If you’ve ever heard me talk about how the gospel fuels perseverance in suffering, you’ve probably heard me tell the story of my friends, Steve and Jen, and their daughter, Amelia. I’ve written about Amelia three times on this blog (here, here, and here), and shared her story in a couple of my sermons (here and here).
Amelia is now with Jesus. She completed her race last week. And what a race she ran. She was an inspiration of courage and love to everyone who met her. And her parents have taught me more about the power of Christ to hold us through suffering than anyone I’ve ever known.
They have also taught me about hope. Hope in Christ. Hope in God’s new creation. It’s a lesson we’ve learned in our own loss and heartbreak, and one that everyone must learn as we live out our days in a fallen world. This world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Suffering was not part of the design. Our world is broken through ages of rebellion against God, and that brokenness shows itself in all sorts of ways, including disability and death. And yet Christ broke the power of sin and promises a new creation when he returns—a new creation where everything sad will come untrue. Where sin, sickness, and death will be no more, and all who belong to Christ will enjoy the unmediated presence of God forever. A new creation that has already broken into this fallen world and is changing lives like Steve and Jen, and like mine. This is the hope of Christ. Through his resurrection, we have hope that death does not get the final word. Jesus does.
This past week Steve shared these reflections about his daughter (June 26):
Amelia is beauty seen but her body betrays her. The imprint of God dances upon her face as the sun peaks over the ash tree to the north. Consider the lilies- how they are dressed with a touch of creative genius . . . And now, see this face, this doll- with wires and tubes- surrounded by machines and monitors where one fixates on numbers that flux and buttons that flash-demanding to be coddled. . . See this face- for in it one sees heaven kiss earth- one sees a warrior following in the steps of her king Jesus- she is clothed in more glorious splendor than lilies and grass and birds.
See this face- feel the heart skip a beat and grieve at loss but in a deeper joy knowing that this face- this doll with wires and tubes- leaves an indelible mark of glory on any life she touches. For upon this face- the imprint of God dances, the love of God grips, the grace of God reminds us that Amelia’s best days, our best days, will be seated at the banqueting table where we are face to face with Jesus- God Himself- who warriored on earth to heal all things completely.
This is hope. This is courage. This is love.
As I was reading through the condolences on Facebook a couple days ago, one of them struck me as particularly appropriate: “Well done, good and faithful Amelia.” Well done, indeed. To God be the glory.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
As we wrap our minds and hearts around this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando—the murderous rampage of an Islamic terrorist targeting the LGBT community—we’re shocked by the magnitude of callous hatred, devastated by the sweeping loss of life, and reminded yet again that this world is severely and sickeningly broken.
Moreover, we confess that at times like this we wonder where you are and why this happened. This is not how your world is supposed to work. Human life is precious to you—every soul made in your image. Our hearts break at the thought of cries for help going unanswered amid the attack. We mourn with the families and friends whose lives have been forever changed through such wanton violence. And we join their cry, “How long, O Lord?”
How long will violence go unanswered?
How long will fear and hatred rule our culture?
How long until you bring an end rebellion and sin on this earth?
We know that moments like this are not times for explanations, but first and foremost for grief and mourning. And so raise our voice in lament over this tragedy.
And yet we know that even when it doesn’t feel like it, you do hear our prayers. You do see the violence committed on earth. And you have promised to act. The day will come when you will bring the ungodly to justice and wipe every tear from our eyes. A day when mourning will cease and death will be no more. And we have confidence in that day because you have already acted to establish justice, conquer death, and offer mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of your eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
In Christ there is hope, and in that hope we pray:
WE PRAY for the victims and their families, those for whom this is not some distant news story, but a personally crushing blow. We ask that you hold them in their grief, and comfort them in their loss, anger, and devastation. Fill them with a comfort that can only come from your Son.
WE PRAY for justice for the perpetrators. Not only for the gunman, who now awaits your divine judgment, but for the culture of death that radical jihadist Islam has fueled in this world. Would you open blind eyes to the evil of this corrupt and corrupting system. For those who are attracted to the idea of worshiping god through murder and hate, would you convict them of sin and open their eyes to the truth, forgiveness, and new life of Christ.
WE PRAY for those in the LGBT community, upon whom a shroud of fear has now descended through this weekend’s tragedy. No person deserves to live in fear of their life being taken, especially because of something like sexual orientation. Would you remind each person that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, precious in your sight, and loved by their Creator. Would you work in our world to bring about changes that protect and honor the dignity of all human life, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, developmental ability, or age. Would you help those in the LGBT community to look to you for strength and security, and not to what this world can offer. Guard their lives and guide their steps to a love and security that nothing in this world can take away—the love and security of new life in Christ.
WE PRAY that our churches would be places of safety and love for the LGBT community, and that our Christian witness would be one of hope and not hatred. May we not let our differences of conviction about sexuality and marriage allow us to tolerate hatred or withhold dignity and respect. May we stand united against hatred and terror, and work together for the protection and preservation of all human life, even as we continue to hold out the life-changing message of the gospel.
WE PRAY, finally, that our Lord Jesus Christ would come again. We long for the day when Christ himself will “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Come Lord Jesus.
In Christ’s powerful name, Amen.
The Centrality of Scripture in the Life of the Church
A new series at Westgate Church.
If you’ve been around Westgate Church at all, it’s probably obvious that the Bible plays a central role in virtually everything we do. The value we want to ascribe to Scripture is reflective of New England’s early Puritan heritage, which J. I. Packer summarizes like this:
To the Puritan the Bible was in truth the most precious possession that this world affords. His deepest conviction was that reverence for God means reverence for Scripture, and serving God means obeying Scripture. To his mind, therefore, no greater insult could be offered to the Creator than to neglect his written word; and, conversely, there could be no truer act of homage to him than to prize it and pore over it, and then to live out and give out its teaching.
For this reason, our Sunday morning worship centers on the preaching of the Word. We usually work our way through whole books of the Bible during a series, and the goal of every sermon is to say what the biblical passage is saying—nothing more, nothing less. Even the songs we sing and the prayers we pray emphasize the same message as the passage being preached.
We also teach the Bible during our Sunday School classes. We discuss it during our Home Groups and men’s and women’s Bible studies. It’s the centerpiece of our discipleship relationships and any pastoral counsel we give. Even our by-laws emphasize the authority and centrality of the Bible for everything from what we believe to how we operate and what kind of people we hire. The Bible is central to the life of Westgate Church.
Why Prioritize the Scriptures?
If this is the case, it’s worthwhile every now and then to stop and ask, why? Why does it play such a central role in who we are and what we do? What should we believe about the Bible? What does it tell us about itself? Is it true? Is it still relevant today? How should it impact our lives, relationships, and ministries? And what’s at stake if we neglect it, replace it, or subject it to some other authority in our life and ministry?
The apostle Peter tells us that what we have in the Bible is “something more sure”—a witness to who God is and what he has done that is more reliable than even Peter’s own eye witness testimony of Jesus (2 Pet. 1:19). This is because “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried alone by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21).
Join us during the month of June as we explore together “something more sure”—the centrality of Scripture in the life of the church.
- June 5: An Inspired Word (2 Pet. 1:16-21)
- June 12: A Reliable Word (Psalm 19)
- June 19: An Authoritative Word (Acts 17:1-15)
- June 26: A Final Word (2 Tim. 3:10-4:5)
Learn more about Westgate Church.
- J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 98.
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.