December 27, 2016

"The race that is set before us"

“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Every day, of course, is ‘the first day of the rest of your life.’ And thus, every day is an opportunity to consider again, and address ourselves afresh, to “the race that is set before us.” But New Year’s Day has a peculiar effect on us – pushing us, by some (perhaps God-given) inner clock, to take stock, and to re-up, and to resolve afresh, and to thoughtfully look out over the next 365 days’ worth of “the race that is set before us” and think it all through. And this yearly calendrical reminder of the need for self-assessment, planning, and goals is a good thing – one that we are wise to make use of in service to our own souls! And I trust many of you are already taking the opportunity in hand … and that a few more of you might, after reading this article.

And as you do so, I do want to urge you to think of 2017 as ‘the first year of the rest of your life;’ the first year of the rest of your Christian race. And I urge you, from our text above, to ask three questions as you consider this next leg of that race:

1. What sin must I lay aside this year? What was the sin, in 2016, “which so easily entangle[d]” me? And how must I, by God’s grace, lay it aside in the year 2017? Indeed, how might I begin that process today, on this first day of the rest of my race?

2. How might I “run with endurance” this year? What slackening of my spiritual pace have I fallen prey to in recent weeks or months? What temptations might there be to pull off to one side of the track in 2017? And how am I going, by God’s grace, to keep from being like Aesop’s hare, or like Bunyan’s pilgrim, and laying down in the middle of the Christian race?

3. How am I going to fix my eyes on Jesus this year? Here is the key to both running with endurance and laying aside our sin – “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” And so how will I do that in 2017? What plans do I have for Scripture reading, meditation, prayer, and Sunday worship … all of which are not merely boxes to check off, but active ways to keep my eyes on Christ, toward whom I am to continually run?

Answer these questions well – and do what your answers say you should do – and 2017 will be a year of great progress and faithfulness. May the Lord direct our steps!

December 19, 2016

Of Oboes and Bagpipes

He is born, the holy Child;
Play the oboe and bagpipes merrily!

So says the traditional French Christmas Carol, and so we will sing (with gusto) this Christmas morning – although accompanied by a piano, rather than an oboe or bagpipes! I don’t think we have any oboe players, actually. Or bagpipes, either. But you get the idea, I think! The birth of Christ, the long awaited Messiah, is worth a little merry-making! Indeed, it’s worth a good deal of merry-making! For here is the Son of God, come into our world as the bearer of God’s light, joy, freedom, and peace (Isaiah 9:1-7). And that’s worth singing about, dancing a jig over, and holding feasts of celebration. It's worthy of oboes, bagpipes, pianos, and whatever other ways we can make merry! Christmas is the announcement of the happiest event that ever yet was – and is worthy of being celebrated accordingly!

How will you celebrate?

Well, one way to celebrate is to join with others who are doing the same! And so I hope you'll find your way to the house of God this coming Sunday morning – there where the people are gathered to rejoice: aloud in their singing, interpersonally as they visit together, and in the depths of the soul as they think (in sermon time) about the “good news of great joy” in the birth of the Savior. They'll be glad you came. And my hope is that you will leave the gathered celebration even merrier than you already were when you went in!  If you're local, here's our Sunday info.  We'd love to make merry with you!

Another way to celebrate is through the exchange of gifts, which many of you will do in the next few days. If we can remember that the reason for gift-giving is not merely because of American convention, or out of sheer familial obligation, but as a way of showing our joy in the birth of the Savior … then even gift-giving itself can be a show of our delight in Christ! In warning us not to let our piety about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ turn us into scrooges, Douglas Wilson has memorably written: “If you’re godliness won’t imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.” Amen. For again, Christmas is a time of celebration – of oboes, bagpipes, and all manner of chocolate, too! After all, the Savior has been born!

And then we should remind ourselves that Christmas isn’t the only day for oboes and bagpipes! If you have, like the shepherds of old, found your way to the place where Jesus is … then, also like the shepherds of old, you will have reason to go on your way (Luke 2:20), still rejoicing even when the birthday is spent and you go back to your daily routine. Because Christ doesn’t stay behind in the manger, and in the latter weeks of December. But, for those who know Him by faith, His promise is: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added). And that means that every day is a good day for breaking out the bagpipes, and singing glad songs, and doing good to others for Jesus’ sake! So play your oboes, my friends – today, and all the year round. May you make merry this Christmas! And may Christ make you merry every day hence.

December 12, 2016

Child in the Manger

Child in the manger,
Infant of Mary;
Outcast and stranger,
Lord of all.
Mary MacDonald, tr. Lachlan MacBean

Here is another of my favorite Christmas carols (especially if you can find it in the tune sung by Michael W. Smith (track 10)!). The whole song is tremendous, but the little quatrain above is among its most outstanding … simply for the way it succinctly (and abruptly!) places, side-by-side, Jesus’ humility and glory.

The humility is there, right off the top of the song, and is quite expected, as in so many other Christmas Carols. We are constantly singing about “Mary” and her “infant” and the “manger” during this final month of the year. A little more startling are the words “outcast” and “stranger.” But they are accurate, are they not? Why was Jesus in that manger in the first place? Because his family was in from out of town, and couldn’t find an open hotel room. Perhaps the fact that they were poor didn’t help them in that search. And so, yes, “outcast and stranger” is appropriate language for a little boy born in a stable.

And this, of course, is the yearly anticipated narrative of Christmas – “child in the manger, infant of Mary, outcast and stranger, Lord of all.”

Wait, what? “Lord of all”? That’s not usually the kind of phrase you find tagged behind “outcast and stranger.” Yes, I know that at Christmas, such a juxtaposition is not surprising; and in the gospel, such a combination is expected. But just imagine yourself a passerby that first Christmas, without Luke 2 and a whole host of Christmas carols half-memorized. Imagine yourself on the way home from a friend’s house, and stumbling upon this little family tucked away in a cattle stall out in back of the local inn. What words might you have mumbled to yourself as you walked past the little family in the stable, with a manger for a cradle?

Perhaps in those days, before our modern attention to hygiene, the situation may have seemed a little less alarming. But still, with the family sleeping near the animals, and the baby in a feed trough, you might have thought the scene looked a quaint kind of pitiful. You might have smiled at the hope of a new little life, and at this young couple doing the best they could. But you may have also quietly prayed as you continued along your way: ‘O God, help that little baby who seems to be starting off life with already a strike against him. Give him and his parents a chance to make something of their lives, even as far behind the curve as they seem to be beginning. “Child in the manger, Infant of Mary; outcast and stranger,” help him survive.’

Isn’t that how you’d pray, today, if you saw a down-on-their-luck young couple leaving the hospital, with no coats on, carrying their newborn baby in a patched up old car-seat, and wearing worn out clothes? Once again, you’d smile at the beautiful baby, and at the parents doing their best. But you’d also whisper: ‘O Lord, give that baby a chance in life. Help his parents to make ends meet. Take care of them in their obvious need.’ Yes, you might venture to tell yourself that this child could become the next John Glenn or Lottie Moon (and he or she could!). But, if you were like me, you’d probably be less filled with big dreams, and more so with prayers that this little one would simply make it in life.

Which is why it’s so surprising, a few days later, to find this poor little family in Bethlehem surrounded by magi, and being showered with gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and why it ought to be a little bit startling to find that first quatrain of Child in the Manger change directions so quickly! “Outcast and stranger, Lord of all”?

Yes! That’s the way God does things! It’s the way He worked with Joseph in the Old Testament; and with Queen Esther; and in Bethlehem; and at Golgotha! And it’s the way He is at work in our own day, when the name of Jesus is so often so unpopular and unacceptable in our culture, and when His followers are becoming more and more outcasts and strangers, even in their own land. It may look, to the casual passer-by, that the cause of Christ is in its sunset, with not much more hope for a bright future than a child born in an animal shed. But the principle of Christmas is still true! Jesus, the outcast and stranger, is, in God’s economy, still Lord of all! And His people, who are cast out and estranged with Him, will reign with Him someday, too.

December 6, 2016

How Silently

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.
Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem

These words are, in my estimation, some of the most attractive in all the carols of Christmas. The poetry itself is elegant (did you notice more than one rhyme scheme?). And Lewis Redner’s famous tune backs the words marvelously. And, most of all, the theology is grand as well! For, says Brooks, just in the same way that Jesus came into the world in relative silence, so He enters many a heart in much the same way! And that is worth our pondering for a few moments this Christmas season.

Now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that that famous stable in Bethlehem was not literally silent on that first Christmas night. I have six-fold experience that tells me childbirth is not quite like a gentle stroll through the freshly fallen snow! There is some little commotion, isn’t there? And, of course, there was a choir of angels singing out in the nearby fields that holy night, too! So Jesus didn’t literally come into the world in absolute silence. But I think the sense of Brooks’ words is that it was a relatively peaceful and secluded scene that night in Bethlehem. Yes, the magi would eventually bring a regal procession to the scene. But that first night, it was just a poor young couple, and their little son, and a few shepherds quietly enjoying God’s gift. Not much hubbub, outside the angel songs out in the fields. No great human announcements, pronouncements, or crowds (as when a British Royal finds herself, even in the throes of labor, followed by the paparazzi all the way to the door of the hospital). Not much that would indicate, to a passerby, that this was anything but a sweet little no-name couple, cuddling their firstborn son. As far as the world stage was concerned, this King came into the world rather “silently.”

And “so” (or, in the same way), says Brooks, God also sends His Son and His salvation into the dark nights of our hearts. It’s true that, sometimes, God engages in His saving work as with “a noise like a violent rushing wind.” Sometimes, for His glory, God converts people to Christ in very public and noisy ways (as with the demoniac in Mark 5, for instance). But very often, too, Christ enters the souls of sinners relatively quietly, as with “a sound of a gentle blowing” (think of Lydia in Acts 16). Or sometimes God imparts Christ and heaven to human hearts with what one church calls ‘gospel + safety + time.’ That is to say that, as the good news is proclaimed, and as sinners are loved (rather than condemned) by those who seek to win them, and as God gives time for these things to marinate, Christ enters many hearts … gently, quietly, almost silently. The changes will eventually be obvious, to be sure! But, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, they may appear on the horizon of the soul something like the gentle rising of the sun, rather than like a lightning bolt. “No ear may hear His coming.” And eyes may at first have trouble perceiving exactly what God is doing in a given soul. But He is doing it just the same, just as He was in that relatively obscure and quiet stable in Bethlehem!

Do we, therefore, discount the lightning bolt conversions? No! On the contrary, we pray for them! And we continue to urge people to repentance and faith with urgency, because we do not know how much time any given person may have before it is forever too late for turning to Christ! And yet we also realize that God does know the timing, and that He chooses to bring many people to Christ slowly, quietly, patiently, and often (as with His Son in Bethlehem) without some of the fanfare that we might have expected if we were writing the script. And therefore we do not grow discouraged (and we keep on working, praying, and believing) even when ‘all is quiet.’ It was quiet in Bethlehem 2000 years ago … and yet God was working the greatest work that ever was wrought! And He continues to gather its fruit even to this day. “No ear may hear His coming, but in the world of Sin, where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

December 1, 2016

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 22, 2016

"In everything give thanks"

It is such a good thing that we have this national holiday, every fourth Thursday of November, to remind us to give thanks to the One who “gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). Indeed, the Thanksgiving holiday itself is another one of those things for which we should give God thanks! And, of course, we can readily think of many other blessings for which to thank Him this late November. Some of us have had very signal blessings in the last year … or very timely deliverances. Many of us have family reasons for praise, or business reasons, or health reasons, or church reasons, or reasons of God drawing especially near to our own souls. God does indeed “satisf[y] your years with good things” (Psalm 103:5).

But what about those years and seasons when the good things seem to be overshadowed by events which, at least on the raw surface of life, seem not so good? Or what about the times when those things for which we normally give thanks around the Thanksgiving table seem to be few and far between? Even then, the apostle Paul would remind us, we can and should give thanks. “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18, emphasis added). Not just when the reports are rosy; not just when you have the typical Thanksgiving round of reasons; but “in everything give thanks”!

Is that realistic? Is it just phony? How do the bereaved give thanks when a loved one’s place is now empty at the Thanksgiving feast? How do the lonely give thanks when they have no one to feast with at all? How do the unemployed give thanks? Or the cancer ridden, or those discouraged in their dead-end job? Should we just plaster on a smile and ‘say the right thing’? Or is there something even more to genuine thanksgiving than just the obvious reasons why most Americans (rightly) give thanks?

Well, there is the simple fact of the gospel, isn’t there? So that, if you belong to Christ, even if you cannot think of anything else for which to give thanks, you can give thanks for His shed blood, and for the forgiveness and eternal life that you have in Him! Because of Him, you can be thankful in spite of your circumstances!

But 1 Thessalonians 5:18 calls for something even more, it seems to me – not just thanksgiving in spite of our circumstances, but actually giving thanks in those circumstances. And that means that we must thank God for what He is doing in our trials, in our bereavement, in our discouragement. And what is He doing? Well, we don’t always know the fine print! And sometimes we can’t even seem to read vast sections of the large print! But, if we are in Christ; if we “love God”; if we “are called according to His purpose”, then “we know” that, even if we cannot see it, God is working every trial and heartache for our everlasting good (Romans 8:28). And we know (Romans 8:32), that if God was willing to give us His very best – His own Son! – then surely He will not withhold anything else that is needful. And we know that “the LORD is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18) and that “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him” (Psalm 34:7). And so we can thank God, not just in spite of our trials, but for what He is doing in our trials – upholding us, encamping round us, drawing especially near to us in sorrow, wisely working good that we cannot yet see … and promising, with His Son as the earnest payment (Rom 8:32), that He will continue doing these things every moment of our lives!

So then, thank God around the tables at Thanksgiving! Thank Him for family, and friends, and health, and safety, and all that is going obviously well in your life. But thank Him, too, for how He is wise and good and faithful and strong even when “the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.” Even then, He is “a very present help.” And so, even then, we may give thanks.

