Christianity 201

March 5, 2021

The Saddest Verses in the Bible

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
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There are a number of narratives in the scripture which can only be described as unfortunate, sad, or perhaps even tragic. One of these will be quite familiar to all of you, the other two might not.

Close and Yet So Far

This is where the line “almost pursaded” which forms the title of a hymn of a generation past originates. Philip Bliss, who lived only from 1838 to 1876 would have used the Bible of his day, the KJV, as an inspiration; as Paul tries to reason with King Agrippa, defending himself in Acts 26:

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” (26:28)

Here is just part of the fuller context in the NIV:

22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

The hymn in question is worth studying in full but we begin with verse one:

“Almost persuaded” now to believe;
“Almost persuaded” Christ to receive;
Seems now some soul to say,
“Go, Spirit, go Thy way,
Some more convenient day
on Thee I’ll call.”

The second and third verses implore the hearer to respond, but by verse four, it’s already too late.

“Almost persuaded,” harvest is past!
“Almost persuaded,” doom comes at last;
“Almost” cannot avail;
“Almost” is but to fail!
Sad, sad that bitter wail—
“Almost—but lost!”

On a personal note, my mother’s faith was nurtured as much by the hymnbook as by her Bible. she often sang hymn fragments — isolated lines from rather obscure hymns — apart from their full context. The line, “Sad, sad that bitter wail;” was permanently embedded in her brain as a picture of the state of the lost soul. On my father’s side, his mother (my grandmother) played this as piano solo in a style I have never heard since.

Why was Agrippa “almost” but not fully persuaded to become a follower of “The Way” right then and there? The Enduring Word Bible Commentary offers three reasons having to do with three people in the room:

i. One answer was the person sitting next to him – Bernice. She was a sinful, immoral companion, and he may have rightly realized that becoming a Christian would mean losing her and his other immoral friends. He was unwilling to make that sacrifice.

ii. On the other side of Agrippa sat Festus – a man’s man, a no-nonsense man, a man who thought Paul was crazy. Perhaps Agrippa thought, “I can’t become a Christian. Festus will think I’m also crazy.” Because he wanted the praise of men, he rejected Jesus…

iii. In front of Agrippa was Paul – a strong man, a noble man, and man of wisdom and character – but a man in chains. Did Agrippa say, “Well, if I became a Christian, I might end up in chains like Paul; or at the least, I would have to associate with him. We can’t have that – I’m an important person.”

He Walked Away Sad

This is the more familiar of the three passages, the narrative of the “rich young man,” “powerful young man,” or “rich young ruler.” The encounter with Jesus appears in both Mark 10 and Matthew 19.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, click here to read.

Teaching points on this text usually include:

  • the man’s opening address to Jesus as “Good teacher,” and how Jesus responds,
  • Jesus sets the bar low, asking the man how he relates to the “second tablet” commandments — the ones dealing with our interactions with other people — and not the “first tablet” dealing with our prioritizing of God. The man claims full, lifelong compliance, and Jesus does not argue the point;
  • the proposal that he sell everything to “come follow me;” the same offer given to the twelve that leads to our key verse:

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (10:22, NIV)

But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (19: also vs 22! NKJV)

Again, The Enduring Word Bible Commentary:

In this, the wealthy questioner failed utterly. Money was his god; he was guilty of idolatry. This is why Jesus, knowing the man’s heart, asked him to renounce his possessions… The principle remains: God may challenge and require an individual to give something up for the sake of His kingdom that He still allows to someone else. There are many who perish because they will not forsake what God tells them to.

The same commentary, on the Mark passage states,

This man, like all men by nature, had an orientation towards a works-righteousness; he asked, “what shall I do.” If we really want to do the works of God, it must begin with believing on Jesus, whom the Father has sent (John 6:29).

Jesus’ purpose wasn’t to make the man sad; yet he could only be happy by doing what Jesus told him to do. So, he went away sorrowful. Many people have almost everything, yet they are sorrowful.

A Generation of Walking in Circles

This one may be one you hadn’t considered. It’s the second verse in the book of Deuteronomy, and it seems like a piece of geographical trivia, to the point several of the translations include it in parenthesis:

It is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea along the Mount Seir route. (CEB)

or consider this casual way of putting things:

Normally it takes only eleven days to travel from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir. (NLT)

But this is verse is included for reasons far from trivial. Since we’ve been with the same commentary throughout today, let’s see how Enduring Word handles this (emphasis added):

The journey from Mount Horeb to Kadesh Barnea only took eleven days. But from Kadesh Barnea (the threshold of the Promised Land) back to Kadesh Barnea (back to the threshold of the Promised Land) took forty years.  This was because it took forty years for the generation of unbelief – those who were adults when Israel left Egypt – it took forty years for that generation to die out in the wilderness, and for a generation of faith and trust in God to arise in place after them.

Did you catch that? 40 years to finish an 11-day road trip. All because of a lack of faith and trust in what God had promised them.

Conclusion

All three are sad endings which were preventable. Do you see yourself in any of these narratives? If so, choose to make yours a different story.

 

 

 

March 4, 2021

Should Have Seen It

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
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by Clarke Dixon

I should have seen it. It was a Friday the 13th a few years back when I did what many motorcyclists in Ontario do on Friday the 13th, we head to Port Dover. I was on my way home after a long day of riding and I didn’t see the sand on the corner. Going around the corner I hit the gas and the motorcycle hit the ground. Thanks to some people nearby who had duct tape I managed to get home okay. But I should have seen it.

Is that something that we may someday say at the end of the ride called life? “I should have seen it.”

There is a “should have seen it” moment in John’s Gospel:

Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.

John 12:37 (NRSV)

By this time Jesus had a reputation for profound wisdom and miraculous healings. Yet many of the religious leaders had written him off. They explained away the miracles as works done by the power of the evil one. They tried to trip him up in his teaching, to prove that he was a fraud. But the life-giving miracles continued to give life and the profound teaching continued to be profound. You would think the religious leaders, rather than condemning Jesus, would at least be curious. Who is this Jesus, really?

Curiosity

Even now, there are good reasons to at least be curious about Jesus. Consider the impact of Jesus on people’s lives throughout history. Consider the impact of Jesus on society. Consider the evidence for the story about Jesus as recorded in the writings of the New Testament as being reasonable and true. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not a leap of faith contrary to the evidence. It is a reasonable step of faith because of the evidence. There are good reasons to at least be curious about the evidence, to at least be curious as to who Jesus was/is. There are many great resources that explain the evidence. One can start by Googling names like J. Warner Wallace and William Lane Craig, but there are many other resources. The signs are there for those whose eyes and ears are open, for those who are curious. It is far better to be curious now, than someday say “I should have seen it.”

Curiosity, along with open eyes and ears, is not just important for those who currently do not follow Jesus. Curiosity is important if we, who are Christians, never want to say “should have seen it.” We as Christians can fail to stay curious in our search for truth. When we do we mislead people, we can cause damage.

In my early years as a pastor I had the opportunity to lead a Bible study for people with mental health challenges. A local church was very good about picking many of these souls up every Sunday for church. However, as I got to know them, I discovered that many of them thought that if they could have more faith, and be more holy, that God would heal their minds. I believe that God will indeed heal our minds someday, but I also believe these poor souls were being fed very simplistic answers to complex issues. We face many complex issues in our day. Curiosity may keep us from someday saying “should have seen it.”

Some did see the where the signs were leading, but kept quiet:

Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it . . .

