Saturday, January 31, 2015

HOW TO GET THE MOST FROM A SERMON



And He said to them, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (Mark 4:9)

We are busy people—always so much to do, and seemingly not enough time to do it.  Time is too valuable to squander—yet, the Sunday morning sermon may be the most wasted half-hour of the week!

Are you getting anything from the sermon? If not—then it certainly could be the preacher’s fault.  As a preacher, I am accountable to God to present His truth clearly and compellingly.  The hard reality, however, is that it can also be the fault of the listener.  As we look at the parable of the sower, we discover the problem isn’t with the seed—it is the Word of God.  The issue isn’t with the sower—the Word is faithfully distributed.  The trouble is with the soil—in three-fourths of the cases, the Word of God is unfruitful.  This parable is about hearing God’s Word—and not just having physical hears to tune into the sound waves, but spiritual ears to be on God’s frequency.

There are three levels of hearing required for a sermon to hit the target, as given by Jesus in Mark 4:20, “But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” 

1)      The information level, where we, “hear the word.”  The message goes into the ear and lodges in the brain.  Everything starts there, but must not stop there.  This would require our attendance.  I’ve noticed none of my sermons help those who don’t hear them!  So there must be committed attendance.

2)      The inspiration level, where we, “accept it.”  The message accepted in our head now touches our heart.  Information received can have a powerful effect on our emotions.  Now, as we will see there is more required, but this is an important intersection of truth and our heart.  For this to happen, there needs to be concentrated attention.

3)      The transformation level, where we, “bear fruit.”  The truth that is in our head and heart now moves to our hands.  The mind and emotions now lead to submission of the will.  This is consecrated application.

Thus, in every sermon, there are truths we should learn, emotions we should feel, and actions that should be taken.  Only when we do all three does the seed produce its God-ordained fruit.  How well we respond to the sermon determines how much fruit we bear, “some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”

Here are some, “hearing aids.”

  • Be prayed up.  This opens our heart with expectancy, and cultivates the soil.
  • Be present often.  There are times we all miss a service, but sometimes the one you need most, will be the one you miss.
  • Be prepared to learn.  Bring your Bible, open it, and take notes.  This will help you concentrate and retain the message.
  • Be planning to obey the message.  If what is said is true, then we have to do something about it!  God isn’t making suggestions!

THE BLESSEDNESS OF BROKENNESS


 

Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.  (Genesis 32:24)

Jacob always had a plan.  He was a schemer—shrewd, conniving—wanting to climb the ladder of success no matter whom he had to step on in his rise to the top.  Take advantage of his brother, lie to his father, and cheat his uncle—whatever it took.  Yet, there was one thing he couldn’t seize, and that was the blessing of God.  That never comes through self-promotion, but by self-abasement.  God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  Jacob had to be brought to his knees, before he could be lifted to prominence.

Genesis 32 shows us the BATTLE THAT JACOB FOUGHT (Gen.32:22-24).  These events are a microcosm of his life.  Jacob had been fighting for status all his days.  When his twin brother Esau emerged first from the womb, Jacob had hold of his heel—as though he would hold him back so Jacob might be the firstborn.  The birthright became his obsession.  By hook or crook, Jacob meant to have it.  He failed to realize that in God’s economy, the way up is down, exaltation is preceded by humiliation, self-will must die as we come to submission to God’s will.  You can never be too weak for God to use, but you can be too strong!  In that dark night, Jacob fought against God.  He had been doing that for years.  Have you been setting the agenda, calling the shots, rather than seeking the will of God?  That is a losing proposition.

Then there was the BROKENNESS THAT GOD WROUGHT (Gen.32:25-26).  As an art student I recall working with clay, and as it turned on the wheel, conforming to the shaping by the pressure of my hands, it might start to unravel due to a piece of grit in the clay.  There was nothing to do, but to remove the dirt, break down the clay, and start anew.  God would do that to Jacob.  The grit of self-determination had to be removed.  Jacob had to be broken.  Of course, God is omnipotent—He could have obliterated Jacob.  God’s intent, however, for His stubborn child was not to condemn him, but to conform him.  He would defeat him and discipline him, but he would not destroy him.  When Jacob was crippled, his resistance was at an end.  God will bring us to the end of ourselves.  He will break us, if need be, but it is only to ultimately bless us.

So, there was the BLESSEDNESS THAT JACOB SOUGHT (Gen.32:27-32).  From a battler, Jacob became a beggar.  He acknowledges he is a beaten man, and that is the way to become a blessed man.  Remember how Mary’s alabaster box had to be broken before the sweet aroma could pervade the room, and the contents be lavished in love on her Lord?  That is what brokenness does!  It brings blessedness to our environment and is an expression of worship.  Jacob confessed his self-will in repeating his name—it was his confession of sin.  Until we are honest with ourselves and admit our desperate need, we will not experience all that God has for us.  Jacob would not only have his name changed, but it signified his nature was changed also—Israel who would not just be a recipient of God’s favor, but a river through which that grace would flow to all humanity.  Will we die to our desires, and embrace God’s design?  That is the blessedness of brokenness.

Friday, January 30, 2015

NO EXCUSE!


“Therefore you are inexcusable…”  (Romans 2:1a)

Satan is as content to get people to go to Hell from a church pew as from a barroom or brothel.  In fact, those who live a wicked life often are easier to reach than the self-righteous.  Thus, Jesus warned the self-righteous, Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.”  (Matt.21:31).  If I have obvious symptoms of sickness, I am more likely to go to the doctor.  One of the things that makes cancer such a killer, is that we may think we are healthy while a malignancy is growing within—and self-righteousness is a lethal spiritual cancer.

Paul, as a prosecuting attorney, is laying out the evidence for the judgment of the human race.  By the time he finishes, the facts demand the verdict, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23).  The declaration of the bad news is preparatory to the proclamation of the good news.  In chapter one, the Apostle presents the obvious sins of the scandalous, but moves on in chapter two, to the obscure sins of the self-righteous.  It is not only the depraved of chapter one, but the decent of chapter two who need a Savior.  The rebellious and perverse and the religious and pious are sinners of a different kind, but sinners nonetheless.  The reality is that Romans 1 tells us that none are so bad that they cannot be saved, and Romans 2 indicates that none are so good that they need not be saved.

We want to know what will become of the lost who have not heard the Gospel.  In Romans 1:18-25, the Apostle establishes that they are responsible for their sin.  They have the light of creation that they see and conscience that they sense—yet, they love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19).  There is no excuse that can be made for sin when a heathen stands before God on Judgment Day.

But, those who read these words are not likely heathen—you may be hypocrites.  You have heard the Gospel over and over, but if you have tried to hide your sinful heart with a veneer of religion, then you are as lost as the pagan—and Paul says in Romans 2:1 that such are also without excuse.

The self-righteous man or woman will look down their sanctimonious nose and point a condemning finger at others while not realizing they are condemning themselves in the process.  Religious folk get riled up when you preach against homosexuality, pornography and apostasy—even shouting, “Amen!”  Yet, they can grow strangely quiet when the sermon is about hypocrisy, hard-heartedness and a holier-than-thou attitude!  But, the Gospel preacher cannot show partiality, because God doesn’t (2:11). The grossly immoral will certainly be sentenced based on their obvious crimes against God.  But, the skeletons in the closet of the religionist will come parading out to testify against them, also, in “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” (Rom.2:16).  All that matters is our response to the Gospel.  Have we believed it and received it?  All of us must, or we will surely be condemned for rejecting it!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

THE NAME


 

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  (Mark 1:1)

You may recall the TV commercial from years ago when people are conversing in public, then someone mentions their stockbroker—suddenly, there is complete silence as the name “E.F. Hutton,” is spoken.  There is another name that truly grabs that kind of attention— say the name “Jesus,” in a public venue.  Some respond to Him with indignation, some with interest—no one who knows anything about that name is neutral.  Jesus is easily the most polarizing figure in history.  No one has made such an impact on the human race as the peasant preacher from Nazareth. 

For a number of years, various members of the clergy were invited to open the meetings of our County Commissioners with prayer—and I was privileged to do so on several occasions.  I would be the last one.  Theological correctness, and not political correctness, was more important to me, so I concluded my prayer with the phrase, “In Jesus’ Name.”  That did it.  I said the magic word.  I dared to say the name, “Jesus,” and that transformed a very innocuous prayer for wisdom, direction and blessings in their deliberations into a firestorm.  You would think that someone let a skunk loose in the room.

Mark, a brash young witness in the first century, doesn’t beat around the bush either.  He doesn’t give the royal lineage that establishes Jesus as King of the Jews, as Matthew did.  He doesn’t deal with all the swirl of events leading up to and through the birth and childhood of Jesus, like Luke did.  Nor does he provide the deep doctrinal prologue that John does in presenting Jesus as God incarnate.  Mark confronts us with the name.  He dives into the Gospel presentation.  That is how the Holy Spirit directed him to write. 

Jesus—what a name!  As we hear it there may be comfort or discomfort that results.  The truth is that someday every knee will bow before Him and every tongue confess that He is Lord—even government officials who don’t want that name spoken!

Mark testifies to His SALVATION.  He is “Jesus,” and the name means Jehovah is salvation.  God’s salvation has shown up in a person—and salvation is only found in Him. 

Mark witnesses of His SOVEREIGNTY.  He is “Christ,” testifying to the reality that He is the Anointed One.  He is anointed Prophet, Priest and King, for those Old Testament leaders were anointed with oil and prefigured One who would fill each role superlatively.

Mark confronts us with His SUPREMACY.  He is “the Son of God,” not a mere man—even the greatest of men—but God in flesh.  That sets Him apart from all others.

The bad news is that we are all separated from God and sentenced to death because of our sin (Rom.3:23; 6:23a), but the good news is we can be saved by calling on the Name of Jesus (Rom.6:23b; 10:9-10).  Here is the promise: “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Rom.10:13)  That is good news indeed!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

GREAT COMMISSION OR GRAVE OMISSION?



Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them.  When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.   And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.   Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.  (Matthew 28:16-20)

As many as 95% of church members never lead anyone to Christ.  While God designed the church to be a mighty army on the march, most troops seem to be content camping in their tents—and too often the officers are sitting with them.  Unless the leaders are on the frontlines, it is certain the infantry won’t be.  Jesus gave us marching orders.  Has the Great Commission become the grave omission?

We see THE PEOPLE THAT JESUS PICKED. “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them.  When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.’”  (v.16-18)  The Commander called His disciples to an appointed place to receive their assignment.  These were not perfect people—we see some even struggling with doubt.  They were appointed, however, and more—they would be anointed.  This work could never be done in our own strength, but the good news is we have Christ’s authority behind us—the Holy Spirit to empower us.  God uses ordinary people for His extraordinary evangelistic enterprise.

Then there was THE PROGRAM THAT JESUS PRESENTED.  “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…’” (v.19-20a)  This is the ultimate soul-winning strategy.  It is a call to action.  The first two letters in Gospel spell go!  A football team is penalized if they stay in the huddle too long.  Our holy huddles are important, but we must run the play to move the ball down the field.  This plan of action is also a plan of reproduction.  Our task is not complete when someone prays to receive Christ.  We can’t stop until all people groups have heard.  The convert must be connected to a church through baptism and instructed in the faith, so they in turn can go make other disciples.

Furthermore, we find THE PRESENCE THAT JESUS PROMISED.  “‘and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”  (v.20b)  Of course, God is omnipresent, and Jesus has promised to never forsake His people.  Nevertheless, there is a special spiritual connection—the manifest presence of the Savior—reserved for those who go out in His name.  Vital fellowship with Jesus is broken by sin—and a grave omission of the Great Commission is disobedience.  Jesus is alive, but will never seem more alive to you in this world than when you are sitting with a sinner and sharing His love, seeing the miracle of a new birth, right before your eyes!  Now, let’s all salute and say, “Reporting for duty, Lord!”
 
(Graphic courtesy of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

OUR APPOINTMENT



Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14b)

The name of God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, yet He is on every page—offstage, directing this Divine drama according to His will.  God is conspicuous by His absence—His unseen hand guiding events to His intended purpose.  It is a fascinating epic: a palace party; a drunk despot demanded his wife to do a dirty dance; her refusal, removal and replacement through a beauty contest; Esther, a Jew who hides her identity and becomes the new queen; her cousin Mordecai overhearing a plot to assassinate the king and exposing it; the villain Haman, working to not only kill Mordecai, but all the Jews, not knowing Esther’s race—the stuff of a Hollywood story, but this is Holy Scripture!  It is at this point that Mordecai appeals to Esther to take action.  She is risking death to approach the king unbidden, yet to remain quiet is to face not only her death, but the death of all her race.  She throws caution to the wind, and replies, and if I perish, I perish!” (4:16b)  It wasn’t coincidence that brought her to that place and time—it was Providence.  So God  has an appointment for you and for me!

We have AN APPOINTED TIME.  Ours are perilous times, but it is no quirk of fate that these dark days are our destiny.  It was not 200 BC, nor the first century AD, neither the Middle Ages, but the twenty-first century that is our time.  It seems that human history is moving to its climax and the Lord’s return rapidly approaches.  So, Jesus called us to work diligently for “the night is coming when no one can work.” (John 9:4b), and Paul commanded us to be, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  (Eph.5:16).  Time is a precious commodity allotted to us in a specific number of days.  We must invest it wisely, for someday we will stand before God and give an account of this stewardship.

We have AN APPOINTED TASK.  God strategically placed Esther for an assignment to carry out.  You may be sure that the Lord has a plan for you!  As a potter shapes the clay, so He has molded you according to His master plan through circumstances and experiences with your unique blend of capacities, gifts and talents in preparing you for His sacred mission.  Moses and David were readied to shepherd God’s people by tending a flock of sheep.  Peter, James and John were fishermen before being summoned to fish for men.  Paul was a Jewish scholar, conversant with Greek thought, and born a Roman citizen, qualifying him as no other to bridge the gap between Jew and Gentile in the church and spread the Gospel to all people throughout the Roman Empire.  Thus, God has been preparing you for your work in this world.

We have AN APPOINTED TERRITORY.  It wasn’t luck that located Esther in Persia.  You might have been born somewhere else, but God has you where you are to make a difference on the spot of soil you occupy with the family, friends, fellow workers and students, and in the community where you reside.  There is a circle of relationships we connect with—and do so for the cause of Christ.  We are here, “for such a time as this!”

Monday, January 26, 2015

THE TURNING POINT



“Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 26:22-23)

Not everyone will have a “Damascus Road” experience—where Paul saw a blinding light, heard the voice of Christ, and was struck down to the ground by an encounter with God.  Some of our experiences, as to the circumstances and feelings accompanying our salvation, may not be so dramatic.  Our experience must, nevertheless, be just as miraculous inwardly if not outwardly—a genuine experience with Christ is required. 

Perhaps we were very young and in simple, childlike faith we received Christ.  Maybe as a young teen, we were at camp and stirred emotionally, responding to the Gospel invitation.  It might have been akin to Paul’s experience—we were adults in rebellion against God and brought to our knees.  All I know is that there must be a turning point—that moment when we cross from death to life, from the broad road that leads to destruction to the narrow way that leads to glory, and from a self-centered life to a Christ-enthroned heart.  When was your turning point?  Have you had one?  You must!

