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In 1 Kings 4, verses 29 and 33, the Bible says “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls.” Now I understand Solomon talking about the cedar trees – tall, majestic, awe-inspiring. But a plant that grows where nobody plants it? That’s a weed. Why would the wisest man in the world talk about weeds?

I’m guessing it’s because he heard his daddy talking about it. King David said in Psalms 51:7 “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”  Solomon wasn’t perfect, but he was a good learner.

But where did David hear about hyssop? From Moses. Exodus 12:21-23 “Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.”

That shedding of blood, saving the Israelites from their oppressors, was a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do on the cross, when He paid the penalty for our sins and saved us from Hell and eternal death. Let’s pray.

Father God, I am sorry that I sinned and caused the need for Jesus to die on the cross.  And because He gave His body and blood, which we celebrate now with the wafer and the juice, all of us can be welcomed in Your arms, and call You our daddy. None of us here on earth are perfect – Jesus was and is, but we are not. Thank You for offering to pay our way back into Your family through the sacrifice of Jesus.  In His name I pray, amen.

Here at Connections, we measure everything we do against the Bible. From how our leadership is organized to the way we allocate our money, from the songs that we sing to our VBS celebrations, everything is checked against the Bible. That doesn’t mean that we are restricted to only what is in there. Romans doesn’t mention inflatable bouncy houses, and James doesn’t include snow cones. But those things are tied to evangelism, and a snow cone isn’t too far from a cup of cold water.

The songs we sing are biblical, too, whether they include scripture or only include scriptural ideas. The hymn I’m going to read to you, “When I survey the wondrous cross”, was one of the first ones to have a biblical outlook without using only Bible verses. It doesn’t directly use Bible verses, but it is undeniably biblical. And it is true.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Let’s pray. Father God, we are remembering the sacrifice of Your only begotten Son Jesus. We are commemorating His death on the cross, paying the penalty for our sins. His perfect and sinless blood – as the song says, “Sorrow and love flow mingled down” – does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. As we take the wafer and the juice, representing Jesus’ body and blood, help us to remember, constantly and continually. In the name of Jesus I pray, amen.

 

Offering meditation

That song has another verse, one that is still biblical without using Bible verses. And it is appropriate for the time when we collect the offering. The thing is, though, that it isn’t just about dropping money into a plate. It’s about a mindset, about how you live and how you see the world. The offering plate is a part of it, but it goes so much farther.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Again, there isn’t a Bible verse in there, but that is so biblical in its ideas and implications that there is support for it throughout the whole Bible.

Let’s pray. Lord God, we don’t own the world. You have made us stewards, caretakers, of some little part of it. And no matter how fat our wallet is, how many entries in our bank account, it isn’t our money that You want – it’s us, wholly and completely. And when we have given ourselves to You, what we put in the plate is a reflection of that amazing love Jesus has for us. Bless this offering, I pray, the envelopes, the givers, and the donation of lives to You.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

I was thinking to myself that it’s been too long since we had a communion meditation about architecture. This is going to change that.

Churches now can look like anything and be anywhere. Going way back in time, churches in the middle ages were cathedrals, lofty and soaring, inspiring people to look up to God in Heaven. Our church has some of that – the peak arching up to the skies – and that is good.

Let’s look at some practical architecture. Behind me is a brick wall. When it was built, a few decades ago, the wall was bare brick. We added the light-colored structure a few years ago, while adding a baptistry. It’s functional, holding the monitors and helping us focus on the baptistry, which was used just last week.

But it isn’t just functional, it’s reminiscent – it looks like something else. To me, it has the appearance of the altar of sacrifice from the Old Testament. Leviticus chapter 16 talks about how the high priest would enter the holy of holies one day a year, first sacrificing a sin offering for himself and then sacrificing for all the people. I don’t know that it was intentional for this bulkhead to look like an altar, and I’m always open to correction.

The other thing that this new piece of architecture did, is to move our song lyrics from the center projector screen out to the side monitors. That *was* intentional, in order to make sure that the cross was always visible.

The use of the sacrificial altar from the Old Testament did cleanse from sins, but it wasn’t permanent. It had to be repeated every year. The sacrifice offered on the cross, Jesus’s sinless sacrifice, is permanent. Hebrews 10:14 says “by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy”. That’s us. That sacrifice was and is offered to all, freely given, paid for with His body and blood. That is what we celebrate now in taking communion. Let’s pray.

Father God, from before the start of time, Your perfect plan was for Your perfect, sinless Son Jesus to die on a cross for imperfect us, imperfect me. Help us to remember, always. In Jesus’ name, amen.

I was going to call this one “It’s not fair” – except that it is.

The next working title was “It’s not right” – except that God is sovereign and good.

A friend of mine died Monday. Karen Tracy was about my age. I met her at Hands Against Hunger, and never saw her outside of that context, but we were friends.

She was in good health. She had volunteered at HAH on Thanksgiving morning, and helped decorate Christmas trees at her church on Sunday.

Monday morning, her brother found her body sitting in a chair in her apartment. No idea why she died, and it doesn’t matter.

I’m not arguing that God didn’t have the right to do anything He wanted with this part of His creation. He’s God. He owns everything, and He gets to do that. Six years ago, I died – no heartbeat, no respiration, no consciousness – and God brought me back to life. I appreciate it daily, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. All God.

It’s the case here, too. Karen is in Heaven. I don’t know if people in Heaven know about earth. I would imagine that all of our focus is going to be on worshipping God.

Holy, holy, holy

Is the Lord almighty

Who was, and is, and is to come

Second verse, same as the first. For eternity.

Intellectually, I get it, and I agree. Emotionally, I’m still struggling.

Job 13:15 says

Even though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him

Karen said that, in person, on Monday, and she believed it the day before. And it’s true.

So why do I feel bad? I’m mourning her loss, yes. She had a great attitude, a ready laugh, and a smile all the time. I’ll miss her presence.

I may be mourning my own impending death. “It is appointed unto man once to die” – that day is coming. No idea when, but both of my parents are still living, so possibly later rather than sooner.

And I think I’m mourning the loss of innocence that we had in the garden of Eden. No death there. Unsure if Adam and Eve would have had children, but if we were still there, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Bottom line is that there is no bottom line. Not in a nihilistic way, but we aren’t promised all the answers here on earth. And I suspect that we won’t care in Heaven.

And God is good.

I had the opportunity last night to lead our small group Bible study.  We’re going through Philippians a few verses at a time.  Here is what I presented.

Philippians 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.


12 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. The Message: I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered.

This is not news about his imprisonment.  They have heard about that.  This is news about the impact of Paul being locked up.  And it’s good news!

These are his friends.  This letter is to the Philippians, the people who lived and worshiped in Philippi.  We know for sure that it includes Lydia, the seller of purple.  Acts 16:13-15 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

Boom – church planted.  That’s who he was writing to – Lydia and the people who were worshiping with her.  But there might have been two churches – not because of a split, but because Philippi was also where Paul and Silas were imprisoned, singing songs at midnight, when the earthquake came and opened the doors and loosened the chains. The jailer, who had been on the brink of suicide because he thought his prisoners had escaped, was baptized that night, and took Paul and Silas for a home-cooked meal.  That may have been Boom number two – another church.  We aren’t told in the Bible whether the jailer and Lydia worshiped together, or whether there were two house churches.  They both knew Paul, though, and both were concerned about him being in prison.

Sometimes I look at the Bible as if it was me in that situation.  If I was imprisoned, if I was in literal chains, I can see myself saying something like “Oh, no, don’t worry about me – I have the comfortable handcuffs on”.  And I would continue to gripe about the food, the cold, the lack of a good bed, and why aren’t you people doing something about this??  But not Paul – he has the right perspective.  He tells them the good news.  He is in chains – yes – but what he writes is not about himself.  When he says “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel”, he means it.  I read in a commentary that Paul was single-minded.  There’s a story about a mule that was put in-between two bales of hay, just out of reach from where he was standing.  And he starved to death because he couldn’t decide which he wanted.  Paul was not that way.  He puts himself in the proper place, which is being a tool of God.  I want to tell myself that the selfishness I see in me is just a symptom of the age – we invented the word “selfie”.  But it was the same way back then – Paul and Silas had been in prison for throwing a demon out of a slave girl, and her owners being rather unhappy about losing their source of income.  It’s been “all about me” for a while.

