Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?

A Purposeful and Proactive Pursuit

At first glance, John 5:1-18 looks like any other healing narrative in the Gospels.  Someone gets healed by Jesus, it’s a miracle, and the authorities aren’t happy.  But in John’s Gospel the writer is more sparing in his choice of healing stories – one child, one invalid, one blind man, and one dead man.  So maybe the story in John 5 is intended to highlight more for us readers than “just another healing”.

John chapter 5 is a strategically placed narrative in the flow of the book as a whole.    But then comes chapter 5 and an incident that seems to spark tensions that will rumble through the next chapters, and the next twelve months, right up to the Passion Week when Jesus died.

In other healing stories we see desperate people crying out to get Jesus’ attention, or going to great lengths to get close to him.  But in John 5 we see Jesus making all the moves.  He initiates a healing with someone who doesn’t know who he is.  And from a human perspective, the response he gets is not great.  This wasn’t a situation where Jesus chose a person he knew would respond well to him!

Notice the three moves that Jesus makes in this story, because he still makes those moves today:

1. Jesus initiates meeting the need of a hurting and broken man.  In verses 6-8 Jesus approaches the man and asks if he would like to be healed. As soon as the man has given his excuses for not being healed, Jesus simply tells him to get up, take up his bed, and walk.

2. Jesus initiates confronting the man over his deeper issue.  The man is accused of breaking the Sabbath in verses 9-13, but he doesn’t know who it was that healed him. (Don’t miss the delight of the authorities at the blessing of the miracle that had taken place!  Actually, we are so used to their reaction that it doesn’t register with us anymore, but it should!)  Then, in verse 14, Jesus finds the man and confronts him over his sin.  We don’t know whether this is referring to lifelong sin, general sin, specific sin, or even the sin he was contemplating, but nevertheless, Jesus knows that he needs more than functioning legs.

Sadly, the man immediately rushes off to tell the authorities that Jesus is the man they should be arresting.  Which sets up the third and most startling moment of initiative from Jesus:

3. Jesus initiates proceedings that will lead to the solution for sin: his own death.  The authorities are upset with Jesus for inciting others to break the Sabbath, but Jesus dies not want to deal with that “lesser charge” – so he just ramps it up to the highest crime possible.  He makes himself equal with God.  What had started as a small misdemeanor, from the perspective of the authorities, is now a full capital crime.  And Jesus is the one who made sure it got to that level.  This was no mistake.  He knew what he was doing.

The tension created in this story rumbles on through the coming chapters and months right up to chapter 12, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for that first Easter week.

So this story at the start of John 5 is significant in the flow of John.  But is it significant in the flow of our lives today?  It should be, absolutely.

Jesus still takes the initiative, far more than we tend to realise.  How often is he kind to us in ways we have not asked for, or even before we knew him?  Jesus knows what it is to be human in this hurt and broken world, and he is very proactive in initiating acts of grace in our lives.  Sadly, just like the man in John 5, we are also often slow to respond (although hopefully, unlike what we know of the healed man, we have responded to Jesus with faith!)

Jesus still takes the initiative in seeking us out to flag the issues of sin that lie deep within us.  He knows that functioning legs are not enough.  Nor is a healthier financial situation, a fixed family relationship, or whatever other kindness he shows.  He knows us.  He knows our sin.  And he knows how to put his finger on that sin issue to help us move closer to what we should be.  While we may have resisted his pursuit before we were saved, let’s never resist his initiative now that we are his.

Jesus would still take the initiative to instigate his own death – he  loves us that much.  But he doesn’t need to do that.  His death stands as an accomplished, eternity-changing, heart-revolutionizing reality for us to respond to.

He shows kindness to us, he probes deeper to deal with our real issues, and he was willing to die to take care of those deepest issues.  John 5 underlines to us that Jesus is not passive, nor reactive.  He is proactive, initiating time and again in our lives for our good.  Let’s be those who are alert to his initiative, and who are responsive to what he wants to do in our lives today.

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.