I remember as a child hearing the Gospel message continually.  When the church doors were open, we were there.  I went to church so much, that I went nine months before I was born!  But, being born in a Christian home no more made me a Christian than being born in a hospital made me a doctor!  There were great blessings, however, in having a grandfather who was a preacher and a father and mother who were Gospel singers.  The seed of salvation was abundantly sown in my heart.  It would lay dormant for years, however, as I pursued a lifestyle of increasing debauchery.  Oh, I marched down an aisle, joined the church, was baptized, and believed in my head all the Bible taught—that belief did not migrate to my heart, however, and so what I was on the inside began to manifest itself more and more on the outside.  Yet, as Paul discovered, you can’t run away from God.  The Hound of Heaven had been unleashed to track me down, and in desperation came the turning point one dark night.  The Gospel seed germinated and new life became mine.  I have never been the same.  Not that I am perfect—far from it—still, Christ has changed my life, and continues working on me.

Like Paul, Christ has saved me for a purpose.  My life mission is to share the message even as others did with me.  That has brought me into the pulpit.  Again, not everyone will be called to be a pastor, but everyone is called to be a witness.  Others need to experience their turning point, and you need to tell them the story of yours, even as I have once again shared mine.  That’s what Paul did persistently whether before some obscure person or in the presence of a king—in all seasons and in all spheres, whenever opportunity presented itself.  Let us be on mission for God today.  Someone out there is being prepared for their turning point, and you may be the pivotal person to bring them there!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON


 

So Isaac dwelt in Gerar.  And the men of the place asked about his wife.  And he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “She is my wife,” because he thought, “lest the men of the place kill me for Rebekah, because she is beautiful to behold.”  (Gen.26:6-7)

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  Abraham has already carried out a similar deception among the heathen—in fact, he did it twice (Gen.12:10-20; 20:1-18)!  The old saying is, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  This is proof of it.

In the first instance with Abraham and then with Isaac, a famine drove them to seek a solution apart from God in a pagan land.  How often do we get into trouble when we run ahead of God!  It is easy to rely on worldly wisdom and look to the world’s resources to solve our problems.  Far from solving them, they become exacerbated.  For Isaac, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire!  He jeopardized his family by dragging them into Philistine territory also.

God reminds Isaac of His promise to bless him.  It is at once a rebuke for trying to work things out for his own way and a reminder to encourage Isaac to trust in Him.  But, rather than follow his Heavenly Father’s exhortation, He follows his human father’s example.  He lies about his lovely wife, and only when King Abimelech sees the two of them “being frisky,” does he realize that Rebekah is not his sister as he has claimed, but is his wife.  The Scripture warns, “Be sure your sin will find you out.”  (Num.32:23).  What we think is a secret sin on earth is an open scandal in heaven.  God has a way of exposing our cover-up and He doesn’t do it to harm us, but to help us—to bring us to repentance and back into the way of blessing.  Here is what the Word of God says,

He who covers his sins will not prosper,
But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy. 
(Prov.28:13)

Isaac, God’s child, is rebuked for his cowardice and deceit—and that by a heathen king.  How sad when our hypocrisy is on display for the world to mock!  That is one of the sad consequences when a believer stumbles.  Why should the world listen to our message of the transforming power of the Gospel when we do not display such life-change?

All of us have weaknesses.  More often than not, we can study the frailties of our fathers and know where the soft spot is in our defenses.  Be vigilant.  Lean on God and not your own understanding.  It is wise to learn from our mistakes, but wiser still to learn from the mistakes of others.  Learn from Isaac’s failure, and be a man or woman of integrity.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

 


Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”  (Matthew 24:3)

As Jesus taught His disciples with the magnificent Temple as a backdrop, they were impressed with the massive stones that made up its construction.  Jesus shocks them when He tells them that judgment is coming and the utter destruction of the Temple is near.  They assume that He means the end of the age was coming and the Messianic Kingdom would be established—for what else might explain such?  Jesus tells them, in effect, “Not yet.  Some other things will happen first.”  None will know the day or the hour (Matt.24:36).  The downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, when the Roman legions would quell a Jewish uprising, would not be the end of the age—but would foreshadow it.  On a greater scale, what happened then previews a future time when Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by Gentile powers, the Jews will face extreme persecution, and a new Roman Caesar—the Antichrist—will dominate the world.

The period that Scripture calls, “the last days,” began when Christ was rejected.  It encompasses the time from when the world refused to bow to Him until He seizes dominion at His second coming.  The signs in Matthew 24:4-8 are characteristic of every generation from the first to now the twenty-first century.  “All these are the beginning of sorrows.” (v.8) The analogy Jesus uses is of a woman giving birth.  Labor begins and intensifies until the baby arrives amid the peak of the contractions and pain, but the result is new life.  So that the wars, famines, earthquakes—all these sorrows—will intensify in frequency and severity until they reach the end.  That is when a New World is born in which Christ reigns and righteousness resides.  The climax of these contractions is in the seven year Tribulation Period.  You can read Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 as a seamless narrative.  Jesus is describing the opening of the seven-sealed scroll, which John would later see in his vision.  The last three and one-half years are so horrific as to be termed the Great Tribulation (Matt.24:21-28).  When the Jews on are the verge of annihilation, they will cry out for Messiah to deliver them, and Christ returns, accompanied by His angel army (v.30-31).  The church—His Bride—will likewise be at His side.