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Paul believed that – and he also wrote it.


13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.

Paul is not a political prisoner.  He isn’t a thief, a murderer, or a tax cheat.  He didn’t wake up one day and say “I dunno, Silas, what do you think of trying out prison today?” He is in prison because he is following God wherever it takes him.

And it has taken him to the palace guard – the Praetorium.  This would have been in Rome, and commentaries say there were anywhere from a few thousand up to ten thousand men in this group.  One of them was chained to Paul at all times. At the time of the writing of this letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul had been locked up for two years.  I’m making some assumptions, but if they worked in 8-hour shifts, that’s three per day.  Two years is somewhere north of seven hundred days.  If everybody did only one shift with Paul, he would have personally talked to over two thousand of the guards.  At the top end estimate of ten thousand, that’s one out of every five of the guards there.

The guards were probably bunked in some dormitory – they wouldn’t have had private rooms.  So in each room, there would have been some number of guards who had spent some quantity time with Paul – and they would have talked.  Other guards would have heard the conversations – and like it says in Galatians 5:9  “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” That’s Paul again, maybe thinking of this situation.

And as guards were transferred in and out of the Praetorium, the word of his imprisonment for Christ would have spread to “everyone else”, whether that meant all of Rome or all the soldiers.

Being “in chains for Christ” isn’t the same as people who crucify themselves at Easter time.  Paul is not trying to make a point, not using this as an object lesson.  He is tied up, a literal prisoner.  But he is using the circumstances that God put him in to preach the gospel.  He was in chains, but in the soldiers he had a captive audience.


14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Paul is a role model.  Not because of his chains (although I’m sure other Christians faced the same and worse), but because of how he dealt with the situation. He showed what was possible.  Circumstances do not force outcomes.  I think of a little girl in our church and her leg braces.  She’s cheerful – yes, a good mom who loves her and takes great care of her, but also a great God who loves her and takes care of her.  Paul was similar, in that the chains he was in didn’t determine his attitude or outcome.  I think he saw them as a tool, and didn’t let them hold him back.  As others saw and heard of what Paul was accomplishing, they were encouraged.

Notice the root words: “encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously”.  Courage, courage.  Paul knew his Old Testament, and knew by heart the story of Joshua taking over from Moses, how the Lord told him to “be strong and courageous”.  Later, Joshua told the same thing to all the men of Israel.  Then King David told his son Solomon the same thing.  Now, Paul is living it out and people are seeing him, and hearing the words.

“Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” I find the word “most” to be interesting.  Instead of “all”.  To me, that implies that there were some who were not encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.  That reminds me of the parable of the sower, where for different reasons some of the growing, living seed didn’t survive.

Paul wasn’t boasting, wasn’t saying that he was so good that he could handle the chains with no problems.  What was he saying?  How does that apply to us today?  Is it easy to do?  Is it even possible?

  • Circumstances don’t matter. Christ matters.
  • Phil 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Ephesians 6:19-20 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

And so we should pray for one another.  Who has praises or prayer requests?

Lazarus died. It was over for him. He was dead, in the ground, buried.  He was in the tomb for days, starting to decompose. It’s strange, but I like how the King James records his own sister talking about him: “He stinketh”. Then Jesus arrived, and raised Lazarus from the dead. A miracle.

Let’s think about Lazarus for a moment.  He knew he was going to die, he knew that he had died, and he knew that he was alive again. How do you think he felt?  Let’s take this one step farther: Lazarus isn’t still alive, so at some time later, whether days or months or years, Lazarus died again.  And I imagine that he was a lot calmer the second time he died. He had experience – he knew what it was like. And He had probably seen Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Each one of us is going to face the end of our lives some day. We are going to experience death. We aren’t exactly like Lazarus – we don’t have the personal history of dying and returning to life. But we do have the example of Jesus, who died, was in the tomb for three days, and rose to life, never to die again.

That is what we are celebrating now – the wafer represents Jesus’ body, and the juice represents His blood. And that future experience of resurrection and eternal life is ours right now, through Jesus’ perfect, sinless life, and His sacrifice on the cross.  Let’s pray.

Lord, I thank You for the gift of salvation, the gift of Jesus, the gift of eternal life. Thank You for the reminder that we should do this in remembrance of Jesus. In His name I pray, Amen.

(communion meditation 2018-06-24)

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Let’s pray.

Lord, Thank you for the gift of Jesus, His perfect life, His perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Because of that, we can approach Your throne as sons and daughters. One family, through Christ.  In His name I pray, Amen.

The Prayer of Cyrus Brown
By Sam Walter Foss (1858–1911)

“THE PROPER way for a man to pray,”
Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
“And the only proper attitude,
Is down upon his knees.”

“No, I should say the way to pray,”
Said Reverend Doctor Wise,
“Is standing straight, with outstretched arms,
And rapt and upturned eyes.”

“Oh no; no, no,” said Elder Slow,
“Such posture is too proud:
A man should pray with eyes fast closed
And head contritely bowed.”

“It seems to me his hands should be
Austerely clasped in front,
With both thumbs pointing toward the ground,”
Said Reverend Doctor Blunt.

“Las’ year I fell in Hodgkin’s well
Head first,” said Cyrus Brown,
“With both my heels a-stickin’ up,
My head a-p’inting down;

“An’ I made a prayer right then an’ there—
Best prayer I ever said,
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
A-standing on my head.”

Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”

When I’m driving, I like driving fast.  The police have different views, and over the years I have collected a nice group of tickets and warnings.  The last one was about two and a half years ago, a warning.  I keep it in my office, right above my computer, where I can see it all the time.  That’s what warnings are for!

I noticed recently that the writing on it is fading. I thought “Isn’t it great that with the passage of time and the presence of light, it’s just quietly going away – just like sin does.”  Then NO!  I got mad at myself, because that is sloppy and wrong thinking.  The only thing that removes sin is the blood of Jesus Christ.  Our memories are frail, and we often misremember the past – but God is perfect, and even the slightest sin is enough to separate me from God.

It is only the blood of Jesus, paying the penalty for my sins, and my acceptance through baptism, that removed my sins. Not the effect of those sins, but the guilt of them.

John 14:6 says “Jesus answered, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

Let’s pray.  Lord God, I so often want to remake You into my own image, to diminish the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. As I take the wafer and the juice, representing Jesus’ body and blood, help me to remember what really happened, and how only through Jesus’ work I can be your son. And it is in the name of Jesus that I pray, Amen.

Acts 12:21-24

So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them.  And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!”  Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.  But the word of God grew and multiplied.

So Herod gave a speech, and the people loved it. They praised Herod, calling him a god. Herod ate it up – he loved the attention and the accolades. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lived for it. I know he died for it.

It’s easy to get used to the praises, and come to expect them. Herod expected the praises that should have gone to God. Essentially, he took what wasn’t his, and he paid for it. Seems proper. What I want to focus on is the people. The ones who called Herod a god for his speech. I have heard or read some good speeches – “Four score and seven years ago”. “A day that will live in infamy. ” “Ask not what this country can do for you.” “I have a dream.” You can identify those – and you can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were spoken by men, not by a god. The people in that scripture passage had a mighty low bar for being a god. I want a God who has more than pretty words. And I have one.

I have a God who created me, who loves me, who sent His Son to die for me, who filled me with the Holy Spirit at baptism, who guards and guides me every day.

That’s a God I can devote my life to, a God I can worship. My God speaks to me daily.

And that same God is Jesus, whose death and resurrection we are now celebrating with the wafer and the juice. Not a human who can spout pretty words and loves the praise. Jesus was fully man, and fully God, who inhabits our praise, and is worthy of our praise. He was crucified, buried, and rose again on the third day. That’s my God. Let’s pray.

Father God, we approach Your throne boldly. We know that sitting on that throne is the real God, with ultimate power and ultimate love. We know that Jesus, perfect and sinless, paid the ultimate price for our sins, and now sits beside You in glory. Thank You for Your love and for the gift of Jesus. It’s in His name I pray, amen.