You Have No Rival

Peter sat in jail, guarded by four squads of soldiers. Herod wanted to make sure he couldn’t escape. Herod had just had James executed and, for all Peter knew, he was next. What Herod underestimated was Peter’s God. And what Peter didn’t know was that, across town, believers gathered to pray. You can read the story in Acts 12:

Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Acts 12:6-11; ESV)

I love the fact that Peter is sleeping! In this passage we see the two ways God works. Jerry Bridges in his work, The Bookends of the Christian Life, says that God works synergistically, combing our effort with his enabling power. In Peter’s predicament, the people prayed and God answered. The people sought God and God broke Peter out of jail!

So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church (Acts 12:5, ESV)

Peter thought he was sleepwalking! Peter’s apparent passivity in his release reveals the other way God works: monergistically. God’s monergistic work is when “he works alone in us and for us but completely independent of us.” (Bridges, 88) Bridges adds:

We must understand both ways the power of the Holy Spirit is applied to our lives so we can discern how to contribute effort. The writer of Hebrews provides helpful insight:

Now may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)

The two prayer requests here seem redundant at first, but upon closer inspection, we see that they aren’t. The first is that God will equip us with everything good we need to do his will. This is his synergistic work. Do we need understanding of God’s will? He’ll supply it. Do we need the power to perform it? He’ll provide it. Do we need providential circumstances, materials, people, or other resources? He equips us. But the writer’s second request is that God will work in us whatever is pleasing in his sight. This is his monergistic work. He performs it without our effort, and sometimes in spite of our effort.

God has no rival.

He Will Hold Me Fast

For a long time I have been fascinated with and moved by, the language in the Bible that speaks of God’s right hand.

My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:8, ESV)

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10, ESV)

Big word alert! Anthropomorphism: to give human characteristics to God. The reason we do such a thing is not to misunderstand God, but rather to understand him. God is so infinitely beyond us that we cannot understand him without thinking in human terms. Since God is a spirit, we know that he doesn’t have a right hand. Yet, when God speaks to Isaiah, he describes himself as holding us up with his right hand. God condescends to our level so that we will understand his deep love for us.

But you can’t stop there. In Psalm 73, Asaph describes our side of this sustaining relationship:

Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:23-24, ESV)

Don’t miss this! God hold us with his right hand, but he holds our right hand. In order for this to happen, God cannot be walking alongside us. (If he was, his right hand would hold our left hand.) In order for God’s right hand to hold our right hand, God has to walk in front of us, facing us. In other words, God’s back is to our future (he already knows it anyway!) and his face is toward our face. How should we respond to such a God?

Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. (Psalm 32:6-8, ESV)

God holds your right hand, with his right hand, his back to your future, his face toward your face, with his eye on you.

Last year I joined more than 10,000 other pastors at the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville. With them I sang the words of this song. Today, you need to join us. Sing this with faith. God has his eye on you, your hand in his.

 

 

Praying Through Anxiety

Every day I talk with someone who deals with fear or anxiety. If your personal life isn’t falling apart, 5 minutes of the news reveals a world seemingly spinning out of control. This week I discovered a resource from Biblestudytools.com.  Use this as a prayer guide when you’re afraid.

  1. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7) God, I acknowledge my need for you today. I pray that you would breathe peace onto me through your Holy Spirit. Guard my heart. Show me how to protect my mind. I am weak on my own and so I fall back on your strength today.
  2. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Psalm 56:3) Jesus, I put my trust in you today. Anxious thoughts are taking over my mind, and it’s easy to take my eyes off of you when I feel afraid. Remind me of who you are. Pour out your love on me, that I might remember you are always good and always faithful, especially when I am afraid.
  3. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)  Lord Jesus, thank you for always being with me. Your name, Immanuel, means God with us. I’m so grateful today that you are near me no matter what anxious thoughts try to creep into my mind. Thank you for being my strength when I am weak. You are faithful always. I love you, Lord, and I rely on you today and every day. Amen.
  4. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7) God, thank you for this truth. Thank you for the gifts you bestow on us–gifts that help ease our anxious spirits and remind us of who we are in Christ. Thank you for giving us power to fight the lies. Thank you for loving us even in our brokenness.
  5. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)  Lord Jesus, we know in you we are conquerors. Sometimes, it can feel so hard to believe that. We don’t feel strong or courageous, and we worry relentlessly about our lives and circumstances. Remind us today that we are strong in you.
  6. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18) Lord, my heart is broken. My mind is restless and my spirit is uneasy. When I feel broken down or defeated, I want to run to you, knowing you are always present and always near. Comfort me, Jesus.
  7. An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up. (Proverbs 12:25) Jesus, my anxious heart is weighing me down today. I confess that I have become consumed by my own thoughts and I have lost sight of who you are. Speak kindly to my heart, Lord, and remind me of what is true. Thank you for your forgiveness and your endless grace for me.
  8. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. (Colossians 3:15) Dear Lord, it is my deep desire that your peace would rule in my heart. When I feel uneasy or unsettled, I want to know you are near me. Calm my fears, settle my spirit, and bring rest to my heart as I surrender myself to you today.
  9. The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace. (Psalm 29:11) Lord, thank you for giving me strength. On the hard days, help me to remember you are never far away. Your strength is always fighting for me–I need only to be still in your presence. Thank you for bringing peace to me. Thank you for every blessing. I want to name and remember them today, for you are always good. Amen.

