Friday, April 25, 2008


Michael is getting married this weekend! Our family has been looking forward to this day for a long time. Of course we are going to miss Linda, but as much as possible, our focus will be on a beginning - the start of, what we pray, will be a long, Christ-honoring, joyous relationship! Laura Hall, who will soon be Laura Hall Talley, is amazingly like Linda was when my sweetheart was a young bride. Our entire family is delighted that Laura will be a part of our family - well, an official member - she has been part of our clan for awhile, now. And, Laura's family is a great one, so we are blessed all the way around!

We would be grateful for your prayers. We are committed to making this weekend about living in the present and anticipating the future. Please pray that we will resist the temptation to sadness. Michael and Laura should have our full attention and excitement. I am not doing well at explaining how very much we wish Linda could be there, but how much we want not to dampen the joy of this weekend by focusing on "what is not" rather than "what is." I think you get it, though, and so we appreciate your thoughts and prayers.

Not long ago Michael introduced me to a song from the movie Garden State (I have not seen the movie and I am NOT endorsing it) called I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You. The song touches me deeply (although, I am not endorsing everything in the song - do I really need to qualify my appreciation for the song that much? Apparently I think so!), but it would probably would be better 2 or 3 years down the road. The point is that no matter what happens in the future, I will never get over Linda. The sadness will not be as intense in a few years, I am sure, but I will never get over that girl! But, that's not the goal, is it?

Recently I had lunch with my good friend, Ben Dean, who, you will recall, lost his wife (almost exactly Linda's age) in January. I told Ben about the song and he asked me the same thing I just asked you - "It is not the goal to get over a loved one, is it?" Some people maintain an unhealthy attachment to a loved one who has gone on, but getting past deep sorrow is not the same as getting over a spouse. I will NEVER get over Linda, no matter what happens! She was the best! But, this weekend is a time to focus on life.

I have always been struck with the cycle of life when an adult dies. Small children are almost always present in the immediate aftermath of death, and they are oblivious to the gravity of the moment. Their focus is life. When the one who died is a believer, there is a firm belief that he or she is really living now, but sorrow, understandably and rightly, gets top billing. Fortunately, time covers the open wounds and allows one to function at a better level. Get over a loved one? Not hardly! But, that's not the goal anyway, is it?

So, random thoughts and thoughtful ramblings. I am sure you get my heart in all this. Please pray that our focus will be a joyful dose of LIFE this weekend! Linda's parents and all of her siblings will be at the wedding, celebrating with us - we are so grateful for our wonderful family. And, every single one of you who has followed this blog, whether it be for a year or a week - well, you are family, too. Thank you for walking with us!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday's Sermon

Overcoming Despondency
Psalm 73

There can be any number of causes of discouragement or depression. There can be physical causes, spiritual causes, circumstantial causes, relational causes, and on we could go, ad infinitum. Whatever the cause, there are very few of us who escape periods of discouragement, and some of us go to the depths of depression. In fact, many of us, at some point in our lives, or maybe as often as not, would characterize our condition as one of despondency.

Despondency. It is a state of extreme discouragement. A pit from which there seems to be no way out. A feeling of profound hopelessness. It is a heartsick gloom that renders one unmotivated to fight back. Have you ever been there? Are you there, now? Well, you are in good company.

This morning we will see how one of God’s great singers overcame despondency. Asaph was a singer – a very special singer who wrote 12 psalms. 1 Chronicles 25:1 tells us that Asaph founded one of the temple choirs. By the way, it is instructive to note that those who served in the religious choirs were gifted musicians.

This morning, we are going to look at a refreshingly honest psalm that Asaph authored – Psalm 73. In this psalm, we will be given a glimpse of a process in which God moved the writer’s focus from his surroundings to the Lord. Oh my, is there instruction for us! Let’s begin our time together reading this raw, yet rich, psalm. Would you please stand for the reading of the Word?

1. Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
2. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.
3. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.
5. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
6. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.
7. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.
10. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.
11. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12. Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.
15. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
16. But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17. until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.
18. Truly You set them in slippery places; You make them fall to ruin.
19. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
20. Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when You rouse Yourself, You despise them as phantoms.
21. When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22. I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward You.
23. Nevertheless, I am continually with You; You hold my right hand.
24. You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will receive me to glory.
25. Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.
26. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27. For behold, those who are far from You shall perish; You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You.
28. But as for me, it is good to be near God; I have made the lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works.

