The Benefit of Embracing God’s Word

Biblical illiteracy in America is no secret. While statistics vary from survey to survey, polls tell us that only half of our young people can name the four Gospels, and only a third can identify who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. One must ask, why is it that when the Bible is so readily available today, even as a free app on an iPhone, so many have little more than a casual interest in the Bible?

In an article addressing the problem of biblical illiteracy in America, David Gelernter the famous computer scientist and professor at Yale University reminds us that, “Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don’t tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.” But even among those who acknowledge the creative force of the Bible, it does not always motivate them to engage the Holy Book.

I am presently teaching an online course in spiritual formation for Rockbridge Seminary, entitled, The Practice of Spiritual Disciplines, to a class of a dozen graduate students, most of whom are already serving as ministry leaders. Several of the spiritual disciplines focus on the Holy Scriptures, such as: lectio divina or the sacred reading of Scripture, Scripture Memorization, personal Bible study, and meditation. It was striking to discover when first teaching the course eight years ago, that some students had never read through the entire Bible, not even once.

Sad to say, many of those being ordained into Christian ministry today may not be able to name the books of the Bible, or to clearly state in their own words the one central message of the Bible, the main idea that holds it all together. Is it because people have not been taught? Is it because they have not observed their parents and mentors spending time in the Scriptures? Is it a spiritual defect of some kind?

May I humbly suggest a simple reason? Perhaps it is because they have never experienced its benefits. The Scriptures might be likened to spiritual milk, bread and meat, a complete spiritual diet if you will. Some is more easily digested, some requires mild chewing, and some requires long term rumination. But just like we have to introduce adult foods gradually to children until they acquire a taste for them, so we must cultivate a habit and practice that brings us to God’s Word on a daily basis. Yes, as the actor Wilford Brimley used to say in the old Quaker Oats commercial, “It’s the right thing to do!”

The Psalmist declares, “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul”(Psalm 19:7a NIV). The Hebrew reads, “The Torah (writings of Moses) of Yahweh is whole (complete and sound), restoring the soul.” The Hebrew word underlying our text may also be translated reviving. It reminds me of the word “reset” or “restore” on my computer. It is the same Hebrew word used in Psalm 23:3, where we read, “He refreshes my soul.”

Jesus, shortly after the miracles of feeding the five thousand and quieting the storm in the Sea of Galilee, said to His disciples, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63b ESV). Multiplying the bread and fish in His hands, Jesus restored or refreshed a fainting hungry multitude. By walking on the sea, and quieting the storm, Jesus “reset” the weather restoring peace where there had been fear and anxiety. But it is with His words in the Old Testament and New, spoken by the Breath of God, that He refreshes the soul.

There were two very difficult periods in my life when the difference between an emotional breakdown and functioning responsibly with those I loved and those with whom I worked could have been reduced to time spent meditating on God’s Word each morning. Yes, He spoke peace to me! God speaks through His Word and if embraced by a hungry soul, it energizes the spirit and breaks anxiety. Indeed, I have found over the years, that time alone with God in His Word is like a mini-retreat, reviving the soul.

The New Year Is at Hand: Isn’t It Time to Forgive?

On a hot Sunday afternoon one Memorial Day weekend I phoned Mr. Brown’s daughter (that wasn’t his real name of course), to notify her of her father’s death. Mr. Brown, who resided at the retirement center where I worked, had been terminally ill, but his death did not seem imminent. The staff informed me that his daughter had been to see him earlier that morning, and that there had been some kind of argument between them. Indeed, after talking with his daughter, she confirmed that there had been an argument earlier that day.

It seems, his daughter was getting ready to go on a much needed vacation with her husband, and her father was upset and angry about her leaving, even if only for a few weeks. Mr. Brown felt, and demanded that she should cancel her trip and spend more time with him. As we talked, it became painfully clear to both of us that Mr. Brown did not die because he accidently overdosed on his medication. He died because he was angry with his daughter, and he would not forgive her, ever. His daughter could work through the pain of his death, for he was terminally ill with cancer, but the question was, would she survive the pain of her father’s unforgiveness? I had some doubts.

Over the years, I have found that one of the sins most hurtful and destructive to any human relationship is the sin of unforgiveness. The failure to forgive is destructive to marriages, families, churches, friendships, and according to the famous Mayo Clinic it is destructive to one’s health and well being. And, we’ve said nothing of the damage it does to the believer in Jesus, who professes to be a follower of Christ and how it mars our witness to those we would win for Jesus Christ.

