What Path Are You On?

The following is an excerpt from Pastor Josh’s recent sermon on Psalm 1

Have you ever been to a bookstore and seen an old classic book with a new cover and been tempted to buy it? And then you think, “I guess I should get the whole series with these sharp new covers.” And then, if you’re like me, you suddenly realize, this is the same book as the one I have at home, just with a new cover—I don’t need it. Unless you are a collector or something and you are into that kind of thing.

Sometimes, they will even alter the title a bit to grab your attention more. Actually, the book that some of our church women just went through on depression was given a new title with its reprint edition. It started as “When Spring Comes Late” and then the reprint was “Finding Your Way Through Depression.”

The book of Psalms too went through something like this. In the original Hebrew the title for the book of Psalms is “the book of praises,” not “Psalms.” The word “Psalms” is the English version of a word that comes out of the Old Latin Vulgate that has to do with songs sung to stringed instruments. But the original in the old Hebrew means “the book of praises.”

The content is all the same but like some reprints of classics, the title was altered over time.

While the change in title should not alarm us, I do think it is quite unfortunate. I feel as though maybe something was lost in the slight change of title. Maybe the Lord was saying something to us with the original title? Something that was lost over time as it went into Greek and then Latin and then English.

The Book of Praises Has a Profound Message

Did you know that the majority of psalms are not technically praises? In fact, the largest group of psalms in this little book are laments–they are people expressing their sorrow or grief or pain to the Lord.

Maybe that original title “book of praises” tells us something. Maybe it was telling us something very important—something that all of us should never forget. I think it is telling us that ALL of life, lived with God and for God, is a life of praise.

The Psalms give us an example of a people coming before God in all seasons of life. In the good, the bad, the ugly and the impossible. We find them coming in the moments of victory and in the moments of defeat. We find them coming to God in the highs and the lows, in the valley and on the mountaintop. We find them recalling the good times and the bad times before God.

The book of praises is filled with joy and sorrow–for God can and should be praised in both joy and sorrow. And certainly if you are a human being living on planet earth, you will most certainly be confronted with both joy and sorrow.

When we come to the book of praises, what we find is not a contrast between those who experience joy and those who experience sorrow. That is common to every person, even to our Lord Jesus.

What we find is a contrast between those who experience that joy and sorrow in relationship with God and those who experience joy and sorrow apart from relationship with God.

In the book of praises there really are two, and only two, ways to live: walking in God’s ways or walking in the ways of the world.

You Were Created to Work

Below is a short excerpt from Pastor Josh Moore’s recent sermon “Glorifying God in our Work”

As we turn now to God’s word I want all of us to engage in a quick exercise. Grab a pew bible and open it up right to the beginning there. Go to page 2. You should see Genesis 2. I want you to look and see where Genesis 2 is in relation to the Fall.

The Fall of course is that dreadful moment when man and woman disobeyed God, rejected his plan for them and plunged all of us into a state of misery and death.

In Genesis 2, which was read earlier in the service, we read of how God took the man that he created and placed him in the garden to work it and keep it. In other words, he was given work to do.

My question is, did this happen before or after the fall?

Work Itself is Not a Result of the Fall

This happens before the great Fall of man and woman; it’s before the curse and before death entered into the world.

The implications of this are profound.

Think about this. The call for man to work and keep the garden was given to him before he sinned. Paradise was a place of work; it was a place where we were busy with work.

In other words, contrary to popular opinion, work is good. It was a part of the goodness of God’s creation before sin and death corrupted it.

Vicent Bacote, Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, writes:

“Though the entry of sin is real, all is not lost. The Fall does not obliterate the image of God in humans. [And just] as the divine image remains with us, so does work itself as a component of our essential dignity.”

“The Goodness of Work: Work that Leads to Flourishing” in Whatever You Do For An Integrated Life, 67.

In other words, when God curses the man and the woman, work itself is not a part of the curse. In fact, work is an essential part of what it means to be human and to be made in the image of God. Work is made harder, but it is not itself a part of the curse.

Moreover, when you look at the entire story of the opening parts of Genesis we find not only a man and a woman created with tasks to do and work to perform, but we find a God who works.

God is a worker.

What this means is that a part of the very image of God within us is the ability to work.

