Senior Pastor Update in the Time of COVID-19 (March 25, 2020)

Here is my latest update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. I also encourage you to watch the video of our worship team leading the song “Way Maker,” from this past weekend’s service. It is such a powerful song, particularly during these days.

 

Taking Shelter in God: reflections on Isaiah 25

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You have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
and a shade from the heat. (Isaiah 25:4a)

This chapter from Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to the restoration God will bring for His people even as “ruthless nations” rise up against them. Isaiah speaks of both a future restoration as well as a present help from God that is rooted within God’s “perfect faithfulness” (vs 1) and sovereignty (“wonderful things planned long ago” – vs 1). We see here that the overriding vision of God gripping Isaiah’s heart and mind transforms his outlook on the present circumstances. Let’s consider again the phrases Isaiah uses to describe God in verse 4:

  • “a refuge for the poor”
  • “a refuge for the needy”
  • “a shelter from the storm”
  • “a shade from the heat”

Isaiah reminds us that in a wide variety of circumstances, both natural and social, God protects and keeps His people. It is not a question—”will God do this?”—but an expected certainty—”God will do this.” At the same time, notice what Isaiah does not tell us here. He does not say, “Because you trust in God you will never face distress, meager times, storms, or heat.” Isaiah is not so unrealistic in his faith as that. He has weathered his own storms, and is facing some when writing these words. Instead, he reminds us that when stormy times come upon us, God is with us and available to us as a trustworthy refuge, shelter, and shade.

Isaiah continues his prophecy with images of restoration that we later encounter in the final book of the New Testament (Isaiah 25:6-8; Revelation 21:1-5). John drew upon Isaiah’s words in the closing chapters of Revelation, and so they are familiar to many of us. These images depict darkness’ removal like the lifting of a shroud, death decisively swallowed up, tears wiped away, and disgrace eliminated. Such beautiful imagery grabs our hearts and fills our imagination with hope. When our present circumstances resonate more with darkness, tears, death, and disgrace, it is good to read again words filled with such ebullient hope. Isaiah speaks with prophetic power that our dark circumstances are not the end of the story, whether our story or that of the broader world. God is still at work.

The critical calling in all of this for us is to trust God. “In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him” (Isaiah 25:9). As it did for Isaiah, what characterizes God’s people in distress, storms, and heat is their overriding vision of God that shapes their outlook through trust in God. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are easily overcome by anxieties about what will come, confusion about how to live in the present, and paralysis about what to do and what not to do. Every day the news changes, leaving us like a boat cast upon rough and stormy waters. This is the natural reality of being human with all our limitations.

However, the question that each of us must answer is what we will do when these anxieties surround us. Will we let them overwhelm us so that our outlook is shaped more by our circumstances and the anxieties that so readily result from them? When it comes down to it, what will shape our vision and outlook in life?

In a sense, we have entered into the moment of our faith’s testing. Although it may sound simplistic, do we trust only what we can see or do we trust the Living God? “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Certainly faith also sees what gathers around, but that is not all the eyes of faith sees. When our overriding vision is of God and not just our circumstances, we know we can bring our anxieties and fears to God in prayer. That movement of faith to reach out to God enables us to encounter God as our refuge, shelter, and shade. We move forward driven by faith—active trust in God—and not by fear—agitated anxiety about our circumstances. In these days all of us need that reminder again and again. I believe this is at least part of what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote from prison to the Philippian church:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We have entered into a time of deep distress that will mark our lives in many ways. But take heart, my friends, our God is with us as “a shelter from the storm.”

A Prayer inspired by the prophet Zephaniah

Sovereign LORD,
we know that a time is coming,
the great day of the LORD,
when You will stretch out Your hand
to judge the nations of the earth
and sweep away everything
from the face of the earth.

We tremble before You, LORD,
for who can truly stand in that day?
We seek You, LORD our God,
we seek righteousness and we seek humility
that You might shelter us on that day,
and save a remnant for Your name.

In this present day, we also tremble
over the distress that has come upon us.
Our strength is demolished
and the streets are deserted.

But You, LORD our God, are with us;
a Mighty Warrior who saves us.
Show forth Your great delight in us,
and in Your love rejoice over us with singing.
Remove from us the grief of our losses
and restore our fortunes before our very eyes.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be all honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Habakkuk [God in the Ruins]

God in the Ruins Series GFX_App SquareLike many other churches, this past weekend at Eastbrook we had to make a major shift in our gathering due to the concerns related to COVID-19 and coronavirus. This was accentuated by the declaration of a public health emergency in our state, and the recommendation that groups over 250 no longer meet. We switched to online service for this past weekend, but still continued our series on the message of the minor prophets, “God in the Ruins,” by looking at the prophet Habakkuk.

Habakkuk is one of the 7th century BC prophets in the Hebrew Bible, ministering near the time of Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah. Habakkuk’s prophetic message is gathered into book form in the following structure:

  • Habakkuk’s first complaint and God’s answer (1:1-11)
  • Habakkuk’s second complaint and God’s answer (1:12-2:20)
  • a final prayer of trust and worship (3:1-19)

You can view the message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series on the minor prophets here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities to connect.

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Living with Christian Hope

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What is hope?

We all have hopes of different sorts. In the past we may have talked about the hope of a new job, a life partner, or an amazing gift for our birthday. In times like this, hope becomes more focused, when consider the basics of our health, our livelihood, and, in some cases, survival.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is an expectation. It is a desire. It is a longing and yearning that something would become a reality. By definition, hope has two basic parts:

  • The longing that exists within us
  • The object, or goal, toward which our longing is directed

Some of us, when we talk about hope, put the emphasis mostly on the first part of that: we emphasize the longing that exists within us. We have hope – a sort of vague, fuzzy longing – that things would be better, but the object – or goal – of our hope is sometimes undefined or unclear.

When we come to Christianity, the Bible, and Jesus, the essence of hope is something more focused and clear. In Jesus’ walk along the Emmaus road with the disciples who did not recognize them, this topic of hope surfaces multiple times. Look at the words spoken by those men walking the road with Jesus:

The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. (Luke 24:20-21)

Christian hope is a desire – a longing – that is firmly fixed on Jesus as the object of our hope. Christian hope is, essentially, the longing that what Jesus promised – and what we see in Scripture – about life with God and His kingdom is ultimately true. Christian hope has a fixed object – Jesus’ life and teaching – and builds upon that.

Consider with me how the Apostle Paul writes about hope in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Let me highlight just a few basic things that Paul is saying here in Romans about hope:

  • Hope begins from our ‘justification of faith’ (vs 1): this is the justification before God – being put right in standing before God – that comes to us by Jesus going to the Cross and returning to life in victory over sin, death, and evil in the Resurrection. Hope is based on that historical event.
  • Hope stands in the state of grace (vs 2): God sees us through Jesus Christ and not through our sins and wrongs. Grace means that we receive something from God we do not deserve: mercy in place of judgment; kindness instead of wrath; hope instead of despair.
  • Hope lives with perseverance (vss 3-4): Hope believes that God is at work in the midst of our sufferings and trials, doing something in us. Hope believes that God is making us people of character through our difficulties until we see Him face to face.
  • Hope looks toward ultimate glory of God (vss 1 & 5): Hope anticipates both God’s glory fully revealed at the end of human history and God’s glory revealed to us individually at the end of our physical lives because of our faith in Jesus Christ. Christian hope says there will come a day when God will make all things right and new at the end of human history in the new heaven and new earth. Hope is the longing for this reality ever before us

Some might say that Christianity is just wishful thinking. Frederick Buechner offers this unique reframing of that accusation:

Christianity is mainly wishful thinking…

Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-ups is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking.

Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on.

Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. [1]

We may respond to those who accuse Christian hope of being “wishful thinking” that perhaps the wishful thinking could be called faith. And perhaps faith is a way to access a reality that is there. And perhaps the reason we dream about such a thing being true is that the truth has birthed such a dream within us in the first place.

Christian hope is, essentially, the longing that what Jesus promised – and what we see in Scripture – about life and eternity is ultimately true. Christian hope flows out of Jesus’ resurrection from death after the Cross. It reshapes the way we view our failings, our sufferings, and the end of our lives. It also reshapes the way we view our world.

Jesus’ resurrection allow us to live with hope that there is meaning in our lives and meaning beyond our lives. When we live with hope, we have meaning both for now and for our future.  With the Apostle Paul, we can say,

and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

 


[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers , 1973), 96.

 

 

Turning to God in Troubling Times: a five-week study on Habakkuk

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This past weekend, I continued our series “God in the Ruins: The Message of the Minor Prophets” at Eastbrook Church by looking at the prophet Habakkuk. You can watch the message here.

I also wanted to share a five-week series I did on the book of Habakkuk in 2015 entitled “Turning to God in Troubling Times.” Each of these messages dives into topics of fear, faith, trouble, worship, and what it looks like to be a person of God in the midst of distress. I am loading the video links for each message of this series below.

Part 1 – Crying Out When God Seems Absent


Part 2 – Suffering and the Surprising Plans of God


Part 3 – Talking with God When Pain Looms Large


Part 4 – Faithfulness in a Confusing World


Part 5 – Singing the Songs of God’s Salvation