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

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).

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.

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).

Encouragement From The Word

Worship and who it’s for

In the Christian world, we seem to find two extremes in our worship gatherings:  on one end, we have those churches that use smoke and lights and hundreds of decibels to excite us.  On the other end, we have those churches that do everything in their power to make the gospel as boring as possible.

I don’t think either of those is the way to go.

Last Sunday, I talked about the importance of worshipping God in the midst of the crazy world in which we live.  In that message, I said this:

“When you come to worship, don’t come expecting to be entertained, though that may happen from time to time.  Don’t even come expecting to learn something, though I hope that will always happen.  Come expecting to encounter the living God, made known in Jesus Christ, who indwells us and inhabits our praise by the Holy Spirit.”

Worship is more than music and effects.  Worship is more than historic words.  Worship includes these things, as well as prayer, silence, preaching, and even the offering.  We don’t “have a time of worship” that is followed by “everything else”.  That “everything else” is also worship, if we couch it as such with intentionality!

And it’s not for us.  While churches should be particular about how they craft their worship gatherings in terms of relating to the culture around them, the purpose behind that is not to entertain the masses, but to facilitate the people’s praises of the unchanging, holy God.  When we come to worship, God is the audience.  Not us.  And he loves to receive the praises of his people.

This Sunday, I will tie all of this together with an understanding that we worship God because he is worthy.  That can and should be the antidote to the epidemic of fear that has gripped our world.

O nations of the world, recognize the Lord;
    recognize that the Lord is glorious and strong.
 Give to the Lord the glory he deserves!
    Bring your offering and come into his courts.
 Worship the Lord in all his holy splendor.
    Let all the earth tremble before him.
Tell all the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’
    The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.
    He will judge all peoples fairly” (Psalm 96.7-10, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Welcome home

In Ontario, it was announced this week that the mask mandate, put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, is being lifted as of March 21 in most settings.  This means that many people are thinking about resuming “normal” activities – things they did before the pandemic hit.

A lot of those activities will involve other people: being involved in community.

For those who walk with Jesus in faith, community is a significant part of our journey.  We engage in Christian fellowship through corporate worship; through participation in small groups for study, prayer and service; and through more casual means such as getting together for coffee with a friend or having people over for dinner.  

It will be nice to be able to resume these activities as we did before.

But did you know that community is also a spiritual discipline?

Very, very few Christians are called to be hermits.  They have existed over time, but they have been the exception to the rule.  In general, followers of Jesus are called to function in community.  This is true regardless of one’s state in life:  married or single, children or none; no matter our race or job or ability, we are called to function in community.

For some, this has meant living in intentional community, where believers live together under one roof, or in a commune-like setting, essentially becoming a church.  For many, though, functioning in community has meant living with one’s family, or alone, and engaging in community through the local church.

The word church, after all, literally means “those called out” – people called by God to faith in Christ, called to separate themselves for his Kingdom, called to do together what is either difficult or impossible to do alone.

It saddens me that these two years of restraint have, in a sense, cauterized some people: they have lost their sense of the value of community.  Church has become something they tune into on their computers, not people with whom they can ‘do life’ together.  They forget that the church is not the building, but the people.

If you follow Jesus, you are the church.  If you’ve been waiting for the “all clear” to be sounded, it looks like that signal is coming later this month.  See it as a call from God to be the church, to worship, study and serve with others who likewise are looking to Jesus as the Author and Finisher of their faith (Hebrews 12.1).

Welcome home.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other” (Romans 12.5, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Keep your Alleluias!

This week marked Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  I saw a post on social media about the tradition that some have during this period of the year where they put away, or “bury”, their “Alleluias” – they do not use this term to praise the Lord throughout the season of Lent, as a sign of penitence.

I think this is a wrong and misguided tradition.  Let me tell you why.

Sometimes, little words make a big difference.  For example, the church marks the Sundays in Lent, not the Sundays of Lent.  What’s the difference?  Well, Lent is marked for forty days, that being a biblically significant number (think flood, exodus, temptation, etc.).  But if you count the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day, you will find more than forty.  Why?

Because the Sundays aren’t included.  Every Sunday, no matter the season, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  So yes, you might hide your Alleluias from Monday to Saturday, but on Sunday, you are enjoined to haul them back out, because even though we trace the route to the cross in Lent, each Sunday remains a celebration of the resurrection, a “little Easter”.  

Whatever you may choose to do to mark the season of Lent, set it aside as you enter public worship, because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.  It is a break from the fast.  It is a relief from the penitence.  

And we can count it all joy.

Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heaven!
Praise him for his mighty works;
    praise his unequaled greatness!
Praise him with a blast of the ram’s horn;
    praise him with the lyre and harp!
Praise him with the tambourine and dancing;
    praise him with strings and flutes!
Praise him with a clash of cymbals;
    praise him with loud clanging cymbals.
Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord!

Praise the Lord!  (Psalm 150, NLT)

Encouragement From The Word

Throwing and Flooding

I met with my spiritual director earlier this week, and she read this familiar verse from The Message, which always manages to take the familiar and make one think about it:

Jesus once again addressed them: “I am the world’s Light. No one who follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in.” – John 8.12

It was a really good reminder for me that though we live in a time of darkness, with the pandemic and all the divisions that have been created and underlined by it, Jesus still provides plenty of light to live in.

It can be easy to point fingers and take pot shots (especially on social media, where we can’t see the other).  This verse reminded me of the importance not of pointing out the deficiencies of one, but of flooding all we know with the light of Jesus.

Since getting interested in the world of everyday carry (EDC), I’ve learned more about things like flashlights than I ever thought I would need to, or care to learn.  Some flashlights are made to throw light a long distance.  These lights have a fairly narrow beam, but you can see a long distance with them.  Other flashlights are made to flood a smaller area: you can see a lot around you, but not for very far.

Let me encourage you, in this politically and socially challenging time, to flood the world with the light of Jesus.  Not everybody lives in his light; some do stumble around in the darkness.  But we can flood the world around us with the light of Jesus, prayerfully hoping that some will see that light and turn to him and live in that light.

We all long for a peaceful world, free of division and strife.  Jesus is the way to fulfill that longing, and he invites us to spread that light.  By flooding the world around us with his light, we will have a greater impact as we seek to share the One who is our peace.

For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (Ephesians 2.14, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

God’s concoction: rest

I was talking with a group of people the other day about busyness, and how our society glorifies it.  Anytime you ask someone, “How are you?”, you’ll get the reply, “Great.  I’m so busy.”

Even the church sometimes glorifies busyness.  We would look askance at a pastor, for example, who said she or he was always bored.  We’d be thinking, Why aren’t you doing your job?

But there’s doing your job, and then there’s slowly killing yourself.

This isn’t a cry for help – I have lots on my plate, but I also take a weekly Sabbath, a day for rest from my regular work that allows me to be refreshed for the week to come.  Yet I think we all need a reminder that the glory of busyness is entirely a worldly concoction.

The idea of Sabbath, where one day in seven is set aside for worship and rest, is God’s concoction.  He modelled it for us in creation.  In Genesis 1, we see that he made the world and everything in it in six days, and on the seventh day, he rested.

Why did he do that?  Is God so weak that he needs time off?

Not at all!  He rested on the seventh day so that his covenant people would see their own need for a day of rest.

In ancient Hebrew culture, this day of rest grew to have all manner of laws and rules attached to it.  A friend of mine, a few years ago, was out for a walk in his neighbourhood when a lady called him to her door.  He thought she was in distress, but she had a small task for him:  to turn on her oven.  She was Jewish.  It was the Sabbath.  She wasn’t allowed to turn on her oven on the Sabbath…laws and rules.

He turned on her oven and carried on with his stroll.

Jesus reminded his followers that the Sabbath was made for humanity, and not the other way around.  He even healed on the Sabbath, which the Pharisees considered work.

Rarely, though, do we give much thought to how we observe Sabbath, mostly because we’re not very good at observing it at all.

Let me encourage you to view Sabbath not as a law, but as a gift.  On whatever day you are able to take a Sabbath, accept Jesus’ invitation:  “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11.28-30, NLT).

Work hard.  And rest in the Lord.

Encouragement From The Word

The alternative to prayer in school

In last week’s Encouragement From the Word, I recounted part of the story of Cassie Bernall, the student at Columbine High School who was killed for being a Christian, relating that to the reality of suffering and persecution among believers.  This elicited a heart-tugging response from a subscriber who was part of a tragic school shooting at one time.

This person told me how important a role prayer played in the aftermath, noting that “Amongst the sirens and the ambulances and the police, we gathered in small groups, holding hands and praying.  God was there giving comfort to us in our time of greatest need”, and that when the school reopened, a few days later, a prayer was offered over the PA system to bring comfort to the injured and the families of the victims.

Most schools today, at least where I live, don’t offer the option of public prayer.  And while I would welcome a call to restore school prayers, I fear that horse has left the barn, as the saying goes, and that nothing short of national revival is going to bring it back, especially in the political culture in which we find ourselves these days.

So what is the alternative?

Prayer at home.  (Now there’s a concept.)

Those students who gathered to pray amid the chaos in my interlocutor’s story must have had some foundation of prayer, both at home and in the church, to lead them to pray together.  It served them well to provide comfort in an unimaginable moment.

Too often, in our consumer culture, we depend on institutions to do work that more rightly belongs to the family.

We should not rely on the school system – even a Christian parochial school system, if that’s where our kids go – to teach them such foundational faith basics.

I dare say we should not even rely on the church to do this.  (Gasps come from the crowd.)

I think this is the responsibility of parents.  In fact, this is not my idea; it’s deeply rooted in the history of God’s people.  Consider that sharing the basics of faith has been considered a family mandate from as far back as the time of Moses:

Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.  Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up” (Deuteronomy 6.4-7, NLT).

Of course, parents themselves have to learn this, if they weren’t taught it by their own parents.  And that’s where the church comes in.  The church’s job is to equip parents to be used by God to shape their children as followers of Jesus.

Someone has said, tongue-in-cheek, that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in school.  But in an age of increasing persecution for followers of Jesus, all the more do children and young people need to be spiritually formed at home – including knowing how to communicate with God in a loving relationship – so that they can be strong in their faith, no matter what they face, in school or elsewhere.

It may not be bullets that they face (and so we earnestly pray!), but it may be words, which injure in different ways, or something else that comes with persecution.  As the church equips the parents to form the children, we will see great spiritual renewal among the people of God, which we need for the world in which we live today.

Encouragement From The Word

Would You Say ‘Yes’?

A number of years ago, there was a tragic school shooting in Columbine, Colorado.  The world was shocked by the event, and rightly so.  One of the stories to come out of it was chronicled in a memoir entitled She Said Yes.  It was about a student named Cassie Bernall, written by her mother, about how Cassie became one of the students to be shot on that horrific day.

The perpetrators, fellow high school students, had asked Cassie if she was a Christian.  Being a follower of Jesus, she responded that she was.  And that was what caused the deranged student to pull the trigger and kill Cassie.

What would you say had you been in that situation?  When the adrenaline is coursing through you, and you’re faced with a question about your faith that could cost you your life, would you say ‘yes’?

Some might lie and say ‘no’, even though it was not true, in order to preserve their lives and thereby be able to engage in Christian living for years to come.  But let’s say you were under coercion to recant your faith on the threat of death.  Would you?

This is mostly theory to us, but to the believers in the early church, this described daily living.  In the first three centuries of the existence of the church, Christian faith was not tolerated by the Roman empire.  Christ-followers were often killed because they refused to say “Caesar is Lord”, and worship their ruler.  Instead, they lived by the statement of faith that declared, “Jesus is Lord.”

It cost many disciples of Jesus their lives.

I certainly hope and pray that it never comes to that in our time, though in some parts of the world, it still happens that followers of Jesus are killed for their beliefs.  As biblical Christianity becomes less and less popular, it is becoming less and less tolerated in society.

Would you say ‘yes’ if confronted with the question about identifying with your Christian faith?  What price would you be willing to pay?

I pray that you never are faced with the need to choose between your profession of faith and your life.  But I also pray that the courage of your convictions will cause you to stand firm no matter what sort of suffering or persecution you might face.

God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5.10, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Your First Love

It’s amazing what the human memory can retain and what it can’t.  

Some days, I can barely remember why I got up to go to the kitchen.  But I can remember the strangest minutiae that don’t matter in the least.

I remember when I was in kindergarten – kindergarten, almost 50 years ago! – I decided there was a girl in my class that I liked…a lot.

At our school, the kindergarteners had their own designated, smaller yard set aside for recess.  And at recess one day, I decided I would express to my classmate how I felt about her.  So I started chasing her around the yard, with the express intent of kissing her.

It seems she wanted no part in this, and it also seems she could run faster than I could, because I don’t recall that my lips ever reached her cheek (which was all I would have aimed for at such an age)!

I guess you could say that was my first love, requited though it was.

In Revelation 2.4, John records the ascended Lord Jesus’ words to the Ephesian church when he accuses them:  “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (NIV).

Jesus wasn’t talking about a love like my kindergarten attempt at romance.  He was talking about love for him, as well as love for their brothers and sisters in the faith.

In our culture, which applauds busyness, we can get so tied up in an activity for which we have passion that we forget the whole reason we do it in the first place.

We get so busy studying doctrine or defending our faith that we fail to love others well.

We get so busy advocating for some issue – poverty, climate change, social justice – that we fail to spend time with the Lord who gave us that passion in the first place.

We forsake our first love.

Let’s remember, whether we are studying God’s Word or supporting a cause, to love the Lord and his people first and foremost.

‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22.37-40, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Who was, and is, and is to come

These are crazy days, aren’t they?  There are statements made and retracted by provincial and federal governments, vaccine taxes being assessed in Quebec, numbers being reported in limited ways, and just a whole lot of confusion around the pandemic.

In one sense, it’s understandable, since none of us has ever gone through anything like this before.  (Remember “Two weeks to flatten the curve”?  That’s ancient history now!)  We are all tired and frustrated, and we want life to go back to normal – or at least to proceed toward the new normal, post-pandemic.  And we just wish that we’d get some definitive answers.  But in such an unpredictable season, those answers are not forthcoming.

Amid all the uncertainty, there are some things we can know for certain.  One of them is the sovereignty of God: the belief that God is in charge.

It might seem like a goofy concept, thinking that God is in charge with the mayhem swirling around us.  But it’s true.

We don’t know why a sovereign God sees this going on and seemingly stands there.  (I would argue that if God were just ‘standing there’, matters would be a great deal worse!)  Our role is not to know why; it is to trust in the One who does know why.

As John the apostle begins the recording of his vision from the Lord in Revelation, he offers this greeting to the seven churches to which the book was originally written:  “Grace and peace to you from the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come” (Revelation 1.4b, NLT).

The Lord is, he was, and he is still to come.  God has seen all of history.  He sees the future.  And he sees what we’re dealing with today.  And he remains Lord of all, even though, at times, it might not seem that way.

On those days when you feel especially frustrated, at your wits’ end, or hanging on to the end of your rope, just remember that verse and proclaim – even if just to yourself – that no matter what, you trust the One who is, who always was, and who is still to come.

We will get through this.  God has promised that he will preserve his church, despite all odds.  It might not look like it always has, but it will still be the gathered faithful, praising the Eternal Father of the universe, rejoicing in the saving grace of the Lord Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

By the way, this Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, we are beginning a new series on the book of Revelation!  If you’d like to learn a bit of background about the book, you can watch this introductory video here.  And you are welcome to attend in person or tune in online to any of our services.

Grace and peace!

Encouragement From The Word

Standing at the gate

Part of Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem, made famous by King George VI in his address to the Commonwealth in December 1939, reads thus:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ 
And he replied: 
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’ 
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Here we stand at the gate of the year once again.  By God’s grace, we survived 2021.

We had higher hopes for it than were produced, in terms of the pandemic, though each of us surely had some highlight that made the year worth living.  Personally, I could make a list of things that made 2021 worth living!

That said, we are, shall we say, cautious about our entry through the gate of the year.

There’s been a cartoon floating around social media lately, showing a group of people hiding around a corner while one of them reaches with a broom handle and gently pushes open a door labelled “2022”.  It’s pretty apt; most of us are wondering what could possibly come next.  (The next letter in the Greek alphabet is pi, though they’ve skipped over a few before…if there’s a pi variant, I hope it’s blueberry.)

But seriously, many of us are crossing the threshold of the new year with caution.  But Haskins’ poem is an apt reminder for us:  we must go out into the darkness, and put our hand into the hand of God.  We are, after all, a people of faith.

Our faith is a specific faith, a faith that believes Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins, and rose from the dead to pave the way to eternal life for all believers.  But it is also a more general faith, in which simply lying down to sleep at night is an act of faith that we will rise the next day.  That is more than placing our hand in the hand of God: it is placing our entire being in the care of God.  And at that each of us is well-rehearsed.

So walk boldly into the surprise that will be 2022, knowing that for the One in whose hand we place ours, it will be no surprise at all.

because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan” (Ephesians 1.11, NLT).

Happy new year!

Encouragement From The Word returns on January 14.

Encouragement From The Word

The weary world rejoices

There are many beloved Christmas songs.  Some, like O come, all ye faithful and Hark! the herald angels sing are rich in theological depth and meaning.  Others are more experiential.  And even the experience-based songs can speak to us.

Among those that I’m thinking of this year is the Victorian classic, O holy night.  (It’s going to be sung at our service tonight.)  In that song, there’s a line that seems particularly poignant this year.  In reference to the Saviour’s birth, we hear:

A thrill of hope – the weary world rejoices,
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

The weary world rejoices.

It’s been a challenging year.  We need a reason to rejoice.

Even in what might be argued as the height and hopefully last gasp of the pandemic, Jesus’ birth gives us a reason to rejoice.

So rejoice!

Merry Christmas.

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!” (Philippians 4.4, NIV).