Lessons and Carols, 2020

Lessons and Carols, 2020

The story of the coming of Christ in the Incarnation is the most dramatic story ever told.  While it reaches a beautiful high point with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,  there is much, much more to this story – a story that has its origins in eternity past and its implications in eternity future, a story of epic failure and dramatic rescue, a story that reveals a God who is quite different from the one our fears imagine.  As singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson puts it.

Gather round, ye children come
Listen to the old, old story
Of the pow’r of Death undone
By an infant born of glory
Son of God, Son of Man. (Andrew Peterson)

Come and experience the rest of this story in God’s own words and in song as we share in An Evening of Lessons and Carols together at 5:00 pm on Sunday, December 13, in the Commons at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, 8300 Kanis Rd, Little Rock.  For directions click here or email us at rivercityarp@gmail.com for more details.   We look forward to seeing you there.

The Plan

Two things my father was almost never without were pipe tobacco and yellow legal pads.   He did nothing without an outline.   In large, block script he detailed his plans to do anything he intended.   Even after I moved out of the house, I would receive outlines of his travel itineraries in the mail.  He was not an impulsive man.  He carefully analyzed his intentions and all expected consequences.  Only after putting the plan on paper did he act.   And without a doubt, I am my father’s son.   I outline my approach to everything.  And attempt very little without a plan and analysis of contingencies.

In this, my earthly father strongly resembled my Heavenly Father.   God is not a trouble shooter.  He is not unaware of anything that comes to pass.  In fact, He “foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, according the counsel of His own will, for His own glory.”   He is the ultimate planner.   Man’s fall was not an unexpected turn.   God is never held captive or contingent to any of the free actions of his creatures.   He not only knew all that would happen, but he purposed it.

Everything that happens contrary to God’s prescribed will is by no means contrary to his decreed will.   He always intended to deal with the world according to grace.  And the means by which he bestows that grace is not through an unfallen mankind in Adam, but through a redeemed mankind in Christ.   Isaac Watt’s metrical paraphrase of Psalm 72 says it well.

Where He displays His healing power,

Death and the curse are known no more:

In Him the tribes of Adam boast

More blessings than their father lost.

In Christ, redeemed mankind can boast more blessings than Adam ever had.   That is a remarkable statement.   This is what God had always planned for us.   Time and time again Scripture shows us that God purposed grace in Christ, “from before the foundation of the world.”   Even in its fallenness, and sin, and sorrow, this world with its promise of redemption, regeneration, and renewal in Christ is the “best of all possible worlds.”  

Nothing has gone amiss in God’s plan and purpose.  There is no waste, no “gratuitous evil,” in God’s economy.  The world is not “off the rails.”   God’s perfect and gracious plan is unfolding, just as He intended.  And in this we have hope.   He is the God who does all He pleases, and all He promises.

The first chapter of Ephesians is a literary masterpiece.   In one long breath, Paul extols the amazing beauty and richness of God’s grace to those who are ‘in Christ.’   The Ephesian church faced severe crises internally and externally.   False teaching and persecution were leading many to ‘abandon their first love.’  So, God pulls back the curtain to show them the truth of their situation ‘in Christ.’    In a city that boasted one of the wonders of the ancient world in the Temple of Diana, it was actually that church that housed the great treasure of God’s grace – grace rooted in God’s sovereign and eternal plan to save.  

And this is good news.   Our sin and rebellion is nothing so novel, so unexpected, that it is outside God’s plan and power to save.   There are no surprises or unexpected circumstances able to thwart God’s efficacious love for us in Christ.   You are not beyond hope.    Even if your situation seems hopeless.   Our forefathers expressed this hope in a series of questions and answers called the Westminster Shorter Catechism.   There we find this great promise.

Q. 19. What is the misery of that state into which mankind fell?

A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so are made liable to all the miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.

Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the state of sin and misery?

A. Out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, God chose some for everlasting life, and he entered into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of their state of sin and misery and to bring them into a state of salvation by a redeemer

Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English

Join us this Lord’s Day as we examine Ephesians 1:3-10 and Galatians 4:4-7 and consider God’s eternal, unbreakable, and effective plan to deliver us from the power of our own sin by a Redeemer.   We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

Can You Hear Me Now?

My first mobile phone came in bag.   The size of a lady’s purse, except with an antenna, it made me extremely self-conscious.  Like a cross between a European tourist and a secret service agent, I felt sure everyone was staring.   This phone was for emergencies only.   No casual calling.  No mobile internet.  And coverage was as spotty as spotty could be.   Only outbound calls made sense.  After all, no one could reliably reach me.   What about texts or voicemail, you ask?  They were still in the future.   My beeper is what alerted me to find for that rare place on earth with a signal. 

In those heady days, the expectation of finding coverage was low.   But today, we are indignant if we can’t get 5G at every remote Ozark swimming hole.   We expect coverage and internet everywhere.    And we expect it for free.  Few and far between are those places which have ‘no service.’   And, between manned space launches, Elon Musk is working to drive those areas to near zero with Starlink.   Perhaps one day concepts like ‘no service’ will be as foreign to our grandchildren as mobile phones that came in a bag.

But this is a distinctly human problem.   God has no such limitations in his communication with his creation.   God has always had a reliable network with coverage so vast there is no place where he must ask, “can you hear me now?”   Problems hearing from God are never a network problem.   God’s speaking is “living and active.”   Always on.  He is always speaking.    He “speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting… he does not keep silence.” (Psalm 50:1, 3)   And there is no place where you are out of coverage from his call.   As Psalm 19 so memorably puts it.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world. 

Psalm 19:1-4

God speaks – and not just to a few select creatures.   His Word, his promises, his mercy are not just for a particular culture, tribe, or spot on the earth.   He is no regional or racial deity.  He is the Lord over all the earth.  People from every “tribe and language and people and nation” are the objects of his steadfast love and care.    This is one of the remarkable things about Christianity.  Other religions import cultural distinctives such as forms of dress, dietary restrictions, and particular sacred languages which become prerequisites for piety.  But Christianity permeates and transforms every tribe, language, people and nation through a unity that produces remarkable diversity. 

The repeated error of the people of Israel was to believe that God was theirs alone — their private higher power.  A God who loved only them and those like them.  A God who blessed them and cursed their enemies.  A God who served their interest.   And ironically, this ‘pagan view’ of the true God caused them to abandon Him for all the false gods of the nations.    God set his love upon them to display the beauty of the Covenant of Grace to the whole world.   Their faith was intended to call nations, far and near, to abandon false gods.  But in their unfaithfulness, they abandoned the true and living God.   They were called to be a missionary people.    But if they would not willingly testify to God’s grace through faithfulness, they would unwittingly testify to it through unfaithfulness and judgement.

The Apostle Paul makes this point in his letter to the Romans.

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! 

Romans 11:11-12

Jeremiah, the longest book of in the Old Testament, is filled with dire warnings of judgment.   For four decades, the prophet called the people of Judah to turn back to God.   He outlined their unfaithfulness in every area of life.  He warned of the consequences of living with their backs to God.    And he stayed with them in every descending step into God’s judgment of them as a nation.   

But from the beginning, God called Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations.   And through his preaching, God’s Word to Judah becomes a word to the nations and to us.   It shines through, time and time again.   In every oracle of judgment, there is an offer of grace.   So, it is fitting that Jeremiah ends with an extensive call to the nations to know the Lord and to walk in His ways.   This book is no mere sordid history of an ancient kingdom’s demise.   But it is a constant refrain of grace, sung out to men who are utterly undeserving.   It is a reminder that God’s promises are not for some particular tribe, language, nation or people, but for “every creature under heaven.”   And most importantly, for you.   

You are not beyond God’s grace.   You are not excluded from His offer.  In John 6:37, Jesus says, “whoever comes to me, I will never cast out.”   Jeremiah is filled with the threatened judgment, but more than that, with promised mercy.   Are you headed toward judgment?   God’s call is to turn back and find mercy.   In Jeremiah 46-51, God calls the nations to turn back.   In some of the Scripture’s most remarkable poetry, the Lord calls those who are far from him to return home.    

