James 3:1-7

I have long been an admirer of the book of James. The simplistic way that he writes. The boldness with which he writes. I enjoy reading something in James that might seem to contradict what Paul writes in his letters, but when looked into deeper, the two writers are actually agreeing with each other. I appreciate the way James challenges the reader in daily living.

James was a brother of Jesus. Not the kind of brother that we say, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ,” but an actual brother. One of Mary’s kids. The same Mary who bore Jesus. James was the one mentioned in Matthew 13:55-56, which says, “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things? (NKJV)” This is the same James who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and who would later earn the nickname “Camel knees” because of the time he spent in devoted prayer to Jesus, his brother.

There is a lot of wisdom in the five short chapters in the book of James and chapter three is no exception. Here James talks about controlling the tongue. He speaks of how,

We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.(NLT)

But then he adds,

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body.

The first reaction is often to think, “Whoa, James. Relax a little bit. It’s not that bad.”

But when we think about how powerful words are, we begin to see just how true James’ statement really is. How much love has been poured over your life because of some kind words a friend, relative, parent, or spouse spoke to you. How much hurt has been caused because of an angry word spoken in the heat of an argument. Think back, how much love have you poured out, or hurt you have caused, because of the words you spoke. Yes, James’ statement is more true than we probably care to consider, especially in this day and age. We live in a “me” world. “I” have a right to say or do something because that’s just who “I” am, and “you” have to accept it.

Or maybe not…

But if you look at the end of verse six, we see something curious. Remember, we saw before in verse six that the tongue “is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body.” And James ends the verse with these words…

“It,” the tongue, “can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.”

Wait, the tongue is set on fire by hell? If we remember the teachings of the rest of scripture, we are reminded that we are sinful people. We are born into sin. That is the reason for needing a Savior. But set on fire by hell itself?

This statement had me puzzled so i did a little digging around and came across something interesting. I like reading commentaries. Some of them i can do without, but people have devoted vast amounts of time to studying God’s word, hearing from God, and trying to understand what God is saying in a certain passage. It’s no different than our prayer lives, only they wrote stuff down. One of my go to commentaries, i don’t know why, is the Matthew Henry Commentary of the Bible. Observing this passage, Henry writes,

The snares into which men are sometimes led by the tongue are insufferable to themselves and destructive of others. It setteth on fire the course of nature. The affairs of mankind and of societies are often thrown into confusion, and all is on a flame, by the tongues of men. Some read this as, all our generations are set on fire by the tongue. There is no age of the world, nor any condition of life, private or public, but will afford examples of this. The phrase, “and it is set on fire of hell” we observe: Hell has more to do in promoting of fire of the tongue than men are generally aware of. It is from some diabolical designs, that men’s tongues are inflamed. The devil is expressly called a liar, a murderer, an accuser of the brethren; and, whenever men’s tongues are employed in any of these ways, they are set on fire of hell.

That’s powerful stuff. “Hell has more to do in promoting of fire of the tongue than men are generally aware of.” How much do we say in our daily living that we don’t even know is set on fire by hell.

I have heard many arguments over the years on this passage. Control the tongue they say. Watch your words. Don’t talk too much, because what you say can be damaging. These are all true. But…

Let’s take a look at what Matthew Henry says next, shall we…

The Holy Ghost indeed once descended in cloven tongues as of fire, Acts 2. And where the tongue is thus guided and wrought upon by a fire from heaven, there it kindleth good thoughts, holy affections, and ardent devotions. But when it is set on fire of hell, as in all undue heats it is, there it is mischievous, producing rage and hatred, and those things which serve the purposes of the devil. As therfore you would dread fires and flames, you should dread contentions, revilings, slanders, lies, and every thing that would kindle the fire of wrath in your own spirit or in the spirits of others.

I wrote once, here or elsewhere, about how i was learning to watch out for the opposite in scripture. For example, when we read of a blessing in scripture, there is written within that passage the means with which to obtain that blessing. We may not read of any curses in the passage, but by implication, anything we do that goes against the obtaining of the blessing will produce the curse. Anyway, i’m still learning the whole “opposite” thing in scripture, and this one totally blew by me. My eyes were opened to something incredible here.

Let me explain. James is writing very negatively in this passage. And perhaps that’s a good thing. The warning about using our words carefully, because the tongue “is set on fire by hell itself” is a very good warning. But this passage produces in it a positive, even if it is never mentioned, and Matthew Henry sheds light on it.

Acts 2 is the story of the Holy Spirit descending on the people in the upper room “with tongues of fire.” Here, the tongues of fire come from heaven. In James, the warning is the tongues of fire from hell. James is implying that our words may be lit on fire by heaven, which in turn produces all kinds of good; “there it kindleth good thoughts, holy affections, and ardent devotions.”

I am starting to look at this passage in James in a different light. I’m not completely settled on it, but i think what James is trying to say is, yes, watch your tongue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t speak. If your words are set on fire from heaven through the power of the Holy Spirit, speak away. Use as many words as needed to ignite the hearts and lives of men and women in your sphere of influence. In our daily lives. With the people we meet. Give a word of blessing instead of cursing.

I want to challenge us, me and you, to ask God to give us words of blessing set on fire by the Holy Spirit, to speak to the stranger in the grocery aisle about the love of God. To set the hearts of our neighbors on fire with a passion for Jesus because of the anointing our words have from the very throne of heaven. May we change our communities with the words we speak that have been lit up from heaven.



The Fresco Everyone’s Talking About

I’m sure by now most of you have heard of the restoration of a 102 year old fresco that went horribly wrong. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you can read a little about it here.

