Christianity 201

July 25, 2021

Utter Dependence on God

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Today once again we’re featuring the website Out Of The Ordinary. We’ve showcased writing here by Rebecca and Kim before, this time it’s the third member of the team who goes by Persis. She wrote this in May of 2020 when the global pandemic was just a few months in. How little did we realize for how long we would need to depend on God as our source of strength and comfort. She also (in the first paragraph) quotes a theologian whose name I have been hearing much in the past few weeks. Click the title below to read at source.

The Place of Dependence

We live in a strange world, a world which presents us with tremendous contrasts. The high and the low, the great and the small, the sublime and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, the tragic and the comic, the good and the evil, the truth and the lie, these all are heaped up in unfathomable interrelationship. The gravity and the vanity of life seize on us in turn. Now we are prompted to optimism, then to pessimism. Man weeping is constantly giving way to man laughing. The whole world stands in the sign of humor, which has been well described as a laugh in a tear.1

Herman Bavinck may have have written those sentences 111 years ago, but he could be describing the present. Life as we know it has changed drastically for the entire world. Every level of society has been impacted, and what we once knew may never return. I am more aware than I have ever been of the complex tangle of human lives, basic needs, information, and decisions that are “heaped up in unfathomable interrelationship.”

In March [2020], two pastors on Twitter asked if Christians would be willing to fast and pray for an hour on Friday afternoons regarding the coronavirus. I was gung-ho the first two weeks and eager to pray. The hour passed quickly as I prayed for everyone and everything I could think of. But as the weeks passed, the number of situations and people needing prayer seemed to grow exponentially. When the last prayer time rolled around, I began to think of government employees from national to local levels, medical staff and researchers, essential workers, the unemployed, the elderly, those with compromised health or mental illness, and the list went on and on.

All these people so dependent on each other.  Some have positions of authority with decision-making power over many. But there are others previously overlooked who we are literally depending upon for our daily bread. So many people. So many lives. Any attempt to untangle these interrelationships would inevitably result in harm to someone because this is a no-win situation. These thoughts were too overwhelming, so I had to give way to the tears and lament that had been building up inside. The only words left to pray were, “Lord, you know.”

In our inmost selves, we are immediately  — without benefit of reasoning, that is, and prior to all reasoning — conscious of ourselves as created, limited, dependent beings. We are dependent upon everything around us, upon the whole spiritual and material world. Man is a “dependent” of the universe. And further, he is dependent, together with other created things, and dependent this time in an absolute sense, on God who is the one, eternal, and real being.2

If our sole dependence rested on other fallible human beings, we would have good reason to fear. There is a limit to the best wisdom, knowledge, and skill any person can offer, and that “best” is still tainted with sin. But there is Someone greater, wiser, and more powerful under-girding our interrelationships and interdependence on each other. Someone on whom we truly depend. He is not the watchmaker god of the deists who winds the timepiece and observes what will happen from afar. Our God sees perfectly and judges righteously. His purpose will not waiver and neither will his love. He took on humanity that he might redeem us, purchasing pardon with his death and providing righteousness with his life.

As his children, we have an open invitation to the throne of grace. We are welcome to pour out our hearts in petition, but we are also free to come when we are too overwhelmed to even know what to pray.  We can come to the end of our rope and the end of ourselves in this place of dependence. A place where Christ accepts a feeble, “Lord, you know,” and gives us assurance that he does.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Heb. 4:15-16 NASB


1. The Wonderful Works of God, Herman Bavinck, Westminster Seminary Press, 2019, pg. 29.
2. Ibid. pg. 27.

December 30, 2020

In Good Times and Bad Times

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

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.)

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 4, 2020

God’s Leadership; Our Response

by Clarke Dixon

We have all had to respond to a new abnormal. Separation from friends and family, social distancing, standing in lines, wearing masks, and haircuts by loved ones (preferably!). We have had to respond to a new normal in workplaces, working from home, or sadly for many, not working at all. There is a new normal in our concern for safety and health of loved ones and indeed, ourselves. Have had the best kind of response which will lead to the best kind of future?

Churches have had to respond to a new abnormal also. We, along with many churches, have taken to YouTube and Facebook. Our church has had a quiet online ministry for eight years through this blog where every sermon I have preached is here in a “Shrunk Sermon” form. One sermon from 2016 has come back to haunt me: What do you have to have to have a church?

Right now we don’t have what we normally would have as a church family, such as the full use of a building, or, very important at Calvary, opportunities for food together. There is good news in my 2016 “Shrunk Sermon,” which was taken from a long sermon, which actually came from a very long study series in the Book of Acts. We really only need two things; God and people. That is all the earliest of Christians had. God and people.

When we look back on the early Christian communities we don’t see building programs, extensive programming for every generation, big music productions, or people getting particularly organized into churches and denominations. We see people responding to the Holy Spirit. We see God at work in the world changing lives. We see the Holy Spirit leading and people responding.

When people look back on our day, what will they see?

They will see how we have adapted to a new normal, as churches and individuals. They will see how we have responded in very practical ways, such as taking services online. But will people see how God was at work among us and through us?

We might wonder when we will get back to normal as a church. The better question is, how do we help people walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love given each new normal? The answer is; in the same way we see the early Christians helping people walk with Jesus, by responding to God’s leadership through the Holy Spirit.

People will also see how we responded to the new normal as individuals. We have all been affected, we have all made changes. It is important that we continue to do so, responding to each new normal in practical ways. As we respond to each new normal, we want to be responsive to the God’s leadership in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

This may look different for each person. For some it will mean a deeper prayerfulness, for others it mean deeper and more spiritually focused discussions with others. For others it will mean letting their light shine online, or serving in new ways, or growing in generosity, or connecting with people more than ever even while social distancing.

As we we respond to God’s leadership in our lives in practical ways, let us also consider the inner work of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts is not just about God leading people, like Paul, Phillip, or Peter, here or there, to do this, that, or the other thing. It is also about God changing people, like Paul, Phillip, Peter, and all the rest, from the inside out. Though he figures prominently, the Book of Acts is not just a record of what Paul did. It is also a record of what God did in Paul.

While there is a new normal all around us, God, through the Holy Spirit, is bringing a new normal within us:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Galatians 5:22,23 NRSV

While we respond to each new normal developing around us, let us be responsive to the Holy Spirit developing a new normal within us.

While we respond to each new normal developing around us, let us be responsive to the Holy Spirit developing a new normal within us.

As we look to leaders to make good decisions for our health and economy, let us look to God to lead us through his Holy Spirit. Responding to good leadership is important in these days of a pandemic. Responding to God’s leadership in our lives is the best kind of response, and will lead to the best kind of future.


Pastor Clarke Dixon loves music, motorcycles and ministry, though not necessarily in that order. His wife and three teenage boys are currently social distancing about an hour east of Toronto. 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.

April 7, 2020

When You Believe in God, But Everything Falls Apart Anyway

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Due to previous scheduling, we have an extra devotional from Clarke Dixon which has not appeared here previously. Watch for Clarke’s regular column on Thursday as usual. Click the header below to read at source.

Don’t Be Surprised By the Weeds

by Clarke Dixon

When I was young I would often take my friends sailing on Lake Chemong near Peterborough, Ontario. In addition to the the joy of friendship, my sailboat was just large enough that a second person could help keep it from capsizing in a good breeze. Lake Chemong is famous for being very weedy. It is a terrible lake for swimming since there were many slimy, gross weeds all along the shoreline. Therefore we would sometimes drop the sails, throw out the anchor and go for a swim in the middle of the lake.

On one particular day I took a young lady sailing. No, this was not the young lady who would become my wife, that is another story! As we were sailing this one day, I had the feeling this friend of mine thought we were on a date. I did not have the heart to tell her that she was not my date, she was my ballast!

Being a gentle breeze we decided to go for a swim. Time was getting on and so I got back into the boat. My friend didn’t. She couldn’t. She tried. I tried to help. But, no. So I sailed and she swam. At least until she got tired. What now? Being the hero of this story I knew what to do. I threw a line out the back of the boat and I towed her in.

Remember all those weeds around the edge of the lake I mentioned earlier? You should have heard the screams as I towed her through the weeds. She was horrified. What has this story to do with us in our day when face a scary meltdown of our world due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t be surprised by the weeds.

In Christ, we look forward to a rescue, yes. We look forward to getting through anything life will throw at us. We have been thrown a line. We will get to the shore. Consider these words from Peter:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 3:1-5

We have been thrown a line. We will get safely to the shore. Our future is certain. However, don’t be surprised by the weeds:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, . . . 1 Peter 3:6

There are those who assume that since God loves us and is rescuing us, there should be no more trouble in this life. God does love us, and He is rescuing us, but He has never promised that we will not face trouble. In fact, we are told that we will, and we do, face troubling times. Peter goes on:

. . . so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

Troubles do test our faith. In Christ, God has reached out and taken hold of us. But how good a grip do we have as we hold on to the hope we have in God? If we are unsure, troubles will tell us. Do we really trust God? It is easy enough to say ‘yes’ when times are good. However, when we experience the weeds, reality sinks in. Thankfully, it has been my experience that even when my grip is not tight, God has never wavered in His. Still, it is better to face the weeds of life knowing that the rescue is underway, that we will get through the weeds, and that the Rescuer is trustworthy and able. It is also better to face the weeds of life knowing there is a line that can be thrown to the people around us who are floundering in the water.

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8,9 (NRSV)

Don’t be surprised by the weeds. But don’t be surprised by the rescue either!

May God bless you as we face these weeds in our day.This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions.. This worship expression can be seen here. For a limited time, this reflection can also be heard here. Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.

March 29, 2020

Obeying Those in Authority

Today we’re back another time with Elsie Montgomery who writes at Practical Faith. This is a very timely article as we’re witnessing a conflict between those who are obeying lockdown and quarantine orders, and those who feel the mandate of God’s people to worship together trumps government directives.

What about obeying the government?

Some Christians claim that God will not allow them to experience a plague. They quote Scripture and continue to meet in large numbers. In contrast, a friend said that we trust God yet wear a bicycle helmet, drive the speed limit, take our vitamins and so on. God promises protection but is it okay to play in traffic? One of the devil’s temptations to Jesus encouraged Him to jump off the top of the temple because angels wouldn’t let Him be injured. Jesus replied that this was putting God to the test.

God’s people, me included, need to remember that God’s protection goes hand in hand with obedience including this passage:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1–2)

God is sovereign. That covers all authorities, even those we don’t like. Agreeing with separation of church and state does not include ignoring political authority during this crisis. That attitude is deadly.

My hubby once took a course called “Christ and Government” which suggests there is much to consider on this topic. I am challenged to think more deeply by this passage:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. (John 18:33–38)

The kingdom of God is not like those of the world. It is not defined by boundaries. It has no flag or logos. Its citizens are not governed by military might, nor according to how much money they donate to their current political party. Jesus’ kingdom is about allegiance to Him and having a personal relationship with Him. All our ‘laws and rules’ are in the Bible.

My devotional book offers additional thoughts. It says that Jesus’ servants will not fight to advance His kingdom the way the kingdoms of this world achieve success — using military drive or human armies. Apparently, Pilate believed at least this part of what Jesus was saying, and therefore saw him as no political threat . . . . But this does not mean that Jesus is making no claim whatsoever with respect to the kingdoms of this world. He insists He is King Jesus, even if His source of authority is not in this world, and His servants will not defend Him by resorting to arms. However, the time will come when all will acknowledge that He alone is Lord of lords and King of kings and all the kingdoms of this world are destined to become His.

How does this work in a practical sense? Again, my heart says to obey those in authority, not because I trust them, but because I trust the One who tells me to do it.

What if they order something contrary to the Lord’s commands? The Bible answers that also. The authorities were worried that the Gospel would spread so they decided to warn the disciples:

So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:17–20)

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27–29)

APPLY: Pay close attention to both the Bible and governing authorities. This could mean the difference between life or death even as God gives me a means to stay alive at this time. I am a citizen of heaven living as an ambassador for Jesus in a worldly kingdom. As long as I’m here, I’m to trust Jesus and obey His Word, especially concerning those in authority.

March 26, 2020

God’s Got This: When There is a Pandemic and Jesus Says “Do Not Worry”

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by Clarke Dixon

Is anyone worried yet? If you are not, are you living under a rock? The COVID-19 virus is a big deal, and while cases were once reported in someone else’s backyard, they are now being reported in ours.

So along comes Jesus and says “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25). We might want to ask;
“Jesus, are you living under a rock?”

Those who first heard Jesus may have asked that also. Many of them would have been living day to day in a society where you were paid daily. Some may have been living meal to meal. Just plain survival was a big deal for many people. Along comes Jesus who says “do not worry . . . ”

We have been looking at the Sermon on the Mount, realizing that Jesus was not giving news rules for us to follow slavishly, but rather was teaching us what kind of people we should become. This line of thinking continues here:

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:31-33 (NRSV)

We are to be the kind of people who know that God is a good Father. We are to be the kind of people who seek His goodness in our lives. We are to be the kind of people who know, without doubt, that God loves us. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need. Don’t worry, God’s got it.

Since Jesus told us to not worry, does that mean we should never have a concern in the world? The very first Christ followers who were aware they should not worry about food and clothing did not quit working! The apostle Paul did not live as someone who expected money to miraculously fall from the sky. He continued his work as a tentmaker. He encouraged people to work in 2 Thessalonians 3:6–12. There was never the idea that since God loves us, and since we need not worry, that we need not have concern for the things of life and take initiative. Yes, God loves us, so therefore we should not worry, but we still need to take initiative, to show proper concern.

Since Jesus told us to not worry, does that mean we will never face trouble? Jesus went on to say,

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)

Do not worry, but know there will still be trouble! Being a Christian does not make us immune from trouble. God loves us. That is the way things are. But we will face trouble. That is the way things work.

There is a difference between the way things are and the way things work. The way things are: we live in relationship with a Heavenly Father who will take care of us. The way things work: we live in a broken world where we need to take initiative and where bad things happen. We need, therefore, to make wise decisions, to take proper initiative for the sake of our health and the health of society.

Theologians study the way things are. Scientists study how things work. Theologians and scientists can sometimes say too much about matters in each other’s area of expertise. A theologian can study history, especially with regard to Jesus and point to the reality of God’s love. God has spoken into our world, as we learn in the Old Testament, but ultimately has revealed Himself in Jesus, revealing His love at the cross. Theologians can help us understand that. However, if a religious leader says don’t worry about COVID-19, that God will give you immunity if you just trust Him enough, change the channel. That’s not how things work. Listen to the scientist, who learns through observation how things work. However, if a scientist says there is no God, change the channel. That is not the way things are, and the scientist, with all his or her observation, cannot know that. They cannot observe everything.

We walk by faith and with wisdom. It is not an either/or thing. To show wisdom is not to show a lack of faith. To show faith is not to show a lack of wisdom. It would be foolish to say that God will take care of us, so therefore we do not need to concern ourselves with the evidence with regard to COVID-19. It would also be foolish to say we have evidence on how to deal with the virus, so we don’t need to think of God.

I didn’t plan on this being the week we would land on “don’t worry” in our sermon series. I also didn’t realize how appropriate my one-minute Easter message would be on the radio. It begins,

This is a special time of year for many of us. It is time to get our motors running and head out on the highway. Being a Baptist pastor, I have often been asked if I feel close to God while riding my motorcycle. That sometimes depends on who is pulling out in front of me. Sometimes I have felt a little too close to God.

In life there are many reminders of our mortality. Whether it’s an accident, or the threat of a pandemic, there are many reminders that “dust we are, and to dust we will return.”

That is how things work in this broken world. That is the focus of Lent, a time we remember our mortality. Bad things happen; cars cut in front of motorcycles, people get addicted, a plane falls out of the sky, cancer strikes, infections spread, an innocent man is arrested, beaten and crucified. That is Lent, that is the recognition that death is part of the way things work. But after Lent comes Easter Sunday!

Death is a result of our separation from God. God has dealt with that separation through His grace, His love, His mercy. He is a good and heavenly Father who has gone to extreme lengths to be reconciled to His children. That is the way things are.

For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:19 (NLT)

So a pandemic looms ominously. Don’t worry, God’s got this? Actually, our Heavenly Father has us. But we’ve got this. We can see how this virus works, we can take appropriate steps. We do not worry, knowing that come what may, God loves us and someday we will stand before Him in glory. He’s got us. We do not worry. We do take care, however, and we will want to take care of each other through this difficult time.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Read more of his ‘shrunk sermons’ at his blog. For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)

March 18, 2020

Biblical Christianity and Social Distancing (2)

Yesterday I wrote,

The present period of lockdown, quarantine, or social distancing is contrary to our nature…

As people created in God’s image, we were made for community and some theologians teach that the God head (Father, Son, Spirit) itself models that community and functions as community.

Writer Christina Fox at Christianity.com continues our theme from yesterday; this is an excerpt, click the header which follows for the complete article…

Don’t Go It Alone, You Were Made for Community

God’s word tells us that we simply can’t function without each other. We need each other and we need community.

…We once were a society that centered around family. Multiple generations often lived together under one roof and when families did live separately, they never moved very far. These days, we are more of an individualistic culture. We rely on ourselves. We live far away from where we were raised. Our connections with other people take place most often in the workplace. But those connections are usually shallow, fickle, and short lived.

In the church, we see this sense of individualism and disconnectedness as well. Many people serially date churches, never staying in one place very long. Some may stake a claim on a church but remain distant and on the margins, attending only when something better isn’t going on. And then there are those who may indeed have a committed relationship with a church but they are not all in. They aren’t fully known by their community. They don’t rely on the Body when they are struggling or in need. Instead, they wear masks that cover the pain of their lives, pretending that everything’s okay, even though it’s not.

