5 Insights Into Your Feelings Under Lockdown

As we live through this lockdown, we are being given a unique opportunity to observe ourselves under different and difficult circumstances.  It is as if we are in a laboratory, with lots of normal elements taken out of our lives.  What we may be discovering is that we are experiencing emotions in a way that we are normally too busy to notice.

Traditionally the church has not been very good at talking about the subject of emotions.  Many of us were raised to feel bad about feeling, as if good Christians should not really feel a whole lot of anything.  Others of us were raised with a modified view that we should feel bad about feeling bad.  It is as if there are some acceptable feelings, but also some that are automatically bad.  If we feel these “bad” feelings, then we may blame ourselves and confess these feelings to God, looking for a quick escape into the good category.  Or we may blame the person that made us feel that way, convinced that they must be wrong because of the feeling that was stirred up.

In real life it is not so easy to categorize every feeling as good or bad.  Good feelings can come from bad choices.  Bad feelings can be a good thing.  The fear I feel when I hear glass smash downstairs in the night is a good thing – it wakes me up, keeps me awake and gives me the focus I need to go downstairs and confront whatever is going on.

Feelings are like the lights on the dashboard of your car.  They indicate that something is going on, and they prompt you to connect.  I don’t drive my car better by covering over and ignoring all the lights on the dashboard.  Nor do I drive my car with my head through the steering wheel looking only at those lights.  But when a light comes on, I take that as a prompt to action, a prompt to connect.  With my car I call the mechanic who can figure out the issue and fix it.  With my life, I need to seek out other believers and I need to seek out God.  He created us with an incredible set of emotions to help drive us through the challenges of life, but he never intended us to travel that path alone.

Biblically, we could look at the Gospels and see the emotions of Jesus, with dozens of discernible emotional reactions evident in his life.  We could look at the people who met Jesus, and notice how the numbing effect of this world was reversed by encountering Jesus – people left Jesus feeling so much more alive!  But instead, I’d like to look at an old favourite Psalm for a few more observations to help us – Psalm 73.

This Psalm was written by Asaph, a worship leader in Israel.  Let me just make some quick observations about this text that may be helpful to us today:

1. Conflicted – The believer, even the leader among God’s people, can experience contradictory and conflicted feelings.In the first two verses we see Asaph, the worship leader, declaring that God is good to Israel, “but as for me…” He has almost slipped over to the other side, almost stumbled into giving up on God. Even though we are in ministry, we can still feel conflicted on the inside.  We can know and even feel the truth of God, but also struggle with contradictory feelings pulling us away from Him.

2. Convinced – What we feel is often based on what we see, and so we can be convinced that the feeling reflects reality. From verses 3-15 we see Asaph’s “reality.” He saw the prosperity of the wicked, how they arrogantly dismissed God, and yet thrived.  Their lives were a contradiction to all he knew, and yet they lived long and happy lives, without being held to account, without consequences.  He knew this was wrong, but it felt so true.  Our issue today may not be envy of the wicked, although it could be.  Maybe we only see difficult financial circumstances due to the pandemic, or we only see grief and people unresponsive to the gospel, or we only see and feel the hopeless tension in our homes.  What we see feels so complete and so real.  But it could still be wrong.

3. Clarity – We only see clearly when we come to God.In verses 16-17 everything changes for Asaph. He comes to the sanctuary of God and suddenly the whole Psalm turns upside down.  The reality of who God is, where He chose to dwell, and all of the history and reality wrapped up in that tent pierce the balloon of Asaph’s despair and flood his heart with perspective.   Actually, it is helpful to remember that only as we come close to God can we see reality clearly.

4. Confusion – With hindsight we often see how confused we were, even though we felt so convinced. From verse 18, Asaph now is seeing how precarious the wicked are, how their day of reckoning is coming. And in verses 21-22 he looks back on how he was before.  Now with clearer perspective he sees that he was brutish and ignorant, like a beast.  Maybe you and I have been there too.  After a big mess up we can so easily look back and say, “I was so stupid, what was I thinking!?”  Knowing our capacity to be so convinced, and so wrong, maybe it is good to not linger long away from God!  Maybe this lockdown is causing you to consider something that later will cause you to cry out, “I was so stupid, what was I thinking!?”  Starting a foolish relationship, ending a God-given relationship, restarting a problematic drinking habit, or whatever.  People under pressure feel all sorts of things, and those feelings are based on something going on, and those feelings feel so real.  Be careful.

