Posts Tagged ‘God’

Back in April (remember April?…seems a long while ago, for some reason) I started off in a challenge to write and post, consistently, for one month; sadly, I did not succeed. I didn’t run out of ideas (indeed, my Drafts folder glares at me sullenly every time I open my dashboard); neither did sudden catastrophe strike…I just got busy and got behind, and so “failed” to live up to the expectations of the challenge. With an eerie sense of the familiar, I followed this “failure” with another, even more tragic: I continued not-writing, at least in this place, for an entire month and more…with only the pitiful excuse of guilt as a reason for this “failure echo”. This cannot be allowed to continue. I have learned to see this as a metaphor for how I always have dealt with my shortcomings: I give my yesterdays power over my tomorrows…I accept that “Past performance is the surest indicator of future behavior”, and so my choices become scripted by “what has been” instead of  “what should be”…I deem myself “unworthy”, and then earn that designation. It’s deeper than the way I write, it goes into every aspect of how I live; the writing is only one way that the life I live on the inside expresses itself on the outside. Come, I’ll show you what I mean.

I recently observed my third anniversary of employment with the company; this marks the longest time I have worked anywhere in my entire life or career. (Well, I attended the same high school for 4 years, does that count?) This has been, by every measure, the best place I have ever worked. I have survived a corporate merger and downsizing, brought on by two years of downturns in the local economy, while watching my salary increase 25%; upper management is very encouraging and supportive of me, allowing me to grow and expand my skills and my role. At the same time, they have stood beside me as I serve in ministry, scheduling my workload around the twice-annual visits to the prisons on Kairos teams; stood beside me as I cared for my wife during her year-long battle with breast cancer treatment, guaranteeing a minimum weekly paycheck (and continued insurance benefits) whether I worked or not, long after I had exhausted my personal time off allotment for the year. The level of mutual respect among my co-workers exceeds anything I ever imagined that “a job” could provide. Yet, earlier this week I came within hours of losing my job, literal hours, because I fell short of MY expectations, and nearly allowed the “failure echo” to unravel everything. I’m still too close to spell out the step by step of what happened, perhaps in a later post, perhaps not…but the details are not as important as the big picture – I allowed pride and fear to rule over me, instead of accepting that I have been set free; I looked forgiveness in the face and screamed, “I don’t deserve you!” – which is completely true…and completely the amazing message of God’s grace.

Long story short, and the reason I posted this: in my desperate hour I cried out to the Lord, and by the power of prayer, I was able to hear that message clearly despite my despair…and respond to it. I am on the way to restoring my relationship with my employer, but there are others I also need to restore…including the one with you, my readers. I bailed out on you, with no warning or explanation…left in mid-conversation, with over half yet unspoken. I am sorry, and I will make the effort to be better…or at least, more honest, OK? and I can do another thing – I can post the rest of the Challenge! I have most of them written, but a bit of polish before release is needed, so look for one or two a week. The ideas are worth their moment in the light of day, and I will enjoy the privilege of sharing them with you. See you again very soon, may you remain aware of the blessings you enjoy!


The structural arrangement of the Bible is not commonly discussed, except in the most scholarly of venues; but there is oneunfortunate consequence which must be diligently avoided: modern readers have a tendency to treat each book as a discrete story, more like an anthology rather than chapters within one narrative. This causes us to miss the simultaneous occurrence of some key events in God’s history with His people. The ministry of the Old Testament  prophets is a good example. In the previous post, for instance, we saw Isaiah speaking the Word of God to King Hezekiah; but that was only one of four kings during whose reigns he served The Lord (Ussiah, Jotham, and Ahaz came before), and other biblical prophets  – Amos, Hosea, and Micah – were his contemporaries. These facts make the stubbornness of the people, their refusal to repent, all the more damning…they could not claim ignorance, the news was on every channel!

The Book of Isaiah is by far the longest and most extensive passage of prophecy we have in Scripture, and the most revealing of Jesus. I have seen some commentators call this book “the Gospel of Isaiah”, so accurate are the details about the coming Messiah. Yet about the man himself we see very few details. The title above is used nearly every time he is introduced; this sparse answer to the questions, “Who are you, what is your job, where did you come from?” is apparently all the information we need; much like John the Baptist, who quotes this prophet when asked to identify himself, Isaiah is content to be nothing more than –

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.”

So many preachers today (in my opinion) make themselves the center of attention. I live in Houston, Texas: home to three of the ten largest “mega” churches in this country, and I can tell you far more about their senior pastors than any of their ministries; their names and photographs are on all the billboards and websites (often with a link to their newest books), but sometimes you have to scroll around or read a little to find the name of Jesus…and I have to wonder at that. Isaiah and the other prophets lived to speak God’s words to God’s people, or anyone else who would listen, for that matter; it was not in the least about themselves – how far we have strayed in these days!

In an earlier Challenge post, I referenced the fact that at times I have been guilty of “lightly” reading the Scriptures, i.e. turning the pages but only skimming the text; not really paying attention to passages (or books, in some cases) that did not seem relevant to me. As I also said, we do ourselves a gave injustice when we undervalue the Word of God.

Another example I have recently unearthed regards the parallel books of Kings and Chronicles (and portions from several of the prophets), which detail the history of the twin nations of Israel and Judah, following the division which arises from the sins of God’s people, in general, and King Solomon in particular. Solomon prayed for and received an enormous gift of wisdom, to lead the people and prosper as their king, as well as carrying out the commission of building the Temple. Yet, he married incessantly and politically, drawing wives from all surrounding nations (in conflict with God’s commandments) and as a consequence being led to compromise his worship, going after other gods as the behest of his wives.

Once the kingdom has divided, it seems the decline into unrepentant sin becomes irreversible…so much that the northern Kingdom is carried away into captivity, and Judah is attacked and threatened repeatedly; King Ahaz goes so far as to begin worshiping the gods of his enemies, in an attempt to fend off disaster. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) He goes so far off the plan of God that his own subjects cannot bring themselves to bury him with the kings of old when he dies; instead he rests in the tombs with the common people, and the throne passes to his son, Hezekiah.

According to the account in 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah wastes no time putting things right. He orders the Temple to be cleansed and re-consecrated; he finds priests and Levites worthy to serve before the Lord; and he restores sacrificial worship, making sin offerings and burnt offerings on behalf of the people; once again Passover is observed, which (according to the story) had not taken place since the time of Solomon, a span of twelve generations. I cannot imagine how they could let such an important practice lapse…or can I? Perhaps I have been equally negligent in some aspect of my own worship, and have suffered an equal decline? Have I fallen out of fellowship with other believers, or spent insufficient time reading and studying the Bible, or allowed my prayer life to grow stale? Perhaps you have as well?

The good news, both for us and for Hezekiah, is that we serve a God of second chances; and third chances; and thirty-third chances, if necessary. The title of this post appears 8 times in Scripture, and every time Hezekiah prays to God, he is answered with something positive: rescue from his enemies, forgiveness for his people, even a reprieve from death. Likewise, God yearns that we would pray to Him, call on His name in our distress, and trust that He will save us, bless us, preserve us. The way God treated with His people in the Old Testament is the same way He will treat with us…we know this to be true, because He is the same…yesterday, today, and forever, AMEN!

There is a great amount of pop-culture hoo-hah surrounding angels…there are movies, books, TV shows, and an infinite universe of knick-knacks, statuettes, posters, wall hangings, etc. A Google search for “angels” returns hundreds upon hundreds of images of female figures with soft faces, pale skin, flowing white or pastel gowns…and, of course, delicate white wings. I wonder sometimes where the artists received their inspiration? Because Biblical angels don’t seem to bear any resemblance to these icons.

The creatures known as angels are depicted as warriors, battling on behalf of the people of God (see Elisha’s revealed vision in 2 Kings); or lone executors of God’s will (the Angel of Death, as seen in the final plague in Egypt, and as a reprimand to David for his arrogance in ordering an unauthorized census); or as worshipers in the courts of heaven, praising God night and day. Some others serve as messengers, bringing the Word of God to Balaam, sitting on his donkey; to the shepherds outside Bethlehem one starry night; to the women at an empty tomb on Sunday morning, to name just a few.

The Christian canon of Scripture gives proper names to only two beings described as “angels” – Michael and Gabriel. Both appear in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament; Michael, (a warrior) is named in Jude and Revelation, while Gabriel (a messenger) famously delivers the news of the coming birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah, and of Jesus to the virgin Mary. (I do not include the naming of “Lucifer” in Isaiah, as this word appears only that one time, and in context is as likely to refer to the king of Babylon as any other person; nor do I include “Raphael”, listed in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. There are also extra-Biblical lists of angels, but I am not qualified to discuss this material, so I won’t – I mention it only in an effort to be complete.)

I feel that sometimes modern believers allow themselves to be distracted by these vague, modern, decidedly romanticized ideas about angels – watching over us as guardians; interceding for us by carrying our prayers to heaven; intervening in the affairs of humans to prevent “bad things” from happening. While God certainly could use them for some of these purposes (and probably does at certain times), they are only another tool at His disposal. These beings, when they appear in Scripture, consistently discourage and actively prevent any adoration of themselves, redirecting it instead to the only One who is worthy. Maybe we would be better served to pay a little less attention to the messengers, and a little more to the message, and the Author?

In Genesis, the book of Beginnings, we see the continuing development of the covenant between God and Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; in each generation, the promises made by God to the father are repeated, renewed, and refined for the son, in the form of a blessing at the end of each father’s life. Traditionally, the father’s blessing would confer favor to the eldest son above any younger brothers – yet God remains sovereign in the affairs of humans, and will overrule our conventions for His purposes, despite what we think or do about it – let’s look at the record.

When Abraham tried to provide his own heir by lying with Hagar and fathering Ishmael, God superseded him by giving Issac to Sarah; Abraham recognized this by sending the older boy away and placing his blessing upon the younger. In his turn, Issac fathered twins, Esau and Jacob; Esau was the firstborn, but even in the womb the Lord had promised that Jacob would inherit the promise; this came to pass when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, and then it was sealed when Rebekah assisted Jacob in deceiving Issac, so that he received his father’s blessing – just as God intended.

When Jacob, now renamed Israel, came to the end of his life and prepared to pronounce his blessing upon his sons, the same pattern repeats itself, with one unique and significant exception – there are two sets of blessings delivered, foretelling the two nations which would arise later. In Gen 48, Jacob calls Joseph, his favorite son, to his side to make his dying request, that he not be buried in Egypt, but returned to the land of Canaan.  He then blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh (the elder) and Ephraim (the younger), even before blessing his own sons (see Gen 49, and notice that the three oldest are likewise passed over in favor of Judah, from whom our Savior Jesus is promised), crossing his arms to place his right hand upon the head of Ephraim when he does so. Joseph tried to switch the blessings, believing that his older son should receive the greater promise, but Jacob demurred, insisting that he knew what he was doing; this was obviously so, for in fact the descendants of Ephraim became the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while the sons of Judah ruled over the southern Kingdom, following the line of David. In all the acts of men, we must remember that God has see the end from the beginning, and His will shall always prevail – if you ever wonder what the “will of God” was in any historical event, just look at what happened…you will see exactly that which God intended.

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.

Cain rose up…

Posted: April 3, 2013 in A to Z Challenge
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Many times in the Old Testament, characters and themes are introduced with little fanfare, and often dispatched just as quickly; the “trick” is to discern the meaning inherent in even these briefest of encounters. We see one such example in Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain, who appears and is gone in less than 20 verses. Yet, there is a wealth of truth revealed in this scant space – let us examine this together.

Some context: Genesis 3 ends with the “first family” being driven from Eden after their Fall into the knowledge of sin and death. Chapter 4 begins with the birth of their son Cain, whose name can be translated as “Here he is”; perhaps Eve considered this child to be the fulfillment of the promise made by God in Gen 3:15 of a Seed, One to deliver them from their doom. He is quickly followed by his brother Abel (breath, something transitory, quickly dissipated…names have significant meaning in Hebrew) We fast forward to find them mature and working hard at their professions: Cain is a farmer, while Abel is a shepherd; at some point, they bring their respective offerings to God, and it is here that we find the lesson.

Scripture tells us that God accepted Abel’s offering, but Cain…not so much. We are not given any specific reasons for this, (there may be some clues in the description of their offerings) but I think it is more significant to examine the reaction that Cain has to God, and to his brother, and to then attempt to relate it to ourselves. This is, I believe, one of the primary purposes of Scripture – to reveal the nature of God to His creation, and then by this illumination, point to where we deviate from His design, that we may know best how to pray for His grace and forgiveness. (Sorry, I’ll get off the soapbox now.)

Cain reacts with anger and disappointment at the fact that his offering was not accepted; at no point does he inquire about the nature of his shortcoming – instead, it seems that he is offended; after all, he brought an offering…isn’t that enough? God isn’t having any of it, and calls Cain down for this rebellious self-righteousness, warning him where his attitude will lead him, but Cain cannot hear – he is too filled with his pride to listen…echoes of how God warned Adam and Eve about the consequences of thinking of themselves more than of God. Sure enough, Cain’s anger leads him to commit the first recorded murder, and suffer his own consequence, becoming an outcast among outcasts, and fathering a legacy based on vengeance for slights real and imagined (see Lamech in Gen 4:23-24).

So where is the parallel, what in us does this light of truth shine upon? What, indeed? I would venture that the vast majority of conflict among humanity is rooted in the notion that anything I offer to another should be deemed worthy because I gave it; any failure in this relationship is a reflection on them, not on me. The “problem” is that God is worthy to be worshiped, and anything offered to Him must be worthy of Him; He is the standard, not me. Cain had a problem with that, and it cost him. Guess what? I have a problem with that, too, and so do you; that problem is original sin – when Adam ate the fruit, and learned what right and wrong were, he took that knowledge with him out of the Garden, and passed it down to all of us, along with the overwhelming tendency to choose wrongly.

We are blessed that the same love that God showed when he promised Eve a Seed is still in effect; that Seed is Jesus, who became the new Adam, and overcame that first wrong choice – He chose to obey God, and every act He does is worthy of the Father. In Him, we can find acceptance; by submitting to His Lordship, we can find peace, and once again have intimate fellowship with God, in the cool of the evening.

Many of you may be wondering why, after finally finding a nice steady pace, I suddenly stopped posting…yeah, there’s been the  occasional re-blog, when I see something I find especially moving…but no writing. And isn’t that the whole reason I started this blog, to give myself a forum to practice my art? Well, that is an interesting question, so let’s examine this idea.

I must admit that I have let myself become pretty divided lately…after all, I am just a guy, and I have trouble doing more than one thing at a time very well; multi-tasking has never really been one of my spiritual gifts. Here lately, I have reached critical mass – taking care of Karen as she slogged through cancer treatment; handling an enormous level of responsibility trying to drive the design process on a complex construction project at work; helping to kick-start a prayer-and-share ministry at a halfway house; and “standing in the gap” at the church while we struggled through the transition period without a pastor, or much of a leadership team at all, for that matter. The Lord has been with me, and these things have prospered…I have been blessed to have been a part of it all. But even seasons of insanity come to an end…and strangely enough, that has been the problem!

Karen has finally reached the end of her regimen – only two more radiation treatments and one more follow-up, and she will be done, hallelujah! The project has been designed to a fare-thee-well, and actual construction begins next week. A new crop of volunteers has been trained for prayer-and-share, and a routine has been developed, duties spread around. The church has merged with another fellowship, so we have a pastor, and a staff, and budget, and a vision. Suddenly, I don’t have a gap to stand in, and it has left me off-balance and questioning  my role, and in fact my value, because that is just how I am wired.  I have a lot of trouble functioning well unless there is a crisis going on…smooth seas and clear skies leave me twitchy and anxious, and I have never really understood why; in truth I still don’t. But that doesn’t mean that I have to accept that as a healthy or right way to live, because I can recognize that it isn’t…it’s just a matter of learning a new way to behave; substituting better habits in the place of bad ones, and rediscovering passions from my past that I have allowed to wither under the weight of “busyness”.  I have been working on that very thing for a few months now, with success, and so I think I can expand this behavior into other realms of my life.

Back on New Year’s Eve, I made two  life-changing decisions: I stopped smoking cigarettes, and I started distance running…something I really enjoyed back in high school, but allowed to die out.  I also began blogging about the journey, at the suggestion of a friend, who reminded me that accountability and support from others in a similar situation are invaluable for making commitments stick. She was right, and I have so far succeeded: I have not smoked for nearly 12 weeks; I have run almost 80 miles this year; I have completed one 5k race, and and I’m signed up for a 10k in May; and my running blog is doing quite well. So, let’ s apply some of these principles to my current issue: how to spend less time in agonies of doubt, and more time pursuing my God-given art of writing (the reason I began blogging, remember?) Here’s what I came up with:

I have registered for the Blogging from A-to-Z in April Challenge, as a way to encourage myself to write something every day for a month. I will focus on themes relevant to Christianity (my own unique spin on the challenge) and in the process, try to recover some of my joy and wonder at the purpose God has placed in me – to express in writing how great He is, and yet how accessible He is to any who will seek after Him. THIS is my role, THIS is my value to the kingdom of heaven…and I am grateful that the Lord is patient, and continues to minister to me and encourage me. He has done this through many mediums – the sermon series our pastor is doing on how God’s plan for humanity has always been that we are blessed to serve Him and to serve others for His glory; the brothers at the halfway house and at the prison where I serve, who are constant examples of how God’s grace extends to “the least and the lost” of this world, and that our worth in His eyes is in no way dependent on how the world sees us; and by a book I finally picked up off the shelf and started reading: Quitter, by Jon Acuff, who tells how finding fulfillment of our dreams is more about recovering than about discovering…a message I really needed to hear! (Jon also recently reminded me that artists are specially blessed by God, and that writers are artists.)

I welcome your comments, and pray that God will lead me in finding 26 creative ways to write about Him in April. I have heard that once you do something 21 times it has become an ingrained habit…let’s put that to the test again, shall we? Stay tuned, spread the word, I believe some wonderful things are about to happen!

Jacob had it easy…

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Uncategorized
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At least when he wrestled with God, he could use his hands, his body, his frustration…and it earned him a draw, and a blessing!

I’m reduced to my thoughts, my groaning spirit, and my knees…I don’t expect a draw – I will gladly receive my blessing in surrender (which is not a defeat, it’s a victory) – I just want to know WHO and WHAT and HOW…

You knew me before You made me. You have Your purpose for me in mind. I don’t deserve an explanation, I’m not demanding an answer…

I just want to know that I’m serving You, not me.

How Do We Follow Him? (Rev. 2-3)

Posted: February 4, 2013 in sermons
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(delivered 2-3-13)

Well, yesterday was Groundhog Day – a silly ritual we have where about a million reporters gather around some poor little animal, shine enough spotlights on him to roast the poor thing, and then make predictions about the weather based on his behavior. Let me note, however, that the groundhog has an 80% accuracy rating – better than most weathermen! This year is the first time I can remember hearing that he didn’t see his shadow, which is supposed to signify an early spring. I try not to believe in superstitions…but it did hit 80 degrees while I was out training for the 5K race I’m running in next month…so maybe there’s something to it, after all. Another thing that date brings to mind is of course the movie, “Groundhog Day”, starring Bill Murray as a weather man covering this very event, and getting trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle of living February 2 over and over again. After hundreds, maybe thousands of repetitions, he finally learns how to overcome the dead-end nature of the life he has been living, escapes the loop, and emerges a far better person than before. I hope that you will leave here a better person for having this experience today, but I promise that I will not repeat it over and over thousands of times to get us there, OK? You have my word!

The last time I was privileged to speak before you, I shared my thoughts on the story found in John 21, of how Peter was redeemed by Jesus after denying Him before men three times, and re-instated into the service of the kingdom of God. I told you how I feel the commands that Jesus gives to Peter, in the form of parables about caring for sheep, comprise a pretty fair job description for a pastor, a word which has its roots in the name given to the person who cares for herds of animals, especially flocks of sheep; Jesus uses this word, which we see translated as “shepherd”, when describing Himself in John 10:14 –

“I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me.”

I ended that message with the statement that none of us are exempt from those duties; that each one of us who claims Jesus as our Lord and Savior is expected to bring new lambs into the fold, to guard and watch over one another in our day-to-day lives, and to help each other find the “good pastures” of nourishment in God’s Word, so that we may continue to prosper and grow in Him. Now, while all of that is still true (it better be, that was only two weeks ago!), I also said that the Lord calls some to be especially gifted in these areas: persons who become great teachers, or powerful evangelists, or trusted leaders within a particular body of believers. There is nothing wrong with that – we can all be more effective with someone out in front, leading the way. We see God use strong leaders throughout the bible story: whether it be Moses, bringing the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt; or Joshua, heading up the army of God in conquest of the Promised Land; Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles back to Jerusalem from Babylon, or Ezra, who followed and helped re-establish the covenant relationship between the Jewish people and their God. In the New Testament, the best examples might be Peter, whose stirring sermons after Pentecost brought literally thousands in to the newly forming church; and Paul, whose missionary work carried the Gospel of Jesus throughout the entire known world. These men had the Holy Spirit directing them, and were completely submitted to the will of the Lord, right?…or were they? In truth, didn’t they have some of the very same shortcomings as many of us do today? If you read the stories closely, you will in fact see some very human things going on…in Acts 11 we see Peter dealing with racism and prejudice from some of the Jewish Christians against the Gentile believers – disagreements over what kind of people would be allowed into the church, and how they would have to behave – ideas Peter had probably shared, until the Lord sent him a vision to change his mind. Later, in Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas having an argument over the staffing for a mission trip, which leads to them breaking up the team and going two separate ways! How many times have we seen similar things take place, sometimes even bringing the work to a stop? None of the troubles we have today are anything new are they? And neither are their sources…merely the human constants of pride, self-assurance, and self-righteousness.

We have a tendency to put these heroes of the bible up on pedestals, and pretend they could do no wrong, and so make them examples of the best we can ever be; but we do them – and ourselves – a great injustice in this; I touched briefly on this tendency as well, when I spoke about how we can get distracted by looking at these men and judging our efforts against theirs…we tell ourselves that we can’t possibly do the job as well as they can, so why don’t we just sit back and let them do it? This is a subtle trick of the enemy, and it’s pretty effective – he doesn’t have to spend nearly as much energy to destroy us, if he can get us to take ourselves off the battlefield, does he? And don’t ever forget: this world IS a battlefield; even though we know the fight is already won, sin and death have been defeated by the victory of Christ on the cross; we must remember that Satan cannot see into the future and realize he is already defeated. He may know the Word of God, but he does not believe it, so he fights with all the determination of one who still thinks he can win (or at the very least, cause as much damage as possible on the way down, I’ll give you that much)…and we are his best and clearest targets. He cannot strike against the One he really wants to destroy, can he? So he injures us to cause God to grieve for us – and sometimes, unintentionally, we help him do it; sometimes we ourselves cause God to grieve. How do I know this is true? Because the bible tells me so, as the old song goes. According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (emphasis added)

All of this would not be necessary if we always did what we are supposed to do, now would it? But we don’t…sometimes we need some reproof, sometimes we need some correction, and the bible is here to do that very thing for us, praise God.

Today, I am thinking in particular about the book of Revelation, where Jesus appears to the Apostle John, late in his life, and gives him a glimpse ahead of things to come. In Chapters Two and Three, the Lord dictates a series of letters to the churches in Asia Minor – some of the very churches we see Paul planting and ministering to throughout the later part of the book of Acts. Let me give you a little context with that – Paul’s missionary journeys took place during the 50’s and 60’s, some 20-30 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry; John is commonly thought to have composed this narrative of his visions around 96 AD. This span of 30-40 years certainly would have been long enough for many of the indictments raised by Jesus in these letters to come into being: time, after all is the great enemy of all human endeavors; as William Butler Yeats says in  “The Second Coming”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

Many of us are simply afraid of the book of Revelation, because much of it is confusing and difficult to interpret, I admit that…but these two chapters are as straight-forward and clear as anything else in all of Scripture, and should be considered a “maintenance and repair manual” for churches. I feel we can simply read it for what it plainly says, and be better off for doing so; the author of the book would agree with me, according to 1:3 –

 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

I would like to skim through these seven letters and see what we can learn about  how we follow Jesus; some of the ways we can – and do – fall short of what He expects of His children, ways we bring grief to our Lord; and then perhaps we can glean a few ideas about what He wants us to do about it. There is some good and some bad in nearly all of these churches, and the same is true for all of us, as well. Now, this may not seem fair, but in the interest of time, I am going to focus on the “bad” stuff, and skip over the “good”; however, I encourage you to spend some time reading over these letters on your own.  Notice the pattern Jesus establishes with each of the churches: first, He acknowledges their strengths; then He may point out a particular weakness, and indicate the necessary correction; He spells out the consequences if they do not take the necessary action; and finally leaves them with a word of encouragement. I believe you will agree that we all fall short in at least some of these areas, and could use a little nudge in the right direction; by highlighting how Jesus responds to these situations, that’s what I hope to do. So, here we go.

We start off in chapter two, with Jesus speaking to the church at Ephesus; let’s look at verses 4-5 –

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

Verses 14-16, to the church at Pergamum –

“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.”

Verses 20-23, to the church at Thyatira –

“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing My servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am He who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”

We move into Chapter 3, v. 1-3 and the church at Sardis –

“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”

Verses 15-20, to the church at Laodicea (perhaps the most famous example)-

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of My mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.”

Let me just mention that the other two churches – Smyrna and Philadelphia – get by without a specific reproach, but they aren’t exactly having it easy either. The church in Smyrna is enduring heavy persecution and slander; Jesus tells them He is aware of this, but relax…soon enough, things will get worse! Then He instructs them in 2:10 –

“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

The church at Philadelphia receives what some might call a left-handed compliment: Jesus tells them in 3:8 –

“I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept My word and have not denied My name.”

That’s five of the seven churches to whom Jesus says, “I have a problem with you!” Let’s summarize the failings first, then I will address them individually. These churches have:

  • Abandoned their “first love”; falling away from how they began
  • Honored idols
  • Engaged in sexual immorality
  • Been tolerant of false teaching
  • Refused to repent
  • A hollow reputation
  • A tepid, bland, complacent attitude
  • A high valuation of themselves

When you look over that list of faults that Jesus finds with His churches, (and we do remember that they are His churches, not ours, right? He has every right to call us out for our failings, and we have every obligation to sit and listen!) we see that many of these condemnations stem from the very same things we talked about last time, don’t we? Peter denied Christ before others from a desire to blend in with them, to appear like everyone else so he would not face persecution or pain. That is the essential complaint that Jesus has, when he points out those churches who are eating food offered to idols, or practicing immoral behavior – they are simply doing what everyone else around them is doing. A little more cultural background may be helpful here: these churches existed in pagan cities – places of international commerce, where every “god” from the known world would be represented. Worship of these pagan gods would very often become a matter of ostentatious show, where the larger the “sacrifice”, the more favor the worshiper could expect to curry. Thus, enormous offerings of rich foods, especially meat, would be made, and the priests in the temples, not being able to eat it all themselves, would see an opportunity for profit, and sell the excess to the public, with the funds going back into the temple (and their pockets, of course). By going into these pagan temples, and buying this “meat offered to idols”, the Christians were sinning in two ways: they were putting their money onto the altar of a foreign god, and they were giving implicit approval to the offerings themselves! Likewise, the issue of sexual immorality is twofold: not only does God prohibit any and all sexual activity outside the confines of  marriage, but the world seeks not only to excuse, but also to justify these immoral acts, by covering them in a veneer of  worship (as with the temple prostitutes, both male and female), or entertainment, or “natural desire”, or any number of other reasons. The problem is, we who would follow Jesus are called to a higher standard. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 –

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

If we claim to be “Christians”,  yet say and do the same things as everyone else, what exactly is the difference that Christ has made in our lives? If we live together without being married, or allow our churches to sanctify (?!?) same-sex unions; or we watch a TV show like Dancing With the Stars, (which I really did enjoy, but have stopped watching) that tells us that entertainment requires women to be nearly nude; or buy tickets for movies with explicit sexual content and situations; or any number of other things that God’s Word tells us He is displeased with, but we find reasons to make them “OK”…who are we fooling? Who indeed? The world doesn’t believe us – we don’t behave any different, so our beliefs must not have any real impact on our lives; or worse, we’re a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites, condemning the very things we ourselves are doing. We certainly aren’t fooling Jesus, who says over and over in these letters, “I know your works,” We aren’t really even fooling ourselves, or else we wouldn’t be so miserable, wondering why our lives are in the condition they are, why we don’t feel close to God, why nobody wants to come to our churches…why would they, when they can’t see anything here that they can’t find a thousand other places, doing what they already do, where they already are? If there is no reason to change, there will be no change. (Click here to tweet that.)

