You’re Going to Win this Game! A lesson for the Church from the Final Four.

Kentucky is college basketball country! It is no mistake that last year’s NCAA champion was from Lexington (Wildcats) and this year’s winner is, of course, from Louisville (Cardinals). Coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari are probably the closest thing we have to real “celebrity status” here in Kentucky. If you followed the recent championship you will remember that Louisville came back from double-digit deficits in their last two games, both times pulling out a victory in the last ten minutes of the game. What inspired me was the way Rick Pitino talked to his players during the difficult period. Even when they were so far behind and the game seemed to be slipping away, he kept saying to his players, “You’re going to win this game!” One of the players remarked that he was losing hope, but when Pitino told him they were going to win he felt a renewed sense of hope and determination. (It also didn’t hurt that Pitino had promised to get a tattoo if they won the championship). Pitino didn’t mind pulling out his starters and putting in backups to get the job done. He was focused on winning the game and he never lost sight of that.

What a great lesson for all of us as Christian leaders. We need to keep our eye on the final victory which awaits us. The church needs to know that Jesus Christ is building his Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Whatever you are facing today, know that there are certain truths which will not be shaken. Your faith in the gospel will be vindicated. Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord. In the words of the American missionary Adoniram Judson, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.”

You’re going to win this game!

The “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ

The great poet Samuel Coleridge wrote a poem entitled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  In the poem a ship is being followed by an Albatross, one of the great birds of the sea with a wingspan of up to twelve feet. They live on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean.   In the ancient world it was widely regarded as a good omen for a ship to be followed by an Albatross. However, in Coleridge’s classic poem one of the sailors Albatrozshoots the Albatross with a crossbow and kills it, bringing sure doom to the voyage. The sailor who shot the bird is made to wear the dead Albatross around his neck. This is where we get the common saying that someone is wearing guilt or shame “like an albatross around their neck.”

It is a helpful image because sometimes we do fall into the trap of thinking that God has laid an albatross of guilt around our neck.  He is somehow “against” us.   He is forcing us to carry some huge burden.  Perhaps we have a mental picture of an angry God who is just waiting for us to slip up so that he can say “I gotcha.”  We often live under a cloud of internal condemnation and carry the weight of guilt and fear like an albatross around our neck.  However, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all the promises of God are “yes” in Jesus Christ.  God is for us.  Brothers and sisters, God is for you!  He stands with you this day and His word for you is always “yes.”

So, you may ask, what about all the times when God (or God’s Word) says “No” to us.  Isn’t that the “No” of God?   It is precisely here that we have to listen to God’s “no” more carefully.  When God says “No” we must always listen carefully to the hidden “yes” behind every NO of God.  In other words, God only says “No” because He is standing with us and longs for our deepest joy in fellowship with him and others.  Most of what we want God to say “yes” to are things which bring isolation  and destruction to us.  God does not say “no” to crush our joy.  He says “No” because that is the deeper “yes” to our greater joy.

You may feel like you have “shot the albatross” in your life.  You have killed the very thing which was to bring you a blessing and now you must bear that guilt and carry that shame for the rest of your life.  But, today, hear the Yes of God in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, every sin has been paid for; every closed door flung wide open; every empty table filled with his abundance; every grave prepared for resurrection; every demon cast into the swine and sent over the hill; every broken wall has been rebuilt; every crushed dream has been renewed; every crooked way has been made straight; every sunset of despair has been turned into a sunrise of hope!  It is true that we do not yet see all of this.  We still await the final consummation. But, in Jesus Christ it is already breaking in!   Satan is being crushed under our feet.  The joy of the gospel is breaking upon us. The dead albatross is rising from our neck and taking flight to, once again, bring a blessing, not a curse.  Today, may you hear afresh the “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ.

The Faith of Jeremy Lin

The rise of Jeremy Lin in the NBA universe has been nothing short of meteoric.  One week he is sitting on the sofa watching the Knicks on TV. The next he’s occupying the last seat on the bench watching from the courtside in a Knicks uniform. Then, he’s given an opportunity to play and over the next few weeks he leads them to seven straight victories (136 points in first five games is an NBA record for a start). With some Michael Jordan-esque type moves, combined with a three point buzzer shot winning a game, a few breathtaking steals, and shooting foul shots under pressure; New Yorkers have been in “Linsanity.”  His #17 jersey has suddenly been sold out, and he’s the “talk of the town.”  Spike Lee sings his praise, Kim Kardashian wants a “date,” Michael Bloomburg says he’s “good for New Yorkers,” his twitter handle @JLin7 goes viral, etc.

The main story line is that he is undrafted (that’s unusual for the NBA). He’s a Harvard graduate (How many Harvard graduates do you know who can play basketball?). And he’s the first American player in NBA history to be of Chinese or Taiwanese descent (this is a league dominated by African Americans with Asians having few role models in the NBA).

