Monthly Archives: November 2011

 

Nov

29

2011

Jared C. Wilson|3:00 pm CT

Glory

For all the blessings of common grace we receive from the ongoing and rapid advances in technology, one thing we have struggled to receive from ever-morphing gadgets and gizmos is a sense of awe over God and a sense of expectation about what he may do next.

“Behold, I am making all things new,” declares Jesus Christ. The same promise is made by the inventors of electronic doodads. But only Jesus is telling the truth.

His renewing work killed him. But that is the way it’s supposed to work. Disobedience unto death is undone by obedience unto death, and only Jesus was Man enough to do that. Crushed by the weight of the cross, pinned there by envy and nails, stricken and open, he achieved victory most epic. The veil between heaven and earth tore,the grave gave up its dead, the universe tightly wound in its own burial shroud rapidly unravels. Can you feel it shaking? “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

And so the Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ is the radiance of God’s glory and
that the heavens declare the glory of God, that the glory of God is evident in creation. For this reason, John Calvin spoke of creation as “the theater of God’s glory,” a worldwide proscenium under which the wonder of Christ was to be beheld, projected, and enjoyed. Every jot and tittle of general revelation is meant as an arrow to the special revelation of the living and sovereign Word of God. Mark Talbot writes:

In the Institutes, “this most glorious theater” means our universe, and the works referred to are God’s work in creation and providence. Like an architect who manifests his greatness in every feature of an opera house from the grand sweep of its tiered balconies to his little touches with its light switches, so God reveals and “daily discloses [his glory] in the whole workmanship of the universe” from the splendor of the heavens to the shape and structure of the toenails on an infant’s feet.

The story told in the theater is set in the theater itself — which is to say, God says something through creation about the gospel that says something about creation — and Jesus is the central player in the whole shebang. The entire Bible unfolds this intricate story for us, first in shadows, finally in blazing light.

This is a slightly edited excerpt from Gospel Deeps, forthcoming from Crossway in 2012.

Photo by Tommy Eliassen.

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Nov

29

2011

Jared C. Wilson|1:00 pm CT

Foisting Christ at Christmastime

My friend Burk Parsons tweeted something a couple of days ago that prompts me to revisit a topic I broached last Christmas season. Burk says:

Saying in a corrective tone “Merry Christmas” in response to a store clerk’s mandated “Happy Holidays” greeting is not a form of evangelism.

I agree, but taking a step back, I think we ought to contemplate why it is some evangelicals get so offended by this practice. I know we don’t like the idea of a Christless Christmas — and we shouldn’t! — but let’s think about it for a second: Is insisting that a store clerk throw out Christ’s name in a thoughtless cultural greeting any meaningful kind of redemption of the reality that what we’re encouraging is hollow cultural Christianity and what we’re doing is buying stuff?

I submit that “Merry Christmas” as an empty cliche is equally Christless to “Happy Holidays.” And in fact we ought to reckon the perfunctory “Merry Christmas” as more offensive than a cheerful “Happy Holidays,” not less.

Why? Because God commands us to revere his name and keep it holy. I don’t think getting irked that the clerk at Target didn’t Jesusify his mandated holiday greeting meets what this law demands.

I guess what I’m saying is, why do we want to force people to claim our Christ? Let’s not foist Christ at Christmastime. We ought to take care we aren’t campaigning for Christ’s name to be taken in vain! But I fear this is what we’re doing.

Boycotting or petitioning to make store salespeople confess Christ to us does nothing to truly honor Jesus. It just puts our preferred religious gauze on what is very often (though not always) moralistic or consumeristic idolatry. It might make us feel better but it does not truly adorn Christ’s gospel. As Uncle Lewis says, “That ain’t the Christmas star, Gris. That’s the light on the sewage treatment plant.”

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Nov

29

2011

Jared C. Wilson|12:30 pm CT

My Friend Nellie

In a couple of hours I will be at the funeral for my friend Nellie. She was is a really sweet lady I’ve been blessed to know over the last 2+ years.

Nellie was a member of my church although she’d never attended while I’ve been pastor and has never, as far as I know, heard me preach a sermon. When I arrived here in 2009, the retired pastor, Roland, began introducing me to the dear ladies in area nursing homes and I inherited pastoral care of her from him. She stood out right away. Despite being in her mid-90′s, fairly immobile, somewhat hard of hearing, and enjoying vision in only one eye, she was always spirited, joyful, flat-out mighty with cheer.

Her beloved King James Bible was always near at hand. Once she told me the print was too small for her to read any more. So I got her a giant print KJV. She said she couldn’t read that either. But I think she just didn’t like the idea of a “new” Bible. She knew a whole lot of it by heart anyway.

