Sermon: Even When We are Unaware, God is Still at Work!

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 19, 2020, from Genesis 28:10-19. It’s the story of what we call “Jacob’s Ladder,” but there’s much more to it than that. The link for the audio of the worship service containing this messsage is at our church website here.

Even When We’re Unaware, God is Still at Work

Genesis 28:10-19 NIV

10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.

11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

A Familiar Story with a New Twist
This is a familiar story to us. It’s the story from which we get the song, “Jacob’s Ladder.” But, before we go any further today, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind it.

The story begins with Jacob leaving Beersheba to go back to his ancestral homeland called Harran.

But Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba for no good reason. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.

And why is that? Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers who, even though they are twins, are as different as night and day.

Abraham and Sarah’s son is Isaac. Isaac grows up and gets married to Rebekah.

When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, she gives birth to twins. Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.

But Jacob is not the first born, which bothers him to no end as he grows up. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home among the tents.

Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real man’s man. So, Esau and Jacob have not gotten along since the day they were born.

And, it gets worse as they grow up. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies, which was a bit dramatic, but Esau was really hungry.

So, Jacob says, “Okay, you can have some stew, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.

Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was.

So, Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.

But it gets even worse.

After Jacob takes advantage of Esau, and gets Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, he and his mother, Rebekah, conspire to deprive Esau of one more thing.

Their father Isaac is really old and blind by now. Isaac knows that he is going to die soon. So one day, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make a meal for him of Esau’s famous stew so he can eat it one more time before he dies.

Then, after he has eaten, Isaac says to Esau,  that he will give Esau the blessing of the firstborn, which is rightfully Esau’s

Rebekah, the mother of both Esau and Jacob, overhears Isaac asking Esau to go hunting and them cook him a meal.

However, she wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, and fills him in the situation.

Rebekah instructs Jacob to go get a couple of goats, which are in the pens close by. And, Rebekah cooks a meal for Isaac of his favorite foods.

Jacob sees a problem with Rebekah’s plan because he and Esau are so different both in body and personality. Jacob asks Rebekah if Isaac won’t know that he’s not really Esau when he brings his father the meal.

Rebekah replies, “I’ve got a plan for that.” Or words to that effect. And she does have a plan.

She grabs a set of Esau’s clothes, with the scent of the outdoors on them, and gets Jacob to put them on. Then, Rebekah puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather hairless arms to fool Isaac, just in case blind Isaac wants to touch the son that he thinks is Esau.

By the way, nobody ever said that families in the Bible were perfect.

So, Jacob – dressed in Esau’s clothes and with his arms covered with goat skin so that he feels hairy — goes into Isaac’s room with the stew his mother Rebekah has prepared.

Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long.” Isaac, although frail and blind, isn’t stupid. He knows how much time it should take for Esau to hunt, find, and kill wild game, and them cook it to prepare his father’s meal.

When questioned about this, Jacob says, “The Lord your God gave me success!”

So, Jacob adds another lie to his deception, and blasphemously brings God’s name into his plot as well.

Then Isaac does what Rebekah and Jacob feared he might do. He asked Jacob, who is posing as his brother, Esau, to “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” So, the old man suspects something!

Jacob comes closer, and Isaac feels of Jacob’s goatskin-covered arms. Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So, after he eats, Isaac mistakenly pronounces the blessing of the firstborn on Jacob.

No sooner than Jacob has left his father Isaac, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)

Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.

Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Okay, let’s get back to our story.

Jacob flees from his brother Esau, and travels about a day’s journey where the Bible says Jacob reaches “a certain place.”

Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than because it is nighttime.

He then beds down for the night.

Have you ever had a pillow that just didn’t work for you? Maybe it was too hard, or too soft, or too lumpy, or to big or too small. Well, imagine using a rock for a pillow.

Jacob apparently was not as picky about pillows as I am, because even with a rock as a pilIow he goes right to sleep. No wonder he dreams strange things.

Of course, dreams can be important in the Bible. Later on in Genesis, we’ll see how Joseph, one of Jacob’s future sons, is given the gift of interpreting dreams.

Listen to the writer of Genesis describe Jacob’s dream:

  1. Jacob had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get the idea of “Jacob’s ladder” and the song by the same name. Of course biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia — Like the Tower of Babel was supposed to have been, in other words.

In any event, the stairway connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers — because that’s what angels are — are going up and down from heaven to earth and back again. But here’s the important part of the dream, revealed in verse 13:

  1. There above the stairway stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

In the ancient world, ziggurats were built to get as close to God as possible, because ancient people believed God was at the top of the ziggurat. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so, in his dream, Jacob sees this familiar image of the stairway reaching up to heaven, and God is at the top looking down.

God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”

Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.

Let’s read the next verses again to see what God promises to Jacob.

  1. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
  2. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Here God promises Jacob five things:
1) God will give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is lying. (v.13)
2) Jacob’s descendants will be numberless, live everywhere, and be a blessing to all    peoples. (v.14)
3) God with Jacob and will watch over him…(v. 15)
4) God will bring Jacob back to this land…(v. 15)
5) God will not leave Jacob until God have done what He promised to Jacob. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob. So, God’s covenant with Abraham continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac; and, now through Isaac’s son, Jacob.

Obviously, for Jacob, who is running away for his life, this is very reassuring. And, Jacob, not previously known for great spiritual insight, understands that God is present with him.

In verse 16, the Bible puts it this way —

  1. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.

Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too. God still has a plan for us, no matter what the present circumstances of our lives are.

My father is 100 years old. Actually, he likes to say that he’s a 100 and a half, because his 100th birthday was this past January.

He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed physical problems that kept him from being able to captain his plane and crew.

Because his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission, he was literally starved of the nutrients he needed to stay healthy and fit.

He was sent back to the states and hospitalized for over a month, where he recovered. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor for new pilots until the war was over.

The day after he was sent back to the states for medical treatment, the group of C47s he had been a part of came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed. If he had not been sent home, he would have died along with his crew.

Dad told me that story several years ago. Then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”

Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!

But Jacob also realized that God not only was with him in his dream, but that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense when he says, “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens next.

  1. Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
  2. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel….

Jacob recognized that he was in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.

And so Jacob named that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words. Beth means house, and el means God. Beth-el means “the house of God.”

And then Jacob takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, and erects it as an altar. He pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.

Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time.

The point of this story for us today is that even in the darkest moments of our lives, God is still present with us.

Like Jacob, we have to stop, and allow ourselves to experience God’s presence.

Jacob experienced God’s presence in a dream — a dream that was so real, so vivid, that Jacob knew unmistakably that he had been in God’s presence.

Have you ever wondered if God was aware of your situation, If God knew what you were going through?

The story of Jacob and his dream – the story of Jacob’s ladder – is the story that God is still at work in this world.

God’s messengers are constantly moving between the presence of God and His creation, carrying God’s messages to those who need them.

And, the primary message is this – God still has a plan for us and God is still working in our lives to fulfill His promises.

