Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Turning Sinners Back

James 5:19-20 (NKJV)19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Today we close our series of exhortations from the book of James. And it is fitting that the book closes with a promise that James himself kept in mind as he wrote his epistle. He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

James wrote his epistle to encourage his audience to love, serve, and obey the Lord with fullness of joy and diligence. He wrote to those who were tempted to compromise; tempted to soften the demands of the Lord and Savior Jesus. He wrote to call them back to their senses – call them back to righteousness and holiness. Why? So that he might turn their souls from death and cover a multitude of sins.

The way of sin, in other words, is the way of death. When we walk down the path of transgression, we are walking the path of death. Satan lured our mother Eve to sin by promising the knowledge of good and evil – if you eat of the fruit then you will have a true and full life.

But Satan was a liar from the beginning. What he really held out before Eve was not life but death, not liberty but slavery, not knowledge but ignorance. And when Eve ate of the fruit, she plunged headlong into destruction. And when Adam joined her, the fate of mankind was sealed. We became corrupt, demented, distorted, full of wickedness and deceit, the living dead.

But Jesus came to give us life, to free us from the ghoulish state of unbelief. He came to breathes into us the breath of life so that once again we might become real men, freed from the curse of unbelief. But what are we tempted to do? We are tempted to forget; tempted to wander away from the one who has loved us and given himself for us; tempted to embrace once again the culture of death. And so James reminds us – he who rescues an erring brother, rescues him from death.

And so this morning, let us be reminded to pray for all those who have turned from the truth and who are walking in the paths of death. In particular, let us pray for --------. And let us also pray that God would forgive us for so often believing the lies of the evil one and embracing the culture of death. Let us kneel together.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fervent Prayer

James 5:16-18 (NKJV)16 …The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

We evangelicals are not, for whatever reason, particularly passionate about prayer. Those of us in the Reformed portion of evangelicalism are especially dispassionate. Hold a feast – folks will come; hold a bible study – still folks will come; hold a prayer meeting – get ready to pull teeth. Why is this?

Perhaps it is because we do not think prayer very significant. Perhaps we reason that since God has ordained all things whatsoever come to pass that our prayers are not important. Perhaps we have failed to consider the promises of God.

Whatever the cause, James draws us up short with his exhortation and promise today. He has already urged us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed. He follows that exhortation up with the promise that the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man accomplishes much.

As proof of his assertion, James cites the life of Elijah. No doubt you have heard of Elijah. One of the greatest of the Old Testament saints, Elijah stands as the forerunner of the various other prophets. He is the prototype of the prophet. And God used Him marvelously. Healings attended his ministry; fire from heaven; visions of God; miraculous provision; raising from the dead. Elijah was a very unusual man.

But in our text today, it is not the unusualness of Elijah that James wishes to highlight but rather his usualness. Elijah, James reminds us, was a man with a nature like ours. He was a sinner; he was subject to discouragement; he was fearful at times; in himself, he was incapable of doing great things. Elijah was a very human figure, James wants us to remember.

So how then was Elijah able to accomplish so much? How did he manage to achieve victory over the followers of Baal? How did he manage to avert capture by Jezebel? How did he cause a drought in Israel? Elijah served the living God and prayed fervently that God would vindicate His Name through Elijah’s ministry. And this is what James wants us to understand - the same God who was active in Elijah’s day is active in our day also. God reigns, let Israel rejoice; the Lord reigns, let the Church praise His Name.

Precisely because the same God that Elijah served lives and works in the world today, James’ exhortation has force. Brothers, pray for one another. Pray that God would bless and strengthen; pray that God would open doors and solve problems; pray that God would heal sickness; pray that God would bring repentance; pray that God would restore joy. Pray.

Why? Because the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man accomplishes much. Elijah controlled the weather for three years. And he had a nature just like ours. So just imagine what you could do?

