Why Don’t People Sit Up and Take Notice of the Christian Message?

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Circumstances have watered down the distinct nature of gospel living.  One circumstance is the pervasive adoption of many Judeo-Christian values in The West.  In Europe, Christian thinkers, with Christian morality, shaped what the majority thought of as moral or normal.  This formed a foundation for Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking.  The Ten Commandments still sit on many American courtroom walls as a nod to the fact that they underpin the American legal system.  The presidents of America still pray and reference God and scripture in their talks to pacify the majority.  Upholding American morality, in many regards, is still a case of upholding Christian morality.  Christians don’t stand out because of their insistence on fair play, charity to widows and orphans, or their belief that all people are equal.  Of course, their reasons for upholding these beliefs should be different, but in practice atheists, Muslims, and Christians live out a similar morality.  There are a few contentious areas where Christians stand out, but they are still few.

Where Christians should be distinct, they often fit in.  They are not a unified subgroup in society but a group more unified with the values and demands of twenty-first century materialism.  We fit in with the patterns of production and consumption, we thank God for all our creature comforts, we attend church less often than we attend children’s sporting events, we put to one side language which references Jesus as distinct from other gods.  In short, we are not people who live out the gospel.  We do not sacrifice or suffer for the sake of others.  We do not preserve unity by giving up our own interests.  We attend churches with programs and messages which affirm our privileged status and confirm our outlook.  We suffer to help our children achieve academic and economic success, but not so that they serve Jesus as their highest priority.

Paul says that the gospel of Christ should define our actions.  I have actually been in churches where actions are separated from the gospel.  The fear of a faith where actions get you saved has led to a faith with few distinct actions at all.  Paul does not know of a salvation without works.  He is opposed to a faith where our actions save us, but he is also opposed to a faith which makes no difference to how we live.  A Christian should first and foremost have a life which worships God.  This means that God is the first thought.  To achieve this a Christian will study God’s Word, the Bible;  They will pray to God for His glory and His will to be done in their own lives and in the world;  They will meet with other people who share their wholehearted devotion to God; They will talk about the God they worship as a natural outworking of their love in public.  This God-saturated living is not evident enough in people who call themselves Christian.  People conduct themselves in a manner worthy of acceptance – they are nice.  However, people do not conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.  When God’s people sacrifice God’s agenda for agendas of personal wealth and advancement a disunity breaks out.  This, in my opinion, is the process by which churches split and disenchanted people cease to attend.

If we strove together for the faith of the gospel, our unity and our distinct nature as the people of God, might cause others to sit up and take notice.

Philippians 1:27-2:4

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

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Why Death Holds No Fear

Image result for ricky gervais this guy can lieIn The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais openly mocks Christians’ views on the afterlife.  While Gervais’ character’s mother is dying, he comforts her by making up a story about a better place – a heaven of sorts.  This experiment snowballs and soon Ricky Gervais’ character is making up a whole religion – which sounds a lot like Christianity.  He shows how easy it is to make up stories, promote them as true and create a new religion.

What motivates us to make up stories of an afterlife and a benevolent God who welcomes us into heaven?  Fear it would seem – In particular a fear of the unknown.  Gervais paints himself as an authentic atheist with the courage to admit that ideas about life after death are garbage.  Ideas of heaven should be dismissed as misleading and dangerous.  People who could make a difference to the world are lulled to sleep by the promise of an afterlife.

Contrast Ricky Gervais with the Apostle Paul in Philippians.  In Philippians the apostle is also presented as fearless.  He believes he is united with Jesus, which gives Paul purpose in this life and something better in the next life.  In pithy language he says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  He claims he has a mission and a purpose on earth which will improve the conditions of the Philippians.  His life is meaningful and significant.  Although he can imagine joy in serving his fellow man, he is convinced he will encounter greater joy when he departs this life and is united with Jesus.  Given the life and the sacrifice of the early church, we see they too were unafraid of death.  They believed with great confidence their martyrdom was not the end.  How could this be so?  Were they just primitive?  Are we just more enlightened by our empirical research?  Through observation we have concluded death is final and no-one lives a life on the other side of it.  However, these early Christians were set ablaze because many of them had encountered Jesus after he had returned from the grave.  Many others of them met witnesses whose testimony to resurrection convinced them.

I struggle with the idea of my own mortality.  I am presently at 8,000 ft above sea level in Estes Park, Colorado.  I find it more difficult to breathe here and my lack of physical stamina on mountain trails reminds me I am no longer 21.  Life is running out for me.  How can I deal with the fear of my inevitable death?  Is Ricky Gervais correct about my desire to believe a made-up story from 2000 years ago?  Or is it possible that the story that changed the world was true:  Jesus did rise from the dead and promise his followers eternal life.  Paul’s passion and conviction are testimony to his utter confidence.  Can we say with him, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain?”

Philippians 1:18-26

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;  but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith,  so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

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How Do I Evaluate Success?

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People in their forties and fifties tend to evaluate life.  There are often big career changes.  Some people switch from a high earning job without fulfillment to a lower earning job with a sense of purpose.  So how do we evaluate personal success?  It is evaluated by what our lives are about.  If our life’s goal is to invest in our family, but our daily routine takes us away from them, our life is not successful.  If our goal is to amass a fortune and we live in poverty, our life is not a success.  In these instances our life is not a success by our own standards, but how do we know we are living by worthy standards? The psychopath who values chaos and disorder might consider a killing spree or a series of bank robberies as a personal success.  Most of us, however, would want some way of preventing such destructive behavior.

The apostle Paul valued the gospel of God very highly.  By ‘gospel’ he meant the good news of what Jesus accomplished through death and life.  The God-centered, virtuous life was out of reach for most of us.  Sin and evil pushes societies and individuals into patterns and habits that enslave and destroy.  We know the good we should be doing but lack the power to do it.  We fall short of true success but we settle for a new, mediocre standard.  God calls us to a life of significance and in Jesus he equips us to do it.  God calls us to a life of worship and he reveals himself as worthy of becoming our life goal.

In the passage below Paul evaluates his suffering and the way others are using his misfortune.  He considers both his imprisonment and the spiteful actions of others to be success because they advance the gospel.  How would you evaluate similar circumstances?

Philippians 1:12-18

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

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What Is A Worthy Goal for Life?

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Love should be our focus …

We often hear that love should be our focus.  Many of us have been loved poorly, but even those who have been loved well find love hard to define. Both The Beatles and God are in agreement that ‘Love is all you need.’  The difference is being able to define what love is.  For John Lennon love was related to sexual freedom.  It has been connected by artists over the last twenty years with strong emotions and sexual impulse.  However, there is something about that kind of love which lacks nobility and sustainability.  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, states that his prayer for them is that their love would grow in knowledge and depth of insight.

What the Bible presents as the goal here is to worship something or someone worthy of worship.  Loving someone means being oriented or focused on them for their good.  To live the best life, we need to be focused on the best.  If God exists, God is the highest person.  If the Bible is true, it requires that our heart, soul and mind be focused on God.  This positive focus on God, lived out for him our daily lives, is the love to which God calls us.  Studies show that people who live for a focus outside of themselves are more fulfilled and happy.  However, our focus on personal fulfillment and happiness, in my opinion, has left us less content.

The Christian way is one of losing oneself in another.  There is no fear in love, because the one the Christian focuses on is perfect.  As they grow in their love and worship of God, the goodness of God flows out from them to others.  In this way a Christian can sacrifice their own will for the common good, for unity, and to bless others.  Many Christians do not have this kind of selfless love.  They have a love of self where God has to fall in line with their own limited agenda.  Surrender to God is the only real guarantee that he who began a good work in a Christian will bring it to completion.

Philippians 1:1-11

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now  being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heartand, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.  God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousnessthat comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

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5 Reasons to Read Philippians This Summer

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I was feeling the need to dive back into Bible study in the chaos that is our summer.  I teach at churches and camps, travel across the United States and England.  I watch England in the World Cup.  I need an anchor for my soul.  I believe Philippians will provide a secure mooring.

  1. Preserve Unity

Like our own circumstances, circumstances in first century Philippi were messed up.  Paul wanted to preserve unity but he needed to provide a vision powerful enough for the church family to rally around.

2.  Resolve Conflict

Two members of the church family were fighting.  Paul provides a lesson in conflict resolution.  God is the God of peace who calms anxiety as well as raging seas.

3. Endure Suffering

When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians he was in jail awaiting possible execution.  How does a person endure the physical and mental anguish and still reach out to touch others?  Paul reveals the secret to his strength.

4. Embrace Joy

A number of times, Paul tells his readers to rejoice.  How is joy different from happiness?  Paul encourages his readers to embrace joy, and he also tells them how to become joyful.

5. Read God’s Word

Christians for centuries have embraced Bible reading as a foundation for growth.  In fact, it is very hard to grow without sound teaching.  Christians claim the Bible is God’s Word.  If God has communicated guidelines for living life well, we will be healthy if we live them out.

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Hope in Troubling Times

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Kelli, my wife, and I had the honour to speak in Day One chapel at Moody Bible Institute today.  If you weren’t there, or you just want to go over it again, this is what we said:

Kelli: “Hope in the Midst of Difficulty”

Peter and I met at Moody.

In the fall of 1998, I started my teaching career here. And that same semester, Peter came from the mission field in Pakistan to study at the Moody Graduate School. We were introduced to one another by Moody Graduate School Professor, Dr. Green, over lunch one day in the cafeteria. We spent much of our dating life frequenting the coffee shops in this neighborhood. I would plan lessons and grade papers. Peter would sit across from me, reading thick textbooks and writing essays.

