from my hero. My exposure to other schools of thought began to take me in a slightly different direction.

But my love for R.C. continued despite my change of theological direction. Many of my classmates worked at Ligonier or were interning at St. Andrews which kept me aware of things happening there. The beauty of it all is that I was able to sit under John Frame and benefit from Sproul in the same town on a frequent basis. It was an endless buffet of theological joy.

Sproul’s Lasting Influence

For those outside the Reformed community, it’s hard to grasp how diverse the Reformed world is. Sproul could preserve friendships with a broad range of Reformed thinkers though he was a unique figure in the Reformed world. As an example, he held to a classic view of Postmillennial eschatology. His book A Taste of Heaven argued for a high liturgy based on Old Covenant patterns. He favored the use of incense in worship. But none of these things defined him. What drew people to R.C. was his commitment to the doctrines of grace, his dogmatic assertion that a man is justified by faith alone, his influential lectures and writings on the holiness of God, and his ability to take the profound and make it understandable for the laity.

As I ponder this giant’s influence in my own life, I conclude with three lessons gained. Perhaps I could gather 100 into a lengthy article, but these three jump at me:

First, R.C. modeled excellent Christian scholarship in writing and speech. It is a rare combination for one to write well and also communicate well. R.C. did both with great enthusiasm. I used to sit around hearing him interact with parishioners about the Pittsburgh Steelers–his cherished football team. I remember how much he knew about them and how he engaged the topic with such enthusiasm, that I, a non-football fan, felt the need to watch a Steelers’ game. He drew me into this topic in a way no one could.

Second, R.C. spoke the Gospel winsomely. It is not enough to talk about the truth. The people standing on a street corner waving Bibles shouting about God’s judgment are speaking the truth, but they are not speaking the truth in love. They are not drawing people to the message, but are perpetuating the idea that Christians are fundamentalists unwilling to engage and prone to shouting down the opposition.

Sproul communicated through the use of logic and rhetoric the beauty of God through a particular display of words and rhythms. He called people to repentance to a God who was beautiful and lovely. He drew people to difficult doctrines instead of driving them away. As a result, a multitude of saints today believe and cherish the glory of God in salvation because of Dr. Sproul’s winsome presentation.

Finally, Sproul taught me to love God. His God was my God. One lesson I hope to communicate to all those who inquire about Sproul in future years is that we are not speaking only of a theological titan, but a man who breathed and exhaled God’s glory each day of his life. He was our modern day Jonathan Edwards.

I remember listening in awe as R.C. worked through the Bible in his famous series From Dust to Glory. Now, Dr. Robert Charles Sproul will no longer taste the dust but will dwell in glory forever and ever amen.

Homily on Matthew 1:23: O, Come Immanuel

I wish to meditate just for a few moments on one text in Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew 1:23:

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

This singular text carries with it the force of redemptive history. The term “Immanuel” is used first in Isaiah’s prophecy. It appears three times in Isaiah. It’s Isaiah’s personal language for God. No other author uses it. And in fact, the majority of Isaiah’s prophecy of 66 chapters focuses on whether God is Immanuel or not. That is, is God with us or not? And Isaiah makes a case for how God is with us in the Old Testament, but it’s a shadowed presence. Yes, God appears, but then He goes away. Isaiah is prophesying a time when God will appear and never go away. The Jewish people grabbed on to this promise.

Matthew’s Gospel comes along centuries later and revives Isaiah’s term, Immanuel. In fact, only Matthew uses this term. It doesn’t show up anywhere else in the New Testament. The reason for this is that Matthew has a very special connection to the prophet Isaiah. One can say that Isaiah is Matthew’s mentor so that when Matthew writes his gospel he is very interested to let us know that God is no longer with us in a veiled fashion, but now in human form. As Charles Wesley observes: Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

Advent has to do with waiting for a presence, not an appearance; a human in the flesh, not a theophany. “Immanuel” speaks to the permanence of Messiah. There is a with-us dimension to the ministry of our Lord. The incarnation is an incarnation grounded in a with-us theology; the nearness of God.

The Advent Season is a meditation on God’s with-us attitude towards his creation. He chose to be with us. We do not worship a deistic God. We do not worship a God who created and abandoned, but a God who created and dwelt in it. His name is Immanuel. He is with us. What then is Emmanuel for us?

As the 15th-century hymn O, Come, O Come Emmanuel, attests, Emmanuel is the solution to our lonely exile: “that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” Emmanuel needs to appear, needs to be with us because we have lived in a foreign land for far too long. But when Immanuel comes he will take us to a new land; he will make us his home so that God is never away from us, but eternally with us.

We often sing only the first five verses, but there are seven verses to this great hymn. The sixth verse is the expectation of Israel put into tender and emotional words:

O Come, O bright and Morning Star,

And bring us comfort from afar!

Dispel the shadows of the night

And turn our darkness into light.

The reason we want Immanuel is not merely because of theological certainty, it’s also because of emotional security. If God is not Immanuel, we only hope for a distant deity; we may be theologically certain of God, but not emotionally connected to God. But if God is Immanuel—God with us—then our darkness turns into light and our well-being is secure. God is with us; our comforter has come.

 

 

 

 

A New Beginning

A New Beginning

All good things must come to an end. For those of you who are new to the Church calendar, we are coming to the end of the Church liturgical year. The Church year goes from Advent to Pentecost and today is the last Sunday of Pentecost, traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday.

You are going to see a change in liturgical colors, a new prayer of confession, our colors will change to purple, and we will also be introducing the Sanctus next Sunday, which is already very familiar to those of you who attend our Vespers’ Service. Beginning on December 3rd, we re-start the entire Church year and begin anew this cycle of expectation, coming, glory, and power.

Why do we go through this cycle again and again? We go through it because we love the Gospel. We love to see it embodied in a baby and we love to see it embodied in an exalted, resurrected King.

The Church Calendar for us is a glorious repetition of what the world was before Christ, what the world became after Christ, and what the world shall be in Christ. The end is coming, but a new beginning is near.

Postures in Revelation

Revelation is a worship service filled with music, prayers, and responses. Notable though, is the use of bodily postures in John’s description of heavenly worship. Almost in every instance, there is a reference to kneeling, bowing, standing, etc. In short, public worship demands bodily postures from the entire congregation.

Baptism of Little Ezra

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As a pastor, I have many privileges. Among them is to baptize little people. This past Sunday, I had the joy of baptizing my fourth boy, Ezra Alexander.

But this baptism is not a single event. It’s an unfolding event. Baptism is not a ticket to heaven, it’s a call to live heavenly. As the Apostle John says, Ezra is also being called to walk throughout his life in the way of obedient faith, and faithful obedience.