Malachi had some harsh words for the people of God in his day. They were treating God like a vending machine (of course, he didn’t use that image!). There are lessons for God’s people of today in this message, based on Malachi 2.10-17. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that.
As more and more people receive vaccinations against COVID-19, people are starting to sense that the end of the pandemic is in sight. I hope that’s true! And it prompts me to ask a question: What have we learned from all this?
I’m sure the answer to that question would be a list as long as my arm, but I want to focus on the spiritual end of it. Perhaps I might frame the question this way:
How has my walk with God been affected by the pandemic, and what have I learned as a result?
The answer to that, too, can and perhaps is long and complicated. But let me focus on one particular area: rest.
For the last number of years, “busy” is a badge that people have worn with honour. And there has been a cost involved.
Early in the pandemic, when everything was shut down and (let’s face it) many people lived in fear, there was a sense of equilibrium returning to nature: the air got cleaner, the dolphins returned to the canals of Venice, the traffic was manageable.
People were slowing down.
But as the first wave ebbed, and a limited reopening took place, we seemed to forget the serenity and peace that came with that first shutdown. The pace picked up. While people worked from home, the boundaries were blurred.
Where I live in Ontario, the economy begins reopening today. Stores will be open with a limited capacity. Outdoor patios will be open, within limits. And our church will be open to 15% capacity! It’s a start!
But before we try to “get back to normal” – whatever that’s going to look like – let me encourage you to take a step back and look at what you’ve learned about your spiritual rhythms from the experience of the pandemic. Spend some time in conversation with the Lord over that in the coming days.
Then – and this is the difficult part – apply what you’ve learned to the “new normal.”
“So God’s rest is there for people to enter, but those who first heard this good news failed to enter because they disobeyed God. So God set another time for entering his rest, and that time is today. God announced this through David much later in the words already quoted:
‘Today when you hear his voice,
don’t harden your hearts’” (Hebrews 4.6-7, NLT).
Today, we have a guest post from my wife, Diana, who had an experience last week worth sharing.
Desiring to follow the health directives of my doctor, I attended a medical lab for a couple of tests. This was not prompted by any concern, but was part of my “tune up”, as my physician referred to his requisitions.
As a part of the pre-test screening, the technician asked me a number of questions, including when my first COVID-19 vaccine had been administered. When I told her, we both commented on the shortened waiting period between shots, and what that would mean for travel plans.
As she continued the preparations for the imaging, I told her that we have talked about taking a road trip to Arizona when time allows, and the border is re-opened. She wistfully told me that she longs to go to Sedona, wanting to experience the spiritual healing people report there. I said that I didn’t know about those things, but that one of my favourite sights is the first glimpse of the mountains as one heads out of Calgary toward the Rockies along the Trans-Canada highway.
My explanation of what that view does for me is “a complete centering of my being.” Her reply to this (remember, all of this is happening while I was in, well, not the most comfortable of positions) was that she feels exactly that way when she goes into a church. She was quiet for a moment, and then said, “I was raised Hindu, but that is similar to how I feel when I am in a church.” I said that when I am able to soak in such a glorious part of God’s creation, it is a reminder of just how great He is, but just how important I am to Him.
And then, after another moment of quiet, she said, “I’m sorry, you are the only the second person I’ve ever told that to. The other was my husband.”
That trusting statement, after such a brief encounter, was a sacred one for me. I responded to her with a smile and said, “Thank you for sharing, but let me tell you that my husband is a pastor, and I am a long-time friend of Jesus. I think what you experience is Him wanting to spend time with you.”
She sighed and smiled, and said, “Imagine!” It was at that point we were finished, and I headed to the next part of my time at the lab. Telling Jeff, the sacredness of that moment fully hit me. There I was, in a fairly vulnerable setting, apparently being safe enough for this lab technician to admit something that in some parts of the world would see her severely punished! To top it off, God opened the door for me to sow the seed of Jesus wanting a personal relationship with her. The conversation was as natural as one about the weather, but I think maybe, just maybe, God spoke to her – He certainly reminded me of his presence and desire to be in relationship with all of us.
Pray that God will position you for a conversation like that, and watch what happens!
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship” (Psalm 19.1, NLT).
This weekend, the church celebrates Pentecost, the occasion recorded in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit fell upon the gathered followers of Jesus, made manifest in tongues of fire and languages heretofore unknown.
The Holy Spirit was given to equip disciples to minister in the power and authority of Jesus after he ascended into heaven. Those first disciples had come to rely on Jesus during his ministry for the ability and the blessing to minister in his name. When he ascended into heaven, he promised them the Holy Spirit, so that they would not be left alone.
To this day, all who follow Jesus are given the Holy Spirit to enable us to undertake God’s mission in the world. And the first task of all disciples of Jesus is to make more disciples. The Great Commission, given at a resurrection appearance before Jesus ascended, promised that in his authority, Jesus’ followers would be given power to make disciples of all nations.
Pentecost reminds us that this is our primary aim as the church: making disciples.
If we are pouring our primary efforts into other things, no matter how noble they be, those efforts are misdirected.
Yes, the Holy Spirit came and still comes and sometimes manifests himself in signs and wonders, as well as in less flashy ways. But the principal purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming is to empower for making disciples.
And that starts with us, with our own formation in Christ, our own spiritual maturity.
If you want to celebrate Pentecost well, spend personal time with the Lord, and tell a friend about what Jesus has done for you. Be a disciple, and make a disciple.
“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20, NLT).
Encouragement From the Word returns on June 4.
Yesterday was an important day in the Christian calendar, but because it always falls on a Thursday, many believers in western society ignore it, and that’s unfortunate.
It was Ascension Day.
It commemorates the ascension of Jesus, 40 days after he rose from the dead. And 40 days after Easter Sunday always falls on a Thursday. While we in North America don’t celebrate it widely (though many Anglicans, especially those whose parish churches are named “The Church of the Ascension”, will have special services for it), in much of western Europe, it’s still a public holiday.
Why does it matter? Why should we mark the ascension of Jesus?
It fulfills the promise he made to the disciples, even before he went to the cross. In John 14.28, Jesus told them, “I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am” (NLT).
Of course, the disciples didn’t understand this at the time, though everything became clear as time went on.
Jesus, in ascending to heaven, went to be with the Father, and began his promised role as our Intercessor. From that day forward, Jesus’ primary responsibility as the Second Person of the Trinity would be to pray for us.
Isn’t that amazing? Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father’s throne in heaven, interceding on our behalf. And it all began on that first Ascension Day.
When we pray in Jesus’ name, he lays our case before the throne of grace. Think of that every year, 40 days after Easter. And think of it every day as you pray in the powerful name of Jesus.
When I’m scrolling through my social media feeds, it takes something significant for me to “stop the scroll”. Reading a post a couple of weeks ago by an acquaintance, whom I met while on a mission trip to India several years ago, made me stop.
As you may know, India is having severe challenges with the virulent spread of the Coronavirus. Thousands of people each day are dying.
He said that the problem wasn’t that India didn’t have the resources to stop the spread of COVID-19; the problem is that there is a lack of value for human life.
Now, that’s just one man’s opinion, but this is his nation and his culture he’s talking about. He understands it far better than I ever could. And this is a sad assessment indeed.
I fear it is not limited to India, nor to the issue of the pandemic.
It’s a deep pond we’d be wading into, filled with quicksand, were we to begin the journey; this is not the forum for such conversation. But you know the issues as well as I do: once-civilized societies are demonstrating a lack of value for human life, whether at its beginning, its end, or its middle.
How do we turn that around?
One simple step is for all of us – starting with followers of Jesus, but spreading to all of society – to treat every other person as Jesus would treat him or her. This doesn’t mean agreeing on everything; it doesn’t mean approving of everything; what it does mean is that each person has value because each person is made in God’s image.
Not every cultural or religious tradition grasps this, but as Christians, we do.
Let’s set the example.
“So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them” (Genesis 1.27, NLT).
Where I live, Wednesday morning was dreary. The sky was dark, indicative of the thunderstorm that was rolling through. Even in front of a window, I needed artificial light for the Zoom call I had with my spiritual director.
As we talked about finding the fingerprints of God in my unique life situation these days, the word “weird” came up…a lot. There is no doubt that for all of us, these “unprecedented times” are weird; in some weeks, there are varying kinds of ‘weird’ by the day!
My spiritual director asked me about my response to the weirdness in terms of prayer. I said that, along with my usual Benedictine prayer offices, there are a lot of brief, incomplete sentences being offered to God in prayer these days.
She asked if these brief, incomplete sentences could be termed ‘groans’.
I nodded in agreement.
We both welled up a little, but in a good way.
This was a realization for me that even these brief utterances of prayer which, on some days, are all we can muster with the Lord, are important parts of our relationship with God.
If you have days where your prayers seem like little more than groans, don’t despair. God is listening.
And be encouraged by the words of the apostle Paul: “…the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8.26, NLT).
Post-Script: After I wrote this, I read this in N.T. Wright’s little book, God and the Pandemic (Zondervan Reflective, 2020, p. 42): “…when the world is going through great convulsions, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain. Paul [the apostle, in reference to the latter part of Romans 8] puts it like this, in a three-stage movement: first, the groaning of the world; second, the groaning of the Church; third, the groaning of the Spirit – within the Church within the world.”
