Monthly Archives: June 2020

Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, Naked

15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot.

16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

17 ‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,

18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.

19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent.

(Rev. 3:15-19)

We have a rich heritage. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. This courageous act sparked the Protestant Reformation. Soon, John Calvin followed by publishing his great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Reformed Churches were formed. Creeds, catechisms and confessions were written.

Today we have the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, and the little book that has such a cherished place in our hearts: the Heidelberg Catechism.

A rich heritage is a tremendous blessing. But a rich heritage does not leave us immune to the attacks of Satan. It does not leave us immune from the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. There is a great danger that is lurking for churches with a rich heritage.

To warn each of us away from this danger, Jesus speaks to the church of the Laodiceans. They also had a rich heritage. They were founded by the apostles. It is likely that Paul himself preached there. They had embraced God’s word and embraced Christ. They were part of a rich circle of churches that were the bulwark of Christianity in the area now known as Turkey.

They were also very wealthy in material things. God had greatly prospered the city, including the church within the city. Laodicea was a tremendously influential and wealthy Roman city.

But now something is very wrong. Jesus himself addresses them. There is something so wrong here that Jesus says that he is about to vomit them up.

He uses a metaphor to explain to them what their problem is. He calls them “lukewarm”. Perhaps He is referring to the mineral waters that were piped in from nearby hot springs. Perhaps he is speaking of the drinking water piped in from the nearby fresh water springs. By the time Laodicea got these waters, they were lukewarm and disgusting.

Hot water is good. Cold water is good. Tepid water is disgusting – especially tepid mineral waters. It is good for nothing but to be spat up. It makes the stomach sick.

It is tempting to simply exegete the word “lukewarm” and to ignore the rest of the text. Many sermons on this text do just that. A sermon on this text generally involves telling the congregation that they need to be hot for Jesus. Either be passionate about God or an outright unbeliever, but tepid Christianity is sickening.

They are right to a certain extent. But the text itself does not define what “hot” is, or what “cold” is. “Hot” and “cold” are simply used to contrast with “lukewarm”. Lukewarm water is neither therapeutically hot, nor is it refreshingly cool. It is simply sickening. Since the text is silent on the meaning of cold and hot, it would do no good to speculate. It is not actually necessary to know what hot and cold are in order to understand the message of the Lord, for the text does tell us clearly what is meant by “lukewarm”.

The reason, Jesus says, that Laodicea is “lukewarm” is because they say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.”

The problem is this. The Laodiceans have lied to themselves. They said that they were rich and didn’t need anything, when the reality was far different. They weren’t rich. They were “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.”

Jesus is probably referring to a recent event as an illustration of the problem. In 60 AD, Laodicea had suffered a tremendous earthquake. The Empire had offered assistance, but the town refused. They said, “We have need of nothing. We are rich”.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should try not to be a burden to others. It is a good thing to labor so that we have enough to give to those who have need (Eph. 4:28).

But here was the problem: this attitude crept into the church. They began to think of themselves as rich, in need of nothing. They were all “good Christians”. The preaching of the gospel that the preacher does is good – but it is good for those “others”. “We, of course, are rich. The sinners need to hear it. A sinner is a poor unfortunate that really needs Christ – not like us, of course. We are rich.”

A rich heritage is a blessing. But too often it turns into pride. We begin to think that we are somehow a little holier, a little wiser and a little better that those “others” out there. Soon we begin to sound like the Pharisee in the front of the church, looking boldly into heaven and saying, “I thank God I am not like other men”.

Soon, like the Laodiceans, we begin to believe what every child of Adam believes deep in his heart: I am rich, and have need of nothing. “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart. I learned the catechism when I was a kid. I was baptized. I am in church every Sunday. I really don’t need anything. I am rich.”

But this is a lie. And Jesus is about to vomit them out of his mouth.

For the reality is that the Laodiceans were not rich. They were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked – just as all of us are.

Learning the catechism is a good thing. Learning theology from the wise pastors who have gone before is a good thing. Being reformed is a good thing. But these are only good things if they constantly remind us that we are NOT rich, but in continual, desperate need of a savior. We have never gone a moment – even AFTER we became Christians – when we have not deserved God’s eternal wrath against sin. And our misery is such that we are blinded to our own sins – even now!