The thing about the failed restoration attempt is that i’m really not sure how to feel about it. Everyone will have their own opinion of it, but i am both troubled by the whole circumstance and a little glad.

I took a course at Providence University College a few years ago called Rituals of Prayer. One of the assignments was to study frescos and understand the relevance of them in Christian living. Since then i have taken a greater liking to them. So when this story came up, i was a little dismayed. There is a reason, whatever it may be, that the fresco got damaged in the first place. That’s how it goes sometimes. Don’t try to fix it. Just let it be. One of my favorite frescos is called Christ of Zvenigorod. It’s quite damaged. But it adds something to the fresco that would not otherwise exist. The fresco seems more “daunting” (if i can use that word) than it would otherwise and it forces the observer to view Christ Jesus a little differently.

You can see what i mean.

But that’s just the trouble.

The restoration of a fresco that has been damaged is not necessary. I understand the well-meaning intentions of this elderly lady who wanted nothing more than to restore a fresco that she grew up with. The damaged fresco must have caused her to ache, knowing what it should look like. Seeing the original beside the damaged copy, we get a sense of what this elderly woman must have felt. I can hear the pang in her voice, “I just wanted it to look like it did before. He looks hurt. He looks broken. But he’s not broken. I just wanted to fix it.”

The tension i feel inside of me goes a lot deeper than this though. With the restoration of the fresco into something that one article called, “amateurish, almost cartoon-like portrait,” the image of our Lord Jesus Christ is once again dragged through the mud. The Toronto Sun article linked to earlier notes, “A BBC Europe correspondent described the restoration as resembling “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.””

And that is what is most troubling. Read the comments of any site with an article related to this restoration effort and you will read how a lot of people are laughing over this. They think the image is funny. The town where the fresco exists has become a tourist attraction where people go for a laugh.

One comment left by an observer noted, “If it were a botched image of mohammed, there would be a far different response, not all the laughter I see posted here.”

A friend of mine was describing to me two books that he read recently, The 180 Degree Christian and You Lost Me. Both authors, he said, were describing the lack of conviction with which the Church has lived its life over the last number of decades, and the decay of morals and ethics in Christian living. They describe how Christians have done a poor job of representing Christ in their sphere of influence, be it at work in the office or on the construction site, or in the supermarket aisles as they shop for groceries.

Which leads to the question: How have i represented Christ? How do i represent Christ?

How have you? How do you?

Believer’s Boldness

I’ve been reading through the book of Acts lately. For those readers unfamiliar with the book of Acts, it is the fifth book of the New Testament in the Bible, and describes the events that occurred as the first church came into being after Jesus’ death over 2000 years ago.

The book of Acts is a fascinating book. Even for the non-Christian, there are a lot of interesting stories that make people go, “Hmmm,” or, “That’s just odd.” I took a course at Providence University College on the book of Acts a few years ago, but the thing about the Bible is that, even though someone might take a course on a book or several books, the real learning comes from re-reading a book. You might get insights into the author by taking a course, or you might learn to think a little more critically by taking a course, but when someone re-reads the Bible (both OT and NT), depending on where life’s journey’s have taken a person, the real educating comes from that re-reading.

And my read through Acts at this time is no different. Last week i was reading through chapter four of Acts, and something caught my attention. I’ve read Acts before, numerous times. But this time through chapter four has me gripped. I can’t stop thinking about this chapter. More specifically, chapter four verses twenty-three to thirty-one:

As soon as they were freed, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said. 24 When they heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “O Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them- 25 you spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant, saying,

‘Why were the nations so angry? Why did they waste their time with futile plans?
26 The kings of the earth prepared for battle; the rulers gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’

27 In fact, this has happened here in this very city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. 28 But everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will. 29 And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.”

Of course, these few verses are loaded with things to talk about. But what sticks out to me this time around starts in verse twenty-four, “…all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God…,” continues through the prayer and ends in verse thirty-one, “…Then they preached the word of God with boldness.”

Almost all of this passage is made up of a prayer. It says that all of the believers were praying, not just one or two, and not just Peter and John. All of them. Gathered together. Praying. And what did they pray for? In the end it boils down to the fact that they wanted to preach the word of God. All of them. Not just one or two, and not just Peter and John. They prayed for the boldness to preach the word of God. And when the power came through the Holy Spirit, that’s exactly what they did. They went and preached the word of God.

There are two challenges that i see in these verses. Number one: Every believer should be seeking for the boldness to preach the word of God. We’re not just supposed to let “those trained or gifted ones” preach. We all have a mandate as believers in Christ to preach, and to preach with boldness. Wherever we find ourselves, whatever the circumstances.

The second thing that i see in this passage is this: When we as believers ask for something from God, and when he answers, we must act on whatever he grants us. If we pray for boldness to preach, we must be prepared to act and to preach with boldness when he answers. If we ask for opportunities to minister to someone, and then he answers that prayer by placing someone in our lives during the day that needs to be ministered to, we must act on that answer to prayer.

Our faith is not just about us getting blessings from God so that we can live comfortable, neat little lives. It is a faith that requires action, and that means acting on the things that God grants us when we ask him.

I pray that you are challenged as you read this, to think about the things you have prayed for, and how you should act on them as God answers. Amen.

What is God Like?

This past Sunday i preached the sermon you’ll see in the script below. The conviction for this sermon started about three or four years ago through events in my own life, and as i keep reading books, blogs, etc, and hearing people speak, it is clearly evident that the timing of the message was appropriate. As ever, when the Spirit moves during the delivery of a sermon, it is important to roll with it. Having said that, the audio version of what follows differs from how it is presented here. The wording of a sentence might be delivered differently, or emphasis added in places that even i would not have thought. There were also one or two spots where elaboration was given, and in one instance, at least in this case, a word from 1 Corinthians 10:4-6 was given as well, which you won’t find in the text. I still need to wrestle a bit with that passage, and my write about it soon. Blessings as you read…

What is God Like?

