Sunday, January 16, 2011

I’ve been asked the question before, “How are things different today with young people than 30-plus years ago, when you were young(er)?”  This is not one of those boring or condescending, “when I was your age” speeches (definitely a turn off).  I am also not insinuating that we didn’t have our own problems, or that somehow we were one of the “pure” generations.  However, it is a valid question, and it is one that demands an honest answer.  One of my honest answers would have to be, “We are seeing more and more lives of young people destroyed by sin at earlier and earlier ages.”  Things that were more or less unheard of when we were young, today are commonplace.  This leads people into deeper and deeper bondage.  Having said that, our confidence remains that “where sin abounds, graces does much more abound.”  Psalms 25 is a very important passage because it is very personal and revealing, and it’s aim is to help and give hope to those who lives have been ruined by sin.  The Bible is very honest about both the perils and the possibilities of youth.  If we are serious about seeing revival touch the next generation then these are things that we must carefully consider.

The thing that really captured my attention about this particular Psalm is that it highlights a very real and dangerous snare.  It was over twelve years ago that our nation cringed at President Bill Clinton’s admission that he had an “inappropriate” relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.  Since then, her name has because almost a byword for lewd behavior; and she has remained the stock in trade for comics everywhere.  I don’t know what she’s doing today, but I couldn’t help but think, “How would you like to be known and remembered for the rest of your life for something you did when you were 21?”  We can’t dodge the fact that sin’s destruction is real and not exaggerated.  This is not something we’re making up so that we can manipulate young people to come to church.  No, it is painfully true!  Sin can sabotage a life, it can ruin a testimony, it can cause a marriage to implode, and as a result someone can forfeit an opportunity to be used by God.

What drew me to this passage David’s prayer in verse 7, “remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions.”  Not just sin or even sins in general, but David deliberately singles out the “sins of my youth.”
David is now well into his adult years, but this prayer is obviously triggered by the sting of things that happened when he was young.  How many know that you can do things when you’re young that stay with you the rest of your life?  We know that sin is sin, whether someone is 6, or 16, or 60; why then does he single out the “sins of my youth?”  I think the reason is their ability to stamp your life: to identify and label you for the rest of your life.  While people thankfully outgrow things, and not everything they go through ends up being permanent; we’re still talking about a very real snare.  The notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy, was executed in 1989.  He was responsible for as many as 50 deaths of young girls and women in his warped and savage behavior.  Shortly before his death he asked for and was interviewed by Dr. James Dobson.  He wasn’t trying to excuse his behavior or justify himself, but he clearly told Dr. Dobson that where this really started to gain control of his life was through increasingly engaging in pornography.  This is not saying that every person exposed to pornography becomes a serial killer.  It is saying that it has the ability to stamp your life, and that can’t be ignored. 

In 2008, a book was released called “Hooked” - New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children.  It was written by two M.D.’s, Joe S. McIlhaney Jr. and Freda McKissic Bush.  In their book they talk about the “third risk” of casual sex, the first two being pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  They wrote, “A wealth of new data declares plainly that sex involves the entire person, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and in every other way.  The physical ramifications of non-marital sex should not be ignored (STD’s and pregnancy) and neither should the emotional effects.  But the emotional effect is not just a feeling, but it arises from the way one’s brain is molded or is damaged by bad experiences and how this effects every area of our lives including future decisions by becoming hardwired to repeat destructive behavior.”  Their research of the human brain argues that is not set in stone, but rather it is moldable, especially when we are young.  The hardwiring of the human brain is affected by your actions, especially in the sexual arena.  Again they wrote, “Modern neuroscience research has uncovered startling new information about how sex affects our brains.  The effect of sex on our brains can have all sorts of consequences.  We do know that sex can literally change a person’s brain, influencing the though process and affecting future decisions.  David may not have had access to scientific research and data, but he expresses a very common sentiment when he prays “remember not the sins of my youth.”

