Category Archives: Scripture

Ecclesiastes – the treadmill of existence

Can’t wait.  I, a preacher wrestling with my scary dependence on God to cover my inadequacy and weakness and sin… get to preach from Ecclesiastes – where “the Preacher/Teacher (Qohelet)” gives a solid dose of worldly realism… about the spiritual depression that should befall us all apart from the mercy and grace of God in Christ! 

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” – or vapor or mist or meaningless or fleeting or pointless or dissatisfying or broken… call it what you will.  We need the grace of God to crash into our world because simply put, apart from God and his eternal mercy, “Life is full of trouble, and then you die” (Tremper Longman on the message of Ecclesiastes).

I will be blogging through Ecclesiastes as it is a book about weakness.  For those who are weak, it is thankfully confirming to their predicament… it affirms their desperate cry for the gospel.  For those who do not feel weak, it clearly shows us why we may be blind – the vanity of life under the sun is weakening, debilitating, deathly frustrating.  THAT is why we cry out for the gospel.

So pray for West  Valley PCA, as we publicly launch this Sunday, and as we (during Advent of all times) turn to this refreshingly depressing book about life in a broken and weak world where we NEED outside gracious redemption from God which he provided in Christ!  I look forward to combing through the Scriptures and cultural mouthpieces like music and art and literature to show how our world inherently KNOWS that Qohelet is right… it speaks the same language of spiritual depression that only finds its answer in fearing God who will set things right and has done so in Christ (12:7).

thanks be to God for his relevant revealing Word.

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A kingdom of humility, contrition and trembling

“But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2

Smack in the middle of a vision of the New Heavens and Earth – the beautiful restoration of God that includes his judgment and justice and KINGDOM – is a beautiful description of the people to whom God’s grace and righteousness will rest.  THOSE WHO HUMBLY AND CONTRITELY TREMBLE AT HIS WORD.

Here we are, on the verge of planting a church in the Lehigh Valley of PA.  The thoughts (and methodological books) pour into my head.  Be relevant.  Be faithful.  Be risky.  Be patient.  Be holy.  Be original.  Be missional.  Be Spirit-led.  Be this or that or this or that.  Many of those things I DO want!  But O God, I want  most for us to be your kingdom on earth! 

What will that be like, I wonder.  One thing is clear according to Isaiah’s kingdom vision.  The kingdom on earth WILL be a place where the Word of God revealed to man is CENTRAL to life and ethics and obedience and worship.  We are to be “West Valley Presbyterian Church that trembles contritely at the word of God.”  Nice.

Whether I am seeing this because I am on the heals of a workshop on biblical exposition, or I am resting in it because it is God’s purpose for me to discover the centrality of his Word while outside of a bunch of crazy Word-centered preachers… I am not sure – except I love the Word.  Yes, it is hard to read.  Yes, it is often uninteresting to our visual and emotive culture.  BUT, it is the living Word and revelation of the Creator of the universe and Redeemer of my soul.  Is it not a powerful gift of grace around which ALL of our church plant should center?!

One thing I humbly had to confess at the workshop was this: I generally try to discern how the text of Scripture applies to me, or the congregation to which I preach.  But the problem with such a philosophy is that I am making myself, or others the center point of relating to God.  “How does this apply to ME?”  It is egocentric (though normal in our Western culture)!  The question is rather, “How do I apply my life to the Word?”  “How do I relate to the TRUTH of the text?” rather than “How does this text relate to my perceived reality?”

All I can say is that I can’t possibly imagine being in the New Heavens/Earth of Isaiah 66 and thinking, “How does this Kingdom fit into my reality?”  No, my reality will be defined by such a kingdom!  This is the reason that the kingdom is for those who humbly and contritely tremble at the Word – because IT IS the bar.  IT IS the barometer of reality.  IT IS the density of the gravity by which things float or fall.  How does my reality square with TRUE, GOD REVEALED REALITY?  That is humbling… it induces trembling.  What a grace – that those who are humbled and contrite and trembling at God’s Word are the ones to whom he will look in his kingdom (66:2)! 

SO, it must be Word-now, because it will be Word-then!!!  The kingdom is thus here and then through the Word revealed!

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Working on biblical exposition

In two days, I leave for a week-long journey to Chicago.  I get to see my grandma.  I get to watch the White Sox.  I get to hear gospel-centered preaching from my mentor, Paul Winters (Spring Valley PCA, Roselle IL).  I will be speaking to both the congregation and adult Sunday School of SVPC about our West Valley Church plant.  I will be meeting with former seminary proffs from TEDS.  I will be fundraising.  O, and I will be working on preaching.

One of the highlights of every year is attending the Workshop on Biblical Exposition, put on by the Simeon Trust.  It was Charles Simeon who said of preaching,

My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there.  I have a great jealousy on this head – never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.

That is a high calling.  The workshop this year will be focusing on the minor prophets – which is exhilirating, because I have thought about beginning our church plant sermon series with a minor prophet.  God knows what is in store for me to learn this week.  I certainly need the exposure to excellent biblical exposition.  I certainly need some peer review of my own stuff.  I certainly need to begin preparing to be back in the saddle (pulpit) on a weekly basis. I can honestly say about this ‘business trip’ – that it will be a pleasure next week to “go to work.”  It is through weeks like this that I discover that God does POWERFUL things when his servants submit our weak and pithy efforts to his disposal!

Thanks be to God for his LIVING Word that interprets us and keeps giving us the GOOD stuff for life and kingdom, here and forever.

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the kingdom of heaven on earth – on city streets

My friend Terrence will love the fact that my trek through the Book of Isaiah brought chapter 58 into my world with crushing force.  This morning’s reading is impacting and leaves me (and most of the evangelical Christianity I have known) in a posture of repentance.  This morning I also began reading Tim (ahem “Timothy”) Keller’s NY Times best-selling bookThe Reason for God.  In the intro, he acknowledged that as a young Christian, “I seemed to see two camps before  me, and there was something radically wrong with both of them.  The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world.”

OK, so social justice has a bad rap among evangelicals who are supposedly missional and reaching out to our broken culture.  I get that some churches/individuals are intentionally missional over seas (thanks be to God for his Great Commission) and others are missional in their local community.  But Isaiah 58 calls us to missionalism ON OUR OWN STREETS.  Compelling for the suburban isolated – but passionate believer.  Convicting for the church planting pastor.  Convicting for the rural farmer who loves the Lord. 

Who are we to be for the sake of the kingdom of God intersecting with our world around us? 

I give to you from Isaiah 58 – and if GOD has it on your heart to be involved in the West Valley Church Plant, I PRAY this will be knit into your soul with urgency as we ask him to make us “restorers of the streets” in Emmaus and Lower Macungie and all of the west side of the Lehigh Valley.

Isaiah 58:5-12 – God speaking through Isaiah:    

“Is such a fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?  Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?  (actually sounds appropriate… BUT…)

Is it not (rather) to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house;  when you see the naked (or divorced or indebt or addicted or whatever), to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (other image bearers are, in a sense, my own flesh as I am a sinner broken and likewise in need)

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ 

If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out FOR the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.  And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

O God, may your WORD guide what we think a church should like on our city streets and FOR our neighbors.

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new bible and a timeless assessment tool

I have this thing for new Bibles.  Kind of like a shoe fettish – as a man, I apparently have that too.  Well, yesterday I was in Westminster Seminary’s gargantuan book store and I found it.  The ESV has finally put out a small (smaller than the thinline) personal sized reference Bible.  One column, not two.  References in the middle.  Not excessively small print.  Fits in my computer bag without breaking my back.  Very nice. 

It is really very sad that I get excited to study from my new Bible, as if I expect to find anything new.  But I am.  I have been assessing Bibles for a time, looking for that ‘smaller computer bag-sized reference Bible.’  My assessment and patience has paid off.  OR has it? 

Interesting enough – I am not qualified as a sinner to assess Scripture.  I can assess Bible covers, but that’s about it.  What I can do is assess the world and its spiritual state with Scripture.  Even more, I am called of God to let Scripture assess me.  Daily.  All of me.  (Is this NOT a purpose for which God has effectively sent his Word – Isaiah 55:11?)

Which brings up another intersting point.  Assessment.  Most of you know that Kori and I went to the PCA Assessment Center in February.  We are still reeling and growing.  When I returned and shared with some close confidants all that God ‘assessed of me’ – many people said, “I wish I (or my marriage) could go through an honest assessment to discover much more of who I really am (not just who I think I am).”  My rersponse is – are you sure?!?!?! 

Assessment should be experienced by all of us in Christ’s body.  And, for one – Scripture is our assessment tool if we would let God, through his Spirit, convict us and show us ourselves in his Word.  But secondarily, I think it’ll work!  I have recently discovered some spiritual health assessment tools that, if combined with other things – might lend themselves to a local church personal and marriage proctology exam (I mean assessment). 

Wouldn’t that be something – for West Valley Presbyterian Church Plant to begin as a kingdom body that isn’t just the NEW and exciting thing (kind of like my new Bible) but rather a body that does something new with God’s timeless grace-centered assessment tool – his Word.  And we ACTUALLY intentionally create an environment where we help one another assess blind spots, and marital break-down points, and foundational-parenting-cracks as we all together – learning more and more of our weakness, depend more and more on the gospel that is only discovered through God’s assessment tool – his Word of LIFE.

I need to stop now.  I am not even thinking.   in,   sentences

 

 

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weakness for the glory of God

I have been weak lately. 

In honesty, it has been with a measure of intentionality as I have been asking God to show me who I am…  who I really am… which is different than who I think I am or who I want to be. 

Before we launch out with the West Valley church plant, this is a timely season to secure my personal life on the foundation of God’s gracious gospel… which leads me to ask (without a preformed answer): Who am I?  What are my blind spots?  What image do I work to keep up at the expense of authenticity?  (As most of you know, I don’t hide much.  I can be authentically me – transparent and the whole bit – but who is the “me” I am being transparent about?  If it is not the real me, it is hardly authentic.)  All this has  come as a result of church planter assessment and Kori and my desire to explore each other and ourselves in new and honest ways.  I am reading a book by David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself – a timely tool to plow the depths of my being.  In sum, Benner makes the point that true experiential gospel transformation cannot occur merely by applying new gospel ideas and truths to the old self.  We must first discover and know the image-bearing gift of our real selves – the self that God has created with unique gifts and characteristics… the self that does not find its identity in social/cultural ‘attachments’ or image-conditioning and maintaining. 

Before setting aside this time to dig deep, I was afraid.  Honestly afraid at the layers of self that I don’t necessarily know are even there.  The layers of the me I don’t know because I am consumed with the me I wish I was.  But there is nothing to fear.  Why would I not want to know more about the true sinful broken self that I am – because all I will find there is more of the nature of God’s gracious love in Christ which has always been for the real me, not simply the me I wish I was? 

Perfect love drives out all fear.

It is not a frightening process, though it is quite afflicting.  I am going through a season where I question everything about myself.  This too, shall pass, but hopefully not right away.  This morning, Isaiah 48 helped me make sense of it all and why this is a very good time. 

Speaking to his people Israel, in Isaiah 48:10-11, God says: I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.  For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned?  My glory I will not give to another.

What I hear in my whole self is this: my “not-sure-who-I-am-for-this-season-because-I-don’t-know-why-I-do-what-I-do-or-why-I-care-about-what-I-do-or-why-I-say-what-I-say” season of life is the furnace of affliction simply because, at present, I do not bear the name of my Creator and Redeemer as I should.  I know this.  I do not bear his glorious name as a husband or father or pastor or man as I should.  His glorious name deserves more than the “me” I have been putting forward. 

I need no other reason for this season of question – soli deo gloria.  Weakness in the furnace of affliction for the glory of God.  Thanks be to God for sending his own Son into the costly furnace of affliction – the real furnace that the real me in my sin deserves.  My whole self has been spared… so now I pray with Augustine: “Grant , Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.”

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blue like jazz deux

It has been a long time since I was able to read a 240 page book in 4 sittings.  Going to bed early to get up at 5:30 to read again…  Weird, because I know I am culturally late having just now read Blue Like Jazz.

Friends, foes, family, liberal believers, conservative believers, non-believers (liberal or conservative), modern, postmodern, Gen x, hippies, moms, dads, laypersons, clergy, skeptical, frustrated, missional, emerging, emergent, reformed, dispensational, coffee drinking, beer drinking, Southern Bible-belter, Northern ?!, college kid, high school kid, city-monger, rural farmer…  have I missed anyone?  Please give this a read.  Give Donald Miller’s words a chance, all of them.  Read, and read on.  Or maybe just read him because he’s from Portland.  Cool.

I am not saying that it is the best book I have ever read.  Not that it is the perfect book.  Not that I agree with every last word.  But that they are real words.  Words that made me laugh and stunned me and led to worship or repentance or introspection.  They are Donald Miller’s words… and even though it is impossible to hear all that he is saying, I have heard something profound.

From his final chapter:

I was watching BET one night, and they were interviewing a man about jazz music.  He said jazz music was invented by the first generation out of slavery.  I thought that was beautiful, because, while it is music, it is very hard to put on paper; it is so much more a language of the soul.  It is as if the soul is saying something, something about freedom.  I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music.  I think loving Jesus is something you feel.  I think it is something very difficult to get on paper.  But it is no less real, no less meaningful, no less beautiful. 

The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music.  It is music birthed out of freedom.  And that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality.  A music birthed out of freedom.  Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands…

This book is about the songs my friends and I are singing…  ((p.239)

Interesting enough, I feel like singing.