November 16, 2016

Sermons from Psalms 145-150

We recently completed our lenghty and periodic journey through the book of Psalms.  Here are the final six sermons in the series:

Psalm 145 - "Every day I will bless you" - mp3
Psalm 146 - "Do not trust in princes" - mp3
Psalm 147 - A Psalm of Thanksgiving - mp3
Psalm 148 - All Creatures of Our God and King* - mp3
Psalm 149 - A Song and a ... Sword? - mp3
Psalm 150 - "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD" - mp3

Some (though not all) of the sermons from prior psalms are available here.  May the listener be helped and encouraged, and may the Lord be praised as we hear from this marvelous book of the Bible!

____________

*The sermon title for Psalm 148 was taken from the hymn of the same title by Francis of Assisi, paraphrased in English by William Draper.

November 14, 2016

Celebrate Well!

The craze of ‘the holiday season’ is nearly upon us. And I must confess that, as a child of American culture, I really do prize it as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’! The unique traditions, the broccoli casserole, the time with family, the carols and hot chocolate – all of them make the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s loads of fun. Indeed, though I don’t usually buy all that much, I even enjoy maybe an hour stroll around the mall with giant nutcrackers situated here and there, and Kenny G’s Christmas album playing in the background. I can only imagine if I lived in Europe with its open air Christmas markets! And it’s all about to hit!

But when it hits, along with all the delights of the holidays will also come all the busyness, the added obligations, the mania, and maybe even our own inner humbugs – much of which can suck the life, not only out of the season, but of the soul. And the soul is too valuable to be run over (or treated merely as someone’s target demographic) for the final five weeks of the year! And, indeed, the opportunities of this season are too valuable to be lost in the shuffle and the mad rush. So, a few tips for celebrating well instead of wearily …

Schedule wisely. You don’t have to do everything, be everywhere, see absolutely everyone, and make every party. Rejoice, yes! Get out of the house, to be sure. Eat well! But make sure you temper your schedule so as to eat with, rejoice with, and get out of the house for those who really need it most, those who really need you most – your children, your spouse, your siblings and parents, your church family, your close friends, and “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:12-14). Don’t get caught in a holiday rat race. Slow down enough to enjoy the people that God gives you this holiday season! Give your energy to moments, and not mania.

Give generously. Douglas Wilson has written marvelously about why it is a good thing indeed to lavishly celebrate the birth of Christ! “Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper.” We are celebrating after all! And thus presents under the tree (within the bounds of sanity) are a good thing! And it is an especially good thing if we lavish such gifts on those who need them most – the poor, the outcast, the gospel-starved. That is why inviting someone on the fringes to your holiday feast, and shopping for Operation Christmas Child, and giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® are so fulfilling – because they allow us to celebrate and rejoice and give gifts … and do so, at the same time, with eternal purpose! So give generously over these final weeks of the year – to those near, who already celebrate Christ with you; and for the sake of those far, whom you long to see, someday, join you in the heavenly banquet hall.

Worship intentionally. Sometimes, like Martha (Luke 10:38-42), we can get so busy with all the preparations for the event that we forget why we’re having the event in the first place (or for whom)! So celebrate, yes! But don’t focus so much attention on the tinsel, and treats, and toys that you forget that there is a reason for all this merry-making! Pause, rather, amid all the pure fun … and turn your attention to the manger in Bethlehem, and to the God-man who lay there that He might live, die, and live again to “save His people from their sins.” Carve out time for real thanksgiving on Thanksgiving, and for the Christmas story on Christmas, and for caroling and praise throughout December, and for a family trip to a Christmas service (on Sunday this year!). This will feed your soul, and make all the delights of the body all the more meaningful and sweet.

Celebrating with you ...

November 2, 2016

The Sky is not Falling

When Wednesday morning comes, a good many of our co-workers, neighbors, and friends will be speaking as though the sky were falling. Whichever way the presidential election turns out, there will be millions upon millions of Americans with serious concerns about our country’s future. And rightly so. We are in a sad time as a nation, make no mistake. The American experiment, barring a revival of true religion, has been heading toward its sunset for some time now – well before Election 2016. The present state of political affairs is a reflection of America’s soul, not an intrusion upon it. And so maybe the America sky is indeed going to fall, or just slowly continue morphing into a much darker shade of blue. May God help us.

But having said all of that, I remind you that, if we are in Christ, we do not live under the American sky only. Yes, the decline of our national morals, civility, government, and sanity will profoundly affect us. But even if the American sky should fall, isn’t it true that we are citizens of an entirely other kingdom – “a kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28); the kingdom of Christ? This kingdom was flourishing with great glory well before the words Plymouth, and Washington, and Lincoln were woven into the tapestry of world history. And this kingdom will still be advancing long after Clinton and Trump have finished writing their part of the American epic. Indeed, the kingdom of Jesus will thrive even if America as we know it should someday cease to exist. “His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:33).

And so, for the Christian, a sky may be falling … but not the sky! Christ is still on His throne. As Handel reminds us every Christmas (from Revelation 19:6, KJV), “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”

Let that be your anchor, no matter how disappointed you wake up on Wednesday morning. And let it be your ballast, even when you are elated with political victories or turnabouts.

And just to remind you of who is ultimately on the throne, have a look, on Wednesday morning, at the burnt orange reminders of God’s faithfulness dangling from the tree branches against the backdrop of the American sky. God promised, six millennia ago, that the earth would always cycle through its seasons (Genesis 8:22):
“While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
And cold and heat,
And summer and winter,
And day and night
Shall not cease.”
And the autumn leaves, on Wednesday, will remind you that God is keeping that covenant! And that is enough, brothers and sisters. That is enough. God is still God. God is still faithful. God still reigns. And the future is secure in Christ. So pray for America; cast your vote for the good of America; “seek the welfare of” America. But put your trust in Christ!

October 24, 2016

Leaving Your Signature

Sinclair Ferguson, one of the truly great and godly theologians and pastors alive today, tells a story of William Still, who was a mentor to him, beginning in his college days at Aberdeen in Scotland. Young Ferguson had been under the older pastor’s discipleship for some time when, one day, suffering from some ailment or other, he received from the older man a bottle of medicine. ‘This is the first thing you ever gave me,’ said Ferguson playfully. ‘Put your signature on it.’ To which Mr. Still replied, unforgettably, ‘That’s not where I want to put my signature. I want to put it here’ he said, pointing at his young disciple’s heart.

What a picture! And what an aim – to write your signature on someone else’s heart; to leave an indelible stamp upon their life, for good, as they learn to follow Christ by following you, Christ’s follower (1 Corinthians 11:1)! That is a goal that every Christian ought to have – with our children, first of all; with younger believers, or believers who are younger in the faith; with neighbors and co-workers whom we hope will someday become believers. If our signatures have been shaped by our relationship with Christ, then what a gift if we can leave such signatures on the hearts of those near to us, whom we also hope to see shaped into Christ’s image!

Thank about whom that might be in your own life. Who is the person (or who are the persons) in your life, next to whom you may have been strategically placed by the hand of God, so as to leave a lasting mark for good? And are you intentional about writing your signature (and Christ’s through yours) on their hearts? And how do you go about doing that? How might your personality and theirs; your schedule and theirs; your life stage and theirs come together so that a real relationship of discipleship can take place?

