Preaching this morning at College Church, Northampton where I served as pastor 1980-2005. It was a privilege to be back.
I am sitting in a dark room in the hospital waiting for a PET scan, after being injected with radioactive dye. This scan will literally “light up” all the areas of my body that are infected by cancer. It will give a definitive view of where I am at after 3 years of living with this disease. Sometimes it is hard to know what to pray for at times like this. There is the human tendency to want to negotiate with God—”Lord, could you give me 5 more years . . . how about 3 . . . maybe 2?” Is it wrong to do this? I guess it all depends on if, in the end, we are willing to accept God’s answer.
Abraham is an example of someone who negotiated with God in prayer. In Genesis 19, we see the angel of Lord telling Abraham that he is about ready to destroy the city of Sodom because of its great wickedness. Abe is alarmed because his nephew Lot and family are living there. So he begins to negotiate with God about the baseline number of righteous people there would need to be living in Sodom before the Lord would stay his hand of judgment. Abraham starts high with 50 people- just 50 righteous people, Lord, is that too much to ask for you to stay your hand of judgment.” God “relents” and is willing to reconsider all the way down to 10—sounds like an Amish auction! It seems like God just can’t make up his mind and Abe is setting the agenda for prayer. Certain theologians and others who struggle with God’s sovereignty love this, because it seems to show that while God has a plan, it is set in wet cement allowing for input and adjustments.
Observation: Then the negotiations just end. And the angel of the Lord departs and it’s all over for Sodom. Why? What is going on here—why didn’t Abraham keep going down to 4 (Lot and his wife and their 2 daughters)? There were at least 4 righteous ones, right? Wait a minute, only 4? Ahhh . . . then the light bulb moment. Abraham comes around to realize what God is doing. Abe thinks: Wow, Sodom really is wicked— only 4 righteous ones and they don’t even belong there because they are my family? That city does deserve judgment and God is perfectly just in doing destroying it!
Thus, what initially looked like God relenting or changing his mind turned out to be a way of bringing Abe around to his way of thinking. We see a similar strategy (for an opposite reason) that God used with Jonah after Nineveh was spared judgment, and Jonah is beside himself with anger because God showed mercy. God grew up a plant to offer shade from the burning sun while the sulking prophet just sat there waiting for God to come around to his way of thinking. Then God used a little worm to destroy the plant which made Jonah angry, but showed him that he was more concerned for his own comfort than he was for the thousands in Nineveh who had just repented.
Someone once said that Jonah waited beneath the comfort of his shade-plant for God to come around to his way of thinking, while God destroyed Jonah’s comfort and waited for him to come around to his (God’s) way of loving.
Application: We tend to look at prayer as a way of getting things from God —and we are enjoined to ask, seek, knock. However, when prayer is just asking we often grow frustrated when the answers are not immediately forthcoming or not according to our expectations. The experience of Abraham (and to a certain extent, Jonah) shows us that God often uses the process of prayer (be asking, be seeking, be knocking) to bring us around to his way of thinking; to understand his mind and perspective on things. In prayer then, God often changes us to see what he sees and then ask for what he wants.
And so, Lord, you have heard my prayer (as well as the prayers of many others) concerning the outcome of these scans. I’ve asked you for the things that I want, but you have convinced my heart that this whole situation is not about me and my longevity. It is about you and what you want for my life and the faith of those around me. It is about you being glorified in my body whether by life or by death. I’m not sure I even understand what that means, but you have brought me to the place where that is what I want. I am in your hands; I bless you, I trust you, and I worship you my Father. Amen.
Note: This blog is both self-contained and the 4th in a series exploring the relationship between Justification and Sanctification. If a preacher were to develop this series into a sermon it could be titled “Working Out What God Has Worked In,” based upon Philippians 2:12. The previous 3 blogs are: The Monster of Uncertainty (Feb 22), All We Need for Life and Godliness (March 7), and Add to Your Faith (March 13). And now for the 4th:
Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:10, 11
Just when we are trying to decide whether the people that Peter was describing in 2 Peter 1:9-2:22 were true Christians or not, be brings us back to a self-evaluation. This shows us that Scripture was not given for us to judge others, but to use for our own salvation.
In 1:10-11, we see the mysterious paradox between a belief that our salvation is the result of God’s initiative in our lives and, at the same time, it engages our action. In other words, while God is sovereign in salvation, he also calls each of us to make sure that our character matches our confession and our behavior matches our beliefs. Most of us will admit that we do not live out our faith to the extent that we should, but that is different than choosing to turn a blind eye to the life we are living.
How do we “add to our faith?” How do we cooperate with God in this sanctifying makeover that produces real change in our lives and makes us productive and useful to God? It results from the choices we make as we respond to the circumstances of life. Either we cooperate with God with our new nature or we adopt attitudes and behavior consistent with our sinful nature. Paul addresses the Corinthians as those who have the Spirit but who do not live by the Spirit. He calls them “worldly” and behaving as if they are “merely human.” (1 Cor 3:3)
Let’s use an example: You are a professing Christian and because of the Covid-19 pandemic you are laid off from work and could possibly lose your job. We might want to expand this example to include retirees whose retirement incomes are being threatened by the wackiness of the stock market and who are at the same time the most vulnerable to the virus. Your life is filled with uncertainty, fear, disappointment, disillusionment, etc. and you may be entertaining doubts as to why your loving God has allowed this to happen to you. I don’t think being a Christian makes us immune to such emotions or thoughts—reading the Psalms will convince you of that.
However, it is what you do with these doubts and fears that shows your true colors. You have a choice either of continuing to build your theology upon your own sinful response to pain and uncertainty (like the rest of the world), or to use the resources that God has already given you by his Spirit to trust Him. This trust does not consist in stifling your emotions, or stoically resigning yourself to the will of Allah, but in allowing those emotions (fear, disappointment, etc.) to drive you to your knees and cry out to your Heavenly Father for comfort, help, provision, and to seek the support of the community of faith—as “virtual” as it is now.
It is recognizing that God is at work in the darkness of difficulty, developing the muscles of faith that are rarely exercised on sunny days. Ultimately, you will grow from this, because God will show you that your life is not defined by your work or by the amount of money you have in the bank, but by your trust in Him. It is a response like this that will help you “to make your calling and election sure” and to give you the certainty of your salvation and of your security in Christ.
I must reiterate that as followers of Christ we will continue to stumble and bumble our way through the struggles of life. But because God has given us all we need for life and godliness, and because we have the Holy Spirit who helps us apply these resources to our character development, we should be able to recognize movement and progress in our pilgrim heart. And such progress should give us the assurance that our faith is real and that eternal life is ours.
So, look for God in your struggle…He is at work. Also, look to God in your struggle…He will never leave you or forsake you!
I am sitting here drinking barium and waiting in the doctor’s office to get a CT scan that will reveal what impact 12 treatments of chemotherapy have had on my pancreatic cancer. As I was praying, I was reminded of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26… “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” If Jesus were to pray this prayer today as a member of the “hyper-faith” movement, he would probably say, “Father, by the authority given to me as your Beloved Son, I claim the victory in advance over this coming Crucifixion! In your Name, I command that the forces of evil be defeated and that this cup of suffering be taken away from me! Vindicate me according to my faith.”
Instead, what we hear from the lips of our Lord is an agonizing prayer that would not cut it in a more charismatic gathering. “My Father, if it is possible (Matthew), everything is possible for you (Mark), if you are willing (Luke)… take this cup from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” The bottom line for Jesus was to do the will of God, not to escape his pain. It is faintly reminiscent of the faith-statement of Daniel’s three friends who were threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they did not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. “Our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But even if He doesn’t (if He is not willing), we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up.” (Dan 3:17, 18)
Do you honestly think that such a prayer made by Jesus and the confessional by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrate a lack of faith? There are some who would claim so—that praying for God’s will to be done is a default position that shows a shallow faith. I once heard a TV evangelist say, “For those who do not have the faith to boldly ask God for something, they always tend to meekly ask him for his will to be done.” Really?
I believe that such a perspective shows how Satan can twist the Scripture (example of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) in order to sow seeds of confusion and disagreement among God’s people—all under the guise of super-spirituality. It reminds me of the teaching of the Pharisees whose twisted interpretation of the Law kept God’s people in bondage.
What has been helpful for me to think through this issue of faith and God’s will is the analogy that Jesus drew between the good gifts our Father desires to give us as his children and those we wish to bestow on our own children. “If you then, who are evil (not a perfect parent like God), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matt 7:11) The context is where Jesus encouraged his followers to continue to ask, seek, and knock for things they desire from God.
Let’s say your older child comes to you and presents a request in this way: “Dad (Mom), on the basis of the authority you have given me as your beloved child, I claim in advance the right to be given $250 of my future inheritance in order to pay for the repairs on my car!” Do you have any initial reactions to this scenario?
However, let’s say your child comes to you in this way: “Dad (Mom), I know that it is possible and completely within your ability to take away the burden that I have of not being able to pay my car repair bill. I also know that you love me and know what is best for me, so I trust you to do what is according to your will because what you want for me is more important than what I want for myself.” After you picked yourself up from off the floor, how would you respond to this request? Which request demonstrates the greatest amount of trust in you?
How much more your Heavenly Father…
My dad died when I was a junior in college—back before dinosaurs roamed the earth. He taught me a lot about God in our short life together. I remember having this habit of hiding whenever I felt guilty about something—I was perhaps 5 or 6 yrs old at the time. It had to be in a dark place, like under a bed or in a closet. My dad figured out what was happening and instead of treating it like some childhood quirk, he took the opportunity to teach me something about God’s character that I have never forgotten. He referred to a passage in Psalm 139:11-12, which when paraphrased says that if some little boy thinks that darkness will hide him from God then that little boy needs to realize that darkness is not dark to God—it is as bright as standing outside in the sunshine. “So, Davey (that’s what he used to call me some times), if you feel guilty or bad about something you’ve done, just tell God you’re sorry—don’t hide.”
Fast forward to this morning and I’ll tell you another thing I’ve learned about God. I was reading in Matthew 6 and was struck by what Jesus said about our Heavenly Father in verse 8. Again, when paraphrased says, “So Dave, when you pray, don’t flaunt it and don’t keep babbling on thinking that the Father will give you things commensurate with your theological vocabulary. Instead, keep it simple—know why? Because the Father already knows what you need.”
As I mediated on those words, I was overwhelmed with thanksgiving to my Father for not only knowing my needs, but blessing me beyond my imagination. Yesterday, we packed up all our earthly possessions into two PODS, which will be taken away on Monday to an undisclosed location on the east coast. We could not have done it without the gracious help of so many friends from our church who showed up to help move stuff and clean; to bring food, encouragement, and support. I don’t understand why they love us so much, but I receive it as part of my Father’s knowing our needs before we even articulate them in prayer. Add to it the blessing of my family and the love they have for me, the sale of our house and the purchase of another one in Lancaster, PA and those who helped in that arduous process. In addition, the blessings of a wonderful team of medical personnel that the Lord has provided as I continue the journey with Pancreatic Cancer (my last of 12 chemo treatments is this Tuesday!). I am a blessed man through no merit of my own—not being humble here, but very cognizant of my unworthiness and being so undeserving of anything from God apart from his mercy and grace.
So, my dear friends, keep your prayers simple because your Father can read your heart and knows what you need even before you ask. And if you are hiding from God because of your guilt, don’t waste your time. Come clean before him and receive his forgiveness in Christ.
[We will officially be seeing the Chicago area in our rearview mirror on December 23 and will be mooching off our kids until the closing of our new house in Lancaster PA on January 7. Our snail mail address will be made available at that time. You can continue to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org]
I want to share a page from my journal, which I write in almost every day as a discipline. The practice has helped me track my life and to hold myself more accountable for my own thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. It also helps me to remember people I am praying for, the things that I have read in the Scripture, and the new discoveries of God’s truth that I do not want to forget. So many of my sermons and blogs have flowed out this journaling practice. Finally, the practice of journaling has also helped me sift through my feelings and emotions, as well as keeping track of my “progress” with pancreatic cancer, which has been a dominating force in my life since April, 2017.
Sunday, October 20, Day 13 (after my 8th (out of 12) chemo treatment):
Woke up with the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” running through my mind. Listened to it on YouTube. I really do feel like a “pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak but Thou art mighty, guide me with Thy powerful hand . . . Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” Chemo sometimes makes me weepy, but this hymn brought tears to my eyes. I also listened to “It is Well with My Soul,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and “I’m No Longer a Slave to Fear.” An encouraging time of worship for my sad heart—to bask in the realization of a good and powerful God, who is my Deliverer.
