May 29, 2012

Wise Words from a Wicked King

“Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.” 1 Kings 20.11

That sentence may sound like it would fit perfectly into the book of Proverbs … but it was actually spoken by Ahab, king of Israel. He was one of the worst kings that God’s people ever knew – establishing the worship of Baal, shedding innocent blood, and setting himself up as the arch-nemesis of that mighty prophet Elijah. But, as the saying goes, ‘Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.’ And so it was with old king Ahab! He gives us, in 1 Kings 20, one of the great pithy statements of wisdom in the Bible: “Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.”

Those words were spoken to Ben-Hadad, king of Aram. He had besieged Israel’s capital city and was quite certain that he would overrun it with minimum difficulty. So great was his self-confidence that he sent messages to Ahab proclaiming: “Your silver and your gold are mine; your most beautiful wives and children are mine also.” And, to all outward appearances, Ben-Hadad’s boasts seemed legitimate. Ahab and Israel had no legitimate hope (humanly speaking) of breaking through the siege and winning the day. But Ben-Hadad forgot one thing – God loves His people, and the honor of His own name! And perhaps Ahab had at least a hint of faith in this God behind his pen when he wrote what is surely one of the classic war-time messages ever recorded: “Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.”

‘Do not boast,’ in other words, ‘simply because you have put on your Kevlar suit and are well-prepared for the battle. Boast, rather, when you have returned to your barracks alive and victorious, and have the wherewithal to actually take that armor back off again.’ Such a jab must have infuriated Ben-Hadad! But it was wisdom indeed … and ought to serve us better than it evidently served the Aramean king!

It is not the flash with which we begin a task that is so important, but whether or not we are actually able to carry that task to completion. The diploma is not handed out on the first day of college, but on the last. It’s not what your wife says about you on the wedding day that is the measure of your character, but what she says about you after 50 years. It’s not the score in the first quarter that finally counts, but the numbers on the board at the end of the fourth.

More vitally – and completely contrary to our cultural values, often even in the church – it is not so much the glitz and flare of youth that is worthy of our celebration, but a life lived well all the way to the finish. When we are young (or young in the faith), we are really just putting on our armor; readying ourselves for the fight. And there is no great cause for boasting in that. Many people gird on their armor; but far fewer actually finish the fight and are able to remove it. Many people set out on the Christian journey; but not all of them finish well. Many of us younger people are (praise God!) gung-ho and eager to 'do something for God.'  But being gung-ho at the beginning, and being faithful to the end, are two different things. We need both! But it’s the latter, Ahab reminds us, that is really praiseworthy! So let’s be thrilled when our young people begin to gird on their armor. But let’s rejoice even more exceedingly at the old saints who have fought well enough, also, to take it off!

May 28, 2012


Today is not just a day for hot dogs, lemonade, and cornhole … but a time to remember those who have gone before; those who sacrificed their youth, their blood, and even their lives so that we might enjoy the freedoms we have today. Tomorrow is also, most importantly, a time to thank God for these men, and women, and freedoms. As Israel periodically set up stones and pillars in various places, reminding them of the kindnesses of God in times past, so it is good that we deliberately remind ourselves of His blessings. Memorial Day, therefore, is one of our national Ebenezer stones, if you will – a marker that we pass by once a year, which urges us to pause and give thanks.

But these thoughts of our national day of remembrance got me thinking: ‘Wow! The Bible is actually filled with calls to remember various things’ – mighty acts of God; commandments; warning signs; and so on. Let me remind you of a few of these calls to “remember”:

Remember the sabbath, to keep it holy (Exodus 20.8). Every Sunday is a kind of Ebenezer stone, set up to remind us of God’s work in creation … and particularly of Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week. This is why we rest and worship on the Lord’s Day … so that we have time to “remember” all that God has done for our souls!

Remember your creator in the days of your youth (Ecclesiastes 12.1). How easy it is for young people to ‘sow their wild oats,’ and to think that following the Lord is something they will begin to do in middle age. But what if you never reach middle age? And what of the fact that, at middle age, your energies for serving the Lord will be significantly depleted? And what of the fact that the wild oats we sow in youth may be very difficult to root out, once we finally decide to serve the Lord? Rather than waiting to serve the Lord, then – and filling our past with all sorts of bad memories – let us “remember” our Creator while we are still young!

Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you (Hebrews 13.7) … “and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” Do you ever stop to do that … to thank God for parents, Sunday School teachers, elders, and pastors who consistently pointed you to the cross, and down the narrow path beyond? And do you remember them, specifically, so that you might “imitate their faith”? That is not the express purpose of Memorial Day, of course … but it might not be a bad addendum to your plans!

Remember Lot’s wife (Luke 17.32). So said Jesus. Remember how God offered her rescue from the destruction about to rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember how reluctant she was to leave her home and her worldly pleasures. Remember how she looked back at the world, longingly (as we are so sorely tempted to do). Remember how she was turned into a pillar of salt. And don’t look back yourself. “Remember” her fate, and put your own hand to the plough, and follow Jesus with all your heart!

Remember the prisoners (Hebrews 13.3). Specifically, “remember the prisoners” who are in prison because of their faith in Jesus. Don’t forget, this Memorial Day, that there are nations in the world where Christians do not have the freedoms we celebrate, and where pastors are taken from their churches and fathers from their homes for preaching the same things I preach, and sitting in the same kinds of services you sit in. “Remember” them, pray for them, and help them!

Do this in remembrance of Me (Luke 22.19). That was Jesus’ command regarding the broken bread and the poured wine of the Lord’s Supper. This is the great Ebenezer Stone of the Christian faith! This is the great, Christian Memorial Day – recalling and thanking God for the one who sacrificed His blood and even His very life so that we might enjoy freedom from sin and condemnation! The Lord’s body was broken so that we might be free! His blood was spilt so that we might be set at liberty! And so we must never fail to “remember” Him – in the Lord’s Supper, and in every moment of every other day!

So this Memorial Day, as you rightly remember God’s kindnesses to our nation (and thank Him for them), let this day of remembrance also be a reminder of just how much we really have been given, on so many different fronts; and how important it is, on so many levels, that we “remember”.

May 25, 2012

May 16, 2012

The Nine Commandments?

How might your co-workers look at you if, in sharing your faith with them, you began explaining 'the nine commandments'? Don't even the most ardent pagans know that there are not nine, but ten?  And yet, in our day, many Christian live functionally as though the fourth commandment may have been somehow scratched off the stone tablets.  But if we scratch out the idea of a whole day (not just 2-3 hours of it) set aside completely for worship and rest ... what else might we be scratching out with it?  Perhaps a great many things we might rather enjoy!  So listen in as we think these matters through in this past Sunday's sermon from Isaiah 58.13-14.

May 14, 2012

"Prepared at the quarry"

“The house, while it was being built, was built of stone prepared at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool heard in the house while it was being built.” 1 Kings 6.7

So we are told regarding the building of God’s temple in Jerusalem. King Solomon wouldn’t have any clanking, or banging, or hammering sounds interrupting the peace that prevailed at the temple sight. So all the sawing, and cutting, and chiseling, and shaping, and reshaping had to take place elsewhere. The stones had to be just right before they could be brought to Jerusalem and hoisted into the walls of the house of God.

An interesting tidbit, to be sure. But why was Solomon so particular? Would the noise of hundreds of saws and chisels simply have created too much commotion in the capital city? Or was it that Solomon believed that peace and calm should adorn God’s house, even while it was under construction? Maybe it was a little bit of both. But I wonder if, perhaps, the Holy Spirit didn’t record this little nugget about the silence in God’s house and the work at the quarry for another purpose, too. I wonder if we should not see something of the difference between heaven and earth as we compare the two worksites in 1 Kings 6.

Doesn’t Solomon’s quarry remind you of God’s work, in His people, while we are on the earth? Before we are ready to be fit into the walls His heavenly house, we (like Solomon’s stones) must undergo quite a lot of reshaping. God must apply the hammer of His word, and the saw of His discipline, and the chisel of trials and sufferings to our lives, shaping and reshaping us, until we are molded so as to fit into His house.

All of this work takes place, of course, only in the quarry of this world. The sound of chisel or hammer would be totally inappropriate in heaven! God does not admit any into His house on high whom He has not already chiseled into the likeness of Jesus (Heb. 12.14)! Thus, as in Solomon’s day, there is no commotion or cutting away of sin in the heavenly temple. No! That work takes place while we are still in the quarry of this world, and is completed when, on our way to God’s house, we are smoothed out like stones as we cross the final, raging river of death. And the result is that when the stones finally arrive at the house of God, they are quite ready to be plugged into place!

Isn’t that wonderful to think about? Someday the chiseling and cutting will finally be over! Someday, in God’s timing, the rough edges of your life will all be smoothed away, and you will be ready to dwell in the house of the Lord forever! And in that place, the hammer blows of sanctification and the chiseling away of sins will be no more. All will be perfect peace!

But in the meantime, while you are still in the quarry, there is shaping left to do. And sometimes that shaping is noisy work! Sometimes it elicits loud clanks and groans from us living stones! Sometimes it makes church life seem messy. Just like the rocks in Solomon’s quarry, we are all merely works in progress – complete with all the commotion and dust that is kicked up as God chisels away on our lives; and calling for a great deal of patience as we do life together. But, as we live in the construction site, let us be patient and hopeful – with ourselves and one another. Soon we, like Solomon’s stones, will be transported to our resting place, and there will be “neither axe nor any iron tool heard” anymore!

May 9, 2012

God's Kindness ... in a Nutshell

As many of you know by now, our family got a significant scare this past weekend. On Thursday, Tobey found a large, firm, black, immovable lump on the roof of Elisabeth’s mouth. An immediate visit to our very reliable family clinic revealed only the baffled comment: ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before.’ At least they were honest! But the lack of answers left us in for a bit of a long weekend, wondering what could possibly be wrong, googling the possibilities (not recommended!), and waiting until our specialist appointment on Monday.

Well, on Monday, with lots of your prayers behind us, we made our way to Children’s Hospital, thankful for the careful attention we have come to expect from that hospital that is such a blessing to our city … but also a bit nervous about what the news might be. After a few brief looks in Elisabeth’s mouth, the doctor (in a delightful Kiwi accent!) stated: ‘I don’t think that thing grew there, I think it’s wedged there. In fact, it almost looks like she's gotten hold of an acorn!’ And so it proved to be!  Dr. Rutter pulled and poked a little, and voila, all was well – leaving us praising God, and laughing with tears in our eyes all at once! 

We honestly thought it might have been a cyst or tumor.
Relief!  Only a piece of an acorn.
If we hadn’t been so thrilled and relieved at the outcome, I’d have felt a little sheepish passing along the good news to our friends and family. We were all upset – and had some of you quite worried, too – thinking it could have been cancer, or something requiring major surgery … and all the while it was only a measly acorn!

But, as I process the fears, and prayers, and google searches of the past weekend … I think there are some distinct lessons to be learned from the great acorn fiasco. Here are a few that come immediately to mind …

1. Never be afraid to ask for prayer. Do we feel a little silly now, having riled everyone up about something that turned out so minor? Maybe a little. But I’d much rather feel silly for having sounded the prayer alarm over a sky that was not actually falling, than to have failed to sound it at all, only to find out we were in seriously deep waters! Plus, no request is too little for God. If He cares for the sparrows, then He also cares about the acorns, and certainly about the little girls who, against all odds, have jammed them into their hard palates!

Furthermore, it has also occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, God really did do a miracle.  Tobey and I looked at and felt that little black bump several times ... and three different doctors looked at it on Thursday, without anyone suspecting it was an acorn.  Did God take what was actually more than an acorn, and turn it into something so simple and easy to correct?  Was there a miracle hiding under that little nut that Dr. Rutter pulled out of Elisabeth's mouth?  I don't know for sure.  But the possibility of such a kindness is marvelous in my eyes!  And I'm thankful, therefore, that so many people prayed!

2. Thank God for family – church and biological. How many people prayed for us this weekend? Hundreds, perhaps. How many people offered to watch our other kids, so that Tobey and I could both be at the hospital with Elisabeth? More than I can count on one hand … and at least a couple from out-of-state! Two friends actually came on Monday morning, leaving behind homemade pizza and a tasty dessert for our dinner!  Another friend brought a roast.  From others we borrowed cars and car-seats, received cards in the mail, and so on … all in just a four day span! God has truly blessed us! And we have been reminded, again, of why He created us to thrive, not on our own, but in families and churches.

3. Life is short. For about 96 hours, fearing cancer, the possibility loomed in front of us that we might lose our daughter. Thankfully, it was much ado about nothing. But the thought of her mortality rebuked me for having been less diligent than I ought to have been, even at her young age, to speak to her about Jesus. And that makes me mindful of how diligent I ought to be to speak to others, too … each of who will someday soon pass into eternity. Elisabeth (and all four of our other children), though given a clean bill of health this Monday, will all someday surely die. And when they do, only the Son of God will be able to carry them to the Father’s bosom. So let me take every opportunity, while I still have the chance, to fill their ears and hearts with the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

4. Our children belong to God. This was a point of wrestling over the few days between Thursday and Monday. Elisabeth is ours. But, even more importantly, she is God’s. And, in prayer, we had to put her in God’s hands this weekend, trusting Him to do with her as was best in His sight. Thankfully, what He saw fit to do was quite agreeable with our own wishes. But even if He had chosen to do otherwise, she is still His to do with as He pleases, for His own glory. Our children belong to God, much more so than to their parents.

5. God is good. I literally had this thought, not less than a week before we found the lump in Elisabeth’s mouth: ‘God has been so good to us. Here we have five small children, and not one of them has had any significant health problems.’ And that is true. I say it again today, after the relief of this past week. But over the weekend, I was forced to ponder whether I would still say that ‘God is good’ if one of my children had cancer, or was forced to have potentially deforming facial surgery. And the answer was the same. God is good, regardless of what my circumstances make me feel.

The cross of Christ, of course, is exhibit A. No one, standing in the midst of the events of that dark Friday, could have felt good about the circumstances. But God knew what He was doing. Everything that happened was part of a wise, good plan. And so it is on all the dark days of our own lives. God knows what He is doing, and He always does what is best for His own. I affirmed that this weekend (albeit somewhat weakly), under what proved a very minor test. Pray that I will affirm it (and that you will, too), when providence deals me something harder to swallow than just an acorn.

May 8, 2012

Rethinking 'Expository' - A Lecture for Preachers

Most ministers probably agree with the basic definition of 'expository preaching' - the point of the sermon should be the same as the point of the text.  But beyond that, American Christian culture tends also to equate 'expository preaching' with consecutive series of sermons, working straight through a book of the Bible.  But is that the only way to preach expositorily?  Should it even be the doninant way?  Is anyone doing it differently?  Ought we?  How so?  Listen in as we ponder these important questions together.

Marriage to the Glory of God

May 1, 2012

Lessons from the Lawn

I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.
1 Corinthians 3.6

Back in the fall, we removed three old trees from the churchyard (and planted three new ones nearby!). It was a good and necessary change. But the removal of a large tree always leaves a significant patch of bare ground behind – in this case, three of them. And I have to admit that I am a bit of a stickler about bare patches in the lawn. They must be fixed!

So, at our spring workday, the woodchips were covered over with topsoil and a generous layer of grass-seed was put down over the top. Since it was spring, I figured my work might be largely done – rain this time of year usually coming in copious amounts. But the month of April, for the most part, was unusually dry. So much so that we even had a couple of wildfire warnings early in the month (in April!). So, stickler that I am about those bare patches, I pulled the church’s garden hose as far as it would stretch, and got out there most every day to water my precious grass seed.

But, after three weeks or so, very little was happening. A few tiny sprigs of grass peaked their heads up here and there, but the results were nothing like I would have thought I would see by the last week of the month. Quite disappointing, especially to a type-A like me!

Well, in the last couple of weeks, we have had several heavy rains. And guess what? The grass is finally making some real headway! It grew more in one week than in the previous three weeks combined! And it seems to me that there are a couple of spiritual lessons in that …

First, sometimes seeds take longer to germinate than we thought they would – even good seeds; even faithfully sown seeds; even carefully watered seeds. Sometimes the growth just doesn’t happen ‘according to the book.’ And that is just as true when we sow the seed of God’s word as when sowing Scott’s EZ Seed – probably more so! God is the one who causes the growth of the gospel seed. And He is not obligated to bring the crop after what we think should be a reasonable germination period. Many of His seeds take a long time finding their way into the right crevice of a person’s heart. And we must learn to be patient.

The other lesson to be learned from my grass-growing travails is simply that God can do more in a single heavy shower than we can do in weeks of watering. Try as I might, and saturate the ground as I did … I could not reproduce the effect of a heavy thundershower, and the deep saturation that it brings to the soil. And the same is true with spiritual seed. Yes, we must plant. And yes, we must also water. But then we must get on our knees and pray that God will do, with the seed we have sown, what we can never do! We must beg Him to come, by His Holy Spirit, and saturate the ground such that the good seed cannot help but grow!

So let me ask you: Are you sowing the seed of God’s word upon the hearts of friends, children, family, co-workers, and so on? Are you watering it with continued encouragement and words in season? Is it growing like you thought it might? If not, don’t lose heart. Rather, get on your knees before the Lord, asking Him to do, in a moment, what you cannot accomplish in a lifetime of watering. And then wait until the rains come … and stand back, amazed at what God alone can do!