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It’s a Covenant

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” -Hebrews 8:10b (NIV)

For more than 200 years many Christians have begun a new year with a worship time called a “Watch Night Service.” Influenced by a Moravian practice, in 1740 John Wesley held the first Watch Night Service. It was a time of reflection, testimonies, singing, and prayer. Later Wesley would call them “Covenant Renewal Services.”

In the book of Hebrews, the writer places this statement in the context of God’s dealing with His people in the Old Testament: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Hebrews 8:10)

Few concepts or terms are more basic to the Bible story than that of covenant.  It is not a concept unfamiliar to us either, though the term may not be as common as some others—contract, agreement, deal.  God’s relation to His people (from the Biblical perspective) is a covenant relationship.  It is about a relationship governed by promises, obligations.  God is the initiator and prime determiner but His people have a part to play.

The blessings of the covenant are more than part of a ceremony. They become reality in the life of His people.

The Bible makes clear that at the heart of the covenant is God’s love. You are important to God, more important than the whole world.  And that applies not just to the saints.  Whoever you are, whatever your past or present state, even your future, God loves you.

The Old Testament story shows a people who are hard-headed, unfaithful, ungrateful, unloving, and untrustworthy who repeatedly break their promises to God and break His heart.  The book of Hosea compared them to an unfaithful wife, an adulteress.  His book is 14 chapters of sins and shameful behavior.  In dramatic fashion, God compares his love to that of a husband to an unfaithful wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Hosea 3:1 NIV)

What does God say about all that?  I love you.  I have chosen you. God’s love (graciousness) is prior to everything else—our sins, our faith, our righteousness and it lasts beyond all else, in spite of all else. Even if we have been a total disaster as a person, a church; no matter how long the list of charges against us might be; how far we have left God, He is pursuing us like the “hound of heaven.”  Should we ultimately make our bed in hell, it will be over the broken pieces of God’s heart for He will still love us.

In 2017, can we assume our part of the covenant and love God back with all our heart, soul, and mind? It is my prayer for you and for myself.

 

A Life Of Prayer

Matt. 14:23-  And after he [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,…; (NRSV)

Peter Marshall once began a Senate session with this prayer, “O Lord, forgive us for thinking that prayer is a waste of time, and help us to see that without prayer our work is a waste of time.”*

I once calculated that a little over 4% of all my sermons as a pastor had been on prayer.  So I averaged about 2 sermons a year on prayer.  They included a series of sermons on “The Lord’s Prayer.” Some of the titles were “The Most Difficult Prayer To Pray,” “The Least Understood Prayer,” “Jesus’ Prayer For His Church,” “A Pastor’s Prayer,” “When Praying Seems Hopeless,” “A Prayer For The Right Stuff,” and “The Ultimate Weapon.” Of course, I talked about prayer at other times, mentioned it in other sermons and I hope made prayer a significant part of my life.

But, I have to confess that when I talk to you about a life of prayer, I feel a little like the parent who says, “Don’t do as I do, but do as I say.”  Because, in my life, it is more about need and aspiration and goal than achievement.

Notice how this is labeled—“A life of prayer.”  I did not say we need to pray. Or this is how to pray, etc.  When I first thought those words, I was probably thinking more like that. But I realized it’s much more.

It is true of course that a Christian ought to engage in the activity of prayer a lot. A life of prayer certainly means we pray much. We pray with breadth—in and for all things, all forms, places and times. Sometimes we even pray with urgency and depth.

But a life of prayer can never be confined to formal prayer—in church, specific places, times, causes, etc., no matter how frequent or intense.  That is relatively easy. They may be activities of a life which is characterized by something else.

A life of prayer brings God and his work into sharp focus. In a little book more than fifty years ago, Roslind Rinker wrote: “Prayer’s real purpose is to put God at the center of our attention, and forget ourselves and the impression we are making on others.” (Conversing With God, 5)

It is of course to speak with God. But Martin Luther put this in perspective when he said, “The fewer the words…the better the prayer.” Because it is about listening to God. The great missionary Frank Laubach once said, “God is speaking all the time, all the time, all the time.” We need to hear what God is saying.

Prayer is not just utilitarian, how we get something. A life of prayer is in some sense an end in itself. William Law put it this way: “Prayer is the nearest approach to God and the highest enjoyment of him that we are capable of in this life.”

I understand why the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  Even more help us to live a life of prayer.

*SermonCentral

 

A Week Like No Other

Christ died for our sins,
He was buried,
he was raised to life -I Corinthians 15:3 & 4

This week is different than any other time in the Christian calendar. It is the only time when several specific events are directly connected to form a whole.

There are seasons in which the emphasis looks to a specific event in the God story. Advent looks ahead to the birth of Jesus. Pentecost is a season where an event is celebrated. Even Easter has a season, Lent, connected to the actual event.

But this week is different. From the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), to the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday), the crucifixion (Good Friday) and the resurrection (Easter) historical events are uniquely joined. They are all components of The Passion. The events of that week in Jesus’ life clearly are the focus of God’s action for our salvation. Notice how much of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) are dedicated to telling about that week. Beyond that think about how much of the rest of the New Testament is predicated on it. I don’t mean to imply that all history is not in some way the stage for God’s work. But this is where it all comes together.

I challenge you to read it this week. Then be “mindful” of it and all that includes. Think about it, absorb it and live in response to it.

What an amazing message—“He died for me (you) and my (your) salvation.” And He lives.

Always Encouraging

Encourage one another daily. (Hebrews 3:13)

Since I attended the University of Iowa and spent more than thirty years of my life in Iowa, I was especially interested when Iowa played Duke in the NCAA basketball tournament some years ago. You see I have been a Duke fan for all my life. When Duke won the game I’ll never forget the reaction of some of the Iowa players. The thing that impressed them about the Duke team was “They’re always encouraging each other.” Not they’re great shooters or rebounders or ball handlers but they encouraged each other.

Encouragement is a powerful element for success in any facet of life. And nowhere is that more true than in the life of living for Jesus, being Christian. As you read about the early Christians in the book of Acts you get this refrain “they encouraged” one another.
Just one of many examples: “Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said good-by.”

Sisters/Bothers, God has made provision for Monday morning, for the discouragement that lurks around the corner, for the draining effect of the battle. It is encouragement. That is the primary ministry that we are to have to one another—“always encouraging.”

Strangers in Town But Members of the Household

Now you are the people of God -I Peter 2:10b

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”  That is when no one is looking, and not trying to impress anyone.

While that is true in a sense, it is certainly not the fundamental truth of the Christian experience.  Because as John Wesley said, Christianity is a social religion.  An essential and primary ingredient in the Christian experience is community.

In this letter Peter is not addressing “isolated individuals but a community. It is nothing less than the continuation of the OT “Covenant People”.  In this short passage Peter uses several terms for this community.  He calls them:

obedient children
temple
spiritual house
priesthood
race
nation
God’s own people

Even though strangers in the world, they do not loose their identity because they are members of a community. This community, which the New Testament calls the church is to provide the environment for growth and spiritual health. It is also to be the primary witness to God’s work in the world through Jesus.

Because we are strangers in a hostile world, we can only maintain our identity as Christians/survive in community.  This community gets its value and identity by belonging to God and its purpose by worshiping and witnessing to His excellencies.

Are you trying to go it alone as a follower of Jesus? If so, find a group of other followers and join them. Churches like Messiah will welcome you with open arms.

A Time for Silence

[God] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence….Then the LORD said….” I Kings 19:11-12, 15a

The United States is probably the only country in the world where success is measured by how busy you are.  Before the recent economic downturn Americans were increasingly working longer and longer hours.  They are way in front of all industrialized nations.  One UN report said they worked 2 ½ weeks more than Japanese, 6 weeks more than British and 12 ½ weeks more than German workers.  An economist who oversaw that report said, “It has a lot to do with the American psyche, with American culture. American workers are eager to make the best impression, to put in the most hours.”

We fuss about being busy with too crowded schedules.  We lament that we don’t have enough time for the important things like devotions and ministry for example.  But it looks suspiciously like all our protestations are really a way of saying to people, “Look how important I am,” or “Look how successful I am.”  Because we continue to make choices that keep us busy rather than enabling us to slow down, simplify, and prioritize our lives by what we say are the really important things.

One of the victims of our busyness is silence.  I made a phone call about our long distance service and as you might expect was told something like all our representatives are busy serving other customers, your call will be answered as soon as possible.  Then I was treated to silence!

I was reminded of that later when I read an article on silence in worship.  Silence is a rare experience for harried, busy, successful getting-ahead-people.  Chances are if you have an experience of silence it makes you uncomfortable, uneasy, irritated.  Waiting for someone to answer your call is not an opportunity for silence but an irritation.

As one writer observes, even in worship, “Silence, it seems, is to be filled.”  She continues, “I suppose we inherit this sense of silence as ‘dead air time’ from radio and TV, where every second of time not pulsing with a voice or image is ‘lost’ or ‘dead.’”1

Silence is difficult to find in our daily lives even for those who seek it.  We have become so accustomed to so called “white noise”–whine of refrigerators, idling motors, florescent lights, neighboring boomboxes, passing cars, etc. we are startled by silence.  Our life style our technology all make it difficult to find stillness, silence.  It is true that every new technology changes the way we live.

To be sure there are times in which it is sinful to be silent.  To face evil and say nothing is sin.  To keep silent when God is to be praised is sinful.  We are told there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7 NRSV).  Yet, the Bible places a great emphasis on silence.

It is a sign of wisdom—If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom! (Job 13:5 NRSV)  Jesus certainly demonstrated it was important to him.  Do you regularly use silence as a part of your discipleship practices?

John Wesley was once advised to preach faith until he had it and then to preach it because he had it.  I’m not there yet in regards to silence.  But by God’s grace I hope to get there.  I invite you to go with me.

Some reasons for silence

1Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

Some Old Bones + A Breeze=An Army

a valley;…full of bones…. and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army. -Ezekiel 37

“Some  Old Bones + A Breeze=An Army”

In an article about a reunion of old time aviators, the lead read: “Two veteran aviators met here yesterday for the first time in 40 years and discovered that of all the things that fly, time is the fastest.” (RD,2/89,p.114)

A human being has dreams, hopes, aspirations.  It is the soul and substance of life’s meaning.  It is, in fact, part of the definition of human.  This is best seen in the young before the corrosive effects of time take’s its toll.
Lorraine Frontain, a kindergarten teacher, told about a little girl named Gina, whom she had warned several times, to pay attention.  It was to no avail.  Finally in desperation,  she asked, “Gina, why are you so excited?”  “I can’t help it,” she replied.  “My daddy said I could have a horse when I’m 35.”1
The anticipation of the young.  Dreams, hopes, plans are laid for life.  But as surely as we have dreams, we also have failure of dreams and hopes, set-backs and reverses.  Dreams and hopes can be lost, abandoned and not replaced.  It may be hard for youth to identify with that.  For them, hope is easier.  But few escape defeat which can lead to lowered expectations and hopelessness (loss of dreams).  Sometime ago an article on social workers quoted one as saying,  “I wanted to make a difference for the kids. Now I realize it was a totally unrealistic expectation.”  Lost dreams, cynicism.
There is an interesting and mysterious story in the Bible which tells about a vision given to a strange man called Ezekiel.  In the vision, Ezekiel sees a valley full of old dry bones.  As he speaks God’s word to them, flesh and breath are restored and they come to life—a vast army.

It is a vision symbolic of a people discouraged, defeated, hopeless as bleached out bones in a desert.  But God says he can and will bring life back to dead bones of shattered dreams and lives.  When we lose, when we fail, when a dream goes up in smoke, when life throws us a wicked curve, what can we do?

We can pick up the pieces because what left is usable by God, even old bones.  We can learn, we can adjust, we can “roll with the punches.”

In 1920, a young man by the name of Oswald Smith had a dream to be a missionary.   He had   prayed and dreamed for the opportunity and now stood before a board selecting missionaries.  He was turned down.  Did not meet qualifications, failed the test.  Decided if he couldn’t be a missionary, he would build a church that could send missionaries.  That church, People’s Church, Toronto, Canada became one of the greatest resources for missionaries in history,  sending hundreds to share God’s good news about Jesus.

Nothing given to God is lost.  A Christian, who gave money to build Baylor University,  later lost everything he had.  Someone asked him, “Don’t you wish you had the money back that you put into that school?”  “Not at   all.  It is all that I have saved.  If I had kept that money, I would have lost it too.”
We just need to let God breath life into what’s left.  When you do, life is an adventure(not easy, comfortable, predictable) but adventure.  We are too focused on winning or loosing, success or failure.  We miss the pure joy of living.  Gene Stallings tells of an incident when he was defensive backfield coach for the Dallas Cowboys.

Two All-Pro players, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, were sitting in front of their lockers after playing a tough game against the Washington Redskins.  They were still in their uniforms, and their heads were bowed in exhaustion. Waters said to Harris, “By the way Cliff, what was the final score?”2

When you love and are immersed in the game, the score doesn’t matter all that much.

Walter Peyton was one of greatest running backs in National Football League history.  During a telecast of Monday Night Football, one of the announcers remarked that he had gained over 9 miles rushing in his career.  The other said, “Yeah, and that’s with somebody knocking him down every 4.6 yards!”  That’s 3443 times!

Life will knock you down, wreck your dreams, but God is not foiled by that.  Just remember WHEN YOU’RE DOWN, THE WAY OUT IS UP.
God’s word to Ezekiel was “Then they will know that I am the LORD.”

1Reader’s Digest, Jan., ‘89, p.80
2 Penney F. Nichols, Leadership

The Faith of Our Father

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, … to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. (Romans 4:16)

What is faith?  More specifically, what is Biblical faith?  Faith can be a tricky and sometimes illusive concept.

When the Biblical writers want to talk about faith, they most often talk about one man, described as “the father of those who have faith.”  His name is Abraham.  His descendents are described in this passage as those who “share the faith of Abraham.”  What can he teach us about it?

First, Abraham knew his own insufficiency. All faith begins with a sense of need.  It is an awareness that God has something more for us, something which we do not yet have and cannot attain by ourselves.  It may begin with a sense of longing, a vague sense that something is missing or there may be some specific vision of what we could or should be.  And there is always the realization of our own inability to achieve it.  God came to Abraham and Sarah with an utterly crazy idea (humanly speaking).  In their old age Sarah would have a son, an heir.  Impossible, they knew and yet God said it was his plan for them.  He hoped against hope.

What does God want for you?  What sin does he want to deliver you from,  what quality does he want you to have in your life?  Yes, I know.  You’ve tried all too often–it’s impossible.  You can’t do it.  And sometimes you even wonder if God is able to do that too?

Well, Abraham had his doubts too, but he overcame them and became strong. If you’ve never had questions, you’ve probably never faced yourself and the real issues of life.  One of the reasons for our inability to get over doubts is sometimes that we try to believe certain things, rather, than believing God.  The difference is crucial–it is not so much what we believe but who we believe.  One of my favorite Peanuts scenes, repeated periodically, features Lucy, Charlie Brown, and a football.  Lucy tells CB she will hold the football for him to kick it.  But CB has seen this before and knows that just as he is about to kick it, Lucy will pull it away and he will fall flat on his back.  So He refused.  But Lucy is persuasive and finally convinces him to try again.  Of course with the same result.  Then she says, “I admire you CB.  You have such faith in human nature.”

To act on our faith is a lesson Abraham had learned early in life and that becomes the real secret.  To live by our faith rather than our doubts.  When Abraham did this the Bible says he “was strengthened in his faith.”   Just as physical exercise increases physical strength so “faith” exercise strengthens faith.  Then follows a critical step–Abraham “gave glory to God.”    What we want from faith is sometimes an unworthy goal and it fails.  We want success, or health, or happiness.  But in the phrase Rick Warren made popular “it’s not about you.”  We should understand that the goal of faith is always that God be honored and glorified.

So– Abraham believed what God said,
did what God asked,
received what God promised.

May it be so with you.

Signs of Growth

One of the hardest things to do is to evaluate spiritual health and growth.  It is impossible to look into a person’s heart, or into the “heart” of a congregation for that matter.  However, it is important to try and there are certainly indicators, evidence which helps us to do that.

Perhaps the most important sign is an inner sense that God gives to his people.  Outward signs are important but an awareness of God’s presence, and a sense that God is at work are vitally important.  Explicit witnesses to the fact that God is working in lives are necessary indicators of God’s work.  Not only that, individual testimony to what He is doing is also a means by which He works.

Another sign is the beginning of new opportunities for ministry. That is vitally important to continued growth and faithfulness.  There are three key ingredients for that to happen:

1-     We need to keep our spiritual house in order.  We must keep close to God–praying, listening, and following Him.

2-     We also must keep our relational house in order.  It is imperative that we love one another and not allow those ordinary kinds of things that erode personal relationships, like personal agendas, petty differences, jealously and personality conflicts.  Be sure that Satan will try to exploit anything to sabotage God’s work in our midst.

3-     We must have people who are willing to step forward and provide leadership in ministry.  We cannot grow beyond our ability to produce new leaders.  As one example, right now, our small group development is pretty much “on hold” as we wait for new leaders.  Church consultant, Carl George says, “The creation of pastoral, ministry-capable leadership must become the core value of the church of the future, second only to listening to God in prayer.”

Folks we live in a time of great spiritual hunger and need.  I believe that God can greatly use this church to fill some of that hunger and meet those needs.  Would you please covenant with me to pray about these matters on a regular basis and then ask God what He wants you to do?  It is an exciting time to be part of His church

The Best Is Yet To Be

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into…an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you. I Peter 1:3-4

The Best Is Yet To Be

Robert Browning’s  words, “The best is yet to be” did not refer to heaven.  And that hardly seems to be the attitude of many Christians when thinking about heaven.  More typical I suspect is that expressed by 9 yr. old Ellen in a letter to her pastor:

Dear Pastor,
I hope to go to  heaven someday but later than sooner.

Love,
Ellen

Heaven is a place we want to go only when we are forced to, when we have no choice–when   the more desirable “life” is no longer an option, when death comes.  Heaven is, of course, better than hell but our expectancy for it is a little like that expressed by Charlie Brown:

Linus-“What would you say you want most of life Charlie Brown…To Be Happy?”
Charlie Brown-“Oh, no…
I     don’t expect that…I really don’t
I     just don’t want  to be unhappy!

We don’t expect so much to be happy in heaven, just not unhappy like hell.  It is sort of the lesser of two undesirable options.

It is not surprising then, that for 20th cent. Christians, heaven has, at best, been relegated to funeral sermons, the periphery of life.  Salvation has primarily come to mean “self improvement”, “success”, or the way to a “more efficient and psychologically sound,” “good life.”

But that is not   the NT.  Heaven is the glorious and ultimate goal of our faith.     It is the culmination of our salvation, the end of our journey.  It is the linch-pen of the Good News.  Take it out and it all falls apart.  Don Hunt is right: “…nothing is more important in shaping how life on earth is lived…than a person’s attitude toward the life to come.”

The importance of heaven is not just to provide comfort about death but to make a difference in how we live–our goals, methods, priorities, ministries, all our life.

Heaven has, perhaps, its greatest impact on our values. The only ones which really matter are those which retain their appeal in the face of death. There is the story about two men walking through a cemetery who happen upon a funeral. A gold-plated Rolls Royce with all the toys—stereo, TV, built in bar, etc. is being lowered into a grave.

One asks, “What’s happening?” and is told, “They’re burying J.B., the multibillionaire.”
He stops to watch in amazement and then exclaims, “Man, that’s what I call really living!”

Without heaven our values can get just as mixed up.

God’s people have always seen this. In Saint Augustine’s classic, City of God, he says human-kind has become so earthly minded, the heavenly vision has been lost. The Apostle Paul saw it clearly when he wrote that the sufferings of the present do not compare to the glory to be revealed. We are told Moses chose to suffer in order to receive his reward. C.S. Lewis wrote that something so absolutely beyond all we have is necessary to the Christian spirit—and happiness. It is heaven which fills that need and gives us perspective.

For the Christian, heaven is our true home. The Bible says we are strangers and aliens here—our citizenship is in heaven.  It is important we remember this is a temporary residence.

Charles Dutton spent years in prison for manslaughter.  Hardly preparation for becoming a star in the “Piano Lesson” on Broadway.  He was once asked how he overcame such obstacles. He said, “Unlike the other prisoners, I never decorated my cell.”  He refused to think of his cell as home.

C.S. Lewis reminded us, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country…I must make it the main object of my life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”

Contrary to popular notion such people don’t become so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.  They, in fact, accomplish much more on earth.

Finally, the outcome of Heaven is indescribable joy. The Bible gives us a hint this way: “things beyond our seeing, beyond our hearing, beyond our imagining.”   It is something so wonderful that even the Biblical writers can only point to it.  We may be inclined to let our minds wander over “gold streets,” no pain, no sorrow or death.

But as important as all that is, one thing is clear.  The greatest joy of
heaven is to be in the “unhindered” presence of Jesus.  The old song writer had it right—“Where Jesus is ‘tis heaven there.”

“When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”  All the greatest of the good and more has been prepared for those who love God.
The Best really is yet to be!