Posts Tagged ‘faith in god’

As I mentioned in an earlier post, some characters are only set upon the stage of Scripture for a brief moment, and then they are gone; some leave lasting legacies, some barely register. In the grand scheme of things, what could we possibly learn from these minor, transient personalities? What, indeed? Let’s consider one of the most-well-known-but hardly-discussed people in the Bible: Joseph, husband of Mary, father of the siblings of Jesus (but of course he was not Jesus’ father). He has only a few lines, stars in but a couple of scenes, and he is gone…so why is he even here?

I must give my wife credit for suggesting Joseph, and the reason for his significance…she  reminded me how the exercise of faith often comes down to just moving forward, despite not fully understanding (or believing) everything going on around you. The most ordinary people, when moving in faith, can become the greatest heroes for the rest of us, by being living examples of trusting in The Lord to sustain us; Joseph is exactly that kind of person.

A simple carpenter, living a simple life in a simple village in Galilee, Joseph probably never imagined he would find himself in the center of prophetic fulfillment; like most of us, the routine of normal life was enough to think about. Then, his world is turned upside down by a series of events: his young, virgin fiance turns up pregnant – a scandal, and no one would think wrongly of him for just walking away. He nearly does, until an angel of God appears and confirms what Mary has told him: she was not guilty, but blessed; to his credit, he believes. He may not understand it, but he goes along with the plan. This act of faith (because what else can you call it?) is repeated practically every time we see Joseph – when he takes his radically pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the census, despite the dangers; when they are visited by a horde of shepherds in the stable, telling wild stories of visions of angels singing praises; when they are visited again, this time by wealthy foreigners who bow and offer worship to their young son, calling Him “the King of the Jews”; when the angels warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt, to avoid the Slaughter of the Innocents; still later, when the angel bids Joseph return to Nazareth, because Herod has died. All these incidents contain a common thread: the faithful, trusting obedience of Joseph to the voice of God. If he could hear and believe, in spite of everything his upbringing and his culture told him he should do…how much more should we, with the testimony of Joseph as our evidence, be willing to do likewise?

Throughout the Bible, there are incidents where foreign kings and officials interact with God’s people; whether it be Pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus of Persia, or Caesar himself, these men typically believe themselves to be in ultimate control of their own destiny. But they are included in the Scriptures to demonstrate that all people and all things are subject to the will of God, and are disposed according to His design. The Roman governor Felix, whom we see in the later chapters of the book of Acts, is another such individual.

In Acts 23 and 24, the Apostle Paul is being hounded and hunted by the Jewish officials in Jerusalem. Having declared a religious war on those who follow the Way of Jesus, they now must deal with the “defection” of one of their most formidable inquisitors, Saul of Tarsus; who has been transformed by an encounter with Christ into a new creation, the Apostle Paul. Paul has traveled far and wide across Asia Minor, spreading the good news of Jesus raised from the dead and promising forgiveness of sin and eternal life; things in opposition to contemporary Jewish teachings. The Jews wish Paul dead, nothing less, and attack him in public. This forces the involvement of the local Roman authorities, who step in to quell civil unrest. Upon learning of a plot to ambush and murder Paul, the commander orders him sent to appear before the provincial governor, Felix.

Felix is a consummate politician; he is familiar with the social structures of the province he rules over (he is in fact married to a Jewish woman), and knows that Paul’s conflicts with the high priest do not involve Roman criminal law; he therefore has no compelling reason to find fault. He does have, on the other hand, an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the religious authorities in Jerusalem (helpful in preserving peace, which is one of his most prominent duties to Rome), as well as the potential of receiving a payoff to deliver a suitable verdict on Paul’s behalf (helpful for living a comfortable lifestyle, one of his prominent duties to himself). Felix finds himself in an ambiguous place, uncertain of how to proceed, but aware of the dangers of choosing wrongly;  this becomes strikingly clear to him as Paul speaks about righteousness and the coming judgement – a time where every man will be held accountable for the choices he has made. Felix is not a bold man, he is a cautious  man, and has governed according to what was best for Felix, rather than seeking truth and justice in his administration; he is not thrilled to learn of a time when he will be required to answer for himself. In typical bureaucratic style, he therefore makes no decision whatsoever, and keeps Paul in custody for over two years, until he is finally replaced by another governor.

I am not thrilled to learn of a time coming where all my choices will require an accounting; I know I have acted selfishly, more than not; or given in to anger, fear, greed…any number of weaknesses. I do have something, though, that Felix apparently did not possess – I have hope; the hope that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; hope that forgiveness of sin is available to me through His atonement; hope that in Him, I will stand before God and be accounted as washed in the Blood of the Lamb, white as snow; and be welcomed into my Father’s rest. Thus, I can make decisions; I can take risks; I can declare what I believe to be true without concern for how others will receive me. Because He lives, I no longer have to be afraid!

