Taylor Allen’s Baptism Testimony

December 14, 2017

(Taylor was baptized on November 26. Here is his testimony:)

On August 8th I was in Ukraine and I was challenged by a pastor to write down what I believe. I accepted that challenge and spent quite a few hours on my essay. It started, “I believe in the world…” and you can imagine where it went from there.

But in the process of writing that essay, the Holy Spirit made me write something significant that stuck with me; when I was younger I always liked John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” I interpreted that to mean I should give love to people around me and I tried my best. But I think it is harder to accept love.

In my essay, I quoted Victor Hugo, “The supreme happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved–loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” And this stuck with me in a profound way, because the love Christ offers us is an undeserved blessing. None of us deserve salvation because none of us are blameless, nor are we capable of earning salvation through our attempts to love others. But I didn’t know Christ at the time. I didn’t even want to admit that God was real.

On August 18 I wrote an email to a Christian asking how they know God. Maybe these questions sound familiar to you. “What assurance do you have that God exists? What feeling do you have, what evidence do you have for the promise of salvation? When I look out my window, I wonder to myself if this earth is all there is. Why does there have to be more? Why does life have to be anything other than the miracle of life, self-awareness, and then cellular death? Why does life have to be fulfilling, or fair, or enjoyable? What if life is just life and we make the most of it while we are alive. To me, that doesn’t sound depressing, because it is great that I am alive and self-aware and have experienced a lot of good things in my life.” As you can see, this Christian was quite patient with me.

I continued in the email, “Furthermore, in my most hateful, hard-hearted moments I listen to the beliefs of Christians and it sounds naive to me. What if the promise of salvation and life eternal was simply developed by humans as a natural fear of death, rather than as a gift from a divine creator?”

I continued, writing, “I’m still struggling with deciding if I want to be a Christian, because it feels like I am giving up part of the human condition (self agency, independence, things I value). I wish God would speak to me again or soften my heart. I don’t deserve it, but I want it. I hope you’ll pray for me.”

Then on August 21 I wrote this: “The times I’ve tried to pray over the years it has been impossible to escape my head and I can’t get through a whole prayer without asking, ‘Who am I talking to right now?’ I can’t explain why, but last night I got down on my knees in front of the couch and started to pray out loud. I just started talking and it occurred to me that He was the right person to be honest with: “God, why did you give me all these doubts? Why am I questioning everything? Why can’t I believe? Do you see how I am?”

And you know what, God moved my heart… and I wept–my heart melted in sadness. I heard the Spirit encouraging me: Yeah, Taylor, I know everything about you and I love you anyway. You know all those questions you’ve been asking? Ask ME! Pray and ask Me. And I did; I asked Him why He would care about me? Why am I worth anything? Why would You want to save me?

I said, “I DO NOT understand it, God!” I was seeing everything I had become, all the sins and pride and anger and disappointment I have felt in my life, all the things that ruined my relationships and made me take false comfort in my abilities, all the doubt and weight I had been carrying around. And I swear to you, I didn’t know about all the weight I carried until I prayed about it. I saw everything and I felt so worthless, so humbled that I wept and said again, “Why would You save me?” And all I heard was, I love you.

Because, truly Christ loves us and has always loved us even with the foreknowledge of our sin and our pride and our anger and our rebellion.

From Psalm 139:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.

You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

And not only do I know that Christ loves us, I know that His death and resurrection are sufficient to save us, which we are unable to do. From Romans 8:1-4

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

So my ongoing prayer for myself and for everyone who knows Christ or wants to know Christ is that you become like the seed in Matthew 13 that falls on good ground. Hear this good news, this gospel, this undeserved gift of love! Let it bear fruit for you.

I am praying for fruit to spring forth from a life lived for Christ rather than one lived for myself. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

And as I am about to be baptized today, I am grateful for the work the Spirit has already done in my heart to bring me to this point. And I am aware how much further I can grow in my knowledge and obedience of Christ.

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

My prayer for all of us today:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you [us], who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

So I pray, Lord, that You sustain us, remind of us Your undeserved love for us, and teach us how to live for You, in worship of You and for Your glory. I ask this in Christ’s name, Amen.

