Category: Repentance

Prepare the Way for the Lord

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with an unquenchable fire.” ~Matthew 3

I love John the Baptist. I think all preachers love John the Baptist. All preachers want to be as bold and courageous in proclaiming the Gospel. All preachers want to be popular like John the Baptist. We all want to baptize as many people as he did. I think we can all relate to John the Baptist. He didn’t always wear what the people expected him to wear. And when he preached something the people didn’t want to hear, he got his head chopped off.

Only once, though. It only happened to him once.

We’re supposed to talk about John the Baptist during the Christmas season. It’s part of Advent. John the Baptist is the one proclaiming that the Christ is coming. But we never include John the Baptist in our Christmas sermons because it just doesn’t fit with the Christmas season. Not the way we like it, anyway. John the Baptist is loud, unpredictable, and rude. He’s like the crazy Uncle John we’d rather not show up for Christmas dinner. He greets the religious leaders in Matthew 3 by calling them a “brood of vipers!” How would you like to get that on the front of a Christmas card?

We want the soft, romantic glow of twinkling Christmas candles and John the Baptist is talking about an unquenchable apocalyptic fire! We want the baby Jesus in a manger, cooing softly at the docile barn animals around him — the Jesus Ricky Bobby is praying to in Talladega Nights — and John the Baptist gives us Jesus as a judge with an ax in one hand a pitchfork in the other!

The prayer of the early church was “Marana tha,” Lord, come quickly. That is not a prayer for Jesus to come again as a helpless infant; it’s the longing cry of God’s people for him to return in the fullness of his power and glory when every knee will bow in heaven and earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father! The prayer is for Jesus to come again to finally put an end to all sin and wickedness forever. The hope is that Jesus will make right all the things that are wrong, that he will finally fix everything that’s broken.

That’s not so scary to the poor and oppressed of this world. But, for those of us with a lot to lose? Maybe it’s a little scary.

John the Baptist is proclaiming a reality that’s coming, a reality that’s going to expose what you and I sometimes think is reality. The coming eternal reality is going to show just how false our earthly conditions and our human endeavors really are. The Holy One of Israel is going to expose all our pretensions for what they really are. In him is life and that life is the light of all people. And that light is going to shine in the darkness.

“Wait til the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of people’s hearts.” ~1 Corinthians 4:5

Luke 8 quotes Jesus as saying there is nothing hidden that won’t be disclosed; everything that’s concealed is going to be known and brought out into the open.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!”

John the Baptist is so completely blown away by the reality of the coming Christ. He sees right through the charades of this world and the roles we play and the lines we say and how precious all this is to us. He sees right through all of it to the sheer power and holiness of the coming Lord. John is pointing us to the future, not the past. He’s orienting us away from our religious rituals and toward the person of Jesus Christ; away from our present-day systems and structures to an utterly brand new authority and dominion of our King and his Kingdom.

It’s happening. John the Baptist is standing out in the desert, hip-high in the waters of the Jordan River, where the world’s resistance to God is meeting the irresistible force of God’s coming. The ax is already at the root of the trees. It’s happening. Get ready. You’d better re-think your priorities, you’d better re-order your lives.

How do we get ready? How do we prepare? Where the do the roads need straightening out? What fires need to be lit to burn away the garbage in his path? What dead trees need to be cut down? What roughness in your heart needs to be smoothed?

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It’s amusing to me how “research” and “data” comes out to prove what anybody who’s paying attention already knows. By simple observation — just by looking at the symptoms and the consequences — we all know that smart phones and mobile technology devices are killing us. Socially, mentally, emotionally, academically — it’s hard to find a serious person who believes smart phones make us better. But the research that proves the harmful effects of smart phone technology is just now beginning to come out.

Here’s a link to an article that contains links to some of the more recent studies. Science is telling us that 8-11-year-olds who spend more than two hours on their screens every day are demonstrating “lower cognitive function.” Our mobile devices and social media use share an “unfavorable relationship” with attention, memory, impulse control, and academic performance. Digital technology is proving to slow down the overall development of teenagers. And the smart phones are “stunningly addictive.”

Fascinating!

