Monday, August 27, 2012

The All-Surpassing Supremacy of Jesus Christ (Jn 3:31-36)

Audio  (there have been problems with our iTunes podcast; we are trying to resolve them)

Earlier this month, I was suffering from a widespread epidemic which afflicted many around the world. The symptoms ranged from sleepless nights, to dark circles under the eyes, unusual bursts of excitement, and a near constant sense of distraction. The condition is known as Olympic Fever, and after battling it for two weeks, I am happy to say that I am now fully recovered. Maybe some of you suffered from it as well. We have 530 days to rest up and be prepared for the next outbreak that will occur in February, 2014. Why do so many of us succumb to this fever? I suppose it is because the Olympics are a celebration of human greatness—at least athletic greatness. During the Olympics, we hear people described with amazing superlatives. The winner of the sprints is the fastest man or woman on earth. The winner of the decathlon is the world’s greatest athlete. This year, we saw one American athlete become the most decorated Olympian of all time. We saw a 71 year old Japanese equestrian become the oldest Olympian of all time. It seems that every day in the Olympics, someone makes history and raises the bar of human achievement. And we wonder, as we watch records set, are we seeing a level of greatness that no one else will ever surpass?

But if we can force our attention away from the fleeting fame of human celebrity for a moment and fix our gaze upon Jesus, we find the only One who can rightly claim all-surpassing greatness and supremacy. There is no one greater; no one more worthy of fame and glory; no one who will ever surpass Him. This is why our only fitting response to Him is worship! The word “worship” comes from an old English word that means “to ascribe worth.” When we worship Christ, we are saying, “Jesus, You alone deserve this. You alone deserve to be praised, to be exalted, to be reverenced and adored. You alone deserve to be made famous and demonstrated as glorious in the world. You alone deserve the devotion of our entire lives!” The words of John 3:31-36 have been inspired, they’ve been breathed by God, for the express purpose of engraving this truth on our very souls. Jesus Christ is supremely glorious. We don’t even know who spoke these words. There are no quotation marks in Greek. Did John the Baptist say them? Did Jesus say them? Did the Apostle John say them? We don’t know. But we know that these words find their origin in God Himself, as the Holy Spirit inspired them to be recorded for us in this text for our edification. And there is absolutely nothing more edifying for a Christian than for he or she to become ultimately convinced of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. This is the key for our worship, for our evangelism, for our discipleship, for our very lives: beholding and exulting in the all-surpassing glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are three specific aspects of His supremacy that I want to focus on as we work our way through this passage of Scripture today.

I. Jesus comes from above, and is therefore above all (v31).

Consider the words of our text. Jesus has come “from above.” If we were looking at a map, you could say that Jim and Eric and I have just come from above. We were in Vermont, way up above North Carolina. If you go with us to Nepal next year, you can tell people when you come home that you came from above. You will have trekked to Langtang, which is about 12,000 feet above sea level, as opposed to Greensboro, which is about 900 feet above sea level. But Jesus has not come from “above” in any of these senses. He didn’t come from somewhere North of here. He didn’t come from a place of higher elevation on the earth. He came from somewhere above and beyond the earth. He came “from heaven” (v31). He said in verse 13 that He descended from heaven. Verse 34 says that He was sent by the Father. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to being sent by the Father 23 times. Seventeen times in John, Jesus uses a form of the Greek verb apostello, from which we get the word apostle, to describe how He was uniquely sent into the world on a mission by the Father. There are verses that speak of Him coming down from heaven, and coming into the world, and coming from the Father. As Jesus draws near to His death, He speaks increasingly of returning to the Father. In John 16:28, He says, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.”[1]

Because of His unique heavenly origin, Jesus is like no one else. “He who is of the earth is from the earth,” verse 31 says. All humanity is limited and finite. Take John the Baptist for example. He is a good example, for Jesus said of him, “among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Mt 11:11; Lk 7:28). Yet, even John said concerning Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John must decrease, for though he may be the greatest person ever born up until that time, he was merely earthbound: finite and limited. But Jesus must increase; He must be recognized for His all-surpassing supremacy, for He is from above, and is therefore above all. If you were to line up all of the greatest human beings who ever lived, and rank them according to their greatness, you would have to confess at the end of the line, “There is one who is greater still.” In Revelation 5, John witnesses a scene unfolding in heaven, in which he sees God Himself, seated upon His throne, holding a scroll with seven seals. And an angel announces, “Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?” And John began to weep, for there was no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth who was found to be worthy. It wasn’t that no one was willing. I imagine there would be many who would volunteer for the task of unrolling the hidden mysteries of God contained in that scroll. But the angel didn’t ask who was willing; he asked who was worthy. And John wept at the pathetic state of humanity, for there was no one worthy. But one of the heavenly beings said to John, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals” (Rev 5:5). And John turned to behold this Lion of the tribe of Judah, and he saw a Lamb who had been slain. And all of heaven burst forth in a song of worship to this Lamb, singing, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. … Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:9, 12).

Jesus is above all because He is unique in His heavenly origin. He comes from heaven. He is sent by God the Father, and He receives the worship due Him because He is God the Son, the incarnate God who came down to live for us, to die for us, and to conquer death for us. As we behold Him in his all-surpassing supremacy, we see the stark contrast between Him and the pitiful, earthbound state of all humanity. He is supremely glorious, He is above all, for He comes from above.

II. Jesus testifies to what He has seen and heard, therefore He speaks the words of God (v32-34).

There’s an interesting verse that always stirs up a somewhat humorous debate among biblical scholars in Titus 1:12. There Paul says, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars …’” And then he says, “This testimony is true.” The debate goes like this. If Cretans (people from the isle of Crete) are always liars, and a Cretan is the one who said this, then is he not also always a liar? And if he is lying when he says “Cretans are always liars,” why then does Paul say, “This testimony is true”?  Of course, Paul, and the Cretan prophet he is quoting, are speaking in generalizations. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule, for even liars tell the truth sometimes, and perhaps there are a handful of Cretans who aren’t always lying. Sometimes we joke about politicians and say, “You know how to tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” But the indictment against Cretans in Titus 1:12, and against politicians or whoever we make the but of the “moving lips” joke, is actually accurate for all humanity. In Romans 3:13-14 Paul indicts the entire human race with a string of Old Testament quotations, saying, “their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” In the famous passage on the taming of the tongue in James 3, James says, “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” In other words, you might be able to keep yourself from sin in many areas of life, but none of us can keep from sinning with our mouths. He goes on to say that “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity”; it “defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” He concludes, “no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:6-8). Yes, and you carry that thing around in your mouth! So we might say, “How do you know when a human is lying? His or her lips are moving.”

Let’s paraphrase the proverbial question: “How can you tell when Jesus is telling the truth?” The answer is, “His lips are moving.” His all-surpassing supremacy is seen in His testimony. John 3:32 says, “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies.” What has He seen and heard? Well, He came from heaven, so He has seen and heard everything in heaven and earth and all points between as a first hand eyewitness since before creation came into existence. He has, for all eternity, heard the unbroken communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has heard the counsel of God, because He is included in that counsel as God Himself. He has seen the glory of heaven because it was His native country. When Jesus speaks to us about God, about heaven, about God’s purpose and plan, about the state of humanity and the world, we can believe His testimony, for He is speaking about what He has seen and heard. This is not conjecture or speculation; it is not the result of reasoning or argumentation. It is a first-hand, eye-witness account. And therefore, verse 34 says that He “speaks the words of God.” When Jesus speaks, God is speaking. Hebrews 1:1 says that God has spoken in the past in many portions and in many ways through prophets, but now, in these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son.

Now, in verse 34 there is an interesting phrase. We are told that Jesus speaks the words of God, “for He gives the Spirit without measure.” That can be interpreted a couple of different ways, but only one way is correct. Some interpret this to mean that Jesus is the one who gives the Spirit without measure to His people, that is, to those who believe on Him and receive His testimony. It is true that Jesus does impart the Spirit to His followers. He promised that He would, and He has. Every believer in Jesus has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Those are true statements, taught plainly in various other passages of Scripture, but not this one. For one thing, it doesn’t make sense here. The phrase, “He gives the Spirit without measure” is connected with what comes before it by a causal conjuction, “for.” So does this mean to say, “Jesus speaks the words of God, for He gives His people the Spirit without measure”? No, it doesn’t make sense that way. Also, while we are promised and assured that Jesus does give the Spirit to His people, it is not without measure. Ephesians 4:7 says, “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Thus, the Holy Spirit is in each believer, manifesting Himself through us in particular, but limited ways.