 

Why Do You Say Merry Christmas?

December 14, 2017

Why do you say, “Merry Christmas”?

  • Some celebrate their family;
  • Some celebrate their cultural or family traditions: What they do on Christmas Eve or morning;
  • Some celebrate gift-giving, especially Santa Claus;
  • Some celebrate the winter season: snow and sleighs and Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Indeed, the song containing that line, modestly entitled “The Christmas Song,” is a good example of all these:

  • “Jack Frost,” celebrating winter;
  • “Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,” for family;
  • “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir . . . turkey and some mistletoe,” for tradition;
  • ‘They know that Santa’s on his way; he’s bringing lots of toys and goodies,” for gift-giving.

But “The Christmas Song” makes not one mention of Jesus Christ. And although the song ends with the words, “Merry Christmas to you,” it might as well end with “Happy Holidays.”

Celebrating family, traditions, gift-giving, and winter are not bad in and of themselves; on the contrary, all are good.

But for those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior, for those who see Jesus as the greatest Treasure, Christmas should primarily be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Why? Because He is the One responsible for all the good we receive; He is the One to Whom all those goods point.

  • He gives us our true, eternal, perfect family (Romans 8:15-17).
  • He gives us our deepest traditions, pointing to the most significant underlying realities (Matthew 26:26-29, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  • He Himself is the greatest gift imaginable: He is the reason we receive any good and perfect gift, the one who sacrificed Himself so that we might have the gift of faith and righteousness and reconciliation with God the Father (2 Corinthians 9:15, James 1:17, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3:21-25, Romans 6:23).
  • All things – including seasons – were created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:15-16).

Imagine that today is your birthday. Imagine all sorts of people come to a party on your birthday. And at that party they celebrate their families. They celebrate winter: snow and sleighs and snowmen. They celebrate with birthday cakes and candles and games. Furthermore, they give many gifts to each other. But they ignore you. They don’t look at you. They don’t speak to you. They give no gifts to you. There is no indication that this is your birthday.

What would you think of that?

That’s what many do with Christmas – Jesus becomes at most a minor part of a seasonal celebration, whether we say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

Don’t let that happen this year. Remember who Jesus is.

  • Remember why Immanuel, God with us, had to come as that baby in the manger.
  • Remember how He lived, loving God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength, loving each person He encountered as He loved Himself.
  • Remember Him sacrificing Himself on the cross so that you might be reconciled to God the Father through Him.
  • Remember Him risen, reigning, and returning so that the kingdom of this world becomes His Kingdom, and He reigns forever and ever (Revelation 11:15).
  • Remember God the Father wiping every tear from your eyes; remember the coming time when there will be no more sorrow nor crying nor pain, because of His work (Revelation 21:4).

So by all means, shout out, “Merry Christmas!” By all means, celebrate family and traditions and winter; give gracious and thoughtful gifts to one another.

But this year may we clearly show that all these good gifts come to us only because Jesus was born of Mary two thousand years ago. May He be our greatest joy. May we praise Him – and may we thank God with all our heart for His indescribable gift.

 

When Will Christmas Come?

December 8, 2017

When will Christmas come?

Imagine that you didn’t know when Christmas would come; it might be December 25. But it might be much later. All you have is a promise: Christmas will come. Wait for it. Expect it. Be ready for it.

Imagine that went on day after day, week after week, month after month.

Would you still believe that Christmas is coming?

At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the Jews are in that situation. Through the prophets God had given them many promises about a future king, a future messiah, a Son of King David who would reign in righteousness. But no such king had come.

  • King David had reigned about a thousand years previously – as far in the past as William the Conqueror’s invasion of England is today.
  • Isaiah had prophesied, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given” about seven hundred years previously – today, as far in the past as Geoffrey Chaucer’s composition of “The Canterbury Tales.”
  • About four hundred years previously, Malachi had prophesied, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Today, that is as far distant as when William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.”

