Devotional

Bible Reading, Prayer & Your Crucible

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I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.

One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.

I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”

I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.

I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.

The Perils of Youth

We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.

It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.

Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.

But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)

But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.

We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.

So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”

And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.

Personal Devotions

I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.

My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.

All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.

How does God refine the impurities out of his people?

Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”

God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.

Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”

God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.

To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:

“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)

God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.

We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.

And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.

  • Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
  • Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
  • Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
  • Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
  • Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
  • You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
  • Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
  • You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
  • Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,

Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.

Road to Emmaus

Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”

Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:

“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”

Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?

“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”

Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.

So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:

“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”

Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:

“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”

“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”

And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.

Conclusion

This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.

You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.

Look back to Psalm 119: it says,

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”

What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.

“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”

“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.

“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”

The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.

Look at the next part:

“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)

How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.

“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.

The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.

Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:

“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.

Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.

Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.

And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.

And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.

I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.

Advent Sermon: Jesus as Tabernacle (by Pastor Al) (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 104)

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104 - Advent Sermon Jesus as Tabernacle

Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year. This week we present a full-length sermon from Pastor Al entitled “Jesus as Tabernacle”.

*AOTCN Followers: I’m double dipping this week so the sermon audio is also the CT audio! Sermon Text is below

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Sermon Text:

Christmas time has a lot of symbols attached to it. In fact, marketing teams have worked really hard to try to attach logos and symbols to the various celebration days we have so that they can sell us targeted things. At Easter everything is covered in bunnies and colourful eggs. On Valentine’s Day everything is covered in hearts. Thanksgiving turkey, Halloween pumpkin, St Patrick’s clover. Each one gets a colour scheme too, right? St. Patrick’s Day is green. Halloween is orange and black. Thanksgiving is brown and orange. Valentine’s Day is red. Easter gets a bunch of pastels.

But Christmas seems to be a bit more difficult. If you asked yourself what the standard symbol of Christmas is, it’s hard to pin down. Some use the holly and ivy, others poinsettas, some use silver bells, others a Christmas tree, or gold stars. Some use snowflakes or Santa’s face or a present. The colour scheme seems to be all over the map too. Red and green and brown and white and silver and gold… it’s almost like no matter how hard the marketing teams try, the Christmas season is too big to be nailed down to one symbol or theme.

I watched some “man on the street” interviews where they asked people what Christmas meant to them and the general theme was getting together with family and eating, but that’s too generic. If you ask them what Thanksgiving or New Years or September Long Weekend was all about they’d probably give the same answer.

In the Christian church, we’d like to believe that we’ve got this nailed down, but we don’t. There are a lot of self-professing evangelicals reject even the most foundational Christian beliefs. Ligonier Ministries just did a huge survey of thousands of Christians across America and the findings were shocking.

Almost half agreed that God accepts worship from all religions, not just Christianity. Half believe that they have to do good deeds in order to get to heaven. Most of the people, well over half, said that God won’t punish people for little sins. Christians are confused too. Over half believe Jesus was God’s first creation. Half of the people who said that God is the author of the Bible also said that modern science discredits what the Bible even says. So it’s no surprise that when the interview said, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”, that the results were split down the middle with half agreeing and half disagreeing.[1]

After all, if you believe that God doesn’t really punish sins, that we save ourselves through good deeds, that Jesus was just another created being, and that science has basically discredited the Bible, then why bother telling anyone about Jesus at all?

Christianity, and Christmas, to most people, even though they love the season – and most would say Christmas is their favourite time of year – has been almost completely drained of meaning because Christianity has been almost completely drained of theology. Which is likely why, when we ask the question: “What is the Christmas symbol? What is Christmas all about?” all we get from most people is an array of plants, presents, pretend things and some vague statements about family get-togethers.

Expecting a Saviour

Turn to Luke 1:31-33. We must, as Christians, settle in our hearts the real meaning of Christmas and be absolutely clear, laser focused, on what we are celebrating and why. If we are not, if we allow the vagaries and trappings to overtake us, we not only risk losing the story (as we talked about last week), but risk losing the Gospel, the story of salvation, the only way to be saved from Hell. Let me explain what I mean.

Over the last two weeks we’ve been setting up the drama of Christmas. The people of God living as the least important province of a pagan nation, in some kind of miserable half-life, facing famine, enemies, luke-warm worship, corrupt priests, and declining faith… to which the prophet Malachi’s brings a message that God save them and restore them, and to watch out for the forerunner of God, the one who would come before, who would be Elijah.

We then wait 400 years in silence, between the Old and New Testaments, until an angel comes to an old priest named Zachariah, who has an old, barren wife named Elizabeth, who is told that he will be the father of John the Baptist, who would come in the spirit of Elijah. And the drama continues to build when 6 months later, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, an angel tells a young, unmarried girl named Mary, that the promised forerunner has come and she has been chosen to be the mother of the promised Saviour. The angel says,

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)

As I said last week, these words have become too familiar to us. So familiar that we almost dismiss them, but you must understand that this wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The promised Saviour of the world, the One who has been promised for thousands of years, was never expected to come this way.

Thinking of this from our own perspective might help. We are used to Jesus as the great moral teacher, Jesus as the Saviour on the cross, Jesus as the social revolutionary who changed all the rules, Jesus as the friend of sinners. We are used to the Jesus who did impossible things like raise the dead, calm storms with a word, feed thousands from a child’s lunchbox. Jesus turning over tables in the temple, Jesus staring down and calling curses upon the corrupt Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by sinners and social rejects. We are familiar with all those pictures of Jesus – and they very much reflect what Israel was expecting.

They expected a miracle worker, a military conqueror, a superman who would overthrow the evil government, rebuild the great temple, and take over as King of the planet with the Jewish people in their rightful place as the nation of priests for planet earth. They expected Moses mixed with Elijah mixed with David mixed with Solomon, exploding on the scene draped in majesty and wielding unstoppable power.

That’s generally what we expect too, when we stop for a moment and get honest with ourselves. That’s the Jesus we would write into our story. We want the Jesus who stops our problems in a second, who gives us everything we want in a moment, who destroys everyone who has ever wronged us, who showers us with pleasure and comfort and prestige and success – and we, like the nation of Israel, don’t understand, and react very poorly, when Jesus comes in a very different, much quieter, much more patient, much more humble, much more time consuming way. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons we know that this wasn’t made up, because no one – literally, no one – would have come up with this.

Jesus Broke Expectations

Mary was promised a son who would be named Jesus. Jesus means “Saviour”. She was told that he would be “great” and be called “the Son of the Most High”. That was a name for God that went all the way back to Genesis 14. Jesus wouldn’t be a man like every other human being, who had a sinful, human father, but would be like Adam, created perfectly by God without a sinful nature.

