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A Reading for the Second Sunday of Advent

December 6, 2017

advent-1348639

Relight the first purple candle.

Introduction

The word “advent” means coming. Advent is a season of expectation and longing. It’s a time when we prepare to celebrate the arrival of Christ in his incarnation, and a reminder that Christ is coming again to make all things new.

With each candle of Advent this year, we are rehearsing God’s story of redemption. The second candle reminds us of our need for God’s light due to the darkness of sin.

Scripture

Isaiah 59 says:

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies; your tongue mutters wickedness. . . .
Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace.
Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us;
we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
(Isa. 59:1-3, 7-9)

Light the second purple candle.     

We light the second candle of Advent to lament the darkness of this fallen world, as we wait for the light of Christ to dawn.

Prayer

Please pray with me:

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”* Heavenly Father, we lament the darkness that fills this world—the grip that sin has on so many, the pain it causes, and the offense it brings to your holy name. Forgive us our sins, and let the light of your gospel shine into the darkness this Advent season. Amen.

*John 3:19

A Reading for the First Sunday of Advent

November 30, 2017

advent-1348639

Introduction

The word “advent” means coming. Advent is a season of expectation and longing. It’s a time when we prepare to celebrate the arrival of Christ in his incarnation, and a reminder that Christ is coming again to make all things new.

With each candle of Advent this year, we are rehearsing God’s story of redemption. The first candle reminds us of God’s purpose in creation.

Scripture

Genesis 1:1-4 says:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.”

1 John 1:5 says:

“God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

And Revelation 4:11 declares:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Light the first purple candle.           

We light the first candle of Advent to remember that God is light, and he made this world to reflect the light of his glory.

Prayer

Please pray with me:

Heavenly Father,

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”* You made this world that you might fill it with the light of your glory. You promised to accomplish your plan and redeem this world by sending the light of your Son. Prepare our hearts to receive him this advent season. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”**

Amen.

    *Ps. 24:1; **2 Cor. 4:6

Prayer for Peace and Racial Reconciliation: A Liturgy

August 21, 2017

Eph 2.14 bThe events in Charlottesville, Virginia, a little over a week ago were horrifying. White supremacists marching with torches, Nazi flags paraded down the street, violent outbursts that claimed the life of one woman and injured dozens more. It can only be described as a satanic display of racism and hatred, an offense against God and an assault on people made in his image.

But those events are also indicative of a larger and much deeper problem in American society—one that is not buried in our nation’s history of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination (as some might like to think), but has continued to poison relationships and systems for decades, and is now finding fresh energy in the alt-right white nationalist movement.

Our Savior weeps over this. And we should too. There is no supreme race; only a Supreme Savior. Racism is an abomination in God’s eyes and antithetical to his gospel. But violence is not the answer either. In times of racial tension and evil, we must rally around the only thing powerful enough to bring true and lasting healing: the cross of Jesus Christ.

For this reason, we gathered last night at Westgate Church to pray. For those who couldn’t join us, or any who wish to seek God in prayer or this critical matter, we’re making available the liturgy we used last night (see below).

The liturgy uses a combination of responsive readings, Scripture readings, and open times of prayer. It begins with an affirmation of God’s glory and majesty, and the beauty of his design for humanity–a diverse yet single humanity, made in his image. Next it moves into a time of lament over the sin of racism in our country’s past and present. This is followed by a time of confession and repentance, both on behalf of our nation, but also personal confession as we ask God to search our hearts and reveal ways we have been part of the problem. The liturgy then moves into the gospel, the assurance that God’s grace through Jesus is the answer to the sin of racism among us and within us. Finally it concludes with a time of supplication and intercession, seeking God’s help for this time of need in our country.

You can download the liturgy here: Prayer Gathering for Peace and Racial Reconciliation.

Handbook for a Healthy Church

April 18, 2017

Video credit: John Crist

If you could only pick one adjective to describe what’s most important to you in a church, what would it be?

Big? Small? Friendly? Active? Innovative? Traditional? Contemporary? Culturally-engaged? Bible-teaching? Missions-minded? Young? Established? Seeker-sensitive? Kid-friendly? Cutting edge?

In reality, many of our criteria for church today are a matter of mere preference. They’re not necessarily bad things, but they’re not always biblical, and often too narrow.

So what should be the most important adjective for a church? It’s hard to pick just one word (and no doubt many words would suit). But if we had to pick just one, our humble suggestion would be healthy.

What is a Healthy Church?

Healthy things work the way they’re supposed to, according to design. Which means a healthy church is one that grows and functions the way God intended it. So what does that look like? And what will it take?