As the “proof” pours in, elite schools in the U.S. are now beginning to reduce or eliminate the screens in their classrooms. Where once our society feared a technological divide — the rich kids would have access to technology and all the advantages that come with it and the poor kids would not — now scientists and education experts are fearing the opposite. The students in less affluent schools are using the technology and screens and getting dumb while the students in the rich schools are learning without the technology and screens and getting smart.

Shocking!

What emoji do I use to communicate sarcasm?

Peace,

Allan

Good for the Soul

Has it been awhile since you openly and honestly confessed your sins to our Father? When’s the last time you got down on your knees, alone in the presence of our Holy God, and confessed your shortcomings and failures? These days between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday of Lent are a good time to re-engage this scriptural, historical practice.

Maybe you have a hard time getting started. If so, I would humbly suggest something like this. It’s both a terrible and beautiful experience for me. It’s devastating and liberating. Not easy at all, but needed. Desperately needed.

Block out twenty minutes when you can be totally alone with our Father. Not in the back bedroom of a crowded house, I mean in the back bedroom of an empty house. Totally alone. Nobody around. If you have to go to the shed in the backyard, do it.

Now, physically get down on your knees and physically open your hands with your palms up toward heaven. Now, just sit there in silence for a full five minutes — no cheating! —- in the presence of God. After those five minutes, read one of the penitential psalms to the Father out loud. I’m partial to Psalms 32 and 51, but you could go with Psalm 6, 38, 102, 130, or 143.

At this point, I am acutely aware of the presence of God and my own sinful soul. Like Peter, my first thoughts are, “Get away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” My feelings are like those of the prophets who proclaimed their own demise in God’s presence. I am ruined. I am dead. I am not worthy. And then I confess my sins out loud to God. And they are many.

I believe the silence and the physical posture of humility and prayer and the holy words of the psalms work together to prime the pump so that what’s in the deepest part of my soul comes gushing out.  It can’t be stopped. And it needs to come out. I need to be open and honest about my sins with my loving and forgiving Father. I need to experience his forgiveness and his blessing, his pardon and approval.

You do, too.

Whatever it takes. Don’t let Sunday come without spending some time in personal confession with our God.

If you need another suggestion, you might consider the words of this prayer of confession we prayed together with our brothers and sisters at First Presbyterian during yesterday’s Ash Wednesday service:

Holy and merciful God, I confess to you that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed by what I have done and by what I have left undone. Have mercy on me, O God, and in your mercy, cleanse me from all unrighteousness. Hear me now, as I continue to confess my sins to you…

Most Christian traditions begin every worship assembly with a time of corporate and personal confession. We don’t. We have to work on it. Now’s a good time.

Peace,

Allan

Turn and Live

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” ~Ezekiel 18:23

JesusHealsInCrowdThe Bible tells us God wants all men and women to be saved and to come to a knowledge of his truth. And our God doesn’t just make that change possible, he makes it his top priority. He’s so committed to your change, he gave up everything to come here in person to show us what it looks like.

The sinful woman at the Pharisee’s house where Jesus is eating is a prostitute. She’s a woman of ill reputation. Exchanging sex for money. Maybe she had terrible parents. Maybe her husband died. Maybe at the time she saw no other way. She’ll be a sinner her whole life, right? Nobody will give her another chance. She’s a hooker! But she comes to Jesus. She kisses the Christ and anoints him in a selfless, dependent act of true repentance. And Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” And she leaves that dinner party a changed woman. The Son of God has given her life. Christ Jesus changed her.

JesusHealsBleedingWomanThe man on the side of the road was born blind. Blind since birth. Really bad luck. He’s going to be a beggar his whole life. It’s awful. He’s blind! Jesus’ disciples ask, “Why is this guy blind? Somebody sinned here. Was it him or his parents?” And Jesus says, “Nobody sinned. This happened so the work of God can be displayed in his life.” And Jesus heals him. Jesus gave the man his sight. The man says, “This is from God!” Jesus changed him. He gave him life.

As soon as they submit, as soon as they let go, as soon as they come to Jesus and give their baggage to the Lord, God in Christ changes them. He changes everybody.