Fifteen months later, in December of 1999, we were married in a 13th century church in Plympton, England. We started our married life, full of so many hopes and dreams.

However, just a few short years into our marriage, the wheels began wobble. And we entered a very difficult, extended, painful season.

Some of the particulars are as follows…

Peter’s dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died just months later.

We wanted to start a family, but suffered multiple miscarriages and the grief of infertility.

Our church at the time did not seem to know how to help us in our hurt, and when I descended into depression, their response was to discuss church discipline, adding to our pain rather than helping us through it.

Then, not long after, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and my dad suffered a life-altering injury.

The expense of my dad’s care put a serious financial strain on our family.

While Peter tried to put on a brave front, I spiraled deeper into the fog of anxiety and depression.

And for quite some time, I very much struggled with the concept hope.

I know the details are very different, but perhaps your journey is in some ways similar to ours.

Most of you, I imagine, came here to Moody with certain hopes and dreams.

And whether you have been here for just one semester or for several years, during this season—this 2017-18 school year—you might feel as if the wheels are wobbling.

It has been and will continue to be a season of loss.

A season of life-altering injuries. Some which we have incurred ourselves, some which we have watched happen to people we love. The fact that you are here—in this place, at this time—will undoubtedly shape your life and your ministry in some significant ways.

This has been a season during which certain cancers have been allowed to grow in our midst.

A season where we are sometimes wounding one another—brothers and sisters in Christ—adding to each other’s pain, rather than helping each other through.

We are well aware, too, that for many of you—the current crisis of our community is layered on top of other personal trials that you are experiencing, making it that much more difficult to process the pain.

We’ve talked to a number of you who are finding it hard to know how to hope.

It’s an often misunderstood concept, I believe. This concept of HOPE.

During our darkest time, Peter would sometimes play a computer game. One of the characters in the game was called the Librarian. And the Librarian used to pop up on the screen sometimes and speak oh-so wisely, saying: “Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.” At the time, this sounded just about right to me.  Maybe it sounds right to you too.

Hope sometimes sounds like a dangerous or foolish thing to do.

This is because we sometimes speak of hope in a rather flippant fashion. We hope in the same way that we wish upon a shooting star, or toss a coin into a well, or blow out our birthday candles.

“I hope I get what I want.”

Or “I hope this situation turn out all right.”

Or “I hope this pain comes to an end.”

Or “I hope God answers my prayer.”

We too often hope FOR an elusive end goal, rather than hoping IN.

Or if we do hope IN, we hope IN fallible things.

We place our hope in other people, or in our own strength, or in a scheme of our own design.

And then we flail and we flounder. We are easily overwhelmed by the waves.

When we hope FOR a certain outcome, or we hope IN a mortal mooring, rather than hoping IN our sure and certain God.

In the summer of 2006, when our little family was still in the thick of that very difficult personal season, Peter and I took a much-needed vacation to the Island of Great Chebeague, off the coast of Maine. We desperately needed some time and space to heal and to rediscover true and eternal and Biblical hope.

We spent a week on that island, and during our time on Great Chebeague, God began to restore my understanding of what it means to find a certain hope in the midst of difficulty. Through much prayer and journaling and Bible study. Through long conversations with Peter and quiet walks on the beach and providential encounters with strangers, He repeatedly and persistently revealed Himself as the source of all hope and made His mercies known.

At the end of our island week, Peter and I had to take the ferry back to the mainland. We stood on the ferry’s deck for most of the one-hour ride, wanting to soak in every last bit of the Casco Bay. It was another foggy day, however, and it was difficult to see very far ahead. Eventually, though, our captain instructed us to focus our eyes toward the southwest—over the bow of the boat and beyond—out into the fog. The Portland Head Lighthouse, he promised us, was just a mile down the coast. So we strained our eyes to see. And sure enough, even before we could see the lighthouse herself, her beam was visible through the mist—rotating, pulsating, warning ships of the rocky coast, and guiding them home.

For the rest of the ride, I kept staring into the cloudy air.

Nothing but fog.

Nothing but fog.

Nothing but fog.

Then, suddenly, FLASH.

That simple image has stuck with me in the many years since as an image of hope. A sure and steady source of light when it is hard to see for the fog.

Sometimes our life situation feels so much like that fog. Other times it even feels like the black of night. But God—in His sure and steady faithfulness—breaks through the darkness and the mist in so many ways—through a Bible passage or a prayer or a conversation or a providential encounter—to lead us on and give us hope.

We pray that this morning, our worship together, and the truths from the Scripture passage that Peter is about to share, will be one more flash of light for you. One more reminder of our certain hope.

