About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

Stranger Things – 3 John

I suspect that most Christian people, even those who read and study the Scriptures with some regularity, may go even years between occasions of reading this third letter of John (as well as the other three one-chapter books we’ve re-examined).  They are indeed like very old letters or past relics stuck away in the recesses of the attic, only to get pulled out on rare occasions, and while swiping away the dead stink bugs and dried-up wasp nests and flaking insulation, to be looked at once again. And in that these writings are as inspired at the famous third chapter of John’s gospel, we desire to be a church that “rightly divides” the Word of Truth, knowing that “all Scripture is valuable for equipping us.”  Thus, we have spent this month in the biblical “nooks and crannies.”

The title chosen for this final study of the series – “Stranger Things” – of course comes from the science fiction horror web television series of that name. It delves into the paranormal realm of things. But, even while using the title, I would like for us to take away from this examination a renewed commitment to something that should rather be very normal for the believer in Christ.

To truly understand these little letters, we need to review and recall some background of the New Testament era that featured the wonderful new gospel message spreading around the Roman world and even beyond.

There is a most interesting phrase in the book of Galatians – in 4:4,5 that says of Christ’s coming: But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Those of us who grew up on the King James Version will remember the beginning of that as saying, “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son …”

So, what is the meaning of “the set time” or “the fullness of time?”  Bible scholars over the years would summarize it in these five ways …

  1. The Roman Peace (Pax Romana) – This was a period of roughly about 200 years from the reign of Caesar Augustus in 29 BC to the year 180 AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of what were considered the “good emperors”. This did not mean that there were no uprisings within the Empire or conflicts on the fringes, but that it was a time of unparalleled peace as compared to the centuries before and after. This allowed for prosperity and the peaceful movements of peoples … like missionary travelers.


  1. A Common Language – Greek – Much of the culture of the Roman world came from the Greek empire before them, and this included the dominant language known as Koine (common) Greek. Though regional dialects and languages continued throughout the Roman world, the official language of business and interactions between diverse peoples and ethnicities was Greek. And this facilitated the communication and preaching of the gospel, as well as the original written language of the New Testament.


  1. The Roman Roads – You’ve likely heard the saying that “all roads lead to Rome.” This was because the Romans built a system of roads to particularly enable their movement of troops from one part of the Empire to another. And, like the interstate system developed in our country some decades ago, it facilitated trade and travel in an unprecedented fashion. And among those travelers were those of whom Paul wrote, while quoting from Isaiah in Romans 10… “And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  The gospel benefited by the system of travel made possible at this juncture of human history.

The first three of these five points were Roman world oriented, but these next two are related to the Jewish world …

  1. The Synagogue System in Judaism – Before the time of Christ, Jewish peoples were among those who were spreading across the Mediterranean world. And wherever there were 10 or more families, a synagogue (meaning “gathering place”) was established for worship. And when rabbis were travelling through these areas, they were very welcomed to teach and expound upon the Scriptures – the Old Testament as we know it. So of course, Paul and others of a Jewish background used this as a great opportunity to demonstrate how Jesus was the promised Messiah – but not just for Israel, but for the whole world.


  1. The Jewish Expectation of the Messiah – For so very long, the Jewish people expected the soon coming of the promised Messiah. This accounts for the numbers of people who originally ran out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist. And at that time there also were many who made false claims of messianic status. But this interest and fervor contributed to a heightened interest by many to consider the claims of Jesus (though many rejected him for being too spiritual, as they wanted a political and conquering figure to overthrow their oppressors).

So, when you put this all together, you have “the fullness of time” as spoken of in Galatians 4.  It was the coming together of many divinely-orchestrated elements that made for the most ideal spread of the gospel worldwide.

Now, additionally, as we shared briefly last week, there is more background to understand when looking at these letters of 2nd and 3rd John. And this has to do with this spreading of the gospel worldwide and the common occurrence of itinerant teachers and evangelists travelling from place to place. How were these people to survive – to eat, sleep and have the means of personal sustenance on the road?  They did not have anything like Trivago, Expedia or Bookings.com; and they did not have a Master Card upon which to earn bonus points for travel and lodging. They were dependent upon God’s people in these ancient cities to help them regularly upon their journeys by providing food, shelter and finance.

However, as we said last week, while a good system, it was also a system that could be abused by false teachers. And indeed, it was abused on some occasions as we know from extra-biblical sources.

And whereas 2nd John especially had the big idea of contending for the truth and being aware of the teaching of those who purported to be God’s servants, this 3rd letter returns to an emphasis upon love and the propriety of supporting those who were God’s genuine laborers and messengers – of hospitality even to those who were strangers… and hence, again, our title of “Stranger Things”.  But putting together these two short letters, as always, there needs to be a balance of truth and love.

As we turn to the text of 3rd John, we see that, unlike the letter last week that was addressed to a church congregation, this letter is addressed to an individual leader of a church. It has a message for him, as well as a message for two others. As we lay it out, this is what we have: messages to Gaius primarily (1-8), and briefly to two guys named Diotrephes (9-10) and Demetrius (11-12).

Message to Gaius (1-8)

1 – The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 2 Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

So, who is Gaius?  Others with this name in the NT include a Gaius in Corinth, Macedonia and Derbe. Some believe it is the last of these, though it is good to note that this was probably the most common name in the Roman Empire. In any event, he was a leader in a church community that was connected in association with the Apostle John. And obviously, by the greeting, he was dearly loved by the writer.

You may have heard verse 2 – about enjoying good health and prosperity – connected in some way as a sort of “prosperity gospel” proof text. And it sounds even more that way in the KJV – the favored text for the prosperity crowd… “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”  But the Greek word for “prosperity” literally means “to have a good and successful journey” and it is used in a salutatory way of wishing someone the best. John is saying that even as he was sure of Gaius’ spiritual well-being, he prayed that his physical well-being was as stellar.

John goes on to speak of his reason for such confidence …

3 It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Reports had come to John from some who had visited where Gaius served about his life, ministry and character. He knew the truth, and the truth informed the way that he lived his life. He had the appropriate balance of profession and practice. He rang true to the core.

And then verse 4 is one that I’ve come to experience in life – namely, the joy of seeing those who were in some way beginning in the faith under one’s labors to move on in that belief and become significantly used of God in other places and to reach others. This is a component as to why I like having Peter Frey with us, and why I so enjoyed Chris Wiles’ years in this church. And we could name many others, and I get an extra blessing whenever I hear of the work of these men and women who formerly sojourned with us here.

And John now gets to the heart of his communication …

5 Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. 6 They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

Now again, recall the backgrounds we spoke of today about travelling teachers and evangelists. Beyond this also would be journeying Christians from other parts of the Empire – including churches associated with John personally. He tells Gaius that his hospitality extended to these total strangers was completely appropriate and commendable.

Why should Gaius and other Christians do this and have this attitude?  …

  • These servants had given up much in the way of personal security and safety. This was a practice totally unheard of in the world, and it was even new to the early Christian church.
  • The cause for which they gave up everything was a most worthy endeavor – the worldwide expansion of the gospel that disparate people groups may be united together into one new body – the church of Jesus Christ.
  • There was no way (nor should there be) that there would be any support for them from the pagan, unbelieving world. In fact, just the opposite could be expected.
  • Hospitality and support demonstrated an understanding that they – John, Gaius, the different churches, the travelling missionaries – were all in it together as members of the same cause and on the same team.

So John says, “Good job Gaius, you are to be highly commended for the ‘STRANGER THINGS thing’ that you are doing!”

But, maybe you are wondering why John is making this the theme of his letter. Well, yes, it’s a nice sentiment, but does it rise to the level of a major teaching that makes it even into the inspired Word of God?  Well, maybe the answer for that is revealed in this next section …

Message Concerning Diotrephes (9-10)  … a totally different character than Gaius …

9 – I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

So here’s the story: there’s this other guy named Diotrephes in the church where Gaius is (or in another nearby house church in close proximity) who does not have any sort of hospitality interest such as Gaius was commended for exhibiting. Quite the opposite in fact – even wanting John himself to stay away. He has communicated that John is not welcome, and he has spoken ill of John and his close associates with malicious rumors that were nonsense. Forgive me, but I had to research the Greek for such a juicy concept, and, “spreading malicious nonsense” is a perfect translation of a one-time word in the NT.  And it means just as it is translated – the idea of condemning someone by the use of ridiculously nonsensical aspersions.

Not only that, but Diotrephes went so far as to not just refuse hospitality to John and associates, but any others travelling through … AND … upon learning that others in the church did house and welcome travelling Christians, he expelled those people from the congregation!

Why would he do this?  Well, it is summed up in another great Greek word – one that is also only used once in the NT, right here in 3 John 9.  It is the word Philoproteuo – an awesome word that literally means “loves being first.”  We could say that Diotrephes is the ultimate foam-finger #1 guy. You can see in that word “love/phileo” – as in Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love … and “proto/first” as in the word prototype – the first trial of something. Yep, he was full of himself!

Sadly, the church over the centuries has had more than a couple of Diotrephes running the show in local congregations. These are people who are easily intimidated by other teachers and authorities, and they want to be in control. Therefore, they do not want people exposed to any other teachings or people of gifting who will rival, diminish or threaten their self-exalted status.

And now a third character makes an appearance in the letter …

Message Concerning Demetrius (11-12)  

We all model our lives to some extent after others we see, which is fine, so long as the person we’re mimicking is of the truth …

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

So John tells Gaius to model life, not after such characters as Diotrephes, but rather after a man introduced here now who is named Demetrius. There is nothing we know about this man beyond the few words here. There are two speculations …

He was a target of Diotrephes’ wrongful actions and attitudes and needed to be bolstered by John as a genuine good guy. Or, more likely, he was the person bringing this letter to Gaius from John; and being unknown to Gaius, is being affirmed by John, which he does in three ways …

  • He has a good reputation as a godly man with all people in the Christian community. This is a great reference to have!
  • His character as a model of the truth would be self-evident … this was a man who in every way fleshed-out the great truths of the gospel and the faith.
  • John himself validates him personally from his own association with him.

And now finally a quick conclusion to the letter …

Conclusion (13-14)

13 – I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

As always, we ask what are the timeless truths and applications that rise from the passages of Scripture that we study. And I believe that related to this third letter of John, we should look back at the communication in verses 5-8 to Gaius. And the big idea has to do with hospitality of Christians one to another, and especially about support in every practical way for those who have given up regular means of life and support to spread the gospel.

Yes, I suppose there is a first and unavoidable application toward those who do what we do here on the staff at the church. But honestly, this passage has a focal point that is bigger, wider and farther than merely that. We especially need to have a heart for the work of the gospel in far-flung corners of the world. We need to have a high value upon Jerusalem / Judea / Samaria / the uttermost parts of the world.

Why? … for the same reasons we listed above. People serving have given up everything to do this, the world ain’t gonna support them, the cause is the worthiest cause of all, and we are all in it together as teammates.

We need to not just be the church with one another, we need to consider how we are a part of the Church in the world – being the capital “C” church. And toward that end here at TSF we’ve done a number of intentional things, which I would submit account for the bulk of our unique blessing by God as a church.

  • When we built our church facility 23 years ago, we determined that we would use it for the blessing of the broader Christian community. And if you stop in during the week, it is not unusual for you to see it being used by an array of Christian groups and ministries.
  • From the beginning of this congregation about 36 years ago, it was a desire to have a focus upon worldwide evangelization. We even have 6 of our own church families serving right now around the world, along with varied partnerships in missions endeavors. Supporting this is a six-digit piece of our budget.
  • We need to always be looking beyond ourselves at what God is doing with people even different from ourselves. And so we partner with other churches in efforts like REACH, the HAPC, with the #ForOurCity campaigns, and with our varied outreaches and partnerships with minority churches.

In a sentence: We need to be world Christians. It is a rough world out there. Persecution is common in so many places. Just this past week, the African Rev. Lawan Andimi, who was seen in a ransom video earlier this month praising God, was executed by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. Also, the preeminent Christian persecution watchdog organization – Open Doors USA – released it’s 2020 World Watch List this week. This is an annual data report that this year highlights a drastic increase in attacks against Christian buildings and the imprisonment of Christians. Over 9,000 churches and Christian buildings were targeted, with about 3,000 believers in Jesus martyred.

Is this sort of thing on your radar at all?  Do you pray for those in places like this, or read about them?  Are you interested in hearing about the work of our missions family and thinking about how to support them in practical ways beyond merely the church budget?

Being interested in these sorts of “stranger things” is being a Christian with a heart for world.

Walk this Way (2 John)

Our title this week,“Walk This Way,” was the 1975 song by classic hard rock band Aerosmith and is probably their signature hit song. We had some fun again with the band playing the famous guitar intro and repeating the three words (because we wouldn’t want to share ALL of the words of the song). And we’re only interested in those three words that capture the big idea of 2 John … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

The first thing we see is how very short is this chapter; it is the shortest book of the Bible with less than 300 words in the Greek text. And as with both Jude and 3 John, there are two big ideas popping out: holding firmly onto the truth and examining the veracity of teaching and the teachers doing it, while, on the other hand, living a godly life and walking in such a way that it exemplifies love. TRUTH and LOVE!  They go together … like peas and carrots! And those two words dominate the text – even at the very outset of John’s letter in the greeting …   

The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— 2 because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

So this is a letter from “the elder” to “the chosen lady.”  What?  What does this mean?

We have every reason to believe this letter is from the Apostle John. If you read 1st John, it is clear that the style and phraseology are sourced in the same person.

The chosen lady – whereas this could be an individual, it is almost universally believed that this is a New Testament way of referring to a church family … sorta like the term “the bride of Christ.”  And it speaks of those “chosen” by God, which is clearly a NT way of speaking about the family of faith. And most of the rest of the letter switches to plural pronouns, being addressed to a group of people.

So why the cryptic way of writing?  Let me illustrate …

We have missionaries who are serving in some difficult places that are hostile to the Gospel. When I write to them, I copy the style they pen to me. I’ll not ever use the word “missionary” with them – saying simply “M’s” or “supported workers.”  I won’t use the word “church” but will say “the family.”  And these last three letters – Jude, 1+2 John – are written later than most NT books, at a time where the gospel has had several decades to go out into the world. And enemies of the truth are out there, both then and now.

And John speaks to this church receiving his letter of his love for them. It is emphasized in the Greek … I love you!  It was the truth, and their common commitment to the truth, that held them together as people who loved one another. It was not a mere feeling, but a knowledge that led to the feelings and commitments that would follow. The result was an experiential and cognitive sense of pervasive grace / mercy / peace – with God and one another mutually.

It’s like God’s people being together with one another as in a gathering of, say, Dallas Cowboys fans – you’re with the other elect ones, you’re away from the hostility from Redskins, Steelers and Eagles fans that comes from your association, and that unity together is a bigger thing than if you just feel like you like another person in the room or not.

John goes on … 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us (having given us His truth). 5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

So, again, you see and hear the juxtaposition of truth and love. Apparently, John had some interactions with some members of the church away from the context of this church and its location, and he writes to speak of his joy to see how well they were fleshing out their lives.

None of this truth – these commands – were new. This is the same as it was in the beginning with God and especially in His written revelations, and even more especially in the “God in the flesh” exposition of truth in the person of Christ.

So how is it that being committed to walking in love is the same thing as walking in truth?  Again, perhaps an illustration is helpful, so here comes another famous running illustration …

Imagine you are on a running team, and one of the teammates has a lot of natural talent, along with being a very likeable person. But this teammate is not serious about practices – comes late, leaves early, takes shortcuts in training, all of it while the coach (he thinks) is not watching. And then the night before races, he pigs out on mac and cheese, eats ice cream before bed, wakes up to six fried eggs for breakfast, and grabs a big milkshake from McDonald’s on the way to the race. Naturally, he starts the race well, but is barfing by the midpoint and finishes poorly – hurting himself and the team. But he’s such a nice, likeable guy!  Is it best to just overlook it?  Or is it a better application of truth and love to speak to it in a winsome way?

There are correct, truth-related things to do. There is a right way to do them. And there is a proper attitude together with one another to do these things together.

And as John really now gets to the meat of his communication, let me give you some more background here that informs both this letter and 3rd John.

Again, this is a bit later in the New Testament as the gospel is spreading around the Roman world. And there were messengers of the gospel traveling and preaching. Where were they to stay as they went upon their journeys?  How would they be supported practically?  There were no automated teller machines and credit cards.  Yes, there were inns and boarding places, but they were very sketchy and had bad reputations. So these travelling missionary preachers stayed in the homes of people in the churches who supported them along the way. It was a necessary system, and even a good system (as we’ll see next week), but it was also a system that could be abused by false teachers. It was necessary for people to have an eye and an ear open for this – evaluating what they heard.

John says … 7 I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. The particular error of these false teachers was to wrongly teach about who Christ was – often teaching that he was short of being the Divine Son of God, but rather some sort of spirit or phantom. This was an antichrist (small “a”) communication; not THE Antichrist, but the doctrine of such that left the listener short of the truth and devoid of relationship with God and eternal life.

8 Watch out that you[we] do not lose what we[you] have worked for, but that you[we] may be rewarded fully.

Those pronouns … well, the Greek manuscripts were all over the place on how this should read. I believe the proper way is to have “we” throughout, not mixed with any “you”.  (Long explanation … will save it for our Greek class.)  Here is how I think it should read: Watch out that WE do not lose what WE have worked for, but that WE may be rewarded fully

The idea here is not of losing salvation, but of losing full rewards and fruits of labors. Likely a transcriber early on in the NT era changed the pronouns so as to not have it look like John was in danger of error and personal failure. But John was including himself in the mix – he was a teammate with them. He was communicating that “we all need to be diligent to not lose what we’ve labored for in Christ, that we may gain the fullest reward for these labors.”

And now John speaks specifically about these errant travelling teachers … 9 – Anyone who runs ahead (actually the wording means to stray from the path – like a dog that won’t walk down the path with you, staying close) and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring – the literal word here is “carry” … like baggage … so if he is not packing … this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

So John is saying that to provide hospitality and support to people who are not packing the truth and teaching the truth, but who are running off to all other sorts of wrong doctrine, this kindness does not help the greater cause. Rather, it hinders it and helps the cause of the wicked one. There is a time to stand for what is correct.

And now John gives some final farewell words … 12 I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

John somewhat acknowledges the brief and cryptic nature of his writing, saying that it is his hope to visit them soon. And he sends greetings from another “chosen one”, another church with other Christians, living and serving in other places for Team Jesus.

So what do we take away from this little letter and our explorations of this piece from the biblical attic?  If we put together John’s three letters, the three big ideas are: hold on to sound teaching, obey God’s truth, and display love toward others – especially those in the church family.

It is the first of these that is especially emphasized here in 2nd John. And this is a practical teaching for us in this day and generation. All the foundations of truth are questioned, and even the idea of “foundations” is questioned!  Objective truth has fallen from favor. Subjectivity – whatever you want to believe – rules the day. And that leads to anarchy – both within a civil society, and in terms of relationship with God.

Think about how crazy this is: the only absolute truth that many in our day hold to is that there is no absolute truth!  They know that for sure!  And if you hold to an absolute truth, their non-absolute truth is that you are not only wrong, you cannot be tolerated and should be personally destroyed and eliminated!

I’ve lived to see things shaken and morphed that I never imagined would be – about topics like gender, marriage, sexuality, moral authority, and the way to truly know God. And I’m not THAT OLD!  It hasn’t been that many years that these things have changed. And while it is a certain truth that Christian people – God’s family – need to be the kindest of all peoples, there comes a time where truth must be affirmed and held onto for what it is. We need to walk this way.

“Hey Dude from Hey Jude”

I’ll be sharing here today some thoughts that came from our friend Peter Frey’s guest sermon, as well as some of my own content. As always, it is great to have Peter with us and to benefit from his incredibly clear instruction and application. As part of this four-week series on the Nooks and Crannies books, I gave him the choice between 2 John or Jude for his week, and he took Jude. It is an interesting read in many ways.

When speaking of nooks and crannies, my mind goes to those attics under the slopping rooflines of our homes, but Peter had another great illustration. It is like when you drop your phone in the car and it slips between the seat and the console. You have to squeeze your hand into that narrow space and somehow grip the phone to pull it up out of that nook. And just maybe, maybe, when doing that, you find something else there … like a $20-dollar bill you lost sometime in the past!

And that is what it is like when, after a long, long time, you open one of these little one-chapter books and find something of great value and interest.

Jude: he’s the brother of James – the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the half-brother of Jesus. His letter is to a particular New Testament church of an apparently predominantly Jewish background to combat an immediate situation regarding false and heretical teaching. We see in the letter not only the use of Old Testament Scripture, but also some quotes from extra-biblical Jewish literature.

When the gospel message of Christ’s provision came upon the scene, being then mixed wrongly with Judaism and sprinkled with Greek philosophy (teaching that matter is evil and spirit is good), there were quite a number of perversions that were alien to the essential truth of the gospel. Many of these wrestled with understanding exactly who Jesus was. A phantom? A grand angelic being? A merely exemplary human?  Other errors involved legalism on one hand, or total lawless licentiousness on the other.

This final category may be most in view in Jude’s writing. And it does not take us long to find ourselves seeing that we live in such a time, where up is down and left is right … if there is such a thing as right – like right and wrong!  How do we live as Bible-oriented, truth-centered Christians in such a time?  Do we muscle up and fight hard for truth?  Or should we be driven by love and kindness with a gentle spirit winning the day?

The interesting component of Jude’s instruction includes both of these aspects as tools for living well through murky times.

On the one hand, Jude says that we are to contend for the truths of the gospel. This verb “contend” is a very strong word – used only here in the New Testament. It is “epagonizomai” … perhaps you can see a bit of the word “agonize” in there. This means to put every possible and extreme effort into something … like being a football lineman who is the lead blocker with a fourth-down-and-goal situation at the one-yard line. That guy is going to make every effort to clear a path into the endzone.

There is a time and an ongoing necessity to “contend for the truth” of the gospel. It is worth it. God loves truth and judges error and sin. Jude lists (verses 5-16) a variety of well-known occasions where people (and angels, vs. 6) chose to ignore truth and righteousness and live in their own way, resulting in destruction.

There is nothing surprising about this. It has always been this way, and it will be especially this way toward the end of the ages. So how do you live in a world such as this?  How do you (Hey Jude) take a sad song and make it better?

Three things:

  1. Build yourselves up in the faith – This speaks of living in biblical community and following God’s ways for successful experiences both within the family of faith and in the world beyond.
  2. Praying in the spirit – At the heart of this is living with a posture of dependence upon God.
  3. Waiting for the mercy of God – This involves having a cognizance of the big picture and living in a non-complacent, intentional way.

But we are not to have a disposition of living continuously with our boxing gloves on, combating every evil we see. Jude encourages us to be balanced by finding our mission in the mercy of God, being a part of God’s compassion for a lost world.

We don’t need to feel insecure about the wonderful message of the gospel. It is a fantastic truth. It acknowledges the evil that is so obviously prevalent in this sinful sphere, yet it also offers an alternative truth that is of value not just for now, but especially for eternity. So smile, and present the gospel to those who are lost.

1 – Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: 2 May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.

3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. 6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

8 Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” 10 But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. 11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. 12 These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

14 It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” 16 These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Don’t Mess with Onesimus (Philemon)

Today is the first of four devotionals I will put online on the first four Mondays of January in this new year. Apart from next week’s study (where I’ll do a write-up on my own after Peter Frey’s guest sermon on Jude), these will be largely some edited versions of the morning sermon.

This series is called “Nooks and Crannies: One Chapter Wonders” and will cover the four single-chapter books of the NT – Philemon, Jude, 2 John, 3 John. Today, we begin by looking at the letter of Paul to Philemon, with the very cool title of Don’t Mess with Onesimus! 

The primary character featured in the letter is a fellow named Onesimus. Did you remember Onesimus? Is that a new name to you?  Or perhaps you’ve had to dust it off a bit in your mind.  And that is the way it is with these short writings. It is like when you get into the attic in your house to find something you haven’t looked at in a while. And indeed, winter is a good time to check out the nooks and crannies in our attics and see what treasures might be hidden there and forgotten. And we likewise tend to forget the shorter writings of Scripture and the gems of truth they present. So we will spend January of this new year pulling out the four shortest books of the New Testament and mentally dusting them off to see again the great teachings they possess.

Something that I believe many Christians either do not know, or at least do not think about, is that the chapter and verse divisions are not a part of the original writings of Scripture. For example, David in writing his Psalms and Paul in writing his letters did not divide their text in any way. They wrote straight-ahead, in a through-composed sort of way, just like we would write a letter. Some chapter divisions were added in the Middle Ages, with verse divisions not truly being codified until the 1600s.

When we think of the Bible scholars who first brought the Word of God into the English language, the name we first recall is William Tyndale – a man martyred for his faith and work. It was in the late 1630s that his labors contributed to something called the “Great Bible.”  It was “great” in the sense that it was huge!  It was truly a church Bible – for use by clergy on lecterns. And people could come into the church and see and (if they were literate) actually read the Bible in their English language. These Bibles were chained in place so that they could not be stolen… being deemed that valuable!  Clergy would often be heard in those days complaining that the people seemed to come to church more to read the Bible than to hear their sermons!

Does any of this history give you a new sense of thanks for the compact Word of God printed for us, or that we have on our phones and computers?  Christians just 400 years ago – not really that long ago – would have been totally blown away by such resources which simply did not exist in their time, but that they would have so exceedingly valued. We live in a wonderful age.

So why pick out these four books if there are no God-ordained or inspired chapter divisions?  Well, even so, they are probably the four most non-read and overlooked – dare I say “nooks and crannies” – books of the New Testament … and of the entire Bible. Indeed, 3 John is the shortest, followed by 2 John and Philemon. And only Obadiah of the Old Testament is about 20 words shorter than Jude. But especially, we do this, because we want to be a church that does indeed cover the whole Word of God, recognizing as Paul said that “all Scripture is profitable.”

Have you ever needed to implore someone to do something, all the while realizing that it is indeed going to cost them something to make it happen?  Perhaps it is a scenario where you know something is good for them, or perhaps it is simply the right thing to do – though you are not sure they will quite see it the same way as you do?  You hope so, you think so; but you’re not quite sure how they will react when you present it to them. In that you have a high view of them, you expect that it will be well-received, but you can’t quite be positive. So, to make sure that the proper deed will be accomplished, while asking and challenging the person to be responsible and take the high ground position, even with its costs, you finish off your request by saying, “If you won’t pay for it, I will.”

That is what is happening in this personal letter from the Apostle Paul to a fellow named Philemon. This recipient of the letter – an apparently wealthy individual who lived in Colossae and was a part of the church of the Colossians – had a slave named Onesimus who had run away. In the course of God’s sovereignly directed events, Onesimus comes into contact with Paul, is converted to the faith, and is now being sent back to his owner Philemon.

There is not time now to talk about the issue of slavery in the Roman Empire. Understand that it was not exactly like slavery in American history; and in fact, more than half of the ancient population were slaves. Owners and slaves were in the same church together, and Paul did not write to upset these conventions. Though we might picture it more like indentured servitude, it was a crime to run away as Onesimus had done.

So Paul writes to implore Philemon to accept him back. Paul speaks of the great benefit he has received during his imprisonment from Onesimus, and he tells the owner that he will now not only have a better worker, he will be welcoming back a brother in Christ.

Paul’s Greeting to Philemon, 1-3 … and you see immediately that it is written to a wider audience than merely Philemon …   

1 – Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is one little thing I like about a snow day where I’m stuck at home, and it’s certainly not the snow! I don’t ever need to see snow again; I’ve had quite enough for one lifetime. But while at home with no place to go or schedule to meet, I am able to sit for hours at a time and accomplish things through writing that I don’t generally have the opportunity to get done.

That is a bit what Paul’s life was like as he spent two years in Rome, under guard. We read about it in Acts 28:30 – For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

During this time, we know that Paul wrote several of his letters to churches and individuals.

And also at this time, Timothy is with him … as he was for the writing of Colossians and 2 Corinthians.

Philemon – the specific recipient of the letter – is probably a wealthy fellow, in that he owned slaves and in that the church met in his home.

Apphia – this is believed to be Philemon’s wife, with Archippus his son … mentioned again in Colossians.

Notice the terms that Paul uses of the folks …

  • Timothy – brother
  • Philemon – dear friend, fellow-worker
  • Apphia – sister
  • Archippus – fellow soldier

In these terms we see relationships on the levels of: family / co-workers, on-the-job pals, teammates / soldiers and fellow warriors  …. And so it is in the church of Christ. And that is how it is, and should be, at places … say … like TSF in Hagerstown!

And then there is the standard greeting of: grace – Greek, Christian word / peace, shalom – Hebrew background.

And this greeting, “to you” is plural … to y’all.  But then it shifts specifically to Philemon …

Paul’s Praise and Thanksgiving for Philemon, 4-7 … There is much for Paul to applaud about the character and life of this wealthy leader within the Colossian church.

4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Paul is thankful for Philemon’s displays of love for the people of the church family … he had opened his home (vs. 2), which may not have been the most popular thing to do in that culture of the Roman world. And he “refreshed them” … a statement suggesting his generosity toward others.

And Paul is thankful for his faith – for his growth in it and partnering with such as Paul himself. How was Paul aware of this?  Because Epaphrus, who was instrumental in founding the church in Colossae, is mentioned later in verse 23 as with Paul when he is writing this letter.

A summary of what Paul is communicating here is something like this: “Philemon – you’ve got a good track record of faithfulness and generosity, so I’ve got great confidence in you as I encourage you to continue life in this way.”  Paul is setting him up … but not “buttering him up” for what is coming next.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus, 8-16 … You can feel it coming. Now Paul gets to the main purpose for writing this letter …

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

Paul, as an Apostle, had the authority to order Philemon to do the right thing. But Paul desired him to want to do it, not to do it because he had to. So Paul appeals to him on three grounds …

  • Love – as a Christian principle that underlies everything … continuing in what was Philemon’s life pattern.
  • Old Age – Paul here is probably about age 60 (which of course is not very old at all these days, right?). Paul was probably an old 60 … from a time of shorter lifespans; and consider all the sufferings he had endured.
  • Imprisonment – How do you refuse such a request from someone suffering in such a situation?

And then in verse 10, Paul goes to the heart of the matter – that unlike before, Onesimus is now a Christian believer. We don’t know the circumstances of Onesimus in his fugitive status coming upon Paul and finding Christ. But it had happened, and now Paul calls him a “son.”

And verse 11 is really interesting!  It is lost in English. A part of the name Onesimus means “useful.”  So his name was “Useful!”  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. So Paul is saying that ole Useful is no longer Useless, he really is … USEFUL!

Paul goes on to speak of how Onesimus had become dear to him, and sending him back was like sending away a part of his heart. If Paul were only to be thinking of himself, he would certainly have liked for Onesimus to stay. And Paul wants to yield that prerogative to Philemon, not simply assume it.

And then in verses 15 and 16, Paul reflects upon the overall sovereign plan of God. As with many things that go awry, we find out later that what appeared to be a sad loss was actually, in God’s plan, a way for great gain. Now, Philemon could have Onesimus back, not merely as a useful worker, but so much better than that – as a brother in Christ!!  One in the flesh, and one in the Lord!

In essence, what Paul says to Philemon is, “Don’t mess with Onesimus!”

Paul’s Promise to Philemon, 17-21 … And we see right away here that Paul viewed Onesimus as a partner in ministry, just as he presumed Philemon would see Paul …  

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  So, all three of them were partners! 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

This is my favorite part of this letter, as it presents a beautiful picture that is so much more than just the material stuff and currency of this world. Paul says he’ll pay any debts owed by Onesimus, and Philemon could see by Paul’s unique handwriting that it was certainly he who was penning these words.

And a couple other zingers are thrown in here:  a) Philemon owed his own spiritual life and eternal salvation to the ministry of Paul, and … b) Philemon wasn’t there to help Paul, but a way he could help that would mean so much is if he would take these matters to heart and to receive Onesimus back openly and warmly.

And Paul expresses his confidence in Philemon to exceed these hopes and requests.

But here is the great picture we should see in these verses. This is an example of the theological doctrine of imputation – the placing of a debt to another’s account, and the consequent transfer of credit that frees the person from the pending execution if the debt is not paid.

The death debt of our sin had been transferred previously from our account to that of Christ, who paid that debt with the shedding of blood on the cross. Therefore, we have a new identity by being “in Christ”. And we have Christ’s righteousness transferred back to our account which gives us a standing as God’s children.

Again, we call this “imputation.”  It is the credit that we need that we cannot get by our deeds. It is what the gospel is all about. And I think it is one of the best and clearest illustrations of what constitutes salvation.

Paul’s Personal Words to Philemon and the Colossians, 22-25 … As is typical in Paul’s letters, or anyone’s letters, there are some final words …

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Paul rightly anticipated that he was soon going to be released from his home arrest situation and would be able to see them again.

So what are the takeaway points of this little letter from the New Testament nooks and crannies?  Two main things …

1 – The pervasive nature of mutual caring and support for one another in the body of Christ.

This letter is filled, from beginning to end, with admonitions and thanks for the mutual support that is to be found in “Team Jesus / Team Church.”  This is the way it should be, both within the walls of the immediate family gathered, to concern for those who serve and who suffer far from us.

So it is our calling to …

… pray for and practically support others in the church family as they go through times of struggle, physically or otherwise.

… pray for and practically support those who take the gospel message to the corners of the earth – as we have relationships with people and churches who are literally 11-12 time zones away!

… care for a new, Christian, refugee immigrant family now a part of our church, coming to us from Ethiopia and having profound needs of getting established in a foreign culture and context.

… make space in our lives and schedules for ministries like REACH, Hagerstown Area Pregnancy Center, FCA, Young Life, Cedar Ridge, CEF Good News Club … we want to see people’s needs met both practically and spiritually.

The second takeaway …

2 – The reason we care for each other and give to each other is because we have been cared for and have received incredible grace in our account.

Yes, what we have is “imputed righteousness” … the greatest, most necessary gift ever – and one that could never be earned.

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9

And because of our imputed righteousness and our new standing as children of God, Satan is not able to accuse us; and is not ultimately able to mess with us!


“Life is Long, but Life is Short” – Psalm 90

I still can’t believe this actually happened. This is so depressing and humiliating. While cycling, I got passed by an old lady on a bicycle!  Here’s the truth: though it’s not entirely rare for me to get passed by another cyclist out there where I ride, honestly, I think I pass at least 3 to 4 times more people than pass me. No joke.

Just before it happened, I was thinking about how my regular cycling on the Western Maryland Rail Trail would be a good illustration for this sermon series finale. And then she went roaring by. And I thought, “I need to have a picture to use for the sermon introduction.”  So I tried to catch her, but I couldn’t.

Understand, this was not any just ordinary old lady – like the proverbial gal with a cane that you assist in walking across the street. No, this one was really fit. She had all the gear and looked – other than what I could see of her face and hair as she roared past me – all the part of a totally fit, young athlete. But still … how could this happen?

But regarding riding a bike on the Western Maryland Rail Trail from Big Pool to 14 miles past Hancock – a total of 24 miles one way – I can give you some good advice. You can jump on at the beginning … at 6 miles … at 10 miles … even at 13. What is smart to do is research the weather in advance, noting the wind direction and then choosing to ride so that the wind is behind you as you finish.

  • I can tell you where you can stop for a break … or for a snack.
  • I can advise you about where all the tree roots are that have damaged the pavement and made for some very unpleasant bumps if you’re not aware of them or if they’re hidden in the leaves. You need to stay to the left from miles 6-8, but be on the right between markers 9+10.
  • And I even know a number of the regular riders and runners who are out there, having become friends with quite a few.

And this illustrative sort of long-distance-riding advice is what I trust you’ve been able to glean even just a bit from our weeks together in this reflections series, applying some of it to the long-distance ride of life.

But is the distance ride of life really long?  Or is it actually short?  I would submit that the answer is that it is actually both!  So the title today is: “Life is Long; and Life is Short”.

And I have begun each week of this series by asserting both a theme, as well as a statement that describes the content for that Sunday. And so …

Theme – At the same time, our lives are in various ways both very long and very short.

Statement – There is wisdom in consciously numbering our days so that we may live a productive life for God’s glory.

And surely we should desire and value the idea of living a life that is productive regarding the things of eternal values. In several places, the Scriptures speak of those who are merely existing in this world as “mere men” … just going through the motions of attempting to live the happiest life possible and looking to find as much joy as possible in the things they find interesting. They may be – and in fact, usually are – very nice people; but they do not have an interest in thinking about how to use their days in this world to be a part of something that lasts longer than this world. And it actually is amazingly easy for Christian people to fall into this routine of mere existence and fleshly pursuits.

I am mostly going to talk about the fleeting and passing nature of life. In earlier messages in this series I did address the idea of the length of life – doing so in those several teachings that talked about God’s work in our lives to teach us to trust Him. There we spoke of the idea that God does not always fill our dreams and grant us one rapid success in life after another – blessing us always at every turn. Rather, God will sometimes delay fulfillment of His blessings in order that He might do some other work in our lives. That divine work is to often cause us to have to depend upon Him more thoroughly – the #1 thing God most desires of us.

A summary is that God often allows things to happen to us, in order that things can develop in us, in order that things can happen through us by His power. We should understand that God has His own timing in our lives, and especially early in life we should resist allowing the panic that the appearance of life passing us by to cause us to take control in a way that does not exhibit faith in our Heavenly Father.

So again, today is focused more upon the fleeting nature of life and the rapid passing of the days, weeks, months and years.

Think about how quickly times does pass by…

  • It is already 18 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. None of our youth or children can remember what to most of us feels like just a few years ago.
  • Yesterday was 30 years ago already that the Berlin Wall fell. Wow!
  • It seems like only a few years ago that we moved to Maryland and built a brand new house. Now I’ve replaced the decks and am constantly needing to repair the aging roof shingles that blow off.
  • I remember when our first son went to high school – thinking about the next four boys’ years doing the same … realizing that the five of them would be in the same school for 16 out of a period of 17 years. That seemed like it would be forever! And now I consider that this lengthy period came to an end over 6 years ago!
  • Last Sunday, I hosted that college reunion I talked about a couple weeks ago – of Da Boys! Nine families got together and we went around a circle to share what has happened over the years since we were last all together in Philadelphia in the 70s. It took several hours, because it was a combined total of recounting over 360 years of history!

Yes, “life is a snapshot” – that is a working title I used for this passage when preaching about it in the past, most recently at TSF on New Year’s Day Sunday – 1995!  And so we turn today to the 90th Psalm where the writer has some very practical advice for us about perspectives to maintain in a transitory world.

A prayer of Moses the man of God. … 90:1 – Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

Last week as we talked through Psalm 73 on the theme of God is all we have, and all we need, that Psalm also had what is called a “superscription.”  There it was said to have been the work of Asaph – a temple musician in Israel. And you may be quite surprised here to see that this Psalm is credited as having been written by Moses!  We remind you that this is not simply a publisher’s note, or something like that. These superscriptions are a part of the inspired text. We have every reason to believe that this was indeed a writing of Moses; and it is the only Psalm credited to him. Compare verse 1 to the writing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33:27 …

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Moses Background – As we read through this Psalm, I’m sure you will agree that it was very likely written in the latter stages of Moses’ life. Remember, his life had three stages of 40 years – growing up in Egypt in the household of Pharaoh, then hiding in the desert with the sheep, and finally leading Israel out of Egypt before wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Certainly this writing comes from that last segment when the unbelieving generation over age 20 that failed to trust God to conquer the Promised Land would die off. This is evident by …

… a constant mentioning of death.

… an emphasis upon the wrath of God.

… the viewpoint that punishment is the wage of sin.

So Moses was surrounded with death. Let’s run some numbers …  

  • 603,550 men at the Exodus from Egypt (Numbers 1:46)
  • 2,000,000 or more in the total nation of Israel
  • 1,200,000 would die in the 40 years of wanderings
  • 30,000 per year
  • 82 per day
  • 1 person every 17 minutes

This would give Moses some particular insight into the fragility and brevity of human life! So keep this background in mind as we go through the Psalm.

We are going to highlight three perspectives about the brevity of life in the first 12 verses, followed by reading a finale prayer that is timelessly practical for even us, today.

Perspectives about the Brevity of Life …

  1. Our lives are brief in comparison to God’s eternality. (1-6) even the longest of lives does not add up to very much by comparison to God.

90:1 – Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

We see here the eternality of God expressed in three ways …

  • The experience of every generation … From before Israel, dating back to the first humans in the garden and up to the patriarchs of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob/Joseph, and beyond to the generations in Egypt to the time of Moses and Aaron – every generation could testify that the one and only safe refuge in life was God. Like we talked about last week, there is nowhere else to go, but also nowhere else you need to go. Nothing better has ever been found than abiding in God as your true home. You know how after a rough day you are so relieved to get safely to the comfort of your home, where you can relax and be at peace? That is a picture of the security that exists in our relationship with God.


  • God’s existence before the oldest of physical things … The mountains are often seen as the veritable picture of the oldest things in creation. In Proverbs, wisdom is spoken of as being eternal, saying it this way … Before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth. And we have the same viewpoint and use the similar expression, perhaps when speaking of an elderly person by saying that “he is as old as the hills.”


  • Eternally, from everlasting to everlasting … This is an ancient expression that essentially says “as far as you can go out of sight in one direction to as far as you go in the other direction” … that is how long God has existed. There is no end that can be seen, because there is no end. And of course, that is beyond the ability of our minds to comprehend.

So God is eternal, but man by comparison is transitory …

90:3 – You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.

There are four comparisons here that show the brevity of man’s life …

  1. We are like dust, because we are dust.
  2. A very short period of time – a millennium – only 1000 years
  3. Like standing against a flood.
  4. As lasting and permanent as grass.

Dust – that’s sort of depressing!  You can’t make much out of dust, unless you are God. And that is what we are made of, and our bodies will turn back into that very substance. Actually, there is what I call a “dust cycle” about human life …  

  • We are made from the dust – Gen. 2:7 – Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
  • Because of sin we have to serve the dust of the earth for a living – Gen. 3:17 – “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”
  • God helps us, however, remembering that we are dust – Ps. 103:14 – … the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
  • God returns man to dust – Ps. 90:3

1,000 years – How long is that to God? What is its relative value?  (verses 4-6)

  • Like yesterday … a memory … it has no real substance.
  • Like a watch in the night … In college I sometimes worked an overnight shift as a security guard called the “graveyard shift.” Nobody really knew much about it or even that it was happening.
  • Like the grass – the night moisture makes it flourish. But the sun gradually dries it up all day long, and by night can be withered.

So, our lives compared to God are like a snapshot, very transitory, because …

  1. Our lives are brief because of God’s fury toward sin. (7-11) Because of God’s righteous character, His justice demands that He must judge sin.

90:7 – We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.

8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.

9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.

  • Our sins are an open book to God. Though we make think they are secret, He is aware of them all. The light of God’s presence breaks into the closets of our lives. As a nation, Israel had learned of God’s righteous judgment of sin.
  • The extent of human life is compared to a moan, a sigh – a mere inhale and exhale.

90:10 – Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. 11 If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.

  • Here is stated the normal expanse of life … from 70 to 80 years. And then it is gone; it flies away … even as we have an English language expression that “time flies.”
  • Some live longer than the normal lifespan, some shorter. There is no moral equivalence that good people live longer. What it says is that, even if you live longer years, it is a relative mixed blessing. Even the best of years will be filled with the common troubles and sorrows of life in a broken and sinful world.
  • This portion of the Psalm rings with the same tone as the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes … for example in 11:9 where he said, However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Yes, even at its best, there are plenty of sorrows to experience personally and to witness in others all around us.
  • The one thing that makes it all have some meaning and perspective is to be connected to God and to His perspective. When we understand the bigger picture, there is bigger perspective. What seems like injustice is truly temporary. The knowledge of the wrath of God toward sin should propel us also toward holy living and godly respect.

But now the Psalm becomes exceeding practical. Having seen the FACT of our transitory lives (as compared to God’s eternity), and having seen the REASON for it (the issue of sin inherited), we now are given practical advice as to our current NEED …

  1. Our need is to number our days. (12) Moses is saying here that there would be great benefit for us in having an accurate understanding of the length of our lives … to do the math …

90:12 – Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

This is the climax verse of the Psalm – all of the preceding material points toward this one major point about how to live with the reality of a transitory life … to literally number our days. This means to think about how much time you actually have. And though this may sound like an especially grievous application to those who are particularly older than others, again, even for the youngest, the numbers of years are really not that many. And the older people in our church family can tell the younger ones, time really does pass remarkably fast. There is a limit to what is available to us to invest and accomplish the things that have eternal value.

And what is the goal?  It says in this verse 12: that we may gain a heart of wisdom. So what is that?  This is an awesome Hebrew word that is used here:  Chokmah meaning a wisdom that comes from living and experience … shrewdness, skill, competence and prudence. This is the stuff you learn along the way from the school of hard knocks, though it is also the stuff you can gain from others who learned it from their school of hard knocks.

Actually, this is what I’m trying to do with this whole series on Reflections on the Christian Life. I’m trying to share Chokmah with you – skill in living. This is such a central idea that I’m grieving now that I did not name the series: “Chokmah: Skillfully Living the Christian Life.”


Theologically Speaking – the goal is to gain wisdom. How do you do that?  It says in Proverbs 9:10 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. We need to, yes, understand His wrath toward sin and respect and honor Him, being aware also of the wonderful grace given to us in Christ that should indeed compel us to most highly value skillful and dedicated living.

Generally Speaking – realize how short life really is and stop putting off doing that which really does need to be done now. It is easy in life to think (beginning as a Christian teenager) that there is time in college to get serious about living for God.  And then, in college, to think, “I’ll live for God when I get into my career.”  Before long, it gets postponed to “when I have a family.”  Next, it is “when the kids are growing up”… and then, “after I retire I’ll have the time.”  Then finally, in what has seemed like a mere passing of a couple of years, we are looking at soon passing into eternity.

My parents had an oft-quoted Christian saying hanging on the wall of our dining room during my childhood years… “One life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Specifically Speaking – to literally count our days, as the Psalm reminds us of our lifespan. And whatever that number is, we should devise a plan to make that time count with righteous living and service for God. Even if the number is small, it is a number, and there is time to work for God.

The best way to do that is to jump on board with what God is doing in this time and place. This is the era of the church – God is building the church of Jesus Christ until the Savior returns again. This is His program. We have places for you to get involved. Perhaps there needs to be a reconsideration of the calendar of life – so often filled with the busyness of life activities that are nice enough, yet devoid of eternal merit and value.

The final five verses are a practical prayer that is timeless.

Moses recognizes the sorrows of the world, but also God’s goodness. The prayer seeks God’s loving favor upon us as we go through our days, that we may experience His perspective and joy in the midst of the challenges, even down through the generations that will follow us.

90:13 – Relent, Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. 16 May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.

It was exactly 300 years ago that Christians began singing a famous hymn of the faith – composed by Isaac Watts – that was based upon the 90th Psalm…

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.  

Before the hills in order stood, or earth received her frame. From everlasting Thou art God, to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone. Short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Be Thou our guide while life shall last and our eternal home.

Discussion Questions for Week 9

As you reflect on your life right now, does it seem long … or short … or a mix of both?

Do you find that you have regrets at this point of your life that you did not make more specific and intentional plans to invest in things of eternal value at earlier times?

What are some ideas that come to mind as to how you might “number” the rest of your days to live with “chokmah” – skill in living?

If you were writing a series called “Reflections on the Christian Life”, can you think of any other major topics or categories that you would have included beyond those we’ve covered these past two months?

Nowhere Else to Go – Psalm 73

When your doctor takes it upon himself to personally call you first thing in the morning—the day after an appointment, you know it marks the beginning of a bad day.  “I hate making calls like this,” he began.  “The X-rays picture a large abnormality in your son’s leg; possibly an aggressive benign tumor; but I must honestly tell you it looks to me like a malignancy called Ewing’s Sarcoma.”

How does one absorb such a call?  You simply do not expect to hear such a thing about yourself, let alone your 14-year-old son.  Just the day before, Nathan had begun his freshman year in high school.  Having been homeschooled all his life, entering high school was to be the launch into a great new adventure.

It was a launch into an adventure, indeed!  But not one of our choosing!

An occasional sharp pain in his leg and knee had consistently increased in intensity over that summer of 1996 leading into 9th grade.  Originally written off by the family physician as “typical growing pains,” successive tests tended toward a confirmation of the worst.  The “C” word – “cancer” – crept almost innocently into the naturally flowing discussions of the specialists.

The most brutal test to observe was the bone scan.  One of our church leaders – a nuclear medicine technologist at that time – sat with us as the radiographic dye pulsated quickly through Nathan’s system.  The problem area was painfully obvious on the screen.  Even a three-year-old could have pointed to the large, bright, radiating spot of concern.  My medical technician friend displayed a wonderful pastoral presence, but I noted how little he looked at the screen, and how much he gazed distantly at the floor.

I pressed for numbers.  I wanted to hear percentages and know what we were facing.  “Only a biopsy will determine the nature of this with certainty,” they said.  “But we feel there is sufficient clarity in the MRI and other tests to identify it as Ewing’s Sarcoma.  We honestly don’t expect to hear something different.”

That sounded like 99% to me!

I pressed again for more numbers – survival rate figures.  “About 50% survive past five years, some with amputations, and some able to salvage the leg.”   I secretly embarked on an Internet research crusade on the subject.  The results were so discouraging that I chose to not tell my wife what I discovered, nor even that I had done it.  I had reason for special concern for Diana.  Just two weeks earlier, she sat with her sister as she died from cancer – leaving eight children behind.

Ewing’s Sarcoma is a rather rare form of cancer, and we were referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  Often regarded, as you know, as the foremost medical facility in the world, gaining an appointment is very difficult.  We would have to wait a month – a month to live in a condition one author has aptly entitled, “God’s Waiting Room.”

Our family attempted to live a normal life as we waited.  One night, Nathan and I attended a Hagerstown Suns baseball game – a favorite outing for us.  There I saw a man who I’d noticed at the ballpark practically every time we’d been there previously.  He was a very loud, foul-speaking, verbally obnoxious person in his late 60s … a man who had quite obviously lived a foolish life of hard drink and personal abuse.  Yet there he stood, basically healthy, out in public enjoying a recreational event, while my eight nieces and nephews mourned the loss of their godly mother and my son wrestled with the issues of a deadly cancer.  It didn’t just seem unfair, IT WAS UNFAIR!

I was driven into the Scriptures for any hint of perspective.  My reading soon brought me to the 73rd Psalm, which served as the anchor for my soul in the weeks to follow.

This story is a personal life background for this topic of our series. And I have begun each week by asserting both a theme, as well as a statement that describes the content for that Sunday. And so …

Theme – God is all we have and all we need.

Statement – Though I may be tempted to trust in things other than God for hope and help, such resources do not ultimately exist.

And so that leads to this title: “Nowhere Else to Go”.

Most of us like to be in charge of things … to grasp and manage and work out solutions to the challenges and problems of life. This is especially true of men. And it is why I’ve often joked that there is no more frustrating and painful situation for a man to have to endure than childbirth … sitting by his wife, I mean!  There is nothing you can do to fix it or solve it or make it better than to utter a few words of encouragement.

No, seriously, it is not just men; it is all of us who like to work things out, or to find someone who knows how to work it out for us. We want solutions to problems … like, right now!  We are annoyed and confused when we have to wait, and especially so when the problem just does not make sense at all as to why it should even be happening.

And that is the mental condition of the writer of this Psalm as we go to the beginning of Psalm 73. Note that the first words under the title say … A psalm of Asaph.

Understand that this is not a modern note that has been added by the publisher as an explanation or to share a traditional thought. This is a part of the Scripture text from the beginning. So what does it tell us?

Asaph was a temple musician in Israel, and he is listed with a number of Psalms. Many believe that this means he was the author, while others feel that he is the one who took the words and penned them in such a way as to be for musical/worship expression. Honestly, the writing sounds like that of David, the primary author of the Psalms. And the life frustration and irritation that is the experience of the writer certainly sounds like David, maybe especially at the time when he was yet to experience the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Imagine the frustration it must have been for David during that period of time when he was essentially a fugitive while King Saul was interested in eliminating him from planet Earth. David had been anointed even as a boy by the prophet Samuel to become the King in Israel. He didn’t seek it out. In fact, when Samuel showed up at the house one day, David was the kid brother out in the fields tending the sheep, and they had to fetch him from that place.

So David had a promise, but when was it going to be fulfilled?  Time was passing. When he might have expected to be living at least a decent life as “king-elect,” rather he was living in caves as a fugitive with the local clans of rednecks and rejects … some tough dudes for sure. And surely there had to be times where he had doubts and second thoughts – challenges to his faith – that God really had good plans for him.

So we don’t know if this writer is David, but it could be. In any event, the writer begins by stating an upfront truth … a sort of caveat … Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.  You know how, when you’re going to say something sorta controversial or negative and you don’t want to shock the listeners, so you begin with a disclaimer that includes a statement of fact?  Like this: “Hey, I know my mom loves me and she’s a really great cook …” And then what comes next?  Yes, a big “BUT…”  And that’s what the Psalmist is saying … I know God is good to His people, to those who honor Him … then comes the “BUT” …

73:2 – But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. 3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

The Psalmist wrestles here with the age-old question of the prosperity of the wicked, while suffering and difficulties are the lot of the righteous person who names the Lord. A famous book on the 1981 NY Times Bestseller List was that of the conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  This was a reflection on the death of his 14-year-old son from a rare disease.

Various biblical characters wrestled with the same question. Just listen to these words …

Job … in chapter 21 …

7 Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?

8 They see their children established around them, their offspring before their eyes.

9 Their homes are safe and free from fear; the rod of God is not on them.

13 They spend their years in prosperity and go down to the grave in peace.

14 Yet they say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways.

15 Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him?’

Jeremiah … in chapter 12:1You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Habakkuk … 1:2-3, 132 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? … 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked     swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

And over the years here at TSF we’ve seen some very fine people who have succumbed to diseases and death at even untimely ages. Therefore, we might ponder as to what advantage we truly have in naming Christ as Savior and Lord when it surely appears that the sorrows of this life become squatters in our homes at least as indiscriminately often as they do to our godless neighbors.

So these questions in verses 2+3 are the beginning expressions of the Psalmist – representing the first of three interpretive points we want to make about Psalm 73 today, followed by three perspectives to take away with us.

  1. The General Observations of the Psalmist (2-11)

We first make note here about how the writer looks at the situation around him, at the stuff that simply does not make sense, being struck by the successes of those who do not honestly know God or honor Him.  Speaking of the prosperity of the wicked, he goes on to say of them …

73:4 – They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”

So here are some of the observations of the Psalmist about the prosperity of the wicked …

–           They seem to have few struggles in life. While physical ailments are commonplace, they are the beautiful people. It is as if they have some special “life inoculation” against common problems. Surely their affluence helps them afford the best things in life.

–           They are proud in an open way, and why not? Everything seems to come up roses for them.

–           They are able to always get their own way. They are “connected” to the systems of this world, and they can afford to use their connections to their advantage and wantonly against others. In so many ways they seem to be above the law, literally and figuratively.

–           They have a huge following of people who want to be like them and known by them. People listen to their opinions and honor their thoughts, even though they truly know nothing about the situation at hand, while also being constituently evil and opposed to God and all that is good and righteous.

–           They scoff at the idea of God; they see themselves as God. They don’t need such a fairytale, as that is for the weak of the world.

Yes, we see the Hollywood crowd, the deep state political operatives of the world, the wealthy who have gained their abundance often through questionable means. And they appear so prosperous in every way, even as we see they reject God. How can this be?  It does not seem right by any measure.

And this is what the Psalmist noted, and it was grievous to him. And as he tried to understand it and make sense of it, his natural inclinations took him to where … well … natural inclinations always take any of us …

  1. The Foggy, Earth-Centric Interpretation of the Psalmist (12-15, 21-22)

The flat and linear perspective of this world will lead us to simplistic, confused, minimal and errant conclusions. And that is what happened to the writer …

73:12 – This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.

15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children.

21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.

–           He concluded that the wicked somehow go on in a non-accountable way, from success to success.

–           He experiences a sense of futility, pondering what his efforts at righteous living have accrued for him. It appeared that it was a losing strategy. It was depressing, a daily sense of failure. He knew this was crazy thinking, but it certainly seemed verifiable.

–           It led to increased sadness and even bitterness, estrangement from God. His foolishness rendered his relationship with God to a quality no better than a stupid animal.

But, here comes another “But” …

  1. The Clear, God-Centric Understanding of the Psalmist (16-20, 23-28)

The writer did not stay in that lowly place. His troubles and grieving sent him to the presence of God, and there he gained a higher perspective …

73:16 – When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.

28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

Yes, the writer gains a new view from “mount perspective” – from the place of God’s overarching truth and His viewpoint on the world.

–           The writer sees that the currently prosperous people of this world who do not honor God are in a slippery place. They’re standing briefly, but they have a disastrous destiny. They will be swept away. Their current prosperity is like a dream – lasting for a time, but an awakening to reality will ultimately come, likely soon.

–           On the other hand, the righteous who claim God as Father are secure when perilous times come. They have God’s continuous presence, they are held by God’s hand, and they have His counsel in the dark times. Beyond that, they have a promise of glory – an eternal presence with God.

–           The conclusion is that there is nothing in heaven or on the earth that is better. This is the one true and timeless reality. There is nothing better, and that is because there ultimately is nothing else or no one else to turn to … but there does not need to be anything else.

–           Final conclusion – So where do you go to hide when things are going poorly, when all of life seems to be falling apart?  You go to the refuge – as the writer says that God is the place of refuge to run and hide and to gain strength.

Here then are three takeaway perspectives when life does not make sense …

  1. God is really, really good at keeping score!

The Psalmist says, “I entered the Sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.   You cast them down to ruin.  How suddenly they are destroyed.  Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you” (Ps. 73:18,19,27).  The perspective is this – God is a good score keeper, and in the end the righteous always win.

Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers football coach, said, “Sometimes the clock runs out, but in the end, we will win.”  Even championship teams suffer some regular season defeats.  We’ve even seen in the past week that you can lose every game at home in the World Series and yet win in the end. Yes, the ultimate goal is to win the playoffs, and such becomes our guarantee as believers.  That really is an incredible knowledge to possess!  How much else in life are we able to know with such certainty?  We know the final score before the game concludes, and we know we win and the wicked lose.

  1. When sorrows move in, God doesn’t move out!

The Psalm writer pens a second great perspective as he considers the nature of his relationship with God, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:23,24,26).

God pledges to us His constant presence, counsel and strength extending into eternity. The weight and pain of the sorrows we experience may seem to suggest that God has vacated our lives and an ugly stranger has taken up residence, but such is far from reality.  Amidst such times of frail incapability, God often reveals his most real presence – at a time when there is absolutely nothing we can do but rest in Him.

  1. We just plain don’t have anyone else to turn to!

The pinnacle of the Psalm was scaled in verse 25, “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”  The fact of the matter is that we ultimately possess no other options as a refuge for inclement times.  But the great truth is this – we don’t need anybody else!  Doctors may help, loved ones may support, but only God will pour an eternal peace into our empty and hurting souls.

My month in God’s waiting room provided the opportunity to uniquely experience the reality of His sufficient peace.  I also gained a new appreciation for the incredible blessing and assistance of the prayers of God’s people.  Reports of prayer support came to us from as far as Kazakhstan.  Heaven surely resonated with the supplications of friends and family.

The orthopedic specialist at Johns Hopkins looked at the various magnetic images and X-rays and said, “Could be Ewing’s Sarcoma – it would look like this.  But let’s not cross that bridge until we have to.”  “Too late,” I thought.  I was already across that bridge and well up the other side!  He continued, “My gut feeling is that this is an infection rather than cancer,” he said.  “A biopsy will tell us immediately what we are dealing with.  If it is cancer, we’ll close it up and come back to fight another day.  If it is an infection, we’ll begin cleaning it out immediately.”

An excruciating pain wracked Nathan’s leg the last several days before surgery.  But an hour after sending him off, the doctor sent word out to us that it was indeed a bone marrow infection.  The news dropped us into a limp emotional heap.  It caused great excitement and rejoicing for friends and family, and left our local medical community stunned.  The hospital radiology technicians posted some of the pictures and ultimate results on a bulletin board with a label that said, “Can You Believe This One?”

Some folks have suggested we were on the receiving end of a miracle.  I don’t know.  Such is surely possible.  The worst thing that could be said is that we received a huge answer to prayer. And 23 years later, Nathan is well … the father of four children … and I guess he was not offended that I told his story today, since he is running the sound this morning and did not cut me off!

But honestly, for me, the greatest lesson, however, was the experience of knowing God’s sufficient grace in some very dark days of life.  I learned that: He is all we have, and He is all we need!

Week Eight Items for Discussion

  1. Have you had a time in your life that you could share where you felt like a situation you were facing was very unfair and that it did not seem that God was anywhere around to help you or to make sense of it all?
  2. What happened in that situation in terms of how it resolved? Did you learn some surprising lessons from it?  Were you able to see a larger picture of God’s hand in your life?
  3. Why do we have such a natural tendency to try to work out situations on our own? But it is not wrong to look for solutions in the earthly realm, is it?… like looking to doctors for resolutions to medical crises. But where does working in the flesh end, and faith in God begin?
  4. What are the elements of truth that we may list about trusting in God that give us peace even in the darkest of times?

“You’ve Gotta, Gotta Love” and “Getting Comes from Giving”

Long before (like 15 years before) Saturday Night Live in 1991 made famous a regular skit called “Da Bears” (about the Chicago Bears), there was a very cool group of guys at a college in Philadelphia who called themselves “Da Boys.”  Comprised of a group of guys from the college’s basketball and baseball teams, they were the coolest dudes on campus – at least they believed that they were!  Once in a while a girl was willing to cross the social barrier to be associated with one of “Da Boys,” but it was quite a leap – just ask my wife Diana about that gap!  But trust me, believe me, we were so cool that we were even “groovy!”

We are soon going to have a reunion of the dudes … doing it at my son’s wedding/activity venue in the Harrisburg area. This was stimulated by the life-threatening drama of one of Da Boys beating pancreatic cancer this past year, and we are going to celebrate that and our old-time friendships.

Among those coming to the reunion is a guy who never really fit with this crowd. He was an athletically awkward sort of fellow who would’ve gotten killed on a basketball court in the first two minutes. Though obviously a good guy, he was not one whom you would especially reach out to include in your new group of collegiate social relationships. His manner of dress was decidedly out of the norm, wearing clothing of a type and style you would rather have expected to see on someone in their elderly years. He talked and talked … a lot!  And that, along with his loud laugh, was awkward also.

He very much attached himself to me … here, there, and everywhere on campus. We were in the same major, lived on the same dormitory floor, and had similar schedules. When he found out that we were born on the exact same day, that convinced him we needed to be besties.

Without being unkind, I did try to cool this enthusiasm and keep it at a distance. But that didn’t work. He persisted in genuine care for me as a brother in Christ until I finally came around and included him in my inner circle of relationships. He challenged my rough edges, and I was enriched by his regular association. He was even in our wedding party, has been a lifelong friend, and he’s a pastor now as well … though still not as cool as his “lit” friend in Hagerstown. AND, he’ll be at the reunion of Da Boys. And that’s the ultimate affirmation!

Love wins; it always does, and that’s because it is the best and greatest thing ever. You really don’t have a choice – you’ve gotta do it. This is something that is in the “command” category, not the optional feelings category.

Our theme and statement for this week are …

Theme – the responsibility to love others, apart from natural attractions

Statement – Love is a verb from the head more than a noun from the heart.

I think we can identify five summary statements about living as people who love intentionally, meaning “you’ve gotta, gotta love” …

  1. The surpassing value of love – 1 Cor. 13:1-3

Of course, when we think of the subject of love, it is to 1 Cor. 13 that our minds go … to probably the greatest written word ever on the subject …

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 … If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

We may not think of love as a thing of value, viewing it rather as a simple emotion. But Paul writes of it as the greatest possession ever; and we anticipate the end of this chapter where he says that of the three timeless, abiding possessions – faith, hope, love – the greatest is love.

But look here at what Paul says is the actual value of love as compared to some pretty big things …

  1. It is better than the most amazing gifts and abilities.

Of course, the Corinthians were all about spiritual gifts, especially the ones with the most prominent and public expression. And that was the content of the previous chapter 12 – expressing the value of all the gifts, affirming their interdependence upon one another in the body of Christ. And then, leading into this verse 1 of chapter 13, the final words of the previous chapter are: And yet I will show you the most excellent way. So, knowing of their high value upon the noisiest of the gifts – tongues – Paul says that if you could speak in all the languages known to mankind, and not only that, but also the languages of angelic beings, that would be pretty amazing!  We’d have to agree. But intentionally valuing love and expressing it faithfully is greater yet. Without it, speaking all those languages is just making a bunch of noise.

  1. It is better than the greatest knowledge and deepest faith.

The Corinthians also valued the gift of prophecy – the ability to receive a message from God and proclaim it to the people. And that was indeed a great thing of immeasurable value. Beyond that also was “knowledge” of truth and its application, along with understanding complicated matters of the juxtaposition of the spirit world with the physical world. Grand stuff!  But this all amounts to a big zero if there is a lack of love.

  1. It is better than even the most extensive sacrifices of wealth and lifestyle.

So Paul looks away from possessions in verse 3 to the idea of giving away. Surely that is more honorable and of greater true value. But even here … even if a person gave away all of their possessions for the poor … or beyond that, gave themselves away sacrificially, these could be done in a self-aggrandizing way that is devoid of love. So even this, without love, is void of any gain or value.

So, love is a big thing of big value. What else can match it?  Nothing really.

  1. The committed labor of love – 1 Cor. 13:4-7 … so what does love really look like and how is it genuinely expressed? …

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 … Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Just think about how easy it is to be just the opposite of this list of 14 descriptors of the genuine ways that love either is, or is not. Let’s just pick out a couple of these and consider how easy it is, even in the church family, to not follow in this way.

Patience: Some people can wear you down with their issues or personality quirks. For example, I had this older fellow in my NJ church years ago who just did not understand how loud and abrasive his speech often was. If he saw a woman whose dress was bunched up and the hem of her slip was showing, he’d yell down the hall at her – with dozens of people all around (including visitors) – “Hey Mildred, your slip is showing; pull your dress down!”  But at the same time he was our most faithful servant, he cared deeply about the cause of missions around the world, and he loved the kids of the church and was forever reaching in his pockets to give them candy and tell them how great it was that they were there in the church. But he did require some patient love!

Keeping records of wrongs: When people repeat annoying or offensive behaviors, it is easy to begin to keep a mental score of the times they’ve acted poorly.

Love always hopes and perseveres: Think how easy it is to get discouraged and give up on other people to whom we are not attracted or who don’t naturally gravitate toward us with warm interrelationship.

Disclaimer – Yes, there comes a time with some folks where the way to best love them is to help them understand certain deficits that cause pain in their lives. Yet even with this, there is a winsome and caring way to go about this confrontation – seeking earnestly for the better good in that other person’s life.

Wow! All of these things sound like a lot of work! You might think that you only have to do it when you feel like it or it comes naturally, but we see that, instead, it needs to be an active commitment from the brain more than merely a feeling from the heart.

  1. The maximum extent of love – 1 Peter 1:21-23, 4:7-8 so just how far do we have to go to be people of love? The answer is: very far … very deep.

1 Peter 1:21-23 … Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.  22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

This is saying that, now that you have a faith relationship with God through the work of Jesus Christ, you’re a person with a new life that is governed by the stuff that is eternal. And this will be most evident by an obedient love that is sincere toward one another… it is deep… from the heart, because it is a commitment to do that which comes from the brain… from the truth. The word in Greek (a hapax – used only once in the NT) for this fervency is literally “to stretch out the hand.”  The meaning is to actively/intentionally take the initiative. Again, Peter tells his readers …

1 Peter 4:7-8 … The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

If the end of all things was near in the mind of Peter 2,000 years ago, how much closer must we be now?  And what does he say is the most important thing to do along with having a clear mind and prayerful dependence upon God?  Yes … to love each other deeply. And in the family of faith there is nothing more significantly effective for corporate family health than being committed to deeply loving one another. The verb here in the Greek language is a word that speaks of an effort with great straining, most often used of an athlete straining to win and compete at the highest level. If everyone in a church was committed to love like that, a lot of silly annoyances would be overlooked and a healthier atmosphere would ensue.

  1. The contextualized New Testament application of love – Eph. 2:11-14,19,22 This is a sort of excursus from the other points, giving an example of the challenge of loving intentionally in the context of the first century church …

Ephesians 2:11-13 … Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Imagine the complications for the early New Testament church of the coming together of people from disparate backgrounds. ILLUS>> What would it be like for us today if we had to merge our church with a large group of Saudi Arabian immigrants who had become followers of Christ from an Islamic past? There’d be excitement on one hand, but inevitable clashes of cultures and backgrounds. And that is what was going on in the New Testament era with the coming together of Jews and Gentiles into this new entity of the church. Paul goes on to say …

Ephesians 2:14,19,22 … For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household … And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Living here in the Western Maryland/Tri-State area, we are at once in the distant “football fan boonies” of the Ravens to the east and the Steelers to the west. Every Sunday in church I see the mix of yellows, purples, and blacks.

Imagine if there was a restructuring of the NFL and the Ravens and Steelers were merged together into one new team called the Steel Ravens! And, imagine the color of the new team was designated as blue and silver! (Some others of you might have to imagine a Cowboys/Redskins, Packers/Bears, or likewise odious admixture of traditions.)

Could you make the shift? Think about all the office people with whom you’ve argued over the years because they were too stupid to see it your way! Think about how you are now going to be sitting in the stands with those same people, wearing blue and silver together. Think about how your favorite players are going to have to work together with their former enemies on the other side of the ball!  Who will be the new quarterback – Mason Rudolph or Lamar Jackson? Or does Rothlisberger deserve the first shot next year?

Don’t you suppose the whole thing might be just a little bit awkward? YEP!

And that is the sort of environment that Paul is writing about in this Ephesians 2 passage. He is writing (in terms of our analogy) to the one former fan base – the Gentiles – as he talks to them about how through the work of Christ they have been merged together with the Jews into a new team called “The Church.”  He reminds them as to how they were seen as total outsiders, without hope, and completely foreign to all the promises of God in his covenants with the Jewish people. But now, that has all changed, they’ve been brought near and made one through the blood of Christ.

For you see, Jesus and what he has done is bigger than the things that divided the two groups previously. The old laws of the Jews have been done away with, and the wall of hostility that separated everyone has been broken down. Christ has truly made them into one new people – one new team – the Church of Jesus Christ. Now there is a new peace, as each has the same access to the same Father God.

So what is the practical result? It is that they all are to no longer act likes enemies and strangers. They are rather to see one another in a variety of illustrative ways: as fellow citizens of the same country, as brothers together in the same household, as building blocks who together with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone now form the greatest building ever constructed.

So, there is no room in such an arrangement for the old squabbles to break out!  There is no more yellow on one side and purple on the other, because there is only one new entity that exists. And the health and vitality of that new team is contingent upon the mutual support and love of previously disparate people now coming together to work together as one. Their need: to intentionally express: Gotta, Gotta Love.

  1. The ultimate goal of love – completeness – Eph. 4:14-16 … So what does it look like in the family of faith when love is working as it is supposed to?

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Love is the atmosphere, the oxygen, the fuel that makes unified success happen in the church, and beyond that to a world that needs the truth of the gospel message – lived out in front of them in a way that gives a hearing to the greatest good news of all good news.

Imagine you own a home construction company, comprised of various specialist teams – framers, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, finish carpenters, etc. They all need to work together on a regular schedule for everything to go well. But imagine that the plumbers are always late to work, slow to get the pipes done, difficult to get along with, and self-righteous that they were the most important workers on the job. That would make for a difficult environment, the schedules would be thrown off for everyone else, houses would not be done in time nor finished as well, and the reputation of the company would be diminished in the eyes of prospective clients.

And that is how it is in the family of faith when there is any lack of commitment to mutual love and support as each one contributes with the part that they have been given to play by the master builder: God.

What it comes down to is that we just don’t have time to have people in the family, in the church, who just are not committed to an intentional disposition to love others, remembering how we were loved by God in Jesus Christ at a time when we did not deserve it. We need each other, we need to love each other whether or not we always feel like it from the heart. We gotta, gotta git ‘r done.


For the second topic, there was no time in the service to talk about it. The plan was to only briefly discuss it. The title is: “Getting Comes from Giving”.  

Theme – the Christian life principle that those who give the most, relatively speaking, tend to get the most in return

Statement – God is the best bookkeeper ever; and having given us gifts and resources – all that we have – He will be faithful to reward us for using these for others, after the model of Christ.

This really is an outgrowth of the first topic. Love motivates us to be generous toward what God cares about … stuff like, the church, the gospel, people in need, etc.  We are able to do this through the abundance of what God has first given to us. Yes, there are times in life when we are more able than other times. But the principle is that God will be faithful to us as we are faithful to Him. We’re not going to be forgotten by Him nor end in a dangerous place where needs are not met.

Here are several major Scriptures on this topic …

Hebrews 6:10 – God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.

Hebrews 13:15-16 … Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 … 6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” [from Psalm 112:9]

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

So, the concept that “getting comes from giving” is not to be understood, as it has been wrongly preached by the prosperity crowd, that you give in order to get. Rather, we can have confidence in exercising generosity because the God who sees what we are doing is also the gracious source of whatever we possess. And we have assurance that this loving Father has promised to keep us sufficiently secure. I have witnessed this truth over and over in my life, in my extended family, and in the church communities of people whom I’ve been around these many years. God is faithful.

Week Seven Items for Discussion

  • What are some of the components that make it so difficult to love everyone else, even in a church situation?
  • Why might some people find that the command to love everyone is “over the top” and unreasonable? Might some feel that it promotes weakness or a lack of standards in holding others accountable for deficiencies?
  • The Bible talks about confrontation of an errant brother. How does the command to love others balance with this?
  • Could you share a story as to an instance when you have chosen to love someone about whom you would not naturally be warming disposed? Was the person disarmed or softened by your caring demeanor? Did they change in the way they treated you?  Or did they take advantage of your kindness?
  • What comes to mind as some practical ways that the content of this theme of love might be applied in your world and sphere of influence and connection?
  • Regarding the giving theme, what issues lie at the heart of a reticence to be boldly generous?
  • Have you ever given toward God in a sacrificial way and then found that your needs were met in some surprising way?

“No Pain, No Gain” and “No Way to Avoid Getting Shot”

I think that most of you know that, for many years now, I have served at the Antietam National Battlefield as a certified guide. There I will occasionally meet with guests of all sorts – from families to a busload of college history majors – and provide for them a tour experience of seeing and learning about the bloodiest day in American history.

The Antietam Battlefield Guides was the vision of a friend of mine, and I was part of the original group of a handful of guys who worked with the National Park Service to establish the program. Years later, there are about 20 people who have this certification. It is very, very rigorous, with extensive reading lists, a very long written test, and beyond that the necessity to put together and present a sample tour with the park historian.

When a new person is in the pipeline to gain the accreditation, they are matched up with several of the veteran guides to sort of help shepherd them through the process. At the beginning of the program some years ago, a couple of the other founding members had more experience with guiding people unofficially, and they shared observations with me that were so helpful – including many tips that I still use to this day.

And now, having gone around that Battlefield about 800 times with groups of people, though some folks still surprise me once in a while with what they’re thinking or asking, I pretty much know what folks are going to say or ponder at every point. For example, I know that many people are going to comment on the unique wooden fences at the one point where we drive between them just beyond the observation tower. I know that at the Burnside Bridge, people are going to look down from the hillside at the shallow waters of the Antietam and wonder why the Union Army’s 9th Corps troops didn’t just wade across the stream (not as easy as it looks – steep, muddy banks). I have now accumulated dozens of these experiences I am able to share with a fledgling guide as to what to expect, and where.

This is an illustration of what it is that I am attempting to do with our fall sermon series. My purpose, as a veteran guide who has been wandering around for years now through the battlefield of life, is to share with you a series of major observations about seeking to live productively for God in a world that does not often honor that endeavor. There are very predictable experiences you are guaranteed to encounter, yet at the same time also many moments and times that are terribly confusing … so I’m saying that the confusion is predictable as well!

This week and next week are a bit different among the nine Sundays of this series. We are presenting 11 total topics in nine weeks, so this week and next week are the two times we need to double-up on subjects.

And so that leads to a title for “part A” for today: “No Pain, No Gain”.

Theme – difficult times become the seed bed for best spiritual growth

Statement – My greatest times of growth tend to follow my greatest times of pain.

Let’s begin with this big idea: That thing in your life – that pain, that persistent problem, that unending frustration, the thing you most want to be gotten rid of – is actually the most useful thing you actually should most want to value and cling to. You want to hold onto this because it is the thing that makes God most dear to you and that will make you most useful to Him.

The truth of this idea comes from a well-known passage in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul uses a phrase that has become commonplace in the English language (though few likely know it is from the Scriptures) … “a thorn in the flesh.”  Paul has one of these, saying in 12:7 – “… a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”

As is so often true, to understand this comment, we need to go to the broader context, beginning in 2 Corinthians 12:1.  This is in the midst of an extended section where Paul is defending himself against a host of accusers who say that he is not truly to be trusted or followed as God’s unique messenger of the gospel. And so, Paul is relating a list of his most significant spiritual experiences that could not be denied. And in doing this, Paul uses here a unique literary technique to step back from speaking about himself in the first person, to using the third person. It would be like me saying, “TSF has this awesome lead pastor. He is this super likeable and handsome guy with boundless energy and youthful enthusiasm!”  And all of that is, of course, OBVIOUS; but I might not like to boldly declare “I am so awesome, likeable, handsome and athletic” … though of course it is all very true!

2 Corinthians 12:1 … I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  Paul had some amazing experiences that he could talk about – stuff not seen and known by others, especially his critics.

And here comes his drop into the 3rd person …

2 Corinthians 12:2 … I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

What Paul is surely referring to here is an event that happened on a missionary journey with Barnabas in the town of Lystra. They had performed a healing, and the crowds deemed them to be Gods. And the missionary duo had to stop them from offering sacrifices to them as such. And then, in the next verse it says … Acts 14:19 … But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city…

Was Paul dead and resurrected, or just unconscious from fastballs to the head-bone?  We don’t know, Paul wasn’t sure; but in any event, it was a miracle. During those moments, Paul had a profound spiritual experience about which he could not relate the details.

2 Corinthians 12:5 … On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.

Paul could have boasted in a big way about this experience. It would have been amazing beyond imagination and slain the credentials of his accusers. I think here of infamous line of the great baseball player, Dizzy Dean, who justified his braggadocio by saying, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up; you’re just telling the truth!”  But Paul was hesitant to do so, as it would be so amazing as to have people think of him more highly than would be proper.

But to guarantee that he would not be arrogant, to remind him of the source of his authority and capabilities, something else was given to Paul …

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 … So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

So, what was this “thorn” given to Paul?  Over the years, commentators have had endless guesses. The word in Greek – skolops – speaks of a stake, or a pointed object. One view is that Paul had an eye condition that made him a bit hideous to look at (supported by a time where Paul talked about writing with large letters). Another view is that he had a speech impediment (supported by the statements of critics that he was not impressive in appearance or speech). Others have seen it in more immaterial or spiritual ways – like a psychological condition such as depression or a dark spiritual presence that was constantly nearby.

Whatever it was, Paul would wish to see it removed and prayed intensely for such. But it remained. John Calvin put some words into Paul’s mouth to describe this, “To me there has been given a goad to jab at my flesh for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptations according to the flesh … The Lord has provided me with the best remedy against undue elation, for while I am taken up with seeing that Satan does not take advantage of me, I am kept safe from pride.”  And then Calvin gives this illustration … “If anyone’s face is beaten black and blue, shame prevents him from showing himself to others, and so when we labor under any kind of infirmity we should remember that we are, as it were, being buffeted by the Lord … so that we may seek humility … therefore let all godly men take note of what a dreadful poison is pride … the first cause of man’s ruin.”

But whatever this was in Paul’s life, it required him to be constantly dependent upon the Lord. God’s grace in it made him sufficient, the inference being that he would be insufficient without God’s grace. Hence, what seems like a pain, is actually a great gain … all because of our need to stay tethered to God. And again, remember the overarching truth of this series?… that what God wants from us more than anything else is our dependence upon Him.

So I would suspect that many of you have already identified something in your life that is your thorn/goad (KJV). How do you deal with it? Let’s summarize with four statements:

1)    Your first reaction will be to desire to have the thorn situation removed.

2)    You will next learn something you did not previously know and could not have learned without the thorn.

3)    Your perspective upon the thorn will change as you discern the divine, higher-purpose purpose for it.

4)    You will eventually be thankful for your thorn gift, seeing that God’s power through you is best displayed upon a backdrop of your weakness.


Topic #2 for today … “No Way to Avoid Getting Shot” (Now isn’t that cheerful!?)

Theme – the inevitability of conflict, criticism and hardships – even from fellow Christians

Statement – When I am engaged in an active life of obedience and service, I am sure to be criticized, condemned and run over by some number of other people.

Many of you who will remember or have seen the famous picture of “Tank Man.”  This fellow stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank’s attempted path around him. He was eventually led away from the scene. The incident was filmed and smuggled out to a worldwide audience. Time Magazine in 2016 listed the photograph as among “The Top 100 Most Influential Images of All Time.”

Living for Christ in a world that hates the objective truth of the gospel (and even sometimes when serving God in the Christian community when you must take a stand that is unpopular with some people) can be a lot like standing in front of a tank. And sometimes the tank will seek to go around you, but sometimes the thing is going to roll right over top of you!  But taking the stand is the right thing to do, and getting run over is something that WILL happen … and it hurts … but you’ve got to fix up your wounds and move on.

Actually, this topic is less about action than it is about perspective and calibration – understanding what is normal. Like when you have a new-to-you car, and you hear a particular tick-tick sound in the motor and you wonder about it. But when checking it out with a mechanic you find that it is simply the normal sound this model of engine makes.

Opposition is rather normal. It happened to Jesus, so it will surely happen to us. And it happens especially in a world where down is up, and up is down; yet it also happens even within the community of faith at times.

One of our best study series in recent years was one that we did on 1 Peter, called “Chosen Strangers” … that we are indeed divinely chosen by God’s love, yet living in this world as aliens and strangers. And that leads to the first of five quick statements to make about the inevitabilities of difficulties and conflicts …

1)         Remember that you’re an alien in this world.

1 Peter 2:11-12 … Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Both words – sojourners and exiles – speak of the idea of being an alien or foreigner who is only temporarily in residence in a strange place.

I do enjoy travelling in different places, especially Europe. You see so many unique and different things, but the whole time you are there, you never really feel completely “at home.” So many things are different that there is a sort of constant reminder that you are an alien to that culture, a stranger. And that is what we are in this world; we’re never really completely at home. And that is because our true citizenship is in another place.

And in that verse 12 we can see a second point to be made on suffering and opposition …

2)         Remember that you’re a witness of the gospel.

The word for “Gentiles” is ethnos, speaking of the varied people groups (in context) who don’t know Jesus as Savior, but who might be influenced to see a completely different life principle that is dynamic within those who name Christ as Lord. The natural reaction when falsely accused is to fight back just as hard. But when someone answers with kindness and grace – as Christ did – it displays a categorical difference that is attractive and life-giving. And perhaps some may be influenced toward life, even to be numbered among God’s people at the end of time.

3)         Remember that you have an example of endurance in Jesus Christ.

Notice here in verses 19ff. that the term endure/endurance is mentioned three times, using two different original language words – the one means to continue to carry a heavy burden, while the other means to linger/remain/not flee …

1 Peter 2:19 … For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

And again, this is what Jesus did. And to be able to do what he did is said here to be a grace – a gift – in our lives … to be so identified with him that such events would happen to us.

And this is for us an example – a Greek word used only here in the New Testament. It was a written copy of all the letters of an alphabet, given to beginners as an aid in learning to draw them. And that is what Jesus has given to us relative to endurance through times of opposition!  An example that we may copy.

4)         Remember that your suffering is a normal experience.

1 Peter 4:12 … Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

The fiery trial – Peter could have meant this very, very literally. About this time was the persecution under Nero … with Christians being covered with tar and burned – as Nero used this despised element of society to blame for the big fire that burned Rome. Possibly this practice might go empire-wide?  Maybe that is reading too much into a mere metaphor, but the persecution was real and pervasive. So yes, it’s normal, always has been, always will be.

“Rejoice” … this shows identification with Christ. You really are part of the family, the fellowship … which is what the word “share” means – is the Greek term “koinonia.”

“Rejoice and be glad” – at the coming of Christ, as it gives more reason to look forward to the “apocalypse”… the word used here.

“insulted” … “glory rests” … Those with a Jewish background would particularly read these verses and think of the Old Testament accounts of God’s presence descending and being around them as a cloud. The idea is to know of the presence of the Lord around you, even when the worst things are happening, and you are in the target zone of the enemy.

5)         Remember that you are blessed.  (That is not natural, but it is the prescribed perspective to maintain.)

1 Peter 4:15 … But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

This means to be blessed and pleased to be called a “Christian.”  This is one of only three times the word is used in the Bible. Likely, the early first-century usage of the term was completely derisive.  Rather, God’s people should hear that name used of them as something that led them to praising God.

As I said about this second topic today, it is less about action than it is about perspective and calibration – understanding what is normal.

I’ve allowed myself to have been too wounded over the years by those who oppose, be they from the outside or the inside. After all, I’m completely positive that my heart is filled with good intents and my best efforts … so why the hostility and opposition?  If I’m as bad as some of these folks have said that I am, I should be afraid to ride alone in the car with myself!  But it truly helps to know that it is really very normal. Compared to Paul and Peter and the NT writers, I don’t have many problems. And as I’ve spent time with other pastors – such as in the Team 500 gatherings of EFree pastors of churches our size – I hear their war stories, and mine are rather bland and mundane by comparison. I’ve actually had a rather charmed ministry life.

So know that difficult times – both the thorns in life and the opposition from those who don’t understand truth and our calling in Christ Jesus – are gifts of grace. They enable us to grow personally, and they enable us also to endure and live before others in the example of Christ. It is all very normal.

Week Six Items for Discussion

–       Can you look back over your life and identify something that you’ve had to live with and endure … something (like a thorn in the flesh) that you now understand has brought you closer to God and more effective in service?

–       Could you name some others (perhaps well-known people in the Christian world) who have expanded ministries and impacts they would never have had apart from a severe “thorn” issue?

–       Can you think of something in your life now that you really, really wish could be changed, removed, healed, etc.?  How might you see a way toward trusting God to allow you to serve Him better, even with or through that residual difficulty?

–       Do you feel like you are living in the world as an alien or stranger?  Does this seem to be increasingly your observation and experience as the systems of this world coarsen?

–       Does the perspective on suffering, persecution and conflict as a normal experience when being a person who takes a stand for Christ and for truth help you to be more at peace about it?

–       Have you had opposition and conflict from even within the Christian community?  Have you found that hurtful?  How might you successfully move on from that experience?

–       Are you encouraged toward “endurance” through these themes?

“Torched Dreams and Empty Hands”

This year on December 26th – the day after Christmas – will mark the 15th anniversary of the great Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This ranks as the third-largest earthquake ever registered and the deadliest by far in human loss, due to tidal waves impacting high-density populations along coastlines – the death toll approaching 228,000 people. Over 1.5-million people were displaced.

Among the 14 countries affected was Thailand, where we have our missionary friends Dean and his wife. And as the news of this disaster was reaching the USA, we were gathering for church on a Sunday morning. I remember speaking of it to the congregation and praying about it, particularly remembering our friends there. Before long, we heard that they were safe, though their ministry lives were immediately changed.

Dean is from the Harrisburg area and was a great wrestler – going to Penn State University to compete, and it was during this time he came to know Christ. His father was involved with the leadership a community college in a big way; and from age 15, Dean was forced to work every summer and all holiday breaks on maintenance at this local school. He said …

We were paid less than minimum wage and I complained a lot. From age 15 to when I got married at 24 years old (with the exception of two years with Campus Crusade in Asia after college) I worked my butt off to please my dad.  I did learn a lot of cool stuff from the senior maintenance guys and my dad. They all liked me and tried to teach me stuff.  I learned a lot about small engine and car/truck engine maintenance. I learned to drive a Bobcat and operate a small dump truck.  I learned to weld, pull electric wires and hook them up.  I learned all about paint, both water-based and oil-based.  I learned all kinds of wood shop and carpentry skills.  I even learned how to mix and pour concrete with rebar.

But Dean totally hated everything about it. He was wanting to move on in life to his God-calling as a missionary, which at last happened at age 29. He and his wife served in both the Philippines and Thailand, planting churches and training local leadership.

But he often looked back and wondered why God delayed getting him started into that work and wasted all that time doing those irritating and menial tasks. It did not make sense; he was trying to get out, move on, and get to work doing the stuff that lasts for eternity!

But when the tsunami happened, everything changed. He helped form the Thai Christian Foundation and contracted with the Thai government to rebuild 92 houses in two villages. Dean was in charge of the whole thing – mixing cement with rebar columns, making wood forms, welding steel roofs together. And just as in his past, there was a Bobcat and dump truck involved! He supervised 50 Thai workers along with 800 volunteers who came from around the world.

Over those 18 months, the best thing was also to begin two churches in those two villages. How was he able to accomplish these huge tasks?  It was because of the many, varied skills he learned over those presumably wasted years with the community college maintenance department. God knew what He was doing – imagine that. Dean said, “God knew I needed all that and made sure I got it without me knowing how practical that seemingly wasted experience would prove to be in my 40s. At the time, I hated that job and considered it beneath me, especially the pay.”

Yes, God knows what He is doing. He has the bigger picture of our lives than we do. He is able to see what is, for us, the future; and He is faithful in light of that to superintend our present … all for our good and His glory. But on the flat and linear plain of this life, it may not look that way to us; in fact, it may look just the opposite.

The theme this week is: Theme – trusting God through disappointments and periods of waiting. And the summary statement is: God tends to burn my dreams in front of me before giving them back to me in the precise way He desires them to be expressed.

I told you a story about one of our missionaries – surely for him, it was the one time in particular where he has seen this happen in his life. And additionally, I know I am repeating a story I’ve told probably two other times in sermons, even as recently as two years ago, I think. But these are my reflections, and the following was a big teaching moment in my life.

I had mentioned in the first sermon of this series that it was not my idea or chief desire in life to go toward church ministry and the pastorate. The door most open to me as a high school senior was to pursue music education at a Christian college, so I committed that far only. And I can remember very clearly one day where it hit me that this could lead to a church ministry/pastoral profession. It was on the par 3, third hole at the Washington, NJ country club; and I remember thinking that there was little else I wouldn’t rather do – how that would be such an awful life!

And then there was the prescribed program at my college – it was a five-year, double major in Bible and music … not four years. Already my life was looking to be taking on an extra year in the start-up phase … ugh!  But I did get a wife at the end of the fourth year!

And I was surprised in college to find that I liked the Bible and theology departments more than the music major, but I knew that somehow the music thing was still going to be a part of my future. But I applied to the premier grad school that was respected by my college – Dallas Theological Seminary – and was actually surprised to get an acceptance to this selective institution. And a year later, we were living in Texas.

Our move to Dallas was quite an adventure!  We shipped some of our things by a freight company, but we were so broke that we moved a bunch of stuff ourselves. My father-in-law pulled a trailer behind his van, and we drove our packed-out 1968 Rambler Rebel station wagon. The trip was treacherous. The trailer broke loose at one point (in Winchester, VA) and actually passed dad’s van while sliding down the road. It also had multiple hitch and tire problems. So many things went wrong in transit that, when we at last arrived in Dallas at our destination (briefly living with some family who were already there), I completely broke down into tears from the stress of it all.

But God got us there … to begin ANOTHER four years of school! Clearly it was where we were supposed to be. The first year there involved some wild jobs at crazy hours. Diana was a Christian School first-grade teacher with a starting salary of $5,600 … whoohoo!  I worked for UPS and cleaned swimming pools. We were scraping by, just barely.

At the very fine Bible Church we were attending, a position suddenly opened for a part-time minister of music. It was perfect for me!  It paid more than I was making at other jobs, and it was in ministry – in an area that I had already given five years of education, including a one-year internship in such a position at a small New Jersey church. Clearly, this had to be God’s plan. It was awesome!  I interviewed in confidence.

A few weeks later, after a Sunday evening service, the Pastor pulled me aside to say that they had decided to hire someone else. I even knew the guy from a distance and could see that he was bad news – which he proved to be over the next year.

I was so angry as I drove home that night around the Dallas beltway (Diana was at home and not with me that evening). “Are you kidding me?” I screamed toward the heavens.  This made no sense at all!  I recall yelling at God, pounding my fist on the steering wheel and lamenting … “So what were all those years of music education about?  Why’d you put me through all of that … for nothing?  Here I am, ready to serve!  And you KNOW how much I needed this position to pay to live and get all this additional education!  And where is that going to lead?  There is NO JUSTIFICATION for this; there can be NO explanation!  This is totally wrong!”

I calmed down after a while and followed my advice from the first sermon – just sit in the saddle and do the next faithful thing. I finished the school year, and then for the summer went home to NJ to my home church for an internship. Yes, it was nice to be home, but I did it as much to fulfill another requirement on my seemingly dead-end educational career.

So, there at my home church, where I was known mostly as a music guy from their experiences with me, I spent the summer preaching and teaching instead. I did no music at all … the pastor had been killed the previous autumn in a car crash, and the church was in recovery. My role in that season was to bring the Scriptures to folks. And it was a good summer … without the music, surprisingly.

As September approached again, I returned to Dallas with the spiritual experience that it was OK if I never got to do music stuff again. I would be fine with however God wanted to use me; and apparently it was not going to involve worship ministries. That dream was burned.

I had barely been back in Big-D for more than a few days, preparing for yet another fall semester, when a Dallas church called me and asked me to come be their minister of music. It was a much larger church than the one that rejected me, and it was in every way a far better opportunity. Through it I was exposed to the most amazing people in Christian ministry, both in Dallas and from throughout the country and world. It turned out to be my richest experience in Texas – beyond the seminary education, as good as that was. And those next three years of amazing ministry with wonderful people totally set me up for all the good things that came afterward, step by step, including ultimately ending up here in Maryland for the last 25 years.

Yes, as our title today says, God burned MY dreams, until He gave them back to me the way that HE wanted them. The closed door that looked so wrong led rather to an open door that proved to be so right and so much better. God proved to be totally faithful, even when I couldn’t see it.

And these two stories today are illustrative especially of the overarching truth I’ve shared with you over this series … What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. It’s not a trick. God wants us to learn to instinctively look quickly to Him in every circumstance, especially those that don’t make immediate sense.

Sorry about the two long, too-long stories, but I thought they might resonate with many of you and encourage you in whatever season of confusion you might have right now … times perhaps when it feels like God has you in an extended waiting period, an interminable holding pattern.

Let’s turn again today to another portion of the story of the man known as the father of faith, to that of Abraham & Isaac, picking up the account in the fabulous 15th chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 15:1-6After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

By the time we get here to chapter 15, recall that Abraham had uprooted his life and moved away from the accumulated successes of his world, and toward a place that God would later reveal to him. He was promised that he would be blessed personally, that he would have blessings extend to generations of family, and that all people would be blessed through him.

But now, none of this seemed to actually be coming true, especially in the area of family. He and Sarah were childless. And by the traditions of that day, the steward of his household – an Eliezer of Damascus – appeared to be his heir. But God again reiterated that his own son would be his heir, with family as vast as the visible stars of the sky.

And rather than be doubtful, it says that he believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness. This was the content of his saving faith.

But more time passed, and Sarah was getting impatient about this situation …

Genesis 16:1-2 … Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 

Sarah presumes here that God needs some help. And again, an earthly custom of the time was to have a surrogate womb bear a child. And her idea was to use a servant woman named Hagar. For some reason, Abram listened and complied, and then …  

Genesis 16:15-1615 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

So, catch the age … 86.  And now, turn the page to the next, immediately following text in Scripture in chapter 17, and you see that 13 years pass between these chapters.  

Genesis 17:1-2When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”

So what was Abram doing these 13 years?  Mostly playing with Ishmael! And God says AGAIN that Sarah will bear a son to Abram…  

Genesis 17:16-19 … I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

Abraham laughs. He looked in the mirror and wondered how such a young man got stuck in a body like that!  But the problems appeared even greater when he looked toward Sarah. And then Abraham displays his immense pleasure with his son through Hagar by asking that God bless him and work through that young man. But God has a different plan … and now Sarah does as well.

Genesis 18:11,12Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

In every situation, God is the giver of life, and He does indeed bring a child through her …

Genesis 21:1-3The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

Okay, cool. So now all the craziness was behind them. Now they could anticipate the normal stuff to happen – like that of a child growing up in their household to fulfill all the promises. Smooth waters ahead!  But in a few years God visits Abraham again …

Genesis 22:1-2 … After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

You know the story … of Abraham and Isaac traveling to this place of sacrifice. And you likely also know that this is believed to be at the very spot the true and better Isaac – Jesus – would give his life as an atonement for sin. At the moment when Abraham is to plunge the knife into the son of promise, a ram is heard to be caught in the bushes nearby, it becoming the substitute sacrifice instead.

And it is over in the New Testament that we get an explanation as to what Abraham was reasoning at this juncture …

Hebrews 11:17-19 … 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Yes, God had a plan. It took a while for it to be fulfilled with lots of twists and turns, but at last it did come true. Abraham’s dreams were often delayed extensively or burned in front of him. He was not perfect, but he did – bottom line – trust and believe God was going to make all of this to work out in some way.

Jesus spoke to this attitude of faith when sharing the following parable …

John 12:23-25 … And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This is essentially saying that our dreams and aspirations are like grains of wheat, useless unless they fall into the soil and die. But then they come to life, they grow and produce much fruit.

TRANS>> You can clearly see a number of the themes about which we’ve been speaking in this story. But let me list some for you as our major takeaway applications …

  1. God is the source of genuine dreams and aspirations, as well as the resource for their fulfillment.

We can have dreams and desires for things that are merely the fleshly stuff of this world. But the genuine aspirations for things tied to God’s divine purpose for us are sourced in Him. It says in Scripture that God is at work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure. And beyond that we have assurance that God is at work in all things for our good. I like those promises!!

  1. Our God-given dreams inevitably go through a variety of delays and revisions before fulfillment.

It might be more accurate to say that it “appears” that our dreams go through delays and revisions – because we just don’t know God’s timetable for us. Little in life works out just as we expect it will. We are simply not capable of successfully making all the right decisions at the right time. We will make foolish mistakes. For God to let us have the ultimate power in planning the details of life would be about like letting our elementary children manage the family budget. Wrong priorities are inevitable without the activity of divine guidance and management.

  1. The delays and revisions of our dreams are the loving gifts of God to make us better people.

Again, turning to another family illustration, we allow our children to have some tough times and experiences for their educational good. We don’t just solve their every problem and give what they want exactly when they want it. We have a bigger picture in mind for them, and we want to help them get there on a schedule that is appropriate and for their best good. And so it is that our heavenly Father superintends our life events, with wise delays and revisions.

  1. God is as interested (or more interested) in the process as in the result.

God does not need any of us to get anything accomplished. Again, what he wants from us more than anything else is not what we achieve, but rather that we display our faith and trust in Him by resting in Him completely.

  1. God is always faithful, and His way always proves to be the best way.

The individual is yet to be found who regrets trusting God, even when doing what was confusing and unclear, and sometimes even when it seems the opposite of what you would expect or immediately desire. Later in this series we will work our way through the 73rd Psalm, where the writer admits that he struggled to maintain faith when it appeared that the evil people of the world were the truly prospering ones. Hindsight is always 20/20 when looking at the good hand of God in our lives. He is indeed always faithful, and it is often totally amazing, even miraculous.

  1. Our sinful nature will draw us to desire to seize control at various times.

It is difficult to wait, especially over extended periods of time. There is an Evil One who wants to put doubts in our minds as to the genuine goodness of God. Remember, that’s what he did back in the garden of Eden … “Has God really said …?”  We need to be mindful of this dark influence – not just from outside of ourselves, but also of our own sinful propensity to want to take control and appease immediate appetites.

  1. The reward is always worth it all, even though it may be different than the original dream, or even less than complete.

God’s best for us is exactly that – BEST!  And it is never going to look exactly like you thought it would be at the beginning. It is going to morph and change and have unique surprises. But you’ll be satisfied in the end by trusting Him daily in the small things of faithful living – staying in the saddle and doing the next thing of obedience. It all adds up in the end, and you look back with amazement. It is better than if you just did it yourself. And even where it is less than complete or as awesome as you might have hoped, you discover a strange satisfaction and contentment with where it is at – because He gave that serenity to you as well.

Though there are applications in this theme today for every one of us at any age, I can imagine a number of categories of folks today where it might especially apply…

The single young adult – There you are, truly an adult for a while now, and on your own for sure. You’d like to find and know that person with whom you can walk through life. He or she doesn’t need to be a total hunk or the epitome of babe-dom, but you want them to love and serve God. But where are they? You’ve been praying about this … and waiting and waiting. There are opportunities to take matters into your own hands, and that is a temptation during the times of silence. Is God hearing? Is He engaged in this at all?

The childless young couple – This is just not working out. You’ve prayed; your parents have prayed; friends pray … but nothing happens. Doesn’t God love children, especially in the households of His own people and servants?  But the heavens are silent, and the years are passing.

The graduated college and grad student, looking to start a career – There have been so many false starts. You can’t seem to find a job with a long-term future that pays enough right now to get to that future. Why isn’t this working out?  You were told this is a lucrative field of endeavor, but where’s the start-line?

The person stuck in a difficult job situation – There you are, working overtime again, but will anyone notice?  And then you just can’t get away from working weekends, and it seems like whenever the kids are home, you’re at the job. It’s long past time for that mirage called a “promotion” to have happened. You’ve told God about this, over and over, especially when clocking in and out. But God doesn’t seem to care that you even end up missing church frequently because of this rat-race you’re stuck in.

And there are so many other applications …

  • The unbelieving spouse.
  • The wayward adult child.
  • The weirdness of living without a relationship with a parent – whom maybe you don’t even know.
  • The person with the chronic disease that constantly prevents living a normal life that would include serving God so much better.

To you all … God knows these things. And even in your weakness and waiting, He’s gotcha! There is a divine plan, and it is true that you can’t see it. But the day will come when you look back and see it clearly; and wow, it was His best for you and for living His life through you!

Trust Him today, as even the torched dreams and empty hands have a purpose!

Week Five Items for Discussion

Do you feel, looking back over your Christian experience to this point, that you have had torched dreams and the empty hands of unfulfilled expectations that you believed to be godly and wholesome?

Are you able to recall situations in your life where you faced delays and morphed plans that seemed wrong at the time, but you see now were God’s best for you?

Do you find encouragement in the story of Abraham?  He is a mixed back of incredible faith, along with several failures as well. But at the end of day, he trusted in God. Did Abraham live to see all the promises come true?  Can any of us expect to see everything come true of our aspirations?

How might this entire discussion affect your prayer life?  How might it affect the way you calibrate your expectations?

How can you encourage others who are facing some of the issues mentioned in the applications: singleness, delayed careers, childlessness, etc.?


“The Grand Scheme of Things”

I pretty much love all varieties of sports (even soccer, just a little bit).  But a sport I’ve never felt any measure of calling to get involved in is that of mountain climbing, though I have his son who lives now in Colorado and who loves all things with sheer elevations!  I really don’t mind heights, but are you kidding me? There is no way that hanging by your fingernails on the side of a mountain makes any sense at all! That truly is treacherous!

However, there are a lot of similarities between the venture of journeying through life and the venture of mountaineering. Listen to what this advertisement says, coming from a company marketing mountain climbing equipment…

Mountaineering can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends on your level of expertise, partner, and choice of route. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as weather, falling rock, and unseasonably late snow. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the right gear. It’s true, mountain climbing has become easier in the past decade, with sport-specific technology producing lighter, more efficient equipment. Lightweight helmets, mountaineering axes, and harnesses shave pounds off the weight of traditional gear, making it easier to feel like a climber rather than a pack mule.

Let me see if I can rewrite that advertisement in different words…

“The journey of life can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends upon your level of experience in walking with your partner – Jesus Christ – and the route you take in terms of the priorities of your life. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as diseases, natural disasters, and unexpected crises. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the Word of God. It is true, the journey of life has become potentially easier given the abundance of resources available in recent years. With lightweight podcasts, study Bibles, and audio and video resources that ease the burdens of understanding the weighty truths of Scripture, it is easier for the believer to feel like a real champion in this life instead of a mere survivor.”

And that is how I am hoping this current sermon series of this Fall season might serve many of you in a similar fashion. Having now been a veteran “mountain man” of learning about following Christ for nearly six decades – perhaps I can pass along to you some mountaineering tips about my high-altitude experiences, good and bad. And indeed, there are peaks and valleys; there are times when you face cliffs that seem insurmountable, even as there are occasions where the vistas are beautiful as you experience God’s goodness and grace.

As I seek to give you my fellow climbers some advice from having assaulted some rock faces ahead of many of you, let me again assert the one particular overarching truth that we’ll come back to, over and over – What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. And that truth is especially relevant with today’s topic.

For this fourth week and this fourth of eleven topics …

  • Theme – God’s master plan of orchestrating the events of our lives
  • Statement – God has things happen to me, so that things can happen in me, so that things can happen eventually through me. (I did not originate this three-part statement, though I wish I could take credit for it. I’m pretty sure I heard it in a college chapel by a guest speaker … and I think it might have been Stuart Briscoe. But it has stuck with me through the years and given me comfort and perspective, especially in confusing times.)

God does indeed have a grand scheme for our lives, a master plan for us. And I’m telling you, that is a great comfort when you come to believe and understand that. You come to know that the things that are happening to you and around you are never as random as you might think that they are. It is all a part of the symphony of your life that God is composing. Indeed, all things work together for good.

The Apostle Paul, through many highs and lows of his own life, came to understand this truth. And a passage where this is particularly evident is from the beginning of his letter to the Philippians.

Something I have been profoundly impressed with over the years of ministry is the number of people whom I know well and who live with dreadful diseases – all sorts of cancers, ALS, chronic pain syndromes of varied sorts … that kind of thing. And so commonly, these people of faith are among the most joyful and vibrant Christian folks that I have known! One might say that they are “living above their circumstances.”

It was my old Dallas Seminary professor and renowned Bible teacher Howie Hendricks who used to often include in his messages a conversation with a certain Christian acquaintance, where Howie would ask, “How are you doing?” … to which the response would be some version of “Not bad under the circumstances.”  And Howie’s humorous retort would be to say, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

The letter to the Philippians rings with a theme of joy. We can have joy in all circumstances, even if we don’t always have happiness. It depends upon our measuring stick. If our measuring device is only limited to the circumstance and events of our immediate physical world, well, we are going to come up short quite a bit. But if our measurement is calibrated in eternal numbers and true realities, we are in possession at ALL TIMES of God’s magnanimous grace and the promise of His eternal relationship with us.

Philippians is a prison epistle – written by Paul while chained to a Roman soldier. But you’d never know it by the joyful tone of his writing.

Yes, God is in control of the grand scheme of things! Even when it doesn’t look like it. And it sure didn’t look like this unjust imprisonment should be happening to Paul at this juncture. There was work to be done in spreading the gospel. He was called as God’s #1 dude to be an apostle to the Gentiles – God’s new and great work in the world. Life is short! And Paul had a bit of a late start. How in the world could this fit into God’s plans?  But it did.

So for this topic I want to talk about how to live above the circumstance, trusting they are also under the control of God. And let’s say three things about “Living Above the Circumstances” from Philippians 1:12-30 …

  1. Living above the circumstances of the persistent problems of life. (12-18)

Problems in this life are rather common, aren’t they?  It really is not a matter of “if” you will have occasional problems, but what perspective should you have “when” you realize that difficulties are a rather persistent hiking and climbing partner in this life.

12 I want you to know, brothers that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

The word used in this passage that speaks of the “advance” of the gospel is actually a military term – used to speak of the advance of an army through difficult or dense terrain.

Maybe Paul has this word come to mind especially at this moment because he is literally chained to a soldier, one of the elite imperial guard – a contingent of 9,000 of the best that Rome had to offer for the most unique situations and demands.

Everyone knew that Paul was not a prisoner because he was a criminal; rather, it was because of his outspoken witness for Christ. And so, it would be logical for the Philippians to have a concern that Paul would be very discouraged by this turn of events, sending Pastor Epaphroditis and a financial gift. After all, is it not terribly discouraging when you do something good and out of genuinely kind intention, only to be falsely accused in a public way – perhaps with others believing the errant story about you? Why wouldn’t Paul be downhearted?

But Paul was not discouraged, quite the contrary. He says that the circumstances had eventuated toward greater good in terms of the advance of the gospel – his primary life value.

At this time Paul is not specifically in a prison. Actually, he is in his own quarters, again, having a Roman Praetorian Guard fastened to him. We can surely imagine the conversations. It is rather clear from all we know of the life of the Apostle Paul that he did not lack for being anything but a chatty fellow!  So, who was really the prisoner?

The result was that conversations with these guards on their shifts resulted in many of them, along with those of their extended relationships, coming to a saving faith in Christ. Though Paul was unable to go out to the crowds, God was not limited in bringing the crowds to him!

An additional positive impact and effect was that this obvious work of God’s grace through him was encouraging the local believers in Rome to also be confident in God’s power to work through them in proclaiming the gospel. The church there was growing and expanding. There was a multiplication principle at work. This was amazing!

And the lesson for us is clear. Though it is natural to believe that bad circumstances thwart the larger purposes of our lives, God is able to use them bigger … because HE is bigger! He is ABOVE the circumstances.

But it’s true. As I referenced earlier, think along with me of the people – many of whom we’ve known in our TSF church family in recent years – who went through difficult circumstances, even the valley of the shadow of death. But it was in those times where their lives and their faith shone most brightly!  And through those times, God was most evident, and they were oddly most content and at peace.

We all need to think about living for something that is bigger than ourselves. And that something is the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, as Paul writes …

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Paul speaks here of the various factions of those who were preaching the gospel. He can’t be speaking here about the Judaizers who promoted the works salvation stuff of depending upon the Old Testament keeping of the Law – something that Paul called “another Gospel.”  Here, it appears that the message is not substantially different, though the motivations of those doing it were questionable. Some of them were likely able to gain more of a following by drawing people toward them and away from that jailbird named Paul.

This was annoying, at least. But Paul steps back from it by saying, But what does it matter?  … Christ is preached. Paul is maintaining here the bigger picture. So, this sort of thing happened then, and it happens today. I’ve lived to see it – the building of personal kingdoms around eternal truth. Yep, it’s annoying. But here now I’ve learned more in my 60s (easier than in my 30s) to just overlook the motivations more and more and have the bigger picture in mind.

And that is the takeaway point for all of us. There is something that is SO MUCH bigger than ourselves and our lives. The message of the gospel is more important than anything else. And when we are sold out to that, other things tend to fall into place, and we can depend upon God’s goodness to give us a sufficiency of living. Here the is a major takeaway point for us today …

Our contentment in life is inextricably tied to our commitment to gospel participation … to having our priorities aligned with God’s top priority.

But you might say, “Yeah, but… but… but… sometimes people are really committed to truth and yet it doesn’t work out so well for them personally. Like, people are daily martyred in places around the world because of their faith. And yes, some people are powerful testimonies in their dying days, but… but… they’re like very, very dead right now!”  Here’s the divine perspective on that …

  1. Living above the circumstances of the possibility of death. (19-26)

Yes… wrote the word “possibility” … though we like to deny this reality.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Unlike Paul’s expectation expressed in 2 Timothy that his life was surely near an end, Paul truly does expect to be released on this occasion, though he did not have a specific certainty of that.

We often remark about Paul that he is truly unbeatable. He is happy to live, but if he dies, he’s even happier with that. This is the ultimate win-win scenario.

And the Scriptures often speak very positively about death. And that is a surprise. Being content about dying is what we might call “counterintuitive” by definition: counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way.

We want to cling to life in this world and grasp onto it for as long as possible, yet the better world and greater life is yet to come by being with the Lord.

This dying thing – I’m pretty sure this is something everyone thinks about a lot more than most anyone admits, particularly as one ages. But the Scriptures tell us to not fear this at all, rather it is something to anticipate positively. Yet, in the meantime, there is work to be done for the spread of the gospel through us and the gifts we’ve been given, as we work together to build the Kingdom.

 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Indeed, this is an attitude that is very different than what is the mindset of the person of this world who does not have the eternal comfort of a relationship with Christ. There is genuine, palpable hopelessness at its highest level. It is the ultimate end of the road for the human mind in a sinfully fallen and lost world. But even we who know Christ and have the intellectual certainty of eternal hope, we too – being human – have an aversion to death. And on one hand, rightly so – it is the great enemy. Yet there is a perspective we should have that is bigger … transcendent … totally beyond the natural way of thinking.

  1. Living above the circumstances of the probability of suffering. (27-30)

Suffering, be it in the category of the sorrows of this fallen world or be it at the hands of those who oppose the gospel and its adherents … this is totally normal, not unusual.

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents.

This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Suffering is something we all go through.  Most of our lives are spent trying to avoid it.  And for most people, that is what the pursuit of happiness comes down to: maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain.  Paul says there’s something more to live for, something we can’t buy with fashion, techno-devices, or sport utility vehicles.

See, the way we handle suffering says everything about where our hope truly lies.  It’s the reason C.S. Lewis would write that “crises reveal character.”

  • If I am merely a mechanically religious person, suffering will devastate me.  What have I done wrong?  What did I do to deserve this?  Suffering fills me with guilt and shame.  I want to hide from others, lest my suffering be evidence of my wrongdoing.
  • But if I am not a religious person, I’m also devastated by suffering.  Why?  Because it only reveals the arbitrary nature of the universe.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  What kind of God would allow this?  And for these folks who live without biblical enlightenment, there really are no good answers to these questions.
  • For Paul – for us – joy means looking into the face of suffering and recognizing that this world is not all there is.  Death cannot have the final word.  Our life’s purpose can only be fulfilled by enduring, by facing his hardships head-on.

It’s easy to check out when problems overwhelm us, and it can be harder to have an eternal perspective.  None of us can see the future in its detail, but through God’s Word, each of us can see the future as an unending spring of joy.  Joy is magnified in pain—because it points us away from the gifts of this world to the Giver of all gifts. And suffering is a gift – that is the meaning of it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. And, for each of us, suffering becomes a chance to abandon our trust in self and to live each day with a purpose that is eternal.

When we calibrate our earthly sorrows and challenges against the greater spiritual reality, well, we see the smallness of our problems, along the lines of the old hymn that says “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Yes, God allows things to happen to us, so that things can happen in us, so that things can happen through us. It is God’s grand scheme of things. You can trust it, and you can even embrace it.

Week Four Items for Discussion

Can you imagine how the Apostle Paul might have been irritated by his circumstances of imprisonment? Have you felt this way at times where situations just seem unfair and contrary to what you would expect God to be doing and allowing in your life?

As years go by and difficult life experiences accumulate, are you able to also accumulate a sense of God’s sovereign control over those times?  And are you able to even see them as the gift of God to grow your trust and faith in Him?

Do you find that you think about death … perhaps increasingly as years advance?  Even as we inevitably dislike death in reference to those we would leave behind without our help, are you able to view it in any way with excited anticipation?

Have you found opposition to your faith from people in the world who oppose belief in God? Have you even been “persecuted” in some fraction?  Might we anticipate this to increase in the coming years?

Maybe you could put together a complete story of something that happened to you (that you did not like), but that taught you something within that was beneficial, that made it possible for you to serve or reach out to others in a way that would have been impossible without the original difficulty?