I want to begin our time by giving you an outline of this psalm – and then, we will not return to the outline again. So, if you want to get it, write it down, now. There is a logical flow to Asaph’s thoughts, because it was the process of his own personal journey. He was in a bad place when he began the psalm, but found healing as God gave him perspective. I am sure you know that when a psalm begins at one place and ends at another, it does not mean that the psalmist worked out his problems in the few minutes it takes to read it. The psalmist is recounting a period of time – maybe weeks, maybe years – in which he matured and grew spiritually. So it is with the 73rd psalm.

I. Comparing one’s circumstances with others can lead to despair
II. Discovery, for the believer, is often made in God’s house
III. God’s ultimate desire for us is that we find delight in Him

Asaph’s journey begins with an admission that comparing his own circumstances with others led him to despair, especially since he was struggling at the same time arrogant sinners were prospering. The contrast was glaring and Asaph found himself asking, “What’s wrong with this picture!?!” He made a discovery, though, when he began to reflect on the awkwardness of his attitude and found answers in God’s house. In the end, Asaph found his delight in God, not in the success he had so foolishly envied earlier in his journey. With this outline in mind, we are going to go back to the beginning of Psalm 73 and join Asaph for a brief look at a journey that may have taken him years to make. If you were not able to finish copying the outline, contact me and I will send it to you.

In the very first verse, Asaph acknowledges that God is good to His people, to those who have pure hearts. Of course, when Asaph began writing he knew where he would end because he was recalling a period in his life, but there is a sense in this psalm that he believed that God is always good to His people. No matter – Asaph was struggling! You may be frustrated with brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling when you say, “You know that God is good,” and they say, “OF COURSE I KNOW! But I am still struggling.” Asaph knew all the answers – intellectually, that is. He was a Levite in David’s time, for goodness sake, but he was despondent, nonetheless. God wanted him to move beyond academic knowledge, though, so that he might know the answers to life’s biggest questions, both spiritually and experientially.

As soon as Asaph acknowledges that God is good, he gets into “woe is me” mode. “As for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.” Been there, haven’t you? I am sure you have, but I wonder if you were as shockingly honest as Asaph, who said, “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” He admitted his covetousness right up front. “I was envious,” he said, but what is shocking is what comes next – “I was envious of those arrogant cusses when I saw how they prospered – wicked people!” Now, that’s honest! We would most likely try to dress up our sin and say, “I was disgusted by the behavior of arrogant people when I saw what riches did to them.” Not Asaph – he told it like it was! “I envied those who were arrogant because of the success they had achieved. I wanted to be just like them.”

Most of us are not willing to admit our own envy when we criticize those with more money, more talent, more knowledge, more good looks, more whatever. We secretly want to be just like them, but that rarely finds its way into our conscious criticism. Often when we criticize them, we are only attempting to make ourselves feel better. That’s the wrong way, though, and we will get past our struggle sooner if we will admit that our problem is envy, not righteous indignation. When we compare ourselves to the wrong standard, especially when we feel inferior to the one with whom we are comparing ourselves, we are quite susceptible to depression. And then, our complaints start to roll. Asaph certainly complained!

“Look at them. From the moment they are born to the moment they die, they have no problems. They have all they want – all the food they desire, and good looks, too! The common man has troubles, but not these jokers.” Now, do you think Asaph could have known all these things to be true? Do you ever find yourself saying, “Look at old so and so – everything goes right for him.”? But, we have no idea about other people’s troubles, do we? Same with Asaph. That didn’t stop him from comparing and complaining, though.

“Not only are they trouble-free, but they think their success makes them kings and queens of the world! They display pride as a necklace, right along with those fancy clothes they wear. Then they think they can run roughshod all over people, and they will do anything to get what they want, even resorting to violence. They shake their fists at the heavens and threaten us lesser types. And amazingly, it seems as though everyone just loves them and thinks they are the finest things!” Asaph had it bad, didn’t he? There is more.

“They can shake their fists at heaven because they feel no accountability to Him. They have become so successful that they think, for all practical purposes, that they are the gods of their universe. You know how that makes me feel? It makes me feel like it does me no good whatsoever to follow the Lord. Why did I even get saved in the first place? These men and women follow the lusts of their hearts, and they just get richer and more successful all the time. I try to follow the Lord’s ways and I just get beat up, day in and day out. I can never enjoy the slightest pleasures without feeling guilty. I am just tired of it.”