Peter:

Lamentations 3:1-3, 16-40

I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.

28 Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.

31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.

34 To crush underfoot
all prisoners in the land,
35 to deny people their rights
before the Most High,
36 to deprive them of justice—
would not the Lord see such things?

37 Who can speak and have it happen
if the Lord has not decreed it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come?
39 Why should the living complain
when punished for their sins?

40 Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.

I first turned to Lamentations 3 when I was 18. The biggest trauma I had experienced was getting dumped by a girlfriend, one I particularly liked. And in my hurt, I punched a wardrobe for the first (and last) time. After realizing that was a bad idea, I searched Scripture and found Lamentations 3.

After finding the passage for the first time, I kept coming back to it—any time I felt lost or in a dark place—because of its beauty and consolation.  During the events in our life, which Kelli described earlier, I was pushed back again to this sanctuary in Scripture.

The teaching I received as a student in Moody Graduate School explained the passage even more.  Dr. Julius Wong Loi Sing shared with my class that the whole book of Lamentations is structured like a ziggurat. Unlike modern, western writing which builds to a crescendo at the end, this book builds to a climax in its middle.  The whole structure ascending like the steps of an ancient temple to the beacon of hope surrounded by the overwhelming circumstances of Jerusalem’s destruction.

Like a lighthouse surrounded by the fog, so this is a passage of light—Lamentations chapter 3—is surrounded by the darkness of the rest of the book.

Also important to our understanding of this passage and the book of Lamentations as a whole, is the fact that the experience of the author personally is parallel to the experience of the community and the city as a whole. There is both an individual and a corporate experience of desolation and isolation.  There is nowhere for either Jerusalem or the author to escape.  God’s hand holds the writer firmly in place—just as He holds His people—to the point that he rubs their face in the gravel.  This tragic situation is inescapable.

However, just when all hope is lost there is a ray of new hope like the beam of a lighthouse in a dark sky. 

What does Lamentations 3 teach us about this hope?

  1. First of all, we see that the basis of our PRESENT AND FUTURE hope is God’s love and faithfulness remembered from the PAST.  In verse 19, the writer remembers his affliction and his wandering. He remembers, and he is downcast. 

But in verse 21, he turns his attention to , “THIS I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed. For His compassions never fail.” 

Encouraging ourselves and our community to memory is key to healthy lament.  When we have a full picture of reality, we sometimes are traumatized, remembering the bitter times, but also we remember the redemption.

And in looking beyond our circumstances, we catch a glimpse of the glory. The reality of our present situation is contrasted through faith with the reality of God’s steadfast love, His unfailing compassion, and His ability to sustain.  “We are not consumed!”

God is love, and his love is loyal and kind.  In his commentary on Lamentations, F. B. Huey writes:

The basis for renewed our hope is God’s “great love.” The Hebrew word hesed, sometimes translated as “covenant love,” is a word that has the basic meaning of loyalty or faithfulness, especially as related to the covenant initiated by God; the word involves obligations to family, friends, and the community. Another basis of hope is God’s unfailing “compassions”, which are experienced in a fresh and new way every day.

God’s love never ceases.

His mercies are new every morning. They are continuing.

Great IS HIS FAITHFULNESS, the writer proclaims!

God is faithful in ways that are fearsome and awe-inspiring.  He can tear down a great city like Jerusalem, but he can also create beauty from the ashes.  God has faithfulness to destroy and faithfulness to build up.  God is faithful to the people of Israel by reminding them of his constant attention to them.  He reminds them of his faithfulness to their broken covenant by bringing them low.  Now the people have no option but to remember their God.

  1. Secondly, we see that holding onto hope REQUIRES PATIENCE, TRUST, and PERSEVERENCE.

In verses 24-26 God brings His people all the way back to the beginning AND ASKS HIS PEOPLE TO WAIT. 

24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
The repetition of the word ‘good’ harkens back to the pronouncement of God on his good creation in the book of Genesis. The writer reminds himself and God’s people of the time when God created order out of chaos.  God’s mighty Word has created goodness once before. And He will do it again—in His time.

But we must wait for Him. Quietly. Patiently.

And when we do, when we seek God with perseverance and trust Him to act, we will see him form a new creation where now there is despair. 

We will see His SALVATION!

  1. But thirdly, we see that holding onto hope also NECESSITATES OUR HUMILITY AND SURRENDER! 

Verses 27 – 40 describe the humbling condition of the people. They are weighed down under a heavy yoke. They sit alone in silence. Their face is buried in the dust. They must offer their cheek to the one who would strike them. 

The people have been forced into a complete surrender to the conquering Babylon, but this is just a small picture of their need to completely surrender to the God who has allowed his people to be brought low. As they look from a prostrate position in the dust, they may have hope.

They do not have to sit passively, waiting for a change in their fortunes. While Hope may require waiting, it is not passive. We do not just wallow. We seek HIM!

