We Are Just Getting Started

Last year, on Sunday, October 16th, we outlined a new vision for our church. This Easter Sunday, April 16th, marks exactly six months from that congregational meeting. It’s hard to believe it’s been six months! And yet these past few months have been so encouraging. So many people have helped out–I’ve counted at least thirty different people! They are excited about how good it all looks. After six years of flat or declining attendance our church has started to grow again. This is an exciting time for our church. 

Most of our renovations are done now. The building looks amazing. But the thing is, it won’t last. The beautiful new floor will get scratched and worn. The fresh paint will eventually look dated, and the carpet will fray. So why all the renovations? Because they are temporary things that help us share what is eternal–the Gospel. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul’s words are striking. He’s saying the central focus of his ministry is Jesus Christ and his death--more specifically, his crucifixion. We hear of Jesus’s death so often that we can almost become immune its power. But Paul says that the crucifixion is central to all of Scripture. Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion, helps us understand the power of the cross in a fresh way:  “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.” She goes on to say, “Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living; they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard.” 

It’s been a busy few months at our church. The renovations might be nearly done, but our work is just getting started. Why? Because all that work serves something greater, the proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified. That is the explosive news that transformed people in the first century. The message that the God who made everything was shamed, suffered, and died in one of the most humiliating ways known to man. And he did this because of his great love for us. Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus! We want all people to know this love. 

God is at work, using us to share his love. I’ve had many gospel conversations with visitors since we’ve become Jordan Valley Church. I spoke with a college student who visited our church and was overwhelmed by the welcome she received; now she wants to learn more about our church. I’ve been able to read the Bible with someone who responded, “I’ve never heard this before. This grace sounds too good to be true.” I’ve had a conversation with someone who said he’s not a Christian, but he’s interested in what’s happening here, and he keeps coming back. God is working in our church! We are just getting started, and by God’s grace the best is yet to come. 
 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

Christians and Immigration

How should we as Americans and Christians think about immigration? I realize I’m a little late to the party. Immigration was a hot topic a few weeks ago; it seems to have died down a bit now. But Presbyterians are always late to the party on things like this; at least I am. Or perhaps that’s why I’m Presbyterian?  

I wanted to write about this because so much of what Christians are saying about it seems to be marked more by political ideology than by biblical thinking. This concerns me. I’m not an expert on immigration, but, having lived in Iraq (one of seven countries named in the recent temporary immigration ban) for over a year, I do have a unique perspective on some of the issues. But I’m also a pastor; part of my role is that of “public theologian;” I ought to be helping people see how the Bible speaks to the issues of our day.

Sphere Sovereignty

When we read scripture we should ask what spheres of life (or authority) these passages fit into. Consider a police officer; his job is to serve and protect the people. This authority comes from God himself. (Rom 13:1-7) But say this police officer is also a Christian, and thus should follow Jesus’s command to not resist an evildoer, but turn the other cheek. (Matt 5:39) How does the police officer reconcile these two seemingly conflicting commands? Should he return fire at the bank robber who is shooting at him? This would make him a good police officer, but not a good Christian. Or should he stand down and offer his other cheek as a target to the robber? This would make him a good Christian, but not a good police officer.

The idea of sphere sovereignty is helpful here. In his role (sphere) as a police officer, he has a duty to protect others, using force if necessary. However, in his personal life, it would be wrong for him to use that authority by pulling out his service pistol to confront a neighbor whose dog poops on his lawn. Here, in the personal sphere, Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek would take precedence.

This same principle applies in our talk about immigration. A government that fails to protect its people is failing in one of its basic mandates. But there is also the sphere of a Christian's personal life where we all should be willing to lay down our own lives for the sake of the Gospel. Much of the disagreement I’ve seen among Christians happens because people take scriptures meant for one sphere of authority and try to apply them to another sphere. But that’s the same mistake as the police officer saying he won’t return fire on duty because he needs to turn the other cheek. In the immigration debate, someone might cite a scripture passage regarding the care of immigrants, yet ignore passages regarding the government's priority to protect its people. Understanding the different spheres of sovereignty helps us to both welcome immigrants and be committed to keeping our country safe.

