8 Pulses to Check this December

As we come to the end of another year, the finish line is in sight.  Christmas plans are in place, and all those events will soon be over.  Before you know it, we will be into 2023 with all the familiarity of a New Year and the uncertainties of a new year.  We know people will join the gym and try to read through their Bible, but we never know what is about to happen.

Between the Christmas events finishing and the launch of 2023, let’s take a moment to take the pulse, actually, several pulses.  If you are involved in church ministry, then here are some pulses you need to be checking:

1.  God.  How does God feel about your church?  How does God’s heart beat for all that matters to you?  God’s heart is your ultimate concern.  Knowing God’s heart doesn’t require mystical guesswork.  It requires time in the Bible and time in prayer.  We should prayerfully prepare every sermon we preach, and I think it is wise to seek God’s heart for each passage and how it should land in the hearts of your listeners.  But why not take the year-end as an opportunity to seek God’s heart about your church, your ministry, and your part in His plans? 

2.  Society.  Are you aware of what is going on in society?  There is a whole edifice presented by the media, the news, and the current catalogue of acceptable issues and concerns.  We need to have our finger on the pulse of society, whether we agree with all of it or not.  That sense of what is normal will throb in the veins of the people you encounter daily.

3.  Reality.  Are you in touch with what you are not supposed to think?  There will usually be significant parts of society that are not convenient for reality as presented in the media.  It is good to have a sense of what people are thinking but not saying.  Or what they are saying but you are not allowed to hear.  It is good to know what is happening, and sometimes others will need you to point beyond the cultural narrative they are constantly hearing.

4.  Congregation.  Your congregation is not a perfect representation of your society.  The culture is pushed along by sophisticated ideas and/or unsophisticated entertainment.  Still, your congregation is a specific group in a particular location.  The country could be thriving while your part of town is economically depressed, or vice versa.  The nation could be gripped by avant-garde notions, while your congregation may seem to be living a generation behind.  Who is in your church?  What are their concerns?  How are they doing?  The culture may be focused on saving the planet, but your people may be more worried about staying warm and paying their bills this winter.

5.  Future Congregation.  It is understandable that we tend to focus on the flock God gave us.  But it is also wise to ponder what the future may look like for your church.  If you have a very established congregation, you still need to preach to people new to the church.  They may not even be coming yet, but preach to them anyway.  Your congregation will not feel comfortable bringing them along if you don’t make it a suitable environment.  So, what kind of people might God want to add to your church in the coming years?  Why not prayerfully think about preaching as if they are already attending so the church is ready to receive them when they do?

6. Co-Workers.  If your church program gives you room to breathe, be sure to prayerfully consider the health of your coworkers.  You know that your church is not your church.  You cannot do everything yourself and your church would be in dire straits if all your coworkers were to quit or burnout.  Whether they are paid staff members, or busy volunteers who give sacrificially of their “spare” time, how are they doing?  Pray for them.  Reach out to them.  Write them a note to thank them.  Make sure that you do not head into 2023 unaware of warning signs from those around you.

7.  Me.  Ministry can take its toll.  How are you doing?  Are you in a good place with God?  How much has your ministry depleted your energy reserves?  Are any situations weighing heavily on you and setting off warning lights?  Are you letting yourself slide in any areas, succumbing to temptation, or developing unhealthy habits?  The end of the year is an excellent time to take your pulse before launching into another year.  Take your pulse spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  How is your walk with Christ?  Are you looking after yourself properly?  Do you have the relationships you need to thrive?  Is someone mentoring you?  Are you mentoring someone?  Who can you be open with as a peer?  Who is looking out for your heart?  Are you proactively meeting people outside of church circles?  Oh, and don’t trust yourself to self-evaluate.  Ask God to search you and try you, and ask those close to you for their perspective as well.