5. Comfort – God’s presence is the comfort we need in the midst of difficult times. From verse 23-28, Asaph seems to be almost triumphant, but that would be to misread this passage.  It is not saying everything changed when he came into the sanctuary and now those circumstances were all different.  They weren’t.  Everything that had bothered him before was still true.  The difference is that now he is facing difficult circumstances with an awareness of the comfort of God’s presence.  God holds his right hand.  God guides him with counsel.  These assurances wouldn’t be necessary if everything was now perfect.  And so he finishes with another “But for me” – unlike in verse 2, in verse 28 Asaph can now say, “But for me…it is good to be near God.”

This lockdown is stirring all sorts of emotions and feelings in us.  We will be tempted to trust those feelings because they are based on the reality that we see all around us.  Our problem is not the feelings.  Our problem will be if we leave God out of processing the feelings he created us to have.  Our feelings indicate something about what is going on in our hearts.  Our feelings should prompt us to connect – with trusted others, and especially with God himself.

Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.

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This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

Bible Highlight Videos

Since being in lockdown I have started to record some simple Bible reading highlight videos.  They are no-frills, hopefully both biblical and relevant.  Instead of making them polished mini-sermons, I have tried to keep them simple so that I can record them quickly and get them online.  I did this for the people in our church, but you may find them useful.  If you do, please share them on social media and pass them on to people that might benefit.

I hope you are finding ways to encouraging people into the Bible during this difficult time – we all have a unique opportunity to replace other activities with time in God’s Word. My prayer is that whatever the future new normal will be, that for all of us it will be a life characterised by greater appreciation of the gift that we have in being able to pursue God’s heart in the Scriptures.

Here are the short playlists available so far…

Matthew:

Romans/Galatians:

I Corinthians:

I Corinthians 15:

I & II Thessalonians:

Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

Generally my default approach to preaching is to preach a single passage.  Sometimes I will preach a more topical message where each point is the idea of a text and the points together make up the main idea.  But there is a variation that might be called a weight of evidence sermon.

This is where the main idea of the message is repeated multiple times in the Bible.  So while you may use multiple texts, it is not primarily to build the main idea, but rather to reinforce the main idea.  For example, this past Sunday I essentially preached Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

In one part of the message I quoted Genesis 26:24; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 1:8 – all of which say the same thing in a variety of ways.  I anticipated that I would be able to find examples of the main idea that addressed different circumstances in life, but then in my study found that the “fear not” part of the phrase was either overt or in the context of almost every text I found with “I am with you” or similar phrasing.  So since over 90% of the 30+ passages I looked at had that fear context, I focused the message on God being with us, so we should not be afraid.

I touched down briefly in Hebrews 13:5-6, Psalm 23:4 and Matthew 28:20.  He is with us when threatened by people, when facing death, and in our service for Him – all contexts in which we feel fear.

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

1. This should not be the default.  Typically our goal should not be to touch down in as many different verses as possible.  Padding sermons with unnecessary cross-references is very common and often a detriment to healthy preaching.

2. Be very focused. If the message uses multiple texts, then the main point needs to be very clear and obvious.  Otherwise the multiplied verses will confuse and lose listeners. For instance, there were verses in my list where the world noticed God being with his people and it causing them to fear, or verses that spoke of believers loving one another as the context of God’s dwelling with them.  This message could have lost focus and therefore lost its force.  Be selective in what you preach.

3. Keep their finger on one text.  Preaching is not a Bible sword drill where we try to make people find multiple references.  So I encouraged people to open to Isaiah 41:10, but I projected the text of the other verses used.

4. Feel the force of the frequency.  The point of a weight of evidence message is to help listeners feel the force of the frequency.  Time and again God’s word says this, so we should be sure to hear it!

5. Make follow up study possible. People may respond positively, but make sure the list of passages is available to any who want to study it for themselves.  There is the benefit of the main idea punched home in the sermon, but there is also the possibility of people enjoying the Bible study chase for themselves, if they have the references.

