“The Coming of the Christ, Our Confident Hope in Him, And the Coming of Another New Year” - By Pastor Mark Wilcoxson
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!’” – Luke 2:13-14
2016 was a challenging year for many of us, including my family and me personally. We’ve seen friends and family depart from among us – geographically, perhaps relationally, as well as this life to the next. We’ve suffered personal setbacks – jobs lost; sicknesses, injuries, and diseases borne; marriages and families disrupted. Uncertainty, instability, even evil seem to abound all around us.
Unsettling circumstances are on the rise in the world, increasing in both frequency and effect. What will the election down south mean for the future? More to the point: Is anyone able to take in the scale and human cost of the devastation in Syria? Terror — or the threat of terror — seems the new norm. Such turbulence can overwhelm us; terrible realities cause us to look away, want to run, and try to hide; and, the uncertainties they bring can lead us into disillusionment, despair, or dissociation, lacking hope.
In His model (disciple’s) prayer, might Jesus mostly have been teaching us to pray to our heavenly Father for persisting faith and delivering hope and against temptations of disillusionment, despair, and dissociation:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name ... Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:9, 12-13)
Such temptations often manifest in our own unbelief and inability to forgive. Don’t they? Alternatively, we might allow God to use persistent struggles and growing instabilities to humble us into a deeper dependence upon Him, the God who raises the dead: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:10-11).
As many of you will know, I’d be lying if I presented — or tried to present — a pristine, personal picture of rock-solid faith, standing firmly in all hope against the gale-forcewinds of whatever may come. Over the last year and a bit, I’ve often had to ask myself: Upon whom (or what) is my hope really built? Why do these temporal circumstances affect me so? If my faith really lies exclusively in the grace of the God who raises the dead through the saving and justifying Christ whom He sent, then why am I feeling so low and for so long? And, why do I have so little to give?
The good news is that God’s Word written in the Bible is full of such honest questions — especially in The Psalms, but also in many other places — as well as the answers to them:
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, My Savior and My God.” – Psalm 42:5
“For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.” – 2 Corinthians 7:5-7
On the one hand, we’re all human and we all experience circumstances and emotions common to all human beings. But on the other, we Christians – we followers and disciples of Jesus Christ – are to live overcoming lives in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, I confess, I don’t even know what “living by the power of the Holy Spirit” means, really, or what it would, or could, or should look like – for me, or for you, for us as a congregation. … Except, the angels, the Psalmist, and the Apostle all seem to be telling us that “living by the power of the Holy Spirit” looks like not giving up when we would or we could, not losing hope when we’re tempted to, and looking to heaven when we’re downcast in vision and heart.
So, why am I writing such a dreary, potentially depressing, and quite possibly discouraging article in the Christmas and New Year’s issue of Bethesda News – the last issue of 2016? Here’s why ...
First, I’m trying to be honest and real, trying to live an authentic Christian life — with you — in our place and time by God’s grace, Word, and Spirit. And the earthly reality is that neither life nor Christmas are happy-happy occasions for everyone all the time.
Second, I want to remind us all – even as I am reminding myself – that however difficult our circumstances or dark in our part of the world, it’s much more difficult and darker in someone else’s part of the world (such as Syria). And for all of us, though Christianity might not seem “to work” from the short-term perspective of this earthly life, in the light of God’s eternity, Jesus Christ is our only hope!
Third, I want to encourage us all — as individuals, families, and church — to overcome our circumstances and illuminate the darkness around us by living overcoming lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. And as noted earlier, sometimes this looks like not quitting, not giving up. Fourth, in our humble dependence on the God who raises the dead by the power of that same Holy Spirit, I’d ask you to consider joining me in making some new (or renewed) commitments for the New Year, 2017. We can call them ’holy resolutions,’ if you like:
1. Let’s recommit ourselves to fidelity to the One True and Living God, being joyful and responsible followers of Jesus Christ in community with His people. This may mean we increase our investments of time, energy, attention, and finances to foster improved and lasting relationships to the glory of God and to advance His mission.
2. Let’s recommit ourselves to fidelity to the Gospel of grace that saves sinners and sustains God’s people. This too may require an increase in our investments of time, energy, attention, and finances to reach the unreached and disciple the reached.
3. Let’s recommit ourselves to fidelity to (and in) our families — our spouses and children, our parents and siblings. This may also mean that we increase our investments of time, energy, attention, and finances to foster better and deepening relationships.
4. Let’s recommit ourselves to fidelity to ourselves, recognizing that we are frail human beings who need care and nurture. This is not an appeal to selfish indulgence; — far from it! (We’ve all had enough of that. Haven’t we?) Instead, it’s a personal and congregational call to take care of ourselves and each other, so we can love God and serve others.
I and my family wish you and your families much love, joy, faith, and hope through Christ Jesus our Lord during this blessed season in which we celebrate His first coming, even as we anticipate His return! God bless you, and Merry CHRISTmas!
There are at least three good (biblical) reasons why I believe that all Christians should joyfully submit themselves to the official membership process of their local church:
1. Identity and Affirmation
To be sure, the New Testament does not overemphasize "formality" when it comes to the life of the local church. Membership in the body of Christ is, first and foremost, a spiritual reality. However, neither does the Bible teach us that the church should be a completely informal, unstructured community. The Bible indicates that church leadership should be identified and officially appointed (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). It is important, likewise, for all those who are members of the body of Christ be known and cared for by their own local church leaders (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17) . The New Testament shows that the earliest churches kept track of their numbers (Acts 1:15) and even maintained special lists to keep track of those members who needed special care (1 Tim 5:9). By having a clear process for identifying and affirming new church members (at Bethesda this includes attending the new members information class), church members and leaders are enabled to become clearly and mutually identified and affirmed in relation to one another.
2. Responsibility and Accountability
Biblically speaking, to become mature members of the body of Christ we must acknowledge our mutual responsibility and accountability towards one another (See Romans 12:4ff). The local congregation needs to be able to identify who is "inside" vs. "outside" the church if the way of Christ is going to be upheld over time (See 1 Cor 5; Matthew 18:15-20). By having classes for new members, and by having a clear process for official church membership, church members and leaders are enabled to become more clear with one another about our mutual responsibility and accountability as people who are committed to living together in the way of Jesus.
3. Strengthening our Unity and Witness
God calls for local churches to be united in their understanding, faith and practice – to have “the same mind” with one another (1 Cor 1:10), and to be protected from the influences of people who would harm the church's unity or purity (Romans 16:17-18). By having classes for new members, and by having a clear process for official church membership, church members and leaders are enabled to come together and take steps towards better congregational unity in our understanding, faith and practice.
For all of these reasons (above), if you are a Christian and if you care about the well-being of this congregation known as Bethesda — and especially if you are not yet “officially” a member — I encourage you to join with me in attending our next New Members and Information Class.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
– Jesus (Matthew 6:19-21, ESV)
In our bulletins we’ve displayed for any and all to see “Our Core Values,” which summarize our priorities. I won’t go through all eight of them, here, but I would like to highlight one of them. It’s usually listed last, not because it’s least important among our core values but because it’s a summary and restatement of all of the others – the whole Christian life, in fact. It is:
Stewarding the things of God by faith – His grace, His Gospel, His people, His resources.
Through October (2016), Pastor Chris and I will finish up Chapter Five in our current series from the Book of Ephesians. But for November (2016), I’d like for us to take a bit of a break to explore some of what the Bible teaches us about Christian stewardship.
I don’t often talk about money, and I preach or teach on money even less frequently than that! The reason is I never, ever (ever) want anyone – whether our members and especially our guests – to think we are more (or even equally) interested in what they can bring to us – their money, for one example – than we are in them as people and families.
While my heart on this matter might have been right, I’m becoming increasingly aware that my practice has been less so. We still don’t want anyone to misunderstand our motives! But in our conversion to Christ, we have real and joyful responsibilities to transfer all of our former allegiances from ourselves and the world to Jesus Christ alone.
This leads to a second reason we should do this: The whole Christian life is a stewardship, and not just of money or material stuff but of our lives! The Christian faith is a stewardship and not merely of Spiritual matters but of all the stuff of ministry! This includes the reason and the way that we steward all things, recognizing that all things belong ultimately not to us but to God – His grace, His Gospel, His people, and His resources.
Here are the four messages that we’ll be sharing in November on Biblical stewardship:
I do hope that you’ll join us and consider inviting your friends and family members.