The Blazing Center

Part 1

Bethlehem Baptist Church Youth Retreat | Minneapolis

One of the great advantages of being at a church for twenty-four years is that the church’s mission statement and the pastor’s mission statement merge. My life’s mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Therefore, my goal with you is to spread a passion for God’s supremacy in your life.

Let me just take that apart for a moment. I am here with you in these sessions so that, because of what I say, because of the way I pray, because of the way I am and all that happens here, your passion for Christ would skyrocket. I know that teenagers have brains, and they think. I know that teenagers have hearts, so they feel. I’m not here just to change the way you think — though that’s big and I hope to do that — but because of the way you think, the way you feel becomes different.

Supreme in All Things

We call it a passion for the supremacy of God. Not just anything about God, but that he’s big, he’s majestic, he’s glorious. He’s the greatest thing in the universe and the greatest thing in your life. A passion for the supremacy of God in all things — your leisure time, what you do with the internet, what you do in sports, what you do with your clothes, what you do with mom and dad, what you do in private when nobody’s watching, what you do in your part-time job, what you do at school. In all things, he’s supreme. I want that to happen because of what we do here together.

“Your joy is maximized when it spills over to other people through Jesus Christ.”

If great joy landed on this group this weekend and it stopped here, and it didn’t spill over for anybody else, any people or peoples, any neighbors, any school friends, we would have failed. In fact, that joy would dry up in a minute — like the Jordan River running into the Dead Sea, which has no outlets; it becomes salt and all the fish die. That’s the way your life would be if joy landed on you and didn’t go anywhere else.

So, our mission statement is a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for other people’s joy, because your joy is maximized when it spills over to other people, through Jesus Christ.

Discover Glory in Jesus

The reason that has to be there is for two reasons. You see God’s supremacy most clearly in Jesus Christ. God is invisible. Jesus is written all over the pages of the New Testament. You can watch Jesus act on earth in human skin, and therefore, Jesus is the place we see the supremacy of God, the glory of God, the magnificence of God. And therefore, all of this seeing of his supremacy is through Jesus.

The second reason is that every single person in this room is a sinner. We have absolutely no rights to see God or enjoy God or each other or anything else. Our only hope is that Jesus died in our place and that he rose again and that, because he has paid our debt and has become our righteousness, therefore, we have the possibility of enjoying a passion for his supremacy.

That’s my goal. That’s my goal in every sermon I preach, and therefore, that’s my goal in our time together. That’s where we’re going.

Journey to Joy

Let me begin tonight’s session on God’s passion for his glory with some autobiography. I will talk about my desire to be happy as a teenager, and how God took some very unusual steps to drive it deep. And then secondly, I’ll talk about my reverence for the glory of God as a teenager, and how God took some unusual steps to make that intense.

Can’t Face the World

When I was your age, about fourteen, I had a very severe case of acne — pimples, zits. None of you come close to having what I had. In fact, it’s amazing to me how few teenagers have what I had. None of you come close.

It had a pretty significant effect on me. It was so bad that my mother and father sent me to a dermatologist. He would burn my face with a lamp. He would rub dry ice all over it, and sizzle it, and then he would go poking at it with these little fine needles. It hurt so bad, tears would run down my face, and then he would send me out to my car to drive home in front of human beings.

“You see God’s supremacy most clearly in Jesus Christ. ”

I looked like a truck had hit me. I mean, it was bad enough to have the problem. To have been treated like that, and then to be sent home — I just wanted to get home really fast and bury my face in the pillow and hope that the next day it didn’t look so bad.

The effect that had on me was not to make me desire less to be happy, but it just took me off the fast track. I didn’t think anybody would really want to be around me. Therefore, I didn’t get into any party scene. I just avoided people by and large. I did my studies well. I think God was in the business of making me deeply long to be happy in ways that I could not find because he had cut me off from where a lot of my friends were finding it, and I thank him with all of my heart.

Stage Freight

This second thing, you may have heard. I’ve told it many times, and it’s all written up in the anxiety chapter in Future Grace. It’ll tell you all about my struggles.

In a nutshell, I could not speak in front of a group, starting at about the seventh grade. And you think you’ve got a problem with shaky knees or nervous hands or fluttery feelings. I’ve never seen anybody with my problem, except maybe one person — my son Benjamin at Calvin Christian School.

If you put me in front of a class to give a fifteen-minute report or a fifteen-second report, it’s not that I shook and was embarrassed. It’s that my shoulders and my throat simply closed off. It could not be done. I went to Mr. Vermilion, my teacher in the tenth grade, and I said, “Mr. Vermilion, I know that part of the requirement in this class is to give an oral book report. I cannot do it.”

He says, “Well, Johnny, you have to in order to make a B.” I said, “Well, I’ll just take a C then.” I took a C in that class because I just said, “I cannot give an oral book report.” I avoided all class offices. If you’re going to run for vice-president or president or secretary, you’ve got to give a little speech in front of the class. No way was I ever going to give a speech in front of the class. That took me off the track of the official “be somebody on campus” thing.

