On the Plains of Moab Blog
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June 14, 2015, 6:38 PM

When Love Comes to Town


With all of the carnage we are having to witness each day from the Middle East, I hope that the message was an encourgagement. The Gospel really is amazing!

(YouTube video at the end of the sermon. Enjoy!)

New Life Presbyterian Church
June 14, 2015.
By Cameron Smith

This sermon started out last weekend as an idea for a blog entry. However, after thinking it through, I thought this was a Gospel moment more suited to Sunday morning.

This was the story that provoked this sermon:  Qanta Ahmed, a female physician, penned this narrative entitled, “How ISIS Executes ‘Justice’ – and an Isolated Woman in a City Street: What an Unpolished YouTube video tells us about the horror of daily life under Islamic State”

She writes of a nameless woman presumably guilty of prostitution, “A gang of men encircles a woman in territory controlled by Islamic State….All focus is on the matron. Periodically, she appeals to her arbiters, head bowed, hands clasped behind her back. Her red jacket, worn over [outer coat] stands out. A lone Red Riding Hood, she has stumbled upon a full pack of wolves….Around her, pregnant with fascination, the congregation is spellbound. Building to a crescendo, the cleric’s classical Arabic is precise….His oratory is honed, metered to the rhythms of…an Islamic sermon. He is comfortable at center-stage. The woman again attempts to leave, but men — this time, many men — signal her detention. Their domination over her is absolute. Searching for a sympathetic soul, she sends darting glances from face to face: the armed men, the cleric, his henchmen, the onlookers and back. She understands her captivity. Watching the video, I find myself searching among the men for an advocate, just one, to come to her defense. Instead, I see what she sees: a battery of smartphones at the ready, gloves half removed to operate touch screens, men comparing images, then quickly returning to the spectacle. No savior here, only a sea of Samsungs.” (June 10, 2015 National Review Online.)

The story ends when the “preacher” nods and a hooded man with a pistol walks up to the woman and calmly fires one shot to her head.  She falls.  The crowd walks away.

Whenever I hear about Islamic State barbarities, I feel intense anger and I want justice for the victims of these sham courts. However, in this case, my mind immediately identified it with the haunting similarities to the woman taken in adultery from John 8.  And then came this thought: What if Jesus never came? What if the world operated on the basis of Islam? Perfect obedience, or else. Swift, ruthless, brutal “justice.” The mob as judge, jury and executioner.

Now, I recognize that ISIS is not representative of the Islamic community around the world, but even in Islam’s more peaceful expressions, there is nothing like Jesus.  Jesus, in his crucified, sin-bearing mission makes no sense in Islam.  It is, in fact, an offense to them.  Allah does not sacrifice himself for humanity’s failings.

But back to my thought of a world without Jesus; the New Testament does speculate on this dark alternative.  Romans 3:23 says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23 ESV). So, follows Romans 6:23 logically, the wages of sin is death…. (Rom. 6:23 ESV). The writer in Hebrews adds, without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14 NIV).

Follow that line of reasoning with me here: Without Jesus and all that we believe the Bible says about him – who he is, what he’s done, what he’s made possible. Alone with our own weak and inconsistent efforts at the moral life, we would be facing Islamic State justice on the other side of the grave. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Cor. 15:17 ESV). ISIS embodies a Christ-less hell on earth.

However, when we come to the woman in John 8, we find a different ending unfolding before our eyes.  The woman taken by ISIS was “searching among the men for an advocate, just one, to come to her defense.” And in the end, “no savior [there].” By contrast, the woman taken in adultery in John 8 finds her advocate in Jesus.  He steps in boldly and turns the tables on her accusers. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn. 8:7 ESV). He then bends down and writes in the dirt. Oh, what I would give to know what he wrote! The accusers all dropped their rocks and walked away in shame.

I think it is clear from this encounter that Jesus knew his mission well. He knew who he was, what he had to do and what it would mean for lost people. In everything Jesus said and did, the Cross was always before him. You see it unmistakably in his threefold passion predictions in Matthew, Mark and Luke on the road to Jerusalem that he would be rejected, suffer, die and be raised for the sins of not only this unfortunate woman taken in adultery, but the sins of the world. Jesus always looked with compassion on those who were sick and infirm and destitute because those conditions physically demonstrated their spiritual broken-ness and hopelessness in sin. Every healing, every touch, and every convicting word a foretaste of what he himself would do for them on the Cross.

As someone else has wisely noted, Jesus himself embodied love. He is described in the Gospels as the object of God’s love (John 15:9), the focus of God’s love (John 3:16), [and] the giver of God’s love (John 13:34).  It reminds me of the B.B. King Blues classic, “When Love Comes to Town.” When Jesus came to the woman taken in adultery, “Love had come to town.”  She was a sinner, she was lost at sea; she was under the waves before love rescued her…now she stood accused of the things she did - but she did what she did before Love came to town!

