Matthew 4:1-11–“A Spiritual duel in the desert”

We will soon be entering the season of Lent, that 40 day period leading up to Easter. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spends in the wilderness in prayer and fasting, prior to the start of His public ministry. At the end of that period of time, Christ faces a series of temptations from the devil, as recounted in Matthew 4:1-11. Now for some of us, the idea of Lent might primarily be associated with the practice of giving something up in order to better identify spiritually with the sacrifices Christ has made on our behalf. But Lent isn’t just about what we give up, but it’s also about what we’re actually doing to prepare for Easter, and the celebration of the Risen Lord. And the concept of voluntarily undergoing a rigorous and disciplined period of preparation is certainly not unique just to the spiritual realm. We’ve all probably faced different times of preparation in our lives. If any of you have played sports you might have had to go through a training camp of some sort before the actual season started.

A young Coach Bryant–he took no prisoners!!

Few training campus have ever compared to the one held by legendary coach Paul Bear Bryant for his Texas A&M football squad in 1954. This was Bryant’s first year in College Station, and he wanted to set the tone for the kind of rough-and-tumble football he expected his players to deliver. So he decided to take the players out to a forsaken little town in west-central Texas called Junction. And there Bryant put his team through ten days of sheer torture. They practiced on a hard, rocky surface in outdoor temperatures that surpassed 110 degrees. No water was allowed on the field. Scores of players were injured or suffered heat stroke. Bryant ignored their complaints and told them to keep practicing. As the days passed many simply quit. As one of the players, Gene Stallings, memorably phrased it later, “We went out there in two buses, and came back in one.” Now you probably couldn’t get away with some of those rather brutal methods today—yet the overall principle still remains. Football teams practice hard to get ready for the season. And that’s just for a game. But what about in our spiritual lives? Lent ultimately should be viewed not just as a time of preparation before Easter—but also as a preparation for this journey called life that we all must travel, through a broken, sin-filled world. And in this passage from Matthew, Satan tries to lure Christ into turning away from His difficult and demanding mission, to chase after false hopes and false gods. Jesus stays strong in the Spirit however, even when He is at a low point of physical weakness, by remaining rooted in the anchoring truth of Scripture—and we can do so too! I’ve entitled this post “A spiritual duel in the desert”, because as we study these verses, I want you to see the urgency, and immediacy of Christ’s confrontation with Satan. Jesus’ temptations are not to be viewed as some sort of remote cosmic struggle, but indeed as a direct parallel to the spiritual challenges that we as Christians must face every day. And even though it might not be fashionable to say it in some churches now—Matthew 4 teaches us that Satan is indeed real. His power is considerable and he is strongest in fact, when we completely discount him. Now let’s turn to God’s Word and discover how we can better resist evil, and better imitate the actions of our Lord.

MATTHEW 4:1-11

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, [b]“Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.”

So how did Jesus even end up in the wilderness? Matthew says He was “led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” Breaking that down a bit—what do we learn? Well, we know from James 1:13 that God Himself never tempts anyone. So clearly the devil is the source of the temptation, and yet Christ is led by the Spirit to the very place where He must unavoidably face this temptation. The Spirit’s involvement here tells us that God is very much with us, even in times of temptation, and that He may even see a spiritual value in us having to go through such experiences. We also know from elsewhere in Scripture that there’s no such thing as a temptation that cannot be overcome. Paul reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 10:13—“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Nonetheless, Jesus is about to face some pretty intense temptations, as part of His “duel in the desert”, each one an example of how Satan attempts to strike us at our weak points. Of course with Jesus having fasted for 40 days and nights, the obvious first weak point to probe would be a physical weakness. He’s starving, quite literally, and Satan tries to use this against Him, telling Christ to turn the stones around Him into bread. Note the mockery in the devil’s tone as he speaks to Jesus in verse 3If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If…this word reminds me of the questioning, almost mocking tone of the serpent back in Genesis 3, or how the crowd will address Jesus during His crucifixion. Matthew 27:42If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him” Jesus however will not be diverted from His mission, and from His purpose. Turning stones into bread–this is a temptation to prioritize physical needs above spiritual ones. It’s perfectly natural for Jesus to be famished by this point, and desire food. But Satan wants to pervert that good and natural desire and turn it into something else. So he tempts Jesus to seek the right thing—but by the wrong way: to misuse His Divine authority to perform a miracle for solely personal gain.

Before his disgrace, Lance Armstrong’s triumphs in the Tour de France captured the public imagination

We see a lot of examples even today of people seeking good results, through less than good methods. I’m sure you’re familiar with Lance Armstrong. His was one of the most inspiring stories in sports history. A man who had been virtually handed a death sentence from cancer in 1996, he recovered to win cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. In 1997 he also started the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for cancer treatment and research to date. Competing at the highest level in athletics, beating a deadly disease, doing extensive charitable work, and inspiring so many people—these were all wonderful aims that Lance Armstrong pursued. Yet the problem lay in the way he accomplished these goals. For after years of rumors, in January 2013, Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, confirmed our worst fears. He had been cheating all along—taking steroids, engaging in blood doping, using a host of banned substances to achieve better performance. He got the right results….but he sacrificed so many ideals and values to get them. But Jesus—with all of the miracles that He performs, all of his wondrous deeds—He never does anything for His own personal gain or benefit. So He rebukes Satan—turning to Scripture to quote from Deuteronomy 8:3.

The Devil won’t give up so easily though, and he tries a different tactic—look at verses 5-7. He tries to get Jesus to test God’s power and authority by throwing Himself down from a cliff, to bring about a Divine rescue. Once again there is that mocking, cynical tone…If you are the Son of God”… Satan is even more clever here though because after hearing Jesus use Scripture, he too decides to quote from the Bible–from the Psalms specifically. He does this to further disguise himself, and to trick the unwary. He is, after all, the father of lies, as John 8:44 tells us. Here, Satan takes Christ’s desire to be a humble Servant of God, and tries to reverse it—so that Jesus is now the one being served. A story was once told of a king in antiquity who was looking for a new chariot driver. And to test the candidates, he brought them all up to a mountainous road with a sharp bend, and a very steep drop-off on one side. Then he asked each candidate to demonstrate their driving skills, by showing how close they could take the chariot to the precipice. The first driver raced through, and proudly demonstrated that he could bring his chariot to within 6 inches of the cliff, and still maintain control. The next driver, improved on that, taking his chariot a mere three inches from the edge. But then the last driver came up, and before he even got into the chariot, he looked at the king and said if “I were driving you, I would make sure that we went no-where near that cliff!” Two men just wanted to show off their abilities, but the last man wanted to ensure the king’s safety at all costs. Jesus’ desire to do God’s Will is always going to be greater than any need to showcase His own power, and so Christ rejects Satan’s temptation. Interestingly, the Greek word used in verse 7 is “ekpeiraseis”, (ἐκπειράσεις) and it’s a relatively obscure one, featured only a few times in the New Testament. It means to attempt to seek proof of God’s character and power—to put Him to the test, as some other translations read. Christ steadfastly refuses to do this, and instead maintains His humble commitment to do the Father’s will—quoting again from Scripture–this time from Deuteronomy 6:16.

Lastly, let’s look briefly at Matthew 4:8-11. The devil is nothing if not resilient, and so he tries to spring one last trap for the Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus to seek worldly power. This is the desire in fact of many who surround Christ. When they discover the following that this charismatic preacher has, and even better when they hear of His miraculous deeds, the first thought in many a mind is—if we can only harness this power for political ends. John 6:15 tells us in fact of an incident right after the feeding of the 5000, where some people are trying to come and force Christ to become a King. This is an aim thats reek of ambition, and of pride—which is of course the root of all sin. And ambition, earthly power, pride—these are all in Satan’s domain—they are his gifts to bestow. John 12:31 spells it out plainly—Satan is the ruler of this world–not permanently of course—but for a temporary period. The thing about those worldly aims and ambitions is that they can never truly satisfy us, because they’re so temporary, and fleetingfor us who have been made in God’s image, created for the eternal.

I’m reminded of a great quote at the end of the 1970 movie Patton, a film which tells the story of General George S. Patton, one of the legendary American generals of World War Two. As the film concludes, Patton, a student of history, is reflecting on the ancient Roman Empire, and he shares these words: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians…and carts laden with treasure… The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot…A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting.” Well Patton’s own triumphs would indeed be fleeting, as died in a car accident in December 1945, not long after the end of World War Two. Glory is fleeting. And of course this devil’s offer of glory would come at a terrible price. In verse 9, we find the Greek verb “proskyneses”, (προσκυνήσῃς) which means to “fall down in reverence before someone.” It’s also the same verb that is used to describe how we pay honor to God, by worshipping Him. So the devil is quite literally asking Jesus to render to him the kind of devotion that belongs to God alone. Jesus rejects Satan’s blasphemous offer of worldly power and prestige, again by quoting from the Word of God. We are reminded that nothing the world can offer is worth what God can give us, and nothing worldly is worth endangering our souls for. As Jesus says in Matthew 16:26: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

The “Howling Man”–before

The “Howling Man” afterwards!

So what can we learn from Jesus’ spiritual duel in the desert? We certainly see the importance of spiritual discernment. As 1 Peter 5:8 warns us in frank terms: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” We know that we’re going to face temptation in the world out there, just as Jesus did, but in order to prepare ourselves spiritually for those moments, we first have to be able to recognize when they’re coming. Some of you may remember that quirky and somewhat creepy old television series The Twilight Zone. One episode, called “The Howling Man” featured an American traveler named David Ellington, who while journeying late one evening, stops to spend the night in a monastery somewhere in Europe. Deep in the night, he awakes to hear a man screaming, literally howling. He eventually finds the source of the noise– it is a bedraggled, yet highly cultured and intelligent man who is allegedly being kept prisoner there in the monastery. The man is very persuasive and he begs David to release him, assuring him that all of the other monks are insane, religious fanatics. One of the monks later tells David to stay away from the cell at all costs, because the man imprisoned there is in fact the Devil himself. But David doesn’t believe the monk and after waiting for the opportune moment, he goes to release the prisoner. Curiously he notices that the staff which bars the door is easily within reach of the prisoner himself. But the howling man insists that he cannot be freed unless David removes the staff. So he does, and the prisoner exits. And as the freed prisoner walks towards the castle door, his appearance changes with every step, until he has assumed horns and a tail, and then suddenly vanishes in a plume of smoke. After discovering what has happened, the monk then sadly tells David that an inability to recognize the Devil has always been mankind’s great weakness. We can fall for a temptation, and become enmeshed in sin—all without realizing that the devil is at work, and without realizing that he can only work where we allow him to. But the good news is that we know God is with us, even in the midst of our spiritual trials. And just as Jesus did, we can safeguard ourselves spiritually by staying closely connected to the secure guidance of the Bible. As Psalm 119:105 says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Lastly, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which of course ends with Christ’s complete victory, should serve as a powerful reminder to His followers that we’re already on the winning team! We will have our struggles this side of heaven, but the final victory of God, and all those love Him in faith is assured. And if you have any additional doubts, just read the Book of Revelation some time, and see how it concludes! So this Lenten season, take some time to reflect not just on giving something up, but on actively engaging in spiritual preparation. We know that challenges, and temptations will come for all of us. But we also know that we serve a good God, both merciful, and powerful. And as that long ago desert duel showed us, no power of evil can ultimately vanquish us when we have the Word of God in our hands, and the One who is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, by our sides! Thanks be to God!


