To Read the Bible is to Learn Faithfulness

The more I read the Bible, especially during Advent, the more I continue to sense one consistent, persistent, and insistent message from it: faithfulness.

God is faithful to pursue the delight of His own glory. The proof of His faithfulness is the sending of His Son. The evidence of our faithfulness is a stubborn, steadfast trust in His future grace.

  • Faithfulness to God is to be wholly His.
  • Faithfulness to God is strengthened by not thinking lightly of sin.
  • Faithfulness to God teaches me to forgive as I am/have been forgiven.
  • Faithfulness to God is Word-driven trust in future grace.
  • Faithfulness to God is Spirit-fueled courage to press on when I would prefer to stay put.

But God would not have me neither stuck nor paralyzed. He would have me move. Forward! If not with my feet, then certainly with my heart and mind. In truth, I can move forward in my heart and mind, then will my feet follow. Surely this is the aim of Paul’s exhortation at the beginning of Colossians 3. A key ingredient in the life of faithfulness is to keep my heart and mind focused on Christ who reigns above.

The caveat says beware being too heavenly minded so as to be no earthly good. The caveat is – with all due respect – wrong! If I am to be any earthly good, then I must be heavenly minded. I must set my affections on the things that are above.

The things here below are too fickle, too ephemeral, too untrustworthy. There is only One in Whom I can trust. As the poet said, they who trust Him wholly, find Him wholly true. No, I will direct my heart and my mind heavenward.

Our fault is not thinking too much of heaven but too little! It is from thence comes my help, does it not? From whence comes my help if not from heaven? I cannot forgive unless I lift my eyes to the heavens – the throne of God – there to see Christ Jesus, the great High Priest, my High Priest interceding for me in light of His death for my sin.

This is wondrous grace; amazing grace! This is Good News: God with us. His faithfulness is the source of my faithfulness. His faithfulness makes it possible to be wholly His and thus, not to think lightly of sin – my sin, our sin.

Jesus is Immanuel. For He will save His people from their sins.

You think about that.

 

 

Waiting

Luke 2.25-32

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,

according to your word;

30for my eyes have seen your salvation

31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

32a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

                        and for glory to your people Israel.”

When our children were young, they couldn’t wait for Christmas. Now while impatience may be the peculiar privilege of children, it is not a virtue—especially during Advent. One year, in an effort to temper their impatience, we gave them each an Advent calendar. It didn’t work: the calendars only increased their impatience. And the chocolate didn’t help either.

Since Advent is a season of waiting and preparation, it makes sense that if we are to celebrate Advent properly, patience is a necessary virtue. However, given the proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas, life gets very busy very quickly—especially around the holidays. Things get hectic and with so much needing to be done, patience is in short supply. Besides all that, just how does one celebrate waiting? It’s counter-intuitive—especially given the culture in which we live.

  • Why wait when you can act?
  • Why practice patience when busy people who get busy get things done?
  • Why slow down when life moves at hyperspeed?

On the other hand, given the lightning pace at which life moves, why not take the time to wait? Why not practice patience? Why not slow down?

Advent is designed to slow us down. Advent teaches the importance of patience by showing us the patience of God. Advent teaches the virtue of waiting with the familiar stories of those, like Simeon, who waited for God to keep His promise. The story of Simeon illustrates why Advent slows us down: it is a season of waiting and preparation. Waiting and preparation require time. They also require faithfulness and hope. Faithfulness is learned by waiting. So is hope. And yet, our faithfulness and hope must have an object—something, Someone, worthy of our faithfulness as well as our hope. Advent points us to God as worthy of our faithfulness and hope. Advent tells us God is true to His Word; that He keeps His promise; that He follows through on the things He says He will do. Simeon’s patience is a lesson: we learn faithfulness by waiting for God to keep His promise.

In all likelihood, Simeon’s faithfulness stemmed from the fact that the Holy Spirit was upon him; and that the Spirit revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon waited faithfully and patiently because the Holy Spirit empowered him to be faithful and patient. He came in the Spirit into the temple on the very day Joseph and Mary brought Jesus there according to the Law of Moses. When we learn faithfulness God has a way of leading to the right place at the right time for the right reason.

God kept His promise to Simeon. However, sometimes God keeps His promises in ways we do not expect. Think for a moment: was Simeon surprised when the Spirit revealed to him that the Messiah was the infant in Mary’s arms? All the Spirit revealed to him was that he would see the Messiah before he died. Not until Simeon saw the infant Jesus, and the Spirit prompted him to take him in his arms, did he know this baby was the Messiah. Sometimes God keeps His promises in ways we do not expect.

If I were to summarize the story of Simeon, I would quote Proverbs 13.12 which says,

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

How many days did Simeon go into the temple hoping to see the Messiah only to have his hope deferred and return home heartsick? How many times did he have keep his faith in God from wavering into unbelief? How many times have we experience a similar heartsickness while waiting for God to keep His promise?