This is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best news of your life because it sets before us the promise of a miraculous dimension.  A friend of mine in Australia, Greg Farrell, was involved in the construction of his church building.  They were searching for lumber for the project, and they visited a location where a guy had loads of timber.  He told Greg that people making furniture wanted timber that was “perfect.”  Then he added, “If people were more forgiving, then all this wood would be gone!”  Ah, ha, the light goes on!  Scripture says in (Ps.130:3, 4) “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.”  The living Bible simply says, “But you forgive!  What an awesome thing this is!”  This is why after saying “remember not the sins of my youth” David goes on to say, “according to Your mercy remember me, for Your goodness' sake, O Lord.”  Can you see it?  Forget the sins of my youth, but remember me.  Remember me through the lens of Your merciesPreview!  God’s plan for dealing with sin of any kind, but especially the sins of our youth, is the miracle of forgiveness purchased through Christ’s atoning death on the Cross.

Why bring this up in relation to revival and the next generation?  I’ll tell you.   It seems some have made it a kind of hobby or past-time to rail on “church kids.”  Yeah, they’re all rebels...they’re all playing games with God...they’re not saved.  I am not naive, I know these kind of kids certainly do exist.  My sense, however, is that a far greater number in the church are struggling with the lack of a sense or experience of God’s great mercy and forgiveness!  They are more aware of their sins than they are of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  November 15, 1970 in a Sunday night church service in Prescott, AZ, a long-haired hippie bowed his knee and asked Jesus Christ to come in to his heart.  That young man was me.  On the “ignorance scale” of Christianity I was right near the top.  I knew next to nothing about what I had actually done or better, what had happened to me.  What I can remember, and what stayed with me so powerfully was such a real sense of feeling clean.  I couldn’t explain it, and I definitely couldn’t have given you a theological explanation of justification, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, or sanctification....BUT I FELT CLEAN!  I had been forgiven by God, hallelujah!   This is why David continues in (Ps.25:11) “For Your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.”

What he’s describing is a supernatural spiritual dimension.  It is almost parallel to what Isaiah had said (Isaiah 43:25) "I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins.”  Real forgiveness is not based on our deserving it, it is based on God’s own character and grace...“for My name’s sake.”  This is the heart of the New Covenant according to Jeremiah, "Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.  Some of the best news for sinners (that’s you and I) is God forgives sin, and when He does, it is erased from the eternal record!  I am afraid one reason we are not seeing revival among young people is that people and parents are not preaching, living, enjoying and communicating the...new covenant!  Instead, we’re preaching to them a kind of moralistic message to be good kids and don’t get into any real big trouble.  That’s not the Gospel, and that’s not the seed of revival that the next generation needs to experience and make their own.

FORGET MY SINS, BUT REMEMBER ME!  This is the “divine romance” that lies at the heart of the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They assaulted the disciples with the criticism “why does your Master eat with tax collectors and sinners [TM, “such scum]. Jesus told them it was because, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."  (Luke 5:31, 32)  There is no better news on this planet! The good news of the Gospel tells us that Jesus has paid the price for our sins through His death on the Cross and has made forgiveness available through faith in His blood to whoever will believe and call on his Name.  In the early days of the American West, travelers in wagon trains making their way across the prairies were often horrified to see wildfires coming their way and destroying everything in their paths.  Many a wagon train and many lives were lost in those terrible fires.  Finally, someone got smart.  When a fire was spotted in the distance, someone would set a back fire to burn off a few acres behind the wagon train.  Then, they pulled everything back onto that burned-over plot of ground.  When the onrushing fire reached them, it went right around them in search of fuel to burn, and the people were safe.  Oh, beloved, that sacred piece of ground for you and I is Calvary.  That is where the fire of God’s righteous judgment fell on Jesus our Substitute, and when we stand on that ground we are safe, we are saved, we are forgiven!

We must pray with passion, and preach the Gospel with conviction to the next generation, so that they too might experience this wonderful Savior Jesus Christ.  God’s answer for young people of any generation is still discipleship.  In the same context David says (Ps.25:4, 5) “Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths.  Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day.”  This goes beyond David’s desperation over the sins of his youth.  This expresses his heart’s desire and determined direction.  You see, what forgiveness frees us to discover and experience is not just a religious inclination, but a desire to follow Jesus’s call to discipleship and abundant living. “Follow Me!” This is what we need to be declaring to this generation and to everyone who is to come.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We’re off and running into a new year, 2011!  It has been my practice now for many years to preach to our congregation a New Year’s “theme.”  This is not gimmickry or the use of catch phrases (i.e. Learn to Wait, 2008; Focus on the Divine, 2009; Begin Again, 2010).  No, I’ve sincerely tried to listen for a “word in season” and for what “the Spirit says to the church.”  I was preaching in Northern California in early November and I was praying about our new year’s theme, when a distinct word came into my heart...INCREASE.  As my habit is, I started immediately jotting down notes and inspiration on anything available.  The biblical word for increase, “auzano,” means to grow, to increase, to enlarge, and it refers to the growth of that which is alive, naturally or spiritually.

