December 27, 2014

New Habits for a New Year

I have written before how much I love the New Year. Ever since I was a boy with my Atari 2600, I’ve loved hitting the reset button and starting fresh! Advancing years and more maturity have shown me that it is not always possible (or even desirable) to do so. But I still love this time of year when there is this seasonal impetus to start over, and make fresh plans, and do differently!

And so, in that spirit, allow me to suggest to you four areas in which you might hit the reset button in your life as the calendar changes in just a few days. Perhaps for you it might not even be a reset, but the booting up of a whole new machine! But either way, here are four habits I encourage you to take up in the new year (and even today!) …

1. Plan to read the Bible. We all say we want to read the Bible, but I know from personal experience that want-to doesn’t always translate to action unless we have a real plan. So take up a Bible reading plan beginning January 1.
  • The New Testament in a year, 1 chapter a day.
  • The Old Testament in a year, 2 chapters a day.
  • The Bible in a year, using one of several plans that can be found (and often read) online.

2. Devote yourself to family devotions. Make it a regular habit to gather together with spouse and children to read a passage from the Bible, talk about briefly about how it applies, pray together, and sing. You might work your way (more slowly than the plans mentioned above) through books like Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, John, Romans, and Ephesians. 15 minutes a day will bless your whole family … for years (perhaps generations) to come!

3. “Remember the sabbath.” God meant what He said when He commanded us to take a day off every week (and to give those who serve us a day off, too, Exodus 20:8-11). He meant what He said when He taught us to set aside that day, even from our normal recreations (Isaiah 58:13-14), so that we might have time for uninterrupted delighting in Him. It’s what is best for us! It is good! And it is a key test of whether we are willing to trust God’s word, or think ourselves wiser than it. So give yourself the treasure of a whole day, every week, for rest and worship and delight in the things of God. I promise you won’t regret it, or lack any good thing by cutting your work and chore and shopping week short by a day!

4. Get yourself a missions piggy bank. We are just finishing off our annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® for international missions – a chance to give Jesus a Christmas present of His own (so to speak), by supporting His missionaries. Some of you have perhaps given part of your Christmas bonus, or of your gift-giving budget. And God will reward that! But perhaps you thought to yourself: ‘Boy, I’d have liked to have given more.’ Well, next year you can – if you’ll get a piggy bank, or a coffee can, or a little gift box … and fill it up all year round with money for missions. $20 per monthly paycheck would mean an additional $240 for missions next December. And $50 per month would be $600! So get a little container, and make Lottie Moon a part of your regular monthly budget. Again, you won’t regret it!

So there are four new (or renewed) habits for 2015. They’re all quite simple, and well within the grasp of nearly everyone who reads these words. Take them up in the New Year, and the rewards will be such that no piggy bank will be able to hold them!

December 24, 2014

George Herbert's "Christmas" (1633)

What a quote from George Herbert's poem entitled Christmas (courtesy ccel.org):

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging then a rack or grave.

Thanks for pointing this out, Justin!


December 23, 2014

2014 Christmas Poem: Good News, Great Joy for People All

I've just completed this year's Christmas poem ... to be read, Lord willing, at our worship gathering tomorrow night.  Read it below the page break, or download the Word document and/or the mp3.

And here's a link to the whole collection of Christmas poems, from 2002 until now.


Read the Christmas Story Aloud

Hello all.  Many of you will be gathering with friends and family this Christmas ... and will sit down together at some point to read the scriptures about our Lord's birth, and perhaps to sing about it, too.  After the page break below is a compilation of scripture passages that I have prepared to help you do just that --  beginning in Genesis 1, and moving all the way through the familiar nativity passages ... and beyond.  Periodically I have also inserted the title of a suggested hymn that might be sung here or there, to break up the reading and help give voice to your worship.

Feel free to copy, paste, forward ... and most of all use.  Scripture is taken from the King James Version.

December 22, 2014

Christmas Poems

Most every year at our church's Christmas Eve service, I read a Christmas poem - an imaginative (but biblical) angle on the incarnation ... seen, each succeeding year, from the perspective of a different player in the drama of the incarnation. Here they all are, collected in one place, now with audio files included:

2002 - A Research Day in Nazareth (Mary) - Read - Listen
2003 - There's Always Wheat Among the Tares (Simeon) - Read - Listen
2004 - Let them Say what they will Say (Joseph) - Read - Listen
2005 - The Not-So Wise Man (Magi) - Read - Listen
2006 - Lost Sheep, that's who the Shepherd's for (shepherds) - Read - Listen
2007 - Pregnant Pause (Zachariah) - Read - Listen
2008 - The Day I Leapt for Someone Else (John the Baptist) - Read - Listen
2009 - House of Bread (a shepherd) - Read - Listen
2010 - Just when you Think all Hope is Gone (Anna) - Read - Listen
2012 - The Return of the Magi (Magi) - Read - Listen
2014 - Good News, Great Joy for People All - Read - Listen

Christmas Sermons

Here are three Christmas sermons from the last 3 weeks.  Enjoy!

Luke 2.22-38 - Looking for the consolation of Israel" - mp3
Various Texts - Humility ... From the Manger to the Grave - mp3
Luke 2.1-20 - "Mary treasured all these things" - mp3

December 19, 2014

Through the Eyes of Spurgeon

Yesterday I posted the trailer for a documentary about the greatest English-speaking preacher of the TWENTIETH century.  Today, a link to a brand new documentary on the greatest English speaking preacher of the NINETEENTH century (and maybe of all time).

December 18, 2014

Logic On Fire

Check out the trailer for the forthcoming documentary on the greatest English-speaking preacher of the 20th century.


December 17, 2014

Sermons from Matthew 26-28

We just completed a series of message from the final three chapters of Matthew's gospel.  Listen in!

Matthew 26.1-5 - "The Son of Man is to be handed over" - mp3
Matthew 26.6-16 - How much is Jesus worth? - mp3
Matthew 26.17-30 - The Last Supper - mp3
Matthew 26.31-56 - "Grieved and distressed" ... yet resolute - mp3
Matthew 26.57-68 - On Trial before Caiaphas - mp3
Matthew 26.69-75 - Peter's Denials - mp3
Matthew 27.1-10 - Judas's Sad End - mp3
Matthew 27.11-26 - Pilate, the Crowds, Barabbas, and Jesus - mp3
Matthew 27.27-44 - Mocked and crucified ... "as it is written" - mp3
Matthew 27.45-54 - "Why have You forsaken Me?" - mp3
Matthew 27.55-66 - The Burial - mp3
Matthew 28.1-17 - "He has risen" - mp3
Matthew 28.18-20 - Go!- mp3

December 16, 2014

"The government will rest on His shoulders"

Here is one of the great promises spoken of the Child that Isaiah prophesied that would be born to God’s people (Isaiah 9.2-7); of the baby of Bethlehem; of the One whose name would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” – “the government will rest on His shoulders.”

We can perhaps see why some of Jesus’ contemporaries might have expected Him to overthrow Rome. After all, wasn’t the Messiah coming to take the government upon His own broad back, and to rule righteously upon the earth? Yes! That’s why Isaiah said “a child will be born to us” and “a son will be given to us” – in order that this Child might reign as King. That He might govern in the place of wicked men, and do so righteously!

And yet here we are, nearly two thousand years on from the manger at Bethlehem … and the world’s governments generally seem no closer to coming under the rule of King Jesus than they did when Herod was slaughtering innocent children in Bethlehem. Still we groan when we look at much of what goes on in the name of the state. And if we groan, in free America, where we still cling to so many blessings even in the realm of our government … what about our brothers and sisters scattered abroad in lands where the princes have already travelled much further down the atheistic road that our nation seems committed to follow? And what about our Christian family in lands of deep corruption? And persecution? Surely they know what it is to be “weary and heavy-laden” … even under the very government systems in which they live.