The naked demon-possessed guy. No name. No clothes. No home. No family. No community. No nothing. Satan had taken from this guy everything it means to be made in the image of God. He’s been conditioned by his village to believe he’s destined to live among the dead. But he comes to Jesus. And he’s changed. He’s wearing clothes. He’s in his right mind. He’s got a home. He has a family, a community. And he’s got a mission.

JesusHuggingZacchaeus was a selfish, crooked tax collector, hated by the people of God and an outsider in his own town. But Jesus calls him and now he’s giving half of everything he owns to the poor. He’s repaying the people he stole from four times the amount he took and he’s being called a son of Abraham by the promised Messiah. He’s changed.

The Samaritan woman was the town sleaze. Now after an encounter with Jesus she’s the town evangelist. She’s changed! Saul was the Church’s biggest enemy, the killer of Christians. But just a little talk with Jesus and Paul is the greatest writer and preacher and church planter in history. He’s changed! The Philippian jailer was beating Silas. Now he’s washing Silas’ wounds and cooking him dinner. He’s changed!

“Am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” ~Ezekiel 18:23

If you’re an alcoholic. If you’re a mean-spirited person and your overly negative and critical because that’s the way your dad was. If you’re addicted to pornography and you have been for almost 20 years.

You can change. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Come to me and you’ll never be hungry again.”

If you’re arrogant or selfish because everybody in your line of work has to be that way. If you’re an adulterer. If you use illegal drugs. If you’ve tried to quit six dozen times but you keep sliding right back in and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You can change. Jesus says, “Come to me. Come to me and drink living water.”

If you’re a liar and you’ve always been a liar. If you’re divisive. If you’re a racist because that’s the way things were back then and that’s the way you were raised. If you’re a cheater. If you’re a thief. If you’re abusive, physically or verbally. If your life is not what you planned it to be.

You can change. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.”

You can change.

But it’s not going to be an intellectual deal. You’re not going to change because of rational arguments and logic. You’re going to have to experience it. It’s going to take an encounter with the crucified and risen Son of God. You’re going to have to turn to the One who died for you, you’re going to have to submit to the One who calls you. You’re going to have to give yourself fully to him. Let his holiness transform your conscience. Let his truth nourish your mind. Let his beauty purify your imagination. Let his eternal purpose shape your will. Let his limitless love melt your heart.

“Rid yourself of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die? I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” ~Ezekiel 18:31-32

Peace,

Allan

One More Year

“Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, fine! If not, then cut it down.” ~Luke 13:8-9

FigTreeCoupleThere is a time limit. The Master is not calling for the indefinite existence of a bad tree. It’s got one more year. The health of the vineyard is too important, the Master’s expectation for fruit is too strong to leave in place an unproductive, non-responsive tree taking up good ground. It’s got one more year. One more season. One more chance. And then, if it doesn’t respond to the patience and care of the Master? Then, cut it down.

There’s an urgency in this parable that we shouldn’t miss. The tree is going to be held accountable. And it’s only got a short time left to respond to the farmer’s patience. Something’s got to change. The coming judgment is real.

“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” ~2 Corinthians 5:10

The holiness and righteousness of God demands justice and judgment. Romans says we will all stand before God’s judgment; every knee will bow and every tongue will confess; each of us will give an account of our lives to God. There is a judgment coming. God is going to judge the world. And it’s one of the best kept secrets in the Bible.

We don’t talk about it. Judgment sounds harsh or cruel. The idea of God’s divine judgment clashes with what works in our culture — even our church culture. We barely acknowledge it anymore. The only time we speak about God’s judgment is when we’re making fun of people who talk about God’s judgment. We don’t preach God’s judgment. I don’t. Not very much.

But this parable…

This tree’s got one year. That’s it. And then it’s over.

There’s a story about Satan meeting with his demons in hell, working on their strategies against us humans. The first demon said, “I’ll go tell people there’s no heaven.” The second demon said, “I’ll tell people there’s no hell.” The third demon said, “I’ll tell people there’s no hurry.” Satan said, “Yes! That’s the plan!”

No hurry? That tree’s got one year. That’s it. If it bears fruit next year, fine. If not, then cut it down.