John 12:42 (NLT)

Why were these, who did believe in Jesus, not willing to openly confess that belief? We want to be careful here to note that their “belief in” Jesus is probably not a full blown belief in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Let us remember that the events of Easter had not happened yet, nor had anyone fully realised the implications of those events. At this point “belief in” may simply be belief that Jesus is from God, and not a fraud as many of the religious leaders were claiming.

We need not conjecture as to why these believers remained quiet about their openness to Jesus, for John goes on to tell us why:

But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. For they loved human praise more than the praise of God.

John 12:42-43 (NLT)

This helps explain why some are not open to Jesus today.

Fear of being put out of the synagogue

Fear can keep people from expressing faith in Jesus. What will my circle of friends say if I am curious about what they claim is a fable? Christianity may be dismissed vocally among friends and family. Christianity may be dismissed broadly within society. People are afraid to swim against the tide. Fear can kill curiosity, so no ones dares ask out loud “just who is this Jesus, really?” Eyes remain shut. No one sees it.

Fear can also keep we who are Christians from being honest about our questions. What if my church, or pastor, does not appreciate my curiosity? Yes, Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, but what is the truth with regard to all these complex issues? People have questions but keep quiet. No one sees it.

On keeping quiet out of fear of being put out of the synagogue; isn’t the synagogue the very place where there should have been a healthy curiosity about Jesus? When someone claims to be from God, teaches with profound wisdom and goes around doing miraculous and helpful works, shouldn’t that be “chatted up” in the synagogue? Isn’t the synagogue the very place where people should have been free to talk about Jesus, weigh the evidence, have conversations, ask questions, seek a better understanding, and keeping eyes wide open, be curious? Evidently the religious leaders who were quick to condemn Jesus, were also quick to stifle curiosity. People were afraid of them.

We could say in our day, isn’t the family, isn’t a circle of friends, a place where we should be able to talk about spiritually and truth, including curiosity regarding the claim that Jesus is more than a mere footnote in history?

Likewise, isn’t a church the very place people should feel they can be honest in their exploration for truth, ask questions, be curious and in conversation? Shouldn’t a church be the very place we should expect to find a curiosity and a search for truth about mental health, racism, LGBTQ+, sexuality, finances, relationships, and anything and everything? Fear of being shunned can keep the curious quiet. Am I as a religious leader stifling curiosity? Am I, the pastor, the one causing fear in my day?

The love of human praise more than the praise of God

Those who believed that Jesus was from God were more interested in being seen as smart among their peers than in encouraging the search for truth. Appearing to be smart is often not the smartest thing to do! Pride can keep us quiet about the truth. Pride can keep us vocal about falsehoods.

Pride was at the root of why the religious leaders stood in condemnation over Jesus in the first place. Pride kept them from having a posture of curiosity in learning more about Jesus. Jesus, a man of great works and profound teaching, was exposing their works as less than righteous and their teaching as less than sound. Pride ensured a violent reaction against Jesus, instead of a thoughtful and soul-searching response to him.

If Jesus really was from God in some way, then many of the religious leaders needed to be able to say “I have been wrong.” That is hard to admit when you are a religious leader, when you are supposed to be an expert. Further, they would need to admit that “I have been misleading others.” That is hard to admit when you are supposed to be a leader. Further “In being wrong, in misleading others, I have done damage.” That is hard to admit when you are supposed to be a religious leader, a godly leader.

Pride kills curiosity and the search for truth. No one likes to admit that they have been wrong. Does pride keep people from trusting in Jesus? Does pride keep some of us from growing as those who trust in Jesus? Admitting when we have been wrong is part and parcel of repentance, learning, growth, and discipleship.

Pride can keep people from searching for the truth about God in Jesus. Pride can also keep those of us that have discovered truth about God in Jesus from searching for the truth in so many other things. Pride will lead us to someday say “should have seen it.”

Concluding Thoughts

We should see it now:

I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark.

John 12:46 (NLT)

There are many who would rather remain in the dark about Jesus. Fear and pride can kill the curiosity that can lead people to God. We can be in prayer for a courageous curiosity and remain open to conversations.

We, who are Christians, may sometimes be the ones who would rather remain in the dark about many things. We can be in prayer for a courageous curiosity and remain open to conversations.

We don’t want to get to the end of our lives and say “should have seen it.”


Canadian Pastor Clarke Dixon appears here most Thursdays. The full video sermon on which this is based is also part of this online weekly worship expression.

March 3, 2021

Accepting Our Acceptance

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Another day to highlight a writer here for the first time. Melissa Neeb lives in Minnesota in the U.S. and has written for a variety of publications. Her blog is Faith in the Mess where she writes about mental health, addiction, parenting and marriage. As usual, we urge you to click the header which follows to read this at source. Because this particular article was published just hours ago, we’re going to close comments here so you can leave a comment there.

Accepting Jesus May Be Easier Than Accepting Ourselves

I accepted Jesus into my heart at a very young age. I knew I was precious to Him and always had a seat at His table as His beloved child and daughter. The unconditional love and forgiveness and grace of God was a gift I could easily accept.

What took much longer to accept, decades perhaps, was myself.

I couldn’t accept my fearfulness. My over-sensitivity. How easily I was embarrassed and cried.

I couldn’t accept my shyness, or my depression and anxiety, or my body.

I couldn’t accept my inability to put on weight, or my awkwardness around guys, or my terror of public speaking.

I couldn’t accept my indecision, my passivity, or my lack of boundaries.

I couldn’t accept that the traumas I had endured had permanently left scars and changed me.

Decades after accepting Jesus into my heart, I was still having a difficult time accepting myself and all my obvious (to me) flaws. I floundered and failed, doubted and rebelled until I reached the very end of myself.

That is when God took over.

He whispered into the recesses of my desensitized heart until I started to feel Him working again and transforming me into who He created me to be. He kept working, challenging my perceptions, and reminding me who HE said I was.

I started repeating His promises to myself all day long. That I am the daughter of the King. That I was loved into being. That Jesus left the 99 to chase down and bring me back into His strong arms. That I was created with a purpose, with a divine calling on my life.

I had to learn how to accept myself and let Him use my weakness to showcase His power.

Friend, if you are unable to accept yourself, please meditate on these affirmations. Say them out loud. Write them down. Put them on your mirror. Insert your name into these verses. Start believing it.

I AM CHOSEN.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
1 Peter 2:9 (NIV)

GOD COVERS ME WITH HIS SHELTER AND PROTECTION.

He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Psalm 91:4 (NLT)

I AM WONDERFULLY MADE.

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.
Psalm 139:14 (NKJV)

GOD IS WORKING IT OUT FOR MY GOOD.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 (NIV)

GOD IS FOR ME.

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?
Romans 8:31 (NLT)

Let me remind you, precious one, of this truth. If you can accept Jesus into your heart, if you can accept Him as your Savior and Protector and Healer and Friend, if you can accept His boundless grace and mercy, then surely you can accept the being that was created in the image of God, whose body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is beloved beyond measure.

Yourself.

March 1, 2021

The Test of Faith Was Both Abraham’s and Isaac’s

Could a familiar Biblical narrative had played out differently? We often consider the faith it took Abraham to be obedient to a horrid request, a demand concerning the child of promise given to him and Sarah. But Isaac was old enough that he could have rewritten the ending…

If you’re unfamiliar with Abraham’s test of faith in Genesis 22, click this link to read it in the Common English Bible (CEB).

by Ruth Wilkinson

Why did it have to be at the top of a mountain on a hot day, carrying all that wood?
His father wasn’t young anymore (had he ever been?) so Isaac took the load of wood himself.
Abraham went ahead, finding the path, carrying the fire for the altar. This was a long, long way
to come to make a sacrifice.

