Category: The Word

Wake up Church!

Whenever Special Agents Tony DiNozzo and Tim McGee arrogantly think they’ve got it all together, but are heading down a wrong path, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the patriarchal leader of the NCIS team gives them a gentle swat on the back of the neck to get their attention and then points them in the right direction for solving the case.  This might be just a cute antic adopted by the screen writers for the hit TV series, but it’s not far from what God often does to get His people’s attention and back on track.  And in this first few weeks of the Lenten/Easter season, I’ve gotten a few red marks on my own neck.  And this weekend is a perfect example. 

It began Saturday morning as I attended our weekly men’s prayer meeting.  Pastor D, who had a medical procedure earlier in the week, had asked one of our group, a Messianic Jew to teach a lesson on some of the Hebrew traditions, festivals and prophesies associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection.   As I listened and read through the multiple scriptures referenced, I couldn’t help but marvel at how God’s original “chosen” people could be so blind to all the signs God left them – even in their annual Passover Seder celebrations.  Yet, these events and scriptural readings had become mere rituals to them, and they failed to see what so “obviously” pointed to their Messiah.  How could they miss it?  As I drove home that morning the Lord figuratively swatted the back of my neck, pointing out my arrogance and pride.  He first highlighted that these rituals were all God-inspired, intended to serve as signs and shadows of what was to come.  Then He showed me that without the Holy Spirit, I too would have missed it.

You’d think I would have learned my lesson; but like DiNozzo and McGee, my need for further chastisement was on the horizon.  Later that afternoon I decided to check out FaceBook, which I hadn’t been on in a couple days.  Several of my friends are still faithful members of the denominational church that I was raised in.  There were a number of FB postings about their participation in various rituals, such as attending special weekday services, fasting and abstaining from eating meat on certain days.  I found myself thanking God that I had been “set free” from all these “traditions of men” to operate within His grace.  Then I felt the Lord’s swat on the back of my neck again.  The Lord began to point out that what I called “traditions of men” were originally inspired by Himself – to get men to focus on Him this time of year.  He reminded me that John the Baptist fasted in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days before He set out on His three years of ministry.  Just because men had turned these into rituals and had drifted away from their original sacred purpose, didn’t make them any less important in His eyes.  That still small voice asked me, “What are you doing this season to acknowledge the sacrifice I made for you?”  And my honest answer had to be, “Not much.”

Then I had a third wake-up slap Sunday morning.  A few days earlier I had been reading chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation.  Although Jesus had pointed out both the good traits and the faults of the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia, in my personal study, I had focused only on their weaknesses.  Some had left their first love (Jesus) and disconnected even from the love of other people.  Others were tolerating erroneous teaching, listening to false prophets, and refusing to condemn immorality in their midst, thereby encouraging it to continue and spread.  And one church which Jesus called “lukewarm” in their relationship with God, He even warned that if they didn’t change He would vomit them out of His mouth.

As I had read these chapters, I remember thanking God that my local church didn’t fall into any of these terrible categories.  However, as I look back on it now, I probably was not much different than the Pharisee described in Luke 18 that Jesus criticized for praying: “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  It was like the Lord was preparing me for the Pastor’s message– another of the Lord’s slaps on the back of my neck. 

Interestingly, Pastor J began his teaching by describing a painting of Jesus that nearly every Christian is familiar with, called Christ at Heart’s Door, painted by Warner Sallman sixty years ago. The painting was influenced by Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  [See http://www.warnersallman.com/collection/images/christ-at-hearts-door  for more information.] 

To be honest, I had never previously connected the Revelation 3:20 verse with the warnings given to the seven churches, and thought of it as applicable to the unsaved – and the apostate churches of the world.  It’s amazing, when someone points out truth, how “obvious” it becomes, and you wonder “How did I ever miss that before?”  And that’s the case with this past Sunday’s message.  Jesus’ assessments of Christian’s attitudes and behaviors and His warnings were directed not only to the leaders and members of the seven Asian churches of the apostle John’s time, Ephesus, Smyrne, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, but maybe even more so to the churches of the current Western world, and America in particular. 

The American Christian Church needs to hear and take these five godly directions to heart, both corporately and as individuals:

First, set aside all pride and arrogance – for we will only go as far in spiritual knowledge and grace as we allow the Holy Spirit to take us.

Second, always be on our toes doctrinally – the enemy is a deceiver and will do everything he can to blind us and distract us and get us chasing after man-made rituals, and away from God.

Third, recognize that the Holy Scripture, not culture defines morality – God is always a majority of One – we don’t need to take a vote (either of the populace or of the judiciary) to know what’s right and what’s wrong.

Fourth, watch for slippage – a man didn’t become a bank robber over-night – he likely started stealing change out of his mom’s purse, or taking his employer’s paper and pens home with him.  Neither does a Church or an individual Christian turn away from the total Word of God in a single day – but one verse of scripture that they find uncomfortable at a time.

Fifth, Church – wake up, and let Jesus back in!!

Un-Necessary Sins

As a general rule, my pastor announces a few weeks in advance what his next series of teachings will be.  Then he has bookmarker-sized announcements prepared for the congregation to hand out to friends or leave at restaurants or other public places, to attract newcomers to hear the message.  His series always have interesting and sometimes controversial titles, and the one that’s due to begin the first weekend in March is no different, “Necessary Sins.”

 I’m always most anxious to hear that first message in a series, to see the direction God is going to take Pastor with the subject.  What’s different is that this week, I felt a leading to talk about the same subject in my blog, and the primary scriptural text to which I was directed was one that I’ve often considered an unusual Old Testament story.

The 1 Kings 13 episode begins about a year after King Solomon’s death.  The Kingdom of Israel has been split apart, with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining faithful to Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  The remaining tribes have chosen Jeroboam, the son of one of Solomon’s former servants, to be their king.  God allowed the rending of the kingdom to happen because Solomon, in his latter years had begun to worship the false gods of his many foreign wives.  But Jeroboam was no better than Solomon, for he too worshipped false gods and built altars throughout the country-side, including one at Bethel.  This was especially blasphemous because it was the site where God had made covenants with His people, first with Abraham, and later with Jacob.

The “unusual” 1 Kings 13 story began at the site of the altar Jeroboam had built in Bethel.  Jeroboam, by this time had even made himself a priest and was offering sacrifices – a total abomination to God’s commands.  God sent an unnamed prophet, only described as “a man of God from Judah” to cry out against the altar and declare: “Behold, a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men’s bones shall be burned on you.”  And he prophesied that the proof of the truth of this saying would be that “the altar shall split apart, and the ashes on it shall be poured out.”

When Jeroboam reached out to order the prophet’s arrest, his hand became withered, the altar split apart and the ashes were poured out.  Jeroboam pleaded with the prophet to pray to God for his hand’s restoration, and he did.  Jeroboam then asked the prophet to come home with him, so he could get some rest, food, drink and a reward – but the prophet’s response was clear: “If you were to give me half your house, I would not go in with you; nor would I eat bread nor drink water in this place.  For so it was commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘You shall not eat bread, nor drink water, nor return by the same way you came.’”  And he walked away from Jeroboam and headed toward Judah.

And that’s when the story took an unusual turn.  Another prophet only described as “an old prophet who dwelt in Bethel” heard about this and hurried after the prophet from Judah.  He found the man “sitting under an oak tree.”  He made the same offer Jeroboam had made, to come home with him and get refreshed.  The prophet from Judah responded as he did to Jeroboam, saying “I have been told by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall not eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by going the way you came.’”  At that point, the old prophet tells him a lie: “I too am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water.’”   And the man returned with him to his home.

While they were eating and drinking, God spoke through the old prophet who had told the lie, telling the man from Judah that because he had been disobedient, he would never reach his home alive.  On his return journey he was in fact attacked by a lion and killed.  When the old prophet heard about it, he fetched the man’s body and buried it in his own tomb.

The story leaves many questions unanswered:

Why didn’t God stopped the old prophet from finding the man from Judah?

Didn’t the prophet from Judah deserve some leniency from God? Isn’t that what mercy is all about? After all, he was one who heard the voice of God and obediently delivered a difficult message.

Why did the old prophet lie about hearing from an angel of God?

And after lying, why did God continue to use this evil man, first to tell the man from Judah he was going to die, then later to retrieve and bury the man’s body?  Why didn’t God take the old prophet’s life?