Hand in hand with this, Jesus condemns the churches for allowing teachers and leaders who tolerate, or even encourage these behaviors. So many today would hide behind the excuse, “I’m only doing what I was taught, it’s not my fault.” Well, who hired the teacher? Who selected the preacher? Who called the pastor? It’s the church, the body of believers, the people, who have the responsibility for their leaders. You hold us accountable, and there is one clear standard you are to use for that – the Word of God. Look with me in Acts 17: Paul has been traveling and spreading the Gospel of Jesus. It was his custom to preach first at the synagogues, where men studied the Scriptures, and already knew of the One True God, and thus should have been more receptive to the Good News of Jesus. This was not always the case , but see verse 11 –

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (emphasis added)

The believers at Berea did not merely accept what they were told, they checked it against the Scriptures. If every gathering did that, the careers of many so-called men of God would come to a short and sudden stop, amen? So why doesn’t that happen? Well, how many of us want to hear that we are in the wrong, that we need to change? Isn’t that one of the things I listed earlier, a refusal to repent, to turn away from the direction we are going? We do what we do because we think it will get us what we want, to steal a quote from Dr. Phil McGraw (I don’t agree with everything he says, but this is pretty much on the mark, isn’t it?) And we choose leaders who will tell us what we want to hear, even if it isn’t the best thing for us, don’t we? Scriptures repeats this truth to us, 2 Timothy 4:3-4 –

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, (hey, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, there’s got to be some football in here somewhere!) spoke to the opposite side of the coin –

“Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.”

Almost anyone will tell you they want to achieve happiness; those who believe in heaven will say they want to get there some day; people who follow Jesus will tell you they want to meet Him face-to-face in the end. But are we willing to make the changes necessary, to do the things it takes to achieve these goals? Ask yourselves, brothers and sisters: What is it you want to achieve? Then select leaders who will really help you get there.

The last few items that Jesus holds against the churches also have a common thread, which I have addressed before – sometimes we stop looking at Jesus, and instead look at others to compare ourselves to them, or look into our mirrors, to admire our own beauty. Either one will only give us a distorted view of reality, leading us to believe what others say about us, and become proud of our reputation, thinking that WE have made something of ourselves, and therefore have the right to be proud. This pride can often cause us to coast along, riding the wave of past successes, past glory…and forgetting our first love. We become like Peter: Jesus asks us to agape love Him, to sacrifice everything for His sake; but the best we can do is phileo, to have some good feelings for a little while, but then fade back into what we were doing before. Jesus gives us the remedy to all of this, not just here in this text, but in the heart of the Gospel message – Repent, return to ME, He says; confess your sins and be healed; then, go and sin no more.

You may have noticed that I titled this message “How we follow Him”, and spent most of my time talking about leaders? Well, isn’t that one of the major decisions we make in life: deciding who we are going to follow? Of course, the Sunday-school answer is that we ALL follow Jesus, and this is the correct answer; but what is the mechanism for that? Most of us are not blazing a trail for ourselves in the world; that is a hard, thankless job, and perhaps there is much wisdom in finding gifted leaders to help us along the path. Jesus told His disciples – the men and women who followed Him –  to go and make more disciples; those who, in the words of Paul –

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

We, as disciples of Jesus, have this same two-edged sword in our hands: we must follow Christ as hard as and well as we can, so that others can follow after us in His footsteps; and we must be sure that those we place in positions of leadership are likewise following only Him, and not some other agenda. We must search the Scriptures daily, to see if the things that are taught are true; and we must pray to God daily, that He will continue to guide and direct us by His Holy Spirit into the ways that are pleasing to Him; to renew our minds, to consecrate our bodies, to offer our whole selves to Him, as our true and proper worship. I invite you to come to the altar, right now, and ask the Lord to examine your heart, to call you out for the things He has against you, to repent of your sins and be forgiven…come, He stands at the door and knocks – will you answer?