As the accusers were departing the scene, John says Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you….” (Jn. 8:9-11 ESV).

I quoted earlier from Romans 6:23 to paint a bleak picture of life without Christ. For the wages of sin is death…. Indeed they certainly are if we must make it on our own righteousness.  But we know how that verse ends, and we hear it as well on the lips of Jesus to the woman in John 8 - but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23 ESV).

As I close, I need to point out the final words from Jesus to the woman that seals the deal. He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11 ESV).  Now, there’s no way this woman can keep this command perfectly.  Short of Glory, it is impossible to do so.  I think the intent of Jesus here is that in our owning his completed work on the Cross, we have been declared set free from the darkness of our former ways. “The dog [may] return to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, [may] return to wallow in the mire.” (2 Pet. 2:22 ESV), but as forgiven, adopted, justified, sanctified and later to be glorified children of God, we have new life in Christ. Life in Christ is a slow, deliberate, trial and error, walk away from what used to be “business as usual. Our thoughts, our plans, our appraisal of what makes things beautiful, praiseworthy and true have been baptized in saving faith. Jesus says, neither do I condemn you, now go, and don’t look back to your old ways.

In Jesus, Love has come to town. Don’t ever let complacency rule your heart with that good news. Don’t forget that good news when you find yourself buried in your sins. Most of all, the next time you hear of a barbaric act committed in the name of religion, remember that but by the mercy of Jesus go I.

You have heard the Word of God. Now consider it so very well.   Amen.

 




June 1, 2015, 10:52 AM

Sunday's Sermon



New Life Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2015.
Welcome to the Wilderness
Revelation 12:1-6
A Sermon for our Graduates
By Cameron Smith

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.  (ESV)

Did you take in those last few lines from Revelation 12 that I just read to you?  The woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (12:6 ESV).  The wilderness as a nourishing place?  The Greek word for wilderness is erēmos.  That’s where we get our word English arid.  It means a place of emptiness.  Further: uninhabited; abandoned; lonely; desolate; forsaken.  A desert!

I do personally resonate with that definition.  When I was a graduate myself from college, it felt like being kicked out into the wilderness.  First job away from home: Abandoned, lonely and forsaken.  Every day I went my mailbox looking for letters from home and only finding bills.  My first phone call home, my father joyfully informed me how much he was saving on his grocery and energy bills now that I was on my own.  Welcome to the wilderness, son!

Most references in Scripture to the wilderness are not positive; but as we come to our text today, we see it in a more positive light.  Revelation 12:1-6 begins a series of seven vignettes (pictures, portrayals, representations, etc.) of the Church ending at Revelation 14:20.  These vignettes describe the time between the coming of Jesus and his return.  Revelation 12:1-6 describes the birth of Jesus.

The woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars is Israel.  Israel gives birth to the Messiah and the great red dragon, who is Satan, stands ready to devour him as soon as he is born, reminding us of what Herod did when he slaughtered the male children in Bethlehem.

But the child, the Messiah, escapes by God’s provision because he is destined, as Psalm 2 declares, to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.  His life, death, resurrection and ascension are condensed into a literary moment!

In the meantime, between his departure and second coming, God provides a place of refuge for the woman in the wilderness for 1,260 days – which is numerical shorthand for the time between the comings just like 42 months; 3½ years and “a time, and times, and half a time.”  Literarily, these all refer to the same time.  Revelation is a beautiful book!  The woman is Israel, but the New Testament knows that woman to be the Church (cf. Rom. 9:6ff. Gal 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10). 

The woman, Israel, the Church, has fled to the wilderness and she needs God’s protection because the devil is furious and looking to take out his wrath on her because the incarnation, obedience and exaltation of Jesus spelled the end for him and his purposes.  He’s not happy!

Here’s the upshot of the text:  Revelation 12:1-6 is literary picture of the Exodus from Egypt.  God delivered his people out of slavery and was with them through forty years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.  The wilderness IS and CAN BE a bad place. And yet, throughout that time, God made it a place of provision.  He fed them.  He satisfied their thirst.  He gave them health.  He fought their battles.  He put his Name on them and dwelt among them.

And yet, the wilderness was also a place of great temptation for them.  1 Corinthians 10:1-13 describes the sad reality of Israel’s failings and consequences in the wilderness.  The point being made by Paul there is that Christians are in the same place as Israel as we too journey to the Promised Land.  Our Promised Land is the New Heavens and New Earth, when Jesus comes back again.  We are all currently wandering in the wilderness as we look for Christ’s return.

