Resolutions for 2016

NOTE: This is an edited manuscript from a sermon I preached last Sunday.

For many of us, this time of year marks a time of reflection and anticipation. We reflect on the past year and we anticipate a new year.

As we think about these things, we tend to think about what we could have done differently, and what we would like to do differently. This leads us to possibly come up with what we refer to as resolutions.

Resolutions are firm commitments we make to do something or to not do something. We resolve to improve our health, develop a good habit, or get rid of a bad habit. Regardless of the details of our resolutions, they are mainly meant to improve our quality of life.

There are three resolutions in Hebrews 10:19-25 that we can all receive as believers, to improve the quality of our spiritual lives. They are easy to see because they start with the words “let us…” I’ll replace the words “let us” with the words “resolve to.”

Resolve to draw near to God

Think about what it means to draw near to something or someone. What is required for this to happen? What is required to draw near to your child, to your spouse, to your friend?

What would prevent the embrace of two people who are in each others’ presence? What prevents a true closeness?

If you have done wrong to your spouse, to your child, to your friend, to your sibling, is it easy to just embrace them? What needs to happen in order to experience a nearness to them once again? Reconciliation needs to happen. An apology and offer of forgiveness needs to happen.

Restoration of fellowship requires repentance and forgiveness. James 4 says that if we want fellowship with God, we must experience sorrow and grief because of the ways we have disobeyed God. This is mostly for our own sake. God is ready to offer forgiveness and is ready to embrace us.

Stop and think about this for a bit: Do you want to draw near to God? Do you truly want fellowship with God? You will not experience fellowship with God if you don’t want it. Let that question linger as you continue to read.

The Christians at the time of the writing of Hebrews were facing persecution. The church was under heavy pressure, and fear must have gripped many of the Christians during that time.

The author wrote to remind the Christians of the hope and eternal security they have through Jesus. He reminded them to place their hope in God through Jesus, not through obedience to the law.

The author was saying to them, “there are enemies of the church seeking to destroy your faith. But the one you profess as Lord and saviour is greater than any evil you can ever face, and greater than any attempt to save ourselves.”

Now, what does this mean for us? The author reminded them to draw near to God and to trust him in the midst of their trouble. What trouble do you have?

In the face of your trouble, to what or whom are you embracing for comfort? This letter tells us that if we are not embracing God through Jesus for our comfort, for our hope and peace, we are embracing something that is inferior.

If God is not our safe place, if he is not our refuge, we are settling for something that will fail us. What have you embraced? We all know how easily people fail us, how easily substances and entertainment and distractions fail to give us hope.

For all of us, there needs to come a day when we turn from those weak substitutes and embrace God, and receive his forgiveness and enjoy his peace.

Resolve to hold fast to your faith

Once we have embraced God, once we have drawn near to him as our ultimate source of comfort and hope, I can guarantee we will not stay there. Things will come at us that will lure us away from the presence of God.

Think about your faith. What is it you believe about God? How do you know God can be trusted? Hebrews 11 is known as the Hall of Faith in Scripture. There is a list of people who were declared by God as righteous because of their faith. They believed what God said was true, and they obeyed. The nature of their faith was trust in God through active obedience.

11:1 says, “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” The promises of God are not clearly visible to us. We read about them and hear about them, but we do not see them.

This is all about the fact that God has kept his promises. It is the same in our relationships. If I make a promise to my wife to take her out for dinner, but every other time I have made that promise I didn’t actually do it, she will not believe me. She will not have faith. But if it is something I have never failed to do, she will live with a certain expectation that it will happen.

That’s the faith we need to hold on to. God has never failed, never lied, never broken a promise. He will not fail you!

In 12:2 the readers are encouraged to run with endurance the race God has given us, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We lose sight easily when we get distracted. A marathon runner will not finish if he stops off for dinner and a movie in the middle of the race. He needs to keep his mind focused on the goal, on the finish line.

We need reminders, daily reminders that God can be trusted. We need to be reminded about what is true, what we have to look forward to, how God has been faithful in the past, and what he has promised for the future. We get distracted by the things right in front of us, and we need to be pulled back into the presence of God.

Whatever you need to do in order to be reminded of your faith, resolve to do it. Find a way to be drawn back into fellowship with God each day. Regardless of what has pulled you away from him, he is ready to receive you. He is ready to forgive you and embrace you. God can be trusted. He has proven himself faithful.

Resolve to consider one another

I’d like to share an illustration with you to demonstrate why this resolution is important. We have heard already that we need to draw near to God and hold on to our faith. There is no better way to do this than to be a part of a community of people who have the same resolutions.

