It’s not uncommon for a pastor to realize how much he needs a sermon in the process of writing it (or at least it shouldn’t be). I finished writing this Easter sermon on Thursday of last week, and found out how deeply I needed it on Good Friday when we discovered our baby had died in the womb.
There is real hope in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not necessarily the hope we’re looking for, but it is the hope we need. And there is something strangely healing in proclaiming that hope just days after such a crushing loss.
If you’re interested, you can listen to or download the sermon here (audio and notes).
Because Jesus is risen, everything will be made new.
In a traditional church calendar, the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday are known as the season of Lent. It’s a season of fasting and prayer in anticipation of Holy Week—the week we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ (Easter). In more traditional or liturgical church contexts, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when congregants receive a mark of ashes on their foreheads. The season is then observed by giving something up for 40 days, until the fast is ended on Palm Sunday.
Growing up, Lent often confused me. First, I thought everyone was talking about lint, and I was not sure what the fuzzy stuff in my pockets had to do with church. Second, while I knew we were supposed to give something up for 40 days, I didn’t understand why. So I gave up tomatoes. I hated tomatoes. It was one of the easiest decisions I ever made.
Lent can be equally confusing for congregations in the Free Church tradition, like Westgate. We don’t tend to pay much attention to the traditional church calendar, and so we’re not always sure whether we’re supposed to be participating in things like Lent, or what it’s all about.
THE SYMBOLISM OF LENT
Lent is not a biblically mandated observance. The practice developed gradually in church history, and didn’t really take shape until after the Council of Nicea in the fourth century A.D. For this reason, less formally liturgical churches (like Westgate) don’t tend to emphasize the practice.
But in its best forms, Lent does involve biblical spiritual disciplines, specifically those of prayer and fasting.
Good news is always worth sharing with others.
Take for instance the outcome of last Sunday’s Patriots game. The photo capture above is from a video of a spontaneous celebration that broke out aboard an airplane as the ball cleared the uprights in the last seconds of the game. It’s a great picture of how hard it is to contain good news when we hear it.
Similarly, my Facebook feed is exploding with posts about December 18. If you’re not sure what’s happening that day, you’re probably living in a shell. On Dec. 18, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, releases. This is apparently pretty big news—the kind of news fans can’t stop talking about.
So if trivial matters like football games and films are so good we can’t help but share them with others, what about the best news of all? What about the news that life is not meaningless; that there is a God who made us, who rules us, who has the right to judge us, but who loves us and sent his only Son to redeem us and reconcile us to himself, that we might know, enjoy, and glorify him forever?
The good news of Jesus was never meant to be a private matter for a pious few. It was always meant to go public. Jesus didn’t perform his miracles in a corner, or die secretly behind a curtain or closed doors. He lived in the open, teaching publically in Jerusalem and from town to town. He died in the open, hung on a cross for all the world to see. And he rose in the open, appearing to his disciples, even up to 500 of them at one time (1 Cor. 15:6).
And before he ascended to his Father in heaven, he sent his disciples out into the open—to bear witness to all nations that Jesus is the true King of heaven and earth and Savior of all humanity. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The gospel is the best news in the world, and it’s worth sharing with all people everywhere.
- Nov. 22: Spiritual Multiplication (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
- Nov. 29: The Centrality of Church Planting in the Gospel’s Advance (Acts 14:19-23)
- Dec. 6: The Audacity of Global Missions in a Pluralistic Age (Isaiah 45:20-25)
- Dec. 13: ‘Then Comes the End’: The Completion of Gospel Ministry (Revelation 20:1-22:5)
From my recent sermon on “The Gospel and Abortion” (Psalm 10):
How do we respond to the abortion crisis? More than anything else, we must hold onto and hold out the life-changing truth of the gospel. If God’s response to abortion (and all brokenness and sin) is to send his Son to live, die, and rise in our place, then our response is to cling to Christ, and offer his mercy and grace to everyone else. Abortion is not the unforgiveable sin. There is hope and healing in the cross of Christ. “Only the innocent blood of Christ, proclaimed and believed, can cleanse away the bloodguilt of abortion.”
