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The Reality of Discouragement

dis·cour·age·ment

noun

  1. a loss of confidence or enthusiasm; dispiritedness.
  2. an attempt to prevent something by showing disapproval or creating difficulties; deterrent.

How many of you are familiar with this word? I’m pretty sure we all are. And not just linguistically. We are intimately familiar with this word in our lives.

Discouragement is a reality that we all face. When our plans don’t turn out how we hope – or when unexpected problems arise – or when others do or say things that steal our joy and cause us to question why we’re even doing this – discouragement can set in.

We get discouraged at our workplace or when that pile of laundry or dishes never goes away. As kids, we get discouraged at school when we struggle with academics or when our friends are being jerks. We get discouraged as parents when our kids just don’t get it and they keep making poor choices. We get discouraged when we struggle with health or emotional problems or when our relationships are strained. We get discouraged when we pay our bills or when the car won’t start or whatever it is!

I think most of us face discouragement nearly every day of our lives.

So what do we do when that happens? How do we deal with discouragement? It’s easy to throw up our hands and say “I give up! I’m not doing this anymore.” Or maybe we get angry – at people or circumstances – ourselves – or even at God. Somebody’s got to take the blame – right?

How do we deal with discouragement?

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Praying to a Sovereign God

When we left Nehemiah last Sunday – he was weeping and mourning and fasting and praying to God because he heard about the terrible state of his countrymen back in Jerusalem. After many years of exile in Babylon, some of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, but the city was still in ruins. The walls had been torn down and the gates had been destroyed nearly 150 years ago – and they had still not yet been repaired.

And this broke Nehemiah’s heart. It was bad enough that the Israelites were living in the ruins, but this was Jerusalem! Jerusalem was the city where God had chosen to make his name known. This was the city where the temple of God was. This city was a symbol to the world that the Israelites were God’s special, chosen people. But now – Jerusalem lay in ruins. Now it was a sorry reminder that the Israelites had abandoned God – and as a results, it seemed that God had abandoned them.

But God hadn’t abandoned them. Yes, he allowed them to suffer the consequences of their sin, but He never abandoned them. In fact, when they repented and returned to him, God was eager to forgive them and to restored them to their land.

And Nehemiah was convinced that God didn’t want them to go back to Jerusalem just to live in the ruins. God wanted them to rebuild. To start anew and to flourish! Nehemiah no doubt was familiar with God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah – given when the Israelites first went into exile:

10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” Jeremiah 29:10-14

Jeremiah and Nehemiah understood that God was not yet finished with Israel. He had good plans for them – plans to give them a future and a hope.

And by the way, God promises to deal with us the same way. Even though we seem to do a fantastic job of messing up our lives and ignoring God and we end up suffering the consequences of our sin – even then, God is eager to forgive us and to restore us. He’s just waiting for us to turn to Him and repent. If we do that, God will carry out his plans to give us a future and a hope. He doesn’t want us to live in the ruins.

Now for Nehemiah – he wasn’t the one living in the ruins. He was living in the presence of the king as the royal cup-bearer – which as we learned last week, was actually a pretty prominent position. The cup-bearer for the king would have been one of the king’s most trusted and loyal companions – since, as the one who tasted the king’s food and drink and safe-guarded it against poison, the king had to trust him with his very life. Because of that, Nehemiah, I’m sure, was well-taken care of.

Yet, as soon as Nehemiah heard the report of how bad things were for the Israelites back in Jerusalem, Nehemiah began to weep and mourn.

Usually we weep and mourn about the bad things that are happening to us – but Nehemiah had such a heart of compassion and empathy for his fellow Israelites, that for days he wept and mourned for them.

And I don’t know how that impacts you, but it sure convicts me! My own lack of weeping and mourning for others sure makes me consider how much (or how little) I care about the people around me who are suffering and hurting. And that was kinda how we ended last Sunday – asking God to soften our hard hearts, so that like Nehemiah, we might not only weep and mourn for others – but that our concern for them would drive us to do something about their situation.

Because that’s exactly what Nehemiah did. Today as we continue to look at the life of Nehemiah, we’re going to see how he doesn’t just feel bad for the Israelites – he actually begins to take action.

So let’s continue by looking at Nehemiah chapter 2 verse 1 through 3.

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Discipled By God

Six weeks ago, we began looking at a fairly straight-forward question: What does it look like to make disciples?