Join us as we see that God calls us to return as well.    We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

Counting the Cost

What did your Bible cost?   A Bible’s price-tag varies widely depending on the ‘features’ you chose.   A paperback Bible costs as little as $0.75, while many kindle editions are free.   But if you want leather, wide margins, copious study notes, and niche devotional add-ons, you will pay more.  Of course, if your only concern is the text, the American Bible Society or the Gideons International will give you a free Bible.   In 2019, the Gideons placed 81 million free Bibles in hotels, hospitals, prisons, and schools.  They have placed over 2 billion free bibles since the 1950s.

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time.  Annual sales of all versions of the Bible routinely top $425 million.  In fact, the Bible is excluded from lists of “best-sellers” because it would always be at the top.   The average American owns nine Bibles and plans to purchase another.  But the cost of your Bible should be measured by more than its price-tag.  Perhaps a more meaningful way to think about its cost is to consider the personal cost of those who make it available to us.

The prophets and apostles, through whom the inspired word was given, were ruthlessly persecuted and many martyred.    The great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 gives a shocking account of the lives of faithful prophets.

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Hebrews 11:35-38

Early church history chronicled the martyrdom of the apostles.   And likewise, many who labored to preserve God’s Word through transmission, translation, and distribution suffered great personal cost.   Reformers such as John Wycliff and William Tyndale, paid dearly for the ‘high crime’ of translating the Bible into English.   When warned by one of his persecutors, Tyndale famously said.  “If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you.”  Tyndale was hunted down and burned at the stake.  

But persecution is not a thing of the past.  The Bible costs many their lives every year.  North Korea routinely imprisons and executes those who distribute, or even own, a Bible.  And despite the fact that China works tirelessly to suppress both online and print Bible distribution, half of the world’s Bibles are printed there.   Your Bible was probably made in China by someone who would face imprisonment for owning what they made for you.    What did your Bible cost?  Much more than you realize.

God’s Word cost Jeremiah everything.   Four decades of preaching fell on deaf ears.  No one listened.  No one responded.  He was not allowed to marry.   Forbidden to be a part of the life of the community.  He was hunted by the authorities and hated by his own friends and family.   He had no one to support him in his own grief over the judgment coming upon his people.   He was beaten and imprisoned, called a traitor.  His only refuge was the Lord, but even the Lord often seemed distant.   The cost of just one of the Bible’s sixty-six books is incalculable.   But Jeremiah is not the only one who paid the price.

His scribe, Baruch, paid dearly as well.     Well-educated and well-connected, Baruch’s career prospects had been excellent.  His grandfather, Mahseiah, had been the governor and his brother, Seraiah, was a high-ranking official in Zedekiah’s administration.  He was no nameless assistant.   The King knew his name.  But the King also had his number.   Baruch’s call to assist Jeremiah in bringing God’s Word to the people cost him.  

He shared all the sorrows of the prophet.    He wrote Jeremiah’s words.  And when Zedekiah destroyed his painstaking work, wrote them again.   When Jeremiah was banned from the Temple, Baruch delivered the prophet’s banned message to the people.   When Jeremiah went into hiding, Baruch went into hiding.  When Jeremiah was cast into prison, Baruch was cast into prison.  When Jeremiah was abducted and carried to Egypt, Baruch was abducted.   And when Jeremiah warns the remnant not to go to Egypt, Baruch is accused of treachery.  

As the cost of God’s Word grew in his life, Baruch struggled.   And in Jeremiah 45 we see inner conflict boil over into complaint and accusation.  The cost of following Christ is high.   And often disappointing at times.  In the introduction to his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously observed that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Baruch was struggling with God’s call “to come and die.”   What about you? 

So the question is not, ‘what did your Bible cost,’ but ‘what does your Bible cost?’  As with Baruch, your Bible grows more costly every time you open it.  It asks, “how far will you follow?”   In Luke 9 Jesus challenges three would-be disciples with this question.  How far will you follow me?  Through what adversity?  Through what difficulty?  Jesus concluded these encounters with a startling statement. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  

We are warned to count the cost and to follow.   The struggle is real.  It was real for Baruch.  It is real for you.   But we do not struggle alone.   God spoke to Baruch through the voice of the prophet.   And in the same way, God speaks to us through Baruch’s experience as we face crises of belief and struggle counting the cost of following Christ.   

Join us this Lord’s as we examine Jeremiah 45 and consider the calling, the care, and the comfort of God’s Word when we experience a crisis of belief.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.

Air Quotes

Nothing gets in the way of a good story like the facts.   Fishermen, as a rule, understand this maxim.   With every retelling, the great catch grows larger, the fight more dramatic.  Connoisseurs of fishing stories appreciate this dynamic and treat these tales as the figures of speech they are.  Indeed, the context of a narrative is the key to separating fact from fiction – both of which most include.   But those who fail to recognize context just ‘don’t get it.’   They are easily recognized.   They don’t laugh when others do.   Their brows are permanently furrowed, lips pursed and slightly askew.

Outsiders, of course, are excused.   And often a self-appointed lore-master takes them aside to explain the ‘context’ more fully.   Sometimes we try to clue them in with ‘air quotes.’  But for those who should ‘get it,’ but don’t, there is collective disdain — disdain that does not distinguish between challenged perception or personality.   While some genuinely do not understand, others understand perfectly, but look contemptuously on such conversation.   These are very different responses, though we rarely distinguish between them.   And our use of language reflects this

Words like ‘ignorant’ or ‘dull’ are often applied indiscriminately to those who don’t get it.   Even though the word ‘ignorant’ has more to do with an act of will rather than a lack of knowledge.   Refusing to know something by ignoring it or refusing to act on what you know is true ignorance.   This is quite different from a lack of knowledge.

The Wisdom Literature in the Bible (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) carefully distinguishes between knowledge and wisdom.   Knowledge is what you know.  Wisdom, however, is what you do with that you know.   Not all who are knowledgeable are wise.   The Proverbs describe three categories.   The simple, the wise, and the fool.  

The simple is without knowledge.   The wise is the one who knows what is true and acts accordingly.   While the fool is the one who knows what is true and rebels against it.   The ancient word for fool is not synonymous with ‘simpleton,’ but rather ‘rebel.’  Foolishness is a matter of the will, not the mind.  For this reason, the Proverbs counsel us to treat the fool with discipline, not instruction.

The remnant of Judah had plenty of knowledge regarding the veracity and ferocity of God’s judgement.   Yet they refused to act wisely.    Their hearts were hardened.   Grief over God’s judgement, should have softened them.   And, indeed, they appeared repentant when they came to Jeremiah with a pious request in Jeremiah 42.

… all the people from the least to the greatest, came near and said to Jeremiah the prophet, “Let our plea for mercy come before you, and pray to the Lord your God for us, for all this remnant—because we are left with but a few, as your eyes see us— that the Lord your God may show us the way we should go, and the thing that we should do.”

Jeremiah 42:1-3

But their piety was only posturing.   The wanted the Lord to bless their plan.  When the Lord revealed a plan of his own, they rebelled.   In their anger and arrogance, they accused Jeremiah of lying, Baruch of conspiracy, and God of impotence.    They were rebellious fools, filled with knowledge of God’s works, but without wisdom or spiritual sensitivity to walk in them.

[They] answered Jeremiah: “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”

Jeremiah 44:16-18

Their dullness to God’s Word and Spirit is shocking.   They profess an unqualified commitment to obey all the Lord requires.  But refuse to follow through.   The words of Isaiah a century before still rang true.

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.

Isaiah 29:13

Despite their dramatic experience with God’s judgment, they persisted in unbelief.  And while it is easy to judge them for their rebellious folly, how have we acted any differently?   We have experienced God’s judgment and grace.  But has it made us more spiritually sensitive?  Have we learned to pray like the remnant, and mean it?   Are we growing in sensitivity to the leadership of the Holy Spirit and obedience to the Word?  Or are we, like Jesus first disciples, “yet so dull?”

Join us as we examine Jeremiah 42-44 and the dangers of spiritual dullness.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.