Lifting the Veil

One of my mottoes when counseling a prospective bride and groom is “prepare more for the marriage than you do for the wedding.”   Yet, it is hard for star-crossed lovers to get their heads around “till death do us part.”   The logistics of a wedding are so much easier than the logistics of marriage.   That is until the wedding day arrives.  Standing with the groom, I see in him that same growing bewilderment, I felt on my own wedding day.   With each processing bridesmaid a sense of foreboding self-doubt grows.

Then the door to the church opens. The bride, veiled in glory, her father at her arm, appears in radiant splendor.  And it hits you.   I am making the most momentous decision of my life.  I am about to be responsible for another person.   I am about to live for someone other than myself.  In that moment, self-doubt and introspection grip you in a way you have never been gripped.  

Then she is there.   Right in front of you.  You lift the veil.   And the light in her eyes, the love radiating from her face assures you – all is well.   You settle in.  You breathe.  You settle down. And you make vows that change your life forever.  All will be well.   Because once unveiled, ‘the bride’ is revealed as ‘the beloved.’   And that makes all the difference.

When the veil is removed, we see what really matters.   Fear, uncertainty, and insecurity may still be there, but they are eclipsed by faith, hope, and love.   However, what is true in our human relationships only dimly reflects what is true of our relationship with Christ.    To know Him for who He is, to see Him for who He is, allows us to run with perseverance the race marked out before us.  No matter where the course might lead.   Yes, there is fear, uncertainty and insecurity.  But faith, hope and love rule the day.

Yet, fixing our eyes on Him is hard.   We squint to see Him through sight, rather than faith.   He has revealed Who He is through His Word, the Bible.   But the Bible can be challenging to understand.   Yet God has given each part of it to lift the veil on who He is.   As John Calvin noted, “in the Scriptures God is veiled, that he might be unveiled.”   The one who defies description, describes himself in the limitations of language so that we might be able to see him with unveiled faces and unveiled faith.

No part of Scripture is more challenging to grasp than Revelation – the last book in our Bible.  Its enigmatic creatures, symbols, and numbers are fertile fields for fanciful interpretation.  Despite early historical claims of authorship by Jesus’ beloved disciple, John, Revelation was one of the last books to be accepted into the Canon of the New Testament.  Martin Luther questioned its canonicity, and Calvin never commented on it.   Yet, this word that seems so mystifying, and is so often ignored, has been breathed out by God, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training that you and I may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.   

More than that, the book itself claims to be a “lifting of the veil.”   This testimony of Jesus Christ begins with the ancient word which means to “take away a veil” – a word we translate ‘revelation.’  For that is what Revelation and revelation are — God’s self-disclosure to us, that we might see by faith not by sight.  In Revelation, Christ Jesus draws aside the veil and shows us his glorious purpose and sovereignty over history, encouraging us to view our circumstances rightly and live boldly.   When the veil is lifted, our existential self-doubt and gripping fear are also lifted.  At last, we can see that all will be well — even if it will not be easy.  

Join us this week as we begin a survey of the book of Revelation, examining Revelation 1:1-3 to consider how this part of God’s Word offers blessing, encouragement, and hope for dark times. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube

New Math

Math – you either love it, or you hate it.  It inspires no ambivalence.   It’s rigidity, its precision, its unforgiving exactitude is what haters hate and lovers love.   The unyielding constancy of mathematical relationships in the cosmos are a testimony to a predicable universe.   In an ever-changing world, math is changeless.   Even cosmological change, itself, is governed and measured by unchanging mathematical relationships.

But while mathematical truths do not change, the techniques and the technology of mathematicians do.   This is observed whenever you attempt to help a small child with homework.   “It’s only long division,” you think.  Certainly, you are qualified to help your young padawan mathematician with that.   But then you encounter it – ‘new math.’   All the methods you learned and the tools you used, back in the day, to navigate the rigors of math are now different.    You begin to say things like, “let me show you an easier way.”  Or “I don’t know why this ‘new math’ overcomplicates everything.”  