It is likely that Asaph exaggerated the wickedness of those of whom he was envious, but then again, maybe he didn’t exaggerate. It could be that he was spot on with his assessment of some who made life miserable for others. But, even so, it was ultimately Asaph’s attitude that got him into trouble. Oh, how self-centered he became as he spiraled inexorably downward!

Have you ever been in that spiral? It may have been circumstances entirely different from those that Asaph encountered, but can you identify with his despair? There is no telling how long Asaph’s agony lasted, and if the psalm ended here, we would be left with no hope. But, there is a change in verse 15. Asaph’s conscience finally was heard.

“If I say what I am thinking,” Asaph told himself, “it will hurt my brothers and sisters.” We can learn a lesson from Asaph. It is not necessary to say everything that we are thinking! That is not being hypocritical, it is being considerate. Just because you are struggling doesn’t mean that you have to bring everyone else down with you. Asaph committed to keep his problems to himself – at least while he was struggling. But, there was a problem. He tried to work it out in his mind, those glaring inequities in life with the bad guys getting all the goody out of life, but he absolutely could not make sense of it all. Until, that is, he went into the sanctuary of God. Asaph was either referring to the tabernacle or the temple. His life likely overlapped the use of both places of worship. Either way, he found some answers in the house of the Lord.

That’s the way it is for us, too, isn’t it? When life gets overwhelming, we have two choices. We can sink into the abyss of bitterness and become angry with God and the world, or we can seek answers from the Lord. Where do we go for answers? Certainly, to God’s Word, but we often need more than personal Bible study, so we go to God’s house. That is just another reason you can/should feel good about contributing to the building fund! You may need this place more than you think, some day. In addition, where do you think people who are moving into our area are going to turn when they hit a life-crisis? If they did not consider church before such a time, they well may afterwards! So, what did Asaph discover in God’s sanctuary? He discerned the end of those who mock God with their success in this life. Their “end” in verse 17 is literally “their afterward,” or, their eternal destiny.

If you saw someone driving your dream car down the road with a gorgeous woman or extremely good looking man in the passenger’s seat and both with their heads thrown back laughing their way through life without a care in the world, you may be tempted to be jealous. If you knew for a fact that the bridge is out at the end of the road and they would be going over a 1,000 foot cliff at 60 mph, your attitude would immediately change. It was good enough for Asaph, with his Old Testament mindset, to see how things would really turn out in the end. For us, we need to jump in front of the car to warn the driver and passenger of the danger ahead, risking humiliation if necessary, or even risking life and limb. A little perspective on the future can dramatically change one’s present attitude.

God’s judgment comes in verses 18-20. Not only does God judge these arrogant pretenders, but He rejects them, He dismisses them. What a terrible pronouncement at judgment to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you – away from Me!” When we think of eternal judgment, we tend to focus on the terrors of hell, but how awful will it be simply to be out of God’s sphere of concern for all eternity? Finally, Asaph gets it.

And, now that Asaph sees the picture more clearly, he rues his former attitude. “I was a beast. I had no idea what I was talking about. Brutish, I was, utterly disgusting. I should have kept silent because my heart condemns me.” We all know that feeling, don’t we? Don’t we? If you have not been disgusted with yourself in the last year or two, then perhaps you are not being honest with yourself! Do not let your success – success of any kind – go to your head, lest you be on the wrong side of this psalm!

When you confess your foolish attitude to the Lord, not only do you find forgiveness, but you recognize that God was patiently beside you the whole time. Your future is secure, and that knowledge should bring you, with Asaph, to the place of delight in the Lord! Let’s read these last verses aloud, together. Would you join me as we read verses 25-28?

25 Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 For behold, those who are far from You shall perish; You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God; I have made the lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works.

Would you like to have the kind of heart found in verse 25? It may come only after a period of great difficulty, like Asaph experienced. Of course, Asaph’s troubles were a result of his failure to control his own desires and covetous heart. Your trouble may be similar to Asaph’s, or it may be of an entirely different nature. It may seem inconceivable that you will go from despair to delight, but God may have absolutely had you in mind when He led Asaph to record his struggles.

When Asaph said that his flesh and heart may fail, he is referring to death. His statement is fairly significant because OT saints did not understand the afterlife nearly as well as we do. Oh, there are indications that they believed in some kind of existence, but Asaph goes so far as to say that God will be his strength and portion even at and after his death. If Asaph could say that, how much more can we say that God is our strength and portion at death when we understand that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord?

