In this worship gathering, we hear a message on Song of Songs 8 about how we need to set Jesus as a seal on our hearts. You can watch the message below, or the entire worship gathering below that.
We’re *all* “Pentecostal”!
This Sunday, the church marks Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. It was named after the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which came fifty days after Passover (that’s where the “pente” part comes in). It was the day the Holy Spirit was given to Jesus’ followers. You can read about it in Acts 2.1-13. When we talk about the giving of the Holy Spirit, our reading often stops there. But if you read on, you find some important events in the remainder of the chapter.
First, you see that the giving of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by bold preaching. The crowds thought the apostles were drunk when the Holy Spirit landed on them and they started speaking in unknown languages, but Peter corrected that assumption and proclaimed the good news of Jesus to all those people, using Old Testament Scriptures to back it up – passages that would have been well known to these Jewish onlookers.
Second, a strong sense of community developed among the believers. The disciples were concerned about Jesus’ ascension to haven, in no small part because they would be left alone. Of course, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to be him with them, but they were worried. As the community developed, and the church was born, the early Christians realized that they needed each other to be a strong voice in a hostile world.
We can learn from the aftermath of Pentecost.
I believe that the circumstances of the church in western society today more closely resemble those of the early church than ever before. And if that’s the case, we do well to emulate the actions of the early church as we seek to be faithful to the Lord in our time.
So, Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living in and through you. You can share your faith boldly with others, knowing that while you may not have 100% success in leading people to faith, you will plant seeds that could later grow into faith. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel: share your faith with your friends and family, and trust the Holy Spirit to do the work of ensuring that those seeds of faith grow.
And make sure you are engaged in Christian community. The Christian faith is a team sport; being a “solo” follower of Jesus is antithetical to what the Bible tells us we should be. Make sure you are part of a church community. Worship together – in person, if you are physically able to do so. Engage in service together as much as your station in life permits. Study God’s Word together; at St. Paul’s, we have LifeConnect Groups that meet for both study and service, as well as “doing life” together. If you belong to another fellowship, I’m sure your church has small groups, too.
Be involved. Be active. Talk about your faith; believe it or not, your friends do kind of wonder about it. Being a follower of Jesus in our time is difficult enough! Don’t make it more difficult by trying to do it on your own.
In that sense, I suppose, we’re all “Pentecostal”!
“All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer” (Acts 2.42, NLT).
An under-appreciated feast
Yesterday was Ascension Day, the day the church marks the ascension of Jesus into heaven, 40 days after his resurrection (that’s why it always lands on a Thursday). Though it is a national holiday in some countries, for most of the Christian world, Ascension Day is undercelebrated. So, in honour of this special day, I simply encourage you to reflect on these two passages from Scripture.
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
Come, everyone! Clap your hands!
Shout to God with joyful praise!
For the Lord Most High is awesome.
He is the great King of all the earth.
He subdues the nations before us,
putting our enemies beneath our feet.
He chose the Promised Land as our inheritance,
the proud possession of Jacob’s descendants, whom he loves.
God has ascended with a mighty shout.
The Lord has ascended with trumpets blaring.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King over all the earth.
Praise him with a psalm.
God reigns above the nations,
sitting on his holy throne.
The rulers of the world have gathered together
with the people of the God of Abraham.
For all the kings of the earth belong to God.
He is highly honored everywhere. – Psalm 47, NLT
One of my favourite Ascension Day choral anthems is based on Psalm 47. It was written by Gerald Finzi (apparently an agnostic Jew, himself). Enjoy it along with me here.
By the way, some of you have been praying for my mother, and I appreciate that. She died a week ago today, and her funeral took place yesterday – Ascension Day! My wife and I appreciate your prayers as we deal with both grief and administration and execution of her will. We are greatly comforted in knowing she now sees the Lord she served by faith face to face.
A (sad) study in contrasts
Last Sunday, while wrapping up our week of vacation, I experienced an interesting study in contrasts.
First, we chose a congregation with which to worship God, not far from the campground we were staying at. Like most people looking for a church, we consulted the websites of several nearby congregations, and found one with a statement of faith that we could resonate with, so we opted to tell our GPS to send us there.
The congregation was surprisingly small. In Canada, we expect this, but in the US, most churches (while still under 100) tend to be a bit larger than what we experienced. The people were friendly and there were lots of young families, so we felt welcomed.
Then came the sermon.
The preacher – who may have been a guest, a member of the church, an intern, or the incumbent, I have no idea – managed to embody an unfortunate trifecta in his preaching: long, boring and repetitive.