In the very act of working and laboring, you are, whether you intend it or not, pointing to God, the original worker.

“Seeing” Jesus in Showing Hospitality

Do you have a favorite bible story? If I had to pick one, it would probably the story of Jesus appearing to the two disciples walking along on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. My wife and I love this story so much we named our son “Emmaus”.

The Supper at Emmaus

There’s a painting titled Supper at Emmaus by a well known Renaissance artist who was called Caravaggio (pictured above). In the painting he is trying to capture the supper that Jesus shared with the two disciples he met along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 28-31).

He actually did two different paintings of this moment. This is the first of the two. Jesus is the central future with his eyes closed and hand lifted as he prays. The light is shining upon him, all the eyes are looking at him. He is the central figure. The painting is life-size (5 feet tall by six feet wide).

The two men seated at the table have just realized that this is Jesus sitting with them. One is so overcome he’s backing his chair up and also leaning in at the same time–like he doesn’t know whether to jump for joy or be afraid. The other disciple has his hands spread out either in worship or disbelief.

Try and imagine this moment. They’ve been walking with this stranger and then all of the sudden, after he gives thanks for the food, they see, this is Jesus—the man they saw brutally murdered and destroyed on the cross.

Caravaggio wants to capture in this painting that very moment when they realized Jesus was not only raised from the dead but he was right there with them in the flesh. Verses 31 and 32 say that Jesus then vanished and they begin to recount how their hearts burned within them as they talked with him on the road about the Scriptures.

Later they run out and get together with the 12 disciples and tell them what happened. Verse 35 says:

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Luke 24:35

But one of the things I love about this painting is that it is inviting us in. Notice how there is an empty spot at the table and there is this basket of fruit almost hanging off. Christ’s right hand is lifted in our direction. Caravaggio is inviting us to this table with Christ and wants us to be a part of this supper.

You do not need to be special to sit at this table. Notice also how ordinary all the figures are. The clothes are not fancy. There are holes, they’re dirty. The guy on the right there has a red nose and looks as if maybe he has a cold. The room is plain. This is not a cathedral or a synagogue or some religious space. This is a very common home and yet there Jesus is and he is inviting us.

What a picture.

Christian Hospitality

Hospitality is a very ordinary, everyday space that Jesus will often show up. And what an example we see here in these two disciples of Christian hospitality. These two eagerly longed for this stranger to stay in their home and visit with them for a while. Verses 28 and 29 say:

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.

Luke 24:28-29

They longed to enjoy this stranger’s company.

Sadly, most of us Americans are not hospitable, at least not any longer. It used to be for a long time in America that you could just drop by someone’s house and visit and stay. It was not uncommon for people to host others for days on end if they were traveling or passing through. No more. Today we value our privacy and space more than we do showing hospitality to others.

These two on the road to Emmaus open their home to the Lord, even though at the time, they did not know who He was… He was just some stranger on the road. But they invite Him into their home to break bread with them.

The Scriptures call us to do such as well:

“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!”

Hebrews 13:2

And also:

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

1 Peter 4:9

So invite someone over for dinner. Ask a person who is passing through to stay with you for an evening. We should be especially open to missionaries, bible teachers, or others who have a special calling to proclaim the gospel message.

This is one of those places where Jesus loves to show up. Perhaps we are missing out on deeper fellowship with Jesus because we are not hospitable to others.

By hospitality, I don’t only mean having people over. I mean a general friendliness and openness to others, even strangers. This is rare in these parts but it is often a place that Jesus will show up in our lives. I want to exhort you to seek to be hospitable as these two disciples on the road were that day.

Some of the insights from this post came from Philip Ryken's very helpful commentary on Luke (see the Reformed Expository Commentary on Luke). 

With Christ in the Wilderness: A Lenten Reflection

In Psalm 63 David declares: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” He goes on: “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips…”

Take a guess where David was at that moment?

You might think, he’s in the temple worshipping God or he’s having a mountaintop experience, maybe he just defeated Goliath or it’s that moment just after he brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem.

But if you were to flip to Psalm 63 you would see that the heading for that Psalm says, “A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.”

Let that sink in—David was in the wilderness.

Scholars debate whether or not this was during the time when he was being hunted down by Saul or by his son Absalom, but either way, this was a time of desperate trials for David. The rest of the Psalm is incredible and David speaks of thirsting for God and how his soul clings to the Lord even as his enemies are seeking to destroy his life.

The wilderness can often be a place where we encounter God in a special way as David did in Psalm 63.

An interesting little tidbit about the wilderness is that the Hebrew word for wilderness (or “desert”) when written looks identical to the word “speak” (it is the same root word). The difference between the two words only emerges when they are spoken.

Is this pure coincidence that these two words overlap?

David might say “no” because it is often in the wilderness that God speaks. If you are in a spiritual wilderness right now, listen carefully, God is up to something good in your life.

Seeking the Wilderness

During the season of Lent, we enter into an intentional wilderness of sorts. The season is modeled after Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-14). Christ entered willingly into a physical and spiritual wilderness for a higher purpose—to commune with God, to prepare for the start of his public ministry, and also to be tested. The historic church has believed that Christ’s example of seeking the wilderness is something we can and should emulate in certain ways. Lent gives us a seven week period to enter into the wilderness with him in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection come Easter.

Of course, it should also be recognized that Christ’s venture into the wilderness was unique in some respects. Much like his baptism, the wilderness experience for Jesus, was to “fulfill all righteousness” (see Matthew 3:15). Christ did not need to be baptized, most especially into John’s baptism which was a baptism of repentance. What did the perfect Son of God have to repent of? Christ was baptized for us—he repented, perfectly, for us. In the wilderness, Jesus did not need to prove his metal or to be tested by Satan. However, if Christ were going undo the curse which was righteously exacted by God on all of the descendants of Adam due to Adam’s failure when tempted in the garden, then He would have to succeed and triumph everywhere Adam failed. And triumph He did. In the wilderness we see our Lord overcoming all the temptations thrown at Him.

The wilderness of Lent is an opportunity for us to enter more deeply into communion with God through spiritual disciplines, however it is so much more than that. As we enter into the wilderness with Christ and inevitably struggle and fail, it is an opportunity once again to bask in the good news that Christ fulfilled all righteousness for us. The more the depths of Christ’s goodness and sufficiency are revealed to us in the wilderness, the more we can say with David “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips!”

That Nothing Would Distract Us From Christ

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Colossians 1:15-20

At Red Door Church we’ve been studying the book of Colossians together. We recently looked at the passage quoted above (1:15-20) and learned that this section is widely viewed by scholars to be an early Christian hymn. It’s speculated that Paul took the hymn and possibly modified a part here or a part there for his purposes in this letter.

Some speculate that the hymn is addressing some issue in the church; maybe there is some theological error or some kind of false teaching that is threatening the church. We are not entirely sure.

Whatever Paul’s motivation for writing to the Colossian church, it is very interesting that a hymn is placed right near the outset of his letter. The hymn itself emphasizes the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ over all other spiritual beings. As we read along in the book it can be quickly gathered that the supremacy of Jesus Christ is a central plank in this short letter’s message to the church in Colossae.

Perhaps there is something going on in the church, some teaching or some practice that is marginalizing Jesus, distracting people from him, pulling their attention away into other things. Paul wants to correct that.

DaVinci’s Last Supper

DaVinci’s “Last Supper” is considered a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance and one of the most recognizable and well-known pieces of Christian art in all of history. Most of you will probably recognize it immediately.

What most of us don’t know is that DaVinci removed what one of his critics said was the finest element of the painting. The story goes that Leonardo da Vinci took a trusted friend to criticize his painting, wanting his honest feedback. “The most striking thing in the picture is the cup!” said the friend. He went on: “What a beautiful cup…with glimmering, precious jewels, wrapped in ornate, polished gold. This was truly a cup that would be worthy to touch the lips of Jesus”, he added. After some more discussion, DaVinci showed his friend the door and then promptly removed the cup from the painting. Later, when the friend saw the altered painting he asked why DaVinci would remove such an elegant part of the portrait. DaVinci responded: “Nothing must distract from the figure of Christ.’”

Paul’s goal in writing to the Colossians seems similar—that nothing would distract from Christ. May all of us who follow Jesus live to that great end: that Jesus would be the centerpiece of all that we do.

The Gift of Waiting: An Advent Reflection

Our refrigerator died again this week.  We saw the writing on the wall when it started making a clunking sound a couple of weeks ago.  Thankfully, up here in Vermont where it’s really cold in the Fall and Winter this is not a huge problem since we can just put our food out on our enclosed porch and it will stay cool.

Being that we are in a very rural area, probably the biggest pain of the whole ordeal is the waiting.  

You call the warranty people and you wait on the phone.  Then you wait to hear from the repair company to call and schedule an appointment.  The appointment is usually a week or two out and rarely do they fix it the first time.  By the end of the ordeal we are without a fridge sometimes more than four or five weeks.  

For my way-too-impatient self, this is simply unacceptable. 

Today’s western world does not do well with waiting. I do not do well with waiting.

In our era of modern conveniences–smartphones, refrigerators, microwaves, automobiles, email, Netflix and Amazon Prime–speed and efficiency reign.  

Checkout lines give us heartburn.  

Waiting is Good For Us

But God has built waiting into the very nature of things and our loving Father did this because waiting is good for us.

I see the gift of waiting in the coming of Spring in the northeastern United States.  In Vermont, it feels like Spring simply takes forever to arrive.  Some of my friends on Facebook post the number of days until Spring daily, starting in November.  The first time I observed this I was puzzled, but now that I’m in the middle of my sixth long Vermont winter, I understand fully.  Winter is long and cold and dark here.  It’s months on end of shoveling and salting, bundling up and trying not to slip on rock-hard ice every time you take a step.  It’s usually well into May before it finally completely lifts in northern New England.  I savor Spring as never before because I really have to wait for it here.

Waiting draws out the sweetness of things easily taken for granted. 

Gardening is a new hobby that my family has taken up since arriving in Vermont.  Months of back-breaking work and preparation result in a delicious celebration come harvest time.  Simply buying fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, while much easier, cuts out the joy and satisfaction of having raised your own delectables.  Waiting on harvest is work, but it’s a precious gift.

Another blessing of waiting is the time of preparation it affords us.  What if babies were born just moments after they were conceived?  That sounds strange to us but God could have accelerated the gestation period if He so desired.  But He chose to give us 40 weeks of time to prepare and to wait for the miracle of new life to be fully revealed.  

God’s People Have Always Had to Wait

The natural world is not the only place we see the gift of waiting time, when we come to the Bible we find that so many of God’s good blessings come on the heels of waiting. 

So frequent do we find blessing and waiting associated in Scripture, that it would be foolish to write it off as mere coincidence.  Think about Abraham and Sarah.  God’s promise to Abraham that his wife would bear a son and that he would be the father of many nations wasn’t fulfilled until Abraham was 100 years old and his wife was over 90 (see Gen. 21:5 and Gen. 17:17).  Or what of the people of God in Egypt?  They were slaves for centuries before God raised up a deliverer, and even once they were delivered God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land.  Finally, imagine the deafening silence that set in at the end of the book Malachi.  After an excruciating rollercoaster ride through the Old Testament, it’s 460 years before we finally hear the amazing words in Luke 3:2: “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  No prophet had spoken to the people for nearly five centuries when Jesus Christ finally arrives on the scene.  

Waiting was built into the blessings.  It gave the people time to prepare, time to grow in trust, and time for their hearts to be emptied of other things to make room for the coming gift.

God was not to be caricatured as a giant Santa-Claus bestowing gifts upon people the moment they asked for them or wanted them. If the people of God were to truly grasp some of the big-ness of what God was doing in their day, waiting was God’s way.  

Advent is About Waiting

Because Christians have always recognized the importance of waiting and preparation, they intentionally built periods of waiting into the Christian calendar. This is a way of making room for this important piece of life that the world is so eager to get rid of.  It slows us down, reorients us around God and gives us time to reflect, to prepare, to rest.

Advent is one of those seasons of waiting.  When we come to Advent we remember the promise that Christ has come and will come again, but we also remember that we are not ready to jump headlong into celebration. First, we must prepare.

In the words of Tish Warren, Advent reminds us:

We live in liminal time, in the already and the not yet.  Christ has come, and he will come again.  We dwell in the meantime.  We wait.

Tish Harrison Warren, The Liturgy of the Ordinary, 104.