Then after Malachi, there have been no other Scriptural prophecies. Just waiting. Waiting. And more waiting. No Messiah. Only long periods of oppression broken by short periods of political freedom.

But God had promised that His salvation would come at exactly the right time: “Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. . . . The righteous will live by his faith” (From Habakkuk 2:3-4).

So God’s people waited and waited and waited.

Two thousand years ago, during the reign of Herod the Great, God at long last brings about His plan – the plan He had formulated before the beginning of time to redeem and perfect His people for Himself, to the praise of His glorious grace.

He chooses for the parents of the messenger prophesied in Malachi a couple too old to have children, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a godly man and woman from priestly families. They “were righteous before God” (Luke 1:6) (not meaning they were sinless, but that when they sinned they repented and offered the appropriate sacrifice ordained by God.) For many years they had prayed long and hard for a child. But that child never came. By this point, they are too old. And I think they had stopped praying for a child. God had not seen fit to give them children.  They accepted His judgment.

Zechariah was one of about 18,000 priests among the Jews at this time.  One of the most important priestly tasks was to enter the temple twice a day to burn incense. Remember, the temple as a whole is a picture of God’s presence with His people. But inside the temple was the Holy of Holies – the Most Holy Place, where God was specially pictured as present. The incense altar was right outside that room, and thus pictures the point of contact between God and His people.

Which priest had the honor of burning incense at the altar? The privilege rotated among several different groups of priests  – but within each group, the priest was chosen by lot. With so many to choose from, most likely a priest would have this privilege only once in his entire life.

So finally, in his old age, the lot falls to Zechariah! This is a real high point of his life, as he approaches God representing the people.

Now, this daily incense offering has been going on for years and years. Zechariah never heard of anything unusual happening.

But suddenly, while he is burning the incense, a mighty angel appears! Zechariah is astonished and afraid.

But the angel says, “Fear not! Your prayer has been heard! Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John.”

God had heard his prayers from long ago, and although Zechariah didn’t know it, God’s answer to his request for a son was not, “No,” but, “Not yet.”

The angel tells this fearful and puzzled man that he personally will have joy and gladness. But not only that: “Many will rejoice at his birth.”  So this child is not only the answer to Zechariah’s prayers for a child, but also the answer to all these prayers the Jews have offered for centuries.

The angel continues:

“For he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:15-17).

This boy John will fulfill the promise through Malachi; the messenger like Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah is here, at long last. Like Elijah, he will turn the people to repentance and faithfulness before God, preparing the people for the coming of His Messiah.

The time is at hand! The messenger will be conceived! The Messiah will come! The long wait is over!

But how does Zechariah respond to this great news?

The angel has told Zechariah that he and many others will have great joy at this birth.

Yet faithful old Zechariah has a hard time believing this, asking, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). That is, “I can’t just take your word for this. This is too hard to believe! Give me a sign!”

Are you like Zechariah?

Everyone who rejects the Gospel acts like this! We hear, “This is the way to true joy! This is the way to God, the way He planned before the beginning of time! Just believe in the Lord Jesus!” And we have a tendency say: “Hey! I won’t let you pull one over on me! I’m too bright for that! Prove it to me!”

But this doubting tendency manifests itself among believers too. For we often reject God’s plan for us.

  • God says, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Yet we are afraid to step out in faith when it implies doing something embarrassing or receiving less income or moving to a place with much disease and poor medical care.
  • God inspires the psalmist to say, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You” (Psalm 73:25). But we hold on to all our little trinkets and pray, “Oh, please God, don’t make me give these up!”
  • God says through Paul, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). But we think, “How can I possibly serve God without broadband internet access?”

God says, “Here is great joy! Follow Me!” And Zechariah – and we – say, “Hold it! That’s too hard to believe!”

Note Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s doubts: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19).

That is: “Hey! Zechariah! Do you know who’s speaking to you! God sent me here! And did you notice? This is GOOD news!”

Then, to paraphrase verse 20: “You asked for a sign? I’ll give you a sign! You won’t be able to speak until the prophecy comes to pass. But note: This prophecy WILL come to pass!”

Now, Zechariah comes around. Elizabeth does become pregnant. She gives birth to a son. And when Zechariah writes, to the surprise of those present, that the baby’s name is John, his mouth is open, and he sings a great hymn of praise to God (Luke 1:68-79).

But consider how the lesson Zechariah learns applies to us today.

We too have a promise from God from long ago. We too have been waiting for centuries and millennia for that promise to be fulfilled. So long ago Jesus said, “Surely I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:20). And, indeed, many of the Old Testament promises that Zechariah knew will only be fulfilled when Jesus returns.

So wait expectantly. Trust His promises. Pray for Jesus’ return.

But we can do more than wait. We can do more than pray. Peter speaks of our “hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). Our Lord says, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

God has a role for you in hastening the return of our Lord. It may be giving to enable that Gospel to be proclaimed to all nations. It may be sending others who go. It may be going internationally yourself. It may be going to the nations who have come to Charlotte. It may be going to your next door neighbor.

But whatever role God has for you – whatever the trials, whatever the difficulties, whatever the challenges – that role for you is joyous and fulfilling. Completing that role will give you the greatest joy you can have in this life, as you fulfill the purpose for which God created you and chose you.

So eagerly expect the Second Coming. Pray for Jesus to return. And fulfill your role in hastening that long-promised return – to your great joy.

 

 

Your Way Was Through the Sea

December 1, 2017

What do you do when the path ahead seems fraught with danger – when there are a zillion ways that all could fall apart, when worries and cares abound? When your eyelids are propped open at night, as you lie in your bed imagining all that could go wrong?

This is the situation of the author of Psalm 77. God seems distant and uncaring; He seems angry, reneging on His promises. Remembering past times of intimacy with God only serves to magnify the sense of alienation the author experiences in the present.

So he asks: Has God’s unfailing love failed? Has He forgotten to be merciful and gracious? Will He never again be kind to me? (Psalm 77:7-9)

But instead of continuing in self-pity, questioning God’s character, in the following verses the psalmist wisely changes course: Instead of focusing on his past subjective experiences of God, he disciplines himself to meditate on the objective revelation of God through history – particularly through the history of His mighty acts on behalf of His people (Psalm 77:10-12).

The psalmist looks first at the big picture: Over the centuries God has proven Himself to be holy and mighty, a Redeemer of His people (Psalm 77:13-15). He then focuses on one specific act – God’s bringing His people through the Red Sea (Psalm 77:16-20). He imagines himself among the Israelites, with the Egyptian army behind them and the impassable waters in front of them. There is no way out. All seems lost. Despite God’s power and might exhibited in the nine plagues, despite the miracle of the death of the firstborn leading Pharaoh to let the people go, now they will all be slaughtered by the army or drowned by the sea.

But then God divides the sea! The waters well up, “a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:22). And the people make that long trek across the sea.

Yet as he imagines the event, the psalmist realizes something vitally important – important for him and for all of us facing challenging circumstances – a point we often miss in telling the story of the Exodus: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters” (Psalm 77:19a). God is leading them right into the midst of the sea! They must walk for miles, with the water piled up on both sides. Should that water pour over them, there is not a thing they can do to save themselves. There will be no escape. Is this a deliverance – or the path to their destruction? Clearly God has acted to part the waters – but will He keep the waters parted for the hours it will take them to cross?

Friends, this is characteristic of the way God acts toward His people. The way ahead looks uncertain and frightening. We can imagine thousands of ways all could fall apart, all could go wrong. We pass through the valley of the shadow of death and are tempted to fear all sorts of evil, for we question the power and the goodness of the Shepherd.

When you experience such fear and doubts, follow the example of this psalmist: Remember how God has revealed Himself through the history of His people. Remember that His way is often through the sea; we are to walk right into the midst of the dangers and challenges. Remember that He promises that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Remember that it is in such circumstances, when we are at our wits’ end, that He is most glorified in saving us. Remember – and then trust the mighty God who never changes, whose unfailing love never fails, who promises that nothing will separate us from the love He has for all of those who are in Christ Jesus.