God does not purpose for his people to be left in the dust – rather, knowledge of the whole story of God leads to hope.  God does not willingly crush people.  Quite literally, his heart is not in allowing his people to be crushed.  His heart is in the restoration of his people – a restoration that can only be achieved once people have been laid low and have surrendered to the potter’s forming hand.  He allows the bad and the good. And when God lays a hold of His people, He re-forms and remakes them, which is when His heart is glad.

Finally, in verse 40, we are called to authentic self-examination, confession, and repentance. 

40 Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.

Our times of greatest pain are our opportunities for greatest growth. It is God’s call to restoration!

The Word of God calls us to stop, to feel what we feel and process those emotions: To be authentic, and communicate our heart, raw and rubbed in salt, to the God who heals.

The Word of God calls us to remember God’s faithfulness from times past.

The Word of God calls us to cease our activity, sit silently, and wait.

The Word of God assures us that when we are crushed and our face is ground in the gravel, true greatness is found. True greatness originates, though, outside of ourselves.

The Word of God points us to a sure and steady HOPE—a hope that is only found in the steadfast LOVE OF THE LORD.

I first found Lamentations 3 to be a source of great hope when I was 18.

I clung to Lamentations 3 when Kelli and I were going through those dark years that she described earlier.

And we return to Lamentations 3 in these difficult days. It is a beacon of light in the fog.

It reminds us to remember.

We remember His faithfulness.

We remember that He used my dad’s cancer to bring him to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

We remember that He gave us two beautiful children through adoption to love and to raise.

We remember that He used our pain to drive us to a deeper dependence on Him and to grow our understanding of His love.

We wait with you—to see His salvation.

And we surrender.

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Looking for Rest

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Recently close friends have renewed their concern for our family’s lack of rest.  In the Spring, we toiled seven days a week.  We filled all the waking hours in our day. We even started to reduce our sleep for the sake of productivity.

Alarmed by the toll lack of rest takes we had a cure-all which we thought would solve everything.  The potential quick-fix remedy was to take a vacation to England.  We left our McHenry house and lived for a month in my mother’s house in Plymouth, England.  The question is whether the vacation was actually restful.  My children had never been to England and I hadn’t been for six years.  The result was that there were lots of extended family and friends who wanted to see Daryl and Amelia.  There were expectations to be met at church, too.  I was welcomed with open arms at the little Brethren church in which I grew up.  On June 4th, they gave me both their Sunday morning service and their evening service in which to preach.  They even laid on a tea for our family and another visiting missionary from South Africa.

I have another issue with vacations that I have adopted my father.  He would see Paris in a single day, the alps in another, and spend a few days on the French Riviera.  Sightseeing with my father could give you whiplash being done in such haste.  I am not quite as extreme, but I do have some of the same vacation drive.  My mother rented a seven-seater car this summer which we used every day to explore a long list of fishing villages, beaches, old houses, and other attractions.  We would leave home in the morning and return home at midnight ready to repeat the whole process the next day.

It was an exciting vacation, but was it restful?  At times it was.  There was one day in particular where we took a walk across the fields of Dartmoor together as a family.  We talked openly and I thanked God for the beautiful creation surrounding us.  However, even on a vacation I had difficulty resting.

The Bible teaches a deeper rest than the temporary fixes we cobble together.  In Genesis 2:2 God rested from all his work on the seventh day.  God ordained a Sabbath rest.  Jesus called people to himself saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mtt. 11:28)” Below I will unpack three principles of rest in Hebrews 4:1-13.  Hebrews 4 is built on the back of Hebrews 3 which extensively quotes Psalm 95.  The writer of Hebrews also has in mind Genesis 2:2. Concerning rest, we should not isolate this passage from the rest of scripture.  The biblical theme of rest is an integrated whole, best understood by considering all of the passages side-by-side as an overarching context.  Hebrews 4:1-13 reads:

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.  For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

“As I swore in my wrath,

‘They shall not enter my rest,’” 

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,

“They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts.” 

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Ellingworth, in his commentary on Hebrews, lays out the line of argument the writer is making in Hebrews 4 when he writes, “The implied sequence of thought is: God made a promise that his people would one day have access to his own place of rest. The place of rest has been available since the seventh day of creation. The promise cannot be repealed; but it was not fulfilled at the time of the exodus; it therefore remains open for some.”  We will focus on three principles from the passage rather than doing a rich exegesis of all that it contains.  There is too much embedded in this rich passage for us to explore.  We will look at three principles dealing with rest.  The first principle is that rest is for the faithfully obedient.  The second principle is that rest comes to those who cease from their own works.  The third principle is that rest is only truly found in Jesus Christ.

