Biblical Messages

Slaves No More

In this message, based on Jeremiah 17.5-10 and Romans 6.15-23, we learn how God does not want us to be slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness. How can we do that? Root ourselves deeply. How does that happen? Through engaging in spiritual disciplines. We learn three of them in this message. You can watch the whole (edited) broadcast below, or catch just the message just below that.

 

 

Encouragement From The Word

Longing and Praying

Around the world, governments are starting to loosen restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic.  I find this encouraging, and I view it with guarded optimism.

“Guarded”, I say, because we need to be careful.  We’ve never been down this road before, so just because we may have more freedom, for example, to go to the hardware store, doesn’t mean that the virus is dead and gone and will never return.  We will still need to practise procedures that will keep everyone healthy.

Like me, you may be longing – deeply! – to return to holding public worship gatherings, where we can praise the Lord together, instead of uniting by faith, separately, in our homes, watching modified services broadcast over the Internet.  We don’t know when the green light will be given for that.  And we will need to be wise in our roll-out of new practices and procedures that will allow us to be together safely.

In the midst of all that, let me encourage you to pray for the leaders of your church.  At St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, where I serve, our elders have begun thinking about what will be permitted once gatherings are allowed once again.  We don’t know how the government of Ontario will roll out permission together, so we will have to abide by those guidelines, but as a witness to the goodness of God, we will err on the side of caution, because doing so demonstrates our love, and God’s love, for the community.

Let me also encourage you to pray for the people of your community.  Pray that they will be released from fear, while not being released from caution.  Pray that they will be given wisdom to retain the important habits and practices they have learned through this time of restriction.  And pray that people will see that only the gracious hand of God has permitted us all to get through this, and that they will want to respond in worship and praise, gathering with the church in celebration of God’s grace.

Always be joyful.  Never stop praying.  Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Brightness in dark days

Today’s Encouragement From the Word is a guest post from a long-time friend of mine, Dawn Champagne, with whom I went to high school.  Her poetry has shown up here before. The prayer in the image at the end is hers, too.  Thanks for the inspiration, Dawn!  – Jeff+

That second day between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus must have been the darkest day ever experienced by the 11 remaining disciples. When Jesus had called each one of them to “follow Me,” they did so without hesitation. They readily left their careers, and eagerly listened to His teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven and how it was at hand.

How could they make sense of what they had just witnessed the day before as Jesus hung on that cross, and now dead in the tomb. While we know what occurred on the third day, they did not: all of their ambitions, hopes, and dreams were buried in that tomb as well.

The crisis was now over, and they were left alone. How could they make any sense of what happened, with no hope for the future that they had been taught about? 

When the third day dawned, their grief was changed from sorrow to rejoicing when they found the tomb empty. What a wonderful day of rejoicing that must have been as Jesus began to present Himself to them! A pondering inexpressible joy that cannot be put into words! 

We live in a world of what now seems to be in a season of dark days and turmoil with COVID-19 adding to the tears that flow from those who are suffering. Unlike what the disciples experienced on that second day, praise God, the Christian has been given the ultimate hope at the opposite end of the spectrum as we go through these difficult times. Jesus is alive! 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ whom having not seen you love” 1 Peter 1.3, 6, 8a (NKJV).

Below are words given to me as the Holy Spirit ministered to me in a time of need following a difficult season in the fall of 2016. Praying they will minister to you as well through these uncertain times, and May Jesus be the Brightest Ray on your darkest of days! 

Wishing you all a blessed Easter!

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Encouragement From The Word

Praying together when we can’t be together

When our church’s leaders met on Tuesday (electronically, of course), one of them shared a good idea that I want to share with you.

It’s hard for us to pray in each other’s presence right now.  In times of crisis, one of the church’s greatest and most powerful and encouraging tools is corporate prayer.  But we can’t get together to pray in these days.  It’s just not safe.

It’s possible to have online prayer meetings, and they can be valuable.  But we can also pray, on our own, in our homes (or at work, if we are deemed essential services).

