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11.22.2017

Christian Faith -- God as the Initiator of All and Every Saving Good

Greetings All!

     Today I share an excerpt that has to do with one of the most important aspects of the Christian faith -- God as the initiator of all and every saving good.  A. W. Tozer once spoke of this as well in the opening chapter of his classic work, "The Pursuit of God."  But James S. Stewart (1896-1990) emphasizes it even more strongly here in his classic work, "A Man in Christ - The Vital Elements of St. Paul's Religion."  (And lest there be any confusion, Stewart is not the famous Hollywood actor from the well-known Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," he was formerly Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, a minister in the Church of Scotland, and Chaplain to the Queen of England from 1952-1966.)














     


     I pass his words along to you as something we all need to ponder, meditate upon, cherish, and take into the soul as truth that will stir the heart to praise God for His unspeakable grace. Read it, and then read it again, until every trace of contrary opinion is erased. And then let it move your heart to respond by bowing the knee in adoration of a God so gloriously worthy.  Enjoy.

     "Everything in religion that matters starts from God's side. Even faith and repentance and prayer, three attitudes of soul which might appear to originate in man and to be said to be human virtues, are, if we believe Paul, nothing of the kind. They are God's creation, God's gift. Faith because it is evoked by the action of God in revealing Himself as worthy of all trust, repentance because it is produced by the divine reaction to sin of which the cross is the culmination, and prayer because when "we know not what to pray for as we ought... the Spirit itself makes intercession for us."  In the words of Baron von Hugel, "The passion and hunger for God, comes from God, and God answers it with Christ." 
     Man's intelligence and will and heart and conscience never initiate anything in religion. And over the best moral and spiritual triumphs of this life the saints can only cry, "not unto us, Lord, but unto Thy name be glory" (Psalm 115:1).  In this sense at least, Schleiermacher was right when he defined religion as "absolute dependence."  Of ourselves, we can do nothing. There is no Creator but God.  "And every virtue we possess, And every victory won, And every thought of holiness, Are His and His alone."  This is the meaning of grace, and this is the inmost secret of reconciliation.
     It is hardly likely that a Gospel so annihilating to human pride will ever be popular with an age conscious of its own enlightenment and trusting in its own initiative for world redemption... Nor will Paul ever be 'persona grata' with those -- and there are many of them -- who seek, by a punctilious observance of religious ordinances, to screen from their own souls, and from others, the stern and disturbing fact that their first necessity is to have God change radically their whole attitude toward Himself.  If Paul's doctrine of reconciliation means anything, then the religion that is tinged with self-satisfaction, is, even when it bears the Christian name, a thing downright heathen, and the man who thinks his own deeds and character are doing God credit and have a claim on God's regard and favour, is the victim of a disastrous delusion. To spiritual pride of every degree, nothing could be more devastating than Paul's evangelicalism.  For where religion walks around clothed in the garments of moral unreality [thinking that by one's own efforts they can earn God's grace] his Gospel will always be anathema.
     But who cares? It is the Gospel of God and there is no other.  It is the very Gospel of Jesus, who proclaimed God's initiative first and last, who was Himself God's initiative become flesh. Jesus, whose eyes were like a flame of fire to those who would seek to appease His divine displeasure by their gifts and offerings and character, but whose eyes smiled the welcome of heaven to those who confessed they had no standing before God at all. Jesus, who did not wait until sinners sought Him, but went forth to seek them first, coming to bring the gift of reconciliation near to men, and dying to put it in their hands. No man who is too proud to be infinitely in debt [to God] will ever be a Christian. God gives forever, forever man receives.
    Is it incomprehensible that the holy God should thus deal with unworthy man?  Maybe, but as Barth pointedly remarks, "only when grace is recognized to be incomprehensible is it grace."   For me, Paul would say, religion began on the day when I ceased straining and striving and struggling for heaven's favour, and was content to bow my head and accept the gift I could never win.  It's all the doing of the God who has reconciled me to Himself through Christ" (II Cor. 5:12). 
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     A. W. Tozer put it this way: "Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him. Imperfect it may be, but a true work nonetheless, and the secret cause of all desiring and seeking and praying which may follow.  We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit.  "No man can come to me," said our Lord, "except the Father which hath sent me draw him" (John 6:44 and 65), and it is by this prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming. The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is to follow hard after Him. All the time we are pursuing Him we are already in His hand" Thy right hand upholds me" (Psalm 63:8).  In this divine "upholding" and human "following" there is no contradiction. All is of God, for as von Hugel teaches, God is always previous." (The Pursuit of God, pgs. 11-12)
     Take a moment to let that truth wash over you. It really will change your whole perspective on life and cause you to see God, and His grace, in a whole new light.

In The Bonds of Gospel Truth, Pastor Jeff


11.07.2017

Two Important and Needed Reminders Regarding Prayer

Greetings All!

     Today's "thoughts" have to do with prayer. They contain two important and needed reminders regarding prayer. The first is from the daily devotional "Our Daily Bread," and the second is found in the devotional, "Streams in the Desert."  Since I use both in my morning prayer/devotion time, and both entries were related, I thought I would share them in tandem.  If you happen to use those books and have read either of these recently (since one was the entry for October 30, and the other was yesterday, November 6), sorry for the repetition!  Although good reminders deserve repeated consideration! Enjoy.



















"The Battle is Not Ours, but God's."
(II Chronicles 20:15)

     "There are times when doing nothing is better than doing something. [Times when doing nothing takes more faith than doing something.] Those are the times when God alone can do what is needed. True faith trusts Him then, and Him alone, to do the miracle.  Moses and Jehosaphat knew this secret. They knew the same Lord and the same divine grace.
     As the pursuing Egyptians trapped the helpless Israelites at the Red Sea, Moses said: "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you... The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still" (Exodus 14:13-14).
     As the Moabites and the Ammonites, a vast multitude, closed in on Judah, King Jehosaphat said to the helpless people: "Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. The battle is not yours, but God's... You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions, stand firm, and see the deliverance the LORD will give you" (II Chronicles 20:15 and 17). When God alone can win the victory, faith lets God do it all. In such times it is better to trust than to try.  Faith is the victory that overcomes."  

Our Prayers, God’s Timing
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,  according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20)

     Sometimes God takes His time in answering our prayers, and that isn’t always easy for us to understand.  That was the situation for Zechariah, a priest whom the angel Gabriel appeared to one day near an altar in the temple in Jerusalem. Gabriel told him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John” (Luke 1:13).  Yet, Zechariah had probably asked God for a child years before and struggled with Gabriel’s message because Elizabeth was now well beyond the expected age for childbirth.  Still, God answered his prayer.
     God’s memory is perfect. He is able to remember our prayers not only for years but also for generations beyond our lifetime. He never forgets them and may move in response to them long after we first brought our requests to Him. Sometimes His answer is “no,” other times it is “wait”— but His response is always measured with love. God’s ways are beyond us, but we can trust that they are good.
     Zechariah learned this. He asked for a son, but God gave him even more. His son John would grow up to be the very prophet who would announce the arrival of the Messiah.  Zechariah’s experience demonstrates a vital truth that should also encourage us as we pray: God’s timing is rarely our own, but it is always worth waiting for.  When we cannot see God’s hand at work, we can still trust His heart. (James Banks)

