Detours & Covenants

I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.

Genesis 9:15-16 

In the spring of 2019 there was an abundance of rain.  This caused changes in planting schedules and caused the rescheduling of many softball and baseball games.  News reports were filled with images of flooding and stories of those who were facing hardship because of the rising waters.

Around this time I went on vacation to Missouri and as we traveled south, signs informed us that the road was closed and the GPS quickly gave us a route that would put us around the flooding that was causing the closure. I had heard about the flooding but hadn't paid much attention to any photos or videos of the damage. Over the course of our journey we were routed back to the freeway and we got closer to the Missouri River and able to see where the water had left its appointed boundaries.

There were areas where whole towns were on the verge of having water fill their streets. Several rural homes were up on what was now their own personal island and if they were still living in those homes they would have had to enter and exit via a boat. Simple things like feeding livestock were now a serious concern. In several places we could get an indication of just how deep the water was because there were mature trees that the water had risen to be covering half of the leaves. At one location all we could see is a street sign barely visible above the flood waters. The only indication that there was a road nearby was the gravel path that came up out of the water and went up the bluffs in the distance.

As I sat there and had empathy for those affected by the flooding I had plenty of road time to consider what I had seen. Flood waters naturally bring my mind to considering the worldwide flood of Noah's day. The destruction caused by our small, local floods is substantial but imagine the devastation that would come from a global flood. The judgment of God poured out on creation for sin and unbelief. A judgment by a just and holy God. Yet, kept his covenant by sparing Noah and keeping his promise that the seed of the woman would come and crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). That same covenant keeping God made a promise that he would never again bring a flood to destroy all flesh and the rainbow is the sign of that covenant with every living creature.

As we were again detoured around flood waters I was filled with gratitude. While floods like the one we have witnessed this year are terrible we have a certain promise from God that there will not be another worldwide flood. God keeps his promises and they are sure. He is a covenant keeper. This is good news for us because God, in Christ, has a covenant with his people. Just as surely as there will never again be a global flood we have a certainty of salvation in Christ. His covenant with his people through his blood is assured. We look to his broken body and shed blood in the Lord's Supper and know that Jesus died for our sins and because he has given us the gift of faith and repentance that we are saved. We live in a world of uncertainty and detours. We do not know where life will take us. This is often painful and difficult but at the same time because we have a God who keeps his covenant we know that he will most certainly bring us to the destination he has promised.

When we see the signs of the covenants that God has made with us may they bring us joy. When we witness a beautiful rainbow in the sky let us remember that we serve a God who keeps his promises. When we see, touch, and taste the elements of the Lord's Supper may we have the peace that passes all understanding and be filled with gratitude and love for our covenant keeping God.

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Creeds, Reubens, and the Faith Once for All Delivered to the Saints

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 

Jude 3 (ESV)

I like Reuben sandwiches. In fact, I am on a quest to find the perfect one. So far the best one I've ever had is at Valois in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. If you are ever on Chicago's South Side, I recommend you make trying one a priority.

The problem with enjoying a Reuben is that it isn't the type of thing you go the refrigerator and make for yourself. I also can't walk up to the sandwich line at Drooger's to enjoy my favorite sandwich. It is something I am rarely able to enjoy. At times Subway will have a Reuben as a special option. So when I was near a Subway at lunchtime recently I decided to stop in and have one. Who knows how long the promotion will last? I better take the opportunity because, for a fast food chain, the Reubens there aren't too bad.

I walked up to the sandwich line and ordered a Corned Beef Reuben. The first nice young lady behind the counter asked me what kind of bread I wanted it on. Well, of course, it's a Reuben so I should have it on rye. So that is what I asked her to get from the large, clear bread receptacle behind her. She grabbed the corned beef and before putting on the sauerkraut, she asked if I wanted Swiss cheese on it. Again, I responded in the affirmative. I had, after all, ordered a Reuben. They placed my sandwich in the fancy sandwich toasting box. When it had been sufficiently toasted, the next young lady in the line had a question for me. She asked what vegetables and condiments I wanted on it. I replied that I wanted the thousand island and she kindly put it on my sandwich. I paid and headed to the car.