This will sound strange, but I believe Advent is designed to make us heartsick. Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we have been waiting and hoping for His return; His second Advent. Yet rather than make us waver in our faith, God intends this heartsickness to strengthen our faith, encourage our hope, and deepen our love for the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

During Advent we prepare our hearts for the One who will lift every valley and make low every mountain. We wait for the One through we are put right with God and through Whom the Spirit is given to help us as we wait. Advent is a reminder that while Jesus has already put things right, He has not yet put all things right nor has He yet made all things new. Advent reminds us that faithfulness is not for the faint of heart. For this reason God has given us the Spirit and the Word. These two witnesses testify to the faithfulness of God. He keeps His promises. Therefore we are to wait with a patient hope. Jesus has come. Jesus will come again.

Simeon was told he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. He looked forward to the first advent of Jesus. Unlike Simeon, we have no such guarantee while we await the second Advent of Jesus. We live and we die in the hope God will keep His promise. Until then we are waiting, always waiting for the day God will follow through.

I composed the following poem during a particularly dark period of my life. I was waiting in the dark for God to keep His promise. Seasons of darkness intensify the pain of the heartsick. Dark times teach us to wait with a patient hope. Here now is the poem:

Outside—It’s morning but it’s still dark

Perhaps the sun has overslept

                                                Tucked in and cozy beneath the horizon

Inside—I yawn while waiting for the coffee to be done

 Outside—The sun has begun to yawn lazily still reluctant to begin its daily circuit

It’s still dark

Inside—The coffee is done. With a cup in one hand and my Bible in the other

                                    I sit at my desk.

Outside my window a cardinal is singing

                                    His song reminds me

                                                That it’s possible

                                                            To sing in the darkness

                                                While waiting for the dawn

So—Here am I                       

In the dark                             

Singing           

                       

The song of the heartsick soul expresses a resilient, joyous, and patient trust in the faithfulness of God. Simeon knew that. He also knew that while the dark may be deep, and the time of darkness long, hope believes the Light will dawn.

Sing on! Our hope is not in vain.

Sing on! The Light has dawned and the darkness has not overcome it.

Sing on! The Light that has dawned will vanquish the darkness forever with the glorious Sonrise of God’s eternal day.

You think about that.

Not Your Typical Advent Post

The celebration of Advent took root early in the history of the church. Even so, many Christians are unfamiliar with the origin as well as the significance of Advent. Some years ago, I came across an article by Chris Armstong about the historical worth of Advent. It was posted online at christianitytoday.com. Here is an excerpt:

Once upon a time, in fourth- and fifth-century Gaul and Spain, Advent was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany. That’s the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus’ life as his Baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the Magi. In those days, Epiphany was set aside as an opportunity for new Christians to be baptized and welcomed into the church. So believers spent Advent’s forty days examining their hearts and doing penance. It was not until the sixth century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the ‘coming’ that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but his Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord’s advent or coming did not supplant the older sense—the Second Coming. And the muted, Lent-like mood of penitential preparation remained alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus’ birthday.

Advent is a joyous yet contemplative celebration of present and future grace. As such it acknowledges two certainties: Jesus Christ has come (John 1.14; 2 Timothy 3.16); Jesus Christ will come again (Acts 1.11; 1 Thessalonians 5.2). The first Advent of Jesus was attested to by a library of Old Testament passages beginning with Moses, and all the Prophets including the Psalms. The second Advent of Jesus Christ is also attested to by numerous passages in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15.22-23; 2 Corinthians 5.10; 2 Peter 3.10; Revelation 22.20). As does the Word of God, current celebration of Advent is double-edged: it is grounded in the joy that accompanied Jesus’ birth in the past; it is a hope-filled, future-focused anticipation of His return. Advent invites us to be joyous yet contemplative.

Advent has also inspired a treasury of hymns appropriate to the season. Some joyously exhort every heart to prepare Him room, while others bid us happily to hearken to herald angels. Still others have us sing about shepherds watching over their flocks by night. And then there are the contemplative hymns such as, “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” “Lo How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” When we sing these hymns, we add our voices to an ever growing chorus of witnesses who, for centuries, have celebrated Advent with merry hearts and pensive souls.

Advent is a season given to rememberance and celebration. Advent is about readiness; with readiness comes a sense of anticipation; with anticipation comes reflection. Given that Advent is about readiness, anticipation, and preparation, the most pressing question is not “What are we getting ready for?” but rather “For Whom are we getting ready?”

You think about that.

~ In Memoriam ~

Bruce Lee Edwards, Jr.

5 September 1952 ~ 28 October 2015

On Wednesday, October 28, 2015, my best friend, Bruce Edwards, died while he and his wife were visiting friends in Houston, Texas. The shock and dismay caused by his death, sudden as it was, saddens my heart still these two weeks on. In time, the shock and dismay will lessen. Certainly this is the prayer and hope of his wife and children. More certain to last is the enduring memory of Bruce as a husband captivated by his wife, Joan; an affectionate father who lavished love and praise upon his children, their spouses; an unbashful, doting grandfather.

