Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
I’m reflecting further on our reading from last Sunday, specifically 1 Thessalonians 1:9, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”
Notice the direction of this action: to God, from idols. It is not put the other way around. The people had come out of the darkness and into the marvelous light of the Gospel. They had been immersed in deception and misplaced adoration; then they left that for something better. You do not leave your idols for some reason and then painfully try to find God. What happens is that you discover moments of the beauty, the glory and greatness of God. Seeing that and wanting it, you are willing to forsake the cheap and tawdry things you have been trying to satisfy yourselves with. At its core, Idolatry is seeking of self rather than God. Idolatry is putting our trust in created things rather than the Creator. It echoes Satan’s words, which started all of this process: “You will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) True worship of the true God recognizes the great gulf existing between the quality of life we are disposed to live and the sacrifice of God’s only Son on the cross. God is a God of justice and also a God of love. In the cross of Christ, justice and love have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. The real God is a relentless pursuer who gives no peace until our religiosity is transformed into repentance and faith.
Modern America is surely one of the most idolatrous countries the world has ever seen. We are surrounded with idol worship. We are guilty of the same self-serving idolatry. We may not fashion idols of wood or gold or silver as did our Old Testament ancestors, but we still find no end of things to worship—money, power, politics, youth sports, pleasure—whatever temporarily satisfies our selfish needs and desires. For example, perhaps our greatest idol that we encounter in our hearts today is the idol of comfort. Americans believe we should be able to do whatever we want and like. We should be able to do what makes us comfortable. We should do what makes us happy. This is the idol of comfort. Sound familiar? Trying combat that American mindset with a call to penance. Good luck! No wonder the Apostle Paul and others met such resistance in their early years of church planting and ministry. Whenever they called people to repentance, it was a rebuke to put God first. They called people to return to the Lord and away from self-gratifying idols and self-centered mantras. It also highlights why Paul and his fellow teachers were so impressed by the transformation in the lives of the early Thessalonians.
Elsewhere, in Genesis, Jacob discovered in the corners of his own household a monstrous problem calling for drastic action: “Get rid of the foreign gods,” he said, “and purify yourselves.” These words of Jacob are just as much needed to today than ever before. Thousands of years later, they are just as relevant and the need has only increased in urgency. “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you.” Love for God allows nothing else to take first place; only God can hold that place. Because only God can bring the peace and healing we need. With this love properly fixated on God, the gods of materialism and self go out the window. That insanity that makes men pursue things as if they were gods is replaced by a new and holier affection. Life acquires a new center and a new direction. That center is God, and that direction is God-ward. May the Lord help us put aside everything that distracts us from Him, so that we can return to serve the living and true God. May our lives be renewed through Jesus Christ. Help us clean house Lord; it’s time for You to take over.
“For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength! Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His Name; bring an offering, and come into His courts!” (Psalm 96:5-8)
“Idolatry happens when we take good things, and make them ultimate things.” (Tim Keller)
“The system of idolatry, invented by modern Christianity, far surpasses in absurdity anything that we have ever heard of.” (Orson Pratt)
“We make a god out of whatever we find most joy in. So, find your joy in God and be done with all idolatry.” (John Piper)
*** I read a number of similar blogs prior to putting this together. So, this is my attribution to a bunch of random blogs and authors that I didn't do a good job of keeping referencing. My apologies and thank you for the words/inspiration.
FULL DISCLOSURE… this blog is a bit longer today. But it’s something, I believe, many need to hear. If nothing else, I’m writing this to myself. You’re more than welcome to join me for the ride and the reflection.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our epistle reading from church this past Sunday. Primarily, it is these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” We know these words from the Apostle Paul. I’ve seen many a wall plagues, Sunday School posters, kitchen magnets, and travel coffee mugs with this verse emblazoned upon them. It’s a happy verse. It encourages. We really don’t mind it, most of the time. As life is chugging along, things are good, and we count our blessings we have no problem putting it into practice... rejoicing.
But let’s be honest, with all due respect to the Apostle Paul, sometimes joy is hard to come by. There are moments when joy seems so very unrealistic. There are many circumstances in life that can make us feel this way: grief over the loss of a loved one, failures in our endeavors, responsibilities in the workplace, battling loneliness, lacking relationships, or simply the constant background anxiety of living in a world under sin’s curse. There are times, when even the most faithful believer, is barely hanging on. Have you been there? I suspect we all have. We may put on our Sunday best facade and proclaim to the world that we are peachy-keen; but there are burdensome and melancholy moments, often kept hidden from reality, when the last thing we feel like doing is rejoicing.