8.  Family.  Ministry can take its toll.  How is your family?  It is easy to sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry, but is God honoured when you do that?  Suppose you have a child who is not thriving spiritually. Would it make sense to devote more time to your primary responsibility of parenting?  You might even do well to consider a sabbatical or taking a step back to pursue their heart for a season.  I know it is complicated if you depend on ministry for your income, but many readers are not receiving a salary.  And whether you are or not, it could be a significant example to others to see you put family first and seek to win the hearts closest to home.  It is not a simple decision.  Nevertheless, I raise it because too many of us would not even consider stepping back from the ministry that gives us too much of our identity to care for the people God has most entrusted to us.  Nobody else can be your spouse’s spouse, and you only get a limited window with that child still under your roof.  Of course, you may find such drastic changes are not needed.  But perhaps you need to tweak some things at home so that your church ministry can flow out of greater strength at the family level?

I know we are taking a deep breath before the chaos of Christmas.  I pray that your Christmas events will proclaim the peace that only Christ can bring into this desperately needy world.  And I also pray that we will all get the opportunity to take a deep breath after it is all over.  May we all take the opportunity to check the pulse in these areas and head into the New Year looking to Christ for each of the needs we discover!

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This year’s video quest through the Psalms will soon reach the finish line. Here is Psalm 139:

Different (1 Thessalonians – part 5)

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. He has taught about the impact of the gospel in chapter 1, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ in chapter 2, and praying for each other to thrive spiritually in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4, he offered some truths that would make a difference in their lives. So now, in chapter 5, he lands the letter underlining some differences that the gospel makes for believers. In a sense, he has come full circle.

How is the church you preach to supposed to be different?

1. Not naïve, but alert & hopeful. How easily we can lose our bearings as believers. Especially as relatively comfortable believers. It is so easy to get caught up in the hype of our society and fall into the naïve trap of thinking, “there is peace and security.”  After all, our country has been free and secure for generations. And the everyday stuff of life is carrying on as it has for as long as we can remember: the sports calendar, the TV series, the progression of seasons, the endless cycle of monotonous news, etc. Yes, our world is declaring certain destruction of the planet and will pat itself on the back for every effort to rescue our future from its terrible fate. Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices continue to buy their beachfront properties while proclaiming the scientific certainty of destructively rising sea levels. And so we must all play along with their panic. But despite all the shouts, most people still have a naïve confidence that nothing will actually change. The news is just noise. There is no credible threat to my safety and sense of peace.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 seems to expect Christians to be different. Christians are supposed to be marked by alertness, discernment, sobriety, readiness and hope. Our faith, hope and love are not typical of humanity in any age. We do not stand apart by pretending all is well or spouting nice Christian platitudes. This world is heading for sudden destruction and wrath. And amid a society that tinkers as the empire heats up, we know our salvation is in Christ, so we encourage and build one another up.

2. Not self-absorbed, but purposeful. How easily we can reflect the relational dynamics of our fallen world. When selfish materialism gripped society, it was easy for Christians to play that game with a smug sense of sanctification (God is blessing me!)  What if society is now becoming enchanted by a new, but still self-serving, moral ideology? Well, it will also be easy for Christians to play that game. Many already are. We only need to learn hypersensitivity to certain moral trigger concepts and remember to celebrate brand-new self-defined and unquestionable identities. The morality of intersectional identity politics is replacing the ethics of liberal democracy. However, Christians will still simply add a Bible verse to their version of it and fit right in. 

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 seems to expect Christians to be different. Like many in the New Testament, this passage describes a community gripped by a counter-cultural perspective that shapes a more purposeful and selfless set of relational dynamics. Instead of a subtle rebellion against leadership, there is to be respect, esteem and love. Instead of interpersonal squabbling, whether the garden fence gossiping of yesteryear or the proactive and unfiltered taking of offence and wholesale interpersonal condemnation of today, Paul’s language of living at peace is radically different. And instead of using the community for my selfish goals (think classic networking in strategic gatherings or contemporary social narcissism on the media platform of your choice), the Christian community differentiates need among people so it can selflessly address each need. A loving Christian community should feel radically different.