The last time I saw Bruce was December 2012. I drove him from Bowling Green, Ohio to Detroit Metro Airport. He boarded a plane that would take him to Alaska and his beloved Joan. On the way we talked about our continuing our friendship. We wept as we discussed our mutual love of Jesus and baseball. At the airport we cried like children leaving their mothers to endure their first day of school. We hugged each other. We said, “I love you,” (for background read the chapter on Phileo in C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves). We promised to visit. We promised to stay in touch. Texting was our primary means of communication. Most of our texts were exchanged while watching baseball in the summer and football in the fall. To the outsider most of what we said was coded silliness. For Bruce and me it was fellowship: a kinship grown deep despite the distance.

The last time I spoke with Bruce was October 19, 2015. Jill and I had just moved into our new home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We spoke for 53 minutes. We talked about transitioning to life on “the Cape.” We talked baseball. We talked football. He wished us well in our new church. We wept. We said, “I love.” Plans were made to visit him and Joan in Alaska next summer. When there, we would make plans for Bruce to come to the Cape in the Fall to lead a seminar on C.S. Lewis. We envisioned a future built on plans to visit and time spent together. A week later, Joan sent us a text, “Call me.” We did and then we learned the tragic news. Bruce had passed. Our friend, my best friend, my brother from another mother has passed from the Shadowlands into the Real World. He was gone from our presence. Jill and I wept bitter tears at the news.

In many ways, Bruce was closer to me than my own brother. My biggest regret is that twelve years is too short a time to have known him. And yet, in those twelve years, the Lord forged a bond of friendship between us so strong, not even death itself can sever it.

Bruce and I bonded over a common love of Jesus Christ. This common love of Jesus spilled over into love for our families. Bruce’s love of Jesus is evident through his love for Joan, for his children and his grandchildren. Here is a man unashamed and unapologetic to express his love and pride in his wife and family. Read his Facebook posts, his blog entries, listen to his podcasts and you will hear a man captivated by his wife, enthralled with his children and delighting in his grandchildren.

Bruce and I bonded over a mutual love of baseball. In some ways, loving – not merely liking baseball – was a litmus test for Bruce. To be an adherent of Reformed theology was good. To like C.S. Lewis was good. To enjoy a good craft beer was also good. And yet, for Bruce that list is not complete – you were not complete as a person, if not a Christian (forgive the hyperbole) – unless you possessed an ardent love of baseball. [Side note: Bruce, was born in Akron, Ohio. He was a lifelong, longsuffering Cleveland Indians fan. I am from Long Island, New York, and a lifelong New York Yankees fan. Despite this, we became fast friends!]

Bruce and I also bonded over words. Bruce was a superb writer. He loved to play with words – especially obscure words. The more obscure the better. He also liked using Latin phrases. The first memo he sent me after I became pastor of Covenant Church was entitled In Media Res. He would later translate this for me as In the Middle of Things. (Even now, this strikes me as appropriate. Bruce was always in media res.) Given his love of obscure words, Bruce would often dare me to use them in a sermon. In fact, as I wrote this, I could sense him saying, “I dare you to use in media res and hyperbole in your eulogy.” So there you are Bruce! As obsequious as it seems you are ubiquitous even in your absence.

Bruce also owned an impish sense of humor. Like Mal Reynolds, he aimed to misbehave. Never to be crass, nor be rebellious. It was Bruce’s way of prodding you to seeing things along the beam not merely at what the beam revealed. For example, Bruce led a brief series of monthly services titled, Phlashlight which he promoted as decidedly seeker un-friendly. (Why was it spelled with a Ph? Because according to Bruce, “The Goths and the post-moderns really dig that stuff.”) Bruce practiced a witty irreverence which he wasn’t afraid to use. He was mischievous anarchist against the status quo. This result of this irreverence formed the foundation of another bond: beer, and in particular obscure craft beer. I never knew anyone with such an avid interest in little known, obscure, craft beer. If you knew Bruce, you learned to appreciate, and imbibe beer. Never to excess, but always to enhance.

Finally, there is Bruce’s love of C.S. Lewis. A few years ago, Bruce – a renowned C.S. Lewis scholar was kind enough to ask me, an amateur Lewis fan, to contribute an article on The Four Loves to be included in a four-volume set he edited on Lewis’s life and legacy. It was not very good, but you would never know from Bruce. He always saw and always aimed to bring out the best in people, especially when it concerned C.S. Lewis. Without apology, Bruce was an evangelist for C.S. Lewis. The man’s car bore a license plate reading Narnia 1. His blog and an email handle are Aslandad. In fact, reading Bruce is a lot like reading Lewis. There is a connection there which is the fruit of a lifelong study of Lewis and his works. When I think of Bruce, I think of C.S. Lewis. And when I think of C.S. Lewis, I think of The Chronicles of Narnia.

At the end of The Last Battle, the last book in Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan informs Lucy, that she, her brother and her parents were all in a real railway accident: “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

A few lines down, Lewis finishes with this: “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (228)

With great sadness, I must reckon with the reality that my friend, Bruce, is – as we call it in the Shadowlands – dead. And I miss him – very much. I mourn his passing and grieve his absence. Even so, in this is comfort: for Bruce, the term is ended. The holidays have begun. He has begun Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Oh how I look forward to the day when we will read the Great Story together.

There is Deep Hope for Those in Deep Places

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let Your ears be attentive to my pleas for mercy!
If You, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O LORD, who could stand?
But with You there is forgiveness that You may be feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than the watchman for the morning,
more than the watchman for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with Him is plentiful redemption.
And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Psalm 130 belongs to a group of Psalms known as the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134).These musical poems were sung by pilgrims making their ascent to Jerusalem to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Some of the Songs of Ascents begin and end with a sense of joyous expectation. Psalm 130 begins with a desperate cry for help.

1Out of the depths I cry to You, O LORD!
2O Lord, hear my voice!
Let Your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

The psalmist is in a deep place. His cry is that of a man who’s just been told he has cancer. This is the cry of a single young woman exhausted by the well-intentioned counsel of married friends telling her she will not find fulfillment until she’s found a husband, settled down and starts having children. This is the cry of the person struggling with same-sex attraction – wondering why did God make them this way. This is the cry of a recent university graduate shouldering a mountain of debt and no job prospects. This is the cry of a woman who has kept a past abortion secret from her husband and wonders if her recent miscarriage is punishment from God.

This is the cry of a man who has fallen into a deep place. The inscape of his soul is barren, cold and desolate. In this deep place he discovers there is no grace and no mercy to be found by looking inward. There is no help found by seeking strength from within. His only hope, his only help is to cry out to God for both. “O Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!”

Deep places give birth to a deep hope in God.

Rather than bemoan how he ended up in a deep place, the psalmist seeks help from the only One who can lift him out. His cry is desperate yet it is catalyzed by trust. You do not cry out for God to help unless you truly believe He can help. Whoever said, “God helps those who help themselves,” missed the mark. “God helps those who cannot help themselves.” God helps those desperate enough to trust Him to rescue them from the deep places.

Our hope of deliverance is grounded in something more than God’s able willingness to rescue us. At the same time the deep places give birth to a deep hope in God, they also intensify our trust in His fearsome mercy.

3If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
4But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

Where we would carve our past sins into granite God erases them. Where we would write our past iniquities in indelible ink, God washes them out. Where we would tattoo our past mistakes upon our soul, God bleaches them away – forever! God does not mark our iniquities so we will fear Him more than the failures of our past.

God’s forgiveness means we do not have to carry the weight of past sins. We are free to follow and serve him without guilt or shame. There is forgiveness for the recovering addict who stumbles. There is forgiveness for the father who exasperates his child. There is forgiveness for the young woman who’s had the abortion. There is forgiveness for the person caught in the tension of same-sex attraction. There is forgiveness for people like you and me – people who fall into deep places because try as we might, we do not always resist temptation. We fall. The good news this: the LORD does not mark iniquities because there is forgiveness with Him so that He may be feared, so that He may be trusted, and so that He may be followed.

Once again, the psalmist does not waste time bemoaning what led him to fall off the edge into the deep place he was in. To the contrary, the past is the past. His only hope is to look to God to help him move forward. His only hope is to cry out for grace, mercy and forgiveness. His only hope is to spend the rest of his life living in the fear of the LORD because the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. And once the decision is made to fear the LORD, He increases our passion for His presence.

5I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 The deep places increase our passion for God’s presence.

There is a relationship between waiting and the word of God. The patience to wait is accompanied by time spent contemplating the hope found in the promises of God. To wait for the LORD is to be active. It is to be active in reading, studying, memorizing and contemplating the Scripture. While prayer is an excellent way to pursue the presence of God; prayer that arises from the active study and contemplation of God’s word intensifies the experience of His presence. There is great value in focusing our heart and mind on the fact there is forgiveness with God. There is great value in concentrating our attention on the able willingness of God to listen to our plea for help.

 Those who hunger and thirst for God will be satisfied. And when they are, when God rescues us from the deep places we will have the able willingness to help others who have fallen off the edge into deep places. Psalm 130 begins with a desperate cry for help. It ends with an authentic exhortation:

7O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
8And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

The steadfast love of God inspires a steadfast hope in Him. Therefore there is always deep hope for those in deep places

You think about that. Continue reading “There is Deep Hope for Those in Deep Places”

The Yeast that Makes Our Faith Rise

Of all the holidays I spent as a child, my favorite has to be Easter. At Easter, Mom and Grandma pulled out all the stops to prepare a seven-course feast. The first course was a homemade meatball soup, followed by generous helpings of either homemade manicotti or ravioli, Italian sausage, meatballs and rolled beef. The highlight of our Easter feast was dessert. However, instead of pie, cake, or Italian pastries, dessert meant consuming numerous loaves of Easter bread.

The production of this bread remains the most memorable of our family traditions. After making the dough, my mother would set it out on the dining room table and cover it with thick wool blankets to rise overnight. In the morning my dad, my brother and me would knead the dough. When we were finished mom would lay it out on the table, cover it and let it rise. This process was repeated until the dough had risen at least three times. After the third rise, Mom would separate the dough into loaves and bake them.

Now looking back, I realize that as a little boy I never made that connection between the rising of the Easter bread and the resurrection of Jesus. As the bread rose, so Christ arose. It was not until after I became a follower of Jesus that I realized that the resurrection is to our faith what yeast is to bread dough. The resurrection is the yeast that makes our faith rise.

God’s plan of salvation included several ingredients—the Virgin birth of Jesus, His sinless life and sacrificial death on the cross. However, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, all these ingredients would have been meaningless. The resurrection is to our faith what yeast is to bread dough. It is the ingredient that makes our faith come alive.

This message lies at the heart of what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15.1-4:

 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, . . .

Sometimes life becomes so painful it can siphon away every remembrance of the fact of the resurrection. Whether its chronic or terminal illness, the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one, whether it’s the end of a relationship or the end one’s income, life will work to make us forget the grace of Jesus and the power of His resurrection.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the cares and sheer frenetics of this life can eclipse the truth we believe. We forget. When that happens friends are apt to give us long dissertations on the necessity of trusting Jesus. While what they say may be true, our heart, mind and soul crave bite-sized, chewable and easily digestible truth. Our attention span is too short to endure long-winded even impassioned exhortations to press on. As helpful these inspirational “pats on the back” may be, what we truly need is a short, pithy reminder of the facts of our faith.

We need our hope distilled into easily remembered bits – a sort of binary code for the soul. (Just give me the ones and zeroes for now, I’ll get around to the fuller stuff later on when my mind can handle more complex thought.) As if sensing both the likelihood of this spiritual attention-deficit disorder/amnesia, Paul gives the Corinthians a simple pneumonic designed to help them hold on to Jesus. And he does this by summarizing the Gospel in three short, pithy statements.:

  •  Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
  • Christ was buried, again, according to the Scriptures.
  • Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

As I write this, my family and I are in the midst of turbulent waters. Our trust in Christ is being tested. Life is doing its worst in an attempt to erase from our memory every remembrance of His grace, goodness, power and mercy. Prayers have gone unanswered. It is a season where the sky has turned to brass and the pleasant rains have stopped. The drought is upon us and we long for the Lord to make us lie down in green pastures beside the still waters.

We feel so very much like Peter, who when he noticed the wind and the waves after having stepped out of the boat, began to sink. Perhaps the same is true for you. My family and I stepped out of the boat long ago without regret. But now the wind is up and the waves are high. Even so Jesus stands above them both as the Risen Lord of all creation. He is as He always is, the risen Savior beckoning us to keep on walking toward Him despite the wind and through the waves.

We are being kneaded like bread dough. Perhaps life is kneading you as well. Kneading is a violent process. It hurts. Yet in the end, dough must be kneaded or it will not rise. Faith must be tested, at times violently, or it will not mature. Jesus was kneaded by the torment of His accusers and ultimately by the violence of the cross. And yet for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross scorning its shame. So then, it is my hope that with God’s help my family and I will one day lay down in green pastures beside still waters.

Until then, we will stand firm and hold fast to the promise, the hope, the assurance and the glorious majesty of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which is at the heart of the Gospel:

  •  Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
  • Christ was buried, again, according to the Scriptures.
  • Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

You think about that. And remember: He is risen!

Lest We Forget

Luke 22:14-16

And when the hour came, He reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’

 When I lived in Canada, every November 11, our little town gathered in front of a memorial dedicated to the men and women who died in war. In Canada, November 11 is appropriately celebrated as Remembrance Day – the day when the armistice was signed ending World War 1 in 1918. The motto of Remembrance Day is a simple phrase: “Lest we forget.”

Why do we memorialize the night Jesus was betrayed?

Why do we remember Gethsemane with such solemnity?

Why encourage such serious reflection on the remembrance of Christ’s trial and crucifixion?

Three words. Lest we forget.

If the sacrifice of men and women who died in war is worthy of remembrance, how much more the suffering and death of Jesus Christ? If the sacrifice of men and women who died to preserve our liberty is worthy of remembrance, how much more the crucifixion suffering of Jesus Christ for our salvation?

Yes. Resurrection Sunday is coming. Yes. We know the joy that awaits us three days from now. But lest we forget, that was information the disciples who sat around the table in the upper room did not have.

Well, almost.

Three times before this night, Jesus told His disciples He would be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes and be killed, and on the third day He would be raised.

Apparently, they forgot. And if they forgot, who heard it straight from the mouth of Jesus, what makes us think we will fare any better at remembering what He said or what He did.

That’s why we memorialize the night Jesus was betrayed. That’s why we memorialize the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve said, “Not Your will, but our will be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said, “Not My will, but Your will be done.” However, before Jesus prays Gethsemane, He has one last meal with the apostles in the Upper Room.

Luke 22:17-20

And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.’

Jesus earnestly desired to eat this Passover with His disciples because it would be the last Passover celebrated under the Old Covenant. On the last night of His life, Jesus chose the Passover meal to inaugurate the New Covenant. With the use of two simple yet profound declarations, Jesus transformed the Passover meal from a remembrance of how God miraculously redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt to the remembrance of His death as the atoning sacrifice that saves us forever from God’s wrath against us for our sin.

“This is My body, . . . .”

“This cup that is poured out for you . . . .”

Lest we forget. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we confess our faith in Jesus pierced for our transgressions.

Lest we forget. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we confess our faith in Jesus crushed for our iniquities.

Lest we forget. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we confess our faith in Jesus who bore the punishment that brought us peace.

Lest we forget. The Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal established by Jesus Christ whereupon every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we confess our faith in Him.

The moment Jesus breaks the bread He declares the New Covenant has begun. However, for a covenant to be legal and binding—in order for it to be in effect blood must be shed. Under the Old Covenant this meant an animal had to be sacrificed. The New Covenant requires a better sacrifice—better blood. The New Covenant may have begun when Jesus broke the bread, but it was not ratified—made legal and binding—until the next day when He is crucified and His blood is shed on the cross.

Under the Old Covenant, the Passover meal was a annual reminder of how God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. It was also meant to create a longing in the hearts of the people for the arrival of the true Lamb of God, the One who would make an end of sacrifices for sins by taking away forever the sin of the world.

The Lord’s Supper is meant to create a similar longing in our hearts. We know that with the coming of Christ the kingdom of God is already here. However, until Christ returns, the kingdom is not yet fully here. We live in the overlap of the old age and the age to come.

And so, lest we forget, let us eat and drink proclaiming Christ’s death until He comes—until the Lamb of God returns as the Lion of Judah bringing with Him the full revelation, power, and majesty of the kingdom of God. Lest we forget. Let us continue to live by faith in who Jesus is and what He has done. Lest we forget. Let us continue to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Lest we forget. Let us stand firm in our hope in Jesus’ promise to bestow the benefits of His grace upon any one who holds out even a trembling hand to receive by faith the elements of the New Covenant.

In the words of a familiar and appropriate hymn:

King of my life, I crown Thee now, Thine shall the glory be;

Lest I forget Thy thorn-crowned brow, Lead me to Calvary.

Lest I forget Gethsemane; Lest I forget Thine agony;

Lest I forget Thy love for me, Lead me to Calvary.

May I be willing, Lord, to bear Daily my cross for Thee;

Even Thy cup of grief to share, Thou hast borne all for me.

Lest I forget Gethsemane; Lest I forget Thine agony;

Lest I forget Thy love for me, Lead me to Calvary.

Why do we memorialize the night Jesus was betrayed?

Why do we remember Gethsemane with such solemnity?

Why encourage such serious reflection on the remembrance of Christ’s trial and crucifixion?

Three words: Lest we forget.

You think about that.

Debridement as Sanctification

This past June I underwent sinus surgery both to repair a deviated septum and correct some serious structural issues affecting my ability to breathe clearly through my nose. The surgery lasted four hours and was successful. The ability to breathe more freely has not only increased my energy level, it has enabled me sleep through the night. As part of my recovery I had to make weekly visits to the doctor who performed the surgery. In addition to noting my progress the doctor performed a procedure known as debridement (di-‘brēd-ment) For the uninitiated, debridement is the surgical removal of lacerated, devitalized, or contaminated tissue. To call debridement an unpleasant experience would be to sully the word unpleasant. Even with topical anesthesia administered, the treatments were a painful, tear-inducing, nerve-piercing, teeth-jarring, color-inducing experience. And yet they were entirely necessary. For as the name suggests, there was much lacerated, devitalized and contaminated tissue to be removed. With every debridement the doctor hastened the healing process begun by the surgery he performed.

After my fifth debridement I asked my doctor how many more treatments I would need to endure. His answer did not comfort me. “It depends,” he said, “some people only need three or four. I have some patients who needed as many as eleven or twelve.”

“Are you telling me I may need eleven or twelve more treatments?! Does the CIA know about this procedure?”

He laughed. “Yes. And probably, but I couldn’t say—about the CIA, I mean.”

Summer became Fall and Fall became Winter. The debridement continued and with each treatment the doctor noted my progress with encouragement and satisfaction. I am healing well. I am making such good progress I can wait an entire month before needing another debridement. Hopefully, the day will come when I will no longer need debridement nor the prescription medication I take daily. Until then the debridement and daily prescription medication will continue so as to hasten healing and recovery.

It is at this point I am compelled to see in this process a metaphor of the Christian life. Once the surgery is completed, the recovery becomes paramount. For the Christian, the surgery performed is akin to a heart transplant. The LORD God who created us removes our old heart of stone and replaces it with a new heart of flesh. Moreover, He also puts His Spirit within us and it is by means of the Spirit that our new heart beats in rhythm with the cadence of God’s voice, (Ezekiel 36.26, 27). Where once we were out of step with God because we rejected Him, we are now kept in step with Him as we keep in step with His Holy Spirit. We obey God’s voice because we are a new creation. The old is gone. The new has come.

However, there is a problem. Despite the presence of a new heart we are still human. We are still prone to wander, still prone to disobey, still prone to sin against the God who saved us. The remnants of the old heart requires debridement. The surgery is complete. However, the healing and recovery required for the new heart to grow in strength and trust in God requires a lifetime of trust/obedience. The Bible refers to his process of healing and recovery as sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we grow in holiness through daily repentance from our old way of life through daily obedience to the Spirit who teaches us how to live the new life God has given to us.

In the latter part of the first century, the apostle Paul wrote to Christians living in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul had planted a church there, spending some eighteen months living with them. The Corinthians struggled mightily to follow faithfully everything Paul taught them about Jesus. The Corinthians tried their best to follow Jesus, but they lived in a culture which tested their loyalty to Jesus every day. Paul knew the Corinthians well. Just as important, they knew Paul. They knew his passion for Christ. They knew his love for them. They knew his passion for their sanctification and growth in holiness.

Here is what he tells them in 2 Corinthians 6.16-18 (for the full context read the whole letter):

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said; ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’

The Corinthians are the temple of God. They are God’s children. This happened as the result of His sovereign, elective grace. They are all a new creation. He loved them before they knew Him. He loves them even now. And so what is to be their response to the love of God? The surgery is complete. The recovery has begun. And what is to be the evidence of their recovery?

The answer comes at the start of 2 Corinthians 7: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”

Salvation is an act of God and God alone. Sanctification is a joint effort. We cooperate with the Spirit through daily repentance revealed by daily obedience to God. Think back to my weekly visits to the doctor for debridement. Repentance is the daily debridement of the vestiges of sin left behind after the initial surgery. This debridement is the work of the Spirit. Our part is to keep in step with Him through daily trust in the promises of God. Included among these promises is this truth: we are a new creation in Christ, He has made His dwelling in us and He is a Father to us.

This changes everything! We change because we have been changed. We love God because He has proven His love for us. We give Him everything because He gave us His One and only Son. The power of the gospel is such that everything we need to please God, everything we need to be loved by Him is the gift of His grace. Included among these is the faith to trust Jesus, the insight needed to understand His word, the strength to follow Him and the wisdom to know the difference between grace and law.

I need the daily debridement of the Spirit. Forasmuch as I love and trust Christ, the remnants of the old life still linger. These remnants require the surgical removal of lacerated, devitalized, and contaminated tissue left behind. Pride. Envy. Anger. Greed. Lust. Gluttony. Sloth. Name the sin. The path to holiness requires frequent debridement by the Holy Spirit. The debridement by the Spirit is helped by reading the Bible and prayer. It is also helped by the honest confession of where we have missed the mark of God’s desire for. It is further helped by seeking the company of other Christians who are themselves learning to trust Jesus every day.

Happily for us, the exhortation to cleanse ourselves daily is grounded in the truth God has already made us clean. The exhortation to grow in holiness is grounded in the truth that in Christ we are already holy. It is because we are God’s temple – both as individuals and as His church – we are to undergo the debridement of every defilement of body and spirit. This is how the Spirit brings holiness to completion in the fear of God. And this fear is grounded in the knowledge of His sovereign grace and majestic holiness.

So as the New Year approaches, one way to embrace the future grace of God is to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit. The debridement of the Holy Spirit is painful, but we have God’s promise that His ultimate purpose is to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.

You think about that and have a happy New Year.

Christmas

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened., which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

As often I read this text from Luke 2.15-20, I continue to be amazed by the hasty, ecstatic boldness with which the shepherds charge into Bethlehem to find Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in a manger. Compare the visit of the shepherds with that of the wise men in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2.1-12). The reverent worship of the wise men is acoustic whereas the boisterous happiness of the shepherds is joy turned up to eleven. Whereas the wise men may have entered softly humming “Adestes Fideles,” the shepherds shatter the silence of that holy night loudly singing “Angels from the Realms of Glory!”

And perhaps that’s the reason why Luke includes the visit by the shepherds. Matthew’s wise men are right to worship in their dignified and reverential manner. Christ is the Messiah. He is worthy of such respectful esteem and quiet adoration. He deserves to be presented with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. He is just as deserving of the ebullient worship offered by common men with callused hands bearing shepherd’s staffs. It is perhaps an oversimplification, but the two accounts describe a Christ who can be worshiped by all: the well-groomed and the common man. Worship with a grosso voce (big voice) is as acceptable as worship with sotto voce (subdued voice).

Some of us can worship Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some of us can worship him with callused hands only. No matter. Worship reflects the attitude of the heart toward the Christ who has been sent as Savior, Redeemer and Lord. The voice with which we worship Jesus matters less than the thoughts and intentions of our heart in response to this Good News: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Luke includes the shepherds because although they are unlikely witnesses – they are witnesses nonetheless.[1] And having found Mary and Joseph and the baby, they tell them what they had seen and heard: how an angel of the Lord had appeared to them and told them of the baby’s birth and how suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying; “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.!”

This leads to the second thing that continues to catch my eye in this story is Mary’s response to these unexpected, enthusiastic visitors/worshipers/annunciators of Good News of great joy. Although Luke does not say, Mary must have been exhausted from the labor and delivery of her firstborn. Add to this, she gave birth in a stable of all places! How tired is she? Is she frightened? Anxious? Is she happy? Was she asleep? Her physical or emotional condition notwithstanding, it is her response to what the shepherds say which Luke describes as follows: “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” In other words, Mary contemplates the significance of this thing that has happened.

Some people celebrate Christmas like the angels. They announce the birth of Jesus at the top of their lungs. They greet His birth by singing, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” Some people celebrate Christmas like the shepherds. They go to the manger to see this thing that has happened, then return to their work “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

And then there’s Mary.

If you are an introvert, you know exactly what is happening in Mary’s heart and mind. Every word spoken by the shepherds is cause for rumination, cogitation and deliberation. The Good News of Jesus’ birth confirms her faith in Him who is able to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” Simultaneous with this realization is the awareness of her daily and future dependence on Him who created the universe by the power of His word.

So here is Christmas. Here is Good News. Here is the what C.S. Lewis called the Grand Miracle. Jesus is born. The Word is become flesh. God the ineffable who dwells in unapproachable light has come near. He is the Lord who has taken the form of a Servant to be the Savior. Shepherds announce his birth in joyous repetition of the angelic message. Mary ponders the news and treasures it in her heart.

So let us join them. So let us adore Him. So let us rejoice with them.

Christ is born! Christ is come! Salvation is here!

Hallelujah and Merry Christmas!

 

[1] Shepherds were on the lower rungs of the social order, somewhere between Samaritans and tax collectors. They were considered to be ceremonially unclean by the very religious establishment. They were also considered to be unreliable witnesses and were not used to testify in law courts.

Called to Trust in a Withdrawing God

There are times when a saint is called to trust in a withdrawing God. ‘Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God,’ (Isaiah 50.10). This requires a bold step of faith – to venture into God’s presence with the same temerity as Esther into Ahasuerus’s. Even when no smile lights His face, when no golden scepter is extended to summon us to come near, we must press forward with this noble resolution: ‘If I perish, I perish,’ (Esther 4.16).

The statement above is from The Christian in Complete Armour (I.32) by William Gurnall. Gurnall is a Puritan and he is describing the saint who has entered the season of perplexity.

To be perplexed is to be “called to trust in a withdrawing God.” It is a season the duration of which is determined neither by the size of our faith nor the severity of our affliction. It is a season whose Creator and Time-keeper is the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. The season of perplexity ends when God deems it should end. It is during such seasons we discover whether we are summer Christ-followers and sunshine believers in Him. However, it is not that we will be tempted to stop believing in God. On the contrary, as C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed,

The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like after all. Deceive yourself no longer.’

To trust in a withdrawing God is to trust in the God who leads us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is to trust in the God who withdrew His presence from His only begotten Son. It is to trust in the God who, as the Alpha and the Omega, is the Beginning and the End. It is to trust in the God who created all things by the word of His power and who by that same powerful word holds all things together.

But since we are so prone to forget these things in the season of perplexity, we have this assurance from the writer to the Hebrews. Speaking about Jesus, he writes:

“Since then we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” – Hebrews 4.14-15

The most startling discovery we can make in the season of perplexity is this: God is not really as we imagined Him. He is infinitely more than we could ever imagine Him. The hurdle we must overcome exists in our own heart because in order for us to make this discovery—and it’s more a revelation from the Holy Spirit than a discovery—is this: the catalyst for such moments of clarity is perplexity, or affliction, or persecution or some other kind of suffering we neither want nor anticipate. Even so, there is solace in knowing Christ can sympathize with our weaknesses because He has been tempted as we are yet is without sin.

It’s been said that God often withdraws from us in order to draw us to closer to Him. This inverse relationship is counter-intuitive. And it appears to be contrary to the gospel accounts of God coming near, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us and all that. And yet if we are to believe the psalmist (and we should) then we must believe God knows when we sit down and when we rise up. He discerns our thoughts from afar. He searches out our path and our lying down; that He is acquainted with all our ways (cf. Psalm 139.2-3). We may be called to trust in a withdrawing God, even so, He is the God who, despite every appearance of withdrawal, is still intimately aware of every aspect of our daily lives.

This is why the writer to the Hebrews ends his description of Jesus as the great High Priest with this exhortation: “Let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4.16).

Let us be those who with confidence draw near.

We will not perish.

To the contrary, we will find Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

And He will lead us through.

You think about.