Isaiah 40:12-24

July 15, 2012

            The most recent copy of The Voice of the Martyrs magazine has an article titled, Is God dead in North Korea? which reads in part:

“On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” and son of self-proclaimed god Kim Il Sung, passed on to eternity.

“North Korea has long been one of the darkest and most isolated nations on the earth, especially for believers. Kim Il Sung became “Great Leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, after communists took control in the north. Almost immediately, he closed all churches and set out to eradicate Christianity. An estimated 300,000 Christians disappeared, and about 100,000 more were sent to labor camps. Nearly all pastors and priests were executed, adding to the number of martyrs who cry out to God for judgment, according to Revelation 6:9-10.

“Kim Il Sung established a new guiding philosophy called “juche,” meaning “self-reliance,” that reflected a warped imitation of Christianity. As the son of Christian parents and the grandson of a Christian pastor, he appointed himself Supreme Leader and godhead, with his son, Kim Jong Il, as the son of god. He set himself up as god and put his son in the place of Jesus.

“North Koreans are still required to worship Kim Il Sung with all their heart and might, even after his death, according to article 1, of the party covenant. His son, Kim Jong Il, was bestowed with divine interpretation of the “juche” ideology.

“For more than half a century, North Koreans have been brainwashed to pour all their faith into the words and actions of the two Kims. At the 2011 funeral for Kim Jong Il, mourners could be heard asking, “How could you leave us? What are we supposed to do without you?

“On state T.V., a soldier declared, “The people, the mountains, the streams and the heavens are weeping tears of blood for having to bid the final farewell.”[1]

Kim Il Sung had the fortitude to declare himself as God and yet died. His son died too. And yet because of the upbringing of the North Korean people, somehow they still view the Kim family as God-like.

It’s easy to read a story like this, or hear of other stories like it from other parts of the world and say, “Man, someone needs to get in there and do something about that!” Or even, “Maybe it’s time to go on missions and change the world over there.” You might even be tempted to say something like, “If God gave me a large ministry, I would do what I could to impact those people with the love of God.” But I’m here to ask a question this morning: Is North Korea really any different from North America? Or more succinctly stated: It’s true that North Korea may have communism, and they have cultivated a system of raising their children that teaches that a dead guy is god, but is the idolatry that has been cultivated in North Korea so much different from that of North America?

The question I’m going to ask right up front this morning is related to the title of the sermon this morning: What is God like?

Before we get into that though, let’s bow our heads in prayer and invite God into the conversation this morning. Pray.

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Isaiah 40, starting at verse twelve. Those of you who know me well know that I generally read out of the NKJV version, but this morning I’ll be reading out of the New Living Translation. Isaiah 40 then, starting at verse twelve:

12 Who else has held the oceans in his hand? Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers? Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale? 13 Who is able to advise the Spirit of the Lord? Who knows enough to give him advice or teach him? 14 Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice? Does he need instruction about what is good? Did someone teach him what is right or show him the path of justice?

15 No, for all the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket. They are nothing more than dust on the scales. He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand. 16 All the wood in Lebanon’s forests and all Lebanon’s animals would not be enough to make a burnt offering worthy of our God. 17 The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes they count for less than nothing – mere emptiness and froth.

18 To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him? 19 Can he be compared to an idol formed in a mold, overlaid with gold, and decorated with silver chains? 20 Or if people are too poor for that, they might at least choose wood that won’t decay and a skilled craftsman to carve an image that won’t fall down!

21 Haven’t you heard? Don’t you understand? Are you deaf to the words of God – the words he gave before the world began? Are you so ignorant? 22 God sits above the circle of the earth. The people below seem like grasshoppers to him! He spreads out the heavens like a curtain and makes his tent from them. 23 He judges the great people of the world and brings them all to nothing. 24 They hardly get started, barely taking root, when he blows on them and they wither. The wind carries them off like chaff.

So far the reading of God’s word!

A. W. Tozer, in The Knowledge of the Holy, writes, “All of the problems of heaven and earth, if they were to confront us all at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as mortal beings must do about Him.” And in the next paragraph Tozer adds, “The person who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of ten thousand temporal problems.”[2]

It is no secret that the Church in North America has a problem. God is awakening pastors, teachers, prophets, and evangelists to this reality. While we like to sit comfortably in our homes and look at the issues going on in the rest of the world, things are deteriorating before our very eyes.

I heard a message recently by Mike Bickle, one of my favorite pastors that I listen to. It was a message I had heard a few times and was listening to it again and heard something I hadn’t picked up on before. He said, “The one thing that people in the pulpit do not talk about is God. It is the topic that is most ignored in the pulpit.”

Preacher and teacher Corey Russell says, “Our greatest problem is that we do not know who God is! We do not know the God that we talk about, the God that we sing about, the God that we do our evangelistic outreaches in the name of, the God that we spend our whole lives, with Him all around us, the very one that we proclaim, there is little, very small, living reality, living revelation of who He is on the inside of us.”

That is the reality of what we as a Church are facing today. We truly do not know who God is. For most North American Christians we’re just happy enough to say, “Yeah, I know God,” and then go on living compromised lives. If you were at the fair service this year you heard Brian Sumner talk about this. He told of how people in the offices of the companies he had endorsements with encouraged him to divorce his wife and live a party life. Then when he became a Christian, they turned around and told him that they were too. He shared how shocked he was to find that the very people encouraging him to live a party lifestyle and divorce his wife were the same ones that later said they were Christians.

