Saturday, January 31, 2015

Raising the Dead

"Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?"

Earlier this week I was reading Acts 26.  The apostle Paul is under arrest and he has received an opportunity to make a defense of his case before two rulers, Agrippa and Festus.  In the midst of his testimony he speaks the words I quoted, and when I read them I had to stop for a moment before continuing on. 

That claim of Paul that God raises the dead is critical for everything we believe as Christians. 

Paul is not claiming that God merely has the power to raise people from the dead.  If a person believes that there is a God, and then believes that same God created the world, then it would not be unreasonable to also believe that the same God who created life would also have the ability to restore to life any person whose life had ended.  There is nothing inherently Christian in believing any of those things. 

It is the fuller context of Paul's testimony that brings out the significance of the claim that God raises the dead.  Paul's point is not just that God can raise the dead, but that in fact God did raise from death Jesus of Nazareth.  Paul had a personal encounter with Jesus after the resurrection, a encounter that changed Paul's life from one of persecution of Christians to one of total devotion to Jesus as his Savior and Lord. 

Like Paul, we are in a relationship with God through Jesus.  We may not have seen him in the flesh but we believe, like Paul, that God raised him from the dead.  And believing in the fact of the resurrection is all the proof we need to believe everything else the Bible teaches us about the significance of Jesus, for both this life and eternity.

Later in his testimony Paul says this is what Jesus told him would be the new purpose of  his life's work:

"I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me."

This task of opening eyes is one that belongs to each of us today.  It is not easy work and there will be many times when it looks like we have been failures at it.  But it is the work that all Christians are called to.

May we be people like Paul, people who continue to look for ways large and small, direct and indirect, that give us the opportunity to point people toward Jesus.      

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The One Thing That Matters

This coming Sunday I will be preaching from Colossians 1:21-23.  Part of what Paul writes in verse 22 is this:
"…he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death,…"[1]

The 'he/his' that Paul refers to is Jesus, and Paul is teaching that reconciliation with God comes through Jesus' death and not by any other means. 

As I was pondering this I was struck by the difference between the life and death of Jesus.  The Gospels are full of stories of his life.  They tell of his birth, his baptism, the calling of his disciples, the miracles he did and the teaching he did in groups large and small. 

Imagine for a moment that you were one of those people close to Jesus during his life on earth.  Imagine that you saw him work miracles.  Imagine that you heard his teaching.  One person asked him, "What is the greatest commandment in the Law?"  And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 

Imagine that you heard Jesus speak those words and you thought, "Yeah, I get that.  That teaching is what it is all about and that is the way I am going to live, 110% of the time." 

Well, that is a good teaching of Jesus' to hang on to, and it is a good goal to live a life  that is obedient to those two commandments.  But the truth is that it still wouldn't be enough to bring about reconciliation with God.  The life of Jesus was a wonderful thing and there is much that we can learn from it, but it is only in the death that  we are restored to wholeness with God. 

Paul continues verse 22 like this:

"…in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach…"

Curiously, reconciliation with God is not found in the life of Jesus, but in the death.  We move from being enemies of God to being reconciled with him when we believe that the blood of Jesus was poured out for us.  When we believe that by his death, by the giving of his blood, our sin is removed, then we are joined with God as his dearly loved children. 

Without the death, the living Jesus is a good teacher.  By giving his life he is Lord and Savior.  His death is what makes it possible to understand his life.  At perhaps the most basic level, believing in the purpose of his death is the only thing that matters.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] In the Greek verses 21 through 23 are written as one long sentence.  The passage is also translated as one sentence in several English translations, including the King James and the English Standard versions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Prayer in Worship, part 2: Healing

It is my privilege to pastor a church that prays when it gathers to worship.  Not there aren't a lot of other churches that don't pray, because I know that they most certainly do.  But there are some things about the way that our church prays when we gather that I wanted to share with others. 

This is the second post of the series.  The first post was on confession.  The topic of this post is prayers for healing.  Yet to come are posts on congregational prayer and miscellaneous, or other prayers during worship. 

Before you let your imagination run wild with images of TV evangelists driving out spirits or people throwing down their crutches I want to know that what goes on here is not like that at all. 

I first visited our church nearly two years ago, as a candidate to be their pastor.  During the process of learning about the congregation and what was important to them I was told that for about two years they had been doing prayer specifically for healing during worship.  I don't recall why they started it but in the time they had been doing it the healing prayer was something that was important in their sense of community as God's gathered people. 

Here is what happens each Sunday.  After our prayer of confession I invite anyone who would like prayer for healing to come forward.  I usually use words that mention healing for something that troubles their body, their mind, their heart or their soul.  We keep a small bottle of oil on the table in front of the pulpit and while I turn to get the oil people come forward.

The smallest group of people was two and there can be as many as ten or more.  They gather in a semi-circle and when everyone who wants prayer has come forward I work my way around the circle, making the sign of the cross on their forehead with a bit of the oil and blessing them, by name, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

No one says why they come forward.  They just come.  I don’t need to know why they come.  It is my role to bless them and to pray with them.  After everyone has been blessed I extend another invitation, this time for people to come and lay hands on those gathered as we pray for them. 

As people come up to lay on hands, I make a circle with the group, so that they and I are holding hands.  And when everyone is in place, I pray.

I pray extemporaneously at this time, which means I put the words together as I go along.  Personally, I couldn’t do this if we didn't have a prayer of confession first. 

As I said earlier, no one throws down their crutches.  If an outside observer watched this, Sunday after Sunday, he might wonder why do we bother?  Some of the same people come up week after week.  I offer up a free-form prayer, and probably use many of the same phrases each week.  Is anyone actually experiencing healing?

The thing is that each week I come before God with the people He has gathered, and on their behalf I ask Him to bring healing.  He knows what is troubling them.  He knows what is best in providing for them.  And He alone knows the how-and-when of providing His healing.  

We gather as His people, lay our deepest needs before Him, and trust Him to deal with those needs as He knows is best.  Is anyone experiencing healing?  Without a doubt I believe that they are.

James 5:14 says this:

"Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."

Prayer for healing is a powerful way of drawing our congregation together.  We lift our sisters and brothers in Christ up to the Lord, ask for His healing presence, and trust Him to provide what He knows is best.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 16, 2015

It's a Fact

Tomorrow I'll be preaching from Paul's letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verses 9-14.  After I had written my sermon I found myself continuing to linger over one particular verse, 13, where Paul says this:

"He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,"[1]

In just a few words Paul is talking about what is an accomplished fact for all people with faith in Jesus.  They have been taken, rescued even, from the kingdom of darkness, where they essentially lived as prisoners, and placed into the kingdom of Christ.  They have been taken to a place that is so utterly different from the place of darkness that we could say that the difference is blinding. 

Paul calls the first place the "domain of darkness," which suggests to me a place that is unbelievably dark.  It is hard to find a place that dark in real life.  Think perhaps of a cave, a mine, or the interior of a ship when the power is off.  A place that is so dark your eyes never adjust, and never will.

And the other place, "the kingdom of his beloved Son."  A place that is dazzling in its brilliance when we first come into it.  So bright that we put on our sunglasses and find that we are still squinting.  Like the sun shining on new fallen snow. 

But the difference of the kingdom of the Son is that our eyes do begin to adjust.  We begin to see with clarity the beauty of our Lord and the place he has prepared for those he loves. 

And that is what I find myself coming back to in this verse, that by faith in the work of Christ Jesus, the images of the cross and the empty tomb, deliverance has been accomplished, for me, and for all who believe. 

It's a fact.  I no longer am a prisoner of the domain of darkness but have been transferred to the kingdom of the Son.  May this fact also be true of you.  Amen.   

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Verse 14 ends the sentence, saying, "in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Monday, January 12, 2015

Prayer in Worship, part 1: Confession

It is my privilege to pastor a church that prays when it gathers to worship.  Not there aren't a lot of other churches that don't pray, because I am certain that they most certainly do.  But there are some things about the way that our church prays when we gather that I want to share with others. 

So this will be a short series about prayer and worship.  In separate posts I will discuss prayers of confession, prayers for healing, congregational prayer and miscellaneous prayer.  

A prayer of confession is something we do nearly every time we gather for worship.  We include it each Sunday.  We include it on most other occasions, including Easter and Christmas Eve.  Actually, I can’t think of a time since I've been here that confession hasn't been a part of our worship. 

Confession is an admission of our sin as we come into God's presence.  It is an intentional act where we acknowledge, to God,  that we have failed to live in ways that are pleasing to Him and we seek His forgiveness.  It is as if we are saying, "God, these are things that we have done, or thought, that we know are offensive to you.  They are dirt in our lives, in our hearts, and we can't remove them myself.  Will you forgive us and make us clean again?"   

Our prayer of confession has three parts.  First I say something about our sin and the need to confess it, inviting everyone to take a few moments and silently confess to God.  Then we read aloud a prayer of confession.  Each week we have a different prayer, so that each week we have a different way to think about our sin and the way it offends God.  And lastly, I read from scripture words that are intended to provide the assurance of forgiveness.  There are verses from the Old and New Testament, with a different passage each week, used to reinforce the idea that while God's plan has always been that forgiveness comes through Jesus, the promise of forgiveness is one that is found in many places in the Bible.

The objection to regular confession might be raised, saying that Protestant Christians believe they have forgiveness of all of their sin in Jesus.  Forgiveness of all sin before they came to faith and forgiveness of all sin they will commit while having that faith.  If that is true, that indeed all the sins of a lifetime, including those years not yet lived, are forgiven, then why go through the act of confessing and receiving assurance over and over?  Isn’t that kind of a downer?  Shouldn't life as a Christian be joyful?

To which I reply that I believe that confession is healthy and that its regular practice leads to a more joyful life.  In confessing we are consciously aware that God is God and that we are not.  Its practice establishes a good place for us to start each day, so that we begin by turning toward God instead of running headlong down the path of unrestrained sin. 

Herman Bavinck wrote this about sin, confession and forgiveness: "Sin brings with it, especially in the case of believers, a sense of guilt, pain, regret, alienation from God, remorse, and so forth.  It takes away ones tranquility of conscience, the boldness and assurance of faith.  That is unavoidable.  The nature of sin is such that it necessarily brings with it a sense of guilt and liability to punishment."[1] 

Then he adds: "Confession is not a condition for forgiveness, but those who truly know their sin naturally confess it and in the face of it feel all the greater need for the consolation of forgiveness.  For believers, prayer for forgiveness remains a daily necessity.  But in that case they do not pray in doubt and despair, they do not pray as though they are no longer children of God and again face eternal damnation; they pray from within the faith as children to the Father who is in heaven."[2]

He concludes: "Needed, after our falling into sin, is self-humiliation, confession, the prayer for forgiveness, in order that this faith may again revive and the Spirit of God may again clearly and forcefully bear witness with our spirit that we are children of God."[3]

Sin, seen from our point-of-view, alienates us from God.  Confession is a good gift to us from God, so that our conscience can be cleared, so that we can be reassured of our place as His children, and that as His children we can live with joy. 

Perhaps my favorite words of assurance are the ones we used yesterday, from 1 John 1:9.

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 225.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid

Saturday, January 10, 2015


One of the things we do each week in worship is to pray for Christians in other parts of the world, Christians who are living in places where sometimes just to say aloud that you believe in Jesus is to put your life at risk.  To live in those kinds of conditions seems to be so distant from our experience here in the United States, where to openly be a Christian can be to invite a variety of responses but never  with the same kinds of risks faced in so many places in the world. 

Each week in worship we pray for believers in a different country in the world.  I select the country based on a prayer calendar from Frontline Missions.  Tomorrow we will pray for Christians in Tajikistan.  We pray for their safety, for their faithfulness, and that they would know the closeness with which God always holds them.  I encourage the congregation to remembers these Christians in their prayers during the week. 

Earlier this week I read an article about persecution in northern India. It is a story not only about what may be considered outbreaks  of persecution of Christians, but also about the way in which India as a nation may be drifting towards becoming a place where to claim any religious identity except Hindu is to be anti-Indian, and consequently to be an acceptable target for removal from society.

And yet, believers living in these circumstances know without any doubts that God holds them in all things.  A woman who was attacked by a mob and whose home was destroyed said this:

“Even if I am beaten, it is all joy. Those of us who were beaten are the privileged ones. So we live for Christ, and when we die, we die for Christ. We have completely given our lives into the hand of Jesus.”

Last week I began preaching from Paul's letter to the church at Colossae, a church he had heard about but never visited himself.  In the second verse of the letter he says this:

"To the saints and faithful brothers [and sisters] in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father."

Paul writes to a people known to him only by faith, and yet they are his dear sisters and brothers in Christ, and he joyfully lifts them to God. 

May we remember that we are not just God's people gathered in Dulce, or in Rochester, or wherever you may happen to be, but that in Christ we are a part God's people that are found scattered throughout the world. 

May we lift up in prayer our sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world, particularly sisters and brothers in far-flung places, in hard and even dangerous circumstances, that they may continue to know God's grace and peace in every moment of their lives.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

And It Was So

This morning one the things I read was Genesis 1.  As I read it I was carried back to a memory of a Sunday several years ago.  It was the first Sunday of January, 2008, which I remember because I went to church with several friends from seminary that morning.  One of the readings in worship was Genesis 1, and I followed along in my Bible as the pastor spoke. 

It is an exciting story.  It is the biblical account of creation coming into existence, not from the hand of God, but by the speaking of His voice.  God speaks and things happen.  Verse 3 says,

"And God said, "let there be light, and there was light."" 

Boom!  Just like that!  One moment there is nothing, so much nothing that we can't even say that a thing like 'nothing' even exists, and in the next moment…light!

So today I remembered that particular Sunday and the excitement I felt as the pastor read the whole chapter.  The excitement of hearing creation unfold at the speaking of God's voice.  But as I read this morning something else caught my attention, something in the fairly familiar story of creation that I had never noticed before. 

"And it was so."

Just four words.  Four words that follow some, but not all, of the segments of the creation story.  In verses 9, 11, 15 and 24 God speaks something into existence and after God speaks the author ends the verse, "And it was so." 

The creation story is a historical account.  It tells us of something that has happened.  The author writes the words of God speaking, and then follows with a statement that what God said did indeed happen.

What got my attention this morning was that in the very earliest parts of the Bible we see God say that something will happen, and then that thing happens.  From the earliest parts of the Bible we begin to learn that the things God says are trustworthy.  What He says will happen is something that will indeed happen.  So that not only can we look back and say "It was so," but we can also know with confidence this about the promises He makes: "It will be so."

He promised His people a Redeemer and in His son, Jesus, He has provided one.  He promises that all who have faith in Jesus will one day be joined with Him in eternal life.  And this is a promise that is unfailing.

It was so.  And it will be so.  To God's eternal glory.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.