Though the story which has not been told sufficiently, in my view, is that Jeremy Lin is a Christian.  He may not be quite as vocal as Tim Tebow, but he has made it clear that He gives God all the glory for his talents.  He has repeatedly given God the glory in the plethora of interviews in the last few weeks.  There is one statement he made recently which really struck me as a profoundly Christian statement. He was asked how it felt to be suddenly mobbed by hundreds, if not thousands, of screaming fans who follow him wherever he goes, asking for his autograph and even to get mentioned by the President of the United States.  None of that seemed to phase him.  Jeremy said, “I play for an audience of one, God – that’s it.”  Wow – what an amazing statement.  What a great summary of all Christian ministry.  We play for an audience of one…. God.  We live before Him, we preach before him, we pray before him, we serve before him.  If we remember this one lesson we will do well.  Thanks, Jeremy, for the reminder.  May your life not just bring glory to Madison Square Garden, but to the King of kings, Jesus Christ.

Discipling Nations

One of the key themes in the Gospel is the declaration that the Gospel will be preached in “all nations.” Jesus, as the Risen Lord, commanded His disciples to make disciples of all nations. It is interesting that, on the popular level, we often interpret this as making disciples of “individuals.” However, Jesus said we are to disciple the nations. What does this mean? The word Jesus uses for ‘nation’ in these texts is not the Greek work for country or any political entity. Jesus uses a “people” word. It is the word “ethne” which means “people-group.” The Gospel is for every people. We may work with individuals, but our goal is always an entire people-movement to Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ should make an impact on the whole of society, including the values, goals and ethics of a people. The Gospel impacts not only individual hearts, but the entire social structure of a community.  The church is always more than just the aggregate number of saved individuals. The church is the community of the redeemed. The body of Christ finds local expression in particular communities who live out the future New Creation in the present order. The society should really notice the impact of a Christian presence. We should see churches as little outposts of heaven planted on the earth to give people a vision of the future.

My wife Julie and I are going to spend Thanksgiving in Tanzania with our daughter Bethany. She is there in Tanzania to bring the Gospel to the Alagwesi people. There are about 40,000 of these people in a dozen or more small villages in northern Tanzania. They live in an extremely remote area without running water or electricity or paved roads, etc. Isn’t it wonderful to know that the Lord of glory loves these people so much that he became incarnate to redeem the Alagwesi for himself. We are praying that God will help the team plant a church there and that, in time, a new nation will be discipled. Jesus declared that the Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in “every nation” and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14).

Optimistic of Our Mission to Theologically Educate

This church-focused, theologically informed new vision I am calling for today will not eagerly embrace “top down” political strategies as effective methods for cultural transformation.  This new vision sees the local church, not the para-church, as the central locus of evangelism and discipleship. This new vision eschews niche-marketing strategies for drawing unbelievers to church.  It will abandon simplistic formulas and presentations of the Gospel opting instead for invitations to living communities of men and women who have been transformed by the Gospel.

We have much work to do, and likely this kind of church which I am envisioning will not come about without prayer and fasting. But, we at Asbury Theological Seminary are poised to face these challenges and to produce a new generation of pastors, teachers, evangelists and church planters who are theologically educated. Don’t be discouraged by the enormity of this task. Instead, rise to the challenge.  I am optimistic because I believe in the men and women of this faculty and staff who are called to educate and invest themselves in your formation. I am optimistic because Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord.  I am optimistic because as the hymn declares,

though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;

though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;

yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,

standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

I am optimistic because Yahweh “has sworn and will not change his mind!”  I am optimistic because I recall the dying words of John Wesley when he said, “The best of all is, God is with us.”  I am optimistic because the church of Jesus Christ will weather every storm from Gnosticism, to Arianism, to Constantinianism, to Protestant liberalism, to Evangelical reductionism, to the new atheism.  Through it all, Christ renews his church, calls forth better readers of the Scriptures, and makes good on his sacred promise, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Amen.

(Part 6 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

Just joining this series? Go back here to start at the beginning of this 6 part blog series.

Conversion through faith in Jesus Christ: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Third, Methodists affirm (along with most evangelical movements) the importance of conversion. On May 24th each year Methodism around the world celebrates one of the most famous conversions since St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On May 24th Wesley “unwillingly” went down to a Christian society meeting and there encountered a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. During the reading of Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle, John Wesley experienced a profound conversion. Listen to Wesley’s words as recorded in his diary:

About a quarter before nine, while the reader was describing the change which 
God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 
I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that 
He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 1

Scholars and historians still debate what precisely happened to Wesley that night. What is clear is that, at some deep level, Wesley really heard the central truth of the Reformation: namely, that we are justified through the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. We cannot add to that work. It is no mistake that Wesley’s transformation came as he listened to someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. Martin Luther had experienced a similar conversion in his so called “tower experience” in the Augustinian Black Cloister in Wittenburg. As Luther read Paul’s words in Romans 1:17 on the way the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, he recalled: “I felt myself born anew and to enter through open gates into paradise itself!”

This emphasis on conversion was re-discovered in the Reformation, and by Wesley’s day, was a vital feature of the pietistic movement. Finally, conversion experiences became fully embedded in Methodism because of Wesley’s own experience, and later, through the strong emphasis on revival preaching and conversion in the camp meetings and in the frontier church planting work of American Methodism.

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, May 24, 1738 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 103.