July 26, 2016

'The sky was always blue'

“Above Henry Erskine’s head, let the weather be fair or foul to his neighbors, the sky was always blue. In his heart, every month of the twelve, the birds sang, and the flowers bloomed, and the river of the water of life made happy music.”

Such is the description of the 17th century Scottish preacher! And a bright description it is, indeed – one that strikes, woos, and convicts me every time I am reminded of it. Little wonder, growing up under such a father’s roof, that Henry Erskine’s sons (Ralph and Ebenezer) became two of the most influential preachers of the gospel that Scotland has ever known. Little wonder, too, that Thomas Boston, who was converted as a young boy in Erskine’s meeting house, continues to be read down to this day. “The joy of the LORD” truly was Henry Erskine’s “strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). And no doubt that strength overflowed in his ministry, and continued on through his disciples!

And I say that I am convicted whenever I think of this striking description of Erskine’s joy! Because so often I see the dark side of things, and the half of the glass that is empty. I notice the gray skies more readily, sometimes, than the blue. Indeed, some days it could probably be written of me that: ‘Above Kurt Strassner’s head, let the weather be fair or foul to his neighbors, the clouds were always grey.’ And I smite myself for that, when I am thinking clearly. I desire to have more and larger clusters of “the fruit of the Spirit” which is “joy”! And perhaps you do as well … which is why I present Erskine to you as a model. I don’t want you merely to be convicted by your lack of joy, but wooed by the example of someone who possessed and exuded it in spades!

Now I suspect it’s very likely that part of Erskine’s unquenchable joy had to do simply with a personal disposition with which he was born. Some people are, I believe, more natural optimists! And others less so. And therefore, even when two men have been equally captured by grace, the joy of the one may sparkle to the surface more effervescently than that of the other.

But it is significant that, in the description of Erskine, it is said that “the river of the water of life made happy music” (emphasis mine). For this is a reference, not to the wellspring of cheer that lay in the preacher’s own nature, but to Revelation 22:1, which speaks of “a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (emphasis mine). And it was the sound of that river that is said to have made “happy music” in Henry Erskine’s ear! His heart was attuned, in other words, to things above; to things eternal; to the life that flows out from God, and from His Son! And therefore He was glad!

And so I conclude that Erskine’s joy was not merely a product of an optimist’s outlook on life, but that it must have been, even more profoundly, the fruit of his always walking within earshot of the rippling sounds of the “river of the water of life.” And if we would but walk closely with God; and if we would but remember that He is still seated on His throne; and if we would but “set [our] mind[s] on the things above” and keep an eternal perspective on the circumstances of this life, then we too would hear that “happy music” always tinkling in the background. For heaven is the mainstream of joy upon joy! And thus, when our minds are fixed on the things (and the God) above, how could our skies not be just a little more blue, even here below?

We may not all be bubbling optimists! Our joy may take on slightly different outward sheen than that of Henry Erskine. And that’s OK. But joy is “the fruit of the Spirit”! If we have the Spirit, and if we have Christ, and if we are children of the heavenly Father … then we can hear the “happy music” of “the river of life.” Let’s be sure we listen in!

July 19, 2016

The Cure for What Ails Us

Nearly every other day, lately, seems to bring some painful news. Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, France, Turkey, Baton Rouge again, and all sorts of ‘lesser’ bad news sprinkled liberally in between. And none of that includes the frustration and disappointment that many Americans feel connected to the presidential election. Nor does it include whatever awful news stories may come across the ticker between the time I write this (Tuesday afternoon) and the time you read it. It really is a bad news world, this planet earth. And, while the outbreak of dark clouds seems to have increased in recent weeks, it always has been a bad news world, ever since Genesis 3:1-19.

And, ever since that day when the darkness fell in the Garden of Eden, the solution to man’s bad news has always, always (and, ultimately, only) been God’s good news – the news of a Savior who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:12), and right all that has gone wrong in the fall of mankind. And I submit to you that this idea – that the only ultimate hope in the midst of the world’s bad news is the good news about god’s Son – I submit to you that this idea is not just pie in the sky, nor is it merely somehow just generically true that the gospel would help the world. But it is specifically true in each of the specific situations that grieve us as they come marching, one after the other, across the daily newswire.

What is the hope in the cities of this nation that are torn by racial violence and fear? Better policing techniques would be a good thing! And so would the caution of citizens to avoid painting all police with a broad brush. But do you know what ultimately brings races together (and makes people really care about the above)? The news about Jesus, which breaks down the barrier between races, and makes black, white, Asian, Latino, and everyone else who is in Christ one (Ephesians 2:14, Galatians 3:28).

And what of the radical Islamic violence that continues to rear its ugly head on multiple continents? What is the solution for Orlando, Nice, and so many bombings in Africa and the Middle East.? It is the spread of the gospel, which turns militants into missionaries, and angry young men into lovers of peace (Acts 9:1-20). Are there important discussions to be had about immigration and border patrols? Certainly. But the ultimate solution for radical Islam, the thing that has the power to root it out altogether is not only figuring out how to keep radical Islam out, but (more importantly) sending merciful Christians in to Muslim regions and neighborhoods, proclaiming “liberty to the captives” in Jesus Christ!

And the same good news that has the power to convert the militants also has the power to comfort those (Muslim, European, Floridian, and so on) who are left to grieve in their wake; and those who grieve any and every other loss in this world. Because news of Jesus tells us that He is coming again, to right all that is wrong in this world, to make “all things new” and to “wipe away every tear” from the eyes of His people (Revelation 21:1-7).

And what of American Politics, and the future of our land? What is it that can make our nation what she should be? Not first of all jobs, or a good economy, or campaign reform, or what-have-you. What “exalts a nation”, according to the Scriptures, is “righteousness” (Proverbs 14:34). And how does an unrighteous nation – which America certainly is, on so many levels (abortion, sexual promiscuity, pornography, idolatry, etc.) – how does an unrighteous nation begin to be bend its collective will toward the ways of righteousness? Not first of all by enacting new laws (which sinful men will always find a way to skirt), nor even primarily by electing new politicians (who are sinners themselves, and work for a sinful constituency). No! Laws and leaders are important, no doubt. But the way a nation begins to adopt stances of righteousness is not first of all through new laws and new leaders, but as more and more of its individual citizens become new creatures in Christ. The laws and leaders will follow the transformation of the populous! And the populous is changed, one person at a time, through the proclamation of the message of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)!

And so do you see? What our broken, cracked, decaying nation and world need most is not only better laws, better politicians, safer borders, better policing, understanding of one another, and so on. All those things are true. But none of them change the human heart. Only the gospel does that. And so the solution for bad news is not just better ways of doing things, but altogether good news – the news about Christ!

July 6, 2016

"Walk about Zion"

That is what the psalmist urges in Psalm 48, as he considers the glory of ancient Jerusalem:

“Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth,
Is Mount Zion in the far north,
The city of the great King …
Walk about Zion and go around her;
Count her towers;
Consider her ramparts;
Go through her palaces,
That you may tell it to the next generation.”
Psalm 48:2, 12-13

And if the psalmist could say such things of ancient Jerusalem, how much more should we praise, and consider, and behold the beauty of the new Jerusalem, which is the church of Jesus Christ? How much more ought we walk about our Zion, considering her towers, ramparts, and palaces? How much more ought we to see the beauty of the church?

And she is beautiful, when she is what she ought to be! Holy in her array, so different from the shambles out of which her bridegroom bought her! And diverse in her make-up, too … made up of all sorts of different people, because we are all on equal footing, and we are all children of God, through the work of the cross! And melodious in her song, as well – which is marvelous to hear, when a congregation really lifts up its voice to the king. And then there is the fact that the church is ever expanding through the glorious work of missions! “Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth.”

And so I say that it is a good thing to “walk about Zion” and to take in the glory of the new Jerusalem – to think about the work of God, first of all, in your own church, and the strength and beauty that He is producing there. And then to consider some of the other churches that you know of – great and small, rich and poor, western and eastern, past and present – noticing that there is beauty in each true gospel church, whether they meet in a mud-daubed hut, or under a towering steeple. In both places we find Christ’s palaces … and in every gospel church in between. And we should think on these things, sometimes – just walking about the North American continent, musing on (and praying for!) the gospel churches that we know; and then extending our thoughts ever outward, to churches and missionary outposts that are far afield – admiring and praying for the work of God within all these distant ramparts!

Maybe this would be a good use of some of your Lord’s Day afternoon, this week … just meditating on and praising God for the beauty of the church in various places and eras of the world! And then, as the psalmist says, “tell[ing] it to the next generation” as well! Telling your children and grandchildren the story of the church – near and far, present and past. Walking with them around her palaces and ramparts, just as you would do if you took them to the Alamo, or Niagara Falls … and pointing out to them the glories of Calvin’s Geneva, or of Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, or of the Scottish Covenanters, or of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (in D.C.) today, or of the missionary works your church supports, or of the fellowship of churches with which your local congregation is involved.
It will do good to the soul (both to your own soul, and to that of your children) to really consider what God is doing in his new Jerusalem; in His church, the world over!
Six resources that will help you “walk about Zion”:

1. A good church history book, like Sketches from Church History by S.M. Houghton or Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley.

2. A good set of missionary newsletters, connecting you with the work of the church in distant parts of the globe.

3. Operation World, which will give a broader picture of how the gospel is faring in every nation on the planet.

4. sermonaudio.com, where you can listen to sermons from hundreds of churches in different parts of the world, and be encouraged that the same gospel that is doing its work in your church is also doing so in nooks and crannies of which you’ve never heard!

5. 9marks.org/church-search/ where you will find a list of (mostly) solid biblical churches to visit while you’re away on vacation or business. Being in other solid gospel churches now and again is one of the better ways to begin to see the beauty of God’s larger church!

6. Your own local church! The easiest, best, and most biblical way to “walk about Zion” counting her towers and considering her ramparts is to make sure you appreciate and make full use of the palace and ramparts where God has placed you on a day-to-day basis. Familiarize yourself with your own local church, praying for her members, observing the good work God is doing, basking in the beauty of her sung praise, and taking in the spiritual manna that God reigns upon her through the pulpit ministry.

The church of Jesus Christ is beautiful! She is a palace! And so let’s not miss out on all that there is to see! Let’s not be like tourists who stay in the hotel all day, watching TV! “Go through her palaces”, my friends. “Consider her ramparts.” “Count her towers.” “Walk about Zion and go around her” … and you (and your children) will be amazed by what you see!