Autumn and the Beauty of Death for the Christian

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(Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

I am a pastor in New England, and let me tell you–there is a reason people come from all over the country to see the Fall foliage. Here in New England, we call them “leaf peepers.” During peak leaf season, our sleepy tourist town of 5,000 goes into traffic-jam mode on the weekends. And with good reason. In our part of Vermont, we are surrounded by the Green Mountains on either side of the large valley we live in. When Fall really hits, there are a couple of weeks when the Green Mountains become the Orange, Red, and Gold Mountains.

We are currently easing into leaf season. There are bright bursts of brilliant crimson and orange on certain trees, but there is still plenty of green foliage that will have the chlorophyll leaving soon. Many leaves, however, are already floating to the ground. When a leaf falls to the ground, it is dead. The beauty of Fall foliage is death.

The Beauty of Christian Death
As I have watched the breathtaking hues begin to appear this Fall, I keep thinking about the fact that sometimes death is beautiful. In fact, for those who belong to Jesus, for those who are “in Christ,” death is always beautiful. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If the LORD calls the death of those he has saved “precious in his sight,” then it is beautiful.

I am a pastor. I am not naively saying that the death of those who are in Christ is without sorrow, or always happens painlessly in our sleep. Just this week I visited a member in a hospice home, suffering under the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I have sat and cried with spouses and children moments after their loved one has departed this earth, sometimes after a terrible battle with death. I have visited church members in the hospital who are in excruciating pain days before their death. Accidents happen to saints and sinners alike. Cancer can visit us all. The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

No, I am not talking about Christian death being beautiful because it is somehow less physically painful or less final on this side of eternity than non-Christian death. I am talking about Christian death being beautiful because the gospel gives us God’s perspective on even our final enemy, death.

Going Home–The Joy of Jesus’ Presence
Last night in Prayer Meeting we sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Great gospel truths like this one from “How Great Thou Art” can become white noise to us if we don’t stop and think about the wonder of death being the door through which we are usually “taken home.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul reminds us of the joy of Jesus’ presence that awaits us by exclaiming, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Death for the Christian is beautiful because it brings us to the place we were made for. We are only pilgrims now. We will finally be home with the Lord either when Jesus returns, or on the day that we die. This is why there is beauty in Christian death.

But there’s more. Four verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told why the day of our death is the day of our greatest joy: “…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). We think that we are really living life here and that one day we will die, but one reason that the death of the LORD’s saints is precious in his sight is because he knows that our death day is the day that we pass from mortality to life. The beauty in Christian death is that it is when we begin to really live, with the One we were made to live with, our Savior–not to mention saved family and friends who will meet us there. In Jesus, it is not death to die. This is why King David can sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It’s like arriving home to the family you love after a long trip–only a billion times better.

The Beauty of Fall and The Hope of Resurrection
Every time that I officiate a Memorial Service for a believer in Jesus, I feed my soul on 1 Corinthians 15 in the days leading up to the service. We need to weep as Jesus wept. We need to feel that death is so final on this side of eternity. But we need to remember that for the Christian, their death day was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.

And there is coming a day when Jesus will reveal that beauty to all of us. For on the day that he returns, the resurrection body given to each believer will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)! “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The beauty in Christian death is hard to see sometimes. Winter can be long and bleak. After the leaves fall, our trees will be barren here for over 6 months.

But lift your heads, brothers and sisters, because Spring follows Winter. It may be Fall now, but Spring time–and Resurrection Morning–is coming.

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Let the Lion Loose!

Charles Spurgeon famously compared the Word of God with a lion: “There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked. All you need to do is to open the gate and let him out.” Pastors must have such a high view of the sufficiency of Scripture that we would say with C.H. Spurgeon, my job each Sunday morning is to let the lion of the Word of God loose.
lion cage

I have been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, and I have just come off of the two Sundays that everyone who has preached Mark verse by verse knows are coming: the back-to-back passages on Hell (the end of Mark 9) and divorce (the beginning of Mark 10).  Not exactly the way to become known as “the popular pastor.”

But this is the Word of God. My job is not to change the message in any way, but to deliver the Bread of the Word right out of the oven. Jesus said that our very life is dependent upon every word from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

As we understand Hell better, we understand grace better. We understand our own need for Jesus better, and we are motivated to share the gospel more. As we understand divorce better, we understand marriage better. We understand God’s wisdom for life and human prospering better. And we understand Jesus’ love for his Bride, the church, better.

We need not fear when we get to these difficult passages, but we need to let the lion loose. Explain the text clearly, illustrate it winsomely, and apply it with grace. One of the best ways that we as pastors can love God and love people is to preach all of God’s Word, not just the parts people are excited to hear. This Sunday I get to preach on Jesus’ love for children (Mark 10:13-16). But I’m so glad we heard Jesus’ words on Hell and divorce first. We need all of Jesus’ teachings for all of life because we need all of Jesus for all of life–and eternity.

I am not Jesus’ editor, I’m his messenger.

So let the lion loose, brother pastors. Make sure you’re in a church where the lion is let loose every Sunday, brothers and sisters. When the lion of the Word of God is let loose, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah reigns. Which means that the impostor, the evil one, who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, will go hungry this week.

Four Things I Love About Jesus

Note: For a couple of months, I was preaching The Gospel of Mark in our Sunday Worship Service, then teaching Sunday School in the Gospels using The Gospel Project, and then teaching our Men’s Bible Study mid-week in The Gospel of John. Usually I am teaching from many different areas of the Bible. But rather than getting bored with Jesus, spending concentrated time in the Gospels has made me fall in love with Him deeper as I have had the privilege of looking to Jesus for hours each week. May a couple of things I have seen in a fresh way from gazing at Jesus, encourage you in your pursuit of looking to Jesus today (Hebrews 12:2)!
Jesus Name
1) His Unlimited Power
Jesus has power like no other. As I have watched him take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed 20,000 people, I am reminded that He is the One who provides for my needs and the needs of my family and the needs of my church today. As I have watched him talk to a storm and have seen it obey him, I am reminded that even the weather answers to his command. As I have watched him deliver a man who under the possession of thousands of demons broke chains, cut himself, and lived in tombs–I am reminded of his sovereignty over even my spiritual enemies. As I have watched him speak to Lazarus’ stinking tomb, I am reminded that whenever Jesus goes toe to toe with death he always wins.

Did you catch that last part? He doesn’t just have the power to feed a multitude from a little boy’s lunch, he doesn’t just have the power to stop a storm with his voice, he doesn’t just have ultimate power over spiritual darkness, he actually has power over our greatest and final enemy, death itself. We literally have the antidote for death. His name is Jesus. His power is unlimited! 

2) His Unbounded Compassion
If Jesus were all power without compassion, he might not be worthy of worship. After all, Hitler had a lot of power, but he used it to destroy. But Jesus’ unlimited power is wed with his unlimited compassion. And how thankful I am that these two characteristics of Jesus will never be divorced from each other. I need an all-powerful Savior who can conquer Satan, and sin, and death. But I need an all-compassionate Savior who cares about my helpless situation and acts on my behalf.

The same Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ grave is the same Jesus who sees each of my tears. The same Jesus who raised a little girl from her death bed, is the same Jesus who moments earlier stopped in the middle of the road to seek out a suffering and shame-stricken woman. His compassion is unbounded!

3) His Unrestrained Truth
A true friend will tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth. “Friends” who tell us what we want to hear are a dime a dozen. But friends who care about us so much that they tell us what we need to hear are a rare jewel. We tend to remember the resolution to Jesus calming the storm with warm fuzzies. But after Jesus rebuked the wind (!) and spoke to the sea (!), he said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). It was an uncomfortable moment–but one the disciples never forgot–as the Creator looked them in the eyes with water dripping off his beard and asked them why they did not trust in him.

If we read all of Jesus’ words in the Gospels, not just the ones that we want to read, we will be confronted with truths like Hell that we need him to speak unreservedly about. I won’t trust my doctor if he doesn’t want to use the word cancer because it makes me uncomfortable. Jesus not only tells us the truth about our hearts and eternity and our need for him, he IS the truth (John 14:6). In a world of compromise, his truth is unrestrained!

4) His Unmatched Grace
Just as Jesus is both all-powerful and all-compassionate, only Jesus can be all grace and all truth at the same time. This is because this is who the living God is. This is because Jesus is God with skin on. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).” It is no accident that one of the few “calling stories” that the Gospel of Mark goes into detail about is Jesus calling Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. And then Jesus has a leisurely meal at Levi’s house along with many tax collectors and sinners. I am so thankful that Jesus eats with sinners. I remember this every time I come to the Table during the Lord’s Supper.

When a deaf and mute man was brought to Jesus, this man who had always been a spectacle was taken aside, one-on-one, so that he could understand Jesus’ simple sign language and read Jesus’ lips without distraction. The Savior who taught the multitudes showed grace to one man who needed it. This grace is yours today because this Jesus is yours today. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, you have the grace of forgiven sins, the grace of strength for today, and the grace of bright hope for tomorrow. His grace is unmatched!

If you have been bored with Jesus recently, maybe it’s time to read the Gospels with fresh eyes again. May you be in awe of Jesus. More than that, may you be in love with him.  

Are Universalists, Atheists, and Agnostics the Only Ones Fit for U.S. Public Office? An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders From A Vermont Pastor.

Note: The following letter has been sent to Senator Bernie Sanders’ office.

First Church

Dear Senator Sanders,

I am a pastor in Manchester Center, Vermont, so I am one of your constituents. And I am concerned. You and I both know that Vermont has added to the rich history of religious freedom in our great country. I live 25 minutes from the Old First Church in Bennington, where the following plaque is placed on the side of the historic church building: “First Church in Vermont dedicated to separation of church and state. Congregation founded by those seeking religious freedom.” As you probably know, First Church was “gathered” on December 3, 1762, the first Protestant congregation in the New Hampshire Grants. They were “separatists,” believing that the government should neither establish nor restrict religious freedom. They were seeking religious freedom, not freedom from religion.

Your actions towards and comments to Russell Vought during his confirmation hearing for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget endanger our rich history of religious freedom as both a state and a country.

Here is why I am concerned, and here is why I write you today: not only because I believe you violated Article VI of the United States Constitution in imposing a religious test as a litmus test for somebody’s fitness to hold a government office, but also because you then released this statement yesterday: “racism and bigotry—condemning an entire group of people because of their faith—cannot be part of any public policy.”

As I have read your comments towards Mr. Vought and watched the video of your interaction, I am astounded at how quickly you have tied together personal faith that Jesus is the only Savior with an individual’s public policy. As Mr. Vought tried to express but was interrupted, Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God and thus should be treated with dignity and respect, even while we hold to Jesus’ statements such as, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

We do not have to be Universalists theologically to be able to hold public office nor to be good citizens in the Green Mountain State or in the United States of America. I believe that the founders of First Church would have been shocked at your statements as they were leaving a government that told them what they could and could not believe. We have reverted back to a government that has a religious test, but rather than church membership allowing entrance into government office, it is now philosophical membership in secularism that holds the keys.

I ask you to clarify and clearly articulate whether or not you truly believe that a Christian who believes that Jesus is the only way to salvation can no longer hold public office in this country. Are you saying that citizens who are not atheists, agnostics, or Universalists cannot serve as government officials? As you have been reminded already since Wednesday, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution declares, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Evangelical Christians who hold to salvation in Christ alone may be a minority in our great state, but we are not racists or bigots, and our elected Senators should not make such broad-brush and intolerant statements.

I will continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, which means the “good news” of Jesus Christ. It is a message of reconciliation to God and fellow man. It is good news that we offer to all people who will listen: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It is a message that says that although our sin condemns us before the holy God, that Jesus took our condemnation on the cross and rose from the dead so that believers in him will never stand condemned (Romans 8:1). And if somebody really believes that message, they will embrace Jesus not only for salvation but also to help them live a life of service and love to others. Jesus himself said that all of the commandments are summed up in love for God and love for others (Matthew 22:36-40).

I will not only continue to preach that message, I will continue to pray that those of us who believe in this good news will be allowed to serve in public office; not promoted because of our faith but also not prohibited from service because of our faith. I am writing to you today not because you are telling me I cannot preach this message, but because you are telling me that those I preach this message to are “hateful” not because of their actions, but because of their faith.

As a Vermont pastor, I ask my country for freedom to not only preach the gospel–but also for freedom for those I preach to–to hold their religious beliefs while also holding public office. If you return to our roots of religious freedom as a state and as a nation, the religious tests will stop. And you may find that those you classify as racists and bigots today not only believe that Jesus is the only way to personal salvation, but also that His way is a way of love that treats all persons with the utmost love, respect, and service–even in public office.

Sincerely,
Tim Counts
A Concerned Pastor in Vermont

Jesus Is the Hope of Christmas: Our 2016 Advent Sermon Series

I love everything about Christmas.  The decorations.  The lights.  The snow.  The music. And yes, Christmas movies.  My wife and I began a tradition of watching “White Christmas” when we were first married, and last year we watched it in Vermont for the first time.  “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…”  Nope, just like the movie, it was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve.

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the real Christmas story:  HOPE.  In “White Christmas,” it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas.  In “It’s a Wonderful Life” it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again.  In “How the Grinch Saved Christmas” it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again.  We could go on and on.  Hope–in every one.

the-hope-of-christmasI think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?  But as Christians, we know that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas.  He is the reason for Christmas.  God was in the manger that night.  God entered into our suffering world, physically.  God Himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ.  God is not “out there,” God is here.  Jesus is Immanuel–God with us.  That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past, Jesus’ salvation and presence today gives us hope today.

Our community and our world need hope, and Christmas gives some unique opportunities to share true, lasting hope–even gospel hope!  I will be preaching 3 sermons leading up to and including Christmas, to prepare our hearts as we seek to celebrate the Savior:

  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because God Always Keeps His Promises
    (December 11, Matthew 1:1-17, the Genealogy of Jesus)
  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because He Will Save His People From Their Sins
    (December 18, Matthew 1:18-25, the Birth of Christ from Joseph’s perspective)
  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because He Offers Eternal Joy For All People
    (December 25, Matthew 2:1-12, The Visit of the Wise Men)

I can’t wait to celebrate Jesus with you–the true hope of Christmas!  And yes, I am hoping for a white Christmas.

Only God Can Write a Story that Starts Out Perfect and Ends Better

Note from Pastor Tim: for privacy reasons, the names have been changed.

Words of Comfort from God’s Word at a Memorial Service in our Community

This afternoon, as I have the opportunity to bring you a message of hope from God’s Word, I want us to think about the basic message of the entire Bible in less than 10 minutes as we look at 4 movements in the Bible, just like a symphony has different parts or movements. Immediately as humans when we are faced with a tragedy like this, when it is forced on us that someone who we saw at the park a few days ago took his own life 2 days later, we want answers. I have heard many try to figure out answers over the last few days. What we do know though is that we will never have a final answer, except to accept that this is a choice that Sam made, and to not take responsibility ourselves. The immediate thought is, “If I had only known ______________.  Or if I had only done __________________.”

But the Bible gives answers for how things like this can happen. The Bible, as a message from God, faces reality. It does not gloss over the fact that we live in a broken world.

But this brokenness is not how it all began. The Bible begins with God, and God making a perfect creation. God created man and woman, and He created Adam and Eve in His own image. God set humankind apart because He simply spoke when He created everything else…but when He created man and woman, God touched them. He formed them with His own hands out of dust and the Bible says in Genesis that God breathed into them to give them their breath. This means that humans are different than any other part of God’s creation. We are made in God’s image. This means that every one of us in this room, whether elderly or disabled or healthy or in our 20s or in our 70s has meaning and a purpose in life. And that purpose, that identity is given to you by God Himself when you come to know God as your Savior through Jesus Christ.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The 1st movement in the Bible is Creation, and when God finished His work of creation He looked at it and said that it was, “Very good.”

The 2nd movement in the Bible is the Fall, and this is where sin and evil and suffering and brokenness enters God’s perfect creation. When Satan came to tempt Adam and Eve they had a choice to either obey God and to be His representatives on earth as they were made in His image, or to try to be King themselves and do things their own way. This rebellion against their Creator is when separation from God and suffering first began to happen, and it is the reason that we live in a world in which there is so much pain and hurt and tears.

From the moment that Adam and Eve sinned, the Bible explains how they no longer had a close relationship with a holy God and death even entered the world. Their own son Cain even killed his own brother Abel, and Adam now had to work hard to put food on the table and Eve now had pain in childbirth. Creation began to unravel. The rest of the Bible, from the moment of the Fall or sin entering the world in Genesis 3 to Matthew chapter 1 when Jesus comes on the scene, is a picture of what happens when people try to be King rather than letting God be King.

Then we have the 3rd movement of the Bible. First we saw Creation, then the Fall which answers why there is so much pain in the world today, then the 3rd movement is the Cross. Mark 1:1 explains it like this, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Do you know what “gospel” means? It is good news! It is not just any good news, it is an announcement of something that has been done for you.

Religion tells you that you have to do “x” “y” and “z” to be able to work your way back to God, but the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—tells you that Jesus has already done “x” “y” and “z” for you. The diagnosis for you and I is worse than we ever imagined. We are more wicked and evil than we ever imagined, but the good news is that we are more loved and important than we ever imagined. Jesus came to give us life, to give us forgiveness, to bring us to God. So Jesus lived for 33 years exactly like you would expect a man who is also fully God to live—healing, loving, caring for and teaching those who were the most rejected by the rest of society like the lepers and the sick as we read in the Gospels—doing miracles because He was fully God and the wind and the waves knew His voice. And then Jesus died on a cross to pay the punishment for your sins, the punishment you could never pay, and then He rose from the dead, to show that the price for your sins had been paid in full—and so that all who trust in Him alone for their salvation can become children of God.

Jesus brings us back to God! Jesus explained how He came to reverse the work of the devil in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” You see, we saw the Fall earlier. Satan comes to destroy, but Jesus comes to give life!

But it doesn’t end there. This is where the 4th movement of the Bible comes in, the New Creation. The Bible started out in a Garden, and at the end of the Bible there is a Garden in the capital city of Heaven, the New Jerusalem. Only God can write a story that starts out perfect and ends better.

Here is God’s promise for all who will trust in Jesus alone for their salvation, and accept that the good news of the gospel is that the work has already been done by Jesus: we just have to accept salvation and confess that we have sinned, and that we want Jesus to be our King and Savior, and ask Him to save us and help us to follow Him.

Here is what God promises for all who will do that, in Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will be with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” Do you notice how at the beginning of the Bible humans were made to be with God, but then sin separated us from God, Jesus came to bring us back to God, and then in the end we can be with God if we have trusted in Jesus?

God goes on in Revelation 21: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”  God will make everything sad come untrue.

Today, we wipe away our tears with Kleenex, but on that day God Himself will wipe our tears away. Will you be there? Have you asked Jesus to save you? It’s ok to shed those tears now. When Jesus was faced with his friend Lazarus’ death, Jesus wept even though He would raise him from the dead just a few minutes later.

One of the things that I will miss most about Sam is seeing him at the park. My family loves going to the Manchester Rec Park and in fact that is the last time that I saw Sam just over a week ago—we waved and smiled at each other. About 1 year ago, I was with my 2 youngest who loved seeing “Mr. Keene” at the park, and Sam stopped me and said, “Pastor Tim—I need to show you some things on my phone. Why do I keep seeing crosses everywhere?” And he showed me picture after picture of shadows of a cross that he would see in nature or somewhere. I told Sam that day what I beg you to believe today so that you can be part of this New Creation that God will create for those who believe in Jesus, “Sam, the cross reminds us of God’s love for us. Romans 5:8 explains, “…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’”

Do you know God’s love? God wants to comfort you today, but you need to come to Him and trust in Jesus only.