Four Ways to Prepare for Palm Sunday

palm-sundayPalm Sunday marks the beginning of what we know as Passion Week or Holy Week.  Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  The term “Passion” in Passion Week refers to the inhumane suffering Jesus experienced on the cross to make redemption possible for mankind.  The Passion Week is crowned with Easter or Resurrection Sunday.  Christians make much of the Easter season because the events, Jesus’ death and resurrection, are the two pillars of the Christian good news.  “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, [4] that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, [5] and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).  The gospel is the sun in the universe of what Christians believe.  In sum, the events we remember during the Easter season display that fundamental truth God did for us in Christ what we could never do for ourselves.  “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).  Because the Easter season sets before us the most precious and essential truth of the gospel, we should prepare ourselves so that we can spiritually benefit from the Easter season.  In the spirit of preparing ourselves to spiritually profit from the Easter season, here are four ways to prepare for Palm Sunday.

  1. Read the triumphal entry passages in the gospels.  All four gospels record Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem: Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19.  All four accounts reveal the significance of the triumphal entry.  It was a profoundly important event in Jesus’ life.
  2. Reflect on the significance of the triumphal entry.  Jesus was introduced as King!  This has major implications for here & now and then & there.  The here & now implication is that we should pay homage to the King and give our lives in service to Him.  The then & there implication is that He will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 7:9; 17:14; 19:16).
  3. Delight that the King came to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness and that, by grace alone through faith alone, He transferred you into His kingdom.  “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, [14] in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).  Do this corporately on Sunday.  Gather with other kingdom constituents and worship the King.

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
Our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise
(Robert Grant, “O Worship the King,” 1833)

  1. Commit or recommit yourself to the King.  There is no better time than Palm Sunday than to yield yourself to the King for the first time or anew.  Is Jesus your King?  If not, why not?  There are are only two ways to live.  If He is, does your life reveal complete allegiance to Him?

An Outreach Parable

The year is 1621 in Massachusetts.  The English settlers have endured a brutal winter.  Their numbers are fewer; some contracted illness Massachusetts Winterand died.  Others survived.  And now it’s finally Spring.  A man wakes up to the melodious sounds of birds singing.  The man knows that the time has come to prepare the soil and plant the crops.  Supplies are dangerously low and they will last the man and his family until harvest but no longer.  This man contracted a severe illness along with others but as Providence would have it, he survived.  Though he is much improved, his body is still feeling the effects of the illness.  Even so, he knows in spite of his personal discomfort he must labor in the field.  The lives of his wife and children depend on it.  He goes out to the field and labors but before too long he is tired and his health rapidly deteriorates.  Based on his level of discomfort, he leaves the field.  One day passes and then another.  Days turn into weeks.  The field is never prepared and no seeds are ever sown.  The family prays for an abundant harvest because their rations are nearly depleted but they pray in vain because no seeds were ever sown.  Harvest comes.  The family eats their final meager portions.  The man now sees the irrevocable and tragic effects of his decision to consider his own comfort before the well-being of his family.  Their supplies are spent.  The man and his family die.  Unknown to this family, many of the other settlers also experienced severe personal discomfort while laboring in the fields but they persevered because the lives of others depended on them.  They prepared the soil and unsparingly sowed seeds.  They prayed for God to bless their labors.  He rewarded them with a bountiful harvest.

There are two lessons on outreach from this parable.

  1. We are often quick to succumb to our personal discomfort when it comes to being a witness for Christ.  Sadly, this means our discomfort is more important to us than the lost souls of men. So are you willing to move beyond your personal discomfort in being a witness for Christ, especially this Easter season?  Are you willing to labor in the fields of the gospel for the sake of others regardless of the personal cost?
  2. We cannot pray for a gospel harvest if we never sow gospel seeds.  God cannot and will not bless outreach efforts we never carry out.  Are you praying for God to bless your non-efforts?   Conversely, we can and should pray for God to bring forth a harvest of souls when we faithfully and liberally sow gospel seeds.  The gospel is still the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes!

William Cowper: From Dark and Frowning Providences into the Light of a Smiling Face

[I shared a brief biography about William Cowper before we sang a pair of hymns he wrote. The text below is my manuscript.  I shared this during our Sunday morning service, March 30, 2014.  My sermon text for my morning message was James 1:2-4.]william cowper

James 1:2 says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”  We are about to sing two hymns written by the same person.  The person’s name is William Cowper (spelled C-o-w-p-e-r but pronounced “Cooper”).  Cowper was born in England on November 26, 1731.  He died on April 25, 1800.  He lived an emotionally and spiritually anguished life.  His poetry and hymns reveal the frowning providences as well as the occasions when light pierced the darkness of emotional and spiritual turmoil.

Cowper was born into an Anglican home, though it was not evangelical.  Cowper’s father, John, was the rector at the Church of St. Peter and also served as chaplain to King George II (November 9, 1683-October 25, 1760).  Cowper was always timid and sensitive child.  This manifested itself at an early age.  When Cowper was six years old, his mother died after giving birth to his brother.  This experience drew out the emotional frailty that would characterize him until the day he died.  After his mother died, his father sent him to a boarding school where he was tormented.  He painfully recalled, “my chief affliction consisted in being singled out from all the other boys, by a lad about fifteen years of age as a proper object upon which he might let loose the cruelty of his temper.”  These painful childhood experiences—the death of his mother, his father sending him off to boarding school, and the beatings he received at boarding school—drew out his emotional volatility.

In 1752, at age 21, he sunk into his first major depression.  He described his condition this way, “Day and night I was on the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.”  He would eventually come out of this depression.  He developed a relationship with a young lady named Theodora, Theodora Cowper.  They shared a last name because they were cousins.  Their relationship went on for years but was halted by Theodora’s father when they expressed their intent to marry.  Theodora’s father’s stated reason was the familial connection but one wonders if he wasn’t more concerned about what his daughter’s life would have been like with Cowper’s emotional and mental instability.  Neither of them ever married.  This triggered another bout of depression.

Cowper was a lawyer by training but his heart was not in the profession so he never gave himself to it.  In 1763, when he was 32, and with his father’s influence, he received a nomination to serve as a clerk in the House of Commons (England’s parliament).  This nomination, as is so common in the political arena, was not met with unanimity.  There would be a confirmation hearing to determine Cowper’s fitness for this position.  This generated tremendous anxiety in him which led to insanity.  In fact, he attempted suicide three different ways (“laudanum [poison], knife, and cord [hanging]”) but God preserved his life.  He was committed to St. Albans Insane Asylum in December 1763.  He was converted during his time in the insane asylum!  John 11 and Romans 3:25 were key texts which shone the light of Christ into his soul.  He recounts after reading Romans 3:25, “Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me.  I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification.  In a moment, I believed, and received the gospel…”

Cowper’s conversion would not lift the darkness of depression from his soul.  There would be more severe bouts of depression and even more attempts at death by suicide.  I do not have time to detail a series of events that led to this but Cowper ended up at Olney (still in England) where he developed a friendship with the curate (i.e., pastor) of a small rural Anglican church.  The pastor’s name was John Newton—yes, that John Newton; the one who wrote Amazing Grace.  Newton befriended and shepherded the emotionally and spiritually fragile Cowper.  Cowper shared what he called “the fatal dream” with Newton.  In 1773 Cowper had a dream in which he received a word that said something to the effect, “It’s all over for you, you are lost.”  He viewed this as God telling him that he was spiritually condemned without the hope of salvation.  This spiritual despair would be but a whisper in his best moments but it would loudly reverberate in his soul in his extended times of depression.  After his conversion, Cowper did not doubt evangelical truth, rather he perceived this was God’s view of him.  Cowper’s time under the pastoral care of Newton proved to be the best years of his life, though they were still not great years.  Both Newton and Cowper’s nurse, Mary Unwin, encouraged Cowper to write poetry and hymns to keep his mind occupied.  He took eagerly to this endeavor.  His most famous and longest poem, The Task, was published in 1785.  He so excelled at his poetry that he has been identified as “the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope [May 21, 1688-May 30, 1744] and William Wordsworth [April 7, 1770-April 23, 1850].”  Christians continue to profit from Cowper’s work to this day through his hymns.  He lived his final years in deep depression.  He developed dropsy (edema) in the spring of 1800 and died.  He finally entered into the joyous light of the Smiling Face about which he wrote.

Cowper wrote songs in the tumult of utter misery.  He experienced a kind of tyrannical depression that seizes the soul and paralyzes its victim.  Psalm 69:20 was not only a brief season in his life but an unyielding reality for Cowper, “…I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none.”  Yet he would write hymns from under the dark shadows of depression.  And strikingly, Cowper’s hymns had “peace and thankful contemplation” as “their highest note.”  We are going sing two of 68 hymns Cowper contributed during his time at Olney with Newton.  The first one is titled “Sometimes a Light Surprises” (comfort).  It is based on the poignant ending in Habakkuk 3.  It expresses a deep confidence in God in the face of suffering.  The second one emphasizes God’s providences.  We know it as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” after the first line of the hymn but it was originally called “Light Shining Out of Darkness” (conflict).  Cowper was a man who wrote from the depths of personal despair about trust in the face of, as James 1:2 says, various trials.  As you read Cowper’s other poetic works, his personal anguish is painfully on display but at the same time there is also a profound depth to them—the kind of depth that can only be forged in the furnace of affliction (cf. Isaiah 48:10).  Suffering is painful but profitable.  This truth is behind the hymns we are about to sing.  The letter of James teaches this.  William Cowper lived it.  So as we sing these hymns, they are not hymns written by a person sheltered from trial but one who can testify of the divine smiling face behind numerous frowning providences.

Sources:

A Message for Christians from the NT Letter of James

I will begin a series on the letter of James.  The citation below captures an important contemporary contribution from the letter of James. Letter of James

Chief among James’s contributions is his insistence that genuine Christian faith must become evident in works.  He resolutely opposes the tendency all too common among Christians to rest content with a halfhearted, compromising faith that seeks to have the best of both this world and the next” (Carson, Moo, and Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992], 418).

On Turning 40

I have dreaded this day for quite some time.  Yes, I know that this confession will subject me to some mild criticism but the truth is I have made_in_1974_custom_invite-re1606b2cf1eb44e5a43f798be71f2610_imtet_8byvr_324dreaded turning 40 ever since I turned 30. It’s weird, I know, but don’t judge me.  It just feels like I officially moved into Geezerville (no offense to those already in this elite club).  At least I can say that I share a birthday with Albert Einstein but that’s about all we have in common.  This is part of the down side of turning 40.  I look back at my life and think of how little I have accomplished.  I have been rather introspective the last year or so as 40 loomed on the horizon.  I have lamented what little I have been able to get done at my age.  Although on the bright side it seems to me that at this point in life, one is able to see themselves with greater clarity and less presumption.  I think one develops a little more confidence at this stage of life.  What others think of you is not as important as it was in your 20s and early 30s.  Even so, I move forward with feet of clay.

This introspection has not been entirely gloomy though.  I have also reflected on how much God has blessed me.  God has blessed me with a wonderful birth family–my parents loved (and still love) their children and sought to instill in us good and noble character qualities as well as a godly orientation. I am indebted to them for all they have sacrificed for us.  God has blessed me by drawing me unto Himself when I was 11 years old.  God has blessed me by allowing me to serve Him as a full-time vocation and plant Bible Baptist Church.  God has blessed me with a wonderful church family.  God has blessed me by maturing me through necessary and sometimes painful lessons.  God has blessed me with Julie, my beautiful, faithful, loving, and supportive wife.  I don’t deserve her but God granted me a priceless gift in her.  God has blessed Julie and me with four children, one of whom is in heaven.  Abigail, Samuel, and Isaiah have never brought me more joy (as well as the occasional headache).  God has blessed me with wonderful in-laws and a great extended family through marriage.  We all enjoy one another’s company at family gatherings and vacations.  God has blessed me with friends who make life’s journey a little more enjoyable.  The list of God’s blessings could go on and on.

The future both excites and perplexes me.  I have no clue how much time I have left.  My hope is that I can grow old(er) with Julie and enjoy whatever God has for us.  I want to see my children grow up to love God and serve Him and the world around them.  But I want to leave something in this world that outlasts me.  Life is short.  Every breath is a gift from my Heavenly Father.  I want my life to count–I want to display Christ to those around me.  The only reasonable service for me is to live for God because I exist for Him (Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 8:6).  C.T. Studd was one of the Cambridge Seven who resolved to serve as missionaries to China in 1885.  Studd would go on to mission work in India and Africa as well.  He famously said, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”  A Christ-exalting ambition is what I want to drive me in the days ahead.

Well, you have been kind enough to grant me a couple minutes out of your day to read this (and I’m sure you wish you could have them back).   I know you have other more pressing things to do than to read a 40-year-old man’s incoherent ramblings.  So 40–ready or not–here I come!

Reflections from Shepherds Conference 2014

I attended the Shepherds Conference for the first time this year (SC hereafter).  Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA hosts this annual Shepherds Conferenceconference.  SC had an impressive line-up of keynote speakers, including John MacArthur, Al Mohler, and Mark Dever.  I want to offer several reflections on the conference related to the content, experience, and collegiality of the conference.

First, the content of SC was superb.  The conference had general sessions and breakout seminars.  The general sessions were outstanding.  A general session by Mark Dever on Isaiah 34-35 and a general session by Al Mohler on Romans 1 proved to be personally enriching and the two best general sessions from my perspective.  The conference offered a number of seminars so one could not attend very many of them.  I attended a session titled “Small Church, Big Impact.”  Unfortunately, it was broader that the title of the seminar so I went away a little disappointed.  I would also add the music was great.  One of the highlights from the music was the singing during the plenary meetings.  There were over 3,000 conference attendees.  The Grace Community Church worship center was packed.  There were skilled vocalists that provided musical ministries as well as some different choirs.  They all did a great job.  But for me, it is tough to beat the sound of 3,000 men heartily singing.

Second, the experience at SC was outstanding.  Grace Community knows how to put on this conference.  They had over 750 volunteers working.  These volunteers were sincerely welcoming, readily willing to serve, and graciously assisting in any way possible.  Food was abundant, breaks were a nice length, and the schedule was full but not insane.  A person who attends the conference is immersed in hospitality.  The volunteers were efficient too.  They made sure to keep lines moving to minimize wait times.  This leads me to another observation.  The conference was sold out.  If there is a critique I would offer is that it was packed.  Sometimes seating was hard to come by in the main sessions and the breakout seminars.  However, this is probably more a reflection of the success and appeal of the conference.  One of the memorable moments at the conference was when the power went out during John MacArthur’s general session.  Evidently, this was a first in the history of the church.  What did he do?  He kept preaching.  It was a great moment.

Third, the collegiality at the conference was phenomenal.  This is a conference geared toward conservative evangelical pastors.  This means that the vast majority of men at SC were like-minded on the larger issues.  So it would be easy to meet a stranger and immediately have enough things in common to carry on a good conversation.  However, I didn’t attend SC alone. I attended the conference with seven other pastors from Minnesota.  The time spent with these men made the trip worthwhile.  We stayed in a small house and just had a great time.  We discussed ministry, associations, and any other topic entirely unrelated to the conference.  We laughed hard and often.  We spent some time in prayer.  Incidentally, we experienced a 3.2 earthquake while we were praying.  It was so Acts-like (cf. Acts 4:31).  We also enjoyed some time at the Santa Monica pier and promenade.  This trip strengthened our bond as brothers in Christ and fellow pastors.

Santa Monica

In summary, the content of SC was superb, the overall experience at SC was outstanding, and the collegiality at the conference was phenomenal.  This was a memorable trip.  Conferences are like tweets on a Twitter feed, there are just too many to get to.  SC is one conference I would love to attend annually, especially with my pastor brothers.

P.S. I want to mention the group of pastors who went from Minnesota (in alphabetical order): Joel Albright, Steve Brower, Greg Linscott, Matt Morrell, Dave Stertz, Micah Tanis, and Shad Vork.  The time spent with these men had to be the highlight of the trip.

MN Crew

Who Will Go?

John Piper writes in his biography on Adoniram Judson,

Patrick Johnstone says in Operation World that only in the 1990s did we get a reasonably complete listing of the world’s peoples. For the first time we can see clearly what is left to be done. There are about 12,000 ethnolinguistic peoples in the world. About 3,500 of these have, on average, 1.2% Christian populations—about 20 million of the 1.7 billion people, us­ing the broadest, nominal definition of Christian. Most of these least reached 3,500 peoples are in the 10/40 window and are religiously unsympathetic to Christian missions. That means that that we must go to these peoples with the gospel, and it will be dangerous and costly. Some of us and some of our children will be killed (John Piper, Adoniram Judson: How Few There Are Who Die So Hard!, 6-7).

The need is mind-boggling in scope.  So the question remains, “who will go?”