While it is true that none can know with complete precision when the final chapter of human history will be completed, we can sense the season approaching.  As a cool morning in September, with dogwoods and sourwoods turning crimson, tell us fall and then winter are coming, so we can see the events building on the world scene and believe the end is near.  The event that will trigger the end times will be the rapture of the church—Christ’s taking of His Bride to Heaven to escape the wrath to fall on a Christ-rejecting world—along with the preparing of the nation of Israel to receive Him at His return.  As a church we are not so much looking at the signs, but looking for the Savior!  In light of the end, we are called to watch with expectancy (v.42-44) and to work with urgency (v.45-51).  Today might be the day the trumpet sounds to summon us home!

Friday, January 23, 2015

MAXIMUM IMPACT


 

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in age; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.  (Genesis 24:1)

Many people walk through life, leaving footprints in the sand—the tides of time sweep in and wash away those imprints and it is as though they had never been.  Little impact was made.  Others leave such a legacy that it is as though their footprints were set in concrete.  Years roll by, but the path they traveled is still clearly marked for others to follow.  That is a life of maximum impact—and it describes well the life of Abraham.  As we come to the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis, we see this man nearing the finish line of his earthly pilgrimage.  It has been a marathon, with many hurdles to cross, but God has blessed him and he is almost home.  Yet, he feels the need not to slow down, but to pour it on—to run through the finish line.  There are some loose ends to tie up and make sure the legacy he leaves is one of maximum impact.

Abraham will leave a LEGACY OF PREEMINENCE.  He, along with Moses and David, are the three preeminent figures of the Old Testament era.  God chose Abraham and called him out to make a difference in the world.  He would be the recipient of a covenant of grace, so that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  God blessed Abraham that he might be a blessing to others.  That is the heritage of faith that this man and his wife, Sarah, left behind.  His name is associated with greatness.  

He left an example of a LIFE OF PROMINENCE.  Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, testified, “The LORD has blessed my master greatly, and he has become great…” (Gen.24:35a).  Some people have a reputation that is a charade.  Later, people dig beneath the surface and expose that the fa├žade of greatness only hid a shriveled soul.  That could not be said of Abraham.  His renown was backed by reality.  All of us would like to be successful in life—to make our mark on the world.  Though Abraham was a flawed man, he was a faithful man.  He slipped a few times, as we all do, but he got up, dusted himself off, and moved forward.  God made a difference in him, and so made a difference through him. 

Abraham possessed a LOVE OF PERMANENCE.  He accumulated a lot of stuff.  For his time, he was exceedingly wealthy.  But, he did not give his heart to any of those things.  Abraham knew that he would leave all that behind, and eventually the thief of time would steal and destroy all that is of this world.  He did not build a mansion, but moved about in a tent, restless, yearning for something permanent—out of this world.  Here is the New Testament commentary:  “By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”  (Heb.11:9-10)

In Proverbs 10:7 we read,“The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot.”  Which legacy will we leave—one of blessedness or barrenness?  I pray that all who read this will seek a life of maximum impact!  Such are truly the children of Abraham.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

HAPPY HEARTS



Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps.

I recall hearing Vance Havner say, “Most church services begin at eleven o’clock sharp and end at twelve o’clock dull.”  A little girl was visiting one of those dry, dead churches with her grandfather and said, “Grandpa, if you ever went to the fair, you’d never come back to this place.”  Are our worship services more like funerals or festivals?  If a lost person were to appear in a lot of church gatherings and look around at our sour faces and hear us sing like we are asleep, they might conclude that following Jesus is the most dreadful thing and leave saying, “I don’t need this!  I’ve got enough problems already!”  What they have witnessed, however, is a distortion of real Christianity.  The early church was marked by joy, “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:46-47)  Is it any wonder that people were drawn to them?

There are times of contrition—when we ought to be broken over our sin.  There is a place to weep with those who weep—that is Biblical too.  But, having said that, the spirit of our gathering as God’s people is typically to be one of celebration.  There is much reason to rejoice—and we witness that in Nehemiah 12.  These Jews had been beaten down for so long.  They had now been set free from bondage.  Returning from captivity, the Lord had enabled them to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, reset the gates and reestablish their worship.  It had been done against much opposition, amid great poverty and difficulty, and was doubtless the work of God among them—so how could they help but praise Him?  Their glad “Hallelujahs” flowed from their grateful hearts!  The singing was exuberant and I have no doubt loud.  After all, they had clashing cymbals! 

Heaven will be a place where there is shouting and singing.  If you don’t like that sort of thing maybe you don’t want to go there.  There is another place to spend eternity where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  What do we convey about our destination in the expression on our faces that flows from the condition of our hearts?

Scripture says we are to give cheerfully, pray fervently, shout loudly and serve gladly.  If we aren’t excited about our faith, why would anybody else be?  I love the old hymn,
           

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.  (John H. Sammis)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

THE FEARLESS WALK OF A FAITHFUL WITNESS

 


Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  (Acts 21:13)

Do you like to read bumper stickers?  Perhaps you have seen this one: “Ask me about my grandchildren!”  The fact is, grandparents don’t need an excuse to whip out a wad of pictures and give glowing reports about the exploits of their little darlings.  I know that full well, since I are now anticipating the arrival of number twelve to someday call me, “Papa.”  It is easy to talk to total strangers about those we love.  So, why is it that we develop verbal paralysis when we have the opportunity to speak about Jesus?  If we love Him as we say we do, wouldn’t we desire to tell others about Him?  Let us be inspired to speak boldly of Christ by looking at the fearless walk of a faithful witness.  Hs name was Paul the Apostle.