So what does this phrase mean? It means that Jesus speaks the words of God because God the Father has given Him the Spirit without measure. Because there is a perfect communion between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the entire life and ministry of Jesus was carried out in the unmeasured and unlimited power of the Holy Spirit. Three times in Isaiah, it is prophesied that the Messiah would be the One who was completely under the unlimited control and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus used two of these prophecies in His own description of Himself. The Holy Spirit’s presence and power in the life of Jesus was demonstrated visibly at His baptism, when John the Baptist saw the Spirit descend upon Him in the form of a dove, and remain upon Him. In Peter’s sermon in Acts 10, he says, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power…” (Acts 10:38). So, we have this confidence that He speaks the words of God because He speaks of what He has seen and heard, and He has received from the Father the Spirit without measure.

Now, we believe that Jesus is the Living Word of God, the Word made Flesh as John 1:14 says. And we believe that He speaks the Word of God, as this text indicates. But we also claim that the entire Bible is the Word of God. How do we make that jump from believing that Jesus speaks the Word of God to believing that, say, Moses, Paul, John, or Ezekiel is speaking the Word of God as they write the books of our Bible? It is actually a very logical progression of thought. For this same Holy Spirit, Who was present in the life of Jesus without measure, is said to have inspired the prophets of old as they wrote. Second Peter 1:21 says that “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men spoke moved by the Holy Spirit from God.” Thus, Paul could say in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is inspired by God. Now, Paul was speaking specifically of the Old Testament writings, for the New Testament was still being written. So how do we move from this to a confidence that the New Testament is also the Word of God? First, by believing what Jesus said, since He speaks the word of God and His testimony is true. Jesus says to His disciples in John 14:26 that the Holy Spirit will “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” Again in John 16:13, Jesus tells His disciples that the Spirit will “guide you into all the truth … and He will disclose to you what is to come.” So, Jesus was promising His disciples that the Holy Spirit would inspire and direct them as they wrote what would become the New Testament. And as a proof that they believed and experienced this, we have statements like Paul’s in 1 Timothy 5:18, in which he says, “The Scripture says … ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages,’” using that term Scripture which he says elsewhere refers to the inspired Word of God, to describe a statement that is only found in the Gospel of Luke. And Peter, in 2 Peter 3:15, says that Paul has written some things which are hard to understand and which people distort, “as they do also with the rest of the Scriptures.” In Peter’s view, what Paul has written is inspired Scripture. So, in Christ we have God’s Living Word made Flesh. When He speaks, He speaks the Words of God. And as the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have the written Word of God. And that is essential, for apart from the written Word, we would have no access to or reliable information about who Jesus, the Living Word, is or what He ever said.

Now, we contrast the all-surpassing supremacy of Christ’s testimony, the very Word of God, with that of any human words. John 3:31 says that the one who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. There is a limitation, a finiteness, to the testimony of earthbound beings. Everyone, even a Cretan, can speak truth sometimes, though none of us speak truth at all times. But when Christ speaks, we see His supremacy, for He speaks the words of God. To deny the words of Christ, or the words that He has given through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is to deny God Himself, and essentially to call Him a liar. And though, generally speaking, John 3:32 can say truthfully that “no one receives His testimony,” there are rare exceptions that prove the rule. For the one who does receive His testimony (v33) “has set his seal to this, that God is true.” To set one’s seal upon something refers to the ancient practice of affirming something by impressing one’s signet into hot wax. It was a way of saying, “I affirm that this is authentic, authoritative, and trustworthy.” The one who has received Christ has, in a sense, set his seal by staking his or her eternal hopes on the supremacy of Christ and the truthfulness of His word.

III. Jesus is loved by His Father, therefore He has been given all things (v35)

At the baptism of Jesus, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit was demonstrated visibly through His descent in the form of a dove. But simultaneously, the love of the Father was demonstrated audibly as the Father spoke from heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22; cf. Mt 3:17). At the Mount of Transfiguration, the unveiled glory of Christ was displayed to His inner circle of disciples, as they were joined by Moses and Elijah. Here stands Moses, Israel’s lawgiver, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, and Jesus on top of the mountain. And the voice of the Father speaks again from heaven saying of Jesus, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Mt 17:5; cf. Mk 9:7).

You may recall a few weeks ago I preached a sermon entitled “The Greatest Sentence Ever Written,” on John 3:16. The reasons I proposed for John 3:16 being the greatest sentence ever written included that it expresses the greatest fact the world could ever know (that God loves the world), and that it describes the greatest gift ever given (He loves the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son). It is God’s nature to love (1 John 4:8), and before there was ever a world to love or a human race to love, God was love, and experienced perfect, unhindered, and unmediated love within the relationships of the Triune Godhead. There are so many ways to get the Trinity wrong. There’s only one way to get it right. There is one God who exists eternally as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, not one God manifested three ways at three different times, but one God, eternally existent in three persons. And for eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the perfect love of one another within their Triune relationships. It is the nature of God to love. The Father loves the Son. And it is the nature of love to give. He loved the world so He gave His Son. He loves the Son, so He gives all things into His hand.

What has the Father given to the Son? “All things.” So, what has He withheld from the Son? “Nothing.” All that the Father has a rightful claim to, and that is everything that exists, all authority, all dominion, all glory, all honor, He has placed into the hand of the Son because He loves the Son. For that reason, He is above all. As Philippians 2:11 says, God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. He has set Him above all else as Lord and Judge. Jesus said in John 5:22 that the Father has given all judgment to the Son. At life’s end, every human being will stand before Him to give account. And the basis of that judgment will consist of what we have done with the Son, whom the Father loves, whom the Father sent, through whom the Father speaks, to whom the Father has given His Spirit, and to whom the Father has given all things.

The one who has received His testimony has staked his eternal destiny on the truth of God in Christ. And therefore, the promise of verse 36 is that he who believes in the Son has eternal life. We are of the earth, and from the earth, finite and limited like every human being who came before us since Adam. But as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:49, “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy (man, Adam), we will also bear the image of the heavenly (man, Jesus).” The promise of the Gospel is that the sinfulness of our human condition will be taken away through the blood of Christ because of His death for our sins, and we will be covered in the righteousness of His sinless life, and transformed into His likeness, gradually here and now, but entirely and completely when we stand before Him in glory. And thus we will have life eternal in His presence through faith in Him.
But notice the contrast. What is the opposite of one who believes? Notice that is not “one who does not believe,” but rather “one who does not obey.” The opposite of belief is not disbelief, but disobedience. Because if you really believe Jesus is who He says He is, and you really believe what He speaks, and you believe that He really did all that He claimed He would do for you, then you would obey Him. Not in order to earn eternal life, but because you have received it by faith in Him! But because our obedience is weak, He has even come, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to live within those who believe in order to compel and empower obedience in us and convict us of our disobedience. But the obedience begins in the confident belief, and reverential love for the all-supreme Christ. That belief drives our obedient behavior. Calvin writes of how the pious mind “restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but, because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord. Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.”[2] This is why disobedience is a big deal for Christians. Because wherever there is disobedience in our lives, there is a hint of disbelief. So the answer is not to try harder or do better, but to become more singularly fixated on the all-surpassing supremacy of Christ; for where we are absolutely enamored by Him, our belief is strengthened, and our obedience follows.
But the other alternative to genuine faith that leads to eternal life is defiant disobedience that rejects the Son. This one, rather than having eternal life, will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him. Kostenberger defines “wrath” as “God’s holy outrage against rebellious humanity.”[3] Maybe you think that sounds a bit harsh. Not when you consider things from God’s perspective. As Carson writes, “God’s wrath is not some impersonal principle of retribution, but the personal response of a holy God who comes to his own world, sadly fallen into rebellion, and finds few who want anything to do with him. Such people are condemned already.”[4] And rather than being rescued from that condemnation by turning to Jesus in faith, having beheld His all-surpassing splendor, they have considered Him, and willfully and defiantly turned their back on Him in disobedient rejection. They are condemned already, John 3:18 says. And if they do not repent and turn to the Lord during the days of life they have been granted, His wrath will abide on them. It doesn’t have to be that way. But there are only two alternatives: genuine faith, and defiant disobedience. Behold the all-surpassing supremacy of Jesus Christ, and choose.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 1: The Coming of the Light, John 1-4, (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 266.
[2] Calvin, Institutes, 1.2
[3] Kostenberger, 140.
[4] Carson, 214.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Vermont Trip Day 7

One of Dr. Seuss's most popular books is entitled Oh The Places You'll Go. That phrase is a fitting moniker for our day today!

We began by heading into Barre to work with the saints at Barre Baptist in their soup kitchen. Needing a little jolt of caffeine to begin the day, we ventured by foot from the church up to Espresso Bueno. Barre's main street is undergoing a "big dig" as the town is being "streetscaped" for more charm. It will be nice when it is finished, meanwhile, not so much. Eric is our resident expert on coffee, so we let him choose the places we will "fuel up." He has a checklist of requirements: where did the beans come from, where are they roasted, how are they roasted, what is the name of the donkey that carries the sacks of beans down from the mountain, etc. At one coffee shop, he even asked if he could eat a few of the coffee beans (!) to make sure it would meet his criteria. This guy is serious about coffee. He searched the web and found Espresso Bueno, where Jim had a cup of coffee, I had a maple latte (which was much more mapley than the one I had the other day), and Eric had something I can neither pronounce nor explain. But he seemed to enjoy it, and ours weren't half bad either. I had a Barre Berry muffin, and it was Barre Berry good.

With a fresh bounce in our step we made our way back to the Church to get ready for the soup kitchen. Pastor Jim led a devotional time, and folks began coming in for their lunch. Mo (Mrs. Jim) fixed a good vegetable soup, which we enjoyed after serving the crowd of homeless as we tried to minister to their spiritual needs. It was impressive to see Jim and Mo's love for the unlovable. They know them by name, they know their life situations, and have done much Gospel sowing, and even a little reaping. After lunch, we helped clean up and get the place ready for the Sunday Service. With the afternoon rapidly getting away from us, we decided to forego the door-to-door visitation and strike out for the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

It is hard to describe with words the beauty of the scenery in Vermont, nearly everywhere you look. A drive through Northeastern Vermont is perhaps one of the most scenic journeys in America. Lakes, streams, mountains, trees (some of which are already beginning to change colors), farms, quaint townships, and steeples of vacant, repurposed, or entirely gospel-less churches dot the landscape. We did stumble across a few evangelical churches, with the emphasis on the key word "few" here. Along the way, we were enticed by a hand-painted sign for "Real Vermont Maple Creemees" at a little roadside stand in Danville (sadly there was no sign of Phineas, Ferb or Perry the Platypus there), and this was a delight! Best one we've had so far (and we've had several!). The recipe for their creemees was based on a family recipe for Maple Cream Pie. As we talked about how delicious a Maple Cream Pie sounded, one patron suggested that we might visit the P & H Truck Stop in Wells River, and I made a note of it, even though it appeared that it would be far out of our way. In exchange for her recommendation, I gave her a booklet explaining how she can have her sins forgiven and live forever with Jesus. If she should happen to read it and come to Jesus, she will find that it was an excellent bargain!

We made our way into the town of Lyndon Center where we stopped in at Lyndon Center Baptist Church. The pastor is recovering from a stroke in a nearby rehab center, and a member of the church (from NC originally) showed us around. This church has a small guesthouse that could be the base of operations for future work in the Northeast Kingdom. There are two churches nearby to this one which share a pastor, who has recently stepped down due to health problems and we wanted to visit those churches as well. The wife of the gentleman who showed us around at Lyndon Center offered to go with us, but I thanked her and assured her that "Emily" (our GPS) could get us there with no problems. That was a huge mistake.

Most of the roads we traveled on from that point for the next little while were unpaved, but we finally found South Wheelock Church. No one was around, so we decided to try to find our way over to the sister church in Sheffield. We'd been told that there was a road that went over the mountain that we could take. I am not sure if we found the right road, because whatever it was that we were driving on cannot be described as a road. It was precarious and filled with holes and ruts and deep gashes caused by rushing water. At the crest of the hill there was a little spot to turn around, but we opted to press on. You may be detecting a theme here ... that was also a huge mistake. The descent was the stuff of nightmares and horror films. The "road" narrowed to little more than a path (a path might have been preferable) and was a tortuous maze of crevices, boulders, and other hazards. Clearly, our Crown Victoria was not the vehicle that these roads were designed for. I was praying as I drove, both for a safe descent, and also for Eric, as he was in near cardiac arrest in the passenger seat. He kept saying, "You aren't going to go down this are you?" I kept saying, "What other option do I have?" Now, I know some of you are thinking, "Hahaha, that reminds me of the time I ...." Just stop right there. Unless you have ever traveled this path from South Wheelock to Sheffield before, you have NEVER experienced anything like this. I haven't traveled any road like this in Africa or India or Nepal. This path is to roads what yesterday's "Hot Hoagie" is to sandwiches. We're talking disaster area here! We were convinced that we were going to be stranded if the Lord didn't bring us down. And He did, thankfully. I kept thinking that there was probably a local somewhere in the woods laughing and saying, "What are those idiots doing?" At the bottom of the worst of the hills, there was a Mercedes station wagon on the side of the path with a broken axle. It is only by the grace of God that there is not a Crown Vic parked right beside of it now. Once we were back on level ground, we did a vehicle inspection and seemed to be missing no major parts, though there may be some noticeable wrinkles in the car seats, and the steering wheel may have permanent grip marks on it. We have had many a laugh about that trek since we got safely down it, but there was nothing funny about it during the process, except for Eric's ceaseless requests for me to retreat from the descent. As soon as he had a cell phone signal, he called Yvette and said, "Hey. We almost died!" I think that is an overreaction, but I confess had the same thoughts a few times. Jim was more concerned about the wildlife, including that of the human variety, that may have been within striking distance. There was evidence that his concern was well-founded, including a pile of bicycles that may or may not have belonged to the last group of Mormons to ever attempt to go through there, and a shotgun shack with a sign on the door that said, "Gone on a beer run. Be right back." I assure you, if the resident of that place had really gone on a beer run, there is no way in the world he would have been "right back."

We can laugh and joke about this, but remember, there are actually houses on this road, and that means that there are people who have to travel this way every day. That is how remote some areas of the Northeast Kingdom are. How do you make a Gospel impact in such a place? We are still trying to figure that out!

Once we got back to a paved road, we began working our way back toward the interstate, and when we finally came to it, we realized we were only 8 miles from the Canadian border. I thought it might be interesting to just go up and take a picture or something, Eric was radically opposed to the idea, and Jim chimed in with his usual comment, "I'm easy. Whatever you guys want to do is fine with me." But he added, "It would be a shame to be this close to Canada and not see the border." That was the deciding voice, so we pressed on. Guess what I am about to say? That was a huge mistake!

We had not planned to cross the border into Canada. Our intent was to go up to a place near the border and turn around and head back. The only problem with our plan is that there is no indication that the last exit before the border is actually THE LAST EXIT before the border. So, we round a curve on the interstate, and there is the Canadian entry checkpoint. I have a passport, but it is in Greensboro. Eric's is expired, and Jim doesn't have one. The Canadians were very nice and after some Q&A they kindly allowed us to make a u-turn. The Americans were not so nice and we (more accurately, "I") received a stern "talkin' to" about the error of our ways. I have a nice little warning pamphlet to bring back as a souvenir. A cool little surprise was passing a sign that indicated we were at the precise half-way point between the equator and the North Pole.

We had worked up quite an appetite by this time, so we ventured over to the scenic town of Newport on Lake Memphremagog (don't ask me how to pronounce that) for a quick bite at Wendy's. I guess it is homesickness combined with a deepened and enriched fellowship among us that got us talking about how blessed we are with wonderful wives, and this was a really joy-filled conversation. By this time, we were ready to make a bee-line back to the Calef House so we hit the interstate with zealous aggression. Emily advised us to exit onto some little side road, but frankly we are now terrified of little side roads, and opted to remain on the interstate. When we came to our exit, lo and behold, almost as a pot of gold at the end of  a rainbow, there was the P & H Truck Stop, the Shang-Ri-La! This was the place we had been told to visit for the Maple Cream Pie! Well, it wouldn't really be right to not stop in and try it, would it? We had to! And it delivered!

A few times during this trip, we've been unable to resist paraphrasing the famous Vegas marketing slogan, "What happens in Vermont stays in Vermont." At the Truck Stop, I saw a bumper sticker that said, "What happens in Vermont stays in Vermont. But nothing really happens in Vermont." That's not quite true, but it IS funny. We made our way back to the Calef House, being warned of Moose Crossings at every bend in the road. I am beginning to think that moose (or meese, or mooses, whatever) are like Yetis. They are mythical beasts. We've been warned time and time again about them, but we haven't seen one yet. Jim said he was disappointed about that, but I told him I'd rather not see one than to come up on one at 60 miles per hour.

Back at Calef, we fellowshipped briefly with the Carters, the Geers and the other Pastor Russ (isn't it horrific to think that there might be TWO of us?!?!), and now we are settled in for our last night here. The other Pastor Russ is fixing us breakfast EARLY in the morning, and we'll be on the road for Harrisburg before 9 AM, Lord willing. We've charted a course back via Burlington, the largest city in Vermont (and the smallest largest city in America), sensing the need to set eyes on it for our overarching trip goals. From there, we've planned to travel along side of Lake Champlain, crossing it by ferry near Fort Ticonderoga.

