By David Wise
As we wrapped up the first week of Advent Conspiracy, I was personally hit with the reality that, for so many adults in church, the story of the advent of Jesus is so familiar that the majesty of the moment has all but evaporated. I’m not sure how many times the story must be heard before we reach this place, but as I looked into the eyes of those in the congregation I was hit with a sadness that we are so inoculated by the cultural presence of the nativity setting that we don’t think about how shocking and scandalous the good news really is.
When did this happen? Is there a certain age that we hit and suddenly we compartmentalize the birth of the Savior of the world into a similar category as Disney fairytales and make-believe? I realize that likely sounds harsh and condemning but I mean it as the opposite. The question that really matters is not when, or even how, but rather it is why. Why does it matter how we view the story of the Advent of Jesus? Why is our response important? Why should we slow down and read the story that so many of us are already numbingly familiar with? One word: hope.
The arrival of Jesus ushered in hope that ancient people had been waiting for since the dawn of creation. Ever since the Garden of Eden when the serpent deceived Eve and Adam, hope has been on the horizon. Throughout the history of the nation of Israel, hope is what the people were clinging to. Even within the nativity story that we read and hear every year, hope is at the forefront.
Although you and I may hope for a variety of things, true hope should be rooted in Scripture and focused on our relationship with God.
When the angel and the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds in the field outside of Bethlehem, they were displaying the glory of God (as we talked about Sunday) but they were also proclaiming hope. The hope was in the Messiah, or savior, who would bring eternal peace. Those in Israel in that day and age may have been desiring a different kind of hope, such as the freedom from Roman oppression, but God was offering something deeper and greater. The same continues to be true today, many of us are hoping for deliverance from addiction, financial despair, illness, brokenness, pain, or heartache, and yet God is offering something deeper and greater.
The hope of the Lord is for eternal peace between God and us, that hope only comes through Jesus and that is what was ushered in at advent 2,000 years ago.
Those of us in the church who have heard the story year, after year, after year, need to resist the tendency for this event to lose its majesty. This is the culmination of hope and it’s centered around God’s glory: who He is and the power He possesses to bring true peace.
Our desire, as a church, this Advent season is to do something bigger than just to read the story again, and again, and again. Our desire is to tune-in to God’s glory. As we tune-in, the hope that we find in Jesus should propel us to do something with this good news; eternal peace is not just for us it is for all people.
This is why we’re raising money to drill a well in Kenya: we want to bring hope to a people who are desperate. They are not merely desperate for clean water for their bodies but even more so they are desperate for living for water for their souls. We have the hope of the world in and through Jesus, that hope is not for us to consume like some expendable commodity, that hope is for us to share with the world around us.
If you want more information on how you can partner in providing hope check out www.adventconspiracty.org .
By David Wise
Sunday’s sermon about idle thoughts was something that’s been ruminating in my mind for years and years. I have struggled with idle thoughts since I can remember being conscious of my own mind. The variety of thoughts I’ve struggled with is widespread and deeply rooted in my past. Like many people, I have made many mistakes throughout my young life, but the issue of my thought life that has had the most negative impact is that of pornography.
I realize that even the usage of that word will be harsh or offensive to a number of people, but there’s no point in dressing it up to make it sound prettier or more acceptable than it was. Pornography is a word that is almost as harsh as the content it encapsulates. Even the mention can make people wince, blush, or grin depending on background and previous experiences. In my opinion, pornography is one of the most debilitating external influences when it comes to idle thoughts and is one of the most pervasive sins Christians struggle with in the 21st century.
Due to the private nature of the sin and struggle, there are many people who try to minimize the impact of pornography on the mind. There is a mult-billion dollar industry capitalizing on the minds of men and women, young, old, and everywhere in between. Time posted an article recently that referenced an independent web-tracking company that said, [one] explicit-video-sharing site, says that it gets 2.4 million visitors per hour and that in 2015 alone, people around the globe watched 4,392,486,580 hours of its content[.] That is a staggering statistic but the damage doesn’t stop there. Pornographic content is not viewed and then discarded. Often those images come back into the minds of participants and continue to wreak havoc on the person’s thought life.