Firstly, rest is only for the faithfully obedient.  The principles of faith and obedience must both be present if one is to enter God’s rest.  In Hebrews 3 and 4, the example of the Israelites complaining at Massah and Meribah is the example of a people who did not enter into God’s rest because of their rebellion.  They had a point of decision where they could choose to believe God and enter into The Promised Land, their land of rest, or they could be disobedient and choose to turn back.  As we know, from the writings of Moses, the people of Israel vacillated in the wilderness on numerous occasions.  They doubted Moses and they doubted God.  In these times of doubt the tribes became restless.  In times of obedience God blessed the people.  However, the people’s experience of true rest was not forthcoming.  When David wrote Psalm 95, he was still saying that God’s rest was available to his audience.  When the writer of Hebrews writes, he says that true faith and sincere obedience leads to rest in his time.

A faith in God leads to a peaceful assurance that he sustains and manages the world and we do not.  There is a healthy fear when confronted by a real and growing perspective of God.  When we see his immensity and capacity, we are struck by more than one reaction.  While we know he has the whole world in his hands, we also shrink back in the face of such power.  While we know that he sustains the universe, we know that he has intimate insight into the internal workings of my soul.  The same word of God that brings peace also brings fear.  I can rest assured that the God who commands angel armies is on my side, but my heart still beats wildly in my chest if ever I gain a glimpse of his authority and power.

While we resist or ignorantly walk my own way, we find ourselves at war with heaven.  We find ourselves at odds with the sustainer of vast worlds.  Because of his great love, we are not consumed, but the expanse of his wisdom and his dominion should cause us to surrender.  It is only in true surrender that the battle ceases.  We can then rest captive.  Only then do we find that our former adversary was not the cruel tyrant that we might have thought him to be.  We find that we are captivated by his love.  We rest in his shalom.

What kind of God do we believe in?  Faith is central to rest.  Is the object of our core belief able to deliver freedom from stress and worry?  Although many have had faith in Jesus at conversion, they have faith in themselves to keep God at bay.  Faith is a matter of appeasement rather than dependency.  The focus of the passage is not on the faithlessness of those who failed when tested.  The focus of the passage is on a positive, faithful response to God’s offer of rest.  As Ellingwoth states, “The emphasis is on faith as the essential condition for access to God’s place of rest; contrast with the wilderness generation is secondary.”

I met a Bible teacher this week from a Christian school, not local to my home, who has struggled with rest.  His time in recent years was heavily invested in computer and video games.  He most recently played Borderlands and Borderlands II.  He said that with all the ‘looting and grinding’ that he had to do in the game, he would spend five hours a day playing, easily.  The most frightening statistic was, when he added up all of his game-play hours, he calculated that he had spent between 9 and 12 months of his life living in a virtual world and leveling up a character who didn’t exist.  He was aghast at the lack of development he had done on himself in the real world.  He suddenly realized the physical fitness and spiritual maturity he could have achieved and the only fitting response seemed to rid himself of his gaming systems in complete obedience to the call of God on his life.  It is strange how gaming addiction in our generation is dealt with differently than other addictions.  For example, we do not give the alcoholic a little less alcohol, or the smoker a few less cigarettes.  The wisdom of Jesus is to cut off anything that detracts from our pursuit of God.  This Bible teacher had the courage to completely unplug, and the result of his courageous obedience is rest.

Each of us has to ask ourselves whether we are being obedient to both the scripture and the conscience that God gives us.  We cannot expect to find rest if we live in direct contradiction to the will of God.  We must expect turbulence if we decide to fly in the face of The Holy Spirit.  If we examine what we know God has told us, how are we receiving it?  Are we surrendered or resistant?  For example, the Bible says not to commit adultery.  Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time we may obey the letter of the law by not divorcing our spouse.  However, we may deceive ourselves about how incompatibly, or lack of respect absolves us from any obligation to love unconditionally. Deep down, we know that we should do better, but our tiredness and our disappointment leads us to disobey God’s commands to love others unconditionally.  Or, say you have a neighbor God has prompted you to talk to.  Each time you see them you feel awkward and doubt whether God wants you to speak.  You rationalize and excuse yourself.  You will not experience the peace or the rest of God while you persist in disobedience.

The first principle was that rest comes to the faithfully obedient.  The second principle is that faith comes to those who cease from their own work.  God created the universe in six days and then he ceased from his work.  Now God’s work is one of sustaining what has been created.  To work independently of God, to seek our own occupation apart from the Creator, is the biblical definition of sin and evil.  The writer of Hebrews calls his readers to a biblical theology of rest.  This is illustrated well in the book of Ecclesiastes.  Rest cannot be achieved, Ecclesiastes tells us, by pursuing gain.  Creation has sustainable rhythms.  There are cyclical patterns to life.  Seek to get ahead and live a life that is self-serving and you break the system.  Drink all the water and everyone dies of thirst.  Eat all the food and everyone dies of hunger.  Ecclesiastes warns about amassing wealth, pleasures, education, and even religious fervor.  The anxiety and greed that comes from amassing possessions or status strips us of our ability to rest.  The truth is most people have enough.  Jewish wisdom and Jewish festivals lead us to reflection on the God who provides.  Because of God’s great provision we can rest.  We have enough for the day.  That is what we need.  The restful man in Ecclesiastes enjoys the drink at hand.  He takes time over his meal.  He enjoys his family.  He rests by being in the moment.

