Easter Was Made For a Time Like This

This article appeared in our local paper, The Manchester Journal, and also at the Baptist Convention of New England blog.

We are living in a time in which we are desperate for good news. We are all reading this hunkered down in our homes under the looming specter of disaster. We feel the state of emergency, and we see it with our eyes. It is on the signs on every business door and on faces everywhere we look. The mood has changed in our community, as friends or neighbors who might happen to see each other outside now talk from a distance. Anyone who dares to venture out to buy groceries notices the absence of the laughter of children. We worry about our elderly relatives and neighbors, even as we try to help them, all the while hoping we are not putting them at greater risk. We wince when we check the latest statistics on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. We wonder how long this will go on. Oh, how desperately we need good news.

Just when we think the low-grade stress of trying to hide from an invisible enemy is getting unbearable, we hear of another cancellation of an event we had looked forward to for months. We know it is the right thing to do, and we might even feel guilty for wishing it wasn’t so, but we mourn our old lives nonetheless. As a parent, I am joining moms and dads all across the world who have to explain to their kids why their favorite spring activities are canceled.

But as a pastor, I am joining pastors all across the world explaining to their congregations that Easter is not canceled.

No, we are not physically meeting. But Easter is not canceled because Easter was made to bring good news to a world that groans under the strain of more bad news. Easter was made for a time like this.

Jesus’ disciples were crushed after Jesus’ death on the cross. They were confused. But when the report of the empty tomb reached them, and when Jesus himself stood in front of them again so much alive that they could touch him and watch him eat, his earlier words flooded back. Right before he had raised Lazarus from the dead they had heard him proclaim, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Now they understood that Jesus’ resurrection was the guarantee of their resurrection. It sealed his promise of eternal life for those who would believe in him.

Some say the resurrection is a time of celebration of new life, as if it is nothing more than a celebration of Spring. Certainly the fact that it took place during a time of new life on earth is bursting with meaning. But if that is all it means, Easter is hollow. We need something more substantial. We need a resurrection.

As our church joins churches around the world during this historic Easter, celebrating the resurrection for the first time virtually and not physically gathered, our joy will be no less. We will wish it was different. We may shed tears of loss and heartbreak. But we will celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with joy because we know that in his conquering of death, he has promised to make all things new. The Bible looks forward to a day when fear and abuse and hunger and loneliness and viruses will all die, never to raise their ugly heads again. And in their demise, a new heaven and a new earth will be created, a place that believers in King Jesus were made to live in with their resurrection bodies. 

This is good news. This is why Easter was made for a time like this. And because of Easter, because of Jesus, I invite you to make this best of news your news.

“Always Winter But Never Christmas?”: Finding Joy This Season

This article appeared in the December 20, 2019 edition of our local paper, The Manchester Journal.

“It is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long…always winter and never Christmas; think of that!” With these words, Mr. Tumnus the faun from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe captured the imagination of my children—and me. This winter, my wife and I have been reading them “The Chronicles of Narnia” for their bedtime stories. I had read the beloved classics, as perhaps you have, as a boy, but it had been decades since I last read them. This time, reading them as an adult and as a pastor, I have been amazed at the beautiful parallels with life and even the Christian life as Lewis’ allegory points to Jesus through Aslan, the lion.

But I have not been able to let that phrase go: “always winter and never Christmas.” We know that in one sense so many of us love winter or we would not live in Vermont. We love the skiing, we love the crunchy snow under our feet, we love sipping hot cocoa while watching the snowflakes gently fall. There’s nothing quite like celebrating Christmas in Vermont with snow on the ground. But if it was always winter and never Christmas, if there was no joy in the midst of the long winter, if six months of no leaves stretched into twelve months with no foliage, we would tire of the winter weather.

Lewis described our hearts without joy so well with his phrase, “always winter and never Christmas.” As we approach Christmas, I have been thinking about what we try to draw joy from around Christmastime. We see the word “joy” all over the place: in decorations for the season, in songs on the radio and in the stores. But joy can be elusive. The grandkids don’t visit. The cancer has returned. The toys were exciting for the kids for a couple of hours, but now they’ve moved on to playing with the boxes. Maybe for you the season brings back difficult childhood memories. In your soul, you feel like it is always winter, but never Christmas, even on Christmas Day.

Lift up your head. Aslan breaks the curse, and even heals our hearts. There is joy available that is outside of our circumstances, joy that can coexist with tears. It is a joy that is elastic enough that it can bring the joy of Christmas to both the young parent with the overwhelming list of things to do for the kids, and the elderly person in his or her empty home. It is a joy that stretches to magnify the best times of life and that quietly comes alongside of us to meet us during our darkest moments. This joy is a person who is so much more than a person. His name is Jesus. This is why Christians get so excited about Christmas.

The Gospel of John explains about Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” (John 1:5, 12, 14) You see, Christians get excited about Christmas because we truly believe that we can’t work our way to God. The darkness is not only outside of us, it is even in us. But the message of Christmas is that God didn’t expect us to work our way up to him, but he came down to us to offer us free joy now and for eternity.

Before the spring thaw comes, my kids and I will be reading the seventh book in the Narnia series. We will read these words in The Last Battle that I hope will ring true to your heart this Christmas season so that for your soul it will not be always winter and never Christmas: “‘Yes,’ said Queen Lucy. ‘In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.’”

Talk about joy to the world!

Hold On to the God Who Holds You: How He Comforts Us with Election

This article first appeared on DesiringGod.org.

Desiring God water pic

As a pastor, I had visited church members in the psych ward before, but this time the church member was our dear friend Sarah (her name has been changed for privacy). She had no family nearby, but lived just a few miles from us. When Sarah was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, my wife began to bring her meals. We would visit her whenever we could. One of the treatments had taken a horrible turn. Dark side effects landed Sarah in the psych ward.

She looked at me that afternoon from her hospital bed, almost without recognition, with deep pain in her eyes. I reminded her of the care of her church family and the love of Christ for her. A tear rolled down her cheek and she whispered, “Guilty.”

I knew that Sarah needed bedrock gospel truth under her feet, so I turned to Romans 8 and began to read to her, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Her eyes flashed with recognition. I continued to read until I got to verse 30, and then an amazing thing happened. Sarah was crying out the words of Romans 8:30 with me, like a drowning woman holding on to a life preserver.

We both exclaimed those precious promises out loud in the stark and sterile room, tears streaming down our faces: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). At that moment, neither of us was arguing for the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation. We were exulting in our election. Sarah could not hold on to God in her darkest hour, but she knew that he was still holding on to her.

Comfort of God’s Choice

“God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us.”

I used to experience election merely as theoretical. Too often I saw the doctrine through the lens of debate rather than through the lens of worship and trust. Sarah changed that for me. Seeing election anchor Sarah in the psych ward gave me a fresh perspective on why God has revealed to us that we were chosen by him before he formed the world. God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us with his unstoppable, eternal love for us.

Being reminded of God’s choice to love her in eternity past was a comfort for Sarah on that bleak afternoon. She knew that nothing could separate her from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Our salvation did not start with us, is not sustained by us, and will not be completed by our strength. The domino effects leading to our salvation did not begin at birth, or even at Christ’s birth, but in eternity past when God foreknew us. Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.

When the clouds seem to be blocking our Father’s face, when all of our relationships are being dragged through a valley, when we hear of a relative diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need the security of electing grace. And when the sun is shining, our spouse loves us, our kids are well-behaved, and work is going better than we ever expected, God’s electing love reminds us that every gift is a gift of grace.

Holding On, Being Held

When I visited Sarah a few days later, she was doing better. The medications were being balanced and the side effects had diminished, although she was still being kept and monitored. As we sang “In Christ Alone” together, our voices rose loudest when we sang, “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand.”

There is something profoundly stabilizing about knowing that the most powerful One in the universe holds you (John 10:28–29). He knew everything about our frailties and even our sins, but he chose us, came for us, and redeemed us anyway.

“Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.”

That stay in the psych ward was not the end of the story for my sister in Christ. Just as God makes each of us more than conquerors, he empowered Sarah to conquer. She is not a conqueror because she overcame her depression immediately, or because the cancer stopped spreading. In fact, she died a couple of years later. Sarah is more than a conqueror because the God who predestined her also promised that she would be glorified.

That was the promise she was holding on to the last time I saw her, and it is the promise that she will be praising Christ for the next time I see her.

4 Reasons Every Church Needs Senior Saints

This post originally appeared at 9Marks, then at For The Church, The Gospel Coalition Canadaand Church LeadersThe piece also was featured on Challies.com and The Gospel Coalition U.S. #rightnow links.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from a church member in his eighties, letting me know that he’s moving. We have known for some time that it’s best for him to move closer to his family due to his health and housing situation. But the news that the move was finally happening hit me unexpectedly, as if I’d lost a dear friend. I felt it in the pit of my stomach and the tears in my eyes.

Then I realized that is exactly why I felt that way: I was losing a dear friend, and a grandfather in the faith. And our church is losing him, too.

Sometimes senior saints question their usefulness in the church as they age. That’s unfortunate because they’re an essential part of the body of Christ. Although we trust in our sovereign and wise God to add and take away from his local body as he sees fit, church life is different without them. As pastors, therefore, we need to remind our elderly members that they’re not only loved by their Good Shepherd and Savior—they’re also loved and needed by his people.

Here are four reasons every local church needs senior saints.

1. We need your prayers.

My 80-something friend often leads our congregation in prayer on Sunday mornings. Visitors and members regularly comment on how his prayers are a blessing to them. We need older members to pray out loud during worship services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. We also need their private prayers.

Sometimes, I’ll see God work in a way that can only be explained by a work of his Spirit in somebody’s life or in salvation. When this happens, I think, “God has answered the prayers of one of my sisters in Christ,” because I know there are several elderly ladies who pray for our church, our community, and my pastoral ministry regularly. Even if you’re reading this on your tablet from a nursing home—I visited an elderly lady doing just that the other day—we as the church need your prayers.

2. We need your practical, biblical wisdom.

My grandpa taught an adult Sunday School class until Parkinson’s robbed him of his voice. I’ll never forget a seminary professor who taught class using a special microphone because health complications made it difficult for him to speak. I’m so thankful that these men continued to pass on their biblical knowledge and life experience until they literally could not anymore. Whether through teaching a class or sharing a comment during a Bible study or encouraging a young mom during fellowship, every church members needs the wisdom that comes from decades of studying the Word mixed with decades of life experience.

Senior saints, please continue to speak into the lives of younger believers with love and truth and grace. The church needs your wisdom not simply because you’re older, but because you bring the practical, biblical wisdom that only comes from marinating in the Word and walking with Christ in both life’s joys and sorrows.

3. We need your encouragement.

My friend recently raised his hand at a business meeting as I was almost done explaining a new initiative, and simply said that he saw God’s hand in this and that the congregation should be supportive of where God was leading me with this initiative. We could have just stopped the explanation right then and gone straight to the vote. As a senior saint, your words of encouragement matter.

I’ve seen young, sleep-deprived parents light up when an older person in the church tells them, “Your kids are a joy.” I’ve seen discouraged empty-nesters, struggling with change, rediscover hope as they remember God’s faithfulness in your marriages of over 50 years

As the Psalmist exclaims, “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). Don’t hesitate to share your stories of provision and grace and forgiveness, and to remind us of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Senior saint, we need your encouragement.

4. We need your presence.

We know it takes a lot of work for older folks to get to church. We know that there will come a day that we need to come to you, rather than you coming to us. But until that day, we need your presence.

There’s something particularly special about the redeemed people of God coming together for worship and seeing a spectrum of ages. There’s something about coming together to worship with people who are different than us—even generationally—that points to the beauty of the gospel and the glory of God. There’s something about knowing fellow saints who can speak of God never abandoning them through decades that powerfully reminds us of the faithfulness of God.

We don’t call you “senior saint” because you’re perfect or because you don’t have struggles like the rest of us. We call you “senior saint” because your faith in Christ in your senior years points to the fact that the same God who saves is the same God who sustains. Lift your heads, dear senior saints.

You’re needed. Please don’t stop serving.

For Those Who Need Hope (All Of Us)

the-hope-of-christmasA shortened version of this post appeared in The Manchester Journal.

I love everything about Christmas. The decorations. The lights. The snow. The music. And yes, Christmas movies. My wife and I began a yearly tradition of watching White Christmas when we were first married fourteen years ago, and two years ago we watched it in Vermont for the first time, after I became a pastor here. “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…” But the last two years Christmas has been snowless just like in the movie, except without the surprise snow on Christmas Eve. Maybe this year will be our first white Christmas!

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the Christmas story from the Bible:  HOPE. In White Christmas, it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas. In It’s a Wonderful Life it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again. In How the Grinch Saved Christmas it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again. We could go on and on. Hope–in every one.

I think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?

Pushing Back the Cultural Haze
There are so many messages in our culture about what the basic meaning of Christmas is: love, giving, a warm feeling, family, or friends. Christmas means lots of things to lots of different people, and all of these things are good things. But since Christmas began as a holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth, we need to push back the cultural haze to see clearly what the Bible says Christmas is all about. What is the most basic meaning of Christmas? The angels can tell us.

Mary was startled to learn from the angel Gabriel, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:31-32a)

Joseph had his moment of clarity from an angel of the Lord in a dream: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

On the night that is now known as the hinge of history, the fog was really pushed back when an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem and assured them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Don’t Let Christmas Be Stolen From You
The Bible boldly proclaims that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas. Jesus is the reason for Christmas. God was in the manger that night. God entered into our suffering world, physically. God himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not “out there,” God is here. Jesus is Immanuel–which means, “God with us.” That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past; Jesus’ salvation and presence today give us hope today.

This is good news. If Christmas is mostly about love, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I don’t feel like loving others, or if I am hurt by someone I love. If Christmas is mostly about giving, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever in a tough situation and can’t give. If Christmas is mostly about a warm feeling, Christmas will be stolen from me if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed on Christmas morning. If Christmas is mostly about family and friends, Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever far from my family and find myself with few friends. But if Christmas is not about what I can do or what my circumstances are any given year, but about God himself coming to me, then I can be joyful each and every Christmas. Jesus is for those who need hope–and that is all of us.