Increase is so much more than just “noise, numbers and nickels,” but it is something that has everything to do with the nature of God and His kingdom.  What crystallized in my mind for this year was, “The God Of Increase.”  A biblical theology of increase is so much larger than most realize.  I want the word of God to “frame” our lives and our worlds this year.  The increase of the word of God and disciples is a key feature that flavors the Book of Acts.  The increase of love is commanded over and over throughout the Epistles.  Paul prays for the increase of revelation for the Ephesians.  The promise of God increasing strength was prophesied by Isaiah. 

This is all a reasonable expectation based on the nature of God and His kingdom.  We usually only bring it out at Christmastime, but listen to (Isaiah 9:6,7) :For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end...”  The Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a growing not a failing kingdom.  Many times it may only appear small and insignificant, like a “mustard seed,”  but that distinctive is always present wherever God and the Gospel is on the loose!  One of the reasons that I love the Book of Acts is you see this feature at work in the life of the early church.  Luke’s introduction says, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach...”  He is saying in effect, “My first book, the Gospel of Luke, is the story of all Jesus began to do and to teach while on earth in the flesh.  My second book, the Acts of the Apostles, is the account of all that Jesus continued to do and to teach by His Spirit through His church.”  The other important aspect is that the Book of Acts is an unfinished narrative.  It is the only Bible book without an end.  The reason is that the Holy Spirit is still working today.  Acts 29 is still being written.  “The increase of his government” is still going on in the world today!

The focus on “The God Of Increase” is not a whip that says, “work harder; come on, snap to it, more effort!”  No, it carries with it the promise of a divine dimension in any of our labors.  This is the exciting part!  Consider (1Cor.3:6,7) “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.  So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”  Notice where Paul’s hope and confidence lies: it is with the God who “gave the increase.”  A true, biblical understanding of increase will not lead to a selfish agenda that’s all about me (my needs, my wants, my agenda, my things).  It puts the focus where it needs to be, on God and His power and kingdom.  So there will be no misunderstanding he continues, “neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”  I really like the paraphrase that says, “It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters tho is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.”  The messengers are never as important as and should never eclipse the message or the means, which is Christ Himself.  That’s where I want our focus to be this year!

What activates all of this is one of the great revolutionary calls of the New Testament.  It is found in John the Baptist’s last words which embody his spiritual philosophy for life and ministry, (Jn.3:30) “HE MUST INCREASE, BUT I MUST DECREASE.”  This is another one of the Bible’s many reversals:  to live you’ve got to die, you become strong out of weakness, you are elevated by humbling yourself, the way up is the way down etc.  If I honestly look at my life and areas where I struggle (it’s a long list) I usually discover far too much of me, and far too little of Jesus.  “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  I read about a series of billboards in Dallas, TX that feature some famous and not-so famous individuals.  The caption on the billboard reads, “I am 2nd,” reminding us that God should always come first in our lives; and that a life well-lived is always one surrendered to God and His will.   Sports fans love to proclaim, “We’re #1," but the child of God rejoices in the truth that “we’re #2!”  This means that if we are to see increase in any area of our lives this year “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

I have a friend who because of circumstances in his life he has been put in the role of being a “church shopper.”  He’s had to visit many different churches.  He remarked that what stood out to him was how little vision there is in so many churches.  Instead, it’s all about making people feel good, and above all else, comfortable.  His observation has been that there is very little doctrinal content in what is being preached.  Worship is primarily about being entertained, not a participatory celebration.  Ministry is more of a glorified 12-step program rather than “Christ the wisdom of God and the power of God.”  Even in places where there are good things going on, it is all kept within the four walls of the church.  I’m sure this is not the case everywhere and his experience is naturally limited, but still, life-giving vision is not as prominent a quality as you might think.  Set against all of this is a statement that I want to grab a hold of moving into 2011.  “Though your beginning was small, your latter end will increase abundantly.” (Job 8:7)  Lord, help me to become more like You, and in this new year may your kingdom “increase” in and through our lives both individually as Your child, and corporately as part of Your church!

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