pastor's blog
Monday, 02 December 2019 22:11

The Christmas Gospel

18   Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23          “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

                      and they shall call his name Immanuel”  (Matt 1:18–23 ESV)

 

            Almighty everybody knows that story, some very well. It is precious to some, and puzzling to others. Christmas is everywhere. The celebration is becoming more secular, that seems clear. Many of the activities may have little to do with worshipping Christ, the new-born king. Even so, His story remains at the center of Christmas.

            The music of the season is full of the gospel story. Admittedly, there are plenty of generic, non-religious songs we hear this time of year. Chestnuts regularly roast on an open fire. We still promise to be home for Christmas, if only in our dreams. Almost every year, I hear at some point the alarming news that grandma got run over by a reindeer…again!

            Some of the music is different. In public, un-expected places we notice the name of Jesus. We are exposed to the story of his birth, and even some pretty deep thinking about why Jesus came into the world.

            One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Some of its lines include:

           

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled"

 

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with man to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel

 

Light and life to all He brings

Ris'n with healing in His wings

  

Mild He lays His glory by

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth

           

There is something very profound here. The words might run past us, unnoticed, like festive wallpaper. If we take the time to really listen, we will be led to the good news of Christ our Savior. In Jesus, God and sinners are reconciled. He is born that we might be born again.

            May this Christmas be filled with the joy of Christ, who brings light and life to us.

      

Tuesday, 16 April 2019 22:20

Resurrection

21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:21–27 ESV)

The hope for heaven is very real for many people. There is widespread belief that there is some kind of life after death. I think I remember hearing polls saying that was true for 80% of people in our country. Of course, there are many different ideas about what heaven might be like. Will we have bodies? Will we recognize one another? Where will it be? Who will get there? These are important questions. Where can we look for answers?

The Bible tells us that God made us to live with Him and to share in the blessings of His Kingdom under His rule. But human beings have rebelled against God, preferring to be in charge of our lives. Human history reveals that we have not done a very good job of it. According to God’s plan, and at just the right moment, God sent His Son Jesus into the world. He called people to turn away from their rebellion and to believe in Him as the King and Rescuer sent from God.

In the passage quoted above, Jesus talks with a woman, Martha, about the death of her brother, Lazarus. It is a very human scene, and most of us can identify with her thoughts and feelings in some way. In times of grief, the question of heaven looms large. Like most people, she believes her brother’s life will continue, in some way, after the grave.

Then Jesus boldly claims that he is the resurrection. He is the one who can make it happen. He is the door to heaven that we enter through believing in Him, entrusting ourselves to Him, following Him. A few days later, Jesus was killed on a cross. Three days after that, He rose from the grave! That’s the good news of Easter.

As we struggle with life, with meaning, with hope in the face of pain and death, this is the amazing fact we must consider. If Jesus is risen, as the Bible announces, then everything is different. Our hope is no longer based upon a wish to escape our fears. Our hope is founded on the actual, historical, physical resurrection of Jesus.

For those of us who believe this is true, the resurrection story is cause for joyful celebration. For those who are doubtful or indifferent, it is cause for careful consideration. Nothing could be more important than to get this right.

Spend some time in the Resurrection story told in the Bible. Read one of the gospels yourself, or with a friend. Join in worship, where these passages are read and explained and sung and celebrated.

May God help us all to find the hope that Martha found, trusting in Christ, the Son of God.  He is Risen!

Monday, 07 January 2019 22:56

Big Questions

At the beginning of this year, many churches in our area are participating in an initiative known as “Explore God Chicago.” This is an effort to address the big questions that people have about life, about God, and about faith. Many churches from many different denominations are taking seven weeks in January and February to address these key questions:

  1. Does life have a purpose?
  2. Is there a God?
  3. Why does God allow pain and suffering?
  4. Is Christianity too narrow?
  5. Is Jesus really God?
  6. Is the Bible reliable?
  7. Can I know God personally?

These are good questions. They may be things you have wondered about. You surely know people who are asking these things. It will be good for us look in the Bible together explore the answers together. We will investigate these topics during Sunday morning worship, and discuss them further during Wednesday evening Bible study.

Paul told the religious questioners in Athens that God has made us to seek Him; to feel our way toward Him and find Him (Acts 17:27). Let’s keep asking key questions and learning about God’s answers, so that we can grow in our faith, and encourage others in their seeking.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018 23:24

Jesus is Love in the Flesh

7   Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7–12 ESV)   

 

            During the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Jesus. Jesus is God Incarnate, God in the flesh. We come to know God our Father when we look to His Son, Jesus Christ.

            The 19th century poet, Christina Rossetti, wrote a beautiful poem that is set as a Christmas hymn. The first stanza runs:

Love came down at Christmas,

Love all lovely, love divine;

Love was born at Christmas;

Star and angels gave the sign.

            Rossetti’s poem inspired the title of a new book by Sinclair Ferguson. In “Love Come Down at Christmas,” Dr. Ferguson writes a series of Advent devotionals on 1 Corinthians 13. He helps us learn about love by examining the well-known “Love Chapter” in 1 Corinthians in the light of the incarnation of Jesus. “He shows us what love is. Love is simply being like him.”

            We have heard the words of 1 Corinthians many times. They are often read at weddings. The passage describes the character of genuine love. They apply to the love of a husband and wife, but also of our love for others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. And they put into words the kind of love that our Heavenly Father has for us.

            If the “love chapter” describes the character of Christian love, Jesus himself demonstrates that love. He came in the flesh so we could see what this love looks like when it is put into practice.           I am enjoying reading Ferguson’s Advent devotions. And I am looking forward to learning about love this Advent as we think on love described in 1 Corinthians, and love demonstrated in Jesus. The Father sent the Son into the world to manifest His love, and that we might live through Christ, who is Love Incarnate.

 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018 11:53

Clap Your Hands and Shout!

1         Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!

2         For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. (Psa 47:1-2 ESV)

Last month, I wrote about the blessings of singing hymns as a part of our worship, and how the hymnal is a great help in doing that. I am so grateful for this blessing. We are incorporating newer music on Sunday morning as well (some of those new songs are actually hymns!)  It was wonderful how our worship band could put the refrain of “He Will Hold Me Fast” into our hearts and minds.

Hymnals are useful tools. They help us worship together. There are other tools we can use. We can print words, even music into the bulletin. We can sing from memory. The book of psalms is the God-inspired collection of hymns that has been in steady use for centuries. In older times, God’s people would have them memorized.

We can also project the words on a screen. That seems to be what most congregations are doing these days. We project words occasionally at our church, but we are not really set up to do it well.  It is another tool.

Last time, I quoted extensively from an article by Tim Challies. He makes the point that there are pros and cons to our choices in how we present our music. As most have shifted from hymnals to projectors, there are some things that are lost, and some things that are gained.

In April, I shared his thoughts about what we lost. Here is what we gained. These are excerpted from the full article, which you can read here. (Note: he uses “PowerPoint as shorthand for any projection method.)

  • We gained immediacy. Not all of the good songs are old songs...yet hymnals made us wait years or even decades before we could add them to our services... projection reduces the lag between great new songs and updated hymnals.
  • We gained posture. We had to hold the hymnal… and look down at the words…hymnal posture was stiff and fixed. PowerPoint posture is open and free which may be a superior posture for worship, and especially for worship that is physically expressively—something the Bible seems to allow or even advocate.
  • We gained variety. Hymnals promoted certain kinds of songs while holding off others. Yet the Bible gives us freedom to worship in “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs”, to praise God in every variety of song. PowerPoint helps us do this.
  • We gained portability. There is a convenience and portability … that is missing in hymnals. Not only that, but the cost is lower. Two hundred and fifty hymnals will cost around $6,000; a laptop and projector can be had for a fraction of that.
  • We gained spontaneity. PowerPoint allows a kind of spontaneity that may not be present when relying on hymnals.
  • We gained service. Our hymnals reflect a vetting process where hundreds of thousands of hymns were whittled down to just a few hundred..We…serve future generations by singing a variety of today’s songs and, as we do so, filtering the good from the bad and the best from the rest.

We enjoy some of these advantages by using bulletin inserts. I wonder what our singing would be like if we could be looking up, hands free. We couldn’t sing parts as well (although some do that by ear), but we might sing out, and with different kind of togetherness.  Do I dare mention clapping? That needs another article. But, exactly how do we sing Psalm 47?  It’s worth thinking about.

Tools are tools. They have pros and cons. They need to be used thoughtfully and faithfully. Whether the words are in our minds, in hymnals, on bulletin inserts, on screens, on clay tablets or vellum scrolls, we must praise the Lord our God with loud songs of Joy! Sing out!

Wednesday, 04 April 2018 16:11

Why We Still Use Hymnals

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:16–17 ESV)

I praise the Lord for a congregation that loves to sing. Music has always been a vital part of the worship of God’s people. Our church has blessed with a number of people with musical gifts, and whom are encouraged to use them.

Styles of music come and go, and we may use different instruments. Few of us play on seven-stringed harps. Our worship services do not include many Gregorian chants. The current trends are very much toward contemporary music and projected lyrics.

Our congregation is very unique. We sing newer songs, with newer instruments. But we also still sing traditional hymns, with hymnals and organ accompaniment. That is not only because of our preferences, but because of the giftedness of our people. The Holy Spirit shapes our ministry through the particular gifts He gives to a particular congregation.

I came across an interesting article written by Tim Challies. His blog is one I go to almost every day. In this particular article, he talks about what we give up when we replace our hymnals with words projected on a screen:

  • We lost an established body of songs. Hymnals communicated that a church had an established collection of songs. This, in turn, communicated that its songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration…
  • We lost a deep knowledge of our songs…As we add new songs with greater regularity, we sing old songs with less frequency. This reduces our familiarity with our songs so that today we have far fewer of them fixed in our minds and hearts…
  • We lost the ability to do harmonies…Hymnals almost invariably included the music for both melody and harmonies and congregations learned to sing the parts…
  • We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well…
  • We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. Families would often sing together as part of their family worship…

Challies is not particularly advocating that everybody go back to using hymnals, only that it has come at a cost. I have only quoted excerpts here. You can read it in full here:  What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals.

I am glad that we have continued to use the hymnals. I am also glad that we have been able to sing new songs and hymns as well. Above us, let’s continue to sing with thankfulness in our hearts. And may the Word of the Lord dwell in us richly as we sing his Word and sing his praises

Monday, 26 March 2018 19:03

Waiting on God's Providence

The book of Ester is a wonderful story of God's providence. God sets people and plans in place, but it can still take a considerable amount of time for things to develop. Esther had to with twelve months before she was first brought before the King. The threatened plot against the Jews was not hatched for another five years. That's a long time for Ester to what before the "such a time as this" moment arrives.

We live moment by moment, without knowing how or when God might make a move. Until the God-appointed time arrives, we are doing His will by remaining faithful in place. It may take a while, but God's time is best! 

Wednesday, 21 February 2018 10:30

Billy Graham

I was sad to hear of the death of Billy Graham this morning. I'm not sad for him, of course, but for us. His loving desire to see people come to Christ was an encouragement to the church, and a strong witness in the world. It seems like an important chapter has come to a close. It is hard to imagine that those shoes will ever be filled. Some leaders will continue to serve in positions of prominence and influence. All of us can serve wherever God has placed us, and lace up "shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace." (Eph 6:15 ESV)

Justin Taylor posted this wonderful quote on the gospel coalition website: "Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God."

So he has. And he has joined in the glad reunion with the saints who have gone before. Many of those came forward at Billy's invitation, just as they were, and were redeemed by Jesus, our Savior, the Resurrection and the Life.

Monday, 29 January 2018 23:52

Study, Do, Teach

Ez 7:10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.

 

Ezra’s priorities were amazingly simple, yet really helpful. He resolved to study the Word, to do it, and to teach it.

Study must come first. We have to read Scripture carefully and prayerfully so that we might understand what God is saying to us.

 

Knowledge of Scripture is not the end goal. We need to obey it; to be doers and not hearers only. Some of us love to study, and that’s good. If we are not careful, we will be slow about putting what we’ve learned in practice.

 

The last step is also crucial; to teach others. It sounds a bit like the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), doesn’t it. It’s discipling. It’s passing on what we have learned so that others can study, do, and teach as well.

 

It’s helpful to keep these three priorities from Ezra in mind, as of first importance, and in order. When Ezra did so, the good hand of his God was with him. May God’s good hand be upon us, as we study, do, and teach his Word.

Friday, 19 January 2018 19:26

Praying for important conversations

What do we do when we know we are about to have an important conversations with someone? If we have to discuss something really important, then we will want to be well prepared. It would be wise to pray for God's help, but how should we pray?

The book of Nehemiah describes the time when God's people have begun to return to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon. The temple has been rebuilt, but Jerusalem still lies in ruins. Nehemiah is deeply moved and concerned when he hears the plight of his fellow Jews. He is serving as cupbearer to the king of Persia, and he prepares to ask the king for help. In chapter 1, Nehemiah prays to God. He considers the Lord's greatness, confesses his sins and the sins of his people, clings to God's promise, and asks for his help in his meeting with the king. "Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man."

We can pray in just this way when we are getting ready for an important encounter. Perhaps we have to bring up a delicate issue. We might be looking for an opening to share the gospel. It could be that we are trying to find words to comfort  or encourage a friend who is going through a hard time. We can be like Nehemiah, and prepare by seeking the Lord's help. "Father, I have a weighty conversation coming up. Be with me, Lord. Grant me success and mercy a I speak."

We all face difficult and significant personal encounters. We do not face them alone, and we need not face them unprepared. The Lord is with us!