How un-necessary this man’s death was.  But he brought it on himself.  I’m sure the prophet from Judah was tired from his long journey, and he had to have been hungry and thirsty.  But God had specifically told him to neither rest nor eat or drink in this land that had been made unclean by the idolatrous acts of Jeroboam.  The fact that he was found sitting under an oak tree, instead of getting out of the unclean land immediately indicates he was looking for an excuse to rest up and refresh himself before he headed back home.  And the old prophet’s story about hearing from an angel provided that excuse.  Even if the other man had indeed heard from an angel, the prophet from Judah had already heard from God directly – there was no reason to put an angel’s message above God’s.

One of the apostle Paul’s favorite analogies was of a runner in a long distance race.  He constantly reminded both his young helpers and the members of the various churches he founded to keep their eyes on the prize, and that it was only obtainable if they finished the race.  The prophet from Judah in our story started the race well – but he stopped to rest too soon.  None of us is immune from making a similar mistake – and stopping too soon.  It’s only human to look for an excuse to avoid the difficult things we’re sometimes expected to do.  But as Christians, we’re called to operate above what’s “only human.”

Paul used another analogy, that of a soldier preparing for battle, when he wrote to his converts in Ephesus. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”  In other words, when you think you’ve done all you can do, just keep on doing.  The presence of God with us will enable us to complete what seems like an impossible (in the natural) task.  And for those who are called to special ministry, whether that be as a teacher, an evangelist, a pastor or a prophet, God’s expectations are much higher than for just the average “Joe Christian.”  But then His grace is also much greater, to enable those expectations.

Searching for Grace

I thought I understood grace.  After all, I’ve been a Christian almost 32 years.  And I’ve been a recipient of God’s grace all my life.  But try to explain a subject to someone; try to prepare a teaching on it; try to write an essay about it; that’s when you discover how little you really understand about a gift of God.  And that’s where I found myself this week.  I was in the midst of writing my next book, In Pursuit of God, and I felt led to insert a chapter on “The Transformative Power of Grace,” when I discovered how little I understood about grace.

 What’s more, as I began my research, I further discovered how little most Christians know about grace – and those who claim they understand it and who have written lengthy messages and teachings on the subject are themselves “all over the map” in defining it.  Likewise, though nearly every denominational and non-denominational Christian church recognizes that a person is saved by God’s grace, that’s about where the agreement on the doctrine of grace ends.

 Searching the Scriptures

 So I went back to where I should have begun in the first place – to the Holy Scriptures.  At the risk of getting too technical and losing the interest of a lot of my readers, I nevertheless think it’s important to look at the Hebrew and Greek words that the Bible writers use, when they talk about grace.  In the Old Testament there is one basic Hebrew word which has been translated “grace,” and that word is chen.  The word literally means favor.  Its root word is chanan [grace, favor, goodwill, kindness, gracious, pleasant, to be favorably inclined, to pity, to be compassionate, to make acceptable].  Strongs Concordance even indicates it implies bending or stooping in kindness to another as a superior to an inferior.

Most theologians believe the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the word most frequently used for “grace” is charis, which has the idea of graciousness in manner or action.  It comes from a root word chairo, to be cheerful or happy.  When used in reference to God, it is the benevolent action of Him stooping down to us in His kindness to reach us in our need, and convey upon us a benefit.  Most Christians are familiar with the definition of God’s grace as “unmerited favor;” but it is more than an attitude of favor or mercy.  His mercy is an expression of His compassion toward us; but His grace is an extension of benevolence translated into action that releases His enabling power into our lives.

I’m going to stop here, but a good web site to further your understanding of these technical interpretations of the Hebrew and Greek words for grace is http://www.bible-researcher.com/grace.html.  If you do explore this further, you’ll find that the term “grace” is not always used in the same sense in Scripture, but has a variety of meanings.  Sometimes it denotes the kindness of our Lord as He bestows His gifts upon individuals; at other times the word is expressive of the emotion awakened in the heart of the recipient of such favor, and thus acquires the meaning “gratitude” or “thankfulness.”   In most of the New Testament passages, however, it signifies the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, and involves the active communication of divine blessings by the in-working of the Holy Spirit.

God is manifested throughout the Old and New Testaments as a God of love and mercy.  When God grants His grace, it likewise is rooted in and flows from His love. Whenever He extends mercy and forgiveness, favor and blessing, kindness and forbearance, it is by His grace.

Grace before the day of Pentecost

Although the prophets of old spoke of the coming grace, they did not fully understand it.  The apostle Peter wrote that “grace” remained a mystery to the prophets, and even to the angels, but it has now been revealed to the church.  “… the prophets who have prophesied of the grace which should come to you, have diligently searched out and intently inquired, searching into what way, and what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them was indicating, and testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Christ, and those glories which would follow; to whom it was revealed, that not for themselves, but to us, they were ministering these things, which now have been announced to you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven, into which things the angels are desiring to look.”   1 Peter 1:10-12, AT

The Scriptures reveal that only a few in Old Testament times received God’s Holy Spirit and were granted the grace of God unto eternal salvation.  Nevertheless, God’s blessing and grace was extended bountifully in the physical realm for those who loved God and kept His commandments. And mercy and forgiveness was extended to all who repented from the heart.

Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord….Noah was a just man and perfect [spiritually mature] in his generations.  Noah walked with God.  Gen 6:8-9

The apostle James makes it clear that Abraham’s calling and God’s promise that He would make him a great nation, through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed, were all acts of God’s grace.  “And the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness and he was called the friend of God.”  James 2:23  God knew Abraham, and Abraham knew God! That is what grace is all about! We must come to know God—His love, His grace, His goodness, and His mercy.

Lot found grace in the sight of the Lord, Who granted his request and delayed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah until Lot and his daughters had safely entered the city of Zoar.  And Lot said unto them, ‘Oh, not so, my Lord: behold now, Your servant has found favor [grace] in Your sight, and You have magnified your mercy, which You have showed unto me in saving my life.  Gen. 19:17-20   Moreover, God would have delivered Lot’s entire family from destruction if they had not rejected His grace.  Rejecting the grace of God, Lot’s sons-in-law (and Lot’s married daughters) perished because they refused to believe Lot and treated the warning from God lightly and remained in Sodom.  Lot’s wife also rejected the grace of God through disbelief and disobedience.

When Moses pleaded with God to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land, the Lord God revealed Himself as a God of mercy and grace.  And Moses said unto the Lord, “See, You say unto me, ‘Bring up this people’….Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’  Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You, that I may find grace in Your sight: and consider that this nation is Your people….For wherein shall it be known here that I and Your people have found grace in Your sight?”  And the Lord said unto Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have spoken: for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.”   Ex.33:12-16

The Old Testament is a history of those who sought God with all their hearts, and received God’s grace and blessing, as opposed to those who rejected God’s grace and blessing, and heaped to themselves punishment and wrath for their grievous sins.  God extended His grace freely to individuals and nations who humbly sought His favor. God granted His grace to Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the children of Israel, the Ninevites, David, and even kings Ahab and Manasseh when they repented of their wickedness. The Scriptures also record God’s grace and blessings to those women who sought His favor, including Abraham’s wife Sarah, Ruth the Moabitess, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel.

However, the grace and mercy which God granted during Old Testament times was in most cases limited to physical deliverance and material blessings.

When we learn to live God’s way, we receive His grace and favor in all that we set our hands to do.  The book of Proverbs gives us understanding of God’s grace under the Old Covenant as well as insight into the grace that He offers under the New Covenant.  My son, forget not my law; but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to you. Let not mercy and truth forsake you: bind them about your neck: write them upon the table of your heart: so shall you find favor [grace] and good understanding in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart: and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”  Proverbs 3:1-6

The Psalms are filled with wonderful descriptions of God’s love, mercy and grace, and God’s acceptance of those who truly repent and humble themselves before Him.  Psalm 86 is a prayer of David which illustrates God’s bountiful grace and forgiveness toward those who repent of their sins: “Bow down Your ear O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul; for I am holy; O You my God, save Your servant who trusts in You. Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto You daily.  Rejoice the soul of Your servant: for unto You, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon you.  Give ear, O Lord, unto my prayer, and attend to the voice of my supplications.  In the day of my trouble I will call upon You: for You will answer me… For You are great, and do wondrous things: You are God alone. Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name. I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart: and I will glorify Your name forevermore.  For great is Your mercy toward me….But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.  O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me…”

See http://www.cbcg.org/series/grace/graceofGod_OT.htm  for many more Old Testament examples of God’s grace in action.

