December Newsletter Article

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

The last nine months have been very difficult, but God has given me some special gifts this Christmas. The first gift is obvious: Valerie is still with me, and the prognosis is good ! In fact, she wrote a special post for Facebook that many liked, and they requested that it be included in this church newsletter. The second gift is special: our grandson will be moving to Sister Bay this January (Andrew and Bethany will be living here while he pursues his Master of Divinity). The third gift is you! You have helped us through this with your gifts of time, talent, and resources, all without missing a beat when it comes to the churches ministry. Today shoeboxes are being packed for Operation Christmas Child. Next week 73 meals will be prepared for Thanksgiving. Next month Bridges will receive a $10,000 donation thanks to your generosity during our August fundraiser. But the fourth gift is the most important: Jesus Christ. When we believe in Jesus He takes away the debt we owe because of our sin and we are adopted into God’s family! But, just because the eternal consequences of our debt have been taken away, that doesn’t mean we still don’t struggle with sin. And here is where Valerie can provide some unique insights…

Nobody willingly signs up for cancer.

I have been diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma (LMS). A fancy word for a rare, chronic disease. A mutation of “normal” cells within soft tissues in my body. There is no cure for LMS – only solutions. The one gold standard permanent solution is to surgically remove it before it has a chance to spread. And even after that, there is no way to tell if it spread without the passage of time. There are “treatments” to perhaps add time, quality of life or a better outcome to surgery. But unseen, the cells multiply, rapidly as my kind of LMS is a “high grade” disease. All I can do is vigilantly examine myself, isolate any bumps, have scans quarterly and see if anything grows. Watch and wait. Then see the surgeon.

But as many of you ladies know, in our Bible studies, I have always compared sin with cancer. You either have it or you don’t. There are not levels of contamination. It is or isn’t. We as humans have sin. We know that it is a fact if we are in the lease bit self-aware or believe the Bible to be true. We are born with it. Ironically, my life has sort of become a living picture of dealing with “sin”. Please indulge me for a few moments with this imperfect, but perhaps useful analogy.

LMS – causes death (90-95% of the time patients eventually succumb)
SIN – causes spiritual and physical death (100% of the time)

LMS – often misdiagnosed, mistreated, ignored – and then causes death more quickly.
SIN – often excused, rationalized, ignored – causes moral breakdown, pain and death.

LMS – best cure is to remove surgically, treatments only offer short term solutions.
SIN – best cure is to remove with the blood of Jesus, other solutions are only short term solutions at best.

LMS – patients often fall into depression and feel hopeless about their situation.
SIN – people are powerless and hopeless about their own situation.

LMS – patients don’t “feel” sick or look sick until the disease has spread.
SIN – people don’t “feel” sinful or that they have a problem until it is often too big to handle.

LMS – patients can ignore the advice of the doctors and surgeons who are trying to help, even to the point of believing that the medical community is “against” them or trying to harm them.
SIN – people have become very distrustful of the Bible, pastors, teachers who dare tell them they have a problem and are just trying to keep them from having “fun” or just being “normal”.

LMS – the patient should have frequent examinations/scans to check for progression or reoccurrence of disease.
SIN – people need to be vigilant and ask God to frequently check us and see if there be any wicked way or thought in us.

LMS – patients have to learn to enjoy the moments – small, good, precious moments of health and remember them when times are difficult fighting the disease.
SIN – people need to learn to remember all the victories, all the small whispers, all the positive moments with God. It encourages us when we are struggling with sin.

LMS – other people are filled with platitudes and advice for the patient. All has to be sifted against the truth of the disease
SIN – the world around us has all kinds of self-help, pseudo religious advice, excuses. All has to be sifted against the truth of the Bible.

LMS – life is about more than just staying alive. It is about living.
SIN – life is about more than just surviving. It is about abundant life here and in heaven with Him.

I battle LMS, but we all battle SIN. Relentless, invasive, fast growing sin.

