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Grace Awakening

September 9, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

I like to take road trips because the open road is therapeutic for me.  In Luke 24 we read a story of two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus following the crucifixion of Jesus.  They were bewildered by the events that led to Jesus’ death and devastated by the fact that the Messiah of God was dead.  How could this happen?  What were they supposed to do now?  We don’t know why they were taking the journey to Emmaus but they could never have predicted what they would encounter on this road trip.

As they journeyed a stranger joined them.  He asked what they talking about on the journey. They said, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem that has not heard about the recent events?”  The stranger said, “What events?”  So, the disciples retold the story to the stranger.  Of course, the stranger was Jesus and he began to chide them for not understanding the events.  He accused them of “being slow of heart” in believing all that the prophets had said concerning the Messiah.  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he explained it to them.

I wish I had been on that road trip!  By the end of the journey when they were about to eat together, Jesus broke the bread and gave thanks, and the disciples’ eyes were opened to realize who had been travelling with them.  At that point Jesus disappeared from their sight.  The Bible says that they were kept from recognizing him but it does not tell us why – we are left to wonder why they didn’t see him.

One obvious reason is that Jesus himself kept them from seeing him.  Perhaps the whole thing was part of his plan so that he could uncover divine history for them.  It is also possible that they failed to recognize him because they were overcome with grief.  Grief often does that to us.  But perhaps they did not recognize him because they were always “slow of heart” to believe.  After all, Jesus had routinely predicted his death, burial and resurrection but the disciples had missed it.  It is almost as though the Gospels were written as a confession by the disciples to admit how “slow of heart” they were to believe.  But what remains curious is how they could have been so close to the source and still missed it. This story is a reminder to us concerning how often we might miss the presence of Jesus.  There are many reasons for this.  Like them we have our own traditions, which can put blinders on our sight.  Sometimes we are blinded by self, our sins or our personal expectations.  We all need a grace awakening from time to time.  Grace awakenings come in different ways and different stages of life but it is inevitable that for Christ-followers they will come.  Be open to the grace awakenings today – watch and listen for Jesus.  He might actually surprise you on the road trip of life.

Tell Your Story

September 2, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

Do you ever feel inadequate when it comes to sharing your faith?  Sometimes certain people, whether friends, family or strangers might have questions about your faith that seem difficult to answer.  Sometimes in an attempt to have the “right answer” we study arguments for the reasonableness of our faith.  There is nothing wrong with seeking answers for hard questions that come from critics.  In fact, I have spent a good bit of my life attempting to understand and “defend the faith” against critics who believe it is irrational.  There is real value in preparing to answer difficult questions, but well-reasoned answers for the critic is often not as important as an individual life that testifies to faith.

In the ninth chapter of John’s gospel, we read a story about a man who was born blind but was miraculously healed by Jesus.  Those who were critics of Jesus heard of the miracle and quizzed the formerly blind man with many questions.  “Who is he?  What did he say?  He healed you on the Sabbath, correct?  You know that it is unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, right?  What is your opinion of this man who healed you?  Do you think the man who healed you is a sinner?” The man who had been healed by Jesus was bewildered by their questions and no doubt felt trapped by their interrogation.  As he tried to answer their questions they became angry.  They even accused him of lecturing them which outraged them because he did not have their level of education.  Finally, exasperated by their questions he said to them, “Look, I can’t answer all your questions but I know this: I was blind and now I can see.”

This story can be an encouragement for all of us who want to share our faith but feel inadequate to answer the tough questions.  First, we will never have all the answers.  Second, even if we had all the answers it would not be enough for some people.  In other words, don’t be overwhelmed by the questions and don’t feel the burden of trying to answer all the objections.  I will never forget the advice my father gave me when I first started to preach.  He said to me, “Son there are going to be times when your tongue gets tied, when the words don’t come out right and when you feel like you don’t have the answers.  When that happens just stop and tell your story.”  He then reminded me how often the Apostle Paul gave his testimony about being blinded by the light of God on the road to Damascus.  Paul is best remembered for the powerful words in the epistles that he wrote, letters which are read by people every day all around the world.  Sometimes his words are difficult and hard to understand; even the Apostle Peter said that about Paul’s words.  However, we should not forget that the inspired words of his epistles emerge from a story.  His story is simple.  One day he encountered Jesus and his life changed forever.

