Better Blessings

Like millions of Americans this week, my mind is on the Fourth of July holiday and what it represents: our freedom as a nation. This freedom is a precious thing, bought with the sweat, toil, and blood of countless Americans who initially fought to obtain it, as well as those who have fought to secure it in the centuries since that fateful day in 1776. This freedom is one of the great blessings of being an American.

Of course, political freedom is not the only blessing that comes with being an American. Having recently traveled to Ethiopia on a mission trip, I appreciate still more the blessings of the infrastructure our country enjoys, excellent medical care, sanitary conditions, general prosperity and relative peace. To be sure, we are blessed among nations. (To affirm this is not to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of our nation or to white-wash the atrocities of our past and present such as slavery/racism and abortion, to name just two.)

But even as I prize the many blessings of being an American, I am moved this Fourth of July to consider the infinitely greater blessings that come to us through the gospel, things like peace with God, our standing in grace, and the hope of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). These are the blessings that come to all people who have a citizenship not of this earth, but of heaven (Cf., Philippians 3:20). Blessings, that is, for all those who are justified before God in Christ. This is the breathtaking reality that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The Fourth of July is a wonderful time to count our blessings—as Americans and as Christians. Our national blessings are precious, but our blessings in Christ are of infinite worth.

Therefore as we celebrate our nation’s independence on Tuesday and recognize the many blessings that come to us as Americans, may I add to your patriotic playlist a song that speaks to the flow of better blessings?

Joy to the earth! the savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ we sing of joy to the world and of blessings that will never end. Now that’s worth celebrating, now and forever.

[Photo credit: stuckincustoms.]

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Family Meetings and God’s Faithfulness

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Family Meeting: this is what we call our congregational meetings at Cedar Creek Baptist Church, and I like it. I like it because it makes clear what we are, namely, the family of God off Bardstown Road in Fern Creek, Kentucky. By the grace of God we are an assembly of 300-plus children of God on our way to glory. Given this breathtaking reality it is fitting that we call our quarterly business meetings “family meetings.”

Yesterday’s Family Meeting was uniquely encouraging and it wasn’t because of the chicken and desserts (which were fantastic). It had to do with the commemoration of our 225th anniversary as a church. (I loved how one speaker — a friend of the church who’s husband was our interim pastor for a portion of the 1990s) opened her address with, “Congratulations on being as old as Kentucky.”) As we look to our future it was inspiring to consider God’s faithfulness in our past. Through various testimonies given by some of our senior saints, it was deeply encouraging to hear of Cedar Creek’s rich heritage in the Scriptures, prayer, outreach, and fellowship. A common thread with the speakers was the merging of Word and deed ministries over the years. The Bible has been studied and taught, countless prayers lifted up to the Lord, and faith working through love toward each other and the nations. In other words, the two great commandments of love to God and neighbor have been emphasized in our history.

And I want this to mark our future still more.

I love studying history so that we can better live out our futures. History is a great teacher: it teaches us by the positive and the negative. That is, from our study of the past we learn how to do things and how not to do things. Both lessons are immensely helpful if we’re humble enough to allow history to be our teacher. My guess is our church’s history is like every church’s history: there are both negative and positive lessons to learn. Thanks be to God that so much of our history teaches us by the positive.

So as we look with gratitude to our history as a church, we look with great confidence in God for our future. Why? Because great has been his faithfulness and great it will be!

***

On another greatly encouraging note I’m told that our Children’s Ministry broke a record for money raised for camp scholarships through our annual dessert auction: $1,188. God’s faithfulness on display through your generosity. Thank you!

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Life and Hot-Air Balloons

Hot-Air_Balloon

I’ve only been in a hot-air balloon once. And it was tied to the ground so I could only go so high and then no higher. But that was fine with me given that cutting the rope would have left me unanchored to the ground below, an idea that I wasn’t ready to embrace.

So much of the Christian life is like this: we don’t want to let go of control (our anchor) and fly at the will of our God.

Of course, behind this desire for control is our own “God-complex.” In our pride we think we can steer the course of our lives better than the Lord. We trust our own wisdom more than his. But this is the height of folly given our finite, imperfect wisdom when compared to the infinite, perfect wisdom of God. Indeed, God alone is all-wise and, therefore, we ought to unhesitatingly embrace his control over our lives.

Isaiah reminds us that God is “wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (28:29). And we know that in Jesus Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). This means that in the gospel Jesus Christ has become to us “wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). That is, in Christ God’s wisdom has become our wisdom. Breathtaking.

Because this is true we can “cut the rope” of control and trust God to guide us safely home — with all the twists and turns, dips and dives his infinite wisdom dictates.