Isaac had seen his father make sacrifices to his god before, and it was always the same.
He’d build an altar, stone on stone ‘till it was right,
lay it with wood – first the tinder, then the kindling, then the fuel.
He’d choose the very best lamb he could find,
sometimes that took hours, talking to the shepherds, looking at hooves and skin.
If he couldn’t find the one he wanted, he’d buy one from a neighbour. That could take a day or two.

Once he’d found the one he wanted, he’d tie its legs with rope, lay it on the altar.
He’d cut the lamb’s throat quickly so it wouldn’t suffer and light the fire.
A complete waste, except it wasn’t.
It was a gift, a symbol of how nothing was more important to Abraham than his god.

But this one was different, not only the journey, but especially the fact that there was no lamb.
Abraham was always so picky about choosing just the right one, surely he didn’t expect it to
just be waiting there for him at the top.
Isaac had asked about that, but Abraham didn’t really answer,
so he dropped it.

Abraham was unusually quiet.
Anytime they’d sat or eaten or traveled together Abraham was full of stories
the time he’d tried to trick Pharaoh and his God had ratted him out,
the time he’d gone to war to rescue Uncle Lot and his God had given him victory,
the time his god had wiped a couple of entire cities off the earth,

and over and over and over again, the story of the son, the only son, the son their God had
given them, the son they loved, their miracle son.
The first star in his father’s sky of children and children’s children and
children’s children’s children.

Isaac had heard volumes about Abraham’s god. Sarah’s god.
But not today.

Today he was lugging a load of wood up a mountain, eyes on where he was putting his feet,
glancing at his father’s back.

Lots of time to think.
This god of his father’s was a strange one as gods went.
He didn’t seem to follow the same rules.
The other gods, the ones that ruled the lands around them, the ones that came into the family
compound with slaves from other places…
The other gods were tied to one particular nation or tribe or family. This one seemed to be
everywhere, involved with anybody he chose.
Isaac wasn’t sure whether he went ahead, or if he was following Abraham, but he had been
everywhere.

The other gods were distant and people did extravagant things to get their attention…
shouting, dancing, extreme sacrifices – even killing their own children to get their noticed.
His father’s god seemed to be waiting around every corner,
with something to say,
to ask,
something to offer
– kind of like Abraham was with Isaac.

But Isaac had never heard the voice his father heard.
Everything he knew, he’d learned from his parents’ lives and stories.
He’d lived his whole life from before he could remember by the words and ways
of his father’s god.

Abraham stopped walking. He looked around and said,
“We’re here.”
He told Isaac to sit down and have a drink while he built the altar.

Stone on stone ‘till it was right,

Then, he opened the bag of tinder,
untied the rope that held the bundle of wood,
arranged the altar, – tinder first, then kindling, then fuel.

He stood still, looking at it.

Isaac said, “Perfect! Now all we need is the lamb.”

There was a long silence. Abraham trembled, sat down beside his son, his only son,
the son his god had given him, the son he loved, his miracle son
the first star in his sky of children and children’s children and
children’s children’s children and told him about the lamb.
What he said cut Isaac open like no knife ever could.

Isaac was to be the lamb.

No.
That can’t be right.
All his life he’d been told how special he was.
His life was a miracle, an answered prayer, a promise kept.
He couldn’t die now!
It was too soon!
That can’t be right.
No.

His father was old, confused. Isaac was stronger, he could take him, maybe tie him up with the rope from the wood and get him home somehow. (On the donkey. That would work.)

To Sarah. Sarah would know what to do.
Isaac snatched up the rope, jumped to his feet ready for anything and in that moment,
he heard it.

He heard the voice – whispering somewhere inside him, behind him.
Whispering his name
“Isaac”

The whisper took over his heart and his mind and whispered to him in that split second every story his father had ever told him.

Every step of his father’s journey,
every promise made and kept,
every tear,
every laugh,
every surprise,
every demand,
every moment of forgiveness and starting over again and redemption.
Every star in his father’s sky.

And in that moment, Isaac knew he had a choice to make. A line to cross.

He had lived his entire life from before he could remember by the words and ways of his father’s god and
now
now
now he had to decide whether this god was his own.
Isaac had to choose.


“All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants, because you obeyed me” (God, v18)

February 28, 2021

The Name God Gives You

by Ruth Wilkinson

Jesus and his followers arrived in Jerusalem, and He went into the temple complex. He found people had set up shop there, selling oxen, sheep and doves.

He also found money changers sitting there.

So He made a whip out of cords, and began driving everyone out of the temple with their animals and birds.

He dumped the coins of the money changers and flipped their tables.

He told those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here! Stop turning My Father’s house into a marketplace!”

Then He began to teach them: “You know that it is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” But you’ve turned it into a den of thieves!”

When the chief priests and religious leaders heard this, they started looking for a way to bring Him down.

They were afraid of Him, because the whole crowd was astonished by His teaching.

(adapted from Matt 21:10-17, Mark 11:11, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-22)

___________________________

There is an old Black Spiritual that goes something like this:

I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
Jesus told me the world would be against me if He changed my name
But I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name

__________________

What surprises us the most about the event at the Temple is Jesus’ actions. His behaviour. We shake our heads and say, “He’s such a nice guy! Why would he act that way?”

What most surprised the people who where there that day was not so much what he did, as what he said. In several places, the Scripture’s writers tell us that people were “astonished” by his air of authority.

He taught with authority.

He healed with authority.

He cast out demons with authority.

He forgave with authority.

Because Jesus had–and has–authority.

He is the ref on the ice, saying yes and no.
He is the prof in the classroom, saying true and false.
He is the quarterback on the team, saying go there, don’t go there.
He is the King. He is the Creator.

Jesus is the boss of you. He is the boss of me.

The people who first sang that old Spiritual, and especially the person who wrote it, understood authority. They understood what it was to be under authority. They knew that someone else had all the power.

They were slaves, so if someone sold them and someone bought them, that someone had the authority to say, “Your name is Ruth? I don’t like that name. I like Sally better. From now on, if I say, “Sally,” that’s you.” They would have to adapt because somebody had changed their name.

But the person who wrote that song wasn’t just a slave. They were a theologian. They were a thinker. They understood that there are different kinds of names.

There are labels that we give each other. There are sounds that we make to define who we’re talking to. But in the Scriptures, some names are much more than that. Some names are identities. When Moses asked God, “What is your name?” God just said, “I am what I am. Call me that.”

The writer of the song understood that kind of name. They must have been familiar with the verse in Revelation that quotes Jesus as saying,

“Listen… To the one who is victorious… I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.” (2:17)

That name is not a label. It’s an identity.

The songwriter, who was a slave, who didn’t even have ownership of their own name, says to Jesus, “You can change my name.” They trusted him to define their identity. They trusted him to tell them who they were. They trusted Jesus to give them a new name.

Can I trust Jesus to define my identity?
Can I trust Him to tell me who I am?
Can I trust Him to give me a new name?

Is there something about who I am that I need to surrender to him?