As I was driving down the road, unable to eat because I knew it would drip all over my tie, I thought about my experience. They had offered me all these options but at what point would my sandwich cease to be a Reuben. What if I had ordered the Reuben but requested the regular white bread? What if there was no sauerkraut and it had American cheese and lettuce? Maybe I would take the sandwich artist up on the offer of pickles, spinach, and raspberry vinaigrette. If I omitted thousand island, sauerkraut, and rye would my sandwich still be a Reuben?  

We know the answer, right? The sandwich I described is not a Reuben. It is a sandwich of my own design.

This is why creeds and confessions are important. They help us to know whether the God that we worship and serve is the true God of the Bible. For example, the Apostle's Creed formulates for us what the Bible teaches about the Triune God. If we remove Jesus or the Holy Spirit from their work, we lose the God of the Bible. If we deny the resurrection, we no longer confess what the Bible teaches.

Creeds and confessions help us identify false teaching. A Reuben with ranch dressing, green peppers, asiago cheese bread, spinach, and water chestnuts, isn't a Reuben at all. It is a sandwich of our own design. Creeds and confessions teach us, in a concise way, who God is. They help us to worship the one true God, not a god of our own design.

We want to worship God in spirit and in truth. We desire to adhere to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. To do this we need to know what the Bible teaches about this God we serve. Creeds and confessions help us to know this in a concise way so that we can identify false teaching. They are also a way for us to pass on the faith from generation to generation. As you confess the creeds in worship or study the confessions for personal devotions, you are learning to contend for the faith.

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Great Joy

"And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." - Luke 2:10

I was recently having a conversation with someone who had set up some Christmas decorations. It was a fantastic display and in the middle of it was the word "joy" for all to see. In the course of discussing the decorations they told me that the reason they chose the word "joy" was because it was the only Christmas word that would fit in that space.

That dialogue was a few weeks ago already, but it has stuck with me. It was effective in making me chuckle, but I have also been thinking about the idea of joy. It is a word that is on display at Christmas time, but I guess I often let the idea of it pass me by. Perhaps the abundance of Christmas displays has desensitized me. Maybe I am too caught up in everything that needs to happen in the holiday season to contemplate what joy at Christmas means. It is also likely that I am still jaded about Christmas due to my years of working in retail.

Regardless, the idea of joy jumps out at me this year. With everything that has gone on in the year 2020 I am contemplating what brings me joy and how can I celebrate the joy of Christmas this year. While I find great joy in family, friends, and my vocation those aren't the things that I'm meant to root my joy in. When the angels told the shepherds that they were bringing good news of great joy they weren't letting the shepherds know that now they can be self-actualized and fulfilled. They weren't telling them that they could get together with loved ones and have a big meal. They were talking about the God-man who was lying in a manger. That message from the angels means that God condescended to us that he might keep the law on our behalf, die to bear the wrath of God for our sin, rise from the dead to guarantee our resurrection, and ascend to the right hand of the Father to intercede for us.

Amid all that happens in our world, that good news centers us on where our hope is and it can give us a true joy. The things of this world are fleeting but that good news gives great joy because it means that our sins are forgiven, and we have an eternal King in heaven who has us and holds us regardless of what we see in the world around us. As December 25th approaches may God bless you through his Word and Spirit with peace, hope, and joy that you might rest in the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.

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Imitators of God

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a calling on our lives to be imitators of God.  What is the Apostle Paul trying to tell his readers when he tells them to imitate God? Is he suggesting that we should be creative because God is creator? Are we being told we have the power to punish sin because God punishes sin? This is why context is so important when we read and study our Bibles. Actually, the chapter break we come up against here doesn’t help us out because it makes it seem like this is a new thought, but really, it goes back to verse 32 of chapter four.  There we read that we are to forgive as God has forgiven us in Christ.  So what we read in these first two verses of Ephesians 5 extends the idea that we are to forgive one another because God has first forgiven us.

