Asking for a Friend?

English is a hard language to learn.   It plays fast and loose with its own rules of grammar.   And it refuses to conform to the basics of linguistics shared by virtually every other language — basics such as gender, case, and predictable syntax.   No doubt, this is a consequence of the long and storied history of English-speaking peoples.   As J. R. R. Tolkien noted, there is no such thing as a language without a history.   As English-speakers ventured out across the globe during the Age of Exploration, they imported bits and pieces of language and expression from a myriad of other cultures into the warp and woof of the mother tongue.   Consequently, the irregularity of the grammar and, especially, the pervasive use of idiom makes English one giant inside joke.  

One, not so subtle, example is the phrase, “asking for a friend?”  Nothing is more disingenuous than this qualifier.   We tack it on to uncomfortable or embarrassing questions.  Questions that, if actually from us, would surely reveal what we want to conceal.    But like the Emperor with new clothes, everyone knows the game, but no one will admit it.   We all know who is really asking the question.   “Asking for a friend” does not conceal anything – quite the contrary.   Yet we all play the game.   And the asker is allowed to lay all censure for shocking questions upon some imaginary friend.   The question is depersonalized allowing us to broach delicate concerns in third person rather than first or second.   Asking for a friend makes questions academic, not biographical.  Or so we think.

But there is a remarkable exception to this ruse – a time when “asking for a friend” is just that.   And that is intercessory prayer.   Typically, our chief concern in prayer is typically ourselves, asking for the things we want or need.   And, indeed, there is nothing wrong with this.  Scripture calls this dimension of prayer supplication, which is another way of saying “to ask.”   The Bible encourages us to ask God for what we need.  Jesus instructed his disciples and by extension us.

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” 

Luke 11:9-13

And in another place, Jesus promised, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”(John 16:23)   Jesus’ brother, James, wrote, “you do not have, because you do not ask.” But then goes on to warn you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”(James 2:4)   We are instructed to ask boldly.  The author of the Hebrews reminds us of this.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”(Hebrews 4:16)

But James warning should give us pause.  What should we ask for?  What types of things?  And how do we ask?   Interestingly, most of the instruction in Scripture regarding involves praying for others.   While we are certainly to ask for our own needs, the bulk of our asking is to be for others through intercessory prayer.   And like most other aspects of our prayer, the prayer of the gathered church should model the trajectory for our private prayer.    The Apostle Paul, in giving instruction to Timothy regarding worship in the Ephesian Church wrote.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

1 Timothy 2:1-4

The church has always understood this to mean that in public worship we are to pray for others – for those responsible for government, for the peace purity and prosperity of the church, for the general welfare of society and for the spread of the gospel among all peoples.   Christian worship puts a strong emphasis on intercessory prayer, particularly in public worship.    John Calvin noted that intercessory prayer exhibited the church’s core value.

“It has pleased God to work with human beings through human beings.  We are creatures of need. We need God and we need each other.  It is therefore through the ministry of other people that God in his wisdom has chosen to bless us.  It is in our intercession for each other that we realize what it is to be the Church.”

Just as Jesus’ prayer was characterized by intercession, so must ours be.   We are to “ask for a friend.”  We are to be bold askers at the throne of grace and mercy.  But much, if not most, of our asking is for others.   When we gather in church and pray alone in our closet, how much of our asking is “asking for a friend?”

In our idiom, “asking for a friend,” is a euphemism for our own concerns.   But when it comes to Christian prayer we are called to ask boldly for others through the ministry of intercession.    Join us this Lord’s Day, May 31 as we gather for worship both in person and by live-stream and consider Psalm 122 which calls us to pray for the sake of our brothers and to intercede for the church, the world, and our neighbors.

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

Behold Your King

How many times have you misjudged someone, thinking they were weak, incapable, or a push-over? Then, unexpectedly, they act out of unforeseen strength to save the day and make a mockery of your precipitous assessment.   King George VI of England was such a man.   Encumbered with a speech impediment, a man of great natural reserve and deference, he was considered by English society to be a royal embarrassment.  He had none of the eloquence, confidence or charm of his elder brother and heir to the throne, Edward VIII.  