3. Not worldly, but distinctly His.  How easily we can lose our distinctness as followers of Jesus. We are like fish swimming in a spiritually fallen fish tank and still assume what we experience is normal. And since our experience defines normality, our conduct will tend to reflect it. We compete. We get our own back. We moan. We can be prayerless, thankless, and unspiritual. We can live only by what we see. We can indulge.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-28 seems to be urging us to be different. There are instructions that counter the list of normal behaviours listed above. And there is the closing benediction, where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify, set apart, make holy, transform, and distinguish. How much? Completely.  How blameless? Every aspect of our being. And is that transformation down to us? No, God is faithful and will surely do it. The Christian church should be radically and progressively more different because we are not called to fix ourselves, but we are called by the One who can bring about the necessary change in us. 

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Hacks (1 Thessalonians – part 4)

1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church.  So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually.  Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world.  As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:

1.  They can know God’s will.  Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance.  He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum.  However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm.  They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world.  Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing.  In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God.  In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God.  People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down.  And yet, we have the Bible.  Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry.  But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions.  It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make.  And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification.  You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme.  He does not.  And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.

2.  They can know a human shortcut for decision-making.  There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too.  For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12).  It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.”  They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders.  Do the loving thing.  I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!

3.  They can know encouragement in the face of death.  This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town.  Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology.  The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots.  They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died.  When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised.  Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return?  Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another.  That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze.  Death is brimming with the pain of separation.  But we have a hope that answers that pain.  Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14).  When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds.  Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17).  Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together!  As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).

Prepared (1 Thessalonians – part 3)

The letter of 1 Thessalonians is like a little manual for ministry. Chapter 1 presents the reverberating impact of the Gospel. Chapter 2 lays bare the motives and manner of Paul’s ministry in the city. Now let’s look at chapter 3.

1. Young believers need to be prepared for suffering. Paul understood their context. They were in a city and a society that would react antagonistically to their newfound faith. So Paul had prepared them for suffering, and as time passed, Paul knew that they needed to be supported in their struggle. He knew the enemy would be on the attack against these new believers. Maybe we need 3:1-5 to direct our path more in our ministry? Do we understand our context? Our believers are in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to their faith. The enemy is very much prowling around today seeking to pick off vulnerable believers. As much as ever, and perhaps more than ever, we need to prepare believers for suffering. There is the immediate and usually subtle antagonism of our time. And surely we can’t be so naive as to think that our cultures can undergo such radical shifts as we have seen in recent years, and yet remain essentially unchanged in the coming years? Are our people prepared for living in a society that may bear more resemblance to countries we used to pray for than the countries we used to live in?

2. Don’t just let vulnerable believers drift. Paul’s team adjusted to offer support to the Thessalonian believers. Timothy was sent back and returned with an encouraging report. Let Paul’s statement bounce around your heart for a moment, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (3:8) For now we live . . . I wonder how often I hold back from this kind of concern for the sheep under my care? It is true that life change is God’s business and I can’t force it; and it is true that sometimes people need to drift in order to become sensitized to their need for Jesus; and it is true that with limited ministerial resources we will inevitably prioritize the sheep that are leaning in to be fed and cared for, etc. However, with all the practical wisdom of real-life ministry acknowledged, let us never grow calloused and comfortable with people drifting away from Christ.

3. Is there a more important ministry than prayer? Remember Acts 6:4 – the apostles didn’t want to get dragged into serving tables (which included negotiating inter-racial tensions within the new church: a significant and important role!) But what did they not want to be dragged away from? The ministry of the Word and prayer. And prayer! Is there a more important ministry than prayer? For many in ministry, it can appear that the priorities are preaching and leadership. Or preaching and organisation. Or preaching and publishing. May we all gain a secret reputation before God for the priority of prayer in our ministry. And somehow, let’s also encourage our whole church to be prayerful. Look at the Paul-team and how they prayed in 3:10-13. “Most earnestly night and day” and, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and “that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God…” Earnest prayer for growing love and established holiness. What believer would not want to be the beneficiary of that kind of concern?

What would you add from chapter 3?

Legacy (1 Thessalonians – part 2)

Paul’s brief visit to Thessalonica and his follow-up letter makes for a goldmine of ministry insight for preachers. Last time I thought about the reverberating impact of the Gospel in chapter 1. Let’s look at chapter 2 and get a glimpse into the ministry dynamics of Paul and his team. There are some vivid lessons here for us:

1. Ministry motivation matters massively. They pushed through suffering in order to declare the gospel, selflessly seeking the best outcome for the people and to please God. I am sure we would all aspire to that in our settings too. But there are a host of alternative motives listed. Error, impurity, attempting to deceive, trying to please people, with flattery, greedy, glory-seeking, self-elevating…what a list that is in 2:1-6. Why do I preach? Knowing my fleshly tendency to self-deceive, perhaps it is wise to take a list like this to God and ask him “to search me and try and see if there be any wicked way in me.” And it would probably be wise to bring one or two others into that conversation too. Any hints of impure motivation in your ministry? It would be better to face it, rather than allow something bad to become established.

2. Godly ministry is just like godly parenting. We’ve all seen parenting navigated as if it is a distraction from more important personal pursuits. You can provide a home, food, resources and a bit of guidance, all the while watching the calendar until they leave home and your life becomes freer for your own hobbies and interests. Many do parent that way, but it feels like an imitation of the real thing. The real thing involves a selfless love that literally gives yourself away for them to thrive. The real thing requires labour and toil, setting a consistent example, and being willing to exhort, encourage and charge these blessings from God. The heart of a mother and a father are poured out in the ministry of parenting. So it is with godly church ministry too. Paul says so in 2:7-12. Paul, Silas and co were not insecure men competing to look tougher than each other. They were like a nursing mother in their giving to the new church, and they were like a father too. How is your church ministry in parenting terms? Is the congregation becoming a hindrance to your personal goals? Are you just throwing some food in front of them and hoping they will entertain themselves in front of a screen so you can get on with your own pursuits? Or are they like children you love dearly?

3. Church ministry is an invitation to profound enrichment. Paul was only in Thessalonica for a short time, but consider how he continually longed to be with these people (see 2:17-20). They were his hope, joy, crown of boasting, and glory. The logic is fairly simple, but let’s ponder it anyway. The nature of God’s character should flow into our ministry, which will then characterise our connection with the church. You can guarantee the enemy will try to disrupt that, but the invitation remains in place. We can easily view Paul’s description as challenging – “I should work harder at ministry because I’m not sharing his sentiment for the younger believers God has given to me.” Instead, let’s view Paul’s description as an invitation – “I get to give myself away for these people, and in the process gain the kind of connection that many in the world around us would give their left arm to experience with anyone.”

4. Gospel ministry can really hurt, love anyway. Paul wrote these words to the church because he was separated and wanted to be there for them. He felt the pain of a parent’s heart when they are forced apart from their children. You don’t need me to tell you that getting hurt in ministry is not at all unusual. And it would be totally understandable to grow calloused in order to cope with that pain. Maybe even in Paul’s separation and longing we can be reminded that ministry does hurt, but we can love others anyway. In the end, we will get to our forever home where there will be no pain, no separation, no hurt, no sin, no church splits, no backstabbing, no misunderstanding, no failing bodies, etc. I am not saying we should choose to burn ourselves out, there is selflessness in genuine self-care too. But let’s not choose the calloused coping approach. For this brief moment, let’s keep our eyes on our suffering Saviour as we prayerfully press on.

1 Thessalonians chapter 2 is like a ministry training manual, what would you add?

Reverberations (1 Thessalonians – part 1)

I have been enjoying 1 Thessalonians recently and thought I would share a few highlights for us as preachers. Paul was in Thessalonica for a relatively short visit in Acts 17:1-10, but the gospel hit home. As I look at chapter 1, I wonder if my expectations might be too low in preaching the Gospel today.

1. The Gospel establishes churches. Notice how Paul mentions their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope (1:3). He may have only been there for three sabbaths plus whatever amount of time before he was chased out of town, but these new believers were already bearing fruit. At the very foundation, they were people who knew they were loved by God (1:4). The preaching of the Gospel establishes churches. We should preach the truth that can change lives as if it will change lives.

2. The Gospel is not just words. Notice how Paul describes the coming of the Gospel to these people in 1:5 – the Gospel came “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When we preach the message of Jesus we are just one part of a team, and the other players are impressive! There is the message itself, focusing on Jesus. There is the Holy Spirit actively driving that message home. By extension, we know that the Father’s plans and purposes are being worked out. When we preach the message of Jesus we ourselves are still part of the team. We see in 1 Thessalonians that how Paul and his colleagues were amongst the new believers was really significant. We are part of a trinitarian team when we preach, and even though we are incomparably small compared to the other team members, our part matters nonetheless.

3. The Gospel impact reverberates globally. It is easy to think of my little sermon to my little congregation in this little insignificant corner of the world. Actually, when the Gospel lands in a life it can reverberate around the world. These new young believers in Thessalonica became an example in Macedonia and Achaia (1:7) and everywhere! (1:8) When the Gospel sounded in their lives they turned from idols, to serve God, and to wait for Jesus (1:9-10). And what is more, people heard about it!

It is easy for us to think small thoughts when we preach the Gospel. This Sunday is coming. Think about the impact of the Gospel in Thessalonica – a brief visit, with much tension, and affliction for the preacher and the listeners, as well as the preacher chased out of town entirely too soon from a human perspective. Even against such odds, the Gospel impact was huge, it changed lives and that impact reverberated globally. Let’s preach in light of 1 Thessalonians 1 and dare to believe that we are participating in the transformation of lives for eternity!

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FYI – I am coming to the end of this playlist of videos on the Psalms of Ascent:

Satan Hates Him

Some years ago, I wrote about a blind spot in contemporary theology. In our church, we have just enjoyed a series about the Holy Spirit. In preaching this series, my mind has returned to this apparent blind spot. Yes, we know that Satan hates Jesus, marriage, and evangelism. But perhaps we should also consider his hatred for the Holy Spirit.

There is a logically obvious connection here. Satan hates God. The Holy Spirit is God, so therefore, Satan must hate the Holy Spirit. But it will be helpful to move past the obvious and ponder the specific reasons.

In the World

We see the enemy’s work as we look at the world around us. For example, we see cults, and we see secular society. In the cults, there is always an undermining of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. So, God gets twisted from a gloriously loving tri-unity into a solitary and monadic power broker. As portrayed by the cults, God can even seem devilish and antagonistic. Thus, the Holy Spirit becomes just an impersonal force.

In secular society, the idea of God is also twisted into a perversion and caricature of reality. As society bombards the population with elevated notions of personal autonomy and a corrupted morality, the convicting work of the Spirit is directly opposed. People are coached not to feel guilty for sin, yet many are convinced they should feel hopelessly guilty for who they are.

In the Church

We also see the enemy’s work as we look within the church. It would be nice to imagine that his attack would lose energy once people become followers of Jesus. Reality reminds us that this is never the case. Does the enemy stop attacking marriage once people know Jesus? Are we no longer tempted to sin once we are believers? Of course not. We must then assume the enemy’s antagonism to the Holy Spirit will also continue within the church setting.

What is the enemy’s strategy to undermine the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives?

Christians seem to feel a pull in one of two directions — both of which are away from the reality of the Spirit’s work. Both directions negate that the Holy Spirit is a divine person rather they portray him as a mere impersonal force. Both distract believers from a beautiful and central element of the Christian life.

The first pull is to restrict the Holy Spirit into a power-focused force. The Spirit becomes the fuel for Christian living and sometimes the power for spectacular displays of personal anointing. Undoubtedly, there is truth in the mix here. Still, the corruption seems to come with respect to the focus’s emphasis and direction. The power, or lack thereof, tends to become the emphasis in Christian life and ministry. People caught up with a power caricature of the Spirit tend to focus either on the Spirit or themselves.

The second pull is to turn the Holy Spirit into a silent and benign figure. The Spirit is assumed to be at work in the ordinary things of church life through various means. There is truth in the mix here as well. He is indeed at work as we read the Bible, hear preaching, etc., but the problem seems to follow this focus’s emphasis and direction. The emphasis on Christian life and ministry can quickly shift to my habits and personal commitments. People buying into a means caricature of the Spirit may focus on themselves and their diligence.

The Work of the Spirit

The pre-eminent role of the Spirit is that of a communicator, specifically relational communication between the Father and the Son, God and us, and believers in the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is primarily concerned with the power of love, not some love of power. He pours God’s love into our hearts and baptises us into Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is a continual growth in Christ-like character. He gifts us to build up the body of Christ so that we might point each other to the head, who is Christ.

This is the critical issue with the Spirit — he wants to lift the eyes of our hearts to Christ. That is why Satan so despises the work of the Spirit. By forcing the focus onto us or the Spirit himself, the enemy seeks to undermine the Christ-ward gaze of true Holy Spirituality.

The Holy Spirit seems to be a blind spot for many. Where the Spirit is relegated or twisted in some way, the bottom line will always drift towards an autonomous and self-driven “spirituality” (which was The Lie back in Genesis 3, of course).

Perhaps, we would do well to ponder the spiritual attack against the Holy Spirit. I suspect that we would find our hearts drawn to Christ in the process. After all, this is the goal of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the great fear of the enemy!

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This year’s journey through the Psalms has reached the Psalms of Ascent:

Something to Ponder

The book of Psalms tends to become a favourite for people who have faced some challenges in life. Perhaps you have experienced grief over the loss of a loved one, discouragement during a dark season of life, or any other challenges that set the Psalms into vivid colour in our hearts. Once we know of the soul food kept in that storehouse, we tend to find ourselves returning again and again.

Sometimes the Psalm writer has found words for the ache in my heart. Other times the psalmist points my heart to where it needs to be looking. The book of Psalms is a real treasure – a refreshing spring for the weary times we all have to endure.

The book of Psalms sits at the centre of our Bibles for the times we are just reading through. Maybe there is no experienced crisis that leads us to this vast collection of Hebrew poetry. Sometimes, we will find ourselves reading it simply because it comes next in our Bible reading. It can be a great experience to read it through with fresh eyes and notice the uniqueness of each Psalm and the recurring themes.

Let’s look at the first Psalm of book five – Psalm 107. This Psalm sets the tone for the section that will follow. It begins as you might expect, with a call to thank our good God for his enduring, steadfast love. This call goes out to all who have been redeemed and rescued by God (v1-3).

Then we find ourselves walking through four examples of challenging circumstances from which God rescues his people:

First, we read of the weary wilderness wanderers failing to find a place of sanctuary (v4-9). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. (Those words will come up again.) So, with stomachs full and souls satisfied, the psalmist encourages them to thank the LORD for his steadfast love. 

Second, we read of the helpless prisoners, tired and broken by hard labour (v10-16). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With their bonds broken and bodies set free, they are called to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Third, we read of the afflicted starving to death, suffering for their sin and facing their demise (v17-22). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With healed bodies and joyful hearts, they are invited to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Fourth, we read of the fear-filled seafarers, tossed to and fro by the raging seas, despairing and at their wit’s end (v23-32). This example gives more vivid detail, but again, they cried to the LORD, and he delivered them (see v 6, 13, 19 and 28). With the storm stilled and safely brought back to the fellowship of humans on shore, they are encouraged to thank the LORD for his steadfast love (see v8, 15, 21, 31)

The final section of the Psalm underlines some of the points made throughout. God is in charge. Just as he can bring about change in nature (v33-38), he can reverse his people’s fortunes (v39-42). And so, the final verse ensures we have not missed the point. If we are wise, we will ponder what this Psalm says. Indeed, if we are wise, we will ponder, contemplate, consider and meditate on the steadfast love of the LORD (v43).

The Psalm begins and ends with the spotlight on the steadfast love of God. The Psalm invites us to consider four examples of people in dire straits who called out to God and discovered why they should thank God for that steadfast love.

Perhaps Psalm 107 is the food for thought that we need. It could be that we feel like we are close to death or tossed in every direction and despairing of life itself. Or it could be that we are calmly moving through the second half of 2022, thankful for God’s blessing and a season of tranquillity and peace. Whatever may be going on around us, Psalm 107 suggests what should be happening inside us. We should be considering the steadfast love of God. Honestly, it is hard to think of a wiser thing to do.

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Growing Worship

Genesis is the book of foundations.  It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build.  For example, consider the life of Abraham.  His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible.  His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant.  This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.

I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22.  So much had already happened in the preceding chapters.  God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location.  And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows.  There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment.  There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise.  But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant.  Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent.  Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.

Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22.  Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location.  Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything.  Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur.  Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son. 

Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty.  God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious.  We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger. 

Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons.  How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels?  When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely?  As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.

So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling.  The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”  The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call.  The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10.  It really is brilliant storytelling.  Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings.  We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it.  Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately?  Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?

As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:

1. Genesis 22 is about worship.

Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement.  Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God.  Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing.  However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths.  The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.”  And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22.  Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God.  Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5). 

Genesis 22 is about worship.  And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing.  Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12.  But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him.  What will it look like for you to worship God today?  Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship.  But this story does not urge a return to our first love.  It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.

2. Genesis 22 is about faith.

There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith.  But what is the nature of that faith?  Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.”  Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again?  Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.”  Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge.  After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).

The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide.  Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from?  (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!)  God will provide.  Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary?  God will provide.  Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months?  God will provide.  Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.

3. Genesis 22 is about God.

The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question.  If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question.  Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah?  Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice.  Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah.  God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us.  God really did provide. 

And that brings us to the heart of worship.  It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God.  We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination.  It is a response.  So, we must look to Mt Moriah.  We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us. 

Worship is so costly.  It cost God everything.

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Is Preparation Spiritual?

I think we would do well to clarify our terminology when it comes to asking about whether something is spiritual or not. The world often sees “spiritual” as a mystical quality inherent in certain activities or persons. So the mystical neighbour with the yoga mat is considered spiritual, but the engineer on the other side who plays football and enjoys soft rock anthems is not considered spiritual.

Then there is a semi-Christian version of the word which basically uses it as a synonym for sanctified behaviour. So it is not describing a quality of spirituality being present in something, but rather it just means whether it is appropriate Christian behaviour or not. In this way of thinking it is “spiritual” to pray, but it is not “spiritual” to go and watch the football game.

So let’s consider the issue of sermon preparation. Is it spiritual? Some, with the semi-Christian understanding of the word might affirm that it is spiritual to prepare a sermon – it is appropriate Christian behaviour for a pastor. Others, with a Christianized version of the first, more mystical, concept, might argue that it is not spiritual to prepare a sermon. Better, they might say, to disengage yourself from study and just rely on inspiration in the moment.

What if we cast off confusing misappropriations of the term and think in genuinely biblical terms. What constitutes “spiritual” in the New Testament? Is it not the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit? If that is the “top and bottom” of the issue, then we would have to say that either neighbour could be spiritual, or maybe completely devoid of the Spirit. And praying or watching football could be spiritual, or could also be completely devoid of the Spirit. And we would have to say that either preparing a sermon or choosing not to prepare a sermon could be spiritual, or completely devoid of the Spirit.

I do not doubt that God, by His Spirit, may work wonderfully if I am called on to preach without a moment to prepare. However, I do wonder at the wisdom of abdicating my role as a steward of the ministry if I were to decide to preach as if it were somehow more spiritual to not prepare at all.

My vote would absolutely be on the side of preparing. Wayne McDill, in his 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219), wrote, “The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.”

However, preparation is not automatically spiritual, either. Is my confidence in my preparation, my homiletical skill, my gifting, my knowledge, my view of preaching, my teachers, my books? Or is my heart reliant on God, my mind humbly subject to God’s instruction, my attitude one of humility before the Word of God, etc.? My suspicion is that whether my preparation is spiritual or not will be evident in my prayer. It will be known to God and probably more obvious to my listeners than I might think (especially if I am functioning in a state of self-confidence).

If you are asked to preach, prepare. Prepare humbly. Prepare prayerfully. Prepare as if “apart from me, you can do nothing.”