Friday, 20 July 2018

Pastor's Page: Sin in the Camp (Josh 7)

Human encounters with God are frequently detailed in scripture. They all assume the holiness of God, often with dramatic emphasis, and occasionally with fire and fury to demonstrate God’s zeal for holiness and his fierce hatred of sin. When Adam and Eve first sinned, they hid themselves from God’s fierce anger as they heard him approaching in a storm (this is the meaning of the traditional translation “cool of the day”). When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he was told to remove his sandals from his feet, for the ground is holy; Joshua had a similar experience just before the battle of Jericho (Josh 5:15). When the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai on their journey from Egypt to Canaan, they encounter God on a mountain blazing with fire, in darkness, gloom and storm, to a site so fearful that Moses himself exclaimed, “I am trembling with fear (Heb 12:18-21). When Isaiah saw his vision of God high and exalted, seated on a throne and surrounded by seraphim, he despaired of life itself, crying, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isa 6:5).
The ferocity of God’s holiness is often downplayed in our world and even in our churches today. We tolerate sin within the church too easily, often in the name of not hurting someone’s feelings. Of course, one should be circumspect and respectful in our interpersonal relationships, but our first concern should be God’s holiness and the holiness of his people, the Church. Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
Because of the world’s concerted effort to ignore sin and to redefine it to make holiness irrelevant, many Christians have lost the sense of urgency in pursuing holiness. Not only do we fail to search our hearts for unconfessed sin, but we often embrace sin, as if we think there are no consequences to living in sin.
The story of Achan lurches us back to reality. God is holy, and his holiness is a consuming fire that does not tolerate sin. True, the plunder of Jericho that was to be dedicated to God was vast, and in the grand scheme of things, the few items that Achan stole may have seemed inconsequential. Yet God calls for his people to be serious about keeping his commands without compromise. He calls us to wash our hands and purify our hearts, and to share his holy hatred for sin. Let us then be earnest and “touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor 6:17).

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Pastor's Page: Spies Like Us

Pastor’s Take-away*
Spies Like Us:
How God Transforms Bunglers into Competent Kingdom Agents

The mission to spy out Jericho was dubious, at best. Why invest in intel and put lives at risk when God had already and in no uncertain terms assured them that the mission was his to win? Accordingly, the decision to send spies to Jericho was an indicator of their lack of trust in God and their presumption of their own competency: “Let’s help God give us this gift!” We might recall that the last spy mission achieved nothing but an extra forty years of wandering in the wilderness. We’re not surprised then, despite the emphasis on secrecy, to read that the king learned exactly where to find the spies the very day they entered the city gates. The mission was in jeopardy from the get-go.
The spies found themselves in a precarious situation with the king’s men busting in on them at the prostitute’s house. No doubt the spies recognized Rahab’s house as a strategic location for garnering intel, not only because it was built into the city wall, but also because secrets tend to be spilt there. With the doors bursting open, the spies had little recourse but to trust the prostitute Rahab’s urging to hide themselves on the roof under the flax.
Not willing to trust God to begin with, the spies’ faith would now be especially tested, for they had to put their lives in the hands of one of their enemies—a Canaanite. Well, worse than that, a Canaanite woman. While Israelite women, such as Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Susanna, and Judith were depicted as wise and competent, trusting a Canaanite woman must have been particularly humiliating for them. And this was no ordinary Canaanite woman, but a prostitute—someone who was at the bottom of Canaanite social order. They must truly have feared the worst for their lives.
This was just the beginning of the spies’ bungling. They had been told to be very careful to keep everything written in the book of the law, but to save themselves, the prostitute had to lie for them, breaking the ninth commandment. Not only so, but the spies brokered an exception to God’s mandate that all the inhabitants of Jericho were to be killed, compromising God’s command in exchange for their own lives.
They walked into Jericho full of self-confidence but had to scamper out with tails tucked. They learned nothing of strategic import—nothing about weaknesses in the wall or troop strength, etc. They returned home reporting that they were found out immediately, they were rescued by a Canaanite prostitute, and that they pledged in God’s name not to kill Rahab’s family.
The one thing they learned was that Jericho was all in great fear of the Israelites and their God. The spies also learned in the coming days that God is faithful and God is competent. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down when God’s people trusted in him.

*This weekly blog is designed for the Sunday Bulletin. If you need filler for your newsletter or bulletin, feel free to take it, with due attribution.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Why We Do Vacation Bible School

Why We Do Vacation Bible School

No, not because there’s nothing else to do in the summer! VBS is crazy hard work. It drains our physical and emotional stamina. It leaves us wrung out like a wet paper towel. We neglect healthy eating, exercise, house cleaning and yard work, job responsibilities, and a dozen other obligations during VBS week and even before VBS gets started. What is so compelling that we give up so much to make our VBS awesome?
VBS, perhaps more than any other church ministry, recognizes that kids live in a fallen world that constantly puts them at risk. We see kids who bear burdens that even adults can hardly bear. They have their own kinds of griefs. They experience all kinds of serious disappointments. They cry and act out over little things often because of larger troubling issues that are crushing them. They suffer physical and mental health disorders. On top of this, they themselves must cope with a sense of guilt over their sin and lostness. In short, if the song is true that “people need the Lord,” so do kids, even in the tenderness of their youth.
In VBS, we dare tell our kids that Jesus rescues us from this present evil age and the dominion of darkness. We don’t use those theological words, but we explain that even in our darkest, hardest days, Jesus loves us, that he is powerful, and that he will sustain those who put their trust in him. Most importantly, we tell them that those who put their trust in Jesus will never be disappointed.
Against everything that the world might teach kids, we tell them that the Bible answers the inescapable questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Is there a God? If so, how can I know him? Is there such a thing as right and wrong? What is my purpose in life? Is there life after death? Is there a heaven and a hell? If so, how can I go to one and avoid the other? What can I do about these feelings of guilt? How then shall I live?
Kids need to hear this message. Our message often gets drowned out by those who scream the wrong answers at them. Instead of hearing answers from God’s Word, they are often told that there is no God, that they should be their own gods, that they should live to make themselves happy, and that there is no right and wrong. They hear wrong answers from the entertainment industry, from cultural thinkers, from some of our politicians, and even from their own school teachers. For this reason, we put our minds and energies into thinking about how to amplify the message that Jesus rescues so that our kids will not lose hope.
VBS is but one week a year. We hope to make a big impact on kids’ lives, but to make a real difference we urge parents to bring their kids to church worship every Sunday, to Sunday School, and to our Wednesday children’s activities. Youth ministry is best done in the context of family ministry.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Pastor's Page: Faithful to the End

Pastor’s Take-Away

Faithful to the End
Josh 23:14

One thing is certain, from first to last, God is ever faithful--faithful to the end.   God assures us, “My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). This assurance is trustworthy because it arises from the steadfast character of God.

God is a “person”—that is, he is a personal being that relates to humans in personal relationships. An important aspect of this God-human relationship is learning to trust in God’s character and his eternal promises. When Israel was suffering under Egyptian bondage, Moses anticipated the Israelites’ query, “What is your name so I may tell them who you are?” or, more to the point, “Who is this God that we should trust him?” So it was that through the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea and deliverance from Egypt, and the divine guidance through 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites learned who God is as he revealed his trustworthy character.

Learning to trust God is an enterprise for every generation. With Moses’s death, Joshua’s generation faced new challenges, but never without the divine assurance, “I am with you, even to the end of the age!” God was present at the crossing of the Jordan, at the fall of Jericho, and in the extraordinary conquest of Canaan. Wherever Joshua’s footsteps, fell God was with him. To be sure, there were plenty of those, “Why God?” moments when God’s presence seemed far removed, or when God chose to hide his presence. On such occasions, one wise old man’s pithy saying on a rainy day rings true: the sun is shining, but you just can’t see it.

Joshua learned to trust God through adversity and through boon. His trust was such that he urged his fellow Israelites to do the same, to stake their allegiance in him. In his old age, after a lifetime of trusting in God, Joshua reminded all Israel of God’s faithfulness. He said, ““Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

But personal relationships is a two-way street. It will not do for one person to be faithful and the other feckless. Thus, Joshua’s testimony of God’s faithfulness was meant to spur the Israelites to reciprocal faithfulness. Following his tremendous and comforting assertions that God keeps all his promises, Joshua issued dire warnings to those who would betray their allegiance to God. Because God is faithful to the end, we too must be faithful to the end.

Joshua’s testimony anticipates the Pauline declaration that whatsoever promises God has ever made, they are all “yes” in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Accordingly, we confess, “Jesus, Jesus! How I trust him, How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er. Jesus, Jesus, Precious Jesus! O for grace to trust him more.”

Pastor Jim

Friday, 6 April 2018

Pastor's Page: Discipleship and Building on the Rock

The parable is unforgettable; we’ve known it since our Sunday School days. Building a house on sand might be easy, and building on rock might be hard, but houses are more likely to last if built on rock. Final, end-time judgment is implied in the parable, one that is evident even in that children’s song: the house on the sand went splat!

Often overlooked in the parable is that one’s wisdom or foolishness is predicated on whether the individual who hears Jesus’ words put them into practice. If you hear the words but don’t put them into practice, you’re a fool who will experience a final, end-time judgment that is catastrophic. If you hear the words and, in fact, put them into practice, you’re a wise person who will stand firm and unscathed, despite the wrath that floods the earth at the final end-time judgment.

Matthew’s Gospel regularly alludes to this end-time judgment, and the parable is thoroughly contexted by judgment themes. Theologians refer to this end-time judgment with the pregnant term “eschatological judgment.” It conjures up both Noahic deluge imagery and fiery apocalyptic imagery as God brings this age to a climactic end under his reign. Thus, even at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, we see John urgently preaching repentance to prepare for eschatological judgment: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. [Jesus’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3).

 The theme of judgment extends into the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus repeatedly warns of the fires of hell (5:22, 29, 30; 7:19), and eschatological rewards (5:12, 19, 20, 47; 6:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 33; 7:13, 14, 21, 23). And the theme continues immediately after the parable in chapters 8-10, where, for example, Jesus warns his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).
Jesus levels these warnings of end-time judgment even at his own disciples. While elsewhere in the Bible, especially in Paul, we are taught that we are saved by grace through faith, Jesus explains that faith is not merely intellectual assent, but a shift of one’s allegiance to Christ that is accompanied by true repentance. Thus, the believer is a disciple who produces fruit in keeping with repentance; fruit-producing is not optional, nor is keeping Jesus’s commandments.

 Let us then be true and wise disciples who are diligent not only to hear but practice Jesus’ teaching so that we may stand when the eschatological waters rise and beat upon our rock-built houses.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Pastor's Page: Marvelous in Our Eyes: How the Despised Remnant Becomes God's Eschatological Temple

Pastor's Take-away
Marvelous in Our Eyes
Solomon’s temple was thought to be one of the great wonders of the world. It stood several centuries before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. It was soon rebuilt, using the old foundations, but lacked its Solomonic splendor. Centuries later, King Herod the Great destroyed a major section of it as he usurped the Jewish throne. This gave him the opportunity to become a great temple builder. He expanded the temple’s original borders and integrated the temple walls into Jerusalem’s fortifications. The new temple was spectacular, a remarkable testimony to human engineering.
Herod completed the main temple structure about the time of Jesus’ birth, but the construction process was not brought to completion for another 50 years. Ironically, the temple itself was tragically destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, just a decade after its completion, underscoring the truth of the psalmist’s claim, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (127:1).
Ultimately, no matter the grandeur, no matter the time or circumstance, the Jerusalem Temple is but a shadow of God’s heavenly temple. In fact, the Bible depicts a magnificent eschatological (end-time, ideal) temple in Ezek 40-48. The language is highly figurative and stresses the essence of Temple theology, that God dwells in the midst of his people. Indeed, just verses after describing the New Jerusalem (Rev 21), the Revelator declares that there is no temple there, “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
Jesus himself appropriated the essence of Temple theology for himself and his Church. Since Temple theology is encapsulated as God’s dwelling among his people, Jesus makes his disciples into the new, eschatological temple, for where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, God is present with them. Thus, Peter writes, “You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple” (1 Pet 2 NLT).
Accordingly, we believers, united together in Christ, are God’s new temple. Thus Paul writes, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor 3). To be sure, God’s Temple is in need of continuous cleansing, just like the Jerusalem temple. Nonetheless, this eschatological New Temple, God’s Church, is built upon the great CORNERSTONE. It is marvelous to our eyes, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Pastor's Page: ALL GLORY, LAUD, AND HONOR (Palm Sunday)

Pastor’s Take-Away

Our processional hymn is ancient, written by Theodolph of Orleans (A.D. 820). It celebrates Jesus’ coronation as king over God’s kingdom, reflected in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Triumphal Entry is ironic in that five days later this same Jesus was crucified as a pathetic pretender to the throne. The irony was not lost on Theodolph since this piece celebrating of God’s rule was written while he himself was imprisoned.
There is a strong tension between the confident assertion of God’s kingship and the sin that pervades our humanity. As Longfellow wrote, despite life’s chaos, illness, grief, and death, the Christmas bells peal loud and deep:

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Jesus himself declared that the kingdom is indeed come in his own person as he raised the dead, healed disease, and cast out demons. All this reflects the inauguration of the kingdom. Christ’s death might have falsely flagged his own defeat, but his resurrection guarantees the future culmination of the kingdom when God will wipe away every tear;
Theodolph’s hymn became popular in medieval times. Christians would celebrate Palm Sunday by gathering outside the city gates. Children would sing the verses, and the crowds echo the refrain “All glory, laud, and honor to thee redeemer king.” The city gates would then open to the crowd and the worshipers would proceed to the parish church or cathedral.
But the tradition is even more ancient. The text behind the events of Palm Sunday come from Psalm 24:
Lift up your heads, you gates;
    lift them up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
    The Lord Almighty—
    he is the King of glory.
We think that the ancient Israelites enacted this text in worship, like medieval worshipers. The king and his entourage outside of the city would call for the gates to be opened, and the gate keepers would ask who this glorious person is, with the crowd responding that he is the glorious king.
So also in today’s service, we open up the gates of our hearts to welcome Jesus Christ, God’s own Son who brings to us the kingdom of God.

Pastor Jim