We wait for God to fulfill His promise again.  In this liminal time, we ask God to enlarge our hearts and allow us to comprehend the tremendous gift that He has given us in Jesus.  Waiting is a gift.  Let us prepare.  Let us be ready for the sweetness that has come and that is coming again.

From Meaninglessness to Joy

I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes over the last few weeks. One of the common refrains heard throughout the book is “everything is meaningless!” Unlike the Psalmist who looks out at the world and sees beauty (see Psalm 104 for instance), the “Preacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9) in Ecclesiastes sees meaningless repetition and cycles.

In the first couple of chapters of this book of wisdom, the writer embarks on several “life projects” to see if he can find happiness “under the sun.” After each of these various projects he concludes: “[B]ehold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

But as we arrived at the end of chapter two, his tone begins to change. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God…” (verse 24).

What accounts for this sudden change?

It appears that the Preacher has now brought God into his frame of reference. Prior to this, his pursuit of joy and happiness were fundamentally secular–God was not a part of the equation. At the end of chapter 2, he looks back over his toil with God in the picture and can see meaning.

When Good Things Become Ultimate Things

But what about having God in view changes the experience?

It’s certainly not that God removes the problems or the challenges or the pain. That doesn’t happen. There are many false teachers out there who will tell you that if you give enough to the church then your crops will grow and your wife won’t miscarry. That’s a lie. God does not promise that life will be easy if you follow him. In fact Jesus says the exact opposite (see Matthew 7:14).

So what about having God in view here changes things and suddenly makes things more satisfying?

I want you to think about the best gift you have ever received. Think about something that someone gave to you that changed you. Maybe it was something small like a card or maybe it was something really big. What made that gift special for you?

I can share about a very special gift I just received: a Sabbatical of four months, to go away with my family and be together and rest. My church family and the Lilly Endowment made that possible. My family is so very thankful. Now why was the gift given to me? From the church’s perspective, maybe I had earned it or I just really needed it and they didn’t want to see my burn out. Bottom line: they loved me. It was a gift given in love.

But what about from God’s perspective? Why did God give me that gift?

Of course, I don’t know all the reasons, only God knows that. But what I do know is that everything, absolutely everything, that I receive in this life as a follower of Jesus is a gift of grace. All of it. I receive nothing, not even pain or hardship (see John 15:2; James 1:2-4), that is not a gift from the throne of God. Death even! Romans 8:28: “for God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” So the Sabbatical was a gift of grace that was given to me because God loves me.

Now here is where it gets tricky and we all must be very careful on this point. My meaning and my worth do not come from the Sabbatical. The Sabbatical ended. It’s over. I’m now back doing ministry again, dealing with all the challenges that ministers face. Yes, there was joy in the break but it’s now behind us. If I was looking for meaning and joy in that time away, then what am I to do now that it is over?

Perhaps I could continue to try and milk the Sabbatical for meaning and joy by doing something like this: I could say to myself, “Hmm, I got a Sabbatical and so-and-so over there didn’t. I must be better than him.” Like the kid at school who thinks he’s the cat’s meow because he’s got the new Lebron James tennis shoes. Whenever I was feeling down about things I could look back and try to make myself feel better in this way.

What have I just done? I’m using the Sabbatical to find some kind of feeling of significance or importance. Not only is it dangerous to make such comparisons, but even more problematic is that I’m trying to make something small and temporary do something that it could never do, namely, give me meaning and significance; I’m making a good thing an ultimate thing, and that is sin.

All of us long for meaning. We want to matter and to know that somehow, in the grand scheme, we want to know that each of is important in some way. Just like the Preacher in the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, we spend our lives looking for that meaning “under the sun” in ways like I just described above. However, it can’t be found apart from God.

With God, Life Becomes a Gift to be Enjoyed

God changes everything. With God, a “random” event is transformed into a gift from a loving Creator.

How could my family’s four month Sabbatical be viewed as a gift from a purely “under the sun” viewpoint? Who exactly did it come from? If God is not in the equation, the world must be viewed as arbitrary, meaningless, mindless, random, and without direction.

But with God in view, everything changes. I can now speak of things coming “from the hand of God” (2:24) and enjoying life because “Who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him” (2:25). Because God is now in view, our break became a loving reminder to me and my family that God knows what we need and cares for us.

Viewed this way, the meaning was not located in the Sabbatical itself, it was located in the fact that God was the one who gave it to me. The meaning was derived from the Giver–God. It was a reflection of His care and concern for my family and my life. And as a result, I was able to truly enjoy it. Every time I sat down beside a pool or had a catch in the yard with my son, those moments had joy because God gave them to me during my break. I didn’t earn them because I did everything right or because I am somehow better than someone else. God gave this gift to me simply in love. And he doesn’t expect me to pay Him back–how could I? I simply offer Him my thanks and praise.

And I would wager that the best gifts you have ever received were significant and enjoyable not so much for what they were but because of the person who gave them to you.

That’s how God changes everything.

Learning to Ask for Help: A Word to Graduates

This message was originally given by Pastor Josh Moore at the recent White River Valley High School Baccalaureate service in South Royalton, VT.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’s novella “A Christmas Carol.”  It’s a story, published just before Christmas way back in 1843.  It’s about a man named Ebenezer Scrooge, who is an ornery, selfish, and mean old man that is visited by several ghosts.  After visits from his former business partner Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, he becomes a much more generous, kinder person.

But because of that story, whenever you hear the word or name “Ebenezer” I’m sure you think of someone who is mean or unkind or of someone who lacks generosity and is very stingy.

But do you know the real origin of the word “Ebenezer”?

The origin is Hebrew.  

I don’t know if you know this or not, but the first 2/3’s of the Bible was originally written in Hebrew.  Jews refer to these books as Torah, Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim.  Which means the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

In the Nevi’im, we find a book by the title of 1 Samuel.  And it is there that we discover where this name Ebenezer comes from.

When you go to 1 Samuel chapter 7 what you find is a story of people in worship.  The people have done wrong and they are returning to God with all of their hearts.  They are turning from their wicked ways and asking God for His forgiveness.  They destroy all of their idols and their false gods, and one of their leaders, named Samuel, is leading them in worship and suddenly, their enemies attack.  Seemingly out of nowhere, they are being besieged.  Some men quickly assembled themselves to do battle and the text says that the Lord thundered loudly and sent their enemies into a confusion, so that they could not fight.  In the end, Israel was delivered from their enemies because of God’s help.

But to commemorate the victory that God gave them, the book says, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

In the Hebrew, the name Ebenezer means, “stone of help.”  The idea was that this stone would be a stone of remembrance; whenever an Israelite looked at it they would have a tangible reminder of God’s deliverance.

This is why if you go to Merriam-Webster.com and look up Ebenezer you will find this definition: “A commemoration of divine assistance” and a quote by Robert Robinson from a hymn he penned in the mid-1700s titled Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.  

He writes in one stanza:

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

-Robert Robinson’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

Arrived by the Help of God

You’ve arrived at this milestone in your life and you did not arrive here on your own.  I encourage you to set up an Ebenezer if you will in your mind and thank God and thank those around you for their help.

But the journey is not over, is it?  In a way it’s just beginning.  This is the first chapter, in the rest of your life.  No doubt many of you will be heading in very different directions following your graduation.  

What I want to say to some of you as one who finished high school in Charlotte, NC, in the top 4% of a class of over 700 students.  As one who graduated college with honors and went on to finish a master’s degree.  As one who was a successful student athlete in middle school, high school, and college.  I want to say to you: feel the moment, enjoy the moment, but do not forget to recognize your need for help.  

When I finished college I was on top of life.  Things were good.  I had a good job.  Lots of friends.  Nice car.  At the time I was dating a beautiful girl who was playing college level soccer.  I felt like I had arrived.  But just around the corner, challenges were waiting for me that were out of my league to handle.  And I needed to learn to say “help.”

I looked to friends and I looked to counselors.  I looked to family.  But in the end, I looked to God.  And it was God that ultimately came to my help.

A day will come and may have already come for you when you will know your need for help.  Many don’t know what to do when that day arrives so they make very poor choices.  Instead of asking for help, they take their own lives; they look to drugs and alcohol; they look to sex and parties and good times and when the smoke clears the find themselves emptier than when they started.