The Bible must surely be at the center of such a relationship. And yet it must be a real relationship, too (not a Bible study only) – the kind in which the truths of the Bible can be fleshed out in the comings and goings of every day life. So think that out. Who has God given you, and how might you develop the kind of gospel friendship in which a more seasoned saint is regularly adding salt to one who is up and coming? Or if you are the one in need of seasoning, whom might you ask for their signature? Think it out this fall. And perhaps begin brainstorming ideas of how 2017 might be a year in which you begin, like Mr. Still, to write your signature (or ask someone to write theirs) some place where it will still be bearing fruit when you (or they) have long since left this life.

Christian Homes: Ten Sermons on Biblical Family


The hymn-writer, B.B. McKinney, has taught us to pray, "God, give us Christian homes."  And we at Pleasant Ridge have just finished several Sunday sermons thinking about what a Christian home actually is.  Listen in as we mine the scriptures, uncovering for God's good design.

October 18, 2016

A Plea for the Place of Words

Expounding insights gleaned, largely, from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

With both feet, we as a society have crossed the cultural border from an epoch of words and into an era of pictures (both still and moving). I get it. For I, too, am a child of my culture in many ways. There are many evenings when, for instance, rather than read to my children, I’d much rather just sit down in front of a screen and watch something together. It’s just easier that way. Listening requires more mental effort than watching; reading necessitates even more effort; and reading aloud still more. Plus, I understand that watching something on a screen (which almost always involves listening, too) engages an additional sense in ways that are often truly engaging, and sometimes helpful.

Further, I realize that even still imagery captures the eye much more rapidly than words – which is why books have artwork on their covers, and why we are now attaching such to our online sermons, and why pictures on Facebook seem to always generate a great many more ‘likes’ than plain text. Sight seems to be the dominant sense of modern mankind. And there are surely ways in which we should (within reason) make use of that tendency.

I understand all these things, and do not decry pictures and film, as such. And yet I do believe that, in our cultural evolution from words to images, we are in the process of losing some things quite precious. Most modern Americans, I dare say, read very little. And what they do read is often quite brief (and sometimes inane). And, if they do not attend church, it may have been years since many of our neighbors ever sat and concentrated on someone speaking for 30-60 minutes solid (if they’ve ever done so). And these are great losses, it seems to me.

For one thing, the hard work of reading or listening (as opposed to watching) is good for the mind. Forcing yourself to concentrate on a 45 minute speech, or on several consecutive chapters of a book, is good for us. Watching a movie or TV show, on the other hand, is often inactive. Ideas are merely thrown at us, rather than us having to mine them out of carefully crafted words. And thus, watching often doesn’t have the capacity for sharpening our minds the way focusing on words does. And it’s a dangerous thing, it seems to me, that we are raising a generation of children who do not know how to concentrate. Much of this problem, I am convinced, is because they are being raised with constantly moving pictures rather than with words that make them think.

Further, the rapid replacement of words with pictures means that we, of necessity, cannot handle many topics with an appropriate level of depth and/or sophistication. Pictures (moving and still) work well with the telling of stories, and sometimes the conveying of feelings. But they don’t work so well with outlining theological doctrines, and worldview beliefs, and political positions, and so on. For these we need words … often in large quantities. And, in a culture that is no longer apt to consume words in large quantities, is it any surprise that most Americans get their theology, their worldview, and their politics from brief soundbites, rather than with significant depth of research, thought, and understanding?

Finally, the waning epoch of words in our land will be a disaster spiritually, I am afraid. Because God has given us His truth (even the part of it that is story) not in pictures, but in words. And in a culture that incessantly prefers pictures to words, where will that leave us in a generation or two? Not in a good place, I am afraid. The Bible will lie more and more neglected. And so will preaching and good Christian books. Because we want images more than words; media players more than monologues; infographics more than essays; performers more than prophets.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was kept locked in Latin, the tongue of the scholars (with translation into the common peoples’ languages forbidden). Meanwhile the church gave the people pictures (statues, relics, paintings, etc.) in place of words. And, while these visual media lacked ability to communicate the whole truth about God (as stated above), they were (and still are) quite proficient at serving as stand-ins for Him; at becoming idols, in other words. And, although not precisely in the same way, pictures often stand between men and God today, too … wooing us away from the written word, more rapidly exciting our affections, but unable to provide us the same level of food for thought or meat for the soul.

And so I am making a plea for the place of words in your life. I’m not suggesting you never watch a movie (we have some in our church library!), or that you never turn on the television, or that you close your Instagram account. But what I am saying is that you will be much the poorer – spiritually, mentally, and in terms of your understanding of the world – if you adopt film, and television, and YouTube, and social media imagery as your primary source of mental intake.

So ask yourself: When is the last time I read a book all the way through? Or, even more so, when is the last time I read a Christian book all the way through? And how many movies have I watched in that same span of time? And further, do I have the attention span to focus on more than just a few verses of the Bible at a time? God has chosen to communicate to us in words … but is my mental lifestyle conducive to receiving His truth in the way He has chosen to disseminate it?

***

For more on the cultural shift from words to pictures, see Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, to which I owe most of the thinking above.

October 11, 2016

Fall at the Ridge

Fall is finally upon us, with its beautiful blue skies, its crisp autumn eves, and (soon, I hope) its crisp autumn leaves! And, with the return of fall, and the happy march toward the holidays, the busiest time of our church year is upon us as well … spread like a Thanksgiving table with opportunities for growth, fellowship, and service. So let me use this week’s article to lay out for you a bit of a fall menu; a preparation for and invitation to the good things that will be, Lord willing, available to you this fall (and Christmas) at PRBC.

Preaching. On Sundays, Lord willing, we’ll first be finishing our series on Christian Homes. Then (sandwiched between sermons for Reformation Day and Christmas) I hope also to lead us on a brisk autumn walk through the words of the prophet Zephaniah – a book that begins with thunder, but ends with joyful singing (Zephaniah 3:17, ESV)! And on Wednesdays, with the Lord’s help, we’ll walk through the final five psalms, finishing a complete look at the psalter which has been many years in the making. I hope you’ll join us!

Missions. The fall and Christmas seasons also bring us a couple of special opportunities to be involved in getting the gospel out to the ends of the earth! Beginning on October 23, we’ll be collecting items for Operation Christmas Child, with our packing party scheduled for Friday evening, 11/18. And then, all through the month of December is our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for international missions, which kicks off with our Missions Week, December 4-11. Please do pray about how you can contribute to both of these opportunities for getting the gospel to the various tribes and nations of the earth.

Fellowship. We enjoy our church family fellowship meals every month, of course … but our Thanksgiving dinner (11/13) and Christmas lunch (12/18) are especially bright spots in the calendar. Make plans to join us for both. And remember that these are good opportunities to bring a friend or relative and to introduce them to our church family. 

Planning.  Fall also means that the elders and deacons will be working on plans for next year’s budget and servant ministry roles. Would you pray that we will have the mind of Christ in these matters? And would you pray about how the Lord would have you render service to and through PRBC in 2017 … and let us know by filling out the servant ministry surveys that have recently been made available?

There is indeed ‘a lot on our plates’ this fall! I hope it will be a feasting time for our souls, and for those whom we seek to reach with the good news of Jesus. Make sure you don’t miss the banquet!