It is in the New Testament that we get a complete picture of God’s grace

God gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5: 5), but resists the proud  (Proverbs 3:34). True humility is acknowledging and recognizing God’s work in and through you.  It is being able to see yourself from God’s perspective of who you are and then acknowledging His grace within you, developing your personal abilities to live and love as followers of and believers in Jesus Christ!

Grace justifies (Titus 3: 7), is given freely (Romans 3:24), gives humility & faith for salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9), glorifies God (Ephesians 1: 6), and says Jesus did it all for us (Galatians 5: 4).

Grace is God’s enabling power, through Jesus (John 1:16, 17); is able to build us up in Him (Acts 20:32); and enables us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:13-16), avoiding ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2:11-12); allowing us to become partakers of His strength, His presence and His nature (2 Peter 1:2-10).

Grace gives us access to the unlimited resources of God and enables us to do “an abundance for every good work,” (2 Corinthians 9: 8), and gives us special access to the throne of God in time of need  (Hebrews 4:16).

Ministry gifts are all based on grace.  (Ephesians 4:7; Hebrews 12:28, 29)

Grace frees from both sin and religion.  It is offensive to religious sensibilities and it threatens human pride.  Paul preached grace so strongly that his critics accused him of promoting or being soft on sin n reaction, some think preaching the “law,” or holiness, or hard messages about sin, is the antidote to not “going too far with grace.”  That is nonsense.

But what about false converts the former ask?  That’s another conversation. There is only one answer for sin, one answer for victory: seeing, knowing, and experiencing the grace that is in Jesus Christ.  Grace is much more than “unmerited favor.”  Being “under grace” is to participate and share in the overflow of the covenant life, love, and power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is also a transformative and empowered state of being.

In contrast, some think grace is a “get out of jail free” card that means you can do anything you want.  That is likewise nonsense.  When grace is usually preached in this case, the elements of empowerment and sharing in the life of the covenantal Godhead are normally left out in preference to forgiveness, i.e. acquittal of that person’s sin.   Sure, they’re acquitted; but they’ve also been put into the very life, love, and power that abides at the center of the universe and holds this universe together.

Grace is a transformative power, not merely a judicial decree of innocence

You are not merely an acquitted criminal, trying to live life like a parolee.  You used to be a relationally alienated rebel, and now, you have been made a dear son.  Live like who you really are, a new creation.  Live so radically in love with God and humanity that you would no more want to sin than you would want to poke out your own eyes.  It is in the power of grace, that assurance of father-son love, where I live, rest, abide and find my being . . . that I am free. There is no room for nonsense in that and no room for indifferent attitudes toward sin. Rather, it is the very atmosphere and empowerment necessary to overcome sin.

Grace is power from God that makes good things happen in us and for us

In his second letter to the Thessalonians (chapter 1), Paul said that we fulfill our resolves for good “by his power…. according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The power that actually works in our lives to make Christ-exalting obedience possible is an extension of the grace of God.

Grace includes everything falling within the framework of Christian life.  Creation, redemption (what Christ did for us), and salvation (what Christ gained for us) are all grace.  Through the incarnation of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, grace refers to the act of God’s giving His self to us, and thus transforming us by redemption into the life of God.

Grace works in us to forgive, heal and elevate us. Grace is the daily fruit of the fact that God first loves us by giving His self to us, and transforming us from within.

Grace does not depend on our claim or merit in order to receive it. There is nothing at all I can do in order to attain this gift.  Nor is there something I can do to lose this gift.  Grace has been already “sealed” within me.

Grace is what transforms new (and sometimes “clueless”) Christians into ministers of his Word. The experience is simultaneously joyful and humbling

One need only look to the apostle Paul.  What happened on the road to Damascus changed Paul’s life forever.  His Pharisaical journey was interrupted abruptly and he was knocked off his mount.  The voice cried out to him saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” From that occurrence, Paul worked diligently for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles.  It is also the basis of his statement to the Corinthians that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, just as were the Twelve, because He saw the Resurrected Christ in His Heavenly Glory.

Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 15, this was so, not because he was so holy or good; on the contrary, he persecuted the Church of God, severely.  But now by the Grace and transformative power of God, he says, “I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me was not in vain.”  Even with a little boasting, which really seems to fit his nature, Paul says, “I worked harder than any of them,” still he confesses, “it was not I, but the grace of God that is in me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”  Paul knew that he had worked hard and accomplished much for the Kingdom of God, but only because God had poured His abundant kindness, mercy, and grace upon him.  He considered his conversion from “persecutor” to “Apostle to the Gentiles” to be a free and wholly undeserved gift from God, for it led not to passivity, but prompted his hard work in the promotion and spread of the Gospel of His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Then there were James and John.  Through their mother’s intervention, they asked Jesus for the right to sit on either side of His throne.  Jesus freed them from their illusions of grandeur, telling them they had to be prepared to suffer insults, persecutions, even death.  These young men’s presumptive attitude upset the other apostles, but it didn’t faze Jesus.  And the Bible doesn’t conceal their pettiness – so we would be able to contrast their former weakness with what they became later in life by the power of the grace that transformed them.  Once they received the strength of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they changed, and were able to conquer human weakness. This same John who approached Christ with the petition, gave precedence always to Saint Peter.  His brother James became so zealous for God that he gave up all earthly interests and became the first of the apostles to be martyred.

Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5 all discuss the events surrounding Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi (also known as Matthew) to be an apostle.  Matthew subsequently hosted a dinner party in Jesus’ honor, attended by several of his friends that caused an uproar among the religious leaders.

The story demonstrates several aspects of grace in these sinners’ lives.  It also contrasts those who are offered and receive grace with those who fail to receive grace or recognize the opportunity to receive it when it is given.  Matthew’s account emphasizes Jesus’ power over sin and grace for discipleship.  Mark’s account focuses on Christ the minister of grace.  While Luke’s account gives a heightened contrast between those who receive grace and those who do not.

First, one might think that because Matthew was a notorious and loathsome sinner that his mere calling and acceptance as a disciple makes him an illustration of grace.  But that is not the full picture.  Matthew, the most notable sinner, would later distinguish himself as the author of the gospel which emphasizes righteousness to a greater degree than the other three.

Second, in contrasting the publicans and the Pharisees, we have an illustration of grace in that Jesus hung out with sinners.  By the time the dinner is held, Matthew has already repented and laid down his life to follow Jesus.  Therefore, the sinners who sat and ate with Jesus were not arrogant, crude and sinful in His presence.  They weren’t there to cause trouble or be irreverently sinful in front of Jesus.  Very likely they were all in a state of humility, since they knew they were sinners.   We know this because Jesus later referred to Himself as “tending to the sick.”  These verses are an example of ministering grace to any sinner who seeks forgiveness.  Jesus contrasts the humility of these sinners with the arrogance of the self-righteous Pharisees who scorned them.  The Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners were full of religious pride and lacked compassion.  They were denied grace because they refused to admit their own need.  The full transformative work of grace is offered to those in the sorriest of conditions who know their own depravity and seek Jesus with earnest.

Another contrast is made between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus.  The disciples of John sarcastically asked why Jesus’ disciples spent more time celebrating than fasting, like they did.  Jewish tradition encouraged the practice of fasting frequently.  Fasting is a practice of self-denial that is intended to help a person recognize what’s missing in their life.  While celebration serves as a reminder of what they have available to them.  As Ecclesiastes states, “there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”   Both have their appropriate times.  But fasting for John’s disciples had become an empty ritual void of meaning.   They longed for what was missing in their life, but failed to recognize that what they needed was standing right in front of them, in the person of Jesus.  The disciples of John, by external standards and experience, were probably model believers, but they were not the ones that were transformed by grace.  The ones who received grace were a mixture of undesirables that surrendered everything to follow after Jesus.

There are many more conversion stories of the transformative power of God’s grace. But most do not have a “Damascus Road” experience.  John Wesley, a priest of the Anglican Church, after encountering a group of Moravians on a voyage to the newly founded colony of Georgia, had his heart “strangely warmed” at a Moravian meeting back in his home country of England.  Through the transformative power of God and the power of His Grace, Wesley worked tirelessly to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor and the outcast of England.

Our conversion doesn’t have to be as spectacular or as dramatic as Paul’s.  It can also be as calm but no less powerful than Wesley’s.  The important fact is that it happens and we seek and respond to God’s transformative grace in our own life!  But this includes an element of labor, not passivity.

Grace is the foundation of our own spiritual work

Grace is what gives us the ability to accomplish that work.  Our call is then to receive our commission, and to carry it out to the advancement of God’s Kingdom on earth through the way we live and the interaction we have with other people.  By God’s grace and the working of that grace by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we become laborers for the Master.

Incredible Contrasts in the Bible: Part 2 – Power and Persecution

Seven weeks ago I wrote a blog about incredible contrasts in the Bible. That particular blog focused on the juxtaposition of Christian leadership (authority) with a servant’s heart. This week I’ll address the paradox of Christ’s delegation of His power to the Church in consonance with His forewarning of persecution coming to those who are faithful to Him.

The “Power” delegated to the Church is broad

And being found in appearance as a man, He [the Son of God] humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:8-11

And Jesus came and spoke unto them [the disciples], saying, ALL power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Matthew 28:18

Jesus’ Power is over ALL. It is all-encompassing, over all natural and supernatural things and beings. But He delegated much of this power to His Church – so that she could accomplish her mission on earth.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” John 14:12-14

“Behold, I give you the power to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:19-20
“No weapon formed against me shall prosper!” Isaiah 54:17
“The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God.” 1 Corinthians 10:4
“Greater is He that is in me, then him who is in the world!” 1 John 4:4

In addition to exercising power over demonic beings, Jesus expects His soldiers to exercise power over some natural events as well – to discern when that use of power is necessary and to use it wisely. Jesus trained His followers in the use of power upon natural events and things: in the cursing of a fig tree, in the calming of a storm, in the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, in the appearance of money in the mouth of a fish to pay their taxes, in the large catch of fish on a day when earlier no fish were present, in healing illnesses, and in raising the dead. And He told His followers they could and should do the same. Often they failed, but He kept encouraging them. And eventually their successes began to multiply.

But how do we reconcile the availability of that power that the Bible says Jesus delegated to His Church with all the persecution that many Christians in the world endure?

“Persecution” by the world system does not negate Power over the enemy

For a long time persecution has been a fact of life for the true followers of Christ in the parts of the world that are dominated by Islamic and atheistic governments. Though this information is rarely reported by international news outlets because it doesn’t fit their storyline, the World Christian Database indicates that 160,000 Christians are martyred for their faith every year.

There was a day that persecution of Christians in the Western nations was extremely rare. That’s changing at a frenetic pace as this age winds down and we get closer to the last of the last of the last days. Even in the “free world bastion” of the U.S.A., new laws are enacted every day to make it more and more difficult and risky to preach the complete Gospel message. These laws threaten Christians with civil law suits and/or arrest and prosecution.

This should not surprise the Christian. Jesus identified this as one of the “birth-pangs” that would signal His return. And the Apostle Peter said much the same: Dear friends, do not be surprised if the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12-13

Just listen to Christ’s own words:

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me.” John 15:18-21

“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” Matthew 1017-20

“Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” Mark 10:29-31

This persecution has been going on since the Church was founded. The enemy has tried to destroy it, but has failed, and will continue to fail. Paul often spoke of the persecution he endured throughout his ministry. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 2 Timothy 3:10-12

Persecution advances Christian maturity and enhances Power

Persecution is an attempt by the enemy to silence and destroy the Church, which is the only thing holding back evil from overwhelming the earth. But just like the first century Christian leaders, Peter, John, Stephen, Paul, Timothy and others would not be silenced – the Church in our age will not be silenced either. The first century disciples went about preaching and demonstrating the power of God over the enemy and nature – and the Church grew in leaps and bounds in the midst of the bloody persecution.

Today, the Church is at its strongest in those nations where it has been forced to go underground. Whereas, in those nations where it is most “comfortable” (e.g.: western Europe and North America) – the last-days “falling away” that is spoken of by Paul appears to have begun.

It only takes a little faith

The author of the book of Hebrews says that, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.”  This bothers a lot of Christians – because we worry that we can never measure up to the type of faith that Jesus and Paul and other people in the Bible demonstrated.  But did Jesus’ disciples really have any more faith than the average Christian today – at least in the three years that they followed Him on earth?  I don’t think so.  In fact, the disciples were constantly reminded of this by Jesus.

  •  Remember the instance when Jesus told His disciples to get into a boat with Him, and cross the Sea of Galilee to minister on the other side.  When a terrible storm came up, the disciples were so afraid they were going to die that they woke up Jesus.  He commanded the weather to be calm, then told them they had little faith.  Matthew 8
  • Remember another time when Peter saw Jesus walking on the Sea, and enthusiastically got out of the boat to join Him, how he suddenly became afraid because of the high waves and cried out, “Lord, save me!”  After Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, he said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Matthew 14
  • And remember the time Jesus starting talking in metaphorical terms about being cautious of accepting “the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” and His disciples erroneously thought He was criticizing them for not bringing bread to eat on their journey.  Jesus said, “O you of little faith,” and reminded them how He had multiplied the loaves and the fishes; then He explained that He was warning them to beware of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ doctrine.

I don’t think Jesus was deriding Peter or any of His disciples for their weakness in faith.  Neither is God going to criticize us when we go through times of doubt and worry.  I think Jesus, in these instances was just trying to encourage His followers to trust God more and to not be double minded.  Double minded just means that we claim we trust Him, but then act like we don’t.  He wasn’t angry with them, and He’s not going to be angry with us, as long as we’re trying to serve Him the best we know how.

When Jesus got angry, you knew it:  He tipped over the tables of the vendors selling merchandise in the Temple and drove them out.  He called the Pharisees and lawyers “a brood of vipers” who took advantage of the people.  He told the Jewish leaders their father was the devil.  He accused them of having the blood of the prophets on their heads.  You knew when Jesus was angry.

No!  Jesus wasn’t angry with His disciples for their “little faith.”  And He’s not angry with you or me.  He was teaching His future Church leaders a lesson that they would need when He wasn’t around to help them.  It was for their own good – and it’s for our good today – to place our trust in God, and not in ourselves, in our abilities, in the government, or in anyone or anything else.  And what’s more encouraging – He even indicated that it takes only a small amount of faith (as small as a mustard seed) to move the mountains in our lives and to do other important things for God.

Two of my favorite sections in the Bible are Luke 9 and Mark 9, because they demonstrate the love and the patience Jesus has for His imperfect followers – like me.  Jesus was on His last trip toward Jerusalem, where, in a short time, He would be tortured and crucified.  He had told His apostles this earlier, and they had decided to go with Him – they promised to either protect Him or die with Him.

Luke 9 begins with Jesus anointing His twelve apostles with the power and authority He had been given by His Father to preach and to heal the sick, then sending them out on a hands-on training mission.

Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases.  He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. And He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece.  “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart.   And whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them.”

The apostles didn’t have the baptism of the Holy Spirit available to them yet, like we do today.  How do I know that?  Because Jesus hadn’t died, and risen and ascended to heaven yet.  So He hadn’t yet sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with them.  But He had anointed His twelve apostles with power and authority – at least for the training mission that He was sending them on.  And we read in the 6th verse: So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.  [I think it’s an interesting side-note that Judas Iscariot – who would later betray Jesus – was also in this group of new evangelists, preaching and ministering healing under Christ’s anointing.]

Jesus told these men to not take any money with them on their trip.  We know they all had money – because they all had jobs, as fishermen, tax collectors, etc. – but they needed to learn to trust in God completely to provide for their needs.  They needed their “little faith” to grow.  I think that God would prefer that we all have complete trust in Him from the very first day we get saved to the day we receive our heavenly reward.  It’s not His perfect will that any of us go through hard financial times.  But sometimes, if we’re too self-absorbed, or if we put institutions above God when it comes to having our needs met, then I think He’ll sometimes let us hit bottom to get our attention.

We don’t know how long this training mission lasted for the apostles – a week, a month – but it was long enough for them (probably in groups of two) to go through several towns around Galilee and Judea, sharing the message and doctrines that Jesus had taught them over the previous three years, healing the sick and casting out demons.  And when they returned they were excited to tell their stories of what God had done in the name of Jesus.  And I’m sure Jesus critiqued them as He continued their formal training.   Verse 10 says, And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done.  Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida.

Now a number of interesting things happened over the next couple weeks.

In verses 11-17 we read how thousands of people suddenly showed up unexpectedly to listen to Jesus preach, bringing with them their sick friends and relatives to be healed.  At the end of this meeting, Jesus first gave the apostles the opportunity to feed these people, before they headed back to their homes.  But the apostles failed this new test of their faith – these men who had just been out healing the sick and casting out demons in the name of Jesus – didn’t know what to do with this many people.  So Jesus ended up multiplying the five loaves and two fishes to feed the people.  It probably disappointed Him – but He didn’t get angry with them.

Right after that, in verses 18 and 19 we read that Jesus again took His disciples aside and asked them: “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  Their answer was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the old prophets risen from the dead.   Then He asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.”  (verse 20)   But shortly after this wonderful confession of Jesus as his Savior, Peter was then deceived by the devil into debating with Jesus that He would surely not have to suffer and be crucified.  Jesus ended up responding, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  Matthew 16:23   The leader of Jesus’ inner circle of friends demonstrated again his weak faith.  Jesus knew that it was the devil influencing Peter’s words, and He commanded the enemy to leave Peter alone.

 The third significant event that happened eight days later is described in verses 28-36.  Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain and they were witness to His transfiguration to what He looks like as He sits on His heavenly throne today.  As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening.  And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.

You would think that this last experience would give a surge to their level of faith, but the very next morning they failed another test.  Luke describes this next incident in verses 37-42; but it’s also described in Mark 9 and Matthew 17.  I prefer the more detailed version of this incident taken from Mark 9.  Jesus had delayed a bit coming down from the mountain – probably spending the time praying to His Father, for He had a habit of early morning prayer – a benefit His disciples had yet to learn.

14 And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. 15 Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. 16 And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?”

[Jesus directed His question to the Jewish leaders who were causing all the commotion – but a frantic parent of a sick child responded to Him.] 17 Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. 18 And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” [Matthew 17 says that the boy was epileptic.]

19 He answered him and said, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.  21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”  And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.

[And this is the part I like most – and I often quote it to remind a person who is going through difficult times in their life – who may have doubts about whether they or their loved one will ever be healed, or set free, or saved, or whatever the need is.  The father pleads with Jesus:] But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe – all things are possible to him who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

If we are honest, this is what most of us feel when we are in the middle of a trial – whether it’s a financial hardship, a medical emergency, or a marital or parental difficulty – we hopefully know God’s promise that addresses the situation we’re going through – but we wonder, do I really believe and trust God to move on my behalf and that of my loved one?  “Lord, help my unbelief – remove all doubt that lingers!”  That’s the time that we need to simply believe that “It only takes a little faith,” that faith the size of a mustard seed.  And when we merge our little faith with the little faith of other believers who stand in agreement with us, it is multiplied many times over.  Then we’ll see what the boy’s parent saw:

  25 When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!”  26 Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.”  27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

The Bible says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  This episode should give each one of us great hope, even when our faith is little.

 The apostles then go to Jesus privately and ask Him why they couldn’t cast the spirit out? Matthew’s Gospel gives a more expanded discussion of Jesus’ explanation:

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”  So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”  Matthew 17:19-21

I believe that what Jesus was saying is that when you are in the midst of unbelief and doubt, (as the apostles were that day, especially surrounded by the Jewish leaders who were only there to cause an interference) it’s much harder to minister – and it may cause you to question your own power and authority over the evil that is attacking the person you’re ministering to.  Prayer and fasting makes you more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s voice, so you know how to overcome the other distractions around you.  There are even situations where Jesus and His followers found it necessary to remove the distraction before they ministered healing and deliverance.  Consider the two examples below.

In Matthew 9 we read how Jesus was asked by a grieving parent to raise their little girl who had gotten sick and died.  But Jesus wouldn’t even enter the man’s house until the people who were ridiculing Him were made to leave.  Then he took her by the hand, and the girl arose.

And we read in the 13th chapter of the Book of Acts, how Paul and his friends went to the island of Paphos to minister to the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man.  But a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus or Elymas tried to interfere and sought to turn the proconsul away from the faith.   Paul caused the evil man to be temporarily blinded, and he left the scene with the help of someone to guide him away.   Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Jesus used every one of these situations in which His followers made mistakes to teach them a new lesson.  So right after the apostle’s latest “failure,” of not being able to heal the man’s son, Jesus continued His on-the-job training.  Jesus is never discouraged by our mistakes and weaknesses – neither should we be.  All He asks is that we keep trying to do better.  Whenever we fall, we need to get back on the horse as the saying goes.  All we need is a little faith to please God.  God will provide everything else.

Victorious in the midst of Antagonistic Society

It seems like everyone has their “David Letterman – like” Top Ten List.  Over the past half decade I must have received at least a few dozen such lists.  Most were political in nature, and I found myself often nodding in agreement.  Some were humorous and I couldn’t withhold a chuckle or two.  Some were crude and I blushed at the hidden meanings.  Others were downright mean, and I deleted the entire list well before I completed reading it.  But in not one case could I say: “That list of ideas has real merit and could help me and others deal with some of the difficult issues that we face in this life.”  I have such a list – and I decided to share it with my readers this week.

My Top Ten List:

Requisite Attitudes and Actions to live Victoriously

10.  Acknowledge that ALL authority is from God.  Even evil rulers are put in place for a purpose – known only to God.  We’re not called to “rejoice” when a ruler that we disagree with is in power – but we are called to “be subject to” them and to “do good.”

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  …  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  Romans 13:1-3

When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.  Proverbs 29:2

… have your conduct honorable among the pagans, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.  1 Peter 2:12

Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever!  My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king (Darius), I have done no wrong before you.”  Daniel 6:21-22

9.  Stop complaining about our leaders – pray for them.  Pray for them to do what is pleasing to God – and if not – that He will remove them, however He sees fit.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  Ephesians 4:29

Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.  1 Timothy 2:1-3

8.  Let God be our provider.

It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.  Psalm 118:8-9

Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord my provider! Genesis 22:14

My God will supply my every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

You did not spare your own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would you not also with him freely give us all things? Romans 8:32

7.  Work hard, but don’t be surprised when God blesses us from unexpected sources.

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.  Proverbs 13:22

6.  Don’t worry – be happy – and trust in God in all things.

“So I tell you, don’t worry about the things you need to live — what you will eat, drink, or wear. Life is more important than food, and the body is more important than what you put on it. Look at the birds. They don’t plant, harvest, or save food in barns, but your heavenly Father feeds them. Don’t you know you are worth much more than they are? You cannot add any time to your life by worrying about it.  And why do you worry about clothes? Look at the wildflowers in the field. See how they grow. They don’t work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that even Solomon, the great and rich king, was not dressed as beautifully as one of these flowers.  If God makes what grows in the field so beautiful, what do you think he will do for you? It’s just grass—one day it’s alive, and the next day someone throws it into a fire. But God cares enough to make it beautiful. Surely he will do much more for you. Your faith is so small!  Don’t worry and say, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  That’s what those people who don’t know God are always thinking about. Don’t worry, because your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things.  What you should want most is God’s kingdom and doing what he wants you to do. Then he will give you all these other things you need.  So don’t worry about tomorrow. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Tomorrow will have its own worries.  Matthew 6:25-33 (easy to read version)

5..  Let God be our Health-Care provider.

I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.  Psalm 118:17

He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.” … God will save you from hidden dangers and from deadly diseases…. You will have nothing to fear at night and no need to be afraid of an enemy.  … You will have no fear of diseases that come in the dark or terrible suffering that comes at noon.  A thousand people may fall dead at your side or ten thousand right beside you, but nothing bad will happen to you! … Since you trust in the Lord for protection, since you have made God Most High your place of safety, nothing bad will happen to you.  No diseases will come near your home….. The Lord says, “If someone trusts me, I will save them.  I will protect my followers who call to me for help.  When my followers call to me, I will answer them.  I will be with them when they are in trouble.  I will rescue them and honor them.  I will give my followers a long life and show them my power to save.”  Psalm 91 (easy to read version)

4.  Be at peace and be joyful every day, in every situation – it will improve our disposition and our mental and physical health immensely.

Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.  Nehemiah 8:10

3.  Recognize that we were born for such a time as this – the best of times.  We each have an important purpose or God wouldn’t have put us here NOW.

This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.  Psalm 118:24

If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise … from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  Esther 4:14

2.  We have nothing to fear.  A Christian has spiritual authority over all sources of evil.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

1.  Peace in our hearts today and Eternity with God are both guaranteed to those who make Jesus their boss.

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.  Romans 10:9-10

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  1 John 1:9

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.  1 John 5:13

A word in season

Just before I slid out of the driver’s seat, with my no-fat vanilla cappuccino in one hand and my bible in the other, I glanced at my watch – 7:10 am.  Being late for men’s Saturday prayer is better than not being there at all, I rationalized.  As I came through the church doors I was disappointed to see only eight men already seated in the corner.  But like the additional six who would wander in over the next half hour, we were all anxious to see what God was going to teach us and do that morning.  It’s always a great way to start a football Saturday.

 I slid into the only remaining comfortable chair (the padded armchair that was always reserved for Brother John, until he went home to the Lord a couple weeks ago.)   A friend was sharing how his fifteen-year-old son had wakened him at 3:00 am that morning. terrified by a realistic dream he’d had.  My friend had used the opportunity to talk with his son about the Lord, something the boy wasn’t previously interested in doing.  He also shared how he didn’t want him to have to hit bottom in his life, like he did, before he turned it around as a grown man.

The moderator of the meeting shared a two or three minute teaching on the importance of using God’s own words when dealing with problems and a couple other men concurred with examples of issues they’d dealt with over that past week.

A man who hadn’t been to men’s prayer in several months sat next to me nervously fidgeting throughout all this discussion.  I knew that he’d been battling several addictions, his driver’s license had been suspended and he’d lost his tradesman job as a plumber, because he wasn’t able to drive to work assignments.  When I’d originally come in, I’d put my hand on his shoulder and told him that we’d missed him and hoped he was OK.  He hadn’t responded then – but now he spoke up.  He said he was deeply depressed.  After a long dry spell he’d finally gotten a job that week in a grocery store, working behind the meat counter.  He thought things were going well, though he was just learning the varieties of meats and cheeses, but his cutting skills were improving.  But at the end of the week they fired him – because he didn’t work fast enough.

As he went on and on about all the things that were going wrong in his life, I searched for something encouraging to say, or some advice I could provide – but my mind seemed to go blank.  I looked around the room at the faces of the most mature Christian men who would normally have some spiritual guidance to offer, but their faces looked as perplexed as my own.  Then I heard a voice to my left – a man who normally didn’t say a lot at our meetings – and his words were simple and direct:  “Look, you were fortunate to get a job for a week that you weren’t qualified for.  What a blessing!  So you got fired!  I’ve been fired a number of times.  But something else has always opened up.  You said they weren’t paying you much anyway.  The next job you get, you need to believe it’s going to be a lot better.  I know things have always turned out that way for me.”

The word wasn’t super spiritual – but it’s what the man needed to hear.  I could see that it had calmed his spirit – and he even said he felt a lot better afterward.  It renewed his hope.  It was a word in season specifically for him.  And it seemed to open up rivers of living water in many of the other men in the group.  Several added on to what our friend had said – quoting God’s written Word and giving personal examples of overcoming difficult times.

I was reading Psalm 118 this morning.  It’s one that even Jesus quoted.  It has many lessons, but an important one is that we don’t have to be moody.  People die in their bad moods – but God wants us to live with a good attitude.  I called on the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.  The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.  What can man do to me? The Lord is for me among those who help me; therefore I shall see my desire on those who hate me.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man (our bosses at work, or anyone we depend on).  It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes (the government).  Jesus rules in the affairs of men and our spiritual enemy (the devil) knows it.

The Bible tells us how important it is to lend our encouragement to people who are struggling in their lives.  A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. Proverbs 25:11   A man has joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good is it! Proverbs 15:23  An encouraging word has the ability to help you extract yourself from a bad situation that you’re in.  In order to get out of that situation, you have got to get in a mind set that there is relief on the way.  The written Word of God has that unique ability – it gives you relief and lets you see the end.  It gives you the feeling that after some period of time this thing is going to be over. After a brief trial, whatever I’m going through right now is going to be over.

God is looking for faithful people to give an encouraging word to others who are so clouded by the problem that they can’t see the end – who have no hope.  That’s what our Lord did.  Jesus always had the right word to speak to a man or woman that came to Him for help.  He always spoke an in-season word. He spoke exactly what they needed when they needed it.

Christ’s Church is supposed to be a hospital for sick people to come to.  The diagnosis for each one is going to be different – but none-the-less, it’s going to be the right one and we’re going to have the cure for each.  And when we discern what it is, we’re not going to just tell them, “Oh, it’s going to be alright.”  No!  We’re going to pray for them.  And we’re going to do what we can to help them – physically, financially, whatever.

Just think about the scriptures that encourage you out of disappointments, depression and sorrows.  If it’s helped you, wouldn’t it also be a help to someone else?  God’s Word paves the way through life‘s ups and downs.  It’s what I hold onto whether things are going well or not.  It encourages and inspires my faith, fueling the process toward health and recovery.  Here are a few:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakes me morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as the learned.  Isaiah 50:4

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.  Romans 12:15

Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man.   Colossians 4:6

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.   Ephesians 4:29

The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.  Proverbs 16:23-24

 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.  2 Timothy 4:2

 

Incredible Contrasts of the Bible – Part 1 – Authority and Servitude

I attended a leadership meeting for our local church this past Saturday.  The high point of the meeting was a 40 minute cut of the 98 minute video entitled “Father of Lights.”  The movie was filmed by Darren Wilson and produced under his “Wanderlust Productions” label.   The credits describe it as “incredible (and often historic) spiritual encounters around the world, which cut through religious misconceptions in an effort to find the true nature and character of God.”  I actually was privileged to view the full length film a few weeks ago at our men’s prayer meeting; but the portion played this past weekend focused on three segments which demonstrated God’s unconditional love to people around the world who did not yet know their Creator.  The “stars” of each segment were ordinary Christians, who chose to see Jesus in each person they met and His higher purpose for their lives.

 The first segment involved a married Christian couple with three young boys living a comfortable life in America, the fruit of the husband’s successful career as a bank VP.  An encounter with the living God led them to sell their home, give all their other possessions away and move to China, into a run-down, rat-infested apartment..  Not being able to speak a word of the language, they started by forming relationships with some of the local care agencies.  Living day-to-day and relying totally on God to meet their needs, they were able to found a home to take unwanted needy kids off the streets, and introduce the love and compassion of God to each one personally.

The second segment focused on three different Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa who suffered severe physical and emotional persecution for their faith.  Each spoke of experiencing Jesus’ loving presence, joy and peace, even as they suffered in body – an experience similar to the one described in the 7th chapter of the Book of Acts, as Stephen was being martyred: … they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him.… And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

The third segment was of a former drug addict, now set free to minister God’s saving and healing power throughout the world.  This white man in blond dreadlocks boldly wandered the streets of the Middle East, praying for Muslims, seeing God perform miracle after miracle, while introducing many to Jesus.

I was attending a leadership meeting; yet here we were, all watching a video on servitude: serving God and serving the most needy, lost and hurting people in His creation.  What a contrast: that Christian leadership (authority) is juxtaposed with a servant’s heart.  I couldn’t help but think about this and many of the other incredible contrasts that define a true Christian: like power and persecution or strength and weakness or love and justice.  The list goes on and on, but in this week’s blog I just wanted to expand a little on the first one.

 The Incredible Contrast of Authority and Servitude

 I am a firm advocate of the authority of the believer.  I also understand a lot of other Christians aren’t as keen on this as I am.  Since God is sovereign (a fact no Christian would dispute), many don’t accept that He would delegate any of His authority to one of His creation.  But with a simplistic mind, I accept all of Jesus’ statements as true, like the ones below that indicate that not only did Jesus have all authority, but he delegated some elements of that authority to His apostles and disciples and they in turn, over the centuries “passed the baton” to us.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:18-20

Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-2

Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.  Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.  Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  Luke 10:17-20

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.   He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.   And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.   And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.  Mark 16:15-20

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.   And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.   If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.  John 14:12-14

Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.  2 Corinthians 5:20

And the apostles and disciples passed it on to us.  For example, notice that Paul passed the baton of the Gospel to a faithful individual, a young man named Timothy, and then told him to do the same: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  2 Timothy 2:2

But even a firm advocate of the authority of the believer like myself, must recognize that, for our authority to be effective, our character must mirror that of Jesus Christ.  And He came to serve, not to be served.

But Jesus called them [His Apostles] to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave —  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  Matthew 20:28

I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”  Acts 20:35

 Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.  As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 1 Peter 4:9-10

So, why do some Scriptures in the Bible tell us we have authority over the enemy; that we are to take up arms against the enemy, to withstand the adversary against all his attacks, to defeat him in the battlefield and destroy his evil works.  Why do other Scriptures tell us to love those who spitefully use us, to give our shirt to the man who forcibly removes and takes our coat.

The answer evolves around an understanding of who is the real enemy?  It’s not your spouse or your parents or your kids – even though they may give you a hard time occasionally.  It’s not any government, neither your own or a foreign one – though they may persecute you or treat you unfairly and may be under the enemy’s influence.  It’s not even that religious fanatic who may want to blow up your airplane because their sacred text says that’s how they reach paradise.  No human being is our enemy.  No!  Our real enemies are spirit beings – the leader by the name of Satan and all his demonic cohorts.  That’s who we, as Christians have authority over in the Name of Jesus – the enemy who we are to take up the sword of the Spirit against – who we are to stand up to.

On the other hand, we have an obligation to be servants to others and to demonstrate to the world the love of Christ, by loving one another and them.  By showing kindness and compassion to even those who misunderstand us, who hate us and who treat us unkindly, we emulate the character of our Lord and Savior.  Not every adversary is an enemy.  Our human adversaries we are called to be ambassadors toward, showing them the way to a better life in Christ.  For a servant’s love conquers the heart that is not hardened.  And the heart that rejects even a servant’s love has no excuse for the eternal consequences.

A couple weeks ago, James Robison, founder of Life International Ministries interviewed Christian author and journalist Philip Yancey on his TV show.  He also included an excerpt from Yancey’s latest book in his weekly newsletter, which I felt was apropos to round out this discussion.

Surprised By Happiness, (An excerpt from Where Is God When It Hurts?)

 Jesus captured succinctly the paradoxical nature of life in his one statement most repeated in the Gospels: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Such a statement goes against the search for “self-fulfillment” in advanced psychology — which turns out not to be advanced enough. Christianity offers the further insight that true fulfillment comes, not through ego satisfaction, but through service to others. And that brings me to the last illustration of the pain/pleasure principle: the Christian concept of service.

 In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars included NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, pouring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.

Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these “idols” are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seemed tormented by an incurable self-doubt.

I also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout the jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.

I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side-by-side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somehow in the process of living their lives they have found them. They have received the “peace that is not of this world.”

When I think of the great churches I have visited, what comes to mind is not an image of a cathedral in Europe. These are mere museums now. Instead, I think of the chapel at Carville, of an inner-city church in Newark with crumbling plaster and a leaky roof, of a mission church in Santiago, Chile, made of concrete block and corrugated iron. In these places, set amidst human misery, I have seen Christian love abound.

The leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, offers a wonderful example of this principle in action. A government agency bought the property and promised to develop it, but could find no one to clear the roads, repair the plantation’s slave cabins, or drain the swamps. The stigma of leprosy kept everyone away.

Finally an order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, moved to Carville to nurse the leprosy patients. Getting up two hours before daybreak, wearing starched white uniforms in bayou heat, these nuns lived under a more disciplined rule that any Marine boot camp. But they alone proved willing to do the work. They dug ditches, laid foundations for buildings, and made Carville livable, all the while glorifying God and bringing joy to the patients. They learned perhaps the deepest level of pain/pleasure association in life, that of sacrificial service.

If I spend my life searching for happiness through drugs, comfort, and luxury, it will elude me. “Happiness recedes from those who pursue her.” Happiness will come upon me unexpectedly as a by-product, a surprising bonus for something I have invested myself in. And, most likely, that investment will include pain. It is hard to imagine pleasure without it.

 

If two of you on earth agree about anything

My local church has a Saturday morning men’s prayer meeting.  They’ve met faithfully every week since 1992.  That’s about fifteen years longer than I’ve been a member.  There’s a core group of men who come nearly every week, and others join in as their work and family schedules permit, or as needs arise in their individual lives.  Rain, snow, or holiday season, nothing interferes with the gathering, unless Christmas or Easter actually fall on a Saturday.  These men obviously understand and believe in Jesus’ bold promise that “… if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

Agreement is such an important concept in accomplishing anything significant in life, whether natural or supernatural.  Businesses, academic institutions, even government agencies, they all know that it’s not enough to come up with a brilliant idea – even with financial backing, it will go nowhere without leadership and peer support and encouragement.  And nearly every week at our men’s meeting I witness and hear testimonies of the spiritual law of agreement in action: marriages and families put back together, individuals set free from addictions, and physical, mental and emotional healings.

Yet this past Saturday, after a period of sharing needs and what God has been doing in our lives, as we stood to begin to pray we faced an unusual conflict to agreement.  One man shared that he had been praying for God to remove our President from office, for his breach of the U.S. Constitution and, more importantly, the law of God.  While many nodded in agreement, another vigorously protested.  The latter explained how he had grown up in an African dictatorship, and had learned to pray daily for his leaders, who wouldn’t have thought twice about breaking into his home and arresting the head of the family or cutting off someone’s head.  He explained how several years of persecution passed, but the people continued to pray.  Then God moved in that country, and the dictator’s successor recently accepted Christ as his Lord, and now serves God.  He too acknowledged the need for a change in our leadership, but viewed the next election as the most legitimate means to that end.  As his declaration wound down, a third man spoke up with similar passion, equating the President’s actions to the dictator his friend was able to eventually escape only by resettling in America.  He insisted that our supreme leader too was allowing and supporting the decapitation and surgical destruction of millions of in-womb citizens every year.

Almost as quickly as the debate had ensued, our group of men seemed to recognize that we were treading into the realm of disagreement, and we backed off and refocused on the specific needs of the men present:  a son who was going through difficult times, an aging mother who had financial needs, a man in the grip of depression.  Yet, as we prayed for these, I sensed a cloud of unease still hung over the group.

As I had listened to the debate, I realized my own prayers ran somewhere in between the two extreme positions of our group.  For a long time I had been praying that God would either change the President’s heart (and the hearts of most of our political leaders) or remove them from office, whether that be by election, impeachment, or any other way God chose to use.  Yet we had already gone through two national elections, and God seemed to be turning a deaf ear to my and many other Christian’s prayers.  What was hindering our prayers?

I once heard a preacher say that God answers every pray – it’s just that we don’t always like His answer, so we ignore it – especially when it’s a resounding NO!  It sounds clever, but I’m not sure the man was right.  I think there are some prayers that God just doesn’t pay any attention to, for one reason or another.  For example, when I and a million other Michigan Christians prayed for the Tigers to win the World Series last year, He clearly thought that was a silly request; though the fans from the San Francisco Bay area who were praying that their Giants would kick the Tigers’ butts probably would dispute that their prayers didn’t help.

The Bible is clear, that we are to pray for those in authority over us.  Still I couldn’t cite a single scripture where God has promised to change the heart of a rebellious leader.  In fact, the one scripture relating to government leaders that I’ve heard most often quoted,  1 Timothy 2:1-2, mentions “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” as the rationale and expected outcome of our prayers for “the king.”

I wondered: can God change the political and social environment in America – or has it gone too far down the path of destruction to reverse course?  Does God change hearts – or does He just give men opportunities to know Him and to ask for a new heart?  I still have a lot to learn about God and about prayer.  So I looked to God’s written Word for an answer.

God, through Moses gave Pharaoh ten opportunities to repent and let His people go free, before He destroyed the first-born of every living thing in Egypt, then later destroyed the pursuing army.  Pharaoh had refused the new heart God offered to give him, and the consequences were inevitable.  Jesus gave the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and lawyers opportunity after opportunity to repent and acknowledge that He was the Messiah, but most of them turned down His offer of a new heart and hardened their hearts of stone even more – and the nation suffered the consequences of both spiritual and natural destruction, the latter at the hands of the Romans.  The Apostle Paul was sent to minister to King Agrippa, in an episode described in chapter 26 of the Book of Acts.  Paul reminded Agrippa of the doctrines of his Jewish faith and prophesies about the coming Messiah that he’d learned as a boy.  Yet, in one of the saddest conclusions of all time to an opportunity presented, Agrippa responded: “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.”  He eventually became a traitor to his own nation, was expelled by the Jews from Jerusalem and fought on the side of the Romans against his people.

America’s one hope is the Church.  The Body of Christ must step it up several notches.  While our leaders disappoint us, we must be willing to stand in the gap for them, take responsibility for their shortcomings, repent on their behalf and continually pray that God will not abandon them, but keep offering them opportunities to change their hearts before it’s too late.

The Apostle James says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”  So often we hear about “the power of prayer,” yet there is much to learn about answered and unanswered prayer.  God wants to bless His people; but foremost He wants a holy and righteous people.  Everything else is secondary.

Fortunately, we have history and God’s abundant mercy and patience on our side.  Of course, we have the ultimate example in Jesus, the Son of God, who laid down His divinity to take up a shattered people’s cause and gave us all the opportunity to be set free for eternity.  But we only need to flip through the pages of the Bible to find additional examples.

Abraham was allowed to negotiate with the Creator of the universe for the salvation of the evil city of Sodom.  Moses, Caleb, and Joshua each took turns repenting on behalf of the nation of Israel, that God would not destroy the people whenever they rebelled against Him.  And many other OT leaders stood in the gap for their nation, and we have access to their success stories, such as described in Isaiah 36.  As God promised: “I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.  For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.  I will save you from all your uncleanness.

I know this last promise is specific to the people of Israel – a promise whose fulfillment began in 1948 and will not be completed until Jesus returns.  However, it should also give hope to us in this nation.  America was founded on Christian principles and historically has done so much good both for God and for mankind.  America has sent out more missionaries throughout the world than any other country, and America has generously restored untold numbers of people’s lives who have suffered tragedy across the globe.  So let’s stand together and never cease from praying for our political leaders in all branches of government – let’s accept their failings as our own and repent on their behalf – and perhaps they will be given a few more opportunities to listen to and obey their Master and Creator and bend their knees to His Son.

I know where the rocks ain’t

Written a year after the tragedy, Gordon Lightfoote’s song made the SS Edmund Fitzgerald the most famous Great Lakes shipping disaster in history.  The Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time.  Yet on November 10, 1975, during a Lake Superior gale, it sunk suddenly in 530 feet near Whitefish Bay – without sending any distress signals.  All 29 hands in the crew perished.  A day earlier it had set out from Superior  Wisconsin en route to Detroit on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon.  With the volatility of the current recession, hurricane force winds hit and the Fitzgerald, and several other ships were trapped in treacherous seas.  Visibility was extremely poor, the radio beacon at Whitefish Bay was knocked out by the storm, and the Fitzgerald lost its own on-board radar.  Its only communication was with another ship 10 miles away, which tried to guide it to safe harbor.

In times such as these, it’s easy to feel like you’re on a ship and disaster is just around the bend.  Should you let down the life boats and get off or should you ride out the storm?  There aren’t a whole lot of options once you’re in the storm.  And chances are, it’s not all your fault that you’re in this predicament.

You can begin pounding your breast and saying “Woe is me” – or you can take this as a great opportunity to exercise your trust in God and allow Him to show you how this opportunity can be turned to His glory and to share God’s goodness and love with others.

Refer to chapter 27 of the Book Acts, which describes a portion of the Apostle Paul’s journey to Rome, to stand trial for some false accusations made by religious leaders against him.  At one point, the captain of the ship made a bad decision to sail at a dangerous time of year, in spite of Paul’s warnings.   The ship was caught in a “northeaster” wind of hurricane force, much like the one that destroyed the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The crew used all their skill to combat the storm, even throwing the cargo overboard to lighten the load; but after being battered continuously for days, they gave up all hope of being saved.  The book says that Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.  Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’  So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.  Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”  

The story continues that at one point the sailors pretended they were going to lower some anchors from the bow, and instead let the lifeboat down into the sea, planning to escape.  Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.”  So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away.  This was an amazing act of faith in Paul’s God for unbelievers, and it paid off.  Paul even urged everyone to eat, since they’d need the strength to survive.  “Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat.  They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves.   The ship struck a sandbar and ran aground, and the soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping; but the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept his men from carrying out their plan.  And all 276 on-board survived as God promised Paul.

This lesson demonstrates that, instead of focusing on the problems all around you, you need to focus on what God wants you to become, and how these circumstances are going to contribute to your maturity in reaching your destiny.  It reminds me of a short story I once heard.

A young man once applied for his first job as a navigator for a local shipping route.  When the old Captain saw the young fellow come in, he figured there was no way this kid could fill the job.  He thought he’d just be polite and ask him a couple questions.  That would demonstrate why he wasn’t qualified; then he’d send him on his way and he could interview a more experienced candidate.  His first question was simply, “Young man, do you know where the rocks are?”  The young man answered, “No sir.  I’m not sure I do.”  But before the captain could say another word he continued, “But I know where the rocks ain’t.”  The old Captain gave him the job on the spot.

Sometimes we feel that we need to search out the rocks: to study the rocks, to understand the rocks.  We’re drawn toward the rocks for some odd reason.  Our curiosity?  Their perceived beauty?  Any number of reasons.  It’s a strange reality, but a person will always move in the direction that he is focused on.  If he is focused on his problems or his sins, that’s the direction he will advance towards.  However, if he is focused on God’s forgiveness, His love, the person’s own self-worth – well, the conclusion is obvious.  Some pastors, teachers and evangelists need to consider this reality as well when they minister.

Along the coast, lighthouses were specifically built, so ships could avoid the rocks.  We are called to be lights to the world as Christ is our light.  Jesus constantly reminded his disciples: “You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
He’ll show us where the rocks ain’t.  Sure, we’ll experience persecution and storms or tests and trials in our lives; that’s how God helps us mature and teaches us and hones off the rough edges.  These are the things that he uses to reveal to us our weakest areas, so that we can work on them to seek His perfection.

But if a vessel hits the rocks, it’s going down.  The rocks represent those things that cause us to fret and worry.  That’s what Jesus has promised to steer us away from, toward safety.  Can He pull us out if we hit the rocks and begin to sink?  Sure He can – just like He did for the apostle Paul; if we let him.  But His desire is that we allow Him to steer us clear of the rocks in the first place.

Five Steps to successfully maneuvering through turbulent times

Few of us can honestly say we’ve had trials as extreme as the apostle Paul.  In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he recited some of these: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.  I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Yet, a little later Paul boasts in Christ: “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

  1. Turn off bad news.  That may mean avoiding certain people and entertainment, including some TV shows.  Our spiritual enemy would have you to focus on bad news.  Worry will steal your joy and keep you from God’s best for you.  Lighten that emotional load you carry and, by all means, stop looking in the rear-view mirror at your past mistakes and failures.  Trust that God has your best interests in mind.
  2. Believe in yourselfGod believes in you.  Get your mind off your own potential problems by helping others in more difficult circumstances.  Reach out to those inside and outside your family or circle of friends – people at work – even strangers.
  3. Look forward.  Let God show you opportunities to be blessed and to bless others.  Learn to listen to His voice.  And meditate on good things and on the Lord.
  4. Prepare to engage the storms.  The only way to successfully do this is to reflect God in your life.  Jesus puts it this way:  “Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things [everything you need in life] shall be added unto you.”  The only way you will have the knowledge to reflect God in your life is if you get to really know Him.  You get to know God by reading and meditating on His written Word (the Bible), by communicating with the Him (prayer), by living a disciplined life, by exercising your faith (which will increase through use) and by fellowshipping with the people of God (His Church).  We need that network of support in our lives.
  5. Reach safe harbor – Finish strong – Never quit!  No matter how bad the situation looks – it’s never over when you have God on your side.  An excellent scripture to put on your refrigerator and read often is Micah 7:7-8   But as for me, I will look to the Lord, and be confident in Him.  I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.  Rejoice not against me, O my enemy! When I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light to me.