Do you know the three leading causes of death for people in your age bracket right now: unintentional injury (which would include like drug overdose), homicide, and then suicide.  (See: https://cchealth.org/health-data/hospital-council/2010/pdf/11_lcd_by_age.pdf)

These causes of death are tragic–they are the result of despair, addiction or poor choices.  

Don’t be a statistic. When you are empty and struggling–ask for help.

As a man who found help in Jesus Christ, I want to commend Him to you as the One who is able to rescue you whatever struggle you find yourself in. In my darkest hour I looked to Jesus when there was no one else, and He came to my rescue. 

In the Wilderness

One of the ways that He did that for me was by sending me on a trip to the birthplace of Jesus, a little town called Bethlehem, in 2006.  Bethlehem is in a country named Israel, which is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Lebanon and Syria in the north, Jordan to the East, some Palestinian territories, and Egypt to the south. 

In 2006 I went on this trip not knowing what to expect really.  It was an amazing experience.  I brought home a few things, but the one thing I treasure most is this little rock.  [Holds up a white and brown rock about 3″ in length.] This rock came from the wilderness of Israel where it is believed that Jesus spent a great deal of time.  We may find that bizarre today with our highly distracted, entertainment focused life.  

Back then people who wanted to seek God would often remove themselves from all the business of life and go out into the wilderness to be alone.  Where they could hear and think away from all of the distractions.  But the wilderness was a hard place.  Often wilderness pilgrims would fast for many days on end while in the wilderness.  

We know that Jesus did this too.  

Some of you may not know who Jesus is.  There are a lot of different narratives about Jesus.  Suffice it to say, that Jesus is the central figure in Christian faith.  He was a miracle worker and a powerful teacher.  Christians, like me, believe him to be more than just a mere man.  We believe that he was God in the flesh.  We also believe Jesus’ death to be more than just a death.  We believe it was the means of our salvation.  That God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus, his only Son, to die on the cross, so that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

The life of Jesus of Nazareth was not an easy life.  Jesus knew pain.  Jesus was born to a teenaged mother.  Most everyone in the community thought her baby to be illegitimate so she was shunned by many, because the culture at the time was profoundly religious and moral.  Jesus grew up under the shadow of this assumption.  He knew what it was to be alone.  He knew what it was to be rejected and to struggle.  Yet I believe that in the end, Jesus overcame those struggles by His perfect faithfulness and dependence upon God.

So when that very hard time in my life came I needed to know that someone understood.  Not just another human.  But I needed to know that someone higher and bigger and stronger was there for me.

When I look at this rock I remember that Jesus was in the wilderness.  That he understands the many challenges and pains of this life.  This has become for me a “rock of help.”  An Ebenezer.  Not because there’s anything special about the rock itself, but because it reminds me of one who is able to help me, namely God.

So you’ve received many good and helpful thoughts from a number of people this afternoon.  Now I want to encourage you to look to God.  This season is a season of rejoicing and celebration, as it should be.  But for many of you, a day will come when you will feel inadequate.  When you will feel needy.  And that’s okay, because truth be told, we are all needy and inadequate (in ourselves).

Look to God, look to Jesus, and He will help you.  And when he does, you will have your own Ebenezer, your own “rock of help” to tell others about.

Again, congratulations on what you’ve accomplished.  I truly wish you the best in the future. 

A Lesson from the Vine Metaphor

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Why does Jesus liken us to branches on a vine (John 15:1-8)?

It’s not merely because the vine gives life to the branches–He could have used almost any plant to say that. Why does he use a vine?

One reason could simply be that vines were common in Israel so he used a plant that everyone in that time and place would have been familiar with. If he were in Vermont, where I currently live, some might say that he would have used the Sugar Maple.

But I think the reference to vines here is more than a simple teaching device to build common ground with his audience. Scholars say that vines are among the most high-maintenance crops in all of agriculture. They need constant pruning and attention if the clusters of grapes are to grow to full maturity.

Could it be that Jesus used this metaphor because our relationship with God is the same? Without constant care, maintenance, pruning, and watering, our spiritual life will wither up and die. In short, Jesus uses this metaphor because he knows how needy we are. As he says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

We are needy branches, but Christ is THE life-giving, all-sufficient vine.

Being a branch that bears fruit begins by recognizing just how needy we are and just how ready Christ is to meet every need. Run to Him today, confess your neediness and look to Him to provide.