And so as we fly according to the Lord’s perfect providence, we declare with the Apostle Paul,

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)

[image credit: stuckincustoms.com]

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Power and Peace

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
-Isaiah 26:3

trey-ratcliff-mount-cook-and-tepako

[stuckincustoms.com

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Killing Words

Four words are haunting me: “And their voices prevailed” (Luke 23:23). With these four words Luke described the irreversible wave of fury that crashed on Jesus.

The multitudes had a choice. The crowd could have opted for Barabbas—the convicted insurrectionist and murderer. But instead they chose Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate’s feeble attempts could not persuade the mob otherwise:

But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”—a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted (Luke 23:18-24).

It is easy for us to sit in judgment on those that cried out, “Crucify, crucify him!” We would like to think if we were there we would have acted differently. But honesty compels us to admit we would have done the same—by actively yelling or passively standing by and watching it happen. Either way we are complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the crucifixion of Jesus is not the whole story. We look through this awful event to the hope of the resurrection. We gaze through the cross to the resurrection and see that even as the voices of the multitude prevailed, God was prevailing.

The Apostle Paul declares the victory accomplished at the cross:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Colossians 2:13-15). 

What looked like utter defeat was actually God’s cosmic victory over sin, death, and the devil. At the cross sin was atoned for and God’s holy law fulfilled—all in the person of Jesus Christ.

This victory finds its apex in the resurrection (and ascension) of Christ. Good Friday, thank God, gives way to Sunday. Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead the Christian can sing with the apostle: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” It’s gone because, “Death is swallowed up in victory!” (see, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Praying this song is yours this Good Friday and everyday.

[Illustration: “Give Us Barabbas” from volume 9 of The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, published in 1910. See Wikipedia.]

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For the Increase of Christ at Cedar Creek Baptist Church

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Dear Cedar Creek,

In the providence of God, thank you for the honor of serving as your next lead pastor. I am humbled and thrilled by this calling: humbled, because as the Apostle Paul asked rhetorically, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16); thrilled, because “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). This open door for gospel ministry at Cedar Creek is a stewardship of God’s grace that I plan to treat accordingly. I have been given a trust and, by God’s grace, I will be found faithful.

I want to share with you some remarks I gave to the leadership last Friday night as we began my candidating weekend. I was given fifteen minutes or so to share my heart for pastoral ministry at Cedar Creek as it relates to the broader evangelical landscape. I hope you find these pastoral emphases encouraging as we begin our life together in the gospel.

With you for the increase of Christ,
Pastor Mike 


Cedar Creek Baptist Church and the Weight of Glory
March 31, 2017

If you were asked to isolate the “fundamental problem” in the evangelical world today, what would you say? I believe David Wells had it right when he outlined what ails evangelicalism today:

The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 30.

Why is this? We could suggest several things that have contributed to evangelicalism’s embrace of a weightless god:

  • The existence (although fading) of cultural Christianity. By this I mean adherence to a faith that puts no demands upon professing Christians beyond mere church attendance.
  • The prevalence of the gospel of sentimentality — what Todd Brenneman demonstrates in his recent book, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism. Brenneman argues that evangelicalism is being shaped by popular [read: famous] pastors with media empires that churn out books and videos and trinkets depicting God as infatuated with humans and desperate for our love. This, Brenneman concludes, is simply narcissism in the name of religion.
  • The rise of “celebrity pastors” — ministers who build ministries around their charisma using the church for the advance not of the gospel, but of their own influence and fame.
  • Well meaning churches that have adopted the lie that doctrine divides and, therefore, have avoided teaching the weightier matters of the Bible.

These are just some of the reasons God rests too inconsequentially upon the church in our day.

God, of course, is not pleased to be wieghtless, inconsequential, marginalized, or assumed. As God makes clear through the Psalmist, “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Therefore, if given the grace of pastoring at Cedar Creek I will use all of my vital energies to help ensure that God rests very consequentially upon us so that he is glorified as our lives are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

How will I begin to accomplish this audacious goal?

Thankfully, by God’s grace we are not starting from scratch. One of the great things about this fellowship of saints is that you already have a weighty God. Since 1792 Cedar Creek has labored for the gospel and sought to exalt Christ in word and deed. But now, at the dawn of a new season of ministry, we have the opportunity to build on your faithful work and the faithful work of others so that God rests still more consequentially upon us.