And this One who was Son of God and Saviour would be given the “throne of… David”. Remember the state of the nation: conquered, under corrupt pagan rule, taxed almost into oblivion, unable to do anything without going to Rome for permission. King David was the great, conquering King who conquered the enemies of Israel and united the nation, ushering in the greatest time of peace and plenty in Israel’s history. And a long time before Mary, David was promised that Someone would sit on his throne forever, that one of his descendants would inaugurate a Kingdom would be established forever, that it would be unconquerable. Jesus would “reign over the house of Jacob”, meaning all twelve tribes of Israel would be united again, and that kingdom would have “no end”.

That was everyone’s picture of the coming Messiah, and though it perfectly describes Jesus, He didn’t arrive the way they expected, He didn’t live the way they expected, He didn’t do what they expected, and He didn’t conquer in the way they expected. Which is one reason why so many people rejected Him.

Jesus own family, even Mary, and Jesus’ closest followers took a long, long time to wrap their heads around what Jesus was doing and what it all meant. They simply didn’t have a box to put Jesus in, they had no template prepared that could fit the real Jesus. All of their preconceptions, all of the things they had assumed about God and God’s plan, all of the things they had been focusing on up to that point needed to be completely reorganized, completely re-understood, because of Jesus.

Now, it’s important to know that Jesus was doing anything wrong! He didn’t come and change anything. He didn’t just reinterpret the Bible in a weird way that no one had though tof. No, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to be counter cultural – it was that everyone’s assumptions about Him were all wrong. They had created their own Saviour template, created their own God-box, and thought Jesus would fit into it.

Sometimes we think that we need to live up to other people’s expectations. We change ourselves to fit what other people think about us, or we do things that we thing other people expect us to do. We succumb to peer-pressure because we want to be accepted, we stop doing things we actually like because the crowd says we’re weird. We stare at our closets, our car, our homes, and we wonder how we can make things more acceptable and impressive to others.

I know, for myself, I often feel pressure to fit the mould that people have designed for me. Some people think I’m smart, and I like that, so when I don’t know the answer to something, it’s tempting to dance around and try to make something up. Some people think since I’m a pastor there are things I should and shouldn’t do, so it’s tempting to be hypocritical and fudge parts of my life so that I live up to their expectations. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way, changing how you talk to sound more like the crowd, leaving out information about yourself because you’re embarrassed to admit certain things to that group of people.

God isn’t like that. God does not feel constrained by our assumptions about who He is or how He should do things. He is not swayed by democracy or popular opinion. He doesn’t change Himself to gain more followers or try to impress His constituency or His fan base. God doesn’t answer prayers He doesn’t want to answer because you have correctly manipulated Him. God is immutable, unchangeable, perfect.

Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son…” The plan to send Jesus Christ on that day, in that way, to live that life, and die that death, was exactly what He had intended to do all along. It’s just that humanity wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand or accept it. But that wasn’t going to change God’s plan.

Jesus Tabernacled with Us

With this in mind, turn with me to John 1 and I want to read the Christmas story from a completely different perspective. Normally we read the beginning of Luke and Matthew at Christmas time, and that’s appropriate, but that’s not the only Christmas story in the Bible. There are others that teach us about Jesus from other perspectives.

John’s gospel, for example, was written some decades after Matthew, Mark and Luke, and therefore teaches us a lot about Jesus that we don’t find in the other gospels. And the way He introduces Jesus is different than the other three. Matthew and Luke start at Jesus birth. John backs up the story to help us understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God by starting the story before the beginning of time, introducing Jesus with the same words as the start of Genesis, showing us that Jesus is God, uncreated, existing with God, as God before time, before He was named Jesus. Let’s read it together:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

And then, like the other Christmas stories, we start with the end of Malachi, the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist. Verse 6,

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”

Who is this “true light” which the darkness cannot overcome? John continues by giving a brief summary of the life of Jesus as it reflects Israel’s relationship with God. God is perfect, the source of life, but was continually rejected by Israel, just as Jesus would be. Continue in verse 10:

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

So, how do we receive him? What do we need to believe? How are we born again? Now comes the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of John, in verse 14:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”

Jesus is God, and is the Word of God, and at one point in History, which we call Christmas, God took on flesh. “The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”[2]

The words, “dwelt among us” are super-important and introduce a critical concept that gets lost in translation, and if we don’t understand them we completely miss the whole point of the Christmas story. It literally means that when the Word, the Son of God became flesh, he was “pitching his tent among us”.

Every Jewish person reading this would immediately know what this meant. It was a picture of the Tabernacle, the tent that God lived in among the Israelites. In the beginning God created both Heaven and Earth, two complimentary places designed for one another, with the Garden as God’s meeting place and Adam and Eve as the ones who cared for it. But now because of sin, that connection was broken and an impassable wall, an uncrossable chasm was now between them.

But, in God’s grace, no matter where Israel wandered, no matter how far humanity would fall away, there would be one place on earth where Heaven and Earth would touch, a sort of Heavenly embassy, a single holy place where God would choose to condescend and dwell so we would not be utterly without contact or hope. That place was the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and instead of Adam and Eve attending it, it was Aaron the High Priest and his family the Levites.

When Israel finally stopped wandering and had taken back most of the Promised Land, God allowed King Solomon to change the portable tent into a more permanent home called the Temple. It too would be the place where Heaven and Earth would touch and where God could be found. If anyone in the world wanted to meet God, offer sacrifice, and gain forgiveness, the only place they could come would be God’s embassy, God’s one house, the Temple. This is why the Temple is the heart of Israel’s national life, and why it’s destruction was so utterly disheartening to the people living during the Babylonian exile.

But remember why it that happened. The meaning of the Temple had been lost. Just as so many have lost the meaning of Christmas and turned it into a dozen different symbols and vague traditional recollections around food and songs, so had they done to God’s Temple.

The Ark of the Covenant, which was God’s Throne, the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself had turned from a Holy Place where one could meet God and be cleansed from sin – into a talisman, a lucky charm, a national tradition – a mixture of symbolism and superstition that had very little to do with a relationship with God – just like Christmas is today. The chief priests became worldly and wealthy, kings would use the temple as an excuse for violence and warfare, and by the time of Malachi (as we said before) God had basically left the Temple. It was just an empty hall surrounded by hypocritical religious people going through empty ceremonies. Much like Christmas for most people.

And then, 400 years later, when everything was at its darkest, “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26–27) A light pierced darkness, for the darkness had not overcome it.  “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” The Son of the Most High, the Word of God, “became flesh and [Tabernacled, pitched his tent] among us, [so] we [could see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

No longer would the presence of God staying in one place, instead, the Holy of Holies would move around again, but in a completely different way. Now, instead of walls of canvas or gold or stone, human flesh would be the tent in which God would dwell.

Jesus, the baby we celebrate at Christmas time gives us everything God requires for Salvation. Jesus was born as the perfect Adam and never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Israel who never wandered from faith. Jesus is the perfect prophet and priest who always and only spoke the words of God. Jesus is the perfect temple, the very incarnation of the love of God in the world, face to face with humanity. And Jesus is the perfect temple sacrifice, taking God’s wrath against sin, dying on the cross in place of sinners, shedding His blood as the spotless, Passover lamb, so we might be saved.

This is what Christians celebrate at Christmastime. This is what we must never forget: Jesus of Nazareth, born as a baby in a manger was the climax of God’s salvation story, the fulfilment of every symbol in scripture, the living embodiment of God.

 

[1] https://thestateoftheology.com

[2] ESV Study Bible notes

The Double Edged Sword – Why God’s Word is So Powerful

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Over the past couple of weeks we have talked about the importance of making the daily reading of scripture the core part of our lives, and the foundation of our relationship with God. This all started because I wanted to share a way that God has spoken to me through my devotional times. I’ve noticed that most Christians don’t have a daily devotional time with God – in prayer and Bible reading – and that breaks my heart because they don’t know what they are missing.

Christians in Crisis

I watch as believers run around chasing after foolish things, distracted by the world and frittering away their lives. I see them struggling with temptations, falling over and over, and not knowing what to do. They try will-power or setting up guards and traps for themselves, but it doesn’t work and they feel like spiritual failures all the time so they just give up and go home.

I watch Christian people come to church, but never really engage with the worship music or the fellowship of other believers. They come because something draws them, but they float 6 feet above everyone, seeing what is happening but never experiencing what it means to truly meet God, know Christ, or be part of a church.

I watch as marriages and families disintegrate around me because the men and women are selfish and weak, addicted to money or porn, don’t know how to work through their problems in a biblical way, and refuse to ask for help because they are afraid of what people will think of them. Their faith is crippled by feelings of hypocrisy and shallow faith.

I listen to other pastors who lament the lack of maturity of the Christians around them. There is an absolute vacuum of good, godly leaders and elders. We scratch our heads as people who have been believers for decades stagnate in their spiritual lives, increase in their acceptance of sin and heretical beliefs, and continue to ask basic questions that should have been settled long ago. They remind me of when Hebrews 5:12 says, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food…” Churches full of spiritual babies who never get any older as the years go by. Year after year, same immature problems, same immature beliefs.

Single women and fatherless children are crying out for good, godly, mature Christian men who will love them like Jesus – but can’t find any. Young men are looking for godly mentors to follow and a mission to give their lives to, but they aren’t finding it in the church of Jesus Christ. Churches pull further inward, afraid of the culture around them that they don’t understand or want to be a part of. Christians are in moral, theological, spiritual and relational crisis because Christians are far from Christ.

Come to Jesus

What can be done? The only thing I know that can be done is to push, pull, draw and drag people back to Jesus. He is the one who builds his church. He is the one who defends it. He knows what plans need to be taken up and what needs to be cut off. The Holy Spirit knows how to worship God best. He knows where we are to serve. He teaches us how to fix our eyes on God and fix our relationships with others. He deepens us in maturity and guides our spiritual discipleship process. He is the source of all that will repair our relationships, fix our hearts and restore our churches.

That’s why I’m so excited about this series, and why I believe the message is so very important. If the answer to everything we need for our individual, familial and corporate spiritual lives is found in Jesus, then we all need to know how to connect with Him.

Why isn’t everyone connecting to Jesus? Here’s a few reasons I’ve come up with.

Some because they don’t understand what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. They think that Christianity means being nice, avoiding fun, following rules and going to church. Just like we said during the study of the Four Soils, they don’t know Jesus personally.

Some don’t do it because they don’t want to. They have no desperation for Jesus. They are like the rich young man who believe they have done everything that is necessary to get to heaven, and don’t really need to spend time with Jesus. And when Jesus tells them to give something up in order to grow closer to him, they walk away sorrowful, not wanting to give up their worldly comfort.

And there are some don’t do it because they don’t know how it’s supposed to work. They’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. They get bored, distracted, and get nothing out of prayer or reading the Bible. They try for a while, but the world gets busy and they put it aside thinking that it’s not really for them. Maybe it’s for other types of people who like to read and write – not for them. They do have a desire to meet God, but it’s too hard – and they just don’t want to try anymore.

And each of these people is spiritual starving. They are not coming to Jesus for their daily spiritual bread, they don’t have the everlasting fountain of life within them, and so they are spiritually starving. So they try to fill their gap with other things – pleasure, pain, knowledge, stuff – but it never gives them what they need. Because it never gives them Jesus.

Salting the Oats

That’s why, for the first two weeks, I talked about evaluating the condition of our hearts and cultivating a desperation for him. I can’t make you want to read your bible and pray every day. All I can do is try to show you the condition of your heart, and then try to help you see the benefits of being with Jesus.

Someone once said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And the response is, “Sure… but you can salt the oats.” That’s what I’m trying to do before I give you a practical guide to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture. There’s a million different helps out there, but none of them mean anything if you don’t want them.

I want you to get a thirst for the presence and power of Jesus. I want you to see the depravity of your heart, the lack you have in your soul, the desperate need you have for a Saviour, to get a good look at your foolishness and your need for God’s wisdom. I want you to see the problems in your soul and want a solution. And I want you to know that the solution is a deep relationship with Jesus.

I’m not advocating a religious practice. I’m not pointing to an easy solution. I’m not giving you a bible verse, and this isn’t about ‘name it and claim it’ prayers. I want to share with you a way to know the One and True God, and trust and depend on Him for everything.

So, before I give you the practical guide, I want to do one more week of salting the oats. I want to tell you about this book that I’m pointing you to. I want you to see how different it is from all the other books in the world, and why it is important to read this one.

I’m not talking about reading books about the Bible – but to read the bible itself. Put down the moral story books and read the source of morality. Put down Christian authors who tell you what’s in the Bible and pick up the book written by the author of life. The Bible is alive, and has power unlike any other book ever written.

Our Umbilical Cord

Turn to Hebrews 4:12-13. If you recall last week I said that I want you to read this passage as a plea from a pastor to his people to be desperate for the word of God. That he wants his church to experience the presence of Jesus by experiencing the power of the Word of God, the Bible. He wants them to see the words of scripture as their umbilical cord, connecting them to Jesus. I also said, last week, that it’s not about reading your bible, but seeking and wanting the presence and the person of Jesus Christ. Here, in Hebrews 4 we see the scriptures and the Lord Jesus connected together. The Word of God is Jesus.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

What I want to do for the remainder of our time here is go through this passage and look at the words that are used to describe the Bible, the “Word of God”.

“Living”

Look at how it’s described in verse 12. “For the word of God is living and active…”

The word “Living” is the word ZAO, which is where we get our word Zoo, and it is used to describe life or living things. When a dead thing is given life, or something is fresh and strong, they are ZAO. It’s used of a fresh spring of running water. It’s alive and the source of life.

I want you to remember that the way the Bible is being described here is not the way we would describe words in a book, but as a living, breathing, personal being. These aren’t merely words on a page, but the active, alive, person of God – the very presence of Jesus.

Our interaction with the text is an interaction with God. As we read the words, it is not merely coming through our eyes and into our mind, but is the voice of God being spoken into our soul, our spirit, and our hearts. It is as though God is reading them to us. It’s as though Jesus was standing next to us, speaking in our ear the words we need to hear, reminding us of what He’s all about, what His plans are, how He sees you, and what His promises are.

This is why we talked about the importance of preparing and cultivating our hearts to be receptive to Him. He’s sowing seeds as we read… will they take root in our souls. This is why we talked about having desperation for His voice and presence. Do we care that He’s standing there, speaking the words of life? Are we thirsty for him? Do we realize that the words we are reading are Living words?

“Active”

The next descriptive word is “Active”. It’s the Greek word ENERGES from which we get the English word “Energy”. The Bible is Alive and full of Energy. It’s a word used to describe something that is powerful, effective, able to make things happen. It’s a word used to describe land that is good for crops, ready to accept seed, full of potential energy.

I studied physics in school and there are different forms of energy. There’s “potential energy” which describes something that has yet to move, but can. All it needs is something to convert the potential energy into some other form. The Bible is full of potential energy for anyone who would read it. And the moment we open it and read it with receptive hearts, that energy is converted into Kinetic energy – moving us closer to God and making us active in God’s will. It’s converted into Thermal energy – heating up our lukewarm hearts and making us lights unto the world.

These are the words of Jesus, the same one who could speak to the dead body of Lazarus, buried four days in a tomb, and command him to “Come out!” (John 11:43).

These are same living and active, powerful of Jesus, who was able to rebuke the storm by saying, “Peace! Be Still!” (Mark 4:39)

These are the words of Jesus who can look at a demon and say “Be Quiet! Come out of Him!” and they must obey (Luke 4:35)

Just as God is Living and Active, able to make things happen, so God’s Word is Living and Active, full of Energy to make us alive and calm the storms in our heart.

“Sharp”

The next word used to describe the word of God is “Sharp”.  It is “sharper than any two edged sword.” A sharp sword is a dangerous weapon, but this word describes something even more dangerous. This is the word TOMOS which doesn’t describe a cut from a sword blade, but the precise incision of a scalpel. It’s not the swing of a sword, or the stab of a dagger, but the keen and direct cut of a surgeon.

You see the word TOMOS at the end of surgical words like “appendectomy” (the removal of the appendix), or “hysterectomy” (the removal of the uterus) or “rhinectomy” (the removal of the nose). When a surgeon removes an exact thing (and no more) they do an -ectomy .

This is what the Bible does. It slices us open. In the context we see that this whole section is about the scriptures being “sharp”, “piercing” inside of us, and splitting us open so that the very “thoughts and intentions of our heart” can be seen.

Think of the story of King Josiah reading the book of the Law after it had been lost for so many years, and then discovered when they were rebuilding the Temple. It says,

“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. And the king commanded… saying, ‘Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’” (2 Kings 22:11-13)

After reading the word of God, King Josiah was taken apart and terrified by the judgment of God. It had revealed his disobedience and how far the people of God had fallen away from what God wanted. And it had revealed how God would punish. But it had also revealed how God would forgive His people when they turned back to Him so he calls to the priests, the government officials and the servants to get right with God!

This could be one reason that a lot of people avoid reading the Bible. For the same reason they don’t visit the doctor, or refuse to have an operation that could help them. They are afraid or they want to live in denial – and pretend they don’t have the problem.

Whenever they read the scriptures they feel the keen sting of God’s scalpel starting to cut open their chest to expose their hearts, and before God can go too deep, they close the book and tell God to go away. Sure, God’s going in there to cut out the cancer, to repair their heart, to remove the stones inside them, to cut out the dead flesh and restore life – but it hurts.

Jesus said it this way in John 15,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser (“Gardener” NIV). Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)

God’s word is sharp, like a scalpel, like a pair of pruning shears.

“Piercing”

The next word takes God’s surgery a little deeper. It says that the word of God is “piercing”. “Piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow”. The root of the Greek word is the word DIA which simply means to go “through” something, to penetrate it, to reach through something. We all know what a piercing is. It’s when people put metal through parts of their body. God is so exact in his cutting that he is able to exposes the very core of our being – he pierces through us.

One of my favourite uses of this word is to describe projectile or range weapons like arrows, javelins, slingshots or catapults that can be shot with precision into enemy lines. Today, we’d call them a sniper. God’s word cuts through the mess, gets around the rest, finds exactly what the problem is, and like a sniper, finds the thing that needs to die and kills it. No collateral damage, no accidents, no unnecessary casualties.

It says it is able to divide the separation of “joints and marrow”. Literally meaning the joint where the bones connect and the marrow inside the bones. God’s surgery doesn’t make mistakes. There’s no accidental cutting. His word hits the mark every time.

It says that God’s word is able to penetrate so deeply and so perfectly, that it can separate one’s “soul” (PSYCHE – our inner self, motives, personality, what makes us who we are) from their “spirit” (PNEUMA – their spiritual self, used of Holy Spirit and demons, that part which is inspired by God.) We can’t see the difference, and I can’t really explain it, but God can.

How does this work? Well, we can put on a good show, be religious at the right times, but when we are confronted by the Word of God, our true hearts are shown. Someone hears God’s word read or preached (or they read it themselves) and it hits them exactly where they needed to be hit. It exposes their sin, their hypocrisy, their depravity and the evil in their hearts. And they are forced to contend with it. To repent and accept forgiveness, or to harden their hearts and turn away.

Or, in the positive sense, God’s word is read or preached and it speaks exactly the words of comfort they needed to hear. They find the answer their soul has been looking for, the healing which they so desperately have desired.

That’s the power of God’s word, and I believe with all my being that when we are in the word every day, prayerfully reading and interacting with God through the text, that he pierces and divides us, speaks to the core of who we are, shows us our exact intentions, doesn’t sugar coat things – but tells us exactly what we need to hear that day. And he can do it with only a few words because those words are sharp as a scalpel, as powerful as a sniper.

“Discerning”

The final word used to describe God’s word is “Discerning”. It’s the Greek word KRITIKOS from which we get our English word “Critic”. It also means “judge”.

I would love to be a movie critic, and sometimes after watching a movie, I write little reviews on Facebook. A critic, whether for movies, music, wine, restaurants, consumer products, or whatever, is someone who is supposed to see things more deeply than the average person. They have more experience with more versions, and can tell you why something is empirically good or bad – and why. We depend on critics so that we don’t waste our time and money on worthless things, or so that we can set our expectations to the right level before we go somewhere.

God’s word is the ultimate and perfect critic. Because the Word of God is living, active, sharp and piercing, God uses it to “discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart.” God sees it, and the Bible shows it to us.

Remember last week when I said that our problem is that we don’t know our hearts? I read Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”. But the solution is that God does know our hearts, and that He gives us His word as a roadmap to our hearts. This is what I meant.

James 1:22-25 describes the word of God as being a mirror,

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

That’s a warning to us who read God’s word because it will show us who we are. This has happened to me so many times, I cannot tell you. I’ve even taken to circling them. I will start by writing out a concern, or a problem, or something that is bothering me, or a request, or a question – just something that is on my heart.

And over and over, as I read the words of God, He will open me up like a surgeon, pull out my heart, and then show it to me.

“This is what you got wrong there.”

“This is what you really meant.”

“This is what’s wrong with what you just said.”

“This is how I’m going to answer that prayer.”

In that moment, on that day, God speaks directly to me… and I can literally draw a line from my issue to God’s response. But there are so many days when I close the book, walk away, and forget the incredible thing that just happened! I forget that the God of the universe just spoke to me. And it shames me.

Perhaps you know this feeling too. You are reading scripture or listening to a bible teacher and God shows you what you are really thinking, feeling, and doing. He pulls out your ideas and desires and mental conversations and then shows you exactly what’s going on there. He replays them for you and then tells you exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.

He shows you that you are cultivating lust, or talking down to yourself, or are harboring bitterness or hatred, that you are being selfish and reinforcing bad behavior… in your mind… and he lifts the veil of your thoughts and shows you exactly what is happening in the background.

You start to pray, and you open the word, and he shows you your own intentions. He shows you what you were really thinking when you did that, why you really did it, and all the reasons behind it – that no one else really knew. He holds up a mirror to your very soul.

In this way He is softening your conscience and teaching you about yourself. He’s giving you a roadmap of your heart, a picture of who you really are. And it draws you closer to Him because you realize that you need Him to help you, save you, forgive you, change you, open you up and clean what is inside.

Where Can I Run?

Verse 13 of Hebrews 4 reminds us that

“…no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

For some, that nakedness brings nothing but shame and fear, so they close the book and refuse to open it. For others, being exposed to God is a comfort, knowing there is nothing between them, and that they are not hiding like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ashamed of their sin, but standing in the presence of their Creator, forgiven and unashamed. It is my prayer that you would run to God, that you would allow him to open you up every day, to do surgery on your heart every day, to bring you more and more healing every day – by reading and prayerfully interacting with His word.

Let’s close by reading Psalm 139, which is prayer to God thanking Him for His perfect knowledge.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you….

 Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting!

Special Request: How Do You Devo?

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How Do You Devo?

Devos, Daily Devotionals, Quiet Time, Private Meditation, Time with God, 1-on-1 with Jesus, Daily Prayers — there are lots of names for it and likely as many ways to do it. And I want to know yours!

I recently filled my very first prayer journal and got a shiny new one to celebrate (pictured above). God has been doing amazing things during these times with Him. Every day God answers my concerns, points out new insights, convicts me of sin, reveals my heart, and gives me comfort. My time with God is very important to me and I want to spread the joy by sharing what I do.

But not only that, I want to know what you do! I searched for years to find a personal way to connect with God. I tried dozens of guides, systems, studies and techniques, but none captured my heart. Eventually I came up with my own and it has been truly incredible.

I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this. Many Christians struggle to have a consistent, daily time with God, and one repeated reason is that they “don’t know how”. The mission of this blog is to “give you the tools and inspiration you need to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with God” and I believe that sharing how we do our personal devotions is a way to help accomplish that mission. Once I gather some I intend to put together a special training night on “How to Journal Using Scripture as Your Guide” using insights from those who share! Then, for those who can’t be trained in person, I’ll post it on my blog.

Will you join me in helping others to spend more time with God?

My Devo Setup

My old prayer journal
My old prayer journal.

I’ve made a commitment that the first thing I do when I sit at my desk is to take away the wireless keyboard, put on the isolation headphones (playing classical and jazz music), and open my prayer journal. I begin by writing out the prayers on my heart, asking forgiveness for sin and sharing the troubles that are on my mind. Then, I open up the Bible. I have 5 bookmarks in my tattered NIV and I journal a reflection after each chapter. As I read and pray I search for what God is saying to me for that day. I believe He will speak through His word, and He does!

Sharing Your Setup?

So, what’s your setup?

To share, follow these steps:

  1. Write a brief synopsis sharing where you are and what tools and methods you use.
  2. Take a picture of your environment and tools.
  3. Use the comment section below and link to your picture OR Send the comment and picture to my email (pastor.allan+artofthechristianninja@gmail.com)
  4. Pass this post along to your Christian friends so they can contribute too!

Thanks in advance to all who participate.

Why Should I Love My Enemies?

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I gave a talk to a group of AWANA kids this week. It was “Heart Night” (celebrating Valentine’s Day) and I spoke on Love. I used some animated gifs in the powerpoint, which is where all the giggling at the beginning comes from. I linked to a few if you want a giggle too.

Here’s the audio (12 minutes):

AWANA Love Your Enemy - BANNER

How many of you are good at opposites? Let’s start off with a quick quiz.

What is the opposite of: UP – DOWN, AWAKE – ASLEEP, ANGRY – HAPPY, FRIENDSENEMIES, LOVE – HATE.

Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day I want to talk about some of those opposite words.

Jesus taught a lot of things that seem opposite to us. He said things like: Help people without telling anyone (Matthew 6:3), lend things generously but don’t ask for them back (Luke 6:35), if someone hits you, let them hit you again (Matthew 5:39), if someone steals your shirt, you should give him your jacket too (Matthew 5:40), and He even said to “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27).

That’s a little confusing isn’t it? It’s not what we hear from most people. It’s easy to love our friends, but how can we love our enemies? The whole problem with an enemy is that they are someone who is trying to harm us! They trip us when we walk down the hallway, take our things, break our stuff, pull our hair, blame us for things we didn’t do. How can we love them?

The Fox and the Scorpion

Beautiful art, but I can't find the artist. Please let me know so I can give credit.
Beautiful art, but I can’t find the artist. Please let me know so I can give credit.

Let me tell you a story about someone who trusted their enemy. It’s the story of the Fox and the Scorpion.

Once, long ago, in the vast lands of the desert, there was a great river that had to be crossed for so the animals could get food and water. One day, Fox came to the river and was looking for a place where it was safest to cross. As he searched, Fox’s lifelong enemy Scorpion crawled up on a rock near him and began to speak.

“Fox, I’ve been walking along this river bank, looking for food, and I noticed a very easy place to cross the river – where the water is not so deep and not so swift. I would like to cross over myself, but I am so small it would be impossible! Would you be willing to take me across if I show you the place?” asked Scorpion,

Fox replied, “Why would I take you across!? How could I trust you not to sting me since we are lifelong enemies?”

“Why would I sting you? For if I stung you it would mean that we would both drown!” said Scorpion.

Fox thought it over, keeping a distrustful eye on Scorpion, but eventually said, “Show me where this place is, and I will take you across.”

When they got to the place, Fox bent down to allow Scorpion to climb on his back. And as Fox was swimming across, when he reached the middle of the river, he felt a sharp STING on his back! As the poison filled his veins Fox cried out, “How could you sting me? Now we will both drown!”

Scorpion replied, “It is better that we both should perish, than that my lifelong enemy should live!”

The Problem

That’s the problem isn’t it? Many people would hear this story and think, “Yeah, once I have an enemy. If I don’t like someone, or they prove that they don’t like me, then I shouldn’t ever be nice to them. I should stay away from them. If they are in trouble, I should walk away.” They make us mad! We want to hurt them back. We want to cry. We want to punish them.

But Jesus says that we need to love our enemies! Why? Why would He say that? Does Jesus want us to keep getting beat up? Does Jesus want us to be wimps? Does Jesus want us to be cowards? Doesn’t Jesus want the best for us? Of course He does! And He knows people a lot better than we do.

The Solution

So, may I share with you three reasons why I think Jesus wants us to love our enemies?

1. Love Conquers Hate (Romans 12:17-21)

The first reason is that love conquers hate. Have you ever heard someone say, “You have to fight fire with fire”? What that means is that when someone does something bad, you should do something bad to them. But what happens when you fight fire with fire? You only get more fire! Everything gets burned up.

 What should you fight a fire with? A fire extinguisher! Put out the fire! Hating and hurting our enemies won’t defeat our enemies. It will just create more, and stronger, enemies. When we love our enemies, it’s like pouring water on a fire, or blasting it with a fire extinguisher. We put out the hatered.

Romans 12:20-21 says, “…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Can you imagine what would happen to your enemy if you helped feed them when they were hungry? If you shared your lunch with them when they didn’t have one? If you gave them your juice-box when they were thirsty? What would happen then? They might become your friend! At the very least they would change how they think about you. You don’t overcome evil with more evil… you overcome evil with good!

2. Love Changes People (Luke 6:27-28)

Here’s another reason to love our enemies instead of hating them. We can’t change them – only God can. And the way that God changes people by us loving them and by His Spirit working inside of them.

If we do good to people who hate us, God can use our love to change their hearts. And if we pray for them, then God promises to answer prayers and change the world for us. He promises that when we pray, He will answer. Maybe He will make that person kinder. Maybe He will give you more patience when talking to them. Maybe He will help you know what to say next time they do something, or help you be strong and kind when they do something mean again. God does amazing things when we love people and pray for them.

That’s why Jesus says in Luke 6:27-28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

3. Hate Is Like Poison

Here’s another reason Jesus taught us to love our enemies instead of hating them.

Have you ever felt angry with someone, and you wanted to hurt them and get back at them – and you had hate in your heart – and you felt so upset that you ended up treating people that you love badly? They didn’t do anything and now you’re mad at them too!

Maybe you have a bad day at school, or fight with your brother or sister, or someone said something mean to you – and instead of forgiving, you decide to stay upset and let hate into your heart. What happens when later? You yell at your mom. You’re grumpy with your friends. You are angry with yourself and stomp around. Hate has become like a poison in your heart.

The Bible says in Hebrew 12:15 to “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” (NLT) If someone hurts us, and we choose not to forgive them, not to pray for them, not to do good to them, not to love them… the hate inside of us acts like a poison – and that poison gets bigger, and can hurt many people.

Love Comes from Jesus

So, how can we do this? Loving our enemies is really hard, isn’t it? Here are two things to remember that I use to help me love my enemies, and I think they will help you too.

First, pray about it. Remember when Daniel was in the lion’s den, surrounded by hungry lions? What did he do? He prayed! So what should we do when we are surrounded by enemies? Pray! You’ve probably memorized lots of Bible verses about asking God for help. You are learning these because they are true! If you are having a hard time forgiving and loving, ask Jesus for help and He will help you.

And second, remember that love comes from Jesus. This is what Jesus did for us. The Bible, in Romans 5:8-11, says that even though we are sinners and enemies of God, that God sent Jesus to come and die for us! Jesus traded his life for ours because He loved us, even when we were his enemies. And then 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us!” So, since Jesus loved us, even when we were His enemies, and once we become His friends by believing in Him, He will teach us and give us the strength to love our enemies too.

Wisdom and Foolishness

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I’m a HUGE fan of the AWANA program and had the opportunity to speak again last Thursday night. I gave a talk called “Wisdom or Foolishness” to a group of kids aged 5-12 and their leaders (which included some pretty fun pictures!).

Here’s the audio:

I want to play a game with you that I’m going to call “Good or Bad”. I’ll show you something on the screen and you tell me if it’s a “good thing” or a “bad thing”. Sometimes it’s easy to tell if something is good or bad, sometimes it’s not. Let’s take a look.

GoodBAD

Now I’m going to show you something different. These aren’t “Good or Bad” — I want you to tell me if they are making a Wise decision or a Foolish decision.

Foolish

You all seemed pretty good at that! You were able to tell if the person was doing something wise or foolish. But it’s not always that easy! So let’s look at how we can tell the difference:

Wisdom: You can tell something is a Wise decision because it is a good idea that will have a good ending. If you are wise, then you see things properly, you have a good idea what’s going to happen, and you know that after you have done it, God will be pleased, people will be blessed, and you will be healthier, happier and experience more joy.

Foolishness: The opposite of being wise is being Foolish. A person who is being foolish doesn’t do things properly, doesn’t think about what’s going to happen next. They don’t worry about what God thinks, they don’t worry about how others will be affected, they don’t really worry about how it will affect their lives in the long run, but only hopes they will be happy after they do it

Most of the time, it’s easy to tell the difference between something that is bad (a sin) and something that is good. God gave us a lot of teachings in the Bible that show us good from bad, right from wrong. We have the 10 Commandments, and the teachings of Jesus, and of the Apostles and Prophets that tell us right from wrong, good from bad, sin from righteousness. And God has given us a good gift called a conscience – and if we are a Christian, then we have an even better gift called the Holy Spirit – Who tells us the difference. Sometimes we don’t listen to our consciences, or the Holy Spirit, but in our hearts we still know if doing something is good or bad, right or wrong, sin or not a sin.

What’s harder than knowing if something is “Good” or “Bad” is knowing whether something is “Wise” or “Foolish”. Sometimes something will not be a sin, but it will still be a foolish idea. Sometimes it’s hard to think ahead to know if God will be pleased, if people will be helped, or if we will be happier in the long run. Sometimes this is because doing the wise thing takes a long time, and we don’t see what happens for a while.

Two More Examples: 

The first is eating candy. Is eating candy a sin? Does God say we can’t eat candy? No, eating candy is not a sin. We are allowed to have candy, and I’m very glad for that!

But say your mom or dad buys you some Easter candy. They give you a chocolate bunny, some chocolate eggs, some marshmallow peeps, some m&m’s and a whole bag of jelly beans – lots of candy. Now, is it a sin to eat all of the Easter candy at once? No, it’s not bad. There’s no verse that says you shouldn’t eat all your easter candy at once.  It’s not a sin. They were given to you to eat, and they are yours.

But let me ask you this… is it Wise to eat all of your Easter candy at once? It’s not a sin, but that doesn’t mean it’s Wise, right? No, it’s Foolish! Why? Because you will feel sick, and you won’t have any left for later, and you probably won’t enjoy it as much, and you won’t have any to share… there’s lots of reasons that Foolish. It’s not a sin, but it’s foolish.

Here’s another example. It’s Wednesday evening before bed, and you are all done your school and your chores. You just got a new game to play and you can’t wait to play it. So you ask your mom and dad if you can play your new game and they say YES!

You go to your room and then realize that you haven’t memorized your verse for AWANA yet. AWANA isn’t until tomorrow, but you know that you have a busy day tomorrow. You might be able to fit it in at lunch, but you’re not sure. What is the Wise thing to do?

Let me ask you this: Would it be a sin to play your new game? No! Your parents said it would be ok and you worked hard on your school all day. Playing games isn’t sin. Would be more Wise to play the game or memorize the verse for AWANA. Why? That’s harder to do though, isn’t it?

When you are trying to figure out what the wise thing to do is,  it’s important to think about what’s going to happen later, do what pleases God, what blesses people and what will make you healthier and happier. Playing that new game might be fun, but it would be wiser to learn the verse so you can know more about Jesus, please God, be ready for AWANA, be able to help others, and have the joy of the bible in your heart. Sometimes wise living isn’t easy, but in the end it is the most rewarding.

Often, if you listen to your mom or dad, their biggest problem isn’t figuring out what is good or bad (what is sin or not-sin) but trying to figure out what the wisest thing to do is. They are trying not to do anything foolish. And more often than not, if you ask them why they are sad, or upset, or frustrated they will say “I did something foolish, or someone did something foolish to me.”

4 Ways To Help Make Wise Decisions:

If you come to a situation where you have a choice, and you know that it’s not choosing between something Good or Bad… it’s not about sinning or not sinning… but having to choose between what is Wise or Foolish, here’s what you should do:

1. Pray – If you are a Christian, then you know that Jesus loves you, He died for your sins, and He lives in your heart. He not only wants you to talk to Him in prayer, but if you are listening, He will also talk back to you. Not usually in a voice you hear with your ears, but one that you hear on the insides. I can’t say exactly how Jesus will talk to you, but I know that He does.

And if you’re not a Christian, and you don’t talk to Jesus, then I invite you to realize that you are a sinner, that you’ve done bad things, that you need to be saved from your sin. Ask Jesus to forgive you, and then to teach you how to live wisely as a forgiven Christian.

2. Read the Bible – Someone once told me that 95% of everything we need to know is written in the Bible, and that we don’t need to worry as much about the other 5%. Chances are, the advice you are looking for is written in the bible. In fact, when Jesus talks to you in your prayers, He will often speak by pointing you at Bible verses you have read, learned and memorized! That’s why your AWANA leaders work so hard to help you learn the Bible! So you can know Jesus and live wise lives. So, after praying, think of all the verses you know, and think if they will help you make the decision. If you don’t know any verses then here’s the next thing to do:

3. Ask an Older Christian that you trust – Talk to your brother or sister, mom or dad, or grandma or grandpa, if they are Christians. Talk to an elder at church, or your pastor, or the preacher on Sunday. There is nothing that older Christians like to do more than to listen to the hearts of the young Christians they love and help them live wisely! Make sure it’s someone that you trust, and that you know loves Jesus, otherwise they might try to give you worldly advice, or say something that sounds wise but is really foolish. It’s best to talk to older Christians who you know love Jesus.

4. Trust in God’s Love – If you are trying to be Wise and make the right decision, and you want to live wisely, and you want to do good, God is amazingly able to fill in all the bits you might mess up. The bible says that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pe 4:8) and what that means is that God is happy when your heart is in the right place. Sometimes God will work miracles to help you out, even if you’re make some mistakes along the way, because He knows you’re trying to please Him and live wisely. If your heart is in the right place, even if you mess up God will forgive you and other Christians will forgive you.

So, if you’ve prayed about it, and read the bible about it, and talked to older Christians that you trust, then go ahead and live out what you think is right. God loves the heart of a person who wants to do the right thing, and loves to help you out even when you might not be doing it exactly right. He’s pretty amazing that way.

My prayer, and the prayer of your leaders is that you will live good and wise lives, listening to Jesus, loving your bible, and learning from older Christians who love you.

What’s In A Name?

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I’m a HUGE fan of the AWANA program and have been blessed with the opportunity to speak a couple of times. Last night I gave a talk called “What’s In a Name?” to a group of kids aged 5-12 and their leaders. It’s an adaptation of the sermon I gave on Sunday, but I was amazed how God changed the message when writing for a younger group.

Here’s the audio (12 minutes) from the older kids (9-12):

Here’s the audio from the younger kids (5-8):

Let’s play a name game. Here are some things I bet you didn’t even know had names:

  • What’s the name of the metal part on the pencil that holds the eraser? FERULE
  • What’s it called when your second toe is longer than your big toe? MORTON’S TOE
  • What’s it called when your tummy rumbles? A WAMBLE
  • What’s the name of that little groove between your nose and lips? A PHILTRUM
  • What’s the name of the little plastic bit at the end of your shoelace? AN AGLET

Names of Things

Do you know the name of the church you are in right now? Rideauview Bible Chapel. Chapel is another name for Church. Do you know where the word “church” comes from? It’s a strange word, isn’t it? What is a “church”? Some of you here say that you “go to church”, but does “church” just mean “the building where Christians go to worship Jesus”?

The word “Church” actually means “belonging to the Lord”. It’s used to describe a building that belongs to the Lord and also the people inside of it that “belong to the Lord”. But there are lots of other names in the Bible that are used to describe what being part of the Church is all about – and I want to share three of them with you.

“CONGREGATION”

This is the word that Jesus uses to describe His people. Do you know what a “congregation” is? It just means any group of people that aren’t in their own house. Any group of people, anywhere, is a “congregation”. If you go to a restaurant and there are other people there, you are part of a congregation. If you go to a baseball game, or a hockey game, you’re part of a congregation. It just means “a group of people who aren’t in their home.”

But when Jesus use it, He used it in a special way. In Matthew 16 (vs 16 & 18) Peter says to Jesus “‘You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God’…Jesus replied ‘…on this rock I will build my church…” “Congregation” and “church” are the same word, but did you hear that? What did Jesus call us? “MY Church”. That what He calls us, you and me, “My Church”.

Isn’t that cool? When we are together with other Christians, we are part of a group of people who aren’t just together… we are together because Jesus called us together to be HIS!

Do you ever use that word – MINE! Sometimes you hear little kids use it. “That toy is MINE!” MINE! What do you mean when you use it? When someone comes and takes something that is yours and you think, “Hey, that’s MINE!”

You mean “I love that! I want it! I want to protect it! I’ll take care of it! I want it around me! It’s MINE!” And when you lose something that is MINE, I’ll be sad, right?

That’s how Jesus thinks of His church. We are HIS! He loves us, wants us, protects us, takes care of us, wants us around Him. We are HIS!

So if sometimes you feel like you aren’t very special, or that you aren’t worth much, or are feeling sad, forgotten, alone, or afraid, just remember that Jesus is looking at you and saying “Hey! He’s MINE! She’s MINE! I love them! I want them! I’ll protect them! I want to be around them forever!”

“THE WAY”

Another way the Bible describes the church is by calling us “The Way”. Have you ever heard that? Remember what Jesus called Himself? “The Way, the Truth and the Life”, right? Well, in the very beginning of the Christian church, in the book of Acts, Christians would call themselves “The Way”.

“The Way” is just another word for “the Road” or “the Path”. What street do you live on? I live on Chatelain AVENUE. Right now we are on Prince of Wales DRIVE. Maybe you’ve driven down Merivale ROAD, or Scott STREET. Avenue, Drive, Road, and Street are all just words for the path that you go down to get where you’re going.

When Jesus said that He is “The Way”, He meant that He is the road that we need to go down to get where we are going. Remember the whole verse? “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) So, if you want to get to the Father, who is God, how do you get there? Through Jesus. He calls Himself the only road to God, the only road to heaven, the only road to eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. And so the church started calling themselves “The Way”, which meant that they were following the only “Way” there was to be saved from our sins. They were following Jesus.

I think this is a very cool word for the church because it reminds me that whenever I feel worried, lost, or afraid, or confused, or don’t know what to do, or how the future is going to go… I remember that Jesus is “the Way” and that as long as I’m following Him, I don’t need to worry about all those things because He knows what He’s doing.

Do people ask you what you’re going to be when you grow up? I wanted to be a computer guy, but God made me into a Pastor instead. I would never have guessed that was going to happen. But as long as I was following Jesus, He was leading my down His “Way”.

So don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re going to be when you grow up. Don’t worry if you don’t know how your day, your week, or your month is going to go. Just keep reading your bible, talking to Jesus, and listening to Him, and He’ll guide you on His “Way” and will get you to where you need to go.

“CHRISTIANS”

There’s another word that the bible uses to describe the people in the church, it’s the word “Christians”. It means “follower of Christ” or “belonging to Christ”. You’ve heard that word before, and many of you here would say that you are Christians. You’ve asked Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and now you are a Christian.

But did you know that when people were first called Christians, it wasn’t a nice thing to be called! No, it was meant to be an insult. People didn’t really understand who Jesus was, what He had done, or what people did when they became a Christian, so they thought all Christians were really weird.

Think about it. We call each other family, and we say that we are “brothers and sisters in Christ.” Well, someone who didn’t know anything about Christians would look at two people who were total strangers calling each other brothers and sisters and think they were crazy! Or two people who called themselves brother and sister and then got married!  That would be weird!

And when we have communion we say that we are remembering Jesus dying on the cross by drinking wine that represents His blood, and eating bread that represents His body. Well some people thought that Christians actually got together and drank real blood and ate real people! They didn’t know it was just wine and bread, they thought Christians were cannibals!

I think this is a cool name too because I’m reminded that when we become Christians, we are going to be misunderstood and people are going to think we are weird. When we close our eyes and pray before we eat, we are going to look different than the people who don’t thank God for their food. When we tell people that we don’t want to join in when they are doing something bad, we are going to look different and maybe even lose some friends. When we say that we believe the Bible is the word of God, some people who don’t believe that are going to make fun of us. When we go to church on Sunday and miss out on an important practice, or an important game, our team is going to think we are weird. When we don’t watch the same tv shows and movies as everyone else, they are going to think we are crazy.

But this word Christian, reminds me that it’s ok to be different. In fact, being a Christian means I’m going to be different. Christians don’t belong to the world, they belong to Jesus. We don’t do what everyone else does, we do what Jesus does. We don’t act like, look like, sound like, behave like, or think like the rest of the world – and that’s ok, because don’t want to be like the rest of the world. We want to be like Jesus.