Encouragement From The Word

A special day looms…

One of the most often overlooked days in the entire Christian year is sneaking up on us.  It happens next Thursday.  But unless you live in a land that treats it as a public holiday – there are still a few that do – it might slip under your radar. Yet, without the event marked by this day, the church could not have come into being as it did.

I’m talking about Ascension Day.

It often sneaks under the radar of most followers of Jesus because it always falls on a Thursday.  Some churches celebrate it the Sunday before or the Sunday after, but Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday.  Why?  Because it happened 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus, and when you add 40 days to a Sunday in the spring, you’re always going to land on a Thursday.

But what was “it”?

It’s the day Jesus ascended into heaven.

Why does it matter?

Well, among many other things, had Jesus not ascended into heaven, the promised Holy Spirit would not have come.  And the church as we know it would not have been born.

Ascension Day is a good day to celebrate!  It’s the day when Jesus gave his Great Commission.  And as the disciples followed that Great Commission, ten days later, the Holy Spirit fell on the believers at Pentecost, and the church came into being, spreading across the world, over time, into the vessel of God that brings the gospel to the nations.

The Bible doesn’t tell us a great deal about what happened in those 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus.  But it surely involved much preparation for the disciples to be ready to venture forth on their own, with the promised Holy Spirit’s guidance, to build the Kingdom of God.

When the ascension happened, it inaugurated a new era – an era in which we still participate today.  

So next Thursday, give a wink and a nod – or more! – to the celebration of Jesus’ ascension, and give thanks for his providential care.

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him.  As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

                                                                              – Acts 1.6-11, NLT

Biblical Messages

Final Boarding Call

It was an interesting morning…we had no electricity in the whole town due to a car that decided to take out a power pole. Without sufficient cellular signal to live-stream worship, we simply recorded the service on a phone, and what you have here is the edited result. We hauled out hymn books and sang some traditional songs that gave us words to unite our voices in praise, despite the lack of power to project words on a screen. In this worship gathering, we hear a message based on Revelation 9 that helps us understand the importance of sharing faith with people who don’t know Jesus, and our fuel, our impetus, is found in the sad judgment that we see in Revelation 9. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Friday the 13th!!

Since it’s Friday the 13th, I thought I’d share a reprise of an Encouragement from a similar day several years ago.  In light of the culture of fear in which we live today, perhaps this is more timely than ever!  — JFL

 Well, we’ve arrived at our first Friday The Thirteenth of 2015. (Since this is not a leap year, you can expect another in March. We won’t see another until November.) Some in western culture do see it as an “unlucky” day (as if there really were such a thing as luck, but that’s a topic for another day!). The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevidekatriaphobia. I don’t know if anyone seriously fears these days anymore; most of the time, what I see on social media just laughs them off.

But one thing is for certain:  human beings do have fears.  It’s part of who we are as those who live in the time after the fall of humanity.  And it’s amazing what we will do, sometimes, to compensate for our fears.

People who are afraid of heights, for example, will normally try to steer clear of places where they fear they may fall a great distance, such as roofs, balconies, or mountaintops.  People who are afraid of dogs will try to stay away from homes where dogs may be kept as pets, or from pounds, kennels or veterinary clinics.

Some fears, though, can’t be compensated for.  They must be faced.

One might be afraid of public speaking; I think I read that this is the commonest of all fears.  And while some people may be able to escape it their whole lives, others must speak publicly, whether for their employment or to voice a conviction or to laud someone at a retirement banquet or a funeral.  Sometimes, upon conquering the fear once, it is discovered that it can be conquered again.  Soon enough, the individual realizes that the fear wasn’t all that rational after all.

Followers of Jesus, like everyone else, experience fear.  But we have an additional source that can encourage us to face our fears.  King David, who had his share of enemies during his life, proclaimed, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27.1, NIV).  It would have been easy for David to run into the Judean hills and hide from his enemies, but he stood fast because the Lord was with him.

Whatever fears you may face, the Lord will be with you, too.  Why not make Friday the 13th an occasion to rejoice in the Lord, who has the power to take away our fears?

Encouragement From The Word

Routine maintenance

Twice a year, on my day off, I undertake a task I never look forward to, but I do it anyway.

I change the tires on my car and my wife’s car.

In November, I put on the winter tires, and in April (or, in this case, May 2), I take those off and put on the so-called “all season” tires.

You might be thinking, Jeff, if you don’t enjoy it, why don’t you just hire it out?

Well, I used to do that, back when I was only changing the tires on my wife’s car.  But my insurer now requires that I do so with my vehicle as well.  The hassle and cost of having this job done at a garage left me thinking, Why don’t I just do it myself?

My dad taught me the basics of tire changes when I was young, so I started doing it myself.  The first time, it took me most of a day.  Why?  Because I lacked adequate equipment for the task.

I’d use the scissor jack to lift each wheel, take the lug nuts off with a ratchet, change the tire, and put the lug nuts back on with the ratchet, lower the jack, and tighten them more fully.  I’d repeat this process seven more times (for two vehicles).

Needless to say, my out-of-shape body was feeling it by the time that task was done!

Each time I’d do it, however, the process got quicker; this past Monday, I accomplished the task in less than 2 hours.  Why?  Because I had better equipment and more experience.

This involved two investments:  an investment in tools, and an investment of time.

While I’ll never be able to accomplish the task as fast as a garage mechanic could, I now have a good rolling floor jack, an air compressor, an air tool for the lug nuts, and a modest torque wrench.  And each time I do the job, I find ways to be more efficient.

Growing as a disciple of Jesus is not much different, is it?

By investing in tools and time, our walk with God improves.  It’s not that we want to make it more efficient – our spiritual formation is a life-long process, after all – but as we become more spiritually mature, our life as disciples of Jesus does take on a different character.

Tools such as a good study Bible and some solid theological literature can go a long way toward impelling forward our faith journey.  And the investment of time, through worshipping in community, belonging to a small group, and engaging in personal devotion on our own will advance our maturity in Christ.

In other words, being a follower of Jesus is not just something that we do for an hour on Sunday.  It’s a 24-7-365 venture.  And the results are so worth it.

If you don’t have a good study Bible, a church family, or a small group to which to belong, let me know…I can make recommendations for you.  It’s an investment with eternal dividends.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4.11-13, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Ya gotta have faith!

One of the latest investment trends is the NFT, which stands for non-fungible token.  (If you’re like me, you want to know what “fungible” means, too:  it means “mutually interchangeable”.)  In other words, these items are not mutually interchangeable, but they can be owned.

The thing is, these items don’t actually exist.  They’re not actually things.

You can own them, you can buy them, you can sell them – but they are digital; they’re not real.  And NFTs can be anything from a piece of digital art to a picture of a non-existent cigar, and everything in between.  I don’t understand either the concept or the craze, but it’s a thing (about non-things) these days.

It seems to me that dabbling in NFTs (or cryptocurrency, for that matter, which is another booming trend) takes a lot of faith.

It takes faith in the person who creates (and sells) the NFT.  It takes faith on the part of the person who might then buy it from you.  You have to believe that this non-existent thing actually exists, by mutual understanding.

I suppose, in one sense, it’s a bit like trading stocks. As long as everybody’s on the same page about the value, and your ability to be able to convert that to hard currency, I can understand the allure.

But it still takes a lot of faith.

This is why I am puzzled when people are unwilling to place their faith in God.  For eons, the Hebrew people placed their faith in a God whom they could not (and would not) see.  When God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, aspects of God became visible.  He taught as one with authority.  He performed mighty and inexplicable miracles.  Yet many people refused to believe.

Even with hard evidence in the person of Jesus, and in his mighty acts, people would not believe.

I think if I were into the NFT and cryptocurrency trend, I would want to be a person of faith in God.  After all, there’s a lot more hard evidence for the good news of his love for us in Jesus than for the value of a digital image!

We have consistent records of the value of faith in the Lord.  Trust in him today!

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11.6, NLT).

Biblical Messages

The Covenant of Grace: Why Infant Baptism is Biblical

Do you ever wonder if it is biblical to baptize children? In the Reformed tradition, we don’t believe it saves the child, but we do believe it places the child on the path toward profession of faith in Jesus, which does bring salvation. It’s based on Genesis 15, Genesis 17, Colossians 2 and Acts 2. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Action, in the afterglow of Easter

We have been through Holy Week, witnessing Jesus sharing the last supper with his disciples, humbly washing their feet, subtly being betrayed, helplessly hanging on the cross.  We have waited through those long hours in anticipation of finding the tomb empty.  And it was empty!  Jesus was raised from the dead!

In the afterglow of Easter, though, the party might be over, but the work is not done.

Churches that follow lectionaries for their preaching often spend time in the season of Easter – the Great Fifty Days between the resurrection and Pentecost – studying the book of Acts.  Theologian J.B. Phillips, when translating the New Testament for ease of reading in the 1960s, called it “The Young Church in Action”. 

It’s an accurate title for the book of Acts, because that was the early church’s response to the resurrection of Jesus:  action.

And it should be the response of the church of today, too.

If we remain content to give mere mental assent to the resurrection of Jesus, but then do nothing with it, our faith doesn’t mean much, does it?  Just ‘pie in the sky when you die’.

But Jesus’ victory over death calls us to action, and specifically to grow the church.

Granted, that’s a tough task these days, with secularization on the rise, and sundry scandals among church leaders dotting the news.  In the midst of all that, though, Jesus is alive, and he longs to build his church.

Despite society’s best efforts, the church of Jesus will never die.  If you read statistics, you might not believe that, but maybe you’ll believe Jesus when he said to his disciples that on the bedrock of their faith, “I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16.18b, NLT).

The church is, literally, unstoppable.

If you’re in leadership, you’re probably tired right now.  (Join the club!)

If you’re not in leadership, pray for your leaders.  They’ve been praying for you!

Pray that all of us, together, will be the church in action, responding to the grace of God at work in the resurrection of Jesus in this season of such growth potential.

The risen Lord Jesus has not given up on the church, so why should we?

Two thousand years on, we are still called to be the young church in action.

Encouragement From The Word

“Good” Friday?

It’s Good Friday.

But it’s the day Jesus died.  What makes this “good”?

Well, from a word-origins standpoint, some have suggested over the years that it’s another way of saying, “God’s Friday”, but there’s not much to back that up.  Instead, it is more likely that “good” is another way of saying “holy”.  It’s “Holy Friday”.  In some other languages, the day Jesus was crucified is translated as “Holy Friday”.

That makes sense.  So why not just call it “Holy Friday”?  We know what that means.

Solid point!  I suppose we could do that, but there are many other days that are designated “holy”, and Good Friday is, well, different.  It’s definitely holy, but it stands apart from all other holy days, because it is the day Jesus went to the cross for our sins.  So in English usage, we’ve called it “Good Friday” for a long, long time, because it is a day unlike any other day in the Christian calendar.  And it is, after all, good!

Well, it sure didn’t seem very good for Jesus.

Fair enough.  But he knew from eternity that this day would come.  In his humanity, in Gethsemane, he prayed that it might not happen – that the Father might find some other way – but he still submitted to the Father’s will.  He knew the purpose behind his awful death.  And he knew what the outcome would be, on the third day.

He did it for you, and for me.  For us, it is definitely good:  it is the day on which our sin received atonement.  Without Good Friday, we would not be able to be in relationship with God.  So that’s good.

But didn’t Jesus himself say that there is none who is good but God (Luke 18.19)?

Indeed, he did.  But because Jesus was God, he was also good, in the very best sense of the term – he was holy.

So Jesus the Good died for us on Friday, so it’s Good Friday…

That’s a good way of looking at it!

Remember the sadness of the day, because God in the flesh died because of our sin.  And rejoice in the goodness of the day, because God in the flesh died for our sin…and because we know what comes next!

‘The Son of Man must suffer many terrible things,’ he said. ‘He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead’” (Luke 19.22, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Ride on!

Hosanna.  “Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118.26a, NLT).

This weekend, Christians throughout western society will celebrate Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode a donkey from the Mount of Olives into the temple in Jerusalem.  As he did, people shouted, “Hosanna!”, which means, “Save us now!”

Little did they know what they were asking.  It would signal the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry before he went to the cross.  Those who shouted as Jesus sauntered by on that donkey had no idea.

I am reminded of the words penned by Henry Hart Milman in 1827, printed in hundreds of hymn books since then.  His poem tells the real story of Palm Sunday so well, it deserves to be quoted in full:

Ride on, ride on in majesty!  Hark!  All the tribes hosanna cry.