Total Depravity

One of the most ignored (and helpful) teachings of Scripture when it comes to immigration is the doctrine of total depravity. This doctrine teaches that, while humans are not as bad as they could be, every part of humanity is affected by sin. (Jer 17:9; Titus 1:15; Rom 3:10-19)

Some who would advocate for more open borders forget that people are totally depraved. I get the sense that some politicians believe that, if they could just sit in a room and talk with certain extremists, they would win them to their side and the American way. Unfortunately, this belief ignores that people are totally depraved. Some have been so twisted by sin that they take pleasure in the brutal killing of others.

But others who advocate for much stricter policies seem to forget that we are all totally depraved. The threat of violence is not just “outside the gates” but also within. The sin that leads terrorists to commit horrible acts of violence is the same sin that is within us. This should give us a healthy dose of humility. When we forget total depravity, it can lead to pride, to thinking we are somehow better than others. But we forget that we only have what we have by the grace of God. Because of this we should have compassion for all people.

Christ Is the True King

As Christians who are citizens of the United States we cannot forget that God is our true protector. This keeps us from unhealthy paranoia regarding acts of terrorism. It even allows us to accept some risk in accepting refugees, if there are good reasons to accept them. Trusting in an earthly king more than in God is what often got Israel into trouble. Israel often wanted a king who would build a strong army, economy and alliances; yet, ironically, the more Israel sought those things, the more they tended to lose them. Had God’s people worried less about military and political might and had instead sought God first, they would have been safer.

Forgetting All People Are Made in the Image of God

In Genesis 1:26-27, we learn that God created all people in his image. No higher honor can be given than to be made in the image of the God who made all things! This means we must reject “us versus them” thinking. We must reject ostracising certain groups of people because of a few bad apples. Even in the worst people, God’s image remains. We must show a respect for every human life, never stooping to the same lows that those who wish us harm would use.

One of the things that struck me while deployed in Iraq was how much I had in common with most of the Iraqi citizens. They were all Muslim, and yet they were a lot like me. They had the same desires, worries and struggles that I did. The vast majority of Iraqis I met didn’t hate us; many were incredibly hospitable. Even those who would aid Al Qaeda by planting a roadside bomb were not usually religious extremists. The economy was bad in Iraq, and no one had money; so Al Qaeda started to pay good money to people to plant roadside bombs. This was the only work available. To “sweeten” the deal Al Qaeda operatives would often threaten to kill his wife and kids if a citizen refused. If you were in that same situation can you be sure you wouldn’t have made the same choice many of the Iraqis did? Plant the bomb, and your family gets to live. The Americans at least had body armor, which is much more protection than your children have if Al Qaeda comes for them. The greatest casualties of Islamic Extremism in Iraq were Muslims themselves.

When I get to know people who are different than me I soon learn we actually aren't that different. Because we are all made in the image of God, we have many similarities. And because we are made in the image of God, we all have dignity.

We Need to Respect Our Leaders

Romans 13:1 gives us some of the clearest guidance for our posture towards those in governmental authority. It says,
 

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.


Who should submit to the governmental authorities? Everyone. But what if they support things you are against? Doesn’t matter. They are in that place because God placed them there. Now, if a ruler asks us to do something that violates God’s law, we must obey God. (Acts 5:29) Ultimately God will hold leaders accountable for their actions and whether they submit to God or not. (Psalm 2) One of our first duties is to pray for them. (1 Tim 2:1-2) How many of us can say our prayers for our leaders outnumber our complaints about them? Scripture says that our attitudes towards our leaders should not change whether or not their politics  mesh with our own. Paul plainly states that we should “honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) He makes no exception for Roman emperors who are unfriendly to Christians.

