20 December 2016

How Silently, How Silently -- Christmas Letter 2016

HOW SILENTLY, HOW SILENTLY THE WONDROUS GIFT IS GIVEN AGAIN THIS YEAR.  Although subdued, for me personally, Christ’s advent is fully celebrated in 2016.  Although my eyes see more gray-tones than colors of late, He is no less wondrous and no less a gift.  Nevertheless, Christ decidedly sliced through the dreariness of this year’s December in the third stanza of a favorite hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

How silently, how silently / The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts / The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, / But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, / The dear Christ enters in.

My ear which was attuned to hear “the blessings of His heaven” in previous years had, like my under-used guitar, fallen into atonality.  Perhaps due to “this world of sin,” but my ear did not “hear His coming.”  Normally, I hear echoes of Christ and His gospel of grace everywhere.  But 2016 cinched off the continuous concert of God’s glory so furtively that I didn’t even recognize the growing silence.  It was like when I used those foam earplugs during air-travel—slowly, slowly sealing my ears in synthetic muteness.  Though the roar of the turbines screamed just a few feet away behind a few layers of sheet metal, I grew sleepy in the artificial cocoon of my own weary thoughts.  But my unnatural deafness was not peacefulness; it was plastic and forced.  The sleepiness of my year did not leave me refreshed, but ironically sleepier … even after taking extra doses of vitamin B-12.  Turns out, true peace does not require foam insulators.

“Wake up, O sleeper; rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14),” urged the Apostle Paul, eerily reminiscent of the Prophet Jonah who unnaturally slept through the storm he helped create (Jonah 1:6).  O little town of Bethlehem: Wake up!  Don’t you know that the Lord has arrived? He is in your own neighborhood!  O little man called Kevin: Wake up!  Don’t you know that there is more going on than a voiceless December?

The divine narrative is the same—then and now, no matter how gray the December—Wake up!  “Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw His glory” (Luke 9:32).  “Wake up…for some have [yet] no knowledge of God” (1 Corinthians 15:32).  “Let us not sleep, as the others do” (1 Thessalonians 5:6).  “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Revelation 3:2). 

But how?  How can I wake up?  Into that question the humble Christmas carol preaches a penetrating word: “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”  Meekness?  Is that the soul’s smelling salt?  Meekness?  Is there not some other method?  I have scads of weakness, is meekness the same thing as weakness?  No, it is not; not even close.  Weakness filled every room and every alley in Bethlehem that blessed night; every tavern and every brothel (which was what the Bethlehem Inn was, by the way, shedding even more light on the anti-welcome we originally gave to Christ), but meekness Incarnate was placed in an animal’s feeding trough.  Meekness is an obscure treasure—usually refused entrance through the front door.  Meekness is a strength—a heart-level pliability to the Lord.  It maintains resistance the things of the world while remaining receptive to the things of God.  Hard hearts and dulled senses due to disillusionment—these offer a counterfeit form of meekness.  But with true meekness—though the outer man necessarily thickens to the disappointments of life—the inner man remains soft to the smallest word and the remotest approach of the Savior.

Weakness says, “I can’t, therefore, I won’t.”   Meekness says, “I can’t, therefore, You must.”  Weakness says, “Life stinks, so pour me another so I can dull my senses a little while longer.”  Meekness says, “Life stinks, but look up—God promised to send a permanent solution to our trouble … starting at, of all places, the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)!”  Weakness says, “Who cares?”  Meekness says, “Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).”

I can’t awaken my ear, Lord.  “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” 
I can’t enliven my heart, Lord.  “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”   
I can’t brighten this December, Lord.  “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” 
I can’t, therefore, You must.  And, You did … starting at a little town of Bethlehem, ending at Calvary.

T            T            T

This year the Rees family has not nearly been as “gray” as its paterfamilias.  While we hang out our second Christmas wreath on our Tennessee door, we review a year that floated mainly between home, school, and the hospital—where Shellie continues to work as a nurse on the Medical-Surgical floor.

The kids, who are now much more like young adults than children, have excelled in their classwork; which is so nice to see and such a relief, because they have far outpaced my (Kevin’s) ability to assist with homework.  Seth will finish his sophomore year this coming May at the local community college, ready to transfer to a State University for a degree in wildlife biology or resource management.  He is beyond ready to begin his adult years.  Emma, too, is headed to State University after she graduates from high school this coming May.  She aspires to study dental hygiene and, hopefully, get a job anywhere in the country that she fancies.  Abby is writing articles for the school newspaper, volunteering (now that the soccer season is over), and participating in various clubs.  She currently has her driving permit and is ready to take her road test in February when she turns 16.  Nate is our happy-go-lucky guy who breezes through school with not much more of a daily summary than: “It was fine.”  He turned 14 last weekend and enjoyed watching the release of “Star Wars: Rogue One” with his good buddy.  Jocelyn continues to thrive in school.  She switched from 4H participation to her school’s journalism club called, “News Crew.”  She will turn 11 this week, but she seems closer to 21.  She enjoys playing with the dogs and learning to crochet.

Shellie’s career in nursing is advancing, but in such a demanding field, it is never without great and thankless effort.  She is a semi-regular charge nurse now, but she realizes more and more what she would do to increase efficiency and optimize patient care if she were in a bigger hospital.  But she gets the hero award this year for the way that she has served the family during our unexpected transition.  I, due to many justified and belabored reasons, was unable to continue working as a pastor where I was employed.  I resigned in August and have been, until just a few days ago, gagged against talking about any detail with anyone locally.  But now that I can talk about it, I find that I no longer want to talk about it.  The end result of it is this: small towns in the rural South being what they are economically, I have been unable to find employment.  Into this foamy brine Shellie stepped and returned to a night shift in order to make a few more dollars per hour.  That is why she gets the gold star.  I am still at a loss for words.

However, the grayness of 2016 is melting back into color.  I was able to find great agreement and synergy with a church in Washington State.  So, while we wrap our Christmas presents this year, I am also packing cardboard boxes for a 2200-mile move west.  I happily agreed to become the Discipleship Pastor at a growing church in West Richland, WA called Grace and Truth Community Church.  Since Emma’s senior year of high school is already in full swing, we decided that it would be best for the family if I move and begin working in January before Shellie and the kids join me in May.  All in all, we can say—as we have many times in the past—that this is just another opportunity to trust Jesus.  We warmly extend to each of you a prayer, whatever your 2017 might bring, may “the dear Christ enter in” with His unmistakable peace.    

–Kevin, for the whole crew, 12/20/16

01 December 2016

Vengeance Is Mine, I Will Repay, Says the Lord

Never does the “prophet’s fire” burn more in my belly than when I am forced into censure.  Enforced by humans, I endured this censure only because the Spirit through the Scriptures repeatedly admonished me (especially in the Psalms where I have been camped out) to: “Be silent,” “Give space to the wrath of God,” “Let them fall by their own counsels,” “Lay down and sleep” believing that God will “Arise” in his own way and in his own time and avenge his own name.  Today that censure is over.  So, what shall I say now that I can speak freely?  I will only say this—“Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3).  My anger, which was real and intense and in some human sense justified, has burned itself out; I dare not give that firestorm any more fuel than it has already consumed.  But I will attest that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  And I will call to mind this divine command: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God” (Romans 11:22) with the humble realization that I too am capable of the very treachery that I have suffered.  And I will choose to believe this wise counsel: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).

This Is A Gift

This is a gift.  Sitting on the porch in the middle of a Tuesday morning, listening to the water murmur in an unseen fountain, while the weather is finally cool enough for the geese to fly their long flight, I am aware that—though elements of this day have happened innumerable times—this particular moment will never come again.  It is an unbidden thought, but I do not shush it as would be normal for me in my abnormal compulsion to maximize the day.  This moment is already maximum.  It was already full before I even recognized it.  This is a gift.