You may never be a great orator.  When asked difficult questions, you may feel that your tongue is tied and your mind is frozen, but don’t be discouraged.  Don’t worry about having all the answers.  Don’t be concerned that your evangelistic methods are not perfect.  Instead, tell your story.  Tell the story about how Jesus changed your life.  Make the words of the blind man your own words: Once I was blind but now I can see.  This is my story…

Growing in Grace

August 27, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

From what we know historically, the epistles of I and II Peter were written to a group of Christians who were attempting to follow Jesus in the midst of persecution. Peter opens the second epistle with an encouraging word: May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord (II Peter 1:2).  Then at the end of the same epistle he repeats that phrase as an admonition:  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be glory both now and forevermore! Amen (II Peter 3:18).  Those are powerful words of encouragement and admonition, so how should we follow them?  There are many ways we might follow this advice but I invite you to consider three.

In God’s Economy, Less Is More

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Aug. 4, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

Maybe you have heard a saying like this, “your greatest weakness is actually a strength overdone.”  As with many catchy statements like this there is some truth to them even if they are incomplete.  At the very least they grab our attention.  This statement, however incomplete, has an application for those who live by faith.  I’m reminded of Paul’s famous statement – his strength is made perfect in my weakness.  There is also a story in the Old Testament that illustrates this well in the life of Gideon (Judges 6-7).  There are at least three examples in this story of how less is actually more.  The first example is when God comes to Gideon and calls him a mighty warrior.  This was simply not true of Gideon.  He was not a soldier experienced in war and because of that he questioned the angel messenger.  In effect he said “you’ve got the wrong man.”  Of course, God doesn’t make mistakes so in spite of Gideon’s self-doubt God was correct.  He would be a mighty warrior in the cause for which God had chosen him.

A second example of less being more is when God prepares Gideon for battle with the Midianites.  They outnumber the Israelites dramatically!  The scripture says it was impossible to count them because the numbers were so numerous.  Gideon knows there is no way humanly possible for Israel to prevail against the hordes of Midian.  Yet once again God uses less, namely a small army from Israel, and makes them greater than their enemies.

The third example of less being more is when God directs Gideon to design a battle plan.  Gideon goes about it in a reasonable manner, calling on as many men as possible to enter the battle, but God changes the plan.  He reduces the number of troops from 32,000 to 10,000.  If that is not drastic enough, he calls Gideon to reduce the number again.  Before it is all over Gideon has only 300 soldiers to face the gigantic, numberless army of the Midianites.

But there is even more … now Gideon provides some strange instructions to his 300 soldiers.  They are directed to surround the enemy camp at night, break the pitchers that contained torches and shout the For the Lord and for Gideon.  After that shout they are instructed to rush into the camp and fight.  Can you imagine being one of the soldiers hearing these instructions – this is crazy!  Of course, the end of the story is that Gideon defeats the huge army. 

There are several things we learn from this story.  You don’t have to be big for God to use you.  You don’t have to be strong for God to use you.  You don’t have to be smart for God to use you.  God strips us down to prepare us.

Here are some questions for us to ponder today: 1) God, what are you doing in my life?  2) What are you trying to teach me?  3) What do I need to surrender in order to follow?

I and My Father’s House

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July 30, 2020 by Steven Lulich

Even I and my father’s house have sinned.
Nehemiah 1:6

One day when I was in the third grade, I came to school late (I don’t remember the circumstances). Apparently, there had been some sort of to-do either in the classroom or on the playground that morning, and the teacher was upset. I arrived just in time to participate in the consequent corporate punishment, which was to copy some sentences from the blackboard into our notebooks. I think the sentences were a kind of confession and a resolution to do better in the future, but that part of my memory is pretty hazy. It wasn’t a harsh punishment, and I really didn’t mind writing down the words (I was a pretty compliant child). But my pride was a bit wounded because I wasn’t guilty. I didn’t even know what had happened (and I still don’t).

In its own small way, my experience of corporate guilt and confession as a third-grader is really not that uncommon. I had a much more dramatic (though less personal) experience of this as a college exchange student in Germany. My group of exchange students, spread across several universities around Germany, met together for a field trip at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp outside Weimar. In addition to us Americans, there were a handful of German students as well as the “grown-ups” leading the exchange program and the tour. At one point, one of the German students realized that the six death camps (including Auschwitz) were all located in (Nazi-occupied) Poland. “So it wasn’t us!” he exclaimed. The “grown-ups” in the room immediately responded, horrified, “Yes, yes, it was us!” None of the people in the room was even alive during Nazi rule. The generation born in the aftermath of World War II grew up with the corporate national guilt felt by their parents, and they still hold on to it. In contrast, the younger generations increasingly feel oppressed by the weight of guilt for something that they had no personal knowledge of.

Late in the year 446 BC (“in the twentieth year” of the Persian king Artaxerxes I), roughly 140 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king.  He was born in captivity, long after the final years of the Israelite Monarchies, which were destroyed because they “acted very corruptly against [God] and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that [God] commanded [His] servant Moses” (v. 7). One of the many remarkable features of Nehemiah’s career is his prayer of confession, recorded in chapter 1.

In this prayer, Nehemiah makes no distinctions. He does not say “some of the people of former generations have sinned”. He might well have done so – after all, the abandonment of God in favor of rank idolatry was not universal.  Throughout the twilight years of the First Temple period, faithful prophets (e.g. Jeremiah), kings (e.g. Josiah), and citizens (e.g. the Rechabites, Jer. 35) were to be found. But like Daniel before him (Dan. 9), Nehemiah prays a corporate prayer of confession to God. He does not excuse anyone who lived in those days. He does not excuse himself, who had no part in those days. He instead places himself directly in the line of fire. “O Lord God of heaven … hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned” (vs. 5-6).

Nehemiah offers us a wonderful example of humility: he completely swallowed his pride when he made this prayer to God. He also offers us an extraordinary model of corporate confession of guilt. As the apostle Paul would later explain, “all have sinned” without exception (Rom. 3:23). It is as important as it is difficult for us to remember that, in spite of our existence within a highly individualistic society, the body of Christ is a single corps (the word “corp-orate” means “in a single body”). “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26a).

Likewise, the opposite is also true: “if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26b). Nehemiah recognized this, citing God’s promise of corporate restoration: “but if you return to me … though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there” (v. 9, drawing on Deuteronomy 30:1-3).

The Church is a body of redeemed sinners. Let us not forget that we suffer and rejoice, fall and rise, as a single body that stretches across both space and time. In “its appropriate time” (Ecc. 3:1), let us pray that we will swallow our pride like Nehemiah, joining with him in corporate confession without any excuses, so that we might also participate with him in receiving corporate mercy and blessings.

Be the Means

July, 21, by Dan Waugh

This morning I was reading in 2 Corinthians and was drawn to consider a few verses in chapter seven more deeply. Paul writes,

But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

2 Corinthians 7:6-7

Paul reminds us that God provides comfort to the downtrodden, downcast, and discouraged. I think we all qualify at times and all stand in need of God’s encouragement. Maybe more right now than normal. That God comforts those who need comfort is a truth we hold dear when we grieve, mourn, or struggle with sadness. And we often pray that God would comfort others in the midst of loss or sorrow.

But does God offer his comfort directly to the soul of the downcast? Certainly, he can. But in 2 Corinthians 7 the comfort comes to Paul through another, namely Titus. Titus came to Paul, and this coming was a comfort to Paul; in fact, he counted it as God’s comfort. Moreover, the comfort Titus extended to Paul was, in part at least, the encouragement that he was loved by the church at Corinth. In other words, God gave comfort, but he did it through means.

The application is simple but important. When we pray that God will comfort others, we should be ready to extend God’s comfort to them – to speak of God’s promises, extend God’s love and presence by our love and presence.

And this principle extends to so many areas. We pray that someone will come to faith in Christ, and while it’s possible that God will send an angel to proclaim the gospel directly to the person, it is far more likely that God is calling us to be His mouthpiece to extend the outward gospel call to the person we pray for. Or, we pray that someone will see the error of their ways and come to make wiser decisions; and it’s likely God is calling us to speak truth in love. We pray that God will meet the financial needs of someone we are close to; and it’s likely that God is calling us to be generous and be a part of God meeting that need.

That’s what it means to be God’s instruments, God’s vessels, God’s ministers…God’s people. Who has God been laying on your heart? How might you be an answer to the prayers you’ve been praying for them? How can you be a minister of God’s grace to others today?

Blessed to Be a Blessing

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July 16, 2020 by Steven Lulich

Why then have you broken down its walls,
So that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
Psalm 80:12

I grew up around fruit trees. The two I remember best were a plum tree in the back yard and an apple tree in the front yard. The plum tree was probably my favorite climbing tree, and it was also good for picking plums and eating them on the spot, right there in the tree. I didn’t climb the apple tree much, probably because it was closer to the road, but I have a vivid memory of one occasion. My brother and I both climbed up that tree when it was full of ripe apples, and we sat among the higher branches picking and eating apples. It was relaxing, idyllic, and delicious – and time seemed to almost stand still. Unfortunately, I ate so many apples that I ended up with a stomach ache afterward.

In general, a fruit tree is meant to serve as a blessing and a source of nourishment and joy for others – not only for the tree itself. But that blessing can turn sour in the stomach when used inappropriately. It is perhaps for exactly these reasons that the Bible frequently uses the metaphor of a fruitful tree or grape vine to refer to the people of God, whom He has blessed in order to be a blessing (Gen. 12:2). For example, when Jacob blesses his sons upon his deathbed, he says of Joseph that he “is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22). Joseph was blessed by God not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the whole biblical world: “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Gen. 50:20).

Psalm 80 is a meditation on Joseph’s blessing (compare with Gen. 49:22-26 for several parallels). The Psalmist tells us that God “brought a vine out of Egypt”, planted it and cared for it, so that “it took deep root and filled the land” (vss. 8-11). But God has “broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit” (vs. 12). This activity of those “who pass along the way” is usually (if not universally) described in negative terms by commentators. It represents the misuse and abuse of the blessing of the fruitful vine, and it results in the invocation of a curse (vs. 16).

But notice that the vine itself is at the same time fulfilling its mission to bless others with its fruit. Indeed, there is a sense in which the vine’s blessing is even more fully realized when it is not walled in. If Joseph is God’s fruitful vine and Israel is God’s vineyard within the walls (e.g. Is. 5), then the gentiles are on the other side of the wall and have no access to the blessing of the fruit. Centuries later, Paul would describe Jesus (the one to whom Joseph’s life pointed) as the one who “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace [and reconciling] us both to God in one body through the cross” (see Eph. 2:11-22). Through the breaking down of the wall, we all have access to the fruit, but we must accept and use that fruit appropriately, with thanksgiving and faithfulness in our hearts. The Israelites of the Psalmist’s day certainly experienced the mistreatment of the fruitful vine as a very painful thing, just as Jesus experienced the Cross and as the Early Church experienced persecutions. When we are mistreated and abused by the world, we should remember that there is a purpose in it, no matter how painful it might be. We should remember that this purpose includes an invitation to that very same world, to come and partake of the blessings of God’s fruitful vine. We can also take heart in the knowledge that God will “turn again [and] have regard for this vine … [and] give us life, and we will call upon [His] name!” (vs. 14-19).

Servant of Christ

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July 14, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

John the Baptist was an unusual character. He lived in the wilderness, wore camel skins, ate locusts and wild honey. He appears to be fearless and relatively unconcerned with what others think. Eventually his prophetic message led to death by beheading. He was a rugged individual, unimpressed by political power brokers and unaffected by their threats. John was like the frontier man living an independent life of a rebellious loner. However, there is one exceptional distinction that suggests he was not an independent religious rebel.

When John predicted the coming of Jesus he said “There is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie or carry.” He informs his audience that he is a lowly, small character compared to the Lamb of God. When he claims to be unworthy to even touch the sandals of Jesus he lowers himself to the level of a subservient slave. There was nothing lower than handling another person’s shoes or washing their feet. But notice, John takes it down even further if that is possible. I am so unworthy, so low that I cannot qualify to touch his sandals.

Our 21st century of the individual is much like the figure of John preaching in the wilderness. We often believe ourselves to be the independent proclaimers of truth. We assert our rights and flaunt our independence. We even have adopted the ridiculous notion that we are self-made individuals. What is often lost in our self-made individualism is the idea of being a servant. We have difficulty submitting to authority. We shout about our “rights” even if those “rights” threaten another. We live as though we are the only ones who matter, like self-consumed whining children.

This can affect our view of God and the church. We worship the God that we have crafted in our own image. If we don’t like the notion of God being fierce, we try to tame him. If we think there is too much emphasis on the love of God, we create a god that is fierce. How often is our view of God informed by our own prejudices? Is our understanding of God more like a modern version of Santa Claus or do we kneel in awe at God’s holiness?

When visiting an elderly parishioner on one occasion she shared with me her prayer routine. “Every night, she said, “I kneel beside my bed to pray. It might seem odd to some folks but I can’t do it any other way. What do you think, pastor?” It was not her intent, but her words were a silent rebuke to my cavalier view of God. She was quite old, her knees wobbly and I wondered how she could kneel every night. I was ashamed. She didn’t know it but she was paraphrasing the words of John the Baptist – I’m not even worthy to touch your sandals. Both John and my elderly parishioner were right. If it is possible to go lower than sandals, that’s where we belong in the presence of God. Let’s believe it, embrace it and live that way.

The Words of the Lord Are Pure Words

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July 2, 2020 by Steven Lulich

The words of the Lord are pure words,
Like silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
Purified seven times.
Psalm 12:6

As a child growing up out West, I remember panning for gold a handful of times. I never found anything worth writing home about, but it was still a fun experience. In all the history of North American gold rushes, most hauls were not much better than my own. And yet the promise of gold was enough to motivate hundreds and thousands of men and women to sell all they had, journey to a distant unknown land, and pick and scrape through the dirt and rock. Only after they had collected a sufficient quantity would they bring their treasures to the assayer’s office to determine its quality. Only after all of their sacrifices and hard work would they find out if their treasure was worth the effort.

The words of Lord are not like that. The assayer has already judged them to be of unsurpassable quality – like silver purified seven times in an earthen furnace. And not only is their value assured beforehand, but the place of their hiding is not far away across rivers, mountains, and seas. “The word is very near you” (Deut. 30:14, Rom. 10:8), if not in your heart then at least at your local bookseller. If I am willing to risk everything in pursuit of the vanishing smoke of an improbable dream, how much more should I be ready to pour all my resources into the guaranteed investment of the words of the Lord? Having found a treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price, shall I not sell all that I have to procure it (Matt. 13:44-46)? Shall I not take counsel from “the faithful and true witness … to buy from [Him] gold refined by fire” (Rev. 3:14-18)?

And what if I do not have the skill to appreciate the quality of silver and gold for myself? Are the words of the Lord really so precious? Ah, but if I am content to trust the human assayer of precious metals, why should I not also trust the divine assayer of the words of the Lord? In both cases, faith is the fulcrum upon which the scales tip; remove it, and you can have no sure assay. “The word is near you … the word of faith that we proclaim” (Rom. 10:8). Let me accept this word, let me study it, let me immerse myself in it, and let me pick and scrape my way through its rich strata.

A Precious Gift

June 30th, by Dan Waugh

During my Romans Bible study last week, I stepped up on my soapbox and waxed eloquently about the importance of the visible church. It is a much overlooked and yet incredibly important aspect of Christian theology. It was Paul’s imagery of the church as the Body of Christ in Romans 12 that got me going last Wednesday, but really, the importance of the church is seen all over Paul’s letters (and John’s, and Peter’s and the Gospels).