There’s an urgency in Jesus’ story. But we don’t feel that urgency. We appreciate the manure of God’s great patience and his merciful restraint. But we don’t even think about that coming judgment. In this country, in this century, as our sense of self grows larger and larger and our sense of God becomes smaller and smaller, we fear God so little we don’t understand the seriousness of our sin. And we sense the seriousness of our sin so little, we very seldom fear God. That’s a bad place to be.

“Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” ~Romans 2:5-6

He gave the tree one more year. One more season. If it bears fruit, fine. If not, cut it down.

There’s an urgency here. It’s later than we think. One of the elders at the Legacy church, Kent Robinson, says every single day, “It’s later now than it’s ever been before!” He’s right. And the time to act is right now, during this season of God’s patience, during this time when God is holding back the ax and spreading the manure of his grace and forgiveness. Now is the time to respond, not tomorrow. Now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation. God’s mercy is being extended now. The opportunity for a fruitful life is now.

I don’t know how much time we’ve got. I don’t know. Apparently, even Jesus isn’t sure. But that day’s coming for each of us. That tree’s got one more year. You might have longer. Maybe.

Peace,

Allan

Confession at the Cross

Beware of exploring the spiritual disciplines. Practicing the traditional disciplines will force you to confront your sins. I know this first hand. Silence before God or a prolonged meditation on a Psalm tends to bring out the honest truth of your relationship with the Father. Fair warning. There’s no hiding it when you’re in that place with our God.

Yesterday at Central, we explored a few of the historic spiritual disciplines together. We began with our middle school and high school students reciting a prayer of invocation written by Walter Brueggemann in 1996 and ended with a benediction penned by John Newton in 1779. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together at the table and we observed two moments of silence around Psalm 32. And we confessed.

The inner life is about being in a place with God where he can work on you. And as we commit as a church family to pursuing a more holistic discipleship, which includes the traditional disciplines, confession just seemed like a good thing to do. If we’re going to be in that place with God, we’ve got to be up front with him about our sins. So we wrote down on pieces of paper the things that are wrong in our lives that need to be fixed by God, the attitudes of our hearts that need to be redeemed by God, and the situations in our lives that need to be given completely to him. And then we placed them on a large wooden cross at the front of our worship center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cross of Christ represents forgiveness and restoration and new life. It stands for a trust in God that he is bringing to completion that thing he has started in us. It reminds us that our Father has promised to make all things right — if things aren’t right in my life, it means that God’s not finished yet, he’s still working. So, after dwelling in Psalm 32 (“I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”) we brought our sins and our attitudes and our lives to the cross and left them there.

And they’re still in there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve walked in to our worship center twice already today to spend some time at that cross. I read the confessions, I see the lists of sins and attitudes that plague our people, and I can relate to a bunch of them. Reading the words on that cross today, praying for the people who wrote those words and placed them on the nails on the cross, brings to light sins and attitudes in my own life that I haven’t written down or even acknowledged yet that need to be forgiven and transformed by God.

I don’t ever want us to come into the worship center on a Sunday morning Just As I Am and leave an hour-and-a-half  later Just As I Was. Part of that corporate assembly experience is to be changed by God. Confession is good. Silence is good. Embracing a contemplative posture in the holy presence of God is good. You can’t hide anything when you get into that place with God. And it’s impossible to stay the same.

Peace,

Allan

Returning to the Lord

The first Sunday in January is a good time for a congregation of God’s people to renew our dedication to the Lord. It’s the perfect day to start over, to renew vows, to make fresh commitments. And in Scripture, a lot of the time, when God’s people seek renewed relationship with the Lord, they begin with corporate confession and repentance.

Using biblical texts from 1 Samuel 7, Ezra 9, and Daniel 9, we spent this past Sunday together at Central confessing our corporate sins as a 107-year-old body of believers. We talked about the sins of pride and racism, legalism and sexism, self-reliance and apathy, consumerism, materialism, sectarianism. We haven’t committed all these sins ourselves. Our leadership and our church today are not guilty of all those sins. But in the history of our congregation and in the history of Churches of Christ, we have all been guilty of all of it. Some of these sins we still commit. All of them still impact us to some degree. So, in the manner of God’s people as described in Scripture, we confessed.