The competitive urge to stretch toward efficiency is there, in my brain.  It is always there.  But today it has less power over my mind.  I can isolate it and insulate myself from it in a surreally detached sort of way.  Heel.  Sit.  Down.  Unlike my dogs, who never mind my commands, I am surprised that my thoughts obey.  This is a gift—receive it as such. 

Shame is also around, lurking, just beyond the tree line in my heart where light and shadow mix.  It is always nearby with clipboard in hand keeping score against some list of obscure regulations.  I can sense it staring at me with its judgmental glare.  You should be at work.  Your wife works so hard she can hardly function, and yet here you sit on the porch in the middle of a Tuesday morning like some sort of poser-aristocrat.  You keep on breathing oxygen you don’t deserve, eating food you can no longer afford—you are a joke and a waste of limited resources.  Hush.  Be gone.  You have no jurisdiction here.  This is a gift—and your name is not on the guest list.

I don’t have to do anything to this moment.  I don’t have to earn it.  I don’t have to strive later on to be worthy of it.  I don’t even have to excavate its footers so that I fully understand its significance.  I certainly can’t bottle it up for later when such a moment might come in handy.  I just receive it as unashamedly as a child receives the warmth of a fire her father built while she was shivering in the other room.  I have nothing to contribute; and that is not a deal-breaker in this moment.  “Being a contributor” is the untrue steam of so many of my soul’s engines that lead me nowhere.  But in this moment I am only a receiver.  The steam of this moment is sourced by some other fire—by some other benefactor; I am merely the beneficiary.  I am blessedly unnecessary to the water fountain, to the geese, to the weather while I sit here on my porch.  If I have ever been a contributor, truly, it has been a kindness of God instead of an achievement of mine.  Despite what my mother often said of me, I am actually not remarkable; not really.  Instead of being some cliché cleverly disguised as modesty, unnecessariness is a freedom.  This is a gift.

Where will this moment take me?  I don’t know.  But not knowing is not equal to failure on this assignment.  I don’t know and yet that itself is a crucial piece of knowledge.  Trying to know it all, all the time, is exhausting and unending work.  I don’t know!  It is liberating to admit it.  I don’t know how any of this works and yet, here it is working without my mastery of its moving parts.  I don’t have a guess at what this moment means or where in the sequence of moments it is occurring.  I can’t discern beginning, middle, or end.  I can’t detect north, south, east, or west.  Yet my ignorance—the same ignorance that gets a knuckle-slap in many other circumstances—neither disappoints nor dilutes this moment in the slightest.  This is a new kind of lesson where humility is more desirable than acuity.  This is a gift.

So I sit.  I receive.  I benefit.  And the geese fly.  My help is not required.  Even if I could hypothetically help, it would only ruin the moment.  There may be other moments later where participation is demanded and I trust that I will be ready for them when they emerge.  But this moment is a gift—a pearl in a long string of pearls—reflecting the truth that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change” (James 1:17).

18 August 2016

Rekindle the Flame - 2 Timothy 1:6

2 Timothy 1:6
August 14, 2016 — Kevin Rees - (audio not available)

Any spiritual fire requires the right balance between heat, oxygen, and fuel; but the spark comes from God.

Fire-craft is an ancient skill.  Making, keeping, and transporting fire draws a fine line between life and death for many people groups; even today.  Modern survivalists are reviving the skill, I guess for the zombie apocalypse, but people who live outside the reach of reliable amenities such as electricity, water, and modern transportation still shape their days around making, keeping, and transporting fire.  We lived in such a place in Uganda, but go to Sri Lanka or rural China or the extreme northern expanses of Canada, etc., and you will still find the centrality of fire.  Humanly speaking, it is easy to understand why some people revere and/or fear fire as a supernatural entity—because it was often the difference between life and death.  Fire is necessary, but impossible to tame truly.  Too much is death; too little is death, as well.

In modern America, starting a matchless fire may be something over which only the Boy and Girl Scouts® still fuss.  But our Native American compatriots still pass on the skill from generation to generation.  I’ve always given a second look to fire-craft—mostly out of curiosity.  Flint and spark, tinder and kindling, and flame and fuel—these are the main players in the older stories that course through all our human tribes.

So, what do you need for fire?  You need heat.  You need oxygen.  You need a sufficient source of combustible fuel.  Take away any one of those three and there can be no fire.  But you also need all three of those components in the right balance or there is no lasting fire.  For instance, too much oxygen or air, and the fire either blows up or blows out.  Too little heat and the fire peters out; too much heat and the fire can quickly get out of control.  Too wet the wood or too dense, or conversely too dry or too spongey, and the fire cannot progress through the necessary stages to become a full flame.  It really is a craft.  There really is a balance.  One must develop a skill to make, keep, and transport fire.

Earlier this summer I burned a large burn pile in the back yard—probably 8’ tall and easily 15’ around at the base.  It was a mixture of green wood, dead wood, hard wood, soft wood, leafy branches and yard waste still left over from the previous homeowner as well as many worn-out cardboard boxes that had been soaked in the rain and dried in the sun many times.  (And I was sad to learn, after the fact, that the pile was also spiked with poison ivy.)  The full day it took me to tend that fire became a vivid analogy of pastoring, especially pastoring here at Tucker Street Church, in line with 2 Timothy 1:6—“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”

In actuality, I had made three full attempts to light this fire but could not achieve a full flame.  Either the pile was too wet, or too windy so that I reconsidered the try on grounds of safety, or too wildly stacked that my starter fire didn’t ignite the whole pile.  I even tried lighter fluid from the grill, old motor oil from the shed, and diesel (don’t use gasoline!)—but three solid attempts failed before I finally found the right conditions.  It is illustrative that my successful attempt was the simplest and most Boy Scout-ish of them all—no accelerants, just tinder as fine as a pencil lead, kindling about as thick as my thumb, well-chosen sticks of maple as thick as my wrist, and several very carefully split, very thin wedges of hardwood.

I’ve seen gimmick-dependent ministries that flare up and die down much like my accelerant-heavy fire.  There is activity at first, and a burst of heat, but not enough bio mass in the right places or in the right arrangement to reach a full flame.  A stick-fire isn’t going to reach maturity without the heavier combustibles.  On the other hand, I’ve also seen plenty of examples of great, hefty logs tossed into the cold fire ring with nothing to catch them on fire.  Clearly a single match or a squirt of lighter fluid isn’t going to set a 10” round of red oak alight—no matter how much the oak complains or how true the match strikes.  Barring an act of God (e.g. lightning) there has to be a little bit of every size of twig, stick, branch, and log for the flame to reach maturity. 

It is not a surprise, nor is it an insult to say, that we have an ample supply of 10” red oak here.  But what we don’t have is the fine tinder, or the dry kindling, or the smaller branches of hardwood that can raise the temperature in the church hot enough to rekindle the big logs.  We are not burning brightly—or at all—as of late.  But today is a new day.  The seasoned veterans cannot burn hotly without the new believers, and the hungry, and the well-established yet untested new crop of disciples burning brightly.  Yet when the seasoned veterans rekindle, then their heat helps the previous stages of development progress.  It is this type of symbiosis: either burn all together or cool off alone.

So the analogy continues.  After those several tries (and I have burned dozens of burn piles in the last 20 years) I had to move through the elementary steps all over again—no short-cuts.  I had to have several pre-selected pieces of firewood at hand and ready to add to the immature fire in the right order.  There was no way around this step—kneeling down in the mud, getting smoke in my eyes, sometimes getting singed from the fire.  Rake, shovel, axe, and saw were all ready to go nearby.  I walked all over the property to gather pine needles, which is hard when there are very few pine trees!  (I learned several weeks later that I could have used a manual pencil sharpener to make my own tinder from the shavings from pencil-sized twigs.)  I heaped a snowball-sized clump of loosely packed tinder and lit the match under it—some smoke, a slow exhale of breath, then flame.  I quickly and carefully added my bone-dry kindling a couple of sticks at a time so as not to crush the tinder and smother the flame.  I took off my hat and used it to fan the flame.  More kindling a little bit thicker in diameter than before; I heard one of the best sounds in the world—the crackle of fire when the water escapes the wood as steam.  Now there was heat!  Slowly, slowly add the poplar, add the cherry, then the oak, then the locust.

Heat, oxygen, and fuel—not too much too soon, but also not too little too late.  Block the wind, now let it through.  Fan a little more.  Fan a little less.  Add a little more fuel.  Rearrange it carefully.  It is a primeval joy to see a fire stand up.  It is very shepherd-like. 

We often think of a shepherd as a tender occupation.  But it really is not.  It is fragile at first, but not soft.  A shepherd of the flame is there to keep the fire going; that is it.  It is not to convince anyone else why the fire is important.  It is not to compare fire with other fire-craftsmen.  It is not to make appropriate small talk with the twigs, the branches, or the logs before during or after the assembly.  The keeper of the flame is the keeper of the flame; it is as simple as that—beginning, middle, and end.  If he is trying also to cook a meal in the kitchen while the flame is burning out in the yard, then he would not be a suitable chef or a suitable shepherd of the flame.  The shepherd of the fire’s only task is to keep the flame burning and, when appropriate, to train others to transport the flame to a new burn-site (e.g. make disciples). 

Yes, there are times when the sudden cloudburst drenches the fire and he has to start again.  Yes, there are times when the north wind kicks up and complicates his central calling.  Yes, there are times when the wood is just too wet, too scattered, or too green to burn thus requiring patience.  And sadly, yes, there are times when nothing is cooperating and the shepherd has to carry the embers of the fire of God deep inside his own soul.  But when it all works together then even the most gnarled joints of ironwood that the wood-splitter just could not split and even the most rigid stumps of old-growth locust will burn.  And when those “big boys” catch fire, they can burn for a week.  But even the biggest, hottest fires are fragile at first.

I.          WE NEED A REMINDER (vs. 6a)

6a For this reason I remind you…

We need a reminder, this morning—a reminder just like Paul gave to Timothy—that faith is enough to meet the challenge of life and ministry.  Heat, oxygen, and fuel—any spiritual fire must have those elements, but the true spark of life comes from God alone.  

Timothy has that true spark.  In verse 5 Paul called it “sincere faith”—which is to say, woodenly—non-hypocritical (anhupokrino) faith.  The hypocrite (hupokrino) has a counterfeit and insincere spark—there is heat and friction, but it doesn’t come from the Spirit of God and therefore does not generate life but accelerates death.  Paul senses the need to remind Timothy personally, as a mentor to a protégé … as a spiritual father to a spiritual son … that he has what it takes.  There are plenty who will insinuate or accuse that you do not have what it takes, but a spiritual father has the clout to stand in the gap for you and say, “No.  Let me speak the good word over you once again.  You are in Christ and therefore, the words spoken over him apply to you by imputation: ‘You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’

Timothy was likely opposed by the church for his perceived inexperience; for his perceived timidity; for his perceived weaknesses—although he was none of those things.  Before he was ever called by a church, he was called by God.  Though they may reject him, he is not rejected.  Timothy needed this reminder.  We need this reminder as well.  Remember who you are!  You are a not the holder of hands or the singer of songs or the pray-er of prayers or the preacher of sermons; you are a keeper of the sacred flame!

Here is a two-pronged application that is worthy of full consideration: are you a Timothy and do you have a Timothy?  Are you a Timothy—are you being discipled by someone?  It doesn’t matter if you are 85 or 25, are you learning from someone about what it means to know Christ, love God and others, and serve the world?  Do you have someone, like I did again this week, who you can call and say: “Please pray for me because this is what I am facing?”  In fact, I have many such people.  We don’t talk every month, but when the pressure is on, I know that from any or all of them I can receive unvarnished answers about this life of faith.  This need to be discipled never ceases—are you a Timothy?

Also, do you have a Timothy?  Do you have someone you are actively mentoring; someone who wants to be discipled by you?  This is not like having an apprentice or like being a sponsor.  If it is just an information dump—you to him or her—then it is probably not disciple-making.  Disciple-making is life-on-life; a two-way relationship that gives and receives grace and truth.  I am still praying for a Timothy here in Dyersburg.  I have some Timothys that I am discipling over Skype® every month, but disciple-making cannot truly happen by remote.  Being discipled and becoming a discipler at the same time—this is healthy and wholesome.  In fact, it is the heartbeat of New Testament ministry.

II.         WE NEED A REKINDLING (vs. 6b)

6b … to fan into flame the gift of God …

What does Paul want to remind Timothy about specifically?  Paul wants Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God.”  The language is poetic; occurring nowhere else in the New Testament.  I want you to again-enliven-the-fire.  For Timothy the flame is already there, even if it is only inside his heart at the beginning.  But the necessary action as he is going to take over leadership in the churches while Paul’s leadership winds down is to fan into flame the gift of God.

Notice a few things about this teaching.  It is present tense, so the idea is to keep on fanning into the flame (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament).  It is not a once-and-done.  It is not a “drive-by” task, but an on-going process.  And it is singular, so Timothy has to do this work himself.  Clearly, the spark is from God; Timothy cannot generate that part, but shepherding the flame into fullness in his own sphere is his own responsibility as he depends upon the Spirit.  This is very important! 

Timothy has spent considerable time ministering at Corinth and at Ephesus, but he is not responsible for reviving those churches, per se; for fanning their flames into roaring infernos.  That may or may not happen based on the individual responsibility to tend to their own flame and the gift of God in their own heart.  But the primary flame that Timothy is responsible to keep is the gift of God in his own life.  Does that imply that Timothy sequester himself from other Christians?  Of course not.  We are lights of the world, sharing our flame to those around us.  But how can he do this if he lets his own flame fade?  Fan into flame the gift of God, so that you can share the light of Christ with those who come inside the circle of your campfire.  “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

The opposite, of course, would be to quench or extinguish the flame.  Don’t smother it yourself or the Spirit in you.  Don’t allow others to smother it in you or for you.  Absolutely not!  Your flame is given to you for the edification of all the saints—but it is God’s property, so to speak.  Just remember that people prefer the darkness to the light.  Your light might intimidate the children of darkness.  So let them rage, but you—I want you to fan your flame.  It is as much part of your calling as where you go, or what you say.

This is where my analogy of burning my backyard burn-pile breaks down.  A pastor, even a bishop like Timothy—who seems to be over several churches by the time of his martyrdom in Ephesus—can arrange the tinder, stack the kindling, and add the fuel to the fire, but he cannot set it alight.  Or will not, just like Elijah built the altar and stacked the wood but waited for fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38).  Maybe that is the most faithful posture—having done everything to light, but then wait for the fire to come down.

So while we wait for that ultimate provision of the fire of God outside of us, how can we fan into flame the gift of God inside of us?  A few suggestions.  Use your gift in service to others.  (Non-use will trend toward entropy.)  Stir the coals.  Collect more firewood to last the cold, dark night.  Block the wind.  Disciple a partner to learn alongside you.  Rest well.  Take pains to sharpen your axe.  Then wait for God!

Some people may not know what their gift is.  To that I would say, the best way I’ve found to discover the gift of God in you is to serve in many different areas.  Serve in the nursery.  Teach the teens.  Volunteer to learn the sound system.  Go on a mission trip.  Feed the needy.  Some service projects will drain you, but I would gamble that at least one will pump you up.  That one is probably the gift.  Now that doesn’t mean stop serving in places that drain your energy, but isolate the gift.  Nurture it.  Feed it.  Protect it.  Develop it.  Why, so that you gain mastery for the sake of mastery?  No way!  Gain mastery for the purpose of serving others and glorying God.  You’ve been blessed; so use it to become a blessing to others. 

My gift is to teach the Scriptures.  It pumps me up every time.  And I know it is my primary gift because of service.  I also know this, on the flip side, because when I am censured or if my opportunity to lead through teaching is taken away, I am severely conflicted.  So, how do I fan into flame my gift, for instace?  I remain curious.  I chase down ideas.  I listen to others; even others with those whom I do not necessarily agree.  But I also choose, at times, when to stop listening to discouragement.  I remain ever the learner.  I create margin in my day to think, pray, and create.  But why fan this flame?  So that I can outshine other teachers?  Boo; may it never be!  I fan into flame the gift of God because God’s truth sets slaves free—just like it set me free.  It is my joy to contribute in the process where hearts turn toward Jesus in the truth.  So, what is your primary gift?  What are you going to do to keep this flame at full intensity?


6c … which is in you through the laying on of my hands.

Finally, after Paul gives a reminder and some sage advice about rekindling, he gives a solid reaffirmation.  He takes Timothy back to his ordination day; a milestone that they shared years before.  He doesn’t add anything new, but simply indicates that the confidence he had in Timothy back then, he still has.  “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1Timothy 4:14).

The gift came from God, but with the laying on of hands by the elders—here Paul merely mentions himself—the collective church affirms Timothy.  Paul did not give the gift to Timothy, but recognized the divine gift by the symbolic gesture of laying on of hands. 

So look at the bones of this timely reaffirmation: Timothy, I was there with you at the beginning.  I’m here with you at the end, if only in spirit.  Others in the church many use many other non-biblical metrics to evaluate you: attendance, eloquence, charisma, even your physical health.  But you will always have this milestone.  Go back there in your mind and remember that God chose you, that I witnessed God’s work in your life, and that I validated the gift that the Spirit gave you for service.

Church, do you need a reminder this morning?  Run to the Scriptures.  Church, do you need a rekindling?  Fan into flame the Spirit’s gift.  Church, do you need a reaffirmation?  Cling to your calling.  In Christ you have already been given “all things pertaining to life and godliness through the knowledge of him to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).  You are a keeper of the flame—no more, no less.

11 August 2016

Living with the End in View - 2 Timothy 4:5-8

2 Timothy 4:5-8
August 7, 2016 — Kevin Rees - audio file posted at

“I preached as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men” (Richard Baxter, 1615-1691).

This Sunday morning, like every Sunday morning at our church, we invoke the Father in the name of Jesus and worship him in Spirit and in truth.  This is right and proper yet costs us nothing.   While we risk nothing to gather openly as Christians here in America, there are this morning a millions of Christians who risk everything to worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth.

It might be the last place you would expect it, but there is a revival happening in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Who knows, maybe today several more hundred were converted as they risked their lives to find an “underground” house church; average size: 4 or 5 people (  Changing their location every time, singing songs in a whisper for fear of detection by neighbors, Iranian Christians are seeing the recent intensification of persecution ironically accelerating growth instead of quelling it.  One thing is certain, there is no way for Christians there or anywhere under threat of death for exalting the name of Christ NOT to live with the end in view.  The one has merged into the other—life and death.

This week in Rouen, France, several hundred attended the funeral service of Father Jacques Hamel (85), who was stabbed to death during the Mass by jihadist teenagers.  A large screen feed was provided outside the cathedral for overflow participants (Tim Hume, CNN).  Although I do not know what the archbishop of Rouen (Dominque Lebrun) said as he eulogized Hamel, it is likely that all those present—and many, many more through television coverage—were urged in one way or another to live with the end in view.  The one is infused into the other—life and death—like tea leaves steeped in hot water.

It is not necessarily a morbid mixture—life and death together.  There is actually great wisdom in linking the two.  From the moment of conception we begin to die.  And the process that takes us naturally toward death paradoxically reverses the developmental steps of life: we often traverse from adulthood back through adolescence, then childhood, and finish in infancy.  It is normal to consider one alongside the other.  In fact, the abnormal perspective in life would be the one that pretends that death is abnormal.

Perhaps the modern person has an aggravated case of “death aversion”—never wanting to talk about it, deal with it, or even see it.  But I have found that less modern people, now antiquated as classic authors, dealt with death much more frequently.  One such antiquated author is Richard Baxter, a puritan pastor from the 17th Century (1615-1691).  He often talked about death, even teaching those who aspired to enter the ministry that a key role of the parish pastor was to help people die well and meet their Maker with faithful confidence; to serve as a “guide of sinners to heaven” (The Reformed Pastor).  When he was still a young man of 34, Baxter wrote his own funeral sermon, which became one of his many books, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1649).  In that book he wrote a striking line: “I preached as never sure to preach again; as a dying man to dying men.”  Live with the end in view.

I see a similar wisdom in the Apostle Paul—ever vigilant to live with the end in view.  Even early in his ministry, Paul was well aware that death was only a hair’s width away—“for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  And as he faced his own execution life and death were inseparable.

In his chronologically last epistle, 2 Timothy—likely penned merely days or weeks before he was beheaded by the infamously insane Caesar Nero (67 or 68 A.D.)—Paul took the opportunity to teach his protégé yet again about the ministry at large and the necessity of living with the end in view.  His words are far from detached; not even remotely bitter.  He was lucid, passionate, and humble.  His life was about to end, but what mattered far more than his experience was the continuation of the gospel ministry—here formally passed to Timothy.  I find Paul’s words hauntingly beautiful—look in, look around, look back, and look ahead (outline credit, Warren Wiersbe, The “BE” New Testament Commentary Series).

I.          LOOK IN (vs. 5)

5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Paul was tenderly concerned about Timothy; not his own chains.  There was still work to do, but Paul’s part in it was over.  Timothy, as a relatively young minister (although not a novice), must take over where Paul left off, likely to endure the same hardships that Paul faced.  Therefore, Timothy needed an outline; a game plan … a philosophy of life that was unafraid of death.  Paul supplied some of the particulars: “Always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (vs. 5).

These rapid-fire instructions were full-fledged commands.  They encompassed the whole-person; all the angles—mental, emotional, occupational, and vocational.  “Always be sober-minded”—a frequent phrase for Paul—was not a fault against Timothy, but an encouragement.  It could be translated, “Keep on being sober-minded in all things [as you have been doing!]”  It has nothing to do with alcohol-induced intoxication, but maintaining a circumspect alertness.  Engage your mind, Timothy.  Remain cool-headed.  Keep your wits; you are going to need them both inside the church and outside the church.

“Endure suffering”—also a command—suffer well through trouble, even evil.  As the first imperative focused the mind, the second imperative focused the emotions.  Remain balanced.  Passion for the core things must continue to smolder even when temporarily smothered by lesser concerns.  Affliction was certain for Timothy, but what was not certain—and thus sparking this Pauline pep-talk—was Timothy’s emotional equilibrium during affliction.  Pay attention to your emotional life, for no one else will (cf 1 Timothy 4:16).

“Do the work of an evangelist.”  Some speculate that Timothy must not have been a natural evangelist; that Paul was propping up a weak point in Timothy’s skillset.  That may be true, but not necessarily.  Taken in tandem with the next imperative, “fulfill your ministry,” it seems like there was a differentiation in ministry between the necessary occupational tasks and the vocationally fulfilling tasks.  The evangelism needed to continue regardless of Timothy’s personal niche ministry.  Do the task.  Speak the words.  Explain the futility of religion to a habitually religious people.  This never ends; ever.  People are habitually religious, so the evangelist consistently explains the gospel as a completely “other” path than religious ritualism.  On the whole, people will never get it, Timothy.  Don’t be discouraged; it is not a reflection of your skill but the nature of sin.  The human heart is naturally antagonistic to the gospel.

In fact, “the heart of man is an idol factory,” said John Calvin, and I confess that I agree more and more with his conclusion every year I am in the ministry.  But simultaneously: there are acts of service/ministry that will bear fruit, Timothy.  Fill those baskets up; every last one of them.  The evangelism basket has a hole in the bottom and is constantly draining—so keep at it—but the ministry is not all “grind” and no joy.  Enjoy.  Innovate.  Develop.  Cultivate.  This is essential for you personally, and for the gospel ministry at large.  Do your occupation, but bring to fullness your vocation.  It will not happen passively.

II.         LOOK AROUND (vs. 6)

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.

Living with the end in view starts with a proper internal perspective but spills over into an external perspective as well.  Paul branched out from looking in to looking around in verse six.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering” (vs. 6a).  Paul already sees himself as a drink offering; a direct allusion to the Old System of sacrifices where a portion of wine is poured out to the Lord as a voluntary gesture of devotion.  He was very much alive even though physically doomed.  Paul typified “living with the end in the view” remarkably well.  Every minute he had left, it was “unto the Lord.”  Every minute was a bonus minute.  He did not just wait for the end; he wrote Timothy these exquisite letters, he studied the Scriptures (2 Timothy 4:13), he evangelized the guards (Acts 28:16) and he ministered to the officials in Caesar’s government (Philippians 4:22).

Nevertheless, Paul’s physical reality was certain: “the time of my departure has come” (vs. 6b).  It was a rather poetic turn of phrase.  Departure (Gr., analuo—unloose) was a euphemism for death in the sense of hoisting anchor (Liddel, Scott, and Jones).  Yet that decision was not under his prerogative—nor is it under ours.  It was up to God when to push Paul away from the pier.  Paul was ready; ready to go, willing to stay.  When God gave the order, Paul would sail into the sea of eternity on the sunset ship.  It was not Nero who hoisted Paul’s anchor; it was God (cf Psalm 139:16).   

III.        LOOK BACK (vs. 7)

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Living with the end in view rightly balances the inner world—look in.  It also rightly navigates the outer world—look around.  Thirdly, it rightly evaluates the past—look back.

The Rio Olympics just started.  I particularly love watching the Olympics; the heraldry, the courage, the enjoyment of sport.  It is my favorite sporting venue.  I remember the Los Angeles Olympics in ’84 where watching the Summer Games was not enough; my friend and I had to participate somehow.  So we invented our own 10-year old version of the Games adapted to suburbia from whatever we could find in the garage.  Our events were silly, really.  There was the hammer throw, where we threw a crochet mallet across the front yard for distance as well as two-handed shotput with a bowling ball.  Horseshoes.  Pull-ups on the low branch of the maple tree.  Handstands for time.  Badminton.  High jump.  Long Jump.  Wrestling.  Nerf® Basketball.  Penalty shots with the street hockey net (we generously mashed up Winter and Summer Games).

And then there was cycling.  This was the main event. We borrowed my friend’s father’s 10-speed bicycle for timed laps around the block.  The Schwinn® was way too big for either of us, but it looked the part.  My friend went first, so I worked the stopwatch.  He didn’t even try to sit on the seat.  Just standing on the pedals he barely straddled the frame.  I remember he had to use the curb to balance himself until I said: “Go.”  He started wobbly but gained speed, crunched through the gears, and disappeared around the bend.  Forty seconds later, I saw him tearing around the last corner as I prepared to mark the official time.  But as he crossed the finish, although neither of us knew the difference, we both simultaneously realized that the handlebars were completely backwards—making the brake levers opposite.  He mashed what ended up being the front brake, going very fast, flipped the bicycle and skidded on his face in the street.  He ran inside a bloody mess while I picked up four entire teeth, roots and all.  The Olympics were over, but you can rightly say that my friend gave his eye-teeth for the chance to compete.

Paul seemed to have an affinity to the Games as well.  He slid into Olympic metaphors here at the end of his life’s last lap with great effect—boxing and racing.  He looked back on his life and said, “I have fought the good fight [woodenly: I, myself, have agonized the good agony].  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith” (vs. 7).  His satisfaction came from, to use a modern sports idiom, “leaving it all out on the field.”  He had spent every penny, burned every calorie of energy every day, accepted every challenge, endured every scar, and preached to every audience which the Spirit assembled.  At the end, he had no regrets.  Frankly, that is incredibly inspiring to me at my mid-point in the race.  There were times when Paul walked into the fray, and other times he avoided the fray altogether.  There were times he preached and other times he taught; even a few times he said nothing at all.  But all in all, he obeyed the Spirit—even having admitted near his mid-point, that he “despaired even of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).  Success was not perfection but faithfulness.

He took personal inventory of his past and, after evaluation, he testified that he finished well.  Of course, that was not to celebrate the human tenacity of Paul, but the divine grace upon Paul.  The Olympic Games—then and now—basically end up exalting humans.  But the fight of faith celebrates God’s work in the believer.  

IV.        LOOK AHEAD (vs. 8)

8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Living with the end in view looks in, looks around, looks back, and finally looks ahead to the future.  But unlike the Ancient Games, which bestowed temporary garlands of laurel or pine to the winner, Paul looked ahead to a permanent crown that will never wilt. 

His story was not over when Nero sent in the executioner.  It was just beginning; just like C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle: “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

“Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (vs. 8).  The crown (Gr., stephanos) was the wreath given to the heroic athletes at the Olympic Games bestowed by the king.  But this crown will be given to all who faithfully anticipate the Lord’s appearing; not merely the one victor.  Nero did not place any honor on Paul’s head, but instead struck off his head.  But Christ, the true king of heaven and earth, will reward Paul with the crown of righteousness.  Paul’s future hope was a testament to his entire life; faith in the better King, the better crown, the better honor, the better hope.

Living with the end in view did not cause Paul to disconnect from life.  No!  Paul’s calm acceptance of death infused his life with wisdom, confidence, passion, and hope.  And it is the same for us today.  We need a perspective on life that includes death without succumbing to any fear of dying.  The gospel, among many other benefits, breaks the power of the fear of death.  Christ “destroy[s] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver[s] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15).  In Christ, we all go where Christ already traveled—through death into life in the eternal state.  The path is lonely, for sure, but we are never alone when we are hidden in Christ.  This is living with the end in view.

25 July 2016

Truth in a Sea of Opinions - 2 Peter 1:16-21

2 Peter 1:16-21
July 24, 2016 — Kevin Rees - audio file posted at

We don’t create or shape our own personal “truth,” the living Truth creates and shapes us.

Today is Back-to-School Sunday.  (Sorry, kids!  Congratulations, parents!)  The remarkably short summer of West Tennessee is already over—long before the summer tomatoes have finished ripening in the garden.  So this week as you are collecting your home-room assignments, your loose-leaf paper and pencils, your dress-code-appropriate collared shirts, and your next ten months of academic momentum I want you also to pay attention to what you will need spiritually for this school year. 

This half-week squeeze the last few drops of summer out as best you can—the last milkshake at the Dairy Queen, the last swim at Okeena pool, grab the tackle box one last time.  But while you are transitioning from a largely unstructured season to a highly structured one, I encourage you to grapple with a spiritual foundation upon which all the other elements of life and school and relationships stand.  Maybe you have grappled with it already; please do so again—grapple with truth. 

But let’s not make the same mistake as Pontius Pilate in John 18:36 who asked, “What is truth?” as though it were a subject in philosophy class, when the Truth Incarnate was standing right there in front on him.  Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  Where is Truth found?  Who has the final authority on Truth?  How can truth make a better foundation for the life you are building than all the other lesser foundations out there—such as popular opinion, such as external image, such as personal experience, such as subjective preference, such as a shifting ethic that buckles and rolls with every situation and every person?  Why is Truth a better foundation than all the other options?  That is what today is about.

Therefore please, go to class. Learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions without a calculator.  Memorize your world and state capitals.   Convert grams to moles and figure out and figure how long it will take Sally to fill a 500 liter tub with water at 4.2 liters per minute.  Dive into your Charles Dickens fiction and Edgar Allen Poe poetry.  But underneath and in between and overarching all those important data points from all those very necessary fields of study is Truth.   What you decide about Truth is primary to anything else you might do with information.

You might object: Sunday has nothing to do with Monday through Friday; Jesus has nothing to do with Geometry or Spanish 2 or British Lit.  But I’m saying precisely that he does; but at a foundational level that goes much deeper than the facts.  You are building your worldview during these years.  Your worldview is where you prioritize and analyze and interpret and activate ideas in your life.  I am making a case for worldview built on the Truth of God and the God of Truth.  Truth is not an add-on; it is the mainframe.  Truth is not an appendix; it is the thesis statement.  Truth is not for Sundays only; it is for always.

Standing upon the slam-dunk passage in 2 Peter 1:16-21, I want to highlight why Truth is unlike human opinion and why it is better than personal experience as the foundation for life and godliness.  Truth is revealed by God, inspired by God, illumined by God; objective, enduring, and reliable.

I.          TRUTH IS UNLIKE OPINION (vs. 16)

The Apostle Peter was eyeing the end of his earthly existence with an amazingly level head (vv. 10-15).  His eternal destiny had been settled decades before when he conclusively decided he needed nowhere else to go but to Christ by faith, for Christ alone had the words of eternal life (John 6:68).  His physical destiny was outlined by Jesus some 35 years previously, of incarceration and martyrdom (John 21:18-19).  Soon after Peter wrote this letter, the famously insane Caesar Nero took Peter’s life (and Paul’s, too; in 67 or 68 A.D.).  Therefore, in his last epistle he set down some important principles he wanted to emphasize before death. 

My paraphrase of Peter’s dying wish: I am dying soon, any day now, but I want you who remain to be ready to carry on the mission and the ministry of the gospel without me.  Therefore, know this: receive and respect the Bible as God’s own word and God’s best way to transmit the gospel from one generation to the next.  This is why God moved me and Paul and the others throughout redemptive history to record God’s Truth on paper—so that it is objective, open to all, and timeless.  Every generation will have equal access to the mind and heart of God through the Scriptures.  I want you to know how trustworthy it is!

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (vs. 16).  Without needing to elaborate, for he and his readers would have had ample opportunity from the number of traveling philosophers ringing the Mediterranean world, of “cleverly devised myths.”  From Jupiter and Venus to Plato and Socrates, with many layers in between, the ancient world was a polytheistic bazaar.

Peter grabbed hold of the foundation; the source of these philosophies in the phrase, “cleverly devised myths.”  While he will take his entire second chapter to talk about these false teachers, he condensed their ilk into one Greek word, “sophizo”—to make wise—which is the heart of our original sin—to make oneself wise [autonomously from a relationship God] (Genesis 3:6).  The false teachers themselves have drummed up stories to support and give credence to their agenda but it is just the regurgitation of our original sin.   I have an idea I already want to believe, therefore I selectively search for evidence to support and “prove” it even if I have to write the narrative myself.  This ironically is what skeptics have accused the apostles of doing for millennia, when actually—with actual eyes on the scene—it was the sophists who first pushed their agenda backwards into their myth-building.

The most important part of verse 16 was not so much the exposure of false teachers’ fallible propaganda, but the beginning of Peter’s argument that the Scriptures are in a completely different category than the pluralistic philosophies of his day.  If it originates in humans, then it is opinion.  Opinion is an unsuitable building material.

In the West, we have elevated opinion—which everyone is entitled to have and express—to the lofty status previously reserved for religious creed.  And we have simultaneously devalued truth—which everyone has equal access to in the Scriptures—to the same status as opinion, if not lower.  The result is that there are 7 billion opinions and no one is “allowed” to call the other 6,999,999,999 opinions lame. 

We used to think collectively —the church says, therefore we are.  Then we morphed into more individualized worldview—I think, therefore I am.  Only recently we phase-shifted again from rationalism to emotionalism—I feel, therefore I am.  Today, in the post-postmodern soup we swim—I am who I am—and no one can tell me or convince otherwise.  Today the individual is god; he or she believes himself or herself to have the final authority in his/her life.  So … how is that going?  Are we any better off?

It goes against the modern [re]definition of “tolerance” to say so, but all opinions are not equal.  Many, if not most, are lame, a handful are dangerous, several are demonic, and few are openly predatorial.  But only the Truth sets people free.  Truth is unlike opinion.  It does not shift.  Truth is absolute, yet personal! 

Peter was an eyewitness to this one and only, buried and resurrected, soon-to-be-returning Jesus Christ.  He was witness to Truth incarnate.  He is not peddling an opinion, but signing an affidavit with his blood!


The current worldview of most people in the Western world elevates self and personal opinion while lowering the God of Truth and the Truth of God.  No surprise there!  One might ponder that a moment and then ask: so then how does modern man form his opinion; on what does he base it?  This is a question of orthodoxy—how does he decide what he believes is sound; firm?  In a word: experience.

The cosmopolitan human isn’t such a flake as to assume that any passing thought is a “keeper.”  But when experience supports the opinion, then credence follows.  How can I illustrate this?  Okay, here’s one: this week a country singer (I don’t know the artist) sang, “It feels so right, it can’t be wrong.”  That’s a worldview folks—and a very common one inside and outside the country music universe.  “It feels so right, it can’t be wrong.”  Now, I’m just making a passing illustration—and I’m not about to boycott country music—but he was preaching a sermon.  Right and wrong is determined by his personal feeling.  His experience of euphoria supported and justified his opinion, solidifying it as both normal and firm and, therefore, “right” … no matter what others say.  The opposite could be asserted as well—if it doesn’t feel good, then it can’t be right; it must be wrong.  Anyone who didn’t have that specific, euphoric feeling—the flawed logic continues—can’t evaluate or condemn the importance he built upon that feeling.  This is the post-modern credo

Experience is the new orthodoxy.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  But such is simply untrue.  I don’t have to experience the rush of injecting heroine before I can denounce it as evil, stupid, and wrong.  The sensation, I am told, is euphoric.  If experience justifies opinion, then how can I—on the outside of the experience—dare to suggest a different system for deciding the rightness and wrongness of an activity?  Today that sort of “meddling” earns me (unfairly) title of bigot.  The experience is the new basis for today’s orthodoxy. 

That may sound oddly reasonable, until you realize that those euphoric feelings are liars.  They promise life but deliver death.  They promise freedom but enslave millions; some people get hooked on the very first hit.  Only the Truth sets people free; not experience.  Experience is so often a liar that I cannot trust it to guide or drive my orthodoxy.  I need something outside of myself to measure, decide, qualify, and quantify what is “right” and what is “wrong.”  I need an objective source of Truth.  I need a Savior.

Peter, who had arguably the best, highest, noblest experience on the planet did the most amazing thing with that experience.  Referring to the glorification of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah who gave deference to Jesus as their infinite superior while God the Father spoke audibly to Jesus (Mark 9:7), Peter laid his experience down at the foot of the Jesus. 

“For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’  We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (vv. 17-18).

My paraphrase (once again): Here is my experience, Lord.  You interpret it for me.  I submit it to you and your truth.  I do not have the wisdom or enough freedom from my own deceitful heart to be to make any sense or draw any lasting conclusions from what I just experienced.   Slam dunk, Peter!

III.        TRUTH IS THE “MORE SURE” WORD (vv. 19-21)

If you haven’t already noticed it, Peter is making a less-sure to more-sure argument for the Scriptures as the best, most accessible, most durable source of Truth and orthodoxy in the universe. 

He was an eyewitness to the “power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 16), which is amazing.  Peter was also an ear-witness, so to speak, when he “heard this very voice borne from heaven” testify about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (vs. 18).  Neither of those experiences are lightweight; both set Peter apart from virtually every other human who has ever lived.  But Peter says there is something better!

It is shocking, staggering, and stupendous to read Peter’s next words.  “[But] we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (vv. 19-21).

The “prophetic word” in verse 19 is clearly defined as “Scripture” in verse 20.  A quick page-turn over to 2 Peter 3:15-16 shows that Peter considered what he had written, and what Paul had written, as two cursory examples, were fully and truly “Scripture”—indicating that they knew what was going on through their pen as they recorded the “apostle’s doctrine” in ink.  So, here is the conclusion.  Unlike opinion, and better than experience, Scripture is “the more sure word” [New American Standard].  The Scriptures are flat-out better than even the best experience in history!

Why better?  Because from start to finish—from inspiration, to illumination, to interpretation—it is God’s work.  It is objective—meaning outside of ourselves—and stands as the final authority in life and godliness.  It is durable—meaning it will last forever—and is not subject to the whims and trends of humanity.  It is reliable—meaning it is completely trustworthy.  It is accessible—there are no secrets, no passwords, no prerequisites required.  It is understandable; it says plainly what God means it to say whether you are a Greek scholar or an illiterate Bedouin.  It has no equal.  Peter will not stick around for many more days, nor any of the apostles for many more years.  But that is okay, because they faithfully recorded their doctrine and their eyewitness (and earwitness!) testimony down in the New Testament.  In the Scriptures we have full access to the Truth of God and the God of Truth.

So the world clamors for personal experience to justify its own personal opinions, which produces neither freedom nor life but only slavery and death.  Students, parents, teachers, citizens—don’t go to the schools to find your worldview.  Go to the Scriptures to find God’s worldview.  But don’t stop there; carry God’s worldview with you back into the schools, into the halls, into the faculty breakrooms, and into the football stadium on Friday nights.  I guarantee you that a worldview built on Truth is not on your classroom list of school supplies, but it is essential that you have it.  Otherwise, you will drift along with the current. 

“While the nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us.  The God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:6-7). 

19 July 2016

Ears to Hear - Jeremiah 36

Jeremiah 36
July 17, 2016 — Kevin Rees - audio file posted at

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).

Right now traveling through this room and through our bodies are any number of invisible waves: micro waves, ultraviolet rays, radio waves, electromagnetic waves, natural waves of low-level radiation, and digital waves of data from satellites, cell phone towers, and television stations.  Even this wireless microphone I am wearing is sending and receiving waves.  But we are not able to receive or interpret or harness most of these imperceptible waves into usable forms; only a few.  However on that backs of those few wave forms, very smart people over the years have figured out of a way to piggy-back information. 

As early as 1864 scientists theorized about waves of electromagnetic radiation which they could use to carry information through the air without wires.  During the next 40 years, men such as James Clark Maxwell in England, Heinrich Hertz in Germany, Guglielmo Marconi in Italy, and Reginald Fessendsen in Canada perfected radio technology ready for public, commercial use in 1920 worldwide.  The genius of the radio overcame three challenges—transmitting/receiving the signal, transforming the signal into a usable form, and amplifying the signal for broad-scale application.

I find that technological advancement very interesting.  But what is even more interesting to me is that the pattern of receiving an invisible signal, transforming that signal into a usable form, and amplifying that signal for broad-scale application is exactly the pattern that peppers both the Old and New Testaments thousands of times—hearing, listening, and obeying the word of the Lord.  We sometimes just call it belief.  In hearing, we receive the raw truth from God.  In listening, we convert that raw truth into a useable form in our hearts and minds.  In obeying, we amplify that useable truth to the broader application of thought, word, and deed.  The human being is the original radio.  The whole hear-listen-obey process is concentrated into a single Hebrew word—“shema’.”  In the book of Jeremiah, for instance, “shema’” occurs 168 times.  It becomes the cadenced theme of the entire prophecy.  Hear!  Listen!  Obey!

Physically speaking, I could have fully functioning ears, but if the region in my brain that handles sound is not functioning I will not be able to hear. (And vice versa.)  Spiritually speaking, God adds a third layer to the auditory system—the ear, the mind, and the heart.  If we have one or two of those but not the third, then there is no hearing-listening-obeying the truth of God; there is no relationship with God.  If I don’t have access to God’s truth in my ears (e.g. the Spirit and the Scriptures), I can’t hear God.  If I have access to God’s truth in my ears, but no understanding of God’s truth in my mind (e.g. belief), I don’t listen.  If I have access to God’s truth in my ears and understanding in my mind, but no inclination to apply God’s truth in my heart (i.e. application), I won’t obey.  Hearing, listening, obeying—how is your spiritual auditory system, this morning?  Sound check, one, two, one, two.  Can you hear God?  Do you listen?  Will you obey?

By and large, this is a deaf world—deaf by disease, deaf by dysfunction, and deaf by decision.  Jeremiah’s calling to be the “megaphone God uses to rouse a deaf world” (credit, C.S. Lewis) begins with “shema’”—“Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob…thus says the LORD” (2:4).  But over and over again throughout Jeremiah’s nearly 70-year career (627-560 B.C.), the commentary on the people of Judah was the same: though God persistently spoke to them through the prophets they have not heard, they did not hear, they cannot hear, they will not hear.  Tragic.

As we have been reading through the Bible in a year, I took a recent detour from the schedule to read the prophets … all of them … in a few hours over a short string of mornings between coffee times and office hours.  Among them, Jeremiah is the most introspective example; far more transparent about himself and how he feels being the prophet to whom no one listens.  I’m sure that Isaiah and Obadiah and Malachi and the rest felt the same way, but Jeremiah weaves into his book a fair amount of autobiography. 

He was a priest and a prophet who had the ear of many kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim Jehoiachim, and finally Zedekiah—the last king of David’s line to sit on the throne in Jerusalem, forcibly removed in 586 B.C by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon’s third wave of deportation of the Jews when Jerusalem was finally razed to the ruins.  But having the ear of the kings did not mean that the kings listened to Jeremiah’s message.  Jeremiah was famous, but famously marginalized, imprisoned, beaten, marooned, starved, and abducted.  At one point Jeremiah tells God with amazing vulnerability, “You have deceived me and I was deceived.  You are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.  I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (20:7).  You knew what was going to happen when I proclaimed your message to the people.  They weren’t ever going to listen.  Yet you sent me out time after time.  But Jeremiah still went out, still proclaimed his unpopular message, and still took his lumps and resembled Jesus with every word.

There are many narratives that depict this desperate tension between Jeremiah’s obedient proclamation and the people’s disobedient refusal to hear-listen-obey the word of the Lord, but none more so than when he was forbidden to enter the temple to preach (36:27-32)—so he sent in his proxy, Baruch.  In some ways, although there are several more “chapters” in his storied career, this brief encounter captured his sad tenure.  Let me get a running start at it with just a few glimpses from Jeremiah’s “highlight reel”—all stemming from this word of the day: “shema’” (hear-listen-obey).

In Jeremiah 5:20, God said, “Declare this to the house of Jacob; proclaim it in Judah, ‘Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears but hear not.’”  Cause it to be heard.  The people need to be confronted with this message.  They do not have the ears to hear it, but preach it anyway.  Their access to the word of the Lord will bear witness to their guilt of refusing to listen to it. 

It is no different for us.  We have access to the word of the Lord every day—billboards and bumper stickers, phone apps and computerized study tools, Bibles and biblical commentaries on every bookshelf, even Scripture engraved on jewelry.  But our access to the word, as we collectively and increasingly reject its truth, condemns us.  And it is only getting worse, just as Paul said to Timothy, “Preach the word: be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy  4:2-4).

The turn-around was severe … but not unkind.  Our Father in heaven is dreadful when ignored, but tender when heeded—yet never on either side of that spectrum outside the bounds of love.  What they reaped stands in proportion to what they sowed.  If we consistently refuse to listen to God, then it is sad but appropriate that the Lord then refuses to listen to us.  “Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (11:13; 2 Peter 3:7).  But as much as they “stick their fingers in their ears” the day was fast approaching, said Jeremiah, that they will be unable to avoid hearing “the snorting of horses … [or] the neighing of their stallions” of the coming battle (8:16).  Those are the horses of the Babylonian army coming to devastate you.  You will not have the option of refusing to listen to their snorts; their language which you cannot understand.  Their marching orders out of the land of promise will be heard by all.

I.          TAKE A SCROLL AND WRITE (36:2-8)

“In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today.  It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin” (36:1-2). 

This was a different method of ministry for Jeremiah because he was barred from the temple by his fellow, however corrupt, priests.  So he tasked his faithful scribe, Baruch, to copy down the full prophecy by dictation, carry it into the temple, and read it to the people as his proxy preacher.  However, King Jehoiakim (who reigned from 608-598 B.C.) was unlike his father King Josiah in every way and did not listen to Jeremiah’s message.  Josiah, who when he heard the word of the LORD, radically repented, believed, and reformed his entire life and administration—removing all the high places of idolatry throughout Israel and Judah put in place largely by his father (Jehoiakim’s grandfather) Manasseh (2 Kings 23:19-24). 

It was said of Josiah: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).  But doom was still coming upon Judah, for although the outside of the cup was washed, the inside of the cup was not (2 Kings 23:26).  Idolatry was systemic in the heart of Judah and Judah’s new king. 

II.         TAKE THAT SCROLL AND READ (36:9-26)

Keep in mind that Nebuchadnezzar had already seized control of Judah (606 B.C.), exiling its best citizens to Babylon as slaves (including Daniel), but he left Jerusalem standing and demanded steep tribute from Jehoiakim under threat of another wave of warfare.  Nevertheless, Jehoiakim did not soften to the word of the LORD.  Instead he refused to listen to the word of the Lord all the more. 

When Jehoiakim heard from his officials (36:16) that the word of the LORD was being proclaimed in the temple, even though Jeremiah had been excommunicated from the temple and the priesthood, he sent for the scroll (36:21).  So they confiscated Jeremiah’s scroll from Baruch and took it to the king.  As the king’s official read through the scroll to the king, the king “cut [the scroll, piece by piece] and threw [the pieces] into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed” (36:23).

Here the true colors of Jehoiakim bled through his disguise of civility: “Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments” (36:24).  An arrest order for Baruch and Jeremiah was immediately issued, but they were already safely hidden from the wrath of the king (36:26).  He was not broken over his own sin, but livid at the one who would suggest he was sinful.  Such is the case with modern man as well—we really do treat the truth-tellers like the enemy instead of the sin that infects our hearts.  And yes, we really do “shoot the messengers”—even in the church.

The lack of outrage—then and now—when fear of the LORD and trembling before his word are dismissed out of hand ought to grieve us.  Not paralyze us, but grieve us and convince us that this world in which we live is not friendly to the gospel or to the Savior who died to redeem it.  The human heart is not morally neutral that loves good and abhors evil.  No, the human “heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it” (17:9)?  We mask our desperate spiritual disease with Southern charm and social graces and polite manners, but they do nothing, NOTHING, substantive to heal or conceal the heart.  


Finally, and from here is where the bulk of our applications will stem, Jeremiah showed his true colors in response to Jehoiakim’s true colors.  Whatever he might have feigned with his words, the king showed faithlessness; whereas the prophet showed faithfulness.  “Now after the king had burned the scroll with the words of that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: ‘Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were on the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah burned’” (36:27-28).

Can you hear the prophet’s sigh in between the lines?  Can you hear the exhale of his disappointment for both his king and his countrymen?  Can you hear the heart of God breaking all over again; not that God lacks the power to circumvent a rogue king, but that so much collateral loss—that could have been easily avoided in faith and repentance—will rush upon the Jewish people like a flood?  Yes, God knew what Jehoiakim would do … he told it to Jeremiah on the day he was called into the office of the prophet two decades prior to this scene (1:19) … but Jehoiakim was still responsible for its weight.

But leave Jehoiakim aside for now and consider Jeremiah’s response to his mistreatment.  Jeremiah has been branded as “not pastoral material,” as “unfit for priestly service,” as “an old-fashioned nuisance,” as “too melancholy.”  The people need a more gregarious minister who gladly strokes the hand of the king and glibly reassures the assembly that everything is okay.  Everything was not okay!  Yet, Jeremiah did not highlight the wasted effort, the joys forsaken to take up the mantle of prophet, the years of innocent suffering, or the ramifications upon an entire nation that stemmed from one man’s pride.  He did not punch the king in his nose however much the king deserved it.  He did not scream or berate or take it as a personal insult to his effectiveness as a preacher when the people refused to listen.  He did not eviscerate his enemies in cryptic and untraceable Tweets or with theatric pranks meant to embarrass.  He did not say, “I told you so.”  He did not measure faithfulness by its results.  He measured faithfulness by relationship with his faithful God.  “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

“Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch” (36:32).  That sentence is the summary of my life so far.  It is the outline of my future from here forward.  But not perfectly, for when I have imported what I thought was be a good idea into that simple sentence—or exported what I thought was a bad idea from that simple sentence—it has gone wrong.  When I have sought from God or from colleagues or from the congregation an explanation or a guarantee or a result BEFORE I reach for another parchment, it has gone wrong.  Jeremiah was gloriously ruined from all other gimmicks and lesser goals and diversionary battles in ministry by the pure hearing and faithful telling of the word of the Lord.  He took another scroll! 

Though his salty tears ran until they ran out, Jeremiah was a free man.  Even though Jehoiakim arrested Jeremiah, and even though Jehoiakim’s successor, Zedekiah, eventually threw him in a muddy cistern because he would not shut up—Jeremiah was the most liberated individual in the Promised Land.  It all hinged on hearing.  Jeremiah, if he is nothing more this morning, he is at least our sound check. 

Testing, one, two, one, two.  Can you hear God?  Are you listening?  Will you obey?  Hear the Scriptures speak as they sit open upon your lap telling you the raw truth of God.  You were made for relationship with God, but you broke that relationship with him through sinful rebellion, which deserves death.  Listen to the gospel—convert it from the raw truth floating out there somewhere in the universe by clinging to it personally, claiming it exclusively, believing it as more than accurate data points but as essential life-and-death truth on which to stand.  God made one way for your broken relationship with him to be restored: he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to absorb into his own body your unrighteousness by dying in your place on the cross and to impute his own righteousness to your spirit by rising from the grave.  Receive this truth; believe it as your only hope for peace with God, forgiveness of sin, and eternal life.  Obey it … even if the temple of your life must crumble to the ground and the idols of your heart must burn to ashes; even if you have been in church for years but never settled this foundational issue with God. 

God’s “signal” is rushing through this room, through your mind, through your heart right now.  Will you not listen?  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” Mark 4:9).  Put up the antenna of faith right now in your heart and hear-listen-obey the word of the Lord.  Nothing else matters more than that.