I’d be interested to hear any more thoughts on this approach – both the pros and the cons.

New Year, New You

There is something powerful about turning the calendar to a new year.  People everywhere feel like this is the moment to turn over a new leaf and make some changes that are, perhaps, long overdue.  Join the gym, change your diet, break an addiction, form a healthy habit, read your Bible daily, stay on top of your inbox… whatever personal or professional goal it might be, January seems like the ideal time to start.

I do not want to criticize any New Year resolution, and I wish you well as you embark on change in your life.

However, perhaps we would do well to dwell on something else.  Maybe we have lost sight of all that is new for us as Christians.  Maybe some of our resolutions are birthed out of frustration and we might be helped by pondering more deeply all that is new for us in Christ.

We live under the blessings of the New Covenant: God’s great plan that was anticipated and predicted in the Old Testament, but has now been launched by Christ at his death and is the reality in which we exist as Christ’s people.  As Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  (See also Gal. 6:15) A quick read through the epistles reveals many aspects of this New Covenant that are true for us today.  Here are six to think about – three more individual, followed by three more corporate ones:

 1.  New Life

In Romans, Paul equates the resurrection of Christ with the newness of life that is ours to live today (Rom. 6:4).  What does this mean?  He writes that we are released from the law, no longer held captive, but free to serve in “the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6).  What would it look like if I sought to live in this new way of the Spirit, rather than by keeping myself in check via a written code?  Would my life look different?

 2. New and Living Way

In Hebrews, the preacher urges us to move forward into the presence of God by the blood of Jesus, that is, by “the new and living way that he has opened up for us.”  How easily I can get caught up in an exercise fad, or a desired daily habit, while ignoring the wonder of being able to boldly enter into the presence of God in prayer!  If I belong to Christ, then prayer would be the most natural feature of my life in 2020.

 3. New Self

When Paul wrote about the new life we can live, he referred to it as putting on “the new self.”  This new me is no longer hardened and calloused by sin, but instead, through knowing Christ, this new me is a heart, mind, and lifestyle-transforming reality that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) That New Covenant promise of a God-given new heart is exciting! I know myself and how easily I can focus on my attempts to tweak a small issue in my life, but ignore the wonderful privilege of true holiness that is mine in Christ.

 4. New Covenant Ministry

Jesus declared the inauguration of the New Covenant at the Last Supper, as Paul describes in 1 Cor. 11:25.  He picks up that theme and really develops the wonder of participation in the New Covenant in 2 Cor. 3:6 where we see that we are actually ministers of this New Covenant – no longer ministers of the letter that kills, but now of the Spirit who gives life.  (See also Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:15; 12:24) Whatever the size of my ministry might be, big or small, the real issue is the quality – and I don’t mean just a comparison of my preaching against yours.  I mean the spiritual quality that makes my feeble efforts in ministry quantitatively different from the impressive work of a highly equipped unbeliever.

 5. New Unity

What Christ has accomplished is not just individually transforming.  It goes much broader than me and my spiritual life.  We are brought together, Jew and Gentile, into “one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15) How easily I take for granted the opportunities to worship with other believers.  Sunday has become a steady part of my weekly routine.  But there is nothing “routine” about unity among a fallen humanity.  What opportunities is God giving me this year to experience this new unity that Christ has made possible on a local and on a global scale?  How can I contribute to the beautiful unity of believers?

 6. New Commandment

It might be good to lose a few pounds, or be a bit more efficient, but I would do especially well to prayerfully pursue the new commandment from Christ in the coming months.  As the light of God’s good news breaks into the darkness of this fallen world, what could be more distinctly Christlike than his followers following his instruction?  How many times every day will I be given opportunity to love others as he has loved me?  (See 1 John 2:7-8; 2 John 5)

So, as we head into this New Year, let us consider all that is new for us in Christ.  Individually we have a new life, with new access to God’s presence and the privilege of godly righteousness that we could never achieve by our own natural inclinations and efforts.  With that we have the privilege of a new Spirit-empowered ministry, united together and loving one another.  If this is the new me that is going into 2020, then the year ahead is already exciting to anticipate.  Any other little tweaks are nice bonuses, but they can’t come close to the wonder of what God has done for me and wants to do in me.