What an adventure this has been. I thank the Lord for Eric and Jim and the great fellowship we've had this week. I am so grateful to God for all that we have seen and done. We have a lot to consider as we look toward future work here. Your prayers have helped us along, and we ask you to continue as we begin the journey home in the morning. Can't wait to be back in Greensboro! 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vermont Trip Day 6

Here's a little quiz:

What did we do today?
(A) Paint
(B) Eat some bizarre foods at even more bizarre places
(C) Do our best to encourage some brethren at a local church
(D) All of the above

If you guessed "D," then obviously you have been following along with the daily updates I've been posting.

Our day began with us meeting with Pastor Jim of Barre Baptist Fellowship, and having a brief breakfast at the local Dunkin Donuts. When Dunkin Donuts says "America Runs on Dunkin" that may be an overstatement; but this American definitely runs on Dunkin, and with my breakfast sandwich, maple frosted donut, and cinnamon coffee downed, we were ready to grab our paintbrushes!

Our painting today was at the Sexual Assault Center in Barre. We painted for about six hours in very hot sunshine, giving a spruced up appearance to the back porch of the Center. These hours we have spent painting (a total of about 16 hours) have been hard work, but it has been during these times that the Lord has blessed us with rich fellowship. During these hours, I am able to see how the Lord has put this team of three together in a unique and special way. We've solved many of the world's problems as we've scraped, sanded, brushed, and rolled.

For lunch, we decided to sample some local cuisine at the Snack Shack. It is not quite the 9th Wonder of the World (See Day 2 Update), but it comes close in accomodation. The Snack Shack is basically an old camper that serves up a wide variety of sandwiches, burgers, and fries. We'd been informed that the burgers were the specialty, but I was in the mood for something a little different. I ordered Roxanne's Hot Hoagie -- a 9-inch sub with fries on the sandwich, covered by chili, jalapenos, green peppers and onions. The name tells you that it is hot; the description on the menu says that it is hot; the waitress told me that it was hot; and the cook shouted from the window of the camper to warn me that it was hot. I was STILL unprepared for how hot this sandwich was. It was, quite possibly, the most horrific thing I have ever put in my mouth. With one bite, tears were streaming down my face, my nose was running, and I felt as if someone had grabbed me by the throat and slung me around the yard. I ate about four bites, and was encouraged by the staff that I ate more of it than anyone ever had. I asked if I won a T-shirt or something, but I didn't. I offered my teammates a sampling, but they wisely declined. We engaged in some creative thinking to come up with a nickname for the sandwich. The top finalists were "The Come-to-Jesus Burger" and "Satan's Enema." I asked the staff what makes it so violently hot, and I was told that it was "Mom's secret recipe." I told them that I hoped she would take that secret to her grave, as a matter of public safety.

With my tongue still swollen and my lips still feeling as if they'd been set ablaze by the very fire of Hades, we went back to our painting. We were pleased with the outcome and hope the folks at the Center are half as impressed as we were with our own handiwork. When quittin' time rolled around, we walked back to the church to get ready for Bible Study. Pastor Jim was kind enough to prepare some hot dogs for us and a small handful of church members, and then I led a brief study on Acts 1 in which I shared a bit of our journey to become an intentionally missional church, hoping to challenge the church to look beyond its own Jerusalem to the unreached areas of Vermont and the Nations.

We returned to the Calef House tonight deeply burdened by what we have seen and experienced this week (I was also deeply burdened by Roxanne's Hot Hoagie, but that is a different story). The town of Barre has a gritty, urban feel; a stark contrast from the idyllic setting of Northfield. Yet, both mission fields are challenging in their own ways. We are encouraged to see the faithfulness of the saints in both settings reaching out to their own communities, but the needs are so great, it causes us to wonder what God might be leading us to embrace for a long-term mission strategy in the region. We are also deeply burdened for the virtually untouched lostness in the part of Vermont known as "The Northeast Kingdom." If you draw horizontal lines across Vermont, dividing into thirds, the upper third seems to be the area with the greatest need of Gospel sowing. The Northeastern corner has very little evangelical presence. We have heard reports of struggling churches there, and the need for new churches there. It would not be an understatement to say that we are spiritually burdened to the point of confusion.

We have decided that tomorrow, after we serve lunch at the Soup Kitchen at Barre Baptist, we may (time permitting) do some door-to-door around the church to get a feel for the spiritual climate of Barre. But we are also feeling an undeniable prompting to get in the car and drive up the Northeast Kingdom. We don't really know where to go, what to see or do there, but we feel as if our vision trip will be incomplete without setting eyes on the region. So, Lord willing, our plan is to journey up there and see whatever it is the Lord wants us to see there.

It's another cool and clear night, and the stars put on another magnificent display of God's glory. We are grateful to the Lord, our families, and IBC for the opportunity to be here. We are growing increasingly ready to be back home, but still wanting to make the most of the time we have left here. 

All three of us are being sustained by your prayers and we ask you to continue praying, and especially to pray for us to have the opportunity, and to be led along by the Holy Spirit, to visit the Northeast Kingdom tomorrow afternoon. Pray as well for the opportunity we have to minister to the homeless in Barre tomorrow at the Soup Kitchen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vermont Trip - Day 5

In yesterday's post, I subtly alluded to the fact that we had done a lot of painting. Maybe you picked up on that. Because we worked so hard yesterday, we decided to goof off a little this morning. Don't worry though, it is “missional goofing off,” as we are constantly evaluating our surroundings, our experiences, and our situations in light of the big picture of how God is using us here and now, and how He wants to use IBC here in Vermont in the future. In that sense, a little missional goofing-off is necessary, for it gets us exposed to various contexts of life here, which is essential for a team with a primary objective of “visioning.” Anyway, that's our story about the goofing-off and we are sticking to it!

So, we began the day by sleeping in a little later than usual and rolling out of the driveway somewhere around the crack of 10:00. We were in desperate need for a good breakfast, especially considering the near-famine conditions we've been enduring. Haven't you sensed in my previous posts the food crisis we are faced with here? Some have emailed with concerns. We are making it, barely. If we ever had a reason to be hungry, we made up for it today. One might say that we spent the day (if not the entire trip) “grazing.” Now, where was I? Oh yeah! Breakfast. We decided to check out some reviews of local restaurants, starting with one called “Soup N' Greens.” The first review we read said that it should probably be called “Poop N' Screams,” so we opted to avoid that one. We settled instead on one described as “the diner that time forgot,” The Wayside in Berlin (Vermont, not Germany). It could perhaps be compared to Tex N' Shirley's in Greensboro in terms of the atmosphere. The food was decent, highlighted by “Real Vermont Maple Syrup” and maple sausage. The maple sausage has definitely been the best maple “anything” that I have had since I have been here.

From the Wayside, we set out toward Stowe, figuring that between Point A and Point B, we would find plenty to occupy us. The stretch of road between I-89 and Stowe is home to every “tourist trap” in the state of Vermont, it seems. We chose the one that sounded most interesting, the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and plugged it into the GPS and let “Emily” lead the way. We passed by the Ben & Jerry's facility, opting not to pay the $4 for a tour, but we stopped into a Cabot Cheese shop and did a little free sampling of various kinds of cheese and maple products. From there we proceeded on to the Cider Mill, only to walk in and find a big sign that said, “We've run out of cider FOR THE YEAR!” I felt like Clark Griswold when he punched Marty Moose in the nose! But, they had not run out of cider donuts (how do you run out of cider, but you can still make cider donuts? I'm saying there's a conspiracy here!), and we each enjoyed one. Had I known they were only 50 cents a piece when I ordered them, I might have enjoyed several dollars worth, but alas, I was still running a little heavy from breakfast and all that free cheese.

From the Cider Mill we drove up to the Trapp Family Lodge, a beautiful and scenic (and expensive) resort, where we merely jumped out to take a few pictures. The resort is not original, but the site is the location where the Von Trapp Family (think, “The hills are alive ...”) came to live in America. The place seemed popular with international travelers, mostly Europeans. I would liken it to places like Grove Park Inn, the Broadmoor, or other fancy joints that are way out of my league. But, if you have the means, enjoy! I, for one, do not have the means.