Yet individualism and doing life on our own is not part of God’s design. After all, God is a community in himself. Existing for all of eternity past, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the love and fellowship of their perfect triune community. In creating mankind, God desired for us to participate in that community and know the perfect and joyous love the Godhead share.

But God didn’t stop there. He didn’t create man to be in community with him alone. After he created the world and Adam, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). God created man and woman to be in community together, to create families and live together, bearing the image of and reflecting the three-in-one God.

Scripture is all about community. God chose the Israelites to be his people. “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). They lived and worshipped him together in community. Following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, God then instituted the church, the Body of Christ as a community of believers. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Here’s what Paul Tripp says in his book, Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy,

“We weren’t created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in a humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others. Our lives were designed to be community projects. Yet, the foolishness of sin tells us that we have all that we need within ourselves. So we settle for relationships that never go beneath the casual. We defend ourselves when the people around us point out a weakness or a wrong. We hold our struggles within, not taking advantage of the resources God has given us.” (p. 147)

…The truth is, we need each other. We need to trust, rely on, and depend upon other believers. God gave us each other to walk alongside, encourage, and spur one another one in the faith. The writer to the Hebrews says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” We are to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), care for each other’s practical needs (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:16), warn each other of sin (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and rejoice and mourn with each other (Romans 12:15)…


So how do we do that today? In Psalm 137:4 the Psalmist reflects on Israel’s captivity and asks, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? Today we could equally ask, How do we practice Christian community while in isolation? We need to work to seek solutions in a less than ideal set of circumstances.

 

 

March 17, 2020

Biblical Christianity and Social Distancing (1)

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. – Genesis 2:18a

Although this verse is usually presented in the context of what Ellicott terms, “the divine appointment of marriage;” it also reflects the wider principle that we were made for community.

The present period of lockdown, quarantine, or social distancing is contrary to our nature, though I know a few Christian introverts who would say they don’t mind this at all. At least for now. We’ll see what they say in about ten days. God made us as social beings.

My research today took me to a website I was previously unaware of, TheNIVBIble.com which led to this article:

We Were Made for Community

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.John 13:34

In our individualistic society, many of us often feel alone. Sometimes we are actually alone; at other times we simply feel lonely. Some of us, conditioned by our culture, believe we are better off by ourselves and think we do not need the help of others. However, the gospel—and all of Scripture, for that matter—reinforces the truth that we were created for community. God created us not to be isolated beings, but rather people who live life with others. The primary way that we as Christians live in community is by belonging to the church.

When our culture thinks of community, it often thinks of a social club or an organization formed around a specific interest or cause. But the church is something much greater. It is Christ’s “body” (Colossians 1:24). And the nature of our relationships with other Christians is described in the New Testament as koinonia, a Greek word often translated as “fellowship.” It means that we as Christians have communion with one another and participate in life together. Not only that, but we also have communion with Christ and participate in his life and mission. We are members of his body.

Unity in Diversity

The fellowship of the church is concretely expressed in diversity. God wants to transform us from people who prefer to be with those who are like us into people who love those who are unlike us and unlike those with whom we would typically associate.

In his book The Living Church, John Stott discusses the practical consequences, “both negative and positive,” of this kind of loving fellowship:

“Negatively, if we love each other, we will not stand in judgment on each other, or speak evil against each other. We will not bite or devour each other (as if we were wild beasts). And we will not provoke or envy or lie to each other. Positively, if we love each other, we will be kind and compassionate to each other, forbear and forgive each other, submit to each other and build each other up, practice hospitality to each other ungrudgingly, encourage each other, admonish and comfort each other, pray for each other and bear each other’s burdens.”

Community is opportunity. Fellowship in the church becomes a tutor and an avenue for us to love and serve others, even those outside the church. Above all, the church is called to mirror the love of the Trinity. God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the true unity in diversity, and we are invited to not only share in the love of the Trinity, but also to extend that love to everyone we encounter.

Love In Our Workplace and Community

One reason why God has established the church is so that we can experience concretely the love of Christ. Yet this love was never meant to be restricted to the community of the church. Rather, it should generously overflow into all of our communities, including our workplaces. The love of Christ changes the way we see our work community.

Our coworkers are not merely people who help us get our work done or help us advance professionally. No, God has placed them in our lives so that we may love and serve them, even if they are radically different from us. We are called to love them, as Stott explained, both negatively and positively so that they might not only flourish but also experience God’s love and mercy.


The article then concludes with a question that is a bigger challenge today than it was a week ago:

What communities do you belong to? How might you show greater love to someone today?

I encourage you to find ways to reach out even when physical proximity is not an option.