Category: Bible

Men’s Ministry Brainstorming

Men’s Ministry Brainstorming

As many of you know, David and Erica Richards recently moved to Dallas, Texas. David and Erica both served at PVCC in numerous ways, and we miss their entire family – but we’re also happy to hear that they’re settling in well to their new home.

One of the areas of service where David left his mark is our Men’s Ministry. For several years, David did the lion’s share of the work of our Men’s Ministry, mainly through leading a monthly Men’s Breakfast. We met on Saturday mornings, starting at Hardee’s, and then ended up at Panera Bread. Along the way, we read “Disciplines of a Godly Man” by R. Kent Hughes, as well as “Visual Theology” by Tim Challies. Most recently, we studied the Book of James. From there, we took a brief hiatus over the summer.

But as fall quickly approaches, we’re ready to start back up. Our next Men’s Breakfast will be Saturday, August 4. However, we’d like to try some different things as we turn the page:

1. Instead of starting at 8 AM, this Men’s Breakfast will start at 8:30 AM. It might not sound like a big change, but an extra 30 minutes of sleep is always welcome!

2. In addition, we’ll be meeting at the church, and providing coffee, milk, juice, and donuts. We’ll have more privacy that way – and even better, you won’t have to pay anything!

3. And finally, we’re excited that our own Joe Fenimore has agreed to share a short devotion with the group.

When we meet on August 4, we’d like to have as many men present as possible – mainly to hear how we can better serve the men of our church in the future. Is the traditional monthly breakfast the best option, or are there more helpful resources we can offer? Are there better days or times to meet together? Are there books of the Bible, doctrinal questions, or practical topics that would be particularly appropriate to study? Do we need to focus less on studying, and more on simply spending time together and building friendships? What about conferences, outings, or retreats? This is your opportunity to share your thoughts, that way we can strive for more effective ministry this fall and beyond.

Of course, many men in our church have benefited greatly from our past Men’s Ministry efforts. However, we also want to know if there are adjustments we can make to benefit even more of our brothers in Christ. That’s the main goal of this event; so we hope you’ll join us!

Contact Ben Halliburton for more information.

You’ve Gotta Read This: Job 28

You’ve Gotta Read This: Job 28

Every now and then, I’ll come across a passage of Scripture and simply say, “Wow.” Even though I’ve been reading and studying Scripture for some time now, I still come across passages that take my breath away. When I’m done reading passages like these, I often find myself wondering: “How did I not recognize the beauty of this text before now?”

That’s what this new series of blog posts is about; I’m affectionately referring to it as the “You’ve Gotta Read This” series. When I come across a passage in my personal reading that takes my breath away, I’ll write about it here. Of course, much of this writing is in hopes that you’ll be inspired to read the passage yourself – and that you’ll be as amazed by it as I am. The first passage in this series is Job 28.

 

When I read Job 28 this week, I was stunned. I’ve read this chapter plenty of times before; I’ve always loved the Book of Job. But for some reason, with this most recent reading, Job 28 stuck out to me in a way that it never has before. That’s part of the beauty of Scripture – no matter how many times you read God’s Word, you never know when a certain passage might strike you in a deep and meaningful way.

In Job 28, Job reflects on several massive theological themes: the transcendence of God (meaning that God is greater than any finite human being can fully perceive), the wisdom of God, and the revelation of God. We’ll talk about each of these themes below.

Job compares man’s search for wisdom to man’s ability to mine into the darkest recesses of the earth (VS. 1-11). Apparently even in Job’s day, mankind had developed the technology and know-how to dig deep below the ground, and come up with precious metals. Mankind has learned how to transport light into those dark recesses (VS. 3), and can even access treasures that water once made inaccessible (VS. 11). These are places no bird or beast has seen (VS. 7-8) – but man can now get there.