It wasn’t that Paul was oblivious to the danger he was facing.  The same crowd in Jerusalem that had crucified Christ would not be any happier with him if he came into town and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet, this was the very mission he had in mind.  It was enough to strike fear into the heart of the most courageous.

We must overcome the FEAR OF WHAT MIGHT BE.  “And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.”  (Acts 21:4)  It was a vague warning with few specifics given—just a general alarm as the Holy Spirit spoke through His people, alerting Paul to the possible dangers that were lurking in the shadowy future.  Our minds may be haunted at times by the specter of what might be—where we just have this general foreboding and our brains are eager to fill in the blank with a myriad of possibilities.  We think, “I would share the Gospel, but if I do, then…” and any number of bad outcomes slams our mouth shut.  We want to know the outcome and have a positive one when we tell people about Jesus.  We have no assurance, however, that when we share the Gospel it will be well-received.  You never know how people will react.  That fear cannot be allowed to silence us. 

We also must defeat the FEAR OF WHAT MUST BE.  “Then Paul answered, ‘What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart?  For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’  So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, ‘The will of the Lord be done.’”  (Acts 21:13-14)  Some of our fears have a basis in fact.  Paul had submitted to the will of God—and that was he would suffer for the sake of the Gospel.  From the outset of his ministry he had been willing to pay the price.  Scripture is clear—Jesus said, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”  (John 15:20)  Rejection by many is guaranteed.  Love for Christ and for others must override our fear.  God helped Paul.  He will stand by us if we stand for Him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A MOTHER'S LOVE

 


Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.  (Matthew 20:20)

The love of a mother is special.  She carries us near her heart—nourishing us for nine months and with great pain brings us into the world.  Mother then sustains us with her milk, cradles us in her arms, sings us to sleep, kisses away the hurts, diapers us, dresses us—and in so many ways pours out her life for us.  I know there are some mothers who abandon or abuse their children.  That never ceases to shock us because we know it is against the natural order of things.  For a mother not to love her child is like expecting the sun not to shine.  As that fiery orb illuminates the sky, a mother’s love radiates warmth in this cold, brutal world.  When it is a Christian mother, then her love is not only a natural expression, but is supernaturally enhanced.  Her desires for her children are underpinned by spiritual values.  That is what we observe in the mother of James and John.

We see a mother’s love expressed in HER INVOLVEMENT WITH HER CHILDREN.  This is an additional insight Matthew furnishes us that is not included in Mark and Luke’s accounts of this episode.  They only mention James and John coming.  The accounts are not contradictory—they are complementary.  All three came—and while two of the Gospel writers focused on the petition of the brothers, Matthew preserves for us this detail concerning their mother coming with them.  It doesn’t surprise us when we read it though, does it?  This mother was getting older, but still involved in the life of her boys—that is how mothers are!  You spell a mother’s love like this: T-I-M-E!  The mother of James and John invested time and energy in her sons.

Also, we observe a mother’s love expressed in HER INTERCESSION FOR HER CHILDREN.  She comes to Jesus with a petition on behalf of her two boys.  Her pleas cannot replace theirs.  They came too.  The weight of her intercession, however, was added.  In the same way, a mother’s prayers cannot replace her child’s own need to come to Christ in a personal relationship.  Each of us is responsible to seek the Lord individually.  Still, we cannot minimize how a mother’s prayers can make a big difference.  There are few forces as strong in the world as when a godly mother cries out on behalf of her child, fervently, faithfully bringing them before the throne of grace!  Mother—don’t ever stop praying for that child!

Further, we note a mother’s love expressed in HER INTENTION FOR HER CHILDREN.  “And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’  She said to Him, ‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’”  (Matt.20:21)  We are not surprised for a mother to be ambitious for her offspring.  This mother, however, was zealous for her sons concerning the Kingdom of God.  When a mother has a passion for spiritual values, it can motivate her child to do so, as well.  However else a son or daughter might excel, there is nothing more vital than to seek to be all that God wants us them to be. 

If you are a mother, father, or childless, let us model such a heart for the next generation!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

THE CHALLENGE OF CHRISTLESS CIVILIZATION


"So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed."  (Acts 19:20)

We live in very wicked days.  That is a challenge.  But since the fall, this has marked most of the world, much of the time.  How hard was it for Noah to stand for God?  All humanity was against him, but He held true.  The church was planted in a most inhospitable climate.  Just read Paul's commentary on his contemporary culture in the first chapter of Romans.  Still the church not only survived--it thrived!  When we whine about ours being a Christless civilization, we have made a correct diagnosis, but why aren't we giving them God's prescription--the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Civilization without Christ affords OPPORTUNITY (Acts 19:1-12).  Paul didn't waste time complaining about the nature of the soil; he invested his energy in sowing the seed.  Sure, there was some hard ground that steadfastly rejected Christ, but there was also fertile soil where many received Him--especially among the pagans!  The Apostle was convinced of the power of the Gospel to change lives. Are we?  One thing is for certain--as God has called us to be fishers of men, the pond is well-stocked with sinners!  The hole isn't fished out!

Civilization without Christ needs OUTREACH (Acts 19:13-22).  The Apostle didn't just talk about the opportunity, he took the opportunity!  I have noticed that it is far easier for me to preach about evangelism in the church, than practice evangelism in the community.  Bible-believing church folk will give you a hearty, "Amen!" to the call for outreach to the lost, but often walk out and show more concern for ordering Sunday lunch than giving their neighbor the Bread of Life.  Whether the minister or the member, that is hypocrisy.  When all is said and done, there is more said than done as concerning getting the Gospel out.  Our feet have difficulty catching up with our tongues.

Civilization without Christ brings OPPOSITION (Acts 19:23-41).  The very fact that the Gospel prevailed implies opposition.  The church on the move is marching into enemy territory.  Satan has little concern over a mealy-mouthed church, but will war against militant Christians.  Wherever Paul preached usually two things happened simultaneously--a revival and a riot broke out.  It was true at Ephesus.  The spark that ignited this was fear of the economic impact by those who profited from idol worship due to many of their customers repenting.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if so many were converted in our culture that the liquor industry, porn trade, and abortion mills took such a hit that their owners started picketing the churches?  Thankfully, Paul and others retained some rights--law and order was reestablished, and Christ continued to be proclaimed.  That freedom for Paul would someday be lost, so he was going to "make hay while the sun shines."  It is imperative for us to seize the opportunity we still have.  Those liberties are diminishing by the day.  When and if they are lost, the church will keep on sharing the Gospel--but with much more conflict and graver consequences.  That is the nature of a Christless civilization.  What do such people need?  Christ!  Give them Jesus--and do it now!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

PLUGGED IN

"Do not sorrow for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10)

The other day my wife was ironing, when I heard her yell!  A ball of fire had shot out of the iron--the cord working loose and short-circuiting.  That was the end of the iron's usefulness.  Electric irons must be plugged into the power source or they are worthless.  That helps us to understand Christ's words in John 15 where we are told to be abide in Him--to be plugged in--for, "apart from Me, you can do nothing."  Only what is done by the Spirit of Christ and for the glory of Christ is of eternal value.  Sadly, very much done in the name of Christ today is false advertising.  Church work done in the energy of the flesh and glorying in the flesh may sometimes be impressive to the world, but the Day of Judgment will reveal it as hay, wood, and stubble.  The Devil laughs at a church with the form of godliness, but without the power of God.  It does not have to be that way!  It ought not be that way!  In the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, we see the people of God plugged into God's power.  How can we have such an experience?

The church must be UNITED IN THE WORK OF GOD.  "Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel." (v.1)  The love of God binds us together--and when the wire is intact, the power flows.    It was that way on the Day of Pentecost, where a people of one heart, prayed with unity, the power of God came down, and the world would never be the same.  Petty personal agendas and peevish selfish preferences will fray our fellowship--short-circuiting the power of God.  The Kingdom progress made in ancient Israel and the early church could be seen today if we united in genuine love to accomplish God's mission.  God's work is to be done together.

The church must be INSTRUCTED IN THE WORD OF GOD.  "And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, 'Amen, Amen!' while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground." (v.5-6)  The bulk of this passage focuses on the faithful communication and reception of God's Word that brought transformation to the congregation.  God's Word makes a connection between Heaven and humans.  As Jesus taught us that to abide in Him was to abide in His Word and that Word to abide in us.

The church must be ACTIVATED IN THE WORSHIP OF GOD.  "Do not sorrow for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (v.10)  They were remorseful over their prior disobedience but summoned to rejoice in their present reverence.  They had reconnected with God in worship.  An overwhelming joy washed over them as they experienced Him.  This would empower them in consecrated service.  What would happen on Monday if on Sunday we truly plugged into the Spirit as we worshipped?  The world would see the difference!  God so move in the hearts of Your people!

IN THE VALLEY

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. (Matthew 17:14-18 NKJV)

You can't be on the mountaintop all the time.  Oh, it's wonderful when you are--the exhilaration of exceptional experience--one of those intimate encounters that gives you spiritual goosebumps.  We want to just camp out there.  Peter, James, and John had such a high.  They had witnessed a scene that made them want to stay.  Jesus shone brighter than the noonday sun.   What He was on the inside was manifested on the outside.  Moses and Elijah had shown up.  No surprise Peter popped off, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matt.17:4)  To which God said (and I paraphrase) "Peter hush!  Listen to my Son!"  Peter's focus had migrated from Jesus to His witnesses--from the glory of His majesty and to the emotion of the moment.   We understand that don't we?  Thank God for the mountaintop moments, but they will not last on earth.  That awaits Eternity.

For the followers of Christ, there will be a lot of time spent in the valleys of life.  That is the sovereign choice of God for His disciples.  We must not resist it.  We must enter it and learn.  The mountaintops can teach us much, but lessons learned in the dark vales are vital also.

The valley is a place of pain.  It is there we encounter a father's anguish over his son.  That boy knew the torment from demonic assault.  It is an accurate depiction of living in this fallen world.  There is plenty of pain.

The valley is also a place of poverty.  This dad was hopeful of deliverance and so brought his boy to the disciples--who miserably failed!  Have you ever felt such hopelessness?  The church often promises far more than it delivers.  Admitting our own poverty is humbling--yet, preparatory for grace.  Being driven to your knees is precisely where we find power.  When the disciples later questioned Jesus as to why they had no authority, He responded that only fervent prayer can bring Kingdom authority into the valley of struggle.