I’ll never forget a class I taught to a group of inner- city church leaders in Rochester, NY. We happened to be talking about forgiveness when a woman, the Christian Education director of her church spoke out and said, “I’m having a real problem with all of this. There are people once close to me, who have hurt me deeply, and I don’t think I can find it in myself to forgive them.”

Many Christians tell me that they struggle in this whole area of forgiving others. Some say they try but “can’t forget.” Others say, “I know the Bible tells us to forgive, but if you knew what happened to me, you’d understand why I can’t let it go.” I have known professing Christians who could and would at the drop of a hat list every offense and every wrong ever done to them, and the persons responsible for doing those wrongs.

I submit to you, that perhaps if we’re serious about wanting God to renew and revive our hearts and our homes, yes, and our churches, we should begin by removing the plaque that may be plugging up the vessels of our spiritual hearts, and most especially the plaque of an unforgiving spirit. So, why not resolve with me at the cusp of another New Year, to deal with any unforgiveness we might be harboring against someone, against anyone, in our hearts?

Jesus taught that the failure to forgive impedes our prayers to the Father for the forgiveness of our own sins. Jesus said,…

“This then is how you should pray…
Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors….”

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”Matthew 6:9a, 12, 14-15. NIV

As a child my parents had a rule. No dessert until you’ve cleaned up your plate. My brother and I didn’t always like what was served on the dinner table, but to get dessert we’d stuff just about anything into our cheeks. But then we had a dilemma. If you don’t want to swallow what’s in your mouth, because you do not like it, you cannot eat the ice cream you long for.

When we refuse to forgive, when we choose to hold on to grudges, it is simply not possible for us to receive the forgiveness or anything else God would gladly give us if only we made the space for it in our lives. It is simply impossible to receive the forgiveness God freely offers us without relinquishing the hold we have on the hurts others have caused us.

Hey! Are You Lost?

On a cold December day, ten years ago, Keith and Jennifer Lee of Medford, Oregon were driving home on an isolated mountain road, with a freshly cut “Silver Tipped” Christmas tree tied to the top of their Subaru SUV. The Lees were returning from their annual Christmas tree hunt with a rare trophy highly prized by Christmas Tree lovers. Their four children were eagerly waiting for them at home, but became concerned when a one day outing turned into two days and two days into three. It seems the Lees were rounding a curve on the rugged mountain road and somehow found themselves stuck in ditch filled with two feet of snow. Their all-wheel-drive vehicle simply could not get them out! 

This was not the first time the couple had gotten themselves into trouble on such a winter quest. Just a year before that, they had gotten lost on another snowy mountain road while hunting down the perfect Christmas Tree and couldn’t find their way out of the thick mountain forest, and they had no emergency supplies with them. Fortunately search parties found them early on, and they made it home with a fine Christmas tree. But thinking that they had learned their lesson the following year and in an effort to outsmart the mountains, they took along a cell phone with a GPS, some blankets and 24 bottles of water, but they didn’t plan to get stuck in a ditch or to be out of the range of a cell phone tower.

On the third day out in the harsh cold boonies, Keith managed to figure out a way to free his vehicle and the Lees were finally heading home. Once in range of a cell tower, they called 911 and learned that an aggressive round the clock effort by the Oregon state police had been initiated to locate them. Everyone was quite relieved because there was real concern for their survival, if indeed they were lost.

The Bible tells us that all of us are born into a world of sin and darkness. In short we come into the world, spiritually lost. We are lost in sin and in danger of certain judgment, but the good news is summed up in the words of Jesus, who said,

For the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

Luke 19:10 NKJV

God the Father loved us so much that He sent His own Son to find us and rescue us from the curse sin brought upon human race.  God’s desire is to save us and to bring us safely and surely to His home, where we might live with Him for all eternity.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

 John 3:16-17 NIV

Our Christmas Hope

As a youngster, and to be honest even as I had gotten a little older, I would begin thinking about Christmas Day just as soon as summer ended. I knew that sometime in August of each year, the Sears Christmas Catalog [the “toy catalog”] would be arriving in the mail, and I could pore over its pages. My brother and sister used to fight with me for the privilege of taking the Sears Christmas catalog to bed. We knew that in early September, Mom would ask us to pick three toys that we might like to receive as a Christmas gift. She couldn’t guarantee which one of the three toys we would get, but we could be fairly confident that we would find one of them under the tree on Christmas morning. Only now do I appreciate the long extra hours Mom had to work during the fall to pay for those special gifts. “No, Susan, there ain’t no Santa Claus!”