Asaph brings his writing to a close by recalling the truth of the end of those who are opposed to God. He then ends by committing to draw near to the Lord. You will remember back in verse 15 that Asaph wisely decided to remain quiet when his heart was bitter. Now that God has showered His grace on Asaph, the psalmist vows to tell of God’s great works! When God is your refuge, it is time to tell someone. This morning, even if you are in a state of despondency, God wants to bring you out of your depression, maybe not immediately, but when He has worked in your life as He desires. May you find comfort and help in the 73rd Psalm. Let’s pray.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Another Word

I suspected that my earlier post would create concern, and maybe even confusion. First, let me say that I am not paralyzed by the "lostness" to which I alluded yesterday. I would hope the post written on Tuesday would attest to that. Second, I do not go around moping all day. The pain of the first three weeks or so was quite intense. I have said before that I went to a place that I did not know existed. I do not go back there, now, but when pangs of loneliness and lostness come, I remember the intensity of the pain of those first three weeks (as opposed to these last three weeks, since I am only six weeks in), and the feeling of being lost descends upon me, and sometimes covers me.

I had two extended, very lively theological discussions with close friends yesterday. I worked on my sermon and met with church staff and church family. I went to a play last night performed by Campbell students, some of whom attend Grace - it was GREAT! It was directed by Bert Wallace, the chairman of our elders. I am busy and, at times, quite happy.

But, I wasn't exaggerating the feeling of "lostness." And I wanted to make a point: some pain is designed to last for an extended time. A lack of joy or a lack of deliverance does not imply a lack of faith. God calls us to trust Him in the dark just as much as we are to trust Him in the light. One danger of denying pain is the likelihood that one will seek God at a lower level. In the OT, God repeatedly rebuked His people for refusing to turn to Him when they encountered trouble. So, one of pain's many benefits is to cause us to seek the Lord. If my pain goes away too quickly - especially in this day of noise, conveniences, and distractions - I am less likely to look in the One source of comfort and meaning. So, it is OK to be "lost" for awhile. I still know where true north is - it is not that I have lost my compass, only my map. As my good friend Ben Dean said, "This is too costly to miss what God has for me." Ben, you will recall, lost his dear wife, Nancy (Linda's age), in January after only a one month battle with cancer.

So, thank you for your prayers and the Scripture. If you find yourself in a dark place that has been dark for awhile, please know that God is not cruel. He has a plan for your life that will be revealed in due time, even if it is not until you get to heaven. Above all, trust in God.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


That's how I feel. As difficult as "lonely" is, lost is - well, you know. I feel like a ten year old boy on a strange city street who looks around and his parents aren't there. You move down the street getting from one block to another. Time moves on and you meet some wonderful people, but you are still lost. That's the feeling. Oh, I know that God is there, but my true real-life companion of 31 and a half years is not. I recognize that God draws us to Himself through our pain, but if the pain is gone in a minute, do we really get as close as we could/should? I know it will be OK, but for the moment I feel lost. And it is not OK. But, it is OK that it is not OK at the moment. Not everything has to be fixed immediately.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

God's Will Made Easy in Three Simple Steps - Just Kidding!

God's will for your life begins today. Do you believe that? Back in the day (at my age, that can mean one of several decades, but I am referring especially to the 70's and 80's), we used to hear this about God's will for your life: "God has a perfect will for your life (based on Romans 12:2), and God has a permissive will for your life (based, I suppose, on some Old Testament stories). But is that true? Is there a "Plan A" and a "Plan B" for our lives? Well, surely the course of our lives is affected by the decisions we make today, but I am not sure we have the "fork in the road" analogy quite right.

Conventional wisdom (strange term - rather subjective, wouldn't you say, Newsweek?) says that when I come to a fork in the road (jobs, school, marriage, etc.) and I take the wrong path, well, life is pretty much over. OK, not over, but now I am on the dreaded path of "God's permissive will," and somehow I will just have to make the best of it.

I think Scripture presents a different view of the fork in the road. Should I choose the wrong path, it does indeed change the course of my life. If I have intentionally chosen the wrong path, a path that I knew was wrong, I have complicated my future even more. But is life over, for all practical purposes? Pharisees would say, "Yes - you blew it, now forget about an abundant life!" Jesus would say, "No, it is not over. Go and sin no more!" (See John 8:1-11, and please forgoe any textual questions you may have - the truth of this text is seen repeatedly in the gospels) "Well, what if I marry the wrong person?" When you say, "I do," he or she becomes the right person. "But, what if I was supposed to follow a certain professional track, and I went to the wrong school (i.e., "I took the wrong path at the fork")?

Well, "what if?" If I took the wrong path at the fork, there is often no way I can go back and strike off at the beginning of the other path. In fact, sometimes there is no way to get to the other path in any way. What then? If we believe that God forgives our sins as we confess them (1 John 1:9 and a host of other promises) and that He remains my Shepherd, then we must recongnize that we begin with a clean slate and another fork is set before us. The right path (when it is discernible) may appear to be a difficult path, indeed, but it is God's will for your life and an opportunity for you to live in His will.

What if both paths look equally compelling or equally difficult? This will not help you much, I don't suppose, but in the case when God's will seems extra difficult to discern (which graduate school, which job, which house to buy), we will best see His will in retrospect - looking back. "Thanks for the brilliant insight, pastor - I could have told you that!" Once again, is it possible that we have looked at God's will for our lives as little more than one of the popular "how to" books that fill the shelves at Barnes and Noble and keep Amazon shippers working overtime? "Now, if I will follow steps 1-5 - check Scripture, get godly counsel, look for open and closed doors, listen for a still small voice, etc. - then God has promised to show me which college to choose!" WHO told you that God was obligated to tell you the college you should choose!?!

I think I agree with Augustine - "Love God and do what you want to do." If that sounds appealing to you, make sure you remember the first part - LOVE GOD! That means with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It will reveal itself in loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Piece of cake? No it is not. It demands our entire focus and energy. But, God is far more concerned about who we are than He is with what we do! It is not that events and activities are unimportant, but He wants us to be the people He has designed us to be so that He can use us whereever we are. Sometimes Scripture speaks directly to our circumstances (should I, as a Christian marry an unbeliever - the answer is "no"), but often there is no direct command one way or the other when you find yourself at the fork of the road. Of course, our gifts and talents should move us in one direction or another, but life is not always arranged into the neat little package we seem to so desperately desire.

You may have come to this spot expecting me to talk about my thoughts about my dear wife, Linda. If you are still reading - thank you! I promise that I have not forgotten about the promise to share more of her thoughts about marriage with you, particularly her thoughts directed to young married women - don't worry men, I will put my two cents in so that you may want to read it, also. It is at this point in this post where her memory comes into play about God's will, though.

As I mentioned at the start of the sermon a week ago (and, as you may have read in the last post), I am stunned at the times and ways Linda ministered to people when I was completely unaware! I knew her well, but she continues to surprise me. Linda was just getting to the place where she was overcoming those insecurities (the insecurities that every single one of struggles with) in such a way that she was free to minister far more effectively than ever before. Then, she died. Who can make sense of that? I recently heard about a missionary in Africa that God was using in fantastic ways. He went swimming one day and drowned. He was not killed by some river creature, nor martyred - he just drowned. Would you please explain God's will in that situation? No, don't try. There is just no way to understand.

Well, trying to get back from these deep waters in which we have just been swimming, it often does not seem much easier to try to make sense of God's will when you come to a fork in the road and you have to choose one way or another. Here is my prayer for you: I pray that you will make the right decision, not necessarily the one you feel is the right decision because we often have no idea which path we feel is the one God has laid out for us. In fact, based on all that has been considered to this point, I think that when we have two equal choices before us, it is most often the case that either path is OK - God is most often far more interested in how we walk along the path than He is with a particular path. And, since Jesus said that all the Law and Prophets hang on the two commandments to love God and to love our neighbors, both at the highest level possible, then Augustine's dictum makes sense - "Love God and do what you want to do."

So, is my purpose to free you from guilt, studying Scripture, prayer, and careful planning? OF COURSE NOT! Well, I don't want you to struggle with guilt when you make the best decision you can, but absolutely keep reading, praying, and seeking advice. Ulitmately, I want you to be free from second-guessing yourself all the time. God's will for your life begins today. I really believe that. Should you be at a fork in the road, then seek to learn everything Scripture says about your choices (mostly, this will be from biblical principles, rarely from direct commands), pray for God to guide you, seek godly counsel (but not too much - it may only confuse the issue), and then, forge ahead! Happy traveling!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Made for Eternity

I returned to the pulpit at Grace Community Church this morning. Since the message was relevant to the topic that has occupied this space to this point, I will include it here. Thank you for continuing to come to this spot!

Made for Eternity
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10

As you know, this is the first time I have preached since my dear wife, Linda, died. Do you mind if I say what we are all thinking? She died too soon! In different eras, 53 would have been a long life, but not in our day. The life expectancy for Linda’s group is somewhere around 80 years of age. Linda was special. There will be no telling, this side of eternity, just how many lives she touched. In many ways, she was just coming into her prime, gaining the kind of confidence that frees one to minister far more effectively than had been previously possible. Why did her life have to end so soon?

Well, her life didn’t end. Linda was not made for 53 years, she was made for eternity! There is so very much about this difficult life that we live that does not make sense. We can expend a lot of energy trying to answer questions that are unanswerable this side of eternity. So, let’s concentrate on those things that we can know, in fact, our text today will make many things quite clear, though some things will remain a mystery. We will find comfort in what we are told, I am absolutely certain, though comfort in the loss of loved ones is not the primary reason this passage was written.

This morning, we will begin our time in 2 Corinthians 4, the passage I chose as my text a little over two weeks into our trial. On that February, 2007 Sunday, we looked at the whole chapter. This morning, we will only look at the last three verses, beginning with verse 16, but then we will continue on into the 5th chapter and read through verse 10. There is much, much more to be known from our text than we will be able to consider, but I think you will see why the Lord led me to this passage for our instruction, our comfort, and for the purpose of challenging us this morning. By the way, I keep saying “our comfort,” because I know you are grieving with me. You cannot know how grateful I am for your company. Would you please stand as we read 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10?

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,
3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.
4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
5 He Who has prepared us for this very thing is God, Who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,
7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.
8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him.
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Before we get into this text, I would like to say that the larger context found in these two chapters speaks of the importance of the gospel, with regard to understanding it so that we can be saved, and with regard to the strong compulsion we should feel to share it with the lost. We will talk more about that at the end of the message. We will begin our look at today’s text with the last three verses of 2 Corinthians 4 where we will learn the importance for believers to:

I. Commit to seeing the unseen

How sad it must be for those who believe that this life is all there is! It may be that some of you here today believe that we are born, we live whatever years we are given, and we die. End of story. I am so sorry if that is what you believe, and I say that genuinely, not to patronize you. It may be convenient in the salad days of life to believe that this life is all there is to one’s existence. But, what of the days when life begins to ebb away, or a debilitating disease reduces the quality of life to a barely tolerable level?

Those of us who follow Jesus see beyond this brief and difficult existence. Or, do we? Even though I characterized this existence as brief and difficult, we do have quite a few conveniences, and to be honest, when life is good, it is really good. That is one reason that suffering is not such a bad thing. Suffering tends to get our focus back on the eternal. Let’s look again at 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Paul was not a dualist. He was not saying that this earth is evil and the realm of the spiritual is good. He was contrasting the inevitable suffering that committed followers of Jesus will experience in this life with the eternal glory they will experience as soon as this life is done. All people, whether believers or not, experience suffering, and of course, we all die. But the future is bright for believers. Why so little focus on eternity, then?

For starters, suffering is delayed as long as possible. We are often able to insulate ourselves from trouble in our day, and while none of us would invite trouble, it is a shame that our lives of relative ease keep us from contemplating the eternal. Suffering can be a blessing if and when it interrupts our “live in the moment” mentality and moves us toward the eternal perspective that will lead us to establish the right priorities in life. The reality is that even though the outer self, or the body, is decaying, the inner man, the part that relates to God, is being renewed every day. Colossians 3:10 puts it this way: “(We) have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” In other words, when the new self is being renewed, which happens when we have an eternal perspective, we become more like Jesus.

We have already acknowledged that suffering can help us with our focus, but whether we are suffering or not, we must commit to seeing the unseen. Isn’t that what we are told in our text? Someone once said, “The power to persevere comes from gazing intently at what you cannot see.” Paul said, the things that are seen, all that this world has to offer, is transient. It is short-lived. It will pass away. But the things that are unseen, well, those things are eternal. Those are the things that really matter. That is why we need to commit to seeing the unseen. When our commitment is firmly established, we will recognize that:

II. Death, for the believer, allows real life to begin
I am not in the best of health these days. Caring for my dear wife for 13 months took its toll on my health. I am working hard to get my body back into shape, which means walking as many days as I can and eating right. That is why I want to ask you kind souls who have said you would like to have me over to your home for dinner to please not make dessert! As much as I would love hamburgers and fries, I am doing my best to eat fish and broccoli.

But you know what? I am going to die. Even if my body became the model for old preachers, it is going to wear out eventually. While that could be depressing, if I know that I was made for eternity and that death allows real life to begin, it could be downright exciting to contemplate the next stage! Let’s look to our text, again. We will just read through 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 and make a few comments as we go – we will not take much time here, although this is a difficult passage and we could spend weeks on these verses! If we did spend several weeks on this text and looked at dozens and dozens of verses that correlate with this passage, we would certainly find some measure of understanding of the topic Paul addresses here, but our efforts would not yield the clarity we desire about all that happens when a believer dies. Let’s focus on what we can know, beginning in verse 1:

1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,
3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.

Paul is contrasting our temporary body with our resurrected body, the body we will receive at the end of this age when Christ comes back to judge the world. That body will last us for all eternity. No wonder this earthly body is compared to a tent, a temporary shelter, and our resurrected body is compared to a house, a far more stable structure, one that is, in fact, eternal. Scripture is clear that we receive our resurrected bodies at the end of this age.

Verse 2 is a cry for the end of this age to come so that real life can begin. Verse 3 is quite a challenge. It is possible that Paul could be saying we do not want to be disembodied spirits, so even though we prefer heaven to this world, it would really be great to be alive when Christ returns. It is more likely he is saying that in the resurrected body, we will never again be naked, like Adam and Eve found themselves to be after sinning against God. In other words, nakedness is more a condition of the heart than of the body. Paul then goes on in verse 4 to say that as long as we are in this body, we will groan with anticipation of the resurrected body that will be perfect in every way and free from the stain of sin and decay that we currently experience. How do we know this body is in store for us? Verse 5 tells those who have trusted Jesus that the Holy Spirit, living inside of them, is the guarantee of this perfect and sinless body.

So, if we receive our resurrected bodies at the end of the age, what then of those who go to be with the Lord before the end of the age? Do those who have already died have an intermediate body of some sort, or are they simply spirits, waiting for their resurrected bodies? We are not told in Scripture, exactly. We can make educated guesses based on what we infer from other passages of Scripture, but it is unwise to be too dogmatic about your position. Why does God not make this any clearer? I am not sure, but verses 6-8 help us to get past any frustration that may arise from a lack of specific knowledge about what state we are in between our death and the resurrection of our bodies.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,
7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.
8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Isn’t that awesome? To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord! So much for purgatory! So much for soul sleep! And even though we may not know as much as we would like to about our state between death and the resurrection at the end of the age, I can promise you this, our loved ones who have gone before are not disappointed. No one is in heaven saying, “Oh, man, I am bummed – I really would like my resurrection body right now!” No, being with the Lord is infinitely better than being away from Him, no matter how good it is here.

Maybe one of the reasons we fail to desire heaven in the manner described here is that we have such a low view of heaven. We think of heaven in earthly terms – “When I get to heaven, I am going to eat all the ice cream I want and not gain a pound.” That may be true, but it will certainly not be the big deal about heaven – Jesus will be the center of our attention and affection! So, our focus on the eternal demands and deserves far more attention than most of us give. John Calvin went so far as to say, “Let us consider this settled, that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of his death and final resurrection.” Unbelievers would be scandalized by such a statement, and many believers would recoil from it, also. Perhaps we would not say it quite like Calvin did, but we can certainly go as far as Scripture goes, and God tells us He wants us to commit to seeing the unseen. He also wants us to know with our whole hearts that death, for the believer, is simply the beginning of real life. Where does such knowledge lead? To our final point:

III. An eternal perspective will lead the Christ-follower to the sensible decision to prepare for meeting Jesus

I have to tell you, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 is a comfort to anyone that has lost a loved one who was a follower of Jesus. In fact, I suppose the greatest comfort I have these days is thinking about Linda in heaven with Jesus and with all those who love Him perfectly, now. You and I walk by faith – Linda and your loved ones can see Jesus, so they no longer have any need for faith. We who are still here, on the other hand, must walk by faith. And we should also recognize that while we derive comfort from the Scripture we have just read, comfort is not the primary reason God wrote it for us. He wanted us to prepare for the day when we will meet Him. Look at verses 9 and 10:

9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him.
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

An understanding of our future with the Lord should change the way we live. We are given two motivations for living our lives in a manner that pleases Him. The first is an appeal to an intrinsic motivation – verse 9 begins with “So.” Because of our glorious future, our hearts ought to be filled with a desire to please the one Who has done so much for us. But, there is an extrinsic motivation given, as well. Every person alive will be judged perfectly and absolutely based on what he or she has done, whether good things or bad things. I am certain that our motives will come into play as well as our works.