There are those who who teach that women should not have a public role in Christian leadership; surely these people are not reading the same Bible I am? Scripture is rich in wise, powerful, inspired females used by the Lord. We find a particular example in the book of Judges, chapters 4-5, in the person of Deborah. Now, I must admit, the first few times I read through the Bible, I skimmed over this section, in a rush to get to King David. We do ourselves (and the glory of God) a grave disservice if we do this…ALL of Scripture is inspired by God, we should try to take all of it in, as best we can. I had always assumed that the Judges served pretty much the same purpose as a Sheriff in the Old West – keep the peace, administer the Law, maintain order; but that is not at all what they were doing…there is barely a consistent character trait between any of them – other than one very important one: they listened to God, and as best they could, they obeyed what He said. Some served as leaders, some as warriors, some as prophets – but all served God, not the people.

Deborah is listed as the fourth Judge in Israel, but to me she is more of the classic OT prophet: she hears the word of the Lord and pronounces it to the people. I imagine her administration of justice resembles that of Moses – people realized that she is not following her own standards, or those of the world, but only those of God, which provides the wisdom and correct moral compass to steer the people. Her other function as we see it in chapter four is to reinforce the commandments that God has given to the leaders of Israel; when she confronts Barak, she is reminding him of what God has already said…metaphorically tugging his ear to get him to obey. I believe this is what inspires the description she uses in 5:7, when she calls herself “a mother in Israel”; “mother” here is rendered from the Hebrew as “one who provides what is needed” – the people (and Barak) had gotten off course again, following after false gods, and needed a swat on the backside to remind them whose they really were!

One version of the old saying goes “Behind every great man stands an ever better woman.” In this case, perhaps the man isn’t so great, but God raised up a mighty woman indeed to stand beside and behind him. Maybe we should take a minute and consider the Godly women in our lives, and praise Him for the Deborah’s He has provided for us.

Our brave, beautiful friend, Danni, has gone on to her eternal reward…The Lord has healed her completely, she will never suffer again.

Please continue her family in your prayers…her husband, two daughters and their husbands, and her grandchildren…they know she is in a better place, but it is still hard, coming to terms with their loss.

We all await the day we are reunited in His presence, Danni – until then, know that we love you.

Hi everybody! I haven’t done much “free writing” here lately; seems like everything has been purpose-driven: sermon texts, bible studies, reblogs of (really great) work by others, and discussions in apologetics – that’s pretty much the index for the whole last month, isn’t it? Well, today I want to ramble a bit, so thanks for reading along, or you can click away…the wonderful freedom of the Internet, that no one is forced to suffer a bore! (But I really hope you aren’t bored by what I say, and if you are, why are you still reading this sentence?)

One thing on my mind is “perception”. This has been pinging at me from a few different directions lately. I live a life with many facets, like most people do, right? But it always amuses me a little when friends from one area seem stunned to learn that there is more than one side to who I am…as if the part they interact with is all there is to me, when they themselves are many-sided people…we all are, aren’t we? Or has TV corrupted our minds to the point that now we think of each other as characters in tiny little reality shows…you’re either Snooki or Honey-Boo-Boo; a ballroom dancer or a guy who makes duck calls; you bake exotic cakes or build exotic motorcycles or wear and create exotic tattoos, and that’s all I need to know. The only exception I can think of is “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, but even he exists only to hawk mediocre Mexican beer (I don’t always seem condescending, but when I do, there’s money in it!)

That last one highlights the confusing flip-side to this: the lengths fiction goes to in creating back stories for characters…imaginary people can be shallow, because they have a limited purpose and don’t need much more than shadows and suggestions for us to decide how we need to view them. Writers know this (or should know it); lazy writers use stereotypes as  a quick and easy way to get the audience where they need to be to understand the plot…who are the “bad guys”, who are the “good guys”, and what are their motives? For the purpose of entertainment, that’s fine…I really don’t want to invest a lot of time and energy “doing life” with a cartoon. But real people are not entertainment – it is very multitude of interests we have that make us worth knowing – yet we are becoming conditioned to treat everyone outside of ourselves as if they exist merely for our own benefit or amusement…and it’s working. This near-sightedness, or tunnel-vision, has direct impact on how we interact with others, but sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who notices it. Let me share two examples from experience.

Recently, I was approached by my employer, who wanted to discuss my future with the company, so he asked me into his office and closed the door. (Does anyone ever enjoy that moment, wondering what is coming next?) He expressed his appreciation for my contributions to the company, and the efforts I have made to improve both communication between office and field, as well as efficiency in the execution of our work. Of course, I am sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop – in the past, these speeches have proceeded an explanation of why my contributions are no longer needed – and he blows me away by telling me that he wants to invest in my future; he feels I can be of greater benefit to the company by training others in the way I approach a project than by doing the work myself. I am humbled, and grateful…with my wife’s illness, the prospect of losing by job and health insurance fills me with cold dread…and so we begin to discuss some concrete details. He was surprised to learn that I have already been through several of the management and leadership courses he had in mind; that I have previous design, engineering, and CAD experience, going back over twenty years; that I have already purchased some of the collared shirts that office employees wear instead of the logo t-shirts of field crews (out of my own pocket, because the company only provides one set of “uniform” shirts); and that I have public-speaking experience from preaching at my home church…I am much “more” than what he thought I was, and it confuses him…why I am content to “plod along”, when I could be leveraging into higher paying jobs? But I have a checkered history, which limited my options long ago; I still believe that faithfulness and loyalty count for something, even in today’s economy; and these people have been patient, understanding, and supportive of my ministry work and the difficulties of Karen’s illness…how could I receive that, and then leave because someone offered me a dollar or two more an hour?