This is why God put us all in churches – because we need to be constantly reminded that we are not really the cat’s meow. We are not “all that”. We are not the pinnacles of virtue and wisdom that we like to think we are. God is not “lucky” that we came to church today and put our tithes in the offering plate. We are really wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.

This is why we learned the catechism when we were young. This is why the catechism has been so beloved for so long. It continually reminds us how great our sin and misery is, and how great our saviour is. The more we know, the more we offer our lives as living sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.

But at no time in our lives, from the cradle to the grave, can we ever say, “We are rich, and have need of nothing.” We know this in our own consciences. Our consciences still daily accuse us that we have “grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and are still prone always to all evil.”

We confess this with our mouths. But do we confess this in our innermost being? Whether we are new Christians or have been Christians our whole lives, do we still say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”? Or is our attitude, “I am rich, and have need of nothing.”

We can argue with Solomon’s wisdom on the total depravity of man, and astutely apply the doctrine to politicians, celebrities, musicians, pastors and everyone in the pew next to us – but refuse to apply it to ourselves. Too often we act as if everyone else is wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked and we ourselves are rich, and have need of nothing.

This is why God so strictly enjoined the Ten Commandments upon us. Not so that we can pat ourselves on the back for our good efforts, but so we may always learn more and more of our sinful nature and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness of Christ.

Which is exactly what Jesus tells the Laodiceans to do (verse 18): “Buy from me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments that you may be clothed…and anoint your eyes with eye-salve that you may see.”

As long as we stubbornly refuse to confess our poverty, we will never know the riches that are found only in Christ. As long as we continue to take pride in the fig leaves that we have sewn together in the vain attempt to cover our shame, we will never know the white garments that come only from Christ. As long as we clamp our eyes shut while shouting “We see!”, we remain blind and have no part in the tremendous freedom that comes from open eyes.

And this is not a good place to be. Jesus says he will vomit you up. But Jesus is patient, and he pleads with us. It is not enough to simply admit that you are a sinner and then expect the world to deal with it. Rather, Jesus tells us that if we really are poor, naked, and blind then we are to DO something about it. “Buy from me,” he says.

But how do you buy gold and raiment and eye-salve when you are as poor as the Bible says you are?

Isaiah answers this question for us:

“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk Without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance” (Isa. 55:1-2).

Our fallen nature uses all of the wealth that we think we have to purchase those things that we think will quench our thirst. But the only thing that can cover our nakedness, quench our thirst, and make us rich is offered to us for free.

We seek to alleviate powerlessness and loneliness through adultery and fornication, because we refuse to see that Jesus was forsaken by all so that we might never be alone.

We covet and steal because we have forgotten that Jesus gave up the riches of heaven so that we may become richer than we can even imagine.

We fight and cause division and strife in order to gain recognition, acceptance and significance, because we forget that he was outcast as a criminal, made himself of no reputation, and crucified among thieves so that we might be “accepted in the beloved”.

We are anxious and full of worry about the future because we forget that he rose from the dead and is even now sitting at the right hand of God, ruling over all things for the good of the church.

We have not, because we ask not. We ask not because we think we are rich, and in need of nothing.

This disease is prevalent: none of us is immune. It is deadly: we cannot believe that we have need of nothing and have any part in Christ. It is deceptive: we don’t even know how pervasive it is in our own souls.

But Jesus will never allow any of his sheep to perish. Therefore he says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”

Since the disease is common to every child of Adam, the cure is applied to every member of Christ: it is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of heaven. It is through tribulation and trials that we learn by the grace of God just how miserable, wretched, poor, blind and naked we really are. It is when those trials that we cannot solve come upon us that we understand how utterly lacking in wisdom we really are. It is only when the armies of Sennacherib surround us that we realize our helplessness and danger. Only when we are brought face to face with giants do we fall on our faces and cry out, “Lord, save us!”

But we are also stubborn. Our tendency is to refuse the yoke and kick against the pricks. So Jesus says, “Repent”. In other words, stop thinking the way that you normally think and remember the promises of God. In hard times, our tendency is to complain, doubting God’s goodness. We struggle letting our idols go. We still think that we can fix this if only we were smarter, wiser, or better people. It is precisely this that Jesus commands us to repent from. For the bread that we seek is free. The clothing that we need is free. The wisdom that we so desperately long for is free.

God brings us face to face with giants that are so formidable that we have no weapons that are any match against them. We have no armies coming over the hills to back us up. We have no strategy that will overcome. Retreat is impossible. Advance is suicide. We stand on the mountain with Barak and a host of farmers with sticks, while the valley below is full of chariots of iron, undefeatable soldiers and horses without number. What can be done? Why does God bring us to that point?

He brings us to that point because he loves us. He calls us to quit thinking that we are smart enough, strong enough and rich enough to overcome anything. As long as we say that we are rich and in need of nothing, we will never know the strength of Jesus Christ, our king.

Jesus uses a figure of speech to plead with us (verse 20). This passage does not speak of the universal call of the gospel. He is not saying to “invite Jesus into your hearts”. That sentiment is meaningless and foreign to the text. He is speaking to the ones whom he loves (verse 19) that would rather dine alone on the empty waste of their own wisdom and strength than admit their nakedness and fall before their king. He is speaking to those in the churches with rich heritages who are too wise, too righteous and too astute to need a savior.

He is not unwilling to save. He is standing at the door and knocking. He is pleading with the church to stop spending their money on that which isn’t bread, and open the door.

The Reformed Churches have a rich heritage. But something happened. The seminaries began to turn out pastors who were too wise to need a resurrected saviour. They were too righteous to need a crucified Lord. They were too strong to need an ascended Christ. These pastors inflicted the churches. They denied the resurrection, the incarnation, and eventually denied that Jesus ever existed at all. Soon the sound of knocking became the sound of retching, and Jesus vomited them up, just as He promised. The landscape of Europe and the United States became littered with useless, vain, empty churches that once proudly proclaimed their rich heritage. The dead fly of human wisdom and strength caused the ointment to stink, and Jesus removed the candlestick.

But for all who open the door, who remember their poverty and wretchedness, Jesus makes a tremendous promise. He will come in and dine with them.

Only when we are in fellowship with Christ can we soar with eagles’ wings. And we can only be in fellowship with Christ if we never forget that we ourselves are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. But when we come to Christ again in our poverty and need, we find that we do not dine alone. Indeed, he prepares a table for us even in the presence of our enemies, and causes us to rest safely in green pastures.

When we are in fellowship with Christ, we are truly flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. His death was our death. The law has no more hold on us, for we have been crucified with him. His resurrection is our resurrection. We are no longer in bondage to the curse for we have been raised again to new life. And his triumph is our triumph. Where the head goes, the body goes. So he says, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).

This is our rich heritage. Victory is not in our wisdom, nor our strength, nor the ingenuity of our fig-leaves, but only in the mercy of Christ. It isn’t in “accepting Jesus into your heart”, whatever that means. It isn’t in masses, submission to the pope or confession to a priest. It isn’t in the rituals of the church, nor is it in military strength.

Victory only lies in falling down again before our Lord and crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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Happy Juneteenth.

Happy Juneteenth, everyone. In case you need a little history, you can check this out here.

I am writing this post, not to add any more division and misunderstanding. God knows we have had enough of that. Nor am I writing to point fingers at anyone. I am simply seeking to understand and seeking to be understood. So this might be a bit of my own history here. I know more about the hidden recesses of my own heart than the hearts of others anyway, and I am still searching.

All of my life I have heard of the confederate “heroes”. You know the ones. Stonewall Jackson. Robert E Lee. Jefferson Davis.

I have heard of the southern heroes of Presbyterian orthodoxy as well, men like R.L. Dabney, J.H. Thornwell and others.

And I know now of the controversy surrounding these men. With all of their achievements, there was one huge glaring error – the support of the horrible institution of slavery.