We came back down through “tourism alley” and made our way over to Camel Hump State Park. Here we enjoyed a very serene and lovely drive up, and back down, a high mountain on a gravel road that runs along side of a rocky stream. The park seems to be a favorite among hikers, and while I wished I could just park our rented Crown Victoria and hit the trail for a while (needing to walk off several days of over-indulgence), time did not permit, so we head over to Northfield to begin our late-day work, but not before swinging into the Pump N' Pantry for another Maple Creamie. Since I had to drive, and not knowing if I could lick and drive at the same time, I opted for a Maple Shake, and it was delish! On our way to the church in Northfield, we stopped to take a couple of pictures at what we are calling “Blalock Gap.” Every day we have passed by this beautiful vista, and yesterday Jim said, “Guys, ya'all could just bury me over there.” Hence our nickname for the spot.

At New Life, we began the task of cleaning up our mess from yesterday's Paint-A-Thon. Pastor Trey and his family came by and gave us some encouraging appreciation about the paint-job. While Eric and Jim prayerwalked around the town farmer's market in the town square, I sat on the sidewalk outside the door of the church and had a divine appointment with a young man who just moved in above the church a few days ago. I was able to introduce him to Trey, and I pray they are able to build a relationship with him in the coming days.

We set out to do some neighborhood evangelism on Water Street, one of the areas most severely affected by Hurricane Irene nearly one year ago. Houses along the river are almost all abandoned. Some recovery work had begun on many of them, but rumor of a FEMA buyout has prompted many owners to give up the effort and relocate elsewhere. Strips of duct tape on each house indicate the “high water mark” from the storm, and we were all shocked by the devastation that the area endured. In the homes where we found people still living, mostly across the street from the abandoned homes, we had some enjoyable conversations. One lady has recently begun attending the church and was there Sunday when I preached. I had a thorough gospel conversation with a man in a nearby home, but he seemed more interested in prognosticating about Mayan end-of-the-world theories. Several families commented positively about the relief work that Southern Baptists (and New Life Church in particular) have done in the area. Our most enjoyable interaction was with “John,” a middle-aged new believer who seems to be growing in his walk with the Lord. He invited us in and showed us his progress of rebuilding and restoring his home. These interactions gave us an encouraging glimpse of what God is doing in Vermont. Along this single street we saw the full range of personalities and spiritual climate here. There was a hard-hearted unbeliever, one who is nearly “ripe for the picking,” one who is only beginning to receive the seed of the word, and one who is a new believer taking baby steps in the faith. All of them were overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable to us. In spite of the heartbreaking devastation that they have endured, we were left with the impression that the harvest is ripe but the laborers are few. We are more alert to pray to the Lord of the harvest to thrust forth more laborers into the harvest field! Following our prayerwalking and visiting, we debriefed with Pastor Trey at his home and had a prayerful farewell with him and his family.

The air had grown cool and the evening late, so we began to search for a place to have dinner. Most of the restaurants in rural Vermont close-up relatively early, so we ended up at a “neighborhood place” in Berlin called Applebees (maybe it has something to do with the local apples, but I hear rumors that they are expanding). After eatin' good in the neighborhood, with full bellies and tired eyes, we have now returned to the Calef House to retire for the evening. It is another clear evening, and the stars are overwhelmingly beautiful, but we don't have the stamina to enjoy them tonight. We have a full day ahead of us tomorrow, so we need to rest up. Tomorrow, we shift our focus to the town of Barre.

Once again, I reiterate how grateful we are for your prayers. We have all given testimony to how the Lord has blessed and sustained us during this trip. We are all dealing with a healthy bit of homesickness, but we are rejoicing together in what the Lord is doing in and through us, and moreover what He has been doing and continues to do here in Vermont. I look forward to reporting to you tomorrow about the work we will do in Barre.

Good night!  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Vermont Trip: Day 4

We painted. All day. That is all. No exciting foods to report. Just painting. Lots of painting. 10 hours of painting. Venimus, Vidimus, Pictis. We came, we saw, we painted.

We were supposed to do about a half day but we kind of found our groove and got into a zone and decided to see how much we could get done. We got it all done, praise the Lord! No painting tomorrow. Thank you Jesus!

We had a few divine appointments during which we were able to plant a seed or two, but mostly it was just painting. Lots of painting.

Though our lodge is quite comfortable, we are all in agreement that there is a great need for better showerheads. We've described the water flow here as a flesh-piercing mist. I had a thought today that we might "voluntarily" replace the shower heads, but Jim wisely suggested that we not try to tackle a plumbing project after so much painting. Did I tell you how much painting we did today? We did LOTS of painting!

Thanks for your prayers.

My fingers hurt from all the painting, so no more typing.

Good night! 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Vermont Trip ... Day 3

We had a full and exciting Lord's day today. We set out early for Northfield to worship with New Life Church, and had a beautiful drive over the mountain on some backroads (some of which were unpaved). The scenery was amazing. We got into Northfield a little earlier than expected so we drove around and took some pictures of Northfield's famous covered bridges. There are five of them in the Northfield area, three of which are on one road in close distance to each other. I have heard that this particular road is the only place in Vermont where you can see one covered bridge from another. When we have a little more reliable internet service, we'll post some pictures.

We thoroughly enjoyed the worship and fellowship at New Life this morning. They are a very loving church family with simple, authentic worship, open sharing of one another's concerns, and very attentive to the preached word. God is working in so many of their lives and families. Pastor Trey had asked me to preach a challenge to the men of the church, to follow up on their "Man Camp" retreat, which they held this weekend. I preached on the Mandates for Manhood in 1 Peter 3:7, and tried to make the message relevant to both the men and the women of the church. I received some very encouraging (and specific!) feedback as to how the Lord used the message and for that I am grateful.

We had a great lunch at the Knotty Shamrock, an "Irish" pub that is located in the adjacent storefront to the church. Joining us were the pastor and his family, the church's only elder and his wife, and Steve and Nellene Carter, MSC missionaries from NC who were with us at Immanuel back in March. I've been surprised at how popular "fish and chips" are up here. Most of the folks had that for lunch (the fish was a large slab of fried haddock), but I had fish yesterday, satisfying my quota of fish for the year. I ordered a cheesesteak, which was not a proper cheesesteak, for it was served with provolone instead of Cheese Whiz, but it was good nonetheless.

After lunch, we went over the Mayo Nursing Home, where several of the church's members have begun a once-a-month devotional service for the residents. Brother Tony, a former pastor who is now a member of New Life, led the service, and Eric brought a good devotional message on the Fruit of the Spirit. He did a great job with it. It was such a blessing to see Jim showing such a compassion and genuine love for the residents who came to the service. I watched him "help" one of the ladies with the hymn singing by pointing to each line of the songs, and taking time to interact with each of them in a caring way after the service ended.

From there, it was back to New Life for a brief meeting with Trey. Like most of the pastors here, Trey is bivocational and works a full-time job in addition to serving the church. Therefore, it was necessary for him to meet with us to lay out some plans for how we will spend the next two days. He showed us areas of the church that need painting, and some maps of the areas he wants us to do some community surveying and prayerwalking. That is how we'll be spending Monday and Tuesday.

At some point in the day, some sentence was uttered by someone or another that contained the phrase, "the best Maple Creamie you'll ever eat." So, we were duty bound to investigate this matter further. A "Maple Creamie" is a soft-serve vanilla and maple ice cream cone. We were led over to a little ice cream shop attached to a gas station called the Pump & Pantry. Not wanting to be gluttons, Jim and I opted for a medium Maple Creamie, while Eric demonstrated superhuman restraint in ordering the small. Measured from the bottom of the cone to the tip of the Creamie, a "medium" is probably a foot tall. I may have dislocated my tongue trying to get at it before it melted! But it was as good as promised! As we licked, we spread a map out across a picnic table and Steve shared with us some of the work that God is doing in starting new churches and growing existing ones, while also pointing out areas where churches have closed, pastors have resigned, or where no known churches exist. This conversation was very surreal. I have had conversations like this in Africa and South Asia, but never in America. It was eye-opening to see how great the need for the Gospel is here in Vermont. Though we are being given a glimpse of the need, we will not even come close to the areas of greatest need on this trip.

We had barely finished licking when it was time to go to dinner! Jim recalled how I had mentioned in a sermon one time that if you travel with me, you will eat well. He said he was finding that to be true. We met up with Pastor Jim Marchetti and his wife "Mo" of Barre Baptist Fellowship at Village Pizza in Northfield. We'll be with them on Wednesday and Thursday, but tonight was an opportunity to get to know them and hear their hearts and vision for their work. I learned that I was introduced to the congregation of Barre this morning as "the only American who actually enjoys the game of Cricket," and that this was met with a "Hallelujah" from one Jamaican member of the church. It was a good time of mutual encouragement. Feeling convicted about our "overindulgence" of local cuisine, Eric and I opted for a salad for dinner, while Jim ordered a pizza "to go," so he could eat it later. Our salad ended up being huge and delicious -- a grilled chicken salad with strawberries and almonds, covered in a "homemade" raspberry-poppyseed dressing. Delicious and refreshing!

After a time of encouraging fellowship there, we made our way back to the Calef House. I had a brief moment of fellowship with "Pastor Russ" of Washington Baptist Church that was mutually encouraging. We came inside to prepare our "packets" that we will distribute during our survey time tomorrow, and had some great conversation about what God is doing in Vermont, at Immanuel, and in each of our own lives. Team-buiding is always an exciting by-product of mission trips, and we are thoroughly enjoying that aspect of the trip thus far.

Now for something completely different ... a bizarre small world occurrence. It has been very unusual to run across so many people with ties to North Carolina here. Both MSC couples are NC Natives, Pastor Trey and his family lived in Greensboro and we discovered that he and I actually graduated from seminary together in December of 2005, and several of the members at New Life have ties to NC, either themselves or with family members there. But the strangest occurrence unfolded over the course of several hours. Ever since I first talked by phone Mary Lois Geer, one of the MSC missionaries here in Vermont, I have thought that her name and voice were familiar to me. This morning, her husband David (who also seemed very familiar to me) happened to mention to us that she was a graduate of Fruitland. Turns out that her last term at Fruitland was my first, and we had crossed paths there. Then it was mentioned that they had been to Ukraine many times, and we discovered that Donia and I were on the same team with them in 2000 when we were there with Joe Hester and about 195 others on the Riverboat of Hope. As the day unfolded, I began having this very vivid recollection of David and Mary Lois. As I recalled, they surrendered to the call of missions on that trip, and I remembered the worship service in which it happened and how we had prayed for them and a handful of others that expressed a calling in that service. She remembered how the team had prayed several times for the young woman who was pregnant and becoming seasick during the trip -- that woman happened to be Donia! So, tonight we had a great time of fellowship catching up and telling stories about how God had worked in our lives since that day.

As usual, I am the last man standing, as my teammates have hit the rack exhausted from a very full and rewarding day. Like most of my sermons, this update has grown unduly long, and I am calling it a night. Our cell phone service and internet reliability is poor here, but as soon as I can get a steady wifi signal, I will be posting pictures, but that may not be until we are back in Greensboro! In the brief moments of connectivity we've had, we've been hearing glowing reports about the worship service at Immanuel today, and several have called or emailed to let me know what a great job Brian Davis did in the pulpit.

Keep praying for us. I can assure you that God is answering every prayer you are lifting up for us.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Vermont Trip Day 2, in which we finally made it to Vermont

Day 2 saw us up and going early. We slept well in our bunkroom, had some private and team devotional time, followed by breakfast at the McDonald's beside of the Harrisburg Volunteer House. We were truly blessed by the kindness and hospitality of Roger and Shirley Carlson, fellow North Carolinians (from the same neck of the woods as Jim) who serve the Lord with NAMB as Mission Service Corps (MSC) missionaries in the Pennsylvania/South Jersey Convention. Can't wait to see them again on our return trip. While at McDonalds, I happened to notice an older man reading his Bible as he ate breakfast, so I went over to his table and said, "Hey brother, I don't want to interrupt you; just to encourage you. It always thrills my soul to see someone feasting on God's Word." We made brief introductions of ourselves, and we were on our way.

On Day 2, we topped the five state adventure we had on on Day 1 (NC, VA, WV, MD, PA), travelling through PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, and VT. In a welcome contrast to the torrential downpours we endured on Day 1, Day 2 was an absolutely beautiful day. *SOMEONE* had the bright idea to take the often unadvised route across the George Washington Bridge on 95 through Connecticut because he used to take mission trips to Boston that way when he pastored another church (oops, gave away the source of the bright idea). Had some great skyline views of New York City, and flirted with the idea of venturing into the city, but deemed it would delay us too much. It was all smooth sailing until we hit the Bronx. Traffic was jammed up and we tried to find a few alternate routes, but Emily (our British GPS Voice) was uncooperative and we lost an hour and a half between that jam and one in Connecticut. Finally we arrived at our lunch destination. Many years ago, when Donia and I were travelling through New England (I don't recall if it was on a ski trip or a planning trip for some missions projects), we happened upon a little waterfront seafood restaurant in Norwalk called Sono Seafood. Over the years, I guess Donia and I stopped in there 3 or 4 times, and I had mission teams from Conowingo with me there maybe 3 or 4 times as well. It's been ten years, and the memories came flooding back to me. It was a spectacular day to sit on the dock as all three of us enjoyed a nice lunch of Cajun seasoned grouper. We had to tear ourselves away from there to get back on the road.

The bliss of the moment was shattered for me as I returned to the car to find a very unwelcome voicemail from my dearest friend, Nate Veach. Nate had called to tell me that his dad, Dick Newsome, died last night after battling Parkinsons and Congestive Heart Failure. Dick was such a formative influence on me as a young Christian. He was the first Sunday School teacher I ever had, the finest deacon I have ever known, and an exemplary husband and father. I couldn't estimate the hours I have spent talking about the Lord and the Bible with Dick in his den. I "cut my teeth" as a Christian during those hours. The verse that came to mind instantly as I talked to Nate on the phone was 2 Samuel 3:38: "Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?" Though I desire deeply to be with this precious family in their hour of grief, Nate assured me of what I know to be true -- Dick would want nothing more than for me to press on and share Jesus with the people of Vermont this week. My prayers are with Nate, Judy, their family, the folks at United Baptist Church, and a host of friends who are going to miss Dick's wise and loving presence.

We pressed on through Connecticut, into Massachusetts, and finally found ourselves in Vermont. Knowing that we would be too late to have dinner with our ministry contacts here, we decided to duck off the interstate and grab a bite to eat at the Ninth Wonder of the World: Curtis BBQ in Putney, VT. It is an old school bus, serving some of the best ribs I have ever had "al fresco" on picnic tables under a barn-like structure. Phenomenal place to eat if you are ever passing through. Go hungry.

Vermont is a beautiful state. It's nickname, "The Green Mountain State", is fitting. Nearly all we have seen of it thus far are lush green mountains. The sun dropped behind the mountains quickly leaving us to navigate twisting country roads in indescribable darkness. We passed signs warning of Moose Crossing, Bear Crossing, Horse Crossing, and Snowmobile Crossing, and I nearly ran over Larry, or Daryl, or his other brother Daryl (not sure which). Finally we made it to our place of lodging for the next week, the Calef House in Washington, Vermont. It's a very comfortable place owned by Southern Baptists in the region, and operated by another MSC couple from North Carolina, David and Mary Lois Geer. After unpacking, we spent some time outside in amazement at the wonder of God's creation, as the stars here are so vividly bright. It was a really breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and worshipful experience. The heavens were clearly declaring the glory of God and the firmament His handiwork.

We are off to bed now, the other guys have crashed already and I'm up late typing this and looking over my notes for tomorrow. I will be preaching at New Life Church in Northfield at 10 AM, and Eric will be leading a Bible Study at a nursing home at 2 PM. Thanks again for all your prayers and support. We can truly say, "Having a great time, wish you were here!"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Vermont Trip Day 1

I drove to pick up my teammates, Jim and Eric, this morning around 7 AM and we hit the road, northbound with the hammer down. We have had some great conversation and fellowship along the way. We stopped into Winchester, Virginia for lunch. Winchester has a great little pedestrian mall filled with shops and restaurants, but we had our sites set on the Snow White Grill, an establishment that has been in business serving "sliders" since before they were called sliders. They've been in business since 1949. Some of my friends know that I have a "sixth sense" for finding awesome hole in the wall restaurants, and this one was great!

Back on the road after lunch, we got the Crown Vic sailing in the wind for our next stop, Gettysburg. By the time we reached Gettysburg, it was pouring down rain, so we did the "driving tour" of the battlefield. We were all amazed and awestruck at times at the carnage that occurred there. It can be a bit overwhelming to consider the massive loss of life. We concluded our tour overlooking the massive cemetery and listening to the recorded words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It was a strangely patriotic experience for me.

From Gettysburg, we made our way into Harrisburg and found a spot for dinner. A tiny Italian sub & pizza joint with a diverse menu and large servings left us well satisfied. With bellies full, we've now made our way over to the Volunteer House operated by the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey. Our bunkroom accommodations are not deluxe, but we are getting far more than we paid for here. The plan is to get a good night's sleep and hit the road for Vermont early in the morning.

As we call it a day, we have much to be thankful for. We are thankful that the Lord blessed us with traveling mercies and brotherly fellowship along the way; we are thankful to have touched base with our wives tonight and to know that all is well back home. We are thankful to have "weathered the storm" and that the forecast for the next few days has improved dramatically. We are thankful that Baptists cooperating on mission together have provided a place for us to stay tonight that is clean and comfortable. We are thankful most of all for the glorious privilege we have of knowing Christ and making Him known. Pray for us to sleep well, feel well, travel safely, and most of all, be used for God's glory in our divine appointments tomorrow. We thank you for your prayers and support.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Heart of a Humble Servant (John 3:22-30)

In the foreword to R. C. Sproul’s latest book, contemporary theologian Michael Horton outlines four disturbing trends in today’s church that need reforming. He notes that “we are all too confident in our own words” rather than in God’s Word. Secondly, he observes that “we are all too confident in our own methods for success.” Third, Horton says, “we are all too confident in our own good works.” And fourthly, he says, “we are all too enamored of our own glory.”[1] As I look at Horton’s painfully accurate assessment of modern church life, I can’t help noticing the stark contrast that exists between the modern church and the life of John the Baptist. If we distill Horton’s critiques down to one essential element, it would seem that we are far too impressed with ourselves today. What we seem to lack most of all is that quality that was so apparent in the life and ministry of John the Baptist: genuine HUMILITY. Nowhere is that quality of John more vividly detailed for us than in this passage.
Verses 22-26 serve as background information. They set the stage for the heart of the text, which is found in verses 27-30. Jesus and His disciples have moved out from Jerusalem into the rural areas of Judea, where Jesus was “spending time with” His disciples, “and baptizing.” John 4:2 clarifies that Jesus was not the one doing the baptizing, but His disciples were. Now, John and his disciples were still carrying out his ministry of preaching and baptism, nearby in another area. Now, verse 25 says that a Jew, we don’t know anything about him other than that he was Jewish, had stirred up a discussion with John the Baptist’s disciples about the Jewish customs of purification. We don’t know anything about that discussion, but it is obvious that in the course of it, this unnamed Jew must have mentioned that Jesus and His disciples were nearby, and that they were baptizing a lot of people. As a result of this discussion, the disciples of John the Baptist came to him and said, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.”

What do we make of that report? Some have understood this to be something of a praise report, as if they are saying, “Hey John! Great news! You know Jesus, that guy you called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Well, He is now baptizing, and praise the Lord, everyone is going to Him now!” That is probably an overly optimistic reading of the text. It seems that they are actually complaining (maybe better to call it whining) to John about this situation. Note the very impersonal way they refer to Jesus – “He who was with you beyond the Jordan.” They seem to imply that “He who was with you,” is now in some way “not with you,” or even “working against you.” And notice how they exaggerate the report: “He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.” In fact, He was not baptizing, but His disciples were; and all were not going out to Him, for verse 23 plainly says that John still had many people coming to Him.

What’s going on here? It is evidently a case of spiritual jealousy. Spiritual jealousy is a very ugly thing. It is focused on competition; it creates artificial rivalries; and it always exaggerates the situation and ultimately takes focus off of the Lord Jesus and places it on men. John’s disciples had this kind of spiritual envy. I wish we could say that they were the last to experience it, but it’s still a problem today, and it creates conflict within churches and between churches. It is seen anytime there are factions in a church body that draws lines between “us” and “them.” Sometimes you see it when a person who at one time held a lot of responsibility in a church begins to be overshadowed by another, or a once prominent ministry begins to take a backseat to something that is new and different. It is seen whenever the people of one church begin to speak ill of another because they are seeing greater results. Rather than rejoicing that people are coming to the Lord, there are criticisms launched.

But the corrective for it is found in the response of John the Baptist to his disciples. In his response, he demonstrates the heart of a humble servant. And that is the kind of heart that is necessary if we are going to move forward in the service of the Lord and the advance of His Kingdom. So what are the characteristics found in the heart of a humble servant? Let’s find them in the text.

I. A humble servant recognizes God as sovereign over all things (v27)

Last Tuesday morning, we were facing a dilemma. After investing countless hours and a lot of money into National Night Out, I woke up and checked the weather. Seventy to eighty percent chance of severe thunderstorms, and the greatest chances were during the very hours our event was planned! The radar map showed it coming right at us. Carolyn called me at 10:00 and we debated what to do. We decided to wait until 1:00 to decide. That was an excruciating three hours! I checked the weather every ten minutes: no change. I was growing frustrated, anxious, and even angry. I talked to the Lord, and I have to confess, I had some pretty raw feelings in my heart, maybe even some spiritual jealousy. I was praying, “Lord, why? Why today? Why not rain out some other church’s event in some other town, and just leave us alone today? This is going to make our church look bad if we can’t deliver on this!” But the Lord began to impress upon my lack of confidence in His sovereignty. Could God make it not rain if He wished? Certainly. So what if He did not stop the rain? Could it be that He might have a purpose in raining us out? Maybe Greensboro needed the rain more than Greensboro needed National Night Out. Maybe there was some unforeseeable disaster that was going to occur, and raining the event out was God’s way of sparing us from it. Maybe there was another church in another town that was going to be blessed with great weather to pull off a great event to reach their community, and we needed to take the rain instead of them. I literally preached and prayed myself into a renewed commitment to God’s sovereignty. At 1:00, the chance of storms was only slightly improved, and I asked Carolyn, “What do you want to do?” She said, “Let’s do it,” and I said, “OK.” Not only did it not rain, I actually got sunburned out there! And it was a great night. The weather was great! The turnout was great! The response was great! But over all of that, God was great! He brought the weather, He brought the people, He brought the volunteers, and He brought the results. He is sovereign over it all.

See, when John’s disciples came complaining (I’m going to call it whining) about the success of another baptizer across town, John didn’t go along with it. He said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” John recognized that he would have never had a ministry at all unless God had granted it to him. He would have never seen the results that he saw unless God had granted it to him. And Jesus and His disciples would not be having the success they were having if God were not directing that as well. So, in John’s mind, if God was pleased to turn the tide of favor to Jesus now instead of John, it was OK with him. John didn’t give up. He kept doing what God had called him to do, but he was content in knowing that his season of ministry was drawing to a close, and he was being overshadowed by Jesus, because God was orchestrating it all according to His sovereignty. He could be thankful for all that he had received, and he could give thanks for what Jesus was doing now, because he recognized that neither of them would have any success, any effect, or any results, or any ministry at all, unless it was granted from heaven by a sovereign God.

What about you? When you see that your labors are not as effective as someone else’s, or that you are serving unnoticed while someone else gets all the attention and praise, or that the appreciation you once had has all but vanished and someone else now is at the center of attention, how does it make you feel? Someone else’s Sunday School class has grown larger than yours. Someone else was chosen to lead the committee. Someone else was nominated for deacon instead of you. You don’t get asked to do the things you used to do. Or, you do something with all your heart and soul, and it bombs; while someone else does a half-effort at something and it’s a glowing success. What goes through your mind? Some of you drive past large churches with full parking lots every Sunday on your way here. I get caught in traffic letting out from Westover Church every Sunday on my way home. I can’t turn left into my street because of the flood of cars leaving that church! Meanwhile we are at 25% capacity here in our sanctuary. Do you have moments like that? What are you thinking? “Oh, if only we would do this and that,” or maybe, “That church must be short-selling the Gospel in the name of entertainment.” You look back on bygone days when this building was full and membership was multiplied many times over the present number, and you seek to lay blame or find fault, and even become spiritually jealous of another church, another leader, or another time.

Let’s learn from John. A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. Were there great days in the past here? Thanks be to God, who granted it. Are the doors still open today? Thanks be to God, who grants it. Is another church across town busting at the seems? Thanks be to God, who is bringing people to Himself through their ministry. Did you at one time have a place of seemingly more significance than you do today? Thanks be to God who made it happen. Has another been raised up in your place? Thanks be to God for His hand upon their life. The heart of a humble servant recognizes that God is sovereign over these things, and rather than falling into spiritual jealousy, he or she can give praise and thanks to God is at work to bring glory to Himself through all of it.

II. The heart of a humble servant understands the boundaries of his own calling (v28)

When we look at our stresses in life, we recognize that a good many of them come from unrealistic expectations. We expect more of someone than he or she can actually deliver. That leads to disappointment and frustration. It happens in marriage, in business, among friends, and even within churches. Because of the fallen nature of humanity, unrealistic expectations are a reality we have to learn to live with. But the really foolish thing for anyone to do in the face of unrealistic expectations is to try to meet them. We have to know the limitations of our abilities, and we have to understand the boundaries of our own calling.  

John’s disciples seem to have had some unrealistic expectations of him. At one time, and for a short time, John was the most popular religious figure in Israel. His disciples seem to have expected him to remain in that position forever. Like a politician’s publicity team, they are reporting to him that he is losing ground in the polls, and he better do something if he hopes to stay in the race. In response to the complaining and whining of his disciples, John reminds them of what he had told them before. “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’” In other words, “My calling from God was to prepare the way for someone else to come after me. I have done that, and He has come. My task is nearing completion.” John knew that his calling was an important one, but that it was merely preparatory for the greater calling of One coming after him. His job was not to be the Christ. He was not to be the Savior of the World. He was to point out the Lamb of God, not to become the Lamb of God. And he was not going to begin a competition with the Christ. He had done what God put him here to do. Now it was time for Christ to do what the Father sent Him to do. There was no bitterness or envy in John’s heart. He had a calling to pursue, and he had pursued it to the best of his ability. Christ had a different calling – a different purpose – and John was content to know the dividing lines between their respective callings.

Compare John the Baptist with Saul, the first king of Israel. When Saul’s reign as king began drawing to an end, God called out David to replace him on the throne and soon David’s popularity began to overshadow Saul’s. Do you remember how Saul reacted to that? He became violent, delusional, and consumed with a passion to protect and preserve his own position. He sought to destroy David. But John was not like this. John had the confidence of knowing that he had done what God had called him to do. He could do no more than that. And the fact that Christ was now doing something bigger and better than him was something he could take joy and comfort in. He could not do what Christ had come to do. John could only do what God had called him to do. And he did it well. He knew the boundaries of his own calling.

You see, when we do not understand the boundaries of our calling, we tend to make critical comparisons of ourselves with others. We feel threatened by them. We complain that they are not doing what we want them to do, or the way we want them to do it. We feel passionate about something, and we think they should be just as passionate about it. But when we understand the boundaries of our calling, we can rejoice in doing what God has called us to do, and rejoice all the more when others do what God has called them to do. None of us can be Jesus. But all of us together, doing what each one has been called to do, can be the Body of Christ in the world.

Jack and I were commenting on this during VBS. No one can cook the food, register the kids, lead the games, do the crafts, teach the lesson, drive the van, and lead the worship. But the ones who can cook cook, and the ones who can teach teach, and the ones who can drive drive, and the ones who can do crafts do crafts, and so on and so on, and at the end of the week, VBS happened. And it was the Body of Christ at work. But in order for that to happen, we have to recognize our calling, be faithful in the work of our calling, and cease comparing ourselves to others who have different callings. Then we see the heart of humble servanthood.

III. The heart of a humble servant rejoices in his own relationship with Jesus (v29)

What brings you ultimate joy in life? It is a question I ask myself often as a sort of spiritual diagnostic. I love preaching. In fact, more than that, I love preparing sermons. I love to lock myself away with my Bible and my books and hammer out an exposition of God’s Word. It is hard work, but it is a joyous work. But sometimes, I can get things out of whack in my life, and that becomes the most joyous thing for me. And when that becomes the thing that brings me the most joy in life, it becomes dangerous. I can never derive more joy from what I am attempting to do for Jesus than I derive from the gracious privilege of being with Jesus. 

John didn’t allow that temptation to overtake him. There were many things that could bring him joy. He knew the joy of having a group of disciples clinging to his every word and following him everywhere he went. He knew the joy of baptizing multitudes of people who desired to surrender their lives to God. He knew the joy of popularity and power. He knew the joy of being the spokesman for God. But none of these things were his greatest joy. If you were to take all of these things away from him, and in fact all of these things were about to be stripped from him, you would not touch his greatest joy. So what was his greatest joy? Look at verse 29.

John says, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice.” John is saying here, “I’m not the bridegroom, Jesus is.” He has come to gather His people together from every nation and form His church, which He will take to Himself as a bride in a covenant relationship. And John says, “My joy is not that of the bridegroom. I’m not the one getting married! My joy comes from knowing the bridegroom, being His friend, and standing with Him, and hearing His voice speak!” He says, “So this joy of mine has been made full!” His joy was not in his ministry, his success, his popularity, or his power! His ultimate joy was in the fact that he had a personal relationship with Jesus.

When Jesus sent His disciples out to preach, they came back rejoicing about the spiritual power they had experienced. “Even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” they said. But Jesus said, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:17-20). Jesus is reminding them that the greatest joy of all is found in knowing Him! And He is warning them against ever allowing any other joy to surpass that one.

You see, when your joy is in anything other than knowing Jesus, then you are always at risk of losing your joy. Is your joy found in being in charge? What will happen when you are no longer in charge? Someone else will be in charge and you will be bitter and envious. Is your joy found in your work? What will become of you when you can no longer do it? You will look with critical disdain on someone else who does it after you, or different than you, or better than you. You see, every single thing in this world that promises to bring you joy will disappoint you, because you will break it, you will lose it, or you will grow tired of it, or it will be taken away from you. And in your disappointment, you will be driven to bitterness, anger, envy, jealousy, and a host of other destructive emotions. But when your greatest and most ultimate joy is found in knowing Jesus, then you will be able to say with John the Baptist, “So this joy of mine has been made full!” That is a relationship that will never be severed, a joy that can never be lost or stolen from you, and that will last for all eternity. The heart of a humble servant takes an honest assessment of himself and realizes, “I am a sinner. I deserve nothing but hell. But Christ has lavished grace on me by bearing my sin, and conquering death for me, and He has called me into this friendship with Him!” There is no greater joy that anyone could know.   

IV. The heart of a humble servant lives to see Christ exalted (v30).

Have you ever looked up into the sky on a clear day and seen the moon in the middle of the afternoon. At times it is visible, a faint white sphere (or portion of a sphere), kind of like a light bulb that is just waiting to be turned on. Most of us are aware that the light we see in the moon at night is not produced by the moon, but is the reflection of the light of the sun. So, why is it that the moon, so brilliant with its silver, yellow, even sometimes orange hues at night, seems so colorless and pale in the daytime? There’s just as much light reflecting off it in the daytime as at night, so why does it look so different to us? The difference is because the sun has risen so high in the sky that its light dominates the atmosphere, essentially outshining every other light in the sky.

John says in verse 30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is saying in a sense, “I came onto the scene when it was dark in the world. Any light you saw in me was only a reflection of the greater light of Christ who was to come after me. But now He has come. It is the breaking of a new day! A greater light shines brighter and higher! And because you see Him now, you barely notice me at all. He outshines me, and this is the way it must be. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is not threatened or upset in anyway that Christ is moving into the spotlight. It is what he lives for!

But you see that word must there. It has to happen like this. He must increase. It is imperative that Christ increase! But in order for Christ to increase, you must decrease! I must decrease! Life cannot be about me, and my position, and my power and my authority, and my title, and my influence, and my popularity, and my reputation. I must decrease. You must decrease. We decrease so that He will increase! The more I focus on Him, the less I focus on me. The more I live for Him, the less I live for me. But you have to understand, this goes against every ounce of our human nature. We are sinfully corrupted to think that life is all about ourselves. So this kind of decreasing so that Christ will increase is not going to happen by accident. There has to be a daily dying to self – even a moment by moment surrender – I must decrease. You must decrease. Why? So that Christ may increase. When you cultivate the habit of that in your heart, you begin to live for a singular purpose, and it is the most eternally glorious purpose of all. You begin to live for no other reason than to see Christ exalted. If Christ can be exalted in you through success, then bring the success and glorify Him in it. But perhaps Christ being exalted will require your defeat. If so, then glorify Him in the defeat. If Christ can be exalted through your life, then live every moment of it to exalt Him and show the world what a glorious treasure you have in Him. But what if Christ’s increase requires your death rather than your life? If you live to see Him exalted, then death cannot threaten you, for you know that it will not be in vain but it will be used to demonstrate the all-surpassing greatness of the Lord Jesus in a way that your life never could. He must increase! But I must decrease. That is the heart of a humble servant.

Do you want to see change in the world? Do you want to see change in the nation? Do you want to see change in your workplace and in your community? Do you want to see change in your church – a genuine outpouring of revival in which God moves mightily by His Spirit through His people? Then there must be a change in the heart of every individual Christian. We must allow God to cultivate within us a heart of humble servanthood. You won’t find a better example than John the Baptist. The heart of a humble servant recognizes that God is sovereign. The heart of a humble servant understands the boundaries of his or her own calling. The heart of a humble servant finds ultimate joy in knowing Christ, and lives for the singular purpose of seeing Him exalted. May He start that work in me and in you, and may it begin even in this very moment.

[1] Excerpts adapted from Horton’s foreword in R. C. Sproul, Are We Together (Lake Mary, Fla: Reformation Trust, 2012). This excerpt accessed online at, August 8, 2012.