But bless His holy name, God is moving and working in the hearts of leaders. God is awakening in pastors, teachers, prophets, and evangelists a desire that there needs to be more. God is awakening a Joel 2 Spirit among His people. God is setting up watchmen and women on the walls. He is calling the leaders to blow the trumpet; to sound an alarm, and wake people up to what is coming around the corner.

In prayer meetings, in talks with people all over, and in books and articles, I keep hearing the same thing. People are saying that they believe we are in the end-times. From all over people are saying that they can feel a shift, and that we are nearing the end of the age. But then these same people don’t do anything different with their lives. They continue to go on living their same old lives, and they don’t even try to gain an understanding of the God that they serve. In their lives they know that they have the fire insurance they need so that they won’t go to hell when Jesus returns, but they don’t even bother with anyone else.

The thing that gets me excited though is that God is raising up pastors and teachers who aren’t afraid to share a tough word from God. They are not ashamed to be the one blowing the trumpets, and waking the people of God up from the slumber that Satan has gotten them entrenched in. Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, he writes, “A time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” These leaders that God is raising in this hour are being filled with the boldness of God to preach against what those itching ears want to hear. These leaders are being filled with boldness to declare what Paul calls sound and wholesome teaching.

We truly do not know who God is!

John G. Lake, the famous preacher, in writing about the state of Christianity during his life wrote, “My Lord is not dead! But I’ll tell you, dear hearts – we have been satisfied to live in Christ in our babyhood, to perpetuate our babyhood, and to go on shouting like a lot of babies, instead of entering into the secrets of the heart of Jesus Christ by the grace of God and claiming from Heaven the divine flames of God upon our souls.”[3]

One almost gets the sense that this is what Isaiah is trying to say in the passage this morning. It’s as though he has been challenged time and time again regarding the greatness of God that he responds in a challenge to the people. It’s as though he’s asking the people, “Which of the gods that you worship can hold the oceans, or measure the heavens? Which one of them knows the weight of the world or the mountains and hills? Can you or any of your gods teach the living God? Or give Him advice?”

One commentator in The Pulpit Commentary puts it this way, “The holy indignation of the prophet is aroused as he sees the Godhead so pitifully presented to the mind, so shamefully represented in the eyes of people.” And if I can quote one of my mentors from a conversation I had this week, he said, “Isaiah’s holy indignation should be our holy discontent.” We should not be ready to live contented lifestyles when it comes to our knowledge of God.

It is that holy indignation that causes Isaiah to ask the question in verse eighteen, “To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble Him?” And then he almost seems to mock those who would try to depict God as something lower than He is, “Can He be compared to an idol formed in a mold, overlaid with gold, and decorated with silver chains? Or if people are too poor for that, they might at least choose wood that won’t decay and a skilled craftsman to carve an image that won’t fall down.”

Isaiah’s challenge here is similar to the challenge that Elijah laid down in 1 Kings 18:20-40, the story we know so well. Elijah challenges the people to call to their gods to burn up the offering they had made on the altar. He mocks them and tells them to yell louder because maybe their gods are busy or sleeping and need to be brought to attention. Then he soaks his offering with water and calls on the living God, and it says that, immediately the fire of God comes and consumes all of the offerings.

Let me ask you the same question Isaiah asked the people: To whom will you compare God? What image can you find to resemble Him?

Can He be compared to the oversized house or the expensive cars? Or if people are too poor for that, at least they might get a big, high-definition flat-screen T.V. with a cable package, or a golf membership. The idol prevalent in the Western Church may not be Kim Il Sung, but it’s no less damaging to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

It is amazing to read and to hear pastors talk about how dull the Holy Spirit is in the Church in North America. Our senses have been dulled by television and video games, by movies and our need for instant fulfillment. I shudder to think about how much time Christians in North America will spend this month attending the movies Spider-Man and Batman alone. Unfortunately many of those same Christians won’t spend a quarter of the time reading the Bible as they would going to see those movies. Don’t get me wrong, these different forms of entertainment are okay, but when we’re so busy spending time at the movies or watching T.V. that we don’t get into the word of God we have a problem.

And who wants to watch half of the garbage on T.V. these days anyway. I remember years ago I watched the show 2 ½ Men all the time. One day the Spirit gripped me and said, “Jason, look at the filth of this show. You have to stop watching it. It dulls your senses.” So I stopped watching it, but just at that time The Big Bang Theory was starting up. I had started watching it but got the same impression from the Spirit, “Jason, this show is filthy. It demeans women, and with all of the sexual innuendo, my voice is being dulled in you.” What the Holy Spirit calls holy and righteous is being trampled on. What the Holy Spirit calls sin is being championed as something good.

One commentator translates Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 this way, “Do not let the world put you into its mold.” Friends, that is what the entertainment of our day is seeking to do. It is an attempt to mold us into what the world thinks and feels. Instead of standing against the rampant sins of the world, our spirits are so dull that we do not see the wool being pulled over our eyes.

We have lost the fear of the Lord that the great prophets and apostles throughout the ages had before the Living God. I’m not talking about being afraid of God, although maybe we need a little of that too. No, I’m talking about regaining the reverence and awe of God that caused Moses to remove his sandals at the burning bush. The reverence of God that caused him to write in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord – glorious in holiness, awesome in splendor, performing great wonders?”