I love songs. This one will serve as a good backdrop to this prayer.

No Longer Slaves

This morning I lost my keys. It knocked an hour off my schedule (which, on my day off, included pulling weeds, mowing, washing the Jeep…you know the drill). As I was driving up to Montreat to get my spare Jeep key from Wendy, rather than continuing my obvious frustration, I meditated on Psalm 49. One verse stood out to me:

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. (Psalm 49:5-9, ESV)

To be sure, no one cheated me (that’s not my point). However tucked in this Psalm is a theological gem: Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life. I am not good enough to ransom you nor am I good enough to ransom myself. This says two things: I am very valuable therefore the value of my life is more than I can pay.  I am very sinful therefore the cost of my ransom is more than I can afford.

Having that truth sink into my otherwise frustrated heart is worth losing my keys. Let it sink into yours. Here’s a song to help. I saw it on Facebook this week and the melodies are unreal. Once you’ve watched it, go to iTunes and download it. Let the truths of this song saturate your heart and mind.

 

That’s My King!

I read this today and couldn’t resist. I had to share. Take it in.

The inscripturated word centers its attention on Jesus Christ. He is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. He is the ark to rescue the people of God. He is the holy Angel of Yahweh. He is the seed of Abraham in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed. He is the passover lamb. He is the prophet greater than Moses. He is the pillar of fire in the wilderness. He is the rock struck by Moses. He is the heir to the Davidic throne. He is the thrice holy Lord of Isaiah 6. He is the greater shepherd of Ezekiel 34. He is Mary’s baby, Herod’s enemy, and Simeon’s joy. He is the twelve-year-old boy in the temple and the beloved Son to be baptized. He is the healer of the blind, the provider for the hungry, and the friend of the outcast. He is the new temple, the source of living water, the manna that gives life, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, and the Father’s true vine. He is the spotless lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the resurrected lion from the tribe of Judah. He is the ascended Lord, the ruler of the Church, and the returning Judge of all men.

You did all that for me and I don’t care that much

I shared this in the sermon yesterday. (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/grace-community-church/id573563553?mt=2)  It bears repeating. As I read this I remember John Newton’s apt words: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

Bible scholar and pastor N.T. Wright retells the following story about an archbishop who was hearing confessions of sin from three hardened teenagers in the church. All three boys were trying to make a joke out of it so they met with the archbishop and confessed to a long list of ridiculous and grievous sins that they had not committed. It was all a joke. The archbishop, seeing through their bad practical joke, played along with the first two who ran out of the church laughing.

But then he listened carefully to the third prankster, and before he got away told the young man, “Okay, you have confessed these sins. Now I want you to do something to show your repentance. I want you to walk up to the far end of the church and I want you to look at the picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, and I want you to look at his face and say, ‘You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.’ And I want you to do that three times.”

And so the boy went up to the front, looked at the picture of Jesus and said, “You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.” And then he said it again, but then he couldn’t say it the third time because he broke down in tears. And the archbishop telling the story said, the reason I know that story is that I was that young man.

There is something about the cross. Something about Jesus dying there for us which leaps over all the theoretical discussions, all the possibilities of how we explain it this way or that way and it grasps us. And when we are grasped by it, somehow we have a sense that what is grasping us is the love of God.

7.2 Million people have watched this video…and you should too

Dads our impact is more than we think. Don’t believe me? Check out this link (http://fathers.com/wp39/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/fatherlessInfographic.pdf).  Yesterday I preached to dads, especially on how to bless your kids. The influence you have cannot be overstated. And yesterday afternoon, Kenny and Emily Elkins shared this video. It is a gripping reminder that kids whose dads are behind bars long for their father’s blessing. 7.2 million people have watched it. When you watch it, you’ll know why they did.

So if you missed yesterday’s sermon, here it is. Download it this week and take time to listen. And put it into practice. (http://graceforall.org/grace-sermons/). It is never too late to begin to bless your kids.

 

How Abraham’s Test and Paul’s Thorn Help Lala (and you) Pass Your Own Test

Tests. Every professor gives them. Every student takes them. Some pass. Some fail. God tests too. God tested Abraham at the beginning of his life (leave the comforts of home) and at the end of his life (sacrifice the object of your love, Isaac). God tested Job with unbelievable trials. Tests are inevitable.

Kenneth Matthews says God tests people in order to “reveal their obedience, produce fear in Him resulting in godliness, discover their authenticity and produce their well-being.” But here is the remarkable reality of God’s tests: he always gives everything you need to pass them. Paul wrote about this:

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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 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. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10, ESV)

Your test is God’s opportunity to make available his perfect power. Your test is the opportunity to point people to the Christ who gives you contentment, yes contentment, in the midst of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. When you’re tested, God gives you all the grace needed to pass the test. When you pass the test, He gets all the glory because he gave all the grace.

There is a purpose in your testing (as Matthews noted above) and there is an end result of your testing: God is glorified. Sunday I shared in the second service about Lala Seagle, retired school teacher and ardent follower of Christ. She was recently diagnosed with ALS. After Sunday’s sermon, she emailed me and I asked permission to share. She wrote:

This is definitely the granddaddy of all the tests I’ve had so far.  But as you mentioned, God gives you the test you are ready for.  I’ll be looking for signs that I am passing this test:

  1. Is my faith getting stronger?
  2. Am I being obedient?
  3. Am I producing strong spiritual muscle?
  4. Do I see God’s power and am I in awe of Him?
  5. Am I thankful in the midst of this?
  6. Am I able to give Him the glory and praise?

Great questions for times of great testing.

Parenting Isn’t for Cowards!

Parenting isn’t for cowards. Tim Keller aptly noted this in King’s Cross:

When you have children they’re in a state of dependency.  They have so many needs; they can’t stand on their own.  And they will not just grow out of their dependency automatically.  The only way that your children will grow beyond their dependency into self-sufficient adults is for you to essentially abandon your own independence for twenty years or so.  When they are young, for example, you’ve got to read to them and read to them – otherwise they won’t develop intellectually.  Lots of their books will be boring to you.  And you have to listen to your children, and keep listening as they say all kinds of things that make for less than scintillating conversation.”

And then there’s dressing, bathing, feeding, and teaching them to do these things for themselves.  Furthermore, children need about five affirmations for every criticism they hear from you.  Unless you sacrifice much of your freedom and a good bit of your time your children will not grow up healthy and equipped to function.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of parents who just won’t do it.  They won’t disrupt their lives that much; they won’t pour themselves into their children.  They won’t make the sacrifice.  And their kids grow up physically, but they’re still children emotionally, – needy, vulnerable, and dependent.  Think about it this way:  You can make the sacrifice, or they’re going to make the sacrifice.  It’s them or you.  Either you suffer temporarily and in a redemptive way, or they’re going to suffer tragically, in a wasteful and destructive way.  It’s at least partly up to you.  All real, life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice.”

Sunday’s sermon was called Diligent Discipline. (http://graceforall.org/grace-sermons/). Here are a few highlights to help you navigate the often murky waters of parenting.

While the debate continues regarding physical discipline (because of abuses), let me give you a few pointers:

  • Never use your own hand (a wooden spoon: Mr. NoNo)
  • Never through the face
  • Never in anger
  • Seldom use physical discipline

Regarding verbal discipline (both physical and verbal discipline are referenced in Proverbs), consider these guidelines:

  • Do not say, “You’re a liar.” Say, “you lied.”
  • Do not do it in anger
  • Get the facts right.

Finally, remember that you are parenting on this side of heaven. Life is wrought with difficulties. Parenting is hard work. Sacrifice is never easy, otherwise it wouldn’t be called sacrifice. Gospel-centered parenting remembers these three realities:

  • You are parenting in a fallen world.
  • You are a sinner parenting a sinner.
  • God is willing, powerful and able. (adapted from Paul Tripp)

 

 

Wassup?

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (ESV)  1 John 2:29

You’ve heard the expression, “She’s the spitting image of her mother” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “he’s a chip off the old block.” We have many ways of saying kids are like their parents. This is John’s point. If you practice righteousness you have a righteous father.

Last week in Africa I met Nazir. He is 4 years old, the son of Pastor Cheikhna and Esther and full of life. Like all the African kids who approach me, Nazir was fascinated with the hair on my arms. No lie! We didn’t speak the same language–he speaks Wolof, I don’t. But we communicated. I don’t know why, but one day when he was sitting on my lap and I held him up where he could see my face and said, “Nazir, say what’s up!” He did! And it sounded every bit as southern as a North Carolinian. The next day when I showed up in the village he looked at me and said, “Wassup?” I cracked up! We had to record it!

Here’s the reality. He didn’t say “Wassup?” because he’s my son–he said it because I taught him how to say it. He may soon forget it (I sure hope not!). However, if you want to know why Nazir has his winning personality, his wonderful sense of humor, his bright smile, just watch his mother, Esther. She is all of the above. You might say that Nazir is a spitting image of his mother, or a chip off the old block. The apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree.

nazir

I’m holding Nazir. Pastor Cheikhna is to my right and Esther is wearing the blue head wrap.

So it is with us. When you do something righteous today, it isn’t necessarily learned behavior. You have been born of the righteous one. We often forget this. When we received Christ, we were born into a new family. We got a new Father and a new nature. It is now “natural” for us to practice righteousness. As a matter of fact, if you’re not practicing righteousness you haven’t been born of him!