A Passerby Compelled

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The brief account of Simon of Cyrene has always fascinated me. If a gospel writer like Mark were simply recounting for future audiences the events of Jesus’ death, a brief note about Jesus’ stumbling and struggling under the weight of the cross and the Romans forcing a random man from the crowd to help Him would suffice. But the man has a name! And, what’s more, he has two sons who are named!

Who knows what transpired in those moments between Jesus and Simon besides the very practical, grueling matter of getting the cross up Calvary’s hill so Jesus could at last be nailed to it and die. We don’t know all the specifics, but apparently something more happened for Simon than just another bullied inconvenience by the Romans. Did Jesus speak to Simon? Did He invite the visiting Cyrenian to personally trust in what He was about to do?

Whether they were there watching and had to follow along as their dad helped the struggling Galilean or only heard about it that night at supper, Rufus and Alexander appear to have been changed as well. You see it’s them, not their father, whom Mark holds up as the eyewitnesses—whom the evangelist sites as reliable, trustworthy sources for the facts of Jesus’ death. All indications are that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel, Simon of Cyrene was no longer living but both of his sons were.

Simon may at first have been supremely annoyed at the imposition of carrying a condemned man’s cross, of being publicly identified with another’s guilt; he may have been irritated at the Roman bullies for threatening him if he didn’t comply with their order; or he may have been sympathetic and somewhat willing to lend a hand to yet another Jew being mistreated and made a spectacle of by the brutal imperialists. Whatever his attitude toward the encounter at first, he raised two sons who eventually are named as trusted testifiers to Jesus. One of them, Rufus, was very likely the one to whom Paul sends greetings in Romans 16:13, along with greetings to his mother (likely Simon’s widow). Paul says to “salute” them!

May we be like Simon! May it be that our momentary help in advancing the cross of Christ in this world—though a bloody, burdensome business—will have a generational impact. May it be that we each in identifying with the shame and the brutal beauty of our Savior’s death, in our words and way of life, leave in our wake still more trusted witnesses, those whom all the saints will one day salute for their faithful testimonies!

Take Heart

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"Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."

-Matthew 14:27


It's hard to imagine a more vulnerable, compromised position than being stuck in a small watercraft on Lake Erie a few miles from shore in the middle of a storm. Well, that's where the disciples were (not on Lake Erie of course, but on Lake Galilee). All around the disciples was a surging sea; all within the disciples was dread of certain death; and all that was beneath them was a creaking fishing boat. But then a vision, followed by a voice…

Lest the disciples (most of whom were familiar with boats and windstorms) be overconfident in their instincts and seafaring abilities, Jesus granted them the grace of desperation. He still grants His disciples this grace today—though not always with the exact same circumstances! He doesn’t need a fishing boat and a cyclonic storm to make us desperate. He can use sickness, staff tensions at church, sin and strife within our congregations, or problems on the home front, money concerns, marital crisis, parenting burdens.

What fearful “storm” is destabilizing your feet and your spirit today? What is making you desperate? Look. Not with the eyes of the head but with the eyes of the heart see your Savior coming to your aid with the crashing sea of your circumstances under His feet. Listen. Not with distracted ears of flesh but with Spirit-tuned ears hear His voice calling out: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Don’t let your heart be troubled or bitter because Jesus isn’t in the boat with you. Let your heart be comforted that He has already overcome that which is currently rocking your world. Desperation isn’t a bad thing. Things that make us desperate may be bad things, but desperation itself is good. The question is what we’ll do with it. To whom will we look and listen when every other anchor gives way, the sails of life are ripped from the mast, and the oars are busted and floating away?

A Generous Association

Pastor Bruce McLaurin  First Baptist Church of South Euclid

Pastor Bruce McLaurin

First Baptist Church of South Euclid

Dear Cleveland Hope Churches and Church Plants,

Just as member giving sustains the ministry of your church, Cleveland Hope’s capacity to resource pastors, planters, and the churches they lead for greater gospel impact is sustained by the gifts of our member churches and church plants. As your 2019 Executive Leadership Team seeks to discern and trust God’s direction in Kingdom work, we would like to address the need to give to our local evangelistic efforts by asking What does the Bible say about giving?