So let us pray that God would forgive us for our unbelief and grant us fervency in our prayers. Let us kneel together.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Just finished reading Is Christianity Good for the World?, a stimulating dialogue between Doug Wilson and Chrisopher Hitchens. Both men do a fine job representing their positions. Doug in particular does a great job keeping to the main point and gradually expanding his discussion to point to the centrality of Christ for the world. His insistence on the inability of atheism to answer the most fundamental questions about life, ethics, reason, etc. was superb. He keeps coming back to this central dilemma of atheism again and again while Hitchens continues to beg the question again and again. By what means can we objectively classify one action as wrong and another as right unless we have a transcendent source of values that exists outside of space and time? Without such a standard we are doomed to folly - the very thing Paul tells us in Ephesians, "being darkened in understanding and in the futility of our mind." Hitchens lashes out at Wilson a couple times for classifying atheists as "fools" and urges the reader to pooh-pooh such name-calling as unprofessional and perhaps unethical. Nevertheless, in his last rejoinder he resorts to he same type of name-calling and illustrates that the creation of such categories is inescapable. The question is simply who has the grounds on which to categorize accurately. Scripture maintains that God has such grounds and provides those who follow His wisdom with the ability to do the same. On the whole, the book was a delightful read.

Questioning Evangelism

Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman was a profitable and engaging read. The title itself is stimulating and sufficiently ambiguous - forcing the onlooker to begin asking questions - what does he mean "Questioning" evangelism? The first section of the book, in particular, was stimulating. His discussion of the value of asking questions in the task of evangelism was eye opening and encouraging - both as a means of defusing anger and infusing knowledge. He has a number of concrete examples from his own experience as a campus minister that serve to highlight how it works. His questioning methodology is an important step toward making our evangelism more personal. The tendency to run over folks in the midst of trying to communicate our pre-packaged digest of the Gospel is disturbing at least and destructive at worst. Neuman’s insistence on the necessity of a personal encounter, listening to the other person and responding to their specific concerns was very rich. The second section of the book in which Neuman responds to a number of specific challenges is helpful but spotty. Some conversations, suggestions are far more helpful than others. The conversational format is helpful. Supplementing his material with Doug Wilson’s Persuasions fills up some holes and directs the conversations to the power of presuppositions in our reasoning process. Overall very worth reading.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Political Conspiracies

Isaiah 8:12-14 (NKJV)12 “Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ Concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, Nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. 13 The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, And let Him be your dread. 14 He will be as a sanctuary, But a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense To both the houses of Israel, As a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Isaiah lived at a very tumultuous time in Judah’s history, in many respects a frightening time in Judah’s history. For about two hundred years the separate kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north had squared off against one another in an ancient cold war. Occasionally the ice would break and outright fighting would take place; but even when outright fighting wasn’t occurring, tensions were high.

In Isaiah’s day, the ice had broken and the northern kingdom of Israel was preparing to invade and conquer her smaller sister of Judah. Israel joined forces with the land of Syria and together they planned to conquer Judah and place a puppet king upon the throne in Jerusalem.

Many in Judah were understandably afraid. How could Judah possibly withstand the combined might of Israel and Syria? Destruction seemed inevitable. The conspiracy among the kings of Israel and Syria would certainly undo them.

And so the great temptation among the people of Judah was to look around for a Savior. Who will deliver us from our dire circumstances? Shall we call upon Egypt? Shall we call upon Assyria? Perhaps, some suggested, we should seek counsel on the course to take from the dead – we should consult the mediums and spiritists.

In the midst of this situation, this angst, God spoke His word through the prophet Isaiah. “Do not regard as a conspiracy everything that these people regard as a conspiracy.” You see the people of Judah were tempted to look about them and conclude that the attack upon them by Israel and Syria was a result of a conspiracy between Israel and Syria. Well, wasn’t it? Yes and no. Certainly it was in the sense that Israel and Syria had joined forces to overthrow Judah.

However, in our text today, Isaiah reminds his hearers that in another sense the answer was no – there was no conspiracy. How’s that? Because God Himself had planned and orchestrated this event for this very time in Judah's history. Israel and Syria weren’t the real players on the scene – God was. And God calls His people in the midst of political turmoil to look to Him as their Savior. Do not look to Egypt; don’t look to Assyria; look to me and be saved all you ends of the earth. The Lord Him shall you fear and of Him shall you be in dread. He is the one who has orchestrated this to instruct and chastise to the end that all the ends of the earth might know that there is a God in Judah who rules and reigns over the sons of men.

Events this week have been the cause of much consternation and hand wringing among many Christians. Barack Obama has been elected as the 44th President of the United States of America and the Democratic Party has achieved majority control of the legislative branch of government. If you are disturbed by this turn of events then the message from Isaiah is very relevant – “Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ in relation to all this people says, ‘A conspiracy.’” The Lord of Hosts – Him you shall fear, Him you shall dread. This turn of events is first and foremost from the hand of God and is a call upon us as the people of God to seek His face and ask Him to show mercy to our nation and to teach us to fear Him.

Reminded that we so often in the midst of political changes look to the proximate causes rather than the ultimate cause – namely, the hand of God – let us kneel and confess that we miss the point of these events and fail to grow in our fear of the Lord.

Confessing to One Another

James 5:16 (NKJV)16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

Last week we learned that sickness is always a result of sin. As a result of our rebellion against God in the garden all evil things, including sin, sickness, and death, entered into human experience. As a result, when we are ill we are to look to God for healing, seeking his blessing and forgiveness through the voice of the Church.

Today James continues that exhortation and broadens it. He urges us, as the people of God, to confess our trespasses one to another. Why is this? Here’s the reason. Sins against our brothers and sisters are the most destructive to our personal health. While we can sometimes cover over our private sins for an extended period of time, living hypocritically, cherishing idols, etc. But when we sin against Sally, the consequences of my sin are right in front of me.

So I yell at my children – and what happens? I have to live not only with my own guilty conscience, I have to live with the estrangement that my yelling has created between me and my children. Sin destroys relationships. First and foremost it destroys our relationship with God. But sin also destroys our relationships with one another. And when relationships are destroyed, our health suffers as a result.

But notice that James holds out a great promise. Our ill health need not remain a fact of our existence. We can be healed. We can be made well. What is the cure? The cure is honest confession to one another and intercession for one another.

When you sin, go to the person against whom you sinned and ask their forgiveness. Reconcile the relationship. Do not permit the broken relationship to break your health as well. In Christ the broken relationship can be restored; and because the broken relationship is restored, our health need not suffer as a result.

But not only should we be confessing our sins to one another – we should be praying for those who have sinned against us. When our brother or sister comes and confesses a sin which they have committed against us, James exhorts us to pray for them. Pray for them that God would not only restore the relationship but preserve the health of our brother or sister. And the promise is that the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man accomplishes much.

Reminded of our calling to confess our sins to one another, to deal with sin as it occurs rather than sitting on it and letting it destroy our health, let us confess our sins to the Lord and restore our relationship with Him.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Praying and Singing the Psalms

James 5:13 (NKJV)13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.

What are we to do when facing the ups and downs of life? When we are suffering and weighed down, heavy of spirit – what are we to do? On the other hand, when cheerful, full of joy and wonder at the world in which we live – what are we to do? Today James tells us. “Is anyone among you suffering – feeling poorly, enduring trouble? Let him (an imperative, a command – this isn’t simply good advice) Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him (again, an imperative, a command), Let him sing psalms.”

James tells us straight that when we are suffering we are to pray. We are to take our troubles straight to the Lord. Lord, I don’t understand; God help me; Father, lift me up; My God, my god, why have you forsaken me, why are you so far from my groaning? When we are suffering it is not simply a good idea to take our pain to the throne of God, we are commanded to do so. Cry out to God; He wants to hear; He wants to be the one to whom you direct your cries.

Balancing this imperative comes James’ imperative for times of joy. When we are cheerful, we are to sing psalms. Why? Because singing enables us to funnel the joy that we are experiencing in the right direction – in praise and thankfulness to our Creator and Redeemer. When we are joyful there is only one proper response in James’ mind. What is it? Praise and thanksgiving.

Note then that the role of the psalms, in James’ mind, is first and foremost an expression of wildly exuberant joy and gladness. When joyful, James tells us, that which should first come out is the psalms. But as you think about the psalms, you will perhaps remember that some of the psalms are expressions of grief and longing for God’s presence – how do they fit with this theme of thanksgiving? It is here that we are directed back to James’ command to pray when burdened. James’ exhortation to pray also directs us to the psalms – for the psalms embody for us what despairing cries to God look like.