But what do we do? We can murmur about these things, and pat each other on the back as we commiserate together about how frustrating things can sometimes be … which really does precious little good (and violates the law of God, Ex. 22.28, Eph. 4.29). And we should work toward better, more godly, more faithful government … which will have some benefit for us all (even for those who do not hold to our faith).

But as we look out on the dark clouds that seem to gather ever more quickly on the governmental horizon, it seems to me (perhaps especially at Christmastime) that, most of all, we should leaf back through the pages of the prophets, and trek back to the feed trough at Bethlehem … where our ultimate hope lay in swaddling clothes, poised to save us all.

It’s true He did not come, that first time round, to establish an earthly kingdom … but to rule in the hearts of men, women, and children from every kingdom and tribe; to call to Himself servants from among every fiefdom on the planet (including many of their leaders, praise God!).  But He is coming again! And when He does, then the very government itself "will rest on His shoulders.” And His subjects will gladly follow His good rule! And there will be no more debates about the sanctity of human life; and no more racism, or criminality, or corruption of any kind! There will be no more unfulfilled promises, no more lies, no more laziness or grasping for power! For Father, Son, and Spirit will reign all by themselves ... and with wisdom, and equity, and benevolence, and grace! “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb … The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra … [and] They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain.”

That is the promise of the babe in the manger! That is the promise of Christmas. Remember it this season, and take heart. “The government will rest upon His shoulders.”

December 15, 2014

Missions Week Sermons

Here are the sermons from our recently completed Missions Week.  Listen in ... and be encouraged to give, pray, and go for the fame of Jesus among the nations.

3 John 5-8 - Give! - mp3
2 Thessalonians 3.1-2 - Pray! - mp3
Matthew 28.18-20 - Go! - mp3

December 11, 2014

A couple of resources for missionary prayer

We thought about prayer last night at PRBC - specifically Paul's plea that we pray for the missionaries (2 Thessalonians 3.1-2).  Toward the end, I mentioned two specific resources that might be of great help to God's people in doing so.  Check them out for yourself:

Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation
by Jason Mandryk

Available for free ... in paper or electronic format

December 9, 2014

7 Reasons to Give to World Missions

As we continue our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®, I thought it might be helpful to reiterate some biblical reasons why we should be encouraged to give. Four of them will be review from Sunday’s sermon. And one of them is not so that we can light up all the bulbs on our Christmas wreath (a happy reason, but not necessarily a biblical one). But there are some very good and biblical reasons to support our missionaries, light bulbs or no! Here they are:

1. Because we simply want to be faithful to our Father. God’s heart is for the nations – that He might receive glory among every tribe and tongue. This is the great mission that He is on about in the world. And, as when we saw our earthly dads fixing the car or planting a garden in our younger years, it ought to be our eager delight to say: ‘Father, can I help? Can I pitch in?’ Our involvement in the Father’s plan of world evangelization, and our support of those who go out, is simply a matter of faithfulness! “You are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren” (3 John 5).

2. Because … who else will support our missionaries? John describes certain traveling preachers in his own day as “accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (3 John 7); receiving no support from the unbelieving world. And John’s conclusion (v.8) is that the church “ought to support such men.” And so it is today. Our missionaries are not usually on the payroll of some wealthy corporation or benefactor. They’re on ours. And so if we don’t support them, who will?

3. Because … how will the nations be saved without preachers? Yes, God can save anybody He wants. And He doesn’t need human means. But He has ordained that he almost always works through them! And, as to the salvation of perishing souls, here is the logic of the New Testament: “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). A good question, no? How are all these tribes and tongues going to come to worship Jesus unless someone tells them about Jesus? And how will anyone tell them, Paul goes on to ask in v.15, “unless they are sent?” And how can we send them, I ask, unless we give monetarily to their support?

4. Because there is reward in missionary support. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6:20). And how do you do so? Well, Paul spoke of people won to Christ as his “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). And surely this will be one of the greatest rewards of heaven – people who will be there worshipping around the throne because we prayed, or gave, or shared Christ. That’s reason to give! And so is the “well done” that the Lord will speak to those who invest their earthly treasures well (Luke 19:11-27).

5. Because giving puts us on the mission field, by proxy. “We ought to support such men, so that we may be fellow workers with the truth” (3 John 8). So, if you give to a missionary in Thailand, you are joining with him in the work there, by means of this emissary you’ve helped to send out. You are doing missions, too … even when it is simply by means of the offering plate!

6. For the sake of the second coming of Christ. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). So there is work to do before Jesus comes again – the work of preaching the gospel among all the peoples. So let’s support those who are out there getting it done – yes, for the sake of those peoples … but also for the sake of the coming of Christ, which we are taught to hasten (2 Peter 3:12).

7. Because we want to see the name of Jesus made famous. The preachers spoken of in 3 John “went out for the sake of the Name” (v.7). They went out, not simply to rescue poor, dying sinners (though they did do that). They went out, not simply to make the world a better place (though that does happen where the gospel is preached and believed). But the way John describes them, specifically, is going out “for the sake of the Name”; so that they might, in other words, make the name of Jesus famous! So that the peoples and tribes would sing that Name, and rejoice in that Name, and preach that Name, and do good in that Name. So that the name of Jesus would become the most precious word in every one of the languages into which it enters! And that, dear friends, is reason to empty our pockets for the cause of world missions!

December 2, 2014

Light Bulbs for Lottie Moon

You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Philippians 4.15-16

These are the words of a grateful missionary. Paul was out in the far reaches of the earth, preaching and praying and loving the people with all the strength that God would give him. But he knew that he was desperately dependent on those back home who supported him financially. There were times when he didn’t have that support, so he had to work a secular job to keep himself afloat. But there was this one church—the church at Philippi—which he knew he could count on. There was this one church that, when everyone else seemed to forget about the missionaries, didn’t forget. There was this one church that, again and again, sent Paul supplies and monetary support. So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is, in large measure, a thank you note.

Wouldn’t it be gratifying to get a letter like that from someone so committed to and successful in missionary endeavors as Paul? Wouldn’t it be gratifying to know that your giving was leading to the conversion of precious souls in some far-off corner of the globe? Just think about how many people came into the kingdom because the Philippians’ financial support enabled Paul to devote himself to full-time ministry! When you think of it like that, giving to missions becomes very exciting!

This is what I hope our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® (100% of which supports our Southern Baptist international missionaries) is for our congregation—exciting! One of my most prized childhood memories is the Lottie Moon® offering in our church. I didn’t know who Lottie Moon was. I didn’t really know how all the money was gathered and disbursed. But somehow this money was going to help people hear about Jesus. And the church folks seemed to be excited about it!

We collected our offering throughout the month of December … and every year we had a church-wide goal—let’s say $2000. On the wall, just to the left of the baptistery, there would be a Christmas wreath with ten big Christmas light-bulbs on it. Each bulb represented $200. For every $200 dollars that came in, another light would be lit up. So every week through advent season, it was a delight to arrive in the church auditorium to see how many lights were lit up this Sunday. And I think many of the adults enjoyed it as much as us kids. Giving to missions was fun! I can assure you, I look back with much more joy on that Lottie Moon wreath than on any Christmas present I ever got. More importantly, in heaven I’ll rejoice more in those $200 light bulbs than in all my earthly possessions put together!