One bonus new…

New Heaven & New Earth – our life is not all wrapped up in the details of 2020.  The truth is that we are waiting for the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.  (See 2 Peter 3:13)

The life we have to live this year is a life with a new heart, a new and special access to God, a new privilege of holiness, a new Spirit-empowered ministry, a new controlling principle, and a new hope.  We live in a world that is fascinated by what is new and exciting, but let’s not allow that artificial and temporary newness to take our focus away from the wonder of all that is new for us in Christ.

Seeing Hope From a Cave

As we live the Christian life, or as we seek to help others live the Christian life, we will constantly battle with the overpowering magnitude of the visible realm.  Life comes at us with trials, temptations, struggles, complexities, problems, and more.  And it doesn’t help to simply preach nice thoughts to ourselves or to others.  When life is overwhelming, then what we need is more than information, we need the transformation that can come from being mentored by Scripture.  Let me give an example.

In Psalm 57 we are told that David was on the run from Saul, in the cave.  Perhaps this was the cave of Adullam at the start of 1 Samuel 22, which comes after the loneliest chapter of David’s life.  Or perhaps it is the cave where Saul came close in 1 Samuel 24.  Either way, David has been anointed, has achieved notoriety by defeating Goliath, but is now on the run with an increasingly mad Saul pursuing him to kill him.  I have never been anointed the king of Israel, and I imagine you haven’t either.  Actually, I’ve never had to hide in a cave or had a mad king trying to end my life.  However, this three thousand year old Psalm resonates with me and with many of us.

We do know what it is to have an enemy of our souls who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  We do know what it is like to have humans opposing us and making life difficult at work, or at church, or even at home.  We do know what is like to feel discouraged, downhearted and even depressed in the face of various trials.  So we are not where David was, but in a way, we feel like it.

That is the beauty of the Psalms.  Even though our circumstances are so different, often we will find the Psalm writer putting his words right on top of our feelings.  In the case of Psalm 57 we have the actual historical situation that David was in.  More often the Psalms keep their specific historical situation in the shadows, allowing their words and images to resonate directly with our struggles in life.

So whether you are spending some time in the Psalm yourself, or preparing to preach it to others, think about these 11 verses as a mentoring experience.  In effect through God’s Word we get to time travel three thousand years to sit in a cave with Dave and hear him processing his frightening situation.

In the first half of the Psalm he cries out to God in light of his situation:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples me.  Selah.

God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts – the children of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.  (vv1-4)

Then comes a refrain he will repeat later:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v5)

Let’s notice a few details here, lessons for us from David in distress.

1. In distress he cried out to God. That seems obvious, but how often we don’t cry out!  How easily troubles prompt me to get my head down and press on through the day.  How easily I try to get resourceful and seek to handle the difficulties of life.  Not David, he lifts up his head and cries out to God with specific requests and transparent awareness of his plight.

2. David knew that God’s purpose for his life meant there was hope in this time of trial. Yes, he was anointed to be king, so there was a sense of a guaranteed future.  And I have not been anointed to be a king.  However, if God has a plan and purpose for my life and for yours, which He does, then the current trial will not wipe us out before our time.  We can have confidence for deliverance because until God’s plan for us is complete, then our life here isn’t.  That doesn’t lead to arrogance or over-confidence.  It does lead to prayers like this one in the midst of trials.

3. David knew that God would participate in his situation. Specifically, he declared that great theme of the Old Testament – that God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness.  God is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  He is a God whose loyal love is toward his people in a loyal way.  Does that sound repetitive?  That’s because it is.  God’s steadfast loyal love is reinforced with the word for his faithfulness.  God’s loyal love is loyal to you and to me!

4. The bottom line of David’s cry for help is faith-filled.  You might naturally expect a “So save me!” or “Bottom line, Lord, defeat my enemy!”  But instead his bottom line is totally different – he wants God to be exalted and his glory to shine forth everywhere!

In the second half of the Psalm, David moves from crying for help to singing in praise:

They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down.  They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves.  Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody!

Awake my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.

For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the clouds. (vv6-10)

And then the refrain once again:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v11)

Let me add one more lesson to learn from David here before we leave him in the cave.

5. David changes the order of experience. So often we assume that our problem leads to our prayer, which leads to God’s provision and then we will praise.  But David inverts this order slightly. Yes, our problem can and should lead us to pray.  But then David praises in anticipation of future provision of deliverance.  That is a big difference.  Do we only praise with hindsight?  Do we only worship God when we have seen Him do something special?  Honestly, how is that a life of faith?  David leads the way for us in this.  Our prayer to God is an inclination of our hearts in trust toward Him.  As our hearts look to God, we can know that He is bigger than the biggest trial we face, and therefore we can also praise by faith … before we see any answer to our prayer.

This Psalm, like many others, is filled with this lesson for us.  Our God is bigger than every problem and challenge we face.  So by faith we incline our hearts to God in prayer.  And, by faith we can incline our hearts to God in gratitude, in praise, in song … before we see how He will answer.  That is the life that Dave in the cave invites us into as he mentors us through this Psalm.  And honestly, it is a life I want to live in the coming year.  A life with my heart inclined toward the great God of steadfast love and faithfulness, a life where my prayer points my heart to a God whose character and greatness stir my heart to trust, to gratitude, to praise and to song.  God is to be exalted!  We want his glory to be over all the earth!

Sanctified Imagination

Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text.  I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text.  However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.

Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm.  I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…”  It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.

After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture.  When we do add a detail …

1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.

2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).

This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind.  At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents.  He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.

As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to?  Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me?  Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’  And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’  I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have.  And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”

When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:

3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.

4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation.  Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.

These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text.  There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching.  Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.

Thousands of People

When we read the Bible we tend to gravitate to the “big names” – Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul.  Perhaps there are another fifty characters that get significant attention in our churches.  But there are at least another thousand people mentioned by name, some counts going much higher.  (Forgive me for not researching this number myself for this post!)  Perhaps we too easily skim over these more minor characters that fill the pages of our Bibles?

There are at least three benefits that can come as we focus in on the more minor characters of the Bible:

  1. The fact that they are noticed, noted and named is an encouragement in itself. Most of us don’t feel like major characters in the epic history of God’s great plan as it is being worked out in our generation.  We know we are minor characters.  And if we have our eyes open to see the minor characters in the Bible, then we can be encouraged to know that our small part in God’s big plan also matters.
  2. Whenever we see any detail about a character in the Bible we will tend to see them involved in real life situations (since that is the nature of God’s inspired Word) – and consequently we can see both good and bad examples that can be so helpful for us in our contemporary circumstances. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to learn from the many examples presented in Scripture, but it would also be a real shame to stop at mere example.
  3. God inspired the Bible so that the characters in it are more than examples to copy or learn from, they are also part of a story that is pointing the reader to God – his redemptive character and plan. The Bible is not a collection of historical tales with good moral lessons to be gleaned.  It is God’s self-revelation to a world that desperately needs what only God can offer.

Let’s look at an example.  Elizabeth only appears in one chapter in the Bible (Luke 1).  It is a story with two or three major characters, as well as two very significant babies, and Elizabeth is relatively minor in comparison.  There is the angel Gabriel bringing a message to Zechariah in the temple, and then several months later to young teenage Mary in Nazareth.  Two very different recipients, in two very different locations, with two significantly different responses.  Then in the second half of the chapter we see two great exclamations of praise – first Mary’s “Magnificat” and then Zechariah’s “Benedictus.”  These two passages are triggered by two events.  For Zechariah it is the birth of his son John, and the reinstatement of his voice.  For Mary it is the declaration of Elizabeth when the two mothers-to-be met.

What can we legitimately learn from looking at Elizabeth in Luke 1?  First of all, let’s evaluate some of the observations we might make.  It is right to observe the details in the text, but not every observation should be applied in our lives.  Some things were specific and not intended to function by way of example for us.  Generally, the more we know our Bibles the easier we will find it to not apply observed details inappropriately.  For instance, the rest of the Bible does not teach people to go into hiding when they discover they are pregnant.  Nor does it support the idea that when a child moves inside the womb we should interpret the significance of that movement prophetically.

However, the rest of the Bible would support several possible observations from this passage:

  1. God hears and answers prayer – even if the years have passed and hope has apparently dissipated, God hears and answers prayer. We should continue to trust in God’s goodness and God’s plan.  (See Luke 1:13)
  2. Every moment matters – Elizabeth, like most characters in the Bible, is offered to us in light of one incident in her life. What about the other 60 or 70 years?  God noticed and noted their blameless living (see Luke 1:6).  While our righteous choices don’t earn, they do matter.
  3. Our most significant role may still be future – Elizabeth supported her priestly husband faithfully over the years. This was her ministry.  But then, out of the blue, came a role she never anticipated – she was to be the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah.  That role is finished, but it is fair to say our most significant moment of ministry may be completely unknown to us and still future.
  4. For those of us who are parents, our most significant ministry may well be the children we raise – This passage, like many others in the Bible, underlines the significance of the children God gives to us. We live in a world that may seem desperate to protect children (at least those who have been born), but it is a world that constantly undermines the value of parenting.  Time in passages like Luke 1 will reinforce our confidence that time invested in our little ones is time well spent.

These are some Biblically supportable observations from the story of Elizabeth.  But these are somewhat at the level of surface observation, even if the points are theologically important.  What does the text itself underline for the careful reader?

Elizabeth stands at the hinge of the story, between the two angelic visits and the two great exclamations of praise.  She is not just the hinge of the chapter, she is the meeting point of the two pregnancy stories.  She was the one who lived in hiding with this miracle child inside her. Surely, she quietly longed for conversation while her husband lived in wide-eyed silence because he had not believed the angel’s words.  Then when the angel told Mary the great news of her soon-to-be pregnancy, he anticipated her need to talk things through with someone that would really understand, and so mentioned that her cousin was also with child.  When Mary greeted Elizabeth there was a leaping of John within, and the Spirit of God poured out on her.  The silence was broken, a great cry came out, and Elizabeth’s celebratory exclamation builds to the climactic point: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

She’d lived with the consequences of disbelief, and now she could not contain her joy at the blessing of belief.  Trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  You and I will never have the same role as Mary or Elizabeth (for several reasons!), but that exclamation stands true for us today: let us trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  At work, at home, in parenting, in ministry, in life.

Two Kinds of Prayer

There are essentially two kinds of prayer that we pray.  This is true for us as preachers, as it is for us as sheep in Christ’s flock.  They seem so similar.  But they are radically different.

My Great Plan – In Mark 10:35, James and John come to Jesus with their big request, “do for us whatever we ask of you…”  What was their request?  It was to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his glory.  It is easy to sit here now and read that with a judging tone.  Perhaps like the other disciples our indignance might reveal something about us (it takes one to know one!)

In reality James and John had probably pondered their request for a while.  Their gradually dawning awareness of Jesus’ identity perhaps stirring a request that reflected a craving for position and power, but also perhaps felt justified out of a desire to stay close to Jesus.  Whatever their thinking, in their minds it seemed like a good plan.  Now they just needed Jesus to sanctify the request with his blessing and all would be well.

How easily we can come to Jesus with our great plans. Jesus, I know how revival should spark from this next sermon.  Jesus, I have an idea for who should be hit the hardest by this message.  Jesus, I know the next step in the development of my ministry.  Our motives are always mixed, so we can usually add the veneer of humble service over any grandiose self-promotion.  It seems that Jesus is not in the habit of fanning the flames of our egos as we pray.

My Great Need – Fast forward to verse 51 and Jesus is using the same words as he speaks to Bartimaeus.  This man had been crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” until he had Jesus’ attention.  Then Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus was blind, but he could see some truths about who Jesus was.  He knew his need was great.

It seems to me that Jesus is very discerning when it comes to telling the difference between “Great Plan” prayers and “Great Need” prayers.  We may fool ourselves with the veneer we add, but Jesus knows our hearts, and he knows what is best for us.  The reality for you and I, as individuals and as preachers, is that we have plenty of need to bring to Jesus in prayer.

Maybe we would do well to ask him to help us discern the difference, and perhaps to invest more of our time bringing great needs to a merciful Saviour, instead of just bringing our great plans to someone who knows better than to grant everything we ask!