A Faith To Live And Die For

Stoning of Steven – Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

A few weeks ago I spoke on the topic of faith.  In that message I noted the centrality of faith in the Christian life.  The Apostle Paule wrote,

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (I Corinthians 13:13).”  Faith can be defined as a belief in which one has total confidence.  But scripture calls us to an even higher level of expectation.  “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).”

I have on several occasions had students who remarked that the Hebrews passage is “stupid.”  I usually respond with asking why they see it that way.  I usually receive a reply along the lines that, “if you haven’t seen it yourself, how do you know that it wasn’t just made up?”

To this I reply, “No one knowingly dies for a lie.”

Jesus said,  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”   He stated that He was the path to salvation.  He also knew that that path would require Him to die as a sacrifice.

If we look at Jesus’ temptations in the desert, we see in the third test, that Satan gave Him “an out.”  He said if Jesus would worship him, he would give the peoples of the world to Jesus.  Jesus’ death wouldn’t be necessary.  Jesus however refuses the temptation, He was prepared to die to fulfill His mission (something that if He had made it up He would not have done), and He also refused to buy into a huge lie that Satan was worthy of worship.

Remember, you don’t die for a lie!

Peter in Acts 2:22 and following capsulises the Gospel by saying that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried.  But then he adds that Jesus is risen, and that he (Peter) is a witness.  His testimony is firm.  But “what if he made it up?”

In Acts 4 Peter is arrested, and ordered by the authorities (the same that had killed Jesus) to not speak the Gospel again.  His response is to question,  “Who should we obey?”  Should he obey God, and tell the truth, or cave in to the treat of those in power?  His action is one of confident faith.  Something many would not do, especially for a lie.

In Chapter 5, Peter is arrested again and beaten for the message.   Would you be beaten for a lie?  Maybe/maybe not, but Peter holds firm.

In Acts 7 Stephen filled with the Holy Spirit speaks of the same Gospel.  He then to express its fulfillment when he said he could see Jesus at the Father’s side welcoming him, even as he is being stoned to death.  He died, and for the truth.  He not once hesitated in his testimony, even in the faith of death.  You don’t die for a lie!

Chapter 9 shows us Saul, an enemy of the Gospel converted by an encounter with the resurrected Lord.  He surrendered a promising position in the Jewish hierarchy, to speak boldly the experience of his encounter.  Would he give up reputation, and position for a lie?  But that is not all.

2 Corinthians 11: 16f summarises Saul, now known as Paul’s payment for teaching the Gospel:

“Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”

To top it all off tradition tells us Paul was beheaded in Rome. Just as James had been beheaded by Herod for the Gospel.  Tradition says Peter crucified upside down, and his brother Andrew sideways, while Bartholomew was skinned alive and Thomas impaled.  The other Apostle James was stoned John boiled in oil but survived.  Each died, or was prepared to die for the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Not one recanted. 

Decide for yourself, does the gospel sound like something Steven, Paul, and the Twelve “made up?”

With that knowledge before you.  In what do you put your faith today?  Is it something worthy to live and die for?

 

Padre

 

Peerless

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image: YouTube

As I ponder things which oft leave me feeling helpless

I turn to Him who offers His compassion boundless

And although He is silent and materially formless

His promises are kept in a way that’s flawless

My worries then soon prove so often needless

His mercy to me,  leaves me repeatedly wordless

So I shall trust and praise Him, the Peerless

 

Padre

 

Tuesday Poetics: Less is More, more or less

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the World Consorts – God Answers: Reflections from the Valley of Death

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The Twenty-third Psalm is one of the most familiar passages from the entire Bible.  It speaks of David’s reliance on the care and protection from God, no matter what the circumstances.  It reads:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

It has been a comfort to countless Jews, Christians, and yes indeed others since it was first written.  I remember it as a regular reading in my Boy Scout days as part of morning  devotions.  It is just so full of promise for a coming day.

My wife Dianne held on to this Psalm as well.  The following is one of her posts from just a couple of months before her passing:

“This week has been hard and tiring. Over the weekend i developed an allergic reaction to a new steroid i was trying for pain. I became hyperglaecemic and borderline dehydrated even though i couldnt stop drinking. With blood sugar over 18 points, dizzyness and loss of bowel control things looked to be setting themselves up for a hospital admission. However, we attended an emergency gp appointment at 8.30am and the young locum was a blessing, he reassured us and gave clear guidance so we could monitor from home. After a total of 72 hours awake and feeling agitated and ill, i finally slept. I took the rest of the week to recover slowly, but today i was able to go out for a cup of tea for the first time in about 10 weeks. That made me feel very blessed.  Even in our greatest trials, God is there to aid and bless throughout. ‘Though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me.'”

She had planned of reflecting on this Psalm in her final days, but as the trials and “valleys” worked out she fell into a coma.  I therefore recited and sang it to her (using Kieth Green’s arrangement) as I sat by her bedside.  It was in a very real sense “the valley of death.”  But – The Lord was with her, and with me.  Surely goodness and mercy will continue to follow me all of the days of the rest of my life – for he has been a comfort for me every day so far!

Padre

The Mightiest of Fortresses

 

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Walls of Jerusalem

“I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,  my shield  and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (Psalm 18: 1-2).”

This brief passage says so much!  God is a focus of our love and affection, but he is so much more.  He is our strength giver (in fact The strong One for us).  He is a rock on which we can find refuge.  A rock or strong physical feature offers sanctuary.  He is a refuge or hiding place in times of trial or trouble.  He is a shield – again a form of defense.  He is the ultimate stronghold.

The world may throw at us what it may, but it is God who is greater!

Dianne saw this.  Her entry for 26 January reads,

“Had a visit from Pastor Vince and Lisa.  Lovely to see them and spend time praying with them.  I appreciate all of my friends who support us and lift me up in prayer. However ill I may become or feel, much as I face the reality that I may die soon, I am constantly aware that my God is able to completely heal me. I live accepting death and [yet] believing for full health.”

She made God her rock and strength.

The Reformer Martin Luther penned these words which are fitting:

A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

 

Let’s take refuge in the mighty fortress today!

Padre

 

In God’s Hands

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In August Dianne made one of her daily focuses Matthew 6: 27 “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”  She put the worry and concerns about her illness into God’s hands.  She was able to monitor and control her diet.  She could take her medicine and supplements, but she was wise enough to know that the number of days in her life were out of her control.  So, she concluded, why waste the time she had in worrying about it.  She cast the concerns on God, and made the most of her remaining time.

In reflecting upon this, I too am in a position to cast my cares on God.  I came across Keni Thomas’ song, In God’s Hands, which so closely mirrors my situation, that it spoke volumes to me.  Okay, in my life I have spent over forty years acknowledging God’s mastery, and that He has a plan for me.  But even with the measured trials of my life to date, none was to the magnitude of my “sad September song:” the passing of Dianne in that month.  But, it has put me all the more in the position of casting the balance of my life on Him.  It is indeed “in God’s hands now.”

Lyrics:

From the cradle to the crossroads
From the crossroads to the grave
Choices we are given and choices we have made
I have so many questions I’ve tried the best I can
I may never know the reasons but I know that there’s a plan

Chorus
It’s in God’s Hands now
He’s got all the answers
But He ain’t saying how
It’s in Gods’ hands now

When my endless summer ended in a sad September song
I looked up to heaven for the strength to carry on
To everything’s a season and in time it too shall pass
Pain is but a moment but His Love always lasts

Chorus

I’m standing at the crossroads, I know what I’ve got to do
Put the past behind me and give my heart to You.

I do not hold any rights to these lyrics as they are from:  Keni Thomas – In God S Hands Lyrics | MetroLyrics,  I therefore fully acknowledge the writer’s rights.  I do however so appreciate the writer’s ability to sum up the situation.

Padre

 

When Faith “Fails”

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Sister Joe brought a scripturely mature and dynamically presented lesson this week.  It is one of the best I have ever heard, and one which rather than embellishing and expanding in my summary, I will actually shorten in order to focus on highlights. [Sister Joe, this was a blessing to hear from you.]

She began by noting what faith is, and quoted Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” She then focused on substance.  It is what he manifest or do:  our actions and our prayers.

In that faith we expect mountains to be moved.   When they are our response is thanksgiving, praise, and delight.  But what is God says No?  How do we respond?

It should be with the same thanksgiving, praise, and delight.  But all too often we question, even challenge God.  “But you said mountains would move.”

Yes, in the words of the Lynn Anderson song, “I beg your pardon – I never promised you a rose garden –Along with the sunshine – There’s gotta be a little rain some time.”  God has promised us a garden, but that promise is eternal and not temporal.  Here below it requires tending, and the sweat of the brow.  But the reward is sure, just not necessarily “on demand” where and when we want it.

Joe drew on the story of Stephen from Acts 6 and 7 next.  The church in need of helpers for the apostles work chose “deacons” and among them “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”  His job description was to feed widows and orphans, but being so filled with the Spirit,and  “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.”

This man of God, did good works.  This man of faith spoke the truth.  Were the results of his obedience and goodness  moved mountains and fluffy bunnies and rainbows?  No – it was persecution and execution after false testimonies and accusations.  His reward was not on earth.

During his hearing Stephen recounted the relationship of works of God among the people of Israel.  But then told of the Jews own lack of appreciation of it.  He challenged their hard hearts.  He had the faith to speak the truth.

 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (7: 54-56).”

and

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep (v. 59-60).”

Stephens faith brought him no earthly riches, but eternal ones.  Jesus stood to greet him.

So what have we learned?

First, Its not about us.  “Lord, bless me and mine, and  . . . I want a pony, and a x-box, and  . . .”  God is the creator and sustainer of all things.  He is to be glorified.  He is not some cosmic Santa made to please us.  We are here because of Him.   It is about God.  Our faith isn’t about what we can get from it.

But, Heaven does await us.  Our road of service and devotion will have a reward – Heaven.  But again it is not our primary goal.  Praising and thanking God for our very lives is right.  We need relationship with God and man.  That is what we should seek, not just ticking boxes so we can get a “get out of hell free” card.

The road isn’t promised to be easy.  Just look at Job or Stephen, there is hard work and trials along the way, but these refine us, and make us better people.

Glory begins now.  We individually may receive blessing upon blessing here below.  Or we may have setbacks and disappointments.  But our glorification of God needs to be ever the same.  “Give thanks in all things (I Thes 5:18).” Why? As Paul writes, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5: 3-5).”  

Our faith does not bring us “fails.”  We just need to look beyond the immediate, often selfish, circumstances and focus on Him from whom all blessings flow.

 

Padre

Conquering Mountains

Mountain, Mount Robson, Peaks, Mountain Range

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay 

Sister Lisa brought a tremendous lesson to us this week.  She drew her text from Joshua 14, verses 6 to 15:

Now the people of Judah approached Joshua at Gilgal, and Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said to Moses the man of God at Kadesh Barnea about you and me.  I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land. And I brought him back a report according to my convictions,  but my fellow Israelites who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt in fear. I, however, followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.  So on that day Moses swore to me, ‘The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children forever, because you have followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.’  “Now then, just as the Lord promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old!  I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then.  Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”  Then Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as his inheritance.  So Hebron has belonged to Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite ever since, because he followed the Lord, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly.  (Hebron used to be called Kiriath Arba after Arba, who was the greatest man among the Anakites.)  Then the land had rest from war.”

Caleb had been one of the two faithful who had trusted the promises of God more than the fears of men.  He then struggled at Joshua’s side as they went through desert, and now his inheritance the hill country of Judah was before him.  He did not see Giants in the land as something to fear or run from, nor were the mountains he would have to possess something insurmountable.

Jesus said, that faith the size of mustard seed could mountains.  And if you can move one, then conquering one is comparatively easy.

Okay, that might sound overly simplistic, and a bit uncaring to those suffering hurt, and seeing “real” obstacles in their lives.  But it does have a valid application.

Sister Lisa introduced us to the first man to climb El Capitan “free solo.” This man had a faith of sorts, to scale a “real” peak.  But we face mountains and peaks of our own.  Fears, alcoholism, additions, violence in our pasts.  These mountains are just as daunting, and sometimes even more terrifying as they are not always our choice to climb.  But here is an open secret – we don’t have to climb them alone!  We have a constant companion, who stands with us through these struggles.  God is with us.

Caleb understood that.  So should we.

Here are a couple of thoughts about our relationship with mountains – both physical and symbolic.  God engages with people on mountains! Yes, even the painful scary personal ones.

It was on a mountain that God presented Moses with instructions on how to live godly lives.   How freeing to have a guide for life’s journey given by the One who set out the path.  Yes those bitter “mountains” of our lives may have come from us, or others straying from that pathway, but on the mountain  (which is easy to locate and see) he will again show us the way.   This is not a mountain to shun or fear.

But people being people took that Law given to Moses and made it a mountain in its own right.  Something to struggle with and a burden.  But it was not the intention.  Truth sets us free, it does not enslave us.

To prove this,  God gave us another mountain at Calvary.  There the Law was fulfilled, and true freedom was offered to all.   This Emmanuel, “God with us,” climbed the hill of our sin, fears, and doubts for us.  He stands with us still, to aid us in facing our mountainous concerns.

And it was on yet another mountain that Jesus ascended to heaven.  He told his disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them (and us).  He was going to the Father to make our inheritance sure.

We therefore like Caleb, should look to life’s mountains not as the beasts before us, but as places where we can be “more than conquerors;” as places to ascend in order to enter into our inheritance.

Bring on the mountains, I have a mustard seed!

Padre

Push Back, Push In

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image: People

Sister Amba gave a great message this week on our responses to the challenges and confrontations with the world.  She illustrated her theme with references to Matthew 4, and Jesus’ time in the wilderness.

She noted that Jesus had just had a tremendous spiritual experience at His baptism, and then was led by the Spirit into the desert.  Here Amba reflected on her own experiences of spiritual highs (such as retreats and conferences) and how she faced “attacks” which sought to take her down from upon the mountain.

Jesus too, faced the same thing in Matthew 4.  Satan confronted him after He had been hungry, and the “mountain” experience of the baptism was forty days old.  Satan attacked on several fronts, including provision, protection, and honour.  In each case Jesus responded with Scripture!

Jesus was not only the Word made flesh, but he also abided in the revealed word.  What an example.  Amba then drew a parallel to Eve in the Garden.  She had not received the direct revelation from God to not eat from the tree, but only the word as given to her by Adam.  She had been told, but not personally witnessed.  Was this the cause of her fall?  Jesus however had the word on His lips.  He was ready “in season and out” to make a reply.   We need to be Jesus-like.  When the world pushes, we need not push back, but rather we need to push in on the Word at our core.

This inner reliance on the “power within” will aid us in fulfilling God’s plan for us.  Our example and witness will be enhanced.  Striking or pushing back against the world will never accomplish that (no matter how personally satisfying the temptation might seem to be).

First Thessalonians 5: 14 – 15 reminds us,

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”

We need to remember that the prophets, and saints of the scriptures were harassed, and attacked.  But God was with them.  He is with us too.   His strength is in control, and we are in His hand.  Our striking out, is not necessary.  Isaiah 43  reminds us,

” . . . you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you (v 4)  . . . . Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand.  When I act, who can reverse it? (v 13)”

We are loved by Him, no one can take us from Him.  Better still let Him act.  We need not push back, we are in His hand.  We need to push into his grip!

Padre

 

 

 

 

Listen, Pray, Then Speak

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Do we acknowledge our fears?  Do we carry them about as our own little “treasure?”  Surrendering to God, in principle is straight forward. But I personally find that there are always new levels of surrender that are required.   God is working on me one step at a time (I am probably too fearful or stubborn to deal with it any other way).

I have seen that I need to (and have in most areas) relinquished control.  I in my Christian walk have put off most of the “old self” yet when it comes to my health, and to my livelihood I have tried to keep some of that control.

God provides us with wise and and loving counsel, both from His word, but also from His people.  I, for one, will generally acknowledge the first, but often struggle with the second.  I was given the word today to listen. “Listen to what?” was something I then had to ask in prayer.   I was given Proverbs 15:28 ” The heart of the righteous weighs its answers.”   What was I being told?  Simply (okay, God is seldom too simple, but) rather than trying to work out alternatives when given counsel from those who care for me and “find my own way” (often based on the aforementioned fears), God is telling me to listen to counsel, seek His voice, pray to its application, then speak.

I all too often sought to justify my view without having first pondered (“weigh up”) what is being lovingly given to me.  This is a point of shame.

God has provided for me so abundantly over the trials of the past five or six years.  When I had a heart attack, I didn’t “fear” the response of people. I assumed in a worldly way that “of course they will understand I am poorly.” My turbulent life gives me overwhelming stress. I have discounted that stress. In so doing I have not shown respect to myself, or others who suffer stress or distress. Above all, in being dismissive of the reality of the impact of the stresses on my life, I have missed out on the peace God has to offer, as I have continued to “do it on my own strength.”  

But why do we do this?  The world is part of the answer.  “Weakness” and “surrender” are not buzz words.

When I first shared these thoughts, Pastor Vince replied with encouragement via the word.  He said, “Heb 13:5 Let your way of life be without the love of money, and be content with such things as you have, for He has said, “Not at all will I leave you, not at all will I forsake you, never!”  Heb 13:6 so that we may boldly say, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do to me.”

As I surrender a little more each day.  As I trust more and more.  Let me hold on to this, and I encourage each of you to also, “If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)”

Let go of fear.  Let go of self.  Listen, pray, then speak.  Don’t answer, and then rely on self.

Padre (and a true spiritual rambling)

Trust/Listen

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I have again been struggling with big questions about my own health, work, and the way forward.  I have tried too long to deal through my own strength. This has only led to more stress.

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling the inadequacy of my own efforts.  I felt swamped by the burdens I was piling upon myself (more than just what the circumstances of my wife’s illness, and life and general were presenting).  In that despair  I was presented randomly with a passage on Facebook:  Jeremiah 29:11  “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’.”  This was marvelous as it said He had a plan for me.  I found relief in that,  but I still held some of myself back.  I needed to trust Him, over me!

The result of holding back was another day of despair.  I had yet to fully surrender (an ongoing process, I am learning). I have spent this afternoon asking for guidance, and  seeking the same kind of peace I found back on the 18th.  

Then the message became clear.  No Facebook posting this time, but the “still small voice.”  It reminded me of the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I did again find some measure of relief.  He is reminding me to let go, to open my eyes, my heart, and my spirit to His ways.

I do not as of yet have all the answers to the questions before me, nor in the path He wants me to follow, but I now have comfort that the answers are there.  Not for me to invent through my own cunning or effort, but rather they are their to discover if I only stop and listen to His Spirit.

Lord help me to think as you do, and trust in you.

Padre