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In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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Anchor Holding within the Veil

When in seminary, I was taught that pastors should avoid using biblical references and terminology without first explaining them. According to studies, while Christians have greater access to the Bible, they do not know it nearly as well as those from previous generations. Therefore, when we preach, we were told, we should avoid referring to people like David and Abraham and Paul without giving a few words of summary about who they are. Most of us have a good idea who these three men were, and perhaps when I refer to them, I do not need to explain when they lived and what role they played in redemptive history. Mentioning people like Apollos, Boaz, or Haggai might evoke a different response. We might not be able to immediately place them in the Bible or explain their role in salvation history.

The same can be said of words and phrases. Sometimes we throw around words like “atonement” or “justification” or phrases like “perspicuity of Scripture” assuming that those who are listening know what they mean. Some might, but not all will. Thus, we should avoid these expressions unless we explain them, we were told as pastors in training.

It might be helpful for songwriters to receive the same instruction. I have found that there are phrases that need to be explained before they can be understood. This is true of some older songs, “here I raise my Ebenezer” in Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” is one such phrase. Few of us know what “ebenezer” means and many of us cannot identify the passage where this word is found, leaving us uncertain about what we are singing. The problem also exists in newer songs. One example of a song which contains phrases which probably need explanation is Cornerstone, written and published by the Australian Hillsong, a church group that has received some harsh criticism over the past decade or so because of their adoption of the Prosperity Gospel theology (another phrase that probably needs explanation). Whenever a Hillsong song appears on the screen, I am somewhat cautious when I sing the words. I think a little more deeply about what I am singing.

In Cornerstone, we find the phrase “my anchor holds within the veil.” It is repeated twice at the end of the second verse. An astute Bible student will recognize that the reference comes from Hebrews 6:19,20 where we read, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.” The “veil” of the song is the “curtain” mentioned in the verse from Hebrews. Even having this verse quoted might leave some confused, for the book of Hebrews assumes that the reader has a deep knowledge of Old Testament teaching and practice, particularly regarding the role of the temple and its priests.

As we know, in the temple of the Old Testament, there was a thick curtain that separated the temple building into two rooms. The room behind the curtain, from which all but the High Priest were denied access, was considered an extension of God’s throne room which was located in heaven. From that room God ruled the world. To go behind the curtain was to enter into God’s throne room, and while the room in the temple was on the earth, to be in that room was to be in heaven or at least in the presence of God. The High Priest, in the Old Testament, would go into that room, and he did so as a representative of the people. In effect, when he entered that room, the people entered with him. He provided the connection to God.

In Hebrews 6, we read about some who were abandoning faith in Jesus Christ. Most likely the author of Hebrews is referring to Jewish people who were enduring persecution because of their commitment to Jesus, and they were thinking that they should abandon the Christian faith and return to Judaism. The author of Hebrews warns them and tells them that to do so was to abandon the salvation that God had provided. He then goes on to tell them that the only way to be secure in our relationship with God is to trust in his promise to save us, and to put our trust in Jesus Christ who is our High Priest. By ascending into heaven, Jesus has gone behind the curtain, figuratively speaking, and has entered into his Father’s throne room. If we put our trust in Jesus, we can have the assurance that we remain connected to God the Father and have access to his presence because our sins have been forgiven.

As I read and reread the passage from Hebrews 6, I came to realize that the author of Hebrews does the very thing that we, as pastors, were warned not to do when we prepared a sermon. The author of Hebrews uses phrases and terminology and references which are broader and deeper than first meets the eye. In fact, as I gave a few moments to studying Hebrews 6 and the reference to the anchor, I realized that I would need to do a lot more study if I am going to fully understand this reference.

I’m not sure that the writer of the song, Cornerstone, fully understood the depth of the biblical reference to Hebrews 6:19-20 when he wrote the words. It does seem that the line, “my anchor holds within the veil,” is meant to speak of the assurance we have in Jesus Christ, and that is exactly right. While the rest of the song does speak of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ, this one line is rather obscure, and it needs more explanation. Of course, that is not always possible in a song.

It does seem that when we sing songs, there are many times that words and phrases tend to need explanation. That is true of both old and new songs. So, what do we do? It would be good if song writers would heed the advice of my professors who said we must explain what we say and not assume that everyone knows what we are talking about, especially when we speak “Christianese.” At the same time, there is the responsibility for the singer (and the hearer) to do some research and try to discover what they do not know.

I attempt to make clear the references I use in my sermons, but I suspect that sometimes I refer to things that some do not understand. If that happens, certainly you can ask. Or, perhaps better, do some personal study and discover something new. I know that I was encouraged and strengthened as I took the time to discover what “my anchor holds within the veil” means. I also came to understand that there is much more to know, and I am fairly certain that I will be doing some more reading so that I can understand more fully this powerful biblical reference so that the next time I sing that song, I will appreciate more what those six words mean.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Planning for Retirement

When I was in my early twenties, someone advised me to plan for retirement, and he suggested a unique way: buy about 20 acres of marginal land and plant a variety of trees on it – black walnut, cherry, oak, maple, black locust, pine and some poplar. The softwood (poplar and pine) would be ready for harvest in about 30-40 years, providing extra income for retirement. The rest of the trees might take longer to mature, but if I needed the money for retirement, I could sell the acreage as a woodlot, earning a significant profit. I didn’t do that, and so I am not reaping the benefits of having an extra income from the lumber the woodlot would have provided. Nevertheless, then, as well as now, I understand the wisdom of this advice.

Not only would I have been able to have increased income from buying marginal land and planting a woodlot, there would have been other benefits. Marginal land, land that is not suitable for agriculture, could be given value. By putting trails through the woodlot, the community would have benefitted by having a place for nature hikes. School children could have learned about different species of trees. And, of course, the lumber would have created beautiful furniture. Even without the financial benefits, planting a woodlot on marginal land would have been a blessing for many, not only myself.

Such an investment would have had its costs along the way, of course. Making payments on the land, buying the seedlings, tending the woodlot, paying the taxes – all of these would incur costs of time, effort, and money. Investments for the future do incur costs in the present. This is a simple and unavoidable reality.

Reading the Bible 1900 years after the last book was written, we might miss how God was making investments for the future. God created a nation, and he worked with that nation for about 2000 years, from Abraham until the birth of Jesus. It was not easy work for him, for he had to work with a rather stubborn and sinful people, people who are similar to us. As one teacher commented once to me regarding his vocation: “It would be a great job if it weren’t for the people.” God invested 2000 years into a people who rebelled against him, ignored him, and sometimes mocked him. He did so because he had made a promise about the future, a promise which he had to keep, a promise which could only be kept if he kept the nation of Israel alive. God invested his resources in a nation because he had a plan for the future.

But the investment in a wayward nation was nothing compared to the greater investment he made by giving his only Son to live in this world, a Son who was misunderstood, rejected, mocked, tortured and killed. He did this for us, and the investment was huge.

God continued to invest in this world, sending his Holy Spirit to equip, empower, teach, guide, rebuke, and encourage people from all nations of this world. We cannot calculate the hours of work that the Holy Spirit has put into us. The resources God has put into his church are beyond our comprehension. God continues to invest in this world.

But it is not for his retirement. I was encouraged to invest in a woodlot so that I could benefit, and although others may be blessed as well, it would have been me that was the first recipient of my investment. God receives no return from his investment. As we well know, God does not need to plan for retirement, and he does not need to have us around to make his life better. Everything that God did was for us, and nothing was for him. That is truly remarkable, for we would expect that God would want to reap some benefit from his investment. But any benefit that we might perceive is not really a benefit for God. God receives nothing that he can use or that he even needs.

His investment is not for himself but for us and our retirement, if we can think of it in that way. The Bible uses the term, “rest,” not in the sense of sleeping but in the sense of receiving all that we need to live without having to worry about anything. Rest does not mean sitting around doing nothing, but, rather, it means enjoying what God has provided for us. People with plentiful portfolios enjoy their retirements because they have more than they need and do not need to work to remain alive. Entering God’s rest is to enjoy God’s provision to the fullest, to not lack anything, to have all that we need without having to worry about tomorrow.

God provided for our retirement, our eternal rest, our eternal experience of his constant blessing. He invested himself entirely in us, not so that he could enjoy retirement (rest) but so that we could enjoy our rest with him. We enter into that rest because of Jesus Christ, as the book of Hebrews teaches us.

Perhaps we can compare what God has done for us to the woodlot. If I had bought an acreage and planted a woodlot, not for my benefit but for the benefit of the community, if I had invested time and energy and money in making that woodlot accessible and enjoyable for others, if I had harvested the mature trees and donated the money to the community, and if all of this continued on through the generations as my descendants continued to use the woodlot only for the joy of others – that is what God has done for us. All of his investments in this world that he has made so far are not for him but for us. He promises to continue to invest in this world until he brings history to a close and provides the forever retirement for all who belong to him.

It might be helpful for us to view our work in the same way. God is planning for our eternal retirement (our rest), so we don’t have to worry about that. If we don’t have to invest our resources in our eternity, then perhaps we can use our resources to invest in the eternity of others. In other words, all that we do is for the benefit from others, because if God is providing for our retirement, because we don’t have to worry about it, we can, with a high level of confidence, invest in the retirements (rest/eternal life) of others.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Jonah

Few Old Testament stories are as well known as the story of Jonah and the whale. When we teach that story to young children, the focus tends to be on the fact that Jonah ran away from God by taking a ship in the opposite direction from Nineveh, Jonah’s intended destination. God stopped Jonah’s flight by sending a storm which resulted in Jonah being thrown overboard and being saved by God because he was swallowed by a big fish or whale. After three days in the belly of the whale, Jonah is regurgitated and proceeds to obey the Lord. All this is told in the first chapter of Jonah. What we often neglect is the rest of the story, a story that speaks of Jonah’s continued failure to do what God asked of him.

As we know God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against the city because of their sin. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrian Empire was becoming a mortal enemy of the northern kingdom of Israel. As we recall, the nation of Israel had split into two after Solomon, with the northern kingdom name Israel and the southern kingdom named Judah. Israel, being in the north, was next in the sights of Assyria, and Assyria had every intention of attacking and pillaging Israel to make itself strong. A man named Jeroboam II was king of Israel at that time, and Jonah was a prophet during his reign.

Jeroboam II, not a relative of Jeroboam I, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, continued to lead his nation in sinful rebellion against the Lord. Jeroboam I had built two golden calves, one in the north of his kingdom and one in the south, and he had invited the people of his nation to worship at these two shrines instead of going to Jerusalem to worship the true God. Jeroboam II did not change this practice and continued to lead the people away from the Lord by supporting the worship of those golden calves. We would expect that a prophet like Jonah would have had a few things to say about those golden calves, but he is silent on the matter. Instead, he tells his king, Jeroboam II, that the kingdom of Israel would be able to reclaim some of the land it had lost in previous battles. This, by the way, was a brief reprieve before the full attack of the Assyrians a few decades later. It wasn’t that Jonah was speaking from his own authority, for we are told that his words of hope to Jeroboam II were given to him by God. Jonah was a prophet of the Lord, but he seemed to want to announce only good news, and he seems hesitant to tell Jeroboam II to change his ways and turn from idol worship. Unlike the other prophets of his time, Jonah had no words of warning for his own people.

Jonah did have a word of warning for Nineveh and the Assyrians, the original message God had given Jonah, the one he wanted to avoid bringing. In spite of the fact that Jonah seems hesitant to deliver bad news from the Lord, we might think that he would be quite happy to go to Nineveh and announce God’s impending judgement but, instead, he runs away. It wasn’t that he was afraid for his life, for who wants to deliver bad news to a powerful and vicious nation? Jonah runs away for another reason.

As Jonah goes to Nineveh, his warnings are rather abrupt. He utters just a few words (forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.), and he offers no solution in that he doesn’t call Nineveh to repentance. Yet, although to properly announce God’s warning would have taken a full three days, by noon of the first day Nineveh is on its knees in repentance. They take Jonah’s words seriously. (Contrast their quick response to the deaf ears of God’s own people who had thousands of words spoken by multiple prophets and yet did not repent.) Jonah quits his job early and goes to sit on a hill outside of the city, hoping against hope that God will still destroy Nineveh even though they did repent. When his own personal comfort is compromised by a rootworm which destroyed the plant that provided him with some shade, he shows his frustration and anger. God confronts Jonah and asks him why he is so angry. Jonah responds by saying that not only has his personal comfort been compromised but God has done the very thing that Jonah feared: God has relented from punishing Nineveh.

Jonah then explains why he ran away from the task of prophesying: “I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God,” he says, “slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). How did Jonah know this? Quite simply, he is quoting from the book of Exodus, Exodus 34:6. His use of that verse to describe God is quite ironic, considering the situation of his own people.

God reveals himself to be a gracious and compassionate God shortly after the Israelites have built a golden calf to worship as we read about it in Exodus 32. God had just made a covenant with his people, and they had promised to dedicate their lives fully to him and to him alone. They had turned their back on that covenant, and God made it clear to Moses that he intended to destroy his people. It is only after the coaxing and pleading from Moses that God finally relents from sending calamity against his people, and when asked why, God replies that he is a gracious and compassionate God and that he does forgive sin. The irony of Jonah’s use of this text is that Jonah depended on God’s grace and compassion for himself and his people, for Jonah was well aware that worshipping golden calves, as his nation was doing, should invite God’s anger. Jonah knew that his survival and the survival of the nation of Israel depended on the fact that God was gracious and compassionate. Jonah’s failure was that while he benefitted from God’s grace, he did not want to extend that grace to others, particularly his enemies, the Assyrians.

God has the final word in the book of Jonah. He asks why he should not have concern for the city of Nineveh where lived hundreds of thousands of people, among them those who do not know their right hand from their left (children) and many animals. God reveals that although Assyria was the enemy of his people, his preferred course of action was to forgive them when they repented so that they could experience restoration and salvation. God reveals himself to be gracious and compassionate not only to his own people but to the other peoples of the world as well.

And, it is clear, he expects the same from Jonah. Jonah should have responded quickly to God’s command to go to Nineveh to announce that God was angry with their sin. He should have hoped that God would be gracious and compassionate to the Assyrians. He should have longed for them to experience forgiveness, but he wanted none of that. All he wanted was for him and his own people to live in the assurance of God’s grace and let the rest suffer.

The book of Jonah is not about Jonah and the miraculous salvation of a man as he is swallowed by a whale. It is about Jonah, a small-minded, selfish man who wanted God’s grace for himself but didn’t want to extend it to others. It serves as a warning to God’s people and it serves as a reminder and warning to us. Stories about disobedience and rebellion are interesting stories, but wouldn’t it be better if Jonah had done what God asked, done it with joy, and celebrated God’s grace? If Jonah had not been disobedient, we might never have heard about him, but sometimes the lack of news is better for everyone by far. Just as our news media outlets would have nothing to talk about if nothing bad was happening in this world, so the book of Jonah would have not made it into the Bible if Jonah had been obedient. Or, if it had, it would have been a book of rejoicing that others besides the Israelites had responded to God’s grace.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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The Bias of the Gospel

Journalists are under obligation to ensure that what they publish is verifiable. If what they put into print is incorrect, they and the media outlet they work for could be sued. Thus, a journalist might say, “The chief economist says that interest rates are going to rise.” That is a verifiable fact, and the journalist might actually have a recording of the chief economist saying those very words. The same journalist could write, “Interest rates are going to rise,” and if they did write that, they would have verified that fact. How do they know that interest rates are going to rise? A credible journalist will not make a statement without being able to support that statement with credible sources.

That being said, journalists can still shape the story by deciding what to report and what to leave out. Thus, CNN and Fox News can report on the same story, but their takes on the story are so different we wonder if they are living on the same planet. Yet, both Fox and CNN journalists will be able to give a list of credible sources. The reasons that the stories are radically different is not because they are reporting false facts but that they are reporting only part of the facts. They do this because they want to spin the story so that it matches the political leanings of the media outlet that is paying their salary. The journalist has something to gain by presenting a particular perspective. The media outlet, when presenting a story about the presidential campaign, for example, spins the story so that the political party they are backing will gain power and return favours to them. It is not very difficult to identify some sort of benefit the journalist receives by presenting a biased story. As consumers of media, we always need to ask, “What does this person/outlet gain by presenting the facts in the way they do?” Or, if the journalist or the media outlet spreads false information, they may be sued, thus incurring loss.

Some have accused the Bible of having a bias as well, and it would be difficult to deny it. John, in his gospel, actually states his bias: These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). At the end of the next chapter, John openly admits that he could have recorded much more of Jesus’ life and ministry, but that if he recorded everything, the number of volumes would have become overwhelming (John 21:25). John had a purpose for his gospel, and he picked things from Jesus’ life that supported that purpose. He also left a lot out, leaving us to wonder if perhaps we are left with an incomplete picture and therefore a biased picture of Jesus.

John put a certain spin on the life story of Jesus, and his spin is a little different from that of the other three gospels. In fact, all four gospel writers seem to have a purpose in mind that results in their telling the story in a particular way. This can lead us to ask the question: do the gospels give a fair presentation of who Jesus is? Or are they so biased that we can’t trust them fully?

Some will never be convinced that the biblical accounts of Jesus life and ministry are untrustworthy because of the biases of the authors. We can challenge that accusation with this one question: what do the gospel writers have to gain by presenting Jesus in the way that the do? Let’s consider John for example. What did John gain from presenting Jesus as he did?

John did not gain a position of power. When the mother of John and his brother James suggested to Jesus that they become the vice presidents in his kingdom, Jesus taught that those who wanted to be first in his kingdom had to become servants. Or, as Jesus said several times over, those who are first will be last and the last will be first. John did not follow Jesus for his own personal advantage. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead of gaining a position of power and influence, John was eventually arrested and exiled, being humiliated by the political powers of that time. None of the followers of Jesus Christ became rich from following Jesus. Peter and John, when asked for money by a beggar by the gates of the temple, told him, “We don’t have any money,” although, as we know, through the power of Jesus, they were able to give the man the ability to walk. That too led to a loss on their parts, for the healing led to a challenge by the religious authorities with the command to be silent about Jesus.

In the first three centuries of the New Testament church there was no distinct advantage to being a Christian, at least not economically, socially, or politically. In fact, the early Christians found themselves at a significant disadvantage as they followed Jesus Christ. We cannot say that either the apostles or those who followed them gained anything by presenting Jesus in the way that they did. Anyone who says that the early Christians presented a biased view of Jesus for their own gain would have a hard time proving it. (This changed quite significantly when Christianity became the preferred religion of the west and the church gained tremendous political, economic and social power. Leaders presented very biased views of Jesus and the teachings of Scripture often for great personal gain. The world still suffers from some of those abuses.)

If we cannot say that John and the other gospel writers wrote what they did for personal gain and in fact suffered great disadvantage by believing what they did, we would have to say that the reason for their presentations of Jesus was for some other purpose. In fact, John’s statement that he chose to present certain parts of Jesus’ ministry and not others so that people would believe in Jesus and gain eternal life becomes very credible. John became a servant of the gospel not for his own benefit but for the benefit of others.

As a church we must be careful that we do not present the gospel for personal gain. The church growth movement in which churches seek to gain members by whatever means possible often results in a biased view of Jesus. The problem with the church growth movement is that the church presents the gospel to unbelievers so that it can fill the seats in the sanctuary and boast of the largest youth program in the community. We can sense that the efforts of such a church are not entirely altruistic (showing unselfish concern for the welfare of others). In the same way, our efforts as a church to bring the gospel to the world (VBS, Burger Bash, for example), should be entirely for the benefit of others without the thought that they come to our church. Rather, we do expend energy and time on the lives of others so that they also can believe in Jesus and by believing have eternal life. Our efforts should never be for our own gain.

If we do things as a church for our own gain, we will be presenting Jesus in a biased way that is unhealthy and maybe even incorrect. If, however, we go about the work of the church in making Jesus known to the world and we do so entirely as servants seeking the blessing of others sometimes at great cost to our ourselves, we will never be accused of presenting Jesus in a biased way.

Journalists work for media outlets which have a bias, and that bias results from the desire for personal gain or the avoidance of personal loss. As Christians we want those who benefit to be others, and we tell them about Jesus so that they too can have life in his name. And, for our efforts, we gain nothing and even if we are put at a disadvantage as were the apostles, we continue our work. If we gain nothing, it would be hard for others to accuse us of having a bias. Let it never be said that our church is doing something because we sense it will gain us something, but, rather, may it always be clear that what we are doing gains us nothing but gains others eternal life.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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