One thing that always struck me about Nellie was her phenomenal memory. It could sometimes be a month between my visits but she always remembered details about my family and things going on at church. I remember her asking about Becky and how she was doing while we spent 9 months living in different states. I was blessed and impressed by that.

Nellie and Kate, another dear saint we lost last year, are part of an aging generation of Vermonters that I fear are the last for a while faith-holders of this land. They lived Vermont’s days of richer spiritual health and have held the faith while those following behind have not.

Nellie began writing poetry in 1987, when she was 72 years old(!), as a way to grieve and remember the passing of her daughter Norma. Ten years later some relatives collected all her poems and bound them. Nearly all of them gleam with gospel. Here’s my favorite:

My Only Hope is Jesus

My Jesus I love thee
I love thy written word
It’s the sweetest story ever told
that I have ever heard.

You are always with me
you live within my heart
and if I ever need a friend
you are there to impart.

You are always there to listen
to what I have to say
and you answer all of my prayers
in your own special way.

I can come to you in spirit
I can come to you with love
and know some day I’ll dwell with you
in my Heavenly home above.

When my work on earth is over
and my work for you is done
you’re my only hope for Heaven
you’re the only one.

I love it. This poem, like all her poetry, is guileless and without pretense. I even love the theological sophistication belied by the simple lines in the last stanza that basically say “after my life of work for God is done, my only hope for heaven is nevertheless Jesus.” No, this poem won’t win any awards, but the faith it displays has won the joy of Jesus, which is a treasure beyond compare.

Last Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Pastor Roland let me know that the nursing home had contacted Nellie’s family to tell them she likely only had days and to start preparing for her passing. I visited her that night. She indeed did not look good. Slumped over, breathing with much labor, coughing, she welcomed me, but she didn’t recognize me. She began referring to conversations we hadn’t had, picking up trains of thought mid-stream that made no sense. I could see she was going.

I held her hand. I prayed for her. I read 1 Corinthians 15 to her, the whole long thing, and she sat in silence. When I was done, I said to her, “Jesus loves you and is proud of you, Nellie.” I told her that even though her body was weak, she was strong as Jesus inside. She looked at me and began reciting Psalm 23 perfectly, in the King James of course. When she was done, she recited it again. She knew it was too good not to rerun. Then she said, “Jesus died for me. I love my Jesus.” Sometimes I don’t know what “joy inexpressible and filled with glory” means, but at that moment I did. I had no words. So I just squeezed her hand gently and smiled at her through tears and sat there. That’s what you do in the presence of greatness.

Nellie died three days later, on Friday morning. She was 95.

I’ve struggled over the last couple of years sharing the gospel at the funerals of those who by most indications did not know Jesus. Today I am so happy I get to celebrate her life as well as The Life that gave her life and is giving her life even now and forever more.

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Nov

28

2011

Jared C. Wilson|1:28 pm CT

5 Leadership Signs Your Movement is Dying

One or two of these in isolated instances are likely handle-able. A pattern of any one or any combination of these signs in a pastor or the leadership culture of a church likely indicate a stalled or dying movement.

1. Insulation from criticism and/or interpretation of any criticism as attacks or insubordination.

Of course there is such a thing as malicious attacks, divisiveness, and nitpicking busybodies. But too many leaders treat all criticism as on par with those sins in an attempt to deflect or retaliate against any challenge to their sense of authority or rightness. In some cases it gets really bad when affected leaders treat any question, no matter how innocently or sincerely asked, as an affront to their authority, or when leaders cultivate a system that prevents questions, criticisms, challenges even reaching their eyes or ears. The minute leaders start insulating themselves from valid criticism is the minute they begin exalting themselves. And exaltation of anyone but Christ is death. Self-reflection, accountability, and openness to sharpening/correction are musts for healthy biblical leadership.

2. Paranoia about who is and who isn’t in line.

If a leader is constantly worried about who’s on their side and who’s not, who’s saying or thinking what about them behind their back, who can be trusted and who can’t, who are allies and who are obstacles, etc. etc., he is entering a world of insecurity that is hostile to the confidence of Christ’s righteousness. And really, most times a leader frets about who may not be unquestionably submitting to his leadership it is a sign he’s already lost credibility and trust. (Very closely related to this red flag is the tendency some pastors have to think of their people largely as statistics, consumers, assets, or liabilities, rather than as, you know, people.)

