Because of your little faith

Probably one of my favorite things to do when I was a boy was fishing trips with my dad. He would plan a trip to one of our favorite lakes around Colville, and then we would commence the preparations. There was gear to gather and assemble. There was bait to collect. (Our favorite way to collect bait was by watering the lawn for a couple hours in the evening and then scouring the lawn with flashlights to find the largest and juiciest worms!) Then of course it was early to bed so that we could get up before dawn and be on the lake by sunrise. I could always depend on my dad to wake me up and shuffle me into the car. By the time we arrived at our fishing hole I was wide-awake and ready to land that “whopper.”

I don’t think there was ever a time when I was uncertain about whether or not we would go out. I trusted my dad that when he said we would go on a fishing trip, we would. I had faith in him. His dependability led me to expect that if I needed something he would be there to help. If I asked for something good I knew he could and would give it.

In Matthew 17, we read how Jesus healed a boy who was being oppressed by a demon. The situation was this: Jesus had been away on a retreat with three of his disciples (vs. 1-8). When they joined up with the rest of his crew, a man came out of the crowd and begged Jesus to heal his son. He did, and it was quite a miracle!

Yet it got his disciples thinking.

“Why could we not cast it out?” (Matthew 17:19)

Jesus’s answer is revealing.

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

Please take a moment to reflect on exactly what Jesus said. His words are powerful and the implications are somewhat staggering. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed.” “Nothing will be impossible for you.” Wow. This has to be one of Jesus’s most powerful statements about faith.

How should we take his words? What does Jesus want us to understand about faith and how to apply it?

First, it is helpful to see how the gospel of Mark tells this story. In Mark 9, the disciples ask the same question, yet Jesus’s response is a little different.

And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:29)

The differences between the two highlight the unique perspectives of both Matthew and Mark. Together, they help us to see that for Jesus, faith was inseparable from prayer. Prayer is the way we exercise our faith. You cannot have faith in God without praying to him. Faith is meaningless, even powerless, unless you are willing to put it into practice by asking God. This is reinforced by Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on the mount.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)

Jesus was not saying that we will automatically get whatever we ask for from God. He is still a good Father who gives good gifts, not evil. He has good plans for us. His purposes are best. He will not give us anything that is not best for us.

Jesus was saying that God wants us to ask. Jesus was making the point that if we don’t ask, seek, or knock, we cannot expect to receive, find, or have opened. Jesus wants us to know that God can be trusted. He wants us to have faith in Him. He wants us to trust Him enough to come and ask.

“Because of your little faith.”

It could very well be that there are things God is wanting to do in our lives, or in the lives of people around us. In fact, I’m sure of it. He wants to see lives transformed by the good news of Jesus, going from darkness to light. He wants to see churches growing in love and unity and purpose. He wants to see his followers listening to his voice and obeying his Spirit. We may say or think that all those things are possible, but when we cease to ask God for them we really betray our lack of faith. If we do not pray, we are in essence saying that we do not believe God can do the impossible.

The crux of faith is this. We pray not because we believe in the impossible. We pray because we believe in the God of the impossible. Faith always has an object, and the object of our faith is God. That is the difference. God is a good Father. He loves us and cares for us and wants what is best for us. He is trustworthy and faithful so we can pray to him. Let us build our faith by praying boldly to a God who can do far more than we can ask or think. Whether he answers in the way we want or not, let us come before him in childlike faith, trusting him completely.

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The harvest is plentiful

When we moved into our current home in Moxee, Washington, Cheryl and I decided it would be fun to plant a couple of cherry trees. We did a little research and figured out how to get them planted and how to care for them. Then we began to think about other things we could plant and grow. Soon there were raspberry and blueberry bushes growing. Another season passed and we were growing peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries. It was a beautiful thing to watch our trees and plants bear fruit after the first season or so. The berries grew like gangbusters, but the cherries took a little longer to develop.

Last season our cherries came in pretty well and we were looking forward to the time when they would be ripe enough to pick. Unfortunately that time never came. One day I looked out of my patio door and exclaimed, “Where did all the cherries go?” I ran out into the backyard and looked closely. Not a single cherry remained on either tree. They had all been plucked. The neighborhood birds had done their work.

Jesus used a lot of planting and growing metaphors as he taught the crowds who came to see him. One time he looked at the people with compassion and said to his disciples,

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

Jesus saw the people. He saw their need. He saw their hurt, their aimlessness, their helplessness. He had compassion on them.