Often this crucial question is skewed by distractions like an over-focus on money, misuse and/or abuse of church funds, and other questions like: Why give to my local association when my return seems minimal? How do I give from my lack of funds? and How do I know the money is being used in the best manner? God’s word offers principles that can bless our churches and plants as we depend on His providence. Here are a few:

  1. Giving shows God is Lord of all parts of our life. Paul says, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God meets our needs when we acknowledge our lack and His lordship. Christ can do more with two fish and five loaves than we can do with personal inventory.

  2. Sowing and reaping is an immutable truth of God’s providence. “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). As we open our hands to give, God opens heaven’s windows exponentially.

  3. Giving puts us in the “blessed place.” “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Giving to the local association not only says you believe we can do more together than we can apart, it links your church or church plant to the protective benefits of having local, like-minded partners as well as to the funnel of associational blessing, both to the giving and—yes at times—to the receiving end of that funnel.

  4. Giving should not be by constraint but liberal and cheerful. In 2 Cor. 9:7-8 Paul declares, “Every man according as he purposes in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.” Giving begins as a heart issue. Do we trust God is not shorter than His word? If so, that trust ought to bring a joy and expectancy to His vineyard workers.

  5. The Macedonian model is a practical paradigm. “In a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency to receive the gift and the fellowship of ministering to the saints” (2 Cor 8:1-4). The Macedonian churches gave cheerfully and liberally from their lack, but more importantly from the grace of God given to them.    

  6. Christ Jesus is the perfect paradigm. Paul further admonishes the Corinthian churches with these salient words: “I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others.  For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:8-9).  As we empty, God fills!

Beloved, our calling is bigger than one local church or our association. We are living in “harvest-is-plentiful” times. Will we trust in the Lord with all our heart, or will we lean on our own understanding? It is our prayer that we become a more cheerful, generous association of churches, rightly fitted for this great calling of our Lord to labor for His kingdom.                        

Understanding

“Your testimonies are righteous forever;

give me understanding that I may live.”

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Psalm 119:144

I’m sure our California friends could tell much better stories, but for this midwesterner, it was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever felt. A couple of weeks ago northeast Ohio experienced a 4.0 earthquake. My family and I were driving very near the reported epicenter at the time, but, given the mild nature of the quake and the suspension of our car, we didn’t feel it but only heard about it later on social media. The 5.0 quake I’m talking about happened a decade or so ago. Things shifted back and forth on my desk and wall for about two seconds, and it was over before I realized what had happened. I was sitting in a sturdy chair when that tremor hit, but had I been standing or walking, the effects to my equilibrium would’ve no doubt been greater, and I might’ve even taken a tumble.

Yesterday my Bible reading plan took me to Psalm 119:121-144. The last verse in those two stanzas says, “Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.” When I say to my kids, “Do you ‘understand’?” I’m not asking if they have a firm footing on the floor of our house; I want to know if they mentally grasp the meaning and importance of what I’ve just told them. ‘Understanding’ in our vernacular has to do with the mind and comprehension. But when I read v. 144 yesterday, for some reason that word struck me in a much more literal way: I imagined myself standing not on solid ground but on a tree limb too small for my weight, a swinging bridge over a gorge on a windy day, or trying to walk during an earthquake.

The psalmist cries out in desperation for an under-standing built on the firm testimonies of the Lord. Why? He says, “that I may live [and presumably not die!]” But why is this his concern? Because, as he says in v. 143, “Trouble and anguish have found me out.”