O Saviour meek, pursue Thy road, with palms and scattered garments strewed.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die.

O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!  The angel armies of the sky

look down with sad and wond’ring eyes to see th’approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!  Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh.

The Father on his sapphire throne awaits his own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die.

Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain, then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.

“In lowly pomp ride on to die.” At that point, only Jesus knew what the week would bring.  But, thanks to God’s Word, we also know.  So we can shout with the onlookers, who themselves echoed the Psalmist, “Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118.26a, NLT).

Mark this Holy Week appropriately, knowing he rode on to die.  

Encouragement From The Word

Foolish preaching

I’m going to resist the temptation, on this April Fools’ Day, to write about the foolishness of not believing in God, as extolled by Psalm 14, though the psalmist is absolutely right.  (Actually, I’ve done this before.)

Perhaps instead I’ll focus on what the Bible calls the foolishness of preaching.

Wait a minute, Jeff.  This doesn’t seem like much of an advertisement for your line of work.

Well, consider what the apostle Paul said, in context:

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.  As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
    and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”

 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish.  Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.  It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom.  So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.  (1 Corinthians 1.18-25, NLT, emphasis mine)

If God can use what I (and other preachers) say to bring salvation, then I’ll be a homiletical fool for Jesus. 

It’s surprising how many people think that preaching has no place in contemporary society, but I disagree.  In response to that perception, though, a lot of sermons have become very brief and very light.  Yet I have found that it isn’t preaching in and of itself that people are reacting against, but pointless preaching that fails to challenge.

In other words, bad preaching has no place in contemporary society (or in any other society).  People will sit and listen to good preaching at length.  That whole thing about short attention spans?  Yeah, tell that to Netflix.

People will appreciate preaching that edifies them, that challenges them, that anchors them in a deepening relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s the foolish preaching that Paul was writing to the Corinthians about.  That’s the foolish preaching to which I, and any preacher, ought to aspire.

And that’s no joke.

Biblical Messages

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse

One of the most popular, yet least understood, passages in Revelation comes in chapter 6 with “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”. What could it all mean? Is there any hope for God’s people, or for the world? In this message, we look at Revelation 6 and what hope it provides for people, before it’s too late. You can watch the message below, or the whole worship gathering below that.

Encouragement From The Word

When two worlds collide

One of the redeeming qualities of Facebook is finding out that you have two friends from different parts and times of your life that know each other.  This sometimes gets seen in birthday greetings, a factor that keeps me interested in social media (Facebook birthdays are awesome!).

I found out this week, through offering Facebook birthday greetings to a friend I met while helping her church find a new pastor many years ago, that she is related to the husband of a friend with whom I went to high school.  It’s amazing to see two worlds collide like that!

As followers of Jesus, though, we’re used to the notion of two worlds colliding.  We live and breathe that reality every day.

All human beings are born into and live in the world we know and see around us.  When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted into God’s family, and become citizens of his Kingdom.  So it’s a bit like being someone who was born in one country but works in another: while you live in one nation, your usual rights and privileges exist in another.  But they’re still in the same world, so the analogy breaks down.

As Christians, where our two worlds collide in the more literal sense is in the area of values.  There are some things that may be legal and permissible in the physical jurisdiction in which you live that are not permissible under the law of God’s Kingdom, and that’s where the collision takes place.  We are stretched by being pulled in one direction by the world, and in another direction by our understanding of the Word of God.

It is not an easy position.  Yet we find ourselves increasingly pulled in both directions as western society moves farther and farther away from its Christian foundation.

Since our first loyalty is to the Lord, who has graciously saved us by faith in his Son Jesus Christ, we do well to immerse ourselves in the reading of the Bible so that we can know how citizens of God’s Kingdom  should act.  And because it is not easy to swim against the current, we do well to immerse ourselves in Christian community so that we can encourage one another, especially when our two worlds collide and we are faced with challenging decisions.

Read the Word, because it’s God’s revelation to us.  And engage in Christian community, because we don’t just go to church; we are the church.  It’s now easier!  Perhaps in your community, as in mine, masks will be optional starting this Sunday.  

[W]e are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.  He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control” (Philippians 3.20-21, NLT).