While we should imitate God in all areas of life, what Paul is specifically talking about here is that we are to imitate God in forgiving others.  We are to love one another and forgive as we have been forgiven. Just like children walk behind their father in the snow and stretch to put their feet in the steps of their father, we follow God and do what he does when we forgive one another. Paul tells us that this is what we do as dearly loved children of God. We are learning from our heavenly Father how we should walk and live and love in this world. This is important for us because it is not an abstract love. That is always so important for us to remember. This isn’t warm fuzzy feelings or emotions.  It is to be like the love that God has shown to us.

When we talk about the love of God we talk about it in real, significant terms because we don’t speculate on the love of God for his people. It is a sure and certain fact. Why? Because, as we read here, Jesus gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. That is the truth of the gospel. The love of God is tangible because Jesus did something real and tangible for us in real time and space history.

When you are struggling and you wonder if God can love you, there is a way to know that his love doesn’t fail. He gave himself as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. We look to this love not only to know that we are to love one another, but we also look to this gift from God to know how we are to love one another. This love we talk about isn’t that we have good feelings for the person down the pew from us or for our neighbor. We are to have a sacrificial love for each other. That means we might have to forgive someone, even though it is very hard to do. It means that we care for others, even when it isn’t easy. It’s visiting someone who is sick even when it is uncomfortable. Loving one another isn’t easy. It is sacrificial and we look to the cross and the love that God has shown for us in Christ to understand not only how to do it, but why we should do it. Christians are a people who united because of a sacrificial love, and that is the love that we are called to have for one another.

So may the people of God care for one another with a sacrificial love just as the God the Son has sacrificially given of himself to save us and declare us righteous in his sight.

Pastor Mark Groen

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Arriving at Our Destination

Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.  Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.  Hebrews 7:25-26

My wife’s sister and her husband moved to a small town in Kansas this past summer. The seven hours between us and the fact I work every weekend means our trip to visit them for Thanksgiving was our first time visiting their new home. Roughly two-thirds of the trip I could navigate from memory. Most of it is the path I have taken to visit my in-laws for the past 23 years. Despite my familiarity with much of the route, I fired up the GPS app on my phone as soon as we got into the car after the Thanksgiving church service.

I enjoy what the GPS app offers. Even when I know where I am going it provides useful information for me. A small speed limit sign informs me of how fast I can drive in that specific location. It provides a very accurate arrival time to give me a good answer when my children ask “How much longer?”. It can also route me around busy traffic if I am driving in a congested area.

All of these are great features but a GPS app has one feature central to its existence. It has to get me to my destination.

After seven hours in the car this past Thanksgiving, the GPS app failed to do that for me. We arrived in the small Kansas town our family lives in and the app informed us we were at our destination. It was on our left but the only thing on our left was a street to turn down. Like many small, rural town streets this street was not well lit. At all. While the light level of the street was above normal because of the Christmas lights that were put up early, it was still very dark. We had trouble seeing house numbers, but we discovered the street name did not match with the street address my sister-in-law had given me.

We changed course and returned to the correct street. Appropriate to the day on which we were travelling, we were thankful we had seen pictures of the home we were looking for. Through the darkness we could identify not only the home we were looking for, but also the vehicles matching the ones our family owned. The generality of the directions provided to us by the GPS was good enough to get us close but we needed specificity to get to our destination.

The seven-hour return trip home offered me the opportunity to think about what we had experienced. This caused me to reflect on the truth of who God is. We often hear people talking about God and often the description of who God is gets us close to who he is. There is an understanding of God’s nature and we see he is a good and loving God. There is also often a good understanding of God’s law and what he requires of us. These are all good things but many times these descriptions of God do not get us to our destination. They do not get us to Jesus Christ and his saving work through his perfect life, death, resurrection, and ascension on our behalf. Talk about God, if it does not lead us to the saving work of Christ, does not get us where we need to be.

