Do Not Be Afraid

“Do not be afraid.”do-not-be-afraid

Did you know that’s a Christmas phrase?

We don’t tend to think of “Do not be afraid” as a Christmas line. We think of phrases like: “Peace on earth, good will towards men.”  Or “Silent night, holy night.” or “Glory to God in the Highest.”

We don’t tend to associate “Do not be afraid” with Christmas. But we should. The phrase shows up three times in the account of Christ’s birth.   Each time it’s said by angels to  key players in the Christmas story.

It was said to Mary (Luke 1:30).  It was said to Joseph (Matthew 1:20).   It was said to shepherds on the Bethlehem hillsides (Luke 2:10).

Why did the angels keep saying “Do not be afraid”?   Partly because angels are imposing creatures, quite unlike the Disney and Hallmark versions we’re familiar with.  When angels showed up, even hardened soldiers fainted (Matthew 28:4).  The shepherds needed to hear “Do not be afraid” because they were terrified by the angel’s appearance.

But something else seems to be going on with Mary.  Luke’s account indicates that Mary was terrified, not just by the angel’s appearance to her, but by God’s assessment of her.  The angel startled her with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).  Mary was troubled by that assessment:  she felt it was too lofty for a young peasant girl.  How could she possibly be “highly favoured”?  Surely the angel was talking to the wrong person!  The angel reassured her with the words, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God” (Luke 1:30).

If the shepherds were afraid of the angel’s appearance to them and Mary was afraid of God’s assessment of her, Joseph was frightened by God’s assignment for him.

Joseph had learned that Mary was expecting a child and he knew the child wasn’t his.  As he thought about how to break the engagement in a godly way, an angel appeared to him in a dream:  “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).

This Christmas, you may find yourself feeling like the shepherds, Mary or Joseph.  You may be feeling God is has given an assignment to you that’s too hard, based on an assessment of you that’s too high.  Like Joseph, your assignment could have to do with your marriage.  Like Mary, it could have to do with a child.  Whatever it is, it has you feeling uncertain and troubled.

So this Christmas, you need to hear the message of the angels once again:  “Do not be afraid.”

The message of the angels calls us to move from fear to faith.  Faith in the glorious truth that Christ the Saviour has come. God is with us.  Emmanuel.

Mary trusted in the Lord and moved from fear to faith.  Joseph did too. By God’s grace, we can too!

christmasSeveral years back, at a time when we were both feeling afraid of an assignment God had for us, this song by Carolyn Arrends was music to our souls.  Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Becoming an “Open Bible” Church

bibleOver the past few weeks, I’ve written about the need to help people engage with the Bible. I’ll finish off this short series with a third way pastors and church leaders can help people engage with God’s Word. (You can read the previous suggestions here and here)

In my role at Heritage, I travel to speak at a different church most every weekend. One disheartening trend I’ve noticed is the fact that so few people are looking at their own copy of the Scriptures (printed or electronic) while I’m preaching.

In some cases, the reason for the lack of open Bibles is that we’ve unintentionally discipled people not to bring a Bible to church. We’ve trained people not to bring a Bible to church by displaying the sermon passage on the screen. Why open a Bible when it’s projected on the big screen? We’ve also taught people that Bibles are optional by preaching sermons that are only marginally tied to Scripture. Why open a Bible when it’s not being examined or exposited?

Retraining our people to bring and open their Bibles at church will take some intentionality. Here are several ways pastors can work to develop an “open Bible” culture in their congregations.

First, be wise in the Scripture you choose to project on the screens or print in the bulletin.Screen 2 Do project the verses you select for the public reading of Scripture – a necessity in this day of multiple translations. Don’t put the main Scripture text for the sermon on the big screen. Instead, display only the correlative verses that are mentioned during the message.

Second, make Bibles available to those who don’t have one when they arrive at church. Encourage people to open to the passage for the message by telling them the page number in the Bibles you’ve provided. This will help the uninitiated find the passage without feeling foolish and will emphasize your desire to have Bibles open during the message.

Third, repeatedly refer to the text of Scripture during your sermon. Say, “Look with me again at what it says in verse 16” or “Did you notice the phrase Paul uses in verse 5?” Keep pointing people to the text to highlight that open Bibles are essential to get the most out of the message. John Piper’s words to young preachers are ones all preachers need to hear:

My continual advice to beginning preachers is, “Quote the text! Quote the text!’” Say the actual words of the text again and again. Show the people where your ideas are coming from.’ Most people do not easily follow the connections a preacher sees between his words and the text. They must be shown again and again with actual quotes from Scripture (The Supremacy of God in Preaching, p. 86).

If we want people to open their Bibles at home during the week, we can start by getting them to open them on Sundays at church.

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Let the Lion Out!

We’re considering ways pastors and church leaders can help people meaningfully re-engage with the Bible. We’ve already looked at the first and most basic way:  Model engagement with the Bible.  Here’s a second way:

  1. Preach with Confidence in the Bible

One of the key findings of the Bible Engagement Study was the clear correlation between confidence in the Bible and connection with the Bible. Only those who “strongly agreed that the Bible was God’s Word” were regularly engaged with Scripture.

For those of us who are pastors, our first reaction to this finding may be to preach a sermon on the inspiration and authority of Scripture. While there is certainly a place for a sermon, or even a series of sermons, that provides credible reasons to trust the Bible as God’s Word, one sermon or sermon series won’t win the day.

A more systemic solution is to make sure that every sermon, and every series, is an apologetic for the authority of the Bible. This happens as our sermons evidence the same deep-level confidence in Scripture that characterized Jesus. In the gospels we repeatedly hear Jesus affirming the authority and reliability of God’s Word: “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35); “the Scriptures must be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49); “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus relied upon, referred to and rejoiced in Scriptures.

Pastors can build confidence in the Scriptures in their congregations by evidencing a confidence in the Scriptures in their sermons. Preachers who base their words on God’s Word and bend their thoughts to His truth are providing an ongoing apologetic for the authority of the Bible—even when they are not directly addressing the topic of the Bible’s authority.

Charles Spurgeon, who was well aware of the attacks on the Bible in his day, encouraged preachers to confidently proclaim the message of Scripture and let the Bible defend itself. 

lionA great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel itself is not being preached. Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, a full-grown king of beasts! There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them . . . that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out. Never mind about defending Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch; preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let the Lion out, and see who will dare to approach him. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.

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Re-engaging with the Bible

up arrowHaving highlighted the downward trend towards greater disengagement with the Bible, it’s time to consider what can be done to turn things around. Like all spiritual transformations, a change for the better will ultimately be a work of God’s Spirit. But God’s Spirit often works through God’s people to accomplish His will.

In upcoming posts, I’ll highlights several ways pastors and other church leaders can cooperate with God’s Spirit to encourage a greater engagement with God’s Word.  Here’s the first and most basic way:

  1. Model engagement with the Bible

“You cannot impart what you do not possess.” That’s a saying I heard repeatedly from Dr. Howard Hendricks during my seminary days. He was reminding us that our pastoral impact is linked to our personal example.

Increasing Bible engagement in our congregation begins by modeling it in our own lives. In our hallway conversations, counseling appointments, board meetings, prayers and sermons, it should be apparent that we are personally and presently engaged with the Bible—reading it, meditating on it, delighting in it and responding to it. It should be obvious that we share David’s delight in Scripture: “How I love your law. I meditate on it all day long” (Psalm 119:97). It must be clear that we are seeking to align our personal convictions and ministry decisions with the teaching of God’s Word.

I’m not advocating an ostentatious attempt to impress people with our Bible knowledge. Rather, we should marinate in Scripture until it naturally permeates and flavours all we say and do.

Bunyan

John Bunyan

A pastoral example of this kind of deep engagement with Scripture is John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Charles Spurgeon had this to say about Bunyan: “Why, this man is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”

Here a question to ask yourself:  Would the people who know me best say my “very soul is full of the Word of God”?

If we hope to call others to engage with Scripture, it must be evident that we are enthusiastically leading the way.

 

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Who Reads the Bible Anyway?

woman reading bibleIn a previous post, I cited evidence from the Bible Engagement Survey that shows Canadians in general, and Christians in particular, are becoming increasing disengaged from the Bible.

There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this decline, but the Canadian Bible Engagement Study highlights one of the major causes:  loss of confidence in the Bible.

Confidence in the Bible has taken a big hit in the past two decades.  The number of Canadians who are convinced the Bible is the Word of God has declined from 35% in 1996 to 18% in 2013. Seven out of ten Canadians (and one out of four Evangelicals) believe the Bible has “irreconcilable contradictions.”

When confidence in the Bible dips—even a bit—engagement with the Bible plummets. Among Evangelicals who “strongly agree that the Bible is God’s Word”, 61% read it at least several times a week. By contrast, only 3% of Evangelicals who “moderately agree the Bible is God’s Word” read it more than once a week.

Stop for a moment and let that  sink in:  61% of Christians who have “strong” confidence in the Bible read it more than once a week.  But only 3% of those who have “moderate” confidence in the Bible read it at least weekly.

“Canadians who frequently read the Bible are confident that it is the reliable word ofman reading God, with a message that is unique among world religions and relevant to their lives. Those who strongly agree that the Bible is the Word of God are far more likely to read and reflect on it and attend religious services than those who only moderately agree” (Canadian Bible Engagement Survey Report, page 12).