However, no matter how far man digs into the earth – no matter how much gold, silver, onyx, or sapphire he finds – he won’t find wisdom there (VS. 12-19). When I was in college, I went on a trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Mammoth Cave is one of the largest cave systems in the world – and it was well worth the visit. We went far below the surface, and for just a few moments, experienced the complete absence of light. It was a memorable experience, but I can confirm what Job says: there wasn’t any wisdom there. It cannot be found through the human ingenuity that makes mining possible – and even if it could be found, man would not value it appropriately (VS. 13). True wisdom cannot be found “in the land of the living” (VS. 13) or the depths of the sea (VS. 14). True wisdom is priceless (VS. 15-19). In these reflections, Job 28 sounds similar to one of the classic “wisdom passages” – Proverbs 8. In that passage, we read this about wisdom: “My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver.” (Proverbs 8:19)

Up to this point, Job’s words may seem discouraging. It may sound as though Job is arguing that wisdom is completely inaccessible to mankind, and that any effort to gain wisdom will ultimately prove fruitless. The man looking for wisdom is going on a wild goose chase; he’s searching for a prize he’ll never attain. In VS. 20-22, Job asks the question on everyone’s mind: “From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding?”

In VS. 23, we get our answer: “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.” God is omniscient (knowing all there is to know), omnipresent (not limited by the constraints of time and space), and omnipotent (all-powerful). He is the true source of wisdom, and it is only by turning to him that mankind can find true wisdom.

As the chapter ends, God says: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (VS. 28). Yet again, this matches well with the classic wisdom literature of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Man’s search for wisdom is not in vain; but that is only thanks to God’s gracious revelation of himself.

As passages like Proverbs 8:1-7 and James 1:5 tell us, God is quite willing to share His wisdom with us. Another important wisdom passage that sometimes get overlooked is 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, where Paul differentiates between the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age” (VS. 6), and the “wisdom of God” (VS. 7). Believers in Christ are indwelt by the Holy Spirit – “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (VS. 12). At times, this wisdom may seem like utter folly to the world; godly wisdom will often rub up against, or even directly contradict the world’s ideas of wisdom, “common sense”, or “street smarts”. However, thanks to God’s grace, and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Christians are wise in the things that matter in eternity – namely, the things of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul that Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).

Don’t get me wrong; worldly wisdom is valuable. We gain it through observing the created order of our world, life experience, and even making mistakes. Worldly wisdom helps us understand that we shouldn’t have a picnic in the middle of an interstate, buy every item we see peddled on TV, or go swimming right after we eat a large meal.

However, worldly wisdom isn’t sufficient for eternal life. For that, we need God’s gracious revelation of himself. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. We need Christ himself – “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. 

I don’t know about you, but I find Job 28 to be an awe-inspiring bit of Scripture. Upon reading Job 28, may we be moved to look to God for wisdom – because we can’t find true wisdom anywhere else, no matter how much our society learns, advances, and develops. And may we be humbled and grateful that this transcendent God is so graciously willing to share his wisdom with us.

 

“Hosanna!”

“Hosanna!”

This Palm Sunday, we’ll spend time reading Mark 11:1-11 – an account of Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. One of the more well-known features of that passage is the cry of “Hosanna!” from those welcoming Jesus into town (Mark 11:9-10).

Much ink has been spilled writing about what the crowds meant when they used that word; we’ll talk about that some in this week’s sermon. It’s generally agreed that the crowds had very specific expectations of Jesus’s time in Jerusalem; expectations that were mostly misguided.

But I’d like to dedicate some time to the passage being quoted when the crowds shout “Hosanna!”. That word comes from Psalm 118:25, meaning “grant salvation” – or as the ESV translates it: “Save us”. To shout the word “Hosanna” is to make a very specific request of God; it is a way of asking God to act on an oppressed person or group’s behalf.

That’s what Psalm 118 is all about. The author recounts his own personal experience of God “granting salvation” from his enemies in the past (VS. 10-13). He repeatedly reminds and encourages others that the LORD’s “steadfast love endures forever” (VS. 1-4; 29). In other words, the author wants all to know that the character of God is stable and unfailing; God can be counted on and trusted in. It’s no wonder, then, that this psalm is often read during the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating God’s freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt generations earlier. The Exodus is the single greatest Old Testament example of God “granting salvation” to His people.