This distinction is important because it is how we are saved. Salvation is delivered to us by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone. It is the work of Jesus for us that informs us of God’s nature. Can we understand the law of God without the cross? It is there where we see just how serious God is about his law. Breaking it requires a price be paid. At the cross we see this price is paid for us by the wrath of God being poured out on someone who did not violate the law. Jesus did this for you.

We also truly understand the love of God at the cross. The price paid for our sin at the cross was not merely done to satisfy the anger and wrath of God. It was also to show his love for his people. We trust in this good news and we are saved. It is a sure and certain promise. We are brought to faith through our hearing of the gospel by the power of God the Holy Spirit. This faith is our destination, and it is this gospel of Jesus Christ directing us to exactly where we need to be.

The Word of God is not vague like the directions I received from my GPS app on the evening of Thanksgiving. When it speaks about who God is it does not lead you down darkly lit streets wondering which place is the correct one. All of scripture points to salvation through Jesus Christ and this is why we are faithful to proclaim Christ and him crucified. It leads us to the God who is. The God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not lead us to a vague destination. His Word leads us to himself.

Pastor Mark Groen

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Defending the Truth of Christ

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. 2 John 7-11

A few days ago I watched a hockey game. I haven’t viewed many games during the 2018-2019 season because following a team a time zone behind you is problematic. So many of the games end after my bedtime. With the regular season coming to a close, I discovered that the NHL streaming service was free for the last few games. Despite an 8:00 PM start time, I logged on to watch the Colorado Avalanche play the Winnipeg Jets. Despite the Avalanche going down by two quick goals in the first period, I kept watching. Much to my enjoyment, the team from Colorado brought the game to a tie in the middle of the third period.

To my dismay, with the game tied late in the final period, the Avalanche took a bad penalty. They got caught with too many men on the ice. As a result, the Jets would have one extra player on the ice for a power play during the final moments of the third period. The Avalanche penalty killing team played like I have never seen them play before. They were diving in front of every shot. The crowd went wild with every blocked shot. Every time the penalty killing team would sling the puck the length of the ice to keep the other team from attacking the net the fervor of the crowd grew. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the crowd was roaring and the Colorado players were celebrating. All of his excitement about a tie that would send the game to overtime?

There is a significant detail I left out of in my telling about this game. In this 81st game of an 82 game season the team and fans knew they could secure a spot in the playoffs with 1 playoff point, which you get if you lose in overtime. Obviously, they would prefer the two points given for a victory, but they didn’t need them. Knowing what was at stake, the players selling out on every play and the crowd cheering wildly makes sense. They put it all on the line because they knew what the end reward was.

As we look at the passage from 2 John, we see that we are to be on guard for those who would deceive us and turn us from the true teaching of who Jesus is and what he has done.  2 John speaks forcefully.  If someone denies who Jesus is, they not only deny Jesus but they also deny God the Father.  They do not have God.

The book of 2 John talks about this in an emphatic way for a reason. Salvation is at stake.  Jesus in his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension solves a very specific problem.  Sin has separated us from God and to have access to him we need a savior.  A savior who won the victory over sin, death, and hell in flesh like ours.

It is because this teaching is essential to the faith that 2 John tells us to keep false teaching out.  If we get Jesus wrong, then we do not have God.  This what is at stake for us.  We must be on guard from false teaching regarding Jesus.  Checking our doctrine against scripture and doing everything in our power to be faithful in our teaching of Jesus.  He is what matters, and he is to be what we center our faith on.

What a blessing it is to have a reminder of this truth in the coming weeks.  As we remember the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, we remember that Christ entered the city not to lead a political revolt but to suffer for the sins of his covenant people.  On Good Friday we see that saving work on display as God the Son bears the wrath of God for our sin.  On Easter, we celebrate the victory over sin, death, hell, and the devil in the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

These events help us understand what is at stake.  May we, as the people of God, boldly defend this truth and celebrate the faithful proclamation of the truth of Jesus Christ.

Pastor Mark Groen

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