3. Need to micromanage or hold others back from leadership opportunities or other responsibilities.

Was it Luther who said, “All of us are ministers; some of us just happen to be clergy”? I don’t know, but I like it. Good leaders don’t just hand off responsibility but authority. A leader who micromanages trusts only in himself. Therefore, a leader who won’t trust other gifted and authorized leaders doesn’t trust God. And leaders who don’t trust God cannot lead life-giving movements.

Pastor, you can’t and shouldn’t do it all yourself. It’s not healthy for you and it’s not good leadership of your church to attempt shepherding it as a one-man show. Nobody wins in that situation, no matter the glory it may earn you and the comfort it may afford others. That’s all temporary, and therefore so will be your movement.

4. Impulse to horde credit and shift blame.

Leaders who claim all the credit and clout for successes and deny any responsibility for failures aren’t leaders but self-righteous glory-hogs. Self-righteous glory-hogs will eventually find themselves denying responsibility for the failure of the movement they spent a lot of time taking the credit for. Healthy leaders on mission understand that double honor comes with double responsibility.

5. Progression has become reaction.

Ever heard pro-Calvinism preaching that sounded more like anti-Arminianism? Or vice versa? Good leaders know that emphasizing what they’re for more than what they’re against is vital for fostering forward momentum. It’s okay to criticize or debate in appropriate measures, but so many pastors and leaders make the common mistake, fed by their emotions and the easy provocation of soapboxing, to rail and rant. Such stirring can draw a crowd and stir that crowd’s emotions, which can create a false impression of a coalescing movement. But a collection of naysayers and bitter critics can’t sustain movement over time. The content of our message can absolutely include what the message is not but if the shape of our message is what it is not (or what we hate or who we’re against, etc.) we triumphantly and enthusiastically shoot ourselves in the foot over and over again. It will be a frustrating — and ultimately failing — endeavor of Sisyphean proportions attempting to sustain a movement if it is known more for its denials than its affirmations.

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Nov

25

2011

Jared C. Wilson|4:13 pm CT

The Goodness of Gift-Giving

There can be an undercurrent of guilt-tripping in some of the recent campaigns to redeem Christmas generosity. Programs like Advent Conspiracy are great. (Our family started our own version last year where we spent money on those in need instead of each other and then shared about who we helped and why with each other on Christmas morning.) The subversion of materialism and consumerist idolatry is a very, very good thing. But let’s be careful not to take pride in it or to shame those who, you know, buy gifts for each other.

One of my concerns is that programs like Advent Conspiracy or even rhetoric meant to shame Black Friday shoppers become ways materialistic Christian suburbanites do penance for their year-long accumulation. But year-end rebuke of consumerism doesn’t mitigate consumerism the rest of the year. Instead — and how’s this for a novel concept? — let’s just be generous people, year-round.

There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts to friends and family. There’s nothing wrong with even buying those gifts, rather than making them. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to save money when buying those gifts. Gift-giving is good, and so is saving money on gifts you were going to buy anyway.

Flee consumerism this holiday season. But flee also smug abstention.

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Nov

22

2011

Jared C. Wilson|5:00 pm CT

Preaching with the Grain

Most preachers know the experience well. You’re chugging along, preaching your text, expounding and exulting (or trying to, anyway), and suddenly you hit the jet stream. Remember that scene in Finding Nemo when the searchers join the sea turtles and suddenly — whooosh! — they’re swept into a current that sweeps them along surf-style? It’s like that, isn’t it? There are moments where the Spirit just sort of anoints the experience, and the trajectory of the sermon starts to move in unanticipated but ecstatically orderly ways.

My latest experience of this was this past Sunday. I was simply minding God’s business in Ruth 2:1-13. In that text we find this verse: “Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn” (v.9).

I didn’t think anything “special” of that verse. I highlighted it simply as Boaz’s tender and protective concern for Ruth, his show of care and provision for her. But in a moment of gospel exultation near the end of the sermon, as I compared what Boaz the redeemer has done for this foreign widow to what Christ the Redeemer has done for we alien sinners, I was further comparing Ruth’s faithful hard work and our obedience, making it clear that we obey in faith as she obeyed in faith, and when the Redeemer rewards us, he reckons our having taken refuge under the Lord (v.12) as our righteousness — whooosh! — I was swept up into the jet stream and said something along the lines of, “The Father calls us to rest from our striving, to drink the water drawn by somebody else.”

