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.