But as believers in Jesus, Christians read Psalm 118 in a new way. While this passage is certainly appropriate for looking back on the Exodus, it’s also good for far more than that. This passage looks ahead to Jesus. When we read VS. 19-23, we can’t help but think of Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Jesus quotes VS. 22 in reference to himself in the “Parable of the Tenants” (Mark 12:1-12). And along with the crowds lining the roads in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago, we quote VS. 25-26 as we look at Jesus.

We look at Jesus, knowing that God has indeed “granted salvation” to us. We know that “blessed is he” who entered that city to a royal welcome – even though he would leave that city on a criminal’s death march. This salvation wouldn’t come about the way the crowd (and even Jesus’s own disciples!) likely expected. It wouldn’t come through Jesus exercising power and authority on man’s terms; it wouldn’t come through worldly political or military force. But as Psalm 118 also tells us, it’s foolish to look to men or princes for salvation anyway (VS. 8-9).

This Palm Sunday, we shout “Hosanna”, knowing that God has “granted salvation” to us through Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross – and confirmed it through Jesus’s victorious resurrection from the grave. We “give thanks to the LORD”, not only because he “granted salvation” to Israel long ago, and not just so that he may “grant salvation” to us from our latest challenge or hardship – but because he has “granted salvation” from sin to all who look to Jesus as the cornerstone of our faith.

Sermon Planning, 2018: Make Your Voice Heard!

Sermon Planning, 2018: Make Your Voice Heard!

Each year (usually near the end of one year, or the beginning of the next), I spend time in thought, study, and prayer about what to preach in the months ahead at PVCC.

Thinking that far ahead is always challenging; you never know when significant, unexpected events may cause you to toss even your best-laid plans to the curb. That being said, I think there’s great wisdom in preachers patiently, intentionally, and prayerfully thinking through what their congregation needs to hear, when they need to hear it, and how to communicate that message most effectively.

As I plan ahead for sermons at PVCC, there are all kinds of factors I take into account:

1) I want to give our congregation a balanced and generous helping of Scripture (reading different genres of Scripture, spending time in both the Old and New Testaments, and examining both well-known chunks of Scripture, and often neglected portions). It’s true that sermon series on more topical concerns can be incredibly beneficial for God’s people; they certainly have a place on the plate. But in the long run, I’m convinced that Scripture is the main course of a Christian’s filling, strengthening, and sustaining meal.

2) On top of consistently presenting Scripture, I feel a responsibility to address many of the big questions and challenges the people of our church are regularly wrestling with from a Biblical perspective. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s wise to let our secular culture constantly dictate what I do and don’t preach; but on the other hand, it would be foolish to not take the more pressing issues and debates of our current day and age into account when preaching to God’s people.

3) And of course, there’s the calendar to consider! Easter and Christmas are the two major Christian holidays, so I think it would be silly to not give them their due when it comes to planning sermons each year. But on top of that, other holidays can have an impact on sermon planning as well (you probably don’t want to start an important series of sermons on a holiday weekend, when many people may be traveling).

As for this year’s preparation, most Sundays already have their assigned sermons. That being said, there’s still a handful of weeks waiting to be filled. That’s where you come in, people of PVCC:

What would you like to hear preached on Sunday mornings in 2018? What passages of Scripture, topics, and questions can we address on Sunday mornings to best aid in your growth in Christ?

Are there passages of Scripture you’ve always found confusing? What challenges are you currently facing that you’d like to hear discussed from a Biblical perspective? What topics have you found churches far too shy to talk about, to the detriment of God’s people? It’s easy for me to assume I know what my congregation wants and needs to hear each Sunday morning; but no matter how well I know Scripture, our church, and the cultural climate in which we live, it’s more than possible that I could miss something.

Of course, I can’t promise that every suggestion you offer will come to fruition; but I’d still like to hear what you’re thinking as I continue another year of the joyous, yet heavy responsibility of preaching.

Feel free to contact me however you see fit.

Men’s Breakfast 2018 Kickoff

Men’s Breakfast 2018 Kickoff

If you Google “men and friendship”, you’ll come across numerous studies – most of them suggesting the same thing. According to the experts, men are not good at friendship. Men usually have fewer close friendships than women do, and report higher feelings of loneliness. This can have a significant impact on a man’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing – especially as the ups and downs of life wear us down.

For the past several years, PVCC has offered a monthly Men’s Breakfast. Lately, David Richards and I have taken turns leading the group; Joshua Walker has led a time or two as well. We meet at Panera Bread (State Route 37 in Noblesville, in front of Meijer) at 8 AM. This is a great atmosphere for the Men’s Breakfast, and the coffee and bagels are good too.

Some simple changes are coming for the Men’s Breakfast in 2018. David Richards returns to leading each month, rather than alternating with me. In addition, we’re starting a new study, reading straight from the Book of James. This would be a great opportunity for you to jump in if you’ve never attended the Men’s Breakfast before, or if you haven’t attended consistently in some time. I’d especially encourage men who are newer to Prairie View to consider participating.

I think the Men’s Breakfast has many benefits, but it can be particularly useful to men whose schedules don’t allow them to participate in a weekly Small Group. Saturday morning may be easier than a weeknight, especially if you’re married with kids; and once per month is much less demanding than once per week.

If you’ve never attended before, don’t be intimidated! We usually have a wide age range present, and we all have unique personalities and contributions. The Men’s Breakfast ends by 9:30 AM, and consists of time for catching up, discussion of our study, and prayer. Whether you’re a new believer looking to learn more, or a mature Christian who’s attended countless events like this, we’d love to have you. I’m sure there’s much the men present can teach you, and much you can teach them.

Will attending the PVCC Men’s Breakfast solve the complex challenges men face when it comes to developing lasting friendships? Probably not. However, it certainly won’t hurt. We need each other more than we realize or admit.

I hope you’ll join us on Saturday January 20; you may be surprised by just how encouraging and edifying it can be.

Funeral Reflections

Funeral Reflections

On Saturday, November 18, 2017, my wife’s great-grandfather, Obie Henderson, died. You can read more about Obie hereby all of our usual cultural criteria, he was an upstanding citizen, husband, and father. 

That following Monday, we got an unexpected phone call from a family member, asking me to preside over the funeral on Wednesday. I’ve been in vocational ministry for almost ten years now, but had yet to oversee a funeral. I was flattered and humbled to be asked; but also intimidated. I take everything I do in ministry very seriously, and this was certainly no exception. I wanted to say things that would appropriately honor the dead, comfort the grieving, and glorify God.

But in addition, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to make those present think more deeply about how they live their own lives, the reality of death, and their standing with God. After all, at a funeral, many people are present who might not normally set foot in a church building on a Sunday morning. 

So in my short sermon, I focused on three ways funerals make us think:

1. We think about the person who has died. Even though believers in Jesus do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), we still grieve. It is right and appropriate to mourn the fact that the one we love is no longer with us in this life.

2. We think about our own lives. Are we living in a manner that pleases God? Are we pursuing qualities that properly reflect our identity as God’s image-bearers?

3. We think about death. Every attendee at a funeral is confronted with the undeniable reality of death. I mean, think about it: it’s harder to believe the lie of invincibility we tell ourselves when we’re in the same room as an occupied casket.

The truth is that most of us don’t think about death very often. Sometimes we intentionally avoid thinking about it because it’s unpleasant; other times we’re simply distracted by the joys and sorrows, the cares and concerns of this temporary existence. However, perhaps it’s healthy to occasionally take a moment to reflect on the reality of death. It’s humbling to be reminded that we are not invincible; eventually, we all die.

But the biggest question funerals force us to wrestle with is this: “Am I ready for when the time of my death arrives?” My wife’s great-grandfather was; as he passed away, he calmly held his wife’s hand and told her it was “his time to go”. How did he have such peace as he stared at death’s door? Because he was confident that by God’s grace, through his faith in Jesus Christ, he had nothing to fear; he knew he would receive his reward.

I’m sure many (if not most) of us at PVCC have been touched by death in one way or another this year. Perhaps we’ve lost a family member, friend, or coworker. It may have been gradual and expected, or sudden and shocking. 

Either way, take a moment and think about your own mortality. In the words of Psalm 27, ask God to “teach us the number of our days”. Consider what matters, and what doesn’t matter. Remember those you’ve lost, examine how you’re living, and contemplate the inevitable day of your own death. And as you contemplate that day, ask yourself this: “Can I face death with confidence, and peace?”

I believe, and Obie Henderson believed, that death is not the end for us; it is only the beginning. And for those who believe in Jesus Christ, that new beginning will be glorious.

“And Be Thankful”

“And Be Thankful”

I love the holidays; but in my family, the best holiday celebration is Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas; after all, we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus himself! But when it comes to which family gathering I enjoy more, Thanksgiving takes the prize. The food is better, the day is less stressful, and the entire holiday is less expensive.

If you read every verse in the Bible containing the words “thanks”, “thanksgiving”, or “gratitude”, you’d be reading for quite some time. This theme is all over the pages of Scripture, seen in both reminders to thank God for what he’s done, and in warnings about what can happen when sinners forget how much God’s given us to be thankful for.

But as I read this morning, I came across Colossians 3:12-17. The Apostle Paul writes in VS. 12-15:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”

In the first part of the chapter, Paul reminds the believers of who they are in Christ: new creations. The old person has died, and the new person has been raised. But we as believers in Jesus haven’t just been given a new title, or even a new status; we’ve also been called to pursue a new life.  That includes “putting to death” the attitudes and actions that once defined us, and separated us from God. This is true for every believer in Jesus, regardless of nationality, prior religious practice (or lack thereof), or socioeconomic standing.

But in addition to putting the old ways to death, Paul tells us “put on” the new ways of life. He gives a list of identifying markers of someone who’s been raised to new life in Christ – including thankfulness. As he continues in VS. 16-17, this trait gets even more attention:

“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Simply put: those who have been “raised with Christ” have much to be thankful for; in fact, they have more to be thankful for than anyone who hasn’t been “raised with Christ”. In the big scheme of eternity, the poor, oppressed, suffering believer has more to be thankful for than the rich, powerful, prospering non-believer. Why? Because as Paul says earlier in the Chapter:

“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)

As believers in Jesus, we have been given the greatest gift God could ever offer sinners: resurrection, and eternity in his glorious presence. We didn’t deserve it, we didn’t earn it, and we could never repay it; and yet, it is ours. It’s no wonder, then, that Paul stresses thankfulness as one of the identifying markers of those raised to new life in Christ.

If your family is like mine, you may do the classic, somewhat uncomfortable “go around the table, and name one thing you’re thankful for” exercise after you’ve eaten your turkey. There’s more than one right answer, of course; God has given us countless good gifts in this life. However, don’t lose sight of the fact that in the big scheme of eternity, we are to be most thankful for our new life in Christ; that we have “been raised” with him. Even when it appears that you have very little to be thankful for compared to those around you, nobody can take this gift away from you. Jesus lived, died, and lived again, in order that we who live for ourselves, might die to ourselves – and live with God forever.

Let your thankfulness for this glorious gift permeate everything you do – in word and deed.

 

The Power of Words

The Power of Words

In Matthew 8, we see several instances of Jesus speaking, and his words having great impact. Matthew 8 comes directly on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus’s words leave people in awe:

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)

This theme continues throughout Chapter 8, as Jesus displays astonishing power and authority through the words he speaks. For example:

In Matthew 8:1-4, Jesus cleanses a leper. Jesus reaches out and touches the man; a gesture which would make any other practicing Jew “unclean” by Old Testament standards. But Jesus is different. When Jesus touches unclean people, their status changes; not Jesus’s status. Jesus remains clean; the leper is made clean. But Jesus doesn’t just touch the man; he also speaks.

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” (Matthew 8:3A)

In Matthew 8:5-13, a centurion approaches Jesus, begging that his servant be healed. The centurion must have been desperate; he was likely affluent in his community, and thus unlikely to turn to a traveling Jewish religious teacher for assistance. Jesus agrees to visit the servant at the centurion’s home, but the centurion has a better idea:

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” (Matthew 8:8B)

The centurion knows what it’s like to have authority. When a man in his position speaks, things get done. This Gentile centurion recognizes the authority and power in Jesus’s words; and in fact, he’s so confident in the power of Jesus’s words that he bets his servant’s fate on it. Sure enough, Jesus heals the servant by speaking from a distance, and the centurion is commended for his faith.

In Matthew 8:14-17, we read that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, along with many who are sick. But we also see an easily overlooked detail about Jesus’s method of casting evil spirits out of those oppressed by demons. How does he do it? “With a word” (Matthew 8:16).

We see similar examples in Matthew 8:23-27, as well as Matthew 8:28-34. In the first passage, Jesus calms a storm by “rebuking” (Matthew 8:26B) the winds and the sea. In the second passage, Jesus casts a large number of demons out of two men – and all he has to do is say, “Go” (Matthew 8:32A).

After seeing multiple examples of the power of Jesus’s words, we should have the same reaction the crowds had to the Sermon on the Mount: astonishment. Who else can speak with such authority? Who else’s words are so powerful that creation itself obeys? Why, none other than God himself:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. (Psalm 104:5-7)

Only God himself is supposed to be able to speak with such power and authority – and yet, here we see Jesus doing just that. Perhaps this proves that Jesus really is who he says he is: the Son of God.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)

When God speaks in the Old Testament, things happen. When Jesus speaks in the New Testament, things happen. That’s because Jesus is not only fully man; he is fully God. The crowds were right to be astonished at Jesus’s words, and to observe that he spoke with far greater authority than their scribes. He’s the very son of God, united in power and authority with his Father. When we read the words of Jesus, I pray we’d have the same sense of awe.

Sawing Logs, Catching Flies, and Resting in God

Sawing Logs, Catching Flies, and Resting in God

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that I’d begun reading The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. One of entries I read most recently caught my attention:

SLEEP

BLESSED CREATOR, Thou hast promised thy beloved sleep; Give me restoring rest needful for tomorrow’s toil; If dreams be mine, let them be tinged not with evil. Let thy Spirit make my time of repose a blessed temple of his holy presence.

May my frequent lying down make me familiar with death, the bed I approach remind me of the grave, the eyes I now close picture to me their final closing. Keep me always ready, waiting for admittance into thy presence. Weaken my attachment to earthly things. May I hold my life loosely in my hand, knowing that I receive it on condition of its surrender; As pain and suffering betoken transitory health, may I not shrink back from a death that introduces me to the freshness of eternal youth. I retire this night in full assurance of one day awaking with thee. All glory for this precious hope, for the gospel of grace, for thine unspeakable gift of Jesus, for the fellowship of the Trinity. Withhold not thy mercies in the night season; thy hand never wearies, thy power needs no repose, thine eye never sleeps.

Help me when I helpless lie; when my conscience accuses me of sin, when my mind is harassed by foreboding thoughts, when my eyes are held awake by personal anxieties.

Show thyself to me as the God of all grace, love and power; thou hast a balm for every wound, a solace for all anguish, a remedy for every pain, a peace for all disquietude. Permit me to commit myself to thee awake or asleep.

We’re often told how important a healthy sleep pattern is to our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. I remember hearing that the average human needs eight hours of sleep per night to function to his full potential. But in reality, it seems as though each person is different – some need more, or less sleep than others. I try to get seven hours of sleep per night – and now that we have a child in school, we’ve been more disciplined about making sure the kids get plenty of sleep as well.

After reading this entry, I also found myself thinking of all the stories in the Bible that feature sleep. When God created Eve from Adam’s rib, God put Adam to sleep before the operation. After he drinks too much and falls asleep, Noah is shamed by one of his sons (a somewhat similar instance of sin occurs when Lot falls asleep after drinking too much as well). Passages in the Book of Proverbs warn us against the love of sleep, to the point of laziness and poverty. David had the opportunity to get revenge on Saul while he slept, but showed mercy. When Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal, he mocks their unresponsive “god” by suggesting that he might just be taking a nap. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us “not to let the sun go down” (i.e., go to sleep) while we are still angry. Much to his disciples’ dismay, Jesus peacefully sleeps in the stern of a boat while they fear for their lives in a storm. He warns his disciples to “stay awake” as they wait for his second coming after his death and resurrection. Ironically, not long after he issues that teaching, Jesus finds these same disciples asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. Sleep is featured repeatedly in Scripture.

But as we think about the entry above from The Valley of Vision, we see four main observations about sleep:

  1. Sleep is a gift from God. Be thankful for the opportunities God gives you to rest – including the bed you sleep on, the walls around you, and the roof over your head. Not everyone gets to sleep as well (or as much) as you do.
  2. Our need for sleep reminds us of our weakness and mortality. It’s good, healthy, and humbling to remember that we are finite human beings who need rest. It’s no coincidence that sleep deprivation is commonly used as a form of torture, and can eventually lead to death. We are not God; we need to sleep. And that’s OK.
  3. Sleep is an exercise in trust. Bad things certainly can happen to us while we sleep – so when we lie down and close our eyes, we are placing our security in God’s hands.
  4. Believers in Jesus know that when our eyes close for good in this life, we will awake in God’s presence. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul addresses a church concerned about the fate of fellow believers who have already died. Paul reassures the living believers that “those who have fallen asleep” (i.e., believers who have died before Christ’s return) will experience the joys of salvation in all their fullness. Because of Christ, we  too can be confident that our final sleep in this life is only the beginning of our eternal rest.

Thanks be to God that even though we need sleep, he doesn’t. He’s the all-powerful, eternal King of the universe – the one who sees everything when we close our eyes.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

(Psalm 121:1-4)

Isaiah’s Burden

Isaiah’s Burden

I recently started reading the Book of Isaiah (for thoughts on Bible reading plans, see our July 19 blog post). I found myself asking the question: was Isaiah’s ministry a success?

Isaiah prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1 – for more details about this period of time, see 2 Kings 15-20 and 2 Chronicles 26-32). All is not well in Israel at this time; in fact, the once united kingdom is now split in two: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Up to this point, there have been wicked kings in both Israel and Judah; but to be honest, Israel’s kings have been worse. More often than not, they’ve been marked by injustice, corruption, idolatry, and violence. And while Isaiah’s dealings are mostly with the kings in Israel, he also prophesies concerning the later judgment of Judah.

God has given Isaiah a thankless job: announcing God’s judgment upon the people of Israel for their sin. Making this job even harder, God specifically tells Isaiah that the people will not listen to his words. They will be dull, deaf, and blind to Isaiah’s warnings.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and house without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.”

The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:8-13)

Only later in the book do we see glimmers of hope that eventually, a “remnant” of God’s people will heed Isaiah’s warning, and turn back to God in repentance. Perhaps that’s also alluded to in the above phrase, “The holy seed is its stump.” Some will listen; but not many.

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck him, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return.” (Isaiah 10:20-22A)

Now, back to Isaiah’s God-given mission: preaching to people who will ignore him. In light of these clear, God-established expectations, how do we evaluate Isaiah’s ministry? Was Isaiah’s ministry “successful”?

In this day and age of ministry, we often define “success” with large numbers, observable results, and a high “return on investment”. We ask questions like: “What’s your Sunday morning attendance now? How many baptisms have you had? Are you expanding your building yet? How big is your budget? Has your social media platform grown? Have you been invited to speak at any conferences recently?” By those standards, Isaiah’s ministry was a failure.

But by God’s standards, Isaiah’s ministry was a success. Why? Because Isaiah faithfully did what God told him to do. 

God will use some people to accomplish all the things we listed above: increased church attendance, numerous baptisms, building expansions, and budget increases. God will give some people large social media platforms, and big conference stages to do so. Who knows – you may be one of them.

But that may not be me, and it may not be you. God may be calling you to a ministry like Isaiah’s: preaching, teaching, shepherding, and praying faithfully – with little to no obvious success.

At times, that will feel less like a ministry, and more like a burden. You too may ask, “How long, O Lord?” But keep obeying and listening to God. Your ministry success is not determined by your ability to force or manufacture impressive results; your ministry success is determined by your faithfulness to the mission God has given you. Perhaps God will use you in big, flashy ways; perhaps he won’t. But either way, God calls you to be faithful – like Isaiah.

And like Isaiah, you’ve been given a message to share: the Great Commission. Some will listen to your words; more than likely, most won’t. But keep preaching. Keep teaching. Keep shepherding. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep serving. Don’t give up, even when people don’t listen. Your job isn’t to convert the world; your job is to be faithfully announce the Gospel. God will do the heavy lifting; you’re simply the messenger.