In retrospect, the old Sears Christmas Catalog was almost more exciting than any of the gifts, because it promised something very special, something good that we associated with Christmas. It represented the expectations, the longings and desires, all the things the Eastman children most looked forward to… There is a word that describes this kind of anticipation. It is the word “hope.”

I think the meaning of the word hope has all but been forgotten today. The world is no longer safe and secure [not anywhere], and the financial markets may be good right now, but the meltdown of ten years ago is not forgotten. Who knows what will happen in Congress over the next few weeks, or what impact will this have next year’s election? The moral values which have guided our nation and western nations for centuries are being trampled underfoot. Godlessness is considered a greater virtue than godliness, today. We are heartsick hearing about the young teenager, who takes his or her own life, because there is nothing to live for.  Worse yet, the church is saying very little about hope,  and of all places that is the one place where one should find hope! 

If I were to ask you, what is it you hope for, and why do you hope for it, what would you say? Or perhaps you would honestly say, I don’t know what I should be hoping for, and if I did would I be able to hope for it.  I would like to talk to you this morning from the nativity narrative in Luke’s Gospel about the nature of hope. It is one of the key lessons of Advent. Next week, we’ll talk about Advent and the lesson of faith. Paul the apostle said,

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.”  1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV.

So, from the Advent narratives let’s learn something about the nature of hope this morning.

The biblical idea of hope is powerfully illustrated for us in Luke’s portrait of an old man named Simeon.  The account begins some 40 days after Mary gave  birth to Jesus. Jewish law regarded mothers of newborn boys as unclean for seven days because of the bleeding associated with giving birth. The law also required a waiting period of 33 days after that to be sure there was no further bleeding. If there is no bleeding during that period of time, the mother was required to bring her son to the Tabernacle or Temple and offer a pair of doves or pigeons as a sacrifice to the Lord. There she would dedicate her child to God. This where our story begins. Joseph and Mary are bringing Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord. There they encounter an old man whose name is Simeon. And this is what Luke tells us:

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,…                    Luke 2:25-28 NIV.

There is little said of Simeon in the Bible. All of what we know, and all we really must know is summed up by Luke in verses 25-35 of chapter 2. Though we typically picture him as old, Luke never says that. There is some reason to believe however, that he might have been the same Simeon mentioned by ancient rabbis, the son of a famous rabbi named Hillel and the father of the apostle Paul’s mentor, the rabbi called Gamaliel. If so, that is significant because tradition tells us that Simeon was considered something of a misfit by his more Zionistic peers, who dismissed him for his quiet piety and lack of political zeal. He did not believe that a military solution was the key to Israel’s future, but rather a spiritual one, and he wasn’t hoping for a Messiah with a sword, but for a Messiah who would bring peace to His people and salvation to the nations. But all we really need to know about Simeon is summed up by Luke, and Luke reveals in this man the nature of true hope! One phrase seems to capture the hope of Simeon. It is found in verse 25 where we read,

“He was waiting for the consolation [comfort] of Israel.” Luke 2:25b

The comfort of Israel refers to the coming of the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah 40:1-5.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:1-5.

Simeon embraced the message of Isaiah and looked for the Messiah who would fulfill all the great prophecies of the Old Testament. Like a child with a Sears Christmas Catalog, he pored over the Scripture, savoring every good thing God had promised His people in the Christ to come. The word translated “waiting” [prosdechomenos from prosdechomai] meant that Simeon was living with expectancy, he was actively looking forward to the comfort of God’s people, he waited but it was watchful waiting…like Christmas is coming, only it was the real Christmas with the real Christ!

What the OT saints did not see, was that the coming of Messiah would be two events [just as we sometimes see two mountain peaks one behind the other, but they appear from a distance to be one, only they are two],  The first advent would bring Christ into the world as the suffering servant to die for the sins of His people, and the second advent yet to come would bring Christ into the world to judge the nations, and establish His rule over the world from the throne of David in Jerusalem. This is something understood in the NT, clearly taught in the Gospels and the epistles. But somehow it seems Simeon did understand enough to know that it was the same Messiah who would both atone for the sins of the people, and rule the nations in peace. And, Simeon was actively looking, waiting on the edge of his seat, yes, hoping to see the one who would fulfill the prophecies in his own lifetime with his very own eyes. Whether Simeon was the son of Hillel, a middle-aged man, or whether he lived to be 200 years of age, as the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches, Simeon thrived on this hope and the expectation of seeing the Christ in his lifetime.

