The Easter Message I Didn’t Preach

Last Sunday I was scheduled to preach, so I prepared a short Resurrection Sunday message. But then I became ill and was unable to preach that sermon. So, I thought, I may as well share what I prepared here.

Hebrews 13:20-21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

What is this passage?

It is primarily a prayer of blessing, a benediction, for those who have faith in Jesus Christ. The author is closing his book with a prayer that can be easily memorized and is packed full of deep theology, information about the identity and work of God, Jesus and the blessings we receive when we believe in Jesus.

There are two parts to this passage that I want to examine: 1. God raised Jesus from the dead 2. God equips us through Jesus to do his will

God raised Jesus from the dead

Verse 20 can be paraphrased this way: The God of peace, through the blood of the eternal covenant, brought again from the dead Jesus Christ who is the great shepherd of the sheep. Or: By the blood of the eternal covenant God raised Jesus from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to Christian faith and the Abrahamic blessing, passed on to those who would come after him for thousands of years. The resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise and blessing of God through Abraham. Here is a brief history on that promise and blessing.

Recorded in Genesis 12, God made a promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, to bless the world through him. This promise, called a covenant, was passed down to his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob and his family moved to Egypt to find refuge during a severe famine. While in Egypt, Jacob’s descendants became a large nation called Israel, and were driven to slavery by Pharaoh. There they lived under oppression of slavery for 400 years.

The Israelites cried out to God for relief from slavery, so God rescued them with Moses as their leader, as God’s representative to His people. Moses led them out into the wilderness East of Egypt, and brought them to a mountain called Sinai. There God told the Israelites about his plan. He gave them instructions on how to live as a nation, and asked them to enter into a covenant with Him as their God.

They agreed to the terms of the covenant and God told them he would bless them as long as they were obedient. But if they were disobedient, the blessings would turn into curses. With God as their guide, the Israelites began to make their way to a land promised by God to be their inheritance, a gift for God’s people.

Along the way, the Israelites repeatedly broke the terms of their covenant with God. Due to disobedience, God increased the time it took to get to the promised land from three weeks to forty years, so that the generation that grew up in Egypt, and were prone to complaining and desiring to go back to slavery in Egypt, would all be dead before entering the land.

When the time came to enter the promised land, Israel renewed their commitment to live within the covenant between them and God, and God promised them success in conquering the land as long as they obeyed his instructions.

The nation of Israel entered the land and after some initial success, they once again became disobedient to God. The temptations of this new land was more attractive to them than obedience to God. They began worshipping other gods and behaving in a way that brought shame and dishonour to the covenant that God established.

This pattern continued for hundreds of years as Israel struggled to stay together as a nation. All throughout the history of the nation of Israel, God raised up leaders—judges, prophets, kings—to represent God to the nation, and most of them failed to lead with integrity and obedience to God.

One prophet, named Jeremiah, was given the following words from God regarding his plans for his people. This prophecy was recorded in Jeremiah 31 and in Hebrews 8:

The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of the land of Egypt. They did not remain faithful to my covenant, so I turned my back on them, says the Lord. But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already. And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.

The really short version of this story is that God wants to establish a kingdom of people under his rule, a people who will worship him and honour him. A people who will love one another and enjoy the benefits and blessings of being a part of God’s kingdom.
But, thousands of years of history have shown that humanity is hopeless in our efforts to be the sort of people God requires. We, having the darkness of sin in our hearts, reject obedience to God in exchange for the pleasures found in creation.

God has never broke his promises. He has kept his covenant. The old covenant was for God’s people to live in the land promised to them under his rule, kept pure and holy through the sacrificial system and through his laws. But the nation of Israel was unable to keep their end of the covenant. And so, through Jesus, God has established a new covenant.

This new covenant still includes laws and sacrifice. It still requires God’s people to be pure and holy. But there is an important difference. And the difference between the old and the new covenants rests in the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was conceived by God’s Spirit, and was born as a human but also as God. He was not born with the sinful nature as we are, yet he lived with the limitations of humanity, including temptation, pain, sorrow and death.

Jesus obeyed God’s laws and kept the old covenant perfectly. He showed us how God has always wanted his people to live. But he came not only to show us how to live, but to offer himself as a sacrifice, an offering to God for the sins of all humanity. His blood was shed and his body was broken to pay for our sins.

God did this because he knew that humans would never be able to keep a covenant with him. We would never be able to purify ourselves and live a holy life. And so, God has not only kept his end of the covenant, but he, through Jesus, has also kept our end of the covenant! We can become God’s holy people merely through accepting an invitation by God. This was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God did this. He raised Jesus from the dead. He did it for us.

Because he is raised from the dead, Jesus is not only the sacrifice for our sins which purify us, but he has also become our eternal shepherd priest, someone who takes care of us and teaches us and equips us.

God equips us to do his will

This leads us to the second verse in this passage:
May the God of peace… equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.

Through Jesus Christ, we are being equipped to behave like the sort of people who are ruled by God. It is important to keep in mind the order here: first, we are made holy and pure by the death of Jesus. Then, we are given what we need by God through Jesus, who was raised from death.

We become citizens of the kingdom of God when we accept the free invitation of God. Then we begin to act as people who belong to this kingdom. This is important for those of us who know what a wreck we are. Jesus was killed and was raised from the dead so that you and I can freely receive forgiveness from God, be purified and cleansed, be made into a new person, be given new life, be given eternal hope and unending joy, even, and ESPECIALLY if your life is a complete disaster!

God will receive you as his child, make you into a new person and give you a new heart with new desires and as you continue in your relationship with him, he will teach you, take care of you, equip you, and guide you as you seek to live as his child.
If this is new to you, if this is for the first time good news to you, and if your heart has been stirred as you’ve been reading this, I encourage you to respond in prayer.

Thank God for keeping his end of the covenant for thousands of years, even though humanity has failed him. Thank God that he has never changed his standard of holiness, that he is completely worthy of our worship. Thank God that he has provided a way for us to be his people even through our failures. Thank God that he will forgive us through Jesus and that he will equip us to live as people who belong to his kingdom. Ask God to transform your life and to give you a heart that seeks him.

Book Review: The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis

The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis (Book Cover)Pope Francis has made his mark as a man of compassion and mercy, spending time with prisoners, outcasts, and those who may have unfortunately been considered enemies of the Christian church. In his short book, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis describes what should be the hallmark of Christian people.

In a clear and concise manner, Pope Francis describes mercy as the primary attribute of God. He sounds a call to all Christians to be “an oasis of mercy,” a people dedicated to acts of love and kindness. It is unfortunate that the Christian church has a history of being judgmental and rigid, turning away those who are searching for mercy and forgiveness in the name of holiness.

If Christians around the world would heed the plea of Pope Francis, we would see a dramatic shift in how those who are hurting, in poverty, homeless, hungry, mourning, grieving are cared for. Even for those who do not claim Jesus as their Lord, no one can deny the high need for mercy in the world today. Read this book and learn how the name of God truly is mercy.

Why We Bought a House in Bergen

That’s right. We bought a house. We are as surprised as you are, but only because it seemed so far from possible. In another sense, though, we are not surprised at all. It has been the desire of ours to own property wherever we are pastoring. It has been our prayer that God would provide us with a place to live that helps us participate in the community and help to cultivate and plant and encourage the growth of the spiritual life that has already existed in this place for several generations.

Bergen is now our home, officially. Owning property is a way to make a statement that we are making a home of this place. And it reminds me of a very important aspect of pastoral ministry, as articulated by Eugene Peterson:

I enjoy reading the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He takes a small piece of land in Kentucky, respects it, cares for it, submits himself to it just as an artist submits himself to his materials. I read Berry, and every time he speaks of “farm” and “land,” I insert “parish.” As he talks about his farm, he talks about what I’ve tried to practice in my congregation, because one of the genius aspects of pastoral work is locality.

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” My job is simply to be there, teaching, preaching Scripture as well as I can, and being honest with them, not doing anything to interfere with what the Spirit is shaping in them. Could God be doing something that I never even thought of? Am I willing to be quiet for a day, a week, a year? Like Wendell Berry, am I willing to spend fifty years reclaiming this land? With these people? (The Contemplative Pastor, 1989, p. 11).

We praise God for his provision. He is the one who has given us this opportunity to make Bergen our home. We will be honoured if God would use our home to bless many others as we seek to participate in how the Spirit is shaping our community.

Review of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk by Ashlee VanceThere are only a few people throughout recent history that we can honestly say have had a profound and lasting impact on our everyday life. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Howard Hughes are just some of those people, and Elon Musk has become one of them. In the last twenty years, Musk has been instrumental in the development of online commerce (PayPal), private space exploration (SpaceX), and the mass production of sustainable electric power for transportation and household use (Tesla).

In a very entertaining and transparent biography, Ashlee Vance invites readers into the life of Elon Musk, who grew up in harsh conditions at home and school in South Africa, and who would become one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time. The book covers his early childhood right up to the present day insanities of the daily life of a man who’s ultimate goal is to make humanity a multiplanetary species.

Although the life of Musk is not one I wish for, one thing I admire about him is his determination to find alternative ways around problems that most people believe are impossible to solve. Reading this biography has inspired me to not settle for status quo, but to see every problem as an opportunity for a new way of doing things. His vision for humanity is admirable and anyone interested in his perspective will find this biography helpful and challenging.

Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal StephesonWho can imagine a catastrophic event causing worldwide devastation spanning thousands of years, causing humanity to pursue previously unthinkable survival strategies? In a profoundly complex and unpredictable way, Neal Stephenson does just that, while combining science, technology, drama, psychology, and philosophy in his latest novel, Seveneves.

While the length and scope of the book may deter some readers, those who commit to reading this story through to the end will be rewarded with many surprises and plenty of room for the imagination to explore the written and unwritten details of the dozens of characters and plots developed by Stephenson. You will find yourself wondering how far and how deep the story will go, and how the author intends on solving his self-conceived problems.

I offer two warnings to those considering this book. First, the story has some graphic language, scenes and references that not every reader will be comfortable with. Second, part three of the book requires a special level of dedication on behalf of the reader. Stick with it, and take your time to soak in every detail.

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.