When Sinners Repent

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

We long for revival.  We proclaim the Gospel of Salvation into the four corners of the world.  We pray that the sinner, the one who does not know Christ nor delight in His righteousness, would repent and turn to Jesus.

But what is our reaction when this actually happens?

Today I was reading the story of King Ahab – whom the author of I Kings says, “He erected an altar for Baal… made an Asherah… did more to provide the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger, than all the kings of Israel” (1 Kings 16:30ff.).  Ahab was a horrid man.  And, at times, he acted like a spoiled two-year-old.

When rebuked by the prophet of the Lord for not killing the king of Syria, Ahab when to his house vexed and sullen.  Again, when Naboth refused to give him his vineyard, Ahab when to his bed “vexed and sullen,” refusing to eat, pouting because he didn’t get his way.  To cheer him up, Jezebel has Naboth falsely accused of cursing God and the King, and immediately stoned to death, just so that Ahab could have a new vegetable garden.

What a wretched man!

Fittingly, Elijah the prophet comes to condemn Ahab and Jezebel.  One of the most vivid prophetic curses comes against these wicked rulers: Ahab would be burned up and cut off, while the dogs would eat Jezebel’s body in the streets. Serve them right, right?

Just when you think that justice will be served, something unimaginable happens – Ahab repents.  He genuinely repents.  He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and fasted.  These were signs of penitence, of remorse for one’s sins.  And in mercy, God relented from bringing judgment upon the house of Ahab.  “Because he has humbled himself before me,” God said, “I will not bring this disaster in his days…” (1 Kings 21:29).

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What!?!? Seriously!?!?

How could Ahab repent?  Why would God allow that to happen? If ever there was an argument for lightening striking a man down, wouldn’t Ahab be the #1 choice?

How would you have reacted had you been Elijah and you heard God’s decision to withhold punishment because of Ahab’s repentance?  What if you were Naboth’s family?   Here’s a little test, read through the story of Ahab, but instead of saying “Ahab’s” name, insert the another name: ISIS, the Taliban, Donald Trump, Arminianism…  Now how does that repentance sit with you?

Can you understand how Jonah felt when God sent him to proclaim judgment on Ninevah? He knew that if he pronounced judgment, there was a good chance that the people would repent, and that God would be merciful.  The Ninevites were merciless enemies of the people of God; why would Jonah preach to them and give them the opportunity to find grace?

Can you understand how the prodigal’s older brother felt?  He looks out and sees the kid who’s squandered his inheritance in wild and wanton living, only to come home and be received as one who’s come back to life.  And Father wants him to come to the banquet!?

When we pray for the salvation of sinners are we praying for those who have really done a bang-up job of it?  Are we praying for those who have fallen into serious sin, who’s wickedness has caused emotional, financial, and even physical harm to us or those we love?  Do we have our enemies in mind, or are we secretly wishing that God would pour out his wrath upon them?

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is freely offered, but it still has a cost.  It cost the life of the perfect Son of God, and it requires that we take up our cross and follow Him.  We must lay down our lives to live in His grace, letting go of our tight-fisted grip on the old life and the old way of thinking.  In His grace, we die to self-righteousness, so that we might live in the righteousness of Christ.  In that grace, we lay down our desire for vengeance, for retribution, for “just-deserts.”  We forgive, even as we have been forgiven, and we pray for the salvation of our enemies.

The grace we live in, the grace that saves us, is the same grace offered to all who will repent and turn to Christ for their salvation.  There is no difference in the fare.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24).  When, by the grace of God, a sinner is brought to life by the Spirit and awakened to the reality of his depravity, receiving and resting in the saving work of Jesus Christ, there is rejoicing in heaven.  Why, then, would we not rejoice here?

SDG

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Rejoicing Hearts

In the last couple of posts, I have sought to bring encouragement to those who are overwhelmed by the tragedies of this world.  This morning I was reading through an old book that belonged to my dad, and came upon the following devotion that I thought spoke well to what you may be facing today.

This is from Words Fitly Spoken, by Donald Grey Barnhouse, published by Tyndale House in 1969.