Athletic Inability

Then thirdly, I was maybe a C+ athlete. I was in a big high school, which means I couldn’t make any team, but I love basketball, I love football, I love track, I love to swim, and I couldn’t compete with any of the guys. I just did it in my backyard. I’ve never seen tackle football at a retreat. I never heard of flag football until I went to college. We only played tackle football with no pads. Billy Shaughnessy broke his neck in my backyard. He didn’t get paralyzed, but he had to wear a brace for six or eight weeks. We really played football. As a C+ athlete, I loved to play, but I was no good. I just loved to play.

So, for those three reasons at least, I look back on a lot of sadness, a lot of sadness, and to this day, I do not begrudge the school of suffering that God walked me through. Not big suffering. Just a little suffering. I just thank him for it. I just thank him for it. I think he was making a preacher. If you want to find out the story about how that standing in front of a group thing turned around, well you can read the chapter in Future Grace.

Fatherly Influence

What about the reverence for the glory of God? My father revered God. He was an evangelist. He traveled. He was away from home probably two-thirds of every year. He’d come home for four days and be gone for three weeks, come home for four days and be gone for two weeks, come home for four days and be gone for four weeks.

“We have absolutely no right to see God or enjoy God or each other or anything else.”

He was an evangelist and he preached. He’d fly across the country, and in those days, to fly on a little puddle-jumper plane across the country — not a big jet — that had to stop three times before it got to California from South Carolina, you had to go for six weeks. You couldn’t just go and come back in a day. He would be gone a long time.

And I loved my dad. I stood in awe of him. I never resented that my dad was away from home so much because my mother loved what he was doing, I loved what he was doing. When he came home and we sat down together at the dinner table, and he told some fresh new jokes, and told some triumphs of the gospel, I thought I had the greatest dad in the world. I stood in awe of my dad’s reverence for God. When my dad prayed, I trembled almost. And what he seemed to refer to over and over again was the glory of God. I revered my father. That was a huge impact.

The Power of the Word

Then there was this book. It says, “Johnny S. Piper,” on the front of it. My parents gave me this January 11, 1961, when I was fifteen. The inscription reads, “Happy birthday, son. This book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.”

If I smell this book, I can picture my twin bed. I can picture the wallpaper. I can picture the color of the lamp. I can see my pajamas. I can feel the little satin edge to the blanket that I held onto as I went to sleep. I love this book. This is a King James. I don’t use King James anymore.

Before we came out here, our youth pastor was saying that teenagers have a lot of distractions and their hearts are going a lot of different directions. I put this bible out in front, and I said, “And teenagers can have some mighty deep experiences with God.” I remember late nights with this book. I cherish what God did in showing himself to me.

I was looking through, and I noticed a couple of key texts like these two were underlined.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

My mother and father wrote me that over and over again when I left home and went off to college. And another one was,

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

It was starting to formulate in my mind: God is really serious about his glory. He’s not just saying, “You be serious about my glory.” God is really serious about his glory.

Serious About Glory

So, what I want to do for the next few minutes is give you some illustrations from the Bible of how serious God is about his glory. I’ve called it God’s passion for his glory.

What I want to leave you with tonight is the strong impression that God really loves his glory. God has a burning zeal for his glory to be known and exalted and honored and loved and reverenced. God is radically God-centered. The heart that is most serious and most passionate about the glory of God is God’s heart. That’s what I want you to go away feeling tonight, and I need to show you some passages of Scripture to help you feel that that’s not just my idea — that’s God’s word. Let’s move from general revelation — the sky, tornados, thunderstorms — to special revelation, the Bible.

Galactic Glory

Scientists know that light travels 5.87 trillion miles per year. We call it a lightyear. They also know with a pretty fair degree of certainty that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about a hundred thousand lightyears across. So that’s 587,000 trillion miles across. A trillion is a million with three more zeros and then three more zeros. That’s how wide our galaxy is.

There are about a million such galaxies like the Milky Way, which is 587,000 trillion miles across. There are about a million of these galaxies that we can see with the most powerful telescope. And beyond that no one knows but God.

In our little, little galaxy — it’s one of the smaller ones — there are about a hundred million stars, of which our sun is a modest one, burning on the cooler edge at about six thousand degrees centigrade, and traveling at about 155 miles per second in its orbit through the galaxy. It will complete its first orbit in two hundred million years.

“God has a burning zeal for his glory to be known and exalted and honored and loved and reverenced.”

Now, scientists know these things, and therefore, they have a certain reverence for the universe. They stand in awe of what they see. They hear a Christian like me saying, “God created that with his little finger, or with the word of his mouth, and he put human beings, in one place: planet earth — little teeny-weeny planet Earth.”

They laugh and say, with their skeptical attitude, “Seems like a lot of wasted space. What’s the point of that? Look at all the space, and we occupy this little teeny planet? What’s that about?” I’d say, “Well, it would be wasted space if it were about us.” But some Psalm 19:1 says that the heavens are not talking about us.

Have you ever been to a place where there’s no city lights, no smog, totally dark, and suddenly you realize what’s up there? You couldn’t begin to count the stars. It’s a sheet of light. When you look at that, the Bible says that it’s not about you.

The heavens declare the glory of God,    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

The fact that there’s so much space out there all watching down on us little humans is to tell us we are insignificant. What this is all about really is significant, namely, the glory of God. Who made it to do that? God made it to do that. God decided that the universe would talk about God. God is radically God-exalting. He designed the universe to be about himself.

The Cross at the Center

Here’s a second illustration of the same point. The cross of Christ is right at the center of history. We all know Romans 3:23.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Sin is being defined in relationship to the glory of God. If we don’t love the glory of God the way we should, we’re sinning. If we don’t reverence it the way we should, we’re sinning. Sin is a falling short of the glory of God.

So what can be done about it? The cross. There’s a curse upon us and you may feel that tonight. I feel like I’m cursed, and you are cursed. There is a curse upon all who have sinned. Galatians 3:13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

A curse was on us. Christ came into the world, bears the wrath, the curse of God, and lifts it from us. This is the gospel. This is the way you become a Christian, by seeing Jesus Christ lifting the curse from you and taking your place.

And he lived an absolutely perfect life, which is what you were required to do and you couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. And Christ did it on our behalf. He bears our curse and he provides our righteousness, so that tonight, you can lay your head down on the pillow in absolute peace. All my sins are covered and the curse is gone. All my righteousness is provided if, as I leave this place, I cast myself upon Jesus Christ as my Savior and my Lord.

The Righteousness of God

But, here’s the catcher, God had a view to his glory when he put his Son on the cross for us. Romans 3:25:

Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

This was to demonstrate the righteousness of God. Christ was put forward to show that the glory of God’s righteousness is not compromised in forgiving you by simply taking away your sin because of faith. He said he did it because he had passed over former sins.

Sin Unpunished

For example, you remember David and Bathsheba. When he should have been in the war, he was on the housetop. He looks down and Bathsheba’s taking a bath. He gets really turned on and brings her over. He’s a king, so he can do anything he wants. He gets her pregnant. Now he’s got a problem; she’s married. Uriah, a valiant soldier, is on the field. David thinks, “Okay, I’ll solve this problem. I’ll get Uriah home. I’ll get him to sleep with his wife. He’ll think it’s his baby.”

“God is radically God-exalting. He designed the universe to be about himself.”

But Uriah won’t sleep with his wife because he’s such a noble soldier, and he couldn’t imagine having that kind of pleasure while all of his comrades are out risking their lives for the kingdom, which is what David should have been doing. David tries to get him drunk and that doesn’t work. So, he kills him. He does it indirectly by telling Joab, “Just make sure he gets up close so they shoot him in the war.” Then he takes Bathsheba and makes her his wife. Now the baby looks okay.

And God comes to Nathan the prophet and says, “I have a message for David. You go tell him a little parable about a man who had many sheep and a man who had one sheep. The man who had many sheep went to the man who had one sheep and stole the sheep so he could cook it and give it to his friends, and see what David says about that man.”

Nathan tells David the parable, and David says, “Oh, let’s get that man.” Nathan — an unbelievably courageous prophet — says, “You’re the man. You’re the man.” David, out of his mouth, comes repentance. Out of Nathan’s mouth, from God, comes, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”

Slain in Our Place

Now, picture yourself as Uriah’s dad, to which I would respond by saying, “No way. You’re just going to say, ‘You’re forgiven’? He killed my son, raped my daughter-in-law, and you’re just going to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’?” Any judge in Hennepin County courthouse who says to a rapist and a murderer, “You can go. You promise not to do it again? I forgive you,” would be off the bench in a minute. It would be called a travesty of justice, and that’s what God does for you every day. Therefore, God is radically unjust. It’s called an abomination in Proverbs 17:15 to justify the ungodly.

Do you see the problem God has in justifying sinners like us? Hardly anybody in America wrestles with this problem. The only problem America wrestles with is that God is mean to us when bad things happen, not that God is gracious to us and is unjust in forgiving us.

So, what does God do to solve the problem of the glory of his justice being comprised in the forgiveness of sinners? He kills his Son. He puts his Son in our place so that all the universe would see that God takes sin seriously. God exalts his glory.

When David tramples his glory in the dirt and God comes along and says, “I forgive you. You may still be king,” all the universe cries out, “No,” until they see a thousand years later, God saying, “This is how seriously I take my forgiveness of David. I slay my Son in his place. That’s what I do about sin. That’s what I do to vindicate my glory.”

Even at the center of history — the cross — God is passionate for his glory.