Groan on, church. Groan on.
Early in the pandemic, my friend, Adelle Lauchlan, shared with me some thoughts that she had shared with the congregation of which she is a part. From time to time, with her permission, I have shared one with you, and this one in particular spoke to me today. Enjoy! – Jeff+
I think a lot about prayer, maybe because I pray a lot. Praying is one of the perks and privileges of my work.
But praying isn’t something I grew up doing.
Although I grew up going to church, prayer wasn’t part of my response. Prayer was something someone else did for me, or more accurately, “over me”. I fell away from church for over a decade after high school, and when I found my way back to church, I asked my pastor for a book on how to pray. He handed me a book titled Teaching Conversational Prayer.
I never read it.
It sat beside my bed for months. But it was the most transformative book never to be read. The title taught me what I needed to grasp. Prayer is a conversation. Prayer is a response to God’s love.
That book title was a revelation for me. Once I let faith rule in my heart, once I let Christ live in my heart, prayer became natural. Prayer didn’t need to be fancy, it didn’t need to be formatted, it just needed to be me talking to my God, my Creator, the One who loves me, the One who sent his only Son to save me; it just needed to be done.
I didn’t need to know how to pray, I just needed to pray.
My prayers are a loving response to the One who loves us best, to the One who is love. He created us to pray. And when I forget this or my prayer life turns stale, I need only look to Scripture for encouragement, for a reminder of God’s love.
The Apostle Paul prayed a lot. I love his prayer for the Ephesians; here is just a small bit of it. This is my prayer for you: “I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit – not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength – that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in” (Eph 3:16-17, The Message).
Earlier this week, a Canadian Member of Parliament “showed up” (if you’ll pardon the expression) in the virtual House of Commons – an online meeting of our nation’s legislators – without clothing.
He claims it was accidental, and I’m not going to judge that one way or the other. You can read the news articles for yourself.
But it got me thinking about how God sees us.
We in western culture tend to like to dress to impress, and sometimes dress for the role we play, even if that means, in this age of online meetings, wearing something formal on top while wearing track pants (or less) on the bottom, which will not be seen (apparently, unless you’re that Member of Parliament!).
There was a time when church-goers would wear their “Sunday best”. Whether that was because of societal pressure, common tradition, or because they believed that giving God their best in worship included their dress code, one cannot be certain.
Nowadays, the garb worn to church tends to be a combination of what’s comfortable and what’s acceptable. If you’re limiting your worship attendance to online, you might be going to church in your pajamas, or in The Altogether! And that’s okay. Because while people may judge (though they shouldn’t), God does not – or so we surmise.
I think if there is one reason why we should not be too concerned with what people wear to worship (or wear, generally), it’s that God knows what we look like naked. He sees all of us: our beauty, our flaws, our inside and our outside. And he is still head-over-heels in love with us.
When it comes to “dress to impress”, we don’t need to do that with our Creator. He knows exactly what we look like without our suit from Rosen, our blouse from Laura, or our t-shirt from Walmart. And he loves us.
So if you’re going to clothe yourself to impress God or anybody else, try this: “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God” (1 Peter 3.3-4, NLT).
The traditional Gospel story for the Sunday after Easter is the walk to Emmaus, told in the middle verses of Luke 24. In that story, a couple of people who had placed their hope in Jesus for the rescue of Jerusalem were walking home from that city, not having heard of the resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus appears, walking beside them, though they don’t recognize him. They’re talking about the events of the weekend, and Jesus acts as though he doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But as time goes on, he explains how the Bible predicted that the Messiah would rise from the dead.
He makes like he’s going beyond Emmaus, but his fellow travellers, upon reaching home, invite him to stay. He sits at table with them, and all at once, the guest becomes the Host, because he breaks the bread – and in that moment, they recognized Jesus! And he disappeared from their sight.
With that, they abandoned their supper and high-tailed it back to Jerusalem to find out about the resurrection of Jesus. And one remarked to the other:
“… ‘Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24.32, NLT).
Have you ever experienced that kind of heartburn? Have you felt that passion for God and his Word as you read the Scriptures, or hear them explained?
The Lord invites that passion to erupt within you. It’s part of how we become mature followers of Christ.
(By the way, I’m preaching a series right now called “Epidemic in the Church”, that deals with the characteristics of Jesus that we can emulate in order to become spiritually mature. You’re welcome to join us live, in person or online, any Sunday morning at 10, or catch up on past messages via our YouTube channel.)
Here’s hoping you’ll get that heartburn that no antacid can quell!