So, ultimately, the valley is a place of provision.  Desperation drove the man to Jesus--and Christ drove out the malignant spirit.  We discover He is Lord of the valleys as well as the mountaintops, and that all is about His glory, and never our experience of it.  Whether in the rarified air of His manifest Presence or in a demonic stronghold where we discover His power to bring peace, everything is wrapped up in Jesus.  Is Jesus enough?  Can we be content with only Him?  Wherever you are--on mountaintop or valley--look, listen, learn and live for Him!

Friday, January 16, 2015

WALKING TALL



And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in. (Nehemiah 6:11 KJV)

A number of years ago several movies were made--and later remade--based on the life of a sheriff in Tennessee named Buford Pusser.  The series was called, "Walking Tall," and chronicled Pusser's courageous fight against crime and corruption.  It was based on a true story.  The crooks tried to bribe the sheriff, to intimidate him, and even to kill him.  Pusser, however, would not back down.  He paid a price to stand his ground.  He walked tall!

That movie could have been made based on the life of Nehemiah.  His story in Scripture, though set in a different place and time, has remarkable similarities.  In the evil days in which we live, this story demands to be studied so that we can be inspired to take a stand.

Sadly, ours is a day of noodle-backed Christians.  We have heard that silence is golden--and sometimes it is just plain yellow.  The church needs to speak out--to cry out against evil.  Too many of the Lord's soldiers are fleeing the fight.  Modern evangelicalism is increasingly compromising truth and becoming chameleons adapting to the corrupt culture.  We are thermometers reflecting the moral temperature of the age, rather than thermostats setting it.  Our spines have the consistency of Jello.

Not Nehemiah!  He was a man of resolve.  When the enemies of God's people sought to confer with him, he would not negotiate.  His mission was to rebuild the walls, and he would not be distracted.  We must hold to the truth.  Ours is a proclamation, not a negotiation.  Yes, we must speak in love, but the message is not for debate.  Our task is to be heralds for our King.  He makes demands, and not suggestions.  Our heart is to be as wide as the world, but our message is narrow.  The world says, "Be reasonable.  Don't be so rigid."  It is a seductive appeal.  We must steadfastly resist it.

The enemy didn't back down in the face of Nehemiah's response--they just ramped up the pressure.  Threats were made, lies were told, and these fierce foes sought to terrorize God's man.  But he would not run.  He stood firm in faith.  I think of old Martin Luther--a little German monk, standing against the powers of his day.  He said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand.  I can do no other.  May God help me. Amen

May God help us to walk tall when so many are cowering.  Christ stands by our side!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

SAVED BY GRACE

 


“But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”  (Acts 15:11)

How can we know that we have eternal life?  If there is a God (and all creation testifies to that), and if we must one day give an account to Him (and our conscience testifies to that), then there is no more crucial question.  Every religion tries to provide an answer to how to be accepted by whatever deity—or deities—into whatever destiny they portray heaven to be.  Though there is this similarity in all: you must do something to earn the god or gods approval, there is also so much different in them all that they cannot all be just different roads to the same end.  That can’t be—they exclude one another because of their religious systems—and you don’t end up with the same god or the same afterlife in them.  One faith stands out unique from all the rest.  It teaches that we cannot get to God, so He has come to us.  This Way isn’t in keeping precepts and earning the right into a happy eternity, but is in knowing a Person who gives you the right into Heaven’s bliss!  That Way, of course, is the One who did not merely show a way, but said, “I am the Way;” who did not just teach the truth, but said, “I am the Truth;” who did not only offer eternal life, but claimed, “I am the Life”—and that is Jesus Christ (John 14:6)

There are—and have always been—those who would distort and dilute that message, by adding additional requirements to faith in Christ.  Early on, the proponents of Judaism wanted to make Christianity into a Jewish sect.  Their teaching might be summarized this way, “Sure, you must believe in Jesus, but you must also follow Moses.”  They wanted to merge the Old Covenant with the New, instead of seeing that the Old was fulfilled in the New Covenant.  It was an issue that had to be met head on—and the early church did in the first Church Council recorded in Acts 15.  Gentiles had been converted by faith in Christ alone—and now there were those demanding that Jewish institutions be accepted before Gentile inclusion was approved for these former pagans. The church could promote legalism or liberty—but not both.

The Jesus plus crowd is still with us.  They say:

  • believe in Jesus, plus Mary;
  • believe in Jesus, plus keep the Sabbath on Saturday;
  • believe in Jesus, plus be baptized;
  • believe in Jesus, plus work like a beaver to keep yourself saved.

When Jesus said, “It is finished!” on Calvary—He meant that!  All that was required was to look to Him in faith—and we will be saved.  Some say, that’s too easy—you are giving people a license to sin.  No! Liberty isn’t license.  The church also warned the new converts that the New Covenant made us a new creation and this would lead not only to Heaven, but to holiness (Acts 15:19-21).  Idolatry and immorality that marked paganism would be set aside—not as a requirement of salvation, but as a result of it!  The decision produced great celebration (v.22-31) and an open door to world evangelization (v.32-41).  Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—that still saves wretches like us!