Does it look like Sunday morning at a mega-church? Does it look like coffee with a friend at Tim Hortons? Does it look serving the homeless at a soup kitchen? Does it look like a neighbourhood block-party? Does it look like a ladies Bible study or youth group or Sunday school or kids club or any of these things?

Well, to find the answer to these questions, we started by defining discipleship. And of course, the key passage we looked at was Matthew 28:18-20 – which by now, I imagine most of you have memorized – since we’ve looked at it for each of the last six weeks! But it says this:

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

Now this isn’t the only place where the Bible talks about making disciples – its actually quite a re-occuring theme – but based on that passage, we defined discipleship as: helping people trust and follow Jesus.

Discipleship: Helping people trust and follow Jesus.

It’s really as simple as that. If you are helping people trust and follow Jesus – then you are making disciples. And we came to realize that we can help people trust and follow Jesus in a lot of different ways – and in a lot of different contexts.

In fact, we identified 5 different contexts in the life and ministry of Jesus that we could learn from as we try to model our discipleship on what He did.

At a glance, those five context’s were: The Public Context, The Social Context, The Personal Context, The Transparent Context, and the Divine Context.

And so the first context that we looked at was the public context. 

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Unguarded Discipleship

Have you ever wondered why you’re still here? I’ve often thought “Wouldn’t it be nicer if God would just teleport us to heaven the moment we accepted him as our Saviour?” We could be done with sin once for all and we could immediately enjoy the wonders of being with our Creator. That would be way better than staying here on this sin-soaked planet – enduring the pain and the hardships of life.

The Apostle Paul wrestled with this very thought of how it would be better to go and be with the Lord, but at the same time, he knew that God had a purpose for him to remain. He writes in his letter to the Philippians:

I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. 25 Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. Philippians 1:20-25

Paul recognized that he had a job to do. He had a purpose on this planet – and that was to make disciples – in Paul’s words, his job was “to help people grow and experience the joy of their faith.”

And our job is no different. We read in Matthew 28:18-20:

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

God has chosen for us to be part of his plan of redemption. We are to be his messengers of this Good News. We are to be disciples who make disciples.

Last week we defined a disciple as:

One who is following Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus.

Those three elements are key to true discipleship. And the big question that we’ve been trying to tackle for the last several weeks is: how do we become and how do we make those kind of disciples as Jesus commanded us?

If that’s one of the main tasks that Jesus has given us to do, if that’s a major reason why we are still on this planet, then how do we do that effectively? How, in 2017 here in Canada, do we make disciples who are following Jesus, are being changed by Jesus, and are committed to the mission of Jesus?

Well, the Bible doesn’t give us a checklist to follow or a no-fail formula for disciple making – but it does give us all kinds of examples in the New Testament and in the old, of people making disciples – helping others trust and follow God.

And so for this message series, we’ve categorized those examples into 5 different contexts. These are five types of relationships in the Bible where we can see discipleship happening.

And so far we’ve looked at the public context, the social context, and the personal context.

And I don’t want to take too long to give you a full recap, but here are the keys points for those three contexts so far.

  • In the public context, disciples can be made in a crowd through teaching, preaching, and inspiration. A good modern example of this would be the Sunday Morning service. It is here that we are we are motivated, persuaded, encouraged, influenced, moved, stirred, spurred on, energized, and awakened in our journey with Jesus.
  • In the social context, Christianity is caught, more-so than taught as we see first hand from others what it looks like to follow Jesus. This sort of discipleship happens within a community – usually 20-70 people. For us this would include many of our church functions outside of the Sunday service – such as backyard BBQs or serving together in the town’s Fall Festival or our Mother’s Day brunch.
  • Then last week we looked at the personal context. If, in the public context we can be discipled by strangers, and in the social context by acquaintances, then in the personal context, we are discipled by friends who support and challenge us. These family-like relationships allow us to practice things like forgiveness and mercy and patience and all that other good stuff as we learn to love others like Jesus did. This is the kind of discipleship that happens in families or small groups of 4-12 people.

And now today we want to look at a fourth context – the Transparent Context.

