Encouragement From The Word

A sure thing about heaven

This Sunday at St. Paul’s, Nobleton, I’ll be speaking about heaven in response to a couple of questions from members of the congregation.  We are, of course, limited in what we can know about heaven; all we can learn is found in the Scriptures, and what we find there is rather sketchy.  However, one thing that we know for certain, shown to us in several places in the Bible, is that God will be there – and that, for me, is enough!

Revelation 21.1-4 deserves our attention:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared.  And the sea was also gone.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people!  He will live with them, and they will be his people.  God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.  All these things are gone forever.’” (NLT)

“God’s home is now among his people.”  That’s what I truly look forward to about heaven – I hope you do, too.  There are other details about our eternal life about which we can know, and others about which we can guess – but in the end, God’s presence is all I need to know.

I think this is well illustrated in an old Latin poem that was translated by Edward Caswall.  It was later made into a choir anthem with music by Jane Marshall.  Let these words sink in:

My God, I love Thee;
not because I hope for heav’n thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not
Must die eternally.

Thou, O my Jesus, Thou didst me
Upon the cross embrace;
For me didst bear the nails, the nails and spear,
And manifold disgrace.

Why, then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Should I not love Thee well?
Not for the hope of winning heav’n,
Or of escaping hell;

Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord!

E’en so I love Thee, and will love,
And in Thy praise will sing;
Solely because Thou art my God,
And my Eternal King.

Biblical Messages

Q&A: What is the perseverance of the saints?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be a Christ-follower if I constantly had doubts about whether or not I truly belonged to Jesus.  What could I do to lose my salvation?  Would I know what that was? 

One of the great doctrines of the Reformed tradition is called “the perseverance of the saints”.  But it’s not about jus barely making it through the sermon so you can get at the donuts at coffee hour!  No, this is the great truth of Scripture that reminds us that once we belong to the Lord, we are his forever.

This message is based on several texts: John 10.27-30; Philippians 1.6; Ephesians 1.13-14; 1 Peter 1.3-5; and Romans 8.35-39, all of which assure us of God’s love for us from which we can never be separated.

But what do you do with the person who seems to have had faith at some point but no longer believes that Jesus is Lord and Saviour?  Listen to the message here to find out.

Encouragement From The Word

Knowing God is near

Have you ever felt like God was far away?  I think it’s fair to say that virtually every follower of Jesus has felt that way at some point in his or her walk with the Lord.  Some  might even have felt God to be so distant as to wonder whether or not they have lost their salvation.

If you’ve ever felt that way, how secure did you feel in your relationship with God?

Think about it:  if ever there was a time in your childhood when you felt like the love of your parents was conditional, whether you consciously realized it or not, you probably walked on pins and needles in that relationship, because somehow, it lacked safety.  Parent-child relationships are, after all, supposed to be unconditional in love.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe my parents loved me unconditionally – even though during the odd spanking I might have begun to doubt it.  No, even if they were angry with me, or disappointed in something I did, love was always there.

Don’t you think that if human parents can pull off unconditional love for their kids that our heavenly Father can and does love his children unconditionally?

In the Reformed tradition of which I’m a part, one of the hallmark doctrines is our belief in the “perseverance of the saints”.  What this means, briefly, is that once we realize that God has chosen us to be his, that state of ‘chosenness’ cannot be revoked.  Once we are saved, we are forever saved.  This often causes questions, and I’ll be expanding quite a bit on this during worship at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton this Sunday morning.   (Hope to see you at 10 that morning!  If you can’t come, check out my blog to listen to the message, or come at 7:00 p.m. next Thursday to our cottagers’ service.)

I take great comfort in knowing that once Jesus has saved me, he will never let go of me.  No matter how badly I mess up, God, in his faithfulness and justice, will forgive me and cleanse me once again (1 John 1.9).  I remember as a child, once in a while, sleeping on the floor outside my bedroom because, curiously, I didn’t believe I deserved a bed or a bedroom.  I got over this pretty quickly anytime it happened, but the issue was always with me, not with my parents, and not with God.  Sometimes we don’t feel very saved, we don’t feel very Christian.  That’s when faith has to take over.  We can name this and claim this, as it were, that “nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.39b, NLT).

Make no mistake:  if we feel like God is distant, it is not God who moved.  And the best remedy for sensing God’s nearness once again is to spend time in his Word!  Read the Bible, and let God speak to you.  Respond in love and in faith.  His nearness will become apparent once again, for God is always as close as the mention of his name.

May you know God’s nearness this weekend, and always!

Biblical Messages

Q&A: “What did Jesus do after the three wise men until he was an adult?”

Do you ever wonder what happened in Jesus’ life from his infancy until his public ministry began?  Unfortunately, we have very little information in the Bible.  There are some stories that exist in extrabiblical literature, so why aren’t they in the Bible?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a complete biography of Jesus?

In this message, we’ll look at what biblical information we do have about Jesus’ childhood, and learn what criteria needed to be met in order to have books included in the New Testament.

Six Bible passages are read in this message, from Matthew 1 and 2 and Luke 2.

You can listen to the message by clicking here.

Encouragement From The Word

Keeping the ‘fun’ in Bible Fun Camp

Like many of the churches represented by the recipients of Encouragement From The Word, we host a Vacation Bible School every year.  Ours is called “Bible Fun Camp”, and it’s wrapping up today.  By the time you have read this, there is every possibility that I will have been well and duly soaked with water.  (This is a positive step.  Last year, some of the kids got to throw cream pies at me.  While the press it garnered us was really great, I was digging Nutri-Whip out of my ears for several days afterward!)

We are intentional about calling our VBS “Bible Fun Camp”, for a couple of reasons.  First, the word ‘school’ doesn’t always thrill kids, especially in the middle of the summer; and second, we really want the experience to be ‘fun’! 

Let’s face it:  many people have a picture of the church that isn’t exactly characterized by fun.  And they have that picture for a very good reason:  we have painted it for them.  When we assume that even children who have no church experience “know” how to behave in a church building, and we scold them for not meeting up to our tacit expectations, we teach kids that church is not ‘fun’.  There are plenty of other examples I could give, but you get the idea:  we can’t assume that these children whom God has given us for the week know anything about God, or about the culture of the church.  Too often, when I think of church ‘rules’ with kids, I think of the dialogue between Tigger and Rabbit in a Winnie-the-Pooh sketch.  Tigger’s just messing around, being Tigger, and Rabbit tells him he can’t act that way.  Rabbit exclaims, “Tigger!  Where are your manners?” to which Tigger replies, “I don’t know, but I’ll bet they’re having more fun than I am.”

If we can’t make the gospel fun for kids, the likelihood that they will connect with God is not strong.  If we can’t make learning Bible verses fun for kids, they are unlikely to retain what they learn.  Bible Fun Camp (or whatever you call your VBS) can be a tremendous opportunity to reach kids whom you may not otherwise reach.  God gives them to you as a gift to be stewarded carefully.  While you might not get every child to make a public profession of faith in Christ that week, there is a strong possibility that, by God’s grace, some of the truth you have taught them will stick with them all their lives.

Psalm 119.11 says in praise to God, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (NIV).  My prayer for the kids who will soak me with water today, and for the kids you will reach with your VBS, is that God will hide his Word in their hearts.  It will come in handy sooner than they think.

Biblical Messages

Q&A: How do I know when God is speaking to me?

People sometimes ask, “How do I know when God is speaking to me?”  It’s a good question.  After all, it’s fairly subjective, isn’t it?  If someone says, “God told me…”, how does one refute that?

This message, based on 1 Samuel 3, seeks to offer some touch points for discerning when God is speaking to us.  The main points are:

  • God will never contradict his Word.
  • God can use both familiar and unfamiliar means to speak to us.
  • The meaning of what God is saying may not immediately be obvious.
  • We can more clearly discern when God is speaking to us as our relationship with him grows and develops.

In the message, I share an experience I had recently where God used piped-in music in a store to speak to me – and I haven’t yet discerned what that means.  As you listen, maybe you can help me understand!

The message in its entirety can be heard by clicking here.

Encouragement From The Word

An attitude of gratitude

I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but where I live, this has been the hottest week in over 20 years.  Heat, haze, humidity, the whole package has been ours to <ahem> enjoy

I rejoice with my heat loving friends, for this has been their week.  As for me and my house, we don’t do so well in this stuff.  But we adjust, and carry on, thanks to the gift of central air conditioning.  (Whoever invented air conditioning, as far as I’m concerned, should be accelerated toward sainthood.)

Alexander Maclaren was a Scottish-born Baptist preacher who was known to offer a positive comment about the weather in his prayers.  One time, when the weather in his town was particularly dank and dreary, he was reported to have prayed, “We thank you, Lord, that it is not always like this.”

While I’m not one for talking about the weather in my prayers, I appreciate the attitude with which Maclaren approached an unhappy subject.  Were I to pray about this week’s weather, I’d probably echo Maclaren’s sentiment, thanking God that it is not always hot, hazy and humid where we live.

I think there are two lessons for us in this.  First, there’s a reminder that God is in the small things.  Weather is one of the phenomena that God has set in place; we get sun and rain, snow and ice, heat and cold, and everything in between.  God is in these details.

The second lesson for us is one of gratitude.  The apostle Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, said, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.18, NIV).  Some people balk at that, especially if they read the verse quickly.  Take note, however, that it doesn’t say we are to give God thanks “for” all circumstances, but “in” all circumstances!  There is a big difference.

I can thank God in the midst of heat, haze and humidity, even though I may not necessarily thank God for it.  The important thing is not that I be uncannily grateful for something for which I am not truly grateful; rather, what matters is to live a life of gratitude in which God is praised even in the storms and difficult times of life.

How can we thank God in the midst of our trials?  Through practice!  How do we practise?  By being thankful to God in the midst of the good things as well as the bad things.  I cannot take for granted that it will rain when it needs to rain, so that the farmers’ crops will grow and bring about a bountiful harvest; I need to be thankful for the rain.  By rejoicing in the good things that come our way, and not assuming they’ve come about because of our own pure genius, we are better equipped spiritually to be able to face those things which do not bring us joy with an attitude of gratitude toward the God who made our world, and us, and who revels in our thanksgiving.

So I am grateful in the midst of heat, haze and humidity. 

And I will be very grateful when it dissipates!

Biblical Messages

CHRISTIANITY 101: THE APOSTLES’ CREED – Yogi Berra was only half right!

 Yogi Berra is probably better remembered for his interesting use of the English language than for his ability in baseball.  In this, the closing message in the “Christianity 101:  The Apostles’ Creed” series, we discover that with Yogi’s most famous malapropism, he was only half right.

The message deals with the last two affirmations in the Apostles’ Creed – belief in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.  It’s based on 1 Corinthians 15.12-58.

Click here to listen to the message, and find out which of Yogi’s famous sayings was only half right.

(The video that is shown part-way through the message can be viewed here.)