But are there specific, practical things we can do in response to the abortion crisis, as the gospel fuels and directs us? Absolutely. And I’d like to suggest four:
Honor life personally.
Commit, right now before God, that whatever the circumstance or situation in your life, abortion is not an option. Not for you, not for your spouse, not for your teenage daughter. If churchgoers stopped receiving abortions, the rate would drop by 65% next year. Decide now, as a family, that grace is going to reign in your relationships with your kids.
Do your children know, that if they were to come to you and tell you that they or their girlfriend were pregnant, that though you would be sad and disappointed, you would love them and come alongside them? That, yes, there are consequences for sin, but God’s grace is sufficient. If they don’t know that, tell them! For the sake of these children, your grandchildren, tell them! Commit to honoring life personally.
Honor life persuasively.
Understand the issue and be able to talk about it with friends and colleagues in a compelling way. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. But equip yourself to advocate for life.
One of the simplest ways to do that is remember the acronym, SLED. At the heart of the abortion debate is the question of whether an unborn child is human. Everything hangs on that determination. SLED helps us reason persuasively with others that there is no logical reason to view a baby in the womb as less human:
- Size: True, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? . . .
- Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than the adults they’ll one day become. But again, why is this relevant? Four-year-old girls are less developed than fourteen-year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? . . .
- Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth-canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from nonhuman to human? . . .
- Degree of Dependency: If viability makes us human, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable and we may kill them.
We need to honor life persuasively.
Honor life practically.
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Love your neighbors, single moms, couples or women in crisis pregnancies, in tangible ways. Be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. Provide clothing, childcare, friendship, support. The church must be known not just for being pro-birth, but pro-life. That means that Christians should be setting the pace in supporting crisis pregnancy works. It means that Christians should be setting the pace in adoption and foster care. It means that we can no longer move to the other side of the road as we see someone in crisis, but like Jesus, we must be willing to make their crisis our crisis, loving others at great cost to self. Who can you come alongside in love?
Honor life politically.
Politics will not save the world. And yet, as long as we have a voice, we must use it on behalf of the vulnerable and advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Whether from a posture of political marginalization, like Martin Luther King Jr., whose passion for Christ drove him to stand against institutionalized racism in America. Or from a posture of political power, like William Wilberforce in England, who labored for 42 years in Parliament to abolish slavery.
Wilberforce’s passion and resolve set a pace and a pattern that we should take up in this issue today:
Never, never will we desist till we . . . extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country.
That’s my prayer for us in this day and this issue, that when I sit down with my grandkids, they’ll say, ‘Did people really believe that back then, Grandpa?’ Would God change hearts so much that abortion becomes a memory, a page in the history books, in this generation.
May we honor life in reverence to God, holding onto and holding out the gospel of life. “The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more” (Ps. 10:16-18).
 John Ensor, Answering the Call. Updated Ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 2012), 29.
 37% of women obtaining abortions identify as Protestant, and 28% as Catholic. See “Induced Abortions in the United States,” Guttmacher Institute, July 2014. Available at: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html.
 This summary of the SLED argument developed by Scott Klusendorf is found in Ensor, 49-50.
 As cited in Ensor, 104.
The wrong side of history. It’s the refrain we hear over and over, from political pundits and news media. Evangelical Christianity, and any who share its sexual ethic in particular, are on the “wrong side of history.” The culture has changed. Historic, orthodox Christianity is not only outdated, but wrongheaded and destined to failure. Progressives now claim the moral high ground on everything from sexuality to assisted suicide to abortion—some of which was unthinkable just a decade or two ago. And they have the most powerful social institutions to back them. If Christianity is to have any place in this brave new world, we’re told, it had better get with the program.
Much of this has come as a shock to conservative Christians. For most of our country’s history, it was culturally and socially advantageous to identify with Christianity, even in the absence of genuine faith. For instance, one wouldn’t dare run for political office without first associating with some sort of church.
The opposite is now true today. Exercising the Christian faith in the public square is no longer an asset, but a liability. Religious liberties that once protected that free exercise are now under attack and slowly eroding away. To identify with historic, orthodox Christianity in public is to risk being labeled or marginalized as fundamentalist, bigoted, narrow-minded—on the wrong side of history.
