Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Stone’s Throw Away

If I had been one of the twelve who walked with Jesus, I know I would have knelt in the dark garden and, with gnarled thoughts, begun my struggle to pray. Sorrow would have consumed me to the point of exhaustion and sleep would have been irresistible. While I escaped in dreams, my Lord would have battled the unthinkable alone, praying “a stone’s throw” away from me. (Luke 22:41)

Why would the Holy Spirit inspire such a term in the mind of Luke? Why use that phrase to describe the distance between me and my Lord in prayer?

We throw stones for several reasons. We throw stones when we’re bored. We skip stones when we’re nervous, standing by a lake with nothing else to do. We throw angry stones at people. Sometimes we throw stones in prayer. That’s right, we toss our hard things at God from a distance. I find myself doing this often. I rush into His throne room with a list of wants and needs. I dare not draw too close to the King, I just toss my small stones at the throne in words, pleadings and sometimes even demands. Prayer becomes a means to an end. If I just exercise sufficient faith in the means then the end becomes a reality.

This mystifies God. Isaiah 59:16 says, "And He saw that there was no man, And was astonished that there was no one to intercede..." (NAS)

Lately I’ve found myself tossing a great many stones to the Lord without entering close in worship. Prayer that doesn’t begin in worship digresses to duty, bouncing onto the floor unanswered, leaving my heart as hard as the stones I’ve thrown toward God.

Worship helps me draw near to a place where I can see how great He is. When I see how great He is, I am struck with awe. When I am struck with awe I become curious about His mind. When I have His mind, prayer is transformed to a desire to do His will. Then and there my prayers change, the hard things are transformed in my own heart, and intercession becomes a joy again.

Stop hurling your hard, stone-like troubles at God. Don't remain a stone’s throw away from Him. Seek to know His mind. Then intercede in prayer according to His will. There is much to intercede for, but astonishingly few truly intercede—because we pray a stone’s throw away.

Hebrews 10:22 encourages us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water." (NIV) We can be confident that our Lord not only calls us to draw near He cleanses us to draw near. We don’t have to stand at a distance we can draw near with full assurance.

Ed Litton

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Three Snapshots of Faith

Going Not Knowing
Faith doesn’t need to know where it is being led or whether or not the journey will be successful. Faith refuses to be distracted by what is seen in any given moment. Faith moves in the face of the blowing winds of unanswered questions and unfulfilled promises. Hebrews 11:8 says, "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." Faith begins with believing God's revealed word, accepting as true what God says, and realizing your task is to act upon it. According to Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

This is why Abraham is considered to be the father of faith. Abraham moved forward in life in spite of the fact that he had little evidence this vision would become a reality. Hebrews 11:10 says was “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." Abraham saw many of God's promises come true along the way, but the ultimate promise of a city whose architect and builder is God he won’t realize until the New Jerusalem is revealed from heaven (Rev. 21:1).

Knowing but still Going
Faith doesn’t need every problem solved before it acts. Mark's gospel tells of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome taking spices to Jesus’ tomb on a Sunday morning to anoint his body. On the way they asked each other a very practical question—"Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" Far from being delusional, the women were all too aware of the obstacles they faced. I marvel that knowledge didn’t leave them sitting immobilized around a kitchen table until they’d secured help in moving the stone; they were knowing but still going. Little did they know the stone was no longer a problem, because He was already risen. The resurrection of Jesus solves our biggest problems and moves the hard things that obstruct our walk of faith.

Our mission in life as believers in Jesus Christ is to live by faith in the son of God. To move in trust that no problem is too big for the God who moves stones. Faith demands that we believe, refusing to let our unbelief keep us from taking action or from living in light of the promises of God.

Going and Knowing
Faith is willing to take God at His word with no supporting evidence necessary. I’m amazed by the visit Gabriel made to two people in Luke's gospel. First the angel visited a priest named Zechariah, who was in the throes of some very significant temple duties. Gabriel delivered God's promise that a boy named John, a forerunner to the Messiah, would be born to this aging, childless couple. Zechariah's response in Luke 1:18 is interesting. “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Compare his question to that of Mary, the mother to be of Jesus, who was visited by the same angel in Luke 1:34. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Which response was by faith and which was faithless?

Zechariah demanded evidence that would remove the possibility of doubt. He wanted to see something that would keep him from being an old fool for believing God. Wasn’t it enough that one of God's highest ranking angels had just appeared to him? Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Mary's response, however, is one of faith. She states the obvious, but not as an objection or a demand for more assurance. It isn’t wrong to note the impossible nature of your circumstances, but it is wrong to demand supporting material to remove doubts created by our own limited perspective. Such supporting material rarely strengthens our weak faith. Faith stands on God's Word regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Faith moves on what God has promised—and sometimes all you have to move on is knowledge of His character.

You might be tempted to say it would be hard to live without the fulfillment of God’s promises in your life. We all grow weary of waiting on the Lord. Going without knowing means trusting day to day in the promises of God—and when the memory of those promises wears thin, clinging to the character of God. Every day, in every way, we get to believe either in what we see, hear, smell and touch—or in what God has said. Like Abraham, like the women who went to minister to the body of Jesus, like the young Virgin Mary or even Zechariah, we must each move forward in faith. We must go about our duties, our lives, and the journey marked out for us. We must be honest about the impossible things we face, but we must always leave room for our awesome God to move the hardest things we face—be it a stone or a mountain or our own stubborn hearts. God is faithful. He is the Stone Mover!

Ed Litton

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Preach the Word

The command in Second Timothy, chapter four, is straightforward and simple—or so it seems. Many a preacher gladly heard and obeyed the call of God, but in our youthful passion we often miss the other phrases surrounding this exhortation. Phrases like "be prepared in season and out of season," "keep your head in all situations," "endure hardship." Many of us imagine the art of preaching is bound up in style, meter, technique and voice quality. The truly spiritual among us know that preaching is bound in the text; proper excavation and presentation are the stock tools of the biblical preacher. So we take great pains to do the less than glamorous work of preaching in our study.

Preaching is far more incarnational than I imagined. Methodist bishop William Alfred Quayle said, "Preaching is not the art of making a sermon...it is the art of making a preacher." I have at times thought I could skillfully avoid preaching my life and my struggles—especially the humiliating ones. I now realize I cannot. No matter what text you deliver to your hearers, you can’t divorce your life from it. It may be comforting to think that my skill as a communicator could override my own struggles and hardships, but they just cannot.

We are all practitioners of what we preach. We either preach what we practice or we don't—but either way it comes through loud and clear. Haddon Robinson defines expository preaching as "the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers."* While we work with the text like a potter shapes clay, God's Holy Spirit kneads us, working truth into our being. We either reveal to our hearers the reality of the text in our own lives or we reveal that we’re out of step with the text in our own lives. Both may be unconscious communication, but both preach loudly.

Some of us would love to think that a sermon can be presented as emotionless instruction, as if we were dishing boiled okra onto the hearer’s plate. You must realize that the incarnation of God's Word in you, lived out in your own suffering and hardship, seasons the message and makes the word palatable and even delicious to the hearer. It is an act of sacrifice for the man of God to be transparent and to bleed openly before his hearers. He is vulnerable and in great danger in front of others. The tragedy is that many of us preachers traffic in truths we have never lived out and frankly don’t care to experience. We can even develop an unintentional smugness that says to our hearers, "if you are like me, you won’t suffer what others suffer." No man I know would intentionally do this, but more comes through your sermon than you realize.

When my wife of twenty-five years died, I was amazed how many people in my church struggled spiritually with why God would allow me, their blessed pastor, to suffer like this. My concern is that maybe I’ve given them the idea that as God's man I’m shielded from hardship and suffering. I do know this—often I preach out of a sense of fear. Sometimes I'm not even aware of this fear but it drives my message passionately. I end up communicating an unintentional message. I have to stand on a pedestal to be seen and heard but the reality of Tammy’s death reminded many that no one is immune to suffering—not the man standing nor the one sitting.

My heart has been aching this week for the wife and daughters of Dr. Fred Winter, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Maryville, Illinois. I cannot imagine the horror of the congregation that watched as a deranged gunman shot first his Bible and then Fred to death. I didn’t know Fred, but do I know that last Sunday he stepped into that pulpit to do what he has faithfully done for over twenty years—preach the word. In the act of answering God's call and fulfilling his mission, he lost his life. What is the Message? It’s not safe to preach anymore. But then again, it never has been. Fred's message and life are one. We live in a fallen and sin-sick world that needs the words in Fred's Bible applied to people. Fred was a faithful man of God who preached the Word.

Today Fred is preaching his greatest sermon ever. His life, now in full reflection of those who loved him and knew him and his faithfulness to "preach the word," is speaking not only to the people of Maryville, Illinois, but to a nation. This is incarnational preaching at its best.

Ed Litton

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Wounds from a Friend

"Wounds from a friend can be trusted..." Prov. 27:6 (NIV)

Someone recently asked me if my view of God's sovereignty helped or hurt my recovery from grief. I thought for a moment and said, "Yes!"

Life apart from an all knowing, ever present, and in-control Heavenly Father is unthinkable because His sovereignty governs my life and destiny. I know even in my suffering He has never for one moment been out of control. I know Tammy's passing from death unto life wasn’t just an act of grace to save her—it is His will. That’s where the wound comes. It’s hard to grasp anything good from such profound loss, but knowing He is sovereign and good heals me. In His infinite wisdom there’s hope, but at the same time, in His sovereignty there is deep mystery. I trust in Him—not what I understand about Him. I cannot grasp deity anymore than a newborn can grasp quantum physics. I can be cradled in his arms, loved and nursed in my sorrow, and know the goodness of my Lord in the land of the living.

Taking this path leads to greater understanding and insight into life, myself and His sovereignty. His wounds aren’t meant to harm; they’re designed to refine me, to make me a vessel more apt to fulfill His purpose and glorify His name. I trust His wounding because He is my friend. I’m discovering there is no friend like Jesus.

Ed Litton