This is the question the apostle Paul was answering in his letter to Titus, whom he left in Crete so that he might “put what remained into order” (1:5) among the churches they had recently planted. In that light, Paul’s letter to Titus is kind of like a handbook for a healthy church: here’s what it looks like and what it takes for the church to grow and function according to God’s design.

Join Us

This Sunday at Westgate Church, I’ll begin teaching an adult Sunday School class on this subject, walking through Titus together in order to listen to and learn from this handbook for a healthy church. The schedule is below. I hope you can join us!

For more about Sunday morning learning opportunities at Westgate, including the class Pastor Bruce will be teaching on the Trinity, click here.

Handbook for a Healthy Church: Lessons from Titus (9:30 am, Room 302)

  • April 23: Gospel Foundation (1:1-4; 2:11-14; 3:3-7)
  • April 30: Godly Leadership: Biblical Offices (1:5-9; et al.)
  • May 7: Godly Leadership: Character (1:5-9)
  • May 14: Sound Doctrine: Constructive (1:9; 2:1, 7, 15; 3:8)
  • May 21: Sound Doctrine: Corrective (1:10-16; 3:9-11)
  • May 28: Good Works: From the Heart (1:16; 2:11-14)
  • June 4: Good Works: Practice (2:7-10; 3:1-15)
  • June 11: Discipleship: Pattern (2:1-10; et al.)
  • June 18: Discipleship: Practice (Various)

 

What Does the Gospel Have To Do with Politics?

October 20, 2016

Two Foundational Principles for Navigating Church and State

Underneath the questions facing evangelicals during the 2016 presidential election, there is a more fundamental question that is often assumed or overlooked, but is actually critical to acting wisely as Christians in America: what hath the gospel of Jesus have to do with politics? How should we think about the relationship between church and state?

Processed by: Helicon Filter;  MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOld Glory and the Old, Old Story

About four years ago, Christianity Today ran an article about whether churches should display the American flag in their sanctuary.[1] For decades this was a normal practice for many church denominations—a mark of one’s commitment to God and country. It is less common today, as people are wary of conflating the cause of Christ with the cause of ‘Murica, and all the more so as we find the aims of God and country increasingly at odds. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church, tells the story of one pastor

who wanted to do away with the flag, but didn’t want to be seen as un-American, so he devised a plan to secret the flag away in the middle of a Saturday night, hoping the congregation just wouldn’t notice the next day. This game of “Rapture the Flag” didn’t work, of course. By dawn’s early light, they saw that the flag was not there. And that’s when the metaphorical bombs started bursting in air.[2]

It’s a ridiculous story, but it illustrates the question at hand: what does the gospel to do with politics?

On the one hand the church is not an American institution. God promised Abraham descendants from all nations; Jesus sent his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations; and when he returns there will be, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9; see also Gen. 17:4; Matt. 28:18-20).

Nor can we honestly say that America is a Christian nation. While the vision and values upon which this country was founded were certainly influenced by a Judeo-Christian worldview, that doesn’t mean our founding father were all Christians. They simply weren’t. And the kind of revisionist history that attempts to “baptize the dead” and claim unorthodox historical heroes for Team Jesus is not only embarrassing, it does more harm than good.[3]

Moreover, there is the simple fact that you cannot claim to have religious freedom and be a Christian nation at the same time. We need to be honest about that. The historical influence of Christianity has been good for our country, but the vision has always been one of plurality and religious freedom—our first amendment right.

And yet, as followers of Christ who are also citizens of this nation, we are Christians and Americans at the same time. Citizens who enjoy the rights and protections and freedoms afforded by our country, and who bear certain civic obligations in return: jury duty, paying taxes, voting. Some of us make our livelihood in public service, holding office or serving in the military; some of our private sector work largely deals with government contracts. Many of us are “proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” We can sing “God Bless the USA” in our sleep. We love our country; we’ve had family and friends die for our country. And many of us are worried about the direction of our country—the kind of world we’re leaving for our children.

More than that, being a good Christian actually means being a good citizen. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” As much as we might be tempted to completely disengage from politics and separate ourselves from the world, that option is neither possible nor biblical.

So how do we navigate the tension between church and state? How do we engage politically without resorting to religious coercion on one side (imposing the expressions of our faith on those who don’t share it), or religious compromise on the other (forsaking, or being forced to forsake, our unique message and kingdom commitments for public acceptance and political expedience)?