– – –

Many of my partners in the prison ministry attend a United Methodist mega-church in one of the wealthy enclave communities that surround Houston. They have invited me to participate in any number of the “small group” activities they participate in (I guess 300 men in a discussion group is “small” when Sunday worship attendance is 8,000, but I belong to a church of less than 100, so it’s weird) and I have accepted once or twice, but the “character” disconnect seems to make it strange and uncomfortable for them. These are, by and large, good Christian men and women; but also, by and large, they are white-collar professionals, from good families, with college degrees. So when we shake hands, and they are surprised at how strong and rough my grip is from years of physical labor; or they want to meet at 6am on a weekday for coffee and fellowship, but I must decline because I am either already at the jobsite, or commuting to get there for 7am start time; or when someone asks for a donation to a worthy cause, and they reach for checkbooks and write zeros, while I’m counting cash from my billfold and thinking about how much gas I have in the truck…I am somehow “less than” the person they assume I am, and it confuses them…how can I do this ministry, giving so much to these people, when I have so little of my own?  But while we may serve as brothers and sister in Christ on the teams in the prisons, I have a substantial difference in perspective: they serve in obedience to the call of Jesus to reach “the least of these”,  and while that is also true for me, I do it more because I was once one of those “least”. There is a vast distance between “sympathy” and “empathy”, and the former does not guarantee the latter. I love my friends’ giving hearts, and how they serve because they are richly blessed; but I serve how I do precisely because I have nothing else to give except myself…and I also consider myself richly blessed.

– – –

I don’t know that any of this has a point…I said this was a ramble. So I will leave you with the closest thing to an explanation for how and why I act, work, serve and DO the things I do..I have made this a focus of my devotional time for about two years now, and it continues to inspire me; perhaps it can do the same for you: Colossians 3:23-24, NIV

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Looking forward to the New Year, I present to you the text of the message I delivered this week. I hope and pray that you receive the same encouragement; and, rather than “happiness”, which is fleeting and quickly fades, you find blessings instead, which endure in spite of circumstances.

Well, well, well…we’ve come to the end of another year; and what a year 2012 has been, amen? We have seen the entire range of human experience in twelve months, from the sublime to the ridiculous: around the world we saw Olympic glory and royal weddings; we also saw regime changes, and the infamous “Arab Spring”, fueled and fostered in large part for the first time by the vastly interconnected world of social media. America has seen a President re-elected; one war brought to an end, and a timeline for ending another; while we spent untold billions of dollars landing a robot go-kart on Mars. We’ve seen uncertain economies cause unrest across Europe, Asia, and America alike, while dumbfounded citizens in more nations than I care to list wonder what exactly their elected leaders are doing about it. That is, those that are paying attention at all: Internet sites have set unbelievable records for the most traffic ever – the “Gangham Style” music video has passed one billion views on YouTube, while Facebook is viewed well over 550 billion times per month, more than the next 99 sites on the list combined. Those include Twitter at #15, Amazon at #24, and eBay at #26; even the weather comes in at #63. (Sadly, there is not a Christian website, or any other religion, for that matter, anywhere in the top 1000… and we wonder at the condition of the world today.)

Here closer to home, new babies have been born, while old friends and loved ones have gone on to glory; new brothers and sisters have joined us in serving the Lord, while others have been called to serve in other ways and other places. The end of the year is always a time to reflect, remember the good and the bad, and hope that the future will be better than the past. This hope takes many forms, and expresses itself in many ways – many of us will make or have made our list of resolutions for the New Year. I am no exception…those of you who read my blog already know; for those who don’t, I have decided that this is the time to finally walk away from the ball-and-chain I’ve been dragging behind me for thirty years… and give up cigarettes. (And if you thought I was talking about my wife Karen, shame on you!) I covet your prayers for success and God’s peace during the struggle.

Now, I’m not going into this half-hearted or blindly…I have done some research, and have learned that the people who succeed best are those who find a good substitute for the habits they want to break, something to take the place of what they are giving up – to take their minds off of it, and avoid the sense of being deprived of something. I have chosen to take up running as my substitute, and it’s not as crazy as it might sound…at my job, I work – long days of hard, physical labor that has kept me in fairly decent shape in spite of myself; I can still sprint up four floors of stairs and speak in complete sentences at the top! To help me achieve this resolution, I found a reasonable, safe, well-recommended training plan that can take you from the couch to a 5K race in ten weeks, and I’m starting tomorrow! My long term goal is to enter…and finish…the Chevron Houston Marathon in January 2014, one year from now, so please continue me in prayer for this, and from time to time, ask me how I’m doing! The accountability will be good for me, and I will be happy to do the same for you, to help you with keeping your resolutions, whatever they may be. (Shameless self-promotional note: Follow my other blog for updates on race preparations!)

This idea of giving up bad things and putting something better in their place is an echo of the words that God gave to Jeremiah, which we heard just a few minutes ago. (Jeremiah 31:27-34) The people had turned away from God, and broken His first covenant, the one He made when He brought them out of captivity, gave them the Ten Commandments, and declared Himself to be “the LORD your God”. The people had failed their end of the deal, though, and had fallen away; they had allowed their hearts to become filled with pride, with selfishness and greed, with lust and desire for the habits and practices of the other nations around them, and they were a mess. But God is faithful, even when His people are not, and so He made them a new promise, you could say He made a resolution – He would break their bad habits, and give them new ones in their place. Instead of the law written on stone tablets, He would write it on their hearts; instead of emptiness and despair, He would fill them with His Spirit. Instead of His righteous wrath in judgment, He would substitute forgiveness, and remember their sins no more. He did not expect them to repent in a vacuum… He would provide a means to accomplish all this by His own grace and love. That is the kind of resolution you can believe in: when God says He will do it, take that to the bank! And that assurance is what leads me to title today’s message, “Better Days Are Here”…because we know that what is future for us, God has already seen; we can take is as current fact, even while it’s in the process. God is not waiting for things to happen, He has already done it, the victory is already won, we are just watching the dust settle!

I have shown you the resolution that God has made, and we know that He keeps His word, praise be His name for that. We can know this because He has spoken through other prophets, and shown us that He has a plan that He is using to make it happen. Where do you think I got the inspiration to find a plan to help me keep my resolutions? I know who I am…I remember all the times I have tried to make changes on a whim, and I remember when it got hard, all the reasons excuses I made up for myself to get off the hook, and allow myself to fall back into the very habits I so desperately wanted to give up. No, to succeed I needed a plan, a way to ensure that I could persevere through the difficulty, and find victory on the other side. My anchor text for today is just one of those revelations, one example where the Lord explains how His plan will surely succeed, and what that will look like once it happens. He does this to encourage us, so that when we see it happening, we will be able to endure until the plan comes to its conclusion, and not lose hope before we get there. Today I want to examine how we can use this knowledge of God’s plan to help us realize our own resolutions…what steps can we take to be active participants with Him. Turn with me, if you will, to the book of Isaiah, in chapter 62. To provide some context: Isaiah’s prophesies cover both the period of Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the later exile of both Israel and Judah into Babylon. The last half of Isaiah is known as the “Book of Comfort”, where Isaiah looks beyond the current events and into the coming redemption of God’s people, the second time He brings them out of captivity, using the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and accomplish His purposes; Chapter 62 is subtitled “Zion’s Restoration and Glory”. Let’s read together, as God speaks through Isaiah – we will read the entire chapter, and then go back and look at it more slowly. I’m reading from the English Standard version, so if yours is different, you can follow along on the screen, so you don’t get lost…this translation doesn’t give the Hebrew, only the translated names, so it will seem very different if yours does…it doesn’t change the meaning, this is just easier to read.

(Isaiah 62, ESV)

May we be blessed by the hearing of the Word of God. So, let’s step through the text, and see what we can discern. In verse 1, Isaiah proclaims his commitment to the plan. Look at his words, “I will not keep silent…I will not be quiet.” The words of a true prophet were usually not well received in the Old Testament, were they? Jewish tradition tells us that Isaiah was killed by being sawn in half, because he would not stop proclaiming the Word of God. People generally don’t like to hear what is good for them, even if they are unhappy in their current situation; often because it means they must admit they are in the wrong and need to make a change if they wish to improve. We see both these themes echoed in the New Testament, when the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4 –

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

See Paul stressing the dedication that Timothy (or any other Christ-follower) must have; now for the resistance:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Isaiah is saying he will stick to the plan – to keep on doing what God has commanded him to do, to keep on proclaiming the truth of the coming Savior, and calling for the people to have faith that God will do all that He has promised. The people probably had a pretty hard time believing him, you must admit – after all, Israel had already been taken over by Assyria, and Judah was only spared that by making a “deal with the devil”…problem is, he eventually collects on the bargain, doesn’t he? Judah later fell to Babylon and suffered greatly, because they were in cahoots with Assyria over their brothers in the North; the “short cut to salvation” they sought after took them the long way around instead. They weren’t committed to the plan, and took off on their own direction, instead of staying the course; and in the end, that lack of commitment was the cause of much greater harm.

Now we are going to jump around in this passage a bit, and look at the next two parts of how we can use God’s truth to make our resolutions into reality – there is a need for community and consistency in the plan. Look with me at verses 6-7:

“On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.”

