God’s Plan and Good Planning

Have you ever wished for the ability to change another person’s mind? Think of the implications if we possessed such a power. When applying for a new job, you could compel the employer to hire you on the spot. The mistreated child in the playground could tame the bully. The devoted baseball fan could force the manager to make a substitution for the struggling pitcher. The churchgoer could cause the the minister to select their favourite hymns to sing each Sunday.

Ah, but such a power will never rest with us.

And yet, the ability to compel behaviour is not beyond the God of this Universe. King Solomon writes in Proverbs 21, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

The testimony of Scripture is that God possesses the ability to affect the way we think and act. Accordingly, we need to make some qualifications when we use the phrase “free will”.

There is no doubt that we possess a will. By our own volition we move about and do all sorts of things. We make real choices many times a day, every day of our lives. But to say that this will of ours is “free” of any overriding force does not line up with what the Bible says.

The Lord God of this Universe has the ability to trump our will and to even change our will. This is part of what it means for God to be all-powerful.

I’m not suggesting that we are robots operating according to a predefined program. Nor do I mean to suggest that we are like puppets who are being animated by a kind of cosmic puppet-master. I simply want us to be reminded that our will does not always carry the day (and this is a good thing!). We need to remember that “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

In light of this, what do you do when trouble arises? What do you do when the land of your ancestors is in ruins? What do you do when the people you love are in great distress? What do you do when you are powerless to change your predicament?

You pray.

You petition the great Heart-Changer to take up your cause.

This is precisely what Nehemiah does when confronted by the devastation in Jerusalem. Nehemiah prays, “When I serve the king his wine today, make him pleased with me and have him do what I ask” (Neh. 1:11).

If we track with Nehemiah we see that he is convinced of God’s power to change King Artaxerxes’ heart, but Nehemiah also understands the need to participate in the plan of God.

In other words, God’s plan does not preclude good planning.

Many Christians make the mistake of emphasizing one of these aspects over the other. Some Christians are so convinced of God’s sovereignty over all things, that they mistakenly retreat to a position of total inactivity. By contrast, there are others who immerse themselves in planning and strategizing without giving much thought to how God might enter into the equation.

Nehemiah avoids both of these extremes. He understands that God has a plan, and that prayer helps us to get in step with that plan. Nehemiah also understands the value of good planning. Nehemiah waits 4 months before approaching the king and asking for a leave of absence and a series of letters to facilitate his travel and acquisition of resources.

We read on and see that the king gave Nehemiah more than what he asked for. Nehemiah got the leave of absence. He got the letters for safe travel. He got requisitions for lumber, and he also got a small army given to him!

Why was the king so gracious? Why did the king change his policy and help Nehemiah to such a degree?

Yes, indeed, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

Nehemiah recognized this and so he writes for our edification, “God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked” (Neh. 2:8).

I don’t know your particular predicament, but God does. You may feel that you are powerless to change your predicament, but you belong to a God who is all-powerful.

Pray to the great Heart-Changer and seek to connect to His plan. And as you wait for His answer, I encourage you to engage in good planning.

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“God’s Plan and Good Planning”, based on Nehemiah 2:1-10, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 2, 2011.

Casting A Vision In Difficult Times

planning aheadThe Bible is filled with accounts that could come under the heading of “Mission Impossible”, and the story of Nehemiah is one of them. News of Jerusalem’s destruction reaches Nehemiah, living 800 miles away while serving as cupbearer to the King of Persia.

Hearing the news of Jerusalem in ruins made Nehemiah weep. He stopped eating. He was devastated (Neh. 1:4). But rather than give up all hope for his homeland, Nehemiah turned to God in prayer.

Nehemiah would eventually come up with a comprehensive plan to rebuild Jerusalem, but before pursuing his vision with his people, Nehemiah pursues his vision with his God.

For any Christian who desires to reach a particular destination, for every pastor who longs to see the renewal of a local congregation, the example of Nehemiah is worth mirroring.

The “odds” were stacked against Nehemiah. You can hear his critics:

“Nehemiah, how do you plan to get to Jerusalem–it’s 800+ miles away?”
“Won’t you lose your job as cupbearer to the King?”
“Who is going to help you?”
“Don’t you realize how dangerous the region has become?”
“Nehemiah, don’t you realize that this task is too big for you?”

I think Nehemiah was acutely aware of the obstacles in front of him…and that’s why he prayed.

It was said of Hudson Taylor that the sun never rose for 40 years in China without God finding him on his knees in prayer for the great land.

Reconstruction is hard work—especially when there are those who oppose it.

Nehemiah’s example shows us what is possible when God supports our plan and powers our efforts. Nehemiah is a delightful example of how to pursue a vision in the face of contrary circumstances.

My current context for ministry is Nassau, Bahamas and, while I can’t make a clean comparison between ancient Jerusalem and modern day Nassau, I definitely see a parallel.

Renewal is possible—prosperity is possible, when God is involved. And God’s people have a role to play in that—and that role begins with prayer.

As I said to my congregation recently: “If Nehemiah can do it, we can do it.”

I don’t know your particular circumstances, but if God is for you, who can be against you? If your vision is really God’s vision, you will succeed. Be constant in prayer as you go after your destination. If Nehemiah can do it, you can do it.

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“Casting A Vision In Perilous Times”, based on Nehemiah 1, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 25, 2011.

The Primacy Of Humility

Have a close look at Romans chapter 12 and I think you will agree that one trait stands out from the crowd. Emerging from a substantial list of imperatives is the call for followers of Jesus to be marked by humility.

I wonder if that surprises you. Perhaps you were expecting love to be the dominant trait. Or maybe you expected kindness, or forgiveness, to be our primary trait.

Could it be that the reason Paul emphasizes humility is because our level of humility determines our capacity to excel with these other traits?

We can actually test this hypothesis with a simple question: If I struggle with pride and self-centredness, will this impair my ability to love others?

If that’s true—if selfishness hampers love, if pride hinders peace, if self-centredness stunts my generosity, then you would expect the remedy to lie with humility, wouldn’t you?

Paul begins his emphasis on humility in 12:3: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.

It is important to avoid the temptation of regarding yourself according to the opinion of others. Inevitably, some will think too highly of us while others will think too little of us. Paul wants our self-evaluation to happen within the context our our relationship with God. There we will find a necessary balance. We’ll celebrate that we are children of the King, but children by grace. We’ll rejoice in being forgiven, but we’ll remember that this standing was not something we earned.

In 12:5, Paul arrests our tendency to pursue our own personal preferences when he declares that “each member belongs to all the others.” We have an obligation to one another that can only be met within an environment marked by humility. Paul says something quite similar in 12:10 when he writes, “Honour one another above yourselves.

Notice that Paul does not simply say, “Honour one another.” He doesn’t simply give an imperative for mutual respect. No, he takes this to another level: “Honour one another above yourselves.

Imagine how progress in this regard would help to transform marriages, churches, and communities. Think about it—how does conflict survive if I care more about what you need than what I need?

Paul closes out this section with even more explicit instruction on humility: “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Rom. 12:16).

It should go without saying that Paul’s statement relates to worldly standards. God does not look at some as though they were in a high position and others as though they were in a low position. It is the world which distinguishes between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

You could even summarize Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 by saying:

“Don’t be like the world. Be like Jesus.”

“Don’t be governed by societal standards. Be governed by biblical standards.”

As a young boy, I was obsessed with being in first place. I wanted to win every race and every competition. I wanted to be first in line for everything.

I’m trying to grow out of that remembering the words of Jesus, “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).

By every appearance, my capacity for kindness, my capacity for generosity, my capacity for love is determined by my ability to “be the very last, and the servant of all“.

Humility is not some secondary trait for the follower of Jesus. Humility is of massive importance for our advancement in Christ-likeness. To this end I urge you to pursue last place.

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“Be Humble”, based on Romans 12, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 18, 2011.

What Kind Of Person Talks To Others About Jesus?

Sharing Your Faith In JesusThe apostle Paul asks the question, “How can they hear (the Gospel) without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14).

I get that.

I believe that.

My livelihood as a pastor is based in part on this principle—that people are supposed to talk to other people about Jesus.

What I’m sometimes uncomfortable with is the how, and the by whom, part. While I concede that every follower of Jesus ought to be ready to share the reason for their faith in Jesus (1Pet. 3:15), I suspect that there are some who are not the least bit ready but are sharing anyways.

I liken sharing the Gospel to preparing a meal on a stove–with some experience in the kitchen, some basic instruction on food preparation, and with careful attention, we gain the capacity to deliver an outstanding meal for others to enjoy. Without these things, we run the risk of ruining the food—or worse, possibly setting the kitchen on fire in the process. This is why I don’t allow my 9-year-old daughter to cook dinner without close supervision.

I don’t mean to sound unkind or harsh, but I worry that some well-meaning Christians have done injury to the Gospel by the manner in which they conveyed Jesus to others. I suspect this, in part, because I have observed this. But I also say this reflecting back a number of years and remembering my own manner as I attempted to share the reason for my own faith. Yes, I do realize that “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2Cor. 4:7), but I worry that we often lack the humility that should accompany our position as “clay jars”.

As I recently closed out a short message series, entitled, “Spread The News”, my concern focused on the qualities of the person who is sharing their faith in Jesus. My text was 1Peter 3:8-17 and my conclusion was that two particular marks are necessary for the evangelist:

1) Mindful of the needs of others

2) Intently focused on the Lord Jesus Christ

The danger is to overexpose on one of these marks while neglecting the other. We need to be marked by both.

Before Peter urges us to prepare our defense of the Gospel, he first exhorts us to “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (1Pet. 3:8). It’s as if Peter is telling us that our success in promoting the Gospel is linked to our capacity for relational health.

Theologian, Edmund Clowney, argues that the Greek translated “be sympathetic” means to “enter into the other’s needs and concerns”. The call to “be compassionate” is along those exact lines. You could say that compassion is sympathy in action. Sympathy feels for others. Conmpassion acts for others.

So, how are we going to get there? Because my default, as much as I’d like it to be, is not the well-being of others. What’s going to help me to be more sympathetic and compassionate?