One of our shepherds, Tim McMenamy, worded a heart-felt, gut-wrenching prayer of confession from his knees on behalf of the church, recalling the sins of our past and the sins of our present. Another of our elders, Steve Rogers, led a prayer of corporate repentance from his knees, making vows to God on behalf of the congregation that we would renounce the sins of our past and present and seek only the Lord and his ways. And then we offered the church some time to confess their own sins, sins in their families, sins from their distant past, or sins that have them ensnared in the present. Our elders and ministers and our spouses were positioned all around the worship center to graciously receive and pray for our people. We lifted them up to God and begged him to provide his promised forgiveness and righteousness and peace.

It was different. It was very quiet in there. And powerful. Only a few, it appeared, actually took advantage of the opportunity. But those who did experienced those blessings of forgiveness and righteousness and peace.

Immediately after the service concluded, several people came to me to thank me for the special focus of the morning and for the way the assembly had been planned. And I think I must have expressed — non-verbally — some disappointment in the visible response from our congregation during the time of confession and repentance. One of my many, many faults — one I should probably confess regularly before the church — is my sin of impatience. I’m terrible with that. I don’t very much of the time practice what I preach there. And I do a lousy job of hiding it. But, good grief, of all people the preacher should know that God is at work in powerful ways that we don’t always get to see.

And Clay Harper reminded me of that Monday.

Clay called me on the carpet for my disappointment. That’s what good and faithful Christian brothers do; that’s what happens in genuine Christian community. And then he reminded me of the truth I had preached the day before, that God answered the prayers and provided the promised blessings regardless of how engaged the people were in what was happening.

In Samuel, the people approached the prophet looking for ways to fix their relationship with God. They begged him to intercede for them and participated fully as a congregation in the prayers of confession and repentance. In Ezra, the leaders of the people came to the prophet and the people (a lot of them, but maybe not all of them) eventually followed and participated in the confession and repentance, some of them under the threat of loss of their property. In Daniel, it doesn’t look like anybody else is there. The prophet prays confession and repentance to God on behalf of the people, but there’s no indication anybody has any idea he’s doing it.

More than likely, we have people in our church family located at every point on that continuum. From begging to make things right with God and willingly putting away their idols and sins, to almost being forced to confess and repent and reluctantly participating, to not taking part in the exercises at all, we’ve got folks all over the map there. All those different reactions and responses were present in our assembly Sunday.

The good news is that in all three scenarios in Scripture, God answered the prayers immediately, while the prayers were still being prayed, and provided the forgiveness and peace.

In Samuel, while the people are in the middle of confessing and repenting, God answered. God showered his people with victory. He destroyed their enemies right there on the spot and blessed them with peace. Same thing in Daniel. While he was in the middle of his prayer of corporate confession and repentance, God spoke to Daniel about forgiveness of sin, about everlasting righteousness, and peace. In Ezra, God provided his grace immediately and withdrew his anger.

I don’t know where you are with confession and repentance before God. I think if you’ve made some New Year’s resolutions to our Lord, they have to begin with confession and repentance. I don’t know where your church is with that. I don’t know how your elders might feel about corporate confession in a church assembly. I don’t know how many in your family or your congregation would enter in to that kind of exercise willingly, how many would have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, and how many just wouldn’t participate. I don’t know.

But I do know this: the common thread in all three stories of corporate confession and repentance in Scripture is that God answered. He responded immediately, as soon as the prayers began. He did it consistently then and he’s doing it faithfully right now. Why don’t you and/or your church give it a try?

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Congratulations to Central’s own Joe Bain who will be inducted tomorrow into the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame here in Amarillo. Coach Bain was the boys track coach at Amarillo High School for 30 years, winning 15 district championships, including one in his last season in 2006. He also served as a long time assistant coach for the Golden Sandstorm football team under Larry Dippel, coaching the defensive backs in 1992 when the Sandies advanced to the state semi-finals.

Coach Bain poured his heart into hundreds of young men in this region, constantly encouraging them, consistently challenging them to be better, always leading to greatness by the example of his own deep character and integrity. Lots and lots of young men are thanking Coach Bain this week for the tremendous influence of godliness he had on their lives. And at least one older guy who only just met Coach Bain three years ago is thanking him for that same leadership and influence he has on my life right now.

Peace,

Allan