October 4, 2016

'What the Bible means to me'

Sometimes you may hear a person voice something like this, say, in a Bible study or Sunday School class: ‘Let me tell you what this passage means to me.’ Often times such people are well intentioned. And some of them would agree with everything I am about to write. They just aren’t being careful with their wording – using the word means when perhaps they really mean to say applies (see below).

But there is a danger, when we use ill-advised words like the above, that we could communicate (or even believe), that a given biblical passage might actually mean one thing to you, and something slightly different to me. And that is a danger, I say! Because, under this style of interpretation, the biblical text, and the vision of God and His world that flows from it, become just a piece of clay in the reader’s hand … reshaped according to his or her own background, and beliefs, and sometimes fancy. And the reader may not even realize that’s what he or she is doing! Because we all have biases and preconceived notions that we bring to any given situation. But if we give credence to the idea that the Bible might just mean something different to one person than to another … we won’t feel nearly as much need to look past our biases, and to discover what the author actually meant by what he wrote. For, since we believe the Bible might have different meanings for different people, we’re already defaulting to looking for ‘what this passage means to me.’ And that’s no way to read anyone’s book, let alone God’s!

The meaning of a given piece of text belongs with the author, not the reader! That’s why Paul tells Timothy, not to discover what the text means to him, but to “be diligent” about “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The whole idea of handling the text of the Bible “accurately” lets us know that it has a definite meaning that we must strive to get right!

Now, are there passages over which godly people have come to two (or more) very different interpretations of the text? Absolutely. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that, if you think passage X means this, and I think it means that … well then, one (or both) of us will someday discover that we were incorrect! Because, while we may not agree on the meaning of passage X, we do agree that it has a definite meaning. And so we understand and accept the fact that our divergence is one of our interpretation, not of the Bible’s actual meaning.

We also recognize that a given biblical passage might have a different application for one person than another, given that person’s circumstances. So that, for instance, an American Christian and a North Korean Christian might read the same psalm about persecution, and yet put it into immediate practice in different ways – the American (rightly) turning it into prayer for his persecuted brothers in places like North Korea, and into preparation for the suffering that may be ahead in this land; and the North Korean (also rightly) praying the words of David directly about his own very present suffering. But the meaning of the words on the page are the same for both readers. They are, in either case, a description of how David prayed in a time of suffering, and an example of how Christians should pray in the same situations. And so the difference between the American and the North Korean has to do with their application of the text, not with the text’s actual meaning.

In short, the Bible means what the Author intended it to mean – always. The meaning of any given book, chapter, sentence, or individual biblical word does not change, has not changed, and will not change … no matter who reads it, or when, or under what circumstances. And so no passage of scripture can mean one thing to you, and another to me. One or both of us may interpret it incorrectly, so as to think it means something different than what it really means. But that doesn’t change the actual meaning. And, when we have the meaning correct, we may rightly apply the same truth in different ways, given our circumstances. But the words on the page still mean what they mean – always.

So let’s be careful about how we talk about the meaning of the Bible. Let’s learn to say: ‘This is how I believe this passage applies in my life’ rather than ‘this is what this passage means to me.’ Or, ‘This is what I believe this passage means (period)’ instead of ‘This is what this passage means to me.’

And let’s also be okay with admitting, when two of us have differing interpretations of a given text, that at least one of us is wrong. We don’t have to battle it to the death, of course! And, if the difference is not over a cardinal doctrine of the faith, we need not part ways over our different interpretations. But neither must we go to the opposite (21st century Western) extreme of saying: ‘Well, you have your truth, and I have mine. And we can both be right.’ It’s okay, in other words, to agree that the text has a definite meaning, and that we are not agreed on what that meaning is! But it’s not okay to talk as though any given Bible passage may mean different things to different people.

September 28, 2016

Sermons from Psalms 135-144

As we press on in our studies through the Psalter, here is the latest collection of audio:

Psalm 135 - Hallelujah! - mp3
Psalm 137 - “Above my chief joy” - mp3
Psalm 138 - “I will give You thanks with all my heart” - mp3
Psalm 140 - Prayer in Persecution - mp3
Psalm 142 - “To You, O LORD” - mp3
Psalm 143 - “Hear my prayer, O LORD” - mp3
Psalm 144 - A Final Setback Psalm - mp3

Psalms 136, 139, and 141 were preached at earlier dates.  136 and 141 are available in our sermon archive.

September 27, 2016

"Not merely hearers"

It occurs to me that I face a peculiar challenge as a committed Christian (and even more so as a pastor). The Bible is near me all the time. It’s a tool I use every day. It’s the bedrock of my worldview. It’s like a soundtrack, almost always playing in the background (and very often in the foreground) of my life – one to which I have grown quite accustomed, and with which I am becoming ever more comfortable. I read it regularly. I study it as a life’s calling. I enjoy preaching it. I enjoy hearing a good sermon, too. And lately I have been on the lookout for just the right actual Bible as well … one that will bring my preferred version, formatting, cover, and so on into one finished product. And all of these are good things! It is a blessing to have the word of God around us all the time, to genuinely enjoy it, and to have access to it in so many well-presented ways! And, whether we are pastors or not, many of us can relate to much of what I’ve just written.

But I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t dupe ourselves into thinking that the aforementioned (often quite enjoyable) interactions with the word of God necessarily equate with maturing Christianity. In other words, I wonder if the fact that some of us often read the word of God, and hear the word of God, and even enjoy the word of God – reading it in different formats or translations, hearing it preached well and rousingly, enjoying its comforting promises – I wonder if our nearness to (and even enjoyment of) the Scriptures in these ways sometimes dupes us into forgetting to ask whether we’re actually putting what they say into practice!

I’ll give you an example from my own life. There are certain preachers out there that really get my attention – men whose handling of the word of God comes with that “intellectual freshness” that John G. Paton wrote about in the Christian environment in which he grew up. But, much as I enjoy listening to these men open the word, do I then do anything about what I heard? Often, I am afraid, I stop simply at having enjoyed the word, rather than really making effort to apply the word. And the same may be true, someday, when I find that perfectly bound and printed NASB Bible! It may be a real pleasure to hold goatskin in my hands, and to read from a near perfect typeface. But will I merely enjoy the experience, or will I do anything about what I read?

And I suspect that I am not the only one who struggles with just this sort of disconnect! For instance, I have gotten a more-than-usual amount of feedback on our recent sermons on the family … for which I am grateful! I am sure the subject matter has a lot to do with that, and it is encouraging to hear that so many people are really interested in the biblical material on husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, and so on! It’s also encouraging that so many ladies came back from the recent women’s conference encouraged by what they heard there! But there is a danger, you know – namely that we could really enjoy hearing all these things laid out in a systematic way; that we could delight in the warm pictures of biblical family life or womanhood that we’ve had painted before us; that we could even like being challenged with some truths that maybe we hadn’t previously thought much about … and yet, while enjoying such things, the danger is that we could walk away from them the way we might do from a really good piece of music – moved, delighted, warmed, but not necessarily with a paradigm shift for how we are going to do life!

And that’s okay when we’re talking about music, or about a movie, or a book of fiction. For these things are generally meant, basically, for enjoyment. And speaking of things meant for our enjoyment, it’s not even wrong to admit that we really enjoy reading the Bible, or hearing it taught … because God intends that we should! His word is meant to bring joy (Jeremiah 15:16)! 