Everyone is frustrated.  You in your attempt to help.  And your third-grader, who is now more confused than ever.    Even my undergraduate degree in applied mathematics, does not empower me to teach ‘new math’ to teach my children.   We think we see the problem and its solution clearly, only to realize our assumptions and our approaches are all wrong.   But this is not only a problem in math.  

What is true of math, is often even more pronounced in our spiritual lives.   On the surface, our problems seem to be merely a matter of logistics, resources, or relationships.   We believe we have a clear grasp of the problem and the solution, only to realize our assumptions and approaches are all wrong.  Wrong because they lacked any consideration of faith.  In the Christian life there is nothing in which faith does not play the leading role.   Paul pointed this out when he wrote, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)   Nothing is aspiritual.

Jesus’ disciples discovered this in a remarkable way in the ‘feeding of the five thousand.’  The setting for this story is complex.  The disciples had just completed a highly acclaimed ministry tour of Galilee.  The gospel was preached, demons cast out, and lives changed.  And the local powers took notice.   Herod took notice.   Herod, who had just executed John the Baptist, feared this new groundswell of preachers and teachers.  The Twelve were exhausted.  They had not even had time for a meal together.  Jesus, too, was exhausted emotionally by the news of John’s death.   They crossed the Sea of Galilee to get away for a few days.   But as often happens in the lives of those in ministry, the vacation turned into work. 

Throngs from the surrounding towns and cities found Jesus.  They  came out to his ‘desolate’ retreat to find healing and truth – over five thousand families.   Jesus did not turn them away, but cared for them.   As the day wore on, however, exhaustion and hunger take their toll.   The disciples instruct Jesus to send the people away to find food and lodging.   But Jesus tests them.  “You give them something to eat!”   Jesus puts a brewing humanitarian crisis back in their laps.   How will they ever meet such a need?  What did they learn on their ministry tour?  What did they learn from his teaching that day?   What have they learned of his power and faithfulness? 

The disciples believe this is a crisis of logistics.   But it is really a crisis of faith.   Will they operate by faith or sight?  Can they trust Jesus to provide for those he calls?   Will they grasp that spiritual life and practical life are not mutually exclusive?   The mathematics of feeding this crowd are staggering.   And, the mathematics of their resources are ludicrous.   What can Jesus do with one boy’s lunch?  The disciples thought they understood the problem and its solution, but their assumption and approach was all wrong.  

More than rest and food, they needed to trust Jesus with the math!   Eight months wages might have provided a small bit of bread for most of the crowd.  But in Jesus’ hands a boy’s lunch fed thousands until they were full.   And there were leftovers!  Not scraps, but uneaten servings.  Twelve baskets full to feed the empty stomachs and faith of The Twelve. 

What will Jesus do with your life, if you place it his hands?  What will he do with your modest or lavish resources?  With your plans and desires?  With your time?   Perhaps you are concerned that if you give these to the Lord, he will take, but not give?  That you will not have enough?  Or that you can’t trust how he will use what you think actually belongs to you.  

Only John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand mentions the boy whose lunch became food for thousands.   We don’t know anything about him, his reasons for being there or if he struggled to yield what was his to his master.  What we do know is that when he put what little he had in the Jesus’ hands, he had more than he needed and so did thousands more.  Jesus taught.

Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. 

Luke 6:38

Can you trust God with your resources, your desires, your plans, your time, your family, your heart, mind, soul, and strength?   Maybe it’s time to find out.   Join us this week as we examine John 6:1-14 and consider the call to exercise faith in giving.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube

The Great Exchange

Big Tech is under the microscope.   For years social media has been accused of allowing supposed foreign actors to shape public opinion.  But, of late, it seems that Big Tech has cut out the middlemen – editing, crafting, and censoring public discourse and behavior directly.   How many of your posts have been “reviewed by independent fact checkers” and found wanting.  But this is nothing new.   Traditional media and commerce have done this forever.   Print media has always reported through political bias to offer you a predigested conclusion.  And large retailers intend you to buy what they offer, rather than what you want.