A Message for Christians in Exile

In 1 Peter 2:13-18, the apostle Peter offers us sage wisdom for living as God’s people in a fallen world. Read more…

Out of Egypt: A new series on Exodus

September 13, 2016

exodus-series-graphic2There is perhaps no story more formative to the identity of ancient Israel, and therefore to the identity of Jesus and his church, than the story of Exodus.

That’s a bold claim. But as we’ll see—Exodus lives up to it.

Through its account of how God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt and made them into his special covenant people, this book provides the foundational answer to many of life’s most important questions: Who is God? What has he done? How can we know him? Who are we? Why are we here? What does he ask of us? How shall we live?

Moreover, this book provides the context and categories for understanding the even greater act of salvation accomplished by God’s Son, Jesus, on the cross. There is an exodus-shape to the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus and his saving work, and also of the church’s identity and mission in him. As it’s been described,

The motif of the exodus . . . is one of the unifying images of the Bible. . . . No other [Old Testament] motif is as crucial to understand. No other event is so basic to the fabric of both Testaments. Our concepts of deliverance and atonement, of God dwelling with his people, of God taking a people for himself and so forth have their roots in this complex of events.[1]

The story of Exodus is not just Israel’s story; it’s God’s story, Jesus’ story, and therefore our story. So join us this year at Westgate as we enter into this story to behold our salvation and the glory of God.

Learn more about Westgate Church

[1] L. Ryken, J. C. Wilhoit, T. Longman III, eds, “Exodus, New Exodus,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 253.

Where is God when the world falls apart?

August 3, 2016

A NEW SERIES ON THE BOOK OF JOB

levering family portrait--birds smWe didn’t exactly plan to have a fifth child. When we found out we were pregnant, we were surprised but excited.

Nor did we plan to bury that child before we ever had a chance to meet her. But that’s what happened. We lost our Ruby Kate after 18 weeks of pregnancy.

The picture to the right is a family portrait of sorts. It was a housewarming gift from Carissa’s sister and her husband during their visit last week. The birds in the trees represent me, Carissa, and our four children: Joshua, Moriah, Eva, and Chloe. The three birds flying away are the ones we lost to heaven—Ruby, and two other babies between Joshua and Moriah.

Our story of loss is just one story among millions. Stories of grief, pain, and the sorrow so common to this fallen world. The loss of a job when the company decides to downsize. The loss of our health as we get older, or of a loved one when cancer strikes. The loss of our dignity when we’re discriminated because of the color of our skin. The loss of our innocence when someone takes advantage of us.

But as Christians, there is another, often deeply troubling layer to our loss: we believe in a good, loving, and powerful God who sovereignly rules the universe. A God who promises good to his people, who numbers our hairs and doesn’t let a sparrow fall to the ground apart from his plan (Matt. 10:29-30).

And so when we experience suffering and pain, it inevitably drives us to ask honest questions about our situation, but ultimately about our God. Why me? Why Ruby? Why would God let this happen to anyone, let alone his people? Why doesn’t he answer? Where is God when the world falls apart?

Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me.
(Job 23:3-5)

The book of Job resonates with both the suffering we experience and the searching questions it generates. It’s the story of one man’s devastating loss and the struggle to make sense of God in the midst of it.

In fact, we can summarize the message of the book in a series of five questions. These are not always the questions we ask when faced with pain and loss. But they are the questions God wants us to ask, questions that he actually seeks to answer through this book.

“Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). In other words, do we only love God because of what we get out of it? This is the Accuser’s question about what motivates our righteousness.

“Why did I not die at birth?” (3:11). Wouldn’t it be better to have never lived than to face such misery? This is the question of raw pain and lament.

“Who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7). That is to ask, can the righteous suffer? This question explores the cause of suffering and the assumptions we make about the suffering of others.

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:2) In other words, is God righteous when the righteous suffer? This question cuts to the heart of the matter, whether God can be in the right while his children experience wrongs.

“Who is it this that hides counsel without knowledge?” (42:3). In other words, is there mercy for those who speak like fools? Is there any recourse when we make wrong assumptions and wrong assertions about the character of God?

Over the next five weeks at Westgate we’ll explore each of these questions as we walk through the overarching message of Job, with its overarching question: Where is God when the world falls apart? And in it, I believe we will find the hope and perspective we need to trust God amid this fallen world.

I hope you can join us.

*****

August 7: The God of Suffering (Job 1-2)

August 14: The Voice of Suffering (Job 3)

August 21: The Cause of Suffering (Job 11-13)

August 28: The Wisdom of Suffering (Job 38:1-40:2)

September 4: The Vindication of Suffering (Job 42)