But the word is also meant to bring change! We are meant, not only to taste its sweetness, but to follow its instructions!

Now don’t mishear me! I am glad that the word of God is often enjoyable to me! And I am glad when it is so for you! Indeed, I hope that, for all of us, it only becomes all the more so! But let’s not stop there! Let’s not just hear and enjoy the Bible, but put it into practice as well! “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22).

September 19, 2016

A Category for Grace?

As an assignment for a college course, one of our members recently found himself taking an online survey. I imagine it was, in many ways, like any one of the plethora of online surveys that we and our co-workers talk about in the break room – the kind in which you answer a host of various questions, and then get an answer, at the end of it all, telling you what sort of personality type you have, or where you’d probably like best to live, or whether you’re a true Yankee or a genuine southerner, and so on.

Only this survey was about religion. Answer a series of questions, and the program spits out an answer as to which world religion your beliefs most resemble. And I suppose that the point of the assignment was to help college students who say that they are Catholic, or Evangelical, or Jewish to see whether or not they actually know and believe what their claimed religion teaches. A good exercise, it seems to me!

But here was the thing: In a question about how a person may obtain eternal life, there was no bubble to fill for grace. There was no option A, B, C, or D under which one might check a box whose answer was that eternal life is obtained, not by one’s own merit, but by the sheer mercy of God; by the merits of Christ, applied to our lives as a free gift, to be received by faith. There was, in short, no biblical answer; no Christian answer; no place for grace!

Why not? Well, I highly doubt that the reason was some sort of attempt at discrimination against Christians. My guess, rather, is that the designers of the test must not actually understand the Christian message! They must not understand salvation by grace, else it would have be included as a possible selection on their survey!

And, on the one hand, that is rather astonishing when you consider that the creation of such an online survey surely necessitated the creators knowing a good deal about many different religions! But, on the other hand, it’s not surprising at all, really. For “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Which means that an unconverted man or woman may have the good news of salvation as a free gift staring him right in the face, and yet fail to see it. And, if that is true of a person who would venture to create an online religious survey, how much more of the man in the street? Or the woman next door? Or your child’s teammates on the ball team? All of which means that we must pray! We must ask God to do what only He can do (John 6:44)! We can put the gospel message before our lost neighbors’ eyes all day long. But they are spiritually blind (just like we once were). And only God can make blind eyes see!

***

But then let me make this observation as well: Namely that, while it is true that spiritual blindness is one reason (the deepest reason) people cannot comprehend salvation as a free gift … another reason may be that we have not always put the message of gospel grace before them with enough frequency so as to actually increase the possibility (humanly speaking) that, one of these times, they might actually see it! To return to our online survey maker, I wonder if part of the reason he or she seems to have no concept of the Christian message is because he or she has actually rarely come into contact with it; because very few Christians have come across his or her path and clearly explained it.

What does that mean for us? It means that we mustn’t assume that our friends have ever actually had the gospel message clearly and simply explained to them. We mustn’t assume that spiritual blindness is their only problem, but also realize that it is our responsibility to provide them with something to actually see

I wonder if our friends, and neighbors, and family members really understand basic Christianity as well as we might think they do. I’d venture a guess that many of them do not; that, if you asked them to explain what they think you believe about eternity … many of them, like the online survey, would have no category for grace.

So let us work hard to at least get the answer of grace onto the bubble sheets of their thinking! Let us do everything we can to make the gospel of grace available (and clear) to those around us. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily receive it, or even perceive it. But they certainly will never do either of those things if no one ever even explains grace clearly in the first place (Romans 10:13-15)! So let’s be on a mission of gospel clarity and proclamation. Let’s do what we can do to put the good news of grace before our neighbors’ eyes. And let’s pray earnestly (1 Corinthians 2:14), that God will grant them to see!

September 13, 2016

The Pastor at Prayer

Here is today's talk, given at a gathering pf pastors, on the importance of prayer in the life and work of the men called by God to shepherd His flock.

September 12, 2016

In Praise of Women

In view of our upcoming sermon on biblical motherhood, here is a reprise of an article originally published a few months back:

Have you ever listened to a woman heralding the gospel? Perhaps more often (and more appropriately) than you recognize! How can it be, you ask? Well, stay with me (and don’t jump to conclusions just yet about what I mean!).

I was recently listening to a helpful sermon (by Iain D. Campbell) on the resurrection of Jesus from John 20. And what stuck with me was when Dr. Campbell, taking a cue from the 19th century preacher T.V. Moore, paused to notice how unusual it appears when we consider that it was a woman, Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus selected as the first herald of His resurrection; the first one to proclaim that He was risen indeed!

How can this be? That’s the question Moore poses in his classic work, The Last Days of Jesus. After all, Moore points out, this is the same Jesus who commissioned the apostles who, speaking on His behalf, would soon make it clear that women are not “to teach or exercise authority over a man” in the church (1 Timothy 3:12). And so, since that is the will of Christ on the matter of women preachers, Moore ponders, how is it that Jesus makes this seeming exception by giving Mary Magdalene – and not the apostles – the privilege of being the first herald of the risen Savior?

The solution, of course, is not to throw out what is said elsewhere in the New Testament regarding the prohibition of women teaching men in the church. 1 Timothy 3:12 stands. “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” But with that being said, why the seeming exception with Mary Magdalene?

Well, says Moore, it’s not actually an exception at all.

Now, of course, one reason it is not an exception (which I myself would add at this point) is that Mary was not teaching in an authoritative or church setting, but simply sharing the good news person-to-person … just like a woman might do, today, with male classmates or co-workers.

But Moore sees something even more profound happening in John 20. The fact that a woman was the first one to announce the good news of Christ’s resurrection is not an exception, he says, but actually the natural order in which a great many of us have first heard the same good news never since!

And so, seizing on and preaching Moore’s observation, Campbell asks his hearers: ‘Where did you first hear the story of the cross? Who first told you the story of the risen Savior? Where did you first hear that Christ was alive? Was it from a minister in a pulpit? Or was it, perhaps, from a woman – a godly mother, a godly grandmother whose heart was tender to your heart when you were in your childhood … so that the first person to tell you that Christ was alive was a woman, too?’

Here is Moore’s great observation, and Campbell’s stirring preaching of it: It was not strange that Mary Magdalene was the first to announce that Jesus was alive, because that is the pattern for so many of us, in every generation since – first hearing the good news from the lips of a woman! ‘We will never know,’ Campbell continues, ‘what we owe to the women who spent time with Jesus in the garden – our mothers and our grandmothers and our Sunday School teachers who impacted our lives to tell us that Christ was alive.’

And so it is probably true that many who read these lines owe more to the heralding of the gospel from feminine lips than we had really taken time to recognize – not as they usurped the God-given role of men, but as they took up the God-given role of women: nurturing little ones in the faith; helping them memorize scripture and catechism; singing gospel truth to them in the Sunday School room, and in the cradle, and even in the womb.

And so here is a little tribute to the godly mothers and grandmothers who read this little article. And here is an encouragement to those who are still in the midst of those formative years of bringing children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” God is using you! Christ is making Himself known through your lips – often the very first lips who herald His good news to the little ones in your life! So keep on! “Your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”

September 6, 2016

"In whom My Soul delights"

This is what the Father says of the Son in Isaiah 42:1:

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen one in whom My soul delights.”

It’s a delightful word, isn’t it – this word “delights”? And it is indeed the beating of the heart of a father toward his children. He watches a son bound across an athletic field, or a daughter more and more confidently holding a musical instrument in her hand, and he delights! Or he observes, in their wide eyes, how they delight in certain things – the hovering of a hummingbird outside the window pane, the hum of big sister's bow across the strings, the precise way to brown a pancake – and the father delights! And he does so, too, when they climb into his lap, and when he watches them sleep at night, and in a thousand other scenarios about which you could set ink to paper, too, if you are a parent!

Delight is such a perfect word for the heart of a parent to his or her child. And it strikes me as marvelous when I read, in Isaiah 42, that the heavenly Father delights in His Son, too!

On one level, of course, this language is not surprising. For, “if [we] … being evil, know how to” delight in our sons and daughters, “how much more will [our] Father who is in heaven” delight in His Son! And yet think about what it really means – what realities it connotes in the soul – to delight in your child (or in anyone else, for that matter). The warmth. The love. The enjoyment. And while we should think of God’s heart in these same terms, I’m not sure if we always do. Indeed, I wonder if we don’t sometimes think of God as somewhat stoic, almost impersonal … kind of like the referee in a football game who just calmly sets the ball, calls the penalties, and keeps order without any hint of a rooting interest. He cares about what’s happening on the field, to be sure – but more after the manner of responsibility than delight.

All fine and well if you’re wearing black and white stripes on the gridiron! But this is not the way the Bible portrays God! He is a Father, after all! And He delights in His Son, Jesus … and in all who come under the shelter of the Son’s wings! He doesn’t look down on us as from the umpire’s chair at a tennis open, but with the eyes of a man whose own son is playing in the match!

Now I know that God is not human – so that there is a limit as to how much (and in what ways) we can compare our human emotions (so shifting, so fragile, so reactive, and often so sinful) with the steady heart of the holy and unchangeable God. And yet let us not, because He is God, think that He sits stone faced in heaven, looking down on earth as an impartial observer! He is far more than an observer, of course. He is also an intervener in the affairs of men! And even as He does observe, He does so from a disposition of joy, happiness, enjoyment, and delight in His children … and especially in His only begotten Son!

So think of Him in that way – as the God who delights! And think of His Son that way, too – as the one who is, most of all, delighted in! And learn to delight in this happy God, and in His delightful Son, yourself!

September 1, 2016

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One of the Preacher's Best Friends

One of the preacher's best friends, over ther last decades, has been the Irish preacher, teacher, and writer Alec Motyer [maw-TEER], who passed into his rest last week. I call him one of the preacher's best friends because his commentaries have been so helpful to so many pastors and teachers of the Bible.  Terry Johnson recently wrote of Motyer that:
He holds the distinction, along with John Stott, of writing commentaries about which one may say, "If I have his, I have all I need." 
That's tall cotton!  But it is what Johnson wrote, otherwise, (in a recent personal remembrance) that moved me to go online and hear Motyer's voice for myself, for the first time, this week, in the preached word.  Johnson called Motyer and J.I. Packer "simply the most godly men I have ever known."  More tall Cotton!  And the little anectdotes and "Motyerisms" that Johnson passed on from his studies under Motyer nearly 40 years ago add to the impression beautifully.

So, I'm placing this little marker here to encourage you to go and read Johnson's piece.  It seems to me a marvelous portrait of what a man of God can and should be.  And I'll also point you to the sermon I listened to yesterday afternoon, on Acts 16, as marvelous confirmation that this was, indeed, a man of God.  The sermon - with its simple exhortation to begin and continue and go on in God's work in "the place of prayer" - has stuck with me in ways that not many sermons do.

Thank God for Alec Motyer, and for those like him.  May He give us more of them.

August 29, 2016

Dispatches from the Front

Would you like the wick of your gospel-sharing passion to be fanned back into the flame that perhaps you once knew? Is a heartbeat for Christ’s fame at the ends of the earth something you’d like to cultivate in your soul? How might it help you to be freshly challenged to think about what you’re really doing with your life, kingdom-wise? Could you benefit from a fresh impetus to missionary prayer and generosity? Well then let me give the highest recommendation to the DVD series Dispatches from the Front. God has used it to all these things and more in me!


I know, I know. I’ve pubbed Dispatches before. But, watching one of the videos again this past Sunday evening (from North Africa), I was moved once more to consider how much I really value the word of God, how persistent I am about sharing the gospel and making disciples, and what good things God is doing in some of the “remotest part[s] of the earth”! It was like a breath of fresh sea air, really … being reminded of the bold witness of a handful of brothers in Muslim North Africa. And it made me want, in the words of William Carey, to ‘attempt great things for God.’ And I think these videos will make you want to do the same!

So this is just another brief plug for them! If you're local, they're available to borrow at PRBC.  You can purchase them at Amazon or get a really good deal on the entire 9 volume set from Frontline Missions. I highly recommend them all! And, if you are just going to watch one or two, I have been most stirred by episodes 7 and 2 (N. Africa and Albania). Get them. Watch them. And be spurred on for the cause of Christ, both here in Cincinnati, and at the ends of the earth!

August 22, 2016

Light Pollution

A few days back I saw a fascinating video entitled “Lost in Light” at vimeo.com (via challies.com). The idea was to demonstrate how all the light that we produce on earth affects how well we can see the lights that glimmer nightly in the heavens. ‘Light pollution’ is what all this human dampening of the night sky is called. And it was astonishing to see on film … and saddening for those of us who live in city, where all our earthly lights so effectively drown out the heavenly ones.

The videographer began by filming the night sky above San Jose, California, with a light pollution level of 8. A few faint stars can be seen, but I literally had to lean close to my screen to see if I was seeing stars, or just dust or imperfections on my computer monitor! At level 7, numerous stars pop into view. And it gets better and better until the camera finally takes us all the way down to a mere level 2 light pollution rating near Mt. Shasta, CA and then level 1 in Death Valley National Park … where it looks like someone emptied out a significant portion of a salt shaker onto a navy blue table cloth! The stars are just everywhere.

Furthermore, as the film maker points out in his description, some people have never actually seen the Milky Way. Count me in that number! But in this film, when you get out to a light pollution level of 5, you can begin to see it … with the naked eye! And when the level drops down to 2 and 1 … wow! Go and look at the video! It may make you want to move to Montana, or some such place!

And it occurs to me that there is a parable somewhere in all this … about how much more difficult it can be to see and appreciate Jesus, “the Light of the world,” when we so constantly live our lives in the haze of so many competing ‘lights.’ Busyness is probably one of the biggest sources of spiritual light pollution. So are the big and little screens that we all find ourselves staring at far too much. The light of Christ can also fade into the background if we find ourselves needing always to do something, talk to someone, listen to something, watch something. Blaise Pascal may have been overstating it when he said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” … but he makes a good point! The constant hum of activity and stimulus under which we often place ourselves can have the same effect on our vision of God as the lights of downtown have on our ability to see the glory of the Milky Way (which is out there, but which we cannot see for all our competing lights)!

And so I just urge you to find plenty of seasons in your life in which you turn out and push far to the side all of the spiritual light pollution in your life – the TV, the phone, the tablet, the computer, the Sudoku puzzle, the headphones, the din of your own voice, etc. – and just look up at the night sky, so to speak … turning out all the competing lights so that you can open the word, and open your eyes to the world that God has created (like the stars, the tree bark, the sparrows, and so on), and clear your mind to meditate on these things, and to see and hear and love the glory of God!

August 17, 2016

What I Cannot Do

I have found myself keenly aware, in recent days, of what I cannot do when it comes preaching. I can pray over the text. I can labor to understand it. I can consult commentators wiser than myself to help me with the latter. I can write, and re-write, and then re-write some more … trying to word things as precisely, and clearly, and winsomely as possible. And then I can try to present it all, at sermon time, with the same precision, clarity, and winsomeness. And all these things I must do. And yet, as I have worked away in recent days, I have more than once been keenly aware that, unless God enables us to really ‘get it’ at sermon time … we won’t come away with as much blessing as we might have. Because I myself can’t bring the blessing!

My words may be clear enough to be understood with the head, and creative enough to keep the attention, and accurate to the text. And yet I cannot think, and write, and speak well enough to really make the arrow strike all the way to the depths of the heart. No preacher, in fact, can pull the bow string back that far!

But God can do so! God can place His hand over mine, and pull back on the same string of sermon around which my quivering fingers are wrapped … and cause the arrow to find its mark, and to pierce all the way to the very heart of our hearts! It may be the same sermon that I wrote down on paper; the same words that I would have said, even had He not pulled back quite so far on my string … but with His extra-ordinary tug on the line, now they really penetrate.

Indeed, it may be that He sometimes chooses to pull back hardest on the string when I find my sermon to be, humanly speaking, the poorest … so that I remember that the power is in His mighty arm, not in my tongue! So that I remember that it is not the sermon by itself, but the word and power of God, that do the real work!

And at the same time, the words will also penetrate much more deeply, too, if God softens the hearts of the hearers; if He opens us up so that the arrow has a suitable place to lodge. That’s what He did for Lydia in Acts 16, and that is what I need Him to do for my hearers, too. Because, just as my words (accurate, clear, and winsome as they may be) cannot put real penetrating force behind the sermon, so also they cannot open anyone’s heart to really receive it. “Apart from [Him I] can do nothing.”

Now, let me be quick to say that God's word is powerful, in and of itself (aside from anyone's attempts to preach it)!  And let me also say that, when His word is faithfully proclaimed, God always puts His hand on the bowstring with His preachers (Isaiah 55:10-11). Always! Even if I don’t see or feel it, He is providing power that I cannot! But I firmly believe that He wants us to ask for more; that He wants us (both preacher and hearers) to desire that He pull the arrows back even farther, and cause them to strike with all the more force, and on hearts that are all the more open! That’s why we pray for the preaching, right? Because we believe that God must do what the preacher cannot; and because, although His word never goes out from the bowstring without achieving God’s purpose, yet we believe that God has the prerogative, at any time, to lodge the arrows even more deeply than normal!

So would you pray for that in your church? Would you ask God to help your pastor, yes, to do what he himself can do to faithfully hit the mark, week by week? And would you also thank God that, when your pastor does so, you can trust that the Spirit's fingers are surely taut around the bow string with the preacher's? But would you ask the Lord, too, to pull that string back all the more, and to lodge His arrows in places that your pastor could never reach with his own strength, and even to depths that God Himself does not always choose to reach in the normal course of your Sunday meetings? Pray for a deep movement of the Holy Spirit in your midst – the kind of heart piercing that we read about in Acts, when men “preached the gospel … with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12, KJV).

August 9, 2016

The Most Amazing Olympic Feat

Have you been watching the Olympics? Our family always enjoys the pageantry, the competition, the backstories, and the nightly reminders of the wide world beyond our own shores. Yes, there are portions we tune out, and elements we find disappointing … such that we are not unthinking apologists for all things Olympic. But there is much to learn, and much of God’s common grace on display, when we give a fortnight to the summer and winter games every other year. What astonishing abilities God has implanted into the human race! And what straining effort these men and women put forth in order to hone those abilities!

I still marvel, in wintertime, at how anyone can leap, twirl like a top a foot or two off the ground, and land safe and sound again on a single blade of metal, strapped to the sole of his or her foot … and do so over and over again, for several minutes, all on a gigantic sheet of ice! And it boggles my mind, in the summer, to see gymnasts whipping themselves in circles, like the arms of a windmill, hands attached to a horizontal bar … then not attached (while they contort, mid-air, in all manner of directions) … and then somehow attached again, so that they can slingshot just a little more before landing, like a cat, squarely on their feet!

But do you know what is the most amazing Olympic feat I have seen yet this summer? Not the world records in the pool (which I thoroughly enjoy). Not the marvel of two men diving, summersaulting, twisting, and entering, straight as toothpicks into the water, all in near perfect unison. No. The most amazing thing I have seen was two of said divers, David Boudia and Steele Johnson, calmly explaining on national TV that, while the pressure they felt leading up to these events was significant, and while winning a silver medal was fantastic, yet they were not overruled by either the stress or the success because, as Boudia put it, “our identity is in Christ.” Johnson used the same words, too, when he said that “my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is.”

Yeah, I know. Much easier to say such things when you’ve just won the silver medal, rather than when you’ve finished in the bottom half of the standings. And easier still to say such things as a privileged Olympian, rather than a cancer patient, or a father in the unemployment line, and so on. But I got the feeling that the two men were sincere … and that they probably would have spoken in the same way even if they’d belly-flopped on the world’s biggest stage. In other words, they didn’t come out, as we’ve grown accustomed to athletes doing, and give a hackneyed theology of success founded on a superficial reading of Philippians 4:13 – ‘We won this silver medal because we "can do all things through Him who strengthens" us.’ That would be true, of course. For all of our successes are from God. But it just sounds, sometimes, like the athletes who say such things believe that God is primarily concerned with our success. And you wonder what they would have to say if they had not achieved the ‘all things’ that they were striving for. But Boudia and Johnson hit the bullseye when they spoke, not about their success, but about their identity … and particularly when they noted that their identity was unrelated to their success, or even their efforts toward it!

That is real Christianity: Not the idea that God will always cause us to succeed (as either we or the world define success); but the fact that, whether we succeed or fail, what defines us is that we belong to Christ; that we are sons and daughters of the King, irrespective of how (un)important, or (un)successful we may be.

And I say it was a mighty feat, indeed, that these two highly successful divers seemed to get that! Because we are all prone to what Boudia called “an identity crisis.” We are all prone to think that our identity is defined, as he put it, by what we do. And that is dangerous. Because most of us won’t do what we do on an Olympic level! Most of us are just plain average at what we do – spiritually, vocationally, and otherwise. And someday, if we live long enough, we won’t be able to do a lot of things anymore at all! And what then? Well, if Boudia and Johnson are sincere about their true identity, then even when their diving days are done, they’ll still be the same David and Steele that they were on Monday night. Because, by their own admission, even on the night at which they won Olympic silver, they were not mainly world class divers, but rather Christians, identities rooted in Christ! And, oh, how good if we ourselves can speak (and truly identify!) in the same way!