Sunday, October 18, 2020

"Gifts To Help Us Grow Up" by Pastor Kerry Doyal [LEFC Sermon Notes]

"Gifts To Help Us Grow Up"
Moving towards Maturity in Love and Unity - from Eph. 4:7-16
Kerry Doyal, Allegheny District Superintendent

It’s Pastor Appreciation Month!  Please let Matt, Heather and their Crew know you’re thankful for them. Get this: the Bible says he is a gift from God.  When you get a gift, it is nice to know its purpose.  So, if I may, why did God give Matt to Lanse EFC?  Ephesians 4:7-16 addresses that very theme. Notice the Pastor’s role and ours. 

7 “Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 For it says:
When he ascended on high,
he took the captives captive;
he gave gifts to people.   (cf. Ps 68:18)

9 But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, to fill all things. 11 And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. 14 Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. 15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ. 16 From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building itself up in love by the proper working of each individual part.”  (Eph. 4:7-16 - CSB) 


Here is my summary of this rich text: 

The Ascended and Seated Savior sent us a Surprise!
He Gave us Servants, Spiritual Leaders 
They are to Strengthen and Supply us Saints to be able to serve, 
so that His Body is built up – in quantity and quality! 

We are all to be engaged in ministry until we are all mature: 
United in the faith
Knowing Jesus better and better 
Becoming more like Jesus 

We are not to stay spiritual kids – easily swayed, or deceived 
But, we are to grow up in all ways in Him, to be like Him
All of us are to work together in our unique roles 
so we can grow and bolster each other in love. 

Last time I was here we looked at Ephesians 4:1-6. To help us fulfill our calling, God has given us gifts. Among them are Spiritual Leaders who help ready us to serve, so we can help Christ’s body become mature, more like Jesus (vs. 7-16). 

>      Matt’s Role, as a Pastor / Teacher, is to Equip you, help get you in the game
He is Not an Entertainer and you Spectators 
Not merely an Educator, though an excellent teacher
He is an Equipper, to Help Repair and Prepare you so you can serve
> Your Role, as repaired and prepared ones, is to minister and build up the body; doing acts of service that lead to a healthier Body of Christ. (vs 12)
This is not just a job for the paid pros. Read Titus! 
How long are we to do this, you ask? 

> What does Maturity Look like and include?  Vs. 13 
Being united in the faith  (see John 17 – an obsession of Jesus)
Knowing Jesus better and better (Phil. 3 - That I may know Him!)  
Becoming more like Jesus (fully taught disciples are like their Master) 

> God wants His re-born people are to move to maturity, to grow up in Christ; in all ways. Luke 2:52 – Jesus grew in wisdom, and stature, in favor with God, and man.

> Spiritual Children are easily swayed, fooled, manipulated: (vs. 14) 
They believe every new voice that comes along
They read things and never question if it is Biblical
They fall for conspiracies, heresies, and destructive, divisive teachings 

> As we lovingly speak truth to each other, we all become more like Jesus (15)

> His whole body is to help each other grow, as we all play our active, unifying part, lovingly building each other up (16)


Applying this Passage: 

First, share your thanks to God for Matt.  AND to Matt directly. Don’t let it “go without saying”;  encourage the Old Guy, and Heather and their kids 

Get busy serving!  No one is ever fully ready to do everything – not even Matt.  But you can do something!  Get after it! How can you make Lanse EFC a better place? What needs can you meet?  See Eph. 2:10  

Serve so as to build up the Body. Help it grow in quantity through evangelism, and in quality by helping others grow in Christ. Be purposeful. 

Contribute to the Body’s Maturity (Grow Up). Help maintain unity (review Eph. 4:1-6); help deepen yours and others knowledge of, and love for Jesus.  

Watch after spiritual babies. Warn them if you see them following bad teachers or influencers. Provide good examples, and materials. Be a loving truth speaker


What is the best gift you can give Pastor Matt, or any Pastor, for Pastor Appreciation?  Step up and Grow up!   
Great news, as you help others, you mature as well. Then they are able to help others grow up. 
What a great gift to give to the great gift that Matt is.


Monday, October 12, 2020

McDougall Editorial

My friend and master editor, Diane McDougall, has recently launched her own editorial service which I highly recommend for anyone who needs help with their words.

To give you a sense of just how good Diane is, I've copied a letter I sent her a few years ago when she transitioned from being the editor for the EFCA's publications. She's had a profound influence on my writing life.

******

Diane,

I want to thank you—not just for your excellent story-surfacing and story-telling service to the EFCA in general—but for your life-giving ministry of opportunity-giving in particular to me.

We’ve been collaborating now for almost two decades. And by “collaborating” I mean you’ve been graciously taking chances on me. Our first interaction was (appropriately enough) an email interview about the use of new media technology in the Allegheny District. Our little rural church in the woods of Pennsylvania had just launched our first website (the first church website in our county!), and I was also becoming the first moderator of a listserv email for district church leaders to spark conversations with one another. Those first back-and-forth emails from my AOL account to your email address at Journey Group started a volley that has been repeated many thousands of times since.

Once I had a taste of getting something published, I definitely wanted more. I began banging on your door. In the summer of 2001, our church had put on a large-scale outreach event that brought 10 times as many visitors to our campus as we normally had on a Sunday. You asked me to write about our Wild West Day, and I sent you a sprawling document with nearly twice as many words as you wanted. This would mark the beginning of my apologies for the weakness of my writing and relentless requests for you to work your magic to edit my feeble attempts. My email begged, “Please be ruthless with the editing. I’d rather it be good and helpful than it be distinctively mine. It is also 491 words according to my word-processor so you’ve got a job ahead of you slimming it down to size. Thanks for the stretching opportunity and your patience with this rookie reporter!”

Not long after that (September 2004), I sent you a pesky email asking if you would consider taking me on as a “stringer” for the Beacon. Instead of a kind rebuff, you graciously replied with several ideas of things I could contribute and an offer for me to help with more brainstorming in the future. You’re really good at that—encouraging people to participate and find their voice (even when I’m sure it would be easier for you to just do it yourself). Out of that interaction came an article about using the national conference as a resource for local ministry, “Taking the Treasure Home With You: Using the EFCA National Conference in Your Local Church.” A stringer was born! Over the next 15 years, I would write more than a dozen similar articles about church and denominational ministry.

More than just tolerating or utilizing me, you also constantly pushed me and stretched me. You encouraged me to try my hand at journalism and gave me assignments where I had to interview people and weave together their insights into articles. One of those was about the 2008 national conference where we revised our Statement of Faith. My article was to be about everything that happened at the conference that wasn’t about the big vote. The other major article was about what districts were doing to counter the plague of pornography that was infecting our pastors. These journalistic opportunities had at least two good effects on me. The allowed me to play out unfulfilled ambitions of mine (I had, for a short time, been a journalism student in college) and clearly showed me the limits of my gifts (I learned that I had chosen rightly to drop that major! I am definitely not a journalist and shouldn’t quit my day job). Without your encouragement, I might have always wondered what could have been.

If not a journalist, then what? A pastor and a book lover. Yes, that is what I was. I kept sending book reviews your way, and you couldn’t run them all. You needed to spread the wealth. But instead of turning me away, you put me to work. You picked my brain about what books would be good to review and who would be good to review them. Before I knew it, you had turned me from “stringer” into “volunteer book review coordinator,” and we had worked together with aspiring reviewers writing “on spec” to produce nearly 40 book reviews for EFCA Today and EFCA Now.

And then I wrote my own book, Resisting Gossip, and you helped me with that, too. You read the entire manuscript, provided me with invaluable advice on its contents, wrote an encouraging endorsement blurb, and gave me a chance to write an article about my topic for EFCA Now.

The theme of this story is that you have given me a chance, then given me a new chance, and then when that was over, you gave me yet another chance—each time developing my gifts and giving me more responsibility. You didn’t just let me write but made me a partner. You didn’t just teach me how to write but how to recognize good writing. You didn’t just edit me, you showed me how to be an editor. And all along you were patient with my many words and my incessant opinions.