While Big Tech’s motives are always in question, its effects are unquestionable.   Technology changes behavior.   It always seeks to automate and streamline, manual time-consuming tasks.   This is what technology does.    Years ago, as the internet moved from the world of academia to commerce, retailers tried to leverage this new access to consumers.   But there were obstacles.   Shipping costs and difficulty exchanging or returning items created trepidation for buyers.   Enter Amazon Prime.   However you feel about Amazon, their introduction of free-shipping and no-hassle returns, more than any other innovation, opened the floodgates of ecommerce.

We all want gift exchanges to be easy.   No one wants to wait in line at Customer Service only to get store credit.  No one wants to search endlessly to find the return right address for a mail-order purchase and then have to pay shipping equal to the item’s original price.   Until Amazon, the cost of gift exchanges was high.   But now online retailers have made this process virtually painless.   Click, print, and take the return to the UPS Store and you are done.   Ease of exchange has been revolutionary.  None of us wants to endure the costs of a difficult gift exchange.   Anymore we are shocked at a seller that expects us to pay return shipping.   Forgotten are the days of difficult exchanges.

So perhaps it is extremely difficult grasp of the fullness of what it cost Jesus to make the greatest exchange.    When we think of the Incarnation, we consider the poverty and obscurity of his coming or of the constant rejection he experienced – “He came to His own, but His own received Him not.”   But our thinking about his humiliation never goes far enough.   We think of his humility in terms of what would humble us.  But the very act of the eternal God taking upon himself our nature is a humiliation of inconceivable magnitude.   While grace is free to us, it is not cheap.   All the brokenness and curse and wrath of God that our sin brings and deserves was placed upon him.   And all the righteousness that he attained was accounted to us, when we give ourselves to him.   The Apostle Paul pens this great mystery concisely when he wrote.

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21

The incarnation was the costliest exchange in the history of gift giving.   God’s grace and mercy toward us came at an unfathomable cost.   Our forefathers expressed described this cost as Christ’s humiliation and described it this way in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Q. 27. What did Christ’s humiliation consist of?

A. Christ’s humiliation consisted of his being born in a low condition, living under the Law, undergoing the miseries of this life, undergoing the wrath of God and the cursed death of the Cross, and in being buried and continuing under the power of death for a time.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 27

Yet this costliest of exchanges brings about the most extraordinary exchanged lives in the recipients of God’s gracious gift.   Paul describes this exchanged life in 2 Corinthians 5.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Literature is filled with compelling stories of exchanged lives — The Prince and the Pauper, or A Tale of Two Cities.  But there is no more compelling story than the “Son of God becoming man, so that men could become sons of God.”   This week as we conclude our study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s teaching on the Incarnation by considering the costliest exchange in history — the humiliation of Christ.   Join us as we examine 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 as we consider what this exchange meant for Jesus and what it means for us.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube

A Great Mystery

We live in a world filled with mystery.  We believe we live in an age of hard facts and scientific data.  We pretend that with enough computing power and scientific inquiry, everything question can be answered, every mystery resolved.   Indeed, we have accumulated much in the way of knowledge.   But, ironically, as knowledge and mystery increase in direct proportion.   The more we understand of the world in which we live, the less we understand about of how it works.   The more we know, the more we know about what we do not know.

From our digital age, we look down with smug superiority upon our forebears, quibbling about with pens and paper.   While we struggle to use our smart phones without consulting a small child.   Our technology is a mystery to us.    We think we have explored the earth — no new lands to discover and conquer, but we know less about the surface of the ocean, which covers two thirds of our planet, than we do about the surface of the moon.