Notice then the priority that James places upon the psalter for the life of the people of God. What are we to do when suffering? We are to pray. And where do we find examples, patterns of prayers offered up in the midst of suffering? In the psalter. What are we to do when joyful? We are to sing psalms. And where do we find these psalms to sing? In the psalter.

So here’s the question for us – do we know our psalter well enough to fulfill James’ exhortation? How well do you know your psalms? Do the psalms, when you are burdened and weighed down, come to your mind and fill your soul with cries to God? Do the psalms, when you are cheerful and lifted up, come to your mind and fill your home with praise and thanksgiving?

I dare say that if you are like me there is some lack in this regard. Not many of us grew up singing the psalter. This is a new experience for us. Many of the psalms may be strange and foreign to us. Some of the tunes that we have in our English psalters are hard to learn. Some of the words of the psalms are difficult to understand and believe. But is the problem with the psalter? Hardly. It is with us. We need to grow in our ability to sing and to understand the psalms. And so, one of the things we are committed to do as a congregation is to become more excellent in our ability to sing the psalms and more knowledgeable of their content. And one of the things that we do every month to enable us to fulfill this duty is hold a psalm sing. The psalm sing is specifically geared to help us fulfill the exhortations given to us by James – is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.

Reminded that in our suffering and in our joy God expects us to cry out to Him with the psalms and to praise Him with the psalms, let us kneel and confess that we have neglected to do so.

The Lord will Raise Him Up

James 5:14-15 (NKJV)14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

When we are sick, to whom do we look for deliverance? Particularly today, in our technologically and medically advanced society, to whom do we direct our eyes? Certainly, we must confess, we direct our eyes primarily to pharmaceutical companies and doctors.

But today James directs our attention elsewhere. He commands us to look first and foremost to the Lord rather than to physicians for our deliverance. This, of course, does not mean that it is wrong to consult physicians – James’ imperative does not exclude other imperatives alongside it. But James tells us first and foremost to seek the blessing of God in our illness.

Why is this? Two reasons. First, God is our Healer and Savior. When anyone recovers from illness, it is fittingly and appropriately ascribed to the hand of God. Physicians themselves will very often be the first to acknowledge this. The healing of illnesses is a great mystery accompanied by all kinds of unexpected complications. Frequently, treatment plans don’t do what they are supposed to do. And this is our reminder that healing comes ultimately from the hands of God – whether we are healed from a minor cold or a severe case of cancer.

But there is another reason James urges us to direct our attention to God in our sickness – sickness is always a consequence of sin. Sickness is a consequence of mankind’s original rebellion against God in the garden. As a result of our rebellion, all evil things – sin, sickness, death – entered into man’s experience. But sin is also sometimes a consequence of personal sin. If we are engaged in sin and refuse to confess it, the Lord will – in His mercy – visit us with sickness to bring us up short and call us to repentance. Paul writes to the Corinthians that because of their scandalous conduct at the Lord’s Table, many among them were sick and suffering.

The second reason, therefore, to seek the face of God when we are sick is to keep short accounts with him. If we have committed any sins, James assures us, and we confess them, then our sins shall be forgiven.

Thus far our application of James’ words is fairly commonly accepted among God’s people. But note the central exhortation in James’ epistle that we find hard to grasp. James urges us to seek the face of God in our sickness by calling upon the elders of the Church. The elders, James implies, function as the representatives of God Himself. And in a service of healing, the elders proclaim to the sick person the blessing of God and the forgiveness of their sin.

Note this – they are to anoint the sick person with oil. Oil is very frequently a sign of blessing and favor. The elders in a service of healing proclaim to the sick person – as we put this oil on you, it’s not just us blessing you, God Himself is blessing you. And not only do the elders speak with the voice of God in blessing, they also speak with the voice of God in forgiveness – having confessed your sins, you are forgiven.

What does this mean practically? First, in every illness large or small, alongside seeking medical assistance, look to God – look to him as your Healer and Savior. Second, as the case warrants – I wouldn’t necessarily counsel in every illness, but certainly in serious cases – call upon the elders of the congregation to come and assure you of the blessing and forgiveness of God.

Reminded of the gravity of our sin and the way in which our sin has practical consequences in the world – causing sickness and death – let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.