Concluding Thoughts

We’ve looked at some principles for how we should think about refugees within the sphere of our national citizenship. Next month we will look at this topic as it relates to the sphere of the church. I cannot tell you what you should believe regarding our national policy for immigration and refugees. But it is my hope that we will seek to turn our thinking on the matter in a scriptural direction. How can we truly call ourselves Christian if we do not seek to conform all our thinking to Christ?

The Government has an obligation to protect its people. There are evil people who take pleasure in destroying anything good, and so the government must protect its citizens from them. But most people don’t fit into that category. Most refugees, I suspect, are like many of the people we met in Iraq. People caught in the middle, simply wanting to take care of their families. Recognizing this was one of the things that turned the tide of the Iraq war. Instead of seeing the local populace as our enemies or a nuisance, we started seeing them as partners and allies. They were then less likely to help Al Qaeda operatives; in fact,  they would give us tips on where the roadside bombs were. Sometimes I even suspect they knew where a roadside bomb was because they planted it! But they didn’t want to harm us; they were just trying to keep their children alive by doing what Al Qaeda forced them to do.

Let’s realize the issues are complicated and that good people can disagree. And just because someone disagrees doesn't mean they hate America--no, they probably want the same thing you do, to keep our nation safe. They just have different ideas for how to do it. Remember, every one of us if deeply affected by sin, so let’s show some more humility. Most of all, let us ensure that we are honoring God and esteeming the name of Christ in all we do.

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

Why Choose a Church?

Why Choose a Church?

Why should you choose a church to regularly attend?  Many people question the value of the institutional church today. I regularly hear people say, “I believe in God and pray, but I don’t feel the need to go to church.” Why should you bother to commit to a church? Let me list a few reasons.

Without Commitment It’s Hard to Grow. If you want to become really good at a sport you need a coach: someone on the outside to hold you accountable to your goals, to see things you cannot see, and to give corrective feedback. When you don’t feel like getting up early to practice, knowing you have a coach waiting for you motivates you. When you are shifting your weight in a way that you can’t notice, a coach can quickly notice the problem. Our spiritual growth is similar. Paul tells us that the way we grow in Christ is by “speaking the truth in love” to one another (Eph 4:15-16). For someone to speak the truth in love to you they need to know you. Committing to one church means you can be known by others who can help you grow. 

You Have Something to Offer. Ultimately, it is selfish to withhold your God-given spiritual gifts from fellow believers. Each person has something to offer for the blessing of others. While you can volunteer here or there outside of church, there is no other place where you can regularly use those gifts to bless others. The church is a community, and a community is healthy when everyone is helping one another.

God Loves the Church. If we love Jesus, we will love what Jesus loves, and Jesus loves the Church. He loves the Church so much he died for it (Eph 4:25). Sometimes we are hurt by churches, or they disappoint us. The Church has also hurt Jesus, yet he lay down his life for it. For someone to say, “I’m a Christian, but not part of a church,” is to ultimately say, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t follow Christ.” How so? Because Christ is the head of his Church. Christ is found in his Church. 

The Church Is a Picture of Heaven. In Revelation 7 we see a picture of heaven. A great multitude of people from all over the world join together in worship. When we gather with others for worship, we are actually gathering with all the angels before God’s heavenly throne (Heb 12:18-24). This means that when we are gathered together for worship we are the closest to heaven we will be on this earth. 

No church is perfect. No church lives up to these ideals. There are an unfortunate number of people who have been deeply hurt by the church. But we cannot let these things keep us from understanding God’s design for the Church. When the Church is being faithful to God, it is an awesome place to be! 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

This is an excerpt from Jon Stoddard’s new book, Choosing a Church: a Biblical and Practical Guide. Get a copy of the book on our church book table or at amazon.com

New Year, New Beginnings, Same God

This Sunday marks the first Sunday of Jordan Valley Church. Overall, I've been encouraged by the number of people who are excited about this new phase in the life of our church. People have talked much more about the various changes we are making than anything else. In one sense this is unsurprising; change is hard. But on the other hand, the changes we are making seem rather periphery. Why? Because much more important is our love for God. Love for God is reflected in the first part of our vision (the destination, route and landmarks). Interestingly this is the part of the vision I rarely hear people talk about. And yet, it’s the area where we (I) need the most work. This year, with all the changes we are making, the one I long for most is to see us love God more. 

This reflects what Jesus said was the greatest commandment, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. This is the greatest commandment, and yet in the prayers we offer, the things we talk about, so little of it reflects a desire to love God with all our heart, soul and mind.

I’m slowly reading through John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. One of his main points is that, while our union with Christ does not change, our communion with him does. Our consistency in corporate worship, prayer, and biblical study do not make God love us more or less, but they do affect the wonderful experience of communion with him. 

One of my goals this next year is to love God more than I do now. As my love for God grows, I hope that it will show in my preaching and conversations and prayers. Will you help keep me accountable? I hope that you will make a goal to love God more this year too. Here are some evidences that we are growing in our love for God. 

We will care less about how others have sinned against us than how we have sinned against God. It’s easy to hold on to past offenses. We have all been sinned against. But when we love God more, we start to be more affected by how we have sinned against him. 

We will fight to kill sin in our lives. When we become comfortable with sin in our lives, it affects our intimacy with God. His love doesn’t change because we sin, but it does make us feel distant from God and less eager to seek him. 

We will find more joy in spending time with God. Reading Scripture, praying, and worshiping will seem less a chore or burden and instead become a delight. 

We will love others more. So often our relationships with others are based on wanting something in return from that other person, like love, or acceptance, or assistance. But when we love God more, we also see how much he loves us. This allows us to love others with no strings attached, because we are secure in the love we have from God. 

How do you grow in love for God? It really centers around spending time with him. I once read about a study where they tried to make two people fall in love. Two strangers sat together and  answered a series of personal questions and then stared into each other's eyes for four minutes. Six months later the couple was married. 

In one sense falling in love is not rocket science; time, trust, and intimacy are pretty good ingredients for love. It’s the same with God. If we are not spending time in worship, prayer and Scripture, how can we expect our love for God to grow? 

We have the privilege of living in a world where there is so much to love. God has created a world of beauty. What saddens me is how few of us think, how much more beautiful must the God who created all this be! If this world is just a dim reflection of his beauty, I cannot even fathom of how great God must be. Some people understood this. The Sons of Korah did in Psalm 84, “I long, yes, I faint with longing, to enter the courts of the Lord.” Asaph understood in Psalm 73, “ I desire you [God] more than anything on earth.” Can you say that? I can’t, but I hope to be able to. This year will you join me in seeking to love God more? 

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

The Church as the Future

Over the last few months we’ve looked at different metaphors for the church. Today, let’s look at the church as the future. In his book The Kingdom of God and the Church, Geerhardus Vos wrote, “The church actually has within herself the powers of the world to come... She forms an intermediate link between the present life and the life of eternity.” This is exciting! The powers of the world to come! An intermediate link between the present life and the life of eternity! This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s not; it’s God’s plan to unite all things in Christ.


For all those whom I have already lost, let me rephrase: the heaven we long for has broken into this present age and it has happened through the church. This means those who are part of the church have front row seats to God’s grand plan to unite all things in Christ! 


One of God’s promises in the Old Testament was that this current world, broken by sin, would be replaced by the New Creation. God would do a second work of creation (or recreation), making a world that is better than his first creation. It would be better because it would be a world where there is no mark of sin or even the possibility of sin entering again (Isa 34:4, 51:6, 56:5, 65:17).


When Jesus begins his ministry in Luke 4 he reads from the scroll of Isaiah. He reads a passage (Isa 61) that describes the New Creation, ushered in by the Messiah. It’s a place where the poor are encouraged, the blind see, the captives are set free. There will be no more tears or pain in this new world (Rev 21:4). Jesus then tells his listeners something unbelievable: this promise of the New Creation was fulfilled when Jesus read those words from Isaiah! 


How do we make sense of Jesus’s words regarding the fulfillment of the promised New Creation? Jesus’s words make sense when we consider them in light of his whole life. Jesus, though fully God, was fully human. His life mirrored ours in every way, even in dying. In one sense Jesus’s life looked very ordinary. But three days after his death something remarkable happened; Jesus was raised from the dead. If we are thinking of the church as the future, we cannot miss the significance of this.


Paul explains it in 1 Corinthians 15. He states that Jesus’s resurrection was the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20); when he returns, all those who belong to Christ will be raised from the dead. This means that the end-times resurrection started with Christ. If Christ still lay in the grave we would still be waiting for God to begin making all things new. But we aren’t still waiting; three days later God resurrected Christ. And that moment was the turning point; a new work was afoot, a work of recreation, the work of making all things new. It was the beginning of the end. The resurrection of Christ was the spark that started the fire that will one day fill all the world with its light. 


Christ is living the resurrection life that we also will live. To put it another way, Christ, in his resurrection body, is the first person to experience New Creation. This New Creation, that place described in Revelation 21 & 22, is not something fully in the future. The heavenly New Creation broke into our Old Creation world when Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. 


Now, here is where it gets exciting. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Paul teaches that those who have faith in Christ are united to Christ. A function of that union with Christ is that, just as Christ was made new in the resurrection, so also are Christians made new in Christ’s image. Paul teaches us that when you become a Christian, you are spiritually resurrected. You take on a New Creation spirit, a spirit that is part of the new heavens and new earth that God is creating. Think of it as a spark. The New Creation spirit in your life may be just a spark, but Jesus will not “crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle” (Isa 42:3). The source of this flicker is a fire that originates not in this world, but has come (time traveled!?) from the future New Creation into your present life. The future has broken into the present. 


The church is the future because it is the gathering of people who have within them the light of the New Creation.


Congratulations if you’ve stuck with me this far! We needed to understand this teaching before we understand the radical implications for what this means for you right now. One of the things I love most about Scripture is that is that some of the deepest theology–and we’ve looked at deep theology–is the most practical!


You will make it home


It’s easy to be discouraged; it’s easy to doubt that God really loves us; it’s easy to wonder if we will make it home to be with God. But you can be confident because God has already begun the work of New Creation in you! God’s shown his love for you with his actions. He has put within you a spark of the world to come. It’s his down payment guaranteeing he will finish the work of transforming you. 


You are beautiful


One of our deepest desires is to be seen as beautiful, to be desired. We spend lots of money with all kinds of things to get the look and body we want. We pursue a certain career because it comes with money or prestige. We want to be worthy of desire. God sees you as beautiful because he is making you truly beautiful in his sight. You may hate certain things about you, but God looks on the inside, and on the inside he has put the beautiful light of New Creation within you. You may think the baggage of your past keeps you from being desirable, but God doesn’t need to change your past because there is resurrection. He is transforming you into something better, and that work has started now. You may not see it, but God does, and he is pleased with what he sees. 


You have power to fight sin


The power of sin in our life sometimes feels overwhelming. It causes us to doubt if we'll ever change. Sin has influence over us, but it doesn’t have control over us. Because we have been created new in Christ, we have everything we need for godliness (2 Peter 1:3). The next time you are tempted, remember that you have been made new. It may just be a spark of new life but God will not let it go out. He will fan that spark until it’s a fire of holiness in your life. Part of faith is believing what God has said about us is true , despite our feelings at the present. 


You are part of the main effort


Before a military operation, one unit is designated as the “main effort.” This usually goes to the unit with the strongest commander. This unit is tasked with the crucial part of the mission, and they have the support of the surrounding units. The church (God’s people) is the “unit” God has designated as the main effort. Christ has bought the church with his blood, and God has equipped the church with his Spirit. We have been given spiritual gifts in order to accomplish our mission of making disciples. The church is where the action is. Your service to God, no matter how big or small, is of infinite value, because you are helping to build something that will last forever.

 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon