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Guilty? Who, Me?

prisonIt was January of 1999 and I found myself plodding up the stairs of the county jail in Leavenworth, Kansas. The wind was gusting and I was cold outside and in. I was coming to make a pastoral call on a young man in an orange jump suit. Before Christmas, we had had a Bible Study for a dozen young people in his apartment with his girlfriend and their friends.

Now, he was on the other side of thick safety glass. “What in the world happened?” I asked him.

“There were cars parked on the street,” he answered. “A long line of them, and we thought it would be fun to break some glass.”

“How many,” I asked him.

“20, 30; I don’t know,” he said. “We smashed them baseball bats.”

I am sure my mouth hung open but I asked him, “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t understand it,” he answered. “I knew it would be trouble. Sometimes I just don’t understand the things I do.”

Sometimes I don’t understand the things I do. In my head his voice became the 7th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Turn with me if you would like to Romans 7:14-25a. Here is what it says.

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

That young man in the Leavenworth County Jail and the Apostle Paul writing to the church in Rome, were both talking about the same truth. There is a struggle going on in each of us!

Who was Paul really talking about here? There has been considerable debate among students of the Bible about this topic. It looks to be autobiographical. On the surface that seems clear. The whole passage was written in the first person; For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” There are many, many “I”s in this passage!

It only takes a few moments of thought, however, and we can recognize that while there are certainly autobiographical elements here, Paul was describing something about the human condition.

The other question is even more hotly debated. Was he talking about a person before they became a Christian or after accepting salvation? The early church fathers said this could not be about a Christian because a person “in Christ” could not have this kind of struggle with sin.

Well, they are not here to argue with me; so, I can disagree with them! For me, it seems obvious that those who are without Christ seldom struggle this much with sin. It is like asking a person who abuses alcohol if they have a drinking problem.  “No,” they’ll say. I’ve got that pretty well figured out.”

The person awash in sin does not resist sin. They do not struggle with sin; they revel in it! But the person Paul described here was aware that God’s law (or the righteous behavior that God demands) was right and good. In verse 14 Paul said that God’s law was “spiritual” but that he was “unspiritual” (literally of the flesh). Paul described a person who had been convinced (convicted) of the sin in their lives. Only the Holy Spirit can bring conviction. This was about a Christian who loved God, knew his ways were right and good and still could not be consistent in doing the right thing!

This passage is about me, a Christian who loves God, knows his ways were right and good and still cannot be consistent in doing the right thing! This passage is about me! I knew that the first time I read it when I was 14 years old. He was talking about me. I remember thinking, “if the Apostle Paul struggled with this maybe there is hope for me!”

He was talking about me and he was talking about you, too! When Paul cried out in agony, “What a wretched man I am,” you should be hearing your own voice. It should remind us of Isaiah 6:5.

5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

The more you know about God, the more you come into his presence, the greater should be your conviction in the face of his perfection. Paul asked, Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Thanks be to God!

The human being that is aware of God’s perfection is torn in two by his or her own limitations. The realization that God, by his grace, has loved us in imperfection is astounding and humbling! I am convinced that this inner struggle will continue as long as I continue to mature in Christ.

You and I cannot (by our own effort) remove the sin from our lives. As we continue on our Christian journey, some transgressions become less difficult. We may move beyond them but, sadly, there are always more. We are imperfect. Flawed. But, “Thanks be to God!” He has provided rescue through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is deliverance available. Because of Jesus’ triumph over evil, we have assurance that deliverance is there for us.

The world that we live in, has nurtured some ideas that I am sorry to say have even become common in the church. This passage can put them to rest. You may have heard it said that you must simply overcome your bad habits. You may have heard it said that human nature is essentially good. You may have heard it said that if you live a moral life; if you can just be determined to do “right” then you will be victorious.

None of this is true. What is true, is that…

… our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)

You and I are not different from that young man in the orange jump suit. We are lawbreakers, tried in God’s court of justice, found to be guilty and convicted.

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

In the cosmic court of justice, Jesus has already served our penalty and you and I have been set free!

The Pressure of Fatherhood

Picture these situations. You spend 45 minutes sweating and grunting in the backseat of a car. You struggle with straps and a belt. No! It’s not what you are thinking! When you are finished, the new car seat is installed. You are a father.

fatherhoodYou rush home from work so that you can spend three hours watching children dressed as flowers, birds and fish cavort across a stage. The poor little things have no idea how to dance and then she comes out and you are mesmerized. You are her father.

It is late at night. You are watching TV and your son comes to the top of the stairs, whining. “What do you want?” you ask. No answer. “Come down here,” you demand. He obeys and stands in front of you. “Well?” you ask and then he throws up at your feet. You are his father.

You do not even flinch as you hand over the credit card to buy another stroller and it costs more than your first car. You are a father.

You are driving down the highway, singing along with the CD and thinking how good the new car stereo sounds and then realize you just sang all the verses of “Laurie’s Got a Pig on Her Head.” You are their father.

At Christmas time you put together toys that should require an engineering degree. You remember all the batteries and you quietly throw away the parts that are left over. You are a father.

You pull up your Netflix “most watched” list and it is all animated. You are a father.

There is a crayoned picture on your refrigerator of a man with a lopsided face, hair like a Trappist monk and mismatched eyes. You are happy to be that man.

You cannot stand going to weddings because it is too soon and he is not good enough for her. But she puts her arm through yours and you start down that isle. You are her father.[1]

Being a father is a difficult job. It is a pressure packed job. Why? Because there is a role model to follow that simply cannot be avoided and the standards are set incredibly high. We read about that in this morning’s scripture.

Psalm 103:7-14. Turn to that Psalm if you would like to follow along.

PS 103:7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
PS 103:8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
PS 103:9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
PS 103:10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
PS 103:11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
PS 103:12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
PS 103:13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
PS 103:14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

The prophet Samuel called David a man after God’s own heart. In a time when God’s relationship was with a nation more than with individuals, David was unusual because of his intimate connection to the God of his fathers. David knew God well and he thought of God in terms of fatherhood.

In seven concise verses, David told his readers about the God he knew well. And he did it in terms of fatherhood! The list of Godly attributes is remarkable Compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, loving and forgiving. David said that if you thought of the greatest distance imaginable, that was how deep God’s love was. That was how far away God took his sin. David knew, because he was imperfect. David was a sinner! He was a murderer and adulterer. Yet God was forgiving.

Verses 13 and 14 say,

PS 103:13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
PS 103:14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

David said that his God knew the intimate details of his creation. Because God knew the most basic truth of David’s life, he had compassion on his creation.

Compassion. It is an extremely complex word. In Hebrew it is “rachem.” The King James translates that word in this verse as “pitieth.” Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him (Psalm 103:13 KJV).

The meaning of the word “pity” has evolved in English since the King James Version was “authorized” in 1611. In other places the word is translated “love” or to have “mercy.” In modern English, “compassion” is associated with “empathy.” In fact, it is all these things and more. The Hebrew word “rachem” implies an active desire to relieve suffering.

David wanted to describe all of these complex qualities that he understood to basic to God’s nature. The earthly concept that he thought would most closely communicate that idea was… fatherhood.

In the Judeo-Christian world, we almost universally think of God as “father.” Those who are more focused on the Trinity would say that it is much more complicated than that. But, it would safe to say that most in our religious tradition think of God as Father.

When you stop to think about it, we realize that the idea that God would have a male sexual identity is ridiculous. God is all-knowing, all-present (everywhere) and all-powerful. In other words, God is completely and absolutely perfect. Ladies, does that sound like men? We recognize that God is not really male, but the concept of a loving father helps us to understand his nature. Unless, of course, you have no concept of a “loving” father. Here is the source of a problem for Christians.

According to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 3.2 million children were abused in America in 2012! The vast majority of those by parents. 1,640 died of that abuse. With numbers like that how do we communicate a loving father to a sinful world that is experiencing so much pain? Do you see the challenge for Christian fathers? The measure of fatherhood is set at divine heights!

So, fathers, we have our work cut out for us! In our human condition we must emulate the perfect father so that the world around us can see the love of God. You may not have thought of it dads, but when you are a good father, you are showing those around you the nature of God! And it is not just in the way we deal with our own children but in all our life’s activities.

You have the opportunity today not just to show off your new Fathers’ Day necktie, but to show the compassion that The Father has for his children. The pressure is on dads! This is your opportunity and you can do it!

 

[1] Inspired by the writing of Steve Johnson, who is the father of two sons and a writer from Oak Park, Illinois.

What Should We Think?

The following is intended for Seventh Day Baptist readers since it concerns our denomination’s “Statement of Belief.” It may, however, have content of interest to others.

judgement van

People have been claiming to know a date and time for the second coming of Jesus since the first century.

Edgar Whisenant was a NASA engineer and a student of the Bible. He has been credited with writing two books. One was entitled, On Borrowed Time and the second was 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. 4.5 million copies of these books were sold across America. His contention was that Christ’s return would happen between September 11 and 13 in 1988.

Whisenant was quoted as saying, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town.” He also said, “I would stake my life on Rosh Hashana 1988.” He was so influential in some Christian circles that Trinity Broadcasting Network interrupted their programming during the late summer that year to tell people how to get ready for the rapture. On September 14, 1988, their normal programming resumed.

Whisenant, went on making 2nd coming predictions until he went to be with the Lord in 2001. He was devoted to Christ and so I am certain that he is with the Lord now, but he still does not know when Christ will return!

We have spoken of those who desire to set a date for Christ’s return before and I have pointed out that this is nothing new. Christians have been doing this since the 1st century. The temptation to “know” a date that Jesus said could not be known seems to be more than some can resist. Some desire to gain power over others by their so-called secret knowledge. This was the problem the Christian church suffered in its first few centuries and it continues today. Others are well meaning and simply want to encourage those who are need of a savior!

Today, this “date-setting” has appeared in many churches and Seventh Day Baptists have taken steps so that everyone will know what we think on the subject. Our “Statement of Beliefs” is designed to cover what we commonly agree upon and is not a creedal statement. It is intended simply to describe who Seventh Day Baptists are. The first section of the statement is about God and it is divided into sections; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Last year at Conference sessions they voted to make a change to the section entitled “Son.” It currently reads:

“We believe in God the Son, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. He gave Himself on the cross as the complete and final sacrifice for sin. As our Risen Lord, He is the mediator between God the Father and mankind.”

The change that has been through a first reading would simply add a sentence. Here is the addition as it was voted.

We believe that Jesus Christ, in keeping with His promise, will return suddenly, personally and visibly, at a time known only by the Father.

Now, as this comes to a second reading there is a push to change the word “Father” to “God.” It may seem a very small change. But, to many it is an important one. The phrase “only by the Father” is actually a scriptural quote. Jesus said in Mark 13:32, No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Those who want the change to “God” would say that the risen Christ, who has returned to the Godhead is now the same as God. Saying that only the Father knows, after the ascension, suggests that the portions of the trinity are not “one” or are not unified. The choice of one word over another could, in some people’s eyes, make a significant difference.

Perhaps, however, it obscures the point of the change. You are not God! You cannot know when Christ will return! And, you have other things to think about!

Turn with me if you will to the Book of Acts and we will “listen in” as the author (Luke) speaks to his reader(s). Acts 1:1-9.

AC 1:1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

    AC 1:6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

    AC 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    AC 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of the Word. Luke’s gospel covered Jesus’ earthly life and ministry and his Acts of the Apostles covered the work after Jesus’ resurrection. He began with the instructions that Jesus gave before his ascension. His followers were to wait for the Holy Spirit’s baptism.

But his followers still did not understand what the true purpose of Jesus’ ministry had been. They still thought he would “restore the kingdom to Israel.” It must have been frustrating for Jesus. After all he had gone through they still did not understand. They were like men standing in the dark with only one pool of light around them. They could not see outside their own circle of life’s experiences.

Then, Jesus gave them instructions that are pertinent for us!

AC 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

He told them to refocus on what was most important! It was not “times or dates.” That was God’s business. They had a task to do and would be given the power to accomplish the task. They were to be witnesses to the person of Jesus everywhere they went; even to the “ends of the earth.”

Should Christians be spending time and effort attempting to know when Jesus will return? Jesus made it obviously clear in these (his very last) instructions that “date-setting” is an incredible waste of time! You cannot know and you need not know! If followers of Jesus are to be true to the savior’s wishes, they will focus their attention on being his witnesses, not calculating his return.

What should we think about the “2nd coming?” What should we be doing about it? If Jesus’ parables are an indication, our instructions are to wait patiently and be ready. The homeowner and the thief in Matthew 24:42-44 is about being ready for the unexpected. The good and wicked servants in Matthew 24:45-51 is about continuing the work while we wait. The parable of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 concerns making ourselves ready. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 tells us to boldly use what God has given us for the growth of the kingdom.

So, no matter what carefully worded statement we agree upon, the important thing is that we fulfill the Great Commission and use the gifts God has provided to reach the world around us for Christ! Calculating dates and times cannot accomplish that, only the love of Jesus can!

 

Facing Confrontation

Around-the-world-many-believers-are-persecuted-imprisoned-even-killed-for-their-faith.-Since-Jesus-laid-down-His-life-43-million-Christians-have-become-martyrs.Today, in Khartoum, Sudan, 26-year-old Meriam Ibrahim is in prison. Shackled. Her sentence is death by hanging, but the execution has been postponed because she is pregnant. First, she will be allowed to give birth and then nurse her child before she is hanged for her “crimes.”

What “crimes” did Ibrahim commit? She has been charged with marrying a Christian and committing adultery because she bore his children. It is illegal in the Sudan for a Muslim woman to marry outside of her religion. She says she was never a Muslim, but the authorities disagree. Her husband, who is a U.S. citizen, has been attempting to intervene along with human rights organizations. The Sudanese government, however, has a history of enforcing religious laws selectively, focusing on women and ethnic minorities. Meriam Ibrahim is being asked to renounce her faith to save her life. So far, she has refused. I pray today for God’s mercy in her situation.

This is only one example of the difficulties that Christians face in many nations where government and religion are tightly connected. All over the world Christians are persecuted because of their faith. Many in the United States complain that there is a social “war” being conducted in our country against Christianity. Some voices in America speak about “persecution” because they face ridicule for their beliefs or non-beliefs.

Considering Ibrahim’s situation, clearly we should be celebrating our freedom! What is being described as a “war” is simply the secular nature of our society pushing back against a faith that they do not understand.

Whether it is real persecution or simply the inconveniences of living a life of faith, Christians should know how to respond to these pressures. We should know because the New Testament gives Jesus’ followers specific instructions on the matter.

If you would like to turn with me I will be reading from Peter’s first letter: 1st Peter 3:13-17.

1PE 3:13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Peter’s first letter has a number of central themes. Early in the letter the theme of facing confrontation is in the background. In chapter one he said that he knew that they had been suffering “grief in all kinds of trials.”

But by the third chapter Peter brought the theme to the fore. He admonished them to be respectful of each other and to “live in harmony with one another.” They were to repay evil with blessing! Then he quoted the 34th Psalm telling them to turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 3:11).

It is clear in verse 13 that if they were eager to do good they could expect good in return. The other shoe drops in verse 14. “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.”

Paul reminded the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Here, Peter warned his readers that all may not go well in the short term! But, righteous living would still bring a blessing. They should not be surprised when the world treated them badly. They should not be frightened by it either! Instead, they should prepare for it. Do not be afraid of people that oppose you, he said, but acknowledge Jesus as Christ the “Holy One” and that fact would anchor their lives. He told them to be prepared to give an answer.

The implied question is, “Why do you have hope?” Their attitude in giving the answer is directly from Jesus’ teaching. “Do this with gentleness and respect.” In that way, they could hold their heads high and no matter what anyone said, they could know that they had acted rightly. If after all of that “right” behavior they still suffered for doing good, there was no disgrace in that. There would be no sin behind the suffering and who could tell, their good behavior might stir another person’s conscience.

Now, I have already said that you and I do not really know anything about persecution. By the grace of God, we live in a place time when we have religious freedom. Our ability to follow the faith of our hearts is unhindered by anything but our own weakness. I have no way to measure our freedom but it is undoubtedly greater than any other time and place!

When you think about Meriam Ibrahim shackled in her prison cell, our ineffectiveness while in possession of freedom is actually embarrassing. What have I done with my religious freedom? Not enough!

Although we do not face persecution, you and I both know that there are times in life when we come face to face with those who do not value our faith. There are those who resent anything like “eagerness to do good.” Peter’s instruction here applies to us even in our sheltered situation!

The most common responses to a person who challenges your faith or belittles your faith are fight or flight. Do you stand up and fight or do you turn and walk away?

Fighting with someone about what you believe is wasted breath! Paul instructed the Ephesians 4:31 to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” A heated argument about the value of the love of Christ is foolishness! It simply invites the anger we are told to shun!

Perhaps it is better to walk away. If all you can do is express anger and cause hurt, then walking away may be better. One of the blessings of living in our culture is that it is possible for us to walk away. But, while walking away may lessen the damage to others, it also abandons an opportunity.

I find it interesting that on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, this scripture’s author Peter tried both of these methods of handling confrontation.

JN 18:10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.

LK 22:60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

He tried fighting and he tried turning and walking away. His instruction to believers gives us another option that perhaps Peter learned the hard way.

First, “set apart Christ as Lord.” Verses 14 and 15 are references back to Isaiah 8.

ISA 8:12 “Do not call conspiracy
everything that these people call conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
8:13 The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
8:14 and he will be a sanctuary;

Peter said, when you face confrontation, do not focus on your advisory. Instead focus on Jesus. Set apart Christ as Lord. You need to be prepared to have an answer to the question. “Why do you think Jesus is important?”

Have you thought about that in advance? Certainly the Holy Spirit will help you find the right words, but that is no reason to not prepare! Can you tell someone today what the love of Jesus has done in your life; what it will do in your life?

Finally, remember that it is Jesus that is important, not you! Peter said to treat these confrontations with “gentleness and respect.” You are an ambassador for Christ. That means you must love the person you are confronting!

I pray today that Meriam Ibrahim will not suffer the end that the Sudanese government has planned for her. But Christians who suffer for Christ have the assurance that they are blessed.

Could You Be Blind?

John 9:1-16

Satire is a very popular form of comedy in American culture. From shows like Futurama and The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, satire is everywhere in our entertainment programming. It is always meant to be funny (although it often fails dramatically) but often, satire has a subplot of social criticism.

We come by a love of satire through our Western European roots. But, its beginnings in “media” go a long way back. In 1568, Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel produced a painting entitled, The Blind Leading the Blind. Many art historians consider The Blind Leading the Blind to be one of the “masterworks of painting for its fine, accurate detail and dynamic composition.”

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel

It is the earliest surviving painting to depict the Biblical of the blind leading the blind from the Gospel of Matthew (15:14). But, the painting is also political satire! It speaks to a time when the Spanish were attempting to enforce rule over the Netherlands and suppress the rise of Protestantism. As with all satire that is based on current events, the farther away from the events you are, the more difficult it is to understand. No one is really sure if the painting was in support of Protestantism or the Catholic church.

The story at its root, however, is unmistakable. Matthew relates an episode in Jesus’ ministry when the Rabbi said something that offended the Pharisees. When his disciples asked about it he said, Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

“Blindness” was one of Jesus’ favorite themes. This morning I want to look at an example that is found in the Gospel of John. Turn with me to John 9:1-16.

JN 9:1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

JN 9:3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

JN 9:6 Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

JN 9:8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

JN 9:10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.

JN 9:11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

JN 9:12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

JN 9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

JN 9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

You should be aware that this passage follows soon after Jesus’ statement in 8:12,  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus had healed the blind previously, but this man was “blind from birth.” It prompted the disciples to ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” It seems a callous question, but reflects the Jewish belief that if a person suffered from an ailment, it must have originated with the sin of their parents or grandparents. This is based on Exodus 34:7, which says, “he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

But, Jesus was having none of it! From his viewpoint this was not a punishment but an opportunity to glorify God! His “night” was coming soon and Jesus was not going to miss this opportunity to heal bodies and minds! Jesus was certainly capable of healing this man without the mud mixture he used on his eyes. Perhaps it was an aid for the man’s faith. The blind man now had a reason to be a faithful participant in his own healing. He had to go and wash. Notice that Jesus did not even tell him that he would be healed! The walk to the Pool of Siloam was a walk of faith!

The man’s healing was so dramatic, so life-changing that people that knew him questioned if it was the same man.  “No, he only looks like him.” His change was so startling, that he had to reassure them that he was the man they knew! His testimony of the events was very simple. Just the facts! I did what Jesus said and then I could see!

Here is where the story takes a turn. The neighbors (perhaps fearing something was wrong) took the man to their leaders. What did the Pharisees notice about this event? What was important to the Pharisees? Not that the man was healed. Not that this Rabbi had incredible power. No! This Rabbi Jesus had (once again) broken the Sabbath law. Their unswerving adherence to their own understanding of Torah law brought them to one conclusion. “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” Their suspicions were confirmed. He does not understand our religion the way we do, so, therefore, God cannot be in what he does.

I do not know if you hear it, but I hear a familiar voice in this passage. Someone asked,

“How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” That voice sounds like Nicodemus to me! We have no direct evidence of that. Except that Nicodemus had already spoken up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin in John 7:50-51. When he came to Jesus he said, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him. This moment of compassionate healing gave the blind man an opportunity to express his faith. It also gave another  (perhaps Nicodemus) an opportunity to stand for Jesus.

This is one of those scripture passages that could be the foundation for many, many sermons. Luckily for you, today I am preaching just one! But, there are three lessons I want to point out.

First, Jesus asked the blind man to participate in the healing. Jesus called it the work of God;  “the work of him who sent me.” In order for God to be “displayed in his life,” Jesus asked him to walk across town with mud on his face. This was no small task for the blind man. That act of obedience bolstered his faith and gave him a message for unbelievers. Jesus can and will heal you of the “blindness” in your life! But do not surprised when he requires your participation! Take an active part in the spiritual life that Jesus has for you and you will able to testify to the love and care of God!

Secondly, when the hand of Jesus opens new spiritual eyes for you, do not be surprised if your friends and neighbors do not recognize you anymore! Under his healing hand, you have become a “new creature.” You will have work to do with which they are not familiar. You have the opportunity (while it is still day) to speak directly of the change Jesus has made in you. Do it boldly, because that is God being displayed in your life.

And third, when we become convinced that we know all the spiritual truth, there is a temptation to use our religious assumptions as a hammer! The men who were truly blind in this story were the Pharisees! They were so confident that they understood exactly what God wanted that they did not know the Son of God when they looked him in the face. As my favorite singer once said, “they forgot to remember, you might be wrong!”[i]

Using your spiritual assumptions to alienate and categorize people is a symptom of spiritual blindness. I am not saying that you cannot have certainty in your faith in Jesus Christ. What I am telling you is that we must be living lives of faith that express spiritual humility.

Participate in your salvation. Be prepared to be a new person! And live a life of spiritual humility and you will be a part of the work of God in the world.

 

[i] From the song You Might Be Wrong on an album entitled Pimps and Preachers by Paul Thorn 06/21/2010

Arguing With God

Clenched FistMany of us have seen the Hollywood movie Forrest Gump. It is the story of a man with limited intelligence but a very big heart. The movie follows the accidental experiences that bring him in contact with important people and events. We see those events from his simple, naive viewpoint.

One of the events he experiences is Hurricane Camille. He is out in the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimp fishing boat with his friend from the Vietnam War, Lieutenant Dan Taylor. Lt. Dan is in many ways Forrest Gump’s direct opposite. Gump is innocent. Lt. Dan is worldly. Gump is always lucky. Lt. Dan never is. Gump loves to run. Lt. Dan is a double leg amputee. While Forrest Gump believes in God, Lt. Dan says that he does not believe. When the two men are caught in the hurricane, Lt. Dan is lashed to the upper mast of the boat. Gump says, I was scared, but Lieutenant Dan, he was mad.”

I will not quote the scene “verbatim” because the language is pretty strong. But, Lt. Dan shakes his fist at the God he does not believe in and says, “Come on! You call this a storm? Blow! It’s time for a showdown! You and me! I’m right here! Come and get me! You’ll never sink this boat!”

As in most of the movie, things go amazingly well for Forrest Gump. They survive this confrontation with God and even become successful in the “shrimpin’ bidness.” Coming out on top is a theme of that movie, but confrontations with God are seldom successful. The experience of my life has been that when I have  (literally or figuratively) shaken my fist at God, he has used it as a “learning opportunity” for me. Those moments have been valuable for me, but they have seldom been pleasant experiences.

Mankind has been arguing with God since Adam and Eve! We all know how that turned out! We are going to look to the scripture this morning for a moment in time when the Children of Israel shook their fists at the God who brought them out of Egypt. We will take note of how it worked out for them!

Turn with me this morning to the Book of Exodus. Exodus 17:1-5.

EX 17:1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”

EX 17:3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

EX 17:4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

EX 17:5 The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

God directed Moses to lead the Children of Israel out of lives of slavery in Egypt. God led them as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He divided the water, they walked across on dry land and then as a finishing touch, God destroyed the pursuing Egyptian army by crushing them under the returning water.

Act of God upon act of God should have made it obvious that the God of their fathers was in charge of their futures! What was the first thing they did on the other side of the waters? Exodus 15:24. 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” When the water they found was bitter, God showed Moses how to fix the problem. And the people drank.

Two months later, they walked through the Desert of Sin and food was beginning to run out. When their stomachs began to grumble so did they. In Exodus 16:3, the people said to Moses, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Moses brought the concern to God and what did God do? He made it “rain down” food from heaven! Quail and Manna; everything they needed. And the people ate.

They traveled on out of the desert of sin into an area called Wadi Refayid. A wadi is a watercourse that flows with water during the rainy season but is bone dry the rest of the year. When they arrived, there was no water. There is a clear pattern in this portion of Exodus. God was teaching them to trust him! When they were thirsty, he made the water fit to drink. When they were hungry, he gave them all the food they needed.

Now, in Meribah, they were faced with thirst once again. Had they learned that God would provide? They came to Moses grumbling, quarreling, in fact demanding, “Give us water to drink!”

They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

As he had before, Moses went to God and asked for direction. God instructed him to take same staff that divided the waters to give them freedom, and strike the rock. “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” Moses named the place Meribah (which means argue or quarrel) because the people tested the Lord there.

“Is the LORD among us or not?” After everything God had done for them, when they got thirsty, they questioned whether God was even there for them! We find the result of the people’s distrust expressed in the 95th Psalm. In Psalm 95:8-11 the writer speaks with the voice of God.

PS 95:8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
PS 95:9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
PS 95:10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
PS 95:11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”

Because they refused to trust that God would care for them even though he had demonstrated it again and again, he waited for that whole generation to be buried in the sands before the people could enter the Promised Land. They were a people “whose hearts go astray.” God provided for them throughout their lives but they never received the reward.

We read these passages and we wonder about this people. How could they have been so blind to the providence of God? God took action to change their lives. He led them out of bondage, met their needs and simply asked them to be obedient. They could not do it!

We shake our heads and wonder, how could anyone be that self-absorbed? How could they only care about their stomachs and so miss the reward? You do not need to be a theologian to see where these questions are headed! If you read these Old Testament passages through the filter of the New, you will recognize that you and I have no right to shake our heads in wonder at how foolish these people were!

You may be thinking, “I don’t go around arguing with God!” But is that really true? Every time you ignore one of his precepts, every time you do what you want instead of what God instructs, you have hardened your heart as they did at Meribah!

You do not have to be Lt. Dan, shaking your fist at God to argue with him. All you have to do is trust your own wisdom (do it your own way) and you have become a grumbler. You have become a person whose heart has gone astray.

God has provided for us a savior and leader far greater than Moses in the person of Jesus. He has offered us a reward far beyond the “milk and honey” of the promised land. The next time you are tempted to put your self-interest ahead of God’s commands, I would suggest that you open that 95th Psalm and read it again.

The Psalmist said that the medicine you need for a hardening heart is worship! If you find yourself ready to argue with God, worship him instead!

Psalm 95

PS 95:1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
PS 95:2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
PS 95:3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
PS 95:4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
PS 95:5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
PS 95:6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
PS 95:7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
PS 95:8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah…

Wait! He is Near!

‘Twas the night before Christmas
when all thro’ the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while vision of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.

SaintNickThose are the first lines of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” He published it anonymously in 1823. It may be the best-known verse ever written in America, and he got it all wrong!

It was 1960. It was the “night” before Christmas. I do not remember if my sister, Linda, came into my bedroom with the idea or if I went into her room. I do not remember, but it does not matter, the blame was distributed evenly. Here was the idea. We had been in bed a long time. Therefore, it just had to be Christmas morning. Why were mom and dad making us wait? They seemed to think you should sleep in on Christmas morning! What an absurd idea!

I was five years old and Linda was nine; old enough to reason this problem out. The best thing to do was to wake mom and dad up! But it could not be done directly, that would be too harsh. We needed to wake them gently and get Christmas started!

I am pretty sure it was Linda’s idea to sing Christmas carols. We crept halfway down the carpeted stairs and sat. There was a closed glassed paned door at the bottom of the steps and their bedroom was right across the hall. We figured we needed to sing loud enough to be heard through that door. We thought we were doing something nice; doing them a favor!

Hark! the herald angels sing 
Glory to the newborn King.
Hark! the herald angels sing 
Glory to the newborn King. 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

I do not remember how many times we repeated the sounding joy. But, I do remember dad opening that door at the bottom of the stairs. He stood there in his pajamas and rubbed his tired eyes. There was a memorable look on his face. It was an odd mix of anger, sleepiness and bemusement.

“Merry Christmas, daddy!”
“What are you doing?”
“It’s Christmas morning!”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s Christmas morning, 2 AM! Go back to bed.”
“But, dad…”
“Go back to bed. You’ll have to wait a little longer.” We went back to bed and waited.

The season of Advent has arrived. It is an unusual time, perhaps unique to Christianity. It is a time for the spiritual discipline of waiting. In secular Christmas it is a time to rush, push, drive, tension, hurry, impatience, buy, buy, buy! The first day of secular the Christmas season is celebrated as, “Black Friday.” There is a warning in that!

But Christian Advent is a “counter-culture” season. It is a time for hope. Advent asks us to put ourselves into the shoes of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Advent teaches us the difficult lesson of patience. We know how this story goes, but we are asked to remember how it was for them. We cannot rush to the manger. Like the people of Israel, we must long for our savior and wait.

Our scripture this morning is from the Gospel of Luke. Luke 1:1-25.

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Elizabeth and Zechariah had been waiting and hoping for years and years. They longed for the day when they would have children. For the Jewish people, their children were not just “their future.” In a way, they were like eternal life. The Children of Israel would continue through the blessing of children. But for Elizabeth and Zechariah it seemed to be a dead end. They must have felt that their hope would never be fulfilled. Exiled in the desert of waiting, they thought they would never see the promise.

Notice that Zechariah did not turn away from God because of disappointment. Where was he? He continued his work in the temple of the Lord. In fact, he was at worship when God broke through and made him a promise. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”

With a miracle right before his eyes, Zechariah still felt the need to ask, “How can I be sure of this?” I am too old. My wife is too old. The world just does not work this way! I want a guarantee! Those are the questions that cost him his voice. God has a way for focusing our attention on his will and his way. Zechariah had his voice silenced until the promise was fulfilled. He was forced to be quiet and watch God at work.

If you sense a connection here with the story of Abraham and Sarah you are not mistaken. Abraham and Sarah’s promise was the sign of the first covenant. Zechariah and Elizabeth were seeing the beginnings of a new covenant. The Advent season is a reminder to us that we must wait for God to work his will. During these weeks, we should remember that there was a time that we were separated from him. We have been a people in need of deliverance! It is appropriate during Advent that we remember Israel’s desire for God to send his Messiah deliverer.

The Christian Advent season begins with the astounding announcement that our wait will be worthwhile; our hope is not in vain. The angel said, “Do not be afraid! Your prayer has been heard!” We serve a God that fulfills our deepest need and answers our prayers of longing.

What prayer remains unanswered in your life? What longing is seems unfulfilled? Do the obstacles seem too large? Are you afraid or in need? God has heard your prayer. When we draw near to God things begin to happen. Our lives begin to stir in what seems impossible ways! One writer has said, “From barren wombs to occupied tombs, life springs up where you would least expect it.”

Advent should teach us that God is in the business of bringing about the impossible. After lifetimes of waiting and longing, Advent is the first dawning of hope. God is at work in your life!

Wake up! Christmas is here, again!

This Is The End. No! Wait!

Why do some Christians spend so much time and effort trying to identify what is going to happen and when the end will be?

Why do some Christians spend so much time and effort trying to identify what is going to happen and when the end will be?

In 1555, an astrologer named Nostradamus published a book filled with prophecy. To this day, his followers believe that he predicted everything from the French Revolution to the attacks of September 11th. Nostradamus said that the world will end in 3786 or 3787. I am not too worried, and not just because I will be 1,831 years old then! I am not worried because end-times predictors have a terrible, terrible track record.

Baptist preacher William Miller said that the end would be 1844. That year came and went, but the world did not. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their roots in the Millerite movement. They have predicted the world’s end in 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975. The world did not end on any of those dates.

Jim Jones claimed the world would end on July 15, 1967. It did not. But, on November 18, 1978, he directed his followers to commit one of the largest murder-suicide events in modern history. On that day, 918 people died, including 276 murdered children.

The Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, believed that they were living in the final days. Their leader David Koresh claimed, “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ.” Jesus was never wanted on weapons charges, but Koresh was. The Davidian movement went up in flames. It was not the end of the world, but four federal agents, David Koresh and 81 of his followers died.

In 1997, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, convinced members of the Heaven’s Gate group that the only way to avoid earth’s demise was to be rescued by a unidentified flying object. Their evacuation plan killed 39 people who committed suicide wearing arm patches that read, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They thought they would be elevated to a new level, but they were not.

Harold Camping, a radio evangelist and prophet said that the second coming of Christ would be on October 21, 2011. He said the same thing about May 21, 2011 and before that a date in 1994. All of those dates, he predicted would be the end of the world. They were not.

December 21, 2012 was the end of the world, according to those who put their faith in the stone tablet calendars of the ancient Mayan civilization. It was not.

And so, here we are. Why are people so enamored with the idea of predicting the end of the world? Why is it that Christ’s return is at the center of most of these disastrous events?

Perhaps we should look at what Jesus said about the subject. Turn with me to Luke 21:5-19.

    5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

    7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

    8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, `I am he,’ and, `The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

    10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

    12 “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 This will result in your being witnesses to them. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 All men will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By standing firm you will gain life.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Jesus and his disciples were in the courtyard of the temple. The disciples were marveling at the monolithic construction and the wealth that was on display. Jesus’ comment was that this would be totally destroyed.

The idea was nearly inconceivable. The courtyard in Herod’s time was bigger than 20 football fields. The mountaintop had been flattened with huge stones to build it up; stones the size of tractor trailer trucks weighing from 100 tons to as much as 628 tons. The temple itself was about the equivalent of a modern 10 story building. It dominated Jerusalem’s “skyline.” The idea of its physical destruction was absurd!

The disciples asked for a sign. They do not seem to ask out of disbelief, but more out of  a need to understand this better. Jesus’ response was remarkable. Instead of telling them what to watch for as a sign of the end of the age, he told them what they should expect their lives to be like in the days ahead. His predictions are not directly connected to the end of the age. Instead they are a warning about what it will be like to be a follower of Jesus in the days and years ahead.

Look at his warnings. The first is, “do not let yourself be tricked by false leaders.” Jesus described them as people who would announce themselves claim authority and predict the end of time. Jesus told them not to follow them. Then he told them not to be concerned about news of war and revolution. Those events were bound to happen. But they were signs of the imminent return of Christ! “…the end will not come right away.”

In verse 10, Jesus lists events that will happen in general terms; wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences; frightening events that they would view as signs. These events had happened in the past, they happened in Jesus’ lifetime and now he told them they would happen in the future.

But is that what Jesus wanted them to be prepared for? No! What they should be concerned about was standing firm with their faith in Jesus Christ. They were going to face persecution, criminal trials and prison because of their faith in Jesus. He promised to be with them. Jesus told them that it would divide their families and eventually some of them would die because they believed in him. But they should not fear physical death because “by standing firm you will gain life.” Jesus warnings did not focus on watching for the end. Instead, they focused on standing firm in their faith in Jesus.

In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus made it clear that no one knew when his return would be. No one when the end would come, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36b). All of his parables in those chapters deal with not knowing when the master will return, but being ready anyway.

So why do some Christians spend so much time and effort trying to identify what is going to happen and when the end will be? After three failed attempts at pinpointing the day of Christ’s return, radio preacher Harold Camping finally apologized and admitted that his attempts had been sin! He said, “We humbly recognize that God may not tell his people the date when Christ will return, any more than he tells anyone the date they will die physically.”

Why would an attempt to predict the end be a sin? Well frankly, because it may show that instead of putting your faith in God and the grace that gave us Jesus, you are attempting to take control. If you are focused on living for Jesus and sharing his love with others why would you need to predict the date and time of the end of the world?

Our quick review of some famous prophecy disasters makes it obvious that the announcement of the end is often an opportunity for a leader to gain notoriety and to exercise control over others.

In Matthew 20:25-26, Jesus described spiritual authority in a way that Jim Jones or David Koresh did not recognize.

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…

Instead of worrying about future dates and times, we should be working for Jesus today. Take his advice. Follow his direction. Remember his instruction to his followers. Do not be fooled by confident false leaders. Do not be frightened by astounding events. Do not be discouraged by persecution and rejection. Instead, stand firm in your faith and remind the world of the love of Jesus. In that way, the world will know that you belong to him and you can let God do with this world whatever is pleasing to him.

Appropriate Ambition

1-timothy-6-6-682x1024When you are raising children, you have to make decisions constantly; decisions about what is good for them and what is not. There are so many of them that sometimes you do not seem to have time to think about them. So, you pick your battles! Sometimes you allow things to happen and if you stopped to think about it I think you would have no idea why! I am not talking about important matters. For those, you have to be careful. I am talking about things that are probably harmless.

Let me give you an example. The Tooth Fairy. We always did the Tooth Fairy “thing” with our kids. I never gave it a moments’ thought. We told the kids that when they lost a tooth, they could put it under their pillows and while they were sleeping, a mysterious ethereal being would slip undetected through the house, invade their undefended personal space and slip money under the pillow in exchange for the tooth.

What were we thinking? It is a wonder they were not all sleep deprived! We told them that the reward for allowing their safety to be compromised was cash! I do not want to imply that Aaron was not smart, but for some reason the cost for this charade got higher and higher with each child!

I heard a story about a little girl whose name was Rachel. Every time Rachel lost a tooth, the Tooth Fairy brought her two dollars. It seemed like a good deal! Then one day Rachel stayed over at a friend’s house and the friend happened to lose a tooth. The next morning there was a $10 bill under the friend’s pillow. Stunned, Rachel turned to her friend’s mother and said, “Mrs. Kraft, would you do me a big favor? Would you please call my mom and tell her which Tooth Fairy you use?”

All of a sudden, two dollars was not enough. We cannot blame a mythical creature because this is an example of human nature. God has blessed us with all that we need, but when we see someone else that has more, we are no longer happy with what we have.

Our scripture this morning is from 1st Timothy 6:3-10 and 17-18 (NIV). Paul was in the throws of dealing with an issue that followed him wherever he planted new Christian churches.

1st Timothy 6:3-10, and then 17-18.

3 If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Then in 17 and 18 he said this.

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Paul’s letters to Timothy were his personal instructions and advice for a young man that he cared very much about; a young man in a leadership role in the fledgling Christian churches. Paul had seen all kinds of resistance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, from personal jealousy to physical violence. The problem that he fought most often concerned people who wanted to teach a different message and call it the Gospel. It is a problem that has never been solved.

In this passage, Paul warned Timothy to watch for these false teachers and gave him some identifying marks to look for. These people were conceited. They seemed to enjoy controversy and arguments. They left behind themselves envy, strife, malicious talk, suspicion and constant disagreements.

In verse five, he said that these men thought their form of godliness would bring them financial success. This may seem strange to us. There is a strong tradition in Protestant churches of spiritual leaders leading financially humble lives. That is not true in all Christian churches and it is certainly not true in the “health and wellness” evangelical churches of the last 20 years. It was also not true of the spiritual leaders of the Jewish faith in Paul’s day.

The Jews believed that wealth was sign that God had blessed you. Jesus directly challenged that idea when he said in Mark 10:25. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Paul told Timothy to be content with what he had. All you really need, he told him, are the basics; food and clothing. Paul said there was a danger in wanting more. He said that people get themselves into trouble all the time by struggling to get rich. Verse 10 is one of those commonly misquoted scriptures. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. It is not “money is the root of all evil,” as is so often quoted. The love of money leads to evil and grief. You would have to be blind to the world around you not to see that as the truth.

In verses 17 and 18, Paul told Timothy to teach his people to put their hope in God who provides us with everything. If they wanted to be rich, it should be in good deeds. They should be generous and quick to share what they had.

There are a number of places where Paul’s teaching about faithful Christian living comes into direct conflict with conventional thinking in this American culture. Most Americans think self-reliance is an important character trait. Those same people probably think that a “healthy” dose of ambition is a good thing.

I went to a career councilor once and after an extensive battery of personality tests, he told me that he was concerned that I was not “ambitious!” His presumption was that if you were not straining to “get ahead” in life, you were probably lazy! The idea that a person could be “content” never even entered his mind! You see, his definition of “ambition” focused on a better job, more pay, a bigger house and a new car. That was his definition of success.

If the desires that drive your life are those material things, you may indeed get them. But, that is all you will get. There is so much more. Remember, anything that turns you away from God, is sin. If you love money, you cannot love God. If you are focused on getting ahead, you are in danger of leaving God behind.

Do not be confused about what I am saying. It is not a sin to think you need a raise or a better job. Christian living is about having your priorities straight. What is most important to you?

The Apostle Paul had been the pinnacle of success in his day and culture. Then, Jesus changed his priorities. Listen to what he said to the Philippians and ask yourself, what is important in my life?

Here is what he said in Philippians 3:7-8 and 14.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…

14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

That is an appropriate ambition!

Is It Just Spiritual Window-dressing?

rms-queen-mary-timothy-buloneIn 1936, the Cunard Line launched what was then the largest passenger ship in the world. At 83,243 gross tons, she was the largest ship and the fastest ship traveling back and forth from Southampton to New York at a recording setting speed of 31 knots. During World War II, the ship was converted to a troop carrier and at the close of the war it returned to passenger service.

In the spring of 1956, the Smith family made a foggy voyage from Southampton, England to New York aboard the Queen Mary, so the ship has a place in my family history. The ship was retired in 1967 and has been a floating tourist attraction in Long Beach, California ever since.

When the ship was being refurbished for its new role in Long Beach, they needed to remove its smokestacks to complete the work. They were to be repainted and put back in place. The smokestacks were 36 feet long and 23 feet wide. The front stack was 70 feet tall and they went down in size to the rear which was 62 feet tall.

When they were removing them, they discovered that the nearly inch thick steel of the smokestacks had corroded on the inside very badly. Thirty layers of paint on the outside was (in some places) all that was holding them up. A beautify exterior covered a crumbling interior. External appearance was hiding the decaying internal reality!

This morning we will be looking at the book of Isaiah. The 58th chapter tells us that Isaiah was asked to point out the same problem to the people of his day. No, you will not find cruise ships in Isaiah! But you will find a warning about trying to cover a decaying spiritual life with a coat of ritualistic paint! Turn with me to Isaiah 58 I hope you will forgive me for reading all of it, but it is important that you hear the full context.

Here God’s message to Israel through the prophet Isaiah.

1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 `Why have we fasted,’ they say,
`and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Pity the prophet of God that had to bring “bad” news to the people. The Children of Israel often heard from prophets. From Obadiah in 840 BC to Malachi in 420 BC, Israel and Judah heard a continuing series of warnings of judgment and opportunities for mercy. Often, they were “called out” for blatant disobedience and sin. In this case, however, Isaiah exposed the decay of blackening hearts.

The people were attempting to put a pious paint job over the rot, but God would not be mocked and could not be fooled. He said,

They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
`Why have we fasted,’ they say,
`and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

On the outside, they looked like they were seeking God. They looked religious! How were they doing that? How were they looking religious? They were going through the religious motions.

Isaiah’s message speaks of two specific practices that I am certain the people thought were their spiritual responsibility. They thought they were meeting that responsibility. But, God said, “Who are you kidding?”

The first of the two was a day of fasting. Fasting was an important part of the Jewish faith. The most important fast day was the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur). It was the day that the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, once each year to seek forgiveness for the sins of the people. A day of fasting was an important day on the Jewish calendar.

But these people were only going through the motions. The day that was supposed to be focused on their relationship with God was instead marred by strife and even violence. Isaiah told them that God knew that their displays of humility were only for show because of their actions on the following days!

They finished fasting and went back to being greedy, intolerant, malicious bullies! God wanted worship that led to lives of justice sincerity and generosity. If they would worship with sincerity, he told them he would rebuild their lives and their nation.

First was his concern about their fasting, but second seems to have been a concern about the Sabbath. They treated the day that God had made holy as if it was any other. They went where they wanted, did and said as they pleased. God instructed Isaiah to tell them that the “Lord’s holy day” should be honored and full of delight. If they would do that, he would,

cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The Children of Israel went through the motions without dealing with the real issues. When they thought God was unresponsive, they wondered what is wrong with God?

Have you ever caught yourself doing that?  “God, things aren’t going my way. Why aren’t you blessing me? You said you would!” When you leave this place, has the time you have spent here mean anything? Acts of worship that have no effect on your daily life are simply empty acts. They are just another coat of pretty paint on the rusting, rotting structure of your life!

The word “integrity” has two meanings in English. It means being honest and having strong moral principles. But, it also means being “whole and undivided.” You see, God wants spiritual integrity from us. You cannot be one person at church and a different person during the week! God desires for us to live lives that are a great deal more than putting on religious appearances. It is more than just going to church talking Christian jargon or being politically correct.

Spiritual integrity is when our personal relationship with Jesus expresses itself in compassion for those who are in need around us; spiritual and physical need. When your life outside church matches your life inside of church, you have spiritual integrity.

14 then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and (he) I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

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