To critique these men in some circles is to incur the wrath of the orthodox. One simply needs to spend a moment on Twitter to see it. Now it seems more relevant than ever, when the movement is so strong to remove the statues of Lee and Jackson from southern cities.

There was a time in my life when I also would have said, “Yes, slavery was wrong and it needed to be abolished. But it was only a very small aspect of who these men were. Certainly we can honor their achievements and their character while disagreeing with their stand on slavery.”

Yes. I used to think that way too. And then I listened.

It occurred to me that my saying this exposed a very ugly part of my own heart. The only way I could say this is if black lives didn’t REALLY matter to me. In theory, they would have mattered. I would say, “Of course, black lives matter. ALL lives matter.” But in practice, things were different.

It pains me to say this. Repentant sin still has the power to shame.

But let me explain. To say that Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson or George Whitefield were true heroes except for their views on slavery is the same as saying that black lives really DON’T matter. There are certain viewpoints that color everything about a man.

One recent tweet from a very famous, conservative Christian leader and apologist exposes what I am saying. He said, “Slavery was a very small part of who Robert E Lee was.”

Which you can only say if slavery doesn’t really matter. And you can only say that slavery doesn’t matter if black lives don’t matter.

Please think it through. Would it be tolerated in any other setting?

“Marquis de Sade was a fine citizen except for his habit of torturing young women.”

“Bill Cosby was a great man, with strong family values except for that little peccadillo of drugging and raping women.”

“Larry Flint was a great champion of freedom. Violent Pornography was only a trivial part of who he was.”

“Dennis Rader was a fine Christian man, who taught Sunday School and was a leader in his community. Binding, torturing, and killing was only a trivial part of his character.”

I think you are getting my point. When we say that Robert E Lee or R.L. Dabney were great Christian influencers, and that slavery was only a small part of who they were as men – here is what is heard: Black lives are trivial and don’t really matter.

If you want to know why there are so many who are insisting that black lives matter, there it is.

Here is how slavery operated. Read a history. Men, women and children were sold on auction blocks, inspected like cattle. Families were torn apart, children were sold apart from their mothers, husbands and wives separated for the profit of landowners. Men, women and children could be raped, beaten, tortured. And they were, frequently. They did not count as humans. It was a crime to teach them how to read. They were not allowed in white churches. It was illegal to put them in “white” clothes. A white man seen in the company of a black man was considered an accomplice to an escape in Virginia. Laws were passed that made it impossible for slaves to be freed.

Whole presbyteries owned slaves and rented them to land-owners who worked them into the ground until they were dead. And the churches used the proceeds to pay for their pastors so that they could continue to preach the gospel over the bodies of the slaves.

The first gun control laws in Virginia ordered all white men to come to church armed to prevent any blacks from trying to seek asylum.

And so when we say, “Robert E Lee was a good man, except for his support of slavery” we are counting all of that history as trivial. And the only way that we can do that is if black lives don’t really matter.

PS – I guess I also need to say this. Apparently there is a movement and an organization called “Black Lives Matter”. I know nothing about them. This post isn’t about them.

It is about real lives and real people. Your daughters matter, which is why we don’t have statues of Marquis de Sade in our public squares. Your children’s lives matter, which is why we don’t put up statues of Dennis Rader. And black lives also matter. The first two aren’t disputed, but tend to be well-agreed-upon.

But as long as people keep considering slavery to be a trivial issue, or “good for the African”, or, “A product of its time”, then we will also need to continue to insist that black lives do indeed matter.

It is time to do justice to the millions that died, trampled into the dust by white slave owners, pulled from their homes by white slavers, and sold like cattle to plantation owners. A good first step would be to acknowledge that the “defense of slavery” is not a trivial thing. It overshadows everything else about a person.

A pedophile might otherwise be a good person. A murderer might not be murdering 99% of the time. A bank robber doesn’t rob every bank. A man beating you up might be a kind and loving husband the rest of the time. A cheating wife might not cheat 6 days of the week.

But they are defined by the one thing – pedophile. Murderer. Robber. Brawler. Abuser. Adulterer.