Imagine a bag of marbles and a bag of grapes. The bags they are in represents the local church: the building, the ministries, the preaching, programs, etc. The grapes and the marbles represent us.

What will happen when we dump the marble and grapes out?

When the marbles leave the bag, they will separate from each other. When the grapes leave the bag, they will stay together.

Hebrews says that we should consider one another, to not give up meeting together. If we take it at face value, it would seem that we are faithful to this command by coming to church on Sunday. But I do not believe that is the full extent of the meaning of this passage.

You see, the marbles in my illustration represented a gathering of believers in the context of a worship service or ministry. But once they left that gathering, they became separated. This represents a spiritual separation.

With the grapes, however, the believers stayed together once they left the worship service. This spiritual togetherness is possible because each grape is connected to the vine.

Jesus is ultimately what joins us together. We gather together to be physically and emotionally connected, which is critical. But, we are united, gathered, by Jesus.

Let us not forsake the practice of meeting together, because in being gathered together through Jesus in worship and in services of love to others, we are demonstrating to each other and to the world what God sent Jesus to accomplish: an eternal Kingdom of peace, of love, of joy.

But our gathering together will not result in unity unless we are connected to Jesus. And our being connected to Jesus is the best way we can support and love one another.

So, I challenge you to these three resolutions in 2016: Draw near to God. Hold fast to your faith. Consider one another.

How Great is God?

How you answer this question will determine how you live. Read the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus, upon discovering the news that she was carrying the Son of God in her womb.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49, ESV)

None of us can imagine the experience of Mary and the emotions she must have felt throughout her pregnancy. She truly stands alone in humanity as the one who brought the Messiah into the world.

However, her response demonstrates the view of God she already possessed prior to this spectacular event. She truly held a high view of God.

The truth is, God reveals himself differently to everyone. Our experiences with the Creator depend on how He chooses to interact with us. Our responsibility is to present ourselves humbly before God, seeing Him as truly glorious and worthy of our worship.

If God is merely a wish-granter, someone who sits around waiting for us to ask him for something, we will not be in a position of worship. We will have a view of God that is lower than even ourselves. We will find ourselves not looking up at Him in wonder, but down on Him in contempt.

But if God is mighty and holy, worthy of honour and praise, we will have a posture of submission and humility. Like Mary, we will be ready servants, looking for ways to show others the wonders of our great God.

Awaken and Take Hold of the Lord

There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,
and remember not iniquity forever.
Behold, please look, we are all your people.1

I was struck with the language of this familiar passage this morning. I had to ask myself, “do I rouse myself to take hold of the Lord?” I’m afraid I do not.

We, as God’s people, are being summoned by this passage to awaken and cling to God; to embrace His presence each morning. If you are like me, this is not a regular occurrence. Instead, we awaken to the beckoning of our phones, email, social networks, and news feeds. We awaken to wonder what the world has been saying about us and about our situations. Our first thoughts are not about the Lord, but about ourselves.

Praise be to God that, although we fail time and time again to embrace God as our first and foremost thought each day, He is gracious and will forgive our selfish behaviour. He is patiently working on us, shaping us and making us into beautiful vessels for His glory. Commit yourself in this moment to allow God to continue this process of reshaping, and pray for an increased desire to awaken each day and take hold of the Lord.

  1. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Is 64:7–9. []

Consumed by God

In 1 Kings 18, there is a recorded an event in which the power of God is put on display through fire consuming a sacrifice. Following this display of power, many people believed that the Lord is God.

When we share our faith in Jesus, the only way other people will be convinced to believe in Him is to have an experience of the presence of God. We are the vessels, the sacrificial offering, that is to be consumed by the power of God in order to bring His presence to those around us.

My prayer is for a daily experience of God’s consuming power. This prayer is helpful:

Consuming Fire, all the teaching and urging and striving in the world won’t do; only your powerful work can renew my life. I offer my life as a sacrifice, but only you can send the fire. Ignite my life with your Holy Spirit, and keep me and your whole church bright and beautiful, passionately alive for you. Amen. 1

  1. Philip F. Reinders, Seeking God’s Face. 2013, 723 []

Musings On Why Young People Leave the Church

I’m reading a book about why people leave the church after graduation. It’s called You Lost Me. There’s a statement in the beginning that caught my eye: “He and his bandmates were ‘all really embarrassed by and ashamed of a lot of the [Christian] subculture we came from, but not necessarily ashamed or embarrassed by the beliefs we had.'”

The interesting thing about this statement, and others I have heard similar to this, is that young people do not usually reject Jesus. They reject the expression of the Christian faith in their local Church. This tells me that there is something wrong with how we are expressing our worship of Jesus and our witness of the power of Jesus on earth. I am slow to throw everything we call “religious” out with the bathwater, but I have some thoughts on this issue.

I think young people in general are interested in a more genuine expression of faith in Jesus. They are tired of hypocritical people telling them to straighten out their lives. Of course there are exceptions, but I have found that as young people start to discover that they can think and make decisions for themselves, they begin to reject the way their parents and grandparents express their faith. They somehow see through the façade of religiosity, and become uninterested in what the church has to offer. They label the previous generations’ faith as “lame” or boring. 

When young people take the time to read the Gospels and discover for themselves what Jesus called his followers to, they see a disconnect between the Scriptural commands and the reality of the local church. Jesus called his followers to give up their lives, to be completely devoted to following Jesus. Yet, when they look around, they see church people chasing lusts for money, sex, and power. They are confused by the stark contrast between the people who are supposed to be following Jesus and what Jesus actually called his followers to. Thus, they reject the church out of frustration. 

I have some thoughts about how to bring forward a solution. I am interested in this being an ongoing conversation, so forgive me if these thoughts need some fine-tuning.

The first thing I need to do as a youth/family pastor, is to invite young people, parents, children, to a genuine expression of faith in Jesus. I need to model it for them and choose to reject false religious practice. I cannot put forward a solution without having it consume my life first.

Second, I have been feeling this pressure to move the “youth group” into an experience that more accurately reflects what Jesus invited his followers to. This seems like an obvious step, but for some reason I don’t see it modelled very often in youth groups I have witnessed. I want to experience with the youth and families a real relationship with Jesus, and express our experience with Jesus in a way that reflects what Scripture says.
So, just what should the “youth group” truly be doing if we are to obey Jesus? This is the question I want to shape the future of the youth group with. It needs to be answered in a way that move us toward being a witness to the power of Jesus, rather than just being part of a “Christian” club. 

The main problem with youth group as I have seen it, is that it tries to compete directly with secular clubs and activities. I am not interested in doing that. It creates a problem in the minds of youth. It tells them that there are things in life that are sacred and things that are secular. 

In other words, they are told to behave like Christians at church activities, but it inadvertently gives them permission to ignore their Christian convictions at non-church activities. They truly do not see a problem with this because it is the behaviour modelled for them everywhere they look. However, I am interested in shaping all our experiences, whether “sacred” or “secular”, by the power of Jesus. Regardless of what we are doing, we should be witnesses of God’s presence and power in the way we engage with our activities. 
This will help to solve two problems. 

First, it will show the youth that their involvement in extra-curricular activities is an opportunity to express their faith (and not just by trying to convert their soccer coach or teammates!). It will show them how to engage with those activities in a healthy way; how to be a witness to the power of Jesus everywhere they go. 

Second, it will prepare them for entering into the secular world with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a Jesus-follower, and to not be embarrassed by it. Their behaviour will begin to reflect their faith regardless of the activity they are engaged in. 

I am excited about the future because I am confident that God is interested in expressing his power and witness in the world, and not just on Sunday morning or during youth group activities.

The Purpose for Studying Scripture

I have been reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians in preparation for teaching a youth Bible study. While reading, I’m discovering something really quite simple, yet profound. Here it is, relatively undeveloped but worth sharing and exploring further:

The true purpose for studying Scripture is not primarily to understand how to be more obedient. Rather, we study Scripture (and obey it), in order to rearrange the way we think about how righteousness is gained.

We naturally consider that the way to be righteousness is to be obedient. It makes sense, doesn’t it? But because of our own sinful nature, we are so far from being able to earn righteousness through obedience, we will never achieve it. It can’t be done! Therefore we must gain it by another way.

Jesus Christ has provided this way. His own complete obedience, and his death and resurrection, has become our way to righteousness. But because our human nature is so inclined to earn righteousness through obedience, we must rearrange our thinking to align with God’s provision of righteousness. This is why we study Scripture. We begin to know who God is, how perfectly holy he is. We begin to know who we are, how utterly helpless and unholy we are. And we begin to understand that our efforts to save ourselves are futile.

We study Scripture and place ourselves under the authority of it and the church, so that we will be transformed, so that we no longer believe and live as though our righteousness depends on our own works. All of Scripture exists to tell us about these things. It exists to show us how far we are from earning righteousness and to show us how God only wants us to trust him as our saviour. All of Scripture addresses our various excuses and natural inclinations toward self-righteousness and points to righteousness through faith in God.

As Tim Keller has said,

the only way you can become a Christian is not by pointing to your qualifications but by admitting you have no qualifications, which is the only qualification. Until you admit you have no qualifications, you’re not qualified.1

  1. Timothy J. Keller, “The Rescue,” in The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013). []