The rhythms of life, as God designed them, are sustainable.  We see them in the patterns of life in Scripture.  People rose with the sun and did a full day of work.  Then, in the evening, the family gathered around the meal table.  The evening was the beginning of the next day, not the end of the present one. In the creation narrative, we read repeatedly, “there was evening and there was morning…” to describe the order of each day.   The evening was filled with restful expectation.  It was not seen as a reward for a hard day’s work – it was the beginning of one.  God encouraged his people to work from a place of rested stillness, not toward an exhausted emptiness.

If you keep a scheduler, or day timer, you will have a sense of how many tasks you complete in a week.  Often we have an agenda and it is over-full.  God cannot be calling us to a multitude of tasks that corrupt his own created order or rhythm.  There must be a sustainable ebb and flow to life.  We know that God does not call us to work seven days a week.  If all seven days are filled, we have at least a day-full of our own work.  Also, God calls us to contemplative reflection of himself.  If we have no time for the task of reflection, we must have inserted one of our own tasks.  Ultimately we must jettison all of our own tasks and replace them with his.  In this way we cease to strive and toil.  We are like a captain of a boat that ceases to row and raises the boat’s sails.  When its sails catch the wind it moves rapidly.  The boat doesn’t do the work, the wind does.  The boat aligns its sails with the wind and then moves.  Phil Vischer has had to learn this secret the hard way.  He stressed and fretted as the creator of Veggietales because he was trying to save every child for God.  It almost broke him down.  After therapy and a significant appraisal of his life, he got back into the child entertainment industry.  This time he called his company Jellyfish because a jellyfish is taken where the tide leads.  Like a jellyfish, Phil Visher learned to rest by ceasing from his own work and let himself be taken along by God.

People often do their own work because they believe they have to take care of their own lives.  The question arises, ‘What causes people to work so hard to do their own work?’  Though there are many causes, a few of the most common motivations that thrust us into busyness are to be accepted, to preserve an image, to feel safe, to control, to accumulate, and to win.  Acceptance is a foundational desire for all of us.  We forget that God has accepted us unconditionally while we were still sinners and so, subsequent to being saved, we often work to show God that we were worth the sacrifice after all.  Many people received conditional acceptance from parents or friends based on their performance.  They develop deep patterns of frenetic activity to fend off rejection.  The God they serve is modeled in their minds after the taskmasters they have served.  Receiving God’s loving embrace and resting in that can be the cure for craving acceptance.

Some people have a false ideal in their mind of who they are meant to be.  This can be connected to acceptance, but it can also be escapist or rooted in false information.  The Bible provides identity guidelines for the believer, but all of our true identity is in Christ.  We are gifted an identity rather than tasked with working hard to create it.  Our work creates a myth and it hides the true self.  When we give up the image we can rest.

Some people do not accept that God protects them and has destined them for heaven.  The Bible reminds us that people can kill the body, but they can’t destroy the soul.  People who forget this build up literal and figurative walls of protection around themselves.  This takes work, but freedom from fear of harm brings rest.

Some people desire the sense that they are in control.  Their perspective of self-importance distorts the enormity of creation and the Creator.  It is hard to accept that forces are at work which determine the fate of the world which are beyond our ultimate control.  God gives us mastery of all that he wishes us to steward.  Complete mastery and control of our world is an illusion.  Accepting that God is ultimately in control and we are not helps us to let go of tension.  In letting Jesus take the wheel we can rest.

Some people have a desire for more.  The prosperity gospel of health and wealth even provides a Christian blessing to a life of materialism.  We study in school to get good qualifications.  Good qualifications get us a good job.  A good job earns us more money.  With more money we can buy more things.  With more material possessions comes more happiness.  Those who have walked this path to its conclusion know this isn’t true.  Those with wisdom see the clutter of an overfull life, caring for more and more possessions, and they strip down to the simplicity of what is needed.  They put a rein on their desires and in the space that is created they find rest.

Some people have to be first.  It can often be an issue with identity.  However, to them, ‘no-one remembers second.’  Winning is the only option.  They work hard to crush the opponents with no thought that the opposition is created by God.  They rejoice in winning without realizing that competitive living creates one winner and multiple losers.  There is no rest for the person driven to be first.  However, in using their abilities as God directs – in causing others to succeed – the driven personality surrenders first place and finds rest.

Having looked at two principles of rest from Hebrews 4, we now move to the third and most significant.  Rest is for the faithfully obedient, rest is for those who cease from their own work and most significantly rest is found in the person of Christ.  Rest is most powerfully a relationship with Jesus.  When we find Jesus he does his work through us, to the glory of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit.   Seamands teaches us that the ministry and work of life is the outworking of a Trinity that reaches out to the world in love through us.

John Koessler, my colleague at Moody Bible Institute, says it well, “Rest is not an inner state that can be produced by thinking a certain way or placing ourselves in the right conditions. It is obtained only by entering into a relationship. When we find Christ, we find rest.”  Unpacking this we can see that people think that they can manage rest by their own actions.  However, the actions are futile if we are not one with Jesus.  Koessler puts it succinctly when he says that, ‘Christ offers us rest by offering himself.’

The writer of Hebrews, throughout the book of Hebrews, is establishing the supremacy of Christ in every area.  He is greater than the angels, greater than the patriarchs.  Now the writer calls us into relationship with this Jesus.  While it is still ‘Today’ we may enter into God’s call to intimacy through Christ.  We may come home to his embrace.  It is the rest of the heavenly hearth.  It is the rest of home.

The best way I can illustrate the connection between relationship and rest is to take you with me back to Dartmoor.  Dartmoor is a barren, rolling landscape with marshes, rocks, rivers and few trees.  It has a rugged beauty, but it is hard walking.  Walking on the moor is always hard work with no paved pathways.  Out on the moorland by yourself, as the mist comes down and you can’t see far enough to navigate, you may find the walking more than mere drudgery.  However, some of my earliest memories are walking across the moorland in violent storms or in intense sunshine with Grandma.  My Grandma was a constant fountain of conversation.  I would find her in a walking party and we would talk.  Because I had her with me I would forget about the hard work of walking.  I would focus on her and the weather and rough ground would cease to be my focus.

This is a pale reflection of how life in Christ operates.  As we walk with him, he gazes at us with love.  As we seek him he empowers us with his presence.  As we struggle, he lifts us with care.  All the work that we do is his work and we wonder at all that we have achieved.  Our capacity to serve and our capacity for relationship both grow.

We have many false gods which promise us rest.  Financial security, romance, vacations and entertainment are a few.  The economy and its health is seen as the barometer of the health of the nation.  As people are educated and indoctrinated into systems of production and consumption, rest is equated with an early retirement coupled with days spent on a yacht or on the golf course.

Romantic relationships are presented as a place of rest in romantic comedies and pop songs.  If we find the love of our life, he or she will accept us unconditionally.  In their arms we will be complete.  Our search is over and we find our rest.  However, the love of our life becomes a source of conflict and worry in real relationships.  They cannot personally fulfill us.    So, those who doggedly hold to this ideal jump from one romance to another believing that ultimately it will satisfy.  However, in God’s kingdom healthy romance is meant to point beyond itself to the divine romance.  It is Jesus who most completely woos us.  It is Christ who most completely pursues us.

Vacations vacate.  They create an emptiness where healing can take place.  However, emptying one space to move into another fails to deliver.  The deepest problems in our lives cannot be solved by a mere change in scenery.  They must be solved by a change of heart.  We are not ultimately fulfilled by an emptying.  We must find something or someone who truly satisfies.

The most common way to find rest is in distraction.  If we cease to think too hard we can get through life in some way refreshed.  However, this refreshment is rather like an induced coma.  It does not intentionally build up.  It does not replenish or refresh the soul.  It anaesthetizes so that we are just unaware of the fatigue in our bones.  The body, soul and spirit are not renewed, they are just remembered no more.  This is a shallow sleep, even with our eyes still open.  We dull our senses to the values we are ingesting.  Rather than fill ourselves with nourishment we veg out – we become couch potatoes. True rest empowers and fulfills.  Entertainment amuses us.  ‘To muse’ is to think.  To ‘amuse’ is to cease from contemplation – from thought.  As Neil Postman would argue, many in America are ‘amusing themselves to death.’  This is light years away from entering into God’s rest.

In England we do not have ‘vacations.’  We tend to call all of our days off from work ‘holidays.’  This creates a different mindset if we go back to the original meaning.  Holy days are the source of our holidays.  We were originally given time off to be with family and think more deeply about God.  The church had feast days where communities would gather together.  The Sabbath used to be more strictly observed.  People ceased from their weekly routines to think more deeply about God and connect in community.  Not every day should be a vacation, but Christ makes available to us a state of mind where every day is a holiday.  Our union with God through Jesus creates opportunity for rest as never before.

St. Augustine, one of the early church fathers had a prayer which draws us to where we should be.  It functions as a great summary of all that has been said.  Let us finish by praying this prayer together:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

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