However, I want to turn now to our graduates and officially welcome them to the wilderness.  I say this for you have been shielded, like I was when I first left home, by mom and dad.  You have worn mom and dad’s faith for the most part.  You have lived by their rules.  Big decisions have been made for you in the past.  But, now, the turning point comes as you leave the comfortable nest and make your own mark in the wilderness.

The wilderness will be your place of nurture and it will also be the place of your testing.  The wilderness can be a place of broken-ness and sorrow.  There are many temptations out there encouraging you to sell out your inheritance for a mess of pottage.  The charms of the world seem irresistible.  Not in jest does Proverbs warn twice: There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death. (Prov. 14:12, 16:25 ESV).

I like this way of putting the wilderness into proper perspective:  God delivered Israel out of Egypt, then he used the wilderness to get Egypt out of Israel.  Likewise, you were delivered out of the world through Jesus, and now God is in the process of getting the world out of you!  This is sanctification.  This is life.

As I close, let me suggest to you graduates, and everyone else too, how the wilderness can become a nourishing place.  It can become just that if you will learn the lessons it teaches:

1.  As you learn to depend on God for all of your provision.  It is the Lord who makes you all that you can be and it is He who gives you everything you need.  The world says “I, I, I”  The pilgrim in the wilderness says “Thou, Thou, Thou.”

2.  As you recognize that you are not an independent agent alone in the world.  You are not the measure of all things.  Your God has spoken.  Listen to Him!

3.  As repentance grows into a way of life, failures of all sizes find the sweetness of forgiveness through God’s grace.  There is a reason that chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession is entitled “Repentance Leading to Life.”

4.  As you learn that humility is a prerequisite for honor and success.  I love how Jesus illustrates this in Luke 14:9-11!  (Cf. Proverbs 11:2; 15:33; 18:12; 22:4).

5.  As you learn to regard all circumstances, good and bad, as providential means ordained by God to shape you into the image of his only Son, Jesus.  We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:28-31 ESV).

My prayer is that the wilderness that lays before us and the Promised Land might be the place of nurture that it was intended by God to be.  May it be so for all of you.

Welcome to this wilderness!

You have heard the Word of God.  Please consider it well.   Amen.




May 11, 2015, 11:10 AM

Going Deeper



Yesterday in the sermon, I mentioned the book that I was reading as I worked my way through Ruth.  The book, "The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules" by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2008).  The author is the wife of my former Church History professor at Reformed Theological Seminary - Orlando, Dr. Frank James.  I found her treatment of Ruth to be insightful and well written.  The best part of the book is that I can recommend it to everyone.  Most of the books on my shelf would probably go over like a ton of bricks.  Of interest to only those who enjoy reading academic theological works.  But, not this book!  I am indebted to her for a better understanding of Ruth.  And, I must say, I was hesistant to even preach from Ruth because I wasn't sure how I would ever deal with the spicy exchange on the floor of the threshing room between Ruth and Boaz.  But, I was comfortable and satsified with the way she unpacked the event.  Check out this book, if you want to go deeper.




April 20, 2015, 12:00 AM

Sermons Are Back!



It's been a long time.  But, sermons are back on our church page.  We began a four sermon series in the Book of Ruth this past Sunday.  I have found Ruth to be a surprising little book.  I have been at this for a fairly long time, and I find that I will never exhaust the riches of God's Word!  It is truly bottom-less.  When I read the Bible, I am always keenly aware that wherever I find myself, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, it always points to Jesus Christ -- sometimes very obviously; and sometimes the connection is subtle.  With Ruth, there are many challenges to see Jesus and to live out the Gospel.  This is how I hope this series will be profitable in lifting up our Savior and spurring us on to greater Christ-like-ness.




October 5, 2014, 7:37 AM

Shannon's Story


I thought it might be helpful if I followed up on the sermon from Sunday.  The sermon was recorded, but it wasn’t properly segmented, so I was unable to put the sermon audio online.  However, I have included the manuscript version of the sermon at the end of this entry.

I understand some primarily heard criticism of Martha’s hard work ethic in the sermon.  As if it was a not-so-veiled swipe at many good members of our church who go above and beyond the call to serve our Lord here.  That was not at all the spirit or the aim of the sermon.  Period.  Jesus is not taking Martha to task for being a hard worker, nor for her attentiveness in attending to their needs at the moment.  The teaching point for Jesus (and the sermon) is that we – a collective we, one and all – too often allow the busyness of our schedules and routines to sidetrack us from the good portion -- our relationship with the Lord.  We surely do!  It is busyness: work, recreation, schedules, etc. etc. – the tyranny of the urgent.  The sermon was standard fare that you will find lining the shelves of Christian bookstores everywhere.  True, nonetheless.

As Shannon and I talked about the sermon, we talked again about an experience we both remember with great dread.  Our horse story.  For Shannon, it was a very personal spiritual battle with busyness.  I shared in the sermon, light-heartedly, about her over-the-top energy in doing all things at a hundred miles an hour, and yet feeling as if she was spinning her wheels.  I wish I had shared her experience on a more serious level.  She decided to write about her horse story:  When God used a horse to teach her about busyness and the good portion.  With her permission, I share it with you.

Shannon’s Story by Shannon Smith

July 26, 2014 – a day that called for a moment of reflection.  The memory of that day, one year ago, is still vivid in my mind.  That was the day that I broke my ankle.  My memories go back to that July morning when I sat in my flower garden and prayed.  I was so busy; my “to-do” list was a mile long, and I had endless projects around the yard and the house that needed to be finished up.  I knew I wasn’t making time for God; God had been pushed into a little corner of my life, and I gave Him my time when it was convenient.  Oh, I prayed, and I thought about Him a lot, but it was so difficult to make time to just sit and reflect and listen to His still, small voice.  So that morning, I prayed:  “Dear Jesus, help me to make time for you.”  Then I got up and went about my business.  I thought that God would help me to be more disciplined, that He would help me to carve out a little more time for Him.  Maybe He would help me to get up earlier each morning so I would have time to read my Bible.  As it turned out, He knew far better than I how to accomplish His goals.  Ten hours later, I found myself lying on a hospital gurney, staring at the ceiling of the operating room – waiting for the doctors to repair a badly broken ankle.

Then, much to my chagrin, I found that I had plenty of time for Jesus.  For three months, I did nothing but sit.  How humiliating!  I could hardly imagine a worse fate!  For three months, I was unable to accomplish anything on my “to-do” list.  And guess what?  Life went on. My world did not cave in because the items on my list were not checked off.   For three months, I earned not a penny.  To my amazement, we were still able to (barely) pay our bills.  Although those three months were punctuated by pain, frustration, and tears, I also had time to just sit and listen for God’s voice.  I had time to write letters, read books, write in my journal, and play board games with my kids.  I even took a whole day and stayed in my pajamas and watched movies with Matthew.  After the pain subsided a little, I was able to sit on my back porch and enjoy my flower garden with its butterflies and hummingbirds, and just sit quietly before Jesus.

Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” because she chose to do so.  For three months, I “sat at Jesus’ feet” - not because I chose to do so, but because I was forced to do so.  At first I chafed at this, but eventually I came to understand:  If He must break my body in order to heal my soul, then so be it.  This body will die, but my soul will last forever.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still thrive on chaos.  My favorite saying is, “We can always fit in one more thing!”  I still want to be on the move all the time, I still fidget when I have to sit quietly, and I often forget how freeing it was to just sit at His feet, with nothing on the agenda.  But I try to remind myself often of the lessons I learned last summer.  God is all-powerful.  He doesn’t need me to accomplish His goals for Him.  He can do it without me.  Instead, I see it as my privilege to participate in His wonderful, awesome plan – that great story that began with Adam and Eve and ends in a new heaven and a new earth, where gladness and joy will overtake us, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.  I feel really lucky that I have a part to play in that amazing story – but I know that first, He wants my adoration, my attentiveness, my allegiance.  Before I throw myself wholeheartedly into all the things that He has called me to do, I must still my heart and sit at His feet, as Mary did long ago.  Today my ankle is strong and healthy once again, but a faint pain always remains:  an echo of a lesson learned the hard way.  As long as the pain persists in my ankle, it will serve as a tangible reminder of that lesson, like the proverbial “string around the finger.”   In Exodus 14:14 God says, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”  Of all the things that He calls me to do, this is perhaps the most important and the most difficult.

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
In repentance and rest is your salvation,
In quietness and trust is your strength,
But you would have none of it.
You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’
Therefore you will flee!
You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’
Therefore your pursuers will be swift!
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
He rises to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for Him!
Is. 30:15-18


SERMON
September 28, 2014
Pulling a Martha:  Chronic Busyness

Luke 10:38-42 (ESV)
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." 41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her."

There never seems to be enough time to do everything that we need to do in a given day -- So much to do and so little time to do it.  Jobs are all-consuming.  Work on, around and within the home never seems unending.

Family responsibilities demand quality and quantity time.  There’s always somewhere to be; someone to pick up; some errand to run.  Sometimes it feels like we spend all of our time on the run, ruled by the tyranny of the urgent.  You plop down in bed at night and wonder where the time went.

Our kids are slammed with more than enough things to do – perhaps they are even busier than us.  The school day and the attendant homework.  Extra-curricular activities -- sports, band and academic clubs.  Colleges now demand that prospective students have multiple life experiences to show on the application so that life stays busy and hectic.

And I haven’t even mentioned it yet, but it is no less all-consuming:  We take our leisure and vacations quite seriously as well.  It seems that we are ever either planning or taking trips.

When we lived in Orlando, I was always amazed at how determined the Walt Disney Company was in their drive to consume every last minute – and dollar – from the wallet of the average tourist.  Their open, professed goal was to satiate every tourist itinerary with all things Disney.  Walt Disney World (aptly named), doesn’t want any of their valued guests to have the slightest need to leave Disney property, for anything!

They figure if they can distract you with more and more things to do; places to see; restaurants to try out; and all the nightlife that you can handle; they can then fill up every last minute of your Florida vacation!  Distraction and busyness!  That’s the key.

Speaking of distraction and busyness, who can’t identify with Martha here in our passage today from Luke 10?  Jesus comes into town to Martha’s home with his band of twelve hungry and tired disciples; a tall order for hosting.  To make matters even more stressful, her little sister Mary plops down at the feet of Jesus to listen to his teaching while poor Martha slaves away in the kitchen going crazy trying to provide for all of their guests!

Martha’s response?  Jesus, “do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her…to help me.”  “How could my sister be so thoughtless and lazy?”

From the Gospel of John, we know this is the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany, which is a couple of miles to the east of Jerusalem.  Lazarus and the village name, Bethany aren’t mentioned in this story by Luke.  Most likely, Luke wants to draw sole attention to these two sisters and their respective responses to Jesus.

Martha seems to be a classic Type-A person:  Anxious; terseness; intense focus; plenty of drive and given to frenetic activity.  Kind of reminds me of my dad.  When I used to eat dinner at his house, he would wait and watch for me to finish my meal; then he would grab my empty plate and wash it immediately.

My favorite joke about my dad is that when you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when you come back to your room, you find that he’s made up your bed!

My dear wife is like that as well.  Her nickname is “Martha” in our house.  She never quits.  She comes in tired from work; cooks; starts a load of laundry; does activities with the kids; starts cleaning projects; baking projects; and all along, always concerned that she doesn’t have enough time to get everything done.  I find myself saying, “Martha, come in here and sit down and relax.  You can conquer the world tomorrow!”

Back to the text:  Two sisters and two polar opposite responses to a visit from Jesus:  Mary “sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.”  Sounds like the idle, couch-potato activity of plopping down in an easy chair in front of the television and veg’ing out, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, “Martha was distracted with much serving.”  The Greek word here translated “distracted” literally means “to be drawn or pulled in every direction.”  Martha was unsettled; she was agitated.

But the response of Jesus is somewhat surprising, at least at first glance.  He chastens Martha, not Mary!  I mean what about the virtue of the well-worn “Protestant work ethic” and all?  What about Paul’s admonition in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”?

Not surprisingly, Jesus is tender, but firm:  “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”

Martha, in rushing around busily and frantically; determined to be a good host; determined not to be lazy.; determined to get things done – misses the point.  In all of these good and noble intentions, she had neglected the one necessary thing.

The 17th century devotional Bible commentator extraordinaire, Matthew Henry, described Martha’s problem in this memorable way:  “Worldly business [that is to say, the lack of restraint and judgment in ‘worldly cares and pursuits’ often becomes] a snare to us when it hinders us from serving God and getting good to our souls.”  Nothing wrong, you understand, with anything that Martha was doing, per se.  Hard work is not wrong or bad.  It was in what she was allowing herself to neglect!  Her driven-ness was driving her far from where she needed to be.

Mary, on the other hand, had “chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”  What exactly is this good portion that Jesus speaks of?  Let’s try to flesh that out.

It turns out that Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet listening to him teach wasn’t a sign of laziness.  “Sitting at the feet” is a description of a serious, studying disciple.  Mary has chosen “the good portion” of attending to the task of discipleship and spiritual development.

Her faith takes precedence over the mundane.  There are always other times for eating and sleeping and other activities.  After all, how often is the Lord Jesus in your presence; in your living room teaching, sharing and answering questions? [!]

Martha is so distracted with the busy-ness of her specific world, her current distraction, that she is neglecting the one thing needful in her life!  How much we are all like Martha!  How much our activities and pursuits beside the Faith consume, control and dictate our best and most precious time!  When it comes to the one thing needful in our lives, we balk and succumb to the cultural current.

That one needful thing is actually, I believe, many things that can be summed up as one:  Personal faith; studied discipleship; growth in grace and the knowledge of the Lord; spiritual maturity and intensity in worship.

And so, if we are all Martha’s; what then can we do about it?  Obviously, we are all individuals.  We are all in different places in our spiritual maturity.  We all have varying degrees of responsibilities in life.  Some of us are more busy than others.  But, be this as it may, I still want to suggest a concluding thought for your rumination.

Jesus says, “Martha, Martha you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”  Substitute your own name for Martha’s!  What are, for you, the “many things” that take priority over the one, needful thing?

Jesus has many things to say about the “many things”:  Things like “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matt. 6:19).  “…Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness….” (Matt. 6:33).  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Matt. 24:35).

Many more like reminders could be culled from the Scriptures, but perhaps Paul says it in terms that we can readily grasp in today’s politically charged climate:  “…Our citizenship is in heaven….” (Phil. 3:20).  Further, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…. (Phil. 3:8-9 ESV).

How about Paul’s words about present suffering and mundane-ness:  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18 ESV)

“…The good portion…will not be taken away….”  Jobs come and go; you will be “retired” far longer than you will ever work!  Kids and grandkids grow up and move on.  Activities and interests pass with time.  But, the one needful thing remains.  It is “the good portion which will not be taken away,” ever!

You have heard the Word of God.  Please consider it well.   Amen.




September 10, 2014, 9:12 AM

Ouch!



John Calvin's unfiltered thoughts in 1541 about returning to ministry in Geneva after he had been in exile since 1538.  The officials in Geneva wanted him back, ...but...

Calvin wrote, "If you desire to have me for your pastor, correct the disorder of your lives.  If you have with sincerity recalled me from my exile, banish the crimes and debaucheries which prevail among you....I cannot possibly live in a place so grossly immoral....I consider the principal enemies of the Gospel to be, not the pontiff of Rome, nor heretics, nor seducers, nor tyrants, but bad Christians...." (D.G. Hart, "Calvinism: A History, Yale University Press, 2013, p.18).

After you get past Calvin's take-no-prisoners bluntness here, you realize that he's put his finger on something that the Word exhibits from cover to cover:  The biggest challenges to the Faith have mostly come from within the church, rather than from without.




September 9, 2014, 10:42 AM

Big Sunday


We are getting ready for a big weekend here at New Life.  We will be officially welcomed into the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic on Sunday.  As a part of that service, our elders and deacons will be officially ordained for service.  They have been preparing for their examination by studying the Leadership Training Guide and the Westminster Standards.  I am so proud of our leaders for the way they have taken this so seriously.  And why not? This IS a serious endeavor -- the Church.  God's people.  Shepherding the flock.  The bar is purposefully and rightfully set very high in the EPC.  I know that they will do well this weekend.  Please do pray for them as they get ready to shine.  

I wanted to give you a taste of the expectations of a leader in the EPC.  This comes from the Leadership Training Guide that we have been working with for some time now.  Being an elder or deacon is not merely filling a position with a warm and/or willing body.  This is not merely a perfunctory role to be casually discharged.  It is a true honor and privilege.  Check this out:

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church Book of Government wisely advises that before nominating a person to church office, the congregation "should carefully study appropriate passages of Scripture... and be very prayerful in selecting persons to this office." This is necessary because God himself gives us the offices of minister, elder, and deacon; and it is he who describes the qualifications for those who are to be chosen. Our task is not to select "the best people we have," but rather to elect only those who fit God’s description given to us in the Scriptures.

Qualifications or Attributes of the Officer

A. From the Bible: I Tim. 3:1-13; II Tim. 2:24,25; I Peter 5:1-4; Titus 1:6-9; Ezra 7:9b-10:

* Attributes of an officer should be already present -- candidate must examine himself/herself.
* Focus should not be on personality but character -- the fruit of godliness.
* Candidate must commit to pursuit of Christ-like character and attributes required of an officer.
* Candidate must be an example.

Biblical Summary of Christ-like Character Required for an Officer:

1. Godliness -- In I Tim. 3:1-7 we find 12 adjectives to describe the character requirements for

leaders. The first character trait summarizes all of the others: elders must be "above reproach." This is not speaking of perfection, but rather the direction of one’s life. Elders must not be marked by any kind of disgrace, as this would limit their influence and authority among the flock.

a. Temperate, self-controlled, upright, holy, disciplined (Titus 1:7,8)
b. Sincere (I Tim. 3:8)
c. Not pursuing dishonest gain (I Tim. 3:8; Titus 1:7), not a lover of money (I Tim. 3:3)
d. An example to the flock (I Peter 5:3)
e. Full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3,5)

2. Desire to serve -- (I Tim. 3:1; I Peter 5:2) in humility (Acts 6:2)

3. Love for others -- hospitable, gentle, patient, not quarrelsome (I Tim. 3:2,3; Titus 1:7,8)

4. Good reputation

a. Above reproach (I Tim. 3:2)
b. With good reputation among outsiders (I Tim. 3:7)

B. From our Book of Government

Elder -- 10-4; 10-5; 10-6
Deacon -- 10-7; 10-8; 16-7

Solid Commitments -- The ordination vows required by our constitution comprehend the expected commitments of the officer and his or her prayerful examination of each of the following commitments. The ordination vows and the examination each should elicit may be summarized as follows:

1. To Jesus Christ as Lord - Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ as your own personal Lord and Savior?

* Has no known sin in his life in which he/she is repetitively and unrepentantly engaged?
* Prepared to share his/her testimony of faith in Christ with others?

2. To the Bible as the Word of God -- Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks?

* Obviously submits to the Scriptures in belief and lifestyle?
* Regularly reads and studies the Bible?

3. To Reformed Theology -- Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures? Do you promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the essentials of the faith you will, on your own initiative, make known to your church Session the change that has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?

* Thinks carefully and theologically?
* Committed to distinctives of Evangelical and Reformed faith?

4. To Presbyterian Polity -- Do you subscribe to the government and discipline of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church? Do you promise subjection to your fellow Presbyters in the Lord?

* Can work well with others under a common structure for a common goal?
* Thinks independently and also works well with others for a common solution?
* Known for brotherly/sisterly affection and mutual trust in working relationships?

5. To the Glory of God -- Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to accept the office of (Ruling Elder, Deacon) from love of God and sincere desire to promote his glory in the Gospel of his Son? Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in promoting the truths of the gospel and the purity and peace of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise to you on that account?

* Obviously motivated by the love of God?
* Courageously stands for God regardless of cost to self?
* Seeks to lead unchurched people to Christ and to his church?

6. To the Office of Elder or Deacon -- Will you seek to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as (Ruling Elder, Deacon) whether personal or relative, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before this congregation of which God will make you an officer?

* Sets an example that others should follow?
* Will participate fully in leadership training?
* Will serve communion (Elders) unless providentially hindered?
* Regularly takes initiative to accomplish ministry assigned to him/her?

7. To the Church -- Are you now willing to take responsibility in the life of this congregation as a (Ruling Elder, Deacon), and will you seek to discharge your duties, relying upon the grace of God, in such a way that the entire church of Jesus Christ will be blessed?

* Has no known unreconciled relationship in local church body?
* Faithfully attends Sunday worship?
* Faithfully tithes?
* Regularly encourages others to grow in their faith?

C. Discerning Gifts and Competence for Officers

The Bible teaches that there are some gifts and abilities that officers should have in order to be properly equipped for service. We must place a priority of character over gifts, but the offices of elder and deacon are also based on gifts. A common problem is the fact that people in large local congregations do not know those nominated for office and an effort must be made to discern the giftedness and competence of those nominated.

1. The Bible -- A deacon should know his/her Bible well and should believe it deeply (I Tim. 3:9).  The elder should know his Bible, and be growing in his knowledge, but should also be able to teach it to other (Titus 1:9-11) and to pray for the flock in public and private (Acts 6:4).

2. The Family - An officer may be either single or married.  A good way to test a person’s ability to lead in the church is to observe his/her management in the home (I Tim. 3:11). The children of an officer must be believers in Christ who are (as minors) obedient to their parents. (I Tim. 3:4,5, 12; Titus 1:6). The spouse of an officer must be a believer who is godly, loving, and supportive of the officer’s ministry.

3. The Church -- The candidates must be well-tested (I Tim. 3:6,10). Many Sessions recommend that a person be a member of their local church for a minimum of 3 years before nomination as an officer in order for the local body to have time to get to know and observe him/her. The candidates must have gifts of leadership; that is, people in the congregation are already gladly following them and benefiting from their ministries.




August 23, 2014, 6:00 PM

Growing Edges



In thinking about tomorrow's sermon on priorities (The Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:12-27), I came across this gem from Klyne Snodgrass:  "No one should take attendance at the messianic banquet for granted.  Unfortunately, many people do: they have made a decision, they belong to the right group, they have the right schooling, and they have participated in numerous services and charitable efforts, so they can now get on with their lives….It is not enough to wear the right label (“The Invited One”); rather, the kingdom must shape identity so that one has a whole different set of concerns."  (From Stories with Intent, p.322)  Oh, those growing edges!




August 18, 2014, 4:00 PM

Monday Morning QB: Luke's Parable of the Rich Fool



MMQB  Just a few thoughts about the sermon yesterday.  I do believe that when preaching or teaching on the topic of money/wealth, there is a tendency to paint "rich people" as bad, or even worse, flat-out evil.  I think that's always going to be a risk when it comes to that sensitive topic.

I think a better way of thinking about money is looking at what people actually do with their money.  As I read Scripture, I am impressed that neither wealth nor poverty gets a free pass into the saintly unimpeachable zone.  I think particularly of Proverbs 30:8-9, Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the LORD?" or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. (ESV).  True, it says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.  However, there are many rich people in Scripture who are held up as positive examples -- I think particularly of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and many of the women who followed and supported Jesus and his disciples as they traveled during his earthly ministry.

I think it comes down to recognizing that money (as well as everything else) is a gift from God.  It's not a sin to spend money on yourself, whether it's a vacation or a nice dinner, or whatever else.  The key is, what else are you doing with "your" money?  Generosity is big.  Sacrificial giving is commended, while, I must add rather forcefully, still covering your obligations.

In one of my briefest incarnations in the work world, I was employed by a small loan company.  I had the un-enviable task of calling delinquent accounts regarding their loan payments.  I'll never forget a lady telling me quite seriously, "I can't make my loan payment this month because I had to give it to my church."  I was astonished.  (Reality Check:  She probably wasn't telling the truth there -- perhaps trying to generate a little sympathy...but, what an uninformed lie.  Thinking about Commandments #8 & #9.)  No, you pay your bills!

It's what you do with the rest that's in play here.

I think about a good friend of mine who was primarily responsible for pushing me into seminary.  He passed away just as I took my first call as a pastor.  I have taken to calling him St. Barry.  The only man I have ever known who could be described as both earthy (wicked sense of humor, sometimes too graphic) and godly at the same time.  Barry started a little silk screen operation in a small town in North Carolina.  The business took off.  He ended up inhabiting the entire downtown block with his business.

Now, that was a man, St. Barry, who could truly live unto himself, if ever there was such a man.  However, the key characteristic that defined St. Barry was his generosity.  He gave; and God continued to bless him.  Oh, Barry lived well, make no mistake about that!  He drove Lincoln Town Cars. Smoked the best cigars.  He refused to ride in my low-status Nissan Stanza.  (Never mind that it was brand new and I kept it immaculate.)  He took wonderful vacations.  He remodeled his house in style.  But, you know what?  Barry was a giving man.  He frequently recounted how "his" money was God's money.  He knew the Giver who made it all possible.  As a consequence, he took his stewardship very seriously.  He never "tipped" God, as he liked to say.  He always gave back.  The man loved God and he was a great teacher.  Used in a mighty way.

A good example of how a rich man can get through the eye of a needle!

I think we need to focus on these twin Biblical disciplines of generosity and love of God.  If we do, I think we get at the heart of what Jesus taught.  Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:33-34 ESV).

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August 16, 2014, 2:00 PM

To Begin a Sermon



Tomorrow, I'm beginning a new sermon series.  A shorter series than usual.  Four weeks...four parables in the Gospel of Luke.  This series will take us up to our September 14th welcome service with the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic in the EPC.

I wanted to do something that I rarely do:  Give you the opening of the sermon, the night before.  Hopefully, it will serve as a permanent introduction to the series.

Check it out:

For the next four weeks, we are going to be looking at four parables in the Gospel of Luke.  The theme that will hold all four of these parables together is what I am going to call The Growing Edges of a Disciple.  Growing edges.  The working definition of a growing edge is “that area of your life where there’s still a lot of room for improvement -- but you’re pushing ahead and stretching the margins of that area every day.”

Refining that definition a little bit for my purposes here, I would say that our growing edges are where we are challenged to go beyond where we presently are at present.  We are there intellectually, but in practice it’s uncomfortable – and we’d really rather not go any further.  But we must.  We must press on to what God has called us to be in Jesus Christ.  To be Christ-like.

To start things off today, we ruminate on the Parable of the Rich Fool.  The focus is on Possessions– money and material things – but mostly about money.

Next week, it’s about Priorities with the Parable of the Great Banquet – What’s important in our lives?  What takes precedence?  What sets our agendas?  What are we willing to drop everything for, no matter what?

Week three will be about what we profess – our Profession -- with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  What do we believe?  What do we profess about the God we belong to?  What do we believe about Jesus?  About salvation?  And, what is our source of trust and truth?

And the final sermon of the series will be about that perennial growing edge in all of our lives, Prayer.  This one will be kind of fun with the Parable of the Persistent Widow.  Just how persistent and faithful are we when it comes to this discipline?

And who better to help us here in our growing edges than Luke, the physician (Col. 4:14)?  Eusebius, the late-third century bishop of Caesarea and father of church history, aptly noted that “Luke has left us concerning that medicine which he received from the Apostles…two medical books [Luke & Acts], whereby not our bodies but our souls may be healed.”

TBC.

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