February 24, 2015

The Gathering Snow

Not long ago I wrote about what we can learn from the withered grass of these winter months. But such lessons have been a little more difficult to visualize in these recent days, have they not? The brown grass is still with us, of course … but it is buried beneath a blanket of glittering white! And the snow brings its lessons, too – about the forgiveness of sins (Isaiah 1.19), and also about the certainty with which the word of God accomplishes its work:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
Isaiah 55.10-11

So the snow is accomplishing something, isn’t it? Something beautiful, in fact! It is part of God’s plan for making the crops grow, and thus putting bread on our tables. But we won’t really begin to see the fruits of it all until spring! The snow is achieving God’s purpose … s l o w l y.

And, while Isaiah does not make this point himself, it occurs to me that this is often how God’s word accomplishes its work, too – slowly; gradually; like the snow.

Sometimes we pour out the water of God’s word, as it were, in the warmth of May. We share Jesus with co-workers, we teach the Bible to our children, we give our Sunday School lessons and sermons … and we see fruit blossoming fairly quickly, as with the spring rains. People take the truth in, and it makes an immediate difference in their lives. And we rejoice in the fresh blooms of springtime!

But other times, we empty the blessing-clouds of God’s word during a spiritual winter. Sometimes the atmosphere into which we speak God’s truth is a fairly cold one. And so the word goes forth more like snow than like rain. The truth still goes out, yes! But much of it seems just to gather on the surface of the ground, the spiritual chill preventing most of it from trickling into the soil. And that can be discouraging. It can feel, in the short term, like much of our watering has been in vain. But we must pray and wait for spring! We must pray and wait for warmer spiritual days, when the temperature of men’s souls will rise, and the snow will begin to melt, and the ground of people’s hearts will be soft once again … and the word that was there all along will begin to sink in. And when those days come, we may just find that much of what we sowed in the winter will produce far more fruit that we thought!  Indeed, the snow of winter will be one of the reasons the spring is so fruitful!

So do not lose heart, you who water the earth with God’s word. Both rain and snow – the word showered forth in warm seasons and in cold – will achieve God’s good purposes! 

 Keep pouring it forth!

February 17, 2015

Sermons from Jeremiah

We recently completed a brief series of sermons from select passages in the book of Jeremiah.  Listen in!

Jeremiah 1.1-10 - "I have put My words in your mouth" - mp3
Jeremiah 2.13 - "Living waters" and "broken cisterns" - mp3
Jeremiah 18.1-12 - "Like the clay in the potter's hand" - mp3
Jeremiah 29.1-14 - Life in Exile - mp3
Jeremiah 31.27-34 - The New Covenant - mp3

February 16, 2015

Spiritual Near- and Far-Sightedness

In my studies for this weekend’s ministry assignment, I have had occasion to spend some time in Isaiah 40. I think it is actually one of my favorite chapters in the Bible … particularly because of the incredibly lofty portrayal which it presents of our great God! He is incomparable – high above the created earth, nothing at all like man’s lifeless idols, never needing to consult with anyone for advice. Just take a few moments some time today and read the chapter. It is absolutely majestic!

But, as I looked back through Isaiah 40 in recent days – and listened to Iain D. Campbell preaching on v.11 – I noticed something that even adds to the beauty of the chapter.

On the one hand, human beings are likened to “a drop from a bucket”, “a speck of dust on the scales”, and as being “like grasshoppers” in God’s sight. And this is probably what I tend to remember from Isaiah 40. In light of God’s greatness (and even from His own perspective) you, and I, and the nations of this earth are absolutely miniscule. And God, more importantly, is grand, and glorious, and infinitely greater than we are!

But then, on the other hand, we who are “like grasshoppers” and “drop[s] from a bucket” are also referred to as God “lambs” whom He carries “in His bosom” (v.11). And that is a whole different picture, is it not? In verse 11 we are not tiny “speck[s] of dust”, but precious creatures in the Lord’s sight – cared for, and shepherded, and loved with all tenderness. And God, in verse 11, is presented, not so much in His awesome majesty, but in His gentleness and mercy and kindness to His own.

So which is it? Which is the God of Isaiah 40, and of the Bible? The majestic God who looks upon us “like grasshoppers”, or the one who takes us in His arms as greatly beloved “lambs”? He’s both, isn’t He? God is both great and good; both transcendent and immanent! And we are both grasshoppers and lambs!

But it occurs to me that many of us may gravitate toward one set of truths more than the others.

Some of us may be spiritually far-sighted, so to speak. We prefer to read, and talk, and hear sermons about the God who is transcendent and high in the heavens - who “sits above the circle of the earth” and views its inhabitants as specks of dust. But we have more trouble focusing our eyes on Him when He is near.