There are two judgments that will occur – most likely these will occur at the end of the age, not when one passes from this life to the next. One judgment is for believers and the other is for unbelievers. The judgment spoken of in verse 10 is known as the Judgment Seat of Christ – in fact, that is what it is called. This is the judgment for those who have trusted Jesus’ death on the cross as payment for their sins. Even though all our secrets are revealed at this time, it is not a judgment of condemnation. Romans 8:1 tells us there is no condemnation for the believer. Our eternal destiny is secure if we belong to Him. More is said about this judgment in Romans 14:10-12 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

For the unbeliever, the Great White Throne Judgment awaits, as described in Revelation 20:11-15. All who are present at this judgment are found guilty and are cast into the lake of fire, away from God’s presence for eternity. Believers will not be at this judgment, thank God, but it should, nonetheless, serve as a motivation for us.

You will recall at the beginning of the message that I spoke of the context surrounding the passage we looked at today. Paul recognized the connection between what we believe in this life and where we will spend life after death. He understood that those who failed to believe that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty of their sin would, indeed, have to face the severe judgment of God for their sin. That is why he spent the whole section before our text in chapter 4 and the rest of chapter 5 after our text talking about the importance of the gospel. Paul was persuaded that judgment of the worst kind awaits those who fail to believe in Jesus. That is why he was willing to beg others to be reconciled to God through Jesus. We ought to have the same passion to share the message of Christ with the world.

It is that message that we will focus on as we come to the Lord’s Table, as we do every month on the first Sunday. Would the elders please come forward to prepare for communion?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Value of Tears

I cry a lot these days. Not as much as I did in the first two weeks after Linda graduated to heaven, but I cry much more than I did before she died. It was not always this way, though. As a young man I cried here and there, but I was embarrassed by my tears. One day, when I was a summer camp counselor at TVR Christian Camp, an incident occurred with a group leader that brought quick and embarrassing tears to my eyes. I remember asking the Lord - in fact, I remember the very spot where I made my foolish request - to take away my tears. Oh, how I regretted that prayer for many years, because my prayer was fully answered! Many years later when I began to ask the Lord to allow me to cry again, I realized that it would be a different story the other way around. The tears would not return easily. Of course my hard heart was to blame, not the Lord's unwillingness to answer my prayers.

In fact, we are told that God is near to the brokenhearted - often that is a reference to a brokenness over sin, but God clearly is near to those who are hurting. In a time of deep trouble, David asked the Lord to put his tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). David was writing, of course, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Think about tears being bottled - it implies that the one Who is bottling the tears counts every tear as precious and will remember the grief that caused the tears. Time and again in the Old Testament, God was astonished that His people did not turn to Him in a time of trouble. The Lord often brings us into difficult situations to turn our attention toward Him. Do not waste the tears that God gives you!

I do cry more, now, but probably one reason is that I am older. We old men tend to cry more than we did when we were younger. I am certain that there are several reasons for that, including physiological ones. I actually envy young men who are able to cry. Why? Because there is great value in tears! Tears can serve to cleanse heart and soul. Tears tend to focus the mind for some. Tears can salve a troubled spirit. Tears may indicate a great love for something that was lost, and wouldn't we all rather love and lose than to never love? Love is risky like that. If we never cry because we have lost something, chances are that we never gave our hearts away to anyone, and what a tragedy such a self-centered existence turns out to be!

So, if you seldom cry, why not ask God to soften your heart? Women do not usually have to work very hard on this, but a lot of men - young men, especially - need to ask God to open their tear ducts and allow them to cry over something lost, to cry over sin (as Jesus did), to cry out of joy found in special moments with Him or with loved ones, to cry over - well, you finish it. I am so glad that God gave Linda and me a relationship worth tears at the end. May God give you the gift of love and the gift of tears!