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The Humbling Element of Fasting

Well, this week our church did something a little bit unusual – something that has never done in this church before. In fact, as far as I can remember, I’ve never been part of a church that did anything like this. But on Wednesday over the lunch hour, together as a church family, we fasted. Instead of eating our normal Wednesday lunch, we instead, spent that time fasting and  praying for our community. Which was really pretty cool, and if you didn’t get a chance to join us this time, I’m sure we’re going to be doing this again… But for those of you are just joining us today, let me give you some quick background to all this.

Over the past couple of months we have been looking at the spiritual disciplines – or the healthy habits of Christians that help us draw near to God and that help us grow deeper in our relationship with Him. They change our understanding of who God is and how He’s working in our world.

We looked first of all, at how we can see glimpses of God in Creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere around us – in the vastness of the galaxies or the complexity of our DNA or in the wonder of a baby being born or simply in the beauty of a sunset. We see the evidence of God everywhere.

But of course, while the heaven’s do declare the glory of God, His creation doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about what He has done. That’s why God has given us His Word – the Bible. And so we spent several weeks looking at how we know that the Bible really is God’s Word and how reading and understanding it changes us as we learn more about who God really is and what He’s really like.

And while God communicates to us primarily through His Word, He has given us the ability to communicate with Him primarily through prayer. And so we spend a few weeks looking at why would should pray. Why pray to a God who already knows everything we need and who has already promised to provide it? We saw how prayer is an invitation for God to be active and involved and sovereign in our lives. It’s actually an act of worship when we pray.

And then most recently, for the last two Sundays, we’ve been talking about fasting. And fasting isn’t nearly as common-place these days as prayer or Bible reading – although I think it should be because it is an excellent way for us to draw close to God.  Fasting is a way for us to focus on the most important things in life – not just the urgent things in life. When we give up food for a certain amount of time, to instead focus on God and our relationship with Him, our hunger reminds us how desperate we are for Him – and how much we depend on Him every moment of every day. It also reminds us that this life here and now is not all there is! We are looking forward to the day when this life is over and we can see Jesus face-to-face and can spend the rest of eternity with Him – feasting and celebrating and being fully satisfied for the rest of all time! Fasting is such a good reminder of that.

And so that’s why on Wednesday, we decided to fast together as a church. I know that many Christians have never fasted before. It’s a relatively new practice for me as well. And so this was really an experiment in fasting and I hope you’ll continue to experiment with it!

Now today I want us to look at one more aspect of prayer and fasting. And by no means, have we covered it all! The more I learn about fasting, the more I realize how little I know. So far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at how fasting impacts us – how it changes our perspectives and reminds of things that we are usually quick to forget. But today I want to focus on how fasting impacts our prayers.

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Fasting with Eternity in Mind

I hope that our brief introduction to fasting last week left you hungry for more – in both senses of the word. I hope that you’re hungry to learn more about fasting and I hope that you’re hungry because you actually tried fasting. And if you did, I’d sure be interested in hearing about your experience.

Now, I know we read that verse last week about how we aren’t supposed to make a big show about our fasting – we’re not to try to look miserable and disheveled so people can tell that we’re fasting. Fasting is supposed to be something just between you and God. But that’s not to say we should never talk about our experiences in fasting.

Jesus is just telling us not to fast with the wrong motives. We’re not supposed to fast just to try to appear righteous to everyone else around us. We need to do it for the proper motives. But He’s not saying to never talk about it. And maybe that’s why fasting is so foreign to us – because the handful of Christians who do fast, never talk about it.

So if you’ve tried fasting before – even if it was just once – I’d love to hear about it! I think it would be awesome to see fasting once again become a normal, expected part of the Christian life (much like Bible reading and prayer). And to not see it just some foreign, strange ritual they did back in Bible times.

Because fasting is such a healthy habit! We talked last week about how fasting reminds us how desperate we are for God. The hunger we feel in the pit of our stomach when we fast is a physical reminder of a spiritual reality. Our body’s physical dependance on food reminds us of our spirit’s dependance on God. Like Jesus says in John 6:35…

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

Jesus is saying that apart from God we have no life. He is the source of life. He gives us everything we need to live abundantly and eternally. We are absolutely dependant on Him. And fasting is a great way to remind ourselves of that.

And that’s just one of the benefits of fasting! That’s probably a good enough reason in itself, but today I want to dig a little deeper and point out even more reasons why fasting is such a healthy habit. There are several reasons I think, why this spiritual discipline has been practiced by the men and women of God for centuries.

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