August 22, 2016

Light Pollution

A few days back I saw a fascinating video entitled “Lost in Light” at vimeo.com (via challies.com). The idea was to demonstrate how all the light that we produce on earth affects how well we can see the lights that glimmer nightly in the heavens. ‘Light pollution’ is what all this human dampening of the night sky is called. And it was astonishing to see on film … and saddening for those of us who live in city, where all our earthly lights so effectively drown out the heavenly ones.

The videographer began by filming the night sky above San Jose, California, with a light pollution level of 8. A few faint stars can be seen, but I literally had to lean close to my screen to see if I was seeing stars, or just dust or imperfections on my computer monitor! At level 7, numerous stars pop into view. And it gets better and better until the camera finally takes us all the way down to a mere level 2 light pollution rating near Mr. Shasta, CA and then level 1 in Death Valley National Park … where it looks like someone emptied out a significant portion of a salt shaker onto a navy blue table cloth! The stars are just everywhere.

Furthermore, as the film maker points out in his description, some people have never actually seen the Milky Way. Count me in that number! But in this film, when you get out to a light pollution level of 5, you can begin to see it … with the naked eye! And when the level drops down to 2 and 1 … wow! Go and look at the video! It may make you want to move to Montana, or some such place!

And it occurs to me that there is a parable somewhere in all this … about how much more difficult it can be to see and appreciate Jesus, “the Light of the world,” when we so constantly live our lives in the haze of so many competing ‘lights.’ Busyness is probably one of the biggest sources of spiritual light pollution. So are the big and little screens that we all find ourselves staring at far too much. The light of Christ can also fade into the background if we find ourselves needing always to do something, talk to someone, listen to something, watch something. Blaise Pascal may have been overstating it when he said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” … but he makes a good point! The constant hum of activity and stimulus under which we often place ourselves can have the same effect on our vision of God as the lights of downtown have on our ability to see the glory of the Milky Way (which is out there, but which we cannot see for all our competing lights)!

And so I just urge you to find plenty of seasons in your life in which you turn out and push far to the side all of the spiritual light pollution in your life – the TV, the phone, the tablet, the computer, the Sudoku puzzle, the headphones, the din of your own voice, etc. – and just look up at the night sky, so to speak … turning out all the competing lights so that you can open the word, and open your eyes to the world that God has created (like the stars, the tree bark, the sparrows, and so on), and clear your mind to meditate on these things, and to see and hear and love the glory of God!

August 17, 2016

What I Cannot Do

I have found myself keenly aware, in recent days, of what I cannot do when it comes preaching. I can pray over the text. I can labor to understand it. I can consult commentators wiser than myself to help me with the latter. I can write, and re-write, and then re-write some more … trying to word things as precisely, and clearly, and winsomely as possible. And then I can try to present it all, at sermon time, with the same precision, clarity, and winsomeness. And all these things I must do. And yet, as I have worked away in recent days, I have more than once been keenly aware that, unless God enables us to really ‘get it’ at sermon time … we won’t come away with as much blessing as we might have. Because I myself can’t bring the blessing!

My words may be clear enough to be understood with the head, and creative enough to keep the attention, and accurate to the text. And yet I cannot think, and write, and speak well enough to really make the arrow strike all the way to the depths of the heart. No preacher, in fact, can pull the bow string back that far!

But God can do so! God can place His hand over mine, and pull back on the same string of sermon around which my quivering fingers are wrapped … and cause the arrow to find its mark, and to pierce all the way to the very heart of our hearts! It may be the same sermon that I wrote down on paper; the same words that I would have said, even had He not pulled back quite so far on my string … but with His extra-ordinary tug on the line, now they really penetrate.

Indeed, it may be that He sometimes chooses to pull back hardest on the string when I find my sermon to be, humanly speaking, the poorest … so that I remember that the power is in His mighty arm, not in my tongue! So that I remember that it is not the sermon by itself, but the word and power of God, that do the real work!

And at the same time, the words will also penetrate much more deeply, too, if God softens the hearts of the hearers; if He opens us up so that the arrow has a suitable place to lodge. That’s what He did for Lydia in Acts 16, and that is what I need Him to do for my hearers, too. Because, just as my words (accurate, clear, and winsome as they may be) cannot put real penetrating force behind the sermon, so also they cannot open anyone’s heart to really receive it. “Apart from [Him I] can do nothing.”

Now, let me be quick to say that God's word is powerful, in and of itself (aside from anyone's attempts to preach it)!  And let me also say that, when His word is faithfully proclaimed, God always puts His hand on the bowstring with His preachers (Isaiah 55:10-11). Always! Even if I don’t see or feel it, He is providing power that I cannot! But I firmly believe that He wants us to ask for more; that He wants us (both preacher and hearers) to desire that He pull the arrows back even farther, and cause them to strike with all the more force, and on hearts that are all the more open! That’s why we pray for the preaching, right? Because we believe that God must do what the preacher cannot; and because, although His word never goes out from the bowstring without achieving God’s purpose, yet we believe that God has the prerogative, at any time, to lodge the arrows even more deeply than normal!

So would you pray for that in your church? Would you ask God to help your pastor, yes, to do what he himself can do to faithfully hit the mark, week by week? And would you also thank God that, when your pastor does so, you can trust that the Spirit's fingers are surely taut around the bow string with the preacher's? But would you ask the Lord, too, to pull that string back all the more, and to lodge His arrows in places that your pastor could never reach with his own strength, and even to depths that God Himself does not always choose to reach in the normal course of your Sunday meetings? Pray for a deep movement of the Holy Spirit in your midst – the kind of heart piercing that we read about in Acts, when men “preached the gospel … with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12, KJV).

August 9, 2016

The Most Amazing Olympic Feat

Have you been watching the Olympics? Our family always enjoys the pageantry, the competition, the backstories, and the nightly reminders of the wide world beyond our own shores. Yes, there are portions we tune out, and elements we find disappointing … such that we are not unthinking apologists for all things Olympic. But there is much to learn, and much of God’s common grace on display, when we give a fortnight to the summer and winter games every other year. What astonishing abilities God has implanted into the human race! And what straining effort these men and women put forth in order to hone those abilities!

I still marvel, in wintertime, at how anyone can leap, twirl like a top a foot or two off the ground, and land safe and sound again on a single blade of metal, strapped to the sole of his or her foot … and do so over and over again, for several minutes, all on a gigantic sheet of ice! And it boggles my mind, in the summer, to see gymnasts whipping themselves in circles, like the arms of a windmill, hands attached to a horizontal bar … then not attached (while they contort, mid-air, in all manner of directions) … and then somehow attached again, so that they can slingshot just a little more before landing, like a cat, squarely on their feet!

But do you know what is the most amazing Olympic feat I have seen yet this summer? Not the world records in the pool (which I thoroughly enjoy). Not the marvel of two men diving, summersaulting, twisting, and entering, straight as toothpicks into the water, all in near perfect unison. No. The most amazing thing I have seen was two of said divers, David Boudia and Steele Johnson, calmly explaining on national TV that, while the pressure they felt leading up to these events was significant, and while winning a silver medal was fantastic, yet they were not overruled by either the stress or the success because, as Boudia put it, “our identity is in Christ.” Johnson used the same words, too, when he said that “my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is.”

Yeah, I know. Much easier to say such things when you’ve just won the silver medal, rather than when you’ve finished in the bottom half of the standings. And easier still to say such things as a privileged Olympian, rather than a cancer patient, or a father in the unemployment line, and so on. But I got the feeling that the two men were sincere … and that they probably would have spoken in the same way even if they’d belly-flopped on the world’s biggest stage. In other words, they didn’t come out, as we’ve grown accustomed to athletes doing, and give a hackneyed theology of success founded on a superficial reading of Philippians 4:13 – ‘We won this silver medal because we "can do all things through Him who strengthens" us.’ That would be true, of course. For all of our successes are from God. But it just sounds, sometimes, like the athletes who say such things believe that God is primarily concerned with our success. And you wonder what they would have to say if they had not achieved the ‘all things’ that they were striving for. But Boudia and Johnson hit the bullseye when they spoke, not about their success, but about their identity … and particularly when they noted that their identity was unrelated to their success, or even their efforts toward it!

That is real Christianity: Not the idea that God will always cause us to succeed (as either we or the world define success); but the fact that, whether we succeed or fail, what defines us is that we belong to Christ; that we are sons and daughters of the King, irrespective of how (un)important, or (un)successful we may be.

And I say it was a mighty feat, indeed, that these two highly successful divers seemed to get that! Because we are all prone to what Boudia called “an identity crisis.” We are all prone to think that our identity is defined, as he put it, by what we do. And that is dangerous. Because most of us won’t do what we do on an Olympic level! Most of us are just plain average at what we do – spiritually, vocationally, and otherwise. And someday, if we live long enough, we won’t be able to do a lot of things anymore at all! And what then? Well, if Boudia and Johnson are sincere about their true identity, then even when their diving days are done, they’ll still be the same David and Steele that they were on Monday night. Because, by their own admission, even on the night at which they won Olympic silver, they were not mainly world class divers, but rather Christians, identities rooted in Christ! And, oh, how good if we ourselves can speak (and truly identify!) in the same way!

August 4, 2016

Sermons on the Songs of Ascent (120-134)

Listen in to the latest handful of Psalm sermons:

Psalm 120 - Among Pagans - mp3
Psalm 121 - "The LORD is your keeper" - mp3
Psalm 122 - "The house of the LORD" - mp3
Psalm 123 - "To You I lift up my eyes" - mp3
Psalm 124 - "Had it not been the LORD who was on our side" - mp3
Psalm 126 - A History of Joy - mp3
Psalm 128 - The Blessed Life - mp3
Psalm 129 - Persecution - mp3
Psalm 132 - David's Vow ... and the Lord's - mp3
Psalm 134 - Minister and People - mp3

Psalms 125, 127, 130, 131, and 133 are not available.

August 2, 2016

Joy ... and Severity

Last week I wrote about the joy of Henry Erskine, above whose head the sky was always blue. He strikes me as a very Christ-like figure, as have one or two other men I have known who seemed to walk in the same sort of perpetual happiness in the Lord.

I don’t know that the personality of their joy would look precisely the same as that of Jesus – for our personalities are all a little different, even when reshaped into Christ's image. And Jesus, of course, was His own human being, just like we are. So that His joy (like yours and mine) would have told on His face and in His voice in His own unique way, not precisely the same as any other human. I don’t know, in other words, if Christ’s joy was worn always in a broad smile, or if it sounded in a constant whistle of psalm tunes, or if it shone more in His voice than in His face, or what have you. But I know that “the fruit of the Spirit is … joy”, and therefore I know that Christ possessed this gladness in God more fully and more perfectly than any man who ever lived!

One instance when we can probably safely presume that Christ’s joy perhaps burst forth onto the surface was in His attendance at the wedding feast in John 2. Nearly everybody loves a wedding, right? Because it presents us with such a heightened reason for rejoicing, and such a perfect set of circumstances for doing so. The food, the drink, the dancing, and so on. Jewish weddings included some of these same delightful trappings of rejoicing. And here is the Lord Jesus Christ … wait for it … at just such a party! And surely He wasn’t standing alone in the corner, miserable as He observed the gladness all around Him. I know John 2 doesn’t say it specifically, but I think it is safe to assume that Jesus was happy at this wedding – glad to join in these earthly pleasures because He was completely glad in the Lord! And, to add to that impression, one thing we do know is that it was Jesus who provided some of the drinks for the party!

And while, yes, I realize that the most important thing in John 2:1-11 is the miracle that Christ performed (and what that miracle says about who He is) … it is not insignificant to notice, secondarily, that the miracle took place in the midst of a celebration – one into which Jesus entered, and to which He contributed greatly by His turning water into wine “which makes man’s hearts glad” (Psalm 104:15).

And yet read on in John chapter 2, and you will find that the very next event John records is Jesus’ clearing of the temple at the feast of the Passover – turning over tables, dumping out cash registers, and chasing both man and beast out of the temple courts with a whip (John 2:13-22)! The same man who had recently been seen at a wedding feast, and who had even provided the finest vintage for the meal!

Which goes to show that joy in the Lord and severity with sin are not mutually exclusive. We mustn’t think, because a person is (like Jesus) blood earnest about cutting off the hand that sins, that he is somehow a humbug! Nor must we think, because a person (like Jesus) is able to enjoy the gifts of God, and to be genuinely happy in the Lord, that she must not really be a serious kind of Christian!

“There is a time for every event under heaven …
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance”
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4

And, while there is a time to be consumed with zeal for God’s house, there is also a time to bring wine to a wedding feast! And vice versa, if you are wired the other way around! And Jesus gets the balance exactly right every time! And we will do well to learn from Him both godly joy, and godly severity … and the appropriate times and places for both! And we will also do well, since we are all so prone to fall off the horse in one direction or another (even with Jesus as our example) … we will also do well to trust, for our righteousness before God, in this Jesus who always did it right … and whose record is credited to our account if we believe in His name!