That said, I believe my contribution in Cedar Creek’s history must revolve around the following four essentials of pastoral ministry:

  1. By the grace of God, I will lead with a Godward vision. A Godward vision for the church recognizes the nature of our calling as Christians. Consider the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian’s call: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). We are sojourners, pilgrims, and exiles in this world on our way to the Celestial City. Indeed, our calling is a heavenly calling; this world is not our home. We are being prepared for glory which is why we are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). A pastor must feel this in the deepest recesses of his being so that his leadership has the aroma of heaven. My aim will be to lead you not to myself, but to Christ and the glory yet to be revealed.
  2. By the grace of God, I will preach expositionally. By this I mean what the Apostle Paul meant when he declared to the church in Corinth, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). To exposit the Bible is to declare God’s word — the only word that can give life to the spiritually dead and keep God’s people steadfast in the faith. I am acutely aware that only the Word of God by the Spirit of God can nourish your faith. Not my clever words, but only the Scriptures are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, I will make it my aim to give you the Bible every Sunday.
  3. By the grace of God, I will teach sound doctrine. I long for us to be a people who grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, discipleship is at the heart of the Christian life. We are to be and make disciples, followers of Christ who are growing in spiritual maturity to the glory of God. And one of the primary ways we do this is by teaching sound doctrine. Note the connection Jesus makes between discipleship and teaching as he gives his “great commission”: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19). We make disciples by teaching people all that Jesus commanded us. That is, the Bible. We see this same emphasis by the Apostle Paul as he gives instruction to Titus: “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Why? Because sound [read: biblical] doctrine makes for strong Christians — disciples who are no longer children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine . . . but those who are growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Cf., Ephesians 4:4-16).
  4. By the grace of God, I will care for this flock. I am struck by the fact that Jesus did not just minister to the crowds; he was not merely a “conference speaker.” Jesus, over a three-year period ministered to (among countless others) twelve unschooled, ordinary men; a woman at a well; a blind man by the side of the road; a tax-collector perched up in a tree; a desperately ill woman who had been bleeding internally for twelve years; a grieving father whose daughter had just died; a man dead for four days and his mourning sisters; two disciples on a road to Emmaus; and a once doubting Thomas. After all, it is Jesus who teaches us to not be satisfied if 99 out of 100 sheep are fine when one is lost. Jesus brought tailor-made grace to individual people and I believe he intends for his under-shepherds to do likewise. Therefore, I will make every effort to know the people of Cedar Creek so that I can minister the grace of God to you as precisely as possible.

All of this effort has as its goal that God rest very consequentially upon his church. And when this miracle happens, God’s truth will be near, his grace will be amazing, his judgment will be revered, his gospel will demand everything, and his Christ will be wonderful.

May the Lord confirm our steps as we together seek his heart for Cedar Creek this weekend.

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If These Walls Could Speak: Graduation and the Gospel

alumni-chapel

If these walls could speak, what would the walls of Alumni Chapel say?

On Friday, December 2 this chapel will be filled with graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The men and women receiving earned degrees from this institution will be dispatched around the world for gospel ministry. With this I think it’s safe to assume the walls of Alumni Chapel are resounding with the following truths:

  • “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Because Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, go to every corner of the globe and make followers of the King! Indeed, the One with all authority is with you. Therefore fear not what may await you in any given field. Your ambition (and priviledge) is to teach the people the glorious gospel of salvation and watch the Lord of the harvest give the increase. He will surely do it. You go and be faithful! 
  • “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:1-5). This charge you have from the Lord: preach the word of God in all its contours and edges and particulars. Do not shrink back from declaring to people anything that is profitable. Of course there will be times when the word of God is not desired or revered. But this does not change your job description. You keep preaching even when it requires suffering in fulfillment of your ministry. 
  • “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Some of you are young in the world’s eye. Do not let anyone look down on you because of your age. By the grace of God expect more from yourself than the world would expect from someone your age. Be a leader in all that you do and say. May the fruit of the Spirit be so abundant in your life and your doctrine so pure that age is not what people see in you, but Christ. 
  • “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:17-19). Behold the fate of all those who are not in Christ! Know that by making themselves enemies of the Lord their end is certain destruction. Who can stand on the day of God’s wrath? No one. Therefore you must not grow cold to this reality, but with tears lay down your lives for the lost. 
  • “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). Remember that your true citizenship is not of this world–you’re just passing through on your way to the Celestial City. Therefore long for the City of God! And let this longing wean you from this world and all its fleeting pleasures. May your life and ministry smell of heaven and be saturated with a foretaste of the glory yet to come for all God’s people. May your words and deeds display an authentic and compelling restlessness with this world as you worshipfully anticipate the next. 

Praying for our graduates, trusting they will go out from the walls of Alumni Chapel firmly established in the truth of the gospel, empowered by the Spirit, and eager to serve faithfully wherever the Lord leads. May God be glorified in the class of 2016 both now and forever! Amen.

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