Christianity 201

April 26, 2021

From Faith to Doubt to Faith Again

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Every pastor has a Bible character for whom they are able to tell his story in exceptional ways.  For Andy Stanley it’s Nehemiah. For the young preacher you’re about to meet it’s Thomas. Yesterday I listened to two full-length sermons by Tyler Staton. The first was sent to me in a link by a friend who wanted me to know that Tyler is replacing John Mark Comer as teaching pastor at Bridgetown. He’s moving cross-country from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon.

The second sermon I watched was focused on Thomas, so I was thrilled to discover that Thomas takes up a good one-third of Tyler’s book, Searching for Enough: The High Wire Walk Between Doubt and Faith.

This devotional is adapted by the book and was first published by the Bible Gateway Blog, and appeared later at Devotions Daily. Click the title below to read at source, and click the link at the end to learn more about the book. Clicking the header below will also lead you to an audio reading of the book’s first chapter.

Stuck Between Two Unsatisfying Stories

Thomas is my favorite. He’s always been my favorite. I know Thomas. I am Thomas.

Thomas wasn’t a fiercely rational cynic. To think of him that way would be to minimize a whole life down to one single moment, which is always a mistake. This is a man who left everything behind to follow a self-proclaimed Nazarene rabbi. He risked everything for Jesus. He witnessed miracles that left him rubbing his eyes in wonder, but he also faced rejection, confusion, and public disgrace for associating so closely with one who was called a criminal.

The very week of Jesus’ crucifixion, Thomas steps forward in a critical moment to say he’s ready to die with Jesus. He was ready to die with his rabbi, but he wasn’t ready to live without him. And that’s exactly what Jesus asked Thomas to do when he wouldn’t say a word at his own defense hearing and took the death penalty like he was planning it all along.

Thomas isn’t a cynic or even a skeptic. It’s so much more personal than that. He’s disappointed. He’s hurt. Imagine pushing in all your chips, like he did on Jesus, and then the story ends in the kind of heartbreak so far outside of the realm of possibility that it blindsides you completely, leaving you in the kind of daze you never want to feel again. That’s the Thomas we meet in his famous declaration of doubt.

He’s hurting. He’s confused. He’s guarded. Life on his own terms wasn’t enough; that’s why he risked everything on Jesus in the first place, but how can he be the King of the everlasting kingdom from within a casket? Thomas isn’t a doubter; he’s a realist—calling it like he sees it.

“So the grave’s empty, huh? Well, that’s great, but I’m gonna need a lot more than that. If the rest of you are so desperate to believe, then go ahead, but I’m gonna piece together my actual life in the actual world. And if laughter, beer, and sex is as good as it gets . . . and if suffering is senseless and death is final and none of it amounts to anything more . . . then at least I had the courage to face it.”

Thomas’s resurrection reaction reads like God picked up a thirty-something from San Francisco or Berlin or Melbourne or Brooklyn and sat them down in first-century Jerusalem on that defining Sunday morning.

I’m not sure I understand the experience of seeing someone alive on Sunday who was definitely dead on Friday, but I certainly understand the skepticism of hearing other people spread a holy rumor like that one and categorizing it as religious well-wishing at best. I see myself in Thomas. I see my friends in Thomas. I see my city in Thomas. Stuck between two unsatisfying stories.

Now Thomas . . . was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 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.” John 20:24–25

In essence, Thomas is saying, “If God wants me, he can come get me. I’m not hiding.” Thomas was a realist—a strong-willed, fiercely logical realist—and that earned him a nickname: Doubting Thomas. That’s a modern invention though.

His given name was Didymus, but everyone who really knew him called him by his Aramaic name—Thomas, which translates to “twin.” The Twin—that’s what all the other disciples called him, and it suits him . . . because, in a way, he’s all of our twin.

Thomas is modern Western culture personified. A whole hemisphere is stuck between two unsatisfying stories. The citizens of the industrialized Western world enjoy more personal freedom, leisure time, career options, and entertaining distractions than anyone at any other time in human history, and yet the increase in personal autonomy and freedom hasn’t led to increased happiness and fulfillment. Diagnosed and medicated mental illness has grown almost exactly parallel to these factors. The world’s freest, wealthiest, most autonomous people are also the world’s most anxious and depressed people.

Is there anyone you can identify with more in the Gospels than Thomas? Regardless of how you’d categorize your particular brand of belief or unbelief at this particular moment, plenty of us could say right along with Thomas, “It’s not enough. The meaning I’ve tried to drum up for myself in this life is not enough to still my restlessness, but to be honest, I’m starting to think an empty tomb is not enough either.”

Two Stories Caught in a Single Frame

Early on a hot summer morning in the mid-1970s, Philippe Petit walked across a wire suspended between the iconic Twin Towers dotting the Lower Manhattan skyline. It was a spectacle.

Almost exactly 27 years later, two commercial flights were hijacked and steered directly into those same Twin Towers, bringing them to the ground with thousands of casualties. It was also a spectacle—of the very worst kind.

A photo was snapped during Petit’s jaunt across the wire that was meaningless for nearly three decades but then became iconic: a commercial plane caught behind the balancing man on the wire appears to be flying much too low, almost like it will hit the towers. Two moments that seem logically a lifetime apart are caught in a single frame. The stories overlap for just a moment.

That’s what happened to Thomas. The story of the world and the story of Jesus seemed incompatible on resurrection morning. It was wishful thinking for any true realist. Then, for just a moment, the stories overlapped in a small upper room hideaway in central Jerusalem. Thomas, disenchanted by an empty tomb, encountered the presence of the living God.

That’s the invitation for you.


Learn more about the book at zondervan.com

Thanks to HarperCollins Christian Publishing for the opportunity to reprint these excerpts. Books is ©2021 Zondervan Publishing. Used by permission.

April 22, 2021

No Other Gods

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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Yesterday morning, the wife of an American journalist tweeted this scripture:

Joshua 23:16 “if you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.”

I was immediately struck by the principle — which we’ve shared here before — that while God’s dealings with people have changed between the First Covenant and the New Covenant, his essential nature; his character have not changed. He is, as scripture reminds us, the same.

While he may not drive us off our land — at least in a literal sense — he is angered; he is grieved when he are tempted and distracted by other lifestyles; other worldviews; other voices telling us how we should live. The times we wander off from his plan “A” are the times we are sinning. We’ve missed the mark; we’ve accepted less than his perfect way; we’ve trusted our own instincts or desires above his stated will for our lives.

The verse is part of the concluding two chapters of Joshua, his famous last words to the people of Israel. Chapter 23 in particular contains three exhortations. The first one:

2b [Joshua:]“I am very old. You yourselves have seen everything the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake; it was the Lord your God who fought for you. Remember how I have allotted as an inheritance for your tribes all the land of the nations that remain—the nations I conquered—between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The Lord your God himself will push them out for your sake. He will drive them out before you, and you will take possession of their land, as the Lord your God promised you.

“Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. Do not associate with these nations that remain among you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them. But you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now.

The second follows immediately after:

“The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. 10 One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised. 11 So be very careful to love the Lord your God.

12 “But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, 13 then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.

And the third and last, immediately after that:

14 “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. 15 But just as all the good things the Lord your God has promised you have come to you, so he will bring on you all the evil things he has threatened, until the Lord your God has destroyed you from this good land he has given you. 16 If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.”

While commentators divide these accordingly, there is a common theme throughout: Don’t chase after (follow) other Gods.

It is a reiteration of the first of a set of commandments given by God to Moses to give to the people that we call “The Ten…” though some scholars see as many as 14 instructions.

Joshua says some other final things in chapter 24, and while that chapter is beyond the scope of this devotional, I do want to remind us of a verse 15, where not one, but two well-known sections of scripture are found in a single verse:

24.15 (italics added) But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

The website Precept Austin offers an insight into our key passage today which it calls “To Chase or Be Chased.” Pause and consider that for a moment. The battle in which we find ourselves doesn’t offer moments of neutrality in the action. (For my Canadian readers, think of a hockey game as the play quickly moves from one end of the rink to another.)

The Lord has also equipped His children so we can be courageous in a hostile world. Although the foes we face may seem to be more powerful, we can resist them because of God’s special provision. This doesn’t mean He always protects His children from physical injury or even death. But when a child of God works together with God and does His will, he is unconquerable until his work on earth is done.

How do we find the protection that helps us “chase away” the enemy? By trusting and obeying God. Joshua told God’s people that if they would obey the Lord, no one could stand against them (Josh. 23:10). The same God who fought for them will also fight for us. He will strengthen us to meet any challenge when we are doing what He wants us to do in the way He wants us to do it (Phil. 4:13).

Yes, the Lord will give us courage as we draw strength from Him each day.

In a sermon on this passage, Canadian pastor Hilmer Jagersma reminds us where the courage comes from in a New Covenant sense; quoting Acts 4:13

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

Returning to the covenant aspect of this passage, Hilmer adds that,

Whether you’re young or whether you’re old, God has called you has and set you apart for service, and you have promises that are extended to you and you enjoy the good things of the Lord… If you think about it… we grow up in a community that worships the Lord, and we part of a community where the word of God is preached, and many of you grew up in homes where the word of God is taught.

And that’s how God works. Through his Spirit. By his Word. God is working. We sing the promises of God. We teach the promises of God. As parents you’re trying to demonstrate and live out the promises of God.

But the warning that Joshua gives stands: Don’t take God’s grace for granted. The promises must be received in faith. And they have always needed to be received in faith.


Thursday contributor Clarke Dixon returns next week.

All scriptures today taken from the NIV.

Watch the complete sermon on Joshua 23 by Hilmer Jagersma at this link.

 

 

April 7, 2021

A Morning Like That

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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Last year we introduced you to The Cove, a multi-site church in Mooresville, NC (Greater Charlotte) which posts weekday devotions on their website. This time around, the writer we’re featuring is Noelle McDermott. This was the Tuesday devotional in a series on the resurrection. Please support and encourage the writers we feature by reading these devotionals at the source site where we found them. Click the header which follows.

As the Sun Breaks Through

Today’s Scripture: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” 1 Peter 1:3, ESV

Theme: The Resurrection gives us hope for today and for eternity.

AS THE SUN BREAKS THROUGH…

Growing up in North Carolina, with its predominately sunny weather, I have come to strongly dislike the rain. When clouds roll over and begin to drizzle, I immediately miss the sun. I’ll complain about how sad I feel or how I can’t wait until the sun comes back. During a persistent period of rain, I was surprised—not because the sky finally cleared up—but because the sun was out, though it was still raining.

I stepped outside and marveled at two different types of weather colliding. I felt the warmth of the sun as the rain drizzled down and watched puddles of water slowly transforming into steam that the wind swept away. The sun eventually withdrew behind the clouds once more, but that brief moment of sunshine, even while standing in the rain, had lifted my spirits.

IN THE MIDST OF STORMS…

Mary Magdalene is initially introduced to us in Luke 8 in a list of women “who provided for [Jesus and the twelve disciples] out of their means” (Luke 8:2-3). The passage specifically notes that seven demons had been cast out of her. She also witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:40) and visited His tomb on the day of His Resurrection (John 20:1). Although other Gospels mention two other women accompanying her and telling the disciples of the open tomb with her, Scripture does not mention their staying afterwards. Even Peter and John, who visited the empty tomb at the women’s urging, left almost immediately also. Mary Magdalene is the only one who remained at the tomb.

Overwhelmed by her grief, she wept. I cannot imagine what went through her head as she sat in the garden, nor the hopelessness she must have felt. Not only had her Savior died, but she could not even find Him and anoint His body. What would have been next for Mary? How else could she serve Him if she could not even find Him? As she wept, she encountered two angels and a Man she did not recognize, even after speaking to Him. But as soon as He simply said her name, Mary realized that Jesus was standing before her. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus resurrected and was entrusted to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

SO DOES HOPE!

The Resurrection renewed hope within Mary Magdalene and it can renew hope within us. How often do we weep and search for answers as Mary did? Distracted with questions and doubt, we sometimes fail to realize that the Lord stands before us until the very moment He calls us by name. We succumb to hopelessness and discouragement because we forget the “living hope” granted to us thorough Jesus’ Resurrection. He has already overcome, and in light of that truth, we have the assurance of hope. This living hope gives us the strength to keep the faith and persevere in difficult seasons, for we are being prepared for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17) in this life and in eternity.

Make It Personal: As you reflect upon the Resurrection this week, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal where you have lost hope in the Lord’s promises. Where have you begun to doubt and despair? Let Him renew hope in you.

Pray: God, thank You that You sent Your Son and resurrected Him. Thank You for the confident hope given to us by Jesus’ Resurrection. Through each season, remind me of the hope I have in You through the Resurrection. Amen.

Weekly Memory Verse: “I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 1:19-20, NLT

Read: John 20:1-18; Luke 8:2-3; Mark 15:40; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

April 5, 2021

The One Where You Tell God to Take the Easy Way Out

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:29 NLT)

For years we’ve shared the writing of Jim Thornber, always pausing to remark at how our blogs have the same name. When it came time to revisit his page today, I was reminded that in 2020 he had suffered the loss of his wife due to complications from Coronavirus. He posted this item in November, and it’s timeliness to Easter cannot be overlooked. Click the header which follows to read at source.

Comfort Is Not The Agenda

One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” (Luke 23:39)

One of the highlights of my week is meeting with pastors from other churches for coffee on Friday mornings. There is no plan or schedule to these meetings other than friendship, but we also gather knowing we have a unique position in our town and only other pastors will understand our victories and struggles.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the pastors referenced the thief on the cross who scoffed at Jesus, saying, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

After he quoted the thief I said, “And here we are today, still trying to tell God how to be God!”

As soon as I said this it struck me how often I have done the same thing as the thief. “If you were really THIS kind of God,” I would think, “then you would do THIS for me.” And, of course, this makes me a thief who is trying to steal the true character of God and replace it with a god of my making.

It’s a good thing our society no longer hangs thieves.

If anyone is wondering, I have plenty of suggestions on how God can make me comfortable and answer my prayers. But then, I think about Jesus. As He hung upon the cross, Jesus wasn’t concerned with His comfort. Instead, He was concerned with obeying God’s agenda for His life.

Furthermore, it’s easy for me to admit I’ve lived a comfortable life. I’ve never known the type of suffering that took place in Europe during World War II. I’ve never battled cancer or been kidnapped. I’ve never faced homelessness or starvation, never been in a car crash or lost a limb in an accident, and for those things I am grateful.

The worst pain I have ever experienced is the loss of my wife, Barbara, who died on September 12, 2020 from complications of COVID-19. I can find no words that adequately describe the pain of losing a soul mate, a best friend, the one God created to be my equal in life.

Still, I trust God will continue to work in my life as I go forward, the same way He worked in our life as I look back at the amazing twenty-six years I had with Barbara.

After years of wanting God to fulfill my will, I’ve finally come to accept that God’s agenda for my life is not to make me comfortable, but to help conform me into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Therefore, I cannot honestly say, “LORD, your will be done in me,” then complain when His will makes me uncomfortable.

Losing a spouse is devastating, but losing my perspective on God’s magnificent goodness and love would be worse. Therefore, I’ve decided keep these words of Habakkuk constantly on my mind:

“Yet I will rejoice in the LORD! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign LORD is my strength!” (Hab. 3:18-19).

March 22, 2021

Two Psalms of Comfort

Today I paid a return visit to Prayerful Pondering by Pat Luffman Rowland. She has not been actively writing this year, so I reached back a decade in her archives finding this article from March, 2011. However… in the process I also noticed the ‘bonus’ devotional which appears further down the page, and realized I simply had to combine these. You might even want to print that one! (In case you do copy/p[aste that section, I’ve left out the green which normally accompanies scriptures here.) The links for each appear in the titles which follow.

Psalm of Comfort

Psalm 103 is a psalm of comfort for the one who feels ashamed and discouraged over sins and needs reassurance that God forgives and loves His children in spite of their actions.  It is for the one who needs encouragement, healing, and hope.  This psalm answers the question “Does God still care about me?”  And the answer is a resounding yes!

David, who wrote this psalm, was called “a man after God’s own heart.”  He was called that because he had, from his youth, developed an intimate and trusting relationship with the Lord.  He walked with Him and talked with Him — always.  Even so, because David was human, he sinned.  Adultery and murder were among those sins.  But David knew how to come back to God when he had gotten off track.  David knew the way back because he knew God.  His years of living intimately with the Father taught David who God truly was.  He knew that God hated sin, but loved him with an everlasting, unfailing love.  He knew God would always forgive him and always welcome him back when he came with a contrite heart.  What David had in relationship, we can also have.

Notice that David begins and ends with praise for God.  Scripture says that God inhabits our praise.  David wants to be heard, he wants the presence of God, and he adores his Maker with words of exaltation.  His intention is to establish a right position between Creator and created.  After David has entered God’s presence with words of exaltation, he continues to pay tribute to God by explaining all he finds in Him.  This is a defining poem about a God of love and David’s confidence in Him.

May this psalm provide comfort to the one seeking it, for whatever reason.  We can claim it as our blessing from the One who knew everything we would do before we did it and still sent His Son to die for us to save us from those things we could not save ourselves.   Before we were born, God knew the obstacles we would face and the pain we would go through, and He gave us the promise that He would never leave us to go through it alone.  Declare this psalm to your weary mind, body, and spirit and be infused with His love and the peace that follows.

Psalm 103  (NIV)

1 Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits– 3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, 5 who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. 6 The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: 8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. 17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children– 18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. 19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. 20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. 21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. 22 Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, O my soul.

Father, there is no one’s forgiveness we need more than Yours.  We may hide our sins from other people, but we can never hide them from You.  There is no one that can encourage us like You.  A word from You, O God, is precious beyond measure.  We come with praises and thanksgiving for a love like Yours!  We hide ourselves in the shadow of Your wing, where we are comforted and restored.  No matter how hard life gets, there is always healing in Your presence.  There, you renew our hope and give us new vision. We bless Your holy name, most high God!     

Comfort Prayer

The book of Psalms provides much comfort.  As David and other psalmists share with us their own emotions, we learn how to deal with our own.  Psalm 91 is a psalm many of us like to pray for ourselves or others when comfort is needed.  We do that by personalization.  To make it your own declaration, or your prayer for a family member or friend, fill in the blanks accordingly.   If it is your loved one who needs comfort, bless them further by reading it to them.

Psalm 91 (NIV translation, but with capitalization of pronouns indicating God’s name)

1 He (or she) who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  2 _______ will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  3 Surely He will save _______ from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.  4 He will cover _______ with His feathers, and under His wings _______ will find refuge; His faithfulness will be _______‘s shield and rampart.  5 _______ will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.  7 A thousand may fall at _______’s side, ten thousand at (her/his) right hand, but it will not come near _______.  8 _______ will only observe with (her/his) eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.  9 If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my  refuge—  10 then no harm will befall _______, no disaster will come near (her/his)tent.  11 For He will command His angels concerning _______ to guard _______ in all (her/his) ways; 12 they will lift _______ up in their hands, so that _______ will not strike (her/his) foot against a stone.  13 _______ will tread upon the lion and the cobra; _______ will trample the great lion and the serpent.  14 “Because _______ loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue _______; I will protect _______, for _______ acknowledges My name.  15 _______ will call upon Me, and I will answer _______; I will be with _______ in trouble, I will deliver _______ and honor _______.  16 With long life will I satisfy _______ and show _______ my salvation.”

Father, may this bless the lives of the wounded and weary.   May it bring needed peace and new hope.  May Your children feel Your very presence surround them as they pray these words.   

March 13, 2021

Fixing It

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:36 pm
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Today’s is a shorter post, but I felt there was someone out there who needed to hear this; or perhaps hear these verses of scripture.

It all has to do with the word fix and its variants. What does it mean when we’re fixed on Jesus?  The site BibleResources.info offers this:

The Greek word “fix” contains the idea of concentrating your gaze; to focus all of your attention on one object. Paul explains that if we concentrate on Jesus, we will be able to avoid sin and experience peace. When Jesus walked on the water, the disciples were terrified. Peter, however, was able to walk on the water by keeping his eyes on Jesus. He faltered when he lost his concentration and looked away!

Let’s look at the texts when this word is searched in the NIV on BibleGateway.com:

Hebrews 12:2
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Deuteronomy 11:18
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

Psalm 141:8
But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord; in you I take refuge—do not give me over to death.

2 Corinthians 4:18
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Hebrews 3:1
Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.

When I think of the word fixed I think of affixed, the idea of being stuck like glue!

Let’s return to the page at BibleResources:

If we actively focus on Jesus through Bible study, prayer and service – Jesus will become the center of our attention, and we will not fall. Deuteronomy 11:18 tells us to fix “his words in our hearts and minds”. Proverbs 3:5-6 enjoins us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (ESV). Proverbs 4:24-31 reminds us that if we focus and “fix our gaze before us, making level paths for our feet in ways that are firm without swerving” (distractions), that we can “keep our feet from evil”.

Isaiah 26:3 promises “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee…”. If we keep this focus, we will not “be anxious about anything…And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

If we keep our focus on the Lord as our “light and my salvation… the strength of my (our) life; of whom shall I (we) be afraid? (Psalms 27:1) We will not fear, “…for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”. (Isaiah 41:10)

With our eyes, thoughts, hearts and words fixed on Jesus we will be able to be “strong and courageous- all you who put your hope in the LORD! (Psalms 31:24)


Keep my Eyes on You by Graham Kendrick:


Monday is Devotional # 4000 here at Christianity 201. If you’ve been helped in any way by these readings, let us know.

 

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 18, 2021

With So Many Saying So Much With Such Confidence…

My Mum often used an expression when playing the piano: “I’m playing the wrong notes with confidence!” Hearing so many Christian leaders say so many different, even contradictory, things, is it possible that many of us are “saying the wrong things with confidence”? Speaking with confidence doesn’t make things so.

Of course the internet is only making things worse. You don’t need too many clicks to hear differing voices on so many issues; do this, don’t do that, vote this way, vote that way, think this, thank that, and on it goes.

With so many confident, competing, and often less than complimentary voices, how do we know to whom we can listen with confidence?

In the days of Jesus there was no shortage of voices clamoring for people’s attention, leaders speaking with great confidence. There were the Pharisees, “listen to us, and let us become better than everybody else.” There were the Zealots, “listen to us, we are better than the Romans so help us kick these Romans out.” There were the Saducees, “listen to us, life is better with the Romans, so lets just get along with them.” There were the Romans, “listen to us, our Caesar is divine, we build great roads, and besides, if you don’t listen to us, we will crucify you.”

Among all these voices, another speaks up, it is the voice of Jesus:

Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good—a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it. . . . I myself am the shepherd.

John 10:1-5,11 (MSG)

There is one true shepherd we can follow with great confidence; Jesus.

In this passage Jesus is not just speaking about himself as the good shepherd, he is also speaking about the other leaders of the people. They were saying the wrong things with confidence. Even though they thought they had it right, they were so far off that Jesus called them sheep stealers and hired-men. We should note here that all these religious leaders thought that they were honouring God, and that by following them people would be honouring God. Even people who think they are honouring God may say the wrong things with confidence. Perhaps that sometimes includes you and me?

In fact, let us consider the Christian teacher, living or dead, that we hold in the highest regard, for whom we have the greatest respect. You likely have someone in mind, it’s probably not me. We have great confidence in what they tell us. Yet they likely got some things wrong and at some point have said the wrong things with confidence. Every Christian leader will stand before our Lord someday and have their theology corrected. That includes me, of course.

There is one true voice for the sheep to listen to, and that is the true shepherd. Am I as a pastor helping people hear his voice, or are people under my care only ever hearing my voice? I sometimes say the wrong things with confidence. We can always have confidence in Jesus.

We can listen to Jesus with confidence because he is the true shepherd, but also because he is the good shepherd:

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.

John 10:11-13 (MSG)

Even good religious leaders will try to protect themselves. We can imagine many pastors who, if they were pastors today, would be highly revered, yet in Germany in their day did not raise a voice against the Nazi regime. Perhaps some were blind to what was going on. No doubt some were quiet out of fear. Or we can imagine those who today would be known as great pastors and leaders, yet in their day they did not speak out against slavery. Perhaps some were blind to the sin of it, but we can be sure some kept quiet out of fear.

Jesus is the fearless shepherd, willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Jesus is the fearless shepherd, willing to speak the true things that would get himself killed. He did put our well being before his own, he did lay down his life for us, for the forgiveness of sin and our reconciliation to God. He did fearlessly speak the truth and he did get killed for it. He is the Good Shepherd. We can listen to his voice with confidence.

Jesus is the true shepherd, Jesus is the good shepherd, Jesus is also the God-shepherd. What do we mean by that?

Let us consider these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

Then this message came to me from the LORD: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty.

Ezekiel 34:1-4 (NLT)

The leaders, both religious and political, had done an awful job. They were supposed to be taking care of the people, but were taking care of themselves. Perhaps, sadly, that sounds like some religious or political leaders we can think of today?

Let us go on to consider the promise of God:

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD

Ezekiel 34:11-15 (NRSV emphasis added)

It is in Jesus that the prophecy of Ezekiel 34 finds its greatest fulfillment. God has come to us, in Jesus. The LORD is our Shepherd and Jesus is the Shepherd. God, Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, takes care of the sheep like no one else can.

Since Jesus is the true shepherd, the good shepherd, and the God-shepherd, are we tuned into His voice? Or have we become too dependent on certain voices claiming to speak for him? There are many who help us hear the voice of Jesus, but there are none who can take his place.

The best way to learn someone’s voice is to spend a lot of time listening to them. Therefore we can seek to grow in prayerfulness. We can commit to attentive and thoughtful reading of the Scriptures, especially spending time with Jesus in the Gospels, paying attention to his teaching, but also the example of his life.

With so many saying the wrong things with confidence, let us tune in to the voice of Jesus.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. The full sermon video for today’s devotional can be seen as part of this longer “online worship expression”)

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 21, 2021

Genesis 3 and The End of a Golden Era

Ed. Note: Today we’re repeating the very first column we carried from Canadian Pastor and regular Thursday contributor Clarke Dixon, which appeared here on October 18, 2012.


by Clarke Dixon

A Golden Era is a time we look back upon with fondness, a time we think of as having something special about it. We might think of the golden era of cars, which for me would be the 1980s as I could still do my own oil changes on the cars I owned from that era. Since those cars I have not even been able to find the oil filters never mind change them. And we might think of the golden era for music. Eighties again with bands like U2, and REM, and other bands I could easily spell.

As for the Bible, there is no doubt that Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are a golden era. In those good ole days God “saw that it was good.” Also, Adam was over the moon about his new partner Eve and both of them could enjoy a full relationship with God. All is good. But it didn’t last very long. In fact in my edition of the Bible there are 1048 pages and the golden era is done by page 3! So what went wrong?

We might jump to the conclusion that everything went wrong when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit and that this is primarily a matter of obedience. However things began to unravel before that and in fact the disobedience was a symptom of a bigger problem. What is the root problem? Let’s look at where it all starts going wrong:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” (Genesis 3:1,2 NIV)

You can’t hear the serpent’s tone but you can imagine it: “Did God really say . . ?” I imagine the tone to be one that sows ominous seeds. It is a bit like my Dad’s complaint about how the Irish (which includes my Mum, my brother and I) will ask a question while giving the answer they want to hear: “you don’t really want to do that, do you?” On the lips of the serpent to Eve, “Surely God didn’t say something as silly as that, did he?” The seeds of doubt are sown. Eve corrects the snake somewhat, but then comes the punchline:

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5 NIV)

The seeds of doubt give way to a blooming assault on trust. The serpent’s words may as well be “God is a liar, listen to me for I know better.” This is not merely a matter of obedience, this is primarily a matter of trust as Eve and Adam end up placing their trust in the serpent rather than God. Not only that but Eve trusts her own judgement, and Adam likewise, over God’s:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:6)

We live in a time and place where the serpent’s words are like an echo that keeps coming back like a broken record (did I mention record players and the golden era of musical gadgets?); “God didn’t really say that, did he? God doesn’t really even exist, does he? You don’t really believe that, do you? Your religion is full of fools who are lying to you, trust us.” Seeds of doubt in previous generations have given way to a blooming assault on trust in our day. How must we cope as we see the core problem of the fall in Genesis 3, misplaced trust, replayed over and over again in our day? Two things:

  1. Training in apologetics.
    With Adam and Eve the problem was not merely that they stopped trusting God, but rather that they placed greater trust in the serpent and in their own ideas. And so today, I don’t think the problem is that people stop trusting God, or fail to place their trust in God, so much as they place greater trust elsewhere. Experts say this and that about such and such, and “we trust that, end of story”. However, there are many wonderful experts who have much to say about the same things from a Christian perspective and who evidence a wonderful trust in God. We do well to learn this stuff! There are many great resources for apologetics available, we might even call it a golden era of apologetics (email me for recommendations if you like).
  2. Follow Jesus.
    Just as there was a temptation at the beginning of humanity, there was a temptation at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. If you take a moment to read Luke 4:1-13 you will see something remarkable. With every temptation Jesus responds to the devil with “it is written” and a quotation from the Old Testament. “Actually, what God says is . . .” and Jesus begins his ministry with a complete trust and confidence in the Father.

As we live in such a skeptical society as ours, assaulting trust on every side as if we are somehow stuck in Genesis 3, let us commit to being more knowledgeable Christians who follow Jesus closely. And remember, by the grace of God the golden era is ahead of us!

 

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

December 31, 2020

Bible Verse of the Year 2020; Four Ways to Handle 2021

by Clarke Dixon

For the past two years I have used the verse of the year, as determined by a very popular Bible app, YouVersion, for the sermon on the last Sunday of the year. This year I asked our church family to send in what would be their pick for verse or passage of the year. Below you will read their picks, which not only help us reflect on 2020, they point out four ways to handle 2021. So let us read them and reflect on four strategies for handling 2021:

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31 NRSV

There are wonderful truths about God and wonderful promises here, but we don’t want to gloss over the pain that is also represented in this passage. This passage was originally written to a people who would feel beaten down, that God was distant. Perhaps you feel that way too?

The first way of handling 2021 is to be honest about the pain.

Likewise, we have this passage from the Psalms:

But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors

Psalm 31:14,15 NRSV

In context, the Psalm is about facing death because of enemies. Perhaps we live in the kind of society where we cannot name a single person we could think would want to take our lives. We are fortunate. But there are diseases and infections that we can think of. We can be honest with God about our anxiety over the things that threaten and impact our lives.

We do well to be honest, even vulnerable, in our relationship with God, but sometimes with trusted people as well. Lament has a place in the Bible. Does it have a place in our lives, in our prayers, in our relationships, and in our churches?

Let us move on:

“Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”

1 Peter 5:7 NRSV

Come, behold the works of the LORD;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Psalm 46:8-11 NRSV

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Psalm 91:1-6 NRSV

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 NRSV

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 NRSV

What do these all have in common? Trust in God.

The second way of handling 2021 is to nurture trust in God.

We can put our hope in God’s love and power. God is, God is for us, and God is able. A couple of the passages sent to me further define it as trust in God, rather than ourselves:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5,6 NRSV

The Lord directs our steps, so why try to understand everything along the way.

Proverbs 20:24 NLT

Are we okay with not having all the answers? Can we trust God, even when we are in a deep fog?

The next few passages may seem quite different from one another, but there is a common thread:

. . . for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7 NRSV

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31 NRSV

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NRSV

do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

Isaiah 41:10 NRSV

What is the common thread that holds these passages together? Rise to the challenge.

The third way of handling 2021 is to rise to the challenge of living out life as Christ followers, whatever the circumstances may be.

We continue thinking, meditating, praying, loving, doing, and facing fears. These are all activities that we do. Yes, there are things we cannot change. But yes, there are things we can. We don’t just let 2021 happen to us, we give shape to it as it unfolds. We are active, not passive.

Here is the last verse shared with me as someone’s pick for “verse of the year 2020.”

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—

Ephesians 2:8 NRSV

However our circumstances might affect our choice of verse for the year, there is a circumstance that affects us all; separation from God because of sin and the need for grace. We can get flustered by situations we may be in, but if we have not been reconciled to God, then whatever dire circumstance we face pales in comparison to this much bigger problem. It is not a problem we can fix. It is a problem, however, that God fixes for us, in Jesus. When we look at the big picture, we see God’s love for us.

The fourth way of handling 2021 is to look at the big picture.

2020 was a hard year. How might we capture 2020 in a painting? We might use a lot of dark colours for one thing. 2021 may be a challenging year. How might we capture 2021 in a painting as we look forward? Perhaps a lot of grey tones, painting a foggy scene ahead. Now how might we capture our relationship with God in a painting? Our relationship with God is something that will never fade into history. Let us remember that 2020 and 2021 will both someday fade into history. Our relationship with God is something we enjoy now, and every day in the future. We may want a much larger canvas to paint on to reflect the fact that this is a big picture. As we reflect on God’s love we may want to use bright colours, painting a much more joyful scene.

As we face 2021, let us be honest about our pain, nurture our trust in God, rise to the challenge of the Christian life, and look at the big picture.

Many thanks to those who read these “Shrunk Sermons” over the year. May you have a Happy New Year!

 


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, a small town one hour from Toronto. The full reflection (sermon content) can be seen as part of this “online worship expression

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

December 29, 2020

Leaving Behind Shallowness, Fear, Self-Centeredness

In yesterday’s thoughts here we quoted from a source which was new to us. Daisy Logan is from London and writes devotions and book reviews at Walking With My Savior. This article appeared in August. Click the title below to read this on her site.

The Faith-Hope-Love Cure

Do you find it hard (or even impossible) to be spirit-filled when things are going terribly wrong and everything we see on television, read in books and even hear from good friends points us toward skepticism, bitterness and self-absorption?

Yes, times have changed.  We need a paradigm shift.

THE NEED FOR A PARADIGM SHIFT

All our specific struggles can be traced back to one of these:

  1. Shallowness
  2. Fear, anxiety, and shame
  3. Self-centeredness

Breaking free from the grip of these three mega-patterns involves transferring our spiritual energy away from fixing our failures and toward our divine calling and destiny: resting in the heart of God through participation in his divine life. 

The spiritual journey would be:

  1. Shallowness to living faith by a healing of our intellect 
  2. Fear, anxiety, and shame to living hope by a healing of our memory 
  3. Self-centeredness to living love by a healing of our will

So now, I am inviting you to confront your self-limiting and self-destructive patterns and contrast them to the patterns of spirit-filled people who have come to live out their faith, hope and love.

Faith by which we freely commit our entire lives to God, who invites us to believe in Him by stirring our hearts in various ways. Faith is a decision of the will to believe, real faith is not blind. Faith heals our intellect. Study Hebrews 11:1 and Ephesians 6:16.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
– Hebrews 11:1 NIV

In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;
 – Ephesians 6:16 ESV

Hope by which we desire and count on the blessings of God in our lives, no matter the trial of the moment. The hopeful person has an eminently positive perspective on life because we know that an all-loving and all-powerful God is by our side, and in control – if we decide to let him be God for us. Hope, heals our memory and allows us to move forward in confidence, despite our remembering our own many failings of the past, and how others have failed us in the past because we know that God is all-powerful, all-loving and will be faithful to his promises. Study Hebrews 10:23 and Romans 12:12.

We must hold tightly to the hope we say is ours. After all, we can trust the one who made the agreement with us.
– Hebrews 10:23 CEV

rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,
 – Romans 12:12 NASB

Love by which we give ourselves to God above all things and to our neighbours as ourselves. Study John 15;12-13 and 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Love heals our will by ordering our interests and actions toward giving ourselves to God and others, for their own sake.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
 – John 15:12,13 NIV

Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not envy,
is not boastful, is not conceited,
does not act improperly,
is not selfish, is not provoked,
and does not keep a record of wrongs.
Love finds no joy in unrighteousness
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things. – I Cor. 13 HCSB

The healing of our mind, memory and will through the Divine Cure of faith, hope and love is not magical but it is MIRACULOUS.

So, let’s our start our journey from self-help to God’s help by specifying where and how we need to let go and let GOD work in us. For the Divine Cure to take root in our hearts and in our daily lives, we have to show God that we want HIM to act.

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