Only the Great Surgeon can cure us by removing it Himself. I have lost my hair, gained many scars, hope to see little James graduate from high school and feel much more “mature” (read old) than I should at this age of my life. But these things are small compared to what sin has done to our homes, communities, nation and world as it continues its relentless march. Anger, despair, determination, hate or any other human reaction cannot cure the world of its disease. Only God can. And one day, He will take those of us who rely on Him, and not ourselves, to His home, heaven.

Revelation 21:3-4 “And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them and be their God; and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, or crying, nor pain, any more; the first things are passed away.”

A recommendation for Bible study

If you’ve been going through the three year Bible reading program with us, then you just finished Joshua.  That’s filled with passages like:”then the boundary turns westward to Aznoth-tabor and goes from there to Hukkok, touching Zebulun at the south and Asher on the west and Judah on the east at the Jordan” (Joshua 19:34). Huh?

Unfortunately, most Bible atlases aren’t much help when it comes to visualizing what the text says.  I came across one of the best when I was in seminary, and I would like to recommend it to you here.  The “Macmillan Bible Atlas” is an invaluable resource when it comes to figuring out the Bible text.  It includes hundreds of maps for both the Old and New Testaments.  Here is an example:

Although I cannot say that the resource will present a conservative understanding of some dates and routes, you can still see why maps like this would be invaluable, especially for Old Testament study!  And the best news is that you can find it used for around $10, and than includes shipping!  Just check out the following links:

Of course, if you want the newest and best version, you can spend 5 times that amount!

Happy Bible study!

A Good Friday devotion!

In his book “The Cross of Christ,” John Stott shares a story to illustrate God’s love. 

There are billions of people seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrink back, while some crowd to the front, raising angry voices.

“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?” snaps one woman, ripping a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror… beatings… torture… death!”

Other sufferers expressed their complaints against God for the evil and suffering he had permitted. What did God know of weeping, hunger, and hatred? God leads a sheltered life in Heaven, they said.

Those devastated by Hiroshima, people born deformed, others murdered – each group sent forward a leader. They concluded that before God could judge them, he should be sentenced to live on Earth as a man to endure the suffering they had endured. Then they pronounced a sentence:

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Let his close friends betray him. Let him face false charges. Let a prejudiced jury try him and a cowardly judge convict him. Let him be tortured. Let him be utterly alone. Then, bloody and forsaken, let him die.

The room grew silent after the sentence against God had been pronounced. No one moved, and a weight fell on each face.

For suddenly, all knew that God already had served his sentence.

Some people can’t believe God would create a world in which people would suffer so much. Isn’t it more remarkable that God would create a world in which no one would suffer more than He?

God’s Son bore no guilt of His own; he bore ours. In His love for us, God self-imposed the sentence of death on our behalf. One thing we must never say about God—that He doesn’t understand what it means to be abandoned utterly, suffer terribly, and die miserably.

That God did this willingly, with ancient premeditation, is all the more remarkable.  This Easter lets thank God for the great love that He has shown to us!

{adapted from Randy Alcorn}

Reflections on Job (the book!)

I just finished going through Job in my daily Bible reading, and I thought that it would be appropriate to post some comments on it.  Perhaps what is happening in our community is influencing me, since I know of a young teenager who is currently struggling with cancer.

Some people draw the conclusion that Job doesn’t really get an answer from God as to why he is suffering.  We’re the ones who are let in on the secret through the prologue — that Job is an object lesson of sorts to Satan.  The challenge is whether or not Job will remain faithful even through difficult times.  Job does, but he suffers, whines, and cries out to God throughout his suffering.  There are several lessons that are taught by pastors from this book.  One is that we can cry out to God in suffering — it’s expected and He can handle it!  Another lesson is that we don’t always know why we are suffering, but we should still trust in God.  Neither one of these lessons is wrong, but I sometimes wonder if we’ve missed the point.