On any given day, there are a billion things that can steal our joy, but only one source from which we can receive it. This is the point. Joy is not found in the circumstance; but it is in knowing that Christ is present in whatever circumstances you are in. Joy is not found in the particular moments; but it is in knowing that Christ is present in every moment. Joy is not found in impressive success nor is it lacking in depressing frustrations or embarrassing failures; but it is in genuinely believing that the “Lord is at hand.” It is found in knowing that Christ is present whether you’re riding high or barely hanging on.
Paul strongly emphasizes that such an attitude should be constant, not temporary. Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul writes from his prison cell in Rome. Paul is an inmate, a jailbird. That’s important to remember – that he writes these words while being imprisoned because of his Christian faith. So, when Paul tells us that we can rejoice in the Lord always, he really means, always. He is not writing these words from his high horse or a sheltered place of abundance. Rejoice. Always. To be sure, this is not easy—and we desperately need that gentle, constant prompting of the Spirt to remember these words. Always rejoice, because God is always faithful. Grounded in this unshakable truth, we won’t be destroyed by the sufferings of this world. In fact, we can thumb our nose at the hardships of this world and tell the Devil to go right back where he came from. Why? Because our joy in the Lord is not for sale, it cannot be polluted, it will not be seized. God is always faithful to His beloved. Isaiah 46:4 says, “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made you, and I will bear you; I will carry you and will save you.” That’s what we need to hear. When we are frustrated, sorrowful, filled with doubts… God is always faithful. He will carry us. Full of love and grace and mercy, the Lord promises that He is always there for you, always here with us.
Back to the imprisoned Paul, instead of focusing on himself and his situation, Paul focuses on this Gospel and on how God is at work. He is especially focused on the idea that rejoicing is to take place at all times. This from the man who is a prisoner in Rome. He had been wrongfully arrested for some time, shipwrecked on the way there, bitten by a snake, and left under house arrest for two years. Paul had every reason to complain, yet focused on rejoicing. He rejoices in the opportunities he has to talk about his faith with the palace guard, he delights in the boldness with which other believers are speaking out, and, as for those who are preaching with false motives – as long as they are telling people about Jesus, Paul chooses to find joy in that. Even in chains, he trusted that the Lord was with him and caring for him.
No matter what is happening in your life – no matter how bad it might seem – you have a God who loves you, a Savior who died for you, and a promise from our God to be with you always. Don’t look for your ability or desire to rejoice internally. Instead look up and look outward; look to God. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I had hoped that the heart of reality might be of such a kind that we can best symbolize joy as a place. Instead, I found it to be a Person.” And that’s why you and I can always rejoice. Because we are rejoicing in a person, Jesus Christ the Lord.
God’s blessings my friends and may the joy of the Lord be your strength!
“Such is the rejoicing of which Paul speaks—a rejoicing where there is no fear of death or hell, but rather a glad and all-powerful confidence in God and his kindness. Hence the expression, "Rejoice in the Lord"; not rejoice in silver or gold, not in eating or drinking, not in mechanical chanting, not in strength or health, not in skill or wisdom, not in power or honor, not in good works or holiness even. For these are deceptive joys, false joys, which never stir the depths of the heart. They are never even felt. When they are present we may well say the individual rejoices superficially. To rejoice in the Lord—to trust, confide, glory and have pride in the Lord as in a gracious Father—this is a joy which rejects all else but the Lord…” (Martin Luther)
Then Nehemiah… said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep. Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9-10)
This past Monday, along with our church preschool staff, I went through first aid and CPR training. It had been many years since I had received any formal instruction, and though most of the direction and training has probably stayed the same, it was very necessary and beneficial for me to have a refresher course. I would hate to find myself in an emergency setting where I feel ill-prepared or hesitant to render help. But after a day of training, I can now quickly come to the rescue if someone starts choking on donuts during fellowship hour. In the event of any health crisis or accident, I am, at the very least, better equipped to act. God willing, I will never have to use any of the training. However, knowing that I have the necessary information and training, I feel confident that I can help provide the care to someone in danger without any pause.
What about Spiritual Care? When a crisis comes—and it will—how can we care for others? How can we come to their aid? Much like in physical situations, we want to be quick to react. No doubt. No hesitation. If we see someone hurting or suffering, we want to quickly take what we know and put it into action.
Have you ever observed a lifeguard rush to the aide of someone who stopped breathing? Aside from watching it on TV in the series Baywatch or the movie Sandlot, I haven’t seen it firsthand. But lifeguards leap immediately to action. They jump in and go right to life-giving measures such as CPR. The Bible says we are drowning in our sins (see Psalm 38:4), unable to overcome our guilt and shame. But we are not without a rescuer. Jesus dove right in—overcame our trouble by living, dying and rising again so that we might live again in Him. Today, He wants to breathe that life right into your hearts and minds and make you "wise for salvation," to make you sure you are truly ready to face the challenges that await you and make the most of the opportunities that are set before you, chances to give spiritual care to those around us. Knowing that we have been loved and redeemed in Christ, that we have been rescued by Him and are healed by His wounds, gives us all the necessary tools and information that we need to come to the spiritual aide of those around us.
The Apostle Paul says the Bible is God-breathed: that means it is already full of the power and presence of God, and when it enters your mind and heart through your eyes, through your ears, it's like God is performing spiritual CPR on your life. He is giving what you need to sustain you and help you preserver through the “emergencies” of this world. That's the picture Paul wants you to have for the Bible. The Bible is not so much a rule book or a book of principles and truths—though there are truths contained in it, for sure. The Bible ultimately is a book that is alive with the love, the grace, and the mercy of God for you. It is God-breathed so you can spiritually breathe again in Him. It is full of God's Spirit and life so that you can truly be alive by His Spirit. So, open the Bible, take a look. Who knows? It might be the breath of fresh air that you really need.
“O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” (Psalm 30:2)
Last Tuesday, I sat at a meeting with area clergy from the Mountain Lakes, Denville, Boonton, and Rockaway areas. The question was presented to us, “In what area of ministry do you feel most helpless?” One answer, which was echoed by everyone gathered, was the undeniable and frustrating apathy that the general population has towards the church. Across the denominational spectrum, numbers have dropped and pastors are discouraged. Many blamed the past pandemic. Certainly, a factor, but I don’t buy it for the present. It’s a convenient excuse more than anything. People will spend money, drive distances, and assemble in crowds without any hesitation when it comes to sporting events, concerts, birthday parties, and food festivals. People simply don’t care about the church. They’re too busy. They’re not interested. They’re chasing after their modern-day golden calves. Thousands of years ago, the prophet Jeremiah observed that the people he was sent to serve had also run away from God, “…Judgement will be upon their wickedness, who have forsaken [the Lord] and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands… My people, [says the Lord], have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (1:16, 2:13) Sadly, not much has changed. How can the church at large increase our impact if people don’t show up? How can we grow together and in our relationship with Jesus if we only sporadically spend time together? How can we advertise and sell a life-giving product to the outside world, if we are not using and rejoicing in it ourselves?
Recently, this math was shared with me to ponder in regard to church attendance. If a person came to church this year each Sunday (53 weeks) and then also for the midweek gatherings (9 hours total) and special services (5 hours) you would spend about 70 hours hearing God's Word, receiving Holy Communion, and singing His praises.
70 hours. Total. For the year.
Add 53 more hours if a person also wanted to attend a weekly Bible Study. Total for attending church and Bible study = 120 hours—for the entire year. Here are the numbers, on average in a year Americans spend (from the 2017 Bureau of Labor and Statistics Time Spent study):
None of those things are bad in and of themselves, yet seeing the numbers compared to one another might help you understand just how weekly church and Bible study attendance is really not a priority in the lives of most Americans. It is not that hard and does not take a huge chunk out of your life when compared to other things we so gladly do. If only the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh hated television like they do church attendance... right?
The church is not a club to join or group to belong to. It is not a place that can be found or duplicated by anyone else; it has not become irrelevant and will never become antiquated. The church continues to be the only “organization” that was instituted by God. It is the only community He sacrificed Himself for. God is the architect and builder of this temple. He is the founder and presider. For this reason, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the church in the eternal plan of God. The church is His building, His bride. It is where He shows up to grace, redeem, and grow His beloved people. Our heavenly Father, the Creator Himself, pledges that the church—that universal body of believers under Christ’s headship—will have a visible being and a testimony in this world as long as the world itself lasts. Do you remember this promise of Jesus? “… On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18) All the enemies of truth combined shall never secure the defeat or destruction of the church. We are on stable ground, a firm foundation.
Remember you are baptized. You are a member of His body, a part of His family. This is where your God invites you. This is where He promise to show up to meet you, to listen to your prayers, to comfort your sorrows.
This is where He forgives you.
This is where He feeds you.
Your pew is the sweet, Gospel reception spot.
Make the time. Come to church.
“Belonging to a church means investing your life in a gospel-centered community of believers who joyfully serve one another and advance Jesus’ mission together.” (Tony Merida)
“The church isn’t just a particular building or congregation, but the spiritual fellowship of all who belong to Jesus Christ.” (Billy Graham)
“If Church history teaches us anything, it is that we cannot afford to be a vacillating Church. We minister to a people who are in great need of hearing truth; we dare not make any attempt to soft pedal that glorious truth.” (Martin Luther)
Pastor Steve Vera