While there has always been an assault on the reliability of the Bible, we live in a day when the attack has become high profile and wide spread. Not only is this attack coming from skeptical professors at secular universities, it is coming from professors who claim Christian loyalties. For example, Peter Enns, who teaches at a Christian university, recently published a book that contends the Bible is riddled with internal contradictions and historical inaccuracies.  Yet he still encourages people to read the Bible for spiritual benefit.

If Enns would read the results of the Canadian Bible Engagement Study, he’d be hit with a harsh truth.  His viewpoint, which undermines confidence in the Bible’s reliability, is certain to cause a demise in the Bible’s readability.  The subtitle on his book’s cover says, “Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it.”  Actually, the sobering truth turns out to be that undermining confidence in Scripture makes us unwilling to read it.

So what can we do to strengthen confidence in the Bible among believers? How can we seek to reverse the downward slide towards disengagement from God’s Word? In the upcoming posts, I’ll put forward a number of practical steps we can take as individuals, church leaders and local congregations.

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Disengaged from the Bible?

Evangelicals are Bible people. We believe the Bible is God’s Word. We preach the Bible in our churches. We read the Bible in our homes.

At least we used to.

If you examine the results of a recent survey conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, you’ll see evidence that things are changing. And not for the better.

In 2013, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada released the results of the Canadian Bible Engagement Study. This study sought to quantify the percentage of Canadians who engage meaningfully with the Bible by reading it, reflecting on it and discussing it with others.

The report shows that trends in Canada are moving strongly towards greater disengagement with the Bible rather than towards greater engagement with it.arrow down

“The percentage of frequent Bible readers has dropped significantly in the last two decades, for the general population and for Christians. In 1996, 21% of Canadians reported reading the Bible at least weekly, compared to 11% in 2013. Among Christians, the percentage of those who read at least weekly fell from 27% in 1996 to 14% in 2013.” (Canadian Bible Engagement Survey Report, page 9).

Not only has the percentage of Christians who read the Bible weekly tumbled by half in the past two decades, a large number of Evangelicals (36%) now admit to reading the Bible “seldom” or “never” (CBES Report, page 10).

read meIn short, more and more Canadian Christians are reading the Bible less and less.

I remember my dad telling the congregation he pastored, “Seven days without the Bible makes one weak.” As a kid, I thought that saying was pretty amusing. Now I see it as painfully accurate.

Christians who have a deficient diet of God’s Word inevitably become anemic and malnourished. They lack the vitality they need to stay spiritually healthy. They lose the energy they need to sustain a robust ministry.

In future posts, we’ll consider why this disengagement has been happening and what we can do to reverse the downward trend.

But for today, I’d like to ask you to do some self-assessment. How often have you taken time to read and reflect on God’s Word this past week?  What is your plan for reading it today?  Tomorrow?

I’ll leave you with another of my dad’s favourite sayings about the Bible.  He told people that Bibles should only come in one colour.  When someone asked “What colour?” he’d smile and say, “Every Bible should be red.”  That’s true:  Every Bible should be read!

red bible

 

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Upcoming Courses for Women in Ministry

This past September at Heritage, we had the privilege of having Dr. Bev Hislop, professor of Pastoral Care to Women from Western Seminary, teach the first course in our Graduate Certificate for Women in Ministry program.  The class was well-received with 22 women IMG_1583attending.  The class assignments are keeping the students challenged, while dialogue continues between classmates on a Moodle interactive learning site.  These women are now busy preparing for their class presentations (November 15th ) on significant women who have served Jesus over the years.  Some of the women being studied are:   Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth Elliott, Joy Smith (a current M.P.), and Katie Davis, a young woman in ministry in Uganda.  We’re looking forward to being together again and learning from one another.

PhyWe’re looking forward to our second course this Spring.  Dr. Phyllis Bennett, who directs the Centre for Women in Ministry at Western Seminary, will be here to teach Developing Life-Changing Bible Study Curriculum (click here for more information on the course).  If you’d like to sharpen your skills as a woman in ministry, or you know someone interested in writing or leading small groups, please let them know about this course.   If there’s a better Christian teacher on this subject, we honestly don’t know her.   It’s a great privilege to have Phyllis join us.  The dates of the course are March 19-21 and April 18.

And just to get you thinking ahead, we’re now planning a course on “Great Women of the Christian Faith” for next June.  Watch this website for further details!

To register to take a course for credit or audit, please contact Karyn Mowbray at kmowbray@heritageseminary.net.

May God bless you as you serve Him today – wherever you are, and whatever you do.  May we all glorify Him!

Linda

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