That thought, that gospel angle on v.9, had not occurred to me prior to that moment. I wish I could say I saw that glaring up from the text in my prep. I did not. It hit me like lightning in that moment of gospel ecstasy. I stopped. I wanted the congregation to know it. So I noted it. “That wasn’t in my outline, by the way. That water thing. It just hit me. Isn’t that cool?” My congregation is not typically a very effusive one; we’re in Vermont, don’tchaknow? One guy said, “Amen,” a few gave murmurs of approval. I could see in many faces we were sharing a moment of awe in how the Spirit can illuminate a text to shine a light on Christ. It was super, for real.

I find that this happens most often when I am sticking to the text, not straying too far into my own thoughts or stories, and when I am showing both what the text immediately means and then secondarily how it might adorn the gospel. Finding the gospel spring in any text can be hard work, but once it’s found, Christological goodness just starts bubbling over. It rarely happens when I’m superimposing some other homiletical agenda onto the text, inserting my predetermined points and principles, molding the text to fit them. Instead, gospel momentum is found when we preach with the grain of Scripture. Let it rule and let it roll.

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Nov

22

2011

Jared C. Wilson|2:30 pm CT

Three Things I’ve Learned from Lewis

On this day in 1963 the world lost C.S. Lewis. (Aldous Huxley also died the same day, but both deaths were overshadowed by the assassination of President John Kennedy.) Every year on this date, I’ve run some variation of a tribute to the greatest Christian writer of the twentieth century, but this year a little something different. A list of what Lewis has taught me over the years:

1. Wonder. My first introduction to Lewis was not the Chronicles of Narnia, actually, but as a child, Out of the Silent Planet. It was completely weird and wonderful. When I got to Narnia shortly thereafter — I was about 8 or so, probably — I consumed each book one after another lustily, like a compendium of Turkish delight. Lewis’ space capsules and English manses and wardrobes and attic spaces grabbed ahold of me, broadcasting where my neurons were tuned, man. I was the kid who saw a treasure map on the back of a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal and was convinced it led to buried valuables in my Brownsville, Texas neighborhood. Reading the Space Trilogy (well, the first two books when I was little, the third well into high school) and Narnia was like warp speed for my already truckin’ along childlike wonderment.

2. Reason. Even Lewis’s fiction is chock-full of logic. “Don’t they teach that in schools any more?” the Professor says to the Pevensies when they don’t believe Lucy’s fantastic story. Lewis’s faith was full of wonder but was, also, entirely reasonable, and in the 80′s when the apologetic industry was dominated by Josh McDowell and burgeoning creation science (Lee Strobel hadn’t hit the scene just yet), I was ingesting The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity. And probably the most influential non-fiction work of his for me is his collection of essays named after “God in the Dock.” The article “Myth Became Fact” is one of my all-time favorite short pieces, fiction or non, and offered a complementary weight to one of my favorite lines in Perelandra, which I quote probably way too much in all the stuff I write. (Ransom understood that myth is “gleams of celestial beauty and strength falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.”) Lewis helped me make sense of this polytheistic, pluralistic world. His classic trilemma in Mere Christianity just made sense. His own logic and reason is not airtight of course, but he approached Christianity not just as a worshiper but as a thinking worshiper, and he therefore becomes an invaluable asset for relentlessly scrutinizing young men and women who are sorting out their faith.

3. Artistry. Homeboy could flat-out write. And when he wrote, he exulted. In his own words:

As I write, I am not merely teaching. I am adoring. Please do not take the enchanted as merely the didactic.

When I was in the first grade, my class filled out these little booklets that chronicled our favorite subjects, foods, games, etc. and one of the questions was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My six year old hand wrote Author in that blank, and through a series of adolescent aspirations and a call to vocational ministry I have never not wanted to be a writer of books. Lewis threw gasoline on that childish ambitious fire, and he showed me over and over again what words can do. His writing was show and tell for me, displaying in so many beautiful, confident ways how literary pursuit is worship.

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Nov

21

2011

Jared C. Wilson|3:14 pm CT

Don’t Waste Your Exclamation Points

Generally speaking, a church will over time become affected by, influenced toward, and transferred into whatever her preacher is most excited about.

Pastor, our people don’t usually get excited about what we tell them to be excited about. Have you figured that out yet? Instead, they get excited about what they see actually excites us.

This means we ought to steward our exclamation points wisely. If you’re one of those rah-rah guys firing on all emotional cylinders for everything from bake sales and the book table to baptisms and baby dedications, you create an equality between minutiae and missional milestones that can be disorienting, and ultimately dulling. But more directly, just remember that if everything is exciting, nothing is.

Or if the real energy of your gatherings is reserved for knock-out musical productions and cool videos but your teaching is “low-key,” sit-on-a-stool, let’s chat about how to “let God be Lord” over your finances, you are cultivating dysfunctional discipleship. Check out Skye Jethani’s stuff on “experience-driven” worship in The Divine Commodity for some insight on this concept.