_____________

Jesus, change my name from “Slave” to “Son” or “Daughter” –
Make me one who has a home and an inheritance.
Gal 4:7

Jesus, change my name from “Dead” to “Alive” –
Make me one who has a future and purpose.
Eph 2:4-5

Jesus, change my name from “Dry Grass” to “Fruit Bearing Branch” –
Make me one who has something to give.
John 15:5

Jesus, change my name from “Unknown” to “Understood” –
Make me one who has a connection and a friend.
Psalm 139:1

Jesus, change my name from “Guilty” to “Not Condemned” –
Make me one who has freedom, joy, a chance to start again.
Romans 8:1

Jesus, if that’s really who you are,
it’s alright if you change my name.


by the same author:

February 1, 2021

Moses Could Only Take the People So Far

Moses and Aaron summoned the assembly in front of the rock, and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels! Must we bring water out of this rock for you? Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff, so that abundant water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.”
– Numbers 20: 10-12 CSB

This is because both of you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.”
– Deuteronomy 32:51,52 NIV

After the death of Moses the LORD’s servant, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant. He said, “Moses my servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them.
– Joshua 1:1,2 NLT

Almost a year ago we introduced you to Alisa who has been writing at On the Housetops since November, 2014. As you consider the story referred to in the above scriptures, allow her thoughts to see ways in which there is application to your situation from the lives of Moses and Joshua. Click the header which follows.

Sometimes It’s Not About You

I was listening to music yesterday, and a song came on that made a reference to the fact that it was not Moses who brought Israel into the Promised Land, but Joshua.

I always felt sorry for Moses. I mean, here he put up with the Israelites for 40 years and faithfully obeyed the LORD – except for one mistake, which cost him entry into Canaan. It never did seem quite fair, and I’m pretty sure Moses felt the same way.

But all of a sudden the thought struck me out of nowhere: maybe Moses’ punishment wasn’t so much about him, as it was about a symbolic message to us!

Let me explain:

Moses is a symbol of the Old Testament Law. He was the one who received it from God on Mt. Sinai, and the one who taught it to the people.

He led Israel out of Egypt, but you could say that he couldn’t get Egypt out of the people. Even after receiving the law, they fell into idolatry and kept complaining that Egypt was better than the wilderness they were wandering in, and that its food was better than the manna God was providing.

Similarly, the Law could only bring people so far from the bondage of sin. It couldn’t change hearts.

And just as Moses’ one failure prevented him from entering the Promised Land, so one instance of breaking God’s Law is enough to prevent us from entering Heaven.

I think this is why God punished Moses in the way He did. I don’t think it was so much about Moses as it was about painting a picture for us, that the Law and works can’t lead us into Heaven.

But who did lead Israel into the Promised Land? It was Joshua who took the lead and parted the Jordan River to bring the people into Canaan. They never looked back, and I’ve heard that generation of Israelites referred to as the Greatest Generation.

And this is significant too, because it is another Joshua – or Yeshua – who opened the way for us to cross over to the other side of death to eternal life. Jesus did what the Law could not: He paved the way for us to have a new heart. And it is not our righteousness that saves us, but His.

Seeing this picture for the first time, I can understand better why God chose to be so harsh with Moses.

At the time that it was happening, I’m sure Moses had no idea what the significance of his actions and God’s response was. I know it felt unfair to him at the time.

But from our vantage point thousands of years later, we can look back and understand, and appreciate the picture.

There are things going on in my life right now that I may not understand, but Moses’ story gives me comfort. Maybe these tough times are about me, maybe not. Maybe there’s much more to the picture than what meets the eye. And maybe, like Moses, I won’t ever understand the full plan in my lifetime, but someday it will become clear. And I will know what I’m already choosing to trust: that God knows what He’s doing.


Is this part of the story of Moses unfamiliar to you? Read more at Got Questions.

January 24, 2021

An Unchanging God for Uncertain Times

Nancy Ruegg has been blogging faithfully at From the Inside Out since November, 2012 and was featured here twice previously before somehow falling off our radar. She writes weekly (on Thursdays) and each of her posts contain photography and highlighted scripture graphics; another reason why you should click through today on the title which follows.

Certain Security

Uncertain times.

That phrase appears everywhere these days. Between the pandemic, political upheaval, social unrest, and concerns for the future, we can find ourselves desperate to find security—freedom from danger, fear, and anxiety.

But there is only one reliable source of security: God.

The LORD is your security. He will keep your foot from being caught in a trap. Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. (Prov. 3:26 NLT, Jer. 17:7 NIV)

Out of his faithfulness to us, God always supplies what we need. And as it happens, the word FAITHFUL provides a tidy acrostic for eight blessings we enjoy–no matter what.

God is our:

Faithful promise-keeper. He is already ahead of us in the uncertainty of 2021, just as he went ahead of Joshua and the Israelites into Canaan. He has promised not to fail us or abandon us[1]—even when we cross dark valleys of troubling circumstances.

Attentive Father. Before we put our needs into words, God is on his way to meet it.[2]

Immutable (unchanging) Rock. He “does not change like shifting shadows.”[3] In a world where situations and relationships can change unexpectedly, God remains his rock-solid, reliable, perfect self.

Truth-Revealer.   The truth of God’s Word has been proven through numerous disciplines and in the lives of millions. Within its pages we find the wisdom and support we need.[4]

All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.
 -Psalm 119:160

“The remedy for discouragement is the Word of God.
When you feed your heart and mind with its truth,
You regain your perspective and find renewed strength.”
–Warren Wiersbe

Hope. Our God of hope fills us with all joy and peace as we trust him. Hope allows us to see his blessings even amid hardship, and know with certainty he will use even our painful circumstances to accomplish good.[5]

Foundation. God’s ways provide a strong foundation for life, especially when storms of sorrow come. He upholds us with his love and compassion, peace and comfort that transcend our ability to explain.[6]

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Is. 54:10)

Unerring and righteous Judge. “Your kingdom is founded on righteousness and justice,” wrote the psalmist, “love and faithfulness are shown in all you do.” And because he is righteous and just, everything will work toward the best outcome in the end.[7]

Light, even in dark times.[8] Too often we focus on the swirling blackness of circumstances around us. But “God’s lights in our dark nights are as numerous as the stars, if only we’ll look for them.”[9]

Throughout my years as a blogger, I’ve shared many experiences illustrating how God has been faithful to our family. One in particular comes to mind that encompassed all of the above blessings.

Leadership of our church denomination assigned my pastor-husband to another church across state.   We were not ready to move. God ministered to me during those dark days of transition as I journaled through the psalms, affirming his love and compassion, peace and comfort. And as a result, hope began to blossom.

For whatever was written in the past was all written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.
 (Rom. 15:4 BSB)

I grew in spiritual strength, compelled to rely on him through the grief of leaving beloved friends and the uncertainty of what lay ahead. He miraculously provided a teaching position for me not far from our new home. And in the end everything did work for good as that struggling church became a thriving community. (You can read a fuller account at After the Fact.)

In a book of liturgy, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) kept a bookmark with the following affirmation:

“Let nothing disturb you; let nothing dismay you;
all things pass: God never changes.
Patience attains all it strives for.
He who has God finds he lacks nothing.
God only suffices.”

God only—in all the numerous demonstrations of his faithfulness–is our certain security.


Should you wish to read more examples of God’s faithfulness, you can click on the following links:

Notes:

[1] Deuteronomy 31:6
[2] Matthew 6:8
[3] James 1:17c CSB
[4] Psalm 119:24, 140, 160
[5] Romans 15:13; 8:28
[6] Isaiah 54:10; Philippians 4:6-7
[7] Psalm 89:14 GNT; Genesis 50:20
[8] Psalm 27:1
[9] Max Lucado, Grace for the Moment (J. Countryman, 2000) p. 195

January 15, 2021

How to Start a Christian Cult

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:35 pm
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There are many [versions of Jesus] proclaimed today. There is Jesus the liberator and Jesus the revolutionary. There is Jesus the teacher and Jesus the example. There is Jesus the healer and Jesus the burden-bearer. Homosexuals and adulterers point to “an unconditionally accepting Jesus,” seeking to show that Jesus is on their side. Even the demons are willing to accept certain aspects of our Lord’s identity, but not His authority.  – Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, in today’s linked article

When I first began to think about this topic earlier today, I had in mind two specific areas where groups which perhaps started out in mainstream Christian orthodoxy end up drifting away from their moorings.

  1. Adding to the gospel message
  2. Subtracting from the gospel message

If it were all that simple it might be easier to identify such teaching at a greater distance, but sometimes the approach can be more subtle.

As to adding to the message, this is much of the core of the book of Galatians. It appears in our Bible after Romans and 1&2 Corinthians, but is considered Paul’s earliest work. It is addressed to those who are surrounded with “Judaiizers,” that is people for whom the laws of the first covenant, i.e. circumcision of males, still applies. He writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (5:1 NIV)

At the council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, Peter stands up and addresses this issue, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…” and then James continues, “…It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (15: 10,19,20 NIV)

Of course, if you were numbered among the Pharisees who were raising these issues, you would see Peter, Paul, James and Barnabas as subtracting from the requirements.

Thomas Jefferson was notorious for his physically removing passages of the Bible with which he disagreed.

When we think of these concepts, we easily remember the book of Revelation’s final warning, “…and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.” (22:19 NASB) This echoes the Old Testament words in Deuteronomy 4: “Do not add a thing to what I command you nor subtract from it, so that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I am delivering to you.” (v2 NET)

…The concept of addition and subtraction merely scratches the surface in looking at how false teachers arise. In the article I quoted at the outset of today’s thoughts, the writer marks a number of characteristics which are worth studying in greater detail. I’ve reduced his nine points to five for us today:

  1. Claiming to be a prophet. (I know this will grate with those for whose practice emphasizes being a prophet as one of the five-fold ministry gifts — sometimes called APEPT — but generally the prophet does not say this of himself.)
  2. They can come from both inside and outside the church.
  3. At some point, their teaching attracts rebuke from the world at large (and harms not only the place where they do their teaching, but the capital “C” Church in general.)
  4. They start out subtle. (Here the author quotes Matthew 7:15-23 and says you will know them by their fruit. I think it’s interesting that as a non-agriculturally-aware person, I can look at a tree and not be able to identify it until the fruit appears. This then, is a process of time.)
  5. Apart from the message, there may be flaws in the false teacher’s personal morality. This will be seen in their motivation (money, power, success, fame) and their methods (deception, secrecy, smooth-talking).

There was also a reference to the book of Jude, which is very instructive on this subject:

NIV.4 For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

17 But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. 18 They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” 19 These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.

20 But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith…

The book of Jude ends with a doxology to “him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy…

This is Jude’s highest aim for the readers of his letter; that they be kept from falling.

Here is the link to the full article at Bible.org concerning false teachers.

 

 

January 13, 2021

It is a Time to be Stirred

Again today we have a new writer for you! Alex Steward is the pastor of a rural ELCA congregation in the greater Detroit area. He blogs at A Mysterious Way: A Journey Through the Desert of Life. Click the header which follows to read this in full on his page and then he encourages you to browse the rest of the site for other articles.

He begins with a paragraph describing his family’s downsized Thanksgiving which happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor shower. In the scripture passage, Jesus talks about the stars falling. That’s where we pick up the devotional…

God Wakes Us

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

…Jesus sets out in the gospel lesson to provide an apocalyptic image of his return. He is preparing the disciples for what lays ahead of them. He begins with darkness and the stars falling from the sky. It is quite the image and one that often will generate fear in some people. However, this is not the purpose of apocalyptic literature. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to inspire hope and not sow fear.

From Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures to Revelation in the New Testament, we read of a promise and hope in the promise which points us to an unflappable God that reigns down with mercy and love.

It may be difficult to find the mercy and love that God promises to all of creation in the past eight months. From a pandemic that seems like a plague, to an election that divided many Americans,  to wars around the world, and civil unrest in our own country, it may seem as though we are living out the last days that much of the apocalyptic literature writes about. Yet, Jesus reminds us to keep awake because we do not know when the master of the house will return.

If we look at the history of Mark’s Gospel, we will find out it was the first gospel written and provided a basis for both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, thus the similarities. It was written thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Up to this time everything was shared through stories and word of mouth. It was written around the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and was most likely shaped around those events. Mark encouraged his community not to get involved in the revolt of the Jewish people against the Roman Empire.  This is a time of high tension for the followers of Jesus as they witness the destruction of a community in which they grew up. As Mark reflected on Jesus’ words, there is the thought which the day of the Lord must be near and surely not a generation will pass away before seeing that day.

And yet, here we are. Still waiting with an impregnated hope and living in the promise of Jesus Christ. As we enter this Advent season, we come bearing deep wounds of events that have been cancelled and lives turned upside down as we face struggles and challenges which the majority have never had to even think about. God’s creation continues to groan and limp forward as we await something greater to come.

As Christians, we are set apart by our faith, placing our hope in the promise that has echoed throughout the millennia. As we hear these words from Jesus, it is not a time to panic or to be set on edge. It is not a time to fear and bury our heads in the sand or snow depending upon where we live. It is not a time to fret.

It is a time to be stirred. A time to be fully present to the season and contemplate on what Jesus’ birth means not just for us personally, but for all of creation. A time to be alert to those wondrous sightings of God in our world, like viewing a sky full of stars and witnessing meteors streak through the vastness of that sky. This past week in one of my morning devotions was the refrain:

Wake us to your presence, Lord: that we might not waste our times of trial.

The trials we have faced for much of this past year have been debilitating. There are mornings that it is just enough to get out of bed and take a shower. We are in unfamiliar territory and it is easy to get tired when confronted with the unknown. Our bodies are so incredible in telling us what we need, and at times we also need to push ourselves to move forward. Our relationships are more important now than ever before, even if that means we cannot reach out and give someone a personal greeting face to face.

It is times such as this that God invites us into the mystery. A mystery that has shaped our faith for the last two millennia. A mystery of God incarnate. God has come down to us in the form of a newborn baby to lead the way and give us a sign of hope. A sign that shows up in those very same stars that Jesus says will come falling down. A star that shines so brightly announcing the birth of a new reign of God. A time that God in Jesus walks among creation and is one with us in humanity. A time that we are invited to participate in the mystery of Christ’s reign in creation.

As we are awakened and become alert, we learn about ourselves and the place of our community in the greater aspect of creation. The trials that we face today are only a step along the way to that glorious new creation that will come down to earth. We participate by meeting our friends and neighbors where they are. We stare up at the stars together and are reminded of how connected we truly are and how God’s creation is limitless. A creation that invites us to be an active part of the welcoming of a soon to be newborn baby.

I leave you with a prayer from that same devotional I mentioned earlier:

What would you teach us today in our trials, Lord? Make us receptive. Help us to see your victory and compassion rather than look for every answer to our troubles. So make us expectant, Lord, and patient. AMEN


  1. Mark 13:25 Isaiah 13:10; 34:4
  2. Mark 13:29 Or he
  3. Mark 13:33 Some manuscripts alert and pray

January 2, 2021

Moving People Toward Belief

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
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Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:30,31 NIV

I just finished reading (in one day!) the history of InterVarsity Press (IVP). I would hope that anyone reading a blog called Christianity 201 would have at some point in their life consumed several of their books and have them still on their shelves. They produce thoughtful books for Christians who think.