They were a field. They were ready for harvest. He needed workers to go into the field. He had a plan to bring in the harvest. Otherwise, the fruit would whither on the tree. Otherwise, the fields would ripen and rot away. Otherwise, the fruit would be plucked by scavengers. Otherwise, people would languish and die without hope and without eternal security.

His exhortation to his disciples revealed that it would be laborers, his people, who would bring the good news to the crowds. It would be the disciples themselves who would carry on this mission, both during Jesus’s earthly ministry and after. It would be the disciples who would offer salvation to the lost and dying in each city, town and village, each community that they encountered.

It is fascinating that Jesus chose ordinary people to enlist in his work. There was nothing particularly special about the disciples, just as there is nothing particularly special about most Christians today. Sure, some have unique talents and gifts, or unique callings that place them in the spotlight. But Jesus loves to use ordinary people who pray for the harvest, pray for laborers, and answer the call to go and tell.

You may not think much of your abilities, talents, or gifts. Your weaknesses are nothing compared to the strength God provides. If Jesus has saved you, he has called you. And because of that you have been empowered by Him to fulfill that calling. Jesus wants to use you to reach people who are dying without him. There is a great harvest all around you and I that is ready for laborers.

Consider the people who live around you. Consider your actual neighbors, your close friends, your co-workers and family members. See them through Jesus’s eyes. See them with compassion. Pray for them, and seek opportunities to declare to them the hope you have in Jesus. Join your church in seeking after those who are far from God in your communities and cities. Join Jesus in laboring in his harvest.

If you do well

My brother and I fought like most brothers do. I suppose it’s only natural that brothers should disagree and argue and fight — usually about nothing important. It was usually petty jealousies and slights and perceived unfairness that riled us up. When Jeremy and I would start a war my mom had an interesting way of escalating the conflict. There we were, ramping up another battlefield offensive, when suddenly she would swoop in and offer her war counsel: “Are you angry, Michael? Hit him! Go ahead! You’re mad and you’re not going to take any more! Do it!” You would have needed to be there to see the way she would lean in, eyes open, voice inflected to a fevered pitch. The sudden shock of the reality of our insignificant dispute would come crashing down on me. “But I don’t want to. He’s my brother!”

What usually came to my mind in those moments was a story I had heard many times growing up. It was the story of Cain and Abel, from the fourth chapter of Genesis. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain worked the ground and Abel kept sheep. They both gave offerings to God. God approved of Abel’s offering, “firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” i.e. the best he had. But God did not approve of Cain’s offering. Brotherly rivalry commenced.

You can well imagine Cain being unhappy, which didn’t go unnoticed by God. He said,

“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

The phrase “do well” means to do what is good or pleasing. God did not approve of Cain’s offering because it was not good or pleasing to him. God did not accept Cain because he brought an offering from a heart that was ultimately selfish. Every word of Cain, every description of his attitude shows that there was only one lord in his life, only one life that he truly cared about. Cain is the ultimate archetype of the looking-out-for-number-one person. When God had no regard for his offering that sent Cain into a spiral of jealousy, bitterness, and anger. “That’s not fair! I deserve approval! I want what I deserve!”

God lovingly confronted him. That’s what God does when we rebel against him. We think him very unfair to point out our error and show up during our bitter revelry. But in reality he is showing us grace unmeasured. “If you do well, will you not be accepted.” He shows us that living according to his ways results in acceptance. Even more, “if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” He shows us that living according to his ways is a way to subdue sin in our lives, to have mastery over it. God in his grace designed us to do well, to do what is good and pleasing to him, as a way to rule over sinful desires. That is a pretty amazing gift.

Receiving that gift requires something rather uncomfortable. It means admitting that our motivations are flawed. It means admitting that there is rebellion in our hearts, the kind of rebellion that breeds jealousy, bitterness, and anger. This rebellion feeds on self-centered thinking and entitlement. These are the things we need to let go of in order to receive the gift of good. In other words, before we can expect to do what is good and pleasing to God we need to practice repentance.

Repentance and belief. Belief in a Savior who always did what was good and right and perfect. Belief in a Savior who lived a perfect life for you and did what you could not do for yourself. A Savior of whom God said,

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

When we were at our lowest, when we had failed to please God by doing well, God came in the flesh. Jesus the Son did well for us. He pleased God perfectly and now that pleasing is credited to us through repentance and belief.

Take the challenge of repentance seriously, friends. Consider the rebellion that still lurks in your heart. And give it up to our God and Savior who offers grace and acceptance in exchange, who enables us to do well, to live lives good and pleasing to Him. In Christ and only in him will God say of us, “I am well pleased.”

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Last week I was driving my family back to my mother-in-law’s house from a trip to the Southcenter Mall. It was our annual Christmas adventure at the IMAX movie theater. (The Johnson family recommends The Last Jedi, by the way.) We were heading towards Highway 167, taking a familiar route past the Ikea. The sign ahead said to go left to get on 167 South, but unfortunately the clarity of the message was not strong and before we knew it we had passed our turn and were on the other side of the highway! No one likes to miss their turn, least of all me. I wanted to blame the signage, but then I remembered that I had done the exact thing the last time I tried to get on the highway in that spot. The truth was that I was wrong and I needed to turn and get back on the right road.

That’s what it means to repent.

In my reading today in Matthew 3, John the Baptist comes on the scene and announces,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)

“Turn around! You are going the wrong way! Get on the right road! Because the king is coming!”

You can see how this would be welcome, good news for those who are on the wrong path. It’s good to get the right directions, to know you are going the right way. But it is another thing to be told, “Your life is wrong. You’ve made wrong choices. You’re basing your life on the wrong things. You had better make a change. You need to make a change. You need to live, to believe and act, differently.” And that is essentially what John was saying to his hearers.

The message of repentance is essentially a message of, “You are wrong.” It is offensive in every way possible. And it should be. We need this message. We need to know that there is something deeply wrong with us, that inside of us we are broken and damaged by our own rebellion against a holy God. The message of repentance is necessary if we are to have peace with the king who is coming.

If this message of repentance sounds uncomfortable, you may be tempted to dismiss it as a pre-Jesus type of message. Maybe this was just for the people John was speaking to. It was just to prepare them for Jesus appearance on the scene. But then we see that Jesus proclaimed the same message, word-for-word, in Matthew 4:17. Still, maybe repentance was only preached before the cross, before Jesus made salvation possible by his death and resurrection.

Hold on!

The disciples didn’t think repentance was unimportant. Listen to their message:

“Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20)

Repentance is necessary for anyone who would come to the king. It is not a pre-cross, pre-Christian message. It is the message of Christianity. Without repentance, there is no salvation. Without repentance, there are no “times of refreshing.” Without repentance, he will not send “the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” Does that sound difficult? Does that sound offensive? I suppose it is. But it is true. It is the way of following Christ. It is the way of salvation. Does it sound hard to believe? Hard truths are often the hardest to believe, but just as often they are the most important truths to accept.

Repentance certainly requires faith. It requires us to acknowledge that our way of living is wrong. More than that it requires us to acknowledge that our way of living is rebellion against God and his ways for us. That requires a level of trust that many find difficult. Yet, the truth is that he is the king and we have rebelled against his authority. Repentance means we believe the king and turn to his ways for us.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

God is a good king. He gives good gifts. Everything he gives is good and right and perfect, perfectly giving glory to him and perfectly giving us what we need. Repentance means we give up what we have and what we have made and we exchange it for Him.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

The king rewards those who seek him. So seek him. Whether you have little or no faith. Whether you are just exploring this Christian faith or have known him for years, seek him. Practice repentance. Let go of the things in your life that are keeping you from the king. Let go of sins, habits, relationships, attitudes, and beliefs that are contrary to his way. And if you are unsure about those things in your life, find a follower of Jesus and a community of believers who can help you repent and believe.

“… that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

In the beginning… God’s word

Another year, another journey in God’s word.

Today I cracked open my new ESV Journaling Bible, given to me for Christmas by my second daughter. My plan, consistent with the last several years, is to read through the Bible using the old M’Cheyne reading plan. So it was Genesis 1 (and Ezra 1, Matthew 1, and Acts 1) for me today. Here are some thoughts from my time in God’s word today.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

The first thing we read is that God created. Everything. The heavens and the earth. An all-encompassing statement about all that we can observe and the One who brought it into being.

And then we read of the means by which God created.

And God said, … (Genesis 1:3)

At least 10 more times that phrase is repeated in chapter 1. God speaks. His voice is heard, and the result is that the heavens and earth come into view. All that we can observe, all that there is, is brought into being by the word of God.

God’s word is powerful.

Think about it. We speak hundreds and thousands of words each day. But none of them have the ability to bring something out of nothing, to bring order out of chaos. At least not in the way we see God’s word work. His word has the ability to bring light into darkness, to bring life out of nothing, to bring purpose and meaning to what was formless and void.

God’s word is important.

The Bible’s creation account does not tell the tale of cosmic dust and impersonal matter. It does not tell the mythological tale of gods in conflict. All that is comes about by God’s word. The prominence and preeminence of “and God said” should ring out as something important, something of value, something that deserves our attention. He speaks, and we listen. We must listen.

God’s word is good.

At the end of the day, it really matters whether or not something is good. Does it have purpose? Does it have beauty? A thing is good if it functions properly and has appealing aesthetic qualities. A thing is good if it has form and function.

And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:10)

God’s word is good because it brought forth good. Light, sky, sea and land, sun and moon, birds and fish, animals and man, all are good. God’s creation is beautiful. It has purpose and meaning. It has harmony. And at the end of the creation account we read God’s own assessment of the works of his word.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

God’s word in my life, and yours

God’s word is powerful, important, and good (among other things). God’s word did not cease at the end of creation. God continued to speak. His words are recorded for us in Scripture. The Bible is the source of his revealed word, his intentions, his purposes and plans, his design for us.

All Scripture is breathed out by God … (2 Timothy 3:16)

One of my prayers for 2018 is that I would experience God’s word in a powerful way, that I would come to know in a deeper way the importance and good of God’s word. And I pray that this will be true for you as well.

And one more thing.

[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:2-3)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

May you be moved to devour God’s word in 2018. May you be filled with a desire, a hunger to know God more deeply and to see the beauty of His Son Jesus, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and purposes for creation. May you come to see the centrality in your life of the Word made flesh. Your and my only hope for 2018.

Not Losing Heart

Recently, our church has gone through some difficult circumstances. Since the beginning of the year we have walked with each other through chronic sickness, family emergencies, death, unemployment, and various run-of-the-mill life difficulties. These experiences have proved the maxim “when it rains, it pours.”

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay.”

Paul was no stranger to suffering. Aside from Jesus, no other New Testament witness experienced more suffering. But Paul did not allow his experiences to dictate his attitude or his obedience to the Mission Jesus had given him. In fact, he understood that the difficulties believers experience are meant to show that true power is in God, not in us. He said,

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

If following Jesus was about demonstrating our own power; if planting a church was about our own strategic efforts; if ministry and witness was about how skilled and articulate we are; then we would be in a lot of trouble. As it is, we experience all kinds of suffering, but we are not overcome by any of them. We experience confusion and frustration, but we are not overcome by depression. We experience rejection and opposition, but we are not left alone by God.

“So we do not lose heart.”

While sharing in this suffering with my church family, I have watched God work his grace into our lives. I have witnessed a growing sense of life-on-life in our Missional Community. I have seen the first adult make a profession of faith. I have witnessed God answer prayers and lead us in sweet worship. I have seen God call a man into ministry. I have been challenged and encouraged by the men in my Discipleship Group.

Let us remind each other that our goal is to glorify God in our mission to make disciples by transforming lives, families, and communities with the Good News of Jesus. Whatever we suffer along the way is not worth comparing to the joy that is before us.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Let us keep our eyes on Jesus. Let us work to increase the glory of God in our church and increase our joy in Him. We’re just a tool God uses to that end. And he will never leave us or forsake us. Don’t lose heart!

Multiplying in 2015

How do you usually end the year? In the midst of all of the holiday activity do you take time to look back on the year and what you’ve accomplished? Do you think back to the goals and plans you made in January and whether or not you achieved them?

Most years I don’t think too much about looking back, but this year is different. Looking back on 2014 I can’t help wondering. Has our church plant been successful? Have we fulfilled our vision? Have we transformed our community? Unfortunately, all of those questions can never truly be answered in one year. Church planting is not a one-year effort. Like a foot race, church planting is a marathon, not a sprint.

While there is a time and place to consider those questions, maybe a better question for each of us to ask is, “Have I made disciples this year?” After all, that is our ultimate mission. Isn’t it? “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Another way to think about it is, “What have I multiplied this year?” I saw this tweet from a friend today:

“Four things every church should #multiply: disciples, leaders, small groups, and congregations” (@LDukeAL).

As we look back on 2015, ask yourself this: Have I multiplied disciples this year? Have I multiplied leaders? Has The River Church multiplied small groups? Has The River Church multiplied congregations this year? Maybe you have. Maybe we have not. Well, what are we going to do about it next year?

Here are a few things that I want to lead The River Church to do next year. (1) I am going to encourage every Discipleship Group—you know, the informal groups of men and women, meeting at various times—to work through Life on Mission, a 5-6 week study of how to live like a missionary in your every day life, learning to share the Gospel with people who are far from God. In addition to Life on Mission, I am going to encourage our Discipleship Groups to use other evangelism resources, like Just Walk Across the Room, a book and study written by Bill Hybels. Honestly, friends, we need to learn to be better witnesses. If we cannot sow Gospel seeds, we will not grow as a healthy church on mission!

(2) Beginning January 7, I am going to teach “Preaching 101,” a 5-week class on Expositional Preaching. As a pastor and preacher, I take it my personal responsibility to train men in the task of preaching the Bible. The River Church should be full of men who are equipped to preach faithfully the Word of God. But training to preach is not the only thing our men need. We need to learn to be better Missional Community leaders, better at caring for members of our MCs, better at articulating the Gospel and sharing the Story of God, better at leading our MCs on mission. So I am going to continue to lead our men in our monthly Equipping Sessions, where we will grow and learn together as leaders in all these areas and more.

(3) I am going to encourage us to launch new Missional Communities with leaders trained in our Equipping Sessions. I am going to lead us to identify homes and neighborhoods in our city and our valley where we can put new MCs. When a healthy MC grows in a new neighborhood, it becomes the seed of a new congregation.

The mission of The River Church is to make disciples and plant churches by transforming lives, families, and communities with the Good News of Jesus. That’s what we are all about, friends. What is your part of that mission in 2015? At the end of 2015, will you be able to say I helped multiply disciples, leaders, Missional Communities, and churches?

The Christmas Seed

The following is adapted from a message titled “The Christmas Seed,” delivered on November 30, 2014, at The River Church. You can listen to it here.

What is your favorite thing about Christmas? Is it trimming the tree? Is it the decorations? Perhaps what really gets you into the Christmas spirit is the holiday music. Do you look forward to the parties and special moments with family? Or, do you enjoy the smells of the season? The pine scent, the baked goods, the turkey and the ham?

I have met few people who don’t like Christmas. It seems like everyone I know enjoys getting into the holiday spirit. Yet, I wonder if we really understand the true holiday spirit. In the midst of all the wonderful traditions do we miss out on what’s really important about Christmas? Can we as followers of Jesus offer something more lasting during this time of year?

In Mark 4:1-20, Jesus told the story of the sower. The sower sowed seeds that fell on the path, on rocky ground, on thorns, and on good soil. The seed took root among the rocks, thorns and in good soil. But only in the good soil did it grow and bear fruit.

Jesus compared the story of the sower with our “sowing” of the word. We can think of the word as the Good News of Jesus that is planted in a person’s heart so that they grow and are transformed by it. During Christmas we share the Good News of Jesus through the story of his birth. In the Incarnation, God gave his Son to sinners like us so we could experience the peace and joy all year round.

However, there are some people at Christmas who are like the path. They don’t want to have anything to do with the story of Jesus’ birth. They may be the ones offended when you wish them a “Merry Christmas.” They may be the ones who oppose images of the Nativity. Their hearts are hard to the Good News. Our response can and should be to pray for them. We should continue to sow Christmas seeds hoping that a seed may just implant itself in a crack in their heart and grow to break up the hardness.

There are other people at Christmas who are like the rocky soil. They are eager to hear and accept the story of Jesus’ birth, but often times there are things going on their lives that make it hard for them to grow. Holidays can be difficult for people who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, terminal illness, unemployment or bad family experiences.

A friend of mine just lost her sister in a tragic and senseless act of violence. What can we offer people like my friend? We can offer them the Incarnation. The story of Christmas is that God became a man and experienced every kind of difficulty that we face, even death. He didn’t leave us hanging. He knows what we’re going through and he will carry us through it. We can sow these Christmas seeds of peace and joy that are only found in receiving the gift of the Son.

There are some people at Christmas who are like thorny soil. They accept the story of Jesus’ birth but they are too preoccupied with the holiday rush. They are attracted by the holiday advertising blitz. They are willing to accumulate debt in order to make the season bright. They are run ragged pursuing temporary joy that ends when they have to go back to the mundane of the rest of the year.

Have you seen some of the holiday commercials on TV recently? One depicts a man doing Santa a series of favors so that he’ll get the one thing that will really make his Christmas special: a new car. What can we offer people who are distracted by the cares of the holiday season? We can offer them the greatest gift that has ever been given. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) This little baby, God in a manger. When we receive Jesus we receive the greatest gift. The holidays will come and go. The feelings of peace, joy and love for all mankind will fade come January. But the gift of Jesus provides us with “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

Can you believe the Good News?! God became a man! That little baby changed everything. The entire course of history hinges on the true Christmas story. The world has never been the same. And the people around us will never be the same when they receive the Christmas Seed. Sow it widely, my friends. Go tell it on the mountain! Jesus Christ is born!

To My Church Family

It’s that time of year. It’s time to be thankful. It reminds me of one of my favorite thanksgiving passages in the whole Bible, Philippians 1:3-6:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Paul loved the church in Philippi. They loved him, too. They participated in a “partnership in the Gospel” (1:5). They supported Paul financially, having “entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving” (4:15). This was not a wealthy church. They were from the region of Macedonia, where “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (1 Cor. 8:2). They believed in the Gospel and sacrificed so much to support Paul, a minister of the Gospel, as well as others who were in need.

Paul and his friends at Philippi provide me with an ideal, biblical example of how to address my family at The River Church. Allow me to speak a few direct words of thanks:

I thank my God for The River Church. I thank my God for your generosity. You have given sacrificially to the work of planting seeds of the Gospel in a dry place. You have given so that my family can make our home in our community. You have given so that those who are far from God can witness us live out the implications of the Gospel in our lives. You have given in order to bless our community and our world!

I thank my God for your faithfulness to the Gospel. Week in and week out your presence is a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in your lives. You are committed to gathering for worship, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25). You are striving to connect with one another in community. You are growing as followers of Jesus as you study the Bible and pray together.

I thank my God for your concern for one another. You have identified needs within the community and are meeting them. You are seeing our community through the compassionate eyes of Jesus. You are loving “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

I thank my God for your good work. You arrive early. You stay late. You give your attention to the details that no one else sees. You work hard to accomplish tasks that don’t get praised or recognized. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). “So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden” (1 Tim. 5:25). God sees.

I thank my God for The River Church. I thank my God that he has given us the grace to work side-by-side with one another. I thank my God for his providence in joining our paths together. I thank my God that you obeyed him when he called you to plant a church. I thank my God that you are his humble servants. And I thank my God that he is not finished with us, that he will complete the work in the Yakima valley that he has begun in us.

May the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).

Abiding and Prayer

What would you do if someone offered to give you whatever you asked? Very few of us would answer, “no thanks!” Are you kidding!? We would jump at the chance to get whatever we wanted!

Did you know that Jesus has made us a similar offer? Take a look at the verse of the week for The River Church:

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)

Every time I read that verse my attention is immediately drawn to the words, “and it will be done for you.” That’s an awesome promise! I want God to do whatever I ask, don’t you? But before we start sending our Christmas list to “The Big Guy Upstairs,” let’s take a closer look at this promise.

In John 15, Jesus used the illustration of a vine to describe his relationship with his disciples. A vine nourishes and supports the branches. It gives them life and helps them to bear fruit. The branches are attached to the vine and remain in the vine—they “abide” in the vine. If they are removed from the vine they stop growing and bearing fruit. If they stop bearing fruit, they are pruned away to make room for branches that are bearing fruit.

Jesus said that he is the true vine. His followers are the branches. His followers will only grow and bear fruit if they “abide” in him. Bearing fruit was a big deal to Jesus. In one parable he described seed thrown on various types of soil. The only good soils were the ones that “bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20). Bearing fruit is more than just developing godly character. For the follower of Jesus, bearing fruit means reproducing more followers of Jesus!

What does all this “bearing fruit” talk have to do with receiving whatever we ask from God? Jesus said, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This is a great promise, but it is a conditional promise. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you” (emphasis added). God will answer our request if we abide in Jesus and if his words abide in us. Our challenge is to actually abide in Jesus. Abiding is not a one-time thing. It is a process. A long process. Bearing fruit is not like taking a trip to the grocery store. It takes months and seasons and years. It takes time but the results are worth it: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Abiding means growing in our relationship with Jesus through knowledge and obedience. As we get to know him through daily Bible reading and meditating and prayer, we understand God and his ways for us through Jesus. We obey what God reveals to us in the Bible and experience grace and increased faith as we do so. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10). When we do what Jesus told us to do, abiding takes place. It is a simple plan, but its effects are eternally satisfying. Abiding will never get old!

As we learn to abide, we will find that whatever we wish will look a lot more like God’s will for us. And his will will be done. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

Abide, bear fruit, ask for more. It will be done for you.