Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lord's Day Message: The Hour (that instructs for a lifetime)


Sunday Message, December 5, 2010 at
Immanuel Community Church
Concord, NH

Anyone who ever went to college, no matter what their age, generally looks back on that time with as great fondness as any in their life.  And the reason is clear.  You were young and vital; your whole life lay mysteriously ahead, and yet for most, without the immediate anxiety that comes with true adulthood. 

In the 1970s I fell in love with the University of Connecticut, back when they were battling UNH and UMass for The Beanpot, long before Division 1 and the Big East.  I can still sing you all the words to the U-Conn alma mater and all the fight songs.   My heart was always with U-Conn… well… until I went to Ohio State. 

The Ohio State University IS football and basketball in that part of the mid-west.  Sitting in Ohio Stadium along with 87,000 other frozen fanatics to watch a fall game is like no experience on earth.  I still marvel when I see the OSU Marching Band perform the formation called Script Ohio.  And yes, I can sing that alma mater too.

You’ll notice something I’ve left out of the college experience:  Classes.  I know I went to a whole lot of them over the years -- 4 of college, 2 of grad school at Ohio State, and 3 more of grad school at Yale – they don’t have much of an alma mater, and I never could get into “To the tables down at Morey’s.”  

Like I said, I know I went to a whole lot of classes, but I can’t seem to remember too many of them.  It was the friends I made, the times of fellowship with our campus Christian groups, road trips to Hartford at 3 am, concerts I was in, and games I watched – that’s what I remember.  Imagine what content could have been crammed into my head if only I had paid as much attention to my studies as I did to my social life.

Well, the same is true of our experience of the faith.  Most Christians pay way more attention to the social experience of Church than they do to really deepening their walk with God.   Now, there’s nothing wrong with making deep friendships in church.  The Bible encourages it in Hebrews 10 when it says, “And let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”  But there is course work that Christ wants us to master as well, and unless we want to look back on our Christian life and only be able to say we knew all the lyrics to the great hymns of the faith, ant that our church had the best pot-luck suppers, we need to grow up from the git-go, and apply the course work.  Way too many of us are the picture of the old person trying to be a teen again when it comes to our church experience, sitting in the stands, wearing a beanie and carrying a banner on a stick that says, “Church-U.”   

Turn to Romans 13 in your Bible or read along with me on the sermon notes sheet.  We’re about to be treated to the course catalog for at least one degree that is available to you and me if we will have it.

Romans 13:4  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
8For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
10And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
11And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”
12And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Now, the degree that’s being offered here is an M.H. degree.   That’s Master of Hope.   There’s nothing more useful or practical that you and I can learn than to go for this particular degree.   And you won’t learn this material by going to the games or by learning the songs or by hanging out with your friends.  This is serious course work. 

A little later in Romans, Paul says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”  And in 2 Corinthians 1:10, “He delivered us from…deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”  Colossians 1:3-5, “We always thank God…because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.”  And Colossians 1:23, “Continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”  And in Colossians 1:27 Christ is, for us, the hope of glory.  In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “we do not want you to be uninformed … about those who have died, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  And 1 Thessalonians 5:8, “be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”  And finally, when Paul writes his first letter to Timothy, he begins it, Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.”

One of the great things about hope is that it operates best where everything is dead.  It works best where it would seem contradictory to even mention it.  It works best where there is no hope.  Think of the women coming to Jesus’ tomb early on that first Easter morning.  They had brought spices to anoint a body that had been buried already.  They were only three women.  Were they thinking they could roll the bolder away from the entrance to the tomb?  There was a guard of sixteen Roman soldiers at the tomb who surely wouldn’t have allowed them to carry out their plan even if they could get in.  One of two things was true of these women: either they were out of touch with reality because of the trauma of recently watching their Lord and Master put to death, or they had done the course work and were using their M.H. degree. 

Now in Romans 13, Paul outlines the two semesters of classes necessary for this degree.  They fall very neatly into two groupings of an experience-based course and a text based course each semester.

First you will want to take Endurance 103, that’s at the beginning of verse 4.  And you will need to take the companion course Encouragement 104, in the second half of verse 4. 

Here’s the course description for Endurance 103.  He says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance…we might have hope.”  Now, this is a field-based, or experience-based course because the only endurance that is needed here in the classroom is whether you can stay awake during the boring lectures.  Oh, I suppose there’s a certain endurance that develops in people who make a habit of gathering for worship every Sunday, no matter what.  But judging from the condition of most of our churches, I’d say the better word for that is simply persistence.  Endurance has more of the idea of suffering through something attached to it.  And maybe a good many of us have suffered through our church experience over the years.  But that’s not what he’s really talking about at all.

The kind of endurance Paul is talking about here isn’t something you can learn in a classroom, though we can and do talk about it here.  The hour-long lecture format won’t work.  We can spend an hour talking about the days of endurance that the Old Saints lived through, but until we ourselves are willing to go out and stand for the faith of the Gospel, not frightened in anything by our opponents, as Philippians 1:28 says -- and if you are truly standing for the faith there will be opponents – until then you can never really know what they went through. 

The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way in one of his class lectures, “Time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy— wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Why doesn’t this kind of thing happen to us today?  I think the only answer can be that Satan’s great tactic for this generation has been to give us every comfort and convenience we could possibly want and lull us into a stupor where we believe we are entitled to a good, or at least a comfortable life.  We do not have to stand for anything in this world.  All we have to do is go along with the crowd, like how we survived socially when we were in college, and we can expect that physical rewards -- advertised as coming from God, for those of us who care at all about faith – will be ours.   And the companion lie that goes along with that one is, “All ways are the same and lead to the same end anyway.”

We have also relegated endurance in our thinking mostly to athletic training or physical suffering.  And many of us, largely due to medical advances, have and will suffer much and have to endure long illnesses before our time on this Ball comes to an end. 

I think I’ve already told you that my mentor has been in a hospital in Maine since mid-August.  He’s 83, and has been a pastor for over 50 years.   He is now partially paralyzed and faces the remainder of his life with very limited mobility.  But he wrote this week that when they moved him out of the hospital and into a rehab facility, the big event of the week was sharing his testimony – the story of how Christ saved him eternally – with the nursing staff at the new place.   Endurance.  Don’t focus on where my mentor is, or you’ll miss it.  Endurance.  He’s been sharing the Word of God for 50 years, and he’s not about to let his situation or his location stop that. 

Now, the companion course to Endurance 103 is Encouragement 104.  Paul writes, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that…through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

When you go out there and stand for the faith in your daily life, no matter what that life may be, you need to be armed with the Scriptures.  And that doesn’t mean that you have to walk around with a Bible in your back pocket or purse.  Again, our modern world has made this entirely too easy.  We don’t know the Scriptures today because we don’t need to know them.  We can look a Bible passage up in a second right on our computer, and we can do it in 40 or more translations.  That may sound comforting; like it would be a real boon to someone wanting to be a witness for Christ.  But the reality is that the more accessible the Scriptures have become over the last 50 years or so, the more Biblically illiterate our people have become. 

The reason is clear.  If you don’t have to dig, you won’t.  If they project the words on a screen in front of you, you don’t need to know where to find the text.  Even here I have made a habit of printing the key text because I want to make sure you all have it available. 

I like something my mentor’s daughter told those of us who want to visit Bob.  She said, “if you are here at a meal time put the spoon in Bob’s hand.  Then do nothing more to help except guide his arm a bit.  The presence of food spilled on Bob’s shirt means that he’s working to learn how to feed himself again.”  The encouragement of the Scriptures, giving us hope, only comes when we read them for ourselves, when we meditate on them ourselves, when we memorize them ourselves, and when we use them in our daily conversation ourselves.   And yes, you may end up with a bit of food on your shirt as you learn.  People will forgive you for that.  But your mistakes with the Word demonstrate that you are doing the course work for Encouragement 104.            

Now the other two courses are a pair of companion courses for which Endurance 103 and Encouragement 104 are absolutely prerequisite.  You can not skip the first two courses and go on to take the next two, and if you do poorly or don’t apply yourself to the work in the first two courses, the rest of this material simply isn’t going to make sense to you, and you won’t be able to do what is being asked of you.

The first course of the second semester is called Unity 203, and it is an upper-level course.  Listen to the course description beginning with verse 5:  “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” 

May the God of endurance and encouragement… that mean that the same professor is teaching these courses as taught the first semester courses.

grant you to live in such harmony with one another… that means that the kind of harmony he is talking about only comes to people who have learned endurance and encouragement.  And he says this harmony is in accord with or in sync with Jesus Christ.  HE is the text book for this second set of courses.  Last week we said there was a day that seemed to go on forever that we call the Church Age.  If that is true then this course is an hour that instructs for a lifetime, because the book you are reading is the life of endurance; the book you are reading is the life of encouragement; the book you are reading is Christ himself.  And the outcome of the hour you spend daily reading the life of the Savior will be that you will have learned how to live in harmony with one another.  If you really did spend an hour a day just reading the gospels and did nothing more, it would change your life forever.  It would especially change how you interact with those around you. 

The outcome of this course work is two-fold: first, that “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  
As corny as it sounds, if you would all apply this to your life, you would find that when you come together for worship you’ll sing better.  And the second outcome is that you will learn to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  And that will be the end of politics and selfishness in your church experience, because you’ll be here for the right reason: the glory of God, and not for you.

The final course is Unity 204, and the course description begins at verse 8.  Paul uses three Old Testament quotes to set up the challenge to the Jewish church of his day that God was now including the Gentiles, the “everyone else” whom they had hated and separated themselves from.  They are now to receive the same salvation as the Jews who believed. 

He says,
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”

And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”

And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

If the first course was a course in how to experience unity within the church, Paul raises the bar and tells the church that her mission is to go out and proclaim unity to people who don’t have the background we do, don’t have the history we have, haven’t taken the same coursework we did.   He wants us to go and sit in Ohio Stadium and find a way to include all the people who just came for the tailgate party and have got a clue what’s going on on the field. 

There are Gentiles today.  They are in your family, they are in your office, they are down the street from you, they are at the post office, they are across the deli counter from you, they are at your doctor’s office, they are at the gym, they play bridge with you and go to the library with you.  And they don’t know Jesus.  And they have no hope.  This final course is a research and development course, a practicum, you might call it.  And what the professor is hoping you will do with it is this:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

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