As a man who was exposed to pornography at a young age, there is possibly even more danger in the impact on the developing brain. Scientific data is hard to find because research funding is limited due to the explicit nature of the content. From personal experience though, I can tell you that what you view does not just affect your eyes, but twists your thoughts, distorts your desires, and calluses your heart for years to come. What’s viewed in secret does not stay in the darkness of the room or on the dimly lit computer or phone screen. Those thoughts can begin to distort friendships, damage family relationships, and possibly destroy marriages (present or future).
After Natalye and I were married, we had to work through the reality of the impact of teenage and young adult years spent viewing pornography. The impact doesn’t end when the screen goes black, the images replay (even at times unwillingly) and what is thought of as secret or private becomes a battlefield of the mind. Unfortunately, people are not often open with their struggles with pornography. Many Christians fear being portrayed as a pervert or creep, others simply want people to believe that they have it all together when they’re actually a mess under the surface.
In order to work through issues of idle thoughts, we have to be more than just transparent. Its one thing to share a struggle or sin you’re battling, it’s another thing altogether to ask someone to help you fight against it. Matt Chandler, a pastor in Texas, once said that we have to go beyond transparency and into vulnerability. To be vulnerable means that we’re willing to experience pain because of our failures and that we’re willing to work toward a resolution regardless of personal discomfort. The church needs transparency when it comes to the issue of our thought lives, but we also have to move beyond just being transparent and into the arena of being vulnerable.
For me, this began by finding friends who I could be vulnerable with. This goes beyond sharing about downfalls or struggles, and into accepting challenges and rebukes from those who want to see you grow in Christ. In addition to accountability, there is an incredible amount of free software available to filter and monitor Internet activity. Having Christians for support and accountability, and software for filtering, has been instrumental in my journey to take captive every thought and make them obedient to Christ.
Although it’s been a few years since pornography has been an issue, it is still something I have to guard against and work to be proactive at protecting my thought life. I continue to be thankful for friends that have journeyed through this battle with me, a wife who has been faithful and forgiving, and a Lord and Savior who is constantly gracious and merciful. For those of you struggling with your thought life, let me leave you with the words of Paul to the church in Corinth.
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
By David Wise
This post is actually a few weeks overdue. I first had this thought when we were going through the chapter of The Story dealing with the life of Daniel in exile. I had an idea for the sermon introduction and Denise, our office manager, contributed a different (better) idea, which is what I ended up opening the week with. Yesterday there was another element of contribution from an outside source and it reminded me to give credit where credit is due.
I love preaching and although it’s wonderful receiving praise and positive comments, it’s impossible to give credit to all of the people who influence my sermons each week. The truth is that every sermon is influenced by conversations that I have with people throughout the week. Whether it’s conversations with the staff in the hallway at the church building, structured staff meetings, discussions with the elders, LifeGroup answers given by the people in my group, or class lectures from seminary, there are all sorts of contributions that other people have made.
This is important for me to recognize publicly because sometimes I think we assume that only the one speaking “up front” on a Sunday morning has any platform or opportunity. It’s fitting that just having covered the story of Esther, we come across a thought that has to do with task versus timing. I love preaching and speaking on Sunday mornings, but that doesn’t mean my voice is more important, or even the only voice anointed in our church. I may preach the majority of the sermons in our setting, but those sermons are peppered with the thoughts of people within our church.
Every week I have a few people read the sermon to give feedback before it’s preached on a Sunday morning. That feedback is invaluable in recognizing wording, application, interpretation, theological implications, proof-texting, and all sorts of other elements that play out in the final version. The Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for the inspiration of sermons, but to assume that I have the “corner on the market” is to miss the ways that God has gifted so many people in our church.
