September 26, 2012

"The Excitement and the Anticipation"

A good word from Tim Challies re: the difference between the Christian conference, and the normal, Lord's Day worship of the church.  Here's a snippet:
The excitement and the anticipation that marks a conference is often noticeably absent in the local church. A sermon preached at a conference can have a greater impact on a person than the very same sermon preached the next Sunday morning in the context of a church service. Why? Because the person attending the conference has prepared himself to receive that message. He believes he will be blessed, he applies himself, and not surprisingly, he finds in the end that he has been blessed.
Read the whole thing here.

September 25, 2012

Prayers for the Preacher

Every now and again, it’s not a bad thing for me to use this space to repeat something I’ve said before. I know I probably repeat myself, during the sermons, all the time. But today let me repeat something I’ve said about the sermons. Namely, let me remind you of a list of requests I try to make of God each week as I prepare to preach to my people. I have taken several hints from my historical hero, Thomas Boston, in compiling this list … but also made it somewhat my own.  I’m hoping the PRBCers out there might take some of them up and pray for me as well ... and that others of you will pray them for your own pastor. We need it! 

So then, each week, and for both sermons, I try to pray: ‘Lord, help me be:’

  • Penetrating. Help me, Lord not to simply skim along the surface of the text, making shallow observations and predictable applications. Help me, rather, to really think carefully, all the way to the bottom of the passage at hand and how it applies to the people before me. Help me get it right. Help me feed Your people on the kernel, rather than just the husk.
  • Perspicuous. Help me, Lord, not to be opaque. Rather, use my studies and my lips as your instruments of clarifying Your word to Your people. Help me find the outline, the illustrations, even the turns of phrase that You would have me use. Help me not stumble over my words, but preach, in every way, with clarity.
  • Patient. Help me, Lord, not to get ahead of myself (or of You) as I prepare or as I preach. Help me to work patiently enough through my studies, and through my actual sermon, that I leave ample room for the Holy Spirit to interject thoughts, applications, and realizations that I would not have come to had I gone too fast.
  • Personal. Help me, Lord, not to simply preach this message to the congregation, but to myself. Help me apply it to my life, and my family, and my sins, and my walk with You. Help me not to be a mere a road sign that shows the way to others, but never moves a foot itself.
  • Passionate. Help me, Lord – both as I prepare, and as I preach – to positively love the truth I am studying, and the God I am proclaiming. Help me to enjoy studying your word, and thus to really feel what I preach on Sunday morning. Help me to truly rise to the occasion of the text – whether the appropriate corresponding affection be zeal, or joy, or broken-heartedness, or wonder, or indignation, or what-have-you. Help me preach from a full heart, not just a full set of notes.
  • Prophetic. Help me, Lord, not merely to give a Bible lesson … but to really, and appropriately, and powerfully be able to apply Your word to Your people. Help me speak exactly to their circumstances, sins, questions, and struggles – even if I don’t know what any of those things may be. Give me a real message for the people; a word in season; not merely an accurate exposition (indispensible as accuracy is). Let people leave saying: ‘That was exactly what I needed to hear today.’

As I said, this is my list to pray for myself, week-to-week. But I do hope many of you will also set aside some time, perhaps on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, to pray for the message and the messenger that God has appointed for you on the coming Lord’s Day. And, while I don’t expect you’ll necessarily pin this little list up on your refrigerator (although it might fit snugly in the fly-leaf of your Bible!), I do hope it gives you a few starting places for prayer!

September 17, 2012

Under the Sun

I’ve begun reading the book of Ecclesiastes this week. And if I’m not careful, it could drive me to the record store to pick up some of the grunge rock of my teenage years. For the book positively oozes with statements of hopelessness and near despair:
  • “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are wearisome.” (1.8-9)
  • “It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.” (1.13)
  • “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” (1.18)
  • “There is no advantage for man over beast. All go to the same place. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” (3.19-20)
  • “I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” (9.11)
  • "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (1.2)

How’s that for encouragement in your daily quiet time?! ‘Your life is meaningless, monotonous, and painful. And the more you understand about it all, the more it hurts. But take courage!  Someday time and chance will catch up to you, and it will all be over.  You’ll die just like the possums on the roadside. And after that, who knows?’

That doesn’t sound like the message of the Bible, does it? It sounds, I say, like some of the rock anthems of my youth ... crying out for real answers to real life, and finding none. And here I find the same sentiments in the black and white pages of the Bible! What gives? How can the Bible talk this way? Why such hopelessness?

Well, the key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes is to take careful notice of the oft-repeated phrase “under the sun.” Solomon employs the phrase 27 times over the course of the book … and, in doing so, gives us a strong hint as to how the rest of his words should be interpreted. He writes this book only from the vantage point of what can be seen “under the sun.” He writes, in other words, as one who interprets life only by what he can see with his physical eyes; as if there were nothing on the other side of the sun – no heaven; no eternity; nothing beyond what our eyes can see in the world around us. And, observing life from that low vantage point, Solomon is quite realistic about what he sees!

If life is interpreted only based on what may be seen “under the sun”; if what is on the other side is taken out of the equation, then Ecclesiastes is the perfect explanation of our world. It’s really pointless, this life … if viewed only from “under the sun.” If there is no heaven or hell; no eternity in which our struggles will finally make sense; no place of reward for deeds done in righteousness; and no place of torment for acts of sin … well then, as Solomon says, we should all really be overcome with angst and despair.  Grunge, in other words, was an honest assessment of the world ... if viewed only from "under the sun."  That is why it appealed to so many people, I suppose - especially those who saw through the shiny, happy hedonism of so much of American culture.

But, speaking of hedonism, that is the other logical application to all of life's seeming pointlessness and monotony, as Solomon points out in Ecclesiastes.  We either despair because so much of life’s misery and monotony makes no sense when viewed only “under the sun” … or we give ourselves, wholesale, to the American Dream because, well, this life is really all we’ve got. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die (see 8.15).  Those are the logical conclusions if life is assessed only as it may be seen “under the sun” – either the grunge rock approach, or the bubble-gum pop mentality.

But there is another vantage point, is there not?  Life must not be viewed only from "under the sun."  No!  For, on the other side of the sun is a place where our faithfulness through monotonous days and painful circumstances will be rewarded. On the other side of the sun is a place where so much of life’s misery will finally make sense – not as the unintelligible fractals of a faceless providence, but as part of a loving Father's wise plans for doing us good. And on the other side of the sun is a world of joy that will make earthly hedonism seem like mere child’s play!

The book of Ecclesiastes, though, doesn't spend a great deal of time helping us to look at life through that other-worldly keyhole.  Solomon, old and jaded, is not so much interested in assessing life from the other side of the sun.  And I think that is by God's wise design.  This book of alternating despair and hedonism is meant to startle us, I think.  It's meant to stop us in our tracks ... and to remind us of just how shriveled our souls can become if we start to look at the world only from Solomon's latter-day perspective; if we forget to view our lives from the other side of the sun. 

There is realism in the book of Ecclesiastes, to be sure.  And we should read the book and wrestle with that realism.  We should also recognize that many of our friends and neighbors see the world exactly as Solomon saw it.  Perhaps the book of Ecclesiastes can help us understand and feel compassion toward them.  But let us not adopt Solomon's myopic view of the universe.  Let us not live merely “under the sun,” but for the world beyond it!

September 11, 2012

Planting Season

Fall is almost upon us. Giant John Deere harvesters will soon be making their way through Ohio fields, scooping up corn to gather into the proverbial barns. Apples, pumpkins, and persimmons will be ripe for the picking. Cider will be simmering on hot stoves, and thanksgiving dinner will be soon on the table! Harvest season is almost here – my favorite time of year!

But it occurs to me that, at PRBC, the autumn of the year is also a planting season, spiritually and financially. This is the time of year when we have unique opportunities to invest our money to the sowing of gospel seeds among those who need Christ so desperately. Autumn, in our church, is not just harvest, but spiritual planting season!

Beginning in mid-October, and stretching almost until Thanksgiving, we’ll be collecting toys, hygiene items, school supplies, and so on for Samaritan’s Purse and their Operation Christmas Child. With each little shoebox full of goodies that we pack, the child who receives it will also hear the good news of Jesus, and receive written gospel materials in a language they can understand. Many of them will participate, through a local church in their area, in a follow-up Bible study that further explains what it means for them to walk with Jesus. So the few dollars you spend on gifts for these little ones will open a wide door for the good news!

Then, in the month of December, we’ll be collecting our annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for foreign missions. 100% of the money you give goes directly to support missionaries who are sharing Christ overseas. So much of the world has so little opportunity to hear of Jesus. Therefore every single missionary is extremely valuable. In some places, the families we support may be the only link a particular rural village or city neighborhood has with the good news. Therefore what an investment we can make, if we support such men and women!

So autumn and early winter are, for us, not just harvest … but planting season; time for planting our money into the gospel ground, like seed, and trusting that God will grow a great many gospel plants with it!

Now I know that, during the holidays especially, lots of other claims on our finances begin to make themselves known. There are big meals to serve. There are parties to attend. There are, of course, all those gifts that our culture tells us we simply must purchase. And so it may seem as though this is the time of year when we can least afford to be giving lots of money away. But have faith in God! He loves a cheerful giver! And consider this proverb: There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more (Proverbs 11.24).

The picture is of a man – we’ll call him Mr. Generous – who has a large wagonload of seed, all ready to scatter on his field at planting time. But he looks around and sees that his neighbors have much smaller fields, and mush less seed in their wagons. And so he drives along the edges of his field, right along the fence row, and begins throwing large handfuls of his own seed onto his neighbors property. Widow Jones gets five bags’ worth. Farmer Brown gets three, to provide a little extra for his children. Several more go across into the land of Mr. Smith, whose crop turned out so poorly last year.

And, when harvest finally comes, what do we find in the fields around Mr. Generous’s farm? Widow Jones has more than enough this autumn. Farmer Brown and his children have the best Thanksgiving ever. Mr. Smith has enough and to spare. And, wonder of wonders, Mr. Generous appears to be having the best crop he’s seen in many a year – even though he gave away so much of his seed! For “there is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more.” God honors those who honor Him! And if that is true with physical seeds, how much more when we invest in those who preach the gospel!

So let’s make sure, as autumn approaches, that we consider it not only the season of harvest, but a planting season as well!

September 6, 2012

Sermons on the Book of Revelation

We've just completed a fly-over of the book of Revelation - usually taking a chapter or two at a time (although moving more slowly through chapters 1-3).  We did not attempt to unpack every detail, answer every burning question, or decipher every symbol.  But it is hoped that we allowed the main things to be the main things, and the plain things the plain things.  Listen in, benefit, and enjoy!

Revelation 1-22 - Introduction to Revelation
Revelation 1.1-11 - Editor's Preface*
Revelation 1.1-20 - Biographical Sketch of the Author*
Revelation 2.1-7 - To the Ephesians*
Revelation 2.8-11 - To the Smyrnites*
Revelation 2.12-17 - To the Pergamites*
Revelation 2.18-29 - To the Thyatirans*
Revelation 3.1-6 - To the Sardisians*
Revelation 3.7-13 - To the Philadelphians*
Revelation 3.14-22 - To the Laodiceans*
Revelation 4 - "A throne standing in heaven"
Revelation 5 - "A Lamb standing, as if slain
Revelation 6 - The Seven Seals of World History
Revelation 7 - "Sealed for the day of redemption"
Revelation 8-9 - The Seven Trumpets of the Great Tribulation
Revelation 10-11 - The Little Scroll and the Two Witnesses
Revelation 12-13 - The Unholy Trinity
Revelation 14 - The Second Coming of Christ
Revelation 15-16 - The Seven Bowls of the Wrath of God
Revelation 17-18 - "Fallen is Babylon the great"
Revelation 19.1-16 - "Hallelujah!"
Revelation 19.17-20.15 - The Last Battle, the Millennium, and the Great White Throne
Revelation 21.1-22.5 - The New Heaven and the New Earth
Revelation 22.6-21 - "The Revelation of Jesus Christ"

*Note that the sermons on chapters 1-3 were preached on an earlier occasion, which accounts for some of the content overlap with the introductory message, and explains why these chapters were covered at a slower pace than the rest of the book.

September 5, 2012

A Lesson from the Ant

“Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers provision in harvest.” 
Proverbs 6.6-8

It’s a powerful little picture Solomon paints, is it not? Why aren’t ants hungry all winter long, buried beneath the cold, hard soil with no food to eat? Because they worked hard during the rest of the year – stripping, foraging, and storing away food! And we should go to them, Solomon says, and observe them, and be wise. How so? What do the ants have to teach us?

Among other things, they give us a warning against idleness. Again, the reason why the ants are not hungry in winter is because they are not idle in summer and fall! They’re busy! In fact, if you literally determine to go to the ants, you will find that this seems to be their hallmark. Brush back the edges of any ant-hill and you will find hundreds of the little fellows, crawling this way and that, always being productive.

Solomon says there is a lesson in that! Busy people succeed. Idle people struggle (see Proverbs 6.10). And that’s true on more than one level. It’s true, first of all, on the simple level of making ends meet. The ants have enough food because they work … hard. And the lesson is plain. We must work hard, too. We must be busy with our hands, making ends meet. And if we do not – if we are idle – we’ll suffer for it in our stomachs. That’s not to say that idleness is the only reason why people struggle financially. There are many reasons. Indeed, some of the hardest working people are forced to live from paycheck to paycheck. But the fact remains that, if we are lazy and sedentary, things will only be worse! Idleness causes hungry stomachs and empty bank accounts.

But idleness also causes suffering of a different kind. I think it is fair to say, after 12 years of pastoral counseling – both with Christians, and unbelievers – that a significant number of the sin problems people deal with would be largely solved if the persons in question had a little more responsibility on their plates. For instance, gossip is usually at its worst among people who have little else to do with their time (1 Tim 5.13). In addition, sinful fretting over this and that, and obsessions with what other people do or think, and bitterness over past hurts, all seem to lay down their deepest roots in the empty soil of long days with nothing productive to claim our time. Also, the people with the biggest substance abuse problems are often the same folks who have far too much time on their hands. Addiction to pornography and video games occurs most in young men who have all evening every evening to do a whole lot of nothing. Overeating is often largely a product of boredom. And the list could go on … proving the old adage that ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ It’s an old adage because it’s true!

Does that mean that, if we’ll just get busy, all our sin habits will fade away? No! Our sin problems have, as their ultimate root, our sin natures … which will not disappear no matter how busy we may be. The busiest people in the world are still sinners. But they probably don’t have time to sit on the phone and talk bad about other people. They probably don’t have time to tool around for hours on the internet. And so, while their busyness in no way eradicates their sin nature, it certainly does give that nature less free time to work with!

So let us all consider the ants, and get busy. There are far too many people who need encouragement; far too many ministries that need helpers; far too many tongues, tribes, peoples, and nations that need praying for; and far too many Bible truths that need studying for any of us to spend too much time twiddling our thumbs! Let us redeem the time, therefore. We’ll get a good example if we “go to the ant”!

September 4, 2012

Sermons from 1 Corinthians 13

Here are three recent sermons from 'the love chapter':

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 - "Without love"
1 Corinthians 13.4-7 - "Love is ..."
1 Corinthians 13.8-13 - The Maturity of Love

Listen in, benefit, and enjoy.