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.

 

Black Package

We all have those friends or family members who pride themselves on “speaking their mind.”  While they think it a great virtue, we find it a grievous vice.  What they really mean by “speaking their mind” is that they feel free to give unsolicited and harsh criticism.  We try to ignore their callous rudeness, but the problem is that they are often right in what they say.   I call it truth in a black package.  I once worked with a senior engineer who was our official team curmudgeon.  His unsolicited invective toward younger coworkers was always pointed but spot on.   Whenever coworkers ignored his opinions because of the black packaging, they met with disaster.  In the same way, many ignore the gospel, because it comes wrapped in the black packaging of sin and repentance, only to meet with disaster that lasts forever.

As Jacob comes to the end of his life, he gathers his sons to speak a word of blessing.  When we look at his words, however, some look more like a curse than a blessing.  They are future blessing wrapped in the black package of their past sins.  He has hard words for his sons as he reminds them of their past failures, but also points them to a gracious future through the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises by a Savior.   At emotional times like these in our own lives, we are often tempted to define ourselves by our past unfaithfulness, but here Jacob reminds his sons that they are defined by God’s future faithfulness.   Like Jacob’s hard blessings, the gospel first speaks words of conviction to us and then comforts us with words of grace.  One ancient preacher said that it is the needle of the law which draws the thread of the gospel.

Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, September 30, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we examine Jacob’s blessing of his sons from Genesis 49 and consider how the gospel speaks hard words of conviction and gentle words of comfort as God calls us to be his sons and daughters.   For directions click here. We look forward to seeing you there.

The Bike Man

A common fixture in many small communities is the “bike-man.”   The bike-man is not a mechanic who fixes your mountain bike or performance racer, though he is certainly an able mechanic.  The bike-man is the man who trawls the neighborhoods and garage sales in town, looking for junked or nearly junked bicycles, to restore and sell for next-to-nothing to children who need a good bike, but can’t really afford one.  His mantra is “every child needs a bike and every bike needs a child.”  He is motivated not by profit or by challenge, but simply out of the desire to see things that are thrown away, restored to useful and joyful purposefulness.

The bike-man is an apt metaphor for the God of the Bible, in whose image he is made.  For the persistent theme of Scripture is God’s redemptive purpose to take men, women, boys and girls “thrown away” by sin, and to renew and restore them to useful and joyful purposefulness.  And more than that, to make them His own, to love and value and cherish.

One of the Bible’s great themes is that of adoption.  We are familiar with the power of an adoption story.  When a child is victim of tragic circumstance or is unloved or uncared for, orphaned and thrown away, how beautiful it is when a parent comes and adopts that child into their family to cherish and nourish.   When we adopt we become like the bike-man, taking those others have set out on the curb, restoring them to useful and joyful purposefulness, and giving them a loving family.    More importantly we become like our Heavenly Father who adopts us who were set out on the curb by our sinful rebellion, yet reconciled and adopted because of the finished work of the God’s only-born Son.  The scripture says that our God, is a “father to the fatherless, [who] sets the lonely in families” and that through faith we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

As the story of Jacob draws to a close in the final chapters of Genesis, we see the first account of an adoption in the Bible.  Jacob adopts his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh.   These boys were not homeless or uncared for, but Jacob adopts them to include them in the promises of God and to give them a stake with God’s people.   Likewise, God graciously adopts us through faith in Christ that we might know and trust in His good promises of salvation and eternal life and so that we might throw in our lot with His family, the Church, and not with those who are alienated and estranged and orphaned from God’s grace and from real community.

Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, September 16, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we examine Genesis 48 and consider beauty and power of our adoption as sons and daughters of God.   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.

The God Who Sees

Recently our Congress extended permissions for the NSA to continue to dumpster dive in the flotsam and jetsam of your digital wake.  For another six years, so long as they happen to be hunting foreign terrorists, our government can keep a benevolent eye on us through the cyber tracks we leave everywhere in an ever-broadening desire to be connected.

Our pocket-palantirs are ever listening, watching and reporting.  In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien unwittingly prophesied the doubled-edged benefit of smart phones when he conceived of the Palantir.  The Palantir were seeing stones that let the characters in Tolkien’s world see and communicate with one another across time and space.   They also revealed the potential futures of those peering into them.  Sounds great, except that anyone looking into a Palantir could be seen by anyone possessing another Palantir, especially Sauron with his “all-seeing” eye.  Magic rings and Palantir are tempting productivity tools, but remember there is an “all-seeing” eye.

Many of my friends have tape on their smart phone camera, keep wifi and mobile data off, and never enable GPS because of concern that their pocket-palantir makes them seeable by an ambiguously benevolent higher power.  But this is not a new idea in the history of the world, just a different tool and new set of players.  Men have always had concern over whether they are being watched.  Jesus noted that men prefer darkness to light so that their deeds may remain hidden.  Yet the scripture notes that even darkness is as light to God and that the Lord sees everything, down even to the deepest thoughts and intents of the hearts.

The Nazca Indians of South America sensed this, even in their spiritual darkness, and constructed mammoth images on the desert floor to please the gods above whom they believed to be angry because of the lives of men.  Men throughout history have distressed over an awareness that the God Who Is, is a God Who Sees.  The Psalms speaks of those who try repress the knowledge of God’s omniscience through idolatry and atheism. Yet, this thing which men’s darkened hearts fear, is their greatest hope.  For the God who sees is the God who saves.  The God who sees is the God who loves the loveless and relieves the afflicted in their affliction.

Genesis 29 is a complicated story of an ancient family dealing with the whole cadre of modern sins.   Jacob deceives and is deceived, faces drama and jealousy, plays favorites and shirks his obligations and labors under caustic relations with in-laws.  What hope is there for such a family?   What hope is there for our complicated families?  Buried in this passage is the sad tale of Leah, the unloved wife and woman.  Her father trundled her off to Jacob to defraud him out of seven additional years of labor.  Her new husband despised her.  Her wedding bed was shared with her sister.  She was the contempt of her husband, father and sister – but not of the Lord who Sees.  He saw her in her affliction.  He saw that she was not loved.  He loved her and gave her the gift of children, whose love would fill up her empty spaces.

Join us for worship this Lord’s Day, March 11, at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as we examine the story of Leah in Genesis 29 and consider how God, who sees us for what and who we are, is the God who loves us with steadfast and redemptive love.  Click here for directions.  We look forward to seeing you.

Bumper Rails

Where were bumper rails when we were young?  Bowling was much harder than we imagined and gutter-balls were the mainstay of our early forays into the sport.  Children today, however, can experience the euphoria of crushing pins without the disappointment of gutter-dwelling, due to a truly marvelous modern invention – the bumper rail.  Throw in an adaptive bowling ramp and your average adult league bowler will be hard-pressed to beat a three year old without a sizeable handicap.

Older children may argue that this is an unfair advantage and bowling purists may complain that youngsters need to develop the character that comes from a single-digit score, but bowling alleys have learned that bumper rails and adaptive bowling ramps make the game more fun and significantly reduce crying among its fledgling bowlers.

In a similar way, the Lord graciously protects us when we struggle in our journey of faith.  Despite our struggles with unbelief, disobedience and conflict, the Lord, through His gracious providence keeps us out of many gutters and directs our paths when we are too weak to do so.   This great truth of God’s kindness in providence does not makes us apathetic or callous toward the demands of obedience or holiness, but rather increases our desire to grow in these areas out of gratitude for Him.  How has the Lord guarded and directed your path in the midst of a difficult faith journey?

Join us for worship at Pottsville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church  this Lord’s Day, February 18, we examine Genesis 26 and consider how God graciously protects us when are struggling with unbelief, disobedience, and conflict in our journey of faith. For directions click here. We look forward to seeing you.