The elder I mentioned above shared with me an email from the Yonge Street Mission that expressed ways that the church can pray.  I’m going to adapt its suggestions as ways that we can pray together, even though we are apart:

  • Pray for peace to reign in our communities. In place of panic and fear, ask the Lord to fill our villages, towns and cities with compassion and grace.
  • Pray for people who will be most impacted by service interruptions, such as access to meals, food banks, fellowship groups, and those who cannot connect with community online because they do not use the Internet.
  • Pray for people whose employment is affected by this crisis – those who have lost their jobs permanently or temporarily, those who are deep in debt, as well as those whose work demands have ramped up or become more dangerous because of Coronavirus. Pray especially for those on the front lines of medical care, and those in essential services.
  • Pray for people who struggle with isolation, especially those who live alone and those who depend on regular visits from friends or loved ones.

As you pray, ask the Lord how he can use you to make someone’s situation better, whether through a phone call or an email, leaving a few needed groceries on their front porch, or sending a card of encouragement.

And pray in faith.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4.6-7, NLT).

By the way, if you don’t have an online church home in these days, you are welcome to join the online community with St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. on Facebook Live, or for replay anytime on our YouTube channel.

Biblical Messages

A snapshot of the church

This worship gathering was primarily led by young people, and their theme was the Holy Spirit; my job was to integrate with their theme, so I chose to bring a message from Acts 2.42-47 that shows a picture of the early church as it responded to the giving of the Holy Spirit.  The message itself starts at 39:37, or you can watch the whole service below.

Bonus: an audio recording of the message is below, if that suits you better…

Encouragement From The Word

The Sound of Silence

The sound of silence.

For some, it is a reference to Simon and Garfunkel.

For others, it is the noise made by the refrigerator or the HVAC system.

For some, it is deafening.

For others, it is the most beautiful sound on earth.

Whatever it may mean to us, the sound of silence is a gift, whether we acknowledge it or not.  For it is in silence that we are most clearly able to commune with God as friend to Friend, as servant to Master, as disciple to Lord.  Think about it:  when you are having an intentional conversation with a close friend, you’re probably not having to shout over a loud racket, right?  When it’s a serious conversation, there’s probably no discernible noise in the background.

So why not do this with the Lord?

At times, we may wonder why we don’t hear from God; it’s less likely that God is silent, and more likely that we are not making space to listen.

As you read the Bible, as you pray – whatever shape that takes – consider doing it accompanied by the sound of silence.  You may be surprised how much you hear.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him.
 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Psalm 62.5-6, NRSV).

Encouragement From The Word

Religious Respectability

In his book Prayer:  Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster writes about various facets of the gemstone of the Christian life that is prayer.  Among them is “authoritative prayer”, in which Foster suggests that God’s people are too often too timid about exercising their God-given abilities in prayer.

He cites all kinds of times when Jesus spoke authoritatively in prayer, and then he writes,

“Certainly I should not be expected to do those kinds of things.  But then I came upon Jesus’ shocking words:  ‘Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father’ (John 14:12)….In my concern over falling off the deep end, I realized that I just might fall off the shallow end.  My desire to maintain religious respectability could easily result in a domesticated faith”  (pp. 234-235, emphases mine).

Re-reading this book always challenges me, and on this go-round, it was this section that slapped me ‘upside the head.’  Am I more interested in religious respectability than I am about doing the work God has intended for me to do?

It’s as if I would sooner sit in the cold than get up and turn on the furnace.

Now, what might be running through your mind certainly courses through mine, and that’s this:  What about the sovereignty of God?

Foster would remind us that any prayer we offer authoritatively must come not from any authority of our own, but from the authority of the Holy Spirit working in and through us – and the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Trinity, is sovereign and ultimately decides whether a prayer should be granted or not.

Yet, I want to suggest, too often we don’t even bother.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders and saying, “There’s nothing we can do,” what if we were to speak to the sickness in our loved one, in Jesus’ name?

Many of us are reluctant to do such things because we don’t own a white polyester suit, or a personal jet; we don’t want to be lumped in with those Christians.  To be sure, any authoritative ministry we exercise does not happen for our own self-aggrandizement, but for the glory of God.  But if God were willing to heal, willing to cast out, willing to aid – if we were simply to ask – would that not be worth the risk of losing religious respectability?