Let’s pray together.

Sermon: What’s Your Story?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, July 12, 2020. You can listen to the audio that will be broadcast at 11 AM on that Sunday by clicking our church website, www.chathambc.net. I hope you have a glorious Sunday worship experience!

Genesis 25:19-34 NIV

19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah….

21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.

23 The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”

24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)

31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

So Esau despised his birthright.

More Stories in the Abraham Saga

The Bible is full of stories. And the stories are mostly the stories of people, and families, and tribes, and even nations.

And we have another one of those stories today. A very strange story. A story from which we are hard-pressed to draw a moral because every character in this story has serious character flaws.

And, all the characters are related. As a matter of fact, they are parents and children. And, none of them come off as particularly noble, and none of them are role models for much of anything positive.

But, there is a point to this story.

So, let’s get to it.

First of all, the writer of Genesis brings us up to date as Chapter 25 begins.

So, in verse 19, the writer tells us that “Abraham became the father of Isaac.” In six words the writer sums up what previously had taken him or her 12 entire chapters to tell.

Now, I won’t tell the whole story again because we have been telling the Abraham story for several weeks now just to get us to this point.

But, the thing you need to know now is that both Sarah and Abraham have died. The heir, the son of promise, Isaac, is now the main character on the stage of our story.

In verse 20, the writer again summarizes our story of last week when he writes, “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah…”

We won’t retell that story either, but in 2 short verses the writer of Genesis has brought us up to date and set the stage for what he’s about to tell us.

So, in verse 21, we get to the heart of the matter – “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife (Rebekah), because she was childless.”

In the ancient world – and remember this is about 2,000 years before Christ – having children wasn’t just a nice thing to do, it literally was a matter of survival. The Social Security system of the ancient world was to have children who could take care of you in your old age. Not to mention help with the herds, flocks, crops, and all the attendant chores of ancient nomadic life.

But, there’s a bigger point here: Remember God’s promise to Abraham to make him the father of a great nation? That promise was in jeopardy because Abraham and Sarah had no children of their own.

Now, that same scenario is repeating itself. Is the line of Abraham going to end with Isaac? Isaac was already quite old – 40 – at the time of his marriage. Young men could be expected to marry when they were in their late teens, or certainly by the age of 20.

But, for whatever reason, Isaac had not married until Abraham sent his servant to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Isaac married Rebekah, and one would expect children to begin to fill their home.

But, not so. Now, we don’t know when Isaac started praying and asking God for a child, but we do know that Isaac and Rebekah got married when Isaac was 40. Their twin sons are not born until Isaac is 60. So, 20 years pass. I’m sure Isaac starting praying long before he approached 60, but we don’t know.

What we do know is that God heard Isaac’s prayer and Rebekah conceived.

If Isaac’s problem was that he had no heir, then Rebekah’s problem was the whole thing of expecting a baby. There was no book titled, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” like the popular bestseller, now in its fifth edition.

Verse 22 says, “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”

Now considering that Isaac had prayed and God had answered his prayer, you might think that everything would have gone smoothly. So, maybe that’s why Rebekah asks, “Why is this happening?”

One might expect that when God answers prayer that everything will turn out just fine. So, “Why is this happening?” is a good question, considering the difficulty Rebekah is having.

But, Rebekah doesn’t just ask, “Why is this happening?” – she asks “Why is this happening to me?”

But, apparently this pregnancy is pretty rough. And so when Rebekah asks God, “Why is this happening to me?” God’s answer is less than reassuring.

Verse 23 – “The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”

Wow. God could have said a lot of things to Rebekah, but I’m sure she wasn’t expecting this. Before these boys are even born, God tells Rebekah that the two babies within her are also two nations, two peoples, who won’t get along now or in the future.

In other words, God is giving Rebekah a glimpse into the future. Her two sons represent the future of two vast peoples – two nations – one stronger than the other, but the older subservient to the younger.

It’s understandable that one son could be stronger than the other, but that the older son would serve the younger one was incomprehensible. That wasn’t the way things happened in the ancient middle east.

The older son, by nothing but the accident of birth order, inherited a double portion of the father’s estate, and the younger received the leftovers.

For God to proclaim that the older would serve the younger was a real reversal of the cultural norm of the day.

Then, we get to the actual birth story. The firstborn’s complexion was ruddy – the Bible actually says “red.”

Can you imagine your newborn son being described as being “red and his whole body was like a hairy garment?”

Esau was not the cutest baby ever born.

And, based on his appearance, they named him Esau, which sort of means “red.”

Then, no sooner is Esau born, than his twin is born, too. They’re almost born at the same time, because as Esau is delivered, Jacob comes right along clutching at his older brother’s heel.

So, they named the second baby, Jacob because that roughly means “heel snatcher.”

A Turning Point and a Defining Story

Now that, as Paul Harvey used to say, brings us to the “rest of the story.”

In verses 27 and 28, the writer of Genesis covers a lot of years this way –

The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”

So, there it is – these two boys, Esau and Jacob, are about as different as night and day. They look different, they like different things, they act different, and they are each loved by a different parent.

This sets the stage for what will be the defining story of both Jacob and Esau’s lives from Genesis 25:29-34.

The story is that Esau has been out hunting, while Jacob had stayed around the tents. Jacob is cooking a stew, and Esau comes home famished. Actually, Esau is probably not about to die. We are not the first ones to use the phrase when we’re hungry – “I’m starving to death!” Of course, we’re not and neither was Esau.

What he is really saying is “I want to gulp down that red stew you’re cooking because I’m hungry and I want something to eat right now!”

Down through the centuries after this event, Esau will be thought of as a impetuous, immoral man with ravenous appetites for food and other pleasures.

Jacob also shows his character here. Because Esau wants something Jacob has — namely a savory stew — Jacob senses that his older, stronger brother is in a weak position.

So, Jacob sees his chance and takes it.

“First, sell me your birthright,” Jacob demands.

Now, a bowl of stew may be worth a lot to a hungry, impatient hunter like Esau, but it certainly isn’t worth one’s birthright.

Jacob, possibly egged on by his mother Rebekah, knows what a birthright is, and wants it. To have the position of firstborn, to inherit the bulk of Isaac’s considerable fortune, and to garner the respect of the community that comes with the birthright is important to both Rebekah and Jacob. We know all of that from another story when Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal Isaac’s blessing from Esau.

Esau, a man who lives in the moment without thought for the future replies dramatically, “Look, I am about to die! What good is a birthright to me?”

So, he trades his birthright for a bowl of stew. And, it’s not even meat stew! It’s stew made from lentils – bean soup, in other words.

But, Esau, after swearing to Jacob that his birthright is now Jacob’s, gobbles down the lentil stew quickly. The bible says, “He ate and drank, and then got up and left.”

But then the writer of Genesis adds an editorial comment – “So, Esau despised his birthright.”

In other words, Esau did not treat his birthright with the respect it deserved in that day and in that society.