Diane, what I’m trying to say is thank you for believing in me and giving me all of these opportunities. The Lord has used you in mighty ways in my life.

And yes, I know this ostensibly short note is actually rambling and verbose, but there was no way I could send it to my favorite editor to get it fixed.

— Matt Mitchell

******





Sunday, October 11, 2020

"A Dying Thirst for the Living God" [Matt's Messages]

“A Dying Thirst for the Living God”
Lanse Evangelical Free Church
October 11, 2020 :: Psalm 42
Our series this Fall is called “Fortifying Truth.” We are receiving from the Psalms the fortifying truth that strengthens us for the tumultuous days in which we are living.

God has given us a songbook in the very center of our Bibles to provide us with songs for our hearts to sing for each and every situation in which we find ourselves.

And I want you to consider this fortifying truth today:

Often, it is good spiritually to feel bad emotionally.

Let me say that again.

Often, it is good spiritually to feel bad emotionally. And to sing about it!

There are a lot of songs in this divinely authorized songbook that are set in a minor key.
 
The last several weeks, the psalms we’ve considered have been celebratory, more in a major key. Psalm 23 with our good shepherd (but don’t forget the shadowy valley). Psalm 103 with all of the blessings we shouldn’t forget (but also remember that we are like dust). And Psalm 133 with the rare and holy blessing of unity. How good and pleasant it is!

But many of the psalms are set in a more minor key. The psalmist sings about how hard things are, how difficult, how painful.

We call them “psalms of lament,” and they, too, are songs from God for us to sing from our hearts.

Because often, it is right and good spiritually to feel bad emotionally and to sing about it, to others, to ourselves, and to our Lord.

That’s what Psalm 42 is like.

Psalm 42 about a Israelite worship leader who feels just terrible. He’s in a tough spot with no obvious time-line for getting out of it. And he feels really rough.

Do you feel really rough today? Has 2020 got you down?

This is a psalm with jagged edges to it. The author feels ragged and jagged. And God led him to write a song about it for us to pray and sing ourselves when we feel like this.

Isn’t that good?! We may not feel good, but it is good to have something right to pray when we feel this way.

Here’s how bad the psalmist feels. He almost feels like he’s going to die.

Psalm 42, verse 1.

“For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?


Years ago, Heather and I were talking about this psalm, and she said, out of the blue, that the psalmist had “A Dying Thirst for the Living God,” and I thought then and I think now that perfectly captures these first two verses.

“A Dying Thirst for the Living God”

Do you see the deer in your head?

It’s thirsty.

Perhaps there has been a drought and there is very little water to be found.

Or maybe the deer has been chased by hunters like my son Peter who got his first archery harvest this week out in the woods.

And the deer hasn’t been able to stop and pause get a drink.

It’s yearning, longing, panting, dying for a drink.

Can you feel its thirst?

“Thirst” is one of those words that when you say it, you begin to feel it.

The author says that his soul is thirsty for God.

Now, we don’t know that much about the author. The superscription says that this song was written for the director of music. It’s a “maskil” (which we’re not sure exactly what that means, but it was probably something like “a teaching poem”) “of the Sons of Korah” which was a long line of worship leaders for the people of Israel first in the tabernacle and then eventually in the temple.

And the next 8 psalms are all a part of their collection. It’s like a 8 psalm album of these Sons of Korah guys.

And it seems like it’s one of those worship leaders who is describing his thirst.

And it’s like a dying thirst for water, but it is actually a deep thirst for experiencing God.

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

Now, of course, this psalmist is talking to God already. He knows that God is everywhere.

But there was a special place when he was living that God lived in a special way. In Jerusalem. On Mt. Zion. In the tabernacle or the temple. In the holy of holies.

And it seems that the psalmist was far far away from that home. And he was desperate to get back. Desperate! Thirsty for the full and joyful fellowship that came with temple worship.

My best guess is that he is in captivity. That he was captured by an enemy and is being held against his will.

He wants to be in worship with God’s people in Jerusalem, but he is not able right now. ... And he doesn’t know when he will be.

See how he feels? Verse 3.

“My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

Have you ever felt like that? Tears are your total diet?

It’s been 5 years this week since Blair Murray died. I remember coming home from being with Ruth that night and just bawling in our living room.

The only time I sobbed more was when we had a stillbirth back in 1999. When our daughter Charis died back in 1999, I lost dozens of pounds in a few weeks because of grief.

This guy can’t eat because he’s so sad. And there are men right there taunting him all day long, “Where is your God? Why doesn’t he show up?”

That’s why I think he’s in a kind of prison.

He’s far from God’s earthly home, and he feels alone with his enemies.

He can’t go up to Jerusalem and sing the songs of ascent like we learned about last week.

He’s stuck right here. And even his joyful memories make him sad! V.4

“These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.”

I remember how good it was!

How tov” and pleasant it was to worship in unity.

But now I don’t have that.

I think that many of us can relate in a new way in 2020 to how this psalmist felt  when he was kept from God’s presence in gathered worship. For three months this Spring we didn’t gather in person on campus for worship as a church. And though we’ve been meeting again since June, we’ve still been separated in significant ways. And many are not yet ready and able to come.

“When can I go and meet with God?”

This psalmist was not going through a dry spell in his relationship with God.

Not on purpose. He wanted more of God than he could get!

And so it hurt.

Do you feel his dying thirst for the living God?

Now, notice, that’s a bad feeling to feel, but it’s a good feeling to feel. Right? Do you see how it is good spiritually to feel bad emotionally?

It would be so much worse if he didn’t care! If he was ambivalent or apathetic.

No. He feels thirst. He feels anguish. He feels distress.

His spiritual lungs are heaving back and forth longing for the waters of the living God.

So I have two diagnostic questions for us to all ask ourselves as we learn from this “maskil” psalm of lament. Here’s the first one:

#1. DOES MY SOUL THIRST FOR THE LIVING GOD?

Because that’s a very good thing to feel even if it doesn’t feel very good.

Does my soul thirst for the living God?

Now, we live in a different day and age than Psalm 42. There is no temple for us in Jerusalem. And this building is not a temple. Jesus has come and replaced the temple, and He has ascended into heaven to the place that was the template of the temple.

So, I think the question becomes do we long to be with Him?

Do we long to be with Jesus and experience Him with fullness of joy freed from our enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil? Do we have a dying thirst for the living God?

And that will come out, of course, in whether or not we have daily fellowship with Him and long for weekly worship with His people, a happy foretaste of heaven.

If we don’t have that, we have very little reason to believe we have the other.

Ask yourself. Does my soul thirst for the living God?

Do I feel any desperation for the Lord’s active presence in my life?

Or am I “good?” “I’ve got enough, thanks. I’ve got plenty of God, thank you very much.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

But what if you don’t thirst?

Then it’s bad to feel good.

Do I have a dying thirst for the living God?

Now, the psalmist knows it is often good spiritually to feel bad emotionally and to sing about it.

But! There are limits. You can take that too far. And you can stay with it, too long.

Most of the laments in the psalms do not stop with lament.

Some of them do. The worse the pain, the longer the legitimate lament.

But the psalmist knows that the pain is not all there is. There is more to this story because of God.

So as right as lament is, there is also hope.

And Psalm 42 shows us how to perfectly intermingle and balance the two. Look at verse 5.

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and  my God.”

Now, here’s where I often go wrong.

The psalmist is not slapping himself back for verses 1 through 4. He’s not saying that he’s been doing it all wrong. But he is stopping himself from going too far.

My wife Heather says that he is “checking himself from going down the spiral of despair.” He knows that he is tempted to go further with his feelings and to wallow in them. 

So he talks to himself about it.

Just like King David does in Psalm 103, he talks to his soul.

Read this gently. This is a gentle self-rebuke. V.5

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”

He knows why! He just said why! He’s not saying that he’s got no reason.

He’s just saying to himself, “Don’t forget the bigger picture.”

“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Hope has the final word.

Hope is faith directed into the future.
Hope is waiting for God to do His thing.
Hope is expecting God to keep His promises. Every single one.

So the psalmist says, “Don’t get stuck down there. Yes, I know it hurts. And it’s right to say it and even sing it. But don’t get stuck there. Don’t forget God.”

“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and  my God.”

He’s going to say this again in verse 11.

And he says it again Psalm 43, verse 5! Most scholars think that Psalm 43 is simply the second part of this song. 

“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
“I will yet praise him.” That’s a declaration of faith.

He praises God today because he fully expects God to rescue Him some day soon.

And he will get to worship in Jerusalem once more.

Second diagnostic question, a little different from the first:

The first was, “Does my soul thirst for the living God?” If so, that’s good, you want that on this side of heaven.

The second is, “Is my soul downcast within me?”

#2. IS MY SOUL DOWNCAST WITHIN ME?

If so, it is good to know it and say it.

But it is dangerous to just stick with it.

If your soul is downcast within you, tell it to put your hope in God.

Remember that how you feel today will not last forever.

What will last forever is God keeping His promises to you.

Turn your face towards God and put your faith in Him.

It doesn’t stop the pain. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel all better. Not yet.

But it reorients your heart towards what is forever.

It is fortifying truth for tumultuous days.

What I love about verse 6 is that just because he has declared his faith, it doesn’t mean that he has solved his problems. They are still there. He’s still in captivity. He’s still far from home. He’s still far from God’s earthly home.

In fact, his soul is still downcast. V.6

“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” [Verse 6] My soul is downcast within me [yes, that’s where I honestly am]; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon–from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”

You see how the psalmist oscillates from lament to hope, from lament to hope?

He is brutally honest. He is depressed, and it isn’t going away.

But he is still going to remember God.

Even far from home. It seems from verse 6 that he’s in the far northern regions of Israel, remember tall Mount Hermon from last week’s psalm 133? He’s either up there or beyond there. We aren’t sure which peak is Mount Mizar, but it sounds like it’s near the headwaters of the Jordan river. And the water is just pounding!

Roaring, deep roaring, chaos and tumult and crashing waves, crashing over him.

It sounds like Psalm 93 doesn’t it? That we saw a few weeks ago. “The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.”

He’s gone from not enough water as a deer wanting flowing streams to too much water and getting pounded by it.

And he knows that these waters are God’s! He knows that God is sovereign even over these overwhelming things.

It’s too much! It’s just. too. much.

Have you felt that way recently? Overwhelmed and overcome.

I think the Prophet Jonah quotes this psalm in his song in Jonah chapter 2. That’s someone who was overwhelmed!

I love how honest the Bible is. I love how honest the psalms are about how hard it is to live in this broken world as broken people.

It is good to sing about how bad it can be!

And then he says another word of faith. V.8

“By day the LORD [Yahweh] directs his love [sends it this way], at night his song is with me–a prayer to the God of my life.”

Isn’t that interesting? 

He knows that God is with him, even if he isn’t with God at the temple.

All day long. He knows that God’s hesed, his steadfast covenant love is directed at him, and all night long, the Lord’s song is with him.

And he sings it back to God.

It’s a song of faith even if it’s a song of pain.

Here’s what he says. Verse 9.

“I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

Question: Is that a good prayer?

Yes, it is. It’s a lament. Those questions (why, why, why?) are not unbelief. They are what pain says in faith to your Rock when you feel those questions in your body and your soul.

And it when the pain doesn’t stop. You say, “When, Lord? When will it stop?”

When will these enemies leave me alone? 

I’m dying here.

And I feel all alone.

When it feels like that, you sing about it.

You tell the Lord exactly how it feels.
You sing it with the rest of the worship team.
With your whole church family.

A prayer to the God of your life.

It is spiritually good to sing about it when you feel emotionally bad.

But then check yourself. Don’t let yourself slip into despair or wallow in your circumstances. Verse 11.

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

I love that this psalm ends with no resolution of this guy’s problems.

Because that’s how real life often is!

And when you pick up Part Two in Psalm 43, he’s still struggling!

But I also love how this psalm ends with repetition of verse 5 in verse 11 (and it does again in verse 5 of Psalm 43!).

Don’t let your downcast heart have the last of the last words! Make sure the last word is a last word of hope and praise.

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

***

Fortifying Truth - Fall 2020

01. Majestic and Mindful - Psalm 8
02. All Our Days - Psalm 90
03. "The LORD on High Is Mighty!" - Psalm 93
04. "The LORD Is My Shepherd" - Psalm 23
05. "Praise the LORD, O My Soul!" - Psalm 103

Sunday, October 04, 2020

"The Blessing of Aaron's Oily Beard" Psalm 133 [Matt's Messages]

“The Blessing of Aaron’s Oily Beard”
Lanse Evangelical Free Church
October 4, 2020 :: Psalm 133

Psalm 133 is one of my all-time favorite Psalms in the whole Bible. It’s really short, really beautiful, and really weird. It’s got these strange (to us) images that just make you go “What?” when you read it. But when you get what it’s saying, it really sings! 

Psalm 133 is one of the “psalms of ascent” that the Israelites sang together as they traveled in family groupings up to Jerusalem to worship at the major feasts of Israel. 

Back in seminary, my Hebrew professor would have us sing the first line of this song together at the beginning of our class-times, in Hebrew.

I won’t try to do it for you today, but I imagine it was so beautiful to hear those Israelites singing it together as brothers as they went up, up, up to Zion.

Now, here’s why I picked it for today.

Because Psalm 133 is a praise song about unity.

It’s a paean of praise for unity among brothers.

And I am so grateful to God for the unity that we are experiencing as a church family these days.

Last week was so encouraging! It was so delightful to gather together as one church family, at least 169 of us. It’s hard to count people when they are in their cars. We might have missed some, but we counted at least 169 of us all together in the same place at the same time worshiping the same LORD.

Unity. Togetherness. Spiritual fellowship and oneness. That’s what this song is about.

Psalm 133 is a praise song about unity.

Let me read it to you, and just let these lovely words wash over you. And then I want to point out 4 things about unity that the psalm gives us and press them home to our hearts.


I first preached Psalm 133 after a “little event” we had on our campus here called “Wild West Day.” I’m just joking about it being little. We actually had 1200 people on our campus that Saturday in July 2001. (Back when there was no such thing as social distancing! Those were the days.)

Our little church banded together to put on a one-day western-themed outreach for our whole community, and it was huge.

But what was really amazing was how unified we were as a church family in putting it on.

There was no complaining, no jostling, no struggling with one another, no conflict.

Just total teamwork.

And I sensed the same thing last week from set-up to tear down for Celebration Sunday 2020. I said on Facebook, “I might be a tad biased, but I think our church has the best servants on the planet.” And it just continued as we all worshiped together.

And that’s why I picked Psalm 133 to just sing about how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters in Christ live together in unity.

And I want to give this sermon the same title as the one I did back in 2001, “The Blessing of Aaron’s Oily Beard.”

Four things. Here’s number one:

#1. UNITY IS RARE.

Hidden in your NIV is a little Hebrew word that is more visible in other translations such as the King James Version or the ESV. It’s the Hebrew word “hinneh,” and it’s often translated, “Behold!” which isn’t a word that we tend to use today.

You could say, “Look!” or “Check this out!” I think the NIV tries to accomplish the idea of this word with the HOW and the front coupled with an exclamation mark at the end of verse 1.

“Whoa, look at that!”

The point is that unity is a rare thing. Unity must be remarked upon. Unity must be noticed. It’s not seen all the time, so when unity crops up, attention must be drawn to it.

Behold! See what’s here! Look, unity!

Sadly, unity is sorely lacking in our world today.

Do I have to prove that to you? Do I need to give you examples? I know that I don’t.

Disunity, division, and fracturing is common. That’s what’s usual.

And that includes among Christians and churches.

I know that a lot of churches are struggling with one another over how to “do church” during this coronavirus pandemic.

And it’s not easy to know how to do it, and do it well.

Here at Lanse Free Church, we’ve tried hard to listen to everybody and to find creative ways of ministering to everybody the last 6 months, but I know it’s been frustrating at times for all of us.

And yet our church has been amazingly unified all along so far.

Yes, we’ve had to be physically apart, but we have been spiritually together.

Praying for one another.
Checking on one another.
Worshiping together.
Considering one another.
Respecting one another.

Last week was just the wonderful capstone of six months of unity.

We have been unified all along.

We decided as a church family to go ahead with 3 costly facilities improvement projects during a pandemic when we weren’t even meeting together at the same time! And we had an overwhelmingly positive vote for those projects with more members voting than I have ever seen in my 22 years here as your pastor. That’s a sign of unity.

We have like 6 separate seating sections on Sunday mornings plus Zoom on Sunday nights and others worshipping from home using the worship at home guide and sermon videos.

And yet we’re together. We’re unified.

That’s  rare. And it’s wonderful.

King David says, “[Behold! Look!] How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”

#2. UNITY IS GOOD.

That word “good” there in verse 1 is the Hebrew word “tov” which takes us back to the creation of the world in Genesis 1 when God said that everything He made was “tov.” It was “good.” 

That is, it’s the way things ought to be.

It’s working. It’s right. It’s complete. It’s going according to plan.

It’s good. “How [tov] it is when brothers live together in unity.”

But it’s more than just “good.” It’s holy. Unity is so good it’s holy!

I think that’s the point of the first really weird word picture in verse 2.

And I love this. I actually wrote about it in Resisting Gossip because I love this really weird picture. Verse 2.

“It [the goodness of unity] is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes.”

What in the world is going on here?

Believe it or not, this is psalm singing here about holiness.

Remember, precious oil is a symbol in the Bible of the anointing, consecrating, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. 

And David is drawing his imagery from the consecration of the Levitical priesthood, when Moses’s brother Aaron was consecrated as the first high priest.

You can read about it, without the singing part, in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 and 21.

Do you remember that part of the Bible’s story? The Israelites did! They know exactly what David is referencing.

When Moses poured oil over Aaron’s head, he was consecrating Aaron and symbolizing Aaron’s being set apart for priestly work by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

And Psalm 133 tells us that it was a total consecration. You get the picture of this fragrant, perfumey slick stuff sliding down Aaron’s head and into his beard (he’d never get the smell out of it!) and down upon the collar of his robes. He was completely immersed in oily goo.

Do you hear the “down, down, down” in the song?

That’s Aaron being completely covered in precious oil!

Now, that sounds gross to our foreign and modern ears, but try to put yourself in Israelite shoes. Here is a poetic description of one of the most completely consecrated people, visibly holy by the marking of oil. 

And, catch this, David is saying that unity is like that. When brothers and sisters live together with rare unity, holiness is present.

So last week when we were together. Or today when we are together even if yet apart, there is something holy going on.

Not just good. But holy.

Something from another world.

Now, of course, if we are not being unified, then that signifies the opposite, doesn’t it? Unholy and wicked. That’s what sinful divisiveness is.

And we need to avoid that at all costs.

Because unity is rare, and it is good.

#3. UNITY IS PLEASANT.

Back up to verse 1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”

It’s not just good. It feels good!
It’s joy-giving. It’s pleasant.

We all know how unpleasant conflict is. Stress. Strain. Pressure. Tension. Pain.

I’m sure that we could all tell stories about unpleasant conflict in our lives from the last seven days. 

And if you don’t have enough conflict in your life, just scroll down through your newsfeed, and you’ll experience plenty of unpleasantness.

Conflict does not feel good.

But true unity sure does.

Remember how nice the weather was last Sunday? Just perfect for outdoor worship.

I wish it was like that every week outside. We could just figure out a way of having worship like that every Sunday!

It was so pleasant.

Well, David uses weather like that to explain just how pleasant unity is in verse 3.

“It [spiritual unity] is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.”

Now, who is this Hermon guy?

This Hermon is not a guy. It’s actually a mountain. And so is Zion.

So there are two mountains and one dew.

I don’t know if this is where we get Mountain Dew from? Is that pleasant? I’m not so sure on that one.

But David says that the unity of brothers and sisters in the Lord is as if the dew of Mount Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

Which if you know what that weird word picture means, it’s a beautiful description!

Do you know anything about these two mountains?

Mount Hermon was (is!) huge.

Mount Hermon is actually a mountain range that rises 9,200 feet above sea level, and extends some 16 to 20 miles from North to South. A little bigger than Sandy Ridge or Bald Eagle!

Mount Zion, on the other hand, was relatively small.  More like a little hill upon which the city of Jerusalem was built. It’s only 2,500 feet above sea level.

You get the picture? Big Hermon. Little Zion. 

How much dew on Hermon? A lot. A lot more than Zion.

So what happens if the dew of Hermon falls on Zion?

In verse 3, King David uses that same Hebrew word for “descending” from verse 2 (down, down, down), and he says “Imagine the dew of Hermon falling, descending, really–flooding upon Mount Zion.”

Imagine the deluge of water, the wetness carrying life-giving sustenance to a drier, more weary land! I read this week that sometimes Jerusalem Mt. Zion doesn’t even  get dew because it’s so dry.

So what happens if the dew of Hermon falls on Zion?

It would spring to life! All of that water would refresh Zion.

David is saying, imagine how green and fertile and rich and refreshed Mount Zion would be if Hermon’s dew covered it!

Now, apply that picture in your mind to unity because this song does. 

Unity is refreshing, restoring, reinvigorating, life-giving. It’s not just pleasant–it is completely refreshing.

Do remember how hot it was this summer, and it never rained?

And you remember what it was like to walk into air-conditioning? Or now that it’s cold outside what it’s like to take a hot shower, or eat a hot bowl of soup after coming inside?
Unity is that kind of pleasant.

Do you see why I love this psalm?

It makes one more major point.

#4. UNITY IS BLESSING.

And by that I mean it’s a gift from God. From the LORD. Capital L-O-R-D. From Yahweh. V.3 again.

“It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there [Mt. Zion?] the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”

Unity is pictured as coming out of Mt. Zion which in the Old Testament was the earthly symbol of the presence of God with man.  Unity is pictured as coming from God’s presence mediated at Jerusalem, specifically at the temple in the Old Testament, and coming out to us as a part of the blessing of “life forevermore.”

And it’s the gift of God.

The LORD bestows this blessing.

Psalm 133 is a praise song about unity, but it is not praising us.

It is not praising Israel.

It is not praising Lanse Free Church for being so unified.

Who gets the glory?

God does!

Unity is not something we can do on our own. I didn’t pick this song to pat ourselves on the back.

I did it to give thanks to the LORD for his gracious blessing on us.

Because unity is a gift from God.

We sure don’t deserve it, but we sure do benefit from it when He gives it to us.

Psalm 133 does not tell us how to maintain unity. The rest of the Bible has a lot to say about that.

On Wednesday nights, our on-campus prayer meeting is studying what love is from 1 Corinthians 13. We do have a responsibility to do our part to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

And I exhort us all to keep up all of our efforts to be unified.

Keep loving each other!

It is not normal. 

What is normal is not good and not pleasant. And the world is full of it.

We are called to be a counter-culture community that is different from the world.

And it’s not just automatic. It involves patience and forgiveness and respect and humility and kindness and forbearance and consideration of others.

Maintaining unity is a lot of work.

But it is worth it. It is so worth it!

And, ultimately, it doesn’t come from our hard work.

It comes from the LORD.

Only He is rare enough, good enough, holy enough, pleasant enough to bestow the life-giving blessing of unity.

Praise the LORD!


Sunday, September 27, 2020

“Praise the Lord, O My Soul!” Celebration Sunday 2020 [Matt's Messages]

“Praise the Lord, O My Soul!”
Lanse Evangelical Free Church
September 27, 2020 :: Psalm 103
Celebration Sunday

This Fall, we have been focusing on “fortifying truth” from the Psalms, the holy songbook in the center of our Bibles.