Peter’s answer: Humility.

This makes perfect sense. In order to live in harmony with others, I not only need to increase my concern for the needs of others, but I also need to decrease the attention I give to my own needs.

In addition to being mindful of the needs of others, we also need to have an intent focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter exhorts us accordingly in 3:15, “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” I think Peter realizes that we don’t always assign Jesus to an appropriate place and priority in our life.

I often hear people say, “You’re in my heart”, or “She is close to my heart”. That is saying something significant. Peter wants Jesus to be assigned to our heart—but not simply as someone we love deeply, not simply in a place with dear friends and family—Peter says “in your hearts set apart Christ as LORD.

Jesus is not simply to be “close” to my heart—He is to be the Master of my heart.

As I try and connect what is going on in my heart with what I am required to say, I am reminded of what Jesus has said: “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Could it be, that as I think about talking to others about Jesus, my biggest burden is not to get my speech right, but to get my heart right?

What kind of person talks to others about Jesus?

We need to set Christ apart in our heart as Lord, and we need to care more for the needs of others than we do for our own.

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“The Labourers Of Mission”, based on 1Peter 3:8-17, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, August 14, 2011.

More Than Words

more than wordsIn my previous post, “Compelled To Talk About Jesus“, I make the case for why followers of Jesus should be motivated to promote the Gospel. Within this post I would like us to consider what the Bible says about how the Gospel should be conveyed.

Most of us, I suspect, when thinking about the promotion of the Christian Gospel, think first about verbal proclamation. Because the Gospel is inherently a message, it logically follows that one of the primary means for advancing the message will be for people to talk to other people about Jesus.

Indeed, verbal proclamation is one of the primary ways we are called to share the Gospel. One of the most compelling calls comes from 1Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

The Greek phrase literally means to “give an apology”—from which we get the term, “apologetics”. No, we’re not being asked to apologize for our faith in Jesus—the phrase in the original language suggests making a reasoned defense in the face of a challenge by another.

I realize that, as I say this, it is quite likely that the prospect of verbally defending your faith terrifies you.

You may be relieved to hear then that the Bible describes other ways in which we can promote the Gospel. My intention is not to diminish the importance of verbal proclamation when I point out that there is more than one way to engage in the work of evangelism.

The first “language of mission” I would like us to look at is the language of prayer.

Prayer is something, presumably, that every Christian already does. And prayer is a meaningful entry point for us into the work of mission. In fact, Jesus commands our participation in this regard. Jesus says to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Mt. 9:37, 38).

Here, Jesus instructs us to pray for more evangelists/missionaries. Pray that God would cause followers of Jesus who are not currently engaged in mission to get onside. Along a similar vein, the apostle Paul calls for us to pray for those who are already actively engaged in verbally proclaiming the Gospel.

Paul implores us, “Be sure to pray that God will make a way for us to spread his message and explain the mystery about Christ, even though I am in jail for doing this. Please pray that I will make the message as clear as possible” (Col. 4:3-4).

Paul specifically asks for prayer believing that prayer is vital to, both, his delivery of the message, and to the effectiveness of the message.

The next language of mission I would like us to consider is the language of giving money.

Jesus has instructed us to go into “all the nations” to baptize and to make disciples (Mt. 28:19). For the great majority of us, however, this is simply not possible. What we might resolve to do instead, however, is to send money to support those missionaries who are able to go and to do the work of proclamation on our behalf.

This is precisely what the ancient church at Philippi did. Paul opens his letter to them by stating, “I always pray for you with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:4, 5). In what capacity did the Philippians serve as partners to Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel? We learn in chapter 4 that it was through financial support. This tells me that we should not diminish the important role of cheque-writing when it comes to advancing the Gospel.

And thirdly, there is the language of good deeds.

This mission language is in the spirit of Francis of Assisi, who was reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times—if necessary, use words.” The idea here is that how we act, how we behave, bears powerful witness to Christ. Jesus says as much in His Sermon on the Mount, challenging us: “Let your light shine, so that others will see your good works and will praise your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

There should be no dichotomy between speaking about Jesus to others and living for Jesus—both, the “talk” and the “walk” are required. The message is what needs to be believed in, but the exemplary lifestyle of the one speaking is what legitimizes the message for the hearer.

In the words the Scottish missionary and Olympic athlete, Eric Liddell, “We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ.”

Having reflected on these few texts, I hope that you are encouraged in regard to your obligation to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Your witness need not begin with verbal proclamation. There are other meaningful ways to be engaged in the work of mission.

Through your prayers, through your financial gifts, and through your good deeds, you can meaningfully engage in mission.

And yet, it must also be said that without verbal witness the work of evangelism is incomplete. At the end of the day, after all the prayers, after all the good deeds, and all the financed ministries, it is still necessary for people to tell people the message of Jesus Christ.

What I am trying to say, however, is that you need not start there. Begin with prayer. Look for opportunities to support others already engaged in the work. Build a foundation for dialogue with your kindness and loving deeds.

We need to speak the message–yes–but, let’s also remember that we need more than words.

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“The Languages Of Mission”, based on a variety of biblical texts, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, August 7, 2011.