You may never stand up front and preach a sermon, but you still have a voice for God to speak through. You may have stage fright and never desire to speak out loud during a church gather, but God can still use you to minister to others through casual conversations and LifeGroup discussions. You may not feel eloquent or like you know the Bible well enough to teach others, but God has always partnered with people because of their hearts and not their head knowledge. Every sermon that I preach is a testimony to the voices of the people in my life. I have never felt confident, qualified, or eloquent enough, and I hope that I never do. This way I will always rely on the Holy Spirit. Use the voice that God has given you to speak into the lives of others, and for the many of you whom have been faithful in sharing what God is doing, thank you for the ways you have contributed to the sermons for all of God’s people.
Every week as we make our way through The Story, I struggle to distill an entire chapter into a 30-minute sermon. Last week it was more difficult because the chapter included history and prophecy and alternated within stories and between the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Given the direction we took, Jeremiah was highlighted while Ezekiel was glossed over almost completely. That was hard because there are some incredible passages that Ezekiel wrote and they continue to resonate 2,500 years after they were written.
Interpreting prophecy has never been my passion as a pastor. I’ve heard enough misinterpretation, individual ideas, bad comparisons, and faulty theology to keep me away for years, but to avoid the prophets completely would be a two-dimensional theology in a three-dimensional world. There wasn’t an opportunity to explore Ezekiel more within the sermon, so hopefully this postscript will suffice to start our minds and soften our hearts toward God’s message:
“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
One of the concerns I have when modern readers interpret prophecy is that we don’t read it in it’s original context and therefore we distort much of the meaning. Ezekiel was in exile with a portion of Judah, but not the whole nation. In the midst of a foreign land he was tasked with telling his fellow citizens living in exile that God was still moving. Often when we think about God moving, we use it in positive terms (“I really feel the Spirit moving”, “That was some moving worship”, “The Lord is moving me toward a new opportunity”), but Ezekiel was telling the people about God’s moving as it relates to disciplining His people.
Everything God was doing was for good, not necessarily their comfort; ultimately it was for His glory: Then the nations will know that I am the Lord. Even though it’s been said repeatedly in recent sermons, I cannot overstate the importance of this concept. Our lives are more about God’s glory than our enjoyment or comfort. This doesn’t mean that our lives don’t matter to God, but that there’s a priority at work and our physical lives are not the top priority. As the Israelites understood the importance of God being made known, then Ezekiel was able to share encouragement toward the people.
Even though these words were written to those people in that time, they still apply to us in that God’s heart does not change. Although we shouldn’t try to apply every single word, it is important for us to be reminded often of the work of God. He still desires to cleanse us form impurities and from idols. He still wants to give us a new heart and put a new spirit in us. And now that Christ has returned to heaven and the Holy Spirit’s presence was poured out at Pentecost, we are able to receive the Holy Spirit in us and move to follow God’s decrees and keep His laws. To end this beautiful promise full of hope and power, God reminds us of the echoing refrain of His story, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
There is so much in those words that we could focus on for days and barely scratch the surface, but I would encourage you to do just that. Reflect on what it means that God wants to cleanse us, especially as we talked about all of the broken cisterns that we dig continually. Remember that God wants to give us a new heart and put a new spirit in us, He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit and we should always be living lives full of the Spirit. Call to mind the fact that God wants to be our God and He wants us to be His people.
The creator of the universe moves continually. Sometimes it’s through close experiences or deep and intimate moments, and sometimes it’s through His discipline. However He moves, God is constantly making His name known throughout the nations, echoing this refrain.. Since God has done so much in us and for us, our response should be to partner in His work and bring him all glory, honor, and praise!
By David Wise
As we’ve been going through The Story each week, I’ve found myself overwhelmed with the amount of content to cover. Different chapters in the story can cover dozens of chapters from the Bible. This has left a lot of weeks where there were side veins I would have loved to explore but because of the focus of the series, we’ve stayed on the major storyline of the Bible.
Going through the story of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness (Chapter 6 in The Story), I was struck by the Israelites’ attitude toward God. The Lord delivered them from Egypt, led them through the Red Sea, guided them by pillars of clouds and fire, and even dwelt among them in the Tabernacle. God has given them manna every single day, enough for 2 million people on top of that, and yet the Israelites want to go back to Egypt for melons, cucumbers, leaks, onion, and garlic (seriously who was craving that combination… I would have been missing steak, sweet potatoes, and ice cream). As we read about the grumbling and complaining that spread amongst the Israelites I was convicted by the Holy Spirit.
So often I look at the Israelites and condemn their lack of faith and trust. I criticize their disobedience and thick-headedness. I scoff and am shocked at their attitude toward the Great Provider, and yet if I’m honest I am continually reminded of how similar I am to them.
God has provided for all of my needs: beautiful wife, incredible kids, healthy family, dream job, home that we own, two cars, and money for necessities and non-necessities. We have more than we need and yet in recent weeks I’ve felt my heart pulled toward discontentment just like the Israelites.
We’ve lived in the same house for 6 years and it’s starting to feel small. There are 3 bedrooms and a small living room for 5 of us to live life in. During the past during the past few weeks I have been longing for a larger home, more bedrooms, maybe a game room for the kids. While it’s not wrong to think about a dream home or look at what might be out there, I can tell you that I was beginning to grumble and complain. God, we could do more ministry in our home if it was larger. God, I would be less stressed if I had an office at home to read in each morning where I wouldn’t wake the kids up early. It became more than just the house.
Eventually grumbling and complaining can spread to other areas. Car, paycheck, family, relational dynamics, and before you know it discontent has been spread just like it was with the Israelites. To combat this mindset and attitude, I put into practice a habit that some friends from LifeGroup have told me about. The idea is to make a list of blessings God has given and to give thanks for what He’s already provided. I’m not much of a list maker, but the idea has been priceless. Instead of wanting more and grumbling and complaining I’m able to reflect on God’s provision and praise Him in the midst of it.
This week my heart has been changed to see the benefits of the house we live in: the mortgage is small enough that we’ve been able to be more and more generous, the size brings our family physically closer and forces us to spend more time together, we live in the middle of our community and are close to the church building and the kids’ school. Although the house is just one example of what can happen with a little grumbling and complaining, for me it’s been an important one.
It begins as a little discontent and potentially ends as a great deal of dissatisfaction. The opposite is also true, what begins as a little thanksgiving can build into a life of praise. The God of the universe has provided over and above what I deserve and more than what we need and it’s time to be thankful and put his provision to good use.
Two weeks ago, we began our series of The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People. To prepare for this series, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a biblical history tour through Israel. For ten days we walked, hiked, and drove through the lands of the stories from the Bible. We made our way through over fifty biblical sites and studied archeological ruins, read Bible stories in the locations where they took place, and gained an invaluable experience.
Early in the trip, our leader explained a phrase and concept that would shape my time in Israel, as well as my time spent in reflection on the trip: physical theology. So many of us have been exposed to the stories of the Bible. Whatever knowledge of them we may have, often our understanding is devoid of a physical awareness of where these stories took place: the geography, topography (valleys were important for the use of chariots in wars and cities were stationed on high ground for defense), and history surrounding these places. Justin Taylor writes about a lecture given on physical theology on thegospelcoalition.org and says,
“God has revealed Himself in time, space, and culture. People of faith from biblical times through today seek to live according to His purposes as reflected in the Bible. [T]he original context of Scripture—the land, culture, and language—is valuable for understanding both the message of the Bible and its contemporary relevance. The ancient Israelites and Jews in later periods lived off the land and lived out their response to God through the law, the feasts, and the challenges of life in the land. The land was God’s testing ground of faith, and as we encounter the “physical theology” expressed in Scripture, we are better equipped to grasp the lessons it has for us today.”
Although there were so many things I learned and experienced throughout the trip, the physical theology that I gained was by far the most precious. My hope and goal has been to integrate this experience into the sermons for our new series, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to incorporate the physical theology into the sermons.
Yesterday we talked about Chapter 2 and the story of Abraham. Something I just didn’t have time to cover was the side-story of Abraham allowing Hagar and Ishmael to be sent away. He gives them some food and water and sends them off to wander in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water ran out, Hagar put Ishmael under a bush and went away because she couldn’t watch her son die. As she sits there sobbing, God hears the boy crying and the angel of God calls to Hagar asking what’s the matter. He tells her not to be afraid, that God has heard the boy crying. Then the angel of God tells her to lift the boy and take him by the hand for he will make Him into a great nation. In Genesis 21:19 we read the final verse of the story,
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
It’s a beautiful story about God hearing the downtrodden and distressed. There’s a personal element but also God’s promise being fulfilled; in Genesis 16, God told her that Ishmael would father a nation, just not His promised nation. This story isn’t just beautiful though, it’s true and a part of history. Here’s a picture of the well at Beer Sheva (called Beersheba in the English translations of the Bible).
Although there has been some reconstruction to the trough (known as a cup in those days, which brings more meaning when the Psalmists write about the cup overflowing), the well beneath ground has been around for thousands of years and is likely the very place Hagar experienced God’s goodness and provision. In addition to the well, the remains of the village that would have been there can still be seen to this day
Our God is incredible, the one who hears the cry of a boy and answers with provision. The God who has revealed Himself over and over throughout history in visible ways that continue to be seen thousands of years later. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and His hand has been at work throughout history; not just in the lives of those people we’re familiar with like Abraham, but also those like Hagar, the Egyptian servant who saw God’s promises fulfilled at the well at Beer Sheva.
As we read The Story and hear the names of places, look them up and study the location, archeology, and geography. Understand that the Bible is not made up or make-believe, but it’s history telling one story about God wanting to be reunited with His people.
By Andy Herndon
Things aren’t what they use to be. It’s a common refrain we hear from time to time. Times are always changing. Advancements in transportation, communication and information technology have made the world a much smaller place.
This week we’re talking about the influence of the media on our teens. This is not a new concept. The influence of media, art and entertainment has for a long time had an influence on culture. Whether the newspaper, theater or TV, they influence us. This isn’t exclusive to the 20th century. William Shakespeare’s work had such a great influence on the culture of the English speaking work it’s believed he invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. (www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html)
Knowing that media and art has always influenced us and our culture, it’s no surprise that the same is true of today. There has been a shift though in the last 10 years as to how art, entertainment and media influences us and our teens.
Enter the smart phone.
Now I want to be clear here. This is not a call to abandon your iPhone in exchange for landlines or to completely cut ourselves off from media, art and entertainment. But the advent of the smart phone has brought media into our pockets. Children to senior adults have changed the way they consume media.
What does this mean for our teenagers? From the moment they wake until they fall asleep they are constantly connected. But at what cost? Though I myself very much enjoying the benefits of technology, I’ve come to the realization that I am often too dependent on it. Much is the same for our students, but not in the way you think. This generation appears to be the most connected in history , yet they are very much alone. The world of media has given them a false sense of connection and community. That’s not to say one can not find connection and community online. Though online community can be a supplement to true community, it can’t take the place of it. Much like a vitamin supplement with a balanced healthy diet can enhance your health, no one would ever live off of vitamin supplements alone.
So what do we do as a church to come alongside our students? There is no definite answer. The answer is not opening a snapchat account and start live tweeting our every movement. Friendships and relationships outside of Facebook force us to be vulnerable. This is scary for a teenager or an adult. What we can do is pray and be available for our students. Show them the love of Christ in the community of the church in real life. We can use social media to invite our teens to engage in true community. I would encourage you to find ways to encourage students using technology such as social media. Share those ways with others and use social media as a tool for encouragement.