What about you? Do you love the cause of world missions? Do you get excited about being a part of it through “giving and receiving”? Is the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®; (or your church's equivalent) fun for you? You don’t need a wreath to make it so. You don’t need light bulbs, either. You just need a Philippian heart. You need an eternal perspective on your money. You need a compassion for souls and a passion for the fame of Jesus. Then giving to missions will be a delight! And the more you give, the more delightful!

November 24, 2014

"That they may know You"

‘Christianity is about relationship, not religion.’ How many times have you heard it? Probably twenty-seven too many. It is a tired cliché after all. And it overlooks the fact that there is such a thing as “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1.27) … and that Christians are supposed to engage in it!

Nevertheless, clichés usually become cliché because they have hit on something that is mostly true. And such is the case with the religion/relationship slogan. While we might not agree fully that Christianity is not religion, it should be well-noted that it most assuredly is relationship. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said in John 17.3, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (emphasis added).

There is Christ’s own definition of eternal life – not streets of gold, first of all; not a reunion with grandma, primarily; not the absence of pain, or tears, or even sin (delightful as all those missing pieces will be!). All these things may be said to be aspects of eternal life … but the substance of eternal life is knowing: knowing God, and knowing His Son! The substance of eternal life is a relationship with the Almighty! That is what will make heaven so heavenly – that we will see, and know, and love the Lord our God forever!

And then let me say also that this eternal life is not merely future. Eternal life is not merely something that we will obtain when we die, or when Christ returns. No! God has already “made us alive together with Christ.” And I submit to you that this God-given new life is of an eternal quality! If you are in Christ, you have begun a new life – with new desires, and new hopes, and new spiritual abilities, and a new family, and a new King – that will last forever! If you have believed on Christ, then you have already begun to taste the famous promise that comes at the end of John 3.16! And if you have already begun your “eternal life” … then the substance of your life today is that you actually know God, and that you know His Son!

Christianity is not just the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance that you don’t have to go to hell. It is those things! But the greatest thing about your sins being forgiven is that they no longer present a barrier between you and your Maker! Now you can come to Him, and speak with Him, and know Him! And similarly, the greatest thing about being rescued from hell is not simply the avoidance of the flames, but the opportunity to live forever with the Lord! This is Christianity; and “this is eternal life” – that we have the great privilege of knowing the heavenly Father and His beloved Son!

Do you know Him? Are you really a Christian? And if so, don’t you want to know Him more? “That they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” This is the most distinguished privilege anyone can have!  And “this is eternal life.”

November 18, 2014

"The earth has yielded its produce"

That’s a thanksgiving kind of verse, is it not? The full text of Psalm 67.6 reads:

“The earth has yielded its produce;
God, our God, blesses us.”

How true! God has, indeed, blessed us! And what a distinct privilege we have to spend our earthly sojourn in a culture whose forbears thought it wise to commemorate God’s blessings, and the gathering in of the earth’s harvest, by means of a regular holiday dedicated to giving thanks! I hope you take advantage this Thursday. Even if 2014 has been one of the most difficult in your memory, you can surely look back over these nearly eleven months and see God’s provision, and help, and kindness along the way. And (to borrow a thought from an old friend), even if we had no other evidence of His kindness, the fact that God gave His own Son for us would be reason enough to hold thanksgiving 365 days a year! “God, our God, blesses us” indeed!

But we mustn’t read Psalm 67.6 without also going on to notice what follows quickly upon it on verse 7! Read both verses together, and notice, at the end of v.7, the reason God blesses us; the reason our harvest has come in again in 2014:

“6 The earth has yielded its produce;
God, our God, blesses us.
7 God blesses us,
That all the ends of the earth may fear Him.”

Don’t miss that purpose clause this Thanksgiving! “God blesses us”; God fills our barns and silos (or, in modern times, our refrigerators, and cupboards, and bank accounts) … why? So that we, His people, might be a blessing to those who live at “the ends of the earth”; so that people dwelling in far flung lands may come to fear our God. And how do such people come to “fear Him”? The same way that we did – by hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, which draws us to Him in repentance and faith! And so the thrust of verses 6-7 is that, to whatever extent God fills our pockets, He does so … not simply so that we can feast and enjoy the good life, but so that we might be the means of bringing the gospel of Christ to people living at the four corners of the globe! “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.”

And how does this calling to get the gospel to “all the ends of the earth” relate specifically to full barns and wallets? Well, it costs money to send out missionaries, does it not? And to support them while they are on the field? It costs money to print Bibles and tracts to hand out to people who need the word of God in their own language. It costs money to show practical love to the people with whom the gospel is shared (many of whose cupboards are actually quite bare). And so when “God blesses us” (v.7), the idea is that we will share the wealth so as to get the gospel out in the cause of missions. In fact, that’s what the entire Psalm is really all about – the missionary task! And it is for this task that our barns are full!

So this Thanksgiving … yes, enjoy the feast! Delight in God’s bounty, and the blessings that we enjoy in this country because of it. That is a biblical thought, too (Deut. 14.22-27)! But remember that there is an even higher purpose to all this blessing than just enjoying it in the company of family and friends (or spending way too much of it on Christmas presents – most of which will be forgotten by next December 25, or maybe even January 25!). Think, too, about how you can use the monetary blessings God has placed in your hands for the sake of the gospel at “the ends of the earth.” Give generously to Lottie Moon, and/or Operation Christmas Child. Make an end of the year gift to a group like HeartCry or The Gideons. Pick up a Christmas gift catalog from Samaritan’s Purse, or World Vision, or Compassion and use some of the fullness of your barns to help fill up someone else’s in the name of Jesus. These are the reasons why our silos are full in the first place! “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (emphasis added).

November 10, 2014

The Mustard Seed Kingdom

“And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.’” Mark 4.30-32

What encouragement there is in this parable of Jesus! Encouragement for small churches. Encouragement for their pastors. Encouragement for daily Christian living … in which we are usually trying to serve the Lord in fairly mundane situations, and sharing the good news with people usually in ones and twos. Encouragement for moms who sometimes feel like their only significant evangelistic opportunities are those that happen in their own home, among the same little gaggle of kids with whom they spoke of Jesus yesterday, too (and the day before that).

So much of what we do for the Lord doesn’t seem all that spectacular, does it? We share Christ with a co-worker here or there. We sit down, once more, for family worship with our children. We pack and pray over a shoebox. We post a verse of scripture on Facebook. We attend a small church. And so it may often seem like we’re not really accomplishing all that much for Jesus. But the parable of the mustard seed reminds us that advances in God’s kingdom do not always come with a thunderclap for emphasis!

“The kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed.” And thus, when you see it in its seed form, initial appearances might not lead you to expect it to mushroom into something great. That was certainly the case with Jesus’ first disciples. Just a handful of them – and in some ways, a little bit rag tag. But look at what they eventually became; and what has become of the church over these last two millennia! The people of God may still be a minority … but when you consider our beginnings, the advance of the kingdom has been spectacular!

And so it often will be with the little enclaves and outposts of the kingdom scattered hither and yon across the modern landscape. Someone might walk into one of our church services, and think that it is quite noble that we continue to gather, even with so small a group of people, and so little influence on the community around us. But they may not expect any great advances in the kingdom of God from such a small collection of everyday folks! And they might think the same if they sat in on our family devotions, or attended one of our Backyard Bible Clubs, or listened in on our prayer meeting. And yet who knows what God may do with our little mustard seed? Who knows what people groups may be reached for Christ through a few missionaries God might be raising up in this little church? Who knows but that, after years of slow and steady witness, the Holy Spirit might one day break a dam in our city, so that dozens of new faces suddenly begin cramming into our pews to listen to us “give an account for the hope that is in” us. Or who knows how a couple more generations of faithfulness in our little church might more slowly blossom us into a larger congregation that is able to have a significant voice for Jesus in our community?  Or maybe we remain small ... but have an impact on the growth and flourishing of God's kingdom in some way that we haven't yet imagined!