Encouragement From The Word

Thoughts and prayers

The dreadful mass killing in a Texas church last Sunday once again brought forward a recent phenomenon creeping into social media, that is, the idea that we should abandon the notion of “thoughts and prayers” in favour of gun control in the United States.

This piece is not about gun control in the United States.  I am not an American; I am not entitled to an opinion about US domestic policy or constitutional law.  This piece is, instead, about “thoughts and prayers” – something with which I have some experience.

Is there a flippancy with which we toss out that we are offering “thoughts and prayers” when we see word of a tragedy?  Perhaps.  If we type something like that on a post about an unfortunate event on social media, without acting on it, then the gesture is as flippant as the all-too-common “How are you?” question, for which the interlocutor really doesn’t want an answer anyway.

For some people, perhaps “thoughts and prayers” has become a benign term of sympathy.  After all, in the face of adversity, many people don’t know what to say to others.  (Have you ever paid attention to what people say when they greet mourners at a funeral visitation?  Often, they fill the air with meaningless words in an attempt to cover up the fact that they don’t know what to say.  Perhaps the next trend we’ll see in the funeral home will be people walking up to grieving friends and greeting them with the words, “thoughts and prayers.”  It sounds preposterous, but I don’t think it’s a stretch.)

If typing “thoughts and prayers” is as phony as air-kissing, though, let’s abandon it.  But what if thinking about, and praying for, troubled individuals or grieving family members or challenging situations actually did some good?  Would we continue to do it?

Prayer is conversation with God, and conversation with God – for the faithful – is always comforting (or at least centring).  And those who are prayed for usually feel encouraged, knowing that they are being supported by others.  (It is a different, and rather more challenging, question as to whether or not prayer can change the mind of God, but we’re not going there today.)

So if we actually pray when we offer “thoughts and prayers”, then carry on!  I know how much it matters to me that others pray for me, and when I pray for others, I seek to let them know in some meaningful way.  Maybe there’s a way we can communicate that we are praying for those suffering in tragic situations that doesn’t sound flippant.

Then, the challenge for us who pray is this:  if God calls us to act as a result of our prayers, will we?  Perhaps it isn’t necessary to separate praying for people from acting to ameliorate their situations.

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him” (1 Chronicles 16.11, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

A lesson from Vegas

Welcome back to Encouragement From the Word!  It’s good to be back in the saddle.  My time off was, in part, a study in contrasts.  To mark our 25th wedding anniversary (which is actually next Tuesday), my wife and I embarked on a four-night trip to Las Vegas.  Following that, I went on retreat at a monastery for a few days.

Yep, that’s quite a difference.

I learned a lot about life during our visit to Sin City.  One of the most profound takeaways for me was the need some people have constantly to be stimulated.  If you’re one of those people, Vegas is your place.  Without exaggeration, the only places where we could escape from some sort of aural or visual stimulation were our hotel room, and the hallway that led to it.  Every other place we went in Las Vegas had lights flashing, music playing, bells ringing – always something stimulating the senses.

It seems to me that it’s not healthy for us to experience constant stimulation.  Sometimes, we need the silence, we need the stillness – for our own sanity, frankly – but also if we have any hope of hearing from God.

There’s a comic frame that has made its way around social media over the last several years, picturing a sheep in a chaise lounge wearing sunglasses, with a computer on his lap, a TV in front of him, a radio blaring behind him, and an iPod connected to his headphones.  He’s reading one from a pile of magazines that are stacked on top of his Bible, and he asks, “I wonder why I don’t hear from the shepherd anymore?”

The answer is obvious, and the comic challenges us.  We need time away from the noise, so we can hear from God.

What allowance do you make for quiet time?  A few days praying with monks was good for me, but it wasn’t enough; I need time daily, away from the noise.  So do you.

The Lord Jesus, during his ministry in Palestine, often found crowds of people drawn to him.  And he was compassionate toward the people and brought healing and life to many.  But the Bible also says this about him:  “Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer” (Luke 5.16, NLT).  Even Jesus needed a quiet place and a quiet time.  So do you.  What will you do to make that happen in this season of trying new things?

Biblical Messages

Ask Anything?

In this new series, we’re looking at a few Scripture passages that get twisted from time to time.  The series is inspired by Craig Groeschel from LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma, and I have adapted his outlines for my own voice.  This week, we look at the notion that when Jesus tells us we can ask anything in his name, he’ll do it.  So where’s my Cadillac?  We read John 14.12-14 and allude to Habakkuk 3.17-18.  Listen or watch below:

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Encouragement From The Word

Caught and taught

Recently, I received a bunch of papers from one of my favourite subscribers to Encouragement From The Word:  my mother.  Slowly but surely, she is starting to get rid of unnecessary things.  She has a difficult time throwing them away, so she gives to me things that she thinks might be of interest, because she knows that when I’m done with them, I can throw them away.

This bunch of papers came from my grandmother; they were notes in her handwriting.FullSizeRender 2

There were some that cited Bible verses, some were prayers, some were notions.

One of them was some advice from my grandmother on how to pray, particularly for me.  (Apparently, at that time, I wasn’t the easiest person in the world to deal with.)

I will throw out those papers, but having read them, the memory, which takes up no room in a box, will stay with me.  My grandmother’s legacy of faith remains in some of these little notes, simple means by which she could impart the wisdom of years of faith and faithfulness to my mother, and to me.

If you are a seasoned follower of Jesus, how are you leaving your legacy of faith?  And if you are a newer believer, are you inviting wiser Christians to build into your life?  Many don’t want to inflict themselves on you, but they are just waiting to be asked.

After all, faith is as much caught as it is taught.  Whose faith are you catching?

I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice.  And I know that same faith continues strong in you” (2 Timothy 1.5, NLT).

Biblical Messages

A praying church is a growing church

What makes churches grow, and what keeps them from growing?  There’s lots to learn in this field.  Today, we looked at the one commonality among all churches that grow:  they pray.

Based on Acts 4.23-31, listen to the message here:

Or watch the Facebook video feed, whether you belong to Facebook or not:

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Biblical Messages

ADVICE FROM A MENTOR: 2. Pray Indiscriminately

In this second part of our journey through 1 Timothy, we encounter what we might call a contemporary roadblock in the challenging part of chapter 2.  Because of that, I deal with it first in the message, discussing verses 8-15 before verses 1-7…a bit of a different approach, but hopefully it was helpful.

Based on all of 1 Timothy 2, you can listen to the message here:

Encouragement From The Word

Pray for Canada

On this Canada Day, I encourage you to pray for the nation we treasure. It was founded on strong Christian principles, not least demonstrated by our coat of arms, with the phrase a mari usque ad mare – from sea to sea. Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley came up with the idea of calling Canada a “dominion”, and while that terminology is no longer frequently used, and we have wavered significantly from our Christian roots, we can know most assuredly that God still has a plan for Canada.
I took a course this week in Vancouver on cultural discipleship in a secular age, and one of the things that struck me early on is what Jeremiah wrote to the exiled people of God. In chapter 29, we’re used to hearing the comforting words that God has plans for us. But earlier in the chapter, the prophet said this to God’s people who had been carted away from their beloved land: “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29.4-7, NLT).
We might be inclined to say this world is not our home, but temporarily, it is. Pray for Canada this Canada Day, and ask the Lord to encourage his people to settle, and to be good neighbours to the many diverse people who inhabit our land, that they may catch a glimpse of Jesus in us.

Encouragement From The Word, Uncategorized

The lost connection

We never realize how much we rely on our technology until something goes wrong with it.  I spent a good chunk of yesterday morning trying to figure out why my computer would work perfectly well at home, but would not connect to the Internet at the church.  A good friend tried to help, to no avail.  Our Internet Service Provider tried to help, to no avail.  And the maker of my computer tried to help…and we’re not sure yet if that worked.  We’ll see what happens next.

The experience was both frustrating and time-consuming, but that sometimes happens. But it made me wonder:  when I pray, and I don’t necessarily feel like my ‘connection’ with God is happening, how hard do I work to restore it.

Many people of faith have these periodic ‘connection problems’ in their prayer lives.  Some of them occur for lengthy periods of time – even years.  And though we attempt to resolve them, when that doesn’t work on the first or second try, sometimes we are inclined to walk away.  However, when we do that, nobody wins.  Why?  Because God longs to have fellowship with us, and we need to have fellowship with God.  Walking away from the ‘connection’ – the relationship – means that both we and God lose out.

Even in what is deemed “the dark night of the soul” (to coin a phrase from the mediaeval Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross), we can continue to pray in faith.  Though we may not hear from God, God still hears from us, and our faith is practised – even when we think it may be doing no good at all.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced decades of silence in her relationship with God, yet she continued to pray, continued to serve, because she knew it was making a difference.  You and I can do the same.  Though our conversations with God may seem one sided, as though there were nobody on the other end of the line, our faith enables us to carry on because we believe that God hears us, God sees us, God knows that we are engaging with him.

Even when my Internet connection fails, I can keep working on documents and planning and writing and leading, because I believe my connection will be restored.  Even when I feel as though my prayers may be going no farther than the ceiling of my study, I believe the Lord hears them and continues to act.

Do you sometimes feel like your prayers aren’t going anywhere?  Trust that God hears them, and cry out to him that he will make himself known to you again.  God is faithful.

I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy.  Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!” (Psalm 116.1-2, NLT)

Biblical Messages

REBUILDING A PEOPLE: 2. You Know You’re Doing Something Right

Chances are, if you’ve got critics, you’re doing something right.  Last week, our intern introduced a series on the book of Nehemiah, which we are entitling, “Rebuilding A People”.  It is taking a brief look through this most interesting book of history and faith in the Old Testament.  Today, we looked at Nehemiah 4.1-23, a story of opposition to the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem.  Nehemiah’s response to his critics provides us with a vital lesson for ourselves and our churches today.  Have a listen here:

The photos referenced in the message were taken by my wife in Jerusalem in November 2013:

Neh wallis0902 Middle section - Nehemiah

Biblical Messages

LOVE ONE ANOTHER: The Son of God Has Come!

In the concluding message of this series, based on 1 John 5.13-21, we learn that the real purpose of Christmas is to celebrate that God has come in the flesh.  This gives us certain assurances about faith and prayer and forgiveness of sin, about which you can learn if you listen here:

There is a section of the passage that deserved more attention than I could give it in this short message.  Verse 16 talks about “a sin that does not lead to death” and “a sin that leads to death”.  What is John talking about here?  In the message, I allude to Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of venial and mortal sins, but is that what is being referred to here?  And, in verse 18, John writes that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.  How does that square with reality?

The Old Testament knew of sins that were deliberate – open rebellion against God, and punishable by death – and sins that were inadvertent and could be atoned for.  (For example, look at Leviticus 4 or Numbers 15.22-29.)  Judaism in the time of the writing of 1 John will have retained this understanding, and perhaps it was thus delineated in John’s community of faith.  That would help us understand the notion of the sin that leads to death.  Trying to guess what that is, on the other hand, is a pointless and fruitless venture.  Mark 3.29 refers to the sin against the Holy Spirit; could that be the sin that leads to death?  Because John’s context is all about false teaching in this letter, it’s more likely that he is thinking of that:  leading people astray in their belief is an unforgivable sin.  And then, are we enjoined not to pray about those sins?  It’s not clear that John is discouraging praying under any circumstance, but it does seem clear that he thinks there is no hope in prayer for someone who has committed such a sin; such a person would be denying God’s mercy, and the only effective prayer for such a person is to call for repentance and conversion (so says the Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

As to not continuing in sin (v. 18), it has been John’s premise throughout the letter that those who truly are ‘in Christ’ are not going to fall victim to a sinful life.  Do we still sin, even though we belong to the Lord?  Yes.  John’s point is that followers of Jesus should not make sin a pattern, a lifestyle choice, since that would be incompatible with the life to which we have been called.

Hopefully, that will tie up some of the loose ends left by the message.  Merry Christmas!