During his suffering, Job wants to have an audience with God.  He wants to be able to lay out his complaint face to face.  He wants an audience with the Almighty.  While he wait, he pours out his anger and his despair.  I wish I was dead!  I wish that I had never been born!  I don’t understand!  This is unfair!  Answer me!

Job gets his wish.  He gets an audience with the Almighty.  During that encounter Job says two things:  “I lay my hand over my mouth,” and, “I…repent in dust and ashes.”  That’s the sum total of his argument.  After railing and crying and demanding, Job doesn’t even defend himself!  Why?  Because, when Job finally got a vision of God in all His glory, it was enough.  He didn’t need any more answers.  He was content.  And this is the lesson for us today as well.

Regardless of what is going on in our lives, or how tough or unfair that we think it is, if we have a proper understanding of the glory and majesty of God, who He is and what He has done, then we can make it through even the hardest times.  Listen to what Job says in 42:1-6: “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.  You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  Listen please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’ I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.  Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

We know that God is almighty.  We know that He is glorious.  We know that He is holy.  We also know that He is merciful, and compassionate, and loving.  Whenever we have a problem in our lives, we should remember that God is there, that He is in control, and that He has promised us a glorious future and home with Him because of what Jesus Christ did when He died on the cross for our sins.  When we know Jesus, we have that glorious vision of God that helps us to trust Him even in the hard times.  Even when we don’t understand.  Even when life seems unfair and unjust.  That vision of God’s glory helps us to make it.

Zechariah vs. Mary

We’re going through the life of Christ on Sunday evenings, and we just finished talking about the angelic announcement to Zechariah about the birth of John the Baptist.  When Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, he is incredulous (we’re told in the passage that she is barren and advanced in age).  As a result, he is punished because of his unbelief, and can’t speak until the baby is born.

That evening someone asked an insightful question, that neither I nor the rest of the class did a very good job of answering.  I think that we got part of it right, but missed an important element.  The question was this: why was God so merciful to Mary in her disbelief, and so harsh to Zechariah?

Part of the issue is certainly that Zechariah should have known better.  He was a priest, performing the most holy duty of his life.  He was getting to burn incense in the temple, presumably a once in a lifetime event.  Sure,  an angelic announcement wasn’t a common everyday occurrence, but if it was going to happen, you’d think it would happen then!  Mary, on the other hand, was just a young lady, and not a priest.  How would you expect her to react!

But, upon reflection, I think that there is even more to the story.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were finally going to experience the joy of having a child.  The disgrace that they experienced as a result of Elizabeth’s barrenness was finally going to be removed (Luke 1:25). Zechariah should be overjoyed!  The angel found his response less than overwhelming.

Mary, on the other hand, was a young lady.  She was unmarried, but betrothed.  Something in the angels announcement gives her pause.  She basically says, “I haven’t had sex!  How can I have a child?”  The angel very graciously explains it to her.  Why is he so gentle?  Well, besides being stunned, Mary is dealing with a virtual impossibility in her mind.  She can’t be pregnant!  And if she is, how could any of this be explained to her family, friends, and neighbors?  Can you blame her for being fearful?  The angelic announcement to Zechariah would remove disgrace, but the announcement to Mary could bring considerable disgrace!  And that, I think, is why you find Gabriel dealing much more gently with Mary than with Zechariah.

Honesty in Prayer

Since we are in the midst of the Easter season, I want to take one event from Easter week and discuss it a little bit.  This event occurred when Jesus was in the garden praying about what was about to happen.  We read that he was troubled and deeply distressed.  He even says, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.”  Jesus then goes off by himself to pray, and what he prays is remarkable.  He prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.”

Why is this remarkable?  Well, because Jesus is the creator of the universe.  He is God incarnate.  He is the second person of the Trinity.  He is Lord!  And He’s been singularly focused — He was on His way to Jerusalem, knowing what was going to happen.  Remember that he taught them, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  He knew what he had to do.  In fact, that was the whole reason He came to earth!  The angel told Joseph that Mary would “bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  And yet, he prays to God and says, “Remove this cup from me.”  How do we explain this?

Jesus endured pain and suffering while here on this earth.  He was mocked and rejected.  He experienced emotions just like we do.  We read that he was sorrowful, even to death.  In the midst of that, would we expect Him to do anything different?  In the midst of His despair, and in the face of His suffering, He cried out to God. He was honest about the pain He was experiencing.

I don’t know what you are going through this Easter season.  Maybe you’re having trouble experiencing the joy of the resurrection because of what’s going on in your life.  Perhaps you’ve been experiencing a difficult time.  Perhaps you’re angry, or confused, or in pain, or all of the above.  Remember that you can cry out to God, and that He wants you to be honest with him.  He wants you to communicate all your cares and worries to Him.  For it’s only when we share them with Him that He can calm our hearts, ease our worries, and carry our pain away.

And hopefully we can all get to the point where Jesus was in His relationship with the Father.  Jesus, even in the midst of His pain and suffering, even in the midst of His brutal honesty, still exhibits faith and acceptance.  He calls God “Father” and finishes his prayer with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  It is my hope this Easter season that we will all exhibit Jesus’ maturity, honesty, faith, and acceptance.  To God be the glory!

The Cringing Pastor…

All right, I admit it.  The blog post a week hasn’t been happening, but that will change, simply because some people have asked to have access to my sermon outlines so that they can fill them in while they are listening to the sermons online!  So now I’ll have at least a blog post a week, but before we get to that I do have some thoughts to share…

It happened a few weeks ago.  I was passing by someone in the church hallway on Sunday morning, and they called me “Pastor.”  Not an uncommon occurrence, since so many people call me “Pastor Mark.”  However, this time there was that note of reverence, respect, and awe that, quite simply, made me incredibly uncomfortable.

Now, I understand why this happens.  Scripture tells us to “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17), and “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).  I suppose that it’s not a bad thing that the teaching pastor of a church receive some respect!  But other Scripture passages come to my mind as well.  Passages like Matthew 23:8-12:

But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

There are plenty of passages that are similar to this one, but there is one that pertains to church leadership that is a sober reminder as well. 1 Peter 5:1-4 is one of my theme verses for ministry, and it states:

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.

I guess that the bottom line is that, regardless of how people respond to me, I need to be humble.  The apostle Paul knew how to do that.  He was able to say: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Pride is the constant enemy of the Christian, especially those who serve in leadership positions.  And we all have to be careful, or we’ll be chastised like the church in Laodicea: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…” (Revelation 3:16-17).

Thoughts and Links

A few weeks ago I talked about doubt and depression.  Last Saturday night I was reading from Spurgeon’s “Morning and Evening” devotional and came across a neat thought.  I’ve included it below.

I also read two articles recently that I found interesting regarding pastoral ministry and preaching.  First, a tongue-in-cheek article on “How to Get Rid of Your Pastor.”   The second article answers the age old question, “Why should I go to church this morning?”  ( How to Get the Most Out of Your Pastor’s Preaching)

“Evening wolves.”
Habakkuk 1:8

While preparing the present volume, this particular expression recurred to me so frequently, that in order to be rid of its constant importunity I determined to give a page to it. The evening wolf, infuriated by a day of hunger, was fiercer and more ravenous than he would have been in the morning. May not the furious creature represent our doubts and fears after a day of distraction of mind, losses in business, and perhaps ungenerous tauntings from our fellow men? How our thoughts howl in our ears, “Where is now thy God?” How voracious and greedy they are, swallowing up all suggestions of comfort, and remaining as hungry as before. Great Shepherd, slay these evening wolves, and bid thy sheep lie down in green pastures, undisturbed by insatiable unbelief. How like are the fiends of hell to evening wolves, for when the flock of Christ are in a cloudy and dark day, and their sun seems going down, they hasten to tear and to devour. They will scarcely attack the Christian in the daylight of faith, but in the gloom of soul conflict they fall upon him. O thou who hast laid down thy life for the sheep, preserve them from the fangs of the wolf.

Thoughts on Acts 21:1-17

Have you ever done your devotions and had a passage of Scripture puzzle you?  That’s what happened to me today as I read in Acts.  Does this passage teach that Paul was disobedient to the Spirit?  Does God reveal contradictory things to different people?  Here is what Gleason Archer has to say about it in The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties:

“Was Paul obedient or disobedient to the Spirit when he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

Acts 20:22–23 expresses Paul’s confidence that he is in the will of God as he journeys back to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow as a pilgrim: “And now, behold, bound in spirit [or ‘the Spirit’], I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me” (NASB). But in Acts 21:4 the disciples at Tyre “kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem” (NASB). Likewise, at the home of Philip the evangelist in Caesarea, the prophet Agabus took Paul’s belt from him and symbolically wound it around his own hands and feet, saying, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’ ” (Acts 21:11, NASB). After this warning, all the local believers and friends strongly urged Paul to desist from his purpose; but he answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (v.13, NASB).

It is clear that the Holy Spirit did everything to warn Paul of the danger and suffering that awaited him if he went back to Jerusalem. The statement in Acts 21:4 that the disciples told Paul “through the Spirit (dia tou pneumatos) not to set foot in Jerusalem” makes it sound as if Paul was acting in disobedience by persisting in the fulfillment of the vow he had taken at Cenchrea (Acts 18:18). W. L. Pettingill states his definite opinion that “Paul was forbidden to go to Jerusalem at all. It is therefore evident that he was out of the Lord’s will” (Bible Questions Answered, ed. R.P. Polcyn, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979], p. 332). But this is a rather difficult position to maintain in view of God’s continued faithfulness to him through all his trials. As Paul stood before the Sanhedrin, before Felix and Festus, and even before Herod Agrippa II, he enjoyed opportunities for witness that would never have come to him had he not become a cause célèbre.

If Paul was really out of the will of God, would he have been so marvelously delivered from the violence of the mob at the temple? Would he have been so notably used as a preacher to governors and kings? Back at the time of Paul’s conversion, the Lord had told Ananias of Damascus, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15–16, NASB). It certainly looks as if Paul’s arrest and trials at Caesarea, and his later appeal before Nero Caesar at Rome, were God’s means of bringing to pass the purpose He announced to Ananias so many years before.

Paul’s attitude in regard to the dangers and sufferings awaiting him in Jerusalem is not too dissimilar to that of our Lord Jesus as He too faced the prospect of His last journey to Jerusalem, there to meet His humiliation and death on a cross. There is something almost Christlike about the way Paul spoke of his impending sufferings in the presence of the Ephesian elders: “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (20:24, NASB). He gladly laid his life on the altar, as one who was completely expendable for the Lord Jesus.

All things considered, then, it seems best to understand Acts 21:4 as conveying, not an absolute prohibition of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem, but only a clear, unmistakable warning that he is not to set foot in Jerusalem—if he wants to avoid danger and stay out of serious trouble. But Paul had counted the cost, and he was willing to risk everything in order to fulfill his vow and set an example of fearless courage before the whole church of God. From the sequel it seems quite clear that he was indeed following God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for his life.”

Let’s assume that Archer is correct.  Verse 14 says, “When it was clear that we couldn’t persuade him, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'”  Was this some sort of fatalism, with them thinking that Paul was being disobedient and prideful?  Or, does it mean that they realized that they might not have the full picture?  It could be seen either way, and it should serve as a warning to us today.  Are there times when we might not see the full picture? Could it be that we don’t always have a right or complete understanding of what God is doing?  Could it also be that sometimes the more difficult way is the more God glorifying and kingdom building way?

Oh Lord, protect us from our own vanity and pride.  Help us to better understand your ways, and to take the hard road and the difficult path if it will bring glory to you.