Esau is an example of bad judgment even into the New Testament era, about 2,000 years later.

In Hebrews 12:16, the writer warns first century Christians –

“See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.”

So, this story becomes the defining story for both Jacob and Esau.

It is interesting that Jacob is not criticized for taking advantage of Esau’s impetuous nature and short-sightedness. Maybe Jacob was seen as a shrewd negotiator, or perhaps this story explains why the Jews and Edomites split into two nations.

Whatever the reason, the story of Jacob taking the birthright of Esau does two things: first, it confirms Jacob’s name as the “heel snatcher” — the one who tries to get an advantage over another, especially his older, stronger brother; and, secondly, it continues the focus of God’s promise to Abraham through Isaac and then Jacob.

We’ll see other Jacob stories. As I mentioned earlier, Jacob and Rebekah conspire to take the last thing that Esau has left as the firstborn son – the final blessing of his dying father, Isaac.

And, Jacob will get tricked himself when he tries to take Rachel as his wife, and gets stuck with her sister, Leah. So, what goes around comes around for Jacob.

And, Jacob has the dream of Jacob’s ladder. And he wrestles with a man who is probably God himself.

So, Jacob is never portrayed as a pushover. Maybe because he was the second-born and the smaller of Isaac’s two sons, he thought he had to be more cunning, scrappier, and more aggressive than he might have otherwise been.

But the point is, this story is a turning point for Jacob and it defines him for the rest of his life.

What’s Your Story?

Is there a defining story in your life? A turning point that you look back on and think, “Wow, if I hadn’t made that one decision, things might have been different.”

Of course, those defining stories can be good or bad. Jacob’s defining story was a bit of both. While the Bible from that point on focuses on Jacob, Jacob still has to deal with the fallout of his deception for decades.

My point today is that the stories of our lives can define us for the rest of our lives.

Good stories can help propel us into the future, confident that because we made the right decision one time, we can continue to do so to our benefit and the benefit of those around us.

But, what about bad stories that also can define us? Stories of poor decisions, missed opportunities, devastating disappointments which lead us to lament, “If only I hadn’t made that one decision things would have turned out better!”

Well, let me tell you what happens to Jacob.

Years after Jacob deceived Esau twice, Jacob prepares to meet Esau in hopes of reconciling with his brother. Because he is not certain what Esau will do when they meet, the night before, Jacob sends his family, servants, and household away to safety while he alone remains.

As he attempts to make it through the night, the Bible says, “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”

We know now that this is probably a theophany – an appearance of God in human form.

The story goes on –

25 When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

So, Jacob, formerly known as the “heel snatcher” gets a new name, Israel, which means, “one who strives with God.”

This name change will be confirmed in Genesis 35 when God tells Jacob – “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.”

Israel has 12 sons, who are the beginnings of the 12 Tribes of Israel. The 12 Tribes of Israel become the nation of Israel and the rest is history, as they say.

My point is that although most of us have a story in our lives that defines us, that story can be changed by the presence and power of God, as we, like Jacob, wrestle with God.

In Revelation 3:12, John records the words of Jesus,

“The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name.

To have a new name is to have a new story. A story that defines us, not by our mistakes and failures, but a story that defines us by God’s mercy and grace, by the love of Christ, and the sacrifice Jesus made upon the cross of Calvary.

The important part of the story of Jacob is that Jacob didn’t change his own name, God did.

And by changing Jacob’s name from “heel snatcher” to “one who strives with God,” God changed Jacob’s story forever.

And God continues to change lives and stories today.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video: I miss you!

Here’s a video I posted to YouTube for our church congregation. We’re using GoToMeeting.com for our Sunday worship, Tuesday fellowship meetings, and Wednesday night Bible study. While some of our folks do have smart phones, computers, and internet access, some of them don’t. With GoToMeeting.com, people can dial-in as well as log-on. But, we miss each other in person and are looking forward to the day we can gather together again.

Sermon: 5 Lessons for a Pandemic

Here’s the text of the sermon I preached this morning in our first GoToMeeting.com worship experience. We had some technical issues, but a good first effort. 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

The Story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones

The book of Ezekiel is a strange and wonderful book of prophecy and stories. Years ago I had a book titled, The Bible and Flying Saucers. I bought it at a markdown from its original price, so I’m pretty sure it was not a best-seller. But, the book’s thesis was that the Bible talked about flying saucers, and it cited the vision Ezekiel had of the “wheel-in-the-wheel, way up in the middle of the air” as evidence of an flying saucer powered by a gyroscope.

Needless to say, I discarded that book several years ago.

But, this passage is probably the most popular passage in the book of Ezekiel. The valley of dry bones gives us that famous spiritual, “Dem Bones,” by James Weldon Johnson.

Intro 1

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones,

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Verse 1

Toe bone connected to the foot bone

Foot bone connected to the heel bone

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone

Ankle bone connected to the shin bone

Shin bone connected to the knee bone

Knee bone connected to the thigh bone

Thigh bone connected to the hip bone

Hip bone connected to the back bone

Back bone connected to the shoulder bone

Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone

Neck bone connected to the head bone

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Finale

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

If we were all together today, we’d sing a couple of rounds of ‘Dem Bones just to put us in the mood for dealing with this passage.

But as jaunty and fun as ‘Dem Bones is, the context of this passage is anything but fun. The backstory for this passage goes like this:

Ezekiel was preparing for the priesthood in Jerusalem about 597 BC. But then, out of nowhere, the Babylonian empire invaded Judah and the city of Jerusalem. In the ancient world when a powerful empire invaded a smaller country, the purpose wasn’t to destroy the invaded country. The purpose was to turn it into a vassal kingdom, paying tribute and contributing goods and people to the service of the empire.

So, Ezekiel finds his plans disrupted. And when his wife dies, God tells Ezekiel not to mourn for her, as an example for the nation of Judah not to mourn for the destruction of the Temple.

For 10 years Babylon carries off the king of Judah, and seeks to subjugate the Jews under its rule. But they resist. Finally, Babylon tires of the resistance of the Jews, and lays siege to Jerusalem. The siege goes on for 2 years. People starve, they get sick, they die. And yet they resist.

Finally, in 587-586 BC, Babylon’s patience is exhausted and the Babylonian army overruns the city of Jerusalem, destroys it, and in the process destroys Solomon’s Temple – the dwelling place of God in the eyes of the Jews of that day.

About 150 years before, in 722-721 BC, the Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the tribes of Israel off, dispersing them throughout the Assyrian empire.

So, Ezekiel begins to prophesy in about 592 BC, and prophesies through the destruction of Jerusalem. And then, in 586 BC, more Jews are carried off to Babylon in what is known as the Babylonian captivity. It had only been about 800 years or so since the Jews escaped bondage in Egypt, and now they were captive again.

Five Lessons from the Valley of Dry Bones:

  1. There are questions we cannot answer. V. 1-3

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is like no other vision in the Bible. The dry bones, of course, refer to the lifeless state of God’s people. They have been defeated, their culture destroyed, their sacred Temple torn down with impunity, their lives disrupted, their families torn apart, and many have died in the process.

So, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

Of course, bones don’t live by themselves. And, these aren’t the fresh carcasses of Israel’s devastation. They are dry bones, with no life left in them. They are scattered, disjointed, incapable of pulling themselves together into a living thing.

So, when God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel shrugs, and gives an answer that comes from despair and hopelessness.

Ezekiel might as well have said, “I have no idea if these bones can live or not.”

But what he does say is, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Today, there are questions we cannot answer about the coronavirus and its effects on our lives. Just three Sundays ago we met for worship. We were joking about hand sanitizers, bumping elbows, and not holding hands after communion. The virus seemed like a distant threat that surely would not get here to little Chatham.

But then we heard that one of our own, Landon Spradlin, had collapsed on his way home from ministering in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. And for days we prayed for Landon, Jean, Caroline and Landon’s children.

And then the unthinkable – early Wednesday morning we awoke to the news on Facebook that Landon had succumbed to the effects of the coronavirus. And suddenly, all the answers we had to the questions about the virus, how long it would last, what our government should do, what we should do, how we were going to live – all of those questions suddenly had no answers.

Like Ezekiel, we were shocked, discouraged, disoriented, and confused.

But while we and Ezekiel did not know the answer, God does. Which brings us to our second point:

  1. There is a future we cannot guarantee – but God can. Vs. 4-6

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

God says to Ezekiel, preach to these bones. Now Ezekiel had one up on me, because I can’t see anything (except Debbie sitting here). So, at least Ezekiel had an audience of sorts.

“Preach to the bones and tell them what I’m going to do,” God commands.

And God promises to make “breath” enter the bones, and to connect them again. And to put sinews and muscles and skin back over them. And to stand them up and bring them to life again.

Obviously, Ezekiel wasn’t able to do that. Only God could. And God’s promise was to his people who could see no way forward, whose leaders had been rendered ineffective, and who had no one to turn to for help – except God.

And even before they turn to God, God turns to them with a promise for a future they cannot guarantee alone. But God can.

And, if that sounds familiar it is because that is where we are globally and as a nation. Our emergency plans have failed us, our scientists aren’t sure about all the characteristics of this disease, and within one week the world’s richest and most powerful economy came crashing down.

No one can predict what will happen next – with the virus, with the economy, with school with work, with our regular routines. And, so we find ourselves cast upon the mercy of God.

  1. All we can do isn’t enough. V. 7-8

Now that’s discouraging. So, Ezekiel preaches to the bones, and things start to happen. The bones come together, the tendons and flesh cover them, and the skin appears again.

But, there was no breath in them.

Now the word that is translated breath, is the Hebrew word, ruach. Which can be translated breath, wind or spirit.

  • At creation, after God formed Adam from the dust of the earth, Adam was alive only after God breathed into him the breath of life.
  • When Jesus talked to Nicodemus, he spoke of the Spirit that blew where the Spirit wanted to blow, like a wind in the tree tops.
  • At Pentecost, the Spirit comes as a mighty, rushing wind, filling the place and the apostles with the presence and power of God.

After Ezekiel has done all he can, it’s not enough. The bones come together, but the Spirit, the breath, the life-force of God, is not present to animate them.

  1. While all we can do isn’t enough, what God does makes the difference. V. 9-10

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. He commands the breath to come from the four winds and breathe into these who have been killed, so that they may live.

Ezekiel does so, and before him a miracle happens – into the lifeless, inanimate bodies of the dead, the breath – the spirit – the breath enters.

The transformation is instantaneous and remarkable. The came to life, they stood up and they were a vast and mighty army!

  1. Finally, God explains it all to Ezekiel. V. 11-14

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

And, here’s the point of the explanation –

Resurrection, which is what the valley of dry bones symbolizes –

Resurrection isn’t just about opening graves and standing up corpses.

Resurrection is the work of God…

Undoing the destruction of death…

Through the new life of the Spirit.

And that is our hope today. That is our confidence. None us of knows what will happen tomorrow, or in two weeks, or in two months. We want things to be different. We want people to be healthy and not sick. We want life to return to normal.

But right now, in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, we look to God. And this the same God who promised his people, who also could not see the future, that he was with them, that he cared for them, and that his spirit would sustain them, and resurrect them to new vitality.

And that is our prayer today, in Jesus’ name.

 

 

Coronavirus and Our Church

This is the letter we are sending out to our congregation today. The point is to inform everyone that we are still ministering even when we cannot gather together. I’ll post each weekly mailing we produce. What is your church doing to stay connected during this time of social distancing?

Good morning,

I am writing to assure you that even in this age of “social distancing,” Chatham Baptist Church is alive and well! Here is what we are doing during this time when we cannot gather together –

  1. We will stay connected. We have two reliable ways to communicate with all of our membership – by phone and by mail. We will do weekly mailings to our households. Please open mail from the church immediately so you can read the latest news about our congregation. Also, we will call you personally or using our churchwide calling system, OneCallNow. Please listen to these recorded calls in their entirety. They only last 2 minutes or less, and will convey up-to-the-minute information.

 

  1. We will care for one another and our community. Being the church does not depend upon our being able to gather together. Instead, we will be the church dispersed in the community. First, we will pray for one another, our community, our state, our nation, and God’s world. Second, we plan to deliver food and household essentials to those who cannot or do not want to get out to shop for themselves. We need volunteers to do this, and will develop this plan quickly and communicate it to you. ChristWalk will continue, and we will communicate those details soon.

 

  1. We will worship in our homes. The early church began by meeting in small groups and in homes of those who professed faith in Christ. In this packet, we are enclosing a devotional guide. Some are past their date, but the material is still helpful. We will also make you aware of TV and internet programs that you can access during this time. If you have a favorite devotional or worship TV program or internet site, let us know and we’ll share that with others. It is important to gather everyone in your home for regular Bible reading, prayer, and worship. Something as simple as saying the Lord’s Prayer together as a family or individually can provide a structure to your devotional experience.

 

  1. We will be good stewards of our church finances. During this time, we will continue to keep the essentials of our church budget strong, while maintaining support for our other ministry partners who are also adapting to this new reality. I know you will be faithful in your continued support of our church. Our church is financially strong because we have good financial leadership, and with your help we will maintain that strength.

 

  1. We will follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, the Virginia Department of Health, the Pittsylvania/Danville Health Department, and other government agencies who are advising us. We follow those guidelines as good citizens, good neighbors, and out of love for the most vulnerable in our church and community.

 

  1. We will continue to minister to our members and our community. During this time, unless circumstances change, the church office remains open during our regular hours of 9 AM to 1 PM, Monday through Friday. Martha Crider is our office administrator. The church office number is (434) 432-8003. Martha’s email is chathambaptist@gmail.com.

 

I continue to serve on my regular schedule as your pastor, and am available to you anytime you need me. My personal cell phone is (xxx) xxx-xxxx, and my email address is chuckwarnock@gmail.com. Please call, text, or email me anytime you have a prayer request, question, concern, or suggestion. I am available for prayer, counseling, in-person or telephone visit, or for any other need that might arise. Needless to say, I am taking recommended precautions, have canceled non-essential meetings, and seek to limit my exposure so that I can continue to minister to our church and community.

 

As I mentioned in my sermon the last time we met, Christians have always responded to social crises with love, compassion, faith and courage. While we do not want to jeopardize health and safety, we are a resilient congregation and will design ways to help each other and our community during this crisis.

 

Enclosed in this packet is a list of our active deacons. Your deacon will be in touch with you soon, but if you have a need before they contact you, please call on any of them at anytime.

 

Again, please watch for mailings or listen for phone calls from your church family. We will also post information on our church website, chathambc.net, and our church Facebook page. We will soon start gathering your email and cell phone numbers so that we can communicate in as many ways as we can with you. But, for most of our members, the telephone and mail are the most reliable means we have.

 

During this crisis, our confidence and faith is in the God of all creation, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Although these are unprecedented times, God is still on His Throne. We have a message of faith, hope and love, and we will continue to share it with the world.

Together,

Chuck Warnock

Pastor

 

Governor Bans Groups of 100+

Gov. Ralph Northam on a conference call to reporters today banned groups of 100 or more from meeting in the state of Virginia until further notice. Northam also said that even if you’re gathering a few people, you should cancel plans to do so. The governor also strongly encouraged Virginia residents to stay away from restaurants, bars, and churches.

Our church had already decided to close for the next two weeks. Although we average about 70 or so per Sunday, we will remain closed for worship and activities of groups within our buildings until health authority guidance says it is safe otherwise.

While our congregation is usually under 100, the point is to avoid crowds, to practice social distancing, and to stem the spread of the coronavirus. As good citizens, good neighbors and a responsible community institution, we will do everything possible to prevent the further spread of this disease. To do less would be to act in a manner opposite Christ’s command to “love your neighbor.”

Our Church is Closing for 2 Weeks

In light of the national coronavirus emergency, and the governor closing all Virginia K-12 schools for 2 weeks, we are cancelling all services and activities in our buildings for the next two weeks. This cancellation includes activities of our community partners like the Girl Scouts.

This two week hiatus will give our church leaders a chance to evaluate the situation, and plan for going forward. We have also learned that the Episcopal and Methodists churches in the mid-Atlantic region are also closing for two weeks, including the churches here in Chatham.

Prior to today’s announcements, we had discussed three specific ministry projects. First, establishing formalized networks of telephone calling. The CDC site suggests a buddy system for regular wellness calls within faith communities. We subscribe to an internet-based phone calling system, One Call Now. We can scale this up and add additional names to send out blanket messages. We are going to offer this to the three other congregations in our town, so they can communicate easily and quickly with their membership, too.

Second, we can provide transportation to those who might lose their regular rides during this time. We are not going to transport sick people, but those who need routine trips to the grocery, pharmacy, regular doctor’s appointments, or other necessary trips.

Third, we are planning to help those who have to self-quarantine, with groceries, and other household essentials. We currently have three Chatham residents who are self-quarantining that I know of, but I am sure that will increase.

On the spiritual side of things, we may offer an open sanctuary for prayer, encouraging “social distancing” and we will communicate devotional thoughts and prayer via our phone calling system, email, and mail. Whatever approaches we use will have the purpose of continuing to connect with our members and neighbors, and keep them connected to our faith community.

While our buildings are closed, we will use that time to clean and sanitize, anticipating our return to life as normal eventually. What is your church doing during this crisis?

Church Resources for Coronavirus

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Our church has begun to address the possibility of the coronavirus affecting our worship and day-to-day ministry. Sunday morning worship is important, but if health department guidance requires us to cancel worship gatherings, we are still the church. The best things we do already are caring for one another and our community. In light of the coronavirus impact, our church is developing plans to do four things whether we can meet for worship or not.

First, we plan to communicate with our members and our community. We have in place an online telephone calling service, OneCallNow, which can easily be expanded to call hundreds of households. In addition, our deacons have about 10 families each that they care for, and they will be in contact with these families personally during any crisis. Finally, the CDC suggests a “buddy system” so that community members can check on each other. While many of our members do this informally now, we hope to formalize that system to insure that everyone is included in daily wellness checks.

Second, we plan to provide transport, where possible. Our community has a large number of senior adults. Many have children who live away from Chatham. Helping folks get to doctors, grocery stores, pharmacies, and shopping is something we already do now, but will expand in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Third, we plan to insure that those in our community have the necessities of daily living, including food, medicines, household goods, and so on. This may become vital if numbers of our residents are required to self-quarantine. We already have two food ministries providing groceries to homes around our church, and backpack meals to elementary school children on weekends. We will simply expand our grocery shopping and drop off necessities to those in our town who need them.

Finally, above all, we have and will continue to pray for the coronavirus situation worldwide. We pray for government leaders, health professionals, and those affected by the virus. Please begin to pray and plan now in your churches. The best-case scenario is that our plans will be an exercise for readiness. The worst-case is that our plans will provide vital ministry to those affected by the coronavirus.

Here’s a lengthy resource from Northshore Church in Kirkland, WA — a center of the coronavirus impact. This document contains situational guidance, as well as sample letters and emails that you can adapt for your church situation. 

“ALL THINGS CORONAVIRUS”

ALL Material below is free/fair use

Updated 3/6/20 at 1pm

  • The following document was put together by Northshore Church in Kirkland, WA – the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak)
  • They are a large (2,000+ attendees) church with multiple staff.
  • Not all of this information will be useful to churches of other sizes and budgets, but there is still quite a bit that can be gleaned.

Approach

Your communication around the coronavirus should be a two-fold approach: pastoral and tactical. Communication should be pastoral because, in a time of fear and crisis, people will need to be reminded that God is their refuge and strength an ever-present help in times of trouble. Communication should also be tactical as people will want to know there is a plan and be reassured that you are taking their health seriously.

Before you get into any discussions around pastoral and tactical communications, we recommend you take the following actions:

  1. Get decision-making leaders together to be on the same page
    1. Don’t try and manage up if you are not a decision maker
  2. Learn about the virus here and here to help inform decisions
    1. Don’t let fear drive decisions, there is a lot of false information out there
  3. Contact your local State/County/City health office as soon as possible
    1. You’ll want them to know you exist as a church and in the event of an outbreak for them to give you guidance

Tactical Questions

Before you begin any form of tactical communication, we recommend you ask your leaders the following questions:

  • What does our cleaning/sanitation process currently look like?
    • Are all our frequently touched surfaces involved in the cleaning process (ie doors, handles, water fountains, tables, sinks, check-in stations, touchscreens)?
    • Do we need to take extra cleaning measures?
  • What will we need to do around service elements?
    • Will we stop Communion during this time?
    • Will we stop passing the offering buckets/plates (if applicable)?
    • Will we stop passing out bulletins/programs (if applicable)?
    • Will we stop doing a greeting time (if applicable)?
  • Are we asking our volunteers/door greeters/welcome teams to refrain from shaking hands?
    • Are we asking them to frequently wash their hands?
  • Do we refrain from offering coffee or other treats during this time?
  • What does our cleaning/sanitation process look like for kid’s rooms?
    • Are all our frequently touched surfaces involved in the cleaning process (i.e. toys, doors, handles, water fountains, tables, sinks, check-in stations, touchscreens)?
    • Do we need to take extra cleaning measures?
  • Are we visibly doing things that help people see cleanliness? e.g. putting out hand sanitizer stations, having staff/volunteers wipe surfaces while people are around)
  • Do you have a plan if an individual in your congregation tests positive for the Coronavirus?
    • Do you take attendance of kids and volunteers, in case you need to reach out to a group that was around that individual?
  • What would cause us to have to cancel services?
    • Does a certain number of people have to get sick in your congregation?
    • Do the local health office recommendations have an impact on our decision making?
  • Where are we posting our closures? (e.g. building signage, Google My Business, phone messages, email, social media, website)

Tactical Communications

Your leadership’s approach and answers to tactical questions should inform your communications at this point. We recommend getting ahead of the issue so you are not caught unprepared. Determine now what communication channels you plan to use (e.g.. website, social media, email, text, from the stage).

  1. If the coronavirus was just discovered in your area, we recommend letting your congregation know you are aware of it and are keeping an eye on it. You want them to feel safe and that there is thought behind it. Here is an example (borrowed heavily from Menlo Church):

Dear XYZ Family,

At XYZ Church, we want to care for our congregation in all respects, including the physical well-being of our community. To that end, we are asking you, our congregants, to take precautions to keep yourself and others safe, especially in light of recent developments with the coronavirus (COVID-19).

 Please be mindful of the guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC, including: 

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • While asymptomatic travelers from China are not mandated to observe a 14-day quarantine, we urge you to consider refraining from attending church events, classes and services until the 14-day time-frame has been observed. We also ask that anyone returning from a high-alert area (currently South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan) consider doing the same.

The uncertainty of this outbreak is creating anxiety in our workplaces, schools, and day-to-day activities. Yet we remain certain of God’s steadfast presence and careful attention to all that is happening. Please join us in praying for those who are affected by this illness, as well as their caregivers and those who are working around the clock to minimize the impact of this virus.

 In Psalm 46, we are reminded that it is God who is our refuge and strength, and our ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, let us not fear, but with confidence use this opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus through our prayers and our care for others.

 In Christ,

  1. If the coronavirus is spreading in your area, we recommend letting your congregation know your plan of action and what your expectations are of them. It’s also important that you give them an opportunity to feel heard in this communication. Here is what we published when we knew it was spreading:

Dear XYZ Family,

I want to update you on what’s happening at XYZ in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in our area. Like you, I’ve been following this evolving story with great concern. I’ve also reached out to local city officials and spoken with a number of other pastors in the area to gain perspective on how to best move forward. Please read through this entire email as it contains detailed plans for keeping our campus safe, and how you can help.

 At this time, officials are not recommending the cancelation of public events or Sunday church gatherings. We will remain open and we will continue to have services on Sundays and midweek programming. In the event that local and state health officials do recommend closure or we determine it is in the best interest of our Northshore family to close, we will inform everyone to the best of our abilities through our website, emails and social media.

 During this time, here’s how we are committed to keeping our campus clean:

  1. We will sanitize highly touched surfaces before and after every service such as doors, handles, tables, water fountains, check-in stations, and sinks.
  2. Our staff and volunteer teams will wash their hands frequently and stay home if they are sick.
  3. We will provide additional hand sanitizer stations around the building for everyone to use.
  4. Offering buckets/plates will be relocated to the back of the auditorium so you don’t need to pass them down the row.

During this time, we are asking you to help stop the spread of the virus in the following ways:

  1. Stay at home when you or a family member are sick.
  2. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  3. Cover your sneeze or cough with a tissue or your arm.
  4. Get in the habit of NOT touching your face so often.
  5. Forgo shaking hands at church for a wave or a friendly smile.
  6. If you or someone you know tests positive for COVID-19, please let us know so we can find a way to help, pray for everyone involved and take any necessary precautions.

For families with kids:

In addition to keeping our campus clean, we will be taking extra care of our kids’ spaces. Kids’ toys and rooms will be sanitized before and after every service.

Questions or concerns?

If you’d like to share your thoughts, concerns, questions, and ideas with us as we navigate our response to this situation, we’d love to hear from you. Your input and feedback are truly important to us. Please email ____ or call ___.

While we cannot control the virus, the spread or the impact it has in our church, we’re doing everything we can to make our facility as safe and clean as possible. We appreciate your cooperation and commitment to help us do just that. We must also remember that God has not called us to live in fear but in faith. As the apostle, Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit of God does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” My prayer is that God will fill all of us with these three gifts, no matter what comes our way.

Spiritual Questions

Before you begin any form of spiritual communication, we recommend you ask your leaders the following questions:

  • What are we doing to encourage our congregation to not live in fear?
  • What opportunities do we have to help our local communities?
  • What are we doing to encourage our volunteers to show up and serve?
  • What are we doing to help people who are staying home to stay engaged with our church (ie livestream, digital content, phone calls)

Spiritual Communications

Your leadership’s approach and answers to spiritual questions should inform your communications at this point. We recommend spending twice as much time communicating around this than tactical communication. People will remember more how you’ve impacted their hearts than the list of procedures. Every church’s approach to this will be completely different; you will know what the best approach is for your congregation (know your audience).

  1. We recommend your pastors or hosts acknowledge the crisis from the stage. Here is a sample of one weekend we talked about it (skip to 15:25 & 1:00:15): https://boxcast.tv/view/northshore-online-1100am-lamoawxgmijwc2gxoi89
  2. We recommend the leaders of volunteers send a video, text message, or phone call to your volunteers letting them know how their service is making a difference. Remember people often come back to the church in times of crisis – this time they might simply reach out from afar. Don’t guilt them into this, let them know how they are valued and how they personally make an impact. Volunteers may be tempted to stay home during this crisis, which is why this is important to do this. (I’ll try and track down one of our leader’s video they sent to their volunteers)

 

  1. We recommend looking for ways to make an impact in your community during this crisis. For us it was simple, we wanted to help out the staff and patients of the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington – the epicenter of the coronavirus where unfortunately many residents passed away. We decided to provide the staff with Chick-Fil-A lunches one day and the next day we delivered care packages to the residents. We posted this on social media and it gained A LOT of traction in our community (especially in community Facebook groups). You’ll notice a lot of fear and negativity on social media feeds during this time, so this is a stark and welcomed difference.

Chick-Fil-A post: https://www.facebook.com/northshorecommunity/videos/483234312352107/

Care package post:

https://www.facebook.com/northshorecommunity/videos/230841131411054/

Here is the email we sent out asking for our congregation’s help:

Northshore Family,

 It’s been quite a week. Whether you joined us in person or online, Sunday’s gathering was an amazing opportunity to be reminded of the power of God’s love, even in uncertain times. If you haven’t watched it yet, make sure you do. To watch this Sunday’s message, click here.

We’re continuing to pray for wisdom on how best to prepare and respond to the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in our area. We’ll be sending an email out later today with a more detailed approach on how we are responding and doing our part to keep our campus safe and clean. In the meantime, we’ve been praying and thinking about ways we can be together for our neighbors with all that’s happening. We’ve been in touch with the leadership at the Life Care Center of Kirkland. As you may have heard, they are dealing with a number of potential coronavirus cases and are in quarantine.

They were excited and encouraged by our offer to bring care packages for their residents and staff with treats, activities to do in their rooms, and other items to help brighten their days through this difficult time. They have 104 residents and around 150 staff members. If you’d like to help out, here’s what you can do:

  1. Please bring items to fill the care packages to Northshore this evening and tomorrow morning.The main lobby will be open until 9pm tonight and our office opens again at 9am tomorrow. Here’s a list of suggested items:

–       Playing cards/jigsaw puzzles/puzzle books (word searches, crosswords, sudoku, etc.)

–      Individually-packaged, non-perishable snacks (granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers, canned drinks, etc.)

–       Hand lotion

–       Fuzzy socks

–       Magazines

–       DVDs

–       Premium facial tissues (the kind with lotion to soothe irritated noses)

–       Please DO NOT bring any homemade food, items with nuts, or used items that could carry germs or allergens.

 

  1. If you feel healthy, please join us at 10am on Tuesday (tomorrow) morning at Northshore in the Glacier room to assemble these care packages, which will be delivered later that day. Childcare will not be provided, but older children are welcome to help assemble the packages.

 

  1. If you’re unable to drop off donations or help us assemble care packages, you can donate to our efforts by visiting northshore.church/give and selecting the fund “Together For.”

 

It’s part of our DNA as a church to be together for our neighbors, the next generation and those in need, so that the Puget Sound and beyond can flourish. We believe God calls us to be agents of love and care for those who are hurting, especially in times like this. This is our chance, Northshore! Thanks for being part of helping those at risk, however you can. 

Other Communications

A couple of other pieces of information your leaders should consider:

  1. Staff communication. Always let the staff know your plans before anyone else. Always. They are your team members and can help answer many questions on your behalf.
    1. What policies/closures does the staff/volunteers need to be updated on?
    2. What does it look like for staff to work remotely?
    3. What does PTO/Sick Time look like?
    4. Who is the point person for communication?
      1. You’ll want this person to set the standard for all forms of communication
      2. You’ll want your staff and volunteers reiterating what has already been communicated – be consistent and clear!
    5. Are there staff/volunteer social media policies in place?
      1. You don’t want staff or volunteers mentioning they think they know someone who attends your church and has the virus

 

  1. Dealing with the press. Be prepared for the press to come knocking. This can be a great opportunity for exposure in your community — if you’re ready and have a plan!
    1. Who is the point person to talk to the press?
      1. You’ll want that person to have knowledge of the entire approach and policies.
      2. They’ll need to be consistent with what is posted and said – the presspicks up on inconsistencies!
  • Try and control some of the narratives and stay positive, encouraging and calm.
  1. Avoid letting them walk up to people in your congregation whom you don’t know. It could be someone’s first day there and you don’t want them feeling out of place and uncomfortable.
  1. Try reaching out to or tagging the press if you are making an impact in the community.

 

Washington Post Article:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/coronavirus-spread-kirkland-washington/2020/03/01/5e112fb8-5c10-11ea-9055-5fa12981bbbf_story.html

 

Daily Mail Article:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-8066783/Panic-epicenter-coronavirus-outbreak-Kirkland-Washington.html

 

Q13 Fox:

https://q13fox.com/2020/03/03/cornavirus-deaths-tied-to-kirkland-nursing-facility-increase-to-7/

 

Spirit FM:

https://www.spirit1053.com/2020/03/05/northshore-community-church-catches-the-spirit/

 

Cancellation of Services

Church isn’t something you can cancel. It’s what happens whenever ordinary people show the world the good news of Jesus. So, whatever you do, don’t use the word or any variant of the word “canceled” (I know I just did in the heading, but it was to get your attention). Instead, find ways to take church to your people. But what happens if the coronavirus starts to impact your church services/ministries? A couple pieces of information your leaders should consider:

 

  1. Mid-week services/ministries should be easier to make plans for, but ask these questions:
    1. What ministries meet throughout the week on your campus? (e.g. students, MOPS, Bible studies)
      1. How large are these groups? If the groups meet in close quarters or have 10+ people in them, the CDC and local health officials recommend not gathering in person.
      2. Are the people in these groups considered high-risk? People who are generally at high-risk are those 60+yrs old, women who are pregnant or those who have underlying health issues.
    2. Can any of these services/ministries meet virtually?
      1. Have you looked into any free or paid digital content providers? Facebook and Youtube are a great way to broadcast for free. Zoom is a great way for groups to gather and is free for up to 100 people for 40 minutes! Rightnow Media is a great paid resource for countless Bible study curriculum for adults and kids.
    3. What criteria are you using to postpone or move these services/ministries online and for how long?
      1. Are the criteria based on local/state health officials, school districts, or Mayoral/Governor’s Office? We recommend going with whoever has the most impact on your day to day operations and is most respected.
        1. For all of Northshore’s Mid-week services/ministries, we follow our local school districts lead regardless of what the issue is (snow, power outages, coronavirus, etc.). We follow their lead because they are the most respected and have a direct impact on mid-week ministries/services. If school is closed, cancelled or delayed, many of the parents that would normally come to these ministries/services have to make plans around caring for their kids. Our local school district recently decided to close for 14 days. This means for the next 14 days we are taking church online for these ministries.
      2. What communication channels will you plan to use if you are postponing or taking church online? (e.g.. website, social media, email, text, from the stage).

 

  1. Sunday services is the most difficult to make plans for, but ask these questions:
    1. What criteria are you using to postpone or move Sunday services online and for how long? A number of factors should come into play when figuring this out.
      1. Outbreak – If you’ve found out someone has tested positive in your church, this should be cause for concern for the health of your church.
      2. Government Recommendation/Edict – if there is rapid growth in your community, at some point the government will publicly recommend the suspension of large gatherings. We strongly encourage you to heed their advice.
        1. It’s been our experience that when the local government announces these recommendations, they’re already several days behind the curve of when they should have announced these recommendations.
  • Optics – Your local community and congregation will be watching and judging your response. You may personally feel canceling is an overaction (and it may be depending on the situation) but what are you silently communicating to them? That your church doesn’t care about their health and the good/well being of the local community. Reality is how people perceive things and if the reality to everyone else is a big deal, then it’s a big deal! This doesn’t mean you should make decisions based on fear or pressure but use wisdom. But ask yourself this question, what happens if your community or the press finds out the coronavirus has spread at your church due to negligence? It doesn’t matter how much good you’ve done in your community through your various outreach programs, your church reputation is tarnished and it will take a very long time to dig out of that hole.
  1. What options do you have when it comes to taking church online or postponing?
    1. Do you have the option to livestream your services?
      1. If so…
        1. Do you have a plan for backup staff or volunteers to help run the livestream in case they become sick?
        2. Do you have a backup plan for a live-stream service or equipment failure?
          1. With Wes quarantines, many more people in your community will be online and could affect data speeds.
          2. With many more churches going to livestream, does your livestream service provider have the bandwidth to handle the recent surge in broadcasting?
        3. Will you have a simple worship set or the same worship set?
        4. Will you continue your message series or will you adjust to meet people where they are at?
      2. If not…
        1. Can you record a message/sermon and set it go live/premiere on Facebook or YouTube?
        2. Can you approach a local church who has the capability to do live streaming and ask them to record a message in the middle of the week so you can broadcast it from Facebook or YouTube on Sunday?
        3. Would you consider asking your congregation to tune into another church’s live stream until you are able to gather again?

 

Here is the email we sent out letting everyone know we are doing Sunday services online:

Northshore Family,

I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to update you on what’s happening at Northshore as we navigate the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in this part of the world which we call home.

First of all, I want to say how proud I am of this church family. The care packages that were assembled for residents of the Life Care Center, the resources that have been given and the prayers that have been prayed have been such an example of love in the midst of uncertainty. People of all ages are coming together for our neighbors, the next generation and those in need. 

We’ve received phone calls from people who don’t go here to say thank you and strangers stop by to donate money. One local artist even auctioned off a painting and gave the proceeds to Northshore. All of this happened because people are seeing a church that’s living out of faith, rather than out of fear. So thank you Northshore for your courage and generosity.

Last fall, when we launched Northshore Online, we dreamed about how this could help more people hear the good news of Jesus and take a next step in their faith.  What we didn’t know then, was that God was actually preparing us for this moment when we would be called on to adapt how we do church together to meet the needs of our community and reach the hearts of our neighbors. So here’s what’s coming next.

Online-Only Sunday Services

This Sunday, March 8, our services will be held online only. Service times will remain the same at 8, 9:30 and 11am. Our hope is to be able to gather together on our church campus in Kirkland as soon as possible, but in the meantime, we believe we can continue to learn and grow together as a church by worshipping together in our homes with friends and family. And you can still invite your friends!  If you’ll be watching the livestream on Facebook, we encourage you to share it on your feed. If you’ll be watching on our website, consider inviting someone to join you by sending them the link.

To watch the livestream on our website, click here

To watch on Facebook, click here

 For Families with Kids

Please know that your families will continue to be in our prayers as we navigate these circumstances together. Our hope is to keep your kids engaged and provide ways for them to grow spiritually. We’ve curated online curriculum for your kids through Right Now Media, which we highly encourage you to utilize. It’s super easy to register and is a great way for kids to do church online along with the rest of your family! We provide anyone who calls Northshore home free access to this service. After you register, head on over to the Northshore Community Church channel on the left side and you’ll be able to see all of the curriculum that has been uploaded to the NKids section. There are several videos for kids with optional discussion questions and activities that can be downloaded.

 

Mid-Week Programs

Since our midweek programs traditionally follow the Northshore School District scheduling, we are suspending all on-campus ministries for the next 2 weeks.  We will evaluate this decision week to week as the situation around the outbreak continues to unfold.  In the meantime, we will be providing alternative ways for you to grow closer to God and learn more about Him. 

 

Opportunities to Serve & Give

While the impacts of the coronavirus mean some changes to our daily lives, the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of people have not been put on hold and we must continue to care for those around us. The residents and staff at Life Care Center of Kirkland have been going through a difficult time and we want to come alongside them to provide encouragement, hope and practical help. One way we can help is by providing meals for the employees there.

 

We’ve coordinated with the leadership at Life Care to arrange two meals a day for their staff through Saturday, March 14.  We’re asking people to sign up to deliver store-bought or restaurant-made meals to feed either 10 or 25 staff members. You will not need to enter the facility or come in contact with any staff or residents.

 

Sign up here.

 

Consider gathering a group of friends or neighbors to share the cost. If you cannot provide a meal, consider donating to this effort by going to our giving page and choosing “Together for” from the dropdown menu. All donations will be used to support this initiative as well as others being impacted by this outbreak. We’ll be sending out an email soon with more information on how you can sign up, so be on the lookout for that.

 

Even though we’re not gathering in-person for church, you still have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others by giving your tithes and offerings through our giving page.

 

Final Thoughts

Even though our world has changed, the power of God has not changed. The truth of Scripture has not changed. The hope of Jesus has not changed. Our mission as a church has not changed. Let us not give in to fear. Rather, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

 

In Christ,

Scott Scruggs

 

  1. Easter services are the hardest one to plan for right now. The coronavirus is rapidly spreading across the globe and is lingering in cities for several weeks/months. Unfortunately, the timing of this will leave many churches in limbo. Here are some questions (we don’t have answers for) that you should ask:
    1. How many services should we plan for?
    2. If you are meeting in a public place, is there a possibility those places could be closed during that time due to an outbreak?
    3. Are you hiring any guest speakers or musicians that could get sick or cancel?
    4. Are you planning on using communion?
    5. Are you planning on baptisms?
    6. Are you planning serving any food or drinks?
    7. If you are asking your congregation to invite people, regardless of method, will people actually want to come to your Easter Services during an outbreak?
      1. This should help you use caution around how much money you’re spending for marketing/promoting Easter
    8. If you can’t meet for Easter, is there something BIG you can do for your community instead?

 

BGAV Small Church Ministry FB Group

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 11.32.48 AM

I’m excited about the launch of the new Baptist General Association of Virginia Facebook group for Small Church Ministry. I’m the new BGAV Minister in Residence for Small Churches (don’t worry…I still have my day job!), and this is our first step in developing a small church network.

If you’re interested in small church ministry, this is the place to gather. Here’s the link if you’re interested —

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2088317247928060/

It’s a closed group to allow candid conversation and to keep out the trolls, but request to join, and we’ll add you quickly!

Podcast: Pentecost–God’s Uniting Presence

Pentecost_mosaic

On Pentecost Sunday, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, which is the story of the coming of the Spirit of God and the birthday of the Church. It’s an amazing passage with lots to say to us today. And, to make it even more special, each year our congregation wears red on Pentecost Sunday, making it a festive occasion. Here’s the audio of my message: