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

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Awards Ceremonies

When I was in Bible College there was a student who repeated most of his courses because he had failed them. He had difficulty learning, and when he did pass a course, he did so with a C or a D. I don’t think he ever received an A on anything that he did. If you wanted to find him, all you had to do was visit the library, and there he would be at a table, books surrounding him, reading and writing. The amount of effort he put into only just receiving a passing grade was astounding. He worked twice as hard as I did, but with much poorer results. When the awards ceremony was held at the end of the school year, he never was called forward to receive recognition, but eventually he graduated, not with a degree but a diploma, and for him that was a tremendous accomplishment.

I attended the Awards Ceremony at Immanuel last week, and it was good to be there. A number of students received awards, some of them receiving several. The vast majority of the students, however, received no rewards and no recognition. That is to be expected at an awards ceremony, for not every student excels. But, as I watched the awards being handed out, it struck me that those who received those awards generally have a natural talent. Most of the awards were given for either athletic or academic excellence, and the students who received them were obviously gifted in those areas. In fact, although I am quite certain that though they were diligent in their field, they didn’t have to put all that much effort into their studies or their sports in order to receive an award of excellence. They probably didn’t work nearly as hard as some of the students who received an average grade or lower but who never receive recognition.

I’m not against awards ceremonies, but I find that they can be artificial and misleading. They don’t measure the true value of one’s work because they often just award natural talent. We would be shocked if those students didn’t excel. Perhaps the only award that truly impressed me was the ones given to the students who volunteered in their community and at the school. This was something that they did not have to do but did anyway, going above and beyond what was expected of them.

As I reflected on high school awards ceremonies, I asked myself, “What categories would God choose if he were hosting an awards ceremony?” It’s a question that is impossible to answer, of course, but I expect that my fellow Bible College student would have received the award for the greatest effort in his studies. Or, as Jesus taught in the gospels, it would be widow who gave a few pennies in the collection plate who would be acknowledged as sacrificially generous. We would never name a building after her as we often do for the wealthy family who donates millions of dollars to build a new hospital wing. While we can appreciate the donations given by the rich, their sacrifice is often not nearly as great as the poor person who gives beyond what they can afford. Of perhaps God would give the award to the person who could have become a CEO of a multinational corporation but instead chose to direct a small charitable organization which provided affordable housing for the working poor.

One other thing that I noticed about the awards ceremony: few were surprised when the winners of the awards were announced. In fact, one of the students I talked to was fairly confident that he was going to win a couple of awards, and he would have been surprised if he had not. That won’t be true of those who would awards if God held a ceremony. If God would announce the award for the most sacrificial giver or the hardest worker, they would be surprised by the recognition. They would even be surprised by the fact that there was such a thing as an award, for their work would be done out of love. Just as parents don’t expect to an award for loving their children, those whose actions arise out of love believe that what they are doing is appropriate, and they don’t expect recognition. I doubt that there will be an awards ceremony in heaven, but if there is, the recipients will be completely unprepared when their name is called.

A number of years ago a man in my church was killed in a car accident. He was a good guy, well-liked, but he had a number of struggles that some might label as disabilities. He didn’t see himself in that light; rather, he simply used the gifts God had given to him to serve others. As I talked friends and family, it became evident to me that the way to conclude his funeral message was with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I’m sure that when he entered into glory the day that he died, those were the words he could have heard from our Lord and God. It wasn’t his good deeds that got him into heaven; it was the fact that he knew that Jesus had died for his sins. But he was faithful with what he had, and he gave to others from what God had given him, and he did so without thinking he was doing something special. Again, I doubt it God gives awards, but he would have received one if he did.

At this time of year, we have awards ceremonies, and it is good to honour those who have accomplished much. But let’s remember more those who may not get top grades or play multiple sports but who, with deep love, serve others as they follow their Lord. Although they go unrecognized at the ceremonies, these are truly the ones who should also be receiving an award.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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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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