Others of us, however, are more near-sighted in our vision of God. We would much rather think and hear about the God who is near – who has a shepherd’s staff in His hand, and carries His lambs on His shoulders. But the high-in-the-heavens, transcendent God? Well, He seems a bit beyond our range of vision.

And yet both portraits are of the same God! And it is to our own detriment if the eyes of our hearts prefer to focus on only one aspect of His character! Our souls will not expand nearly as fully as they should if we do not have a full-orbed vision of God – in all His greatness, and in all His goodness (or vice versa, depending on how you are bent!).

The person who enjoys thinking primarily about the greatness of God may be quite good theologically, and when hashing through things like God’s sovereignty, and the existence of evil, and so on. And his or her praise may be quite lofty, befitting the greatness of God. But will he also be able to crawl into his Father’s lap (so to speak) when his heart is broken? And will he be able to reflect the Father’s tenderness when others are broken?

Conversely, the person who meditates mostly on the tenderness and shepherd-like qualities of God may be quite an able counselor and friend, and probably very intimate with the Lord in prayer. But what will he do when the shepherd smacks his backside with the rod, or leads him through a long wilderness before finally arriving in the green pastures? If he has not come to terms with a God whose ways are much higher than our own, he may be quite undone by some of the more unsearchable actions of his Shepherd.

And so I ask you: Which way does your eye-sight lean? Or, when reading Isaiah 40, onto which portion are you most likely to focus your eyes? God’s greatness … or His goodness? His majesty … or His tenderness? The fact that we are “like grasshoppers” … or “lambs”? It’s good that you have a keen eye for the one! But do not neglect the other! Be neither near- nor far-sighted in your vision of God. But see Him clearly, and as a whole … and you yourself will be much more whole.

February 13, 2015

A Gathering of a few thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey

Hello all.  Consider this a public service announcement.  I feel almost embarrassed to write this ... but pastoral concern compels me to do so.  I'd like to think that Fifty Shades of Grey is so far off of every Christian's radar screen that it need not even be given a second thought.  But alas, I don't know that that is the case.  So I mention it here, for all who cross these pages, and ask you to please, please not subject yourself to the filth that is, more and more, becoming mainstream in our culture.

Here are a few others' thoughts on the issue:

Jesus Christ: "The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"

The Apostle Paul: "Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret."

Kevin DeYoung: No Grey Area

February 10, 2015

The Importance of Truth in our Proclamation of the Truth

Some of you are aware of the recent dust-up regarding NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. He recently presented a significantly inaccurate recounting of his own personal involvement in a dramatic and potentially perilous helicopter event which took place in 2003 while he was on a news assignment in the Middle East. He has since recanted the inaccuracies, stating that he conflated the actual facts of the event with his own, more distant, involvement in it. I do not presume to judge either Mr. Williams’ explanation of his inaccuracies, or his motives. I hope he rebounds from all this, and does well. But I do understand why he has come under such scrutiny and critique. He is a teller of the news. And people want their news from someone whom they can trust to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’

And I want to say to you that this is just as necessary a quality – and even more so, I would think – in those of us who are called to share the news of Jesus. And that brings me to my own Brian Williams sort of moment … which was called to my attention this week by the request from a friend for access to my gospel tract based on the story of St. Valentine. Some of you will remember that we used to make hardcopies of it available at this time of year, and that it was also posted on the blog. But I had to explain to my friend that I have taken it down. And one of the main reasons was that I had presented Valentine’s story inaccurately.

The basic facts I shared were indeed, based in the historic traditions of St. Valentine. But, in the interest of writing a good story, and of making Valentine come across as heroic and gospel-centered as possible, I am afraid I embellished the story a bit ... assigning Ephesians 5.32 kinds of motives to Valentine's stand for marriage which are simply not in the historical record, as far as I can tell. I also may have overstated the cruelty of the emperor with which Valentine was at odds, which I guess made for a more exciting story, too.

I did all of this, not out of an intentional purpose to bend the facts and be misleading, but I think because I got carried away with telling a good story, and spinning it for the gospel. But much of it was my story -- which is, I am afraid, why I got carried away in the telling of it. So the pride of telling a good story, not so much a desire to mislead, was my downfall. But either way, it was sin ... and it led to an embellished account of Valentine which, after review, I did not think worthy of the Lord.

So, whether or not Brian Williams’s inaccuracies came to pass in the same way as mine, I sympathize with him. At least for my part, the desire for a good story trumped the mandate for a completely accurate one. And for that, I apologize to you who read and used that Valentine’s story. I ask your forgiveness, and your prayers that I will learn from such a failure.