Rejoicing Heart

The Christian is the only person in the world with a right to rejoice.  The Psalmist sang, “Our heart shall rejoice in him” (Psalm 33:21). This is true for the Christian in any circumstance whatsoever.  The believer can rejoice even in the midst of the deepest distresses. Calamities, like a tidal wave, carry off the unsuspecting, but having swept away the debris which we believers have accumulated about us, leave us standing on the rock. Our shore is swept clean and we have a new glimpse of the ocean of God’s grace.  The air is fresh washed by the storm and our lungs are filled with new vigor as we breathe it.

The unbeliever often breaks before calamity, or takes the dull, depressing attitude of the stoic, that one must make the best of a bad job.  A stoic may be more admirable than a whiner but he is not whit happier. The roots of Christian calm go deep into the very heart of God.

When we understand this, there is a sense in which we can reverse one of the great thoughts of the New Testament. Paul tells us that the Lord’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit (Rom 8:16). That is a motion which begins with God and comes down to us. There is also a sense in which our spirits bear witness with His Spirit. The yielded Christian has an uprising of the Spirit which constantly moves towards God. This is one of the marks of the twice-born man; we reach out towards God. Some of the words used by the men in the Book are “yearning… panting… waiting… looking… longing… watching… desiring…”

We reach up into the being of God and find that our all in all is there in Him, and our heart comes back rejoicing.  In fact, the only people who really are happy are among those who have been redeemed.  The world has gaiety, but no happiness; forgetfulness, but no peace. The world counterfeits every Christian grace, but never is able to produce a coin with the right ring.  It is popular to say that “the man worthwhile is the man who will smile when everything goes dead wrong,” but even then the weight of unforgiven sins hangs over the heart, and the despair of the old nature has not been removed. Underneath the surface, the unsaved are “like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” They are without peace.

The Christian possesses the joy of the Lord. It is his strength. The basis for this joy is obvious. “Rejoice in the Lord.” How can there be reality in joy that has no foundation outside this changing world? All passes; Christ remains. Fix your joy in Him and it will be steadfast.  As Paul suggests in his wonderful Epistle to the Philippians, we who are in Christ are honest with God and ourselves. Our worship is in the Spirit, our rejoicing is in Christ Jesus, and we have no confidence in the flesh. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the word’s joy which is fixed in self alone and does not look to Christ.  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.”

Grace and peace!

SDG

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Yet I Will Rejoice

candle-in-dark

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, 
nor fruit be on the vines, 
the produce of the olive fail, 
and the fields yield no food, 
the flock be cut off from the fold, 
and there be no herd in the stalls, 
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 
God, the Lord, is my strength, 
he makes my feet like the deer’s; 
he makes me tread on my high places.”
(Habakkuk 3:17-19)

For the second week in a row now I write in response to tragedy.

Last week, our little town of Lennox, SD was rocked by the news of a murder/suicide, in which a young mother shot her husband, child, then took her own life.  There remains a heavy burden in our town, like a thick fog that refuses to dissipate even under the noon-day sun.  We have grieved and mourned.  We have gathered as a community to express our sorrow and our hope, but the waves of this tsunami continue to crash in upon us, and will for some time.

Early Monday morning we awoke to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.  As I write, 59 are dead, and over 400 are wounded.  Already the politicians and talking heads are drawing lines in the sand about who’s to blame, talking about what to do, but never really helping anyone. Stories keep coming in about the terror, the heroism, and the pain of the lives lost. We cry out, as we read in Scripture, “How long, O Lord?!?”

I turned again this week to the book of the prophet Habakkuk.  Habakkuk is a very different book than the other OT prophets.  He never speaks to the people the word of the Lord.  Instead, his book is made up of his questions to God.  Judah had become an absolute mess, morally, spiritually, and politically.  But God’s response was even more troubling. God was bringing the Babylonians to punish Judah for their idolatry.  Perplexed by God’s will, Habakkuk cried out, “How long, O Lord?”  That question, while filled with despair, is also a question of faith.  The prophet saw destruction all around, and he knew that God had promised to be with his people and deliver them.  How could that promise come true when everything around was falling apart?

Through the dialogue of Habakkuk’s book, the prophet learns that God is still in control, that God sits in judgment over all nations and people, and that through it all, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4).

This is why the passage given above is so powerful.  At the end of his book, Habakkuk proclaims his faith in the sovereign God.  His listing of disasters, from the failing figs, olives, and fields, and the loss of the herds, reveals just how bad things were.  No food on the shelves, no harvest coming in.  Those things that you sort of take for granted; they’re all gone.

Maybe we’d write it differently today.  We might say, “Though the batteries won’t charge, and the wifi is down, the cupboards are empty and the credit cards maxed out, though violence takes us and scatters us to the wind…”

How did Habakkuk respond to such loss?  How can we?

Habakkuk says, “Yet I will rejoice!”  You can almost see him there, gritting his teeth, eyes full of tears, hands shaking as he writes.  “Yet I will rejoice!”  He does not rejoice in this disaster, as some blackhearted fiend.  He does not rejoice in retribution.  He rejoices in the Lord.  He knows that God, the Lord, is his salvation and strength.  He knows that those who trust in the Lord “will be like Mount Zion… which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:1).

Like the prophet, we are taught by God’s Word to rejoice.  Paul teaches the church in Philippi, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4).  With trust in the Lord comes joy, not in the circumstances, but in the presence of the Lord himself.  He is with you, not just in times of peace, but in the midst of sorrow and loss as well.

We are to say with Habakkuk, “Yet I will rejoice!”  Rejoicing is sometimes done with tear stained cheeks.  Joy is most needed when we are broken, and joy can fill, and mend, the broken heart.

When all else has failed and left you, when the fragile illusion of peace and security have been shattered, hold fast to your faith in the God of salvation, the God who has delivered and ransomed you in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Our God is in the heavens, and He has established His king in Zion, and his name is Jesus.

Hold fast to your faith; not because it is fleeting, but so that your joy won’t be.  The troubles and sorrows of this world crash upon us like the billows of the sea, but Christ stands firm and will not be moved.  Faith in Him is our anchor in the storm.  Cling to the One who has saved your soul, for he will never let you go.

And knowing that He holds you in the palm of his hand, you will find joy!

SDG

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Hope in the Heartbreak

police tape

For the second time in less than three years, violence has shaken our quiet little town of Lennox, SD. On Tuesday, police were called to a home on main street, where they found 3 dead, a man, woman, and 8 year old child.  The immediate report was a murder/suicide, and that the community was not in danger.  As I write, more details are being reported, but knowing the details won’t make this any easier.

In the fallout of this tragedy, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts to bring hope in this heartbreak.  Keep in mind, I spent most of today driving across Minnesota to get to our Presbytery meeting, so these are pretty unrefined.  Please bear with me.

There is no making sense of this.  Our tendency in the wake of something like this is to want all the details.  We watch the news, check social media, gather at the coffee shop, trying to get all the latest information (true, or otherwise) to satisfy our desire to be “in the know.”  The problem is, you cannot make sense of senseless violence.  We cannot know what went through the mind of the one who did this, and even if we did, there is no justification for it.

In the face of this, we rest in the grace that God gives to all of this fallen creation, a grace that keeps us from the worst of ourselves.  It is only by His grace that we are not touched by more violence, more evil, more disaster, every day.  God restrains the wickedness of man, and so we give Him thanks that we have been kept safe in his hand.

We Desperately Need the Gospel.  I cannot fathom the despair and hopelessness that would lead a person to kill their family take their own life.  Only the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ can lift someone from such desperation.

The Gospel sets us in reality, the reality of who we are, and of what God has done for us in Christ our Lord.  The Gospel begins with a recognition of our sinfulness, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But the reason the Gospel is good news is that in His love, God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place, taking the wrath and punishment for our sin, and was raised from the dead on the third day, so that all who believe in Him would be forgiven, saved, and born anew unto eternal life.  Christ Jesus is our hope and peace, so that we can face every trial, every loss, every sorrow of this world knowing that Christ, our living and victorious Lord has overcome this world.  And so we live in this Gospel truth, knowing that He who has saved us here and now, has also saved us for eternity, that we might live with Him forever.

Whatever grief you are carrying, whatever guilt lies heavy on your heart, whatever sin that weighs you down, know that Jesus has come to set you free, to give you hope, and to make you a new creation.  Find your peace, your hope, your joy in Him.

We Need the Fellowship of the Body of Christ.  Sin isolates, separates, and cuts us off from one another.  But the Gospel is meant to bring us together as one in the body of Jesus Christ.  We are to comfort one another with the comfort we’ve been given in Christ.  We are to pray for one another.  We are to welcome one another.  We are to love one another as Christ has loved us. This Gospel message isn’t just for your own assurance, it is also meant to be shared, to reach out into the community, to bring light to all those who dwell in darkness.

My prayer for our community, for all those touched by this tragedy, is that in the midst of heartbreak, the hope of the Gospel will bring us together.  I pray that the peace of Christ will reign in your hearts, and that you will be secure in the grip of His hand.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Ethan

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“Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come…”
(Psalm 71:3a)

Reading from the Psalms today I was reminded of playing tag when I was young.  There were all sorts of creative ways to play this simple game, from “Freeze Tag” to “Toilet Tag,” all with the basic premise: someone is “It,” and you don’t want them to “Tag” you.

solodistractionp1

Of course, playing tag usually always ended with an argument about who was actually “It,” who got tagged, and who was still in the game.  But nothing, NOTHING, induced more arguments than “Base.”  The premise of base is as simple as the game of Tag itself. Base is a safe place you can run to where you cannot be tagged.  The problem with base, though, was that it’s boundaries, or it’s very existence, was always in contention.  Still, if there was a “Base” in Tag, that’s where you wanted to be, and where you fought hard to return.

How did I get there from the Psalms?

In Psalm 71, the Psalmist is pleading with the Lord for a place of refuge.  We don’t know the particular details that led to the Psalm, but from a surface reading it is clear that it is the prayer of a follower of the Lord who is being persecuted by wicked, unjust, and cruel men (Psalm 71:4). But the psalmist isn’t seeking a fortress or base built by man – He is asking to take refuge in God himself.

We might ask, “how could God be his refuge?”  Maybe the better question would be, “what else could be his refuge?”  When the accusations come from those who would seek us harm, what can save?  When the doubts and fears rise to keep us from trusting and resting in the Lord, what do we need to hear?  Only God can deliver us from the enemy without and the enemy within.

Only God has defeated our accuser, Satan, who would heap our sin and shame upon our heads so that we would lose all hope of following in the ways of the Lord.  In his death upon the cross, Jesus has delivered us from the guilt and wrath of our sins, and has restored us to a righteous relationship with God, so that we are called the sons of God (1 John 3:1).  When those accusations rise, we are led to the rock that is higher than we are, we find Christ himself is our refuge and peace.

Only God is our refuge when doubts arise.  Struggling with doubt is like standing on the shore; with every crashing wave you sink deeper into the sand.

 sand

But when we stand firm in our faith in God, our feet are on solid ground.  His word is true and never changing.  He is more unmoving than Gibraltar, mightier than Everest, stronger than diamonds.

The psalmist prayer was that he would find his refuge in the Lord, and that he could continually return to him.  The first solution to every tech problem is to restart the computer – to return it to its starting point.  The goal of every player in baseball is to get back to home base.  The security of every believer is to keep coming back home.

You are never too far to return to the refuge of Jesus.  Turn, repent, come round again, until you find your resting place in him. Trust Him to be your salvation, to be the Rock of Ages upon which you stand!

SDG

P.S. As I wrote this today, I was listening to the Reformation Network Broadcast, and just I finished writing, this song came on the radio. Click on the link below for a treat. Enjoy!

My God is a Rock

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Strengthening Your Hand

“And Jonathon, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh,
and strengthened his hand in God.”
(1 Samuel 23:16)

My Bible reading plan has me reading from 1 and 2 Samuel these last few weeks, and, while I know I’ve read these books numerous times, it is amazing that I continue to find something new each time I read it.  This is one of the blessings of having the habit of regular Bible reading, picking up on something you might have missed before, or seeing it from a completely different perspective.

The passage above from 1 Sam 23 tells us that when David was hiding from Saul, Jonathon, Saul’s son, came to David and strengthened his hand.  That phrase, “he strengthened his hand,” has been stuck in my head for two weeks now.

On the surface, it’s clear what is meant here.  When you get the winning bid in  Pinocle and your partner passes you exactly what you need, that’s “strengthening your hand.”

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When you gain a tactical advantage, or get an increase in strength, you gain the upper hand, or get a stronger hand.  That I understand.

But what isn’t so clear is exactly how Jonathon when about strengthening David’s hand.

All we know is what Jonathon said to David, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you.” That’s all we’re told.

Since I read that passage, I prayed over and wrestled with that phrase, “strengthen his hand.” I wanted to try to get my head around it, to let it sink in.  I asked God, “show me what that means!”

And then God did.

I had a friend show up in the midst of a very busy week.  With he start of a new year of programing at the church, and more and more involvement with Presbytery responsibilities, I was feeling swamped.  I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, up early to run and pray, up late to read and pray.  The joy of ministry was dwindling, and it was beginning to show.

So my friend shows up, one who is closer than a brother, and he begins to invest in me, to strengthen me, and to encourage me.  He listened.  He gave wise counsel.  He asked me the tough questions about my prayer life and purity that need to be asked to keep me accountable.  But most of all, he reminded me of the grace that I have been called to proclaim.  He reminded me that I’m not just a herald of that grace, but a recipient of it as well.

Isn’t this what Jonathon did for David?  He showed up when David was downs, and reminded him of God’s promises.  He directed him to God, not to his own strength, not to his own resources.  Jonathon didn’t come to the cave at Horesh and say, “It’s not so bad!” There were no “Daily Affirmations” with Stuart Smalley there in the wilderness…

smalley

No, Jonathon simply directed David’s eyes, and heart, back to the word of God.  God had made a promise to David, had anointed him and poured out his Spirit upon him. All Jonathon had to do was return David to his foundation in God, the source of real courage and strength.

This is how Jonathon ministered to David.  This is how my friend ministered to me.  As we were praying, I thanked God that he showed me personally what it meant that Jonathon strengthened David’s hand in the Lord.  It means having a brother who will encourage, bless, and challenge you.  It means having someone who will speak into your life a word of grace and hope.  It means being reminded of God’s promises in your own life so that you can find the strength to move forward.

I cannot stress what a blessing it is to have someone in your life like Jonathon was for David – a source of strength and encouragement in the Lord.  I encourage you to be that person for someone today – call them up, listen and encreuage them, be the one to strengthen their hand in the Lord.  And also seek out someone in your life who can do that for you.  Invite someone to hold you accountable, to ask you the tough questions, and to remind you of God’s goodness and grace toward you in Jesus.  May you have that God-given friend who will always be directing you to God.

SDG

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Walking into the Spider’s Web

Looking out my office window today there is a leaf caught in an unseen thread of a spider’s web. I’ve known the spider’s been there for a while, there is a funnel web outside the window that leads to the corner of the sill.  What I didn’t know is how far out the web reached.  This fine, gossamer web is able to keep hold of the leaf, regardless of the wind that makes it spin and pull at its restraint.

It reminds me that this is the time of year when I will inevitably walk into a spider’s web.  This is what I look like when that happens:

hMCBHyP

There is no dignified response when you walk into a web.  It’s a mad dance of fury, an unlooked for exercise in futility.  You spend the rest of the day pulling webbing off of your face, just wondering when the spider’s going to crawl over your shoulder. Fortunately, we have more strength than the leaf caught in the web in my window, we can, eventually, break free.

But not from every web.  “Sin is crouching at the door,” it is waiting to devour you. Sin lies in waiting with hidden snares and webs that will bind up your soul in its destructive hold.

Quite often, we never see it coming.  The temptations of the web are subtle, enticing, or otherwise so imperceptible, that when we do finally notice, its too late.  We chase that momentary thought of self-pity and entitlement to its natural end and we are day-dreaming of vengeance and selfishness.  We catch a glimpse of something from the corner of the eye and an hour later we’re watching something with no redeeming value.  We say we only “share because we care,” but in reality we enjoy being the source of gossip and sought out by others.

The problem is, sin has such a hold on us we cannot break free.  Like Frodo bound in Shelob’s web, we are incapacitated and unable to help ourselves.

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No matter how much you struggle, once entangled in sin, you cannot get free.  Every effort simply makes the binding even tighter.

The good news is this: Christ breaks the power of cancelled sin.  By his atoning work on the cross, Jesus has not only cancelled the power of sin in your life by taking the guilt and wrath you rightly deserved upon himself, he also has set you free from sin’s power to reign over you.

Psalm 31:3-5 says, “You are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

By faith in Jesus Christ, you have been set free from the entangling web of sin, and hidden in the refuge, the fortress, the rock!  By his word and Spirit, Christ leads you and guides you in righteousness for his name’s sake.  Commit yourself to him, for he is faithful, and will keep you from stumbling.

SDG

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