We cannot explain even the simplest things we observe every day.  The sun, moon, and constellations are large on the horizon, yet seem to diminish in size as they rise overhead.    Yet if you hold out your thumb to the rising moon, then again when it is at its zenith, you will discover absolutely no difference.  What accounts for this remarkable trick of perspective?   Neither scientists nor psychologists can explain it.    And when you go to your favorite drive-in and order a milk shake, why does it give you a brain freeze?   Despite well-funded research, scientists have not determined the cause.   Our world is awash in mystery.

Some of these mysteries involve great contradictions — irreconcilable, yet indispensable truths.   In the early part of the Twentieth Century, as scientists observed sub-atomic matter, they realized that the physics of their day no longer explained the behavior of the nano-world.   A new physic, quantum physics, was born to account for what Sir Isaac Newton never even knew existed.  At the center of this new understanding was a radical new idea – that light acted but as a wave and as a particle.   No one could explain it, but accepting this mystery was foundational in constructing a model of physics that explained the sub-atomic world.   Seemingly irreconcilable, yet indispensable truths, that make the world go round.

This type of tension is no surprise to the Christian.   For the Christian faith is filled with such paradox.   Indispensable truths which seem to be in tension with one another.  “Truths,” as one theologian quipped, “to be believed, not discovered.”   Truths such as the absolute sovereignty of God and the undeniable reality of true human freedom.   And an even more incomprehensible mystery.   The truth of a Savior who is fully God and, at the same time, fully man – two natures, in one person, forever.   Yet, the scripture does not discourage “faith seeking understanding.”   God has given us minds that desire to know His truth, to seek and find what He has revealed.   This is what we see in a remarkable way in Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In Luke 1:26-38, we have one of the most remarkable stories in scripture.   The angel, Gabriel comes to Mary with a startling announcement — she will be the mother of her Savior.   Unlike the fearful skepticism of Zechariah, Mary asks “how will these things be?”   A question we all wrestle with as we consider a Savior who is fully God and fully man.   But in the answer, scripture points us to one of the most precious truths of our faith.   Because Mary asked this question, we, along with our forefathers, can turn to scripture ask.   

Q22: How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man? 
A22: Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her yet without sin. 

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 22

Join us as we examine Luke 1:26-38 and consider this question and why it is important. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube

Lessons and Carols, 2020

The story of the coming of Christ in the Incarnation is the most dramatic story ever told.  While it reaches a beautiful high point with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,  there is much, much more to this story – a story that has its origins in eternity past and its implications in eternity future, a story of epic failure and dramatic rescue, a story that reveals a God who is quite different from the one our fears imagine.  As singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson puts it.

Gather round, ye children come
Listen to the old, old story
Of the pow’r of Death undone
By an infant born of glory
Son of God, Son of Man. (Andrew Peterson)

Come and experience the rest of this story in God’s own words and in song as we share in An Evening of Lessons and Carols together at 7:00 pm on Thursday, December 24. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube

Who Is This?

We live in a world awash with outrageous claims and inflammatory statements.   Faced with the daunting challenge of distilling fact from fiction, we may be tempted to believe everything or nothing.   But among all the outrageous claims, what if there is life giving truth?  What if there is truth we cannot live without?

No man made more outrageous claims that Jesus Christ.   He shocked the men of his hometown, by claiming to be the Messiah.  He challenged the religious leaders to point out a single one of his sins.  He pushed the limits with his disciples, commanding them to love enemies and offer unlimited forgiveness to offensive brothers.  

Jesus’ own disciples struggled to understand who he was and what he came to do.  From time to time, glimpses shone through their own preconceived notions of Him.  In a poignant moment, as they were crossing the Sea of Galilee, a furious squall sprang up and threatened to sink their small fishing boat.  Half of Jesus’ disciples grew up on these tempestuous waters, fishing with their families from their childhood, yet even they were convinced that they would not survive the trip.  They woke Jesus, who was asleep in the back of the boat. 

They did not ask him to save them – for what miracle working teacher was a match for a force-ten gale?  They only asked, “don’t you care that we are about to die?”   Jesus stood up in the boat and with a word, brought the waters from tempest to mirror.   These seasoned seamen were almost speechless.  The only thing they could say of Jesus was, “who is this?”   They perceived that there was much more to Jesus than even their imaginations could anticipate.

What about you?  When someone mentions Jesus, what comes to mind?  Religious revolutionary? Social justice warrior?  Ethical teacher?  Failed Zionist leader?  Founder of a yet another world religion? Who is this Jesus?  For many it is a caricature, influenced by pictures you have seen or by clichés which permeate our cultural ideas of “the historical Jesus.”  Or perhaps you remember him from a collection of anecdotes or parables you heard as a child in some Sunday School.   Just who is Jesus?

No claim of Jesus was more outrageous than his claim that “I and the Father are one.  He who has seen me has seen the Father.”   Jesus did not claim merely to be God’s servant, or God’s prophet.  He did not claim to be “a son of God,” but “The Son of God.”  Despite the best efforts of Arian heretics to erase Jesus’ claims to divinity, the Scriptures claim pervasively and decisively that Jesus is fully God and fully man.   Men who seek some value in Jesus as a mere man and moral example, but disbelieve his outrageous claim to deity must face C. S. Lewis’ scathing critique.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. 

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

Jesus did not come to point out the way, the truth, or the life, but to be the way, the truth and the life.  This demands that he be fully human and fully divine. 

Who is Jesus?  Our seasonal displays of a baby Jesus in a lowly cattle stall have led us astray, thinking only of his humanity.   But in the opening chapter of his gospel, John, the beloved disciple, pulls back the curtain to reveal “the rest of the story.”     You think you know who Jesus is?  Come and find out as we examine John 1:1-5, 9-14 and grapple with what our forefathers expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Q21: Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect? 
A21: The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever. 

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 21

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube

The Plan

Two things my father was almost never without were pipe tobacco and yellow legal pads.   He did nothing without an outline.   In large, block script he detailed his plans to do anything he intended.   Even after I moved out of the house, I would receive outlines of his travel itineraries in the mail.  He was not an impulsive man.  He carefully analyzed his intentions and all expected consequences.  Only after putting the plan on paper did he act.   And without a doubt, I am my father’s son.   I outline my approach to everything.  And attempt very little without a plan and analysis of contingencies.

In this, my earthly father strongly resembled my Heavenly Father.   God is not a trouble shooter.  He is not unaware of anything that comes to pass.  In fact, He “foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, according the counsel of His own will, for His own glory.”   He is the ultimate planner.   Man’s fall was not an unexpected turn.   God is never held captive or contingent to any of the free actions of his creatures.   He not only knew all that would happen, but he purposed it.

Everything that happens contrary to God’s prescribed will is by no means contrary to his decreed will.   He always intended to deal with the world according to grace.  And the means by which he bestows that grace is not through an unfallen mankind in Adam, but through a redeemed mankind in Christ.   Isaac Watt’s metrical paraphrase of Psalm 72 says it well.

Where He displays His healing power,

Death and the curse are known no more:

In Him the tribes of Adam boast

More blessings than their father lost.

In Christ, redeemed mankind can boast more blessings than Adam ever had.   That is a remarkable statement.   This is what God had always planned for us.   Time and time again Scripture shows us that God purposed grace in Christ, “from before the foundation of the world.”   Even in its fallenness, and sin, and sorrow, this world with its promise of redemption, regeneration, and renewal in Christ is the “best of all possible worlds.”  

Nothing has gone amiss in God’s plan and purpose.  There is no waste, no “gratuitous evil,” in God’s economy.  The world is not “off the rails.”   God’s perfect and gracious plan is unfolding, just as He intended.  And in this we have hope.   He is the God who does all He pleases, and all He promises.

The first chapter of Ephesians is a literary masterpiece.   In one long breath, Paul extols the amazing beauty and richness of God’s grace to those who are ‘in Christ.’   The Ephesian church faced severe crises internally and externally.   False teaching and persecution were leading many to ‘abandon their first love.’  So, God pulls back the curtain to show them the truth of their situation ‘in Christ.’    In a city that boasted one of the wonders of the ancient world in the Temple of Diana, it was actually that church that housed the great treasure of God’s grace – grace rooted in God’s sovereign and eternal plan to save.  

And this is good news.   Our sin and rebellion is nothing so novel, so unexpected, that it is outside God’s plan and power to save.   There are no surprises or unexpected circumstances able to thwart God’s efficacious love for us in Christ.   You are not beyond hope.    Even if your situation seems hopeless.   Our forefathers expressed this hope in a series of questions and answers called the Westminster Shorter Catechism.   There we find this great promise.

Q. 19. What is the misery of that state into which mankind fell?

A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so are made liable to all the miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.

Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the state of sin and misery?

A. Out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, God chose some for everlasting life, and he entered into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of their state of sin and misery and to bring them into a state of salvation by a redeemer

Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English

Join us this Lord’s Day as we examine Ephesians 1:3-10 and Galatians 4:4-7 and consider God’s eternal, unbreakable, and effective plan to deliver us from the power of our own sin by a Redeemer.  

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube. You can also download the order of service.

Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.   But what does this mean?   Is appearance everything? Are the glamour magazines to be believed?    No, beauty comes in many different shapes, sizes, and proportions.  God has made everything (and everyone) beautiful in its time.   The discerning eye finds beauty in every form.   We know this instinctively.   Yet, we don’t believe it about ourselves. 

Our fallenness has given us a creaturely discontent with the Creator’s genius.   But who are the most beautiful people you know?   And why are they beautiful?  Is it the proportion of their face, their coloring, or the shape of their features?   No, their beauty appears by contrast — kindness when others are cruel, resilience in the midst of adversity, joy when sorrow is the order of the day.   Beauty radiates through contrast not conformity.   God delights to create beauty through contrast.

He created a world of contrasts.  Contrasts which give, even this fallen, groaning, creation a beauty that leaves poets speechless.   He began with light and made the world responsive to it.   Light creates color and contour, clarity and, yet, concealment.   Lighting gives everything perspective.  And changing light reveals something new in the familiar.   Lighting and contrast are foundational to visual beauty.   Through lighting and shading artists breathe life into their work.  

But as with all things God made, sensory experience has an analog with spiritual truth.  Spiritual truth in scripture is often taught by way of contrast.   The Bible tells the triumphal story of how God rescues us from sin, self, and Satan.   But the story only becomes compelling when we realize our desperate condition.   Until we grasp how bad we are, we cannot see how good the good news is.  

The Fall plunged us into irrecoverable ruin.   And until we are convinced of this, we will never seek Christ and find redemption.    The beauty of the gospel can only be appreciated in contrast to the ugliness of our condition apart from Christ.   Our forefathers expressed it this way in the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Q. 27. What misery did the fall bring on mankind?

A. The fall brought on mankind the loss of communion with God and his displeasure and curse, so that we are by nature children of wrath, slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all the punishments of this world and that which is to come.

Q. 28. What are the punishments of sin in this world?

A. The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, as a blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections; or outward, as the curse of God on the creatures for our sakes, and all the other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, states, relations, and employment, together with death itself.

Q. 29. What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?

A. The punishments of sin in the world to come are everlasting separation from the comforting presence of God, and very grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in the fire of hell forever.

Westminster Larger Catechism in Modern English

Our condition is stark.   Our ruin is total.   Every faculty of our being, every dimension of our life, every moment of our existence from now until all eternity is utterly ruined.   We go through life with a nagging sense of misery.   We try to cover it with fig leaves – experience, pleasure, education, accomplishment, possessions.   We know, instinctively, the truth of our forefather’s words.   But misery is not the last word.  

The first chapter of Ephesians is a literary masterpiece.   In one long breath, Paul extols the beauty and richness of God’s grace to those who are ‘in Christ.’   The Ephesian church faced severe crises internally and externally.   False teaching and persecution were leading many to ‘abandon their first love.’  So, God pulls back the curtain to show them the truth of their situation ‘in Christ.’   And to drive the point home, he reminds them of what life was like outside of Christ.  In this great contrast we find a clear and concise picture of our lost condition.

Join us this season as we walk through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Questions 19-23, and consider, ‘why and how Jesus became man in order to save us from ourselves.’  This week we begin in Ephesians 2:1-3, 12 by examining the misery of the condition into which the Fall and our own sin have brought us.  

Join us as we see that God calls us to return as well. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube. You can also download the order of service.

Can You Hear Me Now?

My first mobile phone came in bag.   The size of a lady’s purse, except with an antenna, it made me extremely self-conscious.  Like a cross between a European tourist and a secret service agent, I felt sure everyone was staring.   This phone was for emergencies only.   No casual calling.  No mobile internet.  And coverage was as spotty as spotty could be.   Only outbound calls made sense.  After all, no one could reliably reach me.   What about texts or voicemail, you ask?  They were still in the future.   My beeper is what alerted me to find for that rare place on earth with a signal. 

In those heady days, the expectation of finding coverage was low.   But today, we are indignant if we can’t get 5G at every remote Ozark swimming hole.   We expect coverage and internet everywhere.    And we expect it for free.  Few and far between are those places which have ‘no service.’   And, between manned space launches, Elon Musk is working to drive those areas to near zero with Starlink.   Perhaps one day concepts like ‘no service’ will be as foreign to our grandchildren as mobile phones that came in a bag.

But this is a distinctly human problem.   God has no such limitations in his communication with his creation.   God has always had a reliable network with coverage so vast there is no place where he must ask, “can you hear me now?”   Problems hearing from God are never a network problem.   God’s speaking is “living and active.”   Always on.  He is always speaking.    He “speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting… he does not keep silence.” (Psalm 50:1, 3)   And there is no place where you are out of coverage from his call.   As Psalm 19 so memorably puts it.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world. 

Psalm 19:1-4

God speaks – and not just to a few select creatures.   His Word, his promises, his mercy are not just for a particular culture, tribe, or spot on the earth.   He is no regional or racial deity.  He is the Lord over all the earth.  People from every “tribe and language and people and nation” are the objects of his steadfast love and care.    This is one of the remarkable things about Christianity.  Other religions import cultural distinctives such as forms of dress, dietary restrictions, and particular sacred languages which become prerequisites for piety.  But Christianity permeates and transforms every tribe, language, people and nation through a unity that produces remarkable diversity. 

The repeated error of the people of Israel was to believe that God was theirs alone — their private higher power.  A God who loved only them and those like them.  A God who blessed them and cursed their enemies.  A God who served their interest.   And ironically, this ‘pagan view’ of the true God caused them to abandon Him for all the false gods of the nations.    God set his love upon them to display the beauty of the Covenant of Grace to the whole world.   Their faith was intended to call nations, far and near, to abandon false gods.  But in their unfaithfulness, they abandoned the true and living God.   They were called to be a missionary people.    But if they would not willingly testify to God’s grace through faithfulness, they would unwittingly testify to it through unfaithfulness and judgement.

The Apostle Paul makes this point in his letter to the Romans.

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! 

Romans 11:11-12

Jeremiah, the longest book of in the Old Testament, is filled with dire warnings of judgment.   For four decades, the prophet called the people of Judah to turn back to God.   He outlined their unfaithfulness in every area of life.  He warned of the consequences of living with their backs to God.    And he stayed with them in every descending step into God’s judgment of them as a nation.   

But from the beginning, God called Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations.   And through his preaching, God’s Word to Judah becomes a word to the nations and to us.   It shines through, time and time again.   In every oracle of judgment, there is an offer of grace.   So, it is fitting that Jeremiah ends with an extensive call to the nations to know the Lord and to walk in His ways.   This book is no mere sordid history of an ancient kingdom’s demise.   But it is a constant refrain of grace, sung out to men who are utterly undeserving.   It is a reminder that God’s promises are not for some particular tribe, language, nation or people, but for “every creature under heaven.”   And most importantly, for you.  

You are not beyond God’s grace.   You are not excluded from His offer.  In John 6:37, Jesus says, “whoever comes to me, I will never cast out.”   Jeremiah is filled with the threatened judgment, but more than that, with promised mercy.   Are you headed toward judgment?   God’s call is to turn back and find mercy.   In Jeremiah 46-51, God calls the nations to turn back.   In some of the Scripture’s most remarkable poetry, the Lord calls those who are far from him to return home.    

Join us as we see that God calls us to return as well. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube. You can also download the order of service.

Follow Through

[Parent in a Store:] “I’m counting to three!” 

[Child:]  (feigning deafness) …

[Parent:] Don’t let me get to three!  (getting louder)  I mean it.”

[Onlookers:] (thinking… “No You don’t”)

[Child:] crickets

We have all played the part of the onlooker – or perhaps the parent or the child.   We know how this plays out.  The parent gives the impression of parenting without actually doing any parenting.   And no one is fooled.  Not the onlookers.  And certainly, not the child.   No one ever really gets to “three.”   Cardinally, perhaps, but consequentially, never.   The fact that a parent employs this tactic indicates that he or she is in no way prepared to be inconvenienced enough to offer a consequence.   

Every child knows that “counting the three” is a disciplinary free pass. And every consistent parent knows that obedience never counts past “one.”   The oft-repeated role-play above is just that – role-play.   The unwillingness of the child to obey and the unwillingness of the parent to require obedience is paradigmatic.   Parenting experts call this “threatening-repeating” parenting.    Lots of sound and fury, but no follow-through.  We have all seen it — the threatening-repeating parent, warning of a judgement that never comes.   

But our heavenly Father paints a very different picture.   He is a perfectly consistent parent — no shadow of turning, no promise broken, no threat unrealized.  Whatever He promises, He does.   For hundreds of years, God sent prophets to warn the children of Israel and Judah of judgement for their sin.   Persistently, He called them to repent, but unlike the threatening-repeating parent, God always follows through.   Beginning in Jeremiah 39 we see the terrible picture of God’s judgement, a picture that warns us not to presume upon God’s grace.    

Peter warns us not to confuse God’s patience with overlooking our sin.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

2 Peter 3:8-10

God always follows through, both in mercy and in judgment.  His threats are not idle threats.   His call to repent is urgent.  The author of Hebrews expresses this urgency.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Hebrews 3:12-13

And Paul echoes this urgency. 

For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 

2 Corinthians 6:2

God’s judgement against Judah in the days of Jeremiah and Zedekiah is a glimpse of the final judgement we will all face.   

Jeremiah 39 stands as a warning against every naïve hope of escaping the judgment to come….  The saddest thing about the final chapter in [King] Zedekiah’s tragic story is that the king could have written a happy ending.  Right up until the very end, God gave him every opportunity to repent for his sins.  Jeremiah repeatedly went to Zedekiah and pleaded with him to turn to God in faith and repentance.   But the king rejected every last entreaty.

 Phil Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations, From Sorrow to Hope.

Zedekiah, like Pilate, Judas, and the impenitent thief resisted call after call to turn back.   Their stories could have been quite different.   They did not believe that God would follow through.   Like men today, they scoffed at divine justice and condemnation.   But what about you?   How urgently have you heeded God’s call to turn back to Him?  Why are you waiting?   Zedekiah was a waffler, always hesitating.  Always on the verge of grace, but always procrastinating – turning away from turning to Christ.   Until, finally, it was too late.  What about you? 

Join us as we examine Jeremiah 39-41 and consider the urgency of God’s call to turn back. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP or YouTube. You can also download the order of service here.