But we also have to be careful in our preaching about what we are most naturally reacting with awe to, driving home, and exulting in. If it is the biblical imperatives we communicate that what’s really exciting about God’s Word is the Law. And there is certainly a way to delight in God’s commands! (Note that exclamation point.) But over time, we will impress upon our bodies that the Law is more dazzling than the gospel, and this is fuel for a quick sprint into a brick wall. Let’s save our real enthusiasm for our beautiful Savior, our awe for his finished work, our exclamations for his grace.

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Nov

14

2011

Jared C. Wilson|4:01 pm CT

The Gospel’s Seasonal Effective Disorder

I’m recalling lately the opening worship service agony I put myself under in my previous life as a non-church planter pastoring a floundering church plant. There were plenty of gatherings where our worship band outnumbered congregants. I would read our call to worship and as the music began, I would make my way back to the building foyer, prostrate myself on the floor and beg God to send a few more people before I had to preach the word. It was a soul-wearying battle with pride, with unrealistic expectations, with distrust. Our church began as a young adult ministry in a megachurch, and preaching gospel-centered expository sermons each gathering was like re-landing an alien mothership each week. Once we’d gone out to find our own way as independent community, people stayed away in droves.

I’m in Vermont now. Our church attendance has nearly doubled in the last two years. Our giving outpaces our budgeted need each month. People are excited, sparkling about the eyes and bringing their lost friends. We’re baptizing adults and enjoying the exclamatory gurgles of babies in the service.

And I am not doing a thing differently than I did in the lean days. I’m in a different place, sure, and minister to different people, but my preaching, my counseling, my leadership, everything else is the same ol’ same ol’. I am the same guy stubbornly doing the exact same thing. I am insanely repeating the same “methods” and expecting different results. And it appears to be working. This proves to me it has nothing to do with me (which is quite liberating, actually).

I believe there is an “in season” and an “out of season.”

In my pride, I wish I could take credit for having devised a new system or appropriated the right model. When I am tempted (often) to glory in accomplishments and visible signs of success, I remind myself of those agonizing floor-of-the-foyer moments in the olden days, when I wanted to trust stuff God takes away as easily as he gives. I recalibrate my spirit on the gospel often, beating it into my head continually so that faithfulness to its proclamation is my measure of fidelity, my gauge of success. Everything else can be taken away like that.

What I am reminding myself is that we are not charged with creating fruitfulness but preaching the Word. The growth is up to God. Luther remarked that he simply studied and taught and then the Reformation happened while he was sleeping or drinking beer.

Brothers, let us be faithful to simply, as Spurgeon said, open the cage and let the lion defend itself. The word will not return void in God’s time. The gospel will create its glorious disorder among God’s people according to the movements of his Spirit.

preach the word; be ready in season and out of season . . .
– 2 Timothy 4:2

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Nov

14

2011

Jared C. Wilson|3:37 pm CT

The Spirit Before and After Pentecost

Did the Spirit not prowl the earth, seeking whom he may save before his coming at Pentecost? Is God’s Spirit not omnipresent? How did people love and obey God before Pentecost if we believe, as Jesus said, he would be sent after the Lord’s ascension?

John Piper explains with a neat illustration:

Now let me suggest an analogy to illustrate the experience of the Spirit before and after Pentecost. Picture a huge dam for hydroelectric power under construction, like the Aswan High Dam on the Nile, 375 feet high and 11,000 feet across. Egypt’s President Nasser announced the plan for construction in 1953. The dam was completed in 1970 and in 1971 there was a grand dedication ceremony and the 12 turbines with their ten billion kilowatt-hour capacity were unleashed with enough power to light every city in Egypt. During the long period of construction the Nile River wasn’t completely stopped. Even as the reservoir was filling, part of the river was allowed to flow past. The country folk downstream depended on it. They drank it, they washed in it, it watered their crops and turned their mill-wheels. They sailed on it in the moonlight and wrote songs about it. It was their life. But on the day when the reservoir poured through the turbines a power was unleashed that spread far beyond the few folk down river and brought possibilities they had only dreamed of.

Well, Pentecost is like the dedicatory opening of the Aswan High Dam. Before Pentecost the river of God’s Spirit blessed the people of Israel and was their very life. But after Pentecost the power of the Spirit spread out to light the whole world. None of the benefits enjoyed in the pre-Pentecostal days were taken away. But ten billion kilowatts were added to enable the church to take the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ to every tongue and tribe and nation.

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