This reminds me, once again, how my heart responds most to songs, hymns, Scripture that magnify God and describe his greatness and power. I feel safe, like he is my Rock and Fortress; I also feel cared for because he is my strong Father. I remember when ________ (one of my sons) lost a toy down a storm drain in front of our house. The drain was covered by a very heavy metal grate that I had to dead lift in order for my boy to quickly retrieve his toy. As I was putting the grate back into position, I caught my finger underneath it and yelled in pain as I finally pulled it out. Wow, did that hurt! My boy, who was watching all of this was horrified—and ran away. He couldn’t handle seeing is strong dad, hurt.
Another memory comes to mind about how my dad and me used to wrestle when I was a kid. I always admired him for his strength and that he never used it to hurt me. I eventually joined the wrestling team in high school and started to develop physically. The day came when I realized that I could take my dad, but I continued to let him win when we wrestled. I distinctly remember the thought that I needed my dad to be stronger than me.
I will never have to worry about my Heavenly Father losing strength; I am weak, but he is mighty. . . . He is the majestic, all-powerful Creator of the Universe, and he is in control of all things. He is my “Abba,” Dad. He will never use his great strength to hurt me and nothing will ever be able to separate me from his love. My heart overflows with worship . . .
Crown Him the Lord of Years, The Potentate of Time, Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime. All Hail, Redeemer, Hail! For Thou hast died for me; Thy praise shall never, never fail Throughout eternity! (Matthew Bridges, 1845)
Psalm 121 is a beautiful song of trust and confidence where the psalmist expresses that God is his Helper and his Keeper; that he is safe and secure under the ever-watchful eye of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The Psalmist is confident that the One who keeps Israel secure is also the deliverer of the person who trusts in him.
The word “keep” is six times in the Psalm which you will not notice if you read the NIV or KJV:
“He who keeps you will not slumber” (Psa. 121:3).
“He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4).
“The LORD is your keeper” (Psa.121:5).
“The LORD will keep you from all evil” (Psa. 121:7).
“He will keep your life” (Psa. 121:7).
“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore” (Psa. 121:8)
It is why I call this the Keeper’s Psalm because the Hebrew word shāmar is repeated by the psalmist to emphasize God’s care and protection for the individual and for the nation.
There is one interpretive decision that we have to make immediately as we read v. 1. From where does the Psalmist initially look for help? I memorized this Psalm in the KJV many years ago and it begins “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?” The understanding is that since this is one of the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), the worshipper is coming to Jerusalem and lifts up his eyes to the holy Mount Zion where the Temple stood (2000 ft. above sea level). He makes a statement of trust and confidence that God, whose presence resides in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, is the only One who can help and keep him and his nation.
However, there is another way to read this verse where the conclusion is the same, but the starting point is different. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (ESV) French theologian and disciple of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, underscored this translation with his own unique translation of Psalm 121:1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains? From where will my help come? Beza suggested that the psalmist asked two questions, not one. The first question is whether or not he should look toward the mountains; the second question is about the psalmist’s source of confidence.
In commenting on Beza’s translation, Professor Claude Mariottini of Northern Baptist Seminary says: Most commentators believe that the “mountains” in question refer to one mountain, Zion, the dwelling place of God…. But Beza’s interpretation may reflect another reality behind the psalmist’s faith. In Israel, the mountains were the places where pagan practices and illegitimate worship were conducted by the Israelites.
Thus, according to Beza’s translation, the psalmist refuses to look toward the mountains because he knew that his help would not come from there. Thus, using Beza’s translation of verse 1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains?”, the answer to the psalmist’s question is “no”, because his help will not come from the pagan gods worshiped on the mountains.
Again, the conclusion is the same but the starting point is different depending on how you interpret v.1. I like Beza’s translation. As we face an uncertain future as a nation, we have a choice of where we look to find the source of our confidence and security. Do we find it in the size of our military and of our weaponry? Do we look to our political leaders who argue as to who would make the best Commander-in-Chief and protect us the most? Or, do we look to the Creator of heaven and earth as our Helper and Keeper. We must make this choice almost daily as we watch the news, listen to the political rhetoric, and continue to raise our children and grandchildren in an evil and violent world. Whom do you trust?