 _______________________

Addendum.  I would be remiss not to pass this quote along to you, especially for those of you who know that I am inching forward in my book-writing adventure.  ‘Bout a hundred pages in and here is how I feel…

Now, I am not a real writer as is Miller, but his words made me laugh. 

Writers don’t make any money at all.  We make about a dollar.  It is terrible.  But then again we don’t work either.  We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs to make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck’s book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven will notice our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness.  We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man’s stupid words.  And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar.  We are worth so much more…  (p.187)

When you are writing without a contract, you feel as though everything you say is completely worthless (technically it is, until you get a contract).  You can write all day and still not feel that you have done anything.  (p.188)

And that, my friends, should tell you how I feel about the progress I am not making in my ‘project.’

Grace.

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“Magnificent Kingdom, Myopic Me” sermon

I don’t normally do this… actually I have never put a sermon audio link on this blog.  However, I know that many of you are going through magnificent storms of weakness in your life.  You have told me personally.  I also know that God alone has authority to interpret our storms and our lives in how we handle the storm…

So it you’ve got 30, give this a listen.   We are going through the gospel of Mark at Cornerstone, and God gave me the privilege of preaching on Mark 4:35-41, with Jesus and the disciples and the squall on the Sea of Galilee.  What a Word has been preserved for us… a worldview-interpreting, life-giving, kingdom-declaring, self/sin-magnifying Word.  Thanks be to God.

http://www.cornerstonepca.net/audio/encoded%20J%20Powell%20Magnificent%20Kingdom%20Myopic%20Me%20Dec%209%202007-1.wma

Grace and peace.

Jim

preaching to the invisible listener

A pastor-mentor and friend of mine just passed along this quote from Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity.  Nice and necessary to hear time and again.

“Therefore it is a risk to preach, for as I go up into that holy place — whether the church is packed or as good as empty, whether I myself am aware of it or not, I have one listener more than can be seen, an invisible listener, God in heaven whom I certainly cannot see but who truly can see me.  This listener, he pays close attention to whether what I am saying is true, whether it is true in me, that is, he looks to see — and he can do that, because he is invisible in a way that makes it impossible to be on one’s guard against him — he looks to see if my life expresses what I am saying.  And although I do not have authority to commit to anyone else, I have committed myself to every word I have said from the pulpit in the sermon — and God has heard it. Truly it is a risk to preach!”  (XXII.215)

This quote ranks right up there with my favorite from Charles Simeon:

“My endeavor [in preaching] is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not thrust in what I think might be there.  I have a great jealousy on this head – nmever to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.”

 I think I’ll go submissively and soberly work on my sermon.

When my soul blows smoke rather than burns with fire…

A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.  – Isaiah 42:2-3 

Still reading the puritan Richard Sibbes, A Bruised Reed. 

Isaiah 42:3 makes the point that Christ will not blow out a faintly burning wick.  In other words, as we have been re-created to burn with a gospel light that evidences Christ’s transforming work through his righteousness and mercy, yet all of our soul-fires are attended with the smoke of corruption.  You and I blow smoke all the time, but if we would be in Christ (by grace through faith), we WILL NOT blow out.  And yet, we have days when the fire is wanting; when no heat seems to emanate.  We simply puff smoke.  That is the reality of our weakness. 

How does it enable us to live the gospel all the more?!  Let me just give you a puff or two from the puritanical pipe I have been smoking…

Some think, when they become more troubled with the smoke of corruption than they were before, therefore they are worse than they were [before].  It is true that corruptions appear more now than before, but they are less. 

For first, the more sin is seen, the more it is hated, and therefore it is less.  Dust particles are in a room before the sun shines, but they only appear then. 

Secondly, the nearer the contraries are one to another, the sharper is the conflict between them.  Now, of all the enemies the spirit and the flesh are the nearest one to another, being both in the soul of the regenerate man… and therefore it is no marvel that the soul, the seat of this battle, thus divided within itself, is as smoking flax (a faintly burning wick)… Therefore, none are so aware of corruption as those whose souls are most alive. 

Let such know that if the smoke be offensive to them, it is a sign that there is light.  It is better to enjoy the benefit of light, though with smoke, than to be altogether in the dark. 

It should encourage us to duty [obedience, worship, awe] that Christ will not quench the smoking flax, but blow on it till it flames. 

And so this day I pray the gospel with my new friend Sibbes:

‘Lord, I believe’ with a weak faith, yet with faith; love thee with a weak love, yet with love; endeavor in a feeble manner, yet endeavor.  A little fire is fire, though it smokes.   Amen.