This is how mustard seeds work, isn’t it? And that is how we should “picture the kingdom of God.”

Small seeds can become great flourishing plants. Let us pray that it may be so with our own churches, and families, and personal witness for Christ!

November 4, 2014

"Fishers of men"

That is what Jesus promised to make His first disciples (Mark 1.17) – “fishers of men.” And it was an apt description. “Simon and Andrew … were fisherman” (v.16). They knew what it was to lower their nets, looking for a catch. They knew what it was to toil all night, and come up empty. They surely also knew the elation of hoisting the nets and finding them crammed full with a shoal of fish. And hopefully they had learned to be grateful even when the fish came into the boat in only ones and twos. These two men knew how to fish! And following Jesus and becoming His disciples was going to be something akin to that. But “from now on” they would “be catching men” (Luke 5.10, emphasis added).

And that is the task of each of Jesus’ disciples ever since – “catching men” for the Savior; letting down the nets of the gospel, and hoisting men, women, girls, and boys into the boat of God’s kingdom. And it is a noble task. But (like fishing) it may also be tiring, sometimes disappointing, work. Many are the occasions when we can say with Simon: “we worked hard all night and caught nothing” (Luke 5.5). Many are the times when the net is lowered faithfully, and dragged with great care through the waters, only to come up (again) with nothing. And then there is that one elusive fish that you so desperately want to catch for Jesus – and you keep fishing for her, or trying to scoop him into the boat – but to no seeming avail.

But Jesus would have us keep lowering the gospel net; keep casting the line of the good news into the water; keeping fishing for men – trusting that the Lord does, indeed, have the power (in the words of my historical hero, Thomas Boston) to ‘drive the fish into the net.’ Witness the stunning catch made by Simon and his brother in Luke 5.1-11. They had “worked hard all night and caught nothing.” But Jesus sent them out again. And Simon (in spite of his brief protest) dutifully obeyed. And do you remember what happened? This time they caught so many fish that “their nets began to break” … and they had to call for a second boat so as to have room to haul them all in! And it was a lesson in “catching men.” Jesus 'drive[s] the fish into the net'! Our job is simply to lower that net at His command – and to keep lowering, even in spite of many an empty lift.

And so, as one who has only ever caught a very small handful of fish, I am encouraged to keep trying. And I hope you are, too. Who knows when the Spirit will move in mighty power, and the church pews will begin to be so filed with new and hungry converts that we will have to call for help from other churches, trying to find places to fit them all in? So keep fishing. Do not lose heart. Keep lowering the nets of the gospel, waiting for the Lord to ‘drive the fish into the net.’

October 28, 2014

The Friend of Sinners

I have often heard my friend Kevin Landis referring to Jesus as the Friend of sinners. I’ve heard it both in Kevin’s preaching, and in his praying – the Friend of sinners! It’s a delightful phrase, isn’t it? And this favorite designation of Kevin’s for the Lord Jesus has stuck with me as such a helpful reminder of our Lord’s goodness and grace!

The title comes, of course, from the New Testament. Jesus’ opponents used it as a slight … saying of the Lord Jesus: “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). And, while those first two accusations (concerning Jesus’ eating and drinking habits) will not hold water … Jesus’ critics got the latter two correct, didn’t they? Our Lord did indeed befriend “tax collectors and sinners”! He was (and is), truly, the Friend of sinners! And, of course, we praise God for that! Because, were it not true, He would have befriended none of us! For each one of us fits in that category of “sinners”, do we not? Every day, we fail the Lord. And every day, we need Him to befriend us in spite of ourselves. And He does, doesn’t He? He is indeed the Friend of sinners. Praise God!

But let me remind you again of how Jesus’ opponents used this title against Him. In saying that Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” they weren’t exactly thinking of themselves! They weren’t saying what we just said: ‘O, thank God that Jesus befriends sinners, because that’s who we are!’ That wasn’t the heart behind the criticism! No! The idea in these people’s minds was evidently that they were not really the sinners; that they were not the kind of riff-raff with which Jesus seemed so comfortable spending time. And so it was a scandal, in their minds, to see Jesus associating with the rabble and the irreligious. He should’ve have been courting the friendship of much more respectable people!

This was often the thinking of those around Jesus. They evidently didn’t realize that they also were among the sinners. And they apparently held their noses pretty high in the air when it came to rubbing shoulders with society’s undesirables. ‘Why is Jesus hanging out with such trash?’

And I want to say to you that we can fail in these things, too! Indeed, I want especially to point out how, while we may (technically, at least) get the first point right (admitting that we are sinners, and desperately need God’s grace) … I want to say to you that we can still find ourselves looking down our noses at, and keeping ourselves at arm’s length from, the people who seem to us to scrape even closer to the bottom of the barrel than we do.

Think about them – those co-workers who have such seamy stories to tell on Monday morning; those people who openly espouse alternative sexual lifestyles; those neighbors whose looks and hours seem to cry out, ‘drug addiction’; those kids who are always getting into trouble (and perhaps their parents, too); those family members who can’t seem to set down the booze for even one weekend.

Do we want to enable, or tacitly endorse, or get tangled up ourselves in their sins? Absolutely not! Jesus never did any of those things, of course! But somehow He was able to get next to such people, and to impact them, and to love them, and to speak hope into their sin, and guilt, and shame – so much so that people began to notice, and to call Him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” And I just want to urge you to find ways of doing the same! It can be time-consuming, and sometimes financially costly. The progress can be slow. Sometimes you will be taken advantage of, or deeply disappointed by those to whom you seek to minister. But read the gospels, and see if you can be like Jesus and still avoid the ne’er-do-wells. It doesn’t work. If Jesus is the Friend of sinners, then we must, in our measure, be the same!

October 13, 2014

Zeal ... and Compassion!

On two different occasions, the Lord Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem – turning over the tables of the currency exchange agents, and chasing off those who were running a livestock market inside. The apostle John records the first such occasion (John 2.13-17), and Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record the second. And, in both cases, we see an aspect of Jesus’ character that may at first surprise us. We’re used to seeing Jesus mild and patient, befriending the lowly, feeding the hungry, healing the afflicted, and teaching the masses with amazing skill. We’re even used to Him sometimes saying hard things to certain people. But we’re not used to seeing Him knocking stuff over, are we? We’re not used to seeing Him angry! And yes, I think that is perhaps the right way to describe Jesus as He twice cleansed His Father’s house – righteously angry!

His anger did not spring from any sin in His heart. No! Jesus was angry with the coin exchangers and the livestock retailers (John tells us of that first occasion) because He was zealous for the house of God! “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME” (John 2.17). That was the Old Testament quote (from Psalm 69.9) which the disciples remembered, and which they realized was a description of their Master’s heartbeat. Jesus was zealous for His Father’s house; zealous for the purity of the temple of God. So zealous, in fact, that He could respond quite severely, if need be, against those who defiled that house.

It’s an amazing – perhaps an astonishing – snapshot of our Lord, isn’t it? And an important one, too! It seems to me to have great application to much that goes on under the name of Christianity even to this day. So let us note this well: Jesus does not trifle with this particular sort of sin; with turning the house of God into “a place of business” (John 2.16) or “a ROBBERS’ DEN” (Matthew 21.13)! He is zealous for the house of God!

