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Sunday, 19 January 2020

Why "go to church"?

My current daily readings are in Paul's letters to the believers in Thessalonica. These letters are perhaps most used when one is considering the Rapture, and/or the Second Advent (they are not the same thing! See my book "Great Words of the Faith" - details above. ALL royalties go directly to Release International in support of the persecuted church.). It is true that the main reason for this correspondence is the problems that were being encountered by the Thessalonians due to some unhelpful teaching on these matters. However, as I reached the end of the first of these letters, I realised how much Paul had to say about another matter that is dear to my heart.

As he draws this letter to a close, the apostle deals with the local church. He writes: "... we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,  and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil." (I Thess 5:12-22).

There is sufficient material in that section for a short series of sermons! However, permit me to simply throw out a few "blessèd thoughts"! The first of these is that it is really tragic when believers neglect, or ignore, the local church. The New Testament knows nothing of the "solitary believer" (except where fellowship is physically impossible, as for many in the persecuted church, today). The church is meant to be a family - and a family requires a number of people. The church is a building - but one cannot build much with just one, or two, bricks. The church is a group of fellow-workers - not a "congregation of two"! (see I Cor.3:9).

Now, of course, no family of which I have ever had any knowledge - including my own - is perfect! However, without a family to protect and nurture, a child would suffer and die! It is also the case that no Christian Fellowship is perfect. However, there is the well-known saying: "If you ever find the perfect church, don't join it. You'll only spoil it!" You see, the church - any fellowship, congregation, or ministry, is composed of imperfect people! However, the true child of God needs a church family in order to grow, and thrive, and develop the gifts that God the Holy Spirit gives to him, or her. It is in, and through the local church that we may best serve God, and receive spiritual support in our serving.

Now I know that, in this modern world, I can go to YouTube and find many fine messages, and good teaching, from sound and experienced brothers who are true ministers of the Word. But where is the fellowship? Where is the relationship? To whom may I go when I have a difficulty? Is singing a chorus/hymn/song by myself a genuine experience of worship? It may be - on occasion! However, there is something that blesses me when I ma worshipping in concert with others of like mind.

When I was a young man, in the British Merchant Navy, I was also a very young, immature, and inexperienced, disciple of Jesus. Each Sunday, when my ship was at sea, there was what was referred to as "Divine Service"- held in the First Class ballroom (I sailed in a large passenger liner!). This consisted of the Captain reading through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and then the congregation - mostly passengers, but with a few crew members - singing the "sailor's hymn": "Eternal father, strong to save". It was, on my part, an attempt to witness to my faith - but spiritually uplifting it was not!

How happy I was when we were in port on a Sunday! I checked the local churches and, if possible, found one of my own denomination. If that was not possible, then I went to a congregation close to the docks. I worshipped with Presbyterians; Free Presbyterians; Baptists; Anglicans; and Independents. I made friendships that lasted for many years - and am still in contact with the then Assistant Minister of the Scots Church in Margaret Street, Sydney, Australia. I learned lessons that I would never have learned as a "solitary Christian". I discovered that, if I was with other true believers, then whether I was in Southampton, or Kowloon; in Sydney or San Francisco; in Vancouver or Melbourne; in Honolulu, or wherever; I was "family". These were my brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus, and we were "... all one ..." (Gal.3:28) in Him.

I know those, today, who appear to believe that they can survive without the family. I would lovingly suggest that, at best, they can "exist". But one is more vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one if one is not in a family. When a lion is tracking a herd of antelope, it looks for the one that is separated from the herd. That is the vulnerable one - and is more easily taken down. It doesn't have the strength of the family to protect it.

You want to be "church"? Then be part of a family of believers - and may you know the blessing of the Father as you find your own place of service in that family (because the true church of the Lord Jesus, the Christ, is not a spectator sport!).

Sunday, 12 January 2020

He is always "in control"!

It was only when I logged on to my Blogspot dashboard to start this post, that I noticed that the number of people who had accessed the previous one was a great big Zero! Now, I have had some posts that have been viewed by few people - but had never experienced a zero before. That was when I noticed that I had failed to publish the post!!!!! I had published it on other sites, but not on what should be its premier site! Duh!!!!! [Comments that refer, in any shape, manner, or form, to my advancing years will, obviously, be deleted!!].

Anyway, I am still being exercised by the thought of the absolute control of Almighty God. The recent flooding in parts of Israel, together with the "sabre-rattling" of certain national governments, reminded me of the story of some people who spotted a nine-year-old boy in a swollen river. He was struggling as hard as he could to stay afloat in the raging torrent, but did not have the strength to swim to the river's edge, even although it was only a few yards away. Rescuers quickly jumped in, and pulled him to safety. 

The boy, exhausted and bedraggled, lay panting on the riverbank. After he had recovered sufficiently, someone asked him, "Did you fall in?" "No," came the reply, "I just wanted to find out how strong the current was. I guess that I now know!"

Perhaps the first lesson that we all need to learn from that story is that we must be careful where we go! The adage is true - "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" (it's not from the Bible, by the way!).  To deliberately place ourselves in temptation's path is to mock the providence of Father God!

However, the story illustrates something else. In Psalm 9, David sings about the strength of the omnipotent God, the creator, Ruler, and Judge of all of the universe. He describes what happens to those who decide to challenge His strength, or to exalt themselves above Him. They eventually find out how powerful He really is. They lose their thrones. Their kingdoms, or empires, crumble. Their armies collapse. Yet YHWH endures forever! 

"Thou hast rebuked the nations, Thou hast destroyed the wicked;" (v.5). 

However, David also provides another side to this all-powerful God. He portrays Him as the One Who protects, and cares for, those who take refuge in Him. "But the Lord sits enthroned for ever, He has established His throne for judgment; and He judges the world with righteousness, He judges the peoples with equity. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble." (vs.7-9). 

The same God Whose power destroys evil, preserves what is good - and no-one can break through His protection, without His permission (remember Job!!). What a consoling, and strengthening, comfort it is to know that God's power can thwart the wicked, and protect the righteous! That is a God worth trusting. As we look around us, and see the increasingly rapid approach of the end of time, we may ponder the words of the un-named psalmist who penned Psalm 2:

« Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain? 
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and His anointed, saying, 
"Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us." 

He Who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision. 
Then He will speak to them in His wrath,
and terrify them in His fury, saying, 
"I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill." » (Ps. 2:1-6)

In a world of many superlatives, our God is still the greatest. Glory to His name!

My ornithologist friends will, undoubtedly, immediately recognise the birds in the picture as "Brown Boobies". The picture is courtesy of a regularly changing background that I receive when I go online! I now have quite a varied selection of shots - from the simply beautiful to the very interesting.

My reason for saving this particular picture is that I am currently reading through Paul's letters to the early believers in Thessalonica - generally accepted as being among his very earliest correspondence. I wonder if you can work out the connection!!

Paul's Thessalonian correspondence has a lot to say about the rapture - that unannounced event in which the true church (not CINOs - Christians in name only!) will meet with the Lord Jesus "in the air". By the way, it is interesting that Paul uses a specific word that refers to the lower reaches of the atmosphere of planet Earth. There is a different word for the higher, more refined, atmosphere. This, of course, is significant. It us the same word that he uses when, writing to the Ephesian believers, he refers to the adversary as "... the prince of the power of the air ..." (2:2). In other words, he is declaring to the Thessalonians that the Lord Jesus over-rules the satan - even in the domain in which he thinks that he has the power! Hallelujah!

The relevant words in I Thessalonians, are found in chapter 4: "... this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord." (vs. 15-17).

What a wonderful prospect for those who are truly, "... in Christ Jesus." (Rom.8:1). We shall meet the Saviour, and spend eternity in His presence. That word "meet" is also significant. The Greek word is only used three times in the pages of the New Testament. In each case it refers to an 'advance party' that has been sent to meet a visiting dignitary and escort him to the one who had sent them. It is used in Acts 28:15 where, we read: "And the brethren there [i.e. in Rome], when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them Paul thanked God and took courage." The other reference is in Matt.25 where "... ten maidens ... took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom." (v.1). The five wise maidens, who had brought additional oil for their lamps, then "... went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut." (v.10).

The Matthew passage is, of course, also speaking of the return of the Lord Jesus, and the basic message is that 1. "... you know neither the day nor the hour." (v.13); and that 2. because of that, we should always be ready. That was my first thought when the picture of the Brown Boobies appeared on my screen. You see, they are "looking up"! I have no idea what it is that they see; or if they are all looking for something in particular. However, they are, to me, looking upward, expectantly.

That, of course, is how every disciple of Jesus ought to be. Looking upward (not always literally - I don't wish to walk into a lamp post!) in anticipation of that call of the archangel, and the sound of the trumpet (which, I suspect, may actually be the sound of the shofar!), "... awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own who are zealous for good deeds." (Titus 2:13-14).

A belated, but no less sincere, wish for a blessèd 2020 to all of my readers.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

An unusual "Hogmanay"!

It is a salutary thought that I have just gone through my 75th new year celebration - although, admittedly, I don't recall anything about the earliest ones! However, the move from 2019 into 2020 must be the most unusual one of them all. I even ended up preaching - at 0550 on Jan 1st!

How did this come about? Well a number of weeks ago we were invited to the party to celebrate the birthday of a friend's daughter. Nothing unusual there! However, this particular friend is originally from Madagascar, and most of the folk invited to the party were also Malagasy. One of our other Malagasy friends casually asked if we were going to be around at the New Year and, on receiving an answer in the affirmative, invited us to a special event in Poitiers - about 270 km (170 mls) north of our home village - at a Malagasy Christian Fellowship. It seemed a long way to go for a party - but we thought that perhaps this lady and her university student daughter might actually need a lift so, we agreed to go. Anyway, we were curious as to how these lovely people celebrated at that time of the year! 

As it turned out, they already had transport arranged, so we made our own way up to the venue. We had not been offered any advice with regard to the dress-code, so we had gone in what we felt was appropriately casual attire and, when we arrived, everyone else was dressed in a similar fashion. Before too long, sandwiches (French sandwiches! i.e. baguettes spilt and filled) and hot/cold drinks were being offered, and we enjoyed these. However, shortly afterwards, we noticed that people kept disappearing - and returning, dressed for a special occasion! We suddenly felt extremely "under-dressed"! This, apparently is what Malagasy folk do at this time of the year!

The worship service commenced shortly after 2100 (that's 9.00 p.m. for those who prefer the '12-hour clock'!), was as full of joy as one would expect from Malagasy disciples of Jesus who have a Pentecostal approach to worship, and included a stirring message form the pastor. We didn't understand a word he said, but an English language speaker provided us with the gist of the message. Almost three hours later, we counted down to midnight, and welcomed a new year.

It was then that the 'party' commenced. There was more 'congregational praise'; the young people, and the children, put on special displays of song and dance; one family had produced a short sketch; there seemed to be no end to the talent! It was also when we started the 'buffet'-style meal! The first course was an amazing variety of items, together with an abundance of soft drinks. However, we didn't just sit down to eat! The other activities continued with, among others, what I can only describe as a Christian version of the "conga" - perhaps understandable, as the original comes from Africa. At about 0400 (yes, that is, indeed, 4.00 a.m.!) the main course was served. However, there was no let-up to the activities. Then, about 0545, the dessert was laid out. I had gone out to obtain some of the delicious items available, but realised that I had left my empty tumbler inside the main hall. As I entered the hall to retrieve it, the pastor called out my name. Having confirmed that he wanted me to go to the front to stand with him, I made my way down. That was when he informed me that he believed that the Lord had given me a Word for the gathered fellowship - and it was to be in French!

Now, I am becoming more comfortable preaching in French from a prepared text - but in a situation in which I was unprepared, and which was totally unexpected ... ...!! However, God is good, and I was able to speak for about ten minutes on God's control of all that happens, and our need to trust in Him for the year ahead. 

The 'party' began to close down about 0700, and there was a room for the females and children, and the hall that we had been using, for the males. However, although we had been advised to bring sleeping-bags, etc., we decide that at that time of the day, we would just drive home. We arrived, safely, at about 1000 - and, having almost fallen into bed, slept until about 1600! If we are spared until this time next year, we would love to return (and have been invited!) - but we shall probably take our little caravan in order to sleep a little more comfortably, and maybe even at a slightly more respectable hour!

An experience, indeed! However, we made some lovely new friends, and now have a Christian family in Poitiers.

May I simply commend that brief message that I brought, to one and all. The God Whom I worship is the Sovereign God of the universe. He truly is "in control" - however much what we see around us may appear to deny that statement. The old song had the chorus: "I know Who holds the future, and He'll guide me with His hand." That has been my personal experience for, now, more than 60 years. Will you join with me in experiencing His guidance in 2020?  You will never regret it if you do!

Monday, 30 December 2019

A new year.

It's been an unusually busy couple of weeks! I was aware that this blog was being neglected but - it's all a matter of priorities! Anyway, part of the busyness (that included a trip back to Scotland in order to spend Christmas Day with our family; and leaving early on Boxing Day!) was that I was preaching in one of the French-speaking fellowships with which we are involved, yesterday! Being the final Sunday of the year, I wanted to encourage the people and used the situation of the Children of Israel as, under the leadership of Joshua, they prepared to enter Canaan - the land of the promise of Almighty God. The Israelites had been wandering for forty years - the result of their listening to ten weak spies who were overwhelmed by the difficulties they perceived, rather than the two men (Joshua and Caleb) who had true faith in YHWH, the God of the covenant. The land across the River Jordan was as unknown to them as is the year 2020 to us. So how did they face their unknown, and what lessons can we draw from their experience?

The first thing we see is that the Children of Israel went forward with courage in the Lord. You may read the story in Joshua 2. Perhaps remembering that situation forty years earlier, Joshua sent just two men to spy out the land again. Their report was very encouraging! They assured Joshua that "Truly YHWH has given all the land into our hands;" Take a minute or two to compare that report with the one given by the ten fearful spies as you'll find it in Numbers 13. It's the difference between unbelief, and faith!

Unbelief says “Let’s go back to where it’s safe.”; but faith says “Let’s go forward to where God is working.” In his first letter, the apostle John writes: “… this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.” (5:4).
May I share a very important piece of information? Almighty God has not changed! He tells us so, Himself! “I the Lord do not change; (Mal.3:6). 
These men of faith were willing to receive this great assurance; to take God at His word. Are you and I willing to do the same as we move forward into a new year? The assurance they were ready to receive, and the assessment they were able to make.  moreover, all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of us.” was their report. This was a most encouraging report. Not only the inhabitants of Jericho, but of all of the land of Canaan, were afraid of the Children of Israel! The only possible reason for this is that the reputation of the Children of Israel and, of greater importance, of YHWH, their God, had lasted throughout a full generation - that forty years during which they had wandered in the wilderness! The Canaanites took it for granted that nothing could stand before the Children of Israel – and this information was necessary to Joshua to guide him in forming the plan of his campaign.
As we look forward to a new year, let us also recall what the Lord has already done for us – and let us then go into this year, confident that He is still with us, and has a plan for us. It's a plan, of course, that requires us to be led froward by the Lord. For the Children of Israel, that meant being led by priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant - where YHWH had met with Moses. The Ark was symbolic of the presence of YHWH among His chosen people. It was "God with them - Emmanuel"!

Most of us will have heard words like those over recent days. 
It is the Lord Jesus, Himself, Who is our Emmanuel. It is He Who has promised, I will never fail you nor forsake you.” (Heb.13:5). It is He Who has said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.” (Jn.14:6). It is He Who will lead us into a new year – if we will but follow! That involves action on our part! You see, Father God does not force us to do anything. He could do – but He chooses not to. That means that I have a responsibility to co-operate with God the Holy Spirit in the work of my sanctification. Writing, this time, to the brothers and sisters in Philippi, Paul encourages them: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13). The Christian life is not one of sitting back and leaving everything to the Lord! It is service; it is warfare; it is walking. But we do not travel the road alone – “for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

However, action is not enough. We need also to display a proper attitude. Concerning the Ark, Joshua commanded: “there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come near it.” (v.4(b)). Why was this? It was a mark of reverence. It was an acknowledgment that no-one may come even close to Almighty God in their own right. It was a recognition that the Creator is different from His creation.

It always concerns me when I hear some, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, saved by His precious blood, treating Him, the Father, the Holy Spirit, as if they are here just for their benefit. I cringe when I hear people refer to the Creator of all that exists in an overly-familiar manner. Of course, He is my heavenly Father; of course, He is my Friend; but He is also God, and I must display my reverence for Him at all times! Fear (reverence) God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” counsels the writer of Ecclesiastes (12:13); while Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, in what we know as the Magnificat, says: “He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.” (Lk.1:49-50).

The Children of Israel as they stood on the threshold of Canaan, faced the unknown with courage in the Lord. They were led forward by the Lord. The result was that they saw the power of the Lord, immediately, in the miraculous crossing of the river Jordan. For many, even although they had been but children at the time, this would have been a reminder of the past when, with their parents, perhaps even their grandparents, their siblings, and their friends, they had crossed the Reed Sea – and seen the mighty Egyptian army perish. You see, even the mistakes of the past may provide good lessons for achievements in the future! Writing about these matters, Paul told the Corinthian church that “…  these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.” (I Cor 10:11).
I wonder if you have experienced the power of Almighty God in your life – individually, and as a fellowship of God’s people? There are those who condemn “experiential Christianity” and, of course, if we are seeking to build our lives as disciples of Jesus solely on spiritual experiences, then that condemnation is deserved. We need to be solidly grounded in the Word of God; we need to be obedient to the Word of God; we need to be fed by the Word of God. But often, the power of Almighty God touches us in such a way that the experience lives with us for a long time afterwards – and may even be with us for the rest of our earthly lives. The Children of Israel were provided with a reminder of the past, and with a reassurance for the present. 

Being reminded of past wonders is one thing – but we live in the present! And Father God knows! So we read: “Joshua said, “Hereby you shall know that the living God is among you," (Josh 3:10). Almighty God was still on the throne – and He still is! Do you remember those words of the Lord Jesus to His disciples as He prepared to leave them and return to the Glory that was, and is, His by right? They are recorded for us by Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (28:19-20). “I am not just a figure from history,” says Jesus. “I am the living and eternal God, who never leaves, nor forsakes, my true people.”

The writer of the great letter to the Hebrew disciples of Jesus gave to them, and to us, the wonderful assurance: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” (13:8). With such an assurance, we may step forward, bravely, and confidently, into the new year that beckons. Are you willing to go into the new year depending on His promises? Then go – and know that He goes before you; and with you; and in you. And know that He will accomplish His purposes through you, to bring glory to His most holy Name.
I wish you a truly blessèd 2020.