The prophet here demonstrates what we already know – we cannot do it alone. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians, at last not very good ones, I would say. Humans are created for community, because we are created in God’s image and likeness, and He exists in perfect community among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, after the creation is complete, God declares it all “very good”, until we get to 2:18, where He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Isaiah demonstrates his understanding of this when he announces that he has helpers…he calls them watchmen…who are there to assist him. And look at what they are charged to do – to pray to God day and night, without ceasing, taking no rest and giving God no rest. Now, that’s a bold thing, isn’t it, to give God no rest? Have you ever felt that you had prayed so much about something that were beginning to feel you were annoying God? Like a pestering child tugging at your belt, “Please, please, please,pleasepleasepleeeeeeease…” trying to wear you down until they get what they want? This passage tells us that God wants us to be persistent, He wants us to keep asking, He wants us to stay consistent in our petitions…that is, if we are praying for His plan, not ours; if we are praying for the fulfillment of His promises, not the satisfaction of our own desires. The begging child is not after you what you want for them, they only care for their own satisfaction. Then notice, Isaiah says You who put the Lord in remembrance”…that means all of us, not just the preachers and pastors and Sunday school teachers and TV evangelists. It is our job to keep God in the minds and hearts of the world, it is our job to proclaim His glory and righteous, it is our job to encourage others to believe He will do all that He has said. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Imagine how that works when multiplied by the number of men and women doing the praying! There’s a whole lot of availing, that’s available to us!

So, we have commitment to the plan, added to community in the plan, with consistency through the plan…what’s left? The best part of having a plan is what’s left – the wonderful consequences of the plan. The rest of this chapter is devoted to describing what will come about, the reward we shall receive once the plan is completed…which, remember, I said God has already seen the end, so He is the absolute best position to tell us what the outcome will be. Look with me at the end of the chapter, verses 11-12, which sums it all up and gives us hope to cling to –

“Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your Salvation comes; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” ‘ And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

Our Salvation has come, and His name is Jesus. Do you want to know how we fit into this? Let me tell you: WE are His reward, brothers and sisters…WE are His recompense, the work that He came to do; the reason God sent Him to the earth. WE are called the Holy People, set apart for God. WE have been redeemed by His blood, shed on the cross. WE have been sought out, WE have not been forsaken. THIS is the outcome of God’s plan, THIS is what God has resolved to do. So I ask you, brothers and sisters, as we stand and worship…how will you respond today? Do you have a resolution you need to make? Do you have a burden you need to be freed from? Have you been living apart from the Lord, and need to return to Him? Have you never made a decision to follow Him, and today you want to change that? If any of that fits you, come on down, let us pray for you and with you; let us stand beside you as we give God no rest, until all that He has planned comes true…come on down, and surrender all to the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to Jesus Christ…won’t you come?

 

In the spirit of Christmas, I present to you the text of the message I was blessed to preach this week at my home church. I extend the same challenge to you as I did to them –  follow the link at the end, and join with us in spreading the love of God throughout the world.  I encourage you to respond in the comments with how God moves you to answer this challenge, as well.

Have a Merry Christmas, and I hope to see you again in the New Year, and in the glory to come.

Gifts are surely on the minds of many this time of year, aren’t they? Children have agonized through days and weeks in eager anticipation of diving into that pile of presents under the tree (even if some of them will spend more time playing with the boxes than what was in them!) We adults are not immune to a sense of expectation about what we are going to receive, but sometimes age and experience leave us a little…shall we say, wary… about the value of what we might be given? I know I have opened some presents that made me very concerned about the expression on my face, you know what I mean, don’t you? You tear off the wrapping paper, lift up the lid…and think, “What in the world is this, and what am I going to do with it?”

Now, tell me the truth – how many of you have received a gift that was so unsuited to you, that the only thing you could do was hide it in the closet, let some time pass, and then wrap it up again and pass it off to someone else? Hopefully you didn’t forget who gave it to you and try to give it back to them by mistake! This situation occurs so much that our culture has come up with a name for that solution – we call it “re-gifting”, and it has become mostly accepted, as a better alternative than throwing stuff away, or spending money that, face it, none of has that much of anymore. Personally, I see it as a drawing away from the unbridled consumerism that has overwhelmed our country in the last couple of decades, the idea that everything is disposable, and you can just toss out what you don’t want and buy something else that will make you happy. This is not really a new idea, is it? Just last week we were talking in Sunday school about the lessons we learned during the Great Depression, and learned again during the shortages and rationing that went along with World War II…“Use it up, wear it out, make it do…or do without!” was the word of the day, and it was sound, reasonable advice; advice that has found a resurgence in the “Green movements” and recycling efforts of today. My message is titled, “The Greatest Re-Gift Ever”, and that may seem like a strange idea when you tie it to Christmas, but I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a bit, and let me explain how I connect those dots, can you do that? I believe that when I’m done you will agree with the point I am making. Don’t misunderstand me – in this case, the gift is not something we don’t want, something without value; but maybe there is another way to understand the idea of re-gifting, and that is what I want to talk about this morning. So here we go.

First off, we need to discuss the nature of the gift…after all, you cannot re-gift until you receive something, right? So what is the gift we have recieved? We find the answer in the famous, beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 9, verses 6-7…you know the text, from the King James Version –

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

This is the promise of God which the angel of the Lord was referring to in the passage our friend Mr. Van Pelt so beautifully read for us a few minutes ago. (I personally love that reading, the words have such an impact when heard in the voice of a child, don’t they?)  [Note: the Scripture reading for the day was  a video presentation of the scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where Linus recites Luke 2:8-14]  Remember verse 11?

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

The angel tells the shepherds specifically that the Child, the Christ, the Anointed One, is being given to them, as representatives of all mankind. He did not come to the religious leaders of the times; He did not come to those who felt they were deserving or holy or righteous; He did not come to no one in particular; this gift was given to all of us, to be our Savior…because we needed a Savior, in the most desperate way. There are many many places in Scripture where this promise is repeated in one form or another; let’s look at just a few of them:

In Genesis 3:15, we see the very first instance. God is speaking to the serpent after the deception in the Garden, and He says,

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He will bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

In Deuteronomy 18:15, a passage I have referred to many times, Moses tells the people,

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.”

In Zechariah 3:8-9, the Lord says,

“I am going to bring My servant, the Branch…and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”

I could go on, but I think we have a pretty good idea of what, or rather who we have been given…and His name is Jesus. So now, let’s take a look at the reason for the gift. We have already seen one reason: that verse in Zechariah tells us that God intended to “remove the sin of the land”, but Scripture further expands on that idea, and tells us why He wants to do that. The most famous bible verse in the world is a good place to start, plus some extra to complete the thought – let’s look at John 3:16-18 –

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

I don’t think I need to say much more than that, do I? It is because of the unfathomable, indescribable love of God for His creation that we receive this great gift…and for no other reason. However, the Apostle Paul, prompted by the Holy Spirit and  realizing that, being the prideful, self-centered creatures that we are, we need to be reminded, does so in Ephesians 2:4-5,8-9 –

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

We have talked before about what faith really means – not just believing something with your mind, but changing the way you live based on that information. Last week Brother Charles spoke beautifully about idea of trust, in Hebrew batach: a confidence that allows us to move, live and act on the basis of what we have learned about God’s goodness, even when we don’t understand all that is going on around us. So what is it exactly that we are supposed to be doing while we are batach-ing? I am going to let Jesus Himself tell us about that – no better place to turn for the truth that He who IS the truth, right? Let’s turn our focus to the Gospel of John, Chapter 5, my anchor passage for today. Jesus has just healed a man crippled for 38 years. The man draws the attention of the Jewish religious authorities, not for the miracle of the healing, but because he dared to violate their prohibitions against “working” on the Sabbath. They in turn question Jesus about His authority to sanction such an act, and it is His answer I want to study. Let’s read the passage together, verses 19-23:

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does. Yes, and He will show Him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom He is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him.”

There is a key idea I want you to see, where Jesus echoes the words of that angel who spoke to the shepherds. You may have missed it, because in the King James rendering of Luke 2, the translators were slightly inaccurate in verse 14. Look back at that with me, it reads:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That does not accurately represent God’s intent, however; let’s see that verse in the NASB, where it reads,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”

Do you see the difference, and how that makes more sense when you consider the state of the world today? Peace is surely not a universal condition, is it? When you read what the angel actually said, it becomes so much more clear why that is true. God only promises His peace on those with whom He is pleased. So, it seems to me, that we need to understand what it is that pleases God, so we may receive His peace, and for that answer let me turn back to John 5.  Jesus gives us the beginning of it here, when He describes His work on earth with the words,

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does.”

This is a perfect picture of submission to the will of God, even from the Son of God Himself. God predicted that His Messiah would behave this way – we see that in another of those promise verses I spoke about earlier, this one coming in 1 Samuel 2:35, where the Lord says,

“I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in My heart and mind.”

Jesus is not making up things as He goes, or following His own agenda. He certainly had the power to do anything He wished; He could very well have come as the conquering King that the Jewish people were hoping and waiting  for, to drive out the Roman oppressors, and return them their kingdom on earth. (Many today are still waiting for this Messiah, and so reject Jesus because He did not fulfill these expectations.) Instead, Jesus is doing only that which Our Father has already done and revealed to the Son. So, the question becomes, How can we relate what Jesus is doing, to what we are supposed to be doing? We don’t have to guess, Scripture gives us the answwer explicitly. Turn with me to chapter 15 in John, verses 15-17, and read what the Lord says to His disciples, and by extension, to us:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in My name the Father will give you.”