But then I want you to notice, also, the very next thing that Matthew reports, just after the occasion of Jesus’ second temple cleansing. I never noticed this until today ... but the very next thing Matthew reports, after Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, is that “the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (Matthew 21.14).

Isn’t that fantastic? Jesus has just finished knocking over all those tables, and running all those people out of the temple, and indicting them for making the house of God into a “ROBBERS’ DEN.” – and yet the afflicted still find, in Him, a compassionate healer! Jesus is not so zealous and righteously angry that He does not also have time (and a heart) for ministries of mercy!

What a picture of the stunningly balanced perfections of our Lord – with such zeal for God’s house that He is willing to take up drastic measures against those who defile it; and yet still pouring out marvelous compassion on hurting people! Absolute, impeccably balanced perfection! That’s our Jesus! And this is why we love Him so! This is why we can’t stop singing His name; and why we come to hear Him preached Sunday by Sunday; and why we want our neighbors and co-workers to come and join us! Because Jesus – in all His flawlessly rounded perfections – is altogether marvelous to behold; altogether worthy to be praised; and altogether fit, I might add, to be our Savior!

Is He your Savior? Is He marvelous to you? Look at Him again, in the four gospels, and see if you don’t come to the conclusion that there is no one more worthy of your admiration, and desire, and trust!

October 6, 2014

Desperate and Eager

A wise person once taught me that we should read the four gospels, looking primarily for what they have to teach us about the main character, Jesus … and not primarily for how the various secondary characters might mirror ourselves. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are theological biographies of Christ, first of all. And so, when we read them, that is what we should expect to learn, principally: about Jesus – about His person, His work, His life, His death, His teaching, and so on. In the same way that, if you picked up a biography of Abraham Lincoln, you would expect to learn mainly about Lincoln. Yes, you’d also learn a good bit about the American presidency, and the Civil War, and the issue of slavery, and so on. But all those things would create the backdrop for the chief portrait the author hopes to present to you – namely that of Abraham Lincoln. And that is a good way to think about our reading of the four gospels. We read them first of all, hoping to see and learn of Christ.

And yet, there are other people who come onto the scene in the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – men and women who interact with Jesus; who believe (or disbelieve) in Jesus; who love (or hate) Jesus. And, while these men and women are not the primary characters in the gospel narratives, they do often have a great deal to teach us – especially in the realm of how we should (or should not) also respond to the same Jesus whom they encountered. And I came across an interesting pair of them (one right after the other) as I read in Loraine Boettner’s A Harmony of the Gospels this week – Bartimaeus and Zaccheus.

Jesus met both men on a trip to the city of Jericho. And it would appear that these two men were from quite different sides of the tracks – one a “blind beggar … sitting by the road” (Mark 10.46); the other “a chief tax collector” who “was rich” (Luke 19.2). Two very different men … outwardly at least! But have you ever noticed how similar they were in one respect? Both of them were all-out in their desire to get to Jesus!

Bartimaeus could hear a whole mass of people going by him on the way into the city. And he began asking what the hubbub was all about (Luke 18.36). And when he found out that it was Jesus making His way down the road … well, Bartimaeus couldn’t contain himself, and began to holler out for Him! And when some good and proper folks began to try and quiet him down, Bartimaeus only increased the fervor of his cries! Because he just had to get the attention of Jesus! He just had to have His help! And he wasn’t going to ssshhh himself until he got it! And what an example he is – what a rebuke to me in my often lackluster prayer life. Why don’t I cry out to Jesus like that? Why am I not so desperate?

And why am I not so eager as Zaccheus, too? Do you remember him in Luke 19? He was ‘a wee little man’ as we sing – "small in stature", as Luke 19.3 tells us, a little less colorfully. And so he couldn’t see over the crowds to get a good look at Jesus. But Zaccheus just had to see Him. Just had to. And so he climbed up into what became probably the most famous sycamore tree known to mankind … and got himself a front row seat! Zaccheus was eager to see the Lord! But why am I not always that eager to see Jesus? Why do I so often leave my Bible shut beside me? Why do I so little anticipate His coming again?

O, to be more like these two men of Jericho – to be as desperate for Christ’s help as Bartimaeus was; and as eager to see Him as Zaccheus! I hope that you will be convicted by their examples, too … and encouraged by how Jesus responded to them both with such mercy! The Lord loves to hear, and meet, and answer, and bless desperate, eager souls. So let’s be eager to be more eager; and pray desperately that we might become more desperate … for Jesus!

September 30, 2014

Strengths and Weaknesses

It has been said that sometimes our greatest strengths are also our biggest weaknesses. Life experiences – both our own, and those of others – seem to confirm that this is true. The person who thrives on pressure may eventually be broken by it. The creative genius may be so imaginative that he has trouble with the nitty-gritty realities of daily life. The trusting, generous friend can become a gullible enabler. And the detail-oriented type-A can drive himself mad with obsessive, compulsive behaviors.

Guess where I got that last example? From my own experience, I know that strengths can also be weaknesses! Because we are fallen, fragile, sinful human beings. We are not what we are created to be. We all have creases in our armor – often at precisely the places where we thought we were most stout. And so we mustn’t be overconfident. We mustn’t begin to think that our strengths are full-proof. The devil knows otherwise. And we are well if we do too!

Our greatest strengths are often also our biggest weaknesses.

And yet, the Bible also teaches that, for the Christian, the reverse is true!  Our biggest weaknesses can also, by God’s grace, become our greatest points of strength! For, as the Lord said to Paul concerning his “thorn in the flesh”: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12.9, KJV). God’s strength was made perfect in weakness – namely, in Paul’s weakness! And thus, Paul can say in the next verse: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.10).

Isn’t that something? “When I am weak, then I am strong”? Really? Yes! Because, when I am weak, God gives me His strength! When I am weak, I have to rely upon His grace, instead of on my own abilities. And God loves to come through when we are in that frame of mind! He loves to grant us His supernatural strength when we are – and realize that we are – most weak!

It is often precisely when we are fragile and distressed that many of us most clearly understand how much we need God’s grace, is it not? Yes, when things are going well, and we seem to have it all together, our prayer lives and spiritual disciplines may sometimes be more consistent and ‘proper.’ But when we are coming apart at the seams, they are more desperate! And desperate is not a bad place to be; weak is not a bad place to be … if it drives us to rely upon God’s strength.

So yes, where I am strong, I am often also quite weak. But it is also true that “when I am weak” – and especially when I realize that I am weak, and call upon the Lord, asking for His strength – “then I am strong.”

September 16, 2014

A Study in Contrasts

The latter part of Luke chapter 10 presents us with an interesting study in contrasts. First of all, Jesus tells His famous story of the good Samaritan, which includes two different religious workers who couldn’t be bothered to stop and help a beaten and bleeding man, laying “half dead” on the road. And then, in the latter part of the chapter, we are given the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha – one of whom sat at Jesus’ feet, hanging on His every word, while the other was oh, so busy in the kitchen.

So what is the contrast? Well, these two sections demonstrate to us two dangers in the Christian life.

First you have the priest and the Levite of Jesus’ celebrated story. These were the sort of men who were used to religious activity. Perhaps they’d have been as comfortable and interested as Mary was, later in the chapter, to sit at the feet of a learned Rabbi (though perhaps not Mary’s Rabbi!). They were religious men, and could probably move about comfortably in that world. But when it came time to put hands and feet to their faith; when it came time to stoop down and serve people … well, that was another story. Both of them “passed by on the other side” of the road. They were religious, but without love, or compassion, or a desire to serve others.

Contrast that with Martha. Far be it from her to keep her fingernails clean, or to leave those in need unserved. No, no! When Jesus came into her house, she was quite busy “with all her preparations.” So busy, in fact, that Luke calls her “distracted.” Distracted enough, in fact, that she could not bring herself to simply sit down and listen to the voice of the Master!

And in these final verses of Luke chapter 10, we have two portraits of two different dangers in the religious world.

There are some of us who love to come to meeting, and to hear the word, and to soak up the religious atmosphere and services. And that is wonderful, and vital!  But when it comes to putting our religion into practice by serving other people, we pull back (out of callousness, or disgust with others who seem ‘beneath’ us, or even because – as Spurgeon suggested re: the priest and the Levite – because we are simply in too big of a hurry). And we must repent ... and beware a faith that is big on religious services, but light on true Christian service.

On the other hand, beware also of a Martha-like over busy-ness. Beware thinking that arduously serving others is the beginning and end of godliness. There is a time, yes, to set down your Bible, and to close up your hymnal, and to get your hands dirty putting the Bible into practice on behalf of other people. But there is also a time to simply sit with Mary at the Savior’s feet, “listening to His word.” And we must learn to differentiate between the two. We mustn’t be so busy with our Christian work that we actually begin to neglect time spent in the word!

In which direction are you most prone to fall off the horse? Religion ... but without works of love and compassion? Or laborious activity ... to the neglect of personal fellowship with Christ? Ask the Lord for balance! And then take advantage of the opportunities He will surely provide to help you bring that balance about!

September 10, 2014

"Do not lean on your own understanding"

One of the memorable features of my boyhood home was that giant set of books, stretched neatly across a book case that seemed tailor-made for its girth, called the World Book Encyclopedia. Enclosed within brown and beige covers, the set must have run to something like 20 volumes. And blessed is the child who grew up with such a resource at his fingertips! For, if fancy or curiosity posed questions about JFK, or the Ming Dynasty, or the North American Moose, one could simply pull down the appropriate alphabetical volume, thumb through the pages, and read a well-written article to slake the thirst.

But the book case, and the earth tone binding, and all those thousands of pages seem a bit superfluous today, don’t they? After all, I have access to far more data, about many more subjects, in the tiny cell phone in my right-side pants pocket! And, should any research be required for an article such as this one, I can simply click over to my internet browser … and voila, my laptop becomes an encyclopedia par excellence!

And again, blessed is the person who has such easy access to learning of all kinds. Wikipedia is one of my go-to browser bookmarks! And, what with Google, and various newsfeeds, and message boards ... one can instantly find out all sorts of information about almost anything! And so you might find me sometimes tossing into the conversation some out-of-nowhere fact about the Prime Minister of Iceland, or the sheep industry in New Zealand. Information is everywhere! And it’s often quite interesting … and occasionally, even helpful!

But having access to so much information comes with an inherent danger. Because, as we have access to more and more understanding, there is a natural tendency to begin to "lean on" that understanding (Proverbs 3.5); to begin to think that knowledge really is power – that if we simply know enough about X, Y, or Z, then we can handle it. And, if you need an example, ask yourself how many times you have noticed some possible little symptom of ill-health (either in yourself, or in a loved one) … and immediately run to the computer to read half-a-dozen articles (and, even worse, message boards) on the subject. As if reading a few pages enables you to accurately diagnose what physicians have spent years studying! And (more to the point of this article) as if understanding your disease will invariably help you better cope with it. Sometimes that may be true (especially when an actual doctor, or maybe a fellow sufferer, helps you understand it). But it seems to me that, when we go a-researching on our own; when we feel this compulsion to find out all the facts about why there might be a lump on the roof of our child’s mouth … we usually end up working ourselves into more and more of a tizzy! Haven’t you found that to be so? And the same is true when we begin researching tax laws, or trying to privately investigate someone online, or even going into all sorts of deep queries about Bible prophecies. When you give yourself over to these things, you can begin, perhaps subtly, to “lean on your own understanding" ... which is a very faulty prop indeed!

Because “your own understanding” cannot rescue you, can it? First of all, as I have already alluded to, “your own understanding” is often woefully limited! Neither Wikipedia nor World Book qualifies you (or me) as an expert on anything! And second, even if you do have a good grasp of some subject, that knowledge alone will not save you, will it? Knowing all about cancer won’t cure it. Being able to chart your own version of the end-times chronology is no guarantee that you’ll actually be safe when Jesus comes! And knowing more about your co-worker’s life by scouring through her Facebook posts will not usually help you love her with the love of Christ.

For all these things, we must ultimately turn to God … not to research! He is the one who cures cancer, and makes us ready for eternity, and places love in our hearts. He knows more about where America is headed than any political prognosticator ever could. He is the one who can give us peace when our country’s convoluted tax laws have us turned inside out with frustration and fear. And so it is to Him, and not to the internet (or the 20-volume encyclopedia), that we must ultimately turn our attention!

Do not misunderstand me. I am not decrying education, or knowledge, or understanding. I wouldn’t have Wikipedia bookmarked if I thought that were the case! And I’m incredibly thankful for doctors, and accountants, and theologians, and engineers, and lawyers who really do understand certain things in ways that are actually helpful! But Solomon is so wise when he urges us to:


“Trust in the LORD with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding”
Proverbs 3.5

Understanding is not a bad thing. But leaning on that understanding, instead of on God, is! Trusting in your own understanding is dangerous. And I am simply saying that, the more information we have at our fingertips; and the quicker our knee-jerk reaction to turn to Google when faced with a dilemma, the more prone we are, not simply to understand, but to think that understanding will solve all our problems. But it won’t. In fact, it often just makes us more neurotic! I know from experience!

So the next time you are worried about a lump on your breast, or some snag in your taxes … call your doctor or accountant, yes. But resist the urge to try and be a doctor or accountant yourself. And, above all, resist the idea that the information you might turn up on the search engines and the message boards is the key to calming your heart’s anxieties. Turn, rather, to the book of Psalms, or to the gospels, or the epistles, or any one of the 66 books in which we hear the voice of God. Engage your mind and heart in an attempt to trust Him! “And do not lean on your own understanding.”

September 1, 2014

The Jesus Section

One of the things – probably the thing – I love most about preaching from the Old Testament is discovering how various books and passages point us forward to Jesus (see Luke 24:27). Sometimes the ‘way to Christ’ is more obvious than others – maybe a direct prophecy about Him or His kingdom (like Isaiah 53 or Daniel 7), or a fairly obvious foreshadowing (like the Passover lamb, or the serpent on the pole). But other times, we have to think a little bit harder – not to find hidden meaning (not at all!), but simply to think about all Scripture Christianly. And I enjoy being forced to do this when I preach through the Old Testament. I enjoy having to ask myself: ‘Now how am I going to preach the Messiah from this passage?’ There is always a way! And I very much delight in finding it, and showing it to God’s people week by week. I delight in getting to what you might call ‘the Jesus section’ of each Old Testament sermon!  And, praise God, many who read these lines will have pastors who feel the same!

Have you noticed that there is a ‘Jesus section’ to your pastor's Old Testament sermons? I hope so! Perhaps you’ve even begun to anticipate it, something like the ‘aha moment’ when you are watching a mystery show. Maybe, in our context, I’ve made it too much like that; too predictable: ‘O, here comes the Jesus portion – I could see it coming, couldn’t you?’

But if my sermon crafting does not always have the subtle quality of a master weaver; if I sometimes telegraph the way to Christ like a quarterback who only ever stares at his primary receiver … I hope that even that has been instructive! I hope my hearers have learned, by it, that we are always going to get to Jesus; that He is the ultimate aim of our studies, no matter the passage. I unashamedly love to stare down my favorite receiver! And I hope my people have come to enjoy looking for Him with me! And I hope you have come to love ‘the Jesus section’ of the weekly sermons at your church – not because your pastor is necessarily the most adept at getting there … but simply because you love Jesus; and cannot wait to see His silhouette arise and be praised each Sunday morning!

What a strange thing preaching is – in more ways than one! But in this context I have in mind that it is an odd thing that men and women come back and sit in the same seats, week after week, to continually hear someone give hundreds of speeches about the same historical figure! Strange, if we stand back and think about it from an outsider’s perspective. But completely logical, and normal, and glorious if we know Christ! For, if the living God took on human flesh and human nature, “and dwelt among us”, and loved like no one ever loved, and died for our sins, and rose again, and promised one day to return and make “all things new” … where else could we possibly want our focus to be on a Sunday morning? “He is altogether lovely” (KJV)! ‘So yes … show us Jesus, pastor! Show Him to us from the plain black and white of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Show Him to us in the epistles, and in the Revelation. And, by all means, show Him to us in the sundry ways that He stands forth on the pages of the Old Testament. Preach about Daniel’s resolve, and Hosea’s mercy, and the meaning of all the various furnishings of the tabernacle … but make sure not to leave out the Jesus section!’

August 26, 2014

Ice Bucket UPDATE!

A friend of mine brought to my attention another concern that should be mentioned as we think about the "ice bucket challenge" (which supports ALS research).  It should be noted that not all medical research is created ethically equal. The Family Research Council points out that money being donated to ALS research raises a concern because some ALS researchers use embryonic stem cells (derived from aborted fetuses) in their work. For a word about this, and links to groups that are researching ALS using adult stem cells, click here.

August 25, 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge (Living Water Style)

Are you into social media? If so, then you are surely well aware of the “ice bucket challenge” that is sweeping the nation. Have you seen it? All sorts of people – celebrities and mere mortals alike – are filming themselves getting a bucket full of ice water dumped over their heads, and then posting the videos on Twitter, Facebook, and so on. It’s a good thing it’s all happening in summer, huh?

The point? To raise awareness of and money toward the research of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The deal is you dump the ice water on yourself, send out the footage via social media … and, at the end of your video, you challenge someone else in your circle to do the same. The person challenged can either dump the ice water over their own head, or make a monetary donation to ALS research (or, in the ideal scenario, do both!).

So have you done it? Has anyone challenged you yet? Alas, I am not on Facebook or Twitter … and so I’ve not been put to the test! And I must confess that I have mixed feelings about it. Raising money to help those with a disease like ALS fits quite well with the Christian command to love our neighbors, and to care for their needs (although see my cautionary footnote* re: embryonic stem cell research). And having fun with it is not necessarily a bad thing either. One article I saw, though, called the whole thing “self-promotion.” And that got me thinking. I am sure that, in some cases, the accusation is true. In others, it may be a little bit of a harsh generalization. But it reminded me to remember well Jesus’ command not to toot our own horns when we give charitably (Matthew 6.1-4). You’ll have to think it out for yourself. Maybe there is a way to do the ice bucket challenge and still obey Jesus’ command about giving discretely. But if you can’t figure one out, there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving to charity without participating in the social media aspect of it!

But, as I think about the ice bucket challenge, it also makes me want to issue another challenge, along similar lines. Isn’t it amazing how so many people will go out of their way to promote something like ALS research? I have no doubt that the number includes Christians and Atheists, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Mormons, and every stripe of person in between. And I’m glad for this! But I must also say to my Christian brothers and sisters that, if the world can be so intentional about ALS research … shouldn’t we who know the Great Physician of souls be even more intentional about making people aware of Him? And if we are on social media – and have dozens (some of us maybe hundreds) of people looking at our various posts – shouldn’t we take advantage?

So here’s my challenge to all of you who are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on: Will you make the effort, at least once a week, to put some clear gospel testimony out for all your friends and followers to see? Maybe it will be a poignant verse of scripture. Maybe a link to a particularly helpful online sermon or article. Maybe a great quote from a Christian book you are reading. Maybe even a video of you speaking for 2-3 minutes about why you love and trust Jesus! After all, if people will spend 45 seconds watching someone get a bucket of ice poured over their head … maybe they’ll watch you as you speak passionately about what matters to you most!

So there’s my challenge. Get on social media and make much of the living water … which is the cure for what ails mankind the most!

(And if you’re not on social media, old fashioned cards, letters, tracts, books, and personal conversations are still acceptable forms of gospel witness, too!)

__________
*It should be noted that not all medical research is created ethically equal.  The Family Research Council points out that money being donated to ALS research raises a concern because some ALS researchers use embryonic stem cells (derived from aborted fetuses) in their work.  For a word about this, and links to groups that are researching ALS using adult stem cells, click here.

August 19, 2014

Family Worship, Re-Booted

For parents with children still at home, summer time inevitably brings a bit of upheaval with it. Schedules change dramatically – or, in many cases, they end up going mostly out the window. Bed-times are different, vacations are on the calendar, family is in town, and yard work has to be done. And then there all softball games, swim lessons, Bible clubs, and so on. And so there just seems to be a good bit less normalcy in the summer time.

And, between the trips, and the company, and the fuller evening schedules, one of the routines that may lag behind is that of family worship. Perhaps you’ve seen it happen in your own house over the last 2-3 months. With the sun in the sky until late on into the evenings, it has perhaps been a challenge getting everyone gathered around the table or on the sofa to praise the Lord together before bed. But now that school is beginning again, and life settles back into its more familiar rhythms, let me encourage you to make sure that you make family worship among the most important rhythms of all!

Begin, this fall semester, gathering the family again for praise, and prayer, and scripture each evening. Or, if you’ve never yet begun, now is a good time to start a brand new habit! You don’t have to be a great bible scholar, or have some profound plan, in order to do this moms and dads. Just:
  • Pick a book of the Bible (Mark is a great place to begin, or to begin again).
  • And read a brief portion each evening (based on your children’s attention span!).
  • Then talk briefly about what you read (especially what it teaches us about Jesus).
  • Then pray briefly together about what you read, and about any other concerns that seem pertinent (family needs, lost friends, missionaries, etc.).
  • Then sing a hymn, or psalm, or chorus together (perhaps learning the same one for an entire week).
All in all, this should take about 15 minutes, give or take. Maybe a little less when the tots are tiny, and a little more as they get older and increase in their capacity to discuss the passage with you. But however long it takes, these minutes will be invaluable – perhaps the most important block of time in the entire day. You will be communicating to your kids, every day of their lives, where your family priorities lie. And that will probably rub off! If you do this all the years your children are at home, there’s a really good chance that they’ll just think it normal … and never think twice about whether or not they should continue the practice when they have families of their own! And furthermore, if you truly want to see your children know and follow Jesus, then there is nothing better that you can do for them than to make sure that they are exposed to the word of God every day of their lives! You cannot open their eyes to believe on Christ. But the Holy Spirit can! And the instrument He uses to cause people to be “born again” is “the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1.23).

So crack it open each evening as a family … and pray and sing together, too! Re-boot your family worship routine, if it has gone the way of many other habits during the commotion of summer. Or boot it up for the very first time, if you’ve never tried it before. And don’t give up! Don’t let little ones with bad attitudes stop you from doing what is best for their souls. Don’t let three or four missed days turn into two weeks or a month. And don’t allow life to become so busy – summer or not – that you squeeze God out of the family routine in favor of something more ‘exciting’, but far less permanent. Worship God together as a family … every. single. day.

And then … when your kids are grown, keep it going, even in the empty nest. After all, you need the Bible, and the gospel, and prayer, and praise just as much as ever your little ones did!

August 13, 2014

So what's the singing like?

This is a frequent question for many people as we discuss various local churches. And it is not an unimportant one! God has commanded us to sing – and so how we do it is an important consideration. Do we actually sing, or just murmur? Are the singing and music done reasonably well? Even questions of style, while not fundamental, contain a layer of importance. Singing is a big part of what the church does when she gathers to worship her King Sunday by Sunday. And so it’s not wrong to ask: What’s the singing like? And if we are going to ask the question, we should not only want to know what the answer is in a given local church … but also what the answer should be! What should the singing be like? And, boy, are there some good answers in Colossians 3.16:
“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Looking at that verse (and a couple of others), let me piece together a brief philosophy of singing in the local church. (Note: Italicized emphases within scriptural quotations are mine, and not original to the biblical text).

So then, our singing should be:

Biblical: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you … singing.” That is to say that the content of what we sing ought to be word-driven – not based so much in the sensory perceptions of the song-writer, but seeking to put into poetic language the truths and emotions and ways of thinking and praising that we find on the pages of “the word” (including the “psalms”, Paul says)!

Christ-Centered: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you … singing.” Not every song needs to be directly about the gospel and the cross of Christ. But we do well to be sure that we do sing of these matters consistently. Christ crucified, risen, and reigning – these are the high water marks of biblical revelation, and ought to be so in our singing as well.

Vertical: “Singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Our chief goal in singing praise to God is to sing praise to God – not merely to gratify our own desires. That’s not to say that our singing and music should be deliberately unappealing to the human ear! It should be beautiful – but primarily as a gift to God, and a reflection of His own beauty; not for the sake of entertainment.

Edifying: While we sing primarily to God, we should also sing in such a way that, by our very singing, we are “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” This is where, once again, scriptural lyrics are important; and where beautiful singing can help us remind each other of our beautiful God!

Simple: It seems to me that New Testament worship did not come with very many accoutrements – the human heart and voice being the instruments of praise upon which Paul places his emphasis in Colossians 3 (and Eph. 5.19!).

Congregational: “Singing with thankfulness in your hearts [plural] to God.” Paul’s emphasis seems to be on singing together … not merely listening to the singers on the stage, but joining our hearts and voices in one song.

Reverent: “God is in heaven and you are on the earth” (Ecclesiastes 5.2). So let us beware of flippancy or gimmicks, but approach the throne with reverence and humility. As A.W. Tozer has said, you don’t go into "the presence of the Queen of England" and start "telling jokes about queens"! How much less, he says, in the presence of the King of kings!

Joyful: After having spoken of reverence, let us also say very clearly that reverence is not the same thing as formality or tedium! Let us sing with gusto and passion and joy! “Shout joyfully to the LORD all the earth” (Psalm 100.1).

May the Lord bless us as we sing is praises together from week to week!

August 8, 2014

"His commandments are not burdensome"

When I was a boy, I was big into baseball. I couldn’t get enough of it, really. But around age 11, I injured my right arm pretty severely. And the surgeon told me that, if I wanted to keep playing ball, I was going to have to learn how to throw left-handed! What? Have you ever tried to throw a ball with your off hand? Try it out in your back yard some time. It’s really awkward, and somewhat embarrassing … and it seems pretty near impossible! But my parents knew that I loved baseball, and probably that there were some positive benefits to me playing it … and so, onto my list of household chores, my mother added a check-box that required me to regularly practice throwing a ball left-handed. Required me, I repeat! A few months before, I would have been thrilled to have seen the word ‘baseball’ on my list of chores. But now, it didn’t quite have the same ring to it. Throwing the ball was not so easy any more … and it was often frustrating! But mom enforced the rule anyway – knowing that, if I’d obey her, my long term joy would be increased exponentially. And it was! Those early days of requiring me to throw left-handed set me on a road back to ball-throwing proficiency that eventually allowed me to play on our high school team (under a Christian coach who greatly influenced my spiritual well-being), and which is still enabling me to enjoy Monday night softball to this day! And I may have never have had those joys if my mother had not laid down for me a commandment: ‘You shall throw a ball for 15 minutes today!’

And I want to say to you that – on an even more important, and profound, and lasting (and joyful!) level – this is how God’s commandments work, too! “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5.3)! Yes, they are sometimes difficult, especially if you suddenly find yourself trying to obey a command you’ve rarely, if ever, obeyed before. It’s like throwing a ball with your off hand. And we all were born with two off hands, spiritually! But if we’ll simply begin to obey, God will strengthen our hands to the task. And if we’ll keep at it, we will discover that His commandments really do lead us to places of contentment, and purity, and blessing, and joy that never would have been in our lives if God had not come to us and said “You shall” do this!  His laws are not meant to suppress joy, but to give it birth! “His commandments are not burdensome.”

And, O, how some of us have tasted and seen that this is true! We might once have thought that to return to the Lord 10% of our income would be a real problem, but when we tried it out, we found it a blessing! We may at one time have thought it unfathomable, impractical, and wholly unnecessary to set aside one whole day for worship and rest and spiritual edification – to the exclusion of unnecessary work and entertainment. But then we gave it a try, and Sunday became our favorite day of the week! And so our stories could go on – we didn’t think biblical sexuality could actually be satisfying, but it was; we didn’t believe we could do without our religious talismans, but we found the biblical Jesus better than all the artist’s renderings; we didn’t know that telling the plain, bald truth about ourselves could be so refreshing, but when we did so, we finally felt free; we didn’t think we could live without that unbiblical relationship, but we finally let it go and God was good.

Should we be surprised? God is good! And His ways are good! His laws are not meant to suppress joy, but to give it birth! His yoke is easy! “His commandments are not burdensome.”

July 28, 2014

"The books"

This past Sunday I preached on Paul’s desire, even at the end of his life, that his friend Timothy might bring him his books (2 Timothy 4.13); that he might learn, and study, and grow, and expand his soul all the way to the end. And I said that Paul, in this way, is a model Christian. We ought all to have a thirst to continuing growing all our days. And, thus, we ought all to have a craving, like the apostle, for “the books” – most of all for the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments; but also for other Christian books that either help us to understand or apply the inspired writings of the Scriptures. And so, to help you gather your own little library, let me list a few of “the books” that I think might be a blessing to your souls. Space doesn’t permit me to give descriptions of them, but have a look at some of them at Amazon.com and you can learn more. A handful of them are also available in our church library!

Theology
Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem and Jeff Purswell
Christian Beliefs by Wayne Grudem and Elliot Grudem
Knowing God by J.I. Packer
The Cross of Christ by John Stott
Human Nature in its Fourfold State by Thomas Boston
The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Bible Commentaries
The ESV Study Bible
Matthew Henry’s Commentaries

Church History and Biography
Sketches in Church History by S.M. Houghton
Fair Sunshine by Jock Purves
The Crown and Covenant Series by Douglas Bond
Singing in the Fire by Faith Cook
Out of the Depths by John Newton
Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot
The Autobiography of John G. Paton

Christian Growth
The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges
The Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper

Devotional
The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (or the abridged version)
The Crook in the Lot by Thomas Boston
The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

For Preachers
Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D.A. Carson
2 volume Biography of Martyn Lloyd Jones by Iain Murray (vol 1, vol 2)

Etc.
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever
Family Worship by Terry Johnson
Revival by Brian Edwards
Operation World by Jason Mandryk
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Happy – and helpful! – reading!