But that’s not just the case for an ancient Israelite king; that’s New Testament ministry, isn’t it? Smooth sailing on calm seas of congregational cooperation, quiet walks in the gentle breeze of refreshing Christian fellowship: everyone content, everybody getting along with one another, serving willingly, seeing and meeting needs selflessly, no gossip, no grudges, no grabbing for power or position, no sickness, no deaths or funerals, no marital crises, no moral failures… Yeah, unfortunately that’s the exception and not the rule in local church life and ministry, am I right? The rule tends much more towards trouble and anguish—ongoing trouble in at least a low-grade form but often punctuated with spikes of leader and/or congregational anguish.

Church troubles and anguish can have a destabilizing effect on the souls of leaders and members alike. (This newsflash brought to you by yours truly, Dr. O.B. Vious!) And that’s not even to mention the non-church troubles and anguish we face in our extended families, our neighbors’ lives, in our communities, our nation and the world. All told, life in a fallen world is an exercise in trying to navigate the shaky and often shifting ground beneath our feet, metaphorically speaking. The social norms and cultural morals of one day will likely be different the next. Through death, disharmony, departures, etc., the church we love and fall asleep praying for tonight may not be the same church we wake up serving tomorrow morning. And then—not metaphorically speaking—there are actual earthquakes, big ones, bad ones that wreck houses and crush children under piles of debris. Yep, solid ground of any sort is a figment in a post-Genesis 3 reality—that is, unless God himself should provide some.

Good news: He has; He does!

Our good God has given us testimonies, spoken and written assurances of His presence, His goodness, His patience, His expectations, and His plan going forward—a whole Bible rich with a firmness the world promises but can’t provide is ours. Here is stability for the wavering soul. Here is an anchor point for tossed and drifting vessels. Here is a handle hold for the sinking one. Let’s bear in mind, v. 144 doesn’t do away with v. 143. However, v. 144’s testimonies do mean v. 143’s troubles and anguish don’t have to be all-defining for us. You may not believe this (I don’t know if the creators of the M’Cheyne One-Year reading plan on the Bible app intended it or not) but another reading yesterday was Matthew 7, where Jesus famously closes the Sermon on the Mount with that powerful illustration of the wise and foolish builders:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

If, by faith and discipline, God’s testimonies are that upon which we choose to stand, we will live! And of course we know “live” means more than mere physical life or survival. Though “liv[ing]” in this sense does not preclude troubles and/or anguish, it does mean we can have a vital, meaningful, divinely used & useful earthly existence as well as a glorious, eternal heavenly existence. The builders in Jesus’ story don’t differ in circumstance but in stance. One builds/stands on rock, the other on sand. In a calm quiet world the two builders’ houses could stand side-by-side. The builder with the rock foundation could go sit comfortably and confidently visit in the home of the one with the sand foundation and vice-versa. But let the winds kick up, let the rains pound down and the waters rise, and it’s a whole different story.

This isn’t a safe, sound, or secure world. It’s not solid; it’s not sturdy; it’s not stable. The Church is in this world and circum-stanced by thrashing troubles and anguish of every conceivable kind. What will be our stance? As leaders of local churches we have to set an example of appropriate foundation building. Will the winds and rains that pound the outside of the church and sometimes penetrate our fellowships through open windows and doors be to our ruin as the house of God? Not if we anchor our hope, our life, in His sure testimonies. Not if hearing and DOING Jesus’ words is our obsession!

O Lord, give me and all the pastors and planters of Cleveland Hope a firm under-standing of Your testimonies that we may be Your witnesses and do Your work in this windy and wobbly world!

Favor

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“Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

-Deuteronomy 9:4-5

Some mornings I don’t read the Bible; I listen to it. Call it cheating if you want, but sometimes what my tired eyes miss from the page, my ears catch. I tapped play on my phone’s Bible app and stepped into the shower to Deuteronomy 9 today.

Israel is poised on the brink of Canaan, the Promised Land, their new home. They are to go in and take the land for themselves. The only problem: the land isn’t empty! Israel is being sent into a land already populated by many and massive (numerically and physically) peoples. Nevertheless, they are to cross the Jordan and take the land. Why? Because God said to do it. How? Because God was going before them to subdue and destroy those peoples.

Now, were I an Israelite on that day waking up, stretching, eyeing the fair and pleasant land across the river, I’d be feeling pretty good. For one, I didn’t die in the wilderness like all those disobedient older-generation Israelites. Two, God has promised to give me and my countrymen the victory.

Let me ask you something: Do you feel God’s favor upon you as a born-again follower of Jesus? As we go along the narrow way of faith and see the effects of progressive sanctification, it can be easy to switch the order of things. It can be easy, that is, to presume God’s favor is somehow a result of our having been born again, a result of our trusting in Jesus for forgiveness, of our seeking to grow as His disciple, of our sanctification, of our service to others in the church, etc., rather than the true reality, namely that God’s favor results IN all of those blessings…and many more.

When you don’t feel God’s favor, to what do you attribute it—disobedience? failure? insufficiency of some sort? We certainly are disobedient; we fail and are insufficient in countless ways all the time—yes, even as Christians. However, God’s favor or lack of favor is a separate issue from our behavior, as Deuteronomy 9 indicates. It’s not a separate issue from all behavior; it’s just a separate issue from OUR behavior. God favored Israel, but not because they were good and the Canaanites were bad. He favored Israel because…well…He just favored them, He picked them; He loved them; He wanted them for Himself. And the victory, the assurance, the fulfillment, the protection and provision promised to Israel all flowed out of God’s choice, not Israel’s conduct, out of God’s heart, not as a result of Israel’s merit.

What possible relevance can this Old Testament message have for New Testament people? Tons! Though we have the Holy Spirit writing God’s laws on our hearts rather than upon external stone tablets, our flesh still has all the capacity for disobedience that Israel’s did. God would’ve been justified in wiping Israel out entirely and starting all over with Moses. From earth’s perspective it looks like Moses changed God’s mind and stayed God’s hand of destruction toward the wayward sons of Jacob. But, in reality, while God was certainly displeased by their folly and idolatry, rather than reversing God’s heart towards His people, Moses’ pleading reveals God’s deeper heart for His people—it reveals His underlying favor.

God didn’t have to provide a Moses who would plead for mercy, much less a Jesus who would bleed for it. But He did! Why? Because He loves us. And because He loves the testimony about Him and the glory that accrues to Him among the nations for being a loving, merciful God towards rebels. He will not settle only for the glory of being just in the face of rebellion but claims for Himself the greater glory of being the Justifier of sinners by means of a mediator whom He Himself supplies, a mediation foreshadowed by Moses and fulfilled in Christ.

It’s Friday. Many of you are in some phase of sermon preparation for the coming Lord’s Day gathering of His people. Your church members are wrapping up busy work weeks, stressful weeks, sick, tired, happy weeks, and so are you. Using your voice to deliver God’s words this Sunday to His people is an unspeakably great privilege. It’s a privilege Satan (and your flesh) will work to convince you is either something you deserve because of faithfulness or don’t deserve because of failures. I’m not suggesting that faithfulness and failures don’t matter. What I’m suggesting is that they don’t matter most. What matters most is you and I joining and helping lead God’s people toward and into His promised land with a humble apprehension of His favor demonstrated to us by and on the basis of His means, and not ours.

Write that sermon. Pray for those saints. Pour yourself out before this God. Gird up your faithful yet failing, failing yet faithful self to move upon Canaan because God the infinitely faithful and unfailing One has chosen you in Christ, promised it to you in Christ, and will give you and the rest of His people all good things in and by Christ. March on Canaan, brothers! Preach the word, shepherd the saints, reach out to the lost; slay the “Canaanites” of greater Cleveland as you once were slain: with the sword of the gospel. Join Him in plundering hell and populating heaven. God has favored you; He goes before you. How do you know? He bestows the very faith Satan wants you to think you mustered up on your own, and He forgives the very failures Satan says will be your ruin, and God does both by His means: His Spirit and His Son.

“No unbelief made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

Romans 4:20-25