He didn’t say anything wrong; his theology was fine and his manner was sincere, but his communication approach made the good news of Jesus seem boring. He was rounding the corner to Point Number Three at the 45-minute mark, not yet having uttered the word “finally”, and we had a bit of a schedule to keep, so we ducked out the door from our back pew, largely undetected.
Contrast that with our next stop, for lunch, which was at the growing American phenomenon known as Buc-ees.
If you’ve never visited one, picture what might be the result of a love affair between a Walmart and a gas station.
Upon entering, you’re greeted boisterously by the staff (still clearly heard over the din of hundreds of people wandering around the place). Trying to take it all in, at one point, our train of thought was interrupted as a staff member announced, “Buc-ee is in the house!” And everyone cheered, and started taking pictures of the company mascot, a beaver, who looked like he would be more at home trying to rouse the fans at a baseball game than posing for photos in the middle of a massive truck stop.
As we walked past, opting not to take up valuable storage in our phones with “Buc-ee and me” selfies, we noticed quite a commotion at the kitchen, which is also prominently placed near the centre of the huge building. Those who were cooking were also engaged in various forms of mutual encouragement and pep-talk, clearly attracting the attention of hungry shoppers. (Try the brisket sandwich if you go.)
As I reflected on the contrast between these two experiences, I caught the irony. Maybe you see it, too: the best news in the world was shared with as little enthusiasm as possible, while consumerism, personified by some dude dressed up like a fuzzy, buck-toothed, oversized rodent, was splayed forth with an almost hysterical call-and-response.
I’m not suggesting that everything we do as the church needs to be like a pep rally. But I am suggesting that if we want to engage the world with what we know is the best news going, we had better act like it’s the best news going.
The atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I will believe in your redeemer when your people look more redeemed.” Who do you know that might be convinced to follow Jesus if they saw in you and me a love for God that was undeniable?
“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17, NLT).
Musings from an interesting vacation
I don’t normally feel compelled to write to the world about the goings-on of my vacation time, but I spent enough time behind the wheel of our camper van in the past week that I had time to ponder a few things that I will share with anyone who cares to read!
We had two goals (and a third that Diana didn’t know about) on this vacation: spend a couple of days with friends in Ohio, and visit the world’s largest knife store in Tennessee. The third goal, which was a surprise to Diana, was to meet a mutual friend, whom we have not seen in some time, in Pennsylvania.
She was happily surprised.
We have shared a relationship with our friends in Ohio for many years (with her, over 10, with him, over 20). He is my mentor in model railroading; he’s forgotten more about the hobby than I’ll ever know. His new avocation is serving as a volunteer at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, PA. They wanted us to see the place, so after arriving at their home and settling in, we drove a few hours to the museum for a private tour. I even got to sit at the controls of (and operate…sssshhh…don’t tell anyone!) an old streetcar that had once roamed the urban rails of Pittsburgh!
From Ohio, we headed eastward for Pennsylvania, where Diana was delighted to see a friend of ours. Any marriage takes trust, and neither Diana nor I are fond of surprises. But she trusted me on this one, despite wanting to know what it was all about. She had no idea until we walked in the door of the place where we met our friend. I’m glad she was happy about the surprise!
After that, we headed for Tennessee. While visiting the world’s largest knife store was an interesting curiosity (at which, by the way, I did not buy a knife), the desire was just to see some territory we had not seen before, and experience some warm temperatures. While we were in that neck of the woods, Diana wanted to retrace some steps of her childhood and visit Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I was game to give it a try, but had no idea of the challenges we would face. Spoiler alert: my Apple Watch granted me my move goal for the day solely by steering the van! When most people read “mountains” and “park” in the same phrase, they would expect endless switchbacks and dangerous grades, and might not take anything other than an ATV or a pickup on such a journey, but not us! We took a cotton-pickin’ motor home through this windy, hilly, shoulder-less terrain.
If you have ever driven a large vehicle with overheating brakes, you can imagine what that felt like. It was one of those moments when I wish I had been able to call my late father and ask him what that was all about. Thankfully, once the brakes cooled down, everything worked fine, but now that we’re home, the van is going in for a mechanical examination! Pro tip: don’t drive a motor home through the Smokies. You’re welcome.
From there (and no, we didn’t go to Dollywood!), we headed north again, stopping in mid-Kentucky on Saturday night, and scrolled the Internet for a place to worship on Sunday.
Most people seeking a church treat the congregation’s website as a “front door”, and as I sought out a nearby worship gathering for the next morning, we settled on a church about 15 minutes from the campground. While the website said a lot about what the church believed – basics of historic Christianity, really – we were not prepared for what we experienced.
It was a small congregation – smaller than ours, which makes it quite small by US standards – composed mostly of younger families with kids, which was great to see. The service began at 11:00, and we had Communion 15 minutes in. Most churches, like ours, celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a response to the Word, near the end of the service, but this congregation came to the Lord’s Table early in the service, which seemed odd to me. (It was also a bit odd that the server, who also happened to be the preacher for the service, took the tray of grape juice from me so quickly that he bumped me and I got grape juice on my pants. It’ll come out.)
What was particularly striking, though, was the sermon. I don’t know who the preacher was (who also served Communion), whether he was their regular preacher or a guest or an intern or what he was, but he began preaching at 11:30 and stopped, I suspect, sometime around 6:00 p.m.
(Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration. Probably.)
There was not a thing wrong with what he said, but how he said it was, well, boring as spit.
He was approaching his third point (of heaven knows how many) forty-five minutes into the message, having repeated himself many times and done what seemed his best to make the gospel as boring as possible.
My heart ached.
We wanted to hit the road, so at the beginning of Point Number Three, we quietly departed from our back-row seat. (Is that why most people like to sit at the back? To make a quick escape if worship suddenly appears to be turning into a hostage-taking?)
There was a lesson for this preacher in that experience.
If you’ve ever listened to me, you know I try to keep the energy up, the material engaging, and the truth front-and-centre. Sometimes, I go long. But I’m not repetitive.
As a preacher, I try to be a good listener to preaching as well, especially when I am in the worshipping congregation. And at times, I find this a terribly trying task, because the quality of preaching that’s available nowadays is decidedly abysmal.
I don’t know precisely why this is the case. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s bad training, or a lack of training altogether in the arts of sermon preparation and delivery (and, let the reader understand, these are arts). But when I visit churches while on vacation, I often come away disappointed, despite my best efforts to engage deeply.
What particularly saddens me about these experiences is that I get only so many Sundays off in a year, and I like to steward them well by engaging with congregations where I’m going to be edified, encouraged and challenged, both as a disciple of Jesus and as a communicator of the gospel of Christ. And after Sunday, I must admit, I feel as though I squandered one of those opportunities.
I hope and pray that no preacher who ever listens to me feels that way, and I will work to ensure that is the case to my dying day.
Upon our escape from the hostage situation, we stopped for lunch at a place that is becoming more common in the US, even as one creeps north, and that’s Buc-ees. On our way to that big knife store, we saw the largest-ever one being built, near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The one we visited in Kentucky was no slouch, either. If you’ve never been in one, think of it as the love child of Walmart and a gas station. And try the brisket sandwich. I don’t know if it was the proximity to Lexington on the day of The Derby, but it was very busy.
Everything else we did was rather pedestrian (though, ironically, we did little walking!), but let me leave you with a few statistics:
- Warmest temperature achieved: 28 degrees Celsius, in Tennessee
- Coldest temperature achieved: 4 degrees Celsius, in Ohio (the furnace was on!)
- Distance travelled: just over 4,200 km (time for an oil change!)
- Lowest gas price seen: US$2.969 per gallon (about C$1.05 per litre; alas, our tank was full at that time!)
- Highest gas price seen: US$3.699 per gallon (about C$1.31 per litre, which was still cheaper than the C$1.469 per litre we saw when we crossed back)
- States visited: 10 (this includes a very brief journey through Maryland and an only slightly longer journey through West Virginia; the distance through the other 8 made up for it)
- Hills ascended and descended and switchbacks traversed: we both ran out of fingers and toes to count these, just in the park
- Work emails awaiting me when I got home: 134
- Actual emails worth reading and replying to: 77
- Homes “plugged in” to for sleeping: 1 (thanks, friends!)
- Campgrounds stayed at: 3 (all KOAs)
- Truck stops slept at: 2 (“dry camping” is handy when all you need to do is sleep)
- Memories made with the One You Love: too many to count
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. It’s good to be home.
Intimacy: it’s a word we don’t often associate with God.
In fact, many of us would be inclined to think that intimacy should be kept from God…as if it were possible to keep anything from God.
If we take time to consider and admit it, many of our ideas of intimacy are cloaked in Victorian embarrassment. That is, our definition of intimacy is heavily influenced by our culture, and sometimes, our culture is as difficult for us to define as trying to get a fish to describe what it means to be wet. (Plus, fish can’t talk. I know.)
All that to say, we think intimacy isn’t something that belongs in the realm of faith…except it does.
Consider the terms we see used for God in the New Testament. We see God called “Father”, a familial term that connotes a close relationship. Jesus called God Abba, an Aramaic term that translates as “Daddy”. Jesus is referred to as both our Lord and our “brother”. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us, is our “comforter”.
Those are terms of intimacy, are they not?
I often tell couples when I conduct their weddings that people should be able to look to their love for each other and see a reflection of God’s love for the world. That’s intimacy.
And God desires it with us.
Intimacy is not just about sex. It is about a deep connection of love and openness and honesty. It is about a heart’s yearning.
How can we be intimate with God?
Start by making him your heart’s desire. My wife tells me that when I’m out and she’s at home, her heart skips a beat when she hears the garage door open. Sometimes I tell her, “That’s because you’re looking for a place to hide your boyfriend,” but I’m kidding, of course. That excitement when I come home is a sign of an intimate relationship.
When you come to worship, whether on your own at home, daily, or with the church, weekly, does your heart skip a beat when you enter the presence of the Lord? That’s intimacy.
When you open your Bible to read God’s Word and hear from him, does your heart skip a beat as you anticipate what the Lord will teach you? That’s intimacy.
Our relationship with God is an intimacy of both head and heart. He desires it with us. Do you desire it with God?
“[Y]ou must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6.5, NLT).
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God has done!
There are some Christians who have doubts about their salvation.
Even within those traditions (including my own Reformed tradition) that uphold the doctrine of “the perseverance of the saints” – the idea that once we make a true profession of faith in Christ, our salvation is sealed for eternity – there are people who go through seasons in which they doubt that they could possibly be saved.
While we journey with people through the valleys of doubt, it’s important to remember that salvation is a gift from God alone that no one can take away. God could, but he has promised us that he will not take it away.
It’s important to remember that, unlike other world religions that involve human action to earn salvation, the Christian faith is not about “we do.”
It’s about “God has done.”
If you and I have sincerely, with a full heart, given ourselves to Jesus as Lord and Saviour – with as much understanding as we had at the time – at that point our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life in indelible ink. We can’t undo our salvation.
We may mess up at some point, and mess up badly; but the grace of God that entered our lives to enable us to say ‘yes’ to Jesus does not go away. Our sin cannot undo the work of Jesus on the cross.
Of course, as the apostle Paul points out in Romans 6, we should not willfully engage in sin and thereby take advantage of the grace of God at work in our lives. Not at all! But we should not worry about whether sin or anything else can separate us from God and thereby remove our salvation. When grace is given to us to believe, it cannot be taken from us.
The apostle John reminds us of this when he writes to the early church: “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3.1, NLT).
If you have professed faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, you are a child of the Father. You want to talk about identity? That’s your identity: child of God. And if that profession, at whatever point in your life, was real, nothing can snatch that from you.So walk today in assurance that what God has done in bringing you salvation is a gift that will not be taken away!
Of worms and sinners…and us
On Good Friday, at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, we opened worship with the old gospel hymn “At the Cross”, an adaptation of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed”. In it, there is a line that says:
Would he devote that sacred head to such a worm as I?
While Watts will surely have taken his inspiration for that moniker from Psalm 22.6, today, we might wonder whether that’s an appropriate term for a human being.
The Psalmist used the term to denote his feeling of dehumanization from oppression and suffering. That certainly applied to Jesus, and he appropriated the passage for himself more than once, as you’ll see if you read the entire Psalm.
In response, some hymnal editors have rephrased the line to read:
Would he devote that sacred head to sinners such as I?
This also captures the essence of what Watts was trying to express: that is, the tragic irony that the perfect God-Man Jesus gave his life for the decidedly imperfect human race.
Sadly, people today tend to track toward one extreme or the other. That is, people either view themselves as the worst of the worst, hopelessly irredeemable; or they view themselves as ‘darned near perfect’ – not sinners, and definitely not “worms”!
One of the challenges God’s people face in sharing the gospel with others is that many people don’t think they’ve sinned, so they don’t need a Saviour, while others think they are so bad that there is no hope for their redemption.
But we know that in Jesus, neither of those views is true.
Anyone who claims not to be a sinner need only be furnished with the ten commandments to be reminded that she or he has not lived up to God’s perfect standard. And anyone who claims to be irredeemable need only be told of the apostle Paul’s reminder to the Christians in Rome that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5.8, NLT), or his statement to Timothy, his young protégé: “This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1.15-16, NLT).
On those days when we feel like we’re on top of the world and can’t do anything wrong, Jesus still died for us. And on those days when we feel lower than a snake’s (worm’s?) belly, Jesus still died for us.
We are created in God’s own image, and he proclaimed us, with all creation, to be “very good”. We messed that up in disobedience, but Jesus came to redeem the least and the worst of our disobedience.
Walk with him in confidence today!