     Faith is hard for the fearful and impatient.  Prayer, therefore, is also a struggle for the fearful and impatient. Why?  Because once our prayers are offered up to God, whether they are offered once, or numerous times (it does not matter), or offered with great faith or a struggling faith (it does not matter), they are still sifted through the filter of God's goodness and holy love for us.
     Speaking of how the Holy Spirit helps us with our weaknesses, and intercedes for us with groans words cannot express as He carries out His ministry of interceding for the saints in accordance with God's will (Romans 8:26-27), A. B. Simpson once wrote: "We can simply pour from the fullness of our heart the burden of our spirit and the sorrow that seems to crush us. We can know God hears, loves, understands, receives, and separates from our prayers everything that is in error, imperfect, or wrong.  And then He presents the remainder, along with the incense of our great High Priest, before God's throne on high."
     This is such an important truth. God knows what we need. He knows when we need it by.  He knows if it is urgent or not.  And He also knows whether it would be good for us, or hurt us, or ruin the fruit of trust and patience that He's trying to work in us if He were to answer it immediately when we don't need it immediately!  In fact, He knows if getting what we ask for would actually hurt us, and therefore, out of His great love for us refuses to answer some of our prayers -- at least not how we ask them.
     We must remember that true prayer is not a magic formula.  It is not an attempt to use "positive thinking" or "mind power" to get whatever we want as soon as we want it. Prayer is offering our desires, needs, wants and concerns before the God who loves us, knowing that even if we have all the faith in the world God will not give us something that will damage us. Far more than even the best of all earthly parents, God filters our requests through His parental love and concern for our good.
     That's one of the major differences between prayer and positive confession. Positive confession often forgets that in prayer we are addressing an all-wise, all-good, all-knowing and holy God who loves us so much He doesn't care how much faith or confidence we have if we are asking for something that would not be good for us. He doesn't care how passionate or convinced we are that we will get something immediately if we just ask fervently enough. If getting it too soon would hurt our character or make us like impatient or spoiled children, He will, out of love, delay or even refuse to indulge us. After all, just think what our children would grow up to be like if they got everything they asked for (or demanded) the minute they demanded it!

In the Service of Jesus, Pastor Jeff

10.31.2017

Four Wrong Answers to the Question “Why Me?”

Greetings All,

This week's "thought" comes from Tim Keller's blog ( www.Redeemercitytocity.com ) in an entry dated August 6, 2012.  It is a little lengthy, but who can honestly deal with the question of why there is suffering in the world in just one or two paragraphs?  If you have ever asked, or had someone ask you the question, "Why Me?"  it will be worth the time it takes for you to read this entry.  Obviously, I offer it to those earnestly interested in knowing how to respond to such a question since those who aren't truly interested will not take the time to go through it.  Keller (as usual) offers some very good insights. Enjoy.


Four Wrong Answers to the Question “Why Me?”

     When I was diagnosed with cancer, the question "Why me?" was a natural one. Later, when I survived but others with the same kind of cancer died, I also had to ask, "Why me?” Suffering and death seem random, senseless… As a minister, I’ve spent countless hours with suffering people crying: “Why did God let this happen?”  In general, I hear four answers to this question—but each is wrong, or at least inadequate.
     The FIRST answer is: "This makes no sense—I guess this proves there is no God." But the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” said that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if any particular human law was unjust or not. If there is no God, then why have a sense of outrage and horror when suffering and tragedy occur? The strong eat the weak—that’s life—so why not? When Friedrich Nietzsche heard that a natural disaster had destroyed Java in 1883, he wrote a friend: “Two hundred thousand wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” Nietzsche was relentless in his logic. Because if there is no God, all value judgments are arbitrary. All definitions of justice are just the results of your culture or temperament. As different as they were in other ways, King and Nietzsche agreed on this point. If there is no God or higher divine Law, then violence is perfectly natural. So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all, and as we will see, it removes many resources for facing it.
     The SECOND answer is: “If there is a God, senseless suffering proves that God is not completely in control of everything. He couldn’t stop this.”  As many thinkers have pointed out—both devout believers as well as atheists—such a being, whatever it is, doesn’t really fit our definition of God. And this leaves you with the same problems mentioned above. If you don’t believe in a God powerful enough to create and sustain the whole world, then the world came about through natural forces, and that means, again, that violence is natural. Or if you think that God is an impersonal life force and this whole material world is just an illusion, again you remove any reason to be outraged at evil and suffering or to resist it.
     The THIRD answer to seemingly sudden, random death is: "God saves some people and lets others die because he favors and rewards good people." But the Bible forcefully rejects the idea that people who suffer more are worse people than those who are spared suffering. This was the self-righteous premise of Job’s friends in that great Old Testament book. They sat around Job, who was experiencing one sorrow in life after another, and said, "the reason this is happening to you and not us is because we are living right and you are not." At the end of the book, God expresses his fury at Job’s "miserable comforters." The world is too fallen and deeply broken to issue in neat patterns of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives.
     The FOURTH answer is: "God knows what he’s doing, so be quiet and trust him." This is partly right, but inadequate. It is inadequate because it is cold and because the Bible gives us more with which to face the terrors of life. God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from him. We were put into this world to live wholly for him, and when instead we began to live for ourselves everything in our created reality began to fall apart—physically, socially, and spiritually. Everything became subject to decay. But God did not abandon us. Of all the world's major religions, only Christianity teaches that God came to earth (in Jesus Christ) and became subject to suffering and death himself—dying on the Cross to take the punishment our sins deserved—so that someday he can return to earth to end all suffering without ending us.
     Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t—what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.  He understands us, he’s been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually to wipe away every tear…
     Someone might say, "But that’s only half an answer to the question 'Why?'" Yes, but it is the half that we need.  If God actually explained all the reasons why he allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains. Think of small children and their relationship to their parents. Three-year-olds can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. But though they aren’t capable of comprehending their parents’ reasons, they are capable of knowing their parents’ love, and therefore capable of trusting them and living securely. That is what they really need. Now the difference between God and human beings would be infinitely greater than the difference between a thirty-year-old parent and a three-year-old child. So we should not expect to be able to grasp all God’s purposes, but through the Cross and gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know his love. And that is what we need most.
     In Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, she shares her journey to understand the senseless death of her sister, crushed by a truck at the age of two. In the end, she concludes that the primary issue is whether we trust God’s character. Is he really loving? Is he really just? Her conclusion:  "[God] gave us Jesus... If God didn’t withhold from us His very own Son, will God withhold anything we need? If trust must be earned, hasn’t God unequivocally earned our trust with the splintery wood on the raw wounds, the thorns pressed into the brow, your name on the cracked lips? How will he not also graciously give us all things He deems best and right? He’s already given the incomprehensible.”

In the Service of Jesus, Pastor Jeff

10.24.2017

Bible's Call to Worship God

Greetings All!

This week's "thought" comes to you from the book "Simply Christian - Why Christianity Makes  Sense" by N. T. Wright.  He is presently Bishop of Durham, England (Church of England) and taught at McGill, Cambridge, and Oxford universities. His book attempts to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith and does an admirable job. For those who are honest skeptics (who are earnestly seeking to understand) and not just bandwagon skeptics (who somehow think being skeptical makes them seem more intellectual), it's worth a read.  This selection seeks to answer the "why?" of the Bible's call to worship God.  I found it helpful, I pray you might as well.  Enjoy.


     

















     
     "When we begin to glimpse the reality of God, the natural reaction is to worship him. Not to have that reaction is a fairly sure sign that we haven't yet really understood who he is or what he has done. So what is worship? The best way to discover is to... start in the fourth and fifth chapters of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St. John... [There we find] representatives of the animal kingdom and the world of humanity (the whole creation) worshipping God for all he's worth...

     Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come... 


     You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things and by your will, they existed and were created...


     You are worthy to take the scroll and open it's seal, for you were slaughtered, and by your blood, you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and people and nation.
     You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on earth...


     Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!  
     To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might, forever and ever. Amen!
(Revelation 4:8, 11, 5:9-10, 12 and 13)
     This is what worship is all about.  It is the glad shout of praise that arises to God the Creator and God the Rescuer from the creation that recognizes its Maker, the creation that acknowledges the triumph of Jesus the Lamb. That is the worship that is going on in heaven, in God's dimension, all the time. The question we ought to be asking is how best we might join in. Because that is what we are supposed to do.
     And let's get one thing clear before we go any further. There is always a suspicion that creeps into discussions of this kind, a niggling worry that the call to worship God is rather like the order that goes out from a dictator whose subjects may not like him but have learned to fear him. He wants a hundred thousand people to line the route for his birthday parade? Very well, he shall have them. And they will all be cheering and waving as if their lives depended on it -- because, in fact, they do. Turn away in boredom, or don't turn up at all, and it will be the worse for you.  If it has crossed your mind that worshipping the true God is like that, let me offer you a very different model.
     I have been to many concerts of music ranging from major symphonic works to big-band jazz. I have heard world-class orchestras under world-famous conductors. I have been in the audience for some great performances that have moved me and fed me and satisfied me richly.  But only two or three times in my life have I been in an audience which, the moment the conductor's baton came down for the last time, leaped to its feet in electrified excitement, unable to contain its enthusiastic delight and wonder at what it had just experienced. (American readers might like to know that English audiences are very sparing with standing ovations.)
     That sort of response is pretty close to genuine worship. Something like that, but more so, is the mood of Revelation 4 and 5. That is what, when we come to worship the living God, we are being invited to join in. What happens when you're at a concert like that is that everyone feels that they have grown in stature. Something has happened to them. They are aware of things in a new way. The whole world looks different. It's a bit like falling in love.  In fact, it IS a kind of falling in love. And when you fall in love, when you're ready to throw yourself at the feet of your beloved, what you desire, above all, is union.
     This brings us to the first of two golden rules oat the heart of spirituality.  #1.) You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Those who worship money eventually become human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness of prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless. 
     So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it right has been accomplished by the Lamb that was slain?  The answer comes in the second golden rule: #2) Because you were made in God's image, worship makes you more truly human.  When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive. Conversely, when you give that same total worship to anything or anyone else, you shrink as a human being. It doesn't, of course, feel like that at the time. When you worship part of the creation as though it were the Creator himself (in other words, when you worship an idol) you may feel a brief "high." But like a hallucinatory drug, that worship achieves its effect at a cost.  When the effect is over, you are less of a human being than you were to begin with. That is the price of idolatry.
     The opportunity, the invitation, the summons is there before us: Come and worship the true God, the Creator, the Redeemer, and to become more truly human in doing so. Worship is at the very center of all Christian living. One of the main reasons that theology (that is, trying to think straight about who God is) matters is that we are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. It matters that we learn more about who God is so that we can praise him more appropriately. Perhaps one of the reasons why so much worship, in some churches at least, appears unattractive to so many people, is that we have forgotten, or covered up, the truth about the one we are worshipping. 
     Yet whenever we glimpse the truth, we are drawn back. Like groupies sneaking off from work to see a rock star who's in town for just an hour or so, like fans waiting all night for a glimpse of a football team returning in triumph (only much more so!) those who come to recognize the God we see in Jesus, the Lion, and the Lamb, will long to come and worship him." 
     Wonder is at the heart of all true worship. And wonder is what arises in the heart when God's Spirit begins to reveal to us that He really does exist and what He is really like. It happens when we come to see and experience (in greater and more undeniable ways) God's holiness, power, love, grace, and life-altering presence.  We come to taste and see that He is good. We become gradually more and more aware of the reality of an invisible Being pursuing, revealing and breaking in upon our lives in tangible and sometimes overwhelming ways. A Being whom we can't help but sense is seeking to enter, possess, indwell, disarm, make Himself known to us, and make us His own.  A God who we discover (much to our surprise) has a plan for our lives, and is working out that plan -- at times with our approval, and at other times without our approval.  At times clearing obstacles out of our way, and at times placing them immovably in our path to redirect the trajectory of our lives.
     Those who have experienced this (myself being just one) testify it was at times overwhelming, and made them feel as if God had taken control of the wheel and was steering them to a destination that fit into a plan ordained for them prior to their existence, but worked out in their present when the time was just right.
     Of course, as those who are (for the most part) comfortable with and captive to the temporal, running into the reality of Him who is eternal can be a hair-raising and even fear-spawning experience. We see this in the lives of the prophets and apostles, Isaiah 6 and Revelation 1 being just two of many examples.  Discovering God is actually real, and not just a nice idea, can be both a frightening and life-altering experience.  Yet, when the initial fear subsides, and we discover He is not out to harm us, but save us; that He is for us, and not against us -- then what seemed so frightening becomes mesmerizingly beautiful, and it's His beauty that drives us to want to worship Him.
     That is my prayer. That like the beings in Revelation 4-5 we would find ourselves so overcome by the beauty and majesty and worth of God, and the wonder that is Jesus, that we would ceaselessly yearn to praise, adore and worship Him -- and in doing so, as Wright points out, become more like Him, and at the same time more truly and fully human. 

In the Bonds of Christian Affection, Pastor Jeff