I’m talking about an awe of God that causes Psalm 19 to take place, “The heavens declare the glory of God… day after day they speak; night after night they make Him known.” I’m talking about gaining such a majestic view of the Eternal God that it causes you to fall on your face, laying prostrate before God until He sees fit to give you the strength to move. I’m talking about the awe of God that, when you read a verse in scripture, you become undone for days. It takes all your effort to think of something else because of the wisdom that God pours forth in you while meditating on that one solitary verse. That’s what I’m talking about.


In closing I want to share a story and a couple of illustrations to wrap up.

I was at a conference a few years ago where the speaker was a lady by the name of Phyllis Tickle. The conference was in part a discussion about a few ideas she had written about in her book The Great Emergence. At the conference, Tickle argued that the authority of Scripture was dying. She stated, “Once the issue of when life begins,” she was speaking about the abortion issue, “Once the issue of when life begins and the homosexual issue are ratified, sola scriptura is dead.” In other words, once laws are passed with finality that abortion is completely legal, and once homosexual marriages are made legal, the authority of scripture is dead.

The difficulty with Tickle’s comments is this: She being a Christian talking to Christians, didn’t defend the Scriptures. She made no attempt at suggesting that Christians should dig in their heels and get ready to defend the authority of the Bible. Instead, she began suggesting new ideas about how we can move forward without the authority of the Bible.

That is the type of world we are living in.

As the Russell quote from earlier suggests, we don’t know who God is.

Story one: I heard a story recently about a board member of a Christian charity who had been seen to be a pillar of faith in their community. People admired this board member and looked up to them because they really wore their faith out in public. And then a small storm came into this board member’s life, and almost in a moment, their entire view of Christianity was dismantled. They began questioning everything in their faith. This person had a certain idea of who God is without establishing any deep understanding, and as soon as the shaking came, everything they built their faith on collapsed, because their view of God was incomplete.

Story two: The President of the United States is said to be the most powerful man on the planet. For so many people around the world, what the President says holds all the swaying power. And so it was in August of 2008 while speaking with Pastor Rick Warren, President Obama said, “”I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix. I am not somebody who promotes same-sex marriage, but I do believe in civil unions.”

That all changed on May 9, 2012, when in a national broadcast Obama stated, “Well, you know, I have to tell you, as I’ve said, I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue. But I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors… At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Now I’m not here to discuss the gay marriage thing. I know people will try and rake me over the coals for my stance on the issue and that’s okay. But if you go back and view the transcripts of the most recent interview, God isn’t mentioned. In the first interview it seems quite certain that God is the one that President Obama turns to. But in the second interview, it is the counsel of friends, family, and neighbors that influences his decision making. Where is the God of the Scriptures that is so prominent in the first interview? He’s rarely mentioned. And when President Obama mentions the Scriptures, he refers to, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Yet in the same interview, President Obama says, “I have a lot of friends on the other side of the issue…,” meaning that they do not support gay marriage, and that, “Their impulse is the right one. They want to preserve and strengthen families.” This type of compromise is just wrong, and it shows the unbelieving world just how shallow our view of God really is.

Contrast those stories with story three: Russ Toews. For those of you who don’t know who Russ Toews is, Russ is the regional director of the C2C initiative which is part of the MB Conference. A few years ago, Russ’s son committed suicide while studying at Providence College.

I remember some time after that, we had Russ in here one Sunday morning to preach. During his sermon he told the story of being outside shoveling snow. While he was shoveling the snow and praying, he heard the still, small voice of God say to him, “Russ, you have to accept this. You have to be okay with this.” As hard as it was for him, Russ confessed to God that he would be okay with his son’s death. Instead of dwelling on all the stuff that a parent has a right to dwell on in the midst of tragedy, Russ decided to trust the God that he serves and move forward in his walk with the Lord. It doesn’t make the pain hurt any less. But his understanding of who God is was so far beyond just the temporal and into eternal living, that he was able to continue moving forward in life.

What is God like?

The answer to that question is that God is unlike anything. We have made a god in our image who we think is like us. We have fashioned a god that fits our description of who God should be. When he doesn’t match up, we dismiss Him or compromise our faith and the Word so we can feel better about ourselves and our faith. We must get back to worshipping the God who made us in His image. We must gain a sense of awe and reverence for the God who is altogether unlike anything created. He is awesome. He is Holy. And He should be worshipped as such.



[1]Steven Lear, “Is God dead in North Korea?,” VOM (July 2012): 3.

[2]Tozer, A. W.  The Knowledge of the Holy. New York, NY., HarperOne: 2001, 2.

[3]Lake, John Graham.  Adventures in God. Tulsa, OK., Harrison House: 1991, 57.

It’s all about…

Driving in traffic the other day, i saw an unusual bumper sticker. It read, “Jesus lives to ease my suffering.”

My first reaction after reading this was, “Wow, i haven’t seen that one before.”

My next reaction to reading this was, “Wait a minute! What?!”

Now, i’m going to say something that might sound a little bit counter-cultural, a little bit daring, and maybe even a little bit offensive:

Jesus does not live to ease suffering. Yours or mine. Nobody’s.

Before you get all tied up in knots let me explain what i mean.

Jesus does ease suffering. Dying on the cross over 2000 years ago, one of the things that was ultimately taken care of was the fact that the blood of Jesus eases suffering. Living a life devoted to God through the salvation Jesus paid for on the cross eases suffering.

But that’s not why Jesus lives!

And once again, i’m going to say something that might sound a little counter-cultural, a little bit daring, and maybe even a little bit offensive:

It’s not about you! It’s not about me!

Society has dictated that the most important person in the world is me. Culture dictates that things exist to enhance my life. And Christians have bought into this lie hook, line, and sinker. Even those in the church are deceived by the me, myself and I mentality. “I need to be in control.”

The problem with this mentality is that it seeps its way into our understanding of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ. The problem with this mentality is that it dictates that Jesus lives for me. That God exists to cater to my needs and desires.

God does take care of your needs and desires. But that is not the reason he exists.

You see, It’s all about Him. It’s not about you. It certainly isn’t about me.

God does not exist for us. We exist for him. He created us to have a relationship with us.

Yes, Jesus eases suffering. But that is not why he lives. He lives to have fellowship with us.

The Church (capital C, as in, worldwide body of believers) need to start thinking differently. We need to recognize that we are being deceived by a clever manipulation that tries to dictate that things exist for us. We need to wake up.

And realize that it is we who exist to bring glory to God.

Mountains of Faith

I had an interesting conversation with someone following my sermon this past Sunday, and this conversation gave me pause to consider the position of the individual before posting the manuscript. The conversation dealt with whether God causes things to happen in our lives so that we can grow in faith, or whether because we live in a sinful and fallen world, things will happen and God will use those opportunities to teach us things so that we grow in faith.

While i agree that we live in a sinful and fallen world and that things happen to us as a result (whether through accidents or temptation from Satan), i also think that God causes things to happen in our lives. We grow in our faith as a result of both of these circumstances. For example, a man in our congregation had an accident 30+ years ago and has been in a wheelchair ever since. Did God cause that accident? No. Were people (including the gentleman in question) challenged in their faith and did they grow as a result? Yes.

But at the same time there is biblical example of God causing a situation in a person’s life so that their faith might grow. Look at the life of Abraham. God told Abraham that he was going to have a son, and that the nations would come through this son. Then he let Abraham wait. For a long time. God was testing Abraham.

Which brings us to the text of the sermon presented this past Sunday. As ever, there were some ad-libs and word changes in the moment, but the message delivered is the same as you will find here.

Mountains of Faith

Sermon for May 6, 2010

          “On May 10, 1996, reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion, Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest. He hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. As he turned to begin the perilous descent from 29, 028 feet, twenty other climbers were still pushing towards the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds.” The owner of Adventure Consultants and the expedition leader and head guide, Rob Hall, had led many expeditions to the top of Mt. Everest prior to this one, and he had a strict rule: Everyone turns around at 2:00 in the afternoon and heads back to camp, regardless of where they are on their climb. On this particular afternoon for whatever reason, he did not follow his own rule. By the time Krakauer got back to base camp the next day, nine people from four different expeditions including four from his own expedition were dead, including Rob Hall, while two others were airlifted out by a brave helicopter pilot.

I want to invite you to go on a journey with me this morning. In fact, I’m going to say something that might sound somewhat controversial. I want you to think selfishly this morning. I want you to think with a “What about me” attitude.

You may have noticed that I titled this morning’s message Mountains of Faith. The journey we are going to go on this morning involves a bit of “mountain climbing” if you will. The ideas and thoughts behind this message originated because of one statement that people have asked me over the past five or six years. That statement is this: Why are you always happy? Every time I see you, you have a smile on your face. Don’t you ever go through difficult or hard times like the rest of us?

This question bothers me. Not because people ask it, but because as Christians, people think they have inherited some sort of right to not go through trials or times of testing. And if they do go through trials, God is supposed to somehow lift them right out of the muck and the mud and place them on the lush green grass where things are always great.

Let me ask you two questions as we get started. First, by a show of hands, how many of you have heard the illustration of peaks and valleys to describe the faith journey? Again by show of hands, how many would say that generally speaking, this illustration is usually described as the good times in life at the peak of the mountain, and the rougher times in life as the valleys?

I invite you to turn with me to Romans 5:1-5 as we begin this journey. Paul has a lot to say about being tested throughout a lot of his writings, but in Romans 5 he provides us with the reason for going through trials. Let’s read these verses then:

“1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Paul begins this passage with a few words about faith and so we must also if we are to understand the remaining verses.

Paul acknowledges that our peace comes because of our faith in Jesus Christ, and that it is through Him, and only Him, that we have access to the throne of God. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Elton Trueblood says it this way, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation,” and Commentator Joseph Fitzmyer notes, “In the second part of the doctrinal section of Romans, one encounters the consequences of faith in Christ Jesus”. Now if you’re like me, any time you hear the word ‘consequence’ you start to think of negative things. I once heard someone wrestle with the term consequence. It is usually associated with negative images, isn’t it? If you play with knives you’re going to get cut. But when we stop to pause and consider the word, we can truly say that there are many good consequences as well. The consequences of eating food or drinking water are that the body continues to live. In the same way, there are good consequences associated with faith in Jesus Christ.

It is this faith in Jesus, as our Savior, that moves us forward in life and takes us through the various trials that we encounter.

Let’s get back to the mountains and valleys illustration. About five or six years ago, my view on this illustration changed. I used to think of it in terms of high points and low points in life, where the mountains were the good times and the valleys were the not so good times. The change was brought on by having read stories of mountain climbing. Let me explain.

I am a fan of mountain climbing books. In fact, right now I get daily emails of updates about an expedition on Mt. Everest, and they are planning on pushing for the summit sometime next week. While reading these different stories, the authors describe how the mountain looks when they’re climbing and how grateful they were when they were able to get back to a lower altitude. Mountains are barren, cold, and full of rocky outcrops and often great amounts of snow and ice. The air is a lot thinner and it is often difficult to breathe normally on a mountain. In fact, the higher you get on a mountain, the more desolate it gets. Just a little fun fact for you: Did you know that if you were to transport yourself to the peak of Mt. Everest right now it would take about three minutes for you to die. The air is so thin that the body cannot handle that quick change, and your body would go into shock and shut down in about three minutes.

Valleys on the other hand, are, generally speaking, lush and full of life. Trees grow, grass is incredibly green, and there is often a river or small stream at the bottom. Valleys are relaxing and tranquil.

Again by a show of hands let me ask you: Have you ever gone through a rough season in life, only to find out right at the end the thing that God was trying to teach you? I remember a particularly rough season in my early twenty’s that lasted about three years. After those three years, something clicked in my brain and in my heart, and I said, “That’s what I was supposed to learn. If I would have known that, it would not have taken three years.” Friends, I believe God does not want his children to live like that.

Of course the problem is that no one wants to go through the difficult times in life. No one wants to climb those mountains, whatever they may be. It is sort of a catch twenty-two: to grow in faith, at least in part, one must go through some difficult times, but going through difficult times is just that, it is difficult, and let’s be honest, it sucks. Who wants to have to go through hard times?

Paul is clear in Romans 5 on the reason we go through difficult times. He says in verse three that, “We glory in tribulations.” Let’s stop right there. Let me ask you this: When is the last time you thanked God for the messy situation you find yourself in? Have you ever thanked God for messy situations? Paul says that we should be happy for the hard times in life.

That is why it is so important to have a proper climbing guide. That’s why we must continue to follow the leading of Jesus in our lives. Remember the quote from before by Elton Trueblood, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” You or I would not climb Mount Everest without a lot of training and an experienced guide to lead the way: someone to plan the trip, to set a schedule so that the body can acclimatize to the thin air, and adjust to life with minimal food. In order to climb Mount Everest, a person must train for about one year before hand, and then spend about a month and a half slowly climbing up and down the mountain so the body can adjust. Did you know that the average person who climbs Mt. Everest usually only spends about half-an-hour to forty-five minutes on the summit when they get there, taking their air mask and toque off long enough to feel their hair blowing in the wind? To have all of that training and done all of that work, for so short a moment of celebration. And it’s not really a celebration anyway because they still have to get down off the mountain.

How often is life like that? You find that you’ve gained a little victory in life and you celebrate, only to realize that God is calling you on to the next trial; the next mountain. That’s what happened to the Israelites. Remember they had just escaped the clutches of Pharaoh in Egypt. Exodus 15 tells of their journey immediately after getting out of Egypt, and verse twenty-seven says, “They came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the waters.” But the next verse says they moved away from there. After this they spent forty years walking through the desert. God knew that if the Israelites would have stayed at the oasis of Elim, they would not have learnt to grow closer to Him. He wanted more for them.

Listen to how Fitzmyer translates Romans 5:3-5,

Yet not only that, but let us also boast of our afflictions, since we know that affliction makes for endurance, endurance makes for character, and character for hope. Such hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There are three important words that need to be understood in these verses.

The first is perseverance. In the Greek the word is “hupomone,” and means patience, or endurance, or perseverance. The problem with this word comes from the idea that people have of the word patience, or perseverance. Usually these words are associated with simply waiting a situation out and not doing anything. It’s not about being a passive object going through something though. No, the word itself has more to do with actively pursuing the end of the situation. It means getting into the foray and fighting through the situation we face.

You wouldn’t drive a four-wheeler into a mud-hole and just leave it there, waiting for the mud to dry before you get it out. The same can be said in our tough times. You don’t get stuck in the mud and just wait for Jesus to somehow automatically lift you out. He doesn’t do that. But he gives you the strength to fight through the mud-hole and get to the other side.

The second word we need to look at is character. The Greek word Paul used here is “dokime”. The English translation simply says ‘character,’ but the Greek implies something stronger. Paul is talking about an ‘approved character.’ William Barclay says that this word, “is used when we think of metal which has been passed through the fire so that everything impure has been purged out of it.” He goes on to say that, “When affliction is met with fortitude, out of the battle a person emerges stronger, and purer, and better, and nearer to God.”

What Paul is saying here is that when we are active in pursuit of the end of the trial, we become stronger, purer, and closer to God. But that’s not all. That leads us to our third word: Hope. The Greek word Paul uses is “elpis,” which means hope or expectation. This hope Paul talks about points us to the end of the age, when we will be with God in glory.

Having said all of this, we are brought back to the statement I made earlier about thinking selfishly. By now you might not want to be thinking so selfishly afterwards, because now we’re going to apply this idea of desiring trials and tribulations in our lives to grow nearer to God.

How to Apply This

There are a few simple keys to begin to live in this way:

  1. The first step in this process is to pray and ask God to reveal just where you are right now in life. It’s a simple prayer. “God, am I in a time of testing in my life right now or am I in a time of rest?”

There are two possible answers to this question. The first is that you find yourself in a season of resting.

Imagine that you find yourself in a season of resting in the valley under a great oak tree, free from any trials. This is the season of life, like the Israelites, where you find yourself between times of testing. It is the season in which everything seems great, and all the cares of life seem to be taken care of.

But, if you are in a season of resting in your life, remember that you can be sure that in time another season of testing will come. God is never content to let you stay the same for very long. He always wants you to grow. So if you rest too long, or maybe you are too scared to go through the next season of testing, you can be sure that, just like the Israelites in the desert, God will bring you to the next mountain. He wants us to grow, so he calls us to the next mountain, and brings us into the next time of testing or trials.

This same idea is described beautifully in Song of Solomon, when in chapter 2:8 it says, “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping on the hills.” Of course the Song of Solomon is written as a love story between the Shulamite woman and Solomon, but we can always use it to describe the relationship between Christians and God. Here Solomon is leaping on the mountains, and the Shulamite is too scared to go to the mountains to meet him. But later in the book, we see that the Shulamite woman is no longer scared, because the relationship has grown, and her faith in Solomon is sure, so she goes to meet him on the mountain. She trusts in his guidance and leadership, the same way Christians are to have faith in Jesus and his guidance.

  1. That leads us to the second step in the process, which is to pray to the Holy Spirit and ask Him what the next time of testing should be.

In Romans 8 Paul talks about how the Holy Spirit “groans” in us things that cannot be uttered. He says we don’t know what we should pray for so the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf. But if the Holy Spirit knows what to pray for, and John reminds us in chapter sixteen that what the Spirit has comes from Jesus, then we too, can know what those needs are. Listen to Jesus’ words, “The Holy Spirit will glorify Me, for He will take of what is mine and declare it to you.”

So if Jesus knows what we need, and the Holy Spirit takes what Jesus has and declares it to us, even when we first don’t know what we are praying, we can ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us those things we need. We can ask the Holy Spirit to explain to us the next trial or testing that we should go through to grow in our walk with God.

Jesus taught us in Matthew 7:7-8, in The Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” This isn’t just a verse about salvation, or even for daily needs. When Jesus says, “Ask,” He is saying, “If you ask for peace, I will give you peace. If you ask for joy, I will give you joy.” The question is: Are you asking things of Jesus? God knows what we are in need of, but he wants us to ask.

Let me give you an example, from Galatians 5:22-23, the Fruit of the Spirit. Let us suppose, for example, that you are in a season resting and you’ve been there for a while, and decide to ask for patience. Remember James’ encouragement from James 1:2 to, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials,” and Jesus’ encouragement in Matthew to ask, seek, and knock. Anyone who has ever prayed for patience knows that little things start to get real annoying, real quick. God does not simply give his child patience, but rather through a series of events, tests the individual’s patience so that it can grow, developing character. When someone prays for patience, they have just picked the mountain they want to climb; the trial they want to endure.

So then, if you are not in a time of resting right now, then the second answer to our question, “God, am I in a time of testing right now or a time of rest?” is that you find yourself in a time of testing. Do you know what season of testing you are in? If you are not sure about what you are experiencing in your current season, take a look back at your prayers, and see if there is any connection to what you are going through.

Last October I found myself in an interesting situation. For about two weeks I couldn’t sleep at all. The moment I fell asleep, I would have incredible visions of the enemies of darkness in the spiritual realm and I’d wake up right away. I would see the evil spirits, and behind me were certain people that the evil spirits were trying to attack. After the second night of this happening, I prayed to the Holy Spirit to reveal to me the prayers that I had prayed that would cause this to happen. He reminded me that about this time last year, I had prayed that I would be effective in battles in the spiritual realm. My basis for this prayer was the story in Acts 19 where the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out evil spirits because they had seen Paul doing it. Verse fifteen tells us that the evil spirit told them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” I had prayed, “Jesus, the evil spirits know you, and they know Paul, and may they know me and flee from me as well.” It had taken six months for God to answer my prayer.

The thing to remember here is that, as Christians, we can know the struggles we are going through when we go through them, not just after we’ve trudged through them. And possibly the greatest encouragement in all of this is Paul’s words found in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Remember this encouragement is from a man who faced stonings, beatings, shipwrecks, starvation, and so much more. And he says that the things he’s going through are light afflictions; they’re momentary. But they produce a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

Do you recognize that the struggles you go through in life are producing an eternal weight of glory? The great theologian Karl Barth writes, “Faith which presses onwards and leads to sight does not wait for sight in order that it may believe. It believes in the midst of tribulation and persecution”.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to you personally. This is something that can also be applied to our congregation. I believe that God has given us a time of healing and rest after our refocusing. He has given us a time of settling after the events of the past years. Are we going to stay in that rest? Or are we as a congregation going to discern together what the next stage of growth that God has for us?

You see when you begin to live your life this way you pay a lot more attention to the words of your prayers. You begin to see very quickly all of the answers to prayer that actually take place, whether big or small. When you realize the joy that comes from encountering God and growing nearer to God through the trials, you get invigorated. You begin to get excited about your prayer life. You begin to see the power of what prayer can do. Friends let me tell you, I am looking forward to what God has in store for us in the next year. Three weeks ago pastor Abe talked about throwing our nets on the other side of the boat. What that looks like we don’t know. But his prayer was that we would be people who wouldn’t ask questions and throw our nets on the other side of the boat. We’ve been fishing off the same side for so long without catching anything and his prayer was that we would trust Jesus’ leadership and try something completely different.

I want to encourage you this morning. You can understand exactly what trials you are facing, which mountain you are climbing up. Ask God to reveal exactly what it is that he wants you to learn during whatever trial you are facing, and rejoice in it. And if you are in a season of resting down in the valley by the river under the shade tree, recognize the mountain you just climbed, and take time to rest. Maybe you can say with confidence, “Things have changed, and I no longer fear the trials God wants me to face”.

Or maybe you’ve been resting for too long; perhaps it is time to ask God for the next challenge so your faith can grow. Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “Paul even says that we can, as a result of Christian hope, “boast in our afflictions”, because they make for endurance, which produces character, which in turn builds up the hope that does not disappoint. At the root of this conviction is Paul’s keen awareness of God’s grace that enables us to stand up against the storms, hardships, and afflictions of our earthly existence”.

Character cannot be built except through perseverance, which means going through various struggles beforehand, and character will then bring hope. This hope leads to joyful living, and an expectancy of growth during the next season, whether it is resting in the valley or climbing the mountain.