May 30, 2013

On your Forehead?

Deuteronomy 6.6-9 is an interesting passage of Scripture:

"These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

Tie Bible verses to your hands and foreheads? Paint them on the entrance way to your house and at the edges of your driveway? That may sound strange to 21st century ears! But did you know the Pharisees took this stuff quite literally? They came up with little boxes that could hold tiny scripture scrolls, and attached them to headbands to be, literally, atied to their foreheads! No doubt many of them also had verses like Exodus 20.1-3 or Deuteronomy 6.4 placarded above their doorways, too. The problem was that they never seemed to take the scrolls out of the boxes and think about what they said! So we ought not imitate thei Pharisees' hearts … but their intentionality is worth observing. And I think God wants us to be quite intentional about keeping the Bible in the front of our minds, too.

So let me walk through the verses above and suggest some ways we might be more intentional about keeping the Scriptures always with us:

“These words … shall be on your heart.” How do we apply that today? Simple. Memorize the Bible. Otherwise, how will you meditate on it talk about it when you are in the checkout line at Kroger, or stuck in traffic on I-75? We (and our children) should be memorizing Bible verses together so that we will have something meaningful to talk about even when the Bible is not open on our laps. Otherwise, we will resort to mere small talk or general moralisms about God that lack power because they are not rooted in specific Bible truths.

“You shall … talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” Two things to say here: First, let your conversations (with your family, and otherwise) always be seasoned with the word of God—when you are cooking a meal, or driving to school, or sitting at the ballpark. God is everywhere and involved in everything, so we ought to be able to think of and speak about Him at any time.

Secondly, parents in particular ought to have specific, daily times for teaching Scripture to their kids. Every day we ought to read Scripture to our kids, talk about the meaning, sing Scriptural songs, and pray with them. That is what it means to “diligently teach” them. If we are not doing these things, we are missing THE major means for our children’s salvation!

“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” I’m not sure the idea is that we must necessarily do each of these things, literally and exactly … but that we find some practical way to place the written word of God always before our eyes. Some quick ideas: Always take a Bible (and maybe a children’s devotional book) with you on long car trips; post Bible verses around your house, where they are most likely to be seen often—on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator door, on your kids’ walls, as a desktop background, etc.; decorate a child’s room with Bible verses; keep a small Bible or testament in your desk, or locker, or purse; invest in some Scripture memory songs on CD. The ideas could be multiple, but the intent is singular: take every opportunity you have to keep the Scriptures always before your eyes (and those of your children), so that you might better know and do what they say!

May 29, 2013

"A voice in the wilderness": Sermons on the Sayings of John the Baptist

We just completed a four week study of some of the most famous of the sayings of John the Baptist, whom Jesus considered the greatest of the men of the Old Covenant.  What did this great man have to say ... about himself?  And about Jesus?  Listen in as we explore the fascinating answers.

John 1.23 - "A voice of one crying in the wilderness"
Luke 3.16 - "With the Holy Spirit and fire"
John 1.29 - "Behold, the Lamb of God"
John 3.30 - "He must increase, but I must decrease"

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the NASB®.

May 28, 2013

A Good Work Begun: Sermons on Acts 16

Some time back we took a look at the founding of the church at Philippi, in Acts 16 - under the banner of Paul's great confidence in Philippians 1.6 - "I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus."  But how exactly did God begin His good work in the Philippians?  That's what we explore in these four sermons.

Acts 16.1-12 - A Good Work Begun
Acts 16.9-15 - A Quiet Work
Acts 16.16-24 - A Noisy Work
Acts 16.25-40 - A Surprising Work

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the NASB®.

May 27, 2013

Sermons from Psalms 71-83

In our on again, off again trek through the Psalter, we have made our way up to Psalm 83.  Here are the latest offerings in our studies:

Psalm 71 - A Strategy for Dark Days
Psalm 72 - A Prayer for the King
Psalm 73 - "My flesh and my heart may fail"
Psalm 74 - "Why"?  And "how long"?
Psalm 75 - "God is the Judge"
Psalm 76 - Victory Song
Psalm 77 - "I shall remember"
Psalm 78 - "I shall remember" (Reprise)
Psalm 79 - Prayers for Dark Days
Psalm 80 - "Cause Your face to shine upon us"
Psalm 81 - A Psalm for the New Year
Psalm 82 - "God takes His stand"
Psalm 83 - The Prayers of the Persecuted

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the NASB®.

May 21, 2013

Stories ... and THE Story

I was recently bowled over by the 2012 film / musical Les Misérables.* I read Victor Hugo’s novel as a teenager, and have now seen three cinematic versions of it … but I have yet to grow tired of hearing this story told and re-told – especially in the musical version, recently reprised for the silver screen.

"Cosette" by Emile Bayard. #
Public Domain.
But what is it that so captivates me about this latest version of Les Misérables? The lyrics and music by Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer are phenomenal. The singing and acting by the likes of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe are also brilliant. The screenwriting and cinematography are outstanding. But beneath all of this contemporary artistic excellency is Hugo’s enduring tale of justice, and lack thereof; of love covering a multitude of sins; of God’s mercy; of rebirth; of misery; and of hope. The way Hugo weaves these timeless themes into an unforgettable story is what, at the end of the day, arouses the passion, the yearning, and the wistfulness in those of us who love the story. It is Jean Valjean, in other words – not just Hugh Jackman or Liam Neeson – who brings us to tears. Hugo’s story, in other words, is what stirs the soul … and is the reason why such great musicians, actors, and writers continue to work so hard at interpreting it beautifully … and why we love to watch them do it!

Great stories have an incredible power to stir the human spirit. Our generation has experienced this phenomenon in famous novels-turned-movies written by the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. These men and others have had the unique gift, not only of creating characters and scenes that fascinate our imaginations, but of interlacing those people and places into series of events that speak to the deepest longings, the greatest fears, and the highest joys of the human heart. Their stories not only fascinate and entertain, but they very often positively move us, do they not?

But why? Why do human hearts have such longings in the first place? Why do we fall in love with certain kinds of stories? Why, even though we know the characters to be fictional, do we sometimes find our hearts pumping, or our eyes watering, at the words of Jean Valjean, or Aslan, or Samwise Gamjee? Some of it, of course, is the skill of their literary creators. But most of it is because their stories seem to touch something very palpable inside our souls – maybe something we can’t always quite put our fingers on. The alternately plaintive and victorious melodies of the great stories seem to be themes from a song that we already know in our own hearts, but just can’t always quite fully remember or express.

In short, as Tolkien pointed out,^ the grand stories (plural, and lowercase ‘l’) seem often to be shadows (albeit imperfect ones) of an even grander, non-fictional Story that we all long to be part of – the Story that seems to occasionally play in the background of every heart that has not drowned out the eternity that God has set in it (Ecclesiastes 3.11).

God is writing His own drama for the ages, is He not? It, too, carries the human heart through miseries blanched with hope; through the injustices and crooked paths of a fallen world; through deep longings for a new start – a story which ultimately promises that justice will be done, and all will be new, and that life will have just begun when we go, in the words of Boublil and Kretzmer, “beyond the barricade.” And so many of the great stories – whether their authors realize it or not – are echoes of this one ultimate Story.

So let’s use them to our advantage – not in place of reading the Story, of course … but as vehicles of God’s common grace, pointing us back to the Story and its Author. Let’s learn to recognize, in the glistening of our eyes at the end of a great book or movie, that perhaps what we are really yearning for is eternity … where Christ will do, for real and forever, what Valjean, and Aslan, and the like can only help us taste for a few fleeting moments.



*In benefitting from and writing about Les Misérables, I am well aware that parts of Hugo’s story (and the cinematographic depictions of it) can be raw and even seamy. I am not writing to commend every detail in the book or movies, but to learn a lesson from what is, overall, an incredibly compelling story.

#From the original edition of Hugo's Les Misérables.  A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie., 1862.


^Lewis seems to have learned from Tolkien the way human stories so often echo the divine Story.  See Tolkien scholar Joseph Pearce's article on this subject at: http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0107.html. It is largely from Tolkien's observations on this matter (especially as discussed by John Piper) that I have been able to recognize my own affinity for stories, and to understand that affinity in the terms described in this article. For Piper’s discussion of Lewis, Tolkien, and stories (or "myths", as Tolkien calls them), see: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/biographies/lessons-from-an-inconsolable-soul.  

May 14, 2013

The Hard Work ... of Prayer

Paul wrote the book of Colossians to a group of Christians he’d never met. He hadn’t planted the church at Colossae. A man named Epaphras had. And one sentence Paul writes about Epaphras was extremely important to me as I read. You can find it in 4.12: “Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings …” (and here’s the part I love) “always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers” (emphasis mine).

Most of the time I think of labor (or work) and prayer as two separate things. As I spend time in my office, it usually seems like I am either working … or I am taking a break from my work in order to pray. But I don’t usually think of my prayers as work. But I should. That’s the way Paul and Epaphras both thought. The way to get the most spiritual work done, it seems, is to make prayer a significant part of your work!

In his book, Revival, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who saw the Spirit come in revival in his church in Wales, and whose preaching was blessed perhaps more than any man in the last century once said: “When God acts he can do more in a minute than man with his organizing can do in fifty years.” Good reason to work harder at prayer than at anything else … asking God to do what only He can!

In the previous century, George Mueller raised a thousand orphans, sent thousands of Bibles and tracts all around the world, and all the while pastored a thriving, growing church. And He did it all without receiving a personal salary and without ever doing any fundraising! How did he accomplish it? How did he feed all those mouths without ever asking for money? Well, instead of working at raising money … he worked in prayer, asking God to do what he could not! And God provided every time!

Hudson Taylor, following Mueller’s example, organized one of the most successful missionary societies of modern times—China Inland Mission. And he, like Mueller, did so without ever asking anyone for money to support the missionaries, and without making any great pleas for more workers to join the mission. So, how did CIM ever succeed in sending and supporting so many missionaries? Well, Taylor explains it by saying that he “moved men through God—by prayer.”

Now, this is not to say that we shouldn’t do the work of evangelism, or fund-raising, or office managing, or ditch-digging. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9.10). But it is to say that we should no longer view our prayers as different from our labor for the Lord, or even as a support for our labor, (and certainly not as a distraction from our labor!). Rather we should view prayer precisely as the labor itself  … maybe the most important of all the work we do every day!

May 7, 2013

'That's Exactly how I Feel!'

Let me revisit a subject I took up in a Sunday sermon a few weeks ago – namely, the inestimable value of the book of Psalms.

The psalms are the great hymnbook of the people of God. They have also been called “the medicine chest of the soul.” For many years, though, I confess that I found myself not peculiarly attracted to the psalms. I went through an epistles phase, in which I was loading up on all sorts of good, hardy doctrine which I had never noticed before. Then I went on a bit of a narrative kick, in which I found myself loving the stories of the Old Testament – especially when skilfully preached. But the psalms? I just had a little more difficult time connecting with their emotional themes, and the way in which they seem to rehearse those themes again and again. I preached the psalms as part of my regular plan of trying to cover the whole counsel of God; but I didn’t necessarily feel them.

But life (God’s providence, really) has a way of eventually sitting us down in exactly the same places in which the psalmists sat. Circumstances play out in such a way that “Why?” and “how long?” unexpectedly become very pertinent, even pressing questions. Raw emotions, and fears, and doubts find their way onto our paths … and suddenly, it’s like we are reading the psalter with new eyes. Light bulbs go on everywhere. ‘That’s exactly how I feel’ becomes a regular realization as we thumb our way through the Bible’s great collection of inspired praise and prayer.

Sooner or later, I think this must happen for every true believer who keeps living … and keeps reading. The psalms come alive to us. Or, rather, we come alive to the psalms … because we need them so desperately. They put words on our trembling lips when, in the midst of cloudy providences, we are not exactly sure how to pray. Indeed, the psalms give us a kind of permission to be raw, and honest, and bold with God in times of trial. ‘If the psalmist can beg God to hurry up (Psalm 70); if the psalmist can ask God “why?” and “how long?” (Psalm 74); if the psalmist can be frank about his doubts (Psalm 77) … perhaps God won’t mind if I come to Him with the same sorts of words.’

Here is one supreme (though by no means the only) value of the psalms – the way they help the troubled soul to pray; the way they free us to come to God with a level of honesty that we might not otherwise be sure was appropriate or reverent. If we live long enough, each of us will need that kind of freedom with the Lord, and those kinds of words. So read (and sing!) the psalms … even when you don’t feel what the psalmist feels. But especially turn to this great treasure trove of Christian experience and prayer in the times of sadness, and anxiety, and insecurity, and opposition that will inevitably come. Take the psalmists’ words on your own lips. And believe that you can walk, and talk, and even weep with God just like they did … and that, as He did for them, He will also surely gladly hear your raw, blubbering, emotional, sometimes repetitive cries.