You and I know that Christ came two millennia ago, died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. Two thousand years have passed, and we know for a fact that we live two thousand years closer to His Second Coming than did the apostles. We are living in the latter days though we do not know for sure exactly when Christ will come again. But our hope is that He will come soon. It is near. It is at the door. In the next 50 years? Perhaps. In the next 25 years? Perhaps. In the next ten years? Perhaps. In the next five years? Perhaps. In the next year? Perhaps. Next month? Perhaps. This week? Perhaps. Today? Perhaps. But He will certainly come just as certainly as He ascended into heaven before several eyewitnesses 40 days after His resurrection! And when He comes…the crooked will be made straight! Yes, that is our Christmas Hope!

Maranatha!

Grateful Service

Every Friday morning during the school year back in the 1950s was an all school assembly day at the Jackson Avenue Elementary School. Each assembly opened with the reading of a Psalm, a non-sectarian prayer and hymn. It was during one assembly program that I was first exposed to the 100th Psalm. Over the years it has become one of my favorite Psalms. I like how it translated in the English Standard Version. It is entitled as in the Hebrew Bible,

A Psalm for giving thanks.

100 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
    Serve the Lord with gladness!
    Come into his presence with singing!

Know that the Lord, he is God!
    It is he who made us, and we are his;[a]
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise!
    Give thanks to him; bless his name!

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

The One Hundreth Psalm is the one and only Psalm out of 150 Psalms to be called a Thanksgiving Psalm. Notice how it’s titled, “A Psalm for Giving Thanks.” This is how it begins in the Hebrew Bible.

And just how are we to give thanks? The Psalmist declares, Serve the LORD with gladness!(v.2)” Sure, some translations read it Worship the LORD with gladness” but the Hebrew verb ( עָבַד ) ordinarily means “to serve,” “to do work,” or “to labor.” What the Psalmist wanted us to understand is that giving thanks to God is not only expressed by our voices in joyful praise, but by our labor or service dedicated to God alone. Thankful people understand that all our labor, all our service while it may be offered to others, is ultimately for God and God alone.

Too often, we think of serving the Lord in terms of Sunday services, or things we do at church.  Not so!  Serving the Lord has to do with what we do every day of the week, even when we feel stressed and divided in our loyalties. We need to step back and ask ourselves this question, “For whom am I really working?”  “For whom am I serving?”

Without sanctioning slavery as some misguided souls have argued, the apostle Paul writes to those saints who struggled to know how to honor God in their ordinary work and service done under the scrutiny of those who often didn’t value them, those who took them for granted.

He writes,

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:17, 23-24 ESV

Paul’s counsel sounds almost counter-intuitive, but it was very much in keeping with what our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son did for us. For our sakes He  took on the form of a bondservant, made in the likeness of human beings, humbled himself and became obedient to death, the death on a cross. He was the same One who said He did not come to be served but to serve and give Himself a ransom for many.

James Mars was a slave sold in his youth to a frail but cruel man named Munger, in Norfolk, Connecticut in the early nineteenth century. He endured mistreatment and lashings from Mr. Munger, as a young man. In spite of his sharp inquisitive mind and hunger for good literature, James was denied formal schooling. Fortunately however, he was legally emancipated in his early 20s, and subsequently as a free citizen he exercised his voting rights, voting in two important elections for the late President Abraham Lincoln.

Later in life, James Mars returned to Norfolk, Connecticut to care for a dying man, the same man who sorely treated him in his youth, the elderly Mr. Munger. And as it turned out, he also cared for Mr. Munger’s daughter who predeceased him in death. How did he care for them? Why did he care for them, serving those who once had harmed him? I think something he said later nearer the end of his life says it all.

I was under the watchful care of a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother. He has thus far provided for me, and I feel assured that He will if I trust Him, with all my heart and soul and strength, and serve Him faithfully, which is my duty, the few years or days that are allotted to me, and it is my prayer that I may have grace to keep me, that I may not dishonor the cause of Christ, but that I may do that which will be acceptable in the sight of my Heavenly Father, so that I may do good to my fellow-men. [James Mars, Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut, pp. 37-38]

The question we must ask in all of our labor and work is, “Who am I serving?”  Too often we secretly grumble and complain under duress at home doing menial tasks, or at the office picking up the slack for lazy co-workers.  We all need a change of perspective! What elevated the service of James Mars ought to elevate us in much easier circumstances. I like what a wise pastor and author, Oliver Price once said,

“For the dedicated believer, all of life is elevated to the level of divine service.  (Yes, even) at the kitchen sink… Wash dishes as a service only to God.”  And, that applies to men and children, as well!  Amen?

Where Is Your Sacred Space?

Where, oh where, is that quiet space to engage God? Susanna Wesley was the mother of nineteen children, two of whom were John and Charles. Nine of the children died as infants, but you can only guess what life might have been like in that home.

Where would a busy mother find space for God? It has been said that she found a few moments each day by sitting down and throwing her apron over her head. What, not even a closet in which to hide? No, just an apron. But consider the impact her life had on her children, especially John and Charles.

One might conclude that the rise of Methodism, one of the most important manifestations of the First Great Awakening began not in the open air where Whitefield preached, nor in the venues crowded by thousands to hear John and Charles Wesley, but in a mother’s apron, where she made space to prevail with God in prayer.

“Dollie,” our little mixed dachshund, is yipping at my feet, even as I write this post. She loves her “Mommy and Daddy,” but her needs press urgently upon me, like the demands of family and ministry. But the question is, do we love God enough to make space in our lives for Him?

Thank God I don’t have to resort to an apron! But for the soul that has no other option and resorts to a piece of cloth, my God will quench your thirsty soul!

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.” John 7:37b NIV

A Visit with an Old Faithful Guide

One of the best things I did soon after moving into the Tampa Bay area five years ago, was to reconnect with an old friend, a pastor who figured prominently in my childhood, influenced my conversion to Christ at seven years of age, and baptized me two years later. His name was Albert R. Siebert and he was 94 years old at the time, and much more slight and shorter than I had remembered him.  It had been more than 50 years since we had last met, but to my surprise, he remembered me!

I drove down to visit him one afternoon. And after reminiscing with him over lunch, Al, as he preferred to be called, invited me to his high-rise apartment overlooking Tampa Bay, and we began sharing God’s working in our lives. Just before leaving, he pulled an old thin book from the top of the stand next to his easy chair. He said, “You know what this is?” Bending closer, the faded brown cover read, The Practice of the Presence of God, its author, Brother Lawrence. He told me that he was still teaching a Bible class for seniors on Thursdays, and then he said, “I’m going to be sharing selections from this with my group at Northside.”

Al then shared with me how he rediscovered Brother Lawrence and how his little book had encouraged his walk in Christ. He had struggled with loneliness since the death of his wife Sue, just four years earlier. But in the midst of his loneliness, he spoke of experiencing the consolation of God’s presence. And then he read the following passage from Brother Lawrence’s last letter, entitled “From his death-bed.”

GOD knoweth best what is needful for us, and all that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we should be always ready to receive equally and with indifference from His hand the sweet and the bitter; all would please that came from Him. The sorest afflictions never appear intolerable, but when we see them in the wrong light. When we see them in the hand of GOD, who dispenses them: when we know that it is our loving FATHER, who abases and distresses us: our sufferings will lose their bitterness, and become even matter of consolation.

Let all our employment be to know GOD: the more one knows Him, the more one desires to know Him. And as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and more extensive our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love: and if our love of GOD were great we should love Him equally in pains and pleasures.

Let us not amuse ourselves to seek or to love GOD for any sensible favours (how elevated soever) which He has or may do us. Such favours, though never so great, cannot bring us so near to GOD as faith does in one simple act. Let us seek Him often by faith: He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere. Are we not rude and deserve blame, if we leave Him alone, to busy ourselves about trifles, which do not please Him and perhaps offend Him? ‘Tis to be feared these trifles will one day cost us dear.

Let us begin to be devoted to Him in good earnest. Let us cast everything besides out of our hearts; He would possess them alone. Beg this favour of Him. If we do what we can on our parts, we shall soon see that change wrought in us which we aspire after. I cannot thank Him sufficiently for the relaxation He has vouchsafed you. I hope from His mercy the favour to see Him within a few days. Let us pray for one another.

[He took to his bed two days after and died within the week.]

Tears welled up as Al read these words, and I looked deep into the heart of a man who loved Christ more than life itself. Two years later, I discovered him a little more frail on the outside, but still a well of fresh life giving water on the inside. I wanted to call on him again on the occasion of what would have been his 97th birthday, but learned God had called on Him first, and taken him home a little sooner. Disappointed to have missed him, I was happy for him.

Oh, that I would love Christ like Al!