The Psalms are beloved songs that poetically and powerfully remind us just how great our God really is and how strengthening that is for our daily lives in this tumultuous time.

And Psalm 103 is full of fortifying truth. We’ve just sung it. Now, let’s look at it more closely.

Psalm 103, verse 1.

“Of David. Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.”

That’s theme of the psalm, and the theme of our Celebration today, and I hope it’s theme of our lives.
“Praise the LORD, O my soul!”




Now, the first thing I want you to notice is that King David is talking to himself.

I think a lot of people in Lanse believe that I talk to myself.

Because I have this little bluetooth earpiece that I stick in my ear, and I walk around Lanse talking to people on my phone. Talking to my Dad, my daughter, and many many of you.

My phone tells me that I’ve walked 1,343 miles in the last 6 months since COVID-19 began. I’ve been averaging about 7 miles a day. Yesterday, I walked 12.

And while I walk, I talk.

But I don’t just talk on the phone.

I talk to God. I pray and walk and walk and pray.

But there is someone else that I talk to just as much, not always out loud.

And that someone is myself.

We are always talking to ourselves, aren’t we?

The question is not will we talk to ourselves, but what are we saying to ourselves?

And King David was saying to himself, “Praise the LORD, O my soul.”

David was talking to the deepest part of himself, “...all my inmost being, praise his holy name.”


David is trying to get his soul in gear.

My son Peter owns a 2009 Suzuki RM-Z250. He’s really proud of that bike.

And do you know how it starts? 

It isn’t a pull cord.
And it isn’t a button. 
And it isn’t a key start.

How does it start? It’s kickstart.

And sometimes, it takes more than one kick to get it going. And what do you know Peter is saying inside himself as he kicks? What every kickstart says, right?

“Come on. Come on. Come on.”

And then it roars to life, and he’s off and running.

Well, verse 1 is David kickstarting his own soul.

“Come on, soul. Come on, soul. Let’s go, soul. Get it going. Get your praise on.”

It’s like that first cup of coffee in the morning to get you moving.

It’s like that pep talk that Todd gives to his football team at half-time before they go back out in the game.

“Come on. Let’s go!”

David talks to himself.

And what he tells himself is to praise the LORD.

We need to remind ourselves to praise the LORD.

That’s capital L-O-R-D. Which we remember stands for the Hebrew name of God, “Yahweh.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Moses and the burning bush. The God we’ve been learning about the last four weeks in Psalm 8, Psalm 90, Psalm 93, and Psalm 23.

David tells his soul to praise Yahweh. Praise the LORD.

And, of course, as he does that it invites us to follow his example and do it, too.

The whole rest of the Psalm is King David telling himself WHY and HOW to praise the LORD.

And I want to move through it in 3 steps. Here’s number one.

#1. DON’T FORGET WHAT HE HAS DONE. Look at verse 2.

He says it again. “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–” 

Don’t forget the LORD’s benefits.

And he doesn’t mean God’s 401K.

He means God’s blessings.

He means don’t forget everything that the Lord has done and is doing for you.

Don’t lose track of God’s work in your life.

Remember.

That’s why we have things like Celebration Sunday, right? Where we look back over 128 years of God’s faithfulness and we REMEMBER.

Remember what God has done.

And David starts to list them to himself. Remember, the “your” here is David talking to David. It’s not us. It’s David. V.3

“...forget not all his benefits–who forgives all your sins [David] and heals all your diseases [David], who redeems your life from the pit [David] and crowns you with love and compassion [David], who satisfies your desires with good things [David] so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.”

Remember what God has done for you, David, says David.

“Nobody else forgave your sins. Remember Bathsheba and Uriah?

Nobody else has healed your diseases. Remember how sick you were in Psalm 41?

Nobody else saved you from the lion and the bear and Goliath and the Philistines and Saul and Absalom. 

Nobody else has given you the strength to bounce back again and again throughout your life so that you are still ruling with unflagging strength like a eagle that just doesn’t stop flying up there in the sky.

Who has made you like the Energize Bunny, David?”

Remember who did that!

Remember what Yahweh has done, and praise Him.

A few weeks ago, you sent me your prayer requests for my Pastoral Prayer Retreat, and you all included praises at the top of each one. Things I could celebrate with you, praising God for the blessings He’s poured out on your life.

I was so encouraged as I read them. 

Here are some of them (anonymously, of course):

“I am praising God for caring loving families; my own and LEFC family! God is so great and good!”

“We are very thankful for our health these last months as well as our job security. We are also very thankful of the time we have spent together as a family and even though COVID has changed everyone’s lives, in our home we have learned to ‘slow down’ and really enjoy each other more as well as the simple joys God provides all around us.”

“We praise God for spiritual growth. I have really noticed growth in my husband during this time.”

“I am so blessed I can’t name it all for the Lord is good and his mercy endures forever. Praise God!”

You guys sound like the Psalms!

We need to keep doing that. Every morning. Every day.

Praise the LORD. Don’t forget what He has done.

And not just for you and me, but for ALL of His people. V.6

“The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.”

That’s good news, isn’t it? Sometimes His work at this seems slow to us. When people are oppressed and justice is denied.

But the David knows that the Lord is always working righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.

And one day His work will be complete and obvious and full. V.7

“He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel...”

David invokes the Exodus here. God’s rescue of His people and His revelation of Himself.

Don’t forget what the Lord has done!

He has saved you, Israel!

And how much more can we say that today on this side of the Cross?

He has saved you, Church!

Praise the Lord.

#2. DON’T MISS WHO HE IS.

Don’t forget what He has done, and even more fundamental, don’t forget who He is. V.8

“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”

Do those words sound familiar to you?

I hope so. They reverberate throughout the Old Testament. They show up again and again and again.


Remember that? And God said, “You couldn’t handle it. You couldn’t see my glory and live. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll hide you in this cleft in this rock, and I’ll pass by and I’ll let you get a glimpse of the afterglow of my back,” whatever that means.

Like just an echo of the sound of his glory, just a dim reflection of his glory.

And then the LORD passed by Moses and said, (Exodus 34:6) “The LORD, the LORD, [Yahweh, Yahweh] the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness...”

David knows Who God is because He told His people Who He is.

This is a description of the heart of God for His people.

Don’t miss this.

Verse 8 is a description of the heart of God for His people.

“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”

How slow to anger? V.9

“He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; [He is so patient with sinners. V.10] he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”

David would know.

And then David gives three illustrations, three similes to get at just how compassionate and gracious the LORD is. V.11

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;”

Look up at the sky. Can you see those clouds? Can you see the moon? Can you see the stars?

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;”

How high could David go?

The heavens were unreachable to him. He could stand on a mountain, and that’s it.

This is immeasurably great love!

And it comes out in immeasurable grace. V.12

“...as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

Look over there to East. When does the East touch the West?

It never does, right?

“...as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

How did He do that?

How did He do that and stay holy?

Remember, verse 1 said that His name is holy.

Verse 6 says that He works righteousness and justice.

How does He stay righteous and offer this kind of grace?

We know, don’t we?

We know what it took, and we’re going to celebrate it at the Lord’s Table today.

Don’t miss who God is. How gracious and compassionate He is. V.13.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;” 

Just like Abe feels about little Spurgeon, that’s a little picture of how God feels about us!

Don’t miss Who God is because He certainly hasn’t missed who you are. V.14

“for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”


“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

We are only here for a little time. 

In another 128 years none of us will be here.

And we need to remember that. “Teach us to number our days aright so that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Counting our days, so that we make every day count.”

We are just dust or grass. That’s who we are. But we are not forgotten because of Who God is. V.17

“But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children–with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.”

That’s Who God is!

God is eternal!

And God is eternally compassionate!

And eternally gracious to His covenant people.

From generation to generation to generation.

From everlasting to everlasting.

His love is with us. Like we saw last week in Psalm 23. Steadfast love chasing David, chasing David all of his life and into eternity.

That’s WHO God is. Don’t miss it!

And on top of all of that. God is the sovereign ruler of all. V.19

“The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.”


“The LORD reigns!”

And that throne will not budge.

Nothing happening in this world will move His throne even one inch. 

Because He is sovereign.

“His kingdom rules over all.”

And so we should praise Him. Number three.

#3. DON’T FAIL TO PRAISE HIM.

Talk to yourself. Talk to your soul.

Kickstart your soul.

“Come on, soul!
Come on.
Let’s go.

Praise the LORD.”

In fact, everybody ought to praise the Lord. From the least to the greatest.

All the way up to the angels. Verse 20.

“Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. [And then it just grows and grows into a crescendo the end of the song. V.21] Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts [heavenly armies], you his servants who do his will. Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, O my soul.”

Don’t fail to praise Him.

“Praise the LORD, O my soul!”


***

Fortifying Truth - Fall 2020

01. Majestic and Mindful - Psalm 8
02. All Our Days - Psalm 90
03. "The LORD on High Is Mighty!" - Psalm 93
04. "The LORD Is My Shepherd" - Psalm 23

Sunday, September 20, 2020

“The LORD Is My Shepherd” [Matt's Messages]

“The LORD Is My Shepherd”
Lanse Evangelical Free Church
September 20, 2020 :: Psalm 23

As I was preparing this message, I jotted down a short sentence at the top of my notes to guide me as I wrote my sermon.

And it was simply this, “Try not to ruin it.” Try not to ruin Psalm 23 for your flock.

Because the 23rd Psalm is so precious to us, isn’t it? 

It’s so familiar and reassuring and comforting and beautiful.

It’s so personal, and it’s so powerful. Psalm 23 preaches itself. Just read it! 

King David wrote a beautiful song about his relationship with the LORD, and it has  blessed every generation of God’s people ever since.

David piles meaningful metaphor upon meaningful metaphor and lovely image upon lovely image to wondrously convey the most wonderful and comforting and fortifying truth of what it means to really belong to the LORD.

And I just don’t want to ruin it for you. It’s too good!

I don’t want to dissect it and analyze it to death and give it back to you in over-explained pieces.

I just want us to read it and receive it for the fortifying and comforting song that it is for us. Because I think we need Psalm 23, the Shepherd Song.

This last week, on my prayer retreat I walked and prayed for all of the families in our church family. Thank you for sharing your praise and prayer requests with me.

And also for sharing with me what you feel that you need to be “fed” through the preaching this Fall.
A lot of insight here. Let me read you, anonymously, a few of your comments:

“I think at this particular time, I just need to be continually reminded of God’s love and care for us, that He is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Just as His eye is on the sparrow, He is watching over me.”

“No matter what is happening, God is still in control.”

“Please keep encouraging us with God’s love and sovereignty.”

“Guidance living in this wicked, messed-up world.”

“I am a constant worrier. I know worrying is a waste of time, and I need to learn how to stop! Maybe you could write another book!” I don’t think so on that one! 

And then this one. “No fear in life. We are hidden in Christ. Encouraging us in that truth as we walk into and through difficult times.”

That sounds like Psalm 23 to me.

Because even though the Psalm is encouraging and positive, it also recognizes the difficulties and pain of life. Psalm 23 is not saccharine or sentimental. Trouble and dangers and enemies are real and lurk in the background. 

In his song, David doesn’t hide the darkness of life; He just promises that the Lord will lead us safely through it.

Because, as the song begins, “The LORD is my shepherd.”


“The LORD is my shepherd.”

Now there is a lot to be amazed by in that short statement.

Here’s what amazed me the most this week:

This “LORD” (capital L-O-R-D, Yahweh) is the same big God that we have been learning about the last few weeks.

It’s the same majestic Yahweh of Psalm 8, also written by David. “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.”

It’s the same eternal Yahweh of Psalm 90, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

It’s the same sovereign Yahweh of Psalm 93, “The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and is armed with strength...The LORD on high is mighty!”

And that LORD on high is, according to David, His personal shepherd.

That’s mind blowing!

Because a shepherd (and David knew about shepherds! A shepherd...) is a personal caretaker.

A shepherd is not a mighty and majestic figure (though they are powerful especially in comparison to a sheep!). Shepherds are “roll up your sleeves and get the job done caring for a very silly and needy animal called a sheep” type of people.

And David says that the LORD stoops to do just that for him.

And we know that He does it for us, as well.

Yahweh is my shepherd.

Providing, protecting, and pursuing me for my good.

Three times in Psalm 23, David gives us a short little sentence that sums up what that means for him personally. 

And so I want to structure this message around those 3 declarations.

Here’s number one.

The LORD is my shepherd, therefore:

#1. I SHALL NOT BE IN WANT.

“I shall not be in want.”

That means, “I will have everything I need.”

The LORD will provide for me. He will take care of me. 

I will not be forgotten or neglected by God.

He says what this is like in verse 2.

If you think of me like a sheep, my shepherd takes good care of me.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

This is what a sheep needs. Sheep need green grass to eat, and they need peaceful water. Because if they are agitated, they don’t eat and starve. 

Sheep, by the way, are dumb. My favorite thing to point out about sheep is that they can get lost walking into a garage. They walk in and get lost. They can’t just turn around and figure out their way out of a garage. 

And I believe the Lord made sheep to give us a living illustration of what we are often like!

I don’t know about you, but I get anxious easily. I was anxious about something on Saturday, and I called my dad, and he was a real shepherd to me. Calmed me right down.

That’s what the LORD is like. He is a good shepherd who provides everything that His people need, even to the refreshment of our souls.

I’m glad that it is the LORD Who is the Shepherd because we need Him to be all of those things we’ve been reading the last 3 weeks. 

We need Him to majestic and be high over the heavens or else He wouldn’t have the resources to provide us with the green grass.

We need Him to be eternal without beginning or end or there would be an end to His provision.

Ne need Him to be sovereign over all the chaos or we would get buried by it.

But He isn’t just up there transcendent in the heavens. He is right here and near to us.

Do you see how personally involved He is? Read verse 2 again.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

He doesn’t just send somebody else. He does it Himself. Personally.

Not just His provision but also His protection. V.3

“He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”

He takes the sheep on the right paths. The paths that lead to the right destination. And for us those are holy paths. The paths of blessing are the paths of wisdom which are the paths of righteousness.

And He personally guides us into them, and here’s why, “for his name’s sake.”

His reputation is on the line.

He personally does this work for His own glory.

And sometimes these right roads lead through dark and dangerous territory. V.4

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Did you hear something change there?

David changes from the third person to the first.

He stops singing about the LORD and starts singing directly to Him.

The song becomes even more personal!

And it’s point #2.

The LORD is my shepherd, therefore:

#2. I WILL FEAR NO EVIL.

Again, this ultimate. It doesn’t mean that David never felt fear. I’m reading through 1 and 2 Samuel right now, and David certainly felt fear! You see it again and again in his psalms.

But ultimately, David reminded himself and sang back to the Lord that he had nothing ultimately to fear.

Even if he died!

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

That means even if I get COVID or cancer or hit by a truck, I have, ultimately, nothing to dread.

This last week, I learned of someone else that I knew that has died from COVID-19.

I’m thankful that they were a believer in Jesus Christ so I know where they are today, in the arms of Jesus.

Because that’s the only really safe place. It’s wherever the Lord is.

Notice, especially, the reason why David is not afraid. He tells us in the song.

Even though I go through the darkest, most dangerous valley, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me;”
“For you are with me.”

See if Yahweh is with you, there is no reason to be scared.

And if you belong to Jesus Christ, then Yahweh is with you.

He is with you. The Lord is near.

Say it to back to Him. “You are with me.”

“You are with me.”

You know what? That is the exact center of this psalm. It’s the very heart of the song. Right at the very middle.

“You are with me.”

Imagine that?! That Yahweh, the God of the universe isn’t just on that unbudgeable throne from Psalm 93. He is right here with you.

“You are with me.”

So “I will fear not evil.” Not evil outside or even evil inside.

“...your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

Those are shepherd tools. The rod is for defense and the staff is for discipline.

The rod is a cudgel for beating off our external enemies.

And the staff is a hook with a crook for keeping the sheep in line. Keeping me on the path of righteousness.

And both of them are comforting!

That the Lord would beat off all of our enemies, but also not let us go astray.

“I will fear no evil.”

And then in verse 5, David switches the metaphor. He goes from talking about the LORD as a shepherd to the LORD as a host, a friend offering lavish hospitality. V.5

He’s still singing directly to the LORD.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

It’s even better than being a cared-for sheep. We are favored guests.

The LORD is providing not just our needs but so much more.

In this metaphor, we are eating a sumptuous feast in the presence of our enemies!

We have enemies, but they are apparently so ineffective that we can eat right there with them in the room! 

I guess the picture is enemies who have been defeated and subdued? They are tied up and bound and have to sit by and watch as we eat our dinner?!

This is the very picture of safety and security! We are so safe that we can have our dinner right there while our enemies as witnesses.

Like at the end of the movie when the bad guy gets locked up in jail and the good guys all go out eat smiling into the sunset.

But that’s not the most surprising thing in verse 5. The most shocking thing is Who is setting the table!

It’s the King of the Universe!

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

The LORD personally honors this guest, even though this guest does not deserve it.

This is a picture of amazing grace.

We get this song all wrong if we think that David believes he deserves this kind of royal treatment.

No, this song is a song of astonishment about just how good it is to belong to Yahweh because we do not deserve it in the slightest.

And yet, he pours it out on us.

So much so that our cups overflow!

Blessed beyond measure.

Pursued by blessing. That’s where David goes in the last verse. He talks about pursuit.

The LORD does not just provide for or protect us but also pursues us with His goodness and steadfast love. V.6

“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

That’s number #3.

The LORD is my shepherd and, even more, my gracious host. Therefore:

#3. I WILL DWELL WITH THE LORD FOREVER.

Because He’s always chasing me with His goodness.

I love verse 6 because David was so often on the run, he knew what it was like to be hunted by his enemies.

But David says that because He belongs to Yahweh, he gets chased by the LORD’s goodness and loyal love.

“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

The Lord is dogging David’s heals with blessing!

Not just in the short run, but in the longest run, forever.

Same words we read last week to describe how long the LORD’s throne will last.

How long? For length of days. For all eternity. Forever.

Because David belonged to the LORD.

The LORD was his shepherd.

And the New Testament reveals that Jesus is also Yahweh in the flesh.

So that we know that this Lord being talked about in Psalm 23 is the same person who  proclaimed in John chapter 10, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep...only to take it up again” (vv.11 &17)

So that all who put their faith in His death and resurrection have Jesus as their Shepherd and will live with Him forever.

With every need supplied so that I will not be in want.
With every enemy subdued so that I will fear no evil.
With every blessing poured out as I dwell with Him forever.

“The LORD is my Shepherd.”


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Small Group Discussion Guide for "Confronting Christianity" by Rebecca McLaughlin

Recently, several of our small groups from church read together Confronting Christianity:12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin to great enjoyment and profit. McLaughlin's refreshing approach to Christian apologetics seems to me to be exactly what is needed in our day. She doesn't shrink from the hard questions but instead shows how each one is also actually an opportunity for Christianity to shine.

I looked around for a discussion guide but couldn't find one, so I created our own. Feel free to use what follows as the basis for your own group's conversation around this incredibly helpful book. 

[A free PDF version is also available for download here.]

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Small Group Discussion Questions 

Confronting Christianity: 
12 Hard Questions for the 
World’s Largest Religion


Discussion Guide Prepared by Matthew C. Mitchell

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 1: Aren’t We Better Off Without Religion?

1. What signs in our culture would indicate that many people are asking the question, “Aren’t We Better Off Without Religion?” What evidence might they cite for the answer, “Yes?”

2. Before reading this chapter, how would you answer the title question? What argument would you make?

3. What is Rebecca McLaughlin’s answer to the title question? How does she arrive at it? What did you find surprising about her approach?

4. Re-read the Scripture passages McLaughlin references in the second half of the chapter (Acts 20:35, 1 Tim 6:10, Colossians 3:22-24, Philippians 4:12-13, 1 Thessalonians 5:16, Hebrews 12:1-2, Luke 11:4). What did each one contribute to her argument?

5. What questions did this chapter raise that you would like to think about more and discuss?


Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 2: Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity?

1. Why might detractors of Christianity ask the title question of chapter 2? Why might Christianity be assumed to be a “Western religion?” What sort of bad things have been done in history that would feed the narrative that Christianity crushes diversity?

2. Before reading this chapter, how would you answer the title question? What argument would you make?

3. What is Rebecca McLaughlin’s answer to the title question? How does she arrive at it? What did you find surprising, helpful, and/or difficult about her approach?

4. What does the Bible say about diversity? Review passages that McLaughlin references including Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 2:5-11, Colossians 3:11, Galatians 3:28, James 2:8-9, Acts 8:26-40, and Revelation 7:9-10. 

5. What are the benefits of diversity? What are the weaknesses or limitations of diversity? How can we be more biblical in our approaches to diversity? How can we show skeptics the beauty of biblical diversity? What questions does the chapter raise for you that you’d like to explore further?

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 3: How Can You Say There’s Only One True Faith?

1. Why do people feel the title question of chapter 3?

2. Before reading this chapter, how would you answer the title question? What argument would you make?

3. To answer the big question of chapter 3, McLaughlin retells the old story about the blind men describing the elephant. She says it corrects our arrogance and encourages humility but also creates at least seven problems. What are they and what points did she make about each one? What did you find surprising, helpful, and/or difficult about her approach?

4. Why do you think there isn’t as much Scripture quoted in chapter 3 as the previous two chapters. What did the author draw from Mark 2:1-12, John 11:25-26, and Matthew 28:18-20.

5. Do you feel ready to answer this question next time it comes up? What questions does the chapter raise for you that you’d like to explore further?

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 4: Doesn’t Religion Hinder Morality?

1. The title question of chapter 4 seems counterintuitive to many of us who have been shaped by  Christianity. Why are people genuinely asking it today?
2. Before reading this chapter, how would you answer the title question? What argument would you make?

3. What is McLaughlin’s argument to answer the question in the negative? What do you make of her points? What did you find surprising, helpful, and/or difficult about her approach?

4. McLaughlin does not quote Scripture in chapter 4. What Scripture do you think relates to subject at hand?

5. Do you feel ready now to address this question with skeptics? If not, what else do you feel you need to be ready?

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 5: Doesn’t Religion Cause Violence?

1. What did Bertrand Russell believe about the “dragon of religion?” What are some of the “famous and forgotten instances of religiously motivated violence” McLaughlin reviews that would give rise to the title question for chapter 5?

2. Before reading chapter 5, how would you answer its daunting question? What argument(s) would you make? In what ways is this chapter similar to the previous one?

3. How does McLaughlin approach the question herself? How does she understand, analyze, and evaluate the Crusades, Buddhism, Communism, and then Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust? What does each part of the chapter contribute to the whole? How do thinkers such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King figure into the story? Why does she discuss democracy in this chapter? What did you find surprising, helpful, and/or difficult about her arguments?

4. In chapter 5, McLaughlin references Matthew 5:39, Luke 22:50-51, Matthew 5:44, Luke 23:34, Luke 4:18, Acts 4:32-35, Matthew 25:41-45, and 1 John 1:8. What do these Scriptures say that applies directly to the discussion at hand?

5. McLaughlin ends this chapter by considering the violence of the Cross of Christ. What truth does Jesus’s dreadful crucifixion and victorious resurrection speak to the title question? Are you ready to talk about it with others?

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 6: How Can You Take the Bible Literally?

1. Has anyone ever asked you, “How can you take the Bible literally?” Why do you think they wondered? A big part of the question is the definition of “literal.” What do you think it means?
2. Before reading this chapter, how would you (or did you) answer the title question? What arguments would you advance?

3. How does McLaughlin answer the title question? How does figurative language figure in? What do you think about her thoughts on (a) contradictions, (b) non-canonical “gospels,” and (c) the trustworthiness of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? What did you find surprising, helpful, and/or difficult about her approach?

4. Because it’s about how to interpret the Bible, this chapter references many passages of Scripture. Which ones were the most interesting to you? Why? What Scriptures would you direct someone to for understanding how literally (or not literally) to take the Bible?

5. Now if someone asks you, “How can you take the Bible literally?” what are you planning to say?

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 7: Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?

1. What are some reasons science and Christianity are perceived as enemies?

2. Before reading this chapter, how would you answer the title question? What tack would you take with a questioner?

3. How does McLaughlin go about answering the title question? What did you find surprising, helpful, interesting, and/or difficult about her approach? What is science good for? For what is science inadequate? What is the true history of Christianity and science? What do you think is the future of that relationship? 

4. Aside from Genesis 3:19 (pg. 120), chapter 7 does not have any Scripture quoted in it. What Scripture do you think relates to subject at hand? 

5. Do you feel ready now to address this question with skeptics? If not, what else do you feel you need to be prepared?

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 8: Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?
1. Unlike with many of her others, McLaughlin does not start this chapter by directly raising the title question or helping readers to feel the weight of it. Instead, she begins with an illustration from Harry Potter. Why do you think she made that authorial choice? What might her starting point teach us about apologetics?

2. Before reading this chapter, how would you answer the title question? What approach would you take with a skeptical conversation partner?

3. McLaughlin’s approach begins with an overview of gender in the Scriptures, following the overarching storyline of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Israel, Christ, Church, New Creation (pgs. 132-145). At each step she highlights God’s often counter-intuitive messages about women. She then turns to social science data and interacts with our current cultural context (pgs. 146-149). The chapter culminates with some relevant thoughts on abortion (pgs. 149-152). What did you learn from her exploration of these topics?

4. This chapter is replete with Scripture. What did you receive from reading passages such as Isaiah 49:15, Genesis 2:18-24, Genesis 3:16, Isaiah 54:5, Luke 7:36-50, Luke 10:38-42, Ephesians 5:22-31,  Revelation 19:7-9, Revelation 21:1-2? What other Scripture might you include as particularly relevant to the conversation?

5. What is your “readiness quotient” for talking about this with a skeptical friend? How can we bring more light than heat to this important discussion? McLaughlin’s biological and biographical profile makes her a unique conversation partner and gives her certain advantages. What advantages does your unique God-given background provide you for having productive conversations with unbelieving friends?
      
 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 9: Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?
1. McLaughlin says that “this chapter may be the most controversial yet” (pg. 154). Why is that? In what ways have you felt the burden of the title question in your lifetime and in engagement with your particular cultural context? Before reading this chapter, how would you have answered its central question?

2. As with the previous chapter on gender, McLaughlin’s biographical profile makes her a unique conversation partner and gives her certain advantages in talking with hostile skeptics on this issue. How can we leverage people’s testimonies as we engage in these important conversations?

3. McLaughlin takes the discussion in directions that may have been unexpected. What did she argue that was surprising or provocative to you? What was the most helpful?

4. This chapter engaged with the Scriptures you might predict (ex. Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Matthew 19:3-12, 1 Timothy 1:9-16, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Romans 1:26-27) but also many Scriptures that you might not have picked out (ex. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:12, 12:26, 1 Thessalonians 2:7, John 15:13, Matthew 22:30). How do both of these sets of Scripture, properly situated in their contexts, contribute to our understanding of the main question? What other Scripture passages might you include in as particularly relevant to the conversation?

5. This is clearly not just a controversial subject but also a complicated one. Are you prepared to talk about this with someone who asks you the title question? Why or why not? What do you still need to think out for yourself? How can we help each other be ready to discuss this with others?
    
 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 10: Doesn’t Christianity Condone Slavery?
1. Why is this chapter in this book? Why does the issue of slavery call for a chapter-length discussion in a book about hard questions facing the Christian faith today? Before reading this chapter, how would you have answered the title question?

2. How did McLaughlin answer the question? What nuances does she bring to the discussion? What part(s) of the question did she treat as simple, and what did she treat as complex? What ironies did she surface? We have often seen her steer a topic in unexpected directions. Did she surprise you? How so?

3. The Bible has a lot to say about slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. How did Scripture inform McLaughlin’s answer to the title question? What was the most helpful and/or challenging thing you learned from surveying the biblical data? Are there additional Scripture passages you think should be included in the discussion?

4. What is the role of history in McLaughlin’s answer? Are there any missing important historical considerations that need added into the conversation?

5. Could you give an “elevator speech” (a concise speech deliverable in a short time on the essence of a matter) answer to this question now that you’ve read the chapter? Why or why not?
    
 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 11: How Could a Loving God Allow So Much Suffering?
1. The need for this chapter is obvious to all but the most blindly optimistic. McLaughlin calls it, “the question that haunts us all at one time or another” and points out that, “For many, this question torpedoes the Christian faith.” What has been your own story of wrestling with the relationship between Christianity and the existence of suffering? Before reading this chapter, how would you have answered the title question?

2. Yet, again, McLaughlin turns the discussion in potentially unexpected directions. Without discounting the awfulness of suffering or offering facile solutions, she agrees with her friend whose son was brain damaged in a sports accident, “People often think that the reality of suffering is an embarrassment to the Christian faith. But I think suffering is the greatest apologetic for Christianity there is.” How does McLaughlin get to this surprising conclusion? Through what stops along the path does she progress to reach that destination? 

3. McLaughlin emphasizes the difference between Christianity’s ideas on this subject and the comparative ideas of other world religions (esp. Buddhism) and other world views (esp. atheism). How do these comparisons help us to evaluate answers to the question at hand?

4. Woven throughout this chapter is the story of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. How does this story contribute to our understanding of the relation between Christianity and suffering (and even death)? What other Scripture might inform our answers to the main question?

5. What might you say now to a skeptical friend when they confront you with this question? Would your approach be different if they were currently going through a painful experience than if they were just asking it in the abstract? Why or why not?  

 
Confronting Christianity
Small Group Discussion Questions
Chapter 12: How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?
1. Why is it that “We twenty-first century Westerners hate judgment” (pg. 209)? If we hate the very idea of judgment, we will find the reality of hell, “the most difficult thing Christians are called to believe” (pg. 210). What thoughts and feelings does the title question raise within you? Before reading this chapter, how would you have answered its central question? Why does McLaughlin believe this is the “hardest question in the this book” (pg. 210)?

2. By this point in our reading of Confronting Christianity, we have probably come to expect the unexpected. How does McLaughlin go about answering the key question of this chapter? How does she make her case that judgment could be good and even great? How does she interact with science, reason, philosophy, and current events to reach counterintuitive conclusions? What are the most compelling and thought-provoking  ideas she shares in this chapter? What leaves you still scratching your head?

3. What is the role of Scripture in this chapter? McLaughlin weaves into this chapter the story of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus’ feelings about the “cup” of God’s wrath (Luke 22:42-44, and see footnote 16 on page 216), God’s name as revealed to Hagar (Genesis 16:13), and the paradoxical combination of the Lamb who has wrath (Revelation 6:16-17). What does each Scripture employed contribute to the picture of God that McLaughlin is painting for us? What other Scripture might you want to bring into the discussion?

4. In this final chapter, McLaughlin pulls various threads together from throughout the rest of the book. How does this chapter serve to unify and cap the argument of Confronting Christianity? What questions did this chapter raise that you would like to think about more and discuss?

5. Do you feel more prepared to engage with skeptics on these crucial questions? Why or why not?