The Lord has chosen us, appointed us, and sent us, to do those things which He has revealed to us, the very same things which the Father revealed to Him. God called Jesus “My faithful priest”, because He does according to God’s heart and mind; so if we wish to be known as faithful, we will also do according to His heart and mind, and we know exactly what that is, because we have our “marching orders”, don’t we? We know it as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20 –

And Jesus came up 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 the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Brother Charles and I have both preached this passage to you in recent weeks, because we want you to understand your purpose here on earth and here in the body of believers. We do not come together just to soak in the goodness of God, or to encourage one another in a bubble. No, we come together to be equipped to GO OUT, and bear fruit, and do according to the will and heart of God; to proclaim the Gospel, to make disciples, to baptize and teach all that Jesus has commanded. We are given this great gift of a Savior only so that we can re-gift it to someone else, don’t you see? If, and only if, we do these things, will God be pleased with us, and only then will we be assured of receiving His peace. That is something I want very much, to receive His peace, and I am willing to bet that it’s something you want very badly to receive as well.

Today I would like to offer you one practical, real world way to do just that. There is an organization I belong to, called The Pocket Testament League. Their mission is to evangelize the world by spreading the good news of Jesus in the form of small, printed booklets containing the Gospel of John. They publish these in a variety of translations, languages, and attractive cover designs, and send them at no cost to anyone who requests them. They encourage a small financial donation of $20 for thirty copies, to cover the expense of printing and postage, but will gladly supply them for free, with the costs being underwritten by other donors who give above and beyond this nominal amount. Membership is also free, and members are asked to submit testimonies through their website to encourage others in their evangelistic efforts. The League has been in existence since 1893, distributing over 110 million copies of the Gospel; in 2012 alone they sent out 1.6 million copies, including reaching into China for the first time in their history. I regularly order Gospels to pass out during outreach opportunities, and I have a supply of them here with me today. The cover shows a present, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string, with a tag reading, “The Greatest Gift”. My challenge for you today is simple: This week, you will go out to lunch or dinner, or do some last-minute Christmas shopping; and you will meet some harried, stressed-out waitress, or sales clerk – someone who could definitely benefit from some of the peace of God in their lives. Take one of these Gospels with you today, and pray that God directs you to that person. Then, place a generous amount of cash inside to minister to their physical needs (I will leave the amount to your discretion…it may be five dollars, it may be $500, that’s between you and the Lord) , and perhaps write a brief note to explain that what’s in this book will minister to their greater, spiritual needs, and hand it to them. Tell them you are praying for them, because God loves them, and wants them to enjoy this great gift as well. Then come back here next week, and share your testimony of how God called you to be His faithful priest, and how you did what He first showed you that He was doing,  by sending “the Word became flesh” on that first Christmas. Will you do it? Will you do that which pleases God, and allow His peace into your life this week? I dare you!

I just made it home from my long day at work and running errands, and the first thing I heard on the TV is news of the terrible tragedy in Connecticut. (I have no access to news and such on the jobsite, and I never got around to replacing the radio in my truck when it got stolen…the hole in the dash makes a pretty good theft-deterrent system.)  My immediate reaction? Begin praying for the families, and turn off the news – because the very last thing I want is to hear any more about it. That reaction got me to thinking… why am I turning away? Am I becoming  insensitive, or inured to the pain of others? Well, no… but the truth is quite revealing in its own right.

The most basic, primal feeling in my gut was exhaustion…I am just completely worn out by this latest horrible occurrence in a series of horrible occurrences this year alone. I hope that doesn’t sound shallow or self-centered – I am quite aware that I have suffered no personal injury or loss in any of these circumstances, and real lives have been permanently changed for the worse; who am I to try to make this about me? (Some might even say, “How dare you?” , but I have never been afraid to say things that others might not understand.) But it’s not about me, so much as it’s about the world…I think I have lost my capacity to feel shock or surprise at the pervasive nature of evil. The bible tells us the world is fallen, ruined by sin and death; why do we act surprised when we see continuing evidence that this is so? On the contrary, I shake my head in disbelief when people speak of the “essential goodness of human nature”, when in truth there is no such thing. Jesus Himself said as much, speaking to the rich young man who wanted to know how to get into heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not “anti-people”; that would make the calling God has placed on me to be a pastor seem kind of silly, wouldn’t it? But there is a reason that the tag line on my email for the last several years has been:

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.”   Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20 NKJV)

This verse has been a part of my daily prayers almost since I returned to walking with Him in 2005. My faith in God, in the perfect redemption of mankind by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, makes it possible for me to eagerly await His return. I take comfort that all the suffering, the pain, the despair…all these will come to an end. It also makes it possible for me to endure until such time as His plan and purposes are fulfilled, as I have no wish that any would perish, but that all would come to know Him and believe, despite knowing that there are those who will not. Many, many people will look at today’s events, and those of previous days, weeks, and months, and curse God for allowing this to happen, or question whether He even exists… the newsfeed from my relatively small number of Facebook friends is evidence of that. I have no answer for them which they will accept, and my heart breaks because of that. Others will take the opportunity to push their own agendas, or profit from it in some way, and that saddens me even more…and underlines my point at the same time – the world IS going to Hell, and it doesn’t need a handbasket to get there; it knows the way all on its own.

Following hard after Him, (even when some days are harder than others)

Nicky

Hello, Audience. Are you still out there? It’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything, and there’s a very good chance that whatever following I was beginning to build has faded away; consistency is a key to maintaining momentum in anything, but the lack of consistency seems to be one of my identifying characteristics…or at least it has been for the greater part of my life – along with the guilt and excuse-making that often go along with it. But I’m tired of that being true and I want it to change. So here I am, back where I belong, doing what I was made to do, and I have the feeling that this is an answer to some of the frustration I have been allowing to fill up my world lately.

That sentence was very hard to write; I hate admitting that I myself am the cause of most of the dissatisfaction I feel. It is much easier and safer to blame the world around me for my moods…to point fingers and sulk and whine, “It’s not my fault! Look at all that is happening to me! How am I supposed to get anything dome with all this going on?” But that reaction has never solved anything. I spend a great deal of my time counseling others against doing that very thing, telling them that the first step to moving forward in life is to get moving, to accept personal responsibility for the condition of their character instead of making it Someone Else’s job to grant them fulfillment. Maybe I need to record these conversations and play them back for myself; I need to learn to recognize hypocrisy when it’s staring back at me in the mirror, to heed the words of the philosopher, “Physician, heal thyself!” Or, better yet, the words of the Great Physician, my Lord Jesus – He has several things to say on this subject:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:3-5)

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

I could go on, but the simple truth is that quoting Scripture is not the same as living it, and I have been falling short. Life is always going to be hard, and Jesus knows this…that is why we have the indwelling Holy Spirit, perhaps the greatest gift short of salvation itself – to help us overcome this life in anticipation of the one to come. I seem to have lost sight of this truth recently, but God is faithful (even when I am not) and He will receive me back to Himself, bind up my wounds, and restore my spirits…if only I will trust in Him.

Stay tuned; I think I am well on the way to finding the true path again; at the very least, I am tired of hacking my way through the weeds and thistles off the side of that path on my own.

Following hard after Him, (in spite of my own hard head and hard heart),

Nicky

There are a couple of guys I met through the prison ministry I serve with; they have become very good friends and Christian brothers (my wife jokes and calls them ” Bert and Ernie” ) We try to meet up once a week for a couple of hours, to share advice, prayers, and accountability, and generally just to discuss how God is working on us. So we met up tonight, and we got to talking about different purposes that “church” is supposed to serve. Bert has recently left the Methodist mega-church he attended for several years, looking for something more “authentic”. (Ernie is still a member at that church, and he feels fulfilled there; and my readers know about the little Southern Baptist church I belong to.) Bert now attends a non-denominational, “coffee-shop” church, which he likes, but he is missing the structural stuff that large bodies tend to do well, you know: small groups, bible studies, discipleship…it’s there, he feels, he just hasn’t connected to it yet. Ernie commented that the mega-Methodists have those programs down to a science; everywhere you go, there is something to get involved in, and most of it is “plug-and-play” as he put it. Meanwhile, my fellowship is in limbo – we need to start almost literally from nothing; we have two elders; one deacon (me); three teachers (I’m one of them); one “pulpit filler” (me again); two people who can run the lights and sound (me and one other) and no permanent pastor to help guide the re-building as of yet (probably not me, but who knows?)

All this talk of activities and programs and “doing” has me thinking again about the purposes of church. The bible speaks much in the book of Acts about what the first-century church was doing; Paul teaches at length regarding attitudes and practices within the body of believers, but I still have questions for those who sit beside me or in front of me every Sunday: What are we gathering together for? I get different answers – we gather to exhort and encourage each other; or we gather to receive instruction and training for our work for the Kingdom; or we meet to hear the Word of God proclaimed; or we meet to see to it that the needs of the body are being met; or we meet for corporate praise and worship. The more honest ones will say it’s all about us – “celebrating life together in oneness in Him”; the more contrite ones will say that we meet only to be empowered to go out – that we are to be looking outward, not inward. Problem is, I think they are all right; or they are all wrong; or I don’t know what I think, is the best answer I have right now. That’s OK, because, to paraphrase a character in a Heinlein sci-fi novel, true knowledge only begins when we can honestly say, “I don’t know.” (Why, I may be on the brink of genius!)

I’ve read the proverbial s**tload o’ books, and I follow a lot of bloggers who have opted out of “traditional churches”, and they seem fulfilled and connected to what God has for them where they are…but I’m not feeling a pull to leave this place…I’m feeling the call to help it realize it’s full potential. With all the changes we have going on, everything is on the table; I may never see an opportunity like this again –  to plant an idea that could have an impact that extends beyond my own personal reach…and I don’t want to waste it. So I’m gonna go bold, and go public, and ask YOU, Dear Readers, for some input.

If you could re-build a church, what would you HAVE to have, and what would you HAVE to keep out? I am only one voice in this conversation, but I will have my turn to speak…what should I say? Let me hear from you in the comments, I will leave this one open for dialogue if it gets lively.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky