Struggling to Pray

May I confess something here in regard to prayer?

May I tell you the difficulty of praying to God as I ought; it is enough to make you entertain strange thoughts of me. When I go to pray, I find my heart so reluctant to go to God, and when it is with him, so reluctant to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers; first to beg God that he would take my heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. In fact, many times I do not know what to pray for, I am so blind; nor how to pray, I am so ignorant.

There it is.

But I have a second confession to make: I did not write the first confession.

As you were reading it, I’m sure you were thinking, “What kind of pastor would struggle like this in prayer?”  The answer is, surprisingly, John Bunyan.  The author of Pilgrim’s Progress wrote this in his work entitled Prayer in the Holy Spirit.  Bunyan, whose immense knowledge of Scripture and godliness were evident in all that he did, struggled with prayer.  He felt, as I have, and I am sure many of us have if we are honest, that we are often no better than those hypocrites who “honor Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from him” (Matthew 15:18).

Those who struggle in prayer stand in good company.  And it should be expected.  Why should that which destroys the strongholds of the enemy come easy to us? When we get frustrated because someone doesn’t respond immediately to our texts, will persisting in prayer through suffering and loss seem worthwhile?  Why should we expect bending our knee and bowing our head to our Sovereign Lord to come naturally to stiff-necked rebels?  Prayer is difficult work.

So what do I do when I don’t feel like praying, when praying is such heavy lifting that I want to give up on it?

Well, the first thing to do is Pray.  Richard Foster once wrote, the “desire to pray is prayer itself.”  It is a longing of the spirit to know fellowship and communion with God.  Though in groans too deep for words, the Spirit of God Himself groans within us, interceding for us, and building within us that desire to pray.  There may be times when our prayers are simple, direct, and anguished prayer, but they are prayers nonetheless.  The regular exercise of prayer, spending time talking with God will increase your desire and readiness to pray.

Secondly, Repent.  So often our hearts get cluttered with the detritus of false gods, the flotsam and jetsam of this worlds good that there is no room for the Spirit of God to move upon us.  We harbor envies and rivalries. We hold on to bitterness and unforgiving attitudes.  We nurse our grievances and feed our lusts until they consume us. Is it any wonder that the Spirit of prayer would be quenched within us?

Repent.  Confess your need for cleansing and renewal. Turn from the paltry and empty things of this world so that you can know the glorious and satisfying presence of God.  Start where Jacob started in his prayer to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…” (Gen 32:10). Confess your need, and your struggles in prayer, and God will show His goodness to you.

Finally, pray God’s word.  The Bible is full of God’s promises toward His people.  Pray His promises. “Lord, you promised that you would never leave us nor forsake us, but I feel distant from you know.  Please let me know you are near!”  “Lord, you taught your disciples to pray saying ‘Our Father who art in heaven…’ Teach me to pray, and grant me the desire to draw near to you.”  As you read through Scripture, rather than struggling to find your own words, pray God’s words back to Him.  Pray the Psalms as your own prayers, teaching you to praise, lament, and seek God’s help in every situation.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive treatise on prayer, just a reminder that genuine prayer is difficult work, but it is worth the effort.  “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” James tells us.  May we draw near to God in our life of prayer.

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Prayer Changes Things

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
(James 5:16)

In all the time I’ve served as a Pastor, I have never heard or experienced such a rejection of prayer as what we hear today in our culture.  With every natural disaster or act of terror and violence (and there have been many), when people offer their prayers, the hurting world more and more lashes out with mocking and derision.

There is a part of me that understands the frustration might come when one hears this.   If I were hurting and someone were to say to me, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” but then they don’t pray, or their life is such that everything they say and do contradicts a life of prayer, then I would know that they are just spouting empty words to make themselves feel better and quickly get out of the conversation.  How many times have we heard, or worse, told someone ourselves, “I’ll be praying for you,” but then never a prayer is uttered, and no further thoughts are expressed?  We have, by our own prayerlessness and lack of sincerity, given a poor example to the world of the power of prayer.

But what is most astonishing is the boldness of some today in their outright denial of the effectiveness of prayer.  Most notably, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, in which 17 students and teachers were gunned down, when our President offered his prayers and condolences for those who were mourning, the “rock-star” astrophysicist and agnostic, Neil deGrasse Tyson, replied, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.”

For starters, as a scientist, when Tyson says he has collected evidence, I wonder what that evidence might be. Is it the fact that bad things continue to happen even when people are praying?  That does not necessarily disprove the power of prayer. It may just mean that we don’t know how the prayer has been, or will be answered.

Of course, one shouldn’t expect someone who denies the knowledge of a real and personal God to uphold the power of prayer as a means of communing with that God and knowing the transforming power of God’s grace.  As intellectual as Tyson is, he is blinded by the veil of sin in this world (2 Cor. 3:14),  but ever the ultracrepidarian, he boasts of that of which he cannot know.

Still, as Christians, those who know and love God, and have been commanded to pray, this current cultural resistance to prayer should serve as a reminder to continue praying, but to pray with confidence in the one who hears our prayers.

Prayer does change things

Contrary to Tyson’s bold declaration, prayer does change things, and there is an abundance of evidence. R.C. Sproul, in his book, Does Prayer Change Things? noted the following evidences in Scripture:

  • By prayer, Esau’s heart was changed toward Jacob, so that they met in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner (Gen 32).
  • By the prayer of Moses, God brought the plagues upon Egypt and then removed them again (Ex 7-11).
  • By prayer, Joshua made the sun stand still (Josh 10).
  • By prayer, Elijah held back the rains for three and a half years. Then by prayer, he caused it to rain again (1 Kings 17-18).

I could go on, but there are also the prayers that have been answered in our own lives.  How often have we prayed and found that God has delivered?  Was this evidence taken in to consideration?  How many times has prayer stayed the hand of an angry father, or a desperate man contemplating crime?  Those stories we may never hear, but they are still answered prayers.  Prayer does change things!

More importantly, prayer changes us.  When we pray, the purpose of our prayer is not so much to see the world around us change, but that God might change the way we see the world around us.  Prayer teaches us to look not to wisdom and influence of man for our peace and security, but to trust in the Lord alone.  Prayer reorients our perspective; we may not know why this is happening, or what it all means, but we can know the Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and know that He is good, and He is able to work in all things for the good of those who love him.  We may not know the how, we may not understand the why, but we come to know the One who is at the center of all things, who hold all things together, and who has shown His great love for us in Christ our Lord.

So let us recommit ourselves to prayer.  In the face of overwhelming grief and tragedy, may we pray that God would give us the grace to comfort those who mourn, and to weep with them in their sorrow.  And when we say we will pray, let us pray.  Don’t put it off until you get home, pray right then and there.

And let us pray that God would give us wisdom to heal, not the symptoms, but the cause of the sickness in our culture.  No new legislation, no amount of community organizing, will curb the violence and division in our world today. Those are merely the painful symptoms of a systemic problem. The underlying cause is a radical brokenness within our souls that come from sinful rebellion and rejection of God. The only cure, the only hope that we have is the salvation that has been secured for us in Jesus Christ. May we, through prayer, have the wisdom and boldness to share the Gospel freely, and may God heal our land.

SDG

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The Idolatry of Relationships

It has always amazed me how incongruous our worldly festivities are on days honoring historic figures/events: President’s Day (Washington’s birthday) is when we buy household appliances; St. Patrick’s Day, is a license for public intoxication; Easter Sunday is marked by a rabbit leaving candy eggs.  So it is with Valentines Day.

St. Valentine was a Christian pastor when Claudius was the Roman emperor.  Realizing that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their wives and families, Claudius purportedly banned all marriages in Rome. Valentine defied this ban and continued to perform marriages for secret. When his actions were discovered, Valentine was beaten to death and beheaded.

Does Hallmark have any cards depicting that?

The way we celebrate Valentine’s Day betrays our idolatry of relationships.  We live in an age when romantic love and fulfillment is the ultimate goal in life.  Online dating, aided by social media apps, constantly market to us that the “perfect mate” is out there, just one click away. Our entertainment industry inundates us with stories and images of those star-crossed lovers who defy every norm and custom just to be with the one they love, even if it means leaving the one they thought they loved. This Valentine’s Day will be filled with desperate men scrambling to find flowers or chocolates so that they don’t come home empty handed, just to “prove” their love.

What is the cure for our idolatrous relationships?

In his book Counterfeit Gods, pastor and author Tim Keller writes about this idolatry of relationships.  Here are some excerpts from his chapter entitled, “Love is Not All You Need.”

The failure of romantic love as a solution to human problems is so much a part of modern man’s frustration… No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood… However much we may idealize and idolize him [the love partner], he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection… After all, what is it that we want when we elevate he love partner to this position? We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know our existence has not been in vain. We want redemption – nothing less. Needless to say, human partners cannot give this.

Both the stereotypically male and female idolatries regarding romantic love are dead ends. It is often said that “men use love to get sex, women use sex to get love.”  As in all stereotypes there is some truth to this, but this story shows that both of these counterfeit gods disappoint.

Male love idolatries make them addicted to being independent, so they can “play the field.” Female love idolatries… make them addicted and dependent – vulnerable and easily manipulated. Both are a form of slavery, both blind us so we can’t make wise life choices, both distort our lives.

The gods of moralistic religions favor the successful and the overachievers. They are the ones who climb the moral ladder up to heaven. But the God of the Bible is the one who comes down into this world to accomplish a salvation and give us a grace we could never attain ourselves. He loves the unwanted, the weak, and unloved. He is not just a king and we are his subjects; he is not just a shepherd and we are the sheep. He is a husband and we are his spouse. He is ravished with us – even those of us whom no one else notices.

And here is the power to overcome our idolatries. There are many people in the world who have not found a romantic partner, and they need to hear the Lord say, “I am the true bridegroom.  There is only one set of arms that will give you all your heart’s desire, and await you at the end of time, if only you turn to me. And know that I love you now.” However it is not just those without spouses who need to see that God is our ultimate spouse, but those with spouses as well.  They need this in order to save their marriage from the crushing weight of there divine expectations. If you marry someone expecting them to be like a god, it is only inevitable that they will disappoint you. It’s not that you should try to love your spouse less, but that rather you should know and love God more.

Excerpt from: Keller, Tim. Counterfeit Gods, The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Dutton; New York, 2009) pg. 40-45.
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Strength for the Journey

I like to look for parables of God’s kingdom in the world around me; elements of eternal truths being lived out in temporal ways. If you watch carefully, you can see this happening all the time. This plays a big part of how I write a message for a funeral service; taking those visible signs of God’s grace in the lives of the saints and using them to demonstrate God’s providential care. God’s truth, His word, is the very fabric of creation, and by His Word all of creation is held together. It should come as no surprise, then, that His word is woven into the lives of His people.

I’m writing this in Colorado, as we are making our way to the funeral service for my wife’s grandmother, Lois Crow. I have a lot of great memories of Grandma Crow, but there is one in which I see vividly a parable of God’s gracious provision for His people.

When Christi and I were first married, I worked for Sterling College in the admissions office, recruiting students from Western Kansas and Colorado. In the fall I would travel up and down the eastern range of the mountains, visiting high schools, making house calls, and doing all I could to promote my alma mater.

There was one tour in Colorado where I found myself near Grandma Crow’s house for an evening before a series of College Fairs along the I-25 corridor. Graciously, Grandma Crow welcomed me into her home for the evening, visited late into the night, then promised a warm breakfast for the next day.

Normally when I was on the road for College Fairs, my breakfasts consisted of coffee and whatever I could grab on the way out of the hotel lobby. Not this morning. I was woken to the aroma of bacon wafting into my room, and when I came to the table for breakfast, my first thought was, “Who else will be joining us today?”

Grandma had made bacon, eggs, pancakes, toast, and coffee. As I’d clean my plate, she’d pour more food on. I don’t think she ever sat to eat with me, but just kept serving and serving. I ate so much I felt like I’d never have to eat again. And I didn’t eat for the rest of the day. I drove up and down the front range meeting with students, and never once did I even want to stop for a bite to eat. I was still full when I went to bed that night, and the next morning when I left my hotel, I had to convince myself to take something for breakfast on the road.

As I thought back on this story, I was reminded of the time when Elijah was fed by the angel of God. 1 Kings 19 tells of Elijah’s flight into the wilderness. He had just defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, but fearing for his life, he ran from the armies of Queen Jezebel. Thinking his life was over, the forces against him being too strong, he went into the wilderness to die.

In the midst of Elijah’s brokenness, an angel of the Lord came to him, and fed him three times, telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” Elijah ate and was strengthened, and continued his journey to Horeb (40 days and nights of wandering), where he spoke with God on the mountain.

Isn’t that how God continues to provide for us? When we are at our weakest, God graciously comes to us, strengthening us with His presence, and encouraging us for our journey. Psalm 23 says He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, and our cup overflows. Through the prophet Isaiah, God invites all who are thirsty to come to Him (Isa 55:1). Jesus even said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). When we place our faith in Christ, resting in and receiving Him as our Lord and Savior, our hearts are filled and never wanting. He cares for and provide for our every need, so that we need not look elsewhere for satisfaction. When we “feed” on Christ by faith, we will never be hungry again.

I like to think that Grandma’s breakfast that morning so many years ago was a parable, visible evidence of God’s invisible grace. As she fed and provided for my needs that day, Christ had also come to feed and provide for my every need. The journey before me that day was tough, but I was sufficiently fed and strengthened to face the task. The spiritual journey before me today is impossible in my own strength, but Christ has, by His grace, more than sufficiently fed and strengthened me for the task.

May you be strengthened in Christ for your journey today; and may your eyes be opened that you may see God’s truth being lived out before you!

Grace and Peace

Pastor Ethan

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A Parable on Evangelism

I have been preaching recently on the importance of Evangelism, which I define as: every disciple of Christ living and speaking in a way that leads others to know and love the Lord.  My prayer through this series is not that we get more information about what  Evangelism is, but that we will all be equipped and encouraged to engage in active evangelism in our own homes and circles of influence.

Along these lines, I recently had a friend and brother in Christ share with me the following parable that captures what I hope to impart in this series.

The Parable of the Orange Pickers

I dreamed I drove on a Florida road, still and straight and empty. On either side were groves of orange trees, so that as I turned to look at them from time to time, line after line of orange trees stretched back endlessly from the road, their boughs heavy with round orange fruit. My wonder grew as the miles slipped by. How could the harvest be gathered?

Suddenly I realized that for all the hours I had driven (and that is how I knew I must be dreaming) I had seen no other person. No other car had passed me. No houses were to be seen along the highway. I was alone in a forest of orange trees.

But at last I saw some orange pickers. Far from the highway, almost on the horizon, lost in the vast wilderness of unpicked fruit, I could discern a tiny group of them working steadily. Many miles later I saw another group of them. I could not be sure, but I suspected the earth beneath me was shaking with silent laughter at the hopelessness of their task. Yet the pickers went on picking.

Suddenly, I turned a corner of the road to see a notice, “Leaving NEGLECTED COUNTY Entering HOME COUNTY.”

The contrast was so startling that I scarcely had time to take in the notice. I had to slow down, for all at once the traffic was heavy. People by the thousands swarmed the road and crowded the sidewalks.

Even more extraordinary was the transformation in the orange groves. Orange groves were still there in abundance, but now, far from being silent and empty they were filled with the laughter and singing of multitudes of people. Indeed, it was the people I noticed more than the trees. People and houses.

I parked the car at the roadside and mingled with the crowd. Smart gowns, neat shoes, showy hats, expensive suits, and starched shirts made me feel a little conscious of my work clothes. Everyone seemed so fresh…so poised and happy.

“Is it a holiday?” I asked a well dressed woman with whom I fell in step.

She looked a little startled for a moment, then her face relaxed with a smile of condescension.

“You’re a stranger, aren’t you?” she said; and before I could reply, “This is Orange Day.”

She must have seen a puzzled look on my face, for she went on, “It’s so good to turn aside from ones labors and pick oranges one day of the week.”

“But don’t you pick oranges everyday?” I asked her.

“One may pick oranges anytime,” she said. “We should always be ready to pick oranges, but Orange Day is the day we devote especially to picking oranges.”

I left her and made my way farther among the trees. Most of the people were carrying a book beautifully bound in rich leather, and edged and lettered in gold. I was able to discern on one of them the words, “Orange Picker’s Manual.”

By and by I noticed around one of the orange trees that seats had been arranged in tiers, rising upward from the ground. The seats were almost full, but as I approached the group a smiling well-dressed man shook my hand and conducted me to a seat.

There, around the foot of the orange tree I saw a number of people. One of them was addressing all the people on the seats, and just as I got to my seat, everyone rose to their feet and began to sing. The man next to me shared his song book with me. It was called, “Songs of the Orange Groves.”

They sang for some time, and the song leader waved his arms with strange and frenzied abandon, all the while encouraging the people to sing more loudly.

I grew steadily more puzzled. “When do we start picking oranges?” I asked the man who had loaned me his book.

“It’s not long now,” he told me. “We like to get everyone warmed up first. Besides, we want to make the oranges feel at home.” I thought he was joking, but his face was serious.

After a while another man took over from the song leader, and, after reading two sentences from a well-thumbed copy of the Orange Picker’s Manual began to make a speech. I wasn’t clear whether he was addressing the people or the oranges.

I glanced around me and saw a number of groups similar to our own group gathering around an occasional tree, and being addressed by speakers. Many trees had no one around them.

“Which trees do you pick from?” I asked the man beside me. He did not seem to understand the question, so I pointed to the trees round about.

“This is our tree.” he said, pointing to the tree we were gathered around.

“But there are too many of us to pick from just one tree.” I protested. “Why, there are more people than oranges!”

“But we don’t pick oranges.” the man explained. “We haven’t been called. That’s the Head Orange Picker’s job. We’re here to support him. Besides, we haven’t been to college. You need to know how an orange thinks before you can pick it successfully. Orange psychology, you know. Most of these folks here,” he went on, pointing to the congregation, “have never even been to Manual School.”

“Manual School?” I whispered. “What’s that?”

“It’s where you go to study the Orange Picker’s Manual,” my informant went on. “It’s very hard to understand. You need years of study before it makes any sense.”

“I see,” I murmured. “I had no idea picking oranges was so difficult.”

The speaker in front was still making his speech. His face was red, and he seemed to be indignant about something. So far as I could gather, there was rivalry with some of the other orange picking groups. But a moment later a glow came onto his face.

“But we are not forsaken,” he said. “We have much to be thankful for. Last week we saw THREE ORANGES BROUGHT INTO OUR BASKET. And, too, we are completely debt free from the money we owed on the new seat cushions which grace the seats you now sit on.”

“Isn’t it wonderful?” the man sitting next to me murmured. I personally felt that something was profoundly wrong here. All of this seemed to be a very roundabout way of picking oranges.

The speaker was reaching a climax in his speech. The atmosphere seemed tense. Then, with a very dramatic gesture he reached two of the oranges, plucked them from the branch, and placed them in the basket at his feet. The applause was deafening.

“Do we start picking now?” I asked my informant.

“What in the world do you think we’ve been doing for the past forty minutes?” he hissed. “What do you suppose this tremendous effort has been made for? There’s more orange picking talent in this group than in the rest of HOME COUNTY. Thousands of dollars have been spent on the tree you’re looking at.”

I apologized quickly. “I wasn’t being critical,” I said. “And I’m sure the speaker must be a very good picker. But surely the rest of us could try. After all, there are so many oranges that need picking. We each have a pair of hands, and we can read the manual.”

“When you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you’ll realize it’s not as simple as all that.” he replied. “There isn’t time, for one thing. We have our work to do, our families to care for, and our homes to look after. We…”

But I wasn’t listening. Light was beginning to dawn on me. Whatever these people were, they weren’t orange pickers. Orange picking was just a form of weekend entertainment for them…or maybe a group in which to find a shared identity.

I tried a few more of the groups around the trees. Not all of them had such high academic standards for orange pickers. Some even had classes for orange picking.

I tried to tell them about the trees I had seen in NEGLECTED COUNTY, but they seemed to have little interest.

“We haven’t picked the oranges here yet.” was their usual reply.

The sun was almost setting in my dream, and, growing tired of all the noise and activity around me I got back into my car and drove back the way I had come. Soon all around me were the vast and empty orange groves.

But there were changes. Some things had happened in my absence. Everywhere the ground was littered with fallen fruit. And as I watched, it seemed the trees began raining oranges. Many of them lay rotting on the ground.

I felt there was something so strange about it all; and my bewilderment grew as I thought about all the people in HOME COUNTY.

Then, booming through the trees there came a voice which said, “THE HARVEST TRULY IS PLENTEOUS,BUT THE LABORERS ARE FEW. PRAY YE THEREFORE THE LORD OF THE HARVEST, THAT HE MIGHT SEND FORTH LABORERS.”

And I awakened- for it was only a dream.

 

Now if that doesn’t motivate you – perhaps this classic video will.

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False Assumptions

I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with a few of my elders regarding Evangelism, Spiritual Development, and the stagnation that many of us experience in these areas.  These conversations were in the back of my mind while I was perusing a book called, “Evangelistic Sermons at Aberavon” by D.M. Lloyd-Jones.  In particular, his sermon entitled “False Assumptions” I found particularly moving.

Before I share a portion of his sermon I have to comment on the nature of the message. Lloyd-Jones’ message comes out of a reading of Luke 2:44 – “but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances.”  He then speaks about those who suppose that Christ is with them for all the wrong reasons, and finishes by sharing on the importance of knowing that we are with Christ. To take this one verse and build such a powerful message on it demonstrates a marvelous gift of grace in evangelical exposition. I dare say that I would have glossed over this verse and focused on why Jesus was there in the Temple – so perhaps this is a reminder to be more careful to observe all that is in God’s word.

What follows here, then is an excerpt from his sermon, highlighting the reasons Lloyd-Jones gives for those who falsely assume that Christ is with them, and how we may be genuinely assured that we are with Jesus.

I have often been struck, when talking to people about these matters, by they way in which, in the very terms they use, they confess that they had always assumed that they were Christians. This is their favorite terms, ‘Of course I am a Christian,’ they say.  Now, the very use of that term suggests that there is something wrong.  There is no ‘of course’ about being a Christian. It is something entirely new. It is by no means inevitable or something which is bound to happen. Indeed, becoming a Christian… is a supernatural act wrought by God Himself, something which is comparable to a dead soul being made alive… In this view, the Christian does not say, ‘Of course I am a Christian,’ but rather, ” By the infinite grace and mercy of God I am what I am, I am a Christian.’

But why is it that people should thus assume that they are Christians, or, in the more picturesque language of my text, why is it that people should thus suppose that Jesus Christ is with them on their journey through life and that He will be with them to the end?

There are some who actually assume that all is well with them for the simple and only reason that they being to a so-called Christian country.

There are those who base their assumption of their Christianity on their upbringing… Having been baptized when they were infants, they assume that they are Christians and that all is well with them.

Another group of persons base this assumption on the fact of church-membership or church-attendance. They have their names in the book, they attend with a fair regularity, they contribute to towards the funds… and on they go feeling quite happy and never doubting for a moment that God is well-pleased with them.

There are those that suppose that a good-life and good works mean of necessity that we are Christians and that Christ is with us. They have not gone near a church; they have not read their Bible for years; their prayers have been fitful and intermittent; but that has not concerned them at all.

Finally, there are those who would base their hope on the so-called love of God. Whatever may be said to them, they just wave their hands and say, ‘God is love.’ Nothing else really matters, a man’s life makes no difference at all. God’s love will deal with everything and all will be well.

What is at the heart of all of these assumptions?

Mary and Joseph assumed that the boy would follow them, that His one business was to do so, and that therefor the matter need not be considered any further… The whole fallacy is to think that our Lord must accommodate Himself to us and not we to Him. We expect Him to come, we assume He will come. We thank that we can come and go as we please and do anything that we like, but that He will always be there when we need Him. So we talk glibly and blasphemously about ‘taking Christ with us’ to various places – we leading, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, following. Oh, the blasphemy of it all!

How can we know that we are with Jesus?

‘If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.’ There it is. He promises to dwell with, and abide with those who keep the condition. And the condition is, loving Him and keeping His word. Without that condition there is no promise. And keeping His word means believing what He said and doing what He has told us to do. It means believing that He is the only Son of God who came on earth to save us. It means believing that He died for me and that He is my only hope of heaven. It means giving myself to Him, turning from my sins and from the world and doing my all and upmost to please Him in everything.

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A Labor of Love

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

(Acts 2:42)

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this passage taught as the model for Church ministry – and rightfully so.  This example of the early Church’s daily practice of life together reveals the essential marks of the Christ’s body.  What is the Church if it is not centered around the teaching of the Word of God, with genuine fellowship among believers who care for and build up one another, the regular and proper administration of the Sacraments, and faithful, passionate, and Spirit-filled prayer?  Countless books and conferences have given attention to this passage, seeking to keep the Church grounded in those “means of grace” through which God has long-blessed His people.

Yet something struck me as a I re-read the passage today: As often as I’ve heard this passage extolled to the leaders of the church, highlighting these essential four marks, how often have we stopped to consider what is being said about the members of the congregations? We rightly focus on the fact that the leaders of the Church (teaching and ruling elders) need to keep us grounded on these four marks, but do we give enough attention to the role of those who are being led?

Consider what Acts 2:42 says, “they devoted themselves…”  The people of the church, not just the leaders, gave themselves to these practices, devoted themselves to these means.  This word, “devotion”, deserves some consideration.

In it’s simplest form, “devotion” means diligence, commitment to, or endurance.  It suggests an intent to follow through on a decision, I have devoted myself to this task… So, in one sense, devotion is a labor, a work, that we must be dedicated to perform.

Now, before the “works-righteousness” alarms start going off, please understand that I don’t mean that we must do this in order to merit salvation.  Scripture clearly teaches that we are “saved by grace through faith… it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8-9).  That being said, God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ does not exempt us from doing good works, it actually enables us to those works (Eph 2:10).  When I say that we must commit ourselves to the work of studying the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to partake in the sacraments rightly, and to prayer, I am talking about the discipline and duty of the Christian in ongoing growth and life in the Spirit.

Another aspect of this word “devotion,” however, is that of the heart.  Devotion doesn’t just suggest commitment and dedication, but also love and adoration.  Devotion implies a heartfelt passion.  Devotion cannot be a plodding through the God-given means of grace of study, fellowship, sacrament, and prayer as though these were burdens to be carried out.  Devotion is a joy-filled, Christ-centered love for God and for the blessings known in sweet communion with Him.  It is a commitment to the Lord because of a delight in the Lord.  It is a labor, yes.  But it is a labor of love!

For the church to thrive, she must practice these marks, these are god’s gracious means give for our growth.  As leaders we must never abandoned the principles of Acts 2:42.  But this passage is meant to go beyond a Church ministry model.  It speaks to the heart of every believer.  We must, each of us, be devoted, to seek out the Lord and delight in His presence.

May you know and grow in the joy and delight in devotion to the Lord!

SDG

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