A Psalm of praise

Let’s take a closer look at Psalm 8, which is a classic example of a Psalm of praise. Whether people are religious or not, we all engage in the practice of praise at different points in our lives, and in different settings. Have you ever been watching television late at night, and caught one of those infomercials? They usually feature some very enthusiastic pitch-person who is trying to convince you to pick up that phone and order the product, whatever it is! And they’ll talk in very exaggerated terms about how this is the best set of steak knives you could ever buy, or the most useful household cleaner, or the most versatile portable grill. But do they really mean all these things? Or are they throwing up superlative after superlative about the product because it is their job? They are getting paid to praise the product. Sometimes people are in a mood to give praise to others because they’re successful. If you watch an interview from a Super-Bowl champion quarterback, or the latest Grammy winner, you’ll almost certainly hear them talk in glowing terms about their supporting cast, and all the people who helped them to get to that point. That’s great to hear of course—but we may say that it’s very easy to be in a praiseful mood when you’re being honored by everyone else. Sometimes we give out praise because in the circumstances, it would be socially unacceptable to do anything different. That’s why you’ll probably never attend a funeral or memorial service and hear any bad, or negative comments about the deceased person. Even if in life they weren’t so pleasant, it seems to us almost disrespectful to say anything other than complimentary things about them once they’ve passed.

            But now let’s ponder the question of why do we praise God?? The Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms, “Tehillim”, actually means “praises”. So giving praise to God is a very natural theme that we find in many Psalms. In our text, the Psalmist draws inspiration from a variety of places and experiences—all of which direct his thoughts upwards, to the worship and praise of the Living God. Much of the imagery we’ll see in this Psalm is drawn from celebrating the beauty of the natural world, and connecting that majesty and wonder back to the Lord. But the Psalmist, who is David, by the way, is also wanting to praise God for one of His Creations that’s even greater than the natural world around us. What could that possibly be? What’s more glorious than the mountains and the ocean, the canyons and the forests—the stunning scenery that we can find in nature? Well the answer actually is…us! That’s right men and women, humans, are the crowning glory of God’s Creation, and Psalm 8 will celebrate this. We’ll also see how we can praise God through the work and responsibilities that He grants to us. Then lastly, as we look at this Psalm, we’re going to think about one way that it might apply to our lives today, and even help connect us back to Jesus. PSALM 8:

            “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth, Who have set Your glory above the heavens! 2 Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength, Because of Your enemies, That You may silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, 4 What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?5 For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, 7 All sheep and oxen— Even the beasts of the field, 8 The birds of the air, And the fish of the sea That pass through the paths of the seas. 9 O Lord, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth!”

Monastery of Christ in the Desert–Abiquiu, New Mexico

            I first want to discuss the verses in Psalm 8 which express how God’s glory is displayed in nature—thus prompting our heartfelt praise. I’ll never forget, when I was in seminary, I got to take part in a very unique experience. A group of my fellow students and I, along with a professor, drove to a little desert town called Abiquiu, New Mexico. And outside that little town, in a beautiful canyon was a place called the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. We stayed there for several days, in the solitude, along with the Benedictine monks, what a fascinating spiritual experience! One moment that I’ll always remember was arriving that first night—and there’s no electricity there—thus no light pollution, you’re just in the middle of the desert. And I looked up into the night sky, and it was positively ablaze—I could see the Milky Way, and a multitude of stars. It’s hard not to feel a religious awe before the wonder of creation in such moments, and naturally want to praise God. But what’s so interesting here is that David, in talking about the excellence of God’s Name in verse 1, says “who have set Your glory above the heavens!” What exactly does this mean? Not every other religious system teaches that their God or gods is separate from creation. Pantheism is the belief that God is found within the universe and Creation. It’s a common tenet in many Eastern religions as well in some Native American spirituality. It’s the kind of spiritual belief that can lead someone to say literally—“God is in that tree, God is part of that mountain, etc.  Such theology is in sharp contrast to the Christian tradition, where God is transcendent. According to Scripture, the Creator is always, infinitely greater than His Creation. And because the Jewish God was a transcendent God, the ancient Hebrews could believe as Psalm 8:3 states, that the heavens, the sun, moon, and starts, were but the works of God’s finger. This is a big deal, in terms of a theological comparison with their other Near-Eastern neighbors. Because so many other ancient cultures—the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Canaanites, even later the Greeks and the Romans, all worshipped the sun and moon as deities of one kind or another. But in the Old Testament’s theology, these heavenly bodies are merely one little part of God’s Creation, not even made until the fourth day.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Angel, 1887

            But if the sun and moon weren’t actually all that important for the Hebrews, it was also because, as amazing and awe-inspiring as the natural world is, how much more do God’s attributes and character inspire us to praise Him! Our praise of God stems ultimately from the fact that He has given us men and women a very honored place in their hierarchy of His Creation. Listen to verse 5—”For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor.” Incidentally, the Hebrew word used that’s translated here as “angels” is also sometimes used in reference to God Himself. Now it’s not the special Divine Name for God, but still, hopefully you can see the point, which is that we are made in God’s Image, and very precious in His sight. This idea, that we are made in God’s Image, is honestly one of the most influential in Western history, I would argue. Think for a minute—to what a great degree have Western laws, government, culture, and thought been shaped by this concept! Because the principle that extends from this truth is that individuals, being made in God’s Image, matter! Their rights matter, as do their ideas, their achievements–and their voice-as much as the voice of the group, or the institution. Then to come back to our earlier mention of angels, do you know what one big difference is between humans and angels? We’re different orders of creation, with a key distinction being that angels have fixed wills that don’t change. So the good angels will always be God’s obedient servants, the bad, or fallen angels, along with Satan himself, will never change, or repent. But we have a will that to some extent at least, is free, so that we can choose at any given moment whether or not we will serve the Lord. I believe that our free will is a gift from God, a result of our being made in His Image, and also I think what allows for authentic faith and love to be possible.

The issue that started the Web-Slinger’s long and illustrious career–Amazing Fantasy #15

            Our value to God is further reflected in the work He gives us to do…so that, by doing our work well, we praise Him. Continuing to speak to God’s special relationship with humanity, David says in verse 6—‘You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands”. And that same Hebrew word which here is translated as “dominion”, is elsewhere used in the Old Testament to describe a unique attribute that God Himself possesses. And He gives some of this same dominion to us too! We see such responsibility being highlighted early in the Book of Genesis. In verse 1:28, the Lord gives humanity the first great command that we find recorded in Scripture. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” That passage is sometimes referred to as “The Great Mandate”, but if I may be so bold as to put a modern-day reference label on it, I could say it should remind us of the Spider-Man principle. In one of the best-known of all the comic book origins stories, nerdy teenager Peter Parker, is bitten by a radioactive spider, and suddenly he has all of these newfound superpowers. But at first he decides to use them selfishly. Then tragically, his Uncle Ben is murdered, a murder that perhaps Peter could have prevented. So he learns the famous truth—“with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Let’s think about that for a moment. As people made in God’s Image, we have been blessed with many wonderful gifts and talents that other parts of Creation, like animals, don’t have. But at the same time, we have a role assigned to us also, starting with Adam and Eve, and extending all the way to our present generation. And that is to acts as proper, stewards, and caretakers of God’s Creation.

            In looking at Psalm 8 tonight, we’ve talked about several different aspects of our praise for God, and now, just briefly, I want to see if we can connect this forward, from the Old Testament time period, all the way to Jesus. Take a look at that last verse of the Psalm again, verse 9: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!” The Psalm ends the same way that it begins, doesn’t it? But what would it actually take for this statement to come true? How can God’s Name be made excellent throughout the entire world? After all, there are so many people, whether here in the U.S., or across the world, who, quite simply, do not acknowledge God’s goodness, or excellence—they might not even believe in God’s existence at all. But are we willing to be the ones who will tell them the full story? And not just tell them about God existing, but go a step further, and tell them about how they can enjoy the right relationship to God, through Christ. I realize that evangelism isn’t necessarily everyone’s gift, but in light of what we’ve learned from Psalm 8, let me at least challenge you to do this. Choose to identify with God by praising Him publicly, and in front of others. It doesn’t have to be loud, or showy, but let people know who you believe in, and give credit to—whether that’s for the beauty of nature, or for the miracles of human life. As Christians, our decision to consistently demonstrate an attitude of praise and gratitude towards the Lord can serve as a very powerful witness to those non-believers around us. And such attitudes can then help to open to door to further spiritual conversations, where we can share the greatest words of praise that any of us could ever offer—praising the love of a Savior who died for our sins, and has returned to conquer death, and offer us the promise of an abundant life without end. Let’s praise God for His gift of Jesus!

Luke 1:67-80–“The Dayspring is coming!”

We are now in that season of Advent, which marks a special time of waiting and preparation for the birth of Christ. But some of us perhaps didn’t even wait until Advent to start thinking about Christmas! Some people started watching those Hallmark Christmas movies a while back–maybe even in October!! I know—because I’m one of them haha. There were others who started up early with the Christmas music–even a few weeks before Thanksgiving possibly. The truth is, it’s not only the little kids who get excited about Christmas coming. Adults do too! Now that pre-Christmas excitement for the little ones has obvious roots—they know they’re getting presents, and they have that Christmas wish list on their minds. But what about for those of us who are older? Well could it be that the recognition of Advent itself is representative of a deeper longing and anticipation, not just for that once-a-year celebration on December 25th, but for something even bigger—for a permanent restoration of the world as it should be? All of the lovely sentiments we associate with Christmas—peace on earth, goodwill towards men…what if that were really to take place, not just on Christmas, but permanently? What if the Savior whose birth we’ll soon celebrate would truly reign over all creation? It’s an amazing thought, and one that our passage this morning, Luke 1:67-80 will touch upon. Each Advent season, and each celebration of Christmas is somewhat like the first herald, or announcement of a new, better world to come, ushered in by the redemptive work of Christ. John the Baptist, during his ministry, served as a literal herald and forerunner before Christ’s arrival. He was the last prophet, sent to prepare the people for the presence of God in their midst. In Luke 1 we’ll read a prophecy not from John however, but from his father, Zacharias. It’s a prophecy that will foretell the special role John will have in relationship to Jesus. And as we think about John the Baptist’s relationship to Christ, let’s consider what our own might be. How could we seek to better announce the coming of the one called the Dayspring to a broken and hurting world? Come with me now to Luke 1:67-80. Hear now the Word of the Lord:

“Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people. 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David. 70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began. 71 That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham. 74 To grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. 76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, 77 To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, 78 Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us. 79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. 80 So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Zacharias is speechless when he hears Gabriel’s news–literally!

            Well first, let’s get a little context for this passage. Now Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, have never had any children—they are older, and then, like with Abraham before him, or Samuel’s father Elkanah, comes the improbable news that he will bear a son. Zacharias is a little incredulous, despite the fact that the announcement is made by the angel Gabriel. So his punishment is that he won’t be able to speak until the birth of his son. Now I say punishment—but perhaps, just perhaps, from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, having a husband who couldn’t talk for nine months was sort of a hidden blessing. Just kidding!! But seriously, in this time of enforced silence, I have to imagine that gradually Zacharias may have found some true benefits. He is forced to stop talking, and instead start listening to God. And interestingly enough for the man whose son’s life will be all about waiting for and then preparing others for the Savior, Zacharias has to himself experience waiting and anticipation. No doubt he longs for the day to come when he can again engage in one of the most fundamental of human activities—communication with others. When he finally is able to speak again, Luke 1:64 tells us that Zacharias’ first words are to praise God. That’s a lesson in itself, I think. Because sometimes simplicity and directness are best when it comes to speech.