So what do we do with this so-called cultural sea-change? Do we retreat from the public sphere, wringing our hands in self-pitying anxiety? Do we wave our fists in anger, standing in smug condemnation over a hell-bound culture? Do we reevaluate our reading of Scripture and revise the historic tenets of our faith in effort to become more palatable to the next generation?
How do we engage the culture in a meaningful way without compromising the gospel? How do hold together both the truth of God in all his holiness, and the grace of God in all his love, as we interact with friends, family, and colleagues over potentially divisive topics?
These are the questions we’ll be asking at Westgate Church as we move into the next section of our Sunday morning series, The Gospel for All of Life—what we’re calling “The Gospel in the Public Square.” Our goal is to examine some of the cultural questions that often dominate our daily interactions (whether in person or via social or main stream media), and ask how the gospel of Jesus ought to shape our understanding and engagement.
- Sept. 27: Strangers and Aliens: Gospel Faithfulness in a Changing World (1 Peter 2:9-12)
- Oct. 4: The Gospel and Hollywood (Genesis 11:1-9)
- Oct. 11: The Gospel and Social Justice (Luke 10:25-42)
- Nov. 1: The Gospel and Homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
- Nov. 8: The Gospel and Abortion (James 4:1-10)
We hope you can join us for this timely focus.
Learn more about Westgate Church.
What do we think about when we think about heaven?
It’s a pretty important question. If the Christian hope involves eternity with God in heaven, then it’s probably a good idea to understand, as much as is possible, what that looks like. What are we waiting for? What does the Bible actually promise? How does it deal with what’s wrong in this world? And what difference should that make for how we live our lives today in a fallen world?
And yet in my experience and observation, a lot of the common ideas people have today about heaven are not only rather dull and unexciting, but actually fall far short of being biblical.
A Shallow View of Heaven
When I was growing up, heaven was essentially just the place you went when you died. And my theology of heaven came more from Tom & Jerry or Looney Tunes than it did the Bible. Wile E. Coyote was riding a rocket after Road Runner, then goes careening off the cliff; the next frame he’s riding a cloud, with wings and a halo, floating his way up to heaven. It’s just what happens.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who thought about heaven this way. The Far Side comic above serves as the first case in point. But even a century before that, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck describes his conversation with Miss Watson:
She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. . . . I asked if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.
One of author Russell Moore’s atheist friends captures the same disenchantment from another angle: “At least the Muslims had virgins waiting in Paradise for sex, . . . but who would want to play a harp, at any time, much less for all eternity?”
Somewhere along the way, we’ve come to think of heaven as this eternally disembodied state, with angelic souls floating on clouds, shed of the prison of their bodies in eternal bliss and contemplation—an idea that resonates much more with ancient Gnosticism and Plato than it does the Bible.
But add a little Bible and the picture doesn’t exactly get a whole lot better. Mix in a dash of Revelation 5 and now instead of riding on clouds, we’re spending our disembodied eternity in an unending worship service. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but imagine being stuck in a church service that goes on forever. It’s enough to make the stoutest heart falter. This idea of heaven prompted one former evangelical to write an article entitled, “Ten Reasons Popular Versions of Heaven Would Be Hell.”
But there are other ideas. For some of us, sentimentality reigns. Heaven is basically a big family reunion, where we’re finally reunited with deceased friends and family. This is one of the dominant themes of the spate of best-selling “heaven tourism” books that have come out in recent years—the so-called ‘eye-witness’ accounts of trips to heaven and back (which are problematic in several ways).
For others, selfishness reigns. Heaven is whatever we love most about earth multiplied by infinity. Consider this celebrity survey in People magazine, when asked “what’s your idea of heaven?”:
EDIE FALCO: Finding a parking space in front of my house.
BILLY BOB THORNTON: Living on a lily pad with all the German chocolate cake and fried okra I could eat, with all my children.
UMA THURMAN: It would be sweet, intimate, pretty and really private.
ADAM MESH (Average Joe): All-you-can-eat buffets where you never get full, a basketball court where I could dunk—and I’d still have all my hair.
LUDACRIS: A life of no work and just spending money. There’s no limit to what I can spend money on.
We might mock that kind of unbridled selfishness, but when we look at some religious descriptions of heaven today, what we find is not much different. One devotional called A Travel Guide to Heaven declares that “paradise is ‘Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome and New York all rolled up into one’—the ‘ultimate playground, created purely for our enjoyment.’”
And for still others, particularly on the secular side, heaven is less about pleasure and more about closure. Think of the immensely popular works of Mitch Albom—The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Tuesdays with Morrie. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes:
the heaven that is apparently popular with readers these days is nothing more than an excellent therapy session. In Albom’s book, God, to the extent that he exists there, is sort of a genial Dr. Phil. When you go to his heaven, friends and helpers come and tell you how innately wonderful you are. They help you reach closure. In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It’s all about you.”
Adam Kirsch makes a similar point in Slate.
What these visions of heaven have in common is their refusal of transcendence. They are unable to believe in anything more important than the individual human being or more significant than his or her earthly suffering. . . . heaven means a chance to get our inner lives right at last. . . . Instead of angelic choirs, it now seems, we will be greeted in heaven by the sound of a billion voices, all talking about themselves.”
Friends, Jesus died for much, much more than this.
We Need a Better Vision of Heaven
The problem, of course, with these popular notions of heaven is not only that they are unbiblical (or at least sub-biblical), which they are. The problem is also that none of them are worth hoping in.
What we often find ourselves hoping for in the name of heaven is not only too shallow to actually satisfy the deep longings of our hearts, but falls woefully short of addressing what’s really wrong with this world, or realizing the plan of God’s good creation from the beginning.
We need a better vision of heaven—a biblical one: the new heavens and new earth. And that’s what we’re going to talk about at Sandy Island this weekend.
- Longing for Home: A Groaning Creation (Rom. 8:18-25)
- The Firstfruits of Home: Resurrection and Regeneration (1 Cor. 15:20-26)
- Finally Home: New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21:1–22:5)
There’s still time to join us if you’re interested; find out more here. And we’ll try to post the talks in some format afterward.
 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996), 6. As cited in Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2004), 7.
 Russell Moore, Onward (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 1.
 Anthony DeStefano, as cited in Adam Kirsch, “Paradise Lite,” Slate, Feb. 5, 2004. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/02/paradise_lite.html.
 David Brooks, “Hooked on Heaven Lite,” New York Times, March 09, 2004.
This morning thousands of people across the nation joined to protest Planned Parenthood at 320 of their clinics. I had the privilege of joining several friends at the clinic in Marlborough, Mass., where we spent our time in prayer.
My friend, Lina Demers, prepared a prayer guide for the morning, which I found to be beautiful, pointed, and on target. We started each section with a Scripture reading, and then prayed about the topic in light of that passage. I thought it would be helpful to share it here (with her permission), as we continue seek our Creator and Savior in light of this devastating situation.
PRAYER OF ADORATION FOR GOD
Reading: Psalm 96; Psalm 2
PRAYER FOR PREGNANT MOTHERS IN CRISIS AND THEIR BABIES–may God protect and preserve them both.
Reading: Psalm 91
PRAYER FOR THOSE WHO HAVE HAD ABORTIONS–may they find forgiveness and cleansing in Christ
Reading: Psalm 32
PRAYER FOR MOTHERS WHO HAVE CHOSEN TO HAVE THEIR BABIES–may God provide proper care and support.*
Reading: Psalm 121
PRAYER FOR EMPLOYEES OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD–may they experience God’s mercy, grace, and salvation.
Reading: Psalm 25
PRAYER FOR OUR NATION–may God open our eyes to the dark realities of abortion and bring an end to this atrocity, beginning with the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
Reading: Psalm 94
Reading: Ephesians 6:12-13
BENEDICTION: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3:20-21)
*Along with this topic, it’s important to pray for crisis pregnancy centers, and also for the church to become a safe place for women in crisis, as well as cultivating a culture of adoption and foster care within our churches.