J. I. Packer said of the organization, “Some publishers tell you what to believe. Other publishers tell you what you already believe. But InterVarsity Press helps you to believe.”

It’s easy to tell people what to believe: ‘Here’s what you need to know.’ In the medium you’re reading (blogging) a popular type of article is a genre called listicles. These lists begin with phrases like “7 Things About…;” or “5 Reasons You Should…;” or “8 Most Important Lessons…” As someone who likes systematically organized information, I need to confess that I tend to gravitate to articles like this. It’s so easy to tell people the bullet points, or the talking points. And there is some value in informing people that the death and resurrection of Christ is key to beginning a faith journey.

But the Apostle Paul famously says in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that knowledge puffs up. It’s amazing how many modern translations retain that phrase with the runner-up being makes people arrogant. The context is about eating meat which has been offered to idols. I often wondered how someone could do this, but after learning more about the intricacies surrounding the interconnectedness of what I’ve called elsewhere “the sacrifice industry” with the manner of food distribution at the time, it’s easier to see why this is a moral, ethical and spiritual issue that would resonate with people and actually have more practical application than we realize.

Eugene Peterson goes well beyond translation into commentary rendering this passage:

The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.

We can also, as Packer noted, tell people what they already believe. Again, in this (blogging) medium, we’ve seen over the years that online Christian community can become a vast echo chamber with people imagining they receive more points by quoting or re-publishing the most recent columns by prominent Bible teachers. It is often called, preaching to the choir. In yesterday’s look at an extremely popular passage, I tried to state at the outset that we would be taking a fresh approach, mapping the positive character qualities Paul was listing to negative character traits which show up in our modern world.

Some truths are profound however and cannot be stated enough. For example, God is love; but that reality often doesn’t challenge the intellect of some readers who immediately tune out. But when you go beyond the surface, you find that:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.*

But what our aim should be is to help people believe; to inspire them to come to know Jesus in a personal way which makes their faith their own and isn’t just an adoption of our beliefs, our positions, our doctrine, our systematic theology.

A phrase you don’t hear often anymore — and one that only produced a mere eight results on Google — is “Making Jesus Mine.” I’ve often told my own salvation story in these terms, “Taking ownership of my faith.” It’s not hereditary. It’s not something you do as a community. It’s definitely not something you do with your spouse.** Rather, the Bible teaches a personal accountability for salvation (in an eternal sense) and stewardship of the life we’ve been given (in the present tense.)

In our opening verse John states that the purpose of his gospel all along has been, But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

In other words, John isn’t saying ‘Here’s what you need to know.’ Rather, he’s creating a spark and trusting that the fire will spread.

Similarly, we can play a role in pointing others to a belief that they own. We can disciple people, but we’re not the arbiters of their faith. Nor is any church body. Everyone needs their own direct line to God. We simply point them to Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to work on their hearts.

 


*Frederick M. Lehman (1868-1953) “The Love of God” vs. 3 quoted
**There are many passages that apply to community, to actions taken by a community, and even the concept of household salvation; but we do eventually stand before God alone. In the past year, I’ve observed several cases where married couples have acted as though spiritual decisions are taken collectively, but this is an area where marital disagreement (i.e. on the deity and lordship of Christ) is not only healthy, but it’s positionally necessary.

 

December 10, 2020

A Messy Faith, But a Merry Christmas

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:27 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

How do you believe something when everyone around around you says that what you believe is ridiculous? How do you question anything when everyone around you says that your doubts are ridiculous? Faith can get messy. Should we believe? Can we believe?

This Christmas especially, many people may be questioning their faith. God sent baby Jesus. Can he not send a vaccine? Science seems to be doing well on that front.

As the Christmas story unfolds in the Gospel of Luke we encounter someone whose faith gets messy. I will let you read the story for yourself:

When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”

Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

Luke 1:5-20 (NLT)

Zechariah had all the credentials of a good religious man, he was as a priest, he was mature, he was righteous, yet he wavered in his faith. It is clear that when the angel appeared, he was not prepared for an experience of the supernatural!

Perhaps there are many good religious people today, who are not prepared for an experience of the supernatural.

Christianity exists as a response to the supernatural, as an outcome of God’s direct involvement in our world. Though there are many examples, let us focus on three occasions:

  • The creation. Everything we consider to be “natural” is a result of the supernatural.
  • The incarnation of God in Jesus through the virgin conception.
  • The resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

When Christmas comes along, while some children begin to question if Santa Claus is for real, some adults and youth begin to question if a virgin conception is for real. Faith wavers. If we believe there is any possibility that God exists, that God conceived the universe then brought it into being, then for God to be involved in the conception of a child is no problem at all, especially if there was good reason to do so.

And there was good reason.

It is often said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That is not true, extraordinary claims require good evidence. There are many books and resources available regarding that evidence for the reality of God and Jesus.

Let us try this statement instead; “God’s extraordinary love provides extraordinary evidence.” The story of Christmas with the miracle of the incarnation is extraordinary evidence of God’s love. The story of Easter with the miracle of the resurrection is extraordinary evidence of God’s love.

Zechariah did all the godly things, yet he doubted the power of God. Do we? Faith gets messy when we doubt the power of God. Faith gets especially messy when we doubt the love of God.

There is another side to this coin. Zechariah had his moment of doubt, of asking a question. Since the angel seemed to scold Zechariah for his doubt, we might be tempted to scold anyone, including ourselves, for ever doubting or questioning. However, to do so is to miss the bigger story here.

Zechariah’s doubt did not disqualify him from being part of God’s people, from being a priest, or from the wonderful calling of being John the Baptist’s Dad.

You will not be disqualified for asking a question, for sharing a doubt. As messy as our faith gets, it does not mess up God’s love.

Questions and doubts can sometimes be a necessary part of faith. Wouldn’t the world have been a safer place if the men that took control of planes to fly them into the Wold Trade Centre had less certainty and more doubt? While we might claim that their faith was different, for they were Muslims of a fundamentalist variety, does it sometimes happen that we as Christians cause harm by our certainty on things where perhaps room for doubt or questions would be better?

A friend shared a video with me of a woman dealing with panic attacks and depression. Turning to Christian friends and professionals she was told to look for whatever sin was hindering her, or to have more faith. She eventually got better help beyond the Christian circles she was moving in. We can bring harm into people’s lives by our certitude.

We have questions and doubts. Questions and doubts are part of a growing faith, a growing relationship with God. We want to be careful that we are not acting like we know everything when the Bible does not tell us everything. While faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit, certitude is not.

Zechariah was not disqualified because he expressed doubt. On the contrary, just imagine how his faith must have grown when he saw the power of God at work. Perhaps our questions and doubts can be an important part of the journey of faith.

We may feel a pressure from society to never believe anything the Bible says. We may feel a pressure from our faith community to never doubt anything the faith community says about what the Bible says. As a father seeking a miracle from Jesus for his child said:

“I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”

Mark 9:24 (NLT)

Is it time to take a step toward trusting the power and love of God, of trusting Jesus? Is it time to give yourself permission to have questions and doubts? When our faith is messy, it does not mess up God’s love. Zechariah’s faith was messy. It didn’t ruin Christmas.


Clarke Dixon is a Baptist pastor — not that Baptist, the other one — in Southern Ontario. He writes at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon. Today’s thoughts alone on video are at this link or may be seen as part of this “online worship expression

December 5, 2020

When Communion Sunday Meets Advent

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.  “Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came!
 – John 12: 25,27 NLT

As I type this, tomorrow is the second Sunday of Advent, but it’s also Communion Sunday among churches which observe the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month. So which is more important: Christmas or Easter?

The Billy Graham Association website notes:

Both are equally important, because both were an essential part of God’s plan. Without Christmas, there would be no Easter—and without Easter, Christmas wouldn’t matter.

It’s true. The birth of a baby in an inconsequential Jerusalem suburb would hardly be worth noting if were not for the events which followed. And the death of a self-proclaimed Messiah might not have earned a place in history were it not for the events which preceded it, which includes what turns out to be a somewhat miraculous birth.

As simple as that seems, I think it’s something that Christians need to own to a greater degree. I say that because in a search for the phrase, “There’s no Christmas with Easter and…” etc., all of the page one search results directed readers to a quotation by a former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormon) and some of its related websites. While the sentiment is true, I would like to have seen more mainstream Christian expressions of that truth on page one.

Or in these words, as we put it this time last year:

There’s no incarnation without atonement.
There’s no atonement without incarnation.

As I looked at that article again, I felt I should just continue where it led us a year ago:

…There are key scripture passages associated with this time of year that answer the questions as to how Christ came into the world. The incarnation is key to Christian belief, so we need to define that. There are verses that explain where Christ came into the world. There are verses that explain who was around when Christ came into the world. But we need to get past the “Linus” verses — the verses that Linus in the Peanuts television special quotes from memory to Charlie Brown — and think about why Christ came into the world.

NIV Hebrews 1:1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

If you’re on social media, you know the phrase Direct Messaging. After years of speaking through the prophets, God decides it is time to send a DM, not only to his followers, but to all humankind.

John 6 gives us more details:

 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Verses 33 and 38-39 are key: Jesus comes to give life, and to see the salvation (although the word isn’t used here) of His children on the last day

…The Apostle Peter talks about how angels longed to see the day when salvation would be offered in a new way:

1Peter1.3 …It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, 4 and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. 5 And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.

8 You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. 9 The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls.

10 This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. 11 They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward.

12 They were told that their messages were not for themselves, but for you. And now this Good News has been announced to you by those who preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.

As Jesus calls his first disciples, he ushers in this new way, an intersection of the heavenly realm and the earthly realm

Mark 1:15 The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

and urges his disciples this is the message they are to proclaim:

Matt.10.7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8b … Freely you have received; freely give.

For churches where the Eucharist/Communion intersects with Advent/Christmas, the key is not to say, ‘How do I deal with this awkward placement of two very different parts of our church calendar?’ but rather to meet the convergence head on by noting that the gathering around The Lord’s Table begins with the gathering around the manger to look at the promised child; and the gathering around the baby in the manger is the beginning of the path to the gathering in the upper room where “on the night he was betrayed, he took bread and broke it and said ‘This is my body…'”

Both of which lead to a gathering around another table, a banquet table we’ve yet to experience.

 

November 27, 2020

Following Jesus, but with Reservations, Pessimism and Doubts

In one of the original pieces here six months ago, I re-classified the twelve apostles into some different categories, including “final week disappointments” consisting of “Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, and Thomas’ doubt.” We often hear sermons on the similarities and contrasts between the first two, but Thomas usually doesn’t get included in this grouping.

You know the story. Thomas misses out on that initial resurrection celebration because he just can’t take in the possibility.

At Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries, Dr. Ralph Wilson notes

…Thomas is a pessimist. Some people rejoice to see a glass half full, but Thomas sees it half empty. Oh, he’s full courage, but also possesses a streak of fatalism. Once, when Jesus and his disciples hear about their friend Lazarus’s death near Jerusalem, the center of Jesus’ opposition, Thomas comments darkly, “Yes, let’s go there that we might die with him.” His words are almost prophetic.

Soon, his world falls apart. Thomas sees his Master arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and he flees for his life. On Good Friday he watches at a distance as they spike his Friend to a cross on the Roman killing grounds of Golgotha. As Jesus’ life drains away, so does Thomas’s hope.

On Saturday he is in shock. On Sunday he is so disillusioned that he doesn’t gather with his fellow disciples for an evening meal. Thomas is dazed, hurt, bitter — and lashing out. Monday morning, the disciples go looking for Thomas and tell him what has happened in his absence…

Thomas, at least in this moment in the narrative, is both a follower and a skeptic. And it’s safe to say his skepticism is winning the day on that Monday.

NIV.Jn.20.24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

He is basically saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Does that remind you of a verse of scripture?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
 – Hebrews 11:1 NASB

or perhaps

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?
 – Romans 8:24 NIV

We have to recognize that some of this is just the way Thomas is wired. It’s his temperament; his default setting; his basic character. The website for the Jesus Film Project notes that:

…At one point Jesus tells the disciples:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1–4, NIV)

Naturally, the disciples don’t necessarily understand what He’s talking about. And it’s Thomas that asks Him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (John 14:5, NIV)?…

So was Thomas a “doubting Thomas?” The Enduring Word Bible Commentary says no. You’re thinking, wait? No?

…Thomas is often known as Doubting Thomas, a title that misstates his error and ignores what became of him. Here we could say that Thomas didn’t doubt; he plainly and strongly refused to believe.

· Thomas refused the believe the testimony of many witnesses and reliable witnesses.

· Thomas made an extreme demand for evidence; evidence of not only sight but of touch, and to repeatedly touch the multiple wounds of Jesus.

The same commentary, quoting McLaren’s Commentary notes:

Thomas did the very worst thing that a melancholy man can do, went away to brood in a corner by himself, and so to exaggerate all his idiosyncrasies, to distort the proportion of the truth, and hug his despair, by separating himself from his fellows. Therefore he lost what they got, the sight of the Lord.

And as a result, he misses out. He misses out on the “Peace be with you” blessing noted earlier in John 20, and he misses out on that moment when something bigger happens:

He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Thomas imposes a lot of conditions on what it would take to believe. Enduring Word quotes Leon Morris:

[A]nother possibility should not be overlooked, namely that he was so shocked by the tragedy of the crucifixion that he did not find it easy to think of its consequences as being annulled.

As we’ve seen above (vs. 26) he does see the risen Jesus. Eight. Days. Later.

Finally!

Then follows his confession; his affirmation; the statement that has major impact because it’s the words of someone who formerly did not believe:

NIV.Jn.20.28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Dr. Wilson says,

“Doubting Thomas” utters the greatest confession of faith recorded anywhere in the Bible.

The Enduring Word commentary notes that the final part of verse 29, which begins “blessed are” is a beatitude, but then quotes Spurgeon on ways we can miss that blessing:

· When we demand for a voice, a vision, a revelation to prove our faith.
· When we demand for some special circumstances to prove our faith.
· When we demand for some ecstatic experience.
· When we demand for an answer to every difficult question or objection.
· When we demand what men think of as success in our work of Jesus.
· When we demand that others support us in our faith.

Are you a doubting Thomas? You may not think so, but if we’re honest, most of us, even on our best days, harbor misgivings about some aspect of the faith, or its relevance to our personal situation. We’re like parent who comes to Jesus with concern for a gravely ill son:

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
 – Mark 9:24 NKJV

At those times our prayer should be

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
 – Luke 17:5 NIV

or in the NLT

The apostles said to the Lord, “Show us how to increase our faith.”

 

 

 

November 26, 2020

Six Things to Do When Life Ain’t Perfect

A Reflection on Philippians 4

by Clarke Dixon

There is sometimes an expectation that since God loves us, and since we have responded in faith, then life should be pretty much perfect from now on. But then what follows in our experience is, well, far from ideal. When we realize that things are far from perfect we might be surprised. We might even fall to pieces.

Life is a reality check. Paul’s concluding words to the Christians in Philippi are also a reality check. The reality is, that things are far from perfect.

In Philippians chapter 4 we are reminded that the apostle Paul’s life was far from perfect. Here we are given the reason for the letter. It is a thank you note from Paul for the gift the Christians in Philippians sent him because he was in prison. Yes, this encouraging letter was written while Paul was in troubling circumstances. He may even be executed! We have good reason to believe that he eventually was executed following another imprisonment. Paul’s life was far from the perfect experience we seem to expect Christians to have. His life was no picnic.

In Philippians chapter 4 we are also reminded that the Christian church is far from perfect, since Christian people are far from perfect. In verses 2 and 3 we discover that there are troubled relationships. Euodia and Syntcyche are two leaders who are evidently mature Christians. Yet they are not getting along. They are not the perfect people we seem to expect Christians to be. Getting along was no picnic.

As a side note, if you ever find a perfect church, where everyone is perfect, don’t bother telling me about it. I don’t want to wreck the perfection by showing up.

Here we have evidence, of less than than perfect people in less than perfect circumstances. In fact you could say, messy people in messy circumstances. Perhaps you can relate . . .

So how do we handle the mess?

First, we do the best we can:

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Philippians 4:2-3 (NRSV)

Euodia and Syntyche are to iron out their differences and be reconciled. We can wonder if Paul in our day would encourage the Anglicans and the Baptists among others to iron out our differences and be reconciled. At any rate, we are to just do the best we can as individuals and faith communities and to help each other out the best we can too.

We celebrate God:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Philippians 4:4 (NRSV)

Most translations go with “rejoice” or “be glad,” but I like those that say “celebrate.” It can be hard to just switch our emotions, to suddenly just go from grumpy to joyful. It is not like our emotions respond like a light to the flick of a switch. Think of going home grumpy from a hard day at work. We may still be grumpy when we get home, which is no fun for our loved ones. But if you go home to a celebration, a birthday celebration for example, your emotions may well catch up to your celebrations. When we regularly celebrate Jesus, celebrating all that is real and true in Jesus, then our awful emotions will eventually catch up with the awesome facts.

We grow in gentleness:

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

Philippians 4:5 (NRSV)

How often have you heard a sermon on gentleness? If you attend my church, not very often, for I have not often preached on it. I suspect that across our land there are many sermons on holiness, and very few on gentleness. Yet gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. Gentleness is an important mark of following Jesus. I promise to speak about it more often. Perhaps we should all promise to grow into it more.

We give our anxiety to God through prayer:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)

Simply turning off worry can feel like an impossible thing to do. It likely is. Thankfully, we are not so much encouraged to simply turn it off, but rather to trade it in. Through prayer we trade it in for peace.

We focus our minds on good things.

I like Eugene Peterson’s rendition of the next few verses:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8,9 (The Message)

We are so good at being focused. Unfortunately we focus on the dirt. We focus on the negative. We focus on what is worst about others, and ourselves. News and social media often doesn’t help in this regard. Let us learn to focus on all that is good, in God, in life, in our world, in our church, in others, and yes, even in ourselves.

We learn contentment with the reality of things:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

Philippians 4:10-14 (NRSV)

Here we are, back to a reminder that Paul’s situation was from from ideal as he sits in prison, dependent on others for the basic necessities of life. Yet Paul could speak of being content. Yes, things could be better. But yes, things will be better. The reality is that being a Christian is no guarantee of a perfect life. The reality is that in Jesus there is the guarantee of God’s perfect love. As bad as things could get, they can’t do anything but get better yet.

Things are less than ideal in our day. We have been living through an incredibly messy year. We should not act surprised. In fact we have been sheltered. Messiness is nothing new. One of the books I read this summer was “A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London,” by Daniel Dafoe. This book is a memoir about a plague that hit London, England, in the 1600’s. It puts our current plague into perspective. Thanks to advances in society, we are in a much better situation now than then.

The first Christians knew what Paul knew; life gets messy. Following Jesus does not excuse us from the mess. In fact, as Paul also knew, following Jesus could get you into a bigger mess. Sadly, many believers around the world today know that all too well as persecution continues to plague many Christ followers.

Let us not fall to pieces when life is less than ideal, when the people around us, including ourselves, are less than perfect. Let us do the best we can, celebrate Jesus, grow in gentleness, trade anxiety for peace through prayer, focus on the good, and learn contentment. May we not fall to pieces, but as we walk with Jesus, let us watch how God picks up the pieces.


Clarke Dixon is a Canadian pastor and his weekly devotional here is taken from his blog Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon, which in turn are derived from his weekly sermons. With the pandemic, he’s been preaching shorter messages; each one he calls a full reflection and the shorter services he calls an online worship expression(Use the links provided to see other content from previous weeks.)

November 24, 2020

Coming to God with Child-like Faith

The basic offer of Jesus to redeem us is so simple that even a child can understand it and act on it. But it’s part of a narrative that is so wonderfully, beautifully complex that theologians have never stopped marveling about it.

We come individually to God with a child-like faith; a child-like trust; but the good news of the gospel can never be considered childish. Notice how much this theme is repeated:

“Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
 – Matthew 18:3 CSB

But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.”
 – Matthew 19:14 NLT

Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
 – Mark 10:15 NIV

Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.”
– Luke 18:17 MSG

I wasn’t familiar with Lacey Strum until I tuned in for a live feed of one of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Celebration events. I was electrified as she started to share her personal testimony. She is a Christian musician who was in the band Flyleaf, and is the author of three books.

Her blog posts are no longer part of her website, but this one survives on GoodReads. This is a bit different than our usual devotionals here, but I felt there might be someone out there who needs this, or would benefit from her story, which I’ve included below.

Eyes of a child

My son is three. He is currently obsessed with taking pictures. The other night I was falling into a deep sleep in our dark hotel room when I heard his tiny voice from the other bed break the silence. “Daddy. Can I have da phone?” “No,” sighed my sleepy husband. “It’s not time to play.” “But daddy, I gotta take a peetchur!” As an artist himself, my husband sympathized with our sons urgency to seize a moment of inspiration and make it count. So he handed him the phone. My son slid off the bed, took the phone aimed it at the air conditioning unit and snapped. Satisfied he handed the phone back to his father, got back into bed and fell right to sleep.

It’s funny how many times I feel deeply about something right before I fall asleep or early in the morning before I’m ready to wake up. But instead of creating art to express those depths, like my soul is aching to, I turn over and fall back asleep. There are times when I know I should skip lunch to spend more time with my friend. Or times when I should skip working so I can help find dinosaur bones in the back yard like my imaginative boy keeps asking me to. Or times when I should turn off my phone cause I know I’m going to be with loved ones and they are a precious gift. But so often I know what I should do and I roll over and do the predictable, less heroic, self centered grown up thing.

But my beautiful little boy on the other hand… He will never willingly let sleepiness keep him from a moment of inspired creative exploration. His three year old heart would never willingly interrupt the laughter of playtime with friends in order to eat lunch! And when he is around the people he loves, they have his full attention and he is always competing for theirs. “Watch this Granna! Papa look what I can do!”

I love looking at the pictures my three year old takes. It reminds me to pay attention. And it reminds me to seize every moment for what’s most important. It challenges me to see the world with childlike wonder. I think we miss the “on earth as it is in heaven” perspective we need in order to experience life the way God intends for us to. But. I think children rarely miss it. Maybe we should pay more attention to them and learn what’s most important. And (Jesus) said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 18:3



I did an article about Lacey at Thinking Out Loud in October, 2014. Here’s the link.

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