Or a slave owner. One who used the body of another against his or her will for their own profit. And then tried to justify it from the scripture.

Quit honoring these men. We can do better, and we should.

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A Prayer for True Peace

It was suggested that my Pastoral Prayer from May 31st be published. Sometimes. when we don’t know what to pray, having a prayer written down gives us a guide.

From Pentecost Sunday, May 31st, at First Reformed Church.

Our God, our father, our king, our judge

You are the one who sits in heaven reigning over all things. Lord Jesus, Your kingdom is forever and ever. In your kingdom, justice is perfect. In your kingdom, there is no respect of persons.

And we know that we were created to long for that perfect justice. As image bearers, our hearts and our souls cry out for the day when justice will run down like water as the prophet has foretold.

As we wait for that day, Father, fill us with your peace. May our anger be expressed in a way consistent with your nature, as our Lord Jesus did.

Restrain the lawless and the murderer and the reviler and the brawler. And father, may your kingdom come. May we always submit ourselves more and more to you. Govern us by your word and spirit, cast out wickedness in high places, restrain lawlessness, give justice to the oppressed, comfort to the bereaved, peace to the restless.

And on this day of Pentecost, more than ever, we long for the filling of your Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, conform our hearts to the image of Jesus Christ.

As we long for the appearing of our Lord Jesus, teach us to crucify our old nature. We know, dearest Lord, that we must cast off the old man and his deeds – and put on the new man. Forgive us. Search our hearts as the Psalmist teaches us to pray.

Search our hearts to uncover the ugliness there. Like a wise surgeon uncovering the cancer, so uncover our cancer so that we might be healed. Bring light into our darkness. Bring healing to our deadly wound. For the wound is deadly. There is no balm of healing, except for that provided by our Lord and King.

And we long for his coming – when he will come and cast all his and our enemies into everlasting fire, and take us with all his precious people into eternal glory, where justice, truth and mercy reign.

We are so used to justifying ourselves and condemning others. Teach us, instead, to judge with righteous judgment, where there is no respect of persons, no partiality, no bribery, no coverups – that we might be good children of our Father in heaven, who does good to all men, with whom there is no partiality nor respect of persons.

Fill us with your spirit that we might walk in the light. Fill our lives with love and joy and peace. And let righteousness reign. Against these things there is no law.

Father we mourn for our communities, for our cities, for the brokenness of the world. Hatred and injustice are contrary to our creation and quickly become intolerable. Give us wisdom and humility as we seek the way forward. Tear down the walls of hatred and injustice and brutality and lawlessness and let righteousness and peace reign, without oppression, without entitlement, in humility and love. Give our leaders a spirit of justice and wisdom, for rioting and war are never good and cannot bring the righteousness of God.

May the gospel flourish. May the true gospel of our Lord Jesus be proclaimed, believed, embraced. Tear down false prophets, tear down those who feed themselves rather than the sheep. Tear down those who seek to profit off the backs of those who are hurting.

May your word of peace flow down like water, cleansing our hearts from all evil.

Change us, and we will be changed. Convert us, and we will be converted. Give courage to the fearful. Strength to the weary. Faith to the doubting.

And give us peace. Not a false peace of smiles covering a heart screaming in fear and pain; but true peace. Where there is true cleansing, true righteousness and justice, peace between you and us, us and them, us and creation – for we are your people, and you are our God.

We long for that day where the lion and the lamb lie down together, and the asp and the child play together. We long for that day when there is no hurt and no pain and no injustice and no brutality in all your holy mountain.

May that day break forth in this age, Father. Show us glimpses of that kingdom in our own hearts and in our lives. Give us peace. Restrain wickedness, wherever it appears. Cast down the evildoer, whoever they are. In our lives and in our deeds, may all that we do cry out that the Lord God Omnipotent reigns.

Guide my lips today. Bless the reading and preaching of your word. Soften our hearts, fill us with your Spirit. Forgive sins. Heal the brokenhearted. Relieve the fatherless and widow. And may our lives be filled with the fruit of your Spirit.

And let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Our Strength, and Our Redeemer.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

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