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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?

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.

In Whom Do We Trust?

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June 25, 2020 by Tim O’Connor

It seems that the reservoir of trust in our society is quickly drying up. Name an institution (the Church included), and one of the interminable polls we are bombarded with will tell you that the percentage of people having confidence in it has dropped to low numbers. We are also atomized (frayed and broken families; lessened communal involvements) and politically and culturally polarized. Add in all the upheavals of recent months against the backdrop of serious looming collective challenges just over the horizon, and the result is widespread anxiety, tending for some into desperation and for others into paranoia. It’s quite a mess!

Oddly enough, history suggests that the biggest danger in a moment such as ours is…a breakout of collective trust! God made us to be relational, highly interdependent creatures, so trust is a necessary feature of the human condition. It can erode, but where it has done so across a whole society, the hunger for its restoration remains. Given a simple message seemingly fitted to the times, and a stirring of highly committed people typically headed by one or more highly charismatic individuals, a sizeable segment of formerly cynical people will rally around surprisingly quickly. In best case scenarios, the result is needed reform and renewal, and strengthened communal bonds. In worst-case scenarios, it leads to violence against perceived enemies of the cause, ending in totalitarian nightmares of one flavor or another. What makes for the difference?

That question is not easily answered, but for the people of God these words from Psalm 118 are pertinent:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in princes.

The psalmist neatly distills a message running through the Old and New Testaments: there is no person or cause arising from the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ that we can lean upon, fully trusting in the purity of their righteousness. Quite the reverse: we should expect to see brokenness on closer scrutiny. And whether we see it or not, all our interactions should be informed by the knowledge that it ever lives there, in and among us, whether the ‘us’ be the society at large, a political party or movement, our family, or even the church.

This unsentimental message avoids cynicism through its second part: take refuge in the LORD. Placing unreserved trust and confident hope in Him alone, we are protected from fevered idealism, which always lead to crushing disillusion, and are freed to accept the inevitable failings of ourselves and those we band together with. We can insist upon robust accountability – from our most inspiring leaders, our close friends, and ourselves– to curb the damage from those anticipated failings. We become patient, accepting that even the best of undertakings consist in two steps forward, one step back. And we avoid despair, knowing that every good thing that has been attained thus far was imbued with the grace of God, and that grace will lead us home.

Songs of the Heart

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June 22, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

Music enters the soul in a way that nothing else can.  As the melody rises, the lyrics emerge from our memory almost effortlessly.  We sing the words over and over again, letting them become part of our thinking, emotions, and even our daily lives.  Of course, in their earliest form, the Psalms were a lot like contemporary music.  Imagine a young man tending sheep on a Judean hillside: he plays his harp, hums a tune, composes words, and a song is born.  The song that emerges from that lonely hillside becomes a favorite–a hit, if you will–that catches on among the people who hear it for the first time.  It floats effortlessly through the air and embeds itself in the hearts and minds of the listeners. The name is David; the name of his song is “The Lord is My Shepherd.”  Yes, this story is historical fiction because the details of its composition and its popular reception are unknown, but it might have happened like that.  The music has been lost but the psalm remains.  Music and poetry are special ways of communicating truth to the heart.  They are much different than logical discourse.  When you enter the world of music or poetry, it’s like visiting a new landscape.

The Lord Will Be Your Help

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June 18, 2020 by Steven Lulich

If the Lord had not been my help,
My soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
Psalm 94:17

Sometimes silence is golden.  At the end of a long day, when the kids have been at each other’s throats and I’m at the end of my rope, when they finally fall asleep….  The silence is golden.  When the barrage of sounds and noises in town and at work has worn me to a frazzle and I can’t think straight, when I finally get to sit on my deck in the early morning and just listen to the birds and the wind in the trees….  Yes, I know that’s not totally silent, but it’s peaceful, and it’s golden.  When someone is irritating me and I want to cut them down with a biting remark, when I keep my mouth shut…. My silence is golden.

Sacramental Living

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June 16, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

In all four Gospels we read the story of Jesus multiplying five loaves and two fish for a crowd of 5,000. The story is personalized in John’s gospel by including a young boy who provided elements for the miracle. This is a story of sacramental living. There are a variety of opinions about the word sacrament, especially when it relates to baptism and the Lord’s Supper – Baptists typically use the word ordinance while Catholics and others in the Protestant tradition use the word sacrament. No matter your tradition, there is richness in the word sacrament. So, what exactly does the word sacrament mean? Here is a simple definition: “A sacrament is a common physical element that represents a sacred reality.” Think of the ordinary elements of water in baptism or bread at communion.