But for all of the appearance of strength, Edward had none.  His great love was not a love of duty or country, but a love of self.   His sordid affair with Wallace Simpson led him to abdicate the throne on the eve of Great Britain’s entry into World War II.    In his stead, the timid and unpromising, George VI ascended to the throne.   George hardly looked the part of King. But for all his apparent weakness and inability, he had a strength none guessed.  His love of country and of duty and his strength of conviction guided Britain through its “finest hour.”  The remarkable story of George’s reign is told in the 2010 movie, “The King’s Speech.”

Outward appearances never define a king.  Samuel learned this when he went to the house of Jesse to anoint a successor to King Saul.   Saul had possessed a kingly bearing.  A head taller than every other man in Israel, Saul had looked like a King.  So Samuel looked for such a man among Jesse’s sons.  But the Lord warned Samuel,

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.  For the Lord sees not as a man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

Samuel’s search led him to David, the smallest and least promising of Jesse’s sons, but the one who was a man after God’s own heart. (Acts 13:22)  Outward appearances never define a King.  

Luke’s account of the crucifixion is remarkable in many ways.  It gives scarcely any details about the crucifixion itself, but focuses attention on the reactions of those Jesus encountered as He traveled the way of suffering.   He was met with pity, mockery and bitter anger, but also remarkable and unexpected faith.   At every turn Luke declares the Kingship of Jesus.   Yet, Jesus hardly looks like a King.  To the eye he appears to be victim, not victor.  Luke uses the word ‘spectacle’ to describe the scene.   Those who looked upon this spectacle without faith saw Jesus as anything but a King.   But through faith others saw the King entering His kingdom.   Outward appearances never define a King. 

The “Daughters of Jerusalem” looked at outward appearances. They were warned by Jesus not to weep for Him, but for themselves.   They were looking at the cross and the Christ all wrong.   They did not understand what was unfolding before them.  They saw a victim suffering injustice, rather than a King bearing justice. How do you look at the events of Good Friday?  What is your response to the cross?  Does it evoke pity, mockery, or despair?  Or does it call you to repentance, faith, and hope?

Join us on Facebook Live at 10:30 am this Lord’s Day, March 29, as we examine Luke 23:26-49 and consider the Kingship of Christ, powerfully declared, brazenly rejected and savingly believed.  For more information about how we are gathering for corporate worship amidst calls for “social distancing” go to our post, How to Survive the Pandemic.

The Last Word

The Last Word

As a pastor, few things are harder than preparing for a funeral. Not only are you sharing personally in the grief of beloved friends, but you are bearing the grief of precious sheep. The gravity of speaking the “last words” of a person’s life and the urgency the house of mourning presses upon us to declare the gospel — these are heavy weights upon the mind and heart of a pastor. Last words must declare the faithfulness and goodness of God and prepare those left behind to embark upon the voyage of grief. What we say at the funeral frames life and loss in the context of God’s promises, which are all “yes and amen, in Christ Jesus.”

Especially poignant is time at the graveside. In the quiet intimacy of the grave, we feel the tension between a palpable sense of finality and a nagging certainty that there is more. Andrew Peterson says it well.

This is not the end here at this grave
This is just a hole that someone made
Every hole was made to fill
And every heart can feel it still–
Our nature hates a vacuum

This is not the hardest part of all
This is just the seed that has to fall
All our lives we till the ground
Until we lay our sorrows down
And watch the sky for rain

There is more
More than all this pain
More than all the falling down
And the getting up again
There is more
More than we can see
From our tiny vantage point
In this vast eternity
There is more.
Andrew Peterson, “More”

For the believer, death is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. There is more. The last episode of the first book of the Bible recounts two funerals. Genesis begins with “in the beginning” and ends with “in a coffin in Egypt.” God began by speaking life and beauty into the world, but man’s sinful rebellion has brought death and decay. We see the great distance man has fallen and the fruition of the curse, ‘in the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of [moral autonomy] you will surely die.” We might be tempted to find discouragement in these last words, but nothing should be further from the truth.

The famous statement of God’s sovereignty in Gen 50:20, “what you intended for evil, God meant for good” is one of grace and promise. Sin is not the last word. Grace is the last word. What man has experienced and intended for evil in his fallen, sinful rebellion, God has worked for good by sending a redeemer in the person of His Son, Jesus.

We see this explicitly in Acts 2 as Peter declares,

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

This is the great exchange in the gospel; Jesus who bore our sins, Jesus who through our evil intentions and actions, brings us good and salvation. This is the last word. Don’t let sin and death be the last word in your life, for Jesus came to give life and life to the full.

Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, October 7, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we conclude our conversations from the Book of Beginnings and consider how the God always speaks the last word, and it is a word of redeeming grace to ruined sinners. For directions click here. We look forward to seeing you there.

 

Laundry Work

My wife loves making lists, because she loves checking things off her list.  Striking through task after task brings a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Nothing beats the feeling of checking off that last item and heading for a well-earned rest.   But wait, there is one more item – that stubborn one that is always there, yet never removed, never finished.  You know the one I mean.  Laundry work.

Laundry is never done.  You may wash the last load and fold the last dishrag and smugly congratulate yourself in your victory over dirty clothes, then in a flash your family appears bearing those loads they have been holding back for “such a time as this.”   And, thus it starts all over again.  Laundry is never done.  By definition, as long as we live in this fallen world where we are no longer naked and not ashamed, laundry is ever-awaiting.

In our household, “laundry work” is a ready metaphor for any job or experience in life that is always being done but never getting done.  Life is filled with these, not the least of which is wrestling with God.  Wrestling with what He has done, wrestling with what He has not done, wrestling with what he has called us to do and where He has called us to go.   The trite slogan of evangelicalism is “Jesus is the Answer.”  But for those who have heeded the call to follow Him, you have probably learned by now that “Jesus is the Question.” Following Him is a task unfinished, a pilgrim life which finds no permanent resting place in this world, except in Him.   The life of the Christian is the life of wrestling with God, wrestling to cling to Him rather than to this world.

This is why modern-day Christians share the label “Israel,” with our forefathers in the faith.  Because we, like Jacob of old wrestle, with God’s promises and His power and His calling.   That wrestling is not a match, but a life.  It does not go a few rounds until someone gets pinned.   Jacob wrestled all night.   But our wrestling is for a lifetime.  Not a match, but a life.  The Christian life, this wrestling with God, is laundry work.  It is always being done, but never getting done.

After wrestling with God, Jacob returned to Canaan to take up residence in the land of promise.  But life there was anything but promising.  Joseph had been sold into slavery as a teenager and Jacob believed him to be dead.  He resolved never to stop grieving and refused to be comforted.  Meanwhile, Jacob’s others sons all lived wickedly and, like their uncle Esau, cared nothing for God or His promises.  Their birthright meant nothing and they despised it.  Jacob must have wondered if all the promises of God had failed.  Had it all come to nothing?  All the struggle, all the deception, all the conflict; what had it all been for?  Then comes the shocking, heart-stopping word that Joseph is still alive and is in Egypt.  All is arranged and Jacob is bidden to leave Canaan and go down to Egypt.  Leave Canaan?  Go to Egypt?  All of Jacob’s life and the lives of his father and grandfather have been bound up in a commitment to remain in Canaan and never, ever go down to Egypt.  Now Jacob is wrestling with two desires, two callings, and God’s will.

Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, September 2, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we examine Genesis 46 and consider from the life of Jacob, how we wrestle with God when his call seems at odds with our desires.  For directions click here. We look forward to seeing you there.

 

Who Is This?

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.

Jesus’ own disciples struggled to understand who he was and what he came to do.  From time to time glimpses shined 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.

Who is Jesus?  The accounts of him at the end of the gospel of John are really very unexpected.  As he faces an unjust arrest, trial, and execution, we seem him not as a failed revolutionary swept up in the unstoppable tide of Roman tyranny and religious jealousy.  What we see is that Jesus is the one in complete control of everything that transpires.  He told his disciples, “no one takes my life from me.  I lay it down and I will take it up again.”

Who do you think Jesus is?  Come and find out as we walk through the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, from John 18-21.  Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, March 11, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we examine John 18 and consider just who Jesus is and what he came to do.  Click here for directions.  We look forward to seeing you.