Loving the Worst Enemy

Related image Bernie Diaz, June 7, 2017

The United Kingdom is reeling from having suffered three terrorist attacks on their home soil within the last three months, the most recent having resulted in the deaths of seven people and nearly three dozen injured in London last week.

The radical Islamic State organization, better known as ISIS, has once again claimed responsibility for these attacks, featuring individual, radicalized Muslims, supported by an obviously evil and treacherous faction, hell-bent on destroying western society in general and Judeo-Christianity (“the infidels”) in particular.

What is troubling the west- and the UK specifically of late, is the question of what to do about Islam and its ideologically radicalized wing? With as many as 23,000 Muslims of military age identified as possible terrorist threats in England today, how can that nation’s law enforcement protect its citizens, without engaging in racial or religious profiling and enacting policies that could be interpreted as hate-based?

Furthermore, what is the Christian response for disciples to be, towards Islam, a false religion and its terrorist factions, living in the midst of such terror and it’s ever increasing danger?

There should be little doubt for the Christian holding to a biblical worldview, that Islam like any other religion, is at odds with – or even considered to be an ‘enemy’ combatant of God and his gospel. But what further complicates the matter is that the radical, violent fringe of Islam, is growing in influence and possesses immediate harm to each and every state that preaches true religious tolerance.

As I just preached the Sermon on the Mount’s challenging if not humanly impossible command to “love our enemy” like a neighbor and like ourselves, I was confronted by the possibility, if not the probability of coming face to face with a Muslim man or woman in my community- a neighbor, affiliated perhaps in someway with an avowed enemy of our faith.

Where can I turn to and see a tangible example of how a Christian is to love an enemy, not just any enemy, but one who is associated with terrorism, the single greatest threat to safety and security on earth today?

How about Egypt?

According to a report from Christianity Today, there were twelve seconds of silence – an awkward eternity on television, where Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.

“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.

Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.

On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal. “How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

Such marvelous mercy and forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to love an enemy and display the grace and gospel of Jesus Christ – even in the midst of persecution and death.

‘Coptic’ (Greek for Egyptian) Christians, perhaps the earliest Egyptian sect of the early church, reportedly founded by the evangelist and gospel author Mark in the first century, have long suffered as a religious minority in the Middle East.

The Palm Sunday twin suicide bombings killed more than 45 people and are the second ISIS attack on Christian sanctuaries in five months. Yet, the Coptics are undeterred in their quest to love and forgive their enemies as a means of gospel proclamation.

For example, CT reports that on the night of the bombings, Orthodox priest Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, his words were broadcast on a popular Coptic TV station, where he said, “I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is,” said George, addressing the terrorists. But then turning to the church, he said, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them?

“If they know that God is love and experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”

Pray for What?

How does such love reconcile with the imprecatory psalms uttered by inspired writers of scripture pleading for disaster, justice and judgment to fall upon God and his chosen nation’s enemies (Psa. 69, 137, 139)?

However, Jesus’s radical if not revolutionary preaching of the Christian life in his sermon of Matthew 5-7, spoke of a Spirit-filled ethic of interpersonal relationships built on a foundation of agape love, the unconditional love of God which is act of dedication, a decision of the will to love the undeserving, despite hatred, disappointment and rejection which may come from that object of love.

While on the one hand God loves and even reconciles his enemies to himself in redemption (Ro. 5:10), he still and consistently exacts justice and judgment upon his unredeemable enemies, as a means of ordaining social justice and domestic tranquility.

Can we make that same distinction in our hearts as God does in his? That is our calling (Matt. 5:43-48).

While on the one hand Israel’s king David wrote about a perfect and holy hatred of God’s enemies and those that would defame or shame God’s great name, it was never personal for him. David never hated his personal enemies, as evidenced by his love and respect for his infamous adversary Saul, Israel’s first monarch, who wanted him dead as the result of jealousy.

Whereas the Pharisees – the Judaizers of Jesus’ time taught that one should love only those near and dear to them and that Israel’s enemies should be hated- personally. They figured as do many people today- if you love your neighbor- one of your own, you will logically hate your enemy.

But one of the first and best ways we can love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves, Muslim and otherwise, is to serve them; to meet their needs as we have opportunity and the means to, as the Good Samaritan displayed in Luke 10, and second to pray for them (“pray for those who persecute you”).

Although you may never come across the body of an enemy or neighbor lying in the road that you can love and serve as the Samaritan did in Jesus’ parable, you’ll want to know how you can practically love even the greatest of our enemies today.

7 Ways to Love Your Enemy:

  • Knowing your neighbor, is loving your neighbor (hospitality, meeting needs, church invitations, faith transparency).
  • Speak the truth- in love. (Eph.4)
  • Work hard, work daily unto the Lord (be an example at the job; Eph. 6; Col. 4), help bear the burden of a fellow employee.
  • Do good to them (give to meet needs, Pro. 25:21-22).
  • Bless them (with the tongue, Matt. 5:47; Pro. 18:21; Ro. 12:14)
  • Pray for them (“How can I pray for you”?)
  • Forgive them (Eph. 4:32).

The Love of enemy is quite possibly the most distinguishable ethic and manifestation of the Christian faith because it is so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. This love is what distinguishing the Coptic Christians in the wake of massacres directed at them. “The Coptic community is definitely in defiance,” one Egyptian government official said. “The services of Holy Week have doubled in attendance, and the churches are flowing out into the streets.” Observers there have remarked that the Coptic Christian worldview is “180 degrees contrary to the terrorists” which is precisely God’s method for building his kingdom.

What is a Christian to do with the enemy that is radical Muslim? Don’t fear.  As Tim Chailles blogged, “When God gave us the gospel, he knew the times that would come. He knew that just months after the culmination of the gospel in the cross of Christ people would turn on Christians and begin to persecute them. But that was okay, because the gospel was for a time like that.

When those early believers scattered from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria they took the gospel with them. They proclaimed it, they lived it, they fed off of it, and it sustained them. Later the whole Roman Empire turned on those Christians, but that was okay, because the gospel was for a time like that too. Through times of persecution the gospel spread to new lands and took deeper root in the lands in which it had already been planted. The blood of the martyrs proved to be seed that sprang up into a great gospel harvest. And so it has gone in age after age and era after era.”

Indeed, 2017 is a risky, terrorist time and is therefore a time for gospel character, conduct and gospel preaching. Thus, we can and should righteously hate ISIS as a movement of evil and its opposition to humanity, faith and freedom, praying for its demise through God’s ordained system of justice (government), as we love and pray for those we come in contact with that may associate with its religious roots.

The Greatest Commandment is the Hardest

Image result for love your enemies Bernie Diaz, May 31, 2017

Less than a week after observing Memorial Day in our country, I wondered what kind of armed forces would we have, if soldiers were free to disobey certain orders they disagreed with from their commanding officer – even taking into account the most difficult and onerous commands a solder could ever receive?

That question is quite relevant being that our nation is still fighting a war on terror and there are brave men and women out there, particularly in parts of the Middle East, trying to protect us and to do so, they have to follow orders- orders from their superiors, and ultimately, THE commander in chief of the United States.

Imagine how disorganized they’d be and what kind of chaos would ensue in the military if not this country as a whole, if they were free to do whatever they wanted, or if they didn’t have orders to follow.  Someone said, “The first duty of every soul is to find not its freedom but its Master.” How true.

I read a story about someone who had problems getting his son to clean his room. The son would always agree to tidy up, but then wouldn’t follow through. After high school the young man joined the Marine Corps. When he came home for leave after basic training, his father asked him what he had learned in the service.

“Dad,” he said. “I learned what ‘now’ means.”

When you understand who your ultimate commander–in-chief is and what His orders are, it should make following those orders a lot easier and more satisfying I would think.

Love Seems to Be the Hardest Word

So, it is was with that mindset that I Iaunched our church plant just over eight years ago, beginning a ministry as a community of faith, to preach and teach God’s word and gospel to others, in the hopes of playing a part in advancing the kingdom of God and the cause of Christ by the making, maturing and multiplying of disciples.

I just never knew how hard and challenging that mission would be, to teach people to obey God’s great marching orders, beginning with the first and greatest of all – you know the one that summarizes all of the Bible- all of God’s commands, the great commandment to basically love God and love people. That’s the first message I brought to our church in a brief series entitled, God’s Marching Orders and became the slogan for our ministry.  

This week as I’m preparing to preach on another radical text from the Sermon on the Mount, I find that I’m confronted in other words, with that same command and the same realization that most Christians- myself included, would rather ‘punt’ or pass on our greatest commandment- which happens to be our hardest.

In Jesus’ revolutionary message overlooking the Sea of Galilee, he uttered three words that would become the hallmark of the born-again kingdom life of a Christian: “Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44b).” It is virtually inarguable, that that phrase is what sets the Christian faith apart from every other religion and worldview system known to man as moral ethicists over history including Gahndi, have concluded.

The simple reason that it is so, is because our flesh- oue humanity instinctively recoils at the very idea of loving an enemy and seeks to hate rather than love and seek revenge or commensurate justice against an adversary.

To love one’s personal enemy though, is encompassed by the great commandment, which Jesus stated in response to a lawyer’s question of which was the greatest of God’s laws.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matt. 22:37-40).

There are nearly 300 explicit commands or commandments of God in scripture- 200 in the Old Testament, 70 in the New. But this order, or prescribed rule that we refer to as The “great or “greatest” command, speaks to the charge that is of the highest rank, coming from a Greek word which we transliterate as mega, or that which is of the greatest importance.

Knowing that a powerful motivation to obeying Christ comes from gratitude to God for saving us by His grace, and by the knowledge that our heavenly Father both blesses obedience and disciplines disobedience in His children (Heb. 12:3-11), we should pay particular attention to God’s biggest command, even if it’s the hardest one.

Rather than give my sermon away here, to be preached this coming Sunday, I would agree with no less a theologian than the rock group Boston, that love is “More Than a Feeling.”

In fact, the love we are to give to neighbors or enemies, is one in which a  commitment is made, a commitment to meet needs. It is a love which is not dependent on good feelings, but rather on a consistent and courageous decision to extend oneself for the well-being of another. So, we commit and extend ourselves for God, which is a way in which we love God himself.

That commitment can then produce good feelings, rather than the other way around. Jesus became the perfect demonstration of God’s unconditional love for us by laying down his life for our benefit- we, having once been his enemies (Ro. 5:8). The idea is that you and I are to make a conscious decision to love regardless of how we feel, to love people – even our enemies this way.

This is just another way of understanding the ‘Golden rule’ actually (Matt. 7:12) and the concept of doing to others as we would want others to do to us.  In the final analysis, love and obedience go together. First John 3 and 4 in fact tell us if we love God, we will love people. Guess what? Enemies are people- image bearers of God as difficult as that truth is to swallow for some of us.

How to Love your Enemy?

For the details, you’ll have to come to Christ Community Church this Sunday to find out. But for starters, let’s remember that obedience is a fruit of our love for God in Christ. The manifestation of that obedience is never greater than we obey the greatest and hardest commandment, as Glenda Fulton Davis put it in a poem, “It’s Never Easy”:

It’s not always easy to smile and be nice,
When we are called to sacrifice.

It’s not always easy to put others first,
Especially when tired and feeling our worst.

It’s not always easy to do the Father’s will.
It wasn’t so easy to climb Calvary’s hill.

But we as His children, should learn to obey;
Not seeking our own but seeking His way.

It’s not always easy to fight the good fight.
But it is always good and it is always right!

How Radical is Your Christianity?

Image result for love your enemies Bernie Diaz, May 24, 2017

According to a Newsweek magazine report, Donald Trump’s election to the White House has led to such a steep rise in “fundamentalist Christian” evangelizing and religious “bigotry” in the U.S. armed forces that the matter is reaching the level of a “national security threat.”

That’s right America, you’re under siege because evangelism through the armed forces is running rampant through the streets- ‘wake the kids, call the neighbors and alert the media’ – oh yeah, an organization that represents and advocates for secular and minority religious views in the military has already done that.

Allegedly, the great commission mission of the church is threatening national security and peace. The report (published of course in anticipation of the Memorial Day weekend) alleges that the number of complaints from servicemen and women in the Army, Air Force, Marines and other service branches to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has doubled in number since November 2016.

This report is fueled by charges coming from Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims, and from atheists. Among the complaints reported: “military family and marital therapy programs are being infused with Protestant Christianity, which would ‘violate the U.S. Constitution’ (wrong! Especially since they’re voluntary); open anti-Semitism; anti-LGBT statements, posters, symbols and bullying; openly anti-Muslim teachers and Islamophobic attacks; a rise in on-base evangelizing; and increased pressure on recruits or lower-level personnel and service members to convert to fundamentalist Christianity.”

What alarmed me most about this story, was the unprecedented identification of the Christian faith in Newsweek’s headline, “TRUMP EFFECT INSPIRES RADICAL CHRISTIANS IN MILITARY.” That headline is both fascinating and illuminating.

This news weekly magazine – a long-time outlet of societal and cultural analysis – admittedly from a liberal viewpoint, actually branded Christianity and it’s message as “radical” and “fundamentalist,” terms they would never have dreamed of using to describe Islam, avoided as well by former President Barrack Obama, who was also loathe to label terrorists and their primary influence as the element of ‘Radical Islam’ that it is.

What does it mean to be radical?

According to a run of the mill online dictionary, the word ‘radical’, is an adjective which derives from the root of the idea of origin or something fundamental, and means to be thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms.

Interestingly enough, by definition, Newsweek (among other secular media outlets) are tagging today’s evangelical Christianity as being a new, extreme or ‘radical’ form of the classic and orthodox faith. Just as an aside, how many professing Christians of late have claimed to rape, pillage, plunder and dismember innocent citizens?

That said, I would argue that in lieu of our hyper-secularized society today, Christianity should be a radical religion- just not in the way the mainstream press believes it to be. Christianity was meant to be radical in the sense that it is counter-cultural.

How is Christianity Radical?

  • Biblical, classic and orthodox Christianity holds to an ethic of sexual morality. We dare proclaim God’s words that sexual intimacy is reserved for one man and one woman within a lifetime of marriage.
  • Biblical, classic and orthodox Christianity holds to the sanctity of all human life- from womb to tomb (pre-born to the most elderly and disabled), as a precious gift of God, worthy of rights and protection.
  • Biblical, classic and orthodox Christianity holds to law and order. That government’s primary purpose is to punish evil and promote that which is good (righteous) in the protection of its citizens.
  • Biblical, classic and orthodox Christianity holds to a gospel, or “good news” that salvation and redemption for the forgiveness of sins is freely offered by God’s mercy and grace to any and all repentant sinners by faith alone in Jesus Christ. If that’s radical- I’m all over it, grateful for it and am sharing it like the cure that it is for the terminal disease of sin that infects every human being on the planet – sorry.
  • Biblical, classic and orthodox Christianity is biblical. Christians hold to absolute truth from an absolutely truthful God, who is the source of truth, revealed specifically in the pages of a book he wrote for mankind in general, and for his people in particular.

Therefore, there is little doubt that from a sexually obsessed and immoral point of view – such as is the case with our elitist, post-Christian American culture, Christianity is radical. But these cultural observers miss where we are most radical, the radicalism that makes much of God and his plan of redemption, so delightful to those that find it.

Radical and Spiritual Suicide

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Ma. 8:34-37, ESV).

A person becomes a Christian by dying to one’s old self. Is that radical enough for you and our family and friends? The radical message of Christianity is essentially this, according to its author and founder: “You really want to follow me? You really want to be one of my own? Commit spiritual suicide and we’ll talk. Really.

Spiritual death means spiritual life for the repentant sinner who turns to God and trusts in Jesus alone for his or her salvation. This provocative idea is so radical today, because we live in a culture of self-love, pride and self-esteem, which demands fast-food grace – a gospel of sorts, when we want it, how we want it, and that meets our felt-needs like some cosmic genie would serve up. You rub the lamp, and he jumps out and says you can have whatever you want. Just give him your list and he delivers.

Conversely, what Jesus demands from people in this world is that they deny and die to themselves, by “taking up a cross” – an instrument of death, in order to follow the King of the earth (Lu. 9:23-27).

Think of a soldier or warrior entering the gates of an enemy kingdom. What does he do? He lays down his arms and surrenders – he gives up. He gives up the authority of his life over to the king. We do no less when we repent- when we turn to God and trust in Christ.

Radical, Enemy Love

Perhaps the most radical display of the counter-cultural faith is what might call, “enemy love.” Remember Jesus’s revolutionary words from his revolutionary Sermon on the Mount, which I currently have the pleasure of preaching in my church as we speak:

But I say to you, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt. 5:39-40, 43-44).”

Enemy love in Christ may be manifested in many, many ways, no more dramatically than in the Middle East where Christians are being slaughtered for their faith at the hands of ISIS.

Mindy Belz, an editorial writer at WORLD magazine, recently reported about the prayer ministry of a church in Iraq, where she interviewed Dawlat Abouna, a deacon in St. George’s Church in Baghdad. When asked about his church’s ministry, he answered: “We have started two new groups here at the church—one to pray for our persecuted brothers in the north, and one to pray for our enemies.”

Belz replied, “I don’t know any churches in the West with meetings dedicated to praying for enemies. And if the enemy breathing down my neck were ISIS, starting such a group would not be the first thing to come to mind. We live in a society so polarized that loving one’s enemies in any active, intentional way is foreign, maybe even a little absurd.”

Not only that, it is radical– radical enemy love. Belz’s column goes on to describe how at St. George’s over the years, Islamic militants aimed crippling bomb attacks. The church built blast walls, planted hedges over them, and continues to hold services and to serve the community.

Hundreds of mostly Muslim women line up to collect food parcels every month as part of one program.

This columnist’s challenge is that Christians would be so radical as to pray before we post incendiary words on line about the enemies of our faith. To actually begin praying for an enemy this month.  Radical Christianity means doing hard things and loving enemies beginning with prayer for those enemies is a pretty good start.

Belz summarizes the thought well with her concluding remarks, “Praying for enemies has a dividend: It tends to cast out fear. Over and over in the book of Acts we see the early church praying boldly, suffering mightily, thanking its persecutors for scattering its people, and doing it all over again. It may look as if the church is being pushed around, but in reality it’s how the church moves the world.”

Christianity is radical by nature, as David Platt’s best-selling book argued a few years ago. Radical Christianity was always meant to move the world – one heart, one home at a time and that mission has not changed over two millennia.

Is there any other way for a Christian to be in walk and talk, other than a radical one?

Lessons from the Old Testament

Image result for the old testament Bernie Diaz, May 16, 2017

Nearly a year and a half ago, our church began a Bible Reading Plan– the BRP as we call it, a systematic and chronological reading of the scriptures beginning with and just having ended the reading of the Old Testament- all 39 books worth and quite the adventurous journey it has been following the LORD and Israel, God’s chosen people through the wilderness, Promised Land and the promise of the same land to come.

How does a Christian digest and make sense of, much less summarize the Old Testament?

The stereotypical view of too many professing Christians as well as skeptics of the faith, is that we find God in the pages of the Old Testament to be an angry, judgmental and murderous if not misogynist ogre. Nothing can be further from the truth if we are to actually read these 39 books of creative and redemptive history that perfectly sets the stage for the appearance, mission and ministry of the promised and prophesied Messiah and Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Indeed, it is important that we who are Christians not only read, mediate on and study the front half of our Bibles, but that we see it’s harmony with and interconnectedness to our new covenant birth as believers. The Old covenant looks ahead and the New looks back to the pivotal or watershed moment of all world history: the gospel, which is the death, burial and resurrection of God’s anointed.

That said, the Old Testament scriptures are more than just a collection of Christological signs and symbols or prophecies that predict the coming of the chosen one, as accurate and important as those truths are.

Four things the Old Testament teaches us about God and ourselves

  1. God is the creator and sustainer of Life (Gen. 1-11).

There is much more about God that can be said than in this limited space as to his majesty, omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. But, make no mistake about it Christian, Darwinian or humanist and secular evolutionary theories cannot and do not explain the origins of mankind. If anything, such ideas are actually unscientific at its core.

The book of beginnings – Genesis, does however give us a concise description of the creation of the universe and planet earth in particular, over six literal days mirroring the calendar week that humanity has lived in for more than 6,000 years of its existence. Our theology is based on real history, and the origins of man and its primary institutions are found there.

Our existence- past, present and future is HIStory, and is revealed plainly to the spiritual or redeemed heart to understand. Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers accepted Genesis and the Old Testament narratives as true, based on its natural, plain and face-value reading and we 21st century Christians are to do no less.

     2. God is Holy and expects his people to be the same (Lev.; Isa. 6:3).

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

There may be no greater or more distinctive characteristic attributed to God than his holiness, which is to say that God is unique- in one word, different. His perfection, righteousness and glory make him like no other and unreachable without the intervention of his mercy and grace.

Holiness is the theme of the literary challenge that is the book of Leviticus, where God calls a nation of people to be unique-different and God-like as image bearers in a world surrounding by pagan idolatry and sin (“Be holy, as I am holy”). Their lives were meant to picture a redeemed, God-fearing people to a lost world in need of salvation and redemption.

That truth was symbolized in the offerings, feasts and sacrificial system found in the Old Testament law, the Torah, which has been completed in the current New Testament era inaugurated by Jesus.

   3. God is serious about sin (Nu.; Deut.; Ju.; Sam.; Kings and Chronicles).

Because Jehovah God is perfectly holy and righteous, he cannot “look upon” or have fellowship with sin, sinners and stand by idly, as sin permeates his creation.

Eventually, God will judge sin and its consequences finally, as he has throughout history, on the way to restoring his creation (Rev.) as he did in using Israel to judge pagan nations and enemies, as well as disciplining his own people’s sin and idolatry time and again (Pro. 3), through their constant cycle of sin, repentance, teaching, testing, re-teaching and retesting.

Like the Jews, God’s chosen tend to be stiff-necked and prone to wander in the struggle with the flesh and so God disciplined his own in the Old Testament, allowing slavery (Exo.), wandering, kingdom divisions, dispersions and captivity (see the major and minor prophets) to call her back, to return to Yahweh and his law, where his mercy and forgiveness is readily and always available.

    4. God is faithful (Isa: Jer.; Eze.: Dan.; Est.; Ruth; Ezr.; Neh.; Mal.).

The most hopeful lesson I found over the last year and a half of Old Testament reading is God’s faithfulness to the promises he makes to his people- even when they are so unworthy of them. Speaking of the final, ‘Day of the Lord’, the final book of the old covenant tells us:

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty. (Mal. 4:2-3)

Time and again, Israel turned its back on, rejected and reflected infidelity (Hos.) to its creator and redeemer God, ‘but God’, due to his infinite love, is the faithful covenant and commitment keeper, continually rescuing his own from ultimate disaster and extinction so that they would return to him and his blessings (Exo. 34:6-7a,10).

I am convinced that the Old Testament teaches that God has a future restoration and fulfillment of his covenant promises for this redeemed nation to come. Israel and the united and universal church of Jesus Christ has a blessed future in store (Ro.9-11), because that’s who God is: a faithful and committed covenant keeper that can be counted on.

He is our rock, refuge and ever present help and as I encourage and exhort my church and fellow Christians to dive headfirst into the New Testament – beginning perhaps today (Lu. 1:1-38), my prayer is that we will cherish all of the scripture as the daily nourishment that it is, coming from God’s good hand of blessing to bring our souls the satisfaction we long for.

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great rewar
d (Psa. 19:9c-11).

Eat Bible? Really?

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psa.119:103)

Christ Community Church’s Bible Reading Plan (BRP) continues with the beginning of the New Testament this month. You can follow us, download print your own copy of the C.C.C. BRP directly from our website at www.christcomchurch.org/ccc_brp .

Reasons Why I Won’t Watch ‘13 Reasons Why’

Image result for 13 reasons why Bernie Diaz, May 10, 2017

“Their story isn’t over,” read a short tweet, which has been liked and retweeted nearly 150,000 times. “Season 2 of #13ReasonsWhy is coming.”

Much to my chagrin, the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on a young adult novel by the same name, has gripped audiences, riled up critics and frightened parents and psychologists for its treatment of suicide to the extent that two nations in the European Union are planning to regulate its viewership (to 18 years and older) or ban its broadcast all together.

The show is structured around 13 tape recordings made by a character named Hannah, who tells her story and explains the people and events that led to her suicide. The tapes circulate among classmates who are discussed on them, many of whose secrets are revealed—including stalking, bullying and rape which happened to be portrayed graphically according to even the most liberal of television critics.

The show quickly became the subject of fierce debate over the handling of suicide, mental illness, rape and other topics during the first season. Several media sources have criticized the show; the National Association of School Psychologists sent a notice to school mental health professionals about how to discuss it; schools have sent home letters to parents; mental health professionals have warned against potential dangers of 13 Reasons; and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has released sets of suggestions for handling the show and its content.

The show even inspired students and administrators at one Michigan high school to launch “13 Reasons Why Not,” a project that focuses on suicide prevention. All good reasons to eschew viewership of a program that glamorizes in some respects, the virtue of a young person who played God in choosing to end her own life.

In fact, a new study shows that parental and mental health specialist’s fears are justified.

According to data collected from 32 children’s hospitals across the country, the number of children and teenagers with thoughts of suicide and self-harm being admitted to hospitals is more than two times that of 2008.

Alarmingly, while all age groups saw increases in hospitalizations, the biggest spike was among teen girls according to the study, which also observed a rise and fall in the number of cases depending on the time of year, reporting that the spring is the most common time for suicides.

A number of suicides have now been seen on Facebook Live, another social media phenomenon and threat in the equation, though some suicide attempts have been thwarted thankfully, such as the 15 year-old Georgia teenager who was caught livestreaming her own suicide attempt, by taking pills and putting a plastic bag over her head, but stayed up long enough to help sheriff’s deputies save her.

Suicide is a largely silent sin and is back in the news and needs to be addressed by Christians operating with a Biblical worldview- those that keep their thoughts, “captive to Christ,” calling it out as the sin that it is, and bringing the gospel to bear on those who contemplate suicide when all hope is gone.

The Sin of Suicide?

If indeed God is the sovereign creator and sustainer of all life on earth – and he is, then it stands to reason that a person- no matter how much they may be suffering, have no right to take that authority which belongs solely to God, as the one who decides when we are to live or die as the psalmist described in Psa. 139:15-16:

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

God determines the number or length of our days in this life- we do not. That reality can be difficult to swallow when one is dealing with deep bouts of depression and suffering- physical and/or emotional.

However, the truth must prevail over emotion. The Bible views suicide as equal to murder, which is what it is—self-murder. We must agree with the psalmist who said, “My times are in your hands” (Psa. 31:15).

God is the giver of life who gives and takes away (Job 1:21) and suicide, the taking of one’s own life, is ungodly because it rejects God’s most precious gift – that being life. If Christians are to be pro-life through and through, from cradle to grave, we must include opposition to suicide and its more recent efforts to legalize and legitimize it through initiatives like euthanasia (physician-assisted suicide) and ‘entertainment’ programs like ’13 Reasons.

Although suicide is sinful, it must be said that it is not the unforgiveable sin, or ‘mortal sin’ of Catholicism. We can comfort families who have been victimized by this grievous sin that suicide does not condemn a Christian to an eternity in hell. True disciples understand and proclaim that only a life-long rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s message of grace, can condemn a person to God’s righteous judgment.

So how can a Christian respond to the much-publicized attention being given to suicide and the show, ’13 Reasons?’

Being that we live in an unprecedented age of entertainment and media influence (the average American spends over ten hours per day in front of a screen), we need to give tangible reasons for the “hope that lies within us” (1 Pet. 3:15) rather than in slickly produced and morally degrading media outlets.

My Top 5 Reasons to Avoid 13 Reasons:

  1. Watching this program will not add anything of value to my life.

For Christians, media consumption can range from a harmless diversion and time of relaxation to an idol-creating machine that wastes your life. Think through how this program and entertainment in general, helps you achieve God’s purposes for you on earth. What would you really miss if you miss watching 13 Reasons?

  1. Watching this show does not glorify God.

Every entertainer holds agendas and values and many entertainers promote their values through what they produce. Many times their values are purely financial; meaning they would make whatever would sell.

Rarely do Christian values like wisdom, integrity, the sanctity of life, the fear of God, or exalting of Jesus Christ ever get airtime. Thus, we must ask ourselves what values does 13 Reasons promote?

  1. I am not willing to compromise my Christian beliefs for this show.

Though I’m not arguing that entertainment is all bad, we must ask ourselves if “binge” TV watching is evidence of an idol in our lives. Be careful if you often find yourself saying or thinking, “I know as a Christian I shouldn’t watch ’13 Reasons’ but…” This could be a sign you love this show and entertainment in general more than God.

  1. I do not wish for this show to grow my gossip.

Gossip looks different for different people. Gossip for many of us and young adults in particular, leads to gossip over what character is more justified in their wrongful and ungodly decisions than others because of their appearance or some other superficial attitude.

  1. I do not want my viewing of this show or other questionable entertainment to be imitated by my children (or those I lead)

Be warned that you pass on your bad habits to the next generation. You are also susceptible to letting your kids be discipled by entertainment and leave them as pleasure-loving materialists with dull hearts toward spiritual truth (Ro. 12:1-2).

Kent Hughes writes in The Disciplines of a Godly Man, “It is impossible for any Christian who spends the bulk of his evenings, month after month, week after week, day in and day out watching the major TV networks or contemporary videos to have a Christian mind…A Biblical mental program cannot coexist with worldly programming.”

I want to set a godly example in my consumption of entertainment- both inquantity and quality.

Hope is the Answer

Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway Patrol sergeant, often spoke with people as they stood on a small metal pipe outside the Golden Gate Bridge’s railings, one step from falling into the Pacific Ocean.

“What happens with these kids is they are so impulsive that they don’t see into their future, they don’t see a way out,” Briggs said.

More than 1,400 people have leaped to their deaths from the bridge since the famed California span opened in 1937, though scores of others have been saved when Briggs and other officers intervened.

Christians need to intervene with the life transforming, hope inducing gospel of Jesus Christ, which is grounded on the resurrection fact that the future for the Christian is bright, with expectations of glory, perfect peace and joy that will come sooner rather than much later.

In Romans 12 and verse 12, Paul gives us the context for rejoicing even in times of trial, which includes bouts of depression: “Rejoice in hope.” The reason why Christians are commanded to rejoice in the midst of trials, suffering, and persecution is because Christians know that by looking to the future, their trials, however difficult, are temporary, and that when all is said and done, God promises to turn every current trial to an eternal good (Ro. 8:28).

Biblical scholar Kim Riddlebarger writes, “Rejoicing in times of trial is not some meaningless religious ritual in which we focus on how we feel or in which we resolve to be brave. Instead, we are following the example set by Jesus in His own life, death, and resurrection. Suffering and trials give way to the resurrection of our bodies, future glory, and eternal life. Paul makes this point earlier in Romans:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (8:23–25)”

Christian, if you or one whom you love is contemplating suicide or being enticed by its false hopes of pain relief, tell them that Life is hard, God is good and Christ is coming again. This is why Christians can rejoice in the midst of great suffering and sadness. It is because of Jesus, who has secured and now guarantees a future joy for all those whom He redeems.

The Blueprint for a Biblical Marriage Solves the Divorce Dilemma

Image result for faithful marriage Bernie Diaz, May 2, 2017

Parenting is hard. What an understatement- right? Marital and family life can be crazy. Comedian Groucho Marx said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution…but who wants to live in an institution?!”

Indeed, after just having spent considerable time studying and then preaching on Jesus Christ’s teaching on lust, marriage and divorce from The Sermon On the Mount (Matt.5:27-32) and echoed throughout the gospels, I wondered how many people have counted the cost one has to pay in order to get and stay married?

Jesus’ disciples pondered that question in response to his hard teaching and restrictions on divorce and remarriage in Matt. 19, when they said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry. (Matt.19:10).”

Little surprise then, that the New Testament makes a case for the special gift of singleness (Matt. 19:11-12; 1 Cor. 7:7-8,32-34,38) in contrast to marriage, particularly for the freedom of ministry that it affords disciples of Christ. Yet on the other hand, the scriptures make clear that marital bliss will be the norm for many if not most Christians- challenges and all.

Married or single? What is a Christian to pursue? That topic I will wrestle with in my next sermon at my church from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but one of the biggest challenges to marriage, is mankind’s preoccupation with pleasure and feelings. What are we to do with the idea; “I love my spouse; I’m just not ‘in-love’ with him/her anymore?”

This statement has been heard in many a counseling room by couples. Both women and men have said it. It is usually said in the context of a marriage counseling session scheduled, because the couple has reached a crisis state and in many cases, the one saying it is also declaring their desire to leave the relationship, as the first step on the path to divorce.

.To Love or To Be in Love? That is the Question

What then does it mean to love or be in love and is there a difference? That question will be hard to answer If you spend any time wading through the murky fog and filth of the world’s messages as portrayed in movies, music and TV shows, where you might come up with a definition like this:

Love is good-looking, emotionally exciting, and never boring. Love is always interesting and supportive of my hobbies, wants and desires, and is never tired or discouraged. Love makes me feel good about myself. Love is totally into and about me.

So, when a relationship, and for our particular focus—a marriage—becomes dull there can be a temptation to believe that you are not in love and need to begin thinking about a way out.

How can you be in love if there is no passion left? How can this really be love if desire for the relationship has fizzled? Is there hope for a relationship when it has reached this state?

Back to the Basics

What’s the solution? Well, when you build a building you have to start with a firm foundation – assuming the analogy of marriage, that would be a biblical marriage, which if built as God designed it, negates the need for Christians to be concerned with, much less think about divorce and God’s regulation of it.

The blueprint from the maker’s manual for marriage and family begins of course in the book of beginnings, Genesis which literally means, origins. It is there, where we find creation in chapter one, followed by marriage and the family as the first of the four major relational institutions that God created to stand the test of time: marriage and family (Gen. 2:18-24), government (Gen. 9), Israel (Gen. 12) and the church (Mt. 16).

It is here, where Jesus takes his readers to get the lowdown on marriage and divorce.

Scripture speaks of a very different purpose for marriage than what the world wills or defines. Basically, if you marry – you agree to leave and cleave- leave your prior family to cleave or “hold fast” to your spouse, so you can begin to forge a new family, forget about yourself and to set yourself aside, to lay your life down. To die.

That’s right, the call to discipleship when one comes to Christ (‘carry your cross’) carries over to our commitment to marriage and is a truth that should be brought up early and often when any believer engages in any pre or mid-marital counseling.

Christians could lead the way in a drastic reduction of divorce and family dysfunction in our land, if we distilled marital life in essence, as a God-glorifying, Christ-exalting and “other-centered” relationship.

I think the Christian argument opposing same-sex marriage and other aberrations of this institution would resonate a whole lot more in our society, if marriages in the church more closely resembled God’s blueprint and rejected wholesale incidents of adultery and fornication producing divorce.

However, when we begin to focus on ourselves and our felt-needs, we  begin to crack the foundation of the marital relationship.

Loving Your Spouse as Christ Loved His Bride

 The death that we are called to in marriage is the laying down of your life described in Scripture as the mystery of marriage which points to Christ and his marital relationship to the Church (Eph. 5:32).

How do you know you love your spouse?

  • Are you living in your marriage in a way that reflects the relationship that Christ has with his Bride (grace-giving, sacrificial and unconditional love)?
  • Are you willing to become obedient to the point of death; the death of your own interests and preferences?
  • Are you willing to humble yourself and think of your spouse’s interests more than your own?
  • Are you willing to count your spouse as more significant than yourself? This is death (see Phil. 2:3-11).

The reality is this; in marriage you follow your Lord and Savior and die daily. Every day is an opportunity to die and in dying you love, and by loving you make much of God and make him known.

So, the ultimate thing that can be said about marriage is that it exists for God’s glory. That is, it exists to display God. As John Piper writes in his book, This Momentary Marriage’, “Marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church. And therefore, the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream.”

Staying married, therefore, is not mainly about staying “in love” as the world sees it. It is about keeping covenant. “Till death do us part” or “As long as we both shall live” is a sacred covenant promise—the same kind Jesus made with his bride when he died for her.

Therefore, what makes divorce and remarriage so horrific in God’s eyes is not merely that it involves covenant-breaking to the spouse, but that it involves misrepresenting Christ and his covenant. Christ will never leave his wife. Ever.

There may be times of painful distance and tragic backsliding on our part. Yes, we may want to pack our things and leave because it is so hard, or hesitate to marry as some of the first disciples speculated.

We must remember that a faith that can’t be tested can’t be trusted and a marriage that can’t be tried can’t be blessed. Faithfulness is what we fight for and what God is looking for in marriage.

We might file for separation from Him, but Christ keeps his covenant forever with us. Marriage is a display of that! That is the ultimate thing we can say about it. It puts the glory of Christ’s covenant-keeping love on display.

 

The Russian Ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses- The Christian Reaction

Image result for russia bans jehovah's witnesses 2017 Bernie Diaz, April 25, 2017

Suppose you read or heard today that a pseudo-Christian cult like the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned or persecuted to the point of extinction in the United States? How would you react to that news item?

A Christian could say, “Well, another false religion bites the dust- one less opponent to contend with for the faith.” Indeed, many if not most evangelical believers understand the JW religion to be what it is, a 19th century concoction, a deceptive and spiritually devious faith system to the extent it attempts to align itself with the name and ministry of Jesus Christ, while denying his deity and gospel of grace by faith alone.

Well, the hypothetical became a reality in Russia this past week, when the Russian Supreme Court declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion  that rejects violence on its face, to be an ‘extremist’ organization, banning the group from operating on Russian territory and putting its more than 170,000 Russian worshipers in the same category as Islamic State militants according to a report from The New York Times.

As a result of the court’s ruling, the Russian Justice Ministry has ordered that the denomination be “liquidated” — essentially eliminated or disbanded, as had been widely expected. JW’s extremist? In what way?

Jehovah’ Witnesses have been viewed with deep suspicion by Russia’s post-Soviet version of the KGB: the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B. for some time. Two factors among others that were cited for the decision, are worth noting for true disciples of Christ seeking to understand this controversy thru a Christian worldview and this decision’s impact on the biblical church:

1. Exclusive truth claims made by any religion as to salvation –  political or by faith in Russia, other than their Orthodox Church and other traditionally approved religious institutions, are seen as extreme and dangerous, no matter how untrue those claims may be.

2. The state’s case argued that Jehovah’s Witnesses had shown “signs of extremist activity that represent a threat to the rights of citizens, social order and the security of society.” What were those signs?

The only known sociological or political threat that has been attributed to them has been their congregants’ failure to enlist in the military and to prohibit families from giving or receiving blood transfusions. Those are two threats to Russia’s national security?  Next week Vladimir Putin may take issue with the JW’s refusal to celebrate birthdays. I’m kidding- I think.

Why Should American Christians Care?

Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued in Moscow, condemned the court ruling as “a serious breach of Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom.” The human rights group’s spokesman for Europe and Central Asia, said according to the Times, that the decision delivered “a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.”

Make no mistake, religious liberty or freedom is under fire both here and abroad, where persecution varies from nation to nation. Imagine if a particular religion is branded as extreme by its state – be it secular or sectarian for its religious truth claims and convictions of conscience on any given day? What religion at any given time can be safe?

If Russia can subjectively purge the Jehovah’s Witness religion from its midst, what would prevent it from doing the same to orthodox, biblical Christianity and its churches, once it’s doctrinal and theological convictions at any given time are thought to be “extremist?”

Isn’t that the label that evangelical Churches have already been givenby the secular media, cultural and academic elites of our country today in our post-Christian society? The news of the JW’s fate in Russia must make any Christian take a pause with concern, if we care at all about having the freedom to take a seat at the table of the market place of religious ideas.

Although this nation was founded upon traditional and biblical Christian values, its founders understood the necessity that all legitimate religions must be granted equal, constitutional protections under the law to freely worship, if any of them could.

This country’s founding fathers and state legislatures in both the 18th and 19th centuries had the foresight to enact laws that extended the rights to worship and the “free exercise of religion” to minority faiths such as Judaism and Catholicism at that time. They understood that religion cannot and should not be coerced and therefore formed a pluralistic national identity, where any and all peaceful religions could co-exist.

The Prime Directive of Human Rights

Like it or not humanists and atheists in our midst, religion and theology matters as evidenced by recent news headlines such as the above.

Christians understand that people are intuitively religious or spiritual to the degree that they are made to worship- something and someone. God took care of that, ‘setting eternity in the heart’ of mankind (Ecc. 3:11). The lost among us need Christ, so Christians need and should actively seek the right or religious liberty to show and share Christ in our communities.

This is why religious freedom must be a central priority and major political issue if there is to be any at all for the Christian. Gospel proclamation and freedom to follow Christ should be paramount for us.

After all, if the persecution of JW’s, peaceful Muslims and Mormons can thrive today, why couldn’t it be Christians tomorrow?

There is already a growing likelihood in which Christianity here or there, will be seen as dangerously ‘extremist’ to the state (e.g. Syria, North Korea) as was the case when the church was birthed 2,000 years ago.

Our early church ancestors were thought of as being ‘cultish’ for their strange fellowship of ‘cannibalistic’ communion – a “Lord’s supper” which reportedly called for the consumption of the ‘body and blood of Christ’ as well as their refusal to worship Caesar as lord.

In today’s society, nothing can be thought of as more intolerant or extreme than biblical Christianity’s lifestyle and views which oppose same-sex marriage and abortion on demand to say nothing of its claim that Jesus is the only ‘way, truth and life’ to God and heaven.

So, if it was the Jews of World War II Nazi Germany, Baptists among others during the Soviet era and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia last week,  whose turn will it be next week? Who will speak up for religious freedom?