“Dr Livingstone, I presume?

In the spring of 1871, the Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley embarked on one of the great adventures of the 19th century. Trekking across the African continent, he was in search of the celebrated British physician and missionary Dr. David Livingstone. No one had heard from Livingstone in some time, and many feared he was dead. But after an arduous 700-mile trip through the wilds of the African jungles, Stanley arrived in a small village in the present-day nation of Tanzania. And there he found the man he was looking for, making an introduction with a pithy phrase that would soon be famous the world over—“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” It’s famous precisely because it is so simple, and to the point. After a 700-mile journey through the tropical jungles, I suspect none of us would be in the mood for eloquence. But if we really think about the things we say, many of us, me included, probably fill up a good portion of each day with rather trivial, inconsequential chatter. But those moments when we praise the Living God—those are always worthwhile words to give voice to! And so Zacharias praises God, after his long silence.

            And then, he begins to prophesize, to speak of a coming deliverance for the people of Israel, and indeed for all the world. In verse 68 he speaks of how God has “redeemed” His people. The Greek word used here is “lutrosis”,and it has the connotation of someone  paying a ransom to set a captive free. That’s of course what Jesus would one day do for humanity—paying with His own blood the penalty for all our sins. Zacharias couldn’t have completely understood that yet, but through the spirit of prophecy, God opens his eyes towards that future eventuality. In the next verse, 69, Zacharias speaks of the Lord raising up a “horn of salvation” for us. Now the word horn was used in the Greek language as a symbolic reference to power and strength—just as an animal uses its horns to defend itself. Also, we have a mention in this verse to the House of David. Throughout this passage in fact, we’ll continuously be drawn back to the past—and this emphasizes just how long the people have been waiting for their redemption. In Luke 1:70, reference is made to the prophets—there again we have the legacy of the past, and a lineage into which John the Baptist will take his place, as the last, and perhaps the greatest of all prophets. Now the redemption that Zacharias is drawing our attention to—what exactly does that look like? Well no doubt a Jewish audience around the time of the birth of Jesus would certainly have hoped that redemption would include a political liberation from those oppressive Gentiles—the Romans, who ruled over them. And in verse 71, Zacharias does speak of “enemies”. But interestingly enough, the same Greek word found here is also used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:26, where we are told that the last enemy that Jesus will destroy is a spiritual one—death itself! As we continue in the passage we find more references to the glorious past of Israel—there’s mention of the Covenant and of Abraham.

Quebec’s license plate is one to remember!

And as someone who was a history major, I’ve always found value in the study of the past, drawing strength and inspiration for the present from what’s come before. The official motto of the Canadian province of Quebec, which you can see on their license plates in fact, is a French phrase—“Je me souviens”—“I remember”. Now Quebec is the only Canadian province that is majority French-speaking, and they’re very proud of that linguistic and cultural heritage. And even though French rule in Canada ended way back in 1763, the Quebecois people have always held on to their distinctive cultural identity, and this shapes everything from their food, to the laws, to the names people give their children. The province’s motto is about remembering the past, even to ensure a firm identity for the future. Zacharias’ prophecy invokes Israel’s history, but it’s for the purpose of something infinitely more glorious than just preserving a political or cultural heritage—it’s to establish a firm hope for the Messiah’s coming.  I want to read Luke 1:74-75 again, because it so beautifully captures the essence of what this future redemption will look like, not only for the embattled remnant of Israel, but for all of us as redeemed children of God. “Grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear. In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.”

            What about the special relationship that John the Baptist will have with his cousin, Jesus? The last set of verses in our passage, Luke 1:76-80 explore this theme further. John’s role will be to prepare the hearts of the people—calling them to repentance, and letting them know that life, as they know it, is about to change forever. When I think of John the Baptist and Jesus, pardon me if I indulge you with a quick reminiscence from a classic old movie musical, 1973’s Godspell. It had that great tagline—“The Gospel according to…today!” For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Godspell is the story of Jesus and His disciples—relocated to contemporary New York City. Sounds strange, I know! But it does have stirring music throughout, and for me, perhaps the best number in the whole narrative comes at the beginning, when John the Baptist begins singing a song–“Prepare ye the way the Way of the Lord”—essentially taken exactly from Luke 1:76. But what’s so cool is the way this scene is filmed. We see the people who are going to become Jesus’ followers, going about their rather mundane daily lives—one is studying in a library, one is a waitress, one a parking attendant, another a ballet dancer. And in each case, John the Baptist suddenly appears, blowing the ram’s horn, the shofar, and calling them to leave their former lives behind, forever, as it turns out, to go and meet Jesus. And I think this scene is in many ways true to what John the Baptist does in Scripture. He will be a prophet, and he’s also a teacher, as verse 77 reveals. “To give knowledge of salvation to His people, by the remission of their sins” That is essentially describing what it means to share a witness—and to tell other people what it means to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior. You know what—you don’t have to be John the Baptist or a Biblical prophet to do that! In fact God wants us to do that and He’s calling us to do that. In verse 78 we get that wonderful title for Christ—one of the most poetic in all of Scripture, “the Dayspring.” The Greek word Luke uses here, “Anatoli” carries the connotation of something that is rising in the east—like the sun. Jesus’ coming will be a new dawn for humanity, and John’s ministry makes ready for this. Lastly, what will Jesus do when He arrives—when all of our anticipation and longing is finally met by the presence of the Savior? Well Luke 1:79 captures that truth in a beautiful summation of the message of Christmas, and indeed of the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry—“To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Elvis, alongside the only other person who might have been a little more recognizable than he was!

            I can’t really add much more to that, so let’s wrap up. You know longing, waiting, and anticipation, might seem tedious at times, or like a relatively passive process. But as we’ve discussed, both as individuals, and as the church, we have a role to play that is similar to that of John the Baptist. Paul says it well in 2 Corinthians 5:20–we are Christ’s ambassadors. In other words, we represent Jesus wherever we go, and we have the opportunity to give a verbal testimony to His truth, and also to seek to change the world around us by demonstrating His love to others. When I listen to Christmas music, there’s an old Elvis album I’ll pull out sometimes, and there’s a song on there called “If every day was like Christmas.” In the chorus he sings “Oh why can’t every day be like Christmas, why can’t that feeling go on endlessly? For if every day could be just like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.” Sounds nice, right? But is this just the wishful thinking born out of holiday nostalgia? Maybe not—because our study in Luke 1 points us to the truth that a new reality is coming in which every day will be even more glorious than Christmas. Glorious almost past telling will be the reality of the heavenly Kingdom that Christ brings, but Revelation 21:23-24 gives us a glimpse into it—”The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. 24 And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light” That is the ultimate “Dayspring” isn’t it? And if we believe and trust in the Words of Scripture that this indeed is the future reality that all who have faith in Christ will one day experience—then surely we have both the responsibility, but also the privilege, to share this truth with a lost, lonely, and hurting world. The Dayspring is coming—and that’s good news! What can you do even today, to begin to dispel some of those clouds in the world around you, and prepare another’s heart for the entry of the glorious Son? Amen!

Philippians 3:12-21–“What kind of citizen are you?”

For Philip Nolan–the ship would never come in

“What kind of citizen are you?” Many of us reading this are probably U.S. citizens. But there is also something called dual citizenship, whereby you can be an American citizen and the citizen of another country simultaneously. However not every country allows this. For example, while there are lots of Chinese students who are over here in America, if one of them wanted to later become a U.S. citizen, they would have to first renounce their Chinese citizenship. And citizenship of course comes with certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities. So do we value it? Maybe that’s not a question you’ve really thought of before—perhaps you’ve taken being an American citizen for granted. In 1863, American writer Edward Everett Hale published a short story entitled “The man without a country”. It’s about a young army officer named Phillip Nolan, who after being implicated in a political plot in the early 1800s, is going to be sentenced to a prison term. But during the court martial hearing, he becomes so angry that he curses his nation, and solemnly declares he wishes to never hear the name of the United States of America ever again. The judge, a proud veteran of the Revolutionary War, is highly insulted, and comes up with a unique, and cruel punishment for the young soldier. He is to be sentenced to a permanent exile aboard U.S. naval ships, never to be allowed to again return to American soil, and even worse, never even permitted to hear any news or information about his former country. So if he is reading, and suddenly comes to a gaping hole in the page, then he recognizes that the subsequent sentences must have contained a reference to America, and thus have been censored on his behalf. Once, he’s dancing with a young American woman, and happens to casually ask her what news she’s heard from home. And she abruptly ends the dance, and walks away. But ironically, in this enforced exile from his citizenship, Nolan becomes more patriotic than ever, pining away for the country he can never again belong to.

All of us who are Christians are true citizens not of the United States, or of any other country, but according to Paul—we are citizens of heaven. And he urges us in this passage, amidst all of the other tribulations that we may encounter on this earth, to never lose sight of the fact that heaven is where our true home lies. Let’s read the passage, Philippians 3:12-21, and discover what we are striving towards, and looking forward to as citizens of heaven. In the process, we’ll also hopefully gain a better sense of how to live now in our temporary residence on this earth.


12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. 16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.17 Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. 18 For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”

The historic moment when Roger Bannister broke the tape, in under 4 minutes!!

Taking a look at verses 12-14 in Philippians 3, we find an interesting perspective here from Paul. He talks about pressing on, and striving for a goal that he hasn’t reached yet, but Jesus has already obtained for us. Thus he can demonstrate great confidence even amidst all of the typical concerns and uncertainties that life can bring. There’s a couple of fascinating Greek words that Paul uses in verse 12. The first one, “teteleiomai”, is a form of a Greek verb that’s fairly common in the New Testament. It’s translated in my Bible (NKJV) as “perfected”, and what I want to make a special note of, is that this is the same verb root which Jesus uses in John 19:30 when He declares from the Cross—“It is finished.” Jesus has perfected the work of salvation with His death, and Paul is saying by contrast—that even though he is secure in his salvation, he knows that here on earth, his work is still very much incomplete. But nonetheless, Paul says that he is going to “press on.” And here the Greek verb used is “dioko.” This is a verb that refers to pursuing someone and overtaking them, as you might do in a race. Speaking of races, in May, 1954, in Oxford, England, one of the most famous track meets in history occurred. For it was there, on a chilly, windswept day that Roger Bannister, a young British medical student, made history as the first ever man to run a mile in less than four minutes. Since records had first been kept for the mile way back in 1913, men had dreamed of cracking the 4-minute barrier. But do you know what’s very interesting—just about a month after Roger Bannister’s historic feat, the Australian runner John Landy ran his own sub-four-minute mile, and in the process slightly bettered Bannister’s time. And then within four years, in 1958, another Australian athlete, Herb Elliott would turn in a time that was almost five seconds faster than Roger Bannister’s, which in the track and field world is a huge margin. After Bannister’s historic run in 1954, why did the improvement in new times come so quickly? After all, at one time the four-minute mile had seemed to be an impossibility. Well it’s always easier to follow in the footsteps of someone else who has already been a trailblazer, and set the precedent. This is how Paul can say in verse 14, that he’s not focused on anything from the past, but instead is looking ahead to his future, where his heavenly goal is already secure, because of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus was the trailblazer, and set the precedent for all who believe in Him to follow. But to move forward, and to focus not on our past or even our present difficulties, we need to keep our eyes fixed on the goal—which is the final obtainment and fulfillment of that heavenly citizenship we possess as believers!

Moving on, we learn from Philippians 3:15-16 that the knowledge we are citizens of heaven should be a unifying factor. Paul emphasizes that we should be of the same mind, and have a common purpose through Christ. That mind which he speaks of, is not just an ordinary worldly mind. No, he’s talking about the special kind of mind that has been spiritually impacted, as Romans 12:2 describes: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Well, unity is kind of a buzzword these days, and it sounds nice to talk about—but it always begs the question—unity centered around what? There was a former college football coach at LSU, Ed Orgeron, and on the Fridays before games, he used to gather his team, and start banging a big bass drum. He’d keep doing this for maybe a minute or more—a loud shattering sound that you could feel in your chest. And gradually the players would forget whatever other stresses were going through their minds, grades, girlfriends, their stats…and everyone would focus in on the sound of that drum. Coach Orgeron would then call out each of the individual units on the team—offense, defense, special teams…and remind them that though they had different roles, they were ultimately one team, with one heartbeat. Everyone was united behind the common purpose of preparing to win the next day. Sports can have that effect—people come together, and even willingly endure sacrifice and hardship for the sake of competing for a championship. This was true back in the ancient world as well. Athletics was a big part of the Greek culture—this is where the Olympic Games started after all. Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25—“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.”

But sadly, there are those who, along the way, lose sight of the goal, and even their identity in the process, as Paul discusses in verses 17-19. The kinds of people described here, far from claiming their heavenly citizenship, have become all too content to simply follow their natural inclinations. And the truth is for all of us—our natural inclination, and tendency in this fallen world, is to turn towards sin. There’s an interesting Greek word that pops up in verse 19—“koilia.” A lot of English translations will say “belly”, but it has a deeper connotation, signifying the innermost part of someone, and that area deep within us that is the seat of our thoughts and desires. If we allow these desires to run unchecked, they will tragically lead us to an end goal of destruction as surely as following Jesus, and putting our faith in Him alone, will one day lead us to heaven.

Where Jesus has led, we all have the chance now to follow!

So the heavenly realm is indeed our ultimate home, as verses 20 and 21 attest, and numerous other Scriptures support this too. In Luke 23:43, a famous story, Christ, responding to the repentant thief on the Cross tells him “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise. Or consider Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 5:8—“We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” And it’s very important to remember that in our ultimate home of heaven, it will not just be our spirits which will live on—we have a bodily resurrection to look forward to. When I say “bodily” that’s exactly what I mean—it’s not a figure or speech, or some kind of metaphor. It speaks instead to the holistic view which Scripture promotes—we are creatures of both body, and soul—made uniquely in the Image of God. “Holistic” is another one of those buzzwords you hear a lot about these days. There’s holistic foods—holistic medical practices…everything. People in general now are wanting to take care of their bodies a little more than they may have in the past. Here’s a definition of holistic as related to medicine that I found—“characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.” Ultimately, to be citizens of heaven means that we take a holistic view of our spiritual lives as well. In other words, heaven is not simply something that we’re waiting for one day. The fact that it is our true home should greatly impact how we choose to live now on this earth. No matter what circumstances you’re facing at the moment, God wants you to keep your eyes fixed on the prize–the prize of being one day remade with a glorious, Resurrected Body, through the power of Christ, and in that blessed realm that is our true native country, and our eternal destination—heaven. Let that give you perspective, peace, and purpose, as you navigate through life in this fallen world, and furthermore, let’s use these truths to encourage one another. Amen!

2 Kings 5:1-15–“Down to the River to heal”

The River Jordan

As we read the Bible, we encounter many narratives of the miraculous. And many of these specifically involve supernatural healings. But what exactly is a true healing? And what perhaps is the connection between physical and spiritual health? Dr. William Mayo, one of the co-founders of the world-famous Mayo clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota grew to greatly respect the power of faith in promoting healing amongst his patients. And he once reflected on this saying: “I have seen patients who were dead to all medical standards. We knew they could not live. But I have seen a minister come to the bedside of such a patient and do something for him that I could not do, although I had done everything in my professional power, something touched some immortal spark in him and in defiance of materialistic common sense, he lived.”

Dr. William Mayo–a good physician is sometimes the one who recognizes the limits of his abilities

2 Kings 1:5-15 is the story of Naaman the leper, who seeks physical healing, only to experience an even more significant spiritual encounter with the Living God of Israel. Following the guidance of different messengers whom God places in his life at strategic moments, Naaman will discover that while his greatest ailment seems but skin-deep, the healing God offers him will penetrate into the very soul of his being. So it can be true for us as well—our God not only heals those surface wounds and problems, but He is always wanting to go deeper with His healing power, in the very depths of our sin-stricken hearts. 2 Kings 5:1-15:

Now Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great and honorableman in the eyes of his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was also a mighty man of valor, but a leper. 2 And the Syrians had gone out on raids, and had brought back captive a young girl from the land of Israel. She waited on Naaman’s wife. 3 Then she said to her mistress, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy.” 4 And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus said the girl who is from the land of Israel.” 5 Then the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So he departed and took with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. 6 Then he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which said, Now be advised, when this letter comes to you, that I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy. 7 And it happened, when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy? Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel with me. 8 So it was, when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, that he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Please let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.”9 Then Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and he stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ 12 Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. 13 And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. 15 And he returned to the man of God, he and all his aides, and came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now therefore, please take a gift from your servant.”

St. Patrick–He had more in common with Joseph that you might think at first!

Now I’ve mentioned already that Naaman is helped along in his journey towards healing by a series of messengers, who communicate important truths to direct him further towards the ultimate Truth of a Divine encounter. And some of these messengers and helpers are quite unexpected. When we look at verses 1-4 in 2 Kings 5, we see an example of an unlikely messenger—a servant girl from Israel. She’s a slave really, having been captured by the Syrians in a raid—someone at the very bottom rung of her society. Then here’s Naaman, a mighty man of war, commander of the Syrian armies, beloved by his king. What could this lowly slave girl possibly have to offer Naaman? Yet we see again and again through redemptive history that even when we are at our most down-and-out, God can raise us up quickly, blessing many others in the process. Think about the remarkable story of Joseph in Genesis, a man sold into slavery by his own brothers, and yet God never removes His hand from over him, and Joseph ends up prospering greatly in the land of Egypt where he was sold. Or do you know the back story of St. Patrick? He was once a slave after being captured by Irish pirates, but he comes to faith while in captivity, and after escaping to freedom, he later returns to Ireland to evangelize the nation of his former captors. The nameless Jewish servant girl is bold enough to suggest that Naaman’s best hope in a cure lies with him being willing to visit the prophet Elisha, in Israel. A strange request certainly for a proud military man. Here he is, the conquering hero, one of the most important men in all of the Syrian Kingdom, and he’s going to take advice on healing from a Jewish servant girl?

Dr. James Andrews–Alabama’s sports surgeon to the stars

As we look at 2 Kings 5:5-9 we encounter a new, equally unlikely helper for Naaman. It’s the Gentile King of Syria, and somehow this monarch has his interest piqued by the stories he’s hearing about a prophet back in Israel, who has the power to heal from the Lord. So the Syrian king tells Naaman to go seek this healing out. Now interestingly enough, when Jehoram, King of Israel receives Naaman, he’s rather grieved, claiming he can’t actually heal others—only God can. So Naaman must encounter still one more messenger, the prophet Elisha. And in contrast to the anxiety displayed by Jehoram, the prophet is full of confidence, not in himself mind you, but in the power of his God. Growing up as I did in Alabama, and being a big sports fan, there’s one name that almost all of us were familiar with—but he wasn’t an athlete at all. Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham skyrocketed to fame in the 80s and 90s as a leading orthopedic surgeon, and one of the most respected figures in the world of sports medicine. His list of former patients reads like a roll call of famous sports stars: Roger Clemens, Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Brett Favre, and many others. Dr. Andrews became a renowned figure because he was sort of a doctor of last resort. When team physicians couldn’t diagnose the exact nature of an injury, or when an athlete’s career was on the line, they would fly to Birmingham, from all across the country, to see Dr. Andrews. It kind of made us proud, that right here in our own state was such a famous personage. Who do you go to, when no one else can help? The prophet Elisha realizes he’s the person of last resort for Naaman to come to. This mighty Syrian warrior is likely none too pleased at having to come, hat…or should we say battle helmet in hand to seek healing at the court of a defeated enemy state.

Coach Nick Saban–perhaps pondering “The Process”?

Naaman is even less pleased with the solution offered to him by Elisha, as verses 10-12 reveal. “What! He says to himself… I am Naaman your conquering overlord, and you’re not even going to come and personally heal me—you’re going to send me to wash in that muddy, puny little Israeli river?” But sometimes the answer we’re looking for is so simple, and straightforward, that we have trouble accepting it. As I’ve shared, I grew up in Alabama, where we’re proud of our college football, and my team—the Alabama Crimson Tide have had a historic run of success since 2007, and the arrival of Coach Nick Saban. He has been utterly dominant, winning 6 national titles during his first 15 years, and 88% of his games during that timeframe. Saban’s overall strategy is connected to what he calls “the Process”—that is the cumulative and ongoing effort for excellence in all facets of the sport—conditioning, nutrition, player development, recruitment, facilities, academics, and as an extension of that–on the field results. Now at this point, tons of information has been written about Saban’s process. If any aspiring coach wants to model his program on Alabama’s, he would have more than enough information to do so. In fact, it’s been said of Saban’s process, that “the secret is, there is no secret.” Yet not many coaches or programs can instill the discipline, and the painstaking work ethic to follow in Nick Saban’s footsteps, and thus imitate his process. I believe there’s a “Process” in your spiritual lives as well. And it’s also no secret. Because for thousands of years, men and women have known the keys to living a fulfilling spiritual life—read the Scriptures, pray, share your faith, engage in regular corporate worship of God, and embrace opportunities for fellowship with one another, and spiritual growth. There’s the blueprint for anyone who wants to follow it. But are we wiling to follow? Because when we’re searching for healing, even though God can prepare the most amazing blessings for us, we have to be willing to let Him work within us. When we are searching for healing from God, are we willing to put aside the failed methods from when we’ve tried to do things our own way. Are we ready instead to humble ourselves, and let God work in our lives?

Willy Wonka–anyone care for a lifetime’s supply of free chocolate?!

This is what Naaman did. Despite his initial distaste for the prophet’s instructions, he obeys them, in large part thanks to the efforts of a few of his servants. They basically say, “hey Naaman, weren’t you prepared to do whatever this prophet asked of you? And now he’s asking you just for a little thing—so go take a dip in the River, what do you have to lose!” So he goes down to the river, and there, something pretty amazing happens. The Hebrew verb used both in 2 Kings 5:13 and 14 is “Tahar.” (טָהֵר). And it can mean when something is physically washed, but it can also denote a symbolic, or spiritual cleansing. This verb is further used to describe those Old Testament sacrifices that atoned for sin. Naaman’s healing here is going to be so much more profound that just losing his leprous skin—because sometimes we move towards God expecting one thing, while He has something even greater in mind for us. The whimsical 1971 movie musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, stars Gene Wilder as the eccentric candy-making genius, Willy Wonka. The film’s premise is that Wonka has invited five lucky children to tour his fabulous chocolate factory. Their prize, in addition to getting to see the factory, is to be lifetime supply of free chocolate! Speaking as someone who has quite the sweet tooth—I’d say that’s even better than winning the lottery! But after four of the children violate the tour conditions and forfeit their prize, only Charlie Bucket is left, and he’s ecstatic! He’s going to get the chocolate, all the chocolate! Then Willy Wonka tells him what the real prize is: Charlie’s going to inherit the whole factory. I’m sure that at the outset of his long journey towards healing, Naaman must have thought that there could be no greater blessing, or even miracle in his life than to be freed of the scrouge of his disease. But following his healing, listen to the declaration he makes before Elisha, and even in a sense, to us…listening to these words thousands of years later. 2 Kings 5:15–“Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”

Anthony van Dyck–Christ healing the paralyzed man, 1619

A Gentile, pagan and polytheistic enemy of the people of Israel has gone from disdaining even the thought of entering the waters of the Jordan to boldly proclaiming that the God of Israel is not just one more god to add to the pantheon—but that He is the only true God in all the earth. What a transformation, what a healing! And we see here, how intrinsically linked spiritual and physical healing are in Scripture. Furthermore this healing, and all of the ones described in the Old Testament, foreshadow, and point the way towards the perfect healing that Jesus will one day offer to so many during His earthly ministry. As was true in the case of Naaman, with Jesus—spiritual and physical healing always go hand-in-hand. This is why in Christ’s famous healing of the paralytic man, the first thing He says to that poor man isn’t be cured, or leave your paralysis behind…it’s “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And only after this, is his physical ailment healed. And when the paralytic rises triumphantly to take up his bed and walk, I imagine the greatest joy in his heart isn’t that he can stand on his own two feet, but that he knows he can stand before God forgiven. At the very end of the Bible, we get a glimpse of a day coming where the final, and ultimate healing for all of us broken by a broken world will occur. In heaven, we are told, in Revelation 21:4—“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” What a beautiful reminder of the healing that God has in store for every sin-sick soul. We’ve learned about Naaman’s journey to wholeness and redemption today. What will your journey be? I don’t know all the details of what may be troubling you…the plague on each heart, as King Solomon once said. But I surely know this—that true healing for both body, and soul starts, and ends with Jesus. If you haven’t done so before, I encourage you to ask Him into your life as a Personal Savior—to forgive, heal, and guide. Sin has made lepers of us all, but Jesus has the power and the love to cleanse our skins and our hearts. Thanks be to God–Amen!

Philippians 1:1-18–Joyful life in troubled times

Paul–possibly writing the Epistle to the Philippians!!

The Book of Philippians is one of the most encouraging epistles of the entire New Testament. Quite often, in his letters Paul is having to deal with doctrinal issues that are plaguing the early churches, and in some cases his own teaching authority is being questioned. But here, in Philippians, Paul’s message is mostly very positive, so much so that the book has been called by some “The Epistle of Joy.” Paul is able to remain spiritually joyful despite the often-difficult circumstances of his ministry. What all is he facing? Well, for starters, he is writing Philippians most likely from the comfortable confines of his…jail cell! Actually this isn’t such an unusual setting for him. Throughout his ministry career in fact, Paul is constantly facing pressure from the authorities—Jewish, Greek, Roman, or otherwise, who wish to silence him and his message about Jesus. For Paul, it must seem like he is continually having to overcome challenges and disasters of various kinds! If you want to read in full detail some of the different things that Paul suffers, you can go to 2 Corinthians 11. There are all kinds of calamities he faces, but perhaps one of the worst is described in Acts 23:12-13—”And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy.” Paul is not just facing a threat on his life from one or two isolated, deranged individuals, although that would still be alarming enough. No, he is facing an organized group of 40 people, dedicated to the purpose of his elimination, and furthermore, this isn’t a long, drawn-out conspiracy for some time in the future. They want to do it right away—so much so that they even take an oath not to eat or drink until Paul is dead.

Giovanni Giocondo–Take joy!!

And yet Paul finds not only hope, but somehow joy in the midst of his crazy ministry career. One of my favorite little poems is a very old one, dating all the way back to 1513, and it was written by an Italian Franciscan monk named Giovanni Giocondo. Listen to these words: “No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow, behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.” The poem suggests that many of the things we are seeking are already there for us—God has put them into place, but we have to learn to seek and find them even amidst the brokenness of this fallen world. And that’s what Paul is going to do in the Book of Philippians, and if you pay close attention, you can go along with him on this road towards greater joy, and peace. And who doesn’t want to experience more joy and peace in their lives? I think everyone from devout believers to hardened atheists, are seeking these things. And from Philippians 1:1-18, we’re going to discover three elements which Paul follows as pathways to joy, even amidst some of the difficult circumstances that he is going through.

            Paul’s first pathway to joy is through prayer—specifically intercessory prayer, which is when we are petitioning God on someone else’s behalf, as opposed to just praying for ourselves, and our own needs. Paul talks about some benefits of this kind of prayer in Philippians 1:5, where he mentions the “fellowship in the gospel”. This is that sense of camaraderie, and shared purpose that we find when we come together in community with other believers—whether in a campus ministry like Christian Challenge, or in churches, or as part of a mission team, or even in a Christian-directed company or business. Then listen to Philippians 1:6—“being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Do you see what Paul is doing here?

Pygmalion admiring his latest creation

In the field of psychology, there’s something known as the Pygmalion Effect. In ancient Greek mythology Pygmalion was a sculptor, who created a statue of a beautiful woman, and he so wanted his carving to become real, that he started treating the statue as if it was a real woman. He kissed it, talked to it, bought it gifts—and then one day, lo and behold the statue did become real. So in psychology, the Pygmalion effect means that if someone in a position of influence—a teacher, coach etc. sets high expectations for those under their charge, this can actually lead to better performance. So a coach takes someone who really isn’t a star-caliber player yet, but they start treating them as if they were already. And gradually, over time, this player fills into that role, and learns to live up to those high expectations that the coach has been placing on them. And in his epistle, Paul, through prayer, is encouraging these Philippian believers to stay the course—and he is basing his prayer of encouragement not on philosophical wishful thinking, but on the promises of Christ from Scripture, such as in Matthew 28:20, where Jesus says “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

A few other points on intercessory prayer—first, when we pray for others, it needs to be sincere. Philippians 1:8—“For God is my witness, how greatly l long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ.” Paul truly cares about these Philippian believers, they have helped him financially in the past, and also, the process of intercessory prayer can often draw you closer to someone else. I think this is one reason in Matthew 5:44 that Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. Perhaps they won’t remain enemies for too long in our minds, if we are daily asking on behalf of their needs before the Lord! Finally listen to Philippians 1:9—“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment.” Love is central to everything we do in the Christian life—and we should never lose sight of that!!

Even the squirrels have been known to ask this universal question

            Next, drawing from Philippians 1:12-14, we discover another one of Paul’s pathways towards finding joy—which is focusing on how God can use us in a challenging situation, rather than getting bogged down with the unanswerable “why me?” question. I remember being at a ministry conference a few years back, and hearing from a very engaging speaker whose name I won’t share here out of respect for his privacy. He’s a man who spent much of his ministry career working in closed countries, and over time he’s become an authority on the persecuted church. And during the conference, he shared a story of being in Russia after the fall of the old Soviet Union and visiting with Protestant pastors and church leaders there who had suffered greatly under Communism. He kept hearing these amazing stories of their faith and perseverance, and he asked—what haven’t you written these stories down? They would make a great book—and inspire other believers. One of the older Russian pastors responded by quietly asking a question. “How many times have you gathered your children, taken them to a window in your house that faces east, and told them to get ready because the sun was about to come up in the east?” the speaker was a little taken aback by this line of questioning, but he replied—“The sun always comes up in the east—so there would be nothing unusual about that.” Then the Russian pastor responded—“That is why we have not put our stories in books. Because there is nothing unusual about our persecution. It is like the sun coming up in the east. It happens all the time—and it is exactly what we would expect.” When we study the life and times of Paul, we learn that not only is persecution common, but that far from destroying the early church, the widespread persecutions are actually helping to fuel its growth. We see this in Philippians 1:12-14. Paul faced numerous enemies and had a pretty long list of calamities to deal with also. Yet we never see Paul sitting around, getting bitter towards God, or bemoaning his circumstances and asking why me? Instead, he focuses not on the why—but on the how. That is, not why this is happening to me—but instead, how can I respond?

For Bama fans, this picture needs no further explanation!

            A third pathway to joy that Paul discusses for us is found in Philippians 1:15-18, and it’s all about being Kingdom-minded, and focusing less on what we get to do individually, and more on what we can accomplish as a team. This was a vital lesson for the young church to absorb, because in those early days, if each local fellowship, or house church, focused only on their own needs, it’s doubtful that as a group, they could have effectively withstood all the persecutions they faced. In verse 15, Paul starts to discuss how others besides him might have different motivations for preaching the Gospel. Sometimes these are good, and pure motives, but sometimes they aren’t. Yet Paul says something quite surprising in Philippians 1:18—“In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” There’s another mention of joy—like we talked about at the outset, and in this instance, Paul’s joy is based on the fact that the Kingdom of God is advancing, even if he isn’t the one in this case who is spreading the Gospel. I grew up in Alabama, and college football is a huge deal there , from a very young age I became a big fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now if you do happen to follow college or pro football, you may know who the player pictured above it—DeVonta Smith. And he’s one of the best young receivers in the NFL now with the Philadelphia Eagles, and before that, he was a standout player at Alabama. But unlike some star players, DeVonta Smith didn’t immediately receive playing time as a freshman. He had to wait his turn—in fact, he only had 8 catches total that entire first year he as at Alabama, back in 2017. But one of those catches—pictured here, turned out to be very special. It was the touchdown that enabled Alabama to defeat Georgia. 26-23, and win the National Championship. Throughout the season, DeVonta Smith learned the offense, supported his teammates, and continued to work hard in practice each week. Because his focus was on the overall success of the Alabama team, rather than his individual success or playing time, Smith was ready when his number was called, and he delivered, in a big-time way. Paul is someone who always stays focused on the expansion of the Kingdom of God. So it’s never about him, and the growth of his own personal ministry, or sphere of spiritual influence. As a result, he can remain even keeled, despite the fact that some of his peers may be preaching with less than exemplary motives. For Paul the main thing always remains the main thing—the Gospel is being spread, and he’s happy just to play a part in that.

            When the hard times come, when the challenges arrive, as they will—how are you going to not only get through them, but still find joy in their midst? Ultimately, we know that the hope of the Gospel is only magnified over time, as you come to realize that nothing else in this world can offer the same peace, purpose, wisdom, and yes, even joy. When you can find that joy, even hidden amongst the hardships, it will be something that is not only beneficial for you spiritually, but it’s going to hopefully be apparent to others. Other people are going to want to have that same kind of joy, even if they aren’t quite sure where to start looking for it. Because everyone is looking for something more than just happiness, they want that deeper kind of contentment that can last even amidst the hard times. With the example of our lives, but also the witness of our words, let us strive to share with others the hope and joy which only Jesus can provide, no matter how troubled the times. Amen!

She sat at Jesus’ feet

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary–Jan Vermeer

Today, I want to examine Luke 10:38-42, a passage which highlights the value of being in the moment spiritually, and embracing the one, essential thing that Jesus is calling us to do, even amidst other options which are good, but not the best. In this story, Mary and Martha are hosting their good friend Jesus for a visit, and so naturally they want to roll out the red carpet! Now hospitality is something I’m quite familiar with, having grown up in the deep South, where it was highly valued. As a kid, and even still to this day, whenever I see my mother frantically vacuuming, straightening the cushions on the sofa, and whisking any stray books, laptops or backpacks to a hidden room, it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s company coming! I also remember that visitors were almost always greeted with some kind of snack or drink, regardless of what time of day it was. Hospitality mattered, and there’s something very commendable, and Christian about making each visitor feel like an honored guest. In our passage, when Jesus arrives, Martha goes into full hospitality mode, while Mary’s reaction is a little different. And what we discover is not that Martha is completely wrong, and Mary is right. But Mary demonstrates through her attentiveness to Jesus’ teaching that she’s figured out how to be in the moment, spiritually and has embraced the one essential thing that followers of Jesus should do. As you think about the different ministries our churches are involved with, so many of them are no doubt very worthwhile and good. Yet perhaps amongst them there is a central focus, a core element, and an essential practice that we never want to lost sight of.

            Let’s take a look at these verses now, Luke 10:38-42: “Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”41 And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. 42 But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

            We’ll examine the reactions of both women to Jesus’ visit in turn, starting with Mary. Now the phrase used to describe Mary’s demeanor during Christ’s visit may at first seem rather innocuous–“She sat at Jesus’ feet”. But in the Greek, these words are actually highly significant, because to sit at someone’s feet meant that they were the teacher, and you were one of their followers. The idea is that Mary is not simply sitting back and passively listening to Jesus speak, because she doesn’t want to help her sister with the kitchen work! No, she is actively absorbing His teaching, just like any disciple would. And frankly, nothing else that’s going on around her at that moment matters, because of the one whose presence she is in. Some time ago, my parents began ordering DVD’s from an organization called The Great Courses. They’re a series of lectures on every conceivable academic topic, taught as though it were an introductory-level college course. And I remember when my family first was going to watch some of these, I was still an undergraduate myself, and I thought really? I’m back home during the summer, and we have a free evening and we’re not going to watch sports, or a movie, or a sitcom…we’re going to do what I’d be doing if it was during the academic year—we’re going to attend a lecture? But I remember as we started watching courses on Martin Luther, and then Old Testament history, and Church history—all of us were completely enthralled! You know why? It’s because the compilers of the series had gone out of their way to find not only the most knowledgeable professors to talk on each subject, but those who really excelled in the classroom. And whether you’re there in person, or watching on video, when a great teacher is speaking, you sit at their feet, and you learn. That’s what Mary was doing—honestly I don’t know that I could think of anything better for any Christian to do, than to learn from Jesus, to study and apply His Words, and to not let any surrounding situations or circumstances distract us. In John 8:31, Christ says “If abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”, and then in Matthew 24:35 Jesus promises “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Mary understood well the power of Jesus’ words, and she wasn’t going to miss any of them!

Christ with Martha and Mary-Henryk Siemiradzki

            But what about Martha? Her response is a little different, isn’t it? I talked earlier about the importance of hospitality in Southern culture, but in many parts of the world, it’s taken to a whole other level. There are countries and cultures where if you’re a guest in someone’s home, and you innocently admire a painting, or a fine piece of china, you may end up receiving it as a gift, based on elaborate codes of hospitality. There are countries, and cultures where an extra place is laid out at the table for meals, just in case a stranger or unexpected guest might show up. And in the ancient Middle East, hospitality was on this level, as a huge cultural value. So Martha’s response in that context shouldn’t be too surprising. She was simply reacting the way she no doubt had been trained to whenever there was a visitor in the home. Thus when Luke 10:40 mentions that she was “distracted with much serving”, we need to understand Martha’s behavior in this context of a culture and society where hospitality was one of the highest virtues. And make no mistake either—hospitality is very much a ministry in and of itself. In fact, the Greek word used to describe Martha’s serving is “diakonian”. You may recognize this as the same root from which we get the word “deacon.” Martha is ministering to Jesus in the way that she’s most familiar with and understands best—probably getting ready to serve him a nice plate of warm pita with some hummus on the side, maybe making sure He has water to wash His hands and feet. These are all important things, which show her respect and love for this most distinguished of visitors. But they aren’t the most important thing that Martha could have been doing in that moment.

            Perhaps the larger problem is not so much what Martha is doing, but how she reacts to her sister’s behavior. She wants Jesus to rebuke Mary and compel her to help in these domestic duties. Now I probably don’t need to remind you that Scripture is full of warnings to us that whenever we start getting a little too preoccupied with what everyone else is doing, we’ll become spiritually sidetracked. It’s like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15–he’s doing alright, until he starts getting upset over the reception that the father gives for the younger son who’s returned. Then Peter, at the very end of John’s Gospel, has just been restored by Jesus, and given that famous directive to “Feed my sheep”, and what does he do? He looks around, sees John, and starts asking Jesus—“well, what are you going to tell this guy to do?” And Jesus essentially tells him—“yeah, that’s not really your business Peter, focus on what you need to do!” But Christ responds to Martha’s concerns, I have to imagine, in maybe a different tone. Peter was an old fisherman, an impulsive guy, could be somewhat hot-tempered, and pretty hard-headed at times…so Jesus may have had to be a little forceful to get his attention. But I just imagine as we look at verses 41 and 42 again, that He’s speaking softly when tells Martha that she’s worrying too much about the wrong thing. And again, it’s not that Martha was wrong to want to offer Jesus hospitality, but Christ wants to show that while she is doing something good, she could be doing something even better, like her sister is. I’m reminded of another story from the Gospels–this one is found in Matthew 26. Jesus is in Bethany, visiting Simon the leper, and there’s a nameless woman who comes and takes a very expensive flask of alabaster oil, and begins to anoint Him with it. The disciples protest—they think she is wasting all of this money on something frivolous, when such proceeds could have instead been used to help the poor. But Jesus has a surprising response. Matthew 26:10-11—“Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always.”

The beautiful Alabama Shakespeare Festival theater in Montgomery

Do you see the parallel here with the Mary and Martha story? It’s not that giving to the poor is bad—not at all. But in the moment, Jesus identifies that there’s something even better that this woman with the alabaster flask has chosen to do. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, which believe it or not, has one of the best regional theaters in the nation—the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It really was a treat for me, because during much of my childhood and adolescence, I had the opportunity to be exposed to world-class professional theater right in my own backyard. I went frequently with my family, but also, at least once a year, our school would go there also. What’s so cool was that we wouldn’t go during the evenings, or on the weekends. But rather there would be a special daytime performance to which many of the local and regional schools were invited. And so you’d have all of these schoolkids, dressed up and excited, perhaps not so much to be watching Shakespeare as just to be getting out of class for most of the day! But indirectly, a valuable lesson was being taught—that there are some experiences which are valuable enough that we interrupt the normal routine, even with schoolwork and academics. In that moment, it was more important that we have the opportunity to be exposed to live theater, and perhaps develop a love for the works of the great Bard.

The disciples would have other opportunities to give to the poor, but would this chance come again for the woman to give her special, costly gift of anointing to Jesus, unknowingly in preparation for His own upcoming death? Martha will have plenty of other opportunities to demonstrate hospitality to her guests, but how many other chances will she have to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn, as her sister is doing? As we think about the work of the church, what are some of the most important things we can do? Well certainly from Luke 10, we could say that there’s nothing more valuable for any Christ follower to do than what Mary was doing—to learn from Jesus, and to sit at His feet—as disciples. As the church, we do many different things—we bless those in need with gifts of benevolence, we celebrate major life occasions—baptisms, weddings, funerals, we seek to be good stewards of the buildings we have been blessed with, we are involved in supporting different groups from our community, we enjoy times of fun and fellowship together…but above all, as disciples and followers of Jesus, we need to be learning regularly from His Word, and then, sharing it! Because the Bible teaches us that disciples make other disciples. I have to imagine that as soon as Jesus left, Mary couldn’t wait to go and tell her friends—you’ll never guess who I had the chance to listen to speak today—and in my own house! I’m sure she wanted everyone to know that she had been with Jesus, and that she wanted to share some of what she’d learned. Many times over the past several years, I’ve had a significant spiritual experience while in worship or at a church Bible study, or even just in conversation with a member of the congregation. And I’ve known that it’s brought me closer to the presence of Jesus—it was a “God sighting” as Pastor Cody Sandahl used to call them! And those moments are ones to treasure, but not to keep to ourselves! When they happen, we need to go and tell someone else, because in that process, we are continuing the work of discipleship, and ensuring that Jesus’ Words are alive and flourishing within our community of faith. Through worship, through the reading of the Bible, and in prayer, all of us have the privilege to sit at Christ’s feet and be taught, just as Mary was. And so amidst all of the other wonderful things that we do individually, and together as a church, let’s never miss that opportunity to sit at the feet of the Master—you’ll never regret a minute you’ll spend doing that—I promise! Amen!

Reflections on the blessings of marriage

June 29, 2019–A day that I will never forget!!!

          My wife and I recently had the blessing of getting to celebrate our three-year wedding anniversary! And I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on some of the ways in which marriage has blessed my life since June 29, 2019. Because both Melissa and I were a little older when God brought our lives together, we have a great appreciation for some of the things we’ve been able to enjoy in this new season of life, after being single for so long. But this post is by no means meant to extol the superiority of marriage over the single life. Rather, I want to share, from a Scriptural basis, about aspects of marriage that have positively impacted my spiritual life. One of the great things about seeking to order your life around Biblical principles, as Christians do, is that you find how the Bible has something to say to everyone in the stage of life where they currently are—young and old, children and parents, men and women, and single and married. Scripture never teaches that marriage is better than being single for everyone, and there are certainly places in the Bible which point out the unique advantages of the single life. But the Bible does point out some great benefits to the married state for those who God gives the opportunity to find a special love with, a love that will be shared through the rest of a lifetime between a man and woman.

            One of the most famous descriptions of marriage is taken from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:4-5. Here, Jesus takes us all the way back to the beginning of God’s plan for humanity, referencing the Book of Genesis with His words: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Christ quotes first from Genesis 1:27, reminding us that both men and women were created uniquely in God’s Image, and then He references Genesis 2:24 to succinctly describe an essential characteristic of the marital union—a man and woman leaving their respective families to come together as one unit. This unity of marriage encompasses a physical, emotional, and spiritual oneness, as well as the formation of a new household with legal and financial dimensions. This first blessing of marriage that I have experienced has been the unity. Melissa and I grew up in two pretty different settings—her in a small town in rural Montana, and me in a major city in Alabama. She’s a Westerner, I’m a son of the Deep South—we had different career paths, interests, and experiences, and yet when we began dating in the spring of 2018, God started the process of joining our lives together. Our experiences up until that point began to converge, as our paths became parallel, and then eventually were just one road leading forwards. Melissa and I initially had such a strong connection when we met due to our shared values—the importance of family, our love of animals, and most significantly, our shared faith. And we discovered plenty of common interests—such as a love of the Colorado outdoors, cooking together, watching classic television, and serving in ministry alongside one another.

But during these past three years, I have learned that unity is more than just shared interests, and more than even a common purpose and belief, although all of these factors are very important. In our marriage, unity crucially stems from the fact that we try to practice constant, and very open communication with one another. I want Melissa to know what I’m thinking, and vice versa, about anything that comes up, and we always strive to work out decisions and resolve problems together. Because we’re a unified pair and partnership now, I don’t feel I have the right to make unilateral or sweeping decisions just based on what I want or prefer. We decide together, and we look to always ensure that there is no area of our lives that is “off limits” from discussion. Pursuing and maintaining such unity in marriage has reminded me of an important corresponding spiritual concept in terms of our relationship to God–Lordship. The idea behind Lordship is that if I profess Jesus to be my Lord and Savior—I need to grant Him control over all aspects of my life—my finances, relationships, career, free-time pursuits, etc. He’s not just my spiritual guide—He is the Guide and Director for my entire life in a comprehensive, holistic sense!! As regards the spirit of unity that we seek to always foster within our marriage, it’s not so much about control, but the principle is very similar to Lordship—in that Melissa deserves to be involved in all aspects of my life, just as I want the Lord to shape and influence me in every part of my existence. So pursuing unity in my marriage has helped me to better understand the importance of Lordship in regards to my relationship with God.

Marriage has also provided me with so many wonderful moments of companionship. In Genesis 2:18, we hear for the first time the Lord God pronouncing that an aspect of His Creation is not good—and that is Adam’s solitude. “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” So from the very beginning of men and women existing as separate sexes, there was the idea that they would desire a shared companionship that would draw them towards one another. Now interestingly enough, as far as Melissa and I can tell from taking different personality tests, and just from our own experiences, we are both introverts. We sometimes debate about how far along the spectrum both of us are. I personally feel somewhere almost in the very middle between extroversion/introversion, maybe tilted slightly towards the introvert side. But the upshot of all this is that we both recognize, as introverts, we sometimes need pockets of time just to spend on our own. But marriage actually offers an ideal scenario for all of this to play out. I know that while I was even more introverted in my younger years, being single, and having periods of time where I wasn’t even dating anyone—I sometimes would experience an excessive amount of alone time. In those moments, I struggled periodically with feeling isolated and lonely, and with concerns that I might never find the kind of love, and lifelong companionship, that my friends who were married had.

A happy little family on our wedding day!

When the Lord brought Melissa and I together, we began to find great joy just in sharing everyday moments together—such as going to the grocery store, sharing a meal, or taking our beloved pup Milo for a walk—just to name a few. At the same time, our introverted sides will still occasionally demand that we have some space apart, and spend time on our own hobbies and pursuits. Melissa may read or watch a movie, while I enjoy my foreign language study—or depending on the season I find relaxation by watching college football, or going skiing. These occasional times apart actually serve to underscore just how much we enjoy each other’s company. We sometimes even have to gently remind one another that it’s time for one of the spouses to have such a break, because the default is always that we do things together. That’s a great pattern to have set in place, in terms of enjoying our natural companionship together. And of all the things that we feel are enhanced when we share them with one another, for me the daily highlight is our time of Scripture reading and prayer. Here I must give so much credit to Melissa, because virtually from the first day of our married life together, she emphasized the importance of us carving out daily time to read a chapter in the Bible together, and to pray. We’ve done this together essentially every day of our married lives since, and it’s been such a blessing!

The ultimate model of service–Christ washing His disciples’ feet

            Marriage has also taught me a great deal about service to others, and has helped me to become less selfish. When you’re single, it’s somewhat natural to lead a fairly self-centered existence. You often don’t need to consult anyone else really when planning your schedule, and you can focus your life around those things you want to do or achieve. Of course as a Christian, and one who works in ministry, I sought as much as possible to serve others while I was a single adult, and found great joy in doing so. Nonetheless, since I’ve been married, I’ve learned so much more about what it means to mature and serve others—specifically my wife. A couple of Scriptures come to mind in relation to this. First, we have Jesus sharing with His disciples in Mark 10:43-45, that spiritual greatness is closely connected to our willingness to serve others. “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Then, very much along these same lines, Paul instructs us in Philippians 2:3-4 about the humility which goes hand-in-hand with a servant heart: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Acts of service bring us closer to Christ, but as a single person, sometimes service to others had a little more of an abstract feel. But one of the beautiful things about marriage is that I now have daily opportunities to embody serving another person as a literal, rather than abstract concept, and that person is the wife that I love. I have also been learning how those spiritual practices which I cultivate in my marriage and within the walls of our home, can then positively impact my ministry to the world outside. Whether in campus ministry or through involvement in the local church, a big part of my calling involves serving others. But if I don’t first learn to practice this well and consistently at home, how effective and authentic will my service to others outside of the home be?

James Tissot–The Lord’s Prayer

When I think of serving my wife, I ultimately look of course to the perfect model—Jesus. Christ exercised servant leadership throughout His ministry, and even though there were so many people He encountered who were demanding of His time and attention, He managed to always accomplish two things in terms of the overall scope of His relationships with others. First, He was fully present in those moments with whoever He had stopped to talk to or help—and not preoccupied with upcoming appointments, lofty theological musings, or other distractions. And despite the continual demands of the clamoring crowds, the questioning Pharisees, and the growing pressure of arrest and death with each miracle and public encounter, Christ, throughout His public ministry found time still to invest in and serve the small group of followers who were His disciples. He made them a priority, even at those times when we know He must have been exhausted, and perhaps would have liked nothing better than just to have been alone. In my marriage, I strive to make sure that I give the best of my time and attention to my wife, prioritizing her needs, and not allowing ministry responsibilities to ever be an excuse for me to not be present, or uninvolved in things that are important to her. And I want Melissa to remind me whenever I fall short of this ambition. Because as I’ve said already, my home life and ministry life are intrinsically connected. If I do not practice serving my wife well, how can I effectively teach my students about service to others in Christ’s name? And the same principle will hold true if God blesses me with the chance to one day be a father—I’ll need to make sure that before I go to serve anyone else’s children in a ministry setting, I am first meeting the needs of my own kids!

            If I were to seek to sum up all of what I’ve learned in the relatively short time I’ve been married, I would say, unsurprisingly, but truthfully, that it all comes down to love! But let me clarify exactly what I’m talking about here when I say “love.” The word can mean different things to different people, but for me, the essence of the ideal marital love is described in Ephesians 5:25. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” The Greek word used for love here is “agapate” which is a conjugated form of the well known verb–“agape”. This special kind of love is the highest type described in the New Testament—simply put, it is the love that Jesus teaches and demonstrates. Now all Christians, whether single or married, are of course called to exhibit agape love. In John 13:34-35, Jesus tells His followers—“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” But marriage offers a special forum, and a unique setting in which to practice such love. While I have by no means yet mastered how to love my wife well, I pray that God grants us many more years for me to work on it! And in seeking to love Melissa well, I am confident will add so many other spiritual benefits to my life, including growing less selfish, serving with a purer heart, and listening better. Through marriage I hope to gain an ever-clearer glimpse into the infinite love that God has in store for each of us in heaven, and for which marriage here on earth can be such a beautiful preparation.

Acts 2:1-21–“Pentecost: Babel in Reverse”

I recently had a chance to preach on the story of the Day of Pentecost. So naturally, my primary text was from Acts 2:1-21, but the other passage read that day was from Genesis 11:1-9. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel, and initially, you might not see a clear connection between this narrative and Pentecost. But Babel, in essence, is the story of languages becoming confused and serving as barriers to communication. Language barriers can stop a major enterprise, like the building of a tower, and, in times of war, they can even become a pivotal aspect of a life and death struggle between nations. This happened with the United States and Japan during World War Two. The turning point of the war in the Pacific was the Battle of Midway in June 1942. There, the U.S. not only avenged Pearl Harbor, but they struck a decisive blow against the Imperial Japanese Navy, sinking 4 aircraft carriers. But perhaps what you don’t know is that one of the key factors in the American victory was that our intelligence had partially deciphered the key Japanese naval code. Thus, we had some idea of Japan’s strategic intentions before the battle began, which gave our side a huge advantage. And on the other hand, one of the most effective language barriers during World War Two stemmed from the employment of Navajo Indians to speak in their native tongue by the U.S. Marine Corps. The complex Navajo language formed the basis for a military code that the Japanese were never able to crack.

Battle of Midway, 1942

In Genesis 11, the language barrier thwarts humanity’s prideful attempt to reach heaven by force, but in Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit unites different peoples in the common language of Christ’s Gospel, for the benefit of the early church’s explosive growth. Pentecost is where Christianity begins to develop into a worldwide movement as Christ’s Gospel is preached to all nations. We learn from Pentecost that our God is a God who overcomes barriers!! And what barriers might be standing between you, and living out the Gospel more fully?

ACTS 2:1-21: “1 When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” 12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” 13 Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. 15 For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,

That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

Your young men shall see visions,

Your old men shall dream dreams.

18 And on My menservants and on My maidservants

I will pour out My Spirit in those days;

And they shall prophesy.

19 I will show wonders in heaven above

And signs in the earth beneath:

Blood and fire and vapor of smoke.

20 The sun shall be turned into darkness,

And the moon into blood,

Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.

21 And it shall come to pass

That whoever calls on the name of the Lord

Shall be saved.

July 20, 1969–A giant leap for mankind

As the passage begins, we find the disciples waiting for the moment which Jesus had promised to them—the coming of the Holy Spirit. Now the Spirit of course is not something that always arrives on our own schedules. However, I do think that it’s significant that we find the disciples gathered together “with one accord in one place” as Acts 2:1 tells us. Great things can be accomplished when we find a common purpose and unity, despite external opposition and turmoil. The 1960s were certainly a tumultuous decade in American history. Throughout the decade, the war in Vietnam escalated, while our country also wrestled with domestic unrest, including opposition to the war, political assassinations, and the racial turmoil of the Civil Rights Era. And then there was the Space Race. In a 1962 speech, President Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man safely on the moon and return him to earth by the end of the decade. And on July 20th of 1969, we did just that with the Apollo 11 moon landings. How did such a monumental technical achievement come about in such a short period of time? Because there was a common consensus that reaching the moon was an important extension of American national interests, and we had a unified population ready to support this initiative. The disciples are united in their belief in the Resurrection of Christ and they’re ready to take His Gospel anywhere! The coming of the Holy Spirit confirms this common sense of purpose and launches the church in power and unity. Then in Acts 2:3 the Spirit takes the form of tongues of fire above each disciple’s head. Fire is a symbol of God’s presence and power in many different places in Scripture. For example, Luke, who is the author of Acts, discusses in his Gospel how John the Baptist predicts of Jesus: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The flames are a Scriptural image that’s very closely associated with the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit.

Adoniram Judson–he used his linguistic gifts for Kingdom causes!

Then in this next set of verses, 5 through 12, we get into the actual events of Pentecost, in which the disciples suddenly and miraculously have command of various languages which had previously been unknown to them. Listed in Acts 2:9-11, we find a whole host of different tongues, representing collectively much of the known peoples of the world during the time of the early church. All of these people groups now get to hear the Gospel in their heart languages. This is a term that missionaries will sometimes use, to describe the language for an individual that’s most familiar, in which one hears God speaking. Early 19th century American Missionary Adoniram Judson understand the importance of language, as a key to connect with an unfamiliar people and culture. He wanted to share the Gospel with the nation of Burma, and after arriving there, he dedicated himself with admirable zeal to learning the language, spending over 3 years in the endeavor. During this time, he worked up to 12 hours a day in his linguistic studies with the aid of a native tutor. Judson eventually translated the Bible into Burmese, and compiled a Burmese-English dictionary, and a Burmese Grammar. Even long after his death in 1850, scholars have noted that every subsequent Burmese language textbook or grammar is somewhat indebted to Judson’s earlier scholarship. Most importantly, Judson used his mastery of the language to spread the Gospel, starting a church from scratch that by the time of his passing had over 8,000 believers!

The face of a changed man on Christmas morning!

The Gospel speaks to all peoples in their heart language, and yet often there’s opposition to its spread. Scripture makes it clear that when God is acting and, on the move, Satan frequently chooses this time to try and spoil things. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there are those in the crowd during Pentecost, who having witnessed God at work through this linguistic miracle, choose to be cynical, and suggest the disciples are drunk! And I’m sure they laughed at them. One of my all-time favorite works of literature is the novella A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Central to the story is the transformation of Ebeneezer Scrooge from a hard-hearted miser to a generous man of charity, with a redefined sense of priority, and purpose. At the end of the story, Dickens reflects on Scrooge’s changed life: “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.” Maybe there was even a corresponding touch of humor in Peter’s response to the skeptics, by reminding everyone in verse 15 that it’s highly unlikely anyone was intoxicated yet at 9am in the morning!

And to think–it all started with a mouse!

But then on a serious note, Peter transitions into one of the great sermons recorded in the entire New Testament. It’s all about the continuity and consistency of God’s Revelation and work through history. Thus, he ties the current movement of the Spirit back to prophecies from the Book of Joel, hundreds of years old. For Peter this is a way of saying that God’s plan has been in effect and unfolding on a very long timeframe. We could go even further back in Scripture, all the way to the start of Genesis 1:2. Here, at the dawn of creation, we read about the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. In creation, in prophesy, and now in the launch of the new church, the Spirit of the Living God is always on the move. The truth is, God’s vision has always been bigger than just Israel. I enjoy reading books about visionaries—a few years back I read a great biography about Walt Disney, who definitely fit that description. What was really incredible about this man was how long his vision persisted, even posthumously. Walt passed in 1966, but his long-range outlook and bold ideas continued to fuel the company for years to come. In 1971, his dream of opening a second amusement park was realized with the founding of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Another decade later in 1982, the opening of Epcot Center still hearkened directly back to Walt Disney’s inspiration, because shortly before his death he had been sketching out ideas for a sort of permanent world’s fair exposition, which is what Epcot became. And what was the long-term vision for the early church that emerged from the Day of Pentecost? Pentecost was a watershed moment for the history of Christianity because God showed He could overcome any barriers to the spread of the Gospel—which was to be a message not just for the Jews, but for all peoples and nations.

What is your barrier to carrying the Gospel forward now, and sharing with someone else who may be in desperate need to hear it? We know that just as God worked on the Day of Pentecost, He can also equip us to be prepared and ready to share our story of faith today. We have the same Holy Spirit power living in us, and there’s much work to be done. Rejoice that we serve a God who specializes in overcoming barriers and surmounting obstacles. Amidst our diverse voices and experiences, may we all find as those early disciples did—a common accord and purpose, and a shared voice—the language of the heart, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have the privilege of sharing with a world in dire need! Amen!

Revelation 5:11-14–“A dress rehearsal for heaven”

Todd Graves and his yellow lab pup. The original “Raising Cane” became the restaurant’s namesake

Sometimes, as Christians, and as members of the church, it’s important for us to get back to the basics—and return to the fundamentals. We need to answer questions such as who are we as a Body of Christ, and what is our main focus? Why do we even gather on Sunday mornings? Todd Graves is the founder and head of the Raising Cane’s fast food franchise. Since beginning back in 1996, Cane’s has now expanded to over 600 restaurants worldwide, and let me tell you—their chicken fingers are good! There’s one due to open near where I live in Littleton soon, and honestly, I can’t wait! But as part of the company culture, Todd Graves never wants his Cane’s employees to lose sight of the basics, or forget about the fundamentals. So regardless of their actual position in the company, every Cane’s employee has “fry cook” and “cashier” in their job titles. Whatever their specific job responsibilities might entail, Graves wants all of his personnel to always be ready to jump in and help with these essential tasks for running a fast food restaurant.

            As a church, what are some of the essential things that we seek to do? Well of course there’s a social aspect—it’s fun to gather together and see one another each week. We strive also as a Body of Christ to bless those around us, in the community and beyond. As a church we get to celebrate special milestones in people’s lives–the baptism of their children, marriages, and memorial services that honor a life well-lived. But first and foremost, as a church we exist as a community of faith, and gather weekly so that people can worship God! And I’ve entitled the message this morning “A dress rehearsal for heaven”, as we look at Revelation 5:11-14. In heaven, Scripture tells us, there will be a lot of worship taking place! In fact, we could say that according to the Bible, worship will be the principal activity of heaven. Thus, what we do here today in this sanctuary, is really a practice, and preparation for the more full, complete and glorious worship of God that we will one day get to experience in heaven.

Our text from Revelation will give us a glimpse of this blessed future reality. Revelation 5:11-14—”Then I looked and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice:  “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing! And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.”

Taking a look at verse 11, we see that worship in heaven will be on a scale that we cannot even imagine! John talks about seeing ten thousand times ten thousand, which is just a metaphorical way of saying—too many to count!! And we have an interesting mix of participants listed here—including angels, elders, and what’s usually translated as “living creatures.” The Greek word here is “ktisma” and it can used in description of any living being that God creates, and then endows with an immortal soul, which can be reborn again after death. So, these creatures are not just mere animals, but are powerful symbols of something greater, which is God’s enduring and everlasting Word. The living creatures can be interpreted as representing the Four Gospels. Perhaps you’ve seen this imagery in Christian art before, but each Gospel has its own corresponding symbol, drawn from the description of these living creatures given in Revelation 4:7: “The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature was like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle.” The lion, as you may know, is regarding as the king of all wild beasts, and he is also the symbol associated with Mark’s Gospel. The lion, as an animal, is the symbol of a king, and Jesus, as the lion of Judah is identified as the Royal Messiah in Mark. What about the calf? Well the calf, or bull as it is sometimes depicted in art represents the king of domesticated animals. And this animal symbolizes the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus is frequently portrayed as a humble servant, like the gentle beast of burden. Who is man? The chief of all God’s creation, and a fitting symbol for Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus’ humanity as the great teacher of the law is emphasized. And then finally we have the eagle—king of all birds. This high-flying creature is a fitting symbol for John’s Gospel, which most clearly depicts Christ as a Divine figure.

Then moving on to verse 12, we find that Christ alone in all of heaven is worthy of our worship. And note the description of Jesus here—with a special focus on His role as our Sacrificial Savior, as symbolized by another special creature—the Lamb. There’s actually a neat kind of Biblical symmetry at work here, because if we go all the way back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when John the Baptist first sees Christ approaching, what does he say? John 1:29—“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Then, notice the rewards that Jesus will receive from Revelation 5:12“power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” That’s quite the list there, isn’t it? But interestingly enough, many of these qualities aren’t things that Jesus really seeks. Christ, after all, is humble, and has little interest in acquiring power, wealth, or even honor, at least insofar as it comes from worldly sources. Yet because Jesus is willing to undergo the ultimate humiliation as the perfect sacrifice for sin, God will eventually honor Him with these same blessings. It reminds me of another Biblical narrative–the story of King Solomon’s request in 1 Kings 3. The Lord appears to the king in a dream, and He gives Solomon pretty much a blank check, to ask for whatever he wants. Solomon requests an understanding heart, to be able to rule the people wisely. The Lord is very pleased with his prayer, and thus He ends up also granting to Solomon all of those things which he didn’t ask about, such as riches, honor, and long life.

The next truth that’s apparent in this passage, from verse 13—is that worship in heaven will be universal. We already know about the multitudes gathered to praise the Lord, but Scripture makes it clear also that there will be representatives of every people group, and nation in heaven. Thus Philippians 2:10-11 —“At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Now you may ask here—does this mean that everyone eventually accepts Christ as Lord and Savior? Well not necessarily—because there’s an important distinction to be made in terms of how and when people choose to acknowledge Christ. The great Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis once wrote something very profound: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God “Thy will be done”, and to whom God says in the end, “Thy will be done.” You see, we can either acknowledge Christ and choose to worship Him freely now, or there will come a time when we will be forced to fall down before Him, in an obligatory worship, a time when we can no longer deny the reality of His Lordship.

Yes, it’s the Mathemagician!!

The consequences of this choice are quite far-reaching, to say the least, which brings us to the last point, from Revelation 5:14—worship in heaven will be eternal. Here the four living creatures are mentioned again, along with the elders, 24 of them to be exact. Revelation as a book of course, is full of symbolic numerals, and here the 24 could represent the doubling of a number that is highly significant throughout Scripture—12. We could interpret the 24 elders to be a kind of joining together of Old and New Testament symbolism—from the Old, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and from the New, the 12 Apostles. That’s just one idea at least—but the bigger question here is how exactly to fathom, and to comprehend the idea of eternity? I recall a book from my childhood, the Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In the story, a young boy named Milo sets out on a fantastic journey of intellectual discovery, traveling to many strange lands, including Digitopolis, a land where they are obsessed with numbers. Milo decides he wants to find out what the very biggest number imaginable is, and so he asks the ruler of that land, known as the Mathemagician, to help him. The Mathemagician then tells Milo to name the greatest number he can think of. Milo takes a deep breath and says: “Nine trillion, nine hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine.” “Very good,” said the Mathemagician, “Now add one to it. Now add one again…now add one again, now add one…” “But when can I stop?” pleaded Milo. “Never” said the Mathemagician with a little smile, “for the number you want is always at least one more than the number you’ve got, and it’s so large that if you started saying it yesterday you wouldn’t finish tomorrow.” Milo, fed up with this method, decides to take another approach. So he asks the Mathemagician if there isn’t a physical place, a location where he can go to find the very biggest and smallest numbers? “Just follow that line forever,” said the Mathemagician, “and when you reach the end, turn left. There you’ll find the land of Infinity, where the tallest, the shortest, the biggest, the smallest, and the most and the least of everything are kept.” “I really don’t have that much time,” said Milo anxiously. “Isn’t there a quicker way?” “Well, you might try this flight of stairs,” the Mathemagician suggested, opening another door and pointing up. “It goes there too” Milo bounded across the room and started up the stairs two at a time. “Wait for me please…I’ll be gone just a few minutes.”

Eternity is a hard thing to understand, and to put into writing, whether you’re a child, or an adult. After all, we live in a reality where we are bound by time, and yet God is completely outside of it. Thinking of eternity for too long can really make your head hurt! And it can lead to some misconceptions too. Occasionally people contemplate the endless stretch of time, and then decide that heaven will perhaps be boring, even monotonous after a while. All of this time without end—just to worship? Will heaven just be one very long, never-to-be-finished hymn sing? Now my apologies to some of you out there, who probably are asking—yes, and what’s wrong with that! But the idea of boredom or monotony only applies to a situation where we wish we could be somewhere else, or doing something different. But how could we ever wish to be anywhere else than in God’s presence, fully, without the pain and separation caused by our sin? This will be heaven. And the worship there—complete and perfect, will in some way perhaps make up for the fact that here on earth, worship is often imperfect—it’s only a glimpse of the better thing to come. And worship, perhaps ultimately is just a metaphor in and of itself for John to try and describe that which ultimately cannot be put into human language. Paul would agree—as he writes in 1 Corinthians 2:9—“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” Worship could be just the term John uses to describe a state of being once we are in heaven, beyond time, where we are continuously in the presence of God. It’s hard to picture that, I know, but these moments of shared praise together in the Body of Christ perhaps give us our best foretaste, glimpse, and preparation for that glorious experience of heaven.

Who wouldn’t want to join these celestial musicians in their perpetual praise of the Living God?!

As a church, let’s never lose sight of why we gather together, and what this gathering is leading us towards. Through His sacrifice at the cross, Christ has won for each one of us the right to one day enter heaven. He truly is the Lamb who was slain for our sin, and the sins of the world. And just as the angels, elders and living creatures are now worshipping God in heaven, we will one day have the privilege of joining them. But for now, we get to enjoy a dress rehearsal on Sunday mornings here. Let’s take that opportunity, and that honor seriously—and may our times of worship on earth, inspire us to spread the Gospel of Jesus more widely, because you know, that heavenly choir is always going to have room for a few more. Amen!