And I also encourage you to turn the mirror of Brian Williams and myself upon yourself, too. Is it possible that, in our desires to tell good stories … we may sometimes be embellishers of the truth? And if so, will people trust us when we are speaking of the Truth, namely Jesus? And is it possible that we could even embellish our own stories of conversion to Him … to make our pasts appear just a little more bleak, and thus our salvation just a little more dramatic? Beware of that! God doesn’t need our good stories! The truth, taken into the hand of the Holy Spirit, is powerful enough to capture the attention and change the heart of even our dullest hearers! So let’s focus on telling it

Yes, let us look for stories, like that of St. Valentine, that may help us illustrate the truth. But in our great desire to tell of the Truth, let’s not fail to tell the truth.

February 3, 2015

"Adorn the doctrine"

Tobey has recently been on a bit of a purging kick … which (as those who know me well will surely guess) makes me quite happy. Goodwill is my friend, and I love to give him gifts! And lately I can say ditto regarding craigslist.com! Indeed, it is amazing to me, when you post an item under the “free stuff” category, how many emails and texts you get within the first 15 minutes! It makes giving things away a breeze!  

But there has been one exception – “the black couch,” as it will ever affectionately be known to us and our children (to set it off from “the red couch” in our bedroom). It served us well for a good 12 years (and other family members for many a moon before that!). And it was perhaps the most comfortable napping spot I have ever known! But alas, it could really no longer be called “the black couch” – more like “mostly black,” with some faded yellowish-brown areas, and a nice pink stain in one spot. And there were a couple of places where the seams were coming apart. And one section that was torn. And the zippers on the seat cushions were all shot, and hanging wide open. And so it was time for a change. And the church’s Christmas generosity toward us enabled us to make one (thank you!). Now we have “the green couch.”

But what to do with “the black couch”? Craigslist, of course! Surely we could get rid of it if we list it for free, right? I put a couple of other items up for free recently … and had multiple people contacting me for them within an hour of the postings. But “the black couch” … not so much. Only two bites in two weeks … and neither of them ended up taking it. One lady might have taken it, but for the lack of vehicle space. But only one other person even inquired. Reason? Presumably because I was very forthright about the fact that it badly needed re-covering … and even posted a picture of it. And not only did it have the defects listed above, but Tobey recently pilfered part of the fabric for another project … so that two of the sections no longer had any cover at all! It became the black and white couch! And nobody seemed to want it … even though it was free!

Why not? It was actually quite a comfy couch. And, though it was far from brand new, and had a loose spring or two, I think it was in decent structural shape. But the problem was the adornment, the packaging, the cover. That, dear reader, was so bad that even the free section on Craigslist couldn’t give it away!

And all of this is driving toward a spiritual punchline … because the talk of our couch’s adornment (or lack thereof) echoes the language of the apostle Paul, when he wrote that Christians should “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (Titus 2.9-10).

Now understand carefully what Paul is (and is not) saying. We Christians are not the doctrine ourselves. Your testimony is not a substitute for the truth of the gospel, which comes in words, from the Bible (Romans 10.17)! “The doctrine of our Savior” – the word of the gospel – is indispensable! No one will ever be saved simply by watching you live for God. But you can, by your godly behavior, “adorn” the doctrine that does have the power to save! You can, by your outward testimony, attract people to the substance that lies beneath it. Or your testimony can be so faded, and stained, and torn, and broken, and even missing in some places that – like the crummy cover on our couch – it drives people away from any interest in the solid gospel substance that (allegedly) lies beneath!

The gospel – like our couch – is on offer for free! We are giving it away! But does your testimony draw people to it? If your testimony were posted like a photo on Craigslist, would it attract people to what we are trying to give away … or repel them from even taking an investigative look?

And how sobering is it to remember that your testimony is being published every day – even more broadly than an online photo. Your children, and co-workers, and neighbors, and unbelieving relatives see it in live action all the time. Is it attractive, kind, joyful, winsome, pure, possessing integrity, reliable, humble, forgiving, and willing to admit when it is wrong? Or is it the opposite? Or perhaps a mixed bag of the two? Go back through that list of character qualities and think about their opposites. Are there areas in your life in which the wrong side of the coin shows up as the picture alongside your posting of the free offer of the gospel? Where must you turn to Christ and ask Him to come and stitch, re-cover, or perhaps altogether replace your adornment? Run to Him today for mercy and for help! And do what you know that you must do to repair the adornment that is your testimony. God will honor that! And, with a beautiful cover adorning the gospel that is the substance of your life, who knows how many people might track you down to ask about what it is that you are giving away for free!