Christianity 201

December 30, 2020

In Good Times and Bad Times

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:29 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

“Pastor Michael Stancil of Fulton Bridge Baptist Church in Hamilton [Alabama] was 49 when he died after a six-week battle with the new coronavirus.” So begins an article in The Christian Post. This isn’t one of those stories. The pastor was extra-cautious and made sure his church did everything right in terms of respecting health guidelines.

What struck me was this from a parishioner:

…Lindsay Evans also remembered the late pastor as a compassionate man…

Evans also explained that even from his hospital bed, Stancil was a faithful witness…

“I text him and told him…. That so many were praying, and we loved him! He text me back this verse…’When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other.’ – Ecclesiastes 7:14,” she wrote.

That seems so timely right now.

The full verse, in the NET Bible reads, “In times of prosperity be joyful, but in times of adversity consider this: God has made one as well as the other, so that no one can discover what the future holds.” The Voice renders it, “When times are good, enjoy them and be happy. When times are bad, think about this: God makes both good and bad times, so that no one really knows what is coming next.” Eugene Peterson presents it this way, ” On a good day, enjoy yourself; On a bad day, examine your conscience. God arranges for both kinds of days So that we won’t take anything for granted.”

First a word about the use of prosperity. Over 20 translations on Bible Gateway include this (everything from NLT to KJV; also the rigorous translation team at NASB) but expositors often point out that the Bible is often speaking of the prospering of the soul instead of our emphasis on material, financial prosperity. Three of the four I quoted above simply contrast good times with hard times.

Second, all of the verses above talk about God making or arranging those not-so-good days, and that sentiment is unanimous among translators on the larger list inked above. On a personal level, let me say that this is interesting considering the propensity of those who want to say, “Well, we live in a fallen world and these things just happen, it doesn’t mean God sends them.” Or those doing their best to convince me of the concept of open theology. I am partially persuaded that it’s worth giving this view a hearing, but then I hit a verse like this one. The translators felt that God is actively involved in orchestrating (the word I often prefer) these circumstances, situations and events.

What do you think this verse says to the idea that “God didn’t send the Coronavirus?”

The overarching message seems clear in the above verse: Don’t take anything for granted. No one really knows what’s coming next…

…I had originally planned today to talk about the duration of plagues, since Covid-19 has dragged on to the point where many of have Covid fatigue, and the outlook where I live is that there are still plenty more days of masks, quarantines and lockdowns ahead.

There will be violent earthquakes, and famines and plagues in various places, and there will be terrifying sights and great signs from heaven.
 – Luke 21:11 CSB

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
– Matthew 24:6,7 NIV

Most of the mentions of plagues in the Bible are either related to the ten plagues brought upon the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus, and the prophecies concerning plagues yet to be seen from the Book of Revelation. Leila Pitchford has done a good job of spelling those out in this article.

Rather, the scriptures speak of famines as being extremely relevant in a time before canned and packaged food, refrigeration, or freezers. Even using salt as a preservative, the best-before dates on the contents of your pantry would be very limited. Although many Westerners miss it, Jesus includes a famine as a catalyst for the wayward son’s return in his parable, and of course the famine managed by Joseph in Egypt would come to mind as Jesus teaches.

At the website, The Conversation, author Robyn J. Whittaker says “we want to blame someone.” She writes,

…Given the ubiquity of religion in most human communities throughout history, it is not surprising reflections on pandemics often begin with God. Plagues and diseases on such a scale feel “biblical” in the sense they are beyond the norm and therefore supernatural in some way. While modern science gives us insight into COVID-19, we still look for someone, anyone, to blame for its presence.

In antiquity, that someone was often God…

She continues,

…Throughout history, humans have sought explanations for things that are beyond our normal control or understanding. While God is often credited as the sender of plagues or pestilence – usually to teach some moral lesson – we tend to focus our wrath on human scapegoats. In the 1980s, the HIV-AIDS viral pandemic was blamed on the gay community or Haitians, revealing the racism and homophobia behind such views.

US President Donald Trump’s constant reference to COVID-19 as the “China virus” reflects a similar desire for a scapegoat. In its worst form, the blame game leads to widespread retribution against anyone identified with that group…

Writer Leah Hall introduces a compilation of verses about plagues with these words,

You might find yourself wondering if you are experiencing the types of plagues described in the Bible and unsure if this just happened because the world is imperfect. Or you might hear people saying that it’s a form of punishment and find yourself uncertain what to believe. The truth is, we don’t know why these tragic things happen. But we do know that while God allows them, He is a God of comfort, and the plagues found in the Bible are only a small piece of a larger story—a redemptive rescue mission that culminates with Jesus and the gospel.

Two of the verses she includes are:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

and

“God is our refuge and strength,
always ready to help in times of trouble.

So we will not fear when earthquakes come
and the mountains crumble into the sea.

Let the oceans roar and foam.
Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge!” – Psalm 46

October 10, 2020

The Peace We Crave Right Now

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

In the Spring of 2019 we introduced readers to MaryAnn Nguyen-Kwok and her blog, Searching for Treasures. She is an Associate Pastor in a church in San Diego, CA. Today’s readings are from a series of blog posts in September, 2020 on the subject of peace. Each section can be linked from the titles which follow. (I don’t think we’ve ever borrowed a total of four devotions, but these are shorter. There are also three more linked at the bottom.)

Perfect Peace

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.  Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal” (Isaiah 26:3-4).

There is an unseen and yet pervasive sense of pressure that we are all feeling during this pandemic.  We are weighed down as we are constantly needing to weigh the pros and cons of so many decisions.  Should we go to the store or get groceries delivered?  Can we dine at a restaurant or should we order takeout?  Should we send our kids to school or have them do online school?  These are the daily decisions that we find ourselves needing to make.  And all of it together for so many months may make us feel like the walls are closing in just a little.

It’s in times like these, when I am feeling the constant pressure, that I know I need to return to this prophetic song of promise from Isaiah.  God will keep us in perfect peace when we trust in him.  He is worthy of our trust because he is a Rock that can’t be moved.  He can’t be shaken, and so we can entrust our whole hearts and our whole lives to him.  And, as we do so, he fills us with a perfect peace that is beyond our imagination.

Like a Rainbow in the Clouds

At the kickoff of his ministry, Ezekiel has a vision of a windstorm that comes from the north, and coming with the storm clouds was a throne and the appearance of the Lord as a figure like that of a man.  And this was the description of him, “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him” (Ezekiel 1:28).

Something that strikes me about this vision is the reminder that the Lord comes with the storm clouds.

Often, it’s easy for me to think that when I am in the middle of the storm, the Lord is not there. Sure, he’s aware about the storm. Sure, he’s even permitted the storm within the realm of all our human free-will, but he is not there with me in the storm. But it’s interesting that here in this moment, when the storm came, there was the Lord too! He made his appearance with the storm. It’s hard to miss the hope that the Lord brings. He is like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day. Rainbows are the great reminder that storms have beginnings but they also have endings.

We have the hope in Jesus, that no matter what storms may come, he will be with us in the storm, and he will bring us safely through to the storm’s end. We will see the rainbow after the storm. This vision gives me so much hope. May it bring you hope and encouragement today as well.

How Can God be Glorified?

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!”  (John 12:27-28).

When Jesus faced the greatest trial of his life, he did not ask to be delivered from it.  Instead, he asked for God to be glorified in it.  This week, as I led the morning Bible study in John 12, I was struck by the posture that Jesus took.  When I face challenges, my default is often to ask for God to fix it and make it better right away.  But, what if, instead, I asked God how he could be glorified through this situation?  What if I asked how I could glorify him or how I could be transformed as I face these challenges?

I think that would make a huge difference, especially when the trials remain for longer than I anticipated.  Covid has lasted longer than was first predicted, and, as a result, life is full to the brim with new responsibilities to juggle. However, instead of asking God to deliver us, I am reminded today that what I really want is to press into asking God how he can be glorified in the midst of all of this.  I hope this reminder could be an encouragement for you as well today.

Not Forgotten

“I have made you, you are my servant; Israel, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 44:21).

There was no doubt that Israel felt forgotten when their beloved city of Jerusalem was captured and when they were all sent into exile.  While they faced famine, displacement, and death, it seemed like all the loving promises of God had been forgotten forever.  And it is in that context of suffering that God assures them that he has made them and he will not forget them.

Jesus reaffirms this reality of God’s love for us in Luke when he says that we are more valuable to God than the birds, whom God feeds and provides for every single day without fail.  He also reveals in John that the Spirit would be sent for us and will be with us forever.  God has not forgotten us.  He has not forgotten you.  What stresses and what difficulties are you facing?  What hard work have you offered that hasn’t been noticed by others?  God sees you.  He notices.  He hasn’t forgotten you. You are made by him and he loves you.  Hear God’s word for you today, “I will not forget you.”  Soak it in.  Let his words of love wrap around your soul and bring healing to you this day.

Continue reading:

There are three more articles which continue this theme at Searching for Treasures:

 

June 25, 2020

Spectacular and Sensational: Are Christians to Be Known Primarily for Working Miracles?

by Clarke Dixon

In these days of a pandemic, should we as followers of Jesus be known for doing spectacular and sensational things? Should we be fearless in the face of infection? We’ve prayed about it, we believe that God can protect us, so should we then act like we are immune? Should we declare the pandemic will be over soon? We keep praying it will be.

Of course, this is not just about the pandemic, but all of life. Is the working of miracles the Christian solution to all problems? Is the spectacular and sensational the defining mark of the Christ follower?

Jesus clarifies the defining mark of his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)

The defining mark of the Christ follower may not seem clearly evident here on first glance. Let us put ourselves, for a moment, in the shoes of the scribes and Pharisees. We have a passion for God’s law. We study it, memorize it, and teach it, hoping that our zeal for pleasing God is contagious.

Along comes Jesus, doing spectacular and sensational things, like casting out demons, healing people, and works of power. Yet he does some surprising things too, like healing on the Sabbath. Have you not read your Bible Jesus? Working on the Sabbath is forbidden.

We are concerned. Jesus is attracting people with the spectacular and the sensational, yet his track record of keeping the law and traditions we teach is suspect. Will the Jesus followers, of which there are now many, be all show, and no substance? Will Jesus be taking people away from righteousness through all the spectacular and sensational things he is doing?

To that Jesus says,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (NLT emphasis added)

The defining mark of the Christian is not the spectacular and sensational, though those things may happen. The defining mark of the Christian is the doing of the heavenly Father’s will. Jesus’ followers can not be described as “workers of lawlessness” (literal rendition of ‘evildoers’ in verse 23).

In other words, Jesus is not taking people away from God and godliness, Jesus is taking people deeper into God and godliness.

Let us remember what Jesus said near the beginning of his “Sermon on the Mount” back in chapter 5

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20 (NIV emphasis added)

When Jesus speaks of the need for a righteousness that excels that of the scribes and Pharisees, he is pointing out that there’s is a faulty righteousness. There is something missing. They were all about the letter of the law, missing God’s heart.

When Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to teach about character, he is taking us toward a righteousness that captures God’s heart.

Here is the defining mark of a Christ follower; a character that captures God’s heart. In developing a character that captures God’s heart, the Jesus follower develops a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. Of course eternal life depends on God’s grace and not our ability. However, salvation to eternal life does not preclude becoming more like our Saviour as we follow.

Yes, Jesus was going about doing spectacular and sensational things. And no, Jesus was not keeping the traditions in ways that would keep the scribes and Pharisees happy. However, Jesus was, and is now, calling people, not to be workers of the spectacular and sensational, nor to a wooden adherence to a set of rules, but to a deep righteousness formed of God.

What about us? What defines our Christian walk? Is it a focus on the spectacular and sensational? Do people know us to be a people who walk about with the expectation that God will hand out miracles like candy? Do we see miracles as the solution to all our, and the world’s, problems?

We should pray for miracles. I believe they happen. But while we pray for miracles, we can recognize how character that captures God’s heart solves many of our, and the world’s problems. We can think of problems in family relationships, marriage, race relations, and so much more. If our character is growing in Christlikeness, many of our problems wouldn’t exist in the first place!

We may think that we would be most like Christ if miracles would happen all around us, and through us. We are most like Christ when we love as Jesus loved, when we sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed, when we serve as Jesus served, when we forgive as Jesus forgave.

Ours is not to make people think we are the second coming of Jesus by the working of miracles every time there is a problem. Ours is to be a people who live in a deep relationship with God through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. We respond to every problem, including every pandemic, with Christlike character. We will be known as Jesus followers, not by our miracles, but by our character.


Pastor Clarke Dixon is the pastor of a Baptist church in Cobourg, Ontario. His family are currently riding out both the pandemic and the heat wave next to their pool. This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which has replaced their regular church service. Read more at clarkedixon.wordpress.com.

June 2, 2020

The Disciples in Lockdown

Today we’re also featuring a new (to us) writer. A.K. Francis has been writing fiction for more than ten years, but more recently started writing faith-focused articles as well. During the time of pandemic, that writing moved into a series titled In The Valley of Fear and Solitude which began in the Old Testament and has worked its way to the New. Click the links in this paragraph to read more, or click the header which follows to read today’s article at source.

The disciples behind closed doors

As we edge our way out of lockdown, it seems an appropriate time for a probably last blog post on faith in isolation. For today’s edition I have chosen two stories that are very similar in their structure and story from Acts and the end of the Gospels respectively.

The first story (from the gospels) is that of Jesus first appearing to his disciples after His resurrection. The disciples are together in a room with the doors locked, out of fear of the Jewish non-believers around them. Earlier that morning, some of their women had been to the tomb and found the place empty – it is unclear whether they believed in the resurrection from this or not. Jesus is suddenly in the room with them. He speaks to the disciples and encourages them. Then he is gone. Later he appears again and seeks out Thomas, who had been absent previously and had said that he would not believe the resurrection story until he saw the walking talking, and scarred evidence in the body of the risen saviour.

The second story is near the beginning of the book of Acts. The disciples are again in an upper room, with the doors closed. This time the room is suddenly filled with flames and wind as the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised, swept through the room and entered each disciple. They begin speaking in other languages as that spirit enabled them, and then leave the room to spread the word about Jesus to those in the city. As it is the festival of weeks, the city is full of Jews from across the then known world – making their languages essential to their message being understood. At first, their audience take them for drunks – but then are persuaded – and over 1,000 converted to belief in Jesus.

What are these stories telling us about isolation…and its end?

1. Wait, prayerfully and in hope.

In both these stories individuals are alone and waiting for something. At Pentecost (the second story) it is highly likely that the disciples were meeting in prayer at time when the Spirit came upon them. In the first story there may have been prayer, but there was certainly fear – enough to find the key for the door. In both of these stories God comes and meets with the disciples in their time of need – and builds them up for the next step in His plan. At both points they are in a place of loss – of Jesus on the cross in the resurrection story, and of Jesus to heaven in the Pentecost story – and in both places they have been given the promise of God’s presence – Jesus spoke of His resurrection prior to his death, and spoke of the Holy Spirit as a helper who would come after he had ascended. Both of these events show the joy of the disciples as they celebrate the fulfilment of these promises. Jesus also made a promise ‘to be with you always, to the very end of the age’ to the disciples and all His followers, when he ascended.

I do not think it is pure coincidence that the period of lockdown has fallen over the season in the year where churches focus on these events and celebrate them. Here is a message of waiting on the Lord, calling out to Him in hope that he is working his purpose – and then seeing the promise of His presence among them fulfilled – in resurrection and in the Holy Spirit. That spirit is still available to us today, the promise ‘to be with you always’ remains open to us. In our isolation we can lean on these fulfilled promises, and call on our saviour to face the fears of the world outside.

2. God meets us in the place of lockdown fear

In both of these stories, God walks among His disciples and strengthens them in their hour of fear and isolation. As I have mentioned throughout this series, there seems to be a big message in the Bible that it is often in our times of fear, loneliness and imprisonment that God walks among His people to strengthen them for His work in their lives and the lives of others. Here it is no different. Jesus steps into a room full of his mourning and terrified friends – at the point when they are most confused, doubtful and afraid – and turns their lives around. At Pentecost, the disciples are changed so much that they go outside and tell of Jesus’ resurrection – risking their lives as they have not yet done. This is the real starting moment of the church – it comes out of God strengthening His people in isolation and sending them out into the world.

In our time of isolation, it has perhaps been a challenge to be away from church, but perhaps this has allowed us as churches and individuals to spend more time away from the bustle of the world with the God who loves us, learning from Him about how we can be advancing His kingdom. As we face the fear of having to leave what may well have become the safe space of our home, I think it is good to stop, reflect and take time to let God walk into our lives, revealing how we should be working for His glory to come out of this time of fear and suffering.

3.Be built up, question, be sent out.

These two passages create a great image of what discipleship in isolation could look like. Here the groups of disciples have met in isolation and alone, here Thomas feels safe to question the judgement of others about the resurrection of Jesus, and to gain an answer from Jesus himself. Here the disciples experience the Holy Spirit as a gift for the first time as they turn to God in prayer and expectation. And out of these two events, one after the other, and the lessons that come from Jesus in them, comes the knowledge of God and the strength of the Spirit to go out into the world in confidence to share the message they have been given with those around them. To face death potentially, for what they now believe is the truth.

Thomas, as he recognizes Jesus, and proclaims him as his Lord and God, is told:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed.”

John 20 v 29

This is a wonderful reassurance for Christians living today, who have not seen Jesus in the flesh but who believe in Jesus as their saviour. In our times of isolation, we have had an opportunity to explore faith online and in our greater times of quiet and solitude, and numbers of those viewing church services online would suggest that people are looking to explore faith. Today, we should take these stories as pointers to ensuring we are being built up and sent out to His glory. The world outside the comfort of our Christian homes, and the privacy of our internet browser, is scary, and we, and those exploring faith, will need the strengthening of the Spirit and human encouragement in the challenging months to come. But I pray that these months have been, and will continue to be, the start of something of a renewal of faith in our world.

March 16, 2020

Plagues Happened at the Beginning of the Story and Will at the End

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 3:32 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

We tend to consign the word plague to certain Old Testament stories. Of course we also tend to think that with our modern health care, such things could never happen in current times. At least we think that until we find ourselves in the middle of one.

From Bible Study Tools:

The term “plague” is found roughly 100 times in the Bible, primarily in the Old Testament. The most commonly known biblical plagues occurred in Egypt during the time of Moses. Plagues are also mentioned in Revelation of the New Testament when describing the end of days on Earth. Scripture reveals that God sent plagues as a consequence of disobedience and idolatry. Exodus 32:35 gives an example of this, saying “So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made.”

The passage clearly indicates that God sent the plague. I think this goes beyond saying God permitted the plague to happen. We say that most times today — and, I believe, correctly — that things happen because we live in a fallen world, but clearly God Himself, speaking through the prophets, takes a proactive role and reveals Himself as the author of the plagues, as is declared in Amos 4:10.

“I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD.

At the website Knowing Jesus, we’re given a number of verses on this subject, and this one, from Jeremiah 14:12 shows God’s deliberate action and provides us with a number of Biblical synonyms to plague:

“When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence.”

This is of course where so many get the idea of the violent, angry, Old Testament God; the very picture which seems so much at odds to the loving, compassionate, New Testament version of God which the modern church is trying so hard to promote!

But God is the same: yesterday, today and forever, right? We have to be careful of going too far down the road where God has two different masks that he wears. Yes, we live in what some call The Age of Grace, and that grace has been poured out to us through Jesus. But God judges sin as part of his essential character.

So…in the few New Testament references we have to plague, are they part of the fallen world model, or are they going to be sent directly by God as a form of judgement? Mark 13:8 and its parallel passage in Luke 5:11 state respectively,

“For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

“…and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.”

How did you answer that? How do we answer if the present virus outbreak is judgement or natural consequence of the fallen world we live in?

I am sure that, as diverse as the Body of Christ is, there are people with answers on both sides for that question…

One other thought

Before we leave today, it occurred to me about 30 minutes before posting this that people in the broader demographic are looking to see how we, as Christians, are responding to this crisis. Our neighbors. Our co-workers. Our extended family. Our children. Our unsaved spouses. Our fellow-students.

Is our faith strong enough to hold in these times? I ask myself